Billy Cameron sets out for Makatote
A Sunday in May 1907 Billy Cameron, fourteen years old, his spirits as lively as the fiery red of his hair, set out through the bush towards Andersons’ Workshop at Makatote. He went with his parents’ somewhat anxious blessing and his brother Freeman’s curse.
‘It should be me going!’ Freeman had raged, ‘He’s stealing my dream! What can Billy manage at the Workshop that I would not do ten times better?’
Jock tried to calm his son with reasoned argument. Freeman was stronger and bigger and was needed in the work gang. Billy had not the muscles yet for cutting away hillsides. The Andersons were hiring all sorts, and no doubt Billy’s work would be menial — sweeping the factory floor maybe — nothing that Freeman would enjoy; nothing that would pay as well as the co-op gang.
None of these arguments placated the fuming Freeman, who had his heart set on working with machines; becoming an engineer, maybe. He turned his back as the rest of the family gathered to farewell Billy. His mother wrapped a hunk of bread and some bacon and a screw of tea, rolled the food in a square of oilcloth and shoved it inside Billy’s bedroll. Goodness knows if even that would keep it dry. Sarah smiled at her youngest son who stood there jiggling with impatience to be off.
‘Try and make a proper go of it, Billy love, none of your silly nonsense, mind. Time to earn your keep like a sensible lad.’ She was worried though. Billy’s head was off in some other world half the time.
His sister, Maggie, who did housework four miles up the road, had good advice. ‘When you get to Ohakune, look for an engineer. They head out on horseback most days to inspect the workings. You might hitch a ride. Peter Keller, he’s a nice man.’ She grinned. Maggie was sweet on engineer Keller, without much hope that the busy man would ever notice her.
Billy nodded, suddenly overwhelmed by the farewells. He shook hands with his older brother Dirk and his father, gave his mother a quick hug, shouted some sort of garbled goodbye to Freeman who still sulked inside the tent, and set out into the rain.
The track through the towering bush was well enough formed, though muddy. In a year or two the railway would come along this line, but first it was a matter of digging away cuttings and filling gullies. And building great viaducts. Billy’s heart lifted at the thought of that mighty work — bridging the deep gullies that the rivers from the mountain had cut in this wild land. He imagined — well, he found it hard to imagine how the viaducts were built. Soon he would know. He tramped on, skirting the deep and mud-filled ruts, hoping the rain might stop before nightfall.
Next morning, having sheltered under a lean-to at Ohakune and scrounged a hot drink from a worker up early and brewing at the entrance of his tent, Billy presented himself at the engineers’ quarters. Sure enough, someone was heading north (not Mr Keller) who, laughing at the boy’s cheeky plea, agreed to take him up the track a few miles. So all morning he rode piggyback, chattering and asking questions about the great viaducts that were being built. When the engineer reached his destination — a hillside half cut away by a formation gang — Billy hopped down, said his thanks and set out readily enough. From there on it was Shanks’s pony and a solitary lunch under a huge sheltering beech tree. But Billy was resourceful and used to the life. He whistled as he swung along the rough service road. He wanted to arrive at Makatote in the morning, so as light began to fade he paid for a bite of food and a place to sleep in a loggers’ tent. The loggers had not seen the Workshop but had heard tales of its size and grandeur. They had noticed three travellers passing through a day earlier in search of work there. Hundreds were employed, it was rumoured, paid a wage and given lodging. But pay was better in the Government co-ops.
‘I know that,’ said Billy, always ready to chatter. ‘My da’s a gang foreman back there a while. Jock Cameron. You know him?’
They did not. Must be a thousand men in the gangs at present and more employed daily. Billy rattled on in the face of their indifference. He wanted to build bridges and learn a proper trade and travel to other towns. Explore unknown mountains. Maybe become a surveyor’s chainman. The loggers yawned and fell asleep.
But when Billy finally made it down into the devastation of the Makatote gully and back up the other side to where the Workshop stood against the sky, when he stood in that huge entrance and looked in, he could find no words. For minutes he stood on trembling skinny legs, mouth agape and eyes staring. Towering raw tree-trunks marched in two rows down each side of the building, holding up an iron roof. Even taller trunks supported the ridge. Men shouted and hurried, dragging long lengths of timber; great hoists groaned their way across the lofty spaces above, transporting girders. Everywhere there was the sound of hammering, of sledgehammers striking on metal. The noise took his breath away. For a while Billy’s strong spirit failed him. This was too loud, too grand after the silence of the bush camp. He would never belong here. He turned and walked outside and away until the racket became bearable.
‘Hey! You, boy!’ On the edge of the great open yard, a darkskinned fellow was sitting on a fallen log under a tree, grinning. ‘Come on over!’ He patted the log. ‘Pretty damn noisy, eh?’
‘Don’t worry. You get used to it. You looking for work?’
‘I thought so, but . . . I’m not sure.’
‘Mr Pascoe, he’s the boss. He wants every hand he can find.
A good boss.’
Billy sat. His legs were still trembling, exhaustion or shock or both. He hid his shaking hands between his knees and tried a smile. ‘Billy Cameron.’
The dark boy extended his hand. ‘Ruri Rokipoto. I come from downriver. Papatupu. Where you from?’
‘From a work camp the other side of Ohakune. Before that my dad hewed coal in the South Island. Before that Scotland.’
Billy was curious. He had known one or two natives working on the railway, but Ruri seemed more open, easier in his way of speaking. ‘Do you work for Mr Pascoe?’
‘Of course. Everyone does. He’s in charge of it all. One day I’ll be a big boss like him,’ Ruri grinned, ‘but maybe I’ll take longer to get there. That boss fellow is only twenty-five. Bright man, eh?’ He broke off a piece of the food he was chewing at and offered it. ‘Hungry?’
Billy had seen smoked eel before but never eaten it. The meat was dark and tough and full of bones but delicious. He began to feel more like himself. ‘So you don’t mind that racket all day?’
Ruri laughed. ‘I couldn’t stand one minute of it. I work down in the gully. Plenty of work down there. Except not for the last week. We’re waiting for cement to come through from the north, but this rain—’ he wagged an admonitory finger at the sky — ‘is holding up everything. The boss says we’ll find our own cement from clay upriver if the supply doesn’t make it soon. He’s already made electricity from the river. Nothing stops Mr Pascoe, not even Tawhiri.’
‘Tawhirimatea, god of rain. And wind, and thunder and storm. Seems like he’s decided to throw all his bag of tricks at us this last year. My mother says he’s angry over the railroad.’
‘Do you think so, too?’
Ruri shrugged. ‘Maybe. Maybe not. I think Mr Pascoe is strong enough to deal with him.’ He winked. ‘But I don’t tell my mother that!’
A clap of thunder wiped the grin off both boys’ faces. Ruri rolled his dark eyes. ‘Aue! My big mouth.’ He pointed to a clearing beyond the Workshop where a man holding an umbrella over his head was peering into the rain. ‘That’s the boss. Come on. I’ll introduce you.’
The two boys dashed through the rain, laughing now that the thunder had grumbled away into the distance.
George Pascoe looked sternly at the two lads. ‘Ruri, have you nothing better to do today than chatter to strangers?’
Ruri hung his head and shrugged, all his earlier confidence gone. Billy, on the other hand, was excited to be in the presence of the man in charge of all this. He stood as tall as he could manage against the wind and rain.
‘Sir, I am Billy Cameron, come looking for work. Ruri here was helping me.’
For a moment Mr Pascoe said nothing. Billy could feel those sharp eyes scrutinising him from head to toe. ‘You’ve come here on foot?’
‘From the south, sir, four miles south of Ohakune. My dad—’
‘I don’t need the whole history, lad. How old are you?’
‘Fourteen, sir, but I’m tougher than I look and used to rough work, and—’
The boss seemed distracted. He kept staring down the muddy road that cut through a wasteland of felled branches, stacked logs and timber. ‘We can’t take you on just now. Maybe in a week we’ll try you out. Ruri, show him where the pay clerk’s office is. Get him signed up on provision.’
‘Is there room in your tent?’
Ruri looked doubtful. ‘Not really, boss. Five already.’
Mr Pascoe frowned. ‘Five? Who assigned you?’
Ruri looked at the ground. ‘Not sure, boss.’
‘I think you are sure. Tell Mr Fellows I said you and this lad were to have a tent between you. The next two lads to arrive can share with you. Understood?’
Billy piped up, excited now. ‘I can set up a tent pretty smart, Mr Pascoe, you can leave it to me. I know how to—’ He swallowed. How many times had his mam warned him to keep quiet at these times — that bosses don’t take kindly to chatterboxes?
Ruri was still hesitant. He looked at his boss from under his eyebrows and made a writing gesture.
George Pascoe sighed, still peering into the rain, but he took out notebook and pencil and scrawled some words. ‘I see, Ruri; best make it official, eh? They giving you a bit of a run around?’
Ruri shrugged but took the paper. Mr Pascoe patted his shoulder. ‘Never mind, boy, keep your head down. Work hard and you’ll survive.’ But then, before the boys could move away, the boss gave a great shout and slapped a hand around each curly head. ‘Here come the Clarkin Brothers! Look, boys, look! Billy Cameron, you can start work tomorrow!’
Out of the mist and rain five huge horses, hitched three and two, plodded steadily towards them. They hauled a great wagon heaped high and tarpaulin-covered. Behind that came another load, and in the distance another dark shape toiling up the slope.
‘Magnificent beasts, magnificent,’ breathed Mr Pascoe. ‘They could challenge Atlas himself. There’ll be three tons on that wagon. Four maybe. Here is our cement, boys — please God, still dry — and our drilling machines and a new load of steel, if I am not mistaken. Well, boys! We are in business!’
Format & Editions
April 3, 2017
RHNZ Black Swan
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