OFF THE LAND
Hira and Sonny paused for breath. Below them, the ridge swooped down to the sea; behind them, only the sky, as blue and empty as the eyes of an idiot.
This was the time of change, neither day nor yet night, when things are not what they seem.
“Is that a house, or am I seeing things?” Hira rubbed his eyes, “Down by those karakas there.”
“It's a house all right,” said Sonny. “Lots of these empty places round these hills. What say we doss down there for the night?”
Nothing would suit Hira better; pig-hunting was not the picnic he had imagined; getting there wasn't so bad, it was getting them home; he tried to shift the weight of the sow on his back and almost toppled into the ti-tree.
“Come on, let's go,” said Sonny.
It was easy enough for Sonny. He was used to it. Hira watched him go barging down the side of the ridge, making a track of his own through the scrub.
“Here goes”, thought Hira, stepped into space, somersaulted three times and ended in the fern with the old sow curled lovingly over him.
“Come on man, you'll bruise the meat”
Bruise the meat—of all the bone-headed, slabsided, sway-backed sons of swag-bellied sows—
“Bruise the meat! Is that all you've got to say, you …”
But Sonny had already gone, charging through the brush, the ti-tree slapping and stinging at his face, his hands on the hocks and his head between the haunches of a Captain Cooker, almost as long as he was, five-foot-five.
He'll be a tough porker, this one, Sonny was thinking, but smoke him in manuka and he'll keep the hui going for a day or two.
Sonny busied himself making a fire in the karakas away from the house. One look at the place and he knew he'd go through the floor-boards. She'd been empty for years, since the slump most likely.
The fire was well away by the time Hira arrived –he let the pig thud down from his back and staggered round with his arms out.
“Wow, I could take off.” he said. “What's for tea?”
“What's for supper?”
“And what's for breakfast”.
But Sonny wasn't listening. He was staring towards the house.
“Feller must've left here in an awful hurry”, he said, “There's enough wood there to keep us going for a month.”
“Just tonight will do me”, said Hira clumping through the dock and fennel towards the woodshed. “You sure nobody lives here?” he added.
“Dead sure. There's a lot of places like this round here. Fellers in the slump walked off with only their boots. You can't farm—”.
“Look here!” The tone of Hira's voice brought Sonny at a run.
“Hugh! That's a dog skeleton. You think it was a man?”
Sonny saw the collar, the peg, the rusty links of the chain stretched tight towards the creek. The dog had been left tied up to die. He turned the head of the skeleton with his toe. The rotted collar came away.
“Broken teeth.” he said, “Poor beggar tried to chew his way out”.
“If ever I find the man who did this …” said Hira.
“Don't worry,” said Sonny, dangerously quiet, “I'll find him. We don't like that sort of thing, do we Tip, Sam?” His two pig-dogs, the brindle and the blue raised their heads enquiringly, then came over to see what he wanted. They sniffed at the bones.
“Here get out of there!” said Hira.
“A bone's a bone to a dog. They're alright.”
Before sleep was upon them that night, Sonny's voice came out of the darkness.
“He's probably left the district. But some of the boys'll be bound to know who he is and where he is … ”
—:: — —:: —
Next morning came bright and shiny as a new sixpence. Hira was damned if he could straighten up; his back felt like a rusty hinge.
“Just get that pig aboard, and you'll be right,” said Sonny. “We'll cut down the gully and head round the coast. You go on ahead. I'll get a few of these karaka berries. They'll come in handy for the hui.”
The trees were covered in ripe berries, Hira felt ashamed, he hadn't noticed them. He remembered, when he was a kid up north, gathering and soaking the karakas, picking the sweet kernel from the poisonous husk.
“Here give me one of those sacks. I'll give you a hand.”
“She's right. Tell you what. Take one on ahead. There should be some watercress and maybe a bit of puwha down the gully there.”
‘A bit of puwha’ wouldn't describe it. All the shady places were ankle deep. In five minutes Hira had stuffed the bag with all it could hold.
Then with the bag bouncing on top of the sow, and the sow growing heavier every minute, and his back so bent that his chin was almost scraping his boots, he staggered and stumbled down the hillside.
Sonny caught him up and together they slithered down the last slope of shingle to the rocks and the sea below.
They were only too glad to sit and roll a slow smoke. Sonny broke the silence, “How's the moon?” he asked.
“Full moon,” said Hira.
“You ought to know.” Sonny had a bit of a twinkle in his eye. “So it's spring-tide. Eight o'clock tide in the harbour. Say half-past seven out here. It's not too late. Let's give the crays a burl.”
“You're a tiger for punishment,” said Hira, “Let's go home.”
“Taihoa, boy, taihoa. This is the place for crays and this is the time.”
Sonny stripped off his jersey; Hira followed him reluctantly bringing the bag. He'd dived for crays up north, but he didn't like swimming amongst the kelp.
“You can't see them,” he said.
“See them? You don't have to see them. Just feel them.”
The sea was stirring slow and dark as oil. Sonny clambered down and slipped in, feet first. He began to feel with his feet, only his head out of the water.
“There's a good ledge under here”. He took a deep breathe and went down. Hira began to wonder if Sonny would ever come up. He didn't like the idea of going under there to look for him.
Sonny broke through the kelp, gasping for air.
“Place is alive with them. Regular packhorses. Look at the jength o’ that!” and he help up one long whicker. “All I could get. There's a good deep crack under here.” And on his next breath he was gone.
“Got two, come on in man. You get the paua, I'll get the cray.”
“Nah. I'll stay here and keep a watch out for sharks, eh?”
“Well, catch these!”
He threw the two crays up.
“Put them in the sack and see it doesn't crawl back in”.
“Hey Sonny, what you done with the nippers?”
“Off the crays.”
“These West Coast crays must be different from up north. Make way man. I'm coming in.”
Hira floundered round frightening more than he caught. Sonny rarely came up without any. He worked systematically up the long crevice. The crays would wedge themselves head and tail, but he would press down until the tail buckled and with a quick flick of the wrist pluck them out. then, up for another breath and down again. feeling with his toes for the next customer.
“Sack's damn near full,” said Hira, “I better get out before I sink.”
“Okay, let's go,” said Sonny, who was getting a bit blue round the gills. “Good thing I'm not a brass monkey.”
But they weren't so cool after the long slog back to Maungaroa.
“Just round the corner, and we'll be there,” Sonny called back over his shoulder.
“She'd better be a good hui after this.”
“Don't worry, she will be.”
“Guess they'll be glad to see us.”
“Guess we'll be glad to see them.”
But the first person they saw was old Mr Bainbridge, sitting on his usual seat outside the pub.
“Hello boys, where'd you get that lot.”
“Up the Taraire.”
“Going to raffle it?”
“No such luck. This is for the hui.”
They were about to pass on. Then Sonny remembered; “Ah, Pop, you're just the man I want to see.”
At which, Mr Bainbridge looked somewhat surprised. So few wanted to see him nowadays.
“Tell me, who had the place coming down from the Taraire, towards the coast?”
“Funny you should ask that. Don't tell me you've never heard of ‘Digger’ Howe?
“Not the one that hanged himself?”
“That's right. Hanged hisself,” said Pop, with great relish, “He come on to that place after the war, Great War that was. Never made more'n enough to pay the mortgage. Eleven years hard yacker and when the slump come, they took the lot. Not that it was any use then, to them, or him, or anybody.
“But they came a day too late. He must've known it was comin’—He boozed the last of his dough and when it was gone, so help me, I was one of them what shouted him.
“It beats me how a feller that size could hang hisself from a lightcord. But that's how it was. The pub's missus found him in the bathroom next morning.
“And you know how he'd got the dough. He'd sold his stock one day ahead of the mortgage-men. They went to his funeral, but I think they looked more miserable about the money than the man.”
“Poor beggar. Why didn't he just sit tight?” said Sonny. “Good times just round the corner, eh?”
“Not on that place. It was either walk off or stay there and starve.”
Walk off or starve. Hira and Sonny looked thoughtfully at the pigs and the bulging sacks.
“Good Maori land, that,” said Sonny quietly. Mr Bainbridge spluttered. “What'd you mean, Maori land?”
“Aw, you wouldn't know, Pop. Come on Hira, let's go.”