The Dying Breed

A short story by Bob Collins (Stumpy)

The ’native’ bushman – that is the logging man of the indigenous forests – is a dying breed. As the indigenous estate of this country is eaten up by land clearing, logging and reservation so the job opportunities in this field dwindle. Because of the inherent dangers of the job, bushmen have always held the respect of other men. Oh, like all groups they have had the roughnecks, the shysters, the crafty, the dishonest in their ranks as well as the honest, kindly and decent men, but they have all been in common, strong, self reliant, fiercely independent, and tremendous toilers.

Old Doc had been a bushman all his life. Never a rich man, always shunning the towns, but a man with dignity, honesty, kindness and hospitality. He had been well known in his earlier days, a legend in his own time, for his strength, ability, and his knowledge of his dangerous calling. His name had been famous in places where bushmen gather – the King country, the Coromandel, where he had-worked in kauri, the Urewera.

His great skills – such as dam building, working a timber jack or a broad axe, pulling an “M” tooth, parbuckling a load, or even setting a snatchblock on to a mainrope – are now history, never practised by the present day ’pine’ bushman.

Doc had never joined a union, never worked to hours, the sun was his start and stop clock. He had never bludged a thing in his life, so when he “retired” at the age of sixty-five, he refused the old age pension and took up post splitting to keep body and soul together.

For the average man post splitting is heavy work but for Doc it was easy retirement and he worked at it for over ten years. He worked in a valley twenty miles on up the highway from our valley and the forestry blokes would periodically visit him to tally and brand his produce for the charging of royalty money. This was one of Stumpy’s jobs.

The visit was always a social occasion for old Doc, who would have the billy swinging for his guests – time to yarn with friendly familiar faces, to catch up with the bush news, or reminisce over old times. This part of the visit was of far greater importance to old Doc than the post tally, and the forestry blokes knew it so always allowed time for a yarn with the old fellow.

One cold frosty August morning, by arrangement, Stumpy and his mate arrived early at Doc’s roadside stockpile of posts to do a tally. Though the hoarfrost was heavy and white on the shadowed valley floor, the sun was up in a clear sky promising a glorious day. They knew Old Doc had seen their arrival, for as they attacked the stacked posts with branding hammer and tally book, they saw the smoke go up from the billy fire, high-on the hillside, as Old Doc slung the billy for their smoko.

Stumpy and his mate finished, the job then clambered up the steep, muddy track to the splitting workings to tally and brand any posts that Doc had up there, and of course to have the brew of tea with him.

After a twenty minute climb out of the frost and into the sun, they found the billy fire shaded under a huge rata tree. It had burned down to glowing embers, the billy quietly boiling away hanging from its green stick. Tea leaves, condensed milk sugar, butter, a loaf of bread, and three chipped enamel mugs were all laid out in neat order, and there was old Doc.

He had wedged his backside between the buttresses of the huge tree, his scuffed boots extended to the warmth of the fire, his stained old felt hat on his balding head, shading his eyes from the sun, his chin on his chest, he was sound asleep. In his hand resting on the leaves beside him he grasped the still smoking bowl of his worn wooden pipe.

Quietly stepping through the splitting debris, Stumpy and his mate silently made a brew and drank it with bread and butter. They didn’t like to disturb the old fellow. He looked so old and vulnerable, and innocent sitting there sleeping – peaceful too. After the brew they sat around and sat around whispering conversation, waiting for Old Doc to waken. They did not like to start branding for they knew the banging of the hammer would likely startle him.

They need not have worried for Old Doc would never waken again, He had gone on.