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Man Alone

Chapter XIII

page 111

Chapter XIII

It was a relief to get back to work again with Stenning. They were busy for a few days clearing up a few odd jobs near the house and making the yards drier and cleaner for the winter. Rua was quiet and contented. She rode over very happily to see her people on the two Sundays that followed. Johnson, ready to forget what had been between them, felt assured.

A week later he went down with the cream to the corner one morning, and, being later than usual, got there just as the cream lorry came. Johnson waited to talk to Sayers, whom he did not often see. Sayers pulled up the lorry and got down to lift in the cans with Johnson helping him. They exchanged their news and Sayers had got aboard again and had his hand on the gear-lever when he leaned out the window again and said, ‘Johnson!’ He seemed to have difficulty in saying what was on his mind. Johnson waited, watching him curiously.

‘Say, Johnson,’ he began again, wrinkling his brown, bald forehead. ‘I'd leave Stenning's wife alone, if I were you.’

You'd what?'

‘I'd leave Stenning's wife alone if I were you.’

‘Who the hell says I'm touching Stenning's wife?’

‘People around here.’

‘Does Stenning say so?’

‘No, you're lucky, he doesn't. You can bet if anyone says so it's his wife. She can't keep her mouth shut. She likes trouble.’

Johnson said angrily: ‘All I know about it is it isn't true. You can tell that to anyone you like.’

Sayers looked at him curiously.

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‘Listen, Johnson,’ he said. ‘I liked you the first time I saw you. You're worth more than Stenning or his wife. I pick up all the gossip on this road, but I don't always talk more than I can help. I don't know whether it's true or not true. Whichever it is, I reckon you ought to watch your step. Sooner or later this story'll get back to Stenning and he can be poisonous and dirty when he's crossed. If that little bitch of a wife of his is talking, it'll get back to Stenning and he won't like it.’

Johnson nodded. He had stopped being angry. ‘I'll watch it. Thanks,’ he said.

‘You can suit yourself,’ Sayers said. ‘If it was me I'd try a new farm.’ He grinned and waved his hand as he let the clutch in. The lorry clattered off in dust and loose metal, and Johnson rode slowly home, trying to argue out with himself the situation in which he was placed. If it was true, and if Rua was talking, it would be better to have a showdown. He could deny it or tell Stenning it was true. Either way, if they talked it out, he could convince Stenning that Rua didn't matter to him, that he didn't want her. He couldn't judge accurately how Stenning would take it. To see Stenning marrying Rua for anything else but a housekeeper and an extra hand with the cows was hard. Stenning at forty-five, ugly, thick-set, and slant-eyed, but remembering Rua, as she was when she was pretty and cleanly dressed and young like her age, it was possible that she had meant and perhaps still meant more to him than that. He got back to the house with the problem unsettled in his mind.

That evening, milking, he tackled Rua about it.

‘Sure, no, boy,’ she said. ‘I haven't been talking.’

‘Someone's been talking.’

‘They always talk like that around here. They probably said it the first day you were here.’

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Johnson was still angry. He said:

‘Someone's been talking and it isn't me. I tell you, Rua, if you're after trouble around here, you'll get it. You'll get it all right from Bill or from me, or from both of us. That's the truth.’

She did not answer and they did not talk any more so that he went back to the house alone afterwards, not sure whether she had been frightened by what he said or not.

The summer broke about then, first of all in a thunderstorm that raged for hours over Ruapehu, black swirling clouds hiding the peaks and blue lightning hovering over the bush below, until the storm moved westward across the country and covered their valley. Heavy rain poured down, soaking the summer dry hills until they ran with water, and the river roared by, muddy and brown. The next day there was a driving wind from the south-west and cold showers. The summer was at an end. Tracks and roads were soft with mud again and the grass that had been brown on the hills turned back to green.

It was just after this that Johnson guessed, for the first time, that the news which Sayers had had must have got round to Stenning. At first he was not sure. Waiting for some sign of the kind, for an explosion or a demand from Stenning, he guessed he might be growing imaginative, taking from every habitual silence or moroseness something that was not in it. But he soon grew to be sure. He did not know who would have dared to tell Stenning, but it came one day after he had ridden into the town to a sale. It might not have been conveyed to him in any direct way, but in a joke or an aside or in something he had overheard. However it had been, Johnson was sure that the suspicion was there.

At first it was just in silences and ill-tempered replies. In Stenning, or in any of them, such things were not un- page 114 usual. They came now in a form that was disturbing. Johnson and he had never talked more than was necessary; but they had talked about the farm and the stock and the work that was to do, and had discussed and argued with equality. Now this had gone. When Johnson said anything, made any comment, Stenning sometimes did not answer or spoke shortly. After a day or two of this Johnson himself stopped talking. Words between any of them on the farm had been few enough before; they now fell to nothing. After that Johnson noticed at meals Stenning watching him and watching Rua.

Johnson said to Rua at milking:

‘What's up with Bill?’

‘He's all right, ain't he?’ she said. ‘He's just the same as usual.’

‘He's not all right. There's something on his mind.’

‘If there is, he ain't spoken to me.’

‘There's something wrong,’ Johnson said.

Just after that Stenning took over the milking himself so that Johnson had no opportunity to talk to Rua alone. It seemed to him clear that Stenning was always about and always came into the house when he himself went in so that he should never talk to Rua. Johnson tried once or twice to open up things between Stenning and himself. He said to him once: ‘What's on your mind?’ and Stenning, not turning to look at him, said: ‘Nothing I know of. Is there anything on yours?’ He tried once again and Stenning made no answer, so he gave it up. He wanted to talk things out with Stenning so that they could go on again as before. He felt sure himself that he would never want to touch Rua again, had never wanted to. But Stenning was too forbidding. You couldn't talk to a man like that who never looked at you except when he thought you weren't looking and who never spoke.

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It was at the next stage of their relations that Johnson knew he would have to go, when Stenning started wandering about in the evenings carrying his gun. The first time Johnson heard him it was late at night and he had been sleeping. He woke up suddenly, thinking he had heard someone at the door of his hut. When he raised himself on his elbow there was no sound, but as he sat there listening, he heard Stenning's footsteps gliding away back towards the house. It was certainly Stenning. No one else could have that same slow, solid, dragging walk. The path between house and whare was laid with rough duck-boarding on which footsteps sounded clearly. Johnson waited, sitting up in bed, until the footsteps died away into silence and then afterwards he lay awake for a long time, but heard nothing more. Johnson said to him next morning, as they bailed the first cows for milking:

‘Did I hear you about last night?’

‘I don't know. Did you?’

‘Sure. I thought I heard someone walking past the whare.’

‘That was me then. I was just looking around to see everything was all right.’

‘There wasn't anything wrong was there?’

‘No. There wasn't anything wrong, but I like to make sure.’

By good luck Johnson caught Rua for a moment alone that day. Coming back behind Stenning from the hills he found her driving the cows in for them from the paddock. He said:

‘What was Bill doing last night?’

He thought that for the first time she looked a little frightened and a little afraid, and was glad of it.

‘I don't know,’ she said. ‘He didn't say. He just went out.’

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‘He was walking about by the whare.’

‘I don't know. He took his gun out with him.’

‘He did, did he?’ Johnson said. ‘I don't like it.’

‘I don't like it much. He's all right, I guess. He hasn't aid anything.’

‘I don't like it a bit,’ Johnson said. ‘Seems to me we're all going crazy in this place.’

He saw Stenning come out from the house on his way down to the milk-shed and rode on to unsaddle his horse.

The next night nothing disturbed him, but two nights later he heard Stenning again. This time, sleeping more warily, he woke at once when the footsteps were near the house and coming towards him. He got out of bed and threw open the door. He called out: ‘Who's there?’ Stenning's voice came back to him out of the gloom: ‘It's all right, Johnson. I'm just looking around.’

‘Is anything wrong?’

‘Not yet there isn't. It's all right. You'd better get back to bed.’

Johnson could see the white of Stenning's face now, about twenty yards from him. He could not see whether what Rua had said was true and whether Stenning carried his gun. Neither of them moved for a moment and then Johnson went inside, shutting the door behind him. In bed again he heard Stenning walk past the whare towards the sheds and then turn and go back again to the house. After that again everything was quiet, but Johnson did not sleep. When he did sleep he did not sleep well.

He woke early in the morning. It was just five o'clock and growing light, and he knew that he would not be able to sleep any longer. He got up and drank some water from a jug that he kept in the whare. There would not be tea in the house for another hour. Then he sat on the edge of his bed, wrapping a blanket round his shoulders, for page 117 the morning air, now that he had opened the door of the whare, was cold and damp; he rolled himself a cigarette. Thinking over the night before and Stenning, he knew that he would have to go. He had been there a year. It was not as long as he had meant to stay, but he would have to go. That's the end of this ride, he said to himself, there's always something, it's hard times or bad luck, or the boss doesn't like you, and now it's this Rua. Its this kid that doesn't care a god-damn and likes excitement and trouble. Me, I don't like trouble, not now, I'm getting older now so I'll have to be moving. And this Bill Stenning, that's no way for a man to go on getting crazy over a thing like that. It's this living alone in the country does it. It's a hell of a thing, you can't live in the towns and in the country they all go crazy. So I'll be moving again.

Smoke rose up from the flat, tin chimney of the house. Someone was making tea. He waited a little longer and then went over to find both Rua and Stenning in the kitchen. Nothing was said then, or later, when he walked down with Stenning to milk. It was a silent war.

Riding home that afternoon Johnson made the effort to say what he had been trying all day to bring out. He called out to Stenning when they came to the last gate into the home paddocks and Stenning turned his horse to wait for him.

‘I've been thinking,’ Johnson said. ‘I've been thinking I might be leaving.’

Stenning sat still on the mare, his head bent, thinking.

‘Where for?’ he asked.

‘Heard some time back,’ Johnson said easily, ‘from a friend up north – wants me to join him. If it's all right with you, I'll be doing that.’

Stenning put his hand down to open the gate.

‘When d'you want to go?’ he asked.

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‘End of the week, I thought. All right?’

Stenning nodded as he pushed open the gate. ‘All right,’ he said, and digging his heels into the mare cantered across the paddock. Johnson stopped to fasten the gate and then rode more slowly after him. That's a hell of a thing, he thought, and a way to treat me. That's a hell of a way to end a partnership. That's the end of this little run that was going to settle me nice and dry and comfortable on a farm here and marry me off to one of these girls. That's the end of that all right.

Stenning must have told Rua, for she spoke to him about it at supper that night when they were both there. She seemed to be taking it very well, and carrying off her side of the play, though her voice, when she spoke, was unusually bright and her great dark eyes full of light.

‘You're leaving us?’ she asked.

‘Yes, I'm going.’

‘Where you going?’

‘I'm going north.’

‘Whereabouts north?’

‘I've a friend just taken over a place near Whangarei–that's away north. I'm going to join them.’

Stenning took no part in the conversation, and as far as Johnson could see was not looking at them.

‘Heard from this fellow some time back,’ Johnson said, trying to lie well. ‘Wasn't thinking of going. But I don't know – winter coming on, I guess – made me think of it. You get it cold down here.’

‘Is it warm up north in winter?’

‘Warmer than here – lot of rain, but there isn't no frost or snow up there.’

‘What sort of a farm is it you'd be going to?’

‘Biggish dairy farm – no sheep.’

Suddenly Stenning spoke surprisingly.

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‘We'll be sorry you're going,’ he said. He sounded more friendly than he had been for a long time.

‘I'll be sorry, too,’ Johnson said, playing up to him. ‘I don't know. I never could stay one place too long. That's been my trouble, I guess.’

Stenning pushed his chair back noisily and getting up stood by the fire filling his pipe. His presence there was more dominating than when he had sat silent at the table. The conversation came to an end.

That day was a Wednesday. Johnson sent a message down to the corner to arrange for Sayers to pick him up on the Saturday. This'll amuse Sayers, he said to himself, if it doesn't amuse me. He had no very clear plans, but reckoned he would probably go north again. What he had said had been partly true. It would be good in many ways to get away from the cold and the threat of snow. He would draw from the bank the twelve pounds that he had and go to Auckland, and then on farther north from there.

He and Stenning worked the next two days on the farm as if nothing had happened and as if Johnson were not leaving. Stenning began to talk again about the place as if it still interested Johnson as it had done, and on the last evening Johnson rode home regretfully, feeling the clear air about him and watching the light fade on Ruapehu as he had watched it when he first came. But he knew that there was no way back from where they were now and that he had got to go.

On Friday, Johnson's last evening there, he went early across to the whare and packed his things in his kit-bag by candle-light. He was going to walk down to the corner after breakfast the next day. He had never accumulated possessions and so did not have much to take. Some wornout clothes and a pair of boots, half-gone, he left behind. By nine o'clock he had finished and the little hut looked page 120 bare and tidy. After that he got into bed and read for a while before putting the light out.

He had only just gone to sleep when he was woken up by Rua bending over him. The last few nights before this he had locked the door of the whare. This night, knowing it to be his last, he had not bothered. He woke up with her warm face against his and her breath in his face. She must have come very quietly. He sat up and put out one arm to hold her.

‘You bloody fool,’ he said angrily. ‘What in hell are you doing here?’

Rua was not upset. She laughed half to herself and held him tightly with both arms.

‘I don't care,’ she said. ‘I'm coming with you.’

He forced himself out of bed, pushing her back, and finding his matches lit the candle. He wanted to get her back to the house as quickly and quietly as possible. The first match spluttered and went out. The second caught on the wick which flickered a moment and then burnt up. It showed Rua sitting on the edge of the bed; her eyes were very wide and shining. She laughed again softly and leaning across blew the candle out.

‘I like the dark,’ she said, from out of the darkness that followed. Johnson felt in himself an over-burdening anger and irritation, a desire to strike her and hurt her. He put down one hand and closed on her arm, trying to pull her up.

‘It's all right,’ she said. ‘I've told Bill. I'm coming with you.’

‘You're not coming with me,’ he said coldly and angrily.

She twisted herself, wriggling away from him, and the fingers of her other hand laid themselves softly on his bare arm; and like that he felt her fingers stiffen until the nails sunk into his flesh. At the same time he stopped still where he was, for he, too, had heard what she heard, coming page 121 along the track; the sound of Stenning's slow dragging footsteps.

Johnson heard Rua gasp with a great intake of breath. She let go of him and shrank back towards the wall. Johnson knew that he would get no help from her. She had probably dared such a situation as this. It was one thing to risk it, another to encounter it and go through with it. Johnson stayed quite still hoping that, as it had been before, Stenning would go past the whare. His footsteps came nearer – it seemed very slowly – and neither of them moved. Johnson could hear inside the whare Rua's quick frightened breathing, and underneath his feet the floor was damp and cold. The footsteps stopped outside and there was still silence, and then the hope that Johnson had went as he heard Stenning call his name. Stenning's voice sounded hoarse and unnatural, full of something that was either grief or pain. He called twice and Johnson did not answer. He heard Stenning come up the three steps to the door and try the handle, and he heard Rua's almost inaudible whisper: ‘I locked the door.’ There was a blow as Stenning's great fist smashed against it, and another as he drew back his foot and kicked it. The second time he did this the thin wood pulled away from the lock and the door swung open.

Outside the sky was clear and star-lit and in the first moment there was a rush of cold air into the room. Johnson could see Stenning outlined in the doorway. He wore a light shirt which showed up in the darkness. Johnson hoped that his own khaki and grey in which he had been sleeping was not so obvious.

Stenning said: ‘Come on out, Johnson. I want you.’ Johnson still did not move. He knew that when he did move whatever he did must be done quickly. Stenning said again:

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‘Come on out of there, Johnson.’

In the silence that followed Johnson heard a sound that was familiar to him, the click of a gun being cocked, and there came, too, a half-smothered cry from Rua as she also heard it and knew what it meant. The sound that she made was odd and disheartening and penetrating, like a trapped animal. Stenning stiffened, turning towards her. Doing this carried him sideways on to Johnson who felt his muscles relax in action that was welcome to him. He sprang forward and closed with Stenning. He put one hand on the barrel of the gun that Stenning carried forward across his body and drove the other hard into his stomach. Stenning went back and would have fallen, but came against the side of the door. He grunted, and the pent-up fury that had been in his voice came into his left hand as it swung against the side of Johnson's head. Johnson could not go back. He knew that what he must do was to get Stenning away from his gun and himself outside the whare. He still held the gun with one hand, now putting his other hand lower down he tried to twist it from Stenning's hands. They stood for a moment, not fighting each other, but wrestling for the gun, and Johnson, knowing that he might fail in this against the strength of Stennings forearms, threw himself against the other's body while he fought for it. The first barrel went off, firing between them with a sound that was deafening in the small hut, and that dazed Johnson, so that he fell back, one hand still clinging to the gun. The second barrel went off, as if it had been with the shock of the first shot. It blew its way through Stenning's left shoulder and the side of his head, so that he dropped without a sound and, falling, lay half in and half out the doorway with his head on the floor, his legs hanging outside, and his arms in front of him.