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Authors: Lynne Wilding

Sundown Crossing

BOOK: Sundown Crossing
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To my sister Carol with my gratitude and love


New Zealand, 1993

olfe Kruger stood on the front verandah, cradling his morning cup of coffee in his hands as the mist over the vines began to evaporate, his nostrils dilating noticeably as he inhaled. The air smelt earthy with a distinct coolness which heralded the start of autumn on the South Island. Rolfe’s light blue eyes, with wrinkles that fanned out from the corners, surveyed the vines. Already signs of seasonal change were occurring, the leaves curling and yellowing before they darkened to auburn and light brown then dropped and mingled with the earth.

Rolfe scratched his trimmed beard—it was now an even mixture of grey and ginger bristles—and then he allowed himself a small, satisfied smile. The vintage was in: the grapes were harvested and crushed and more than a thousand bottles of Valley View chardonnay and five hundred bottles of claret had been put down; a
twenty per cent increase on last year’s vintage. He could relax now and attend to the many trivial details about the property, maintenance work he had been putting off for months.

Unconsciously his left hand moved to the middle of his chest, to rub the tightness in his breastbone. Damned indigestion. His own fault. He shouldn’t have indulged in so much of that German sausage he’d bought from the delicatessen in town. It was a delicacy to which he had been addicted since childhood. Imperceptibly he shook his head. Don’t think about the past, too much pain there, too much unhappiness. Swallowing the last drop of coffee he put the mug on the verandah floor and, rolling up the sleeves of his faded checked shirt as he walked, moved down the steps towards the first row of vines that stretched, in a straight line, for almost forty-five metres to the west.

Moving along the vines, working methodically as he had done for more than thirty-five years, straightening, bending, stretching, he began to trim off dead stalks and prune the lower tendrils which would promote growth, with his secateurs.

At the end of the third row he looked up to check the sun’s position. Almost mid-morning. He blinked twice, amazed at his slowness. Then he shrugged philosophically for he was no longer young, not like Peter Cruzio who worked part time with him in the vineyard, nor Angelique Dupayne. Angie, the woman he loved, could work as hard as any man on the vines though he
preferred his talented winemaker to remain in the winery, checking, refining and clarifying where the grapes grew best for future planting and development. Winemaking had become such a science these days, so different to the old days.

For a while, because he had become used to it over the past few weeks, he managed to disregard the dull pain that travelled from his shoulder down his left arm, dismissing it as rheumatism, another sign of ageing. Then a sharp pain struck in the middle of his back, making him cry out and clutch his chest. Rolfe’s first thought was
No more German sausage, ever, it was too rich.
A second, sharper pain made him fall to his knees, the left arm suddenly, frighteningly useless.

Breathing became difficult. It was as if something—a heavy weight—pressed against his chest. For a moment or two he bowed his head, accepting the pain until he remembered his daughter, his grandson, the things he still wanted to do. His jaw tightened and his head snapped up. He fought for every centimetre of air to inflate his lungs against the agonising, debilitating pain that was becoming more intense. He knew he had to get up, had to get back to the house for help…

His vision blurred, cleared, blurred again. His right arm reached up to the post supporting the wire trellis. He tried to get a grip so he could pull himself up. Fingers clawed at the wire, the leaves, the curling tendrils. Sweat beaded his face and slipped down his forehead. The saltiness stung his eyes.

Energy drained out of him, as if the earth was sucking it out of his body. He settled on the ground, on his side and curled into a foetal position. Everything hurt too much. His chest barely rose, the breathing was becoming more shallow. He didn’t have the strength to even try to move. Rolfe lost consciousness but within minutes rallied again. His eyes opened and he stared at the sky above, his gaze moving along his precious vines. Wispy tendrils of vines seemed to reach towards him to wrap themselves around him protectively. Pain peaked, ebbed, peaked again. He knew his body was growing weaker, giving in.

A hand that trembled reached towards a vine stalk, and its thin tendrils curled automatically around his index finger. His smile turned to a grimace as another pain ripped through his chest making his entire body jerk stiffly, then go slack. His eyelids fluttered then closed and as the pain receded he exhaled in a light, lingering sigh…

Angie Dupayne’s tear-stained face mirrored her feelings as she punched the numbers into the touch-tone phone. The call she was making was something she had never expected to have to do.

‘Carla?’ She waited for the woman on the other end of the line to confirm her identity. ‘It’s Angie.’

‘Hi, Angie. What’s up?’ came the warm response. ‘Dad driving you crazy again?’

‘Uumm, not exactly. Shit, Carla, there’s no easy way to say this so I’ll come right out with it. Your dad. Rolfe’s…’

In the living room of her compact, Christchurch home, Carla shook her head vehemently, her head beginning to spin around and around. Angie’s tone was enough to tell her the news wasn’t going to be good. ‘No!’

‘I’m sorry. He’s…’ Angie stumbled awkwardly over the word, ‘gone. Peter found him amongst the vines. We called an ambulance. The paramedics worked on him all the way to the hospital, but Rolfe…’

Carla heard Angie’s voice trail away as she fought for composure.

‘The doctor in emergency said it was a massive heart attack, that he…he went quickly.’

Carla Hunter slumped against the wall. Even as she heard the words being said, her mind and heart were rejecting them. Not her father. Not her strong, fit, father who, singlehandedly, had built a small, moderately succesful vineyard near Marlborough, who’d lived, breathed and dreamt about growing grapes and making wine, almost as if it were a religion to him. He was always a ball of energy; she couldn’t imagine him being quiet and still.
Oh, God…

‘Are you there, Carla? Are you okay?’

Carla sniffed back tears, rubbed them away with her free hand. Her throat was tightening, constricting with tension, but she didn’t have time for the luxury of breaking down and sobbing her heart out. Her son, Sam, was out in the backyard, kicking his beloved rugby ball around. She had to contain her emotions, had to
think of how to tell him…and what she had to do.

‘No, I’m not okay, Angie,’ Carla responded. ‘I…I’m trying to think.’

Her brain had gone blank. Empty, numb. Her father was dead. The one person that she loved dearly, apart from Sam, her mother and Angie, had left her. Now she really was…alone. Tearyeyed, she glanced at the pile of exercise books, the high school tech drawing assignments she had been assessing while Sam played.

‘I know, it’s a terrible shock. We’re trying to come to grips with it up here too,’ Angie murmured solicitously. ‘What…there are matters that you, um, we have to attend to.’

‘I know.’ Carla sighed and ran a distracted hand through her hair. ‘I’ll catch a plane. Let me organise the flight and I’ll let you know how soon I can be there.’ As if she were on automatic pilot, her brain clicked into gear. Plane. Funeral arrangements. Money—not something she had a lot of. She groaned. ‘Thanks, for everything. I know it can’t have been easy for you, Angie. God,’ she knew how close Angie and her father were, ‘how are you coping?’

There was a brief silence on the other end of the line, then a sigh. ‘I’m managing.’

‘I’ll call back as soon as I can.’ Carla put the receiver down and her hand came up to cover her mouth.
Oh, Dad, why you and why now…?

Her life and Sam’s had just begun to return to a sense of normalcy, having put her husband,
Derek’s, death two years ago behind them. The hardest thing she had ever had to do. Now another death. How was she going to tell her son that his much loved grandfather had died? Her lower lip began to tremble, her body began to shake as reaction to the enormity of the news set in. Dad, gone…forever.

Leaning her head back against the wall, she closed her eyes and, immediately, an image of her father slid before her closed lids. To her, Rolfe Kruger had been indestructible, healthy as the proverbial horse, and he’d only had his fifty-sixth birthday two months ago, an age not regarded as old by today’s standards. It was hard to come to terms with and accept what had happened but she knew that she had to, for Sam’s sake. Her little boy needed her strength more than ever now. And as well, she had to set aside the guilt and regrets for not having visited Rolfe as often as she should have over the last few years, mostly because she couldn’t afford to and had limited visits due to school holiday times.

Flopping into the chair behind her desk she picked up a pen and began to make a list of things that had to be done…

It was a fitting day for Rolfe Kruger’s funeral: a grey day shrouded with misty rain, to dampen the mourners who gathered at the graveyard of the Marlborough church cemetery. The town’s resting place was well-tended by the minister and parishioners. The grass around the graves
clipped, the rose bushes and other shrubs trimmed and the headstones were not permitted to lean over with the passage of time but to stand like sentinels, silent lichen-covered testimonials to those who had once lived, loved, laughed then passed on.

Angie Dupayne, standing beside Carla, their hands entwined in support of each other, covertly scanned the crush of sober-faced mourners holding umbrellas. Rolfe, though he’d been a man who’d kept to himself, had been well respected in the valley where there were several prosperous vineyards and many had come to pay their last respects. He would have been pleased about that.

Theirs had been more than the normal employer–employee relationship. She’d come to the vineyard in answer to his advertisement for a winemaker and he’d taken a chance in employing her, impressed by her several years of work in the winemaking industry on the Continent. Over the five years she’d worked for Rolfe, Angie had come to regard Carla almost as family and been pleased that she and Carla had hit it off.

Her gaze settled for a moment on one of the mourners, Claude Webster. Claude was eager to make an offer for the Valley View Winery because it adjoined his land. He’d made an offer to buy Rolfe out before but her boss, and later, her lover, hadn’t been interested in selling—the vineyard was his life. Maybe…Carla wouldn’t sell. Maybe she’d take over the reins and run the
vineyard herself, though the younger woman had little more than a rudimentary knowledge of winemaking. Carla’s mother, Gina, had left Rolfe when Carla was ten and moved to Christchurch, which had made it difficult for Rolfe—who’d hated to leave the vineyard for any reason—to visit his daughter more than a couple of times a year.

Her gaze shifted to a stubby, baldheaded man—Tom Abernathy, Rolfe’s solicitor. Surprisingly, the two, an unlikely duo at best, had been mates, mostly because Tom fancied himself as a wine connoisseur. The two often met in the winery to drink and debate the merits of various vintages. Tom had already advised Carla and Angie that he would read Rolfe’s will as soon as the mourners departed after the traditional sandwiches and tea.

Carla swayed slightly as the minister’s words droned on. Angie’s grip tightened and she gave Carla’s hand a little squeeze. The graveside thing was the hardest part of a funeral service because it brought home so forcefully the fact that the loved one had died.

Poor Carla. The woman had buried her husband a little over two years ago. Derek, a merchant sailor, had died in a mishap at sea. Theirs had been a happy marriage considering the amount of time he spent away and grief had almost torn her apart. If it hadn’t been for Sam…now her dad. And with Carla’s mother having returned to the land of her birth, Italy, and become almost totally involved with her large
Italian family, Carla and young Sam were really on their own. Thank God her friend had an abundance of courage. Carla had survived sadness before and she would survive this, Angie was sure of it. She only hoped that she too would survive and get over her lover’s death. That, she knew fatalistically, was going to be hard. She decided instantly that she would be there to help, no matter what Carla wanted to do with the vineyard. It was the least she could do. She owed it to Rolfe’s memory and his belief in her winemaking talents.

As the service wore on, Angie’s grey eyes observed her friend. She was the elder by almost fifteen years but at twenty-seven, Carla did not look her age despite the blows fate had dealt her. With red-gold hair, not quite auburn and darker than ginger, its curliness framed an oval-shaped face, set at odds by a square jaw similar to Rolfe’s. In all honesty Angie couldn’t say her friend was beautiful but there was something alluring about her, a sensitivity in the deep blue eyes, as well as the suspicion of a passionate nature in the way her lips were shaped and curved. Carla was well-endowed, not exactly voluptuous but not like Angie’s own figure which was boyishly skinny. The dusting of freckles across Carla’s cheeks and straight nose softened a tendency to appear serious—her school teacher face, Angie teased her regularly.

‘It’ll be over soon,’ Angie whispered in Carla’s ear. She smiled at Carla’s grateful nod and then
glanced down at the ginger-headed Sam who, at five, didn’t really know what was going on other than picking up on the sadness that prevailed around him. Looking very grown up in his suit with its long trousers, his expression alternated between confusion and being on the brink of bursting into tears. Instead, he strove to be the little man he knew his grandfather would have expected him to be and he didn’t cry.

In typical South Island style the rain eased to a fine, intermittent drizzle as the burial’s formalities ended and people began to make their way to their vehicles and the inevitable wake that followed.

‘Haven’t they all gone yet?’ Peter Cruzio, Rolfe’s other employee, who was tidying Rolfe’s kitchen, asked Angie as she came in with another tray of used plates and tea cups.

BOOK: Sundown Crossing
11.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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