It took Henry nearly a week to write the letter, and by the time it was posted he was mentally exhausted. Admitting to his brother that he needed help and thanking him for the money was a bitter pill to swallow, but Henry’s concern for his family was more pressing than his pride. He informed his younger brother that he now had a £87.30d share in the property and when the farm started to pay, Henry would repay the money with interest. And though it galled him, he asked for a further loan to restock the farm. The one small concession was that stock prices were at a record low so the sum Henry asked for was not great. Times were different back then, and Henry didn’t mention the contents of his letter to Rebecca nor did she ask.
Relieved his letter writing was over, Henry made a new handle for his axe, sharpened his saw and continued his assault on the forest. He was working under the bush canopy near the Waimihi stream when some massive thunderheads blew into the valley. Oblivious to the approaching storm he was laying into an ancient totara when the lightening started. He ignored it at first, but as the storm intensified and hail started raining down sticks and leaves, he resigned himself to finding shelter to ride out the storm. The old whare that Les had lived in was only a few hundred yards away, so he made a beeline for it. It took a lot to frighten Henry, but when a bolt of lightning hissed and sizzled through the bush canopy, blasting the crown of an old rata into wooden shrapnel, he ran. By the time he reached the whare, he was drenched, and his body stung from the pounding the hail had dealt to him. Not bothering to use the latch, he kicked in the door and burst into the ponga sanctuary. It was dark inside and while he caught his breath his eyes to adjusted to the gloom. The first things he saw were Les’ Bible and exercise book on the packing crate table. He felt a sudden sense of foreboding and turned his gaze to the manuka bed. Under an old Hessian wool bale he could see the outline of a body. Henry froze, not wanting to confirm the accusation of his conscience. With deliberate slowness he approached the bed, “Is that you Les?” he asked, hoping and nearly praying for a reply.Almost imperceptibly, the form under the blanket moved, and a small, weak voice stammered “Y-y-y-yes, h-h-h-how are y-you H-Henry?”
“I’m well, but what about you? I thought you’d gone.”
“S-s-s-s-sorry, I-I-I h-h-h-had now-w-where t-t-to….”
“No, said Henry, I didn’t mean that – I just didn’t know – I just thought – oh hang – what’s wrong with you man, are you sick?”
Les shook his head. “N-n-n-no j-j-ust a-a-a b-b-bit h-h-ungry.”
Henry looked around the confines of the tiny hut, there was not a skerrick of food to be seen.”
“As soon as this storm blows over, you come with me, and Rebecca will cook you a good feed.”
Les smiled weakly. “I c-c-c-can’t g-get u-u-up.”
“Here, I’ll give you a hand.”
As thunder boomed overhead, Henry gently lifted Les out of bed, frightened by how little he weighed. He sat him on the huts only chair and shuddered when a flash of lightening illuminated Les’ gaunt features. Henry had witnessed death on the battlefield many times before and knew it wasn’t far from Les.
While they waited for the storm to pass, Henry wrapped Les’ only blanket around his emaciated shoulders before kindling a fire in the hearth. It smoked and sparked, but it did radiate a little bit of warmth and gave Henry something to do. Neither of them was good at holding a conversation, and despite his guilt, Henry knew intuitively that they didn’t need to. As the storm passed and the weak winter rays of the sun pierced the gloom, Les smiled. It baffled him, the man was almost dead, a hunchback that had been entombed in this miserable hut for years and treated poorly by Henry. Yet there was not a hint of accusation in his smile, just the obvious joy of Henry’ companionship. Henry would remember it for the rest of his life.
Henry was a big man and carried Les’ skeletal body all the way home without stopping. As they neared the house, Rebecca rushed out to meet them. When she saw Les she gasped. “Henry, what happened?”
“He needs food and drink and a warm bed.”
Henry knew the next few days would be touch and go, and missed 3 straight days of work so he could help Rebecca as she tended to Les. Once Les got some of his strength back they asked him what had happened. He told them the frosts had destroyed his garden, and he had run out of supplies.
“Why didn’t you come to us?” Henry regretted the words the moment they left his mouth.
Les just shrugged.
On the 4th day, Les was on the road to recovery and Henry was able to get back to work. It was a sunny day, and he felt happier than he had in a long time. He’d left his axe up at Les’ hut so took a few tools with him to repair the door.
It would prove to be a trip that changed Henry’ life.
But more on that in the next blog.