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Shane

By Judith Proctor
Page 1 of 6

It was one of those long hot dusty afternoons that occur towards the end of summer. I was sitting on the rail of the corral trying to find an excuse to avoid hoeing the vegetable patch. We'd had a much greater variety of vegetables these last few years; some of the new settlers had brought the seeds of Earth plants with them. Father always likes to tell me of the old days - when he and Mother first lived here they had had nothing to live on except tinned food from the old factory. They'd had to experiment to discover which of the native plants were edible.

      The first couple of years were very bad - Mother told me that she had two children after me, and lost them both. Then new people started arriving. They said there had been a great war with aliens from another galaxy; many good agricultural worlds were damaged and people were looking for new land to cultivate. Hollerith isn't a bad place to live once you've got something to plant that is worth eating. Father says the settlers named our world. It just had a number before, but I don't know what the number was.

      The settlers brought livestock too. Obviously they didn't transport fully grown animals, they brought along gene stock and brood units. I can still remember seeing my first horse - the idea of a tame animal seemed really strange to me. Heidi Schultz always used to complain to her husband that a ground car would have been more convenient, but Schultz said that horses didn't need spare parts from off world, and besides, they produced their own replacements.

      Anyhow, as I was saying, it was a hot day. The sort of day when a boy would far rather be lazing around than working. I liked just sitting there on the rail enjoying the view. That was when I first noticed him - the stranger that is. I spied him a long way off down the track, near to Denham's place. He was walking, carrying a pack on his back, and didn't seem to be in any hurry, just walking as though he was going some place that was far far away, and expected to take forever to get there.

      A stranger of any kind was a novelty in the valley. Where had he come from? There were other settlements on Hollerith, but none close by. A ship had come down near the factory the week before. There was a rumour going around that there were plans to start up mining again. Had he come in on the ship, or walked from one of the other settlements?

      I watched him as he came closer. I could make out more details now. His clothes must have been smart once upon a time. His black tunic showed signs of much wear, but there was something about it that suggested a man who cared about what he wore. His trousers were black too, tucked into leather boots. A silver studded belt encircled his waist, and that was when I realised what was unusual about him. He didn't wear a gun. Here on Hollerith, everyone wears a gun. We're a small friendly community in the valley, but there are a lot of dangerous native animals. Most of them have been shot out of the vicinity now, but it still pays to go armed.

      I could tell he'd seen me watching him. His eyes seemed to be constantly checking his surroundings. He'd taken me in with one glance and decided I wasn't anything to worry about. I waited there on the rail. I'm not sure I could have moved if I wanted to. The stranger fascinated me. There was something about him, in spite of the absence of a weapon, that said he was dangerous.

      Walking the last hundred meters towards me, he stopped and spoke conversationally, "I'd appreciate a drink of water."

      "Sure." I jumped down hastily. "The pump's over here." Another thing the settlers had brought. Father said that he'd had to get water from the factory, or to wait for rain, until the newcomers came.

      The stranger made his way over to the trough, pumped some fresh water, and then helped himself to a drink. Having satisfied his thirst, he proceeded to to wash his face and hair. Wet, the slicked back hair was a deep dark brown, almost black. Father came around the corner from where he'd been working and watched silently.

      "Thank you," the stranger said to me. "I'll be on my way."

      "Wait a moment," said Father.

      I've never seen a man turn so fast as the stranger did then. He spun around, his eyes boring into Father's face . "You!" he gasped. I shivered in spite of the heat. There was something dark and dangerous in the air.

      I stared in wonder as Father and the stranger looked at each other for a long moment, measuring each other in some strange adult way. "You know me?" Father asked.

      The stranger looked at him again, then shook his wet hair. "No, you reminded me of someone I once knew. Just a passing resemblance." His manner became slightly aggressive. "What do you want anyway?"

      "Why nothing," Father replied with a friendly smile. "In these parts it's considered good manners to ask a passer by in for a meal and a bed for the night. Besides, Rashel's been baking. She'd be insulted if you didn't come in and sample her cooking."

      "I see." He seemed slightly amused. "And Rashel is to be placated at all costs?"

      Father seemed offput by that for a moment, then he nodded in agreement. "Rashel is my life," he replied simply. Then he smiled at me and reached out to tousle my hair. "Along with Joey, of course."

      I ducked and dodged out of his way onto the porch, leaving the two men looking at each other. They seemed to be sizing one another up. The stranger gave a peculiar half smile. "I'll stay for supper, but don't expect anything more."

      Father held out his hand. "I'm Roj Blake."

      The stranger hesitated, as though Father's hand was a live snake that might bite him, then he decided it was safe, and shook it. "Shane," he said finally. "You can call me Shane."

      

Mother put on her best dress for supper, she always did when we had guests. Father smiled to see her - he's proud of Mother and what they've built together. Shane's eyes took in everything, including Mother. For a moment, I saw the cabin through his eyes. What had always seemed normal to me, must to him have appeared a strange mixture of old and new technology. The walls were of timber, unhewn logs, but inside, lining the walls, were insulating panels salvaged from the factory. The lighting was electric, Martin the trader had brought some small wind generators on his last trip round these parts. Mother still cooked over an open fire though. She talked about something called a food processing unit, but whatever one of those was, they were too expensive to be worth importing from off planet. Hollerith doesn't have the technology to produce anything more complex than horseshoes and farm tools.

      Supper was good - fresh meat, tomasc beans with cabbage, all followed by one of Mother's sponge puddings. Shane worked his way through it, quietly, but appreciatively. His attention wasn't totally on the food though. He kept watching Father when he thought Father wasn't looking at him.

      Shane scraped the last trace of sponge from his dish and spoke to Mother. "Thank you," he said. "That's the best meal I've had in a long time."

      Mother blossomed under his praise. It was a trite enough compliment, but Shane sounded as though he really meant it.

      "Wait a little longer," said Father. "I've got a new batch of beer. Rashel won't touch the stuff, but I'd like someone to drink it with."

      "Beer?" he questioned. "Not like -" Then he stopped himself. "Why not?"

      The beer was in an empty drum out back. I remembered the trouble Father had had cleaning it. He'd had no idea what it had contained originally, so he'd scrubbed it, scalded it, and done just about everything you could think of, to ensure that it was clean. We didn't have much in the way of money you see. The settlers had brought their own goods and money with them, but we were here first. Schultz once told me that he'd never have made it through the first winter without Father's local knowledge. So anyway, we never had any money until we started trading with the other settlers. Wouldn't have had no use for it anyhow until the town developed. Either we scavenged from the factory, or we did without. I call it a town, but Mother says it's really only a few buildings thrown together. She says a real town has millions of people. I find that hard to believe, though.

      Father brought back a clay jug filled with beer and sat down. (We fire our own pottery. Schultz has a kiln.) Shane eyed the jug with a slightly jaundiced eye, but accepted the mug of beer Father poured for him. Father watched him, waiting for his reaction. Shane seemed to take that as a challenge, because he promptly tipped his head back and took a large swig. Putting down the mug, he looked at Father with mocking respect. "You drink that stuff? You're a better man than I thought."

      "And who did you think I was?" Father asked casually.

      Shane slammed his hand on the table, making the mug jump a centimetre into the air. "Don't try to manipulate me, Blake."

      Father looked surprised at the venom in Shane's voice. "I wasn't. I just thought you might have known him."

      "If by him, you mean Roj Blake, the late and unlamented rebel - then, yes, I met him a few times."

      Father poured himself a drink and gazed into its depths. "I never met him. He was my cousin. I'm told we were very alike."

      "Roj," Mother interrupted. "Don't start talking about him. You know it upsets you."

      I wanted them to carry on talking. This was all new to me. Who was this mysterious uncle of mine? I'd noticed a couple of people react oddly to Father's name when introduced, but I'd never known why. Father always brushed it off with a joke, saying that he was darned if he was going to change his name merely because someone else happened to share it. Shane knew something though, and I was all eagerness to hear more.

      While Shane and Father drank their beer, the conversation changed to other topics. Shane seemed to have been everywhere and done everything. Our life here appeared tame and dull by comparison. Yet he showed an interest in the farm, asked what sort of crops we grew and how we harvested them. It was obvious that he had never lived on a farm. Father got really wrapped up in the discussion. He loved a chance to talk about the farm, and Shane was the perfect man to talk to. He listened, asked questions, argued back, suggested alternatives, and in short gave Father the best run he'd had for his money since he tried to talk old man Schultz into loaning him his stallion for a week.

      Eventually Father got to his feet. "Why not come and see for yourself?" he suggested.

      "Why not indeed," murmured Shane. "They say you learn something new every day."

      I wasn't quite sure if he meant that seriously or as a joke. That was one thing I was to learn about Shane. He had a sense of humour that easily tipped over into sarcasm.

      Still, Shane followed Father outside, and being not only curious, but also eager to escape washing the dishes, I tagged along. They walked around the stable and the corral. Father pointed out the lie of the land down to the river and Shane duly took it all in. He solemnly inspected the quality of the soil, looked at the grain on the corn, and even studied the horses, albeit from a distance.

      Walking back to the house, Shane almost tripped over a root of the stump. We called it the stump. It was to big and ornery just to be a stump. Father gave it a kick. "Used to be a fine old tree once," he said, "shaded the house. Went down in a storm several years back. I keep trying to remove it, but its a real job. Most mornings when I come out, I take a chop at it." He booted it again. "It's stubborn, but we're practically friends that old stump and I."

      "Reminds me of someone I used to know," Shane said reflectively.

      "What happened to him?" Father asked suddenly.

      Until I saw him tense up, I hadn't even realised how relaxed Shane had become. "Who?" he demanded.

      Father squared off against him. "You know who I mean."

      Shane laughed. A short sharp ugly sound. "All right. According to the viscasts he was murdered - short down in cold blood by his closest friend, on a nowhere world called Gauda Prime. That same friend led all his followers into a Federation trap where they were butchered. Is that what you wanted to know?"

      Father stared at the ground, breathing deeply. There was a long silence before he spoke again. "What happened to the friend?"

      "He collaborated with the Federation. He had a lot of information they wanted. I imagine they killed him when he was no further use to them." Shane sounded indifferent, lost in some recollection of his own.

      "Shane -" I don't know what Father intended to say, because at that moment Mother called for me to go to bed.

      "Do I have to?" I protested, but she was adamant. I went indoors and crawled into bed after washing myself. I couldn't sleep. All I could think of was Shane's story. I'd never even known I had an uncle, and now he was dead. Then I woke up from a nightmare in which my best friend, Jon O'Brian, shot me, and realised I must have been asleep after all. It was quite dark now, but the electric light came through a chink down the side of the door.

      "What do you make of him?" Mother asked.

      "Who? Shane?" Father replied. "He's an odd one. I can't figure him out at all."

      "But you like him?"

      Father considered that. "Yes, I suppose I do. He's independent, not the type to let anyone push him around. I could use a man like that."

      "And he knew Blake."

      Uncle Blake again. I propped my elbows on the pillow and rested my chin on my hands to listen better.

      Father sounded disappointed. "Shane didn't want to talk about Blake, said they fell out over a misunderstanding."

      "He doesn't talk about himself either," Mother pointed out.

      "I noticed that. Whatever his past was, I think he wants to forget it."

      "Send him on his way in the morning, Roj. Men with a past are dangerous."

      "Dangerous?" Father commented. "I suppose he is, he's certainly short tempered enough. But, Rashel, everyone has a past. You do. I do. Should anyone be forced to carry a burden all their life? All lives are linked. His - Mine - Yours."

      That was one of Father's favourite sayings. He lived up to it as well. He helped every newcomer who came to the valley, and I think that was one of the things that made us such a close-knit community. I hadn't yet made up my mind about Shane, but Father liked him, and Father was rarely wrong in his judgement of people.

      


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