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The Adventures of Kimble Bent

Chapter XX — A Scouting Adventure

page 240

Chapter XX
A Scouting Adventure

The passage of the Okehu—A night's vigil—Mackenzie the scout—” Maoris in the bush! “—The watchers in the fern—A race for life.

A clear, bright, moonlight night of summer; a moon that silvered the sharp hill-tops of the broken Maori country, but left black mysterious shadows in the gorges and river valleys that every few miles cut deeply into the rolling fern lands; valleys full of danger and death, for in their depths crept the war-parties of the savage, laying ambushes, planning murder and mutilation. On a gently sloping rise on the open fern lands a hundred white tents, the camp of the pakeha troops, glittered in the full moonlight. The sweet bugle-calls of “Lights out” and the “Last post” rang out for miles across the wilderness, and except for the piquets and sentries the camp was soon asleep. But away on the forest edge, a mile from the safely entrenched camp, a little band of men, half a dozen scouts, crouched hiding in the fern, carbines in their hands, watching, listening. They were the eyes of the army. Their page 241 wits, their keenness of vision and hearing, were pitted this night against the savage men of the forest, born bushmen, with the cunning of the Indian.

It was the 17th of January, 1869, nearly three months after the repulse of the Colonial troops at the Moturoa stockade. All this time Titokowaru and his victorious Tekau-ma-rua had everything their own way on the West Coast, scouring the country-side, burning settlers' houses, killing cattle, and strengthening their palisaded position at Taurangaika. The East Coast campaign following on the Poverty Bay massacre had necessitated the diversion of nearly all the Constabulary from the West Coast, until the storming and capture of Te Kooti's hill-fort Ngatapa and the flight of the rebel chief to the forests of the Urewera Country enabled attention to be again given to the Taranaki and Waitotara Hauhaus. Now, well on in the month of January, 1869, Colonel Whitmore, with Colonel Lyon—a brave one-armed soldier, veteran of the Crimea—as his second in command, advanced from Wanganui with a strong force of Armed Constabulary, about eight hundred in number, besides a large body of Kupapas, or friendly Maoris, mostly of the Whanganui tribe, under Kepa te Rangihiwinui. The force encamped at the end of the first day's march near the right bank of the Kai-iwi stream, about ten miles from Wanganui, and prepared to page 242 march the next day through the Okehu Gorge and on to Nukumaru and Tauranga-ika.

This country around the Kai-iwi was mostly open fern land, but some of the river gullies were filled with a dense growth of forest. A short distance to the north of the camp there was a deep gorge, the valley of the Okehu stream. Through this gorge a road had been cut some years before, and the river had been bridged, giving access to Nukumaru and the Waitotara, and this was the route by which Colonel Whitmore intended to approach the Hauhau stronghold. It was, however, plainly a dangerous place, where the Maoris might easily lay an ambush. The little colonel was too old a soldier to run risks of this sort, and he determined to have the gorge carefully scouted before he took his column into it.

That afternoon he selected half a dozen of his most active men, some of them Constabulary, some volunteers, and as soon as night fell despatched them to the Okehu, with orders to spend the night on the fern-covered right bank of the gorge, and find out if the Maoris were laying an ambuscade in the bush below. Trooper William Lingard, of Bryce's Kai-iwi Cavalry—the young trooper who had distinguished himself at the Tauranga-ika skirmish described in the last chapter—was placed in charge of the scouts. With him were Chris. Maling, a young surveyor—his father had been killed by the page 243 Maoris years before, and he often declared that he would never rest until he had killed a Maori with his own hands in revenge; a Frenchman called Peter the Guide; three men named Herri, Powell, and Williamson; and an old Indian soldier named Mackenzie. It is with this Mackenzie that this story of a night's scouting expedition is chiefly concerned.

It was the calmest of nights, a still night when sounds travelled far, and in silence the little squad of armed scouts set out from the tented camp in single file towards the dark gorge of the Okehu. They marched as silently as Indians, for they were shod exactly like Indians, in moccasins that felt the ground as soundlessly as a wild cat's pad.

The making and wearing of those moccasins was Mackenzie's idea. This veteran soldier was a man who had been brought out from India by Sir Henry Cracroft Wilson, when that gentleman settled in Canterbury. He was, as one of his scouting comrades says, a fine-looking, resolute man, something over forty years of age, with hair beginning to turn grizzly, and a bold, fearless eye. He was partly of Gurkha blood, and his senses were wonderfully keen. He had marvellous escapes from death, and had even been partly scalped. Once when he was overpowered and felled in a mêlée, a savage had passed his knife around his head and underneath the scalp, and was about to “lift his hair” when a page 244 timely bullet from one of Mackenzie's comrades knocked his assailant over, and the soldier was rescued. His companion ran to his aid, pressed down the torn scalp into its place, and bound it firmly with bandages. Mackenzie saved his hair, but to his last day bore the scar of the scalpingknife running round his head. He carried besides his carbine a remarkable weapon, a two-ended steel knife, or dagger, of Afghan make, which he wore in a sheath at his back with a flap of skin over the top. One end of the dagger was a stiletto and the other was a double-edged cutting and thrusting blade, ground as sharp as a razor. It had the handle in the middle. With this knife he would perform some wonderfully dexterous feats. He would throw it up into the air thirty or forty feet and catch it by the middle as cleverly as a juggler as it came whizzing down. He would stick a piece of paper on a post and, retiring twenty or thirty yards, hurl the shining weapon at it and transfix the target in the exact centre, the knife quivering several inches deep in the post.

The moccasins the scouts wore were made by Mackenzie from the skin of a horse. Immediately the party had been organised the old soldier went out with his carbine and shot one of the numerous ownerless horses that roamed the hills. Cutting out suitable pieces of the skin, he fitted them while still warm to his comrades' feet, with the hair in- page 245 side; then cut thongs and laced the horse-skin shoe firmly to the foot. In a few hours these moccasins took perfect shape, and made the most suitable foot-gear for bush-work that could have been devised. “If we wear ordinary boots out scouting we're sure to lose our lives,” said Mackenzie; “we can't scout noiselessly in them, or run fast enough when it comes to running.”

An old Maori war-track wound through the high fern above the Okehu Gorge. Along this the scouts marched to take up their night's vigil. Two were posted at the end of the gorge nearest the camp, two more about two hundred yards away, and the third couple about the same distance farther on, above the middle of the gorge. The men made themselves nests in the fern alongside the track, and close to the edge of the slope that fell to the impenetrable blackness of the bush below. The leader, as he posted the men, told them to keep a sharp watch and listen for any sounds, and to give a signal if any of them heard Maoris in the gorge. The signal was to be the thrice-repeated sharp cry of the weka, the night-roving wingless bird that haunted these forests and gulches.

After posting his comrades in their several positions, young Lingard rejoined his companion Maling in a little nook in the thick fern just on the gorge side of the narrow foot-track, and stayed a while with him conversing in whispers. In half an page 246 hour's time he cautiously patrolled the track again to visit the others. When he came to Mackenzie, the old soldier was sitting up reading a pocket Bible by the bright moonlight.

“What are you reading?” asked Lingard, as he squatted down quietly in the fern by Mackenzie's side.

“Look and see,” said the soldier, and Lingard saw, and wondered, for not many a rough old soldier like Mackenzie was seen with such a book. And he wondered still more when Mackenzie, closing the book, asked him to look at it again. There was a clean-cut hole in it, right through one of the covers and penetrating many of the leaves.

“That book saved my life,” said the veteran. And he told the story. It was the comrade who had bowled over the Indian who was about to scalp him that gave Mackenzie the little Bible. “‘You say you will always be grateful to me for saving your life,’ he said. ‘Well, I want you to do just one thing for me; it's a little thing. I won't ask much.’

“He was so insistent,” said Mackenzie, “that I gave him the promise he asked. ‘Well,’ said my friend, ‘just take this little book of mine and read something in it every night; or, if you won't read it, take it out and look at it and open it. And always carry it with you. It will save your life.’

“I did so, and I read it, more to please my old page 247 friend than anything else. I carried it in my jumper pocket, for it was small and light. And in those dangerous days I carried something else night and day—this dagger that I wear at my belt. About midnight one night I was lying alone in my tent, half-asleep, when I heard something—no, smelt it! It was pitch dark, but I knew there was something or some one close to me. As quietly as I knew how, I loosened my dagger and gripped it firmly. The next moment I felt a terrible thud on the chest, and a figure hurled itself on me. I brought round the knife with a swift sweep, and nearly ripped the side out of the fellow—killed him dead. It was a native who wanted to kill and rob me. He had jumped at me with a knife, but the point of his blade struck the Bible in my breast pocket as I lay on my back, and that saved my life. See! It's the sort of thing you used to read about in little Sunday-school books, isn't it? I wonder how many people would believe it? But it's absolutely true. That old comrade of mine saved my life twice. And it's these two I put my trust in, my Bible and my dagger. That knife's the best weapon I've ever had. It's more to me than carbine or revolver.”

Then Mackenzie put his hand on his fellow-scout's arm, and spoke in an earnest whisper of a presentiment that filled his mind.

“I feel,” he said, looking straight into his friend's page 248 eyes, “that this is my last night on earth. I have a conviction that I won't see another sun rise.”

“Nonsense! “said young Lingard, beginning to feel creepy. “Don't talk like that, old man; you'll unnerve me. You're not going to die.”

“Why should I unnerve you, my boy?” asked Mackenzie very quietly and gently. “There's nothing to be afraid of in dying. I can face death with perfect calmness; and I know I'm to die very soon.”

There was silence for some moments. Suddenly Mackenzie started, turned in a listening attitude, and put up a hand in warning.

“Don't you hear them?” he whispered. “Don't you hear them? There are Maoris moving in the bush below. I heard the pat of a naked foot just now and the breaking of a twig.”

The young leader of the scouts listened with utmost intentness for the next few minutes. The two comrades could hear each other's hearts thumping, so still they crouched. But not another sound came except the occasional call of the melancholy morepork.

After a little while Lingard bade Mackenzie good-bye for the time, and, with his carbine at the “ready,” crept back along the track and visited the other men. Joining Maling, he told him of his strange conversation with Mackenzie.

“He's a real good fellow,” said Maling, “a good page 249 comrade. I hope that presentiment of his is all bunkum. But if he says there are Maoris moving in the bush, we'll have work before morning.”

In half an hour's time Lingard went the rounds again, stopping every now and then to listen for sounds of the enemy. He found Mackenzie still reading, bare-headed, by the clear moonlight in his little nook in the fern. Mackenzie's mate was sound asleep.

The old soldier's senses were wonderfully acute. Quietly as Lingard stole up on his moccasined feet, he had heard him. He was listening while he read.

“Lingard,” he said, “I've been reading for the last time. I know it's my last night of life. Today I was so sure of this that I settled my account at the canteen, and paid my last instalment on a horse I bought from John Handley, and I've written to my wife. I won't see to-morrow's sun rise. This came to me yesterday morning.

“Lingard,” he went on again, in a whisper, “there are Maoris about! Can't you smell them? They're in the bush below, waiting. But you'll stay, I suppose, till daylight, unless something happens before then.”

In a few minutes Lingard, after vainly listening for sounds in the bush, cautiously rose and walked back along the track. He left Mackenzie sitting there, with the moonlight streaming down on his earnest face, still reading his little book. Returning page 250 to Maling, Lingard sat with his companion listening, until it was within perhaps half an hour of full day-light.

Then, all at once, they heard a fearful sound. A rifle shot, followed instantly by a terrific yell, the war-yell of the Maoris from the bush behind them. The bush flashed fire, the flashes of many guns, accompanied by reverberating bangs; then the pattering and thudding of many naked feet along the track.

The ambuscade had been unmasked. One of the scouts—so it was learned afterwards—had cautiously worked his way down the valley, far enough down to see that the bridge over the Okehu had been set on fire, and by its light he saw a large party of armed Hauhaus. He hurried back to give his comrades warning, but before he could reach them some of the prowling natives discovered Mackenzie and Williamson and fired on them, wounding Williamson in the back when he started to run.

The scouts had done their work, but would they ever reach the camp alive?

The whole of the war-party were on the white men's heels, racing through the fern and along the narrow track and firing as they ran. The moon had gone down, and it was too dim to see very far, but the dawn was spreading over the eastern sky.

“They're on us!—they're on us!” exclaimed page 251 Maling. “It's no use to run now; we wouldn't have a show. Let's hide here in the fern.”

The scouts were crouching in the fern within a yard or so of the Maori track. The fern was very high here, over a tall man's head in height, and was very thick and matted, and lying in a slanting direction. The two men, knowing that it was certain death to venture out, for the Maoris were rushing along the track in force, crept underneath the thick masses of ferns, and pushed it up over them so that they had room to move and were perfectly screened from the enemy's eyes in that early morning light. They made ready their Terry carbines, bit their cartridges ready for reloading, and put their percussion-caps in their mouths for instant use. Just before they did so, Maling turned to his companion and said:

“Lingard, old man, promise me if it comes to the worst you won't leave me, and I'll do the same by you. Don't let us leave each other,” and he put out his hand.

The young leader of the scouts gripped Maling's hand. “We'll stick by each other,” he said.

The next moment there was a thundering rush of feet past the very muzzles of their carbines. A mob of Hauhaus, yelling and shouting, raced past them, following up the leaders who had been fired on by the scout, and who had come dashing after the white men.

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The two hidden scouts could hear nothing of their comrades, but they well knew the odds were greatly against any of them reaching the camp.

Presently they heard firing from the direction of the camp. The troops had turned out on hearing the shots at the bush edge, and were covering the retreat of the scouts.

Then another thing happened. Maling and his companion heard and felt something now and then swishing and cutting through the fern just above their heads. They were under the fire of their own comrades.

“Maling,” said Lingard, “this is getting too warm! It's not good enough to stay here and be shot by our own men. Let's make a run for it.”

Creeping out from their place of concealment, and giving a quick look backwards to make sure that no more Hauhaus were coming, the two scouts ran along the track in the direction of the camp. Close by on their left they could hear the enemy yelling and firing.

Just as they turned a bend in the path they came upon a terrible sight. Mackenzie lay on the ground, face downwards; his head smashed in and his brains spattering the ground. His carbine and ammunition and Afghan sheath-dagger were gone.

This they saw at one horrified glance, then they dashed on, taking a short cut across the fern to the page 253 camp. They could see the white tents now in the morning light. They ran towards the troops shouting, “Don't fire!—don't fire!”

The two scouts reached camp safely, and Lingard immediately reported the result of the night's work to the colonel. All the others excepting poor Mackenzie turned up. One of them had fallen shot, wounded in the back, close to the camp, but was rescued by the surgeon, Dr. Walker, who pluckily ran out and carried him in.

Mackenzie, one of the survivors said, was running well, and would have escaped, but he suddenly fell prone on his face without any apparent cause. A Hauhau came running along next moment, and, putting his gun close to Mackenzie's head, blew his brains out.

Then came another strange development of the morning's adventure. Surgeon Walker, on examining Mackenzie's body, said he believed the scout had died suddenly of heart disease, and that he was quite dead before even the Hauhau shot him.

The brave old Gurkha soldier's presentiment of speedy death was only too true a foreword from the Unknown.

It was fortunate that this Hauhau ambuscade had been unmasked. The camp was already astir, and the troops were having their early morning coffee, and in another half-hour would have begun the march by the Okehu Gorge route, when the first page 254 shots were fired. Once down in the narrow gorge and the presence of the enemy undetected, they would have been practically at the mercy of their active and well-concealed foes in the thick bush above and on either side of them.

After this little morning skirmish the Hauhaus, numbering probably a hundred and fifty, quickly retired through the bush to the Tauranga-ika pa, taking with them as trophies the dead soldier's arms. The white troops were soon on the move. Four divisions of Armed Constabulary, the Volunteer Cavalry, and the Kupapa Maoris marched through the Gorge unmolested, and took up a position near the great Hauhau pa, which Whitmore now prepared to storm. First he tried artillery in an endeavour to breach the stockade, and Kimble Bent and his Maori comrades in the crowded fort now stood target for cannon-fire.