The economics of Stenning's farm were simple.
‘You see, Johnson,’ he said, ‘in a good year I used to make three or four hundred from wool and lambs. I didn't use to keep cows except one or two running around near the house. Then I married Rua and she came and could help milk, and so I got the cows in to keep the house going. Used to drink condensed milk in the tea before then –by God, I'm not sure it wasn't a better life.’ He laughed at his joke. He didn't often laugh.
‘Even now, with butter gone to hell the way it has, the cows still pay for most things. Wool ain't worth the trouble to send out. Lambs won't pay the mortgage. Besides, I've tried the last two years to keep all the stock I could on the place, and you can't fatten spring lambs up here.’
‘You got a mortgage?’ Johnson asked.
‘Now who hasn't got a mortgage in this country?’ Stenning said heavily.
‘Can you pay interest on it these times?’
‘Who the hell can? Nobody I know. And who cares? Do you?’
‘What happens when it isn't paid?’
‘Nothing happens. If everybody can't pay, nothing happens. It isn't like it was a few years ago; they sold me out of a farm after the war. Now they're damn glad to have me stay. Listen, when I moved in here three years ago the farm had gone to hell. I brought it round till it nearly looks like a farm again. They'll pretty near pay me to stay on.’
Johnson considered the question.
‘I guess that's all right,’ he said, ‘but it's different to owning you own land, isn't it?’page 85
‘I own it all right.’
‘Sure, you own it or they own it. It depends whether they like having you here or not.’
‘I own it all right.’
‘What about the stock?’
‘They're on mortgage, too. The company stocked me up when I came in. I paid them off a bit. With stock prices the way they are now, if they sold me up they'd not get half of what's left back, not half of it.’
‘They won't sell you up?’
‘Nope, they won't sell me up. If they sold up this place there'd be nothing left in the country that wasn't gone, sink and swim alike.’
‘Well, it's a case all right,’ Johnson said. ‘I guess it's all right. It's like working for someone else though, not for yourself.’
‘They're not a bad lot,’ Stenning said. ‘They haven't been bad to me. They're not so easy what stores they let in on the account, and for grass seed or harness, or a new draught horse, Gawd, you'd think you were crazy the way they look at you. But we ain't so bad. It's a living all right. You can still kill a sheep when you want some meat, only at that I don't go out of my way to ring them up and tell them about it.’ He laughed again.
‘Still it isn't working for yourself though, eh?’
‘Sure, they own it all, I suppose, if you look at it that way,’ Stenning said. ‘That goes for all the farms in this damn’ country, don't it? Fair's fair. If they let me alone and we hold out through this spell, I'll get it off them yet. That's fair enough. Good times they make a bit. Bad times no one makes anything. That's how it is.’
‘It's a case all right,’ Johnson said. ‘When they send in the bill for back interest, that'll be a case.’
‘They won't do that,’Stenning said. ‘There'd be a riot.’page 86
They were standing talking by the yard after milking, with the early morning sun rising and drying the dew on the grass.
‘You always been farming?’ Johnson asked.
‘Ever since the war,’ Stenning said. ‘Before that cabinet making. Father was a cabinet maker. He was a German.’
‘You go to the war?’
‘Sure, everybody went to the war, one side or the other. I was at Gallipoli.’
‘I've been knocking round on this game ever since the war myself,’ Johnson said. ‘I never tried for a farm of my own.’
‘You should've done. It's a better game than working for another man.’
‘You always been in this part, around here?’
‘Nope–third farm this is. First was down in Nelson. Couldn't grow fruit trees. Second was near here. I'll own this bloody piece of land before I die.’
They spent a day riding round it. Stenning seemed to like Johnson to the extent of taking his work there seriously and trying to interest him in it. The best part of Stenning's farm was three horses that had been bred from good stock in the Wairarapa. They ran in the big log paddock with half a dozen Maori hacks of poor quality–brought in wild from the tussock plains, Stenning said– but the others could be told half a mile away by the way they carried their heads.
Stenning rode a great white mare called Jonquil, Johnson a wicked, quick-footed little horse that picked its way over logs and uphill tracks like a dancer. They rode up and down the gullies, looking at the patches of grass where it grew in ‘biddy-bid’ and fern.
The farm ran along one side of the valley with the river page 87 at the bottom for a boundary, and across the river the banks rose sharply in heavy bush.
‘That's a bit the fire missed,’ Stenning said, as they went past it, along the river flats. ‘There's the remains of a farm over there.’
It was true, though all Johnson could see was a corner of the iron roof of the house between trees. The fields that had been cleared were smothered head-high in fern and scrub.
‘There used to be a swing bridge across here,’ Stenning said, ‘the wire's still there. Fellow got killed in the war, I think. It's not been farmed since.’
They rode on past the bridge and took a track that ran up a ridge to the top of the valley, and then along a farther track that took them to Stenning's boundary. There was high fern on beyond this, too, and trees growing up again.
‘This next bit ain't farmed either,’ he said. ‘Was cleared once a long way back by two young fellows from England. One of them got left some money so they gave it up. It's a nuisance not having no neighbour. Means you keep all the fences up. All the weeds and such grow alongside of you. There was a lovely crop o’ ragwort there this year. Still it means you don't lose any sheep except from natural causes.
They turned their horses looking down the valley to the river.
‘I want to fence this off in three parts,’ Stenning said. ‘That's why I wanted some help in. If they give me time and some fencing wire, and maybe a bit of grass seed, we'll get it done. Then when I burn and sow it I can turn stock on to it that'll eat the fern down as it grows. Give grass a chance, that's what they say, and it'll beat the fern. That's the winter's work.’page 88
They rode down again and back along the flats to the house.
It was a hard winter and a colder part of the world than Johnson could remember. Farther down the valley, they told him, it grew warmer, and the land was better. Up at the head of it, on Stenning's land, the frosts came down at night so that the tank froze and even the pools on the edge of the river were covered over with ice. In July there was snow falling and though it did not lie with them round the house it stayed on the hill-tops all around and covered Ruapehu down below the bush line. Through June, July, and August there was rain, caught by the mountain so that it seemed to fall endlessly, week after week.
The cows dried off, so that there was little milking to do, but Johnson and Stenning worked days that were longer than ever and hardly shortened by dark, running fences from the boundary line on the ridge down to the river. There were trees to fell first to clear the line, and logs to be sawn and split for posts, and then, when the line was clear, the fencing began. Johnson and Stenning rode out each morning. Even when it rained and the days were dark and driving, Stenning would get up after break-fast from the table and, coatless, since it didn't matter what one wore when one worked in the rain, Johnson would follow him. They would bring in the horses and saddle them, and go off with cold tea and bread and cold mutton for lunch, and come home late in the afternoon, with night falling and a cold wind blowing off the glaciers into their faces, so that the horses turned away from it and went unwillingly through the mud and logs.
The two men grew to respect each other in this work. Johnson could not like Stenning, he was too sullen and unattractive a man, but he liked working with him. He page 89 admired his great forearms and his skill with an axe, and the way he drove at the work in a fury of accomplishment. He was good towards Johnson and treated him equally and fairly. When they first went out in the bad days of rain and snow he made it so that Johnson seemed to come of his own accord because he could not leave Stenning to work alone. They worked without talking except some-times as they ate, and then little; they would work some-times half a mile apart and not meet all day until Johnson would hear Stenning call and look up to see him leading the horses over for the home ride.
On good days, when the sun shone and the ground perhaps was hard and sharp with frost, it seemed the best life in the world. Then they could light a fire for lunch and heat up the black tea, and grill chops on sticks over the fire. Then Ruapehu would shine in the sun so that the black rocks and the hummocks in the ice were plain to see and the green on the glaciers, and below the bush would be blue with haze. Johnson would sit, his back against a log, rolling a cigarette after lunch, and watch the mountain, fascinated by its whiteness.
‘Did you ever climb that mountain?’ he asked Stenning once, remembering how he had looked at it before with Scotty.
‘God no, now what would I be doing that for?’ Stenning said. His eyes were running down the line of half-built fence. By August, when the first lambs came and Stenning had to ride round his flocks most of the days, they had one line down and another ready for wiring. It was a good winter's work.
Stenning said to Johnson one day in September:
‘Johnson, why don't you settle here?’
Johnson grinned. ‘I'm not thinking of moving on yet awhile,’ he said.page 90
‘I didn't mean like that,’ Stenning went on, screwing up his face with the effort of concentrated thought. ‘What I was meaning is, why don't you have a stake in something here? You're still young, but you're getting older. How old are you?’
‘That's right. It's the time to stop wandering the country.’
‘What's the proposition?’
‘Well, it's like this, if you like to stay on here and see through the bad time, things are going to turn.’
‘Who says so? Seems to me sometimes we've gone so far into this damned slump we'll never climb out again.’
‘Sure, things'll be all right again. They had worse than this before you and I were born. Now, listen, you know as well as I do there isn't any money going here now and you've worked as hard as I have on that basis. That's fair enough and we've made a good job of it. Now listen, if you'll stick it another year or two, taking what comes, and maybe nothing much will come, I'll cut you in on a third share of the place.’
‘It's a good offer,’ Johnson said.
‘It'll be a good offer if things go right the way I reckon they will. If we can hold on here and not sell stock, but build it up and get the place cleared, we'll be sitting pretty when prices rise. What I'm thinking is this. If you take a share and work in here for two or three years we could take on one of these other farms as well. You could take Hathaway's across the river. It's got the same dairy flats as this place if they were cleared.’
‘I haven't any capital,’ Johnson said. ‘I couldn't take a farm.’
‘I never had any capital,’ Stenning said. ‘Not after the last time I walked off. You don't need capital. The com- page 91 pany would stake you for that farm like a shot if times were better and if they knew your work.’
‘It's a good offer,’ Johnson said.
‘Sure, it isn't a bad offer. I wouldn't make it if I didn't want someone that would work, on here for damn and all these bad times. You undertake to stay on–that's the promise I want. I cut you in on a third share of whatever we make and in two or three year's time I back you for one of these farms. It would make the hell and all of difference to have them both cleared and working. We could shift the stock about on them both.’
‘You need a bridge to work Hathaway's,’ Johnson said.
‘There's shallows half a mile down river where you can put sheep across. They only used the swing bridge, I reckon, for the house. We could put that up again.’
‘It's a good offer,’ Johnson said. ‘I wasn't wanting to move. I'll take it.’
It was a verbal contract that they made and which neither of them considered necessary to put into writing. When Stenning made up accounts at the end of the year there was eighteen pounds due to Johnson for nine months’ work, less tobacco and other things which he had had in on the stores’ account. He took what was due to him and bought some whisky for Christmas, and banked the rest.