Authors: Garry Douglas Kilworth
Garry Douglas Kilworth
was born in York into a military family. He spent seventeen years in the RAF before embarking on a dual career working for an international telecommunications firm and writing and now is the author of some fifty novels. He has won the British Science Fiction Award and the World Fantasy Award and was longlisted for the Booker Prize and twice shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal.
Other titles in this series by Garry Douglas Kilworth
Soldiers in the Mist
The Winter Soldiers
Attack on the Redan
Brothers of the Blade
A Fancy Jack Crossman Adventure
Garry Douglas Kilworth
Constable & Robinson Ltd.
55–56 Russell Square
London WC1B 4HP
First published in Great Britain and the USA by Severn House Publishers Ltd, 2008
This edition published in the UK by Constable,
an imprint of Constable & Robinson Ltd., 2013
Copyright © Garry Douglas Kilworth, 2008
The right of Garry Douglas Kilworth to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988
All rights reserved. This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out or otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or to actual events or locales is entirely coincidental.
A copy of the British Library Cataloguing in
Publication Data is available from the British Library
ISBN: 978-1-47210-924-8 (ebook)
Cover design by JoeRoberts.co.uk
This novel is for my good friend Major John Spiers, who was at the time of the work’s conception the curator of the Light Infantry Museum in Winchester. (He is now Rifles’ Secretary, Property and Heritage.) His name has often appeared in my acknowledgements for the research material he has provided. He also suggested that the Maori Wars might make for a different, and interesting, Crossman novel.
John also supplied much of the historical material, but is in no way responsible for any errors in this work. I like to think I can get things wrong without any expert assistance.
hree sailors slipped over the side of the moored British man-o’-war into a stolen skiff to sail across the bay to the harbour of the small Australian port of Melbourne. They had contrived to serve watch together in the early hours, to provide themselves with this opportunity of jumping ship. The officer of the watch, a Lieutenant Urquart, was standing fast asleep with his head on the rail of the quarterdeck. Urquart was famous for his catnapping. By the time he lifted that sorry head of his, he would be in the deepest trouble of his so-far short life.
‘Watch the prow,’ whispered Danny, urgently.
He was too late, the stolen skiff’s front end bumped against the ship’s hull, not loudly, but with a definite thump.
‘What?’ called the officer above, obviously waking from his doze. ‘Who’s there?’
The three men in the skiff swiftly manoeuvred the boat around and under the stern of the man-o’-war. There they waited with hearts beating fast, knowing that directly above them was the captain’s cabin. They could hear that very man snoring like a pig with a blocked snout. Urquart’s footsteps sounded on the deck. The three sailors followed them with their ears, knowing he had walked to the port side. There he would be searching the surface of the sea, looking for a log or whatever he imagined had made the noise. If they were caught the least they could expect was a term in the brig. Most likely it would be a flogging.
For the next few minutes all that could be heard was the lapping of wavelets against the hull of the great ship. Then the footsteps travelled again, probably to the quarterdeck, where the lieutenant would again rest his head on the rail. Urquart was nothing if not consistent in his habits.
‘What now?’ hissed Striker.
Abe said, ‘Wait.’
They stayed where they were, holding on to the anchor chain for the next quarter of an hour.
‘All right,’ Abe murmured. ‘He’ll be off again now.’
They pushed off, out into the bay. All three looked anxiously at the man-o’-war for the next few minutes, as they slid across the quiet waters, but it seemed Urquart had indeed returned to his slumber. There was another seaman with him, a sailor by the name of Longfield, but he too had no doubt succumbed to the invitation of the sandman.
The dawn came up over the waters of the huge natural harbour which curved like a giant fish hook around the small skiff. To the east were green hills, to the further west a flatter drier landscape. Ahead though, was the welcoming mouth of the Yarrow River. It was towards this stretch of fresh water the three sailors were heading. They did not intend to touch land, but, tacking through the other quiet ships which littered the harbour, they were desirous of sailing upriver towards gold country. It was a source of bitter disappointment to them that they could not go directly to the goldfields, where daily fortunes were being made, since they had no money. They did have a stolen ship’s mainsail, which would stake them once they were there, but they had no provisions for the journey. They needed a horse or donkey to carry the canvas, since they could not sail all the way to Ballarat, their eventual goal.
They passed rather too close to a frigate where the officer of the watch was far more alert than Lieutenant Urquart. Striker gave the officer a friendly wave, relieved to see that it was a visiting American vessel and not a British ship. The officer, hands locked behind his back, merely returned Abe a hard stare.
‘Bloody gentry,’ muttered Striker, ‘same everywhere.’
‘They don’t have no gentry in the United States,’ stated Danny in his thick Irish brogue. ‘They’re a republic.’
‘Oh, they have gentry all right,’ Abe said, getting in on the conversation. ‘They just don’t call ’em lords and ladies. It’s a fact of human nature to have your high brows and your low. That one there, he comes from a family that don’t speak civil to Chinamen, you can be sure of that. He’ll have servants in the kitchen, same as our lot.’
‘Was you in service, when you was a landlubber?’ asked Danny of the leader of the group.
‘Me?’ cried Abe in a shocked voice. ‘I never served no one nothin’. I’ve got my pride. I was a lengthsman, me. Since I was fourteen.’
Danny, being Irish, did not know what a lengthsman was and requested more information.
‘Why,’ said Abe, loosening the sheet and letting out more sail as the wind dropped, ‘it’s a workman for the council who looks after a length of greensward and ditching. I had five miles on it, ‘tween Rochford and Hockley, in the county of Essex. Scythe and spade was the tools of my trade. I cut the verges with one and kept the ditches clear with the other. That and help the sexton dig his graves. I’ve shovelled earth on many a gentry’s corpse, I can tell you. I s’pose that’s servin’ ’em in a manner of speakin’, but all I’ve done for ’em direct is throw the dirt of county on their dead faces. All I ever intend doin’ for ’em, what’s more.’
Abe was tall and lean, with a huge scar that ran from the corner of his right eye down to the tip of his chin. The scar came from a knife fight with a Lascar seaman in a Liverpool tavern. He wore it proudly, as if it proclaimed him to be a man to be reckoned with. Privately his shipmates said they would be more afraid of the man who gave it to him. Still, it looked gruesome and worried them enough that they gave him a wide berth when he was in a temper.
The three made it upriver for five miles before they abandoned the skiff. Striker wanted to sell it to get money for provisions, but such a sale would have attracted too much attention, and they could not afford to be detained while their non-existent credentials were checked by the purchaser. Instead they lugged the mainsail, and the sail from the skiff, a further mile along the bank and hid them in some bushes. Then Danny led them to a tree-fellers’ camp he had been told about by some Victorian sailors. Here they joined a self-employed gang of men who cut and sold eucalyptus wood for the boilers of the paddle steamers that plied their trade up and down the Yarrow.
‘See them gum trees down by the water’s edge, them’s river reds,’ explained one of the gang to the three sailors. ‘Them others, further back on the drier parts, them’s black box. River reds burn to charcoal, but black box goes down to dust. They wants both types of wood, see – they needs a mix. And a warnin’ on the river reds—’
At that moment an explosion occurred on a paddle steamer that was about quarter of a mile downriver. A look of satisfaction spread over the faces of the cutting gang. They nodded to each other in grim fashion as they saw that the steamer’s paddles had come to a halt and the boat was drifting on the current.
‘What’s that?’ asked Abe. ‘What’s happened there?’
‘Captain of that there vessel,’ said the same man who had been explaining about the types of wood, ‘went off without payin’ us our dues.’
‘And so we packed some gunpowder in a hollow log.’
Abe laughed. ‘I like that. They threw it in the furnace without knowin’ its content?’
The rest of the gang smiled. ‘Just so,’ said the second man. ‘It’ll remind the captain of his debt. They won’t not pay us again. That engine’ll cost a tidy penny to get put right. Now, as I was sayin’, don’t stand at rest under the river reds. They call ’em widow-makers here. Boughs break and drop without a warnin’. Here watch.’
The sawyer hefted a log into the water and it sank quickly to the bottom of the Yarrow.
‘Heavy enough to defy nature,’ said the man. ‘Imagine that coming down on your back.’
The three sailors only stayed with the cutting gang long enough to earn money for provisions. Then they struck inland for a short way to hire a beast of burden. They found a man willing to let go of an old camel called Bessie. Bessie was brought, not without protest for dromedaries are belligerent beasts at the best of times, to the spot where they had hidden the sails. They loaded her up and then set out for Ballarat, the town that served the goldfields.
It was about six o’clock in the evening as three sailors and a camel entered the Victorian town. The camel was thirsty and so were the men. They tied the beast to a tree by a long piece of ship’s rope and left it to drink from the town’s lake. They themselves entered an eating house and ordered steaks and beer. The fare was eye-wateringly expensive. The cutting gang had warned them of the prices on the goldfields, most of them having tried their luck themselves before deciding that a steady job was more lucrative.
‘I could buy the whole damn cow for that money,’ grum-bled Abe, ‘let alone this bit of gristle and bone.’
But there was nothing they could do about it. Demand exceeded supply. While they were eating, a man shambled in and asked if anyone wanted to buy a cheap digging licence. Abe signalled to the fellow, who was in rags and said he had not eaten for three days.
‘No luck, eh?’ said Danny, who was beginning to realize that you could not pick up gold nuggets from the ground like pebbles as they had been told by a visitor to their ship. ‘Giving up.’
‘Giving up and going home,’ said the man, who was a well-spoken and clearly educated gentleman. ‘You can dig in a thousand holes and find nothing. That’s what I’ve found, absolutely nothing. Look at these hands.’ He showed them his palms. They were raw and bleeding with split skin. ‘I’ve had it up to here.’ He drew a line across his throat.
‘Need some grub in your belly first, eh?’ Abe said. ‘Well, we could come to an arrangement . . . ;
And so the licence to mine on the goldfields was purchased.
Striker kept a keen eye out through the open doorway. The load carried by the camel was very precious and the sailors did not want it stolen. They were aware that marines from their vessel
were searching for them in the brothels of Melbourne, but it was doubtful they would reach as far as Ballarat since the ship was due to sail. By the morning the
would be on its way to Sydney and the three deserters would be relatively safe. They believed themselves safe now and drank to that fact, laughing and joking, and cursing their old captain and his officers for pigs and pi-dogs, saying they were well out of it.
All three had spent time in the brig and one of them, Abe, had felt the lash on a number of occasions. Punishment did not greatly bother Abe for very long. Oh, he got mad all right, spitting mad, and cussed and swore at the man wielding the cat, but his body seemed to absorb the hurt and pain. Abe had eyes like chips of flint. There were few who liked him as a person, but they respected his eyes.
Danny and Striker were typical seamen of low birth. As young men they had been press-ganged into the Royal Navy, and like many shanghaied sailors they subsequently made it their living. Yet they had never taken to it in the way a gentleman does who makes it his career. A young lad of a high family who becomes a midshipman, lieutenant or captain will speak of the sea reverently and of his ship as if it were the Ark of the Covenant. To sailors like Danny and Striker the sea was a wasteland of water and the ship ‘a bloody old lime barrel’. They did not hate the ocean or vessel: they were indifferent to them.
‘Well, here we are, lads,’ said Abe, looking up from his steak. ‘Down under and off to be as rich.’
Danny, the small elderly Irishman, said, ‘I’m eager to be slopin’ off to the diggings, lads, that I am.’
‘Well,’ replied Striker, a willowy Cornishman who had previously been a tin miner and knew what hard work lay ahead, ‘you can be at it soon enough, an’ we’ll stand and watch.’
Danny made a face, but he was full of humour tonight. Not far away, just a bit of a walk, were the goldfields of Sovereign Hill, where the three of them expected to make their fortune. The fact that thousands of others also expected the same, and there was only so much gold in the ground, did not dim their enthusiasm. They had the glint in their eyes, the fever as men called it, and it would take many months of hacking through clay to diminish it. They had read the reports in
The Buninyong Gazette and Mining Journal
of wild riches being found, and they believed every word. This was one chance in a lifetime and these three chancers were not going to miss it.
They finished their meal, paid for it with the last of their coin, and collected Bessie with her load. On Bessie’s hump was their stake. The spare mainsail from the
and the sail from the skiff. Canvas was at a premium in the goldfields, having its uses as tents, shaft covers, buckets and roofing for cabins. They could sell the canvas, keeping a little for their own use, and live comfortably for a good while as they set about mining. Hopefully there would be enough to purchase a shaft. There was a great deal of canvas in the mainsail of a man-o’-war.
When they reached the goldfields they were dog-tired and the sight of so many lamps dispirited them. Lights were scattered on the hillsides like fallen stars. There were shafts and winches; as many as trees in a forest. The whole landscape looked like a battlefield, with piles of earth and slag every few yards. Up on the main hill were shacks and false-fronted buildings. One of these was an alehouse which the three sailors entered, not to buy more food and beer, but to sell some of their canvas. As expected they had more buyers than canvas to sell, and very soon their pockets were lined with money. One man even sold them an old shaft he had worked for enough canvas to cover his current shaft and winch. He did not tell the sailors it had been worked down to a layer of clay beyond which gold had never been found.
‘Look at the likes of this humanity,’ Danny said, wonder-ingly, as they stared around them. ‘Every shade of people.’
There was indeed every type of person the world had to offer on the goldfields, from Chinese to African, from British aristocracy to beggars in rags, from hatchet-faced women to hussies in flounce. What amazed Danny, Abe and Striker, though, were the would-be prospectors straight out of the schoolroom. Dozens of boys still wearing school uniforms had dropped their books and headed for the glory holes of Ballarat, hoping to strike it rich. The street and surrounding landscape were seething with prospectors, all with hope in their hearts. As they left the saloon, the three sailors found the smells were ripe too, and awful, for sanitation was primitive here. And these were men who had lived in the closest proximity with humanity on shipboard.
‘I an’t goin’ to be able to sleep tonight,’ said Abe. ‘Who’s for going to our claim and tryin’ our luck right now?’
The other two men agreed.
So they found the shaft Abe had purchased and Striker winched Danny and Abe down the narrow hole to the bottom. There they lit candles and placed them carefully on the earth shelves that had been cut for the purpose. They found themselves ankle deep in water and soft mud. Striker lowered the canvas bucket and before long they had removed most of the water. Abe began clawing at the mud with his bare hands, slopping it into the bucket. Within a few inches they hit dense clay, which required more than fingernails to shift.
Striker sent them down two small shovels. Not knowing any different, for they were complete novices at the gold-digging game, Abe and Danny began to cut through the clay, slicing it with their shovels and taking out pieces as if it were a cake of marzipan. Any seasoned prospector on the fields would have stopped right there and left the mine to nature, as the previous owner had intended before he had been confronted by three gullible sailors straight off the ship. But they were ignorant of the lack of possibilities and so dug away.
Gold deposits obey certain rules, which knowledgeable prospectors are aware of. Gold is the heaviest metal on the earth and finds its way to the bottom of softer material. But, occasionally, just occasionally, there is a quirk of nature. Sometimes a nugget exceeds all others in size and weight. Sometimes it is so large that over a period of time it sinks down even further into the dense thick clay.
Danny’s shovel hit a hard object with a
‘Somethin’ here,’ he cried.
Abe went down on his knees and began clawing again, using his sailor’s strength to work around the rock. He cleared and cleaned a single knob on the boulder, an ovoid about the size of a goose egg. Danny kneeled down with him, a candle in his hand. Together they shined it on the stone. The flame reflected a yellowish hue.
Abe could hardly get the word out. ‘G-g-gold!’ he shrieked. ‘We struck gold. We’re rich, boys, rich!’ He continued to scrape away the clay from the monster beneath.
‘No, no,’ replied a worried Danny, ‘it can’t be gold – it’s too big. It’s as big as the bosun’s head – bigger, even. No gold, this.’
‘I tell you we’ve struck rich,’ yelled Abe, angry with his partner. ‘This is a nugget. A damn giant nugget. Look – see.’
Up on the surface, Striker was running backwards and forwards, only stopping to look down into the hole every two seconds.
‘Is it really gold, lads? Are we rich, boys? Is it a nugget for sure, Abe? We’ve only been here not more than four hours. How can it be? Others have spent months! Shall I come down there and assist?’
‘Don’t be daft, man,’ cried Abe. ‘How would we get it out? Here, we’ve cleared it now. Try to lift it, Danny-boy. If you can lift it, it’s not gold, for it’s only as big as an iron bucket. Lift it, and I’ll allow it’s not gold – but lift it, man, and I’ll kill you, for I’m anxious to be rich.’
Danny could not move the thing. It was indeed a nugget. Now the elderly Irishman let out a shriek of joy that pierced the ears of distant men, who came running in the darkness, waving their lamps. Suddenly the whole region was afire with the word. Riches had been found. A nugget the size of a bullock’s head. The earth had disgorged its old wealth and paupers were suddenly elevated to the status of kings.
Only one man for ten miles around was not excited. The man who had sold the earth’s bounty for a strip of canvas. All he could do was bury his face in his hands, and curse the fact that his deal had been made in a crowded saloon with witnesses all around, into whose faces he had smirked and winked, being such a clever fellow as to outwit some stupid sailors.
Oh, that Lady Luck, she was both princess and whore.
1860, New Zealand
aptain Jack Crossman and three soldiers of the 88th Connaught Rangers were among the landing party. They were accompanying a naval party of some 60 bluejackets. Captain Cracroft, the commander of the bluejackets, was bringing his men ashore as reinforcements to assist in the defence of New Plymouth, which it was feared was about to be attacked by Maoris. However, once there was sand under their feet, firing could be heard away from the town. Cracroft decided to divert his men in that direction. For Crossman it was a rude welcome to the recently acquired colony known as New Zealand: he and his men had been thrust immediately into fresh conflict.
‘Captain Cracroft,’ said Jack, ‘do you need us?’
Jack and his men were laden with their kit, unloaded from the
the ship that had brought them to New Plymouth.
‘We need all the men we can get,’ replied the naval officer, who looked a little harassed. ‘Are you willing, Captain?’
‘No, we an’t,’ said Private Wynter, a one-eyed pale individual, from behind his commanding officer. ‘I’ve still got the sea sickness on me. I an’t a well body.’
Sergeant King, his NCO, snapped, ‘Keep your silence, Wynter, or I’ll bring it on you myself.’
Jack nodded at Cracroft. ‘We’re with you, of course. It sounds like quite a battle up there . . .’ He cut his sentence short as a lieutenant-colonel leading a company of soldiers emerged hurrying from a woodland area ahead of them. The firing could still be heard, so the battle was not over, yet here were soldiers heading in the opposite direction. Captain Cracroft hailed the colonel.
‘Where are you going?’
The other officer looked anxious and seemed upset.
‘I have to return to New Plymouth by dark. My orders.’
‘But isn’t there fighting up there?’
The lieutenant-colonel looked uncomfortable as he urged his officers and men, most of whom appeared disgusted with their commander, onward towards the town.
‘Yes, the Taranaki Rifles and militia are attacking the Kaipopo
– but I have to get on. Colonel Gold’s orders, not mine.’ He looked anxiously at the darkening sky. ‘Not mine,’ he repeated. Then, seemingly as an afterthought, the lieutenant-colonel added, ‘I have sent some men to assist.’ Then he hurried away, waving his small force on with his sword.
‘A bunch of civilians,’ snorted a midshipman standing alongside Cracroft, ‘and he’s leaving them to it?’
‘Let’s get on,’ ordered the naval captain, ‘before we can’t see our hands in front of our faces.’
Wynter started whining again. ‘What about our kit, sir?’ he said, addressing Jack. ‘If we leave it here, it’ll get stolen for certain. You know what these darkies are like.’
Corporal Gwilliams growled, ‘Not everyone’s got your morals, Wynter. Some folk respect private property, darkies or not.’
Sergeant King said, ‘Pile it up at the base of that palm tree . . .’
‘This ain’t no palm, Sarge, this here’s a fern,’ corrected Gwilliams, dumping his kit. ‘Ancient plant, the fern. Older’n history.’
‘Thank you for that botany lesson, Corporal. Just heft your Enfield on your shoulder and we’ll be on our way,’ King said, with a touch of asperity in his tone. ‘Come on, catch up with the officer, you two. Move your backsides. And don’t give me one of your looks, Wynter, or I’ll knock it through to the back of your head.’
Sergeant King believed discipline had to come from his fists, which were indeed heavy and hammer-like objects. normal means of correction were too slow for him. His small command of two spies and saboteurs was always on the move, often in enemy territory. To place a man under arrest was not feasible when in enemy country and needed consideration of rules and laws, and required paperwork. This method was far too slow and indeed impossible when one was crawling through the bush, surrounded by insurgents. Physical threats were swifter and more effective. Sometimes King actually needed to carry them out, taking his man out of sight of the officer and flattening him with fists that had been formed in the forge of his father’s blacksmith shop. Gwilliams had been thumped soundly. So had Wynter, more than once. Gwilliams had learned quickly, but Wynter was one of those men who forgot his pain in a very short time. Moreover he seemed to be able to absorb punishment like a sponge takes in water, and still ask for more.
As the column marched through the wooded slopes, a young midshipman, not much more than twelve or thirteen years of age, came running to the four soldiers. He was clutching three cutlasses.
‘Beg pardon, sir,’ he said breathlessly to Jack. ‘Captain’s compliments an’ says you might need these.’ He stared for a few moments at Jack’s left wrist, suddenly realizing he was offering the cutlass to an arm without a hand on the end. ‘Sorry, sir,’ he said, blushing. ‘Didn’t see.’
Jack smiled at the boy who seemed in a high state of excitement, told him not to fret, and ordered King to take the cutlasses. Sergeant King handed the broad-bladed weapons around. Gwilliams swished his through the air, slicing the atmosphere with satisfaction.
Wynter looked at his broad-bladed cutlass in horror. ‘Whaddo I want this for?’
Sergeant King replied, ‘Obviously we’re expecting close-quarter fighting.’
‘Can’t I use me bayonet? I an’t never used one of these things.’
‘Stick it in your belt then,’ came King’s reply.
A short time later, the firing became louder as the column reached the front line. Sprawled on the ground and under cover were the British militia, firing at a man-made hill ahead of them. It was Jack’s first sight of a
an earth-and-timber fort built by the Maoris. There were rifle pits dug in and around the tiered earthworks, and a wicker palisade around the whole. It reminded Jack vaguely of Maiden Castle, an Iron-Age hill fort in Dorset. The
looked formidable. Jack had attacked and overrun fortified positions in the Crimea and such attacks were often very costly. He wondered if a frontal assault was going to be ordered here, since progress could not be made by simply exchanging fire. His stomach tied in a knot at the thought. Jack was no coward, but dodging bullets as thick as a swarm of bees, while running over open ground was one of the most terrifying experiences in warfare.
Suddenly a huge man appeared above the palisade, his brown body gleaming with sweat. His long black hair flowed in the wind as he raised a muscled arm and shook his fist at the militia. Jack found his spyglass with his good hand and flicked it open. Putting it to his eye he observed a magnificent specimen of a handsome warrior with a tattooed face, arms and shoulders, muscles standing out like iron ridges from his body. The warrior stuck out his tongue the length of his chin and then yelled: ‘Come on, pakeha. What are you waiting for? Come and fight like men or go home to your wives.’
Dozens of shots rang out as the militia and navy sought to rid the skyline of this open target. But they were unsuccessful. The Maori had ducked down again, laughing as he did so.
Sergeant King said to a sailor next to him, ‘Was that the chief?’
The sailor shrugged and replied, ‘Might have been.’
‘But he was so big – and strong-looking.’
‘Brother,’ said the sailor, ‘they
look like that.’
‘Shit,’ muttered Gwilliams, ‘we got ourselves a war then.’
‘’Ow many of ’em is in there?’ asked Wynter of a Taranaki Volunteer, who was lying on his back, reloading his rifle.
‘’Bout five hundred.’
‘Five hundred bleeders the size of that last one?’ exclaimed Wynter. ‘Why, we’re all dead men then.’
The exchange of fire continued until the light began to fade and the landscape was drifting into gloaming. Captain Cracroft gave the order to prepare for a frontal assault. Jack drew his sword. King and Gwilliams gripped their cutlasses. At the last minute, Wynter also decided the blade was better than his rifle and bayonet. On a given signal they rose up out of the grasses and from behind trees, charging over the open space between relative safety and the Kaipopo
Men went down under a fusillade from the rifle pits ahead. This was the last Maori hail of shotgun and rifle fire, answered by those on the run before they tossed away their firearms. Now it was sword, club and hand-axe.
The air was full of wild yells and battle cries. In the half-light the Maoris fought vigorously, hacking at the pakeha with the untutored skill of a warrior nation to whom warfare was almost a sport. Sailors and militia waded in with cutlass and rifle butt. Maori strategy was usually to cut and run once the enemy were within the walls. This they did now, slipping away into the falling darkness. The engagement was sharp and decisive, and was over within minutes. One naval man, coxswain from the
and first into the
pulled down the Maori flags.
The dead were counted as the darkness descended. Almost fifty Maori bodies were found, though only a fourth of those had gone down in the frontal attack. There were fourteen dead amongst the volunteers, militia and the navy. When the column marched back to New Plymouth, Jack learned of the animosity between colonists and the military. The colonists despised the Maori, while the soldiers knew they were fighting against a brave, resourceful and intelligent enemy. The Church had taken sides and fought for the rights of the Maori. The governor, one Thomas Gore Browne (or ‘Angry-belly’ to the Maoris), a seemingly indecisive man, was caught between the factions.
It was the age-old problem of land. The colonists were hungry for it. They wanted to purchase land: lots and lots of it. Understandably many of the Maori were reluctant to sell their heritage. Under the Treaty of Waitangi land could only be acquired by British colonists if they purchased it from its owners or from the government. But ownership was often a misty and vague thing: sometimes land might be owned by one Maori, sometimes by a family, sometimes by a whole tribe. He who sold it might be only a part owner; even no owner at all. Even folklore had been known to come into it. One Maori maintained that a particular parcel of land had been first owned by his ancestor: a lizard that had lived in a cave above the plot.
This particular fight had been over a stretch of fertile land known as Waitara, down in the bottom left-hand corner of North Island. It had supposedly been bought from a sub-chief of the tribe that owned it, but the head chief disputed the sale. Jack learned that these purchases were often subjected to great arguments which led to outright war. Wiremu Kingi, the Maori leader involved in this dispute, had been declared a rebel, but many clergy and soldiers felt the governor was being unjust.
Jack and his men were billeted with the 65th Foot, where he had learned much of this from a lieutenant of that regiment: Brian Burns, who hailed from Kilmarnock in Ayrshire. As they sipped whisky in the mess, Burns filled in a little of New Zealand’s recent history for Jack.
‘We’ve been here since the late seventeen hundreds,’ said Burns. ‘The Maori have been here longer, of course, by about five hundred years. No real fuss when we first arrived. No guns. Just bits of paper. The Maori accepted us, but of course there were only a few colonists then. In 1840 the Maori and us signed the Treaty of Waitangi, which gave us sovereignty over all New Zealand. That’s when the bother started. The two languages of the treaty didn’t quite match up. Not surprising, of course – different languages never do. So the Maori interpretation is at variance with our own. Not wildly different, but enough to cause trouble when it comes to who rules whom, or the purchase of land.’
‘Why did they bother? I mean, why did the Maoris sign in the first place?’
‘Och, there was some talk of the French invading, so the Maori chiefs handed over the protection of the islands to us.’
‘But they never did. The French, I mean.’
Burns took a swallow before replying. ‘No, but it was a genuine fear, the French were indeed ready to invade. Since then we’ve had five or six governors, I can’t remember exactly, but the best was George Grey. Unfortunately Browne isn’t fashioned of the same material. Are you a Scot, Captain?’
The last question caught Jack by surprise. He was indeed a Scot, or half of one. His father was a Scottish baronet who had seduced an English maid and then turned her out once the child had been born. That child was christened Alexander Kirk. When young Alex discovered his father’s deception, he left home in high dudgeon and joined the army under the assumed name of Jack Crossman, which so far as the military was concerned he still bore. Since that time his father had been reduced to a mindless idiot by senile dementia and his older half-brother James had assumed control of the estates. James was a good man, far better than their father, and he was something of a hero to Jack.
‘Yes, I am. Half, anyway.’
‘I thought I detected something of an accent.’
‘It’s been ironed out. I was sent to school in England, then the army – you know. It’s never been very broad.’
‘No need for apologies – accent never made the man. Now where was I – aye, the governor. He tries his best, of course, but he has no vision.’
‘Tell me,’ asked Jack, ‘why did the Maori retreat tonight? You would have thought they would fight to keep their fort. It must have taken a lot of work to build it.’
Burns laughed. ‘They can fling up those things in a matter of days. Brilliant engineers, the Maori. It was bewildering at first, the way they simply melted away from their
But that’s the way they fight, the way they’ve always fought. First it was tribal warfare, but now they’ve got us to battle against. They’ve modified the
of course – added rifle pits – but essentially they’re the same forts they used before we came on the scene. Bloody difficult to penetrate with ordnance. You can rain cannonballs on them and they just absorb them. It’s nearly always a frontal attack because they always have the sides and rear blocked. Earthworks like the
‘Aren’t frontal attacks a bit expensive in manpower?’
Again Burns laughed. ‘We get slaughtered. Today we were lucky. I guess the Maori got a bit confused in the twilight. But others have not gone so well, Captain. There’s been a few mistakes here and there – a few arrogant commanders who have been put in their place. Ah, here’s Williamson. Colleague and friend. Stacy, Captain Jack Crossman, of the 88th. Jack, Captain Stacy Williamson of the 12th.’
Williamson, a heavy-browed man, shook Jack’s hand and then sat down in a vacant chair, heavily. In fact he exuded heaviness all over. He was big-limbed and bodied, with a large head and thick broad shoulders. An Aberdeen Angus bull of a man, except that when he spoke it was not from north of the border. It was pure country Suffolk.
‘The hand?’ asked Williamson, signalling one of the mess waiters with three fingers. ‘India?’
‘How did you know I came from India?’ asked Jack.
‘Oh, word travels. I heard there were 88th coming. Irish map-makers I was told.’
Jack’s team were indeed map-makers, especially the redoubtable Sergeant King, but they were also something else.
‘Correct. That is, correct about map-making, but not about the hand. I lost that in the Crimea.’ He paused before adding, ‘And none of us is Irish, though the regiment was formed there of course.’
Jack’s left hand had been crushed by a siege ladder and then amputated. He was now quite used to working round its absence. He could load his revolver by tucking it under his elbow. A rifle was more difficult, but being an officer he was not required to carry one. Of course he could not present in battle like other officers, with a pistol in one hand and sword in the other, but then battle was not his normal stamping ground. He was more used to sneaking around in the bush, blowing up enemy emplacements, and relaying intelligence to generals.
‘Ah, the Russians,’ murmured Williamson, ‘a more pedestrian enemy. Down here we fight a more colourful enemy under different skies, different stars. Do you know what the locals call New Zealand? Land of the Long White Cloud. Poetic, don’t you think? You should listen to some of their stories, too. I have. There’s a chap down at the quay they call “Speaker for the 7th Canoe”. His ancestors passed down the history of their migration to these islands to him. Memorized the whole voyage and told it to a grandson. Marvellous memories. Don’t borrow money from them and expect them to forget it.’
Jack smiled. ‘I have no intention of borrowing money from anyone, least of all a Maori.’
‘Oh, they’d lend it to you all right – generous to a fault. Now where’s my three fingers of gin . . .?’
While Jack was comfortably ensconced in the officers’ mess, his men were down at a beer tent, swilling ale. Wynter was on his third jug and Gwilliams, the barber from North America – the United States or Canada, no one really knew which – was not far behind. Sergeant King was with them, though he could have been in the senior NCO’s tent. King did not drink. He was trying to write a letter to his son Sajan, avoiding slops on a rickety table. Sajan was a child King believed he had fathered of an Indian mother. The biological connection was doubtful, but King had declared himself the parent and that, as far as he was concerned, was enough. Sajan was now in England at a Board School in Yorkshire, an exotic pupil amongst mill workers’ children.
Gwilliams was thinking there were an awful lot of naval men around, but when he asked one of them why, he was told they were actually army. Apparently they had discarded their red coats in New Zealand and were wearing blue serge jumpers and blue trousers. It made a lot more sense to wear muted colours, since in this environment they were not fighting in neat lines, but battling through bush country.
‘Well, soldier, what do you reckon on this territory?’ Gwilliams asked of the man. ‘Farming country?’
‘Sheep pasture,’ replied the soldier, leaning his elbows on the table. ‘When I get done with the army, I’m like to settle here for good. Rolling hills, meadowland. It’s a paradise, man. You only got here today, but you wait till you get out there and see the main of it. Hot springs, too. Lakes the size of seas. Yes, sir, I’m going to send for the family and settle.’