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Man Alone

Chapter III

page 25

Chapter III

When they left Blakeway's that Saturday, they took their packs into Huntly and hired horses there. It was too late to start out that night so they slept at a little hotel and got off early in the morning. When they had ridden all morning, they began to climb out of the Waikato Valley and the dairy country into the fern hills. The sun was hot and the clay road winding up the ridges was dusty.

‘They paid the bastards by the chain to make these roads,’ Scotty said. It was an old joke.

Leaving the green Waikato behind them was like going out of a land of plenty into desert. On the scrub hills there was little grass and no life. In half-cleared patches, sometimes they saw starved ewes or cattle running wild. There were a few farms and they met no one on the road.

In the afternoon they stopped where the road came out on a ridge to rest the horses. From there they could see across the plains to Hamilton and the river bending away eastward where it turned into the pumice country. It was a clear day with a heat haze on the hills and southward, a hundred miles away, the hot sun shimmered on the snow peaks of Ruapehu. Johnson had never seen a snow mountain before. It looked dwarfed and toy-like at that distance, rising out of the heart of the bush country.

‘It's a bloody marvellous country,’ he said. ‘By God, Scotty, I wouldn't mind climbing that mountain there.’

Scotty, pushing his hat forward over his eyes, rolling a cigarette, grunted.

page 26

‘That's a daft idea,’ he said. ‘I'm thinking right now we're bloody fools to be up in these bone-dry blasted hills. There's——all grows up here.’

The hills grew more lonely as the afternoon went on, until Johnson came to dislike them. As the sun set they could see lights coming out on the plains thirty miles below, but around them were only odd pin-points of farm-houses hidden away from the road they were following. Scotty was silent and Johnson depressed, leading his tired pack horse. It was nearly midnight before they came to the farm. Thompson was asleep, but got up and kicked the fire together and made them tea which they drank, eating tinned beef and bread.

‘I thought you'd turned it in,’ Thompson said. It was hard to tell whether he was pleased to see them or not. He put the horses out into the home paddock and made them up beds on the floor, for there was only one bunk in the hut. Johnson slept, tired out, with Scotty rolled up in blankets on the floor, his head on a saddle. When the fire died down in the early morning it grew very cold, almost as if there was a frost outside, but he turned over and went to sleep again, to be woken at six by Thompson stumbling over them to get the fire going again. It was Sunday morning. He had already been out to get the cows in and now came back to the house to make tea and to get one of them to help him milk.

That day Scotty rode back with the horses, stayed the night in town, and came back the next day riding part way on a cream lorry and walking the rest. Johnson and Thompson worked round the hut, putting up new bunks and clearing room for three of them to live. It meant putting all the harness and tools which had filled up the living-room out side and building a lean-to to cover them.

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The new farm lay up among the fern-hills. It looked north and westward over bush roads to the coast, and from the ridges down on to the golden butter plains. On this new farm there were ten cows and very little grass, one working horse and a Maori hack and a few pigs. Thompson bought two hundred sheep that autumn with his last money when they moved in and fifty of them died of cold and starvation in the winter. They milked the cows by hand and if there was any cash from sales it went back into the farm, which was covered with fern and blackberry, and looked ready to swallow any amount of money.

They made an agreement in writing when they moved in about the profits and ownership of the farm, but there weren't any profits. The cream money went on stores and tobacco and grass seed and fencing wire. It was fairly clear that Thompson still owned the farm. He looked at Johnson and at Scott, and Johnson could see that he knew them as two men who would get tired of it and take their packs and move on. So he looked at them and decided he would get what work out of them he could.

Thompson got up first each morning at five and earlier in summer. He kicked the fire together; it never went out. Then he would make tea and Johnson would get up and pull on his boots and go out and milk with him. Scotty never got up before six; it was a covenant he had made with himself. Scotty got breakfast, porridge and bacon, and oatmeal scones when he felt good, and when the other two came back they would all eat and go off for the day. One or two days a week Scotty would stay behind and get wood and do whatever needed doing round the place. He had more domestic feeling than the others and liked to keep the hut clean.

It wasn't long before they began to quarrel.

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‘This is a co-operative outfit, this farm, not a Russian bloody slave camp, Scotty said.

Thompson was scornful.

‘I'm still bossing it,’ he said.

‘You're bossing it, yes, you're bossing it all right, but we work when we want to, see?’

‘You're just a bloody little runt. You won't work mornings. You won't work Sundays. Listen, that Saturday night I met you and our homey here, d'you know that was the first day off I'd had in a year and a half? You wouldn't know what working is.’

‘He isn't human, Johnnie,’ Scott said afterwards. ‘He just isn't human.’

Thompson had a cattle dog he liked. It was the only thing on the farm he liked. It was an old black and tan, scarred and beaten, and only good for getting cows in. Thompson brought it into the hut at nights and Scott would kick it out until Thompson swore at him and then the dog stayed scratching itself, flea-bitten, by the fire.

Thompson and Johnson talked at nights about the war. Thompson had an obsession about the war. He was going over it in his mind again, remembering every piece of it, the battles and the men and the names of places and talking about it till Scott shouted:

‘Christ, turn it in. I wasn't at the war,’ and Thompson said nothing, looking at him, pale, gaunt, contemptuous.

‘No,’ he said, after a time, ‘you wasn't in the war.’

There were a lot of memories of the war in that part of the world. The valley was haunted by strange men who had been to the war. There was a man called Drake, two miles down the clay road, with one arm, who walked round all day shooting rabbits and couldn't farm; and another man whose axe slipped into his leg below the knee one page 29 day when he was out at the back, splitting fence posts. He bled to death, and lay for a week before anyone thought of looking for him, and when they found him the blood was black and dry where he had crawled half-way up the track to home, and there were flies on him. You seldom met your neighbours in this valley except when they had trouble, and came together to help one another, and then there was no time to talk. No one else talked about the war except Thompson. They had, most of them, been to the same places and done the same things, but they didn't want to talk about them and, with only Johnson to talk to, Thompson gave it up and talked to himself.

Johnson stood a year and a half and then with the summer coming in again decided to move on. He was going, as far as Thompson and the farm were concerned, without sympathy or regret, but was sorry to leave Scotty, with the lank hair and the twisted drooping moustache, the man who had shown him how to roll his cigarettes. He told him so. Scotty was not leaving.

‘All my life I've been walking on,’ he told Johnson. ‘Maybe things will pick up here, we're getting more in grass each year.’

‘You'll go crazy, you and Thompson. He's a hell of a man.’

‘He'll be better, just the two of us, he'll be glad I'm here then, with the milking and all.’

‘He won't ever be glad of anything, that man.’

So Johnson left. He went off early one morning with his pack, leaving a lot of clothes he didn't want. Thompson had gone off and neither had said goodbye, but Scotty came down the track to the bend of the clay road and patted him on the shoulder, liking him as he said good-bye.