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By Judith Proctor
Page 3 of 6

Shane had been right when he said he was no farmer, but he was willing to learn. We got the harvest in, we got the winter root crops in the ground and we started work on a new enclosure to allow us to keep some pigs.

      Shane slowly unwound during that time. The tension that had seemed so natural to him began to drain away. He seemed to demand little company beyond ourselves. When the neighbours came round to call, he would sit quietly and listen to the conversation, but he rarely joined in. He seemed to unnerve people somehow.

      "He's got the look of a killer to him," old man Schultz once said to Father, when Shane wasn't around.

      Father pinned him with a cold look. "I'll thank you not to say anything about Shane that you wouldn't say to his face."

      Schultz held up his hands defensively. "No offence meant, Blake."

      "None taken," said Father mildly. The subject was never raised again, leastways, not in my hearing, anyhow.

      I got to know Shane better as the months passed. I watched him as he worked around the farm. He didn't have Father's strength and build, but there was a determination in him. He wasn't a man who liked to let any task defeat him. In conversation, he never talked about his own past. He had stories aplenty, of smugglers, of worlds where people lived underground, and of the strange things that you could meet in space; but whether they were places he'd been or had simply heard of, he never let on. Gradually, he was becoming a part of us, settling into the valley life as though he'd always been here. The only thing, apart from his natural reserve, that set him apart from everyone else, was the fact that he never carried a gun. That used to puzzle me, but I hadn't the nerve to ask Shane about it, so I ventured the question with Father instead.

      "Why doesn't Shane carry a gun?" I asked.

      "I don't know," Father replied. "Something in his past no doubt, but that's his business. All I can tell you is that if a man like Shane chooses not to carry a gun, then he has a good reason."

      I let the subject drop. It didn't seem that important.


The only thing that bothered us that autumn was the mining company. Seems the price of rare earth metals had risen sharply over the last few years. The deposits that had once cost too much to work, were now worth mining again. Our land in the valley was apparently right on top of the best deposits. The surveyors had been taking samples all summer and now they'd handed in their report. We were being hassled to move out. Schultz, Morgan and several of the others had had offers made for their land, but hadn't accepted. The offers were low and they'd put a lot of work into the land to improve it. We had isolated incidents of fences being damaged, livestock escaping and so forth. Nothing actually illegal, but all increasing the pressure.

      A group of roughnecks started hanging about in town, throwing abuse at any of the settlers who ventured in for supplies. Mostly we ignored them, but things came to a head when Haggard, who worked for Schultz, got beaten up in a fight. He handed in his notice and said he was never coming back.

      I heard all about it when everyone came round to visit that evening: Schultz, O'Brian and the rest. They always gathered at our place when there was a problem. Father was the unofficial leader of the valley men. He didn't hold any kind of formal post, but everyone respected him. Everyone was talking nineteen to the dozen: making suggestions, tearing them down. The room was hot and crowded, a couple of people had to lean against the wall because there weren't enough chairs. Shane was in his usual place in the corner - he always liked to sit where he could see the door. Every so often someone would break off from making a point to glance in Shane's direction. I kept down near the floor, half under the table, and hoped that nobody would tell me to go to bed. This was my home too, the only home I'd ever known, and I was worried. Sure, Father would sort it all out in the end. I had every confidence in Father: he could do anything. But, all the same, it was disturbing to see everyone getting het up.

      "Who'll be next?" demanded Morgan. "That's what I want to know."

      Then I realised why everyone had been looking at Shane. Father was important around here - simply by employing Shane, he was saying that he had no intention of moving off his land. If they succeeded in scaring off Shane, everyone else would be a step closer to giving up.

      Shane spoke up for the first time that evening. "I've been thinking," he said to Father. "We need some more wire. Besides, there's some information I need to look up. I'll go into town in the morning and use the public data terminal in the store."

      Father nodded, as though he hadn't expected anything less. Shane was Shane. He wasn't the type of man who would frighten easily.

      Everyone else seemed to quieten down after that. There were tail ends of conversations that lingered on for another half an hour or so, but several people had a long ride home, and they slowly took their farewells and departed.


I was up early the following morning, but Shane was up even earlier than me. I could hear Father arguing with him. "Shane, I'm going with you."

      "No," Shane said flatly. "I don't want you with me."

      "But suppose they...." His voice trailed off. "All right. It's your decision to make."

      I flung my clothes on as fast as I could and sprinted outside. There was a bend in the trail where it went around a steep outcrop of rock. Running as fast as I could, I scrambled over the outcrop and down the other side. Coming around the corner, I could see Shane riding the wagon. I slid down the last few meters of the outcrop, almost tearing the seat of my pants.

      "Shane," I shouted. "Can I come with you? Please."

      He brought the horses to a standstill and looked at me, a quirk of humour in the back of his brown eyes. "You Blakes are all alike. Just stay out of the way, if there's any trouble."

      I needed no further invitation. Shane gave me a hand up and I clambered onto the seat beside him. I always liked the view from the front seat of the wagon. It was a bouncy ride, but that was all part of the fun. I reached into my pocket and showed Shane a handful of coins I'd acquired doing odd jobs for O'Brian. "Look," I said, "I've been saving up for a new pocket knife."

      "Which one do you want?" he asked.

      I knew which one I wanted. There was a marvellous gadget in the store that could do everything from getting stones out of horses' hooves to gutting fish. It even had a miniature circuit probe built in. It also cost far more money than I'd ever had. I thrust the coins back into my pocket. "I can't afford it yet." Maybe I'd get Chong to make me a belt knife instead. It wouldn't be as much fun, but I could still use it for carving wood.

      We drove pretty much in silence after that. I spotted a takara in the river and pointed it out to Shane. They're pretty rare now, I hadn't seen one in over a year. Big things, with long tentacles as thick as my waist. They come on land sometimes, but prefer to stay in the water mostly. This one was only small though. I told Shane about the one I'd seen when I was six. That was a real monster, killed and half ate a horse before it was caught and shot. Shane raised an eyebrow at my description. Well, maybe I was exaggerating a little, but it was over ten meters long all the same. "Have you ever seen anything better than that?" I asked a little defensively.

      "How about carnivorous plants?" Shane said.

      "I don't believe you," I protested.

      Shane sounded sardonic. "Far be it from me to come between a Blake and his beliefs."

      It was only later that it occurred to me that calling Shane a liar might have been an incredibly stupid thing to do. But I felt safe with Shane - that was the way things were between us. Shane wasn't exactly the easygoing type, but he never lost his temper with me, and he never shouted. He would argue long and passionately, especially with Father. He was easily irritated by trivia, but if I asked him a sensible question, he would always give me a straight answer. He wasn't an easy man to like, but I liked him none the less.

      When we got into town, Shane stopped the wagon outside the store and we both went in. The store was a minor wonderland. Patel bought grain and stored it in a warehouse out back until it could be transported to the spaceport. He also bought a small quantity of root crops and so forth which he sold on to the townsfolk. That wasn't the interesting part though. I ignored the sacks of foodstuffs, the supplies of seed corn, wire and nails etc. I wasn't interested in the essentials of life. I headed straight for the counter were Patel kept his imported goods, a small supply of guns, pocket knives, electronic gadgets, communicators, light bulbs and so forth. I pondered over these, looking at the entertainment sets that cost more than I would ever be able to afford. Jon O'Brian let me use his sometimes - you got sound over the headphones and a three dimensional image from the specs. It was great, especially when the picture came towards you fast, and you ducked even though you knew it wasn't for real; but the power packs were expensive and besides, he only had a couple of tapes for it.

      There were knives there too. I lusted over them, counting my change carefully, until I decided it was a lost cause and went to get some sweets instead. After several minutes of careful consideration, I picked out a credit's selection and gave the coin to Patel.

      Shane had already loaded a roll of wire onto the wagon and was now discussing something with Patel. I'd missed most of the conversation, but they had obviously came to some kind of agreement, because Patel swung his terminal around to face Shane and took some money in exchange. "Ten minutes connect time," Patel warned. "No more."

      I watched curiously. I'd only seen the terminal being used a few times before. Father occasionally used it to download current data on crop prices, and I knew it gave access to most publicly accessible databases in the Federation. What I really had no idea of, was what was actually in all those databases. Shane started typing, and it came to me suddenly, as I watched, that this was where he belonged. Words and diagrams flashed across the screen, questions were asked, and answered as quickly as Shane could type. I was afraid to move in case I broke his concentration; yet, I suspect that even if I had shouted out loud, he wouldn't actually have taken any notice. It seemed no time at all before Shane came to the end of what he was doing, and broke the connection.

      "Did you find what you wanted?" I asked.

      "I don't know yet," Shane replied. "I have to wait for the reply. Some of the data I want is in the next system. It'll be a few minutes before the communication relays get it back here. Do you want a drink while we're waiting?"

      "Sure," I replied. "Keeson juice, please." I liked keesons, they were one of the few local fruits that really appealed to humans. There was talk of starting up an export trade if the bushes could be grown in any quantity.

      Shane nodded to Patel, who went out to get the juice. That was when the men came in. There were three of them. I think they were employed doing reconstruction work up at at the factory, but there was a general belief in the valley that they got an unofficial bonus for making our lives difficult. When Patel returned, he handed the mug over to Shane without comment.

      The taller of the three men, a big hulking fellow with a dirty red scarf tied around his neck, came up to Shane. He had an odd way of walking, you could almost say he wallowed. He was grossly overweight and seemed almost double Shane's size. "Fruit juice?" he jeered. "You have to be one of those valley scum. Only a mud grubber would drink stuff like that."

      If Shane was perturbed, he gave no sign. He held onto the mug and nodded. "That's right. I work for Blake."

      The second man elbowed the third in the ribs. "He works for Blake." They seemed to find that hilarious for some reason.

      "I hear his wife's a real bit of all right," the first man said with sneer.

      Shane ignored the remark.

      "Tried her yet, have you?" asked the second, making a suggestive gesture with his hands.

      "No," Shane said calmly. Well, his voice was calm enough, but I could see the tension building in him all the same.

      The third man laughed crudely. "You must be the only man in the valley who hasn't."

      Shane went rigid. His hand clenched convulsively on the handle of the mug. His shoulders tensed, and I though for a moment that he was going to lash out and punch the speaker in the guts. But he didn't. Shane looked at me, and slowly, he let out his breath. A finger at a time, he relaxed his grip. I'd like to have thought it was because I was there, but it wasn't. I said he was looking at me, but that wasn't really true. Shane was looking through me, at something only he could see.

      At that moment, the terminal chimed for attention. Shane looked at it wildly for a moment as though it was something totally alien, then hit a key and pulled out a data disc. Stuffing the disc in his pocket, he stood up, completely in control of himself, and smiled ironically at the trio. "Some other time perhaps?" He gestured me towards the door and we made our way back to the wagon with no further trouble.


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Judith Proctor

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