The Fencible Girl, Chapter 13: First Encounter

In less than ten minutes Rawiri and Winnie were at the beach called Waikowhai. The tide was racing out – with perhaps two feet of water left in the bay they would soon be cut off by half a mile of mudflat. There was not a moment to lose.

Rawiri plunged into the undergrowth and returned dragging a light dugout canoe some twelve feet long. A single outrigger like a solid, miniature canoe was attached to the hull by two poles lashed across it. The design was simple – double-ended, the craft could travel in either direction to keep the outrigger on the side away from the wind, making it stable in all weathers. He returned from a second trip carrying two paddles.

Wasting not a moment they threw their loads into the hull. Winnie jumped in while Rawiri heaved the craft forward and threw himself aboard, leaping into position and paddling in long, strong strokes. The light craft shot forward and within minutes they were out of the tidal flats, on the edge of the channel.

While Rawiri kept the craft steadily into the wind, in water deep enough to not run aground but still clear of the outgoing tidal flow racing towards the distant harbour mouth, Winnie passed the holstered musket and cartridge case to Rawiri and untied the mat. Taking Rawiri’s largest bone fish hook with its finely woven flax line attached she swiftly, using a long running stitch, fastened the long edge of the mat to the pole.

She loosely tied the four strongest cords to the top of the long pole. One she tied to the stern outrigger arm, another looped around the pointed bow of the waka and a third to the side opposite the outrigger, where the arm at the front crossed the hull.

Then she changed places with Rawiri, loosely tying off the final cord around the pointed stern. Although Winnie had never used a paddle before, it was quite simple to paddle this way and that to maintain a steady position pointing into the wind so the sail, which Rawiri now erected, would not catch.

As Rawiri set to work securing the lines with his deft and powerful fingers they heard cries from the shore, now some two hundred yards distant. Winnie’s heart sank. It was her parents, with three of Edward’s men. She could hear them clearly across the water.

“Winnie!” called her father. “Come back. Please don’t do this! Come back now.” She glanced at them, feeling her heart wrench with the conflict between the desire to obey her parents and her compelling need to help Rawiri. His face hardened as he went on rigging the mast.

Now Winnie’s agonising dilemma threatened to overwhelm her. While her original impulse to join with her friend in bringing back his mother still held the upper hand, almost equally forceful was the inner voice of what she felt to be reason demanding, ‘Have you gone mad? How can you imagine this makes sense? You are defying both your parents.’

“Winnie! Come back this instant, young woman. How dare you!” She could see her father touch Freddie by the arm, shaking his head. She shook his hand away, repeating her demand. Spurred by her mother’s anger Winnie gritted her teeth and looked away. Rawiri, who had only his mother, lost his resolve and looked at Winnie with pleading eyes. He knew very well that if it had been his mother on the shore he would have turned back.

When Winnie had told Rawiri her plan he had made it clear that she would have to manage the sailing. Now she tried to think of some way he could carry on without her, and failed. If she returned, if that is she could persuade him to take her back, it was all over for him and his chance of rescuing his mother.

Then she realised that with or without her, Rawiri would attempt the sailing and carry on. By coming up with the sail she could end up being responsible for his death. Winnie’s conflict was at an end; now she saw there was no choice – she had to stay with him, at least for a while.

She fixed her gaze on the boy as he lashed the mast tightly against the front outrigger arm. He needed no instruction; once he saw what was needed he set to at speed. Lacking hammer and nails the Maori were masters of lashing.

She watched him for a couple of minutes, during which he looked at her twice, seeing her struggle against her father’s calls, saying simply, “Please. Please, Winnie.” She could stand it no longer. Plunging the paddle into the current, she drove the canoe along parallel to the shore, powering the boat forward until her parents were almost out of sight as they followed the boat’s path along the shore. Just before she lost sight of them around a point, she turned and saw her mother with her head in her hands, sobbing, with her father’s arms around her. At that moment she came closer to turning back than at any point in the escape. Digging in for the final push that would take them out of sight, she turned to wave. Her cry “Don’t worry – I will be back. I love you. I love you,” choked in her throat. Shaking her head she turned and dug the paddle in hard. Within seconds they were gone. Seeing the tears pouring down her face Rawiri said, “Thank you. Thank you, Winnie. It is all right. They will forgive.”

Winnie wasn’t so sure. She sat glumly in the stern, letting the sail swing free for the five more minutes he took to complete the task.

Satisfied with his work, Rawiri returned to the paddle and brought the waka around into the wind. As the wind drew the sail across the boat Winnie grabbed the free-hanging cord at the corner. Rawiri turned the waka stern to the wind, the sail swung out and filled with a powerful jerk.

The effect was so dramatic they were taken by surprise – for a second, as the boat leapt forward, the outrigger reared up in the air and only Rawiri’s lightning reaction in throwing his weight onto it prevented their expedition from ending then and there. Once steadied into the wind the little waka took off like a horse under the spur, but they soon discovered that with Rawiri and the paddle in the stern steering was so erratic that they could make little progress. Winnie thought back to her holiday in Devon, messing around in a sailing dinghy with her uncle. A centreboard – that was what was missing, to act as a stabilising pivot. By sitting amidships holding the second paddle vertically beside the hull Winnie solved the steering problem, but Rawiri struggled to manage both the paddle and the sail.

Her friend, as ever, immediately saw the problem and set to work with cord. Within minutes, the spare paddle was lashed firmly in place.

This time, with Winnie controlling the sail and Rawiri steering in the stern, the improvised yacht handled perfectly. Within seconds they were flying along at a speed that unnerved them both, certainly faster than Rawiri had ever travelled on water before. An exultant grin lit up his face and, for the first time since Winnie had met him, he roared with laughter.

At last Winnie’s head cleared. The thrill of speed, the realisation that her plan had worked perfectly, gave her the extra push to squash all her worries and anxiety into an imaginary box somewhere inside her head and shut the lid. This was to become a familiar struggle in the days ahead; for the moment there was only their mission and it would demand all she had.

They sailed for almost half an hour on the heading taken by the raiders, during which time Rawiri fed Kura and the two bagged tui from a large bottle of honey water. The wind, as Rawiri had predicted, held true and steady and even increased in strength on the open water, driving the little craft across the westerly breeze at a strong clip. They constantly scanned the distance, desperately hoping that the big canoe would still be under way and visible. If the raiders had gone to ground behind a headland or in any of the many ways they might conceal their presence, the pair could sail around the broad Manukau harbour all day with no result. Suddenly Rawiri gave a shout and pointed. Sure enough, squinting into the distance Winnie made out the form of the great waka taua, wet paddles flashing in the sunlight as they rose and fell in perfect unison.

Rawiri’s face was a picture of exaltation. He looked at Winnie with an expression of ferocious glee. They had done it. The hunt was on.

As she gazed at the extraordinary sight, awestruck by the majesty of its lines evident even at such a distance and the almost dance-like quality of the flashing paddles, Rawiri turned the little canoe into the wind, causing it to rapidly lose speed. With a flick of his head he gave Winnie to understand that he wanted to pause and take stock. She released the line at the corner of the sail and they glided slowly to a standstill.

“Well?” she asked.

“I do not know. They go away. Maybe go out from Manukau. After…” He shrugged, his face creased in a worried frown. They proceeded to discuss the options, using a mixture of Maori, English and gesture that would become almost their own private language as their journey progressed.

Rawiri had believed they would make for the Hauraki region. Clever as he was he had deduced that there was nowhere else for such a large group to operate. South of Auckland was densely populated by the well-organised Tainui tribe. North was held by a variety of smaller tribes dominated by the Ngapuhi, a federation of independent sub-tribes. Although not as organised as Tainui, with frequent feuds and inter-village raids, their territory was still too thickly populated for so many warriors and slaves to remain hidden.

The final point was the question of why they were taking so many slaves. Not just those of Rawiri’s village, but the others her father had told about. The raiders were up to something needing at least a hundred workers, so they had to be based in some unpopulated region within reach of the waka. Only one place for a long way in any direction met that description – somewhere in or across the Hauraki Gulf, the wide body of water between the east coast of the mainland and the long mountainous peninsula that stretched north, twenty miles away on the other side of the water. The gulf contained numerous islands but the larger ones were inhabited, the smaller too small to conceal any sizeable undertaking. But the peninsula itself had been so emptied of population by the infamous spree of musket slaughters led by the Ngapuhi chief Hongi Hika that large tracts were still uninhabited thirty years later.

If Rawiri’s theory was correct the big canoe should have been making for one of the points on eastern edge of the Manukau where the North Island narrowed to as little as a mile from the east coast.

These isthmuses had long been used by Maori as mainland crossings or portages for their canoes. They would beach their canoes on one side, drag or carry them across land and launch into the other.

The most important portage was at Otahuhu, the site of the shortest crossing. Both Rawiri and Winnie doubted the raiders would use this because of the Fencible fort that commanded a complete end-to-end view of the busy slipway and road.

A more likely destination they thought to be Papakura, although neither was certain that there were no others. Winnie remembered, from studying the map on her father’s wall, that the Papakura portage was at least five miles long but it ran across level ground, indeed the name ‘papa kura’ means ‘flat land’. For canoes making to and from the Hauraki Gulf it had the advantage of emerging at Wairoa, on the gulf. The Otahuhu portage came out on an estuary well inside the Waitemata harbour, leaving further to paddle.

However, as they spoke the big canoe drew ever closer to the southern shore well west of Onehunga; it appeared that Rawiri was mistaken. On its south-westerly course only a slight adjustment would turn the big waka towards the harbour mouth.

There was nothing for it but to stay within sight of the big boat and see what happened. Winnie grabbed the loose line at the corner of the mat sail and nodded to Rawiri, who dug in the steering paddle and brought them swiftly round across the breeze. So fast was their little craft that within minutes they were as close as caution permitted. Rawiri’s spirits soared; they were now in control of the situation and, short of an accident or failing wind, the waka could do nothing to shake them off. He leaned forward at the paddle, grinning intently with the expression of a hunter who knows he has his game cornered. They now began sailing back and forth, for all the world two youngsters playing with their clever little craft. Their intentions were in any case well hidden by the number of other craft on the vast harbour. The two hours before and after low tide were prime fishing time; at least fifteen boats of various design were scattered across the water, some parts mere channels between exposed expanses where groups were gathering shellfish.

Atlhough the big war canoe was avoiding contact in the sparsely populated southern reaches of the harbour, Winnie and Rawiri were under no such restriction and could go where they chose among the fishers, not all of them Maori. Winnie’s thoughts returned constantly to the tremendous trouble she was in with her parents. She hoped that one of the two or three European fishing boats would notice them and report their well-being to her father; she had no doubt Edward would put out the word for everyone to be on the look-out.

As they flew along Winnie noticed a sailing dinghy labouring along in what seemed to be the general direction of the great canoe. Keeping an eye on the boat she became certain that this was indeed the lone sailor’s objective. She could also see that he was facing difficulties. His sail showed an ugly tear about half way up the mast. Although also rowing strongly, he often paused to bail water.

Gradually Winnie started to feel this was the same lone European they had come across in the forest, a feeling heightened by a return of the weird sense that she recognised him. He was still too distant to be sure, but she kept her gaze on him hoping to finally recognise him.

She was roused from her staring by a shout from Rawiri pointing at the waka, now some thousand yards distant. The huge craft had started on a long turn to the east. If they held that course then they were indeed planning to cross the mainland to the gulf.

The long canoe did not turn easily, and the pair watched with bated breath to see whether its present tack was a minor adjustment or a true change of direction. But it continued the long arc of its turn and within minutes was running close in along the southern shore, back towards the east and the portages. It had also slowed considerably; only half the crew were paddling. This was puzzling; what were they up to? She looked to Rawiri, who was grinning in delight.

“What?” she asked.

“Hauraki. Sure. They wait for big water.”

It took her a moment to understand that he meant high tide. Of course! Now their actions made perfect sense. Their first move had been to flee at full speed towards the outer, less busy quarter of the harbour. They had four or five hours in which to make their way quietly along the southern shore, possibly even taking a break on shore at one of the few points clear of mudflats before running in on the high tide.

It was to be Papakura, or some other point unknown. Certainly not Otahuhu, under the guns of the fort.

The man in the dinghy, who had now turned away from the waka and set a course towards the Mangere headland, quit rowing, bailed a few billies-full of water and appeared to be fossicking out of sight in his boat. Soon she could see he was struggling with something under his arm. Suddenly he threw both hands in the air and released a bird, which circled the boat two or three times in an ever higher and wider arc before flying off towards Onehunga. It was a pigeon.

The man now seized the oars again and began rowing hard, almost desperately, straight for a headland about a mile away.

Another a shout from Rawiri, this time a cry of alarm. He pointed again at the waka. Horrified, she saw it coming about to pursue the stranger, all paddles flying. She tried to calculate whether he would reach the safety of the shore. He was a powerful oarsman with seemingly unlimited energy, with the following wind providing some push even to the broken sail, but the waka had picked up speed. She could see a man in a cloak prancing up and down the boat, obviously shouting, gesticulating with his spear and even, once or twice, striking a paddler on the back.

It seemed likely that he would be caught. He was rowing at a tremendous pace, pausing intermittently to frantically bail water. To Winnie’s alarm Rawiri had changed heading to intercept the canoe and was pointing at it and shouting, “Look! Look!”

Winnie’s heart sank as she made out the cause for Rawiri’s alarm. Two warriors were making their way through the captives, kicking them and striking them with what Winnie saw were muskets. They were going to shoot the fleeing stranger.

She looked back at Rawiri. He responded by nodding his head toward the musket holster now lashed to the mast. There was no mistaking his meaning. Winnie had taken the musket with no particular plan, simply to equip themselves as well as possible. The idea that she might use it to shoot a human being had never crossed her mind.

“Too far away,” she called. Rawiri clearly had no experience of musketry. In order for Winnie to intervene by opening fire, a thought which terrified her, they would have to come within range of the gang’s own muskets; one against dozens would be suicide. She was about to explain this when, glancing at the musket, the words died in her mouth, which suddenly ran dry from fear. Until this moment she had given the specific musket no thought. It was just one of the many muskets in her world, different only in that it belonged to her father. Now she saw it was not; this particular musket gave them a deadly edge.

Among Major Meldon’s various interests was a passion for military technology, including the various kinds of musket.

The previous year, not for the first time, he had been asked to field-test a new weapon from the Springfield Arms Company in Massachusets, America, receiving a dozen for the purpose. It was a musketoon, a shorter, lighter version of the standard musket. But these were special: the barrels, normally a steel tube smooth inside and out, came with long, spiralling grooves along the inside and had mounted sights, features normally found only in advanced types of sporting rifles. The grooves, or ‘rifling’ caused the lead ball to leave the barrel spinning rapidly, making the ball travel much further and in a reliably straight line – a huge advantage over the older smooth-barrelled weapons.

With these, instead of a group of soldiers blazing away in a barrage, the individual soldier could pick a target, aim, and expect to hit it. It was one of these state of the art guns that would change the nature of warfare that Winnie now had in her possession. The conditions were far from perfect, but the range was now less than four hundred yards and closing. Winnie, although no marksman, was trained in musketry. If, as her father had said, this new weapon was accurate up to an incredible five hundred yards, she had to admit that at this range she may well be able to hit the relatively large target presented by the two warriors.

Now she was confronted by a hideous choice – sit by and watch this man be shot or take up the musket herself and … She pushed the thought out of her mind. The Maori were shooting from the unstable platform of a moving canoe; they were still quite some distance away; reloading a musket took most people quite a long time and they may get only two or three shots away before he was safe.

Almost as they formed in her mind she saw the arguments fail. As she watched, she could not avoid noticing how the heavy waka cleaved rock-steady through the light chop and that the paddlemaster’s calls had produced another speed increase. The gunmen fired their first shots and, as expected, missed.

But the next shots came quickly – far too quickly. The Maori were doing something ingenious, something unheard of. The standard procedure was to pour gunpowder down the barrel, remove the ramrod from its groove underneath the barrel, use it to ram paper wadding down to hold the powder in place, drop in the lead ball, ram that home, return the rod to its groove, set a percussion cap and finally shoot. The average soldier could do this twice in one minute, a fast one thrice. She had counted on the Maori taking considerably longer, giving the stranger time to get away.

Even from this distance she could see that they were doing away with the ramrod altogether. They were simply pouring in the powder, adding wadding and ball, then compacting the load by slamming the butt of the gun once or twice on the decking before inserting the percussion cap and firing.

“Shoot! Shoot!” shouted Rawiri, not understanding her reluctance and gesticulating at the musket still in its holster. They could both now see that unless she did so, the stranger was a dead man.

Her heart pounded in her chest as she struggled to find some other way. She even tried to tell herself, a thought dismissed almost as soon as it was formed, that this person meant nothing to them, that he was responsible for his own predicament and must face the consequences. It was no good; she knew she could not just let the man be murdered before her eyes while there was any hope that she could safely make a difference. Her mind made up, she took a second to quickly but carefully scan the lashing – a failure at this point would mean death. Rawiri’s knots were rock solid.

Although scarcely able to breathe, she took the musket from its holster and spoke. “I’m going to put the barrel on your shoulder. When I am in place, let go the sail and bring the boat to face straight into the wind and waves. Do you understand?”

He nodded, pale under his brown colouring.

“When I’m ready I’ll nod. You must stay as still as you can. The shot will make a very loud noise. You might not hear properly for a few minutes. Do you understand?”

Another nod.

Winnie desperately fended off the thought that she was going to try to injure or even kill another human being, fixing her resolve by remembering the dead children at Pukekaroro.

She took a cartridge from her father’s case and quickly loaded the musket, going through the step-by-step routine she knew so well. In twenty or thirty seconds the gun was loaded and half-cocked.

Now she knelt on one knee before Rawiri in the front rank shooting position, lowered the barrel to rest on his shoulder and pulled the hammer back to the fully-cocked position. Two more shots rang out – four in less than a minute, Winnie guessed. Unbelievable. A quick look confirmed that they were still shooting standing up and had both missed, which was good, but the range between them and their target was closing fast, which was not. Luckily they were standing on the platform surrounding the majestic carved prow, giving Winnie a shot well clear of the captives.

Rawiri let go the sail and let the boat’s momentum spin it around into the wind, holding it as still there as he could manage. At the last minute, she thought of the possible effects of the recoil. The last thing they needed was for the barrel to kick up and knock her friend unconscious.

Leaning forward she gently pushed Rawiri’s head to one side, gesturing with the palm of her hand that he was to stay in that position. He gave a slight nod to show he understood, bending his neck even further to stay clear of the barrel. She extended her back leg, braced it firmly against the outrigger and prepared to fire.

As she gazed along the barrel she was surprised to see how effective the sights were. A small metal point at the end of the gun had to be lined up with a notch in an iron strip close to her eye. But the barrel moved about constantly with the movement of the canoe, although Rawiri instinctively understood the need to give her a solid rest and was managing to compensate for the worst of the instability.

Again and again she tried to settle on a target long enough to take aim and fire. Again and again she failed. Soon Winnie was in despair. The movement was too much. While she struggled with the seemingly impossible task, two more shots rang out, then two more. The big boat was now terrifyingly close. Time was running out – if she could not at least achieve a near miss, the man in the boat was in the last moments of his life.

It was now or never. In absolute desperation she took a deep breath, breathed all the way out and in the instant of calm at the end, swung the barrel smoothly up and the instant she caught sight of the warrior to the front she fired.

The recoil slammed her backwards but, ready for it, she held her position. Rawiri jumped with the shock but reassured her with a nod.

As the wind quickly blew the smoke clear she saw that she had missed, but must have been close enough for the man to hear the ball zip past. The waka was still closing on its quarry but now the warriors’ attention was divided.

Good. If she could keep doing that, everything would be all right. She now felt no fear, and neither reluctance nor eagerness, only relief. She had found a solution, the stranger was getting away, everything would be fine. These thoughts flashed through her mind as her hands raced through the familiar routine of reloading. They could hear shouts from across the water – a glance showed that many of the crew had spotted them and were pointing their way. One of the shooters had now turned his attention to them and appeared to be about to fire at them in spite of the range.

She nodded to Rawiri. Once more she went through the smooth routine – breath in, out, up, spot and fire. At the instant of the shot she registered that her target was taking aim in reply and a split second later, through the smoke cloud from her shot, she saw the puff of smoke from his gun. As she bent immediately to the task of reloading the sound of his shot reached them, followed by a triumphant roar from Rawiri crying, “Maté! (Dead!) Maté! Ta heke é!”

He was pointing at the waka; her eyes followed his hand and she saw, scarcely believing her eyes, that there was now only one warrior at the prow.

Winnie had no time to register the shock of killing. Pandemonium had broken out on board the big boat. At least half the warriors dropped their paddles and scrambled for their muskets. The waka slowed dramatically. Instantly they saw the big European from the forest leap to his feet, roaring commands. Some warriors responded, others didn’t. He fired one pistol in the air and levelled the other at a nearby warrior who had started loading his musket. The man quickly returned to paddling, as did his fellows, but the delay had given their intended victim the chance to widen the gap between them.

By now, Winnie had reloaded. Checking the stranger she saw that he was rowing more strongly than ever and was now within two or three hundred yards of the shore. She had improved his chances considerably but not enough to be certain.

She knelt again and lowered the barrel to Rawiri’s shoulder. The lone musketeer had recovered his senses and was raising his musket for another shot. Two more were coming forward to join him. As the waka was now closer to their little craft it was an easier shot. Once again she filled her lungs, breathed out, and in a single movement sighted and squeezed the trigger.

The remaining marksman doubled over, dropped his musket and, clutching his side, toppled off the bow into the water.

“Quick Rawiri! Let’s go!”

With the mat sail flapping stiffly in the wind by her side, she had no difficulty grabbing the line while Rawiri spun the little boat round away from the wind. The sail snapped tight and they shot forward. The big waka, now less than three hundred yards away, started a turn to chase them, but a few seconds’ observation reassured Winnie that as long as the wind kept up they would never catch them.

Her friend, so excited that he was rocking back and forward at the paddle as if to urge the small craft on, headed straight for the Otahuhu channel, now less than fifteen hundred yards away.

“No Rawiri. Not Otahuhu. Father may have sent word about us. Follow the wind and take the closest land.”

The landscape ahead consisted of a few farmlets among areas of second-growth forest; they were headed for one of the larger forested areas.

Winnie checked the waka again and was alarmed to see that it had stopped its turn to be broadside on to them. The entire crew dropped their paddles to get their muskets. With thirty or muskets blazing away in the quick-fire Maori style they were far from safe, even at the quickly lengthening range.

As the first shots rang out Winnie experienced a bizarre and terrifying sensation. She became acutely aware of the surface of her head and back, even the back of her arms, every square inch tingling with sensitivity, awaiting the impact of a bullet. At any contact, even the touch of a feather, she would have screamed in fright.

None came. At least half a dozen balls hit the boat and the sail, but not only were neither of them hit, she saw a ball fall into the boat after failing to pierce the sail. The range had grown by fifty yards, they were flying away, but the firing was constant. Suddenly Rawiri yelped and clutched his right arm, although still managing to retain his grip on the paddle.

He let go again and grabbed the paddle with both hands. Winnie saw a nasty bruise starting to spread out from a blackened spot on his arm, but there was no blood. Looking down she saw the ball rolling around at his feet.

She burst into a peal of relieved laughter. Rawiri glared at her, furious that she could laugh at his injury.

“I’m sorry, Rawiri, I’m sorry. But don’t you see – the bullet didn’t hurt you – they are too far away. Look!” She picked up the ball and showed it to him. “We’re safe! We’re safe!”

Now Rawiri joined in the laughter. For a good minute or more they shook with laughter, grinning hugely at each other. Rawiri clapped her on the back once or twice. It was the laughter of release from fear and it felt good. Even the sudden sobering recollection that she, a girl of twelve, had just killed or badly wounded two men could not dampen her happiness at having saved the stranger and escaped with their lives.

Even Kura seemed to share their delight, wheeling and diving around their heads, once giving Winnie a playful nip on the ear. As she watched she saw the crew on the waka take up their paddles and set it on its previous course, which relieved her completely. They were safe.

Then she saw in the distance that the European in the stern had a long spyglass to his eye trained directly upon them. Instinctively she ducked her head to conceal her face under her bonnet but knew that her move was too late.

They may be safe for the moment, but they were now also known. As they closed on the shore, Winnie felt the cold chill of returning fear.

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