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By Judith Proctor
Page 2 of 6

In the morning the trader arrived, and that was an occasion of some importance. Most minor items we could buy in town, but anything that needed importing from offworld was Martin's speciality. He had a powered van, the only one I'd ever seen, and it covered the distance between the settlements far faster than a man with a wagon could ever hope to do.

      I ran out of the house as quickly as I could, hoping against hope that Martin would let me sit in the cab. He was already out on the ground though and starting to unload something from the back. Bright shining steel - the new plough share Father had ordered. I tried to see my reflection in the polished surface, then moved out of the way as Father came to inspect it. The two of them dickered over the price before finally settling on two hundred and fifty credits. That was expensive, but the metal was far harder than anything Chong the blacksmith could produce on his forge.

      "Here," Martin said, "I've got something else that might interest you." He pulled a box down off a shelf and opened it to reveal a small computer. "Complete farm management system. Can handle soil analysis, weather prediction, animal breeding records and all the rest. You can use it to predict which crops will grow best on which soils, do cost benefit analysis on which crops to plant early for maximum profit and all sorts of other things." He grinned easily. "You can even use it to keep your good lady's recipes written down."

      Father took it gingerly. There were other families in the valley who used computers, but we'd never had one. "How does it work?" he asked.

      Martin proceeded to run a series of demonstrations with dazzling finesse, calling up field maps, crop rotation schemes and market prices on half a dozen worlds.

      "How much?" Father asked.

      "Three hundred and forty credits," Martin said promptly. "And cheap at the price."

      Father was hesitant. "I don't know. It's a lot of money."

      "Look Mr Blake, you've always been a good customer of mine, so I tell you what I'll do. I'll let you have it for two hundred and ninety. That's cutting my own throat really, but I can see you're an intelligent man who would get full use from such a system."

      Shane had been watching the negotiations without comment. Now he strolled over from where he'd been leaning against a post. "Do you mind if I take a look at it?" He was asking Father's permission, not Martin's, but it was Martin who answered. "Go right ahead," he said expansively, "but be careful you don't damage it."

      Settling down on the porch, Shane balanced the machine on his knee, produce a tool from a pocket, and levered open the casing.

      "Hey!" protested Martin. "You'll invalidate the warranty."

      "What warranty?" said Shane disgustedly. "This thing's obsolete. It has to be at least ten years old. It would be overpriced if new. Second hand, with spare parts probably impossible to obtain - it's barely worth having as a gift."

      "You lying scum!" Martin expostulated. The date is there on the casing. It was made last year."

      There was a sudden dangerous quality to Shane's dark brown eyes. He didn't move from where he was sitting, but the aura of menace was such that Martin took an involuntary step backwards.

      "I don't take anything on trust," Shane said quietly. "Labels are so easy to alter."

      "Blake," said Martin angrily, "are you going to believe this man? He's obviously got some grudge against me. I recognise him now. He's a drifter, a gambler - travels from town to town, does a few people out of their money, and then moves on before they chase him out of town."

      Shane made no comment. He sat very still, watching Father, as though Father was the only person who mattered to him in the entire world. Father looked at Shane, then at Martin, then gazed back at Shane again. "How much do you think it's worth?" he asked.

      After considering it for a moment, Shane answered, "Sixty credits. But get him to throw in a surveying tool. It'll be useless unless you know the size of your fields accurately."

      Father never hesitated. "Martin, it's as Shane said. Sixty credits and a surveying tool, or no deal."

      "That's ridiculous!"

      "Take it or leave it."

      Martin slammed a fist furiously into his palm. "All right!" He grabbed a small optical device out of a basket and slammed it into Father's hand. Sixty credits, but don't expect me to do you any favours in the future."

      Father went indoors to get his money, and returned with a pile of crumpled credit slips. Shane watched him all the while, a strange wildness in his eyes that I couldn't fathom. No sign of triumph showed on Father's face as he paid Martin the money. He watched in silence as Martin closed the rear door, climbed back into the cab, slammed the door, and drove off. Then Father looked around for Shane. He wasn't there. I wondered for a moment if he'd left already, but then I heard a sound from around the back of the house.

      An axe biting into wood.

      A slow smile spread over Father's face. He walked around the house and stopped close to the stump. Shane swung the axe once more, and the clunk rang out loud as the metal bit into the heavy wood.

      "There's no need for that," Father said.

      "I think there is," Shane replied. He took another swing and the axe bounced off the wood. He was no axeman, that was for sure. He steadied the axe and brought it over his shoulder again, both hands keeping a steady grip on the handle.

      "We often have guests," I said. It's nothing special."

      Father rested a hand on my head for a moment, mussing up my hair. "He doesn't mean that, son." He eyed Shane's inexpert handiwork carefully, but said nothing. There seemed to be a kind of desperation in Shane, a need to carry out his self-appointed task at all costs. He had the strength, in spite of his slight build, but he wasn't applying it properly. Father winced as another stroke hit the wood at the wrong angle and bounced. You could see he was itching to tell Shane how to do it properly. I had the feeling though that Shane was the kind of man who didn't like to be told that he was doing something the wrong way.

      Suddenly, Father whipped around and headed for the barn. A minute later he was back with the big double-bladed axe. Taking up a position opposite Shane, he started to work on the next root. Left hand holding the base of the axe, right hand near the head to get the control. As he swung the axe down, he slid his right hand to join his left to increase the power of the stroke. Shane smiled, and it was as though the sun had come out from behind a cloud. A few strokes of the axe later, and his action was an exact copy of Father's. The blows began to fall in a steady rhythm, and I watched fascinated. Father was more heavily built than Shane, his blows more powerful, but Shane had a restless energy that forced the pace. He was getting into the swing of it now, and seemed to have no inclination to stop. The cuts bit into the hard old wood and built into a "v" shaped notch. Tackling first one side of the notch and then the other, Shane worked his way into that root.

      After ten minutes or so, Shane paused in his work briefly to remove his shirt, then started once more with the axe. He was making progress, but it was obviously going to be a long slow job. The sun was slowly getting higher in the sky as I settled down on top of a water barrel in order to watch better. Mother came out after a while to see what was going on. She watched for a few minutes, and then returned without comment with a plate of flapjacks, a jug of Father's beer, and a couple of mugs. She placed the food and drink on the ground, and watched as the two men helped themselves. No one was talking. It was kind of eerie, but somehow there seemed no need to talk.

      Shane finished the last of his beer and picked up his axe, waiting for Father. After draining the last drop from his mug, Father removed his shirt and tossed it on top of Shane's. Mother spoke for the first time. "Roj Blake, you are every kind of a fool." She turned to Shane crossly. "And you're no better."

      Shane didn't seem perturbed. He just hefted that axe, met Father's eye for a moment with an amused glance, then resumed his assault on that stump. Father grinned right back and picked up his own axe.

      I watched them for another half an hour or so before I got bored and wandered off. It was obvious they were going to be at it for ages yet. Mother caught up with me, and we spent an hour or so peeling vegetables for lunch and clearing out a cupboard. After that, she made me read to her from one of the few books we owned. Mother was always very fussy about me learning to read - said she didn't want me to grow up ignorant. Lunch was nearly ready when we eventually went out into the yard again to see how they were getting on.

      It was well past midday now. Shane was on the way to getting a fine case of sunburn; Father was brown already - the sun didn't bother him. Shane was working on the last root. Father had a spade and was shovelling soil out from under the cut roots. It seemed like a long, dull and tiresome job to me. I just couldn't see why the two of them had put so much time and effort into that old stump.

      Then Shane cut through that last root. Father and he looked at each other; they put their shoulders to the stump and began to heave. There was a creaking sound and the stump began to move. Suddenly, it didn't seem boring any more. It was a battle and it was being won. The stump rose a a few centimetres, then a few more. I was practically jumping up and down with excitement. Sweat poured off Father's back as he pushed. Shane grunted with exertion, the strain showing on his face. The stump refused to shift any further. Gasping for breath, they released it, and let it fall back to the ground.

      "Must be a tap root," Father said with an effort. The first words I'd heard him say for hours.

      Shane simply nodded and looked at Father. Then he picked up his axe and stood waiting.

      Father looked at Shane, doubt on his face for a moment. He flexed his hands, stretched his back, and then leaned into the stump once more. Slowly it lifted. Father strained, sweat running down his face, leaving streaks in the dust. Slowly, painfully, the stump lifted until the edge was nearly half a meter off the ground. Shane placed his left leg in the gap under the stump and crouched low in the narrow space. Swinging the axe sideways, he made strokes that cut right under the stump. If he was aware of the great weight of the stump bearing over him, he gave no sign.

      The stump lurched suddenly upwards. Father jerked, almost losing his footing. Shane was out from under the stump in a flash, helping Father lower it safely to the ground. They rested a moment, then, side by side, the two of them heaved once more. The stump rose, higher this time. Father scrambled down into the hole and took the weight onto his shoulders. Together, they pushed, rocking that stump back and forth, each time gaining a little extra ground, until with one final surge of effort they pushed it right over, the mass of wood toppling onto the ground like some strange dead beast.

      I though they would cheer, and shake hands at least, but they didn't. They just looked into each other's eyes as they had done when they started, and stood silent.

      The spell was broken as Mother called for lunch. If the meal was later than usual, I for one didn't mind.

      Lunch was a quiet meal. Father obviously had something on his mind. He ate without saying much, and answered most questions with a grunt. I managed to beat him to the second helping of apple pie, and that was unusual. Father liked his apple pie.

      Mother had cleared the table, when Father finally made up his mind to speak. "Shane." Father sounded hesitant, as though he was afraid of causing offence. "I could use a hand on the farm. The pay wouldn't be good, but it's a busy time of year, and I do need the help."

      Shane stared at his feet. "What the trader said was true. I'm no farmer. I'm a drifter, I make money gambling."

      "Do you cheat at cards?"

      Turning to look directly at Father, Shane gave a slight ironic smile. "Sometimes. A knowledge of the odds isn't always enough to enable a man to eat."

      Father considered that a moment. "The offer's still open. What do your gambler's instincts tell you?"

      "My gambler's instincts tell me to get the hell out of here."

      "But you'll stay?"

      Shane nodded slowly, his face unreadable. "But I'll stay."



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Judith Proctor

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