Man and Boss, Comrades

A short story by Bob Collins (Stumpy)

Sonny and Stumpy had been comrades for a great many years, even before Stumpy came to the valley.

Sonny, a very experienced bushmen, had gone to the mighty Kaingaroa forest in 1957 to seek work, and Stumpy, a bush boss there at the time, had given him a job. A friendship had started.

When Stumpy moved into the valley, Sonny’s home territory, Sonny, had soon followed, seeking and given a job with the boss and friend of his choosing. Sonny worked on for years – an experienced and respected bushman, doing a dangerous job – until one day a bulldozer rolled over his leg.

After thirty-five tons of tractor rolls over a man’s leg he doesn’t walk on the hills very well anymore, so after Sonny recovered Stumpy gave him a new job, driving a bulldozer – a job that did not require two very strong legs.

The bulldozer was small and old, but could still do a good job. It was used for clean ups around the forest, a little bit of roading, fire-breaking, loading metal on to trucks. Sonny became very skilled in its operation.

Sonny had another skill too. He could catch eels. He was famous for it. He was the best in the valley. Not only did he use his inaki (eel trap) with devastating effect, but he also caught eels by bobbing – using a strip of dressed flax threaded with meat bound round the end of a stick. Eels would tangle their teeth in the flax so by whipping the stick out of the water at the right moment Sonny could throw an eel over his shoulder twenty yards up the bank.

He was also skilled at torching eels, using a colman lamp and a gaff, or using a large snapper hook inverted between his fingers with a six inch lanyard around his wrist. He would thrust his hand into a hole under the river bank, stick his fingers in the eel’s mouth (open in defiance) then jog it with the hook. Not many tried that game.

Sonny could catch eels where there was no stream, no eels – where no-one else even tried! Sonny soon learned how to catch eels by using his bulldozer. He would drive into a stream, roll a submerged log or stump over to bring the eels into open water, then quickly sweep the water with the machine’s blade washing the eels~high and dry on the hank.

Then the race was on to get to the eels before they got back to the water. Sonny loved that! Stumpy soon heard of this practice, and he didn’t approve, not in working hours!

The morning came when Stumpy directed Sonny, with his bulldozer, down a valley road to dress up a shallow ford across a recently flooded stream. Stumpy gave his orders, then, knowing what was sure to happen, he stuck his index finger under Sonny’s nose and bellowed: And, don’t, I repeat, don’t go eeling!

Sonny looking sullen and shifty grunted, ‘Na. Na. ‘then took off to work’. That evening long after work had ceased for the day, Stumpy heard a knock on his front door. He found Sonny’s young daughter there, a pretty, bright-eyed, little Maori girl, smiling, happy to be her father’s messenger, bringing a gift for his friend.

She held out a large dinner plate covered with a spotless white cloth. On the plate – Stumpy just knew it! – was a ring of beautifully prepared, thick, fresh steaks of eel, salted, ready for the pan. In the center was a large sprig of parsley. The plate was so beautifully arranged it looked like a flower.

The little girl delivered her message, ‘Daddy says, this,is your share’. Then off she went home with the apple Stumpy had given her, happy and innocent of the currents under the surface.

Stumpy took the plate into the kitchen, ruefully grinning, thinking, ‘That Sonny! That bloody Sonny! He’s beaten me this time, he’s fixed me good!’