Stella began her story from the day her life changed forever. She had awoken early New Year’s Day with a dry mouth and covered in sweat. Nothing unusual for this part of the world but what was different was that Ryan wasn’t in bed and there was no evidence that he had. A wonderful husband of three years and a baby on the way, Stella’s only longing was for a relief from the heatwave and yet another drought.
Peeling back the damp top sheet Stella sat up on the side of the bed; her head groggy from a restless night.
Making her way down stairs she headed to the refrigerator for the jug of water she had place there the evening before. She peered out the kitchen window and noticed the door of the tractor shed was open. ‘That’s strange. It wasn’t open before I went to bed. Maybe Ryan’s tinkering with the engine’, she spoke into the empty room.
Stella looked around the kitchen for a sign that Ryan had eaten breakfast early. Nothing. Heading to the back door she pushed opened the fly screen door. Ryan often left the back door open to allow any breeze that might stir in the sweltering night air.
It wasn’t until she reached the tractor shed that she realised how quiet it was. ‘Ryan, where are you?’
Flo, Ryan’s Blue Cattle Dog began to bark. Stella turned to see that Flo was still in her fenced off area near the house. Since a recent pack of wild dogs had been seen roaming the surrounding properties at night, Ryan had made sure Flo didn’t wander and so the dogs couldn’t ambush her. No way would he leave Flo in there if he were here.
A sudden chill rushed through her. She stood in the wide doorway. ‘Ryan!’ There was no reply except for Flo’s constant bark. She approached the tractor and looked around. Where are you? It was then she noticed a dull glow of light coming from the small doorless room at the rear of the shed where Ryan used as an office of sorts and to clean small tractor parts.
Stella felt like she was walking in a dream only for the constant barking from Flo. There sitting on a stool slumped over a newspaper that lay open on the wooden bench was Ryan. A moment of relief that Ryan must have dozed off while working past through her. The lantern was struggling to keep alight. With no power to the shed, Ryan had kept an old kerosene lamp ready in case of an emergency.
Placing her hand gently on his shoulder she jerked it back. It was cold, an impossibility in this heat. She moved to where she could see one side of his face. His left eye looked back at her. ‘Ryan!’ She gently shook his shoulder but he remained silent and cold.
Stella heart pounded as she ran back to the house. Letting the screen door slam behind her she rushed straight to the radio in the front room. She forced herself to concentrate on the user instructions. Even though Stella used the radio on occasions, it was Ryan who usually operated it.
Almost immediately the operator came over the line. ‘You’re on air early, Ryan. How can I assist you? Over.’
‘Maggie it’s Stella,’ she sobbed in relief. ‘Over,’ she finally remembered and released the button.
‘What is it, Stel? You sound panicked. Over.’
‘It’s Ryan. I think he’s dead’, she blurted out and released the button without the ‘over’.
‘Calm down, Stel. Doc Stone is over at David’s place visiting Ryan’s grandmother. I’ll contact him there. Stay calm. Over.’
Stella gulped down air. ‘I’ll try. Tell him to hurry, please.’ She sat staring at the radio and took long deep breaths until she heard Maggie’s voice again.
‘Stel, Dr Stone will be there in about twenty minutes. David is driving him over in his off-road utility. Over.’
‘Thanks Maggie. Over.’
‘I’ll call you later,’ Maggie signed off.
Flo’s yapping was beginning to annoy her so she went back out to the shed and closed the door but not before looking in the direction of back room where she could barely see Ryan through her tears. Then she let Flo loose, giving her a long hard hug.
‘Oh Flo…what will we do without him?’
It took less than twenty minutes for Doc Stone to arrive but to Stella if felt like hours. She had managed to change into a cotton house dress that had seen better days but she didn’t seem to notice.
David, who was also Ryan’s Uncle, raced ahead of the doctor. ‘Where is he? What happened?’
He was full of questions but Stella could only point. She was shaking and her eyes hurt from rubbing away the constant tears.
‘He’s in the tractor shed,’ she finally blurted.
David put his arm around her shoulder and tried to soothe her. ‘I’m sure he’s fine. Let’s go with Doc and see what he says.’
By the time David and Stella had reach the shed, Doc Stone had already squeezed through the door so Flo wouldn’t follow.
‘David, I can’t go back in there.’
‘OK, stay here and hold Flo. I’ll see what Doc has to say.’
Moments later David and the doctor returned to where Stella waited. They both looked sad and pale.
‘I think he’s been here since possibly late last night. What time did you find him, Stel?’ The doctor asked gently.
‘It was just after five this morning. I woke on Ryan’s alarm and headed to the kitchen for a drink. I guess it was only five minutes later when I noticed the shed door was open.’ She finished in a sob. ‘What happened to him, Doc?’ she pleaded.
The doctor gently turned Stella back toward the kitchen. ‘You’re in shock.’’
‘She’s shivering,’ David added running ahead to open the door before heading into the front room for a throw rug.
After the doctor gave Stella a mild sedative, he sat beside her at the kitchen table while David brought glasses of cold water.
‘Stel,’ Doc began quietly. ‘From what I can ascertain without an autopsy,’ he coughed apologetically. ‘It appears to be a natural death.’
‘But he’s only thirty-four,’ Stella gasped.
‘We have to wait on the coroner’s report.’ He sipped from the glass that David had placed in front of him. ‘I need to use your radio.’
David pointed to the front room and the two watched the doctor leave the kitchen. ‘Stel, I’ll get Kath to come over. She can stay as long as you need.’
‘Oh David, she has too much to do to bother with me.’
‘You forget I make enough money to pay for a housekeeper to help my wife.’ He sighed heavily. ‘Look, I know I haven’t been close to Ryan since…. since my brother left the property to him instead of leaving it in my father’s family. To me…I’m mean, I’m sorry.’
Stella looked up as if she didn’t hear him correctly.
Only hearing bits of what Doctor Stone was saying in the other room, she waited. Her shaking had eased but she couldn’t stop the tears.
Another few minutes passed before Doc came back into the kitchen. ‘The authorities will be here as soon as they can. They’ll question you. It’s routine but I’ll stay until they take Ryan away.’
David rose from his chair and gulped down the rest of his water. ‘I’ll head back and send Kath over in the Jeep. You can use the Jeep Doc until I can get to town to collect it. I need to get those antibiotics you prescribed for mother anyway.’
The doctor nodded and sipped at his water.
The train lurched as it rounded a curve in the rails. Stella sighed. ‘I can remember that morning like it was yesterday,’ she said looking over at her baby asleep in the arms of Teresa. Teresa had become a comforting traveling companion. ‘You know, I didn’t even ask how David’s mother was. She died a few months later from complications after a long illness…’ Her voice trailed off.
‘I’m so sorry to hear that you went through that. So, the little one is fatherless?’
Stella nodded sadly. ‘That’s only half of it,’ she whispered before continuing her story….
To be continued….
© Chrissy Siggee – 2019