Authors: Carol Thomas
ess! Here! Come back here!’
Edwin Blake tightened his lips in annoyance as the black Labrador bitch, ignoring his shouts, disappeared into the forest of flax bushes in the swampy gully higher up the hill. Conscious that his other dog appeared more than a little inclined to follow suit, Edwin leaned over the saddle and said in a commanding voice, ‘Stay, Duke!’
Obediently, Duke stayed.
Looking marginally appeased that at least one dog had heeded his orders, Edwin turned to glare at the gully from whence exuberant barks were issuing, accompanied by the swish and crackle of flax leaves as Bess burst through them.
‘I expect she’s chasing something,’ Charlotte said as she manoeuvred her mare around Duke, who had taken his master’s command to stay quite literally and was now squarely blocking her path. ‘Leave her be. She’ll go home when she’s hungry. She’s just young and high-spirited.’
‘Young, and high-spirited and disobedient,’ Edwin corrected. ‘If she can’t learn to obey commands, she’ll be of little use mustering sheep.’
‘We aren’t mustering sheep today, we’re planting trees.’ Charlotte
tossed her brother a cheerful smile. ‘And I don’t imagine Bess will be much help with a spade.’
Edwin laughed. ‘I doubt you will be either.’
She grinned and didn’t contradict him. Digging her knees into her mare’s flanks, she continued up the slope towards the newly fencedoff piece of land in which the young saplings were to be planted. The saplings were currently in the two canvas sacks swinging from her saddle, their slender green tips poking out of the top of the sacks. In time, the trees would provide good shelter for the sheep during the winter months. The winter just gone had been dreadful. One icy gale had followed another. September, however, had brought a sudden burst of warm weather, and within a fortnight the hills had been sporting fresh spring grass, the buds had begun swelling on the trees, and the wintry crust that had brittled the ground for so long was at last starting to soften.
‘I wonder if Captain Steele has arrived yet,’ Edwin remarked as they reached the fence.
Instinctively, Charlotte glanced back over her shoulder. On a clear day she would have been able to see the length of the valley, but there was too much mist hanging around to see very far today.
‘Let’s hope he isn’t a disappointment,’ she said.
‘Disappointment? D’you have hopes that he might be handsome enough to take your fancy, Charlotte?’
Charlotte laughed. ‘You know very well what I was referring to, Edwin. I meant I hope we won’t be disappointed in Captain Steele’s conversational skills. I’m hoping he’ll tell us some interesting stories about his voyages. Still, I suppose whatever he has to say will make a change from the usual conversations about the farm and the weather.’
‘And Sarah’s sore back,’ Edwin added drily.
‘And that,’ Charlotte agreed with a grin. Edwin’s wife, Sarah, was
eight months pregnant, carrying her third child, and her sore back came up for mention several times a day. It wasn’t that the family didn’t sympathize with her, but the truth was they were all weary of hearing about her miscellaneous aches and pains.
Hopefully, Richard Steele won’t prove disappointingly dull, Charlotte thought as she swung her leg over the mare’s back and dismounted. She’d been looking forward to meeting him for weeks, ever since his parents, who owned the neighbouring farm, had announced that he’d be visiting them in mid-September. Ben and Letitia Steele were relatively new to the district. They’d originally settled in the North Island, but the land had been less productive than they’d hoped, so when the opportunity to buy three thousand acres of good, fertile grazing land in the Malvern Hills in Canterbury had presented itself, Ben had seized his chance. Richard was their only child, and the last time they’d seen him was almost two years ago so they were understandably looking forward to his visit.
‘Well, I suppose I’d better get these saplings planted,’ Edwin said unenthusiastically as he dismounted. ‘They’ll not plant themselves.’
Lifting the sacks from her saddle, Charlotte dropped them on the ground. Wagging his tail, Duke padded over to inspect the contents, sniffing speculatively.
‘Will you be planting any more saplings this spring or will these be the last?’ she asked.
‘The last if I have any say in it,’ Edwin replied, reaching for the spade, which was slung across his saddle. ‘Have you decided whether you’ll go to live with George and Ann in Lyttelton?’
She glanced up and tossed him a cynical smile. ‘Edwin, you know as well as I do that it’s Father who’ll have the final say, not me. I suppose he’s asked you to talk to me about it, has he?’
‘Well, at least you’re honest,’ she said with a grudging laugh.
She got on well with Edwin. He was twenty-eight, six years older than her, and they were as alike as two peas. Both tall, both with the same light brown hair and hazel eyes, the same quick sense of humour and sharp tongue, and both very stubborn. They were like their father in looks, whereas their brother George, who was three years older than Charlotte, took after their late mother. He was a much stockier build, with grey eyes and a thick mop of black hair, and of a slightly more even temperament, which wasn’t to say that George’s feathers never ruffled. But even in that respect George was the odd one out. Whereas Charlotte and Edwin blazed like a hot furnace when they were in a rage, George smouldered like a sulky fire. Different as they were, Charlotte had missed George when he’d left the farm seven years ago to take up a position with an insurance company in Christchurch. He’d eventually moved to Lyttelton, where he’d met his wife, Ann. They were currently visiting. This was their spring visit. They normally travelled out to the farm twice a year; in the early spring, and for Christmas. That was another way in which George differed from his brother and sister—he was predictable in everything he did. Perhaps that was why he’d never shown any liking for sheep farming: farming relied to a large extent upon the weather, and weather was notoriously unpredictable.
‘Why don’t you want to live with them?’ Edwin asked bluntly. ‘You obviously don’t or you’d have gone by now.’
‘If I tell you, will you repeat it to Father, or to George or Ann?’ she asked.
‘I’ll not breathe a word—you have my word on it.’
She nodded, confident that if Edwin gave his word she could trust him to keep it. ‘All right, two reasons. First, I don’t want to intrude on their privacy.’
‘Privacy?’ Edwin repeated. ‘I hardly think that’s a valid reason. If it’s privacy you’re considering, you might like to consider how much privacy
Sarah and I have. None at all, save in our bedroom, and even that’s none too private with the thinness of the walls in Father’s house.’
‘Yes, but that’s different, Edwin,’ she said. ‘You and Sarah live in Father’s house, therefore you can’t reasonably expect to enjoy much privacy. George, on the other hand, owns his own house, which is inhabited by just him and Ann. If I go to live with them, I’ll be an intrusion.’
Edwin shrugged, plainly dismissing the argument as valueless. ‘What’s the other reason?’
‘I think I’d find George and Ann very dull company. And don’t raise your brows at me like that,’ she reproached. ‘You asked me why I don’t want to live with them and I’m giving you an honest answer. I love George and Ann dearly, but they’re hardly what one could call entertaining. All George does is read and all Ann does is her needlework.’
Edwin gave a reluctant nod. ‘I’ll grant they’re not the best conversationalists, but I think Ann would appreciate some female company during the daytime while George is out. And Ann may be quiet, but at least she’s normal. Unlike Isobel. It’s because of Isobel that Father wants you to leave, you know. He thinks she’s influencing your thinking far more than is good for you. She makes no secret of her dislike of men.’
‘Edwin, Isobel does not dislike men!’ Charlotte defended.
‘Indeed she does. She dislikes men and she’s opposed to marriage. Father thinks she’s a bad influence and, for what it’s worth, I agree with him.’
Charlotte turned crossly away. Isobel was not a bad influence. On the contrary, her aunt had made her think, made her question—and since when had thinking and questioning been a bad thing?
‘If you were my daughter—’
‘But I’m not,’ Charlotte interrupted. ‘And I’m also not a child.
I—’ The word stopped short in her throat, and she spun around to face the gully as Bess’s exuberant barking was suddenly replaced by a piercing yelp that made the hairs on the back of Charlotte’s neck lift in fear. A sudden silence cloaked the hillside, then a pitiful whimper drifted eerily on the light breeze. Lifting his head, Duke let out a chilling answering whine.
‘What’s happened?’ Charlotte looked anxiously at Edwin.
Without answering, Edwin walked over to his horse and reached for his rifle. ‘Wait here,’ he ordered quietly. He glanced down at Duke and patted the dog’s back as if to reassure him. ‘Come, Duke,’ he murmured, and strode off towards the gully, with the dog following close at his heel.
Chewing on the nail of her little finger, Charlotte waited by the horses. She could see nothing at all of Edwin. The dense flax bushes had swallowed him completely, but she could hear him clearly enough, pushing his way between them, slowly moving higher up the gully, calling and whistling to Bess to try to locate her position. Impatient to find out what was happening, Charlotte walked up the hill to the edge of the outcrop and called out to him.
‘Edwin—have you found Bess yet?’
‘Not yet,’ he called back, from about halfway up the gully.
‘Can you hear her?’
‘No, but—’ Whatever Edwin had intended to say was drowned out by a sudden outburst of fierce barking from Duke. Loud crashes sounded among the bushes and a moment later the rifle went off. Then a high-pitched cry of pain split the air.
‘Edwin!’ she shrieked. A wave of panic rose up from the pit of her stomach. ‘Edwin, are you all right?’ More loud crashes sounded; more furious barking. ‘Edwin! Edwin!’ she yelled.
At last Edwin’s voice came, rising shrilly above the rest of the noise. ‘Boar! Wild boar!’
Her eyes shot to the flax leaves as they waved violently back and forth, marking the animal’s headlong rush down the gully, with Duke in hot pursuit, barking loudly. ‘Oh God,’ she whispered, gathering up her skirts in preparation to run. A second later she was pounding down the hill towards the waiting horses, her heart hammering against her ribs. In hindsight, it would probably have been wise not to look back, simply to keep running, but she couldn’t help herself. Three times she glanced back, risking tripping, and the third time she saw it, bursting from the flax bushes into the open—a huge, black boar. And, whether by accident or design, it was heading straight for her.
Letting out a shrill scream, which was loud enough to send the waiting horses bolting down the hill, she fixed her sights desperately on the new fence. If she could clamber over it, she would probably be safe. But could she reach it before the boar reached her? Duke’s barks were getting nearer by the second. She glanced over her shoulder again, caught a terrifyingly close glimpse of a viciously curling white tusk and ugly black snout, screamed, tripped, and sprawled full-length on the grass. Somehow sensing the danger she was in, Duke sprinted forward and, with a fierce snarl, hurled himself at the boar’s thick neck and sank his teeth into it, sending the hefty animal veering off to the left with the impact.
Scrambling to her feet, Charlotte watched helplessly as Duke hung grimly on, while the boar violently shook his head from side to side, grunting furiously. What happened next happened so quickly that it was little more than a blur. One minute Duke was hanging on to the boar’s neck for dear life, the next he was lying on the grass a few yards down the hill, blood pouring from a deep gash in his neck. He lifted his head and made a half-hearted attempt to get up, then, with a piteous whine, laid his head resignedly on the grass, his pink tongue hanging from his open mouth as he panted for breath.
Tossing its snout, the boar backed off a foot or two, watching the injured dog, then purposefully lowered its head and gave a loud grunt. It was preparing to attack again.
Feeling sick at the thought but powerless to prevent it, Charlotte ran for the safety of the fence, still some ten or fifteen yards away. That was when she saw it. The spade, lying on the grass where Edwin had dropped it. If it hadn’t been right in her path, the thought would never have entered her mind. But it
right in her path, and the thought
enter. She glanced back at Duke, lying helpless on the grass, and knew she had no choice.
With no thought for the possible consequences, she stooped, grasped hold of the handle with both hands, then spun towards the boar. ‘Go away! Go away!’ she yelled as loudly as she could, and waved the spade back and forth, praying that it would be sufficiently threatening to make the boar take to its heels. It quickly became obvious, however, that this particular boar didn’t find a waving spade at all threatening. Far from taking to its heels, the boar was standing quite still, watching her. Possibly this was its first encounter with a shrieking, spade-wielding woman, and it appeared to find the spectacle intriguing. Even more disconcerting, it was now walking slowly towards her, as if wanting to get a closer view. Knowing that the one thing she mustn’t do was to make a run for it, because if she did the boar would almost certainly charge, Charlotte did the only thing she could: she held her ground and continued to wildly brandish the spade.
Without warning, a shot rang out.
She jumped so much it was all she could do to keep her grip on the spade. The boar stopped. Jerking its head in the direction from which the shot had come, it raised its snout and sniffed the air, grunting loudly. For the moment its attention was elsewhere. It was a moment of grace.
Swinging the spade high into the air, Charlotte took two swift strides and swung it down again, sending the edge of the solid metal head crashing into the boar’s jaw. There was a sickening, splintering sound as teeth and bones shattered, bright red blood spurted from the boar’s mouth all across the front of her skirt, and the spade landed with a dull thud on the grass at her feet as her fingers flew open with the jarring impact of the blow. Shaking with fear, she stooped to retrieve the spade, well aware that, while the boar was definitely injured, it was far from dead. It was staggering about in dazed circles emitting ear-piercing screams, bloody froth and spittle dribbling from its smashed jaw on to the grass, until suddenly it collapsed on to its knees, less than two yards from her.