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HOME > Short Stories > Five Years in New Zealand 1859 to 1864 > CHAPTER X.
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    I Undertake Employment with a Bush Contractor—Get Seriously Ill—Start for the South and the Gold Diggings.

I had now been more than a month on the Ashburton, but as I could not expect home letters yet for some weeks, and was getting tired of mere amusement, I accepted an offer made me to join in a new line of work.

A man named Metcalfe, a relative of a neighbouring squatter, had lately started work as a bush contractor, and had just then undertaken to construct a number of station buildings for a run holder on the Ashburton. Metcalfe was an experienced bushman and a good rough carpenter. He asked me to join him and I at once accepted.

We would have to fell and cut up our own timber in the forest, cart it down some forty miles, and construct all the works without other assistance.

Our first business was to provide a habitation for ourselves in the forest, as we required to stay there a month or two while cutting the necessary timber. We laid out a space 10 feet by 12 feet, drove in posts at the corners, and nailed a strong rail on top, then we felled and split up into slabs a number of white pine trees, and set them upwards all round with their edges overlapping and nailed them at the top to the rail, or, more properly, wall plate, the feet of the slabs being set a few inches in the ground. Over this enclosure we made a sloping framework of wickers (fine saplings) and covered it with an old tent which Metcalfe possessed. At one end of the hut we constructed a wide fireplace and chimney in the same manner, and hung up an old blanket over the space left for a doorway. The inside of the slab walls and chimney we wattled with mud and laths, which we split up, and plastered over with mud and chopped grass. We made rough cots with wickers and slabs, raised a foot above the ground, so as to form seats as well as beds, and covered them with a thick layer of minuka branches, which made capital springy mattresses, and over all we laid our blankets. For a table we split and dressed fairly[Pg 52] smooth a pine slab a foot wide in which we bored four holes and inserted therein wicker legs. Our mansion was now complete and it had not occupied two days to build.

We rose at daybreak, boiled a kettle of tea, which with cold baked mutton and damper formed our breakfast, then to work till 12 o\'clock, when we took an hour for dinner, and again to work till dark, when we adjourned to the hut, and after a visit to the creek for ablutions, and seeing that our horses were watered and put on fresh pasture for the night, we sat down to supper by a rousing fire, then lit pipes and chatted or read till it was time to turn in, when the fire was raked over, and the damper of bread inserted under the hot ashes to be ready for the morning. During the evening also one of us made the bread; the camp oven would be put on the fire with sufficient mutton to last us for two or three days. It was a grand life for healthy, strong fellows as we were, living and working alone in a virgin forest, with no sound around us but the rippling of the brook and the whisper of the wind through the foliage of the tall pines, or the ringing of our axes, with every now and then the crashing fall of a huge tree.

I should remark here that the black and white pine (so called) of New Zealand is not by any means similar to that which grows in Europe. They grow straight and tall, it is true, but for fully half their height throw out heavy and numerous branches thickly covered all the year round with very small evergreen leaves. The trees are easily cut up and split into posts and rails, or sawn into boards. At the time I refer to the forests were free to all settlers for their home needs on the payment of a nominal fee to the Provincial Government.

The timber in due time was felled, cut up, and carted to the station, and we removed our camp to the site of the operations. It was a bleak, wild place, three miles from the south mail track, and consisted only of a small slab hut or two with a wool shed and sheep yards. The owner, Mr. T. Moorhouse, had lately purchased the run, and was about to improve and reside on it. A description of our life here would not be interesting, so I will pass over three months during which we worked steadily and the buildings were nearly complete, when one day, as I was nailing the shingles on a roof under a powerful sun, I suddenly felt sick and giddy, and was obliged to go inside and lie down. The same evening I developed a severe attack of gastric fever[Pg 53] which three days after turned to a kind of brain fever, and for nigh on six weeks I lay betwixt life and death. For half of this time I lay on the floor in a corner of the new building, the bare ground with a layer of tea leaves for my bed, the noise grinding into my brain when I was at all conscious, and only Metcalfe (good man that he was) with an old Scottish shepherd to look after me when they could find time to do so. No doctor, medicine, or attendance of any kind was procurable nearer than sixty miles away, with a weekly post. One night, to make me sleep they gave me laudanum (a bottle of which Metcalfe had with him for toothache) and the following morning I was discovered standing on the brink of an artificial pond nearly a quarter of a mile off, barefoot and half naked, to reach which I must have walked over places I could not easily have passed in my senses. This was when the brain attack came on, and for a week I lay, I was told, almost unconscious. Metcalfe contrived to send some information to Christchurch, and after I had been down for over three weeks Moorhouse arrived and removed me to his own hut, where he looked after me for some time. Then he had me carried to and fixed up in his dog cart and drove me sixty miles over the plains in a single day to Christchurch, where I arrived a good bit more dead than alive, but to find a comfortable room, and every attendance and luxury a sick man could wish for, prepared for me by my good friends Mr. and Mrs. Gresson. I must have taken a good deal of killing in those days, but the drive to Christchurch, severe as it was, saved me, and in three weeks I was myself again.

When I was convalescent I found letters from home awaiting me. My father sent a little money, but wished me to utilise it in paying my passage home, and appeared to have lost faith in my doing any good in New Zealand; but I was more determined than ever to remain. Was I not accumulating colonial experiences, and always found employment of some kind awaiting me? and I was still very young—only a little over eighteen. The free life I had spent for nearly two years had had its effect, and I could not consent to throw it up, at any rate not just yet.

The doctors who had attended me expressed their opinions that I had overtaxed my strength at work to which I was not accustomed, and forbade my undertaking anything of the kind for a while. This of course was nonsense, but[Pg 54] I saw no reason why I should not enjoy a holiday for a month or so in Christchurch till I had settled future plans.

Just at this time I received a letter from Smith, informing me that the run he had charge of was sold, and having thereby lost his appointment, he was coming to Christchurch en route for Otago on a voyage of enterprise, and invited me to join him. This was excellent; the wandering disposition was again strong upon me, and I looked forward to such a trip to a new part of the country in company with my old friend with the keenest delight. I agreed to his proposal at once, and immediately he arrived we set to work to make preparations for our journey south, although where that journey was to lead us or of what might be before us we were profoundly ignorant; but that knowledge or want of knowledge enhanced the glory of the movement. We were a couple of free lances starting to seek what might turn up, and eventually we were led into a new and very interesting experience, even if it did not turn out a remunerative one.

After paying my expenses in Christchurch, I possessed about £50 in cash and a valuable and............
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