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Authors: Gwen Kirkwood

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‘Man, ye canna be serious! I know some of the dairy cows have been a bit neglected recently but at
least they are in good condition and most of them are decent commercial cows. Then there’s a bunch of good in-calf heifers and another thirty young heifers ready to go to the bull.’

‘That’s as maybe, but it will be a while before they bring me a profit and there’s a lot of dairy farmers going out of business these days. I can pick and choose.’

‘Aye and there’s a good many herds doubling and trebling numbers, like factory farms. I hear you’re supplying a lot of them in your area so don’t tell me there’s no trade.’ The trouble was the dealer had already met Jane Lennox before he looked at her cattle. He knew she was desperate for a quick deal so she could get away from everything. It was like taking sweets from a baby.

‘You’re taking advantage, man. The woman’s come through a lot of trouble. She’s still in shock. She’ll regret it later if she accepts your offer, and she’ll probably blame me then.’

‘Take it or leave it. It’s all one to me.’ Hanson shrugged. Alex sighed heavily. The man was a dealer; they didn’t have room for compassion.

‘Give her twenty-four hours to decide.’

‘I got the impression she’d give me her answer straightaway,’ Hanson said huffily. ‘I reckon she’ll accept it.’

‘Maybe she will, but we’ll let you know tomorrow,’ Alex insisted firmly. In his heart he knew the man was right. When he told Jane the price Hanson was offering, she nodded vaguely. She was younger than him but she looked twenty years older with her pale, strained face.

‘I told him we needed until tomorrow to consider,’ Alex said. ‘He knows you want a quick sale and his offer is barely half their true value. Sleep on it and I’ll ask Sam and some of the neighbours if they have any better suggestions. We all owe it to Syd Lennox to get the best prices we can for his herd. That’s the last time I shall put any business Hanson’s way.’

‘You’re very kind, but don’t worry on our account, Mr Caraford,’ Jane said wearily. ‘It would give me enough capital to buy a house and get away from here. I’m thinking of taking a year’s refresher course in the work I used to do as a hospital technician.’

‘I see. Well, I’ll call to see you tomorrow in case you change your mind.’

Back at Bengairney, Alex told Ellen he felt let down by the dealer’s paltry offer.

‘I called in on Sam but he can’t think of any other dealer who would take the whole herd off her hands and it’s no use somebody picking out the best. They have all to be sold.’

‘Surely in the circumstances the local auctioneer could arrange an on-farm sale, even at this short notice?’ Ellen suggested. ‘Trevor and I managed it more than once for people in trouble, usually
bankruptcy
, but for whatever reason they needed a quick sale. The machinery will have to be sold anyway and Mr Lennox seemed to have more capital tied up in it than most farmers can afford these days.’

‘Yes, he did. We haven’t considered that aspect. His son, Derek, always wanted the latest gadgets and Syd Lennox humoured him. He has three good
tractors
and an old banger for a start, as well as silage machinery and a feeder wagon, the plough, a new
seed drill, his Land Rover and cattle trailer and all the small tools and machinery. Aye, now you mention it, Ellen, that will bring a fair amount of money and whatever Jane Lennox thinks now it will all be needed by the time young Fenella gets her
education
. She may want to buy into a veterinary practice eventually. I’ll telephone the auction mart and see if a sale can be arranged at short notice. The trouble is everything closes down for a fortnight over Christmas and New Year. It would be a rush, but Sam can’t go on milking cows at Highfold once Billy goes back to university. We would need to aim for a sale by the end of January at the latest. Even if we couldn’t get all the cattle clipped and shampooed for the sale day it would be no worse than letting Jane Lennox accept the pittance yon rascal is offering,’ he added bitterly.

‘You’re a good man, Alex,’ Ellen said softly. ‘There’s nothing in all this for you except a lot of hard work preparing.’

‘Most neighbours rally round to help if they can in times of trouble. Anyway I reckon I’m the luckiest man on earth these days,’ Alex said with a smile and drew her into his arms for a long kiss. They pulled apart when Kim appeared in the kitchen.

‘Am I interrupting something?’ she asked with a mischievous grin. It made her feel happy and warm inside to see Aunt Ellen with pink cheeks, looking happy and bright eyed.

‘Nothing that willna get better with keeping, lassie,’ Alex said, returning her smile, his blue eyes crinkling. Kim was pleased he always treated her more as an equal than as an ignorant child. ‘I’ll give Sam a ring to make sure he agrees and is willing to help, then I’ll
talk to the auctioneers. Some of the neighbours will lend a hand once they hear we’re getting ready for a farm sale, especially knowing Mrs Lennox’s circumstances. It’s a bit like the five barley loaves and two small fishes in the Bible – brings out the best in folk, well, in some folk anyway.’

Unfortunately the firm of auctioneers said they couldn’t squeeze in such a big on-farm sale at short notice, what with Christmas holidays, all the advertising needed, lists and details to be compiled, not to mention sale stickers and purchasers’ cards.

‘Too many people are on holiday. How would Mrs Lennox like a sale about Easter?’

‘I told them Mrs Lennox wouldn’t,’ Alex muttered when he returned to the kitchen to report. ‘Neither could Sam keep on helping all that time. Mrs Lennox would need to employ a relief milker. Some are good, but some are unreliable, even if she can get one.’

‘I know it’s short notice but I reckon I could do it,’ Ellen said, her soft mouth firming with determination. ‘I concentrated mainly on the furniture sales once we became established because Trevor didn’t know much about antiques and I’d built up that side of our business, but I took a turn at selling with him when we had a big farm sale.’

‘But Aunt Ellen, wouldn’t you lose your voice if you did it all yourself? And who would do the clerking?’ Kim asked. She had listened to these discussions between her father and aunt for as long as she could remember.

Ellen looked at her thoughtfully. ‘You’re right, Kim.’ She frowned in concentration, chewing her lower lip. ‘I’ll tell you what, though, if we could arrange it for
the end of January, my old partner’s son, John Price, might come up and lend a hand. He hasn’t had time to build up a lot of clients yet. He’s young but he has a good voice and a pair of sharp eyes, just like you, Kim. You’ll have to stand up beside me and look for any discreet bidders. They are all strangers to me here. You get familiar with the way some people bid with barely a flicker of a muscle, and you get to know what certain customers are likely to want. Yes, I’d like to have a go, Alex, if you’re willing? John Price married the clerk out of our offices so he would probably bring Anne with him to lend a hand. They would need to stay with us a couple of nights or so. What do you think?’

‘It will depend more what Mrs Lennox decides,’ Alex said with a sigh. ‘We’ll call on her tomorrow morning and see what she’s saying, but don’t be disappointed if she has decided to let the cattle go for a pittance.’

The following morning Alex had just come in for breakfast after finishing the milking when the telephone rang. Ellen answered it.

‘It’s Jane Lennox. For you, Alex. She sounds agitated.’

‘The man who came to see the cattle, Mr Hanson, telephoned last night,’ she said breathlessly. ‘He said he needed a quick decision. It was Fenella who answered and she told him our herd was not for sale at the price he was offering. She – she heard your opinion, Mr Caraford, so she told him it needed to be a third higher. He refused and slammed the
telephone
down. I–I know she’s right, and so are you, b–but I don’t know what to do now. I know Sam can’t
keep on helping us out the way he is doing.’

‘Don’t worry, Mrs Lennox,’ Alex said cheerfully. ‘We’ll come over to see you later this morning. My wife has come up with a suggestion.’ He looked up and smiled at Ellen across the kitchen. He liked the words ‘my wife’. ‘We’ll discuss it with you and your daughter and take it from there. Tell Fenella to keep on sorting out those passports though. We can’t move anything without them being right.’

‘Oh, thank you, thank you so much.’ Alex could hear the relief in her voice.

‘Thank goodness the girl is tougher than her mother and has seen sense,’ Ellen said. ‘It can be a harsh world out there. She’ll be glad of the money one day.’

Much later, while their elders discussed arrangements for an on-farm sale, Kim helped Fenella sort out and check more of the records.

‘Uncle Alex says the new duplicate ear tags will not come until a fortnight after Christmas so we need to keep them separate,’ Kim said.

‘How come you understand about all this?’ Fenella asked curiously. ‘I mean, you didn’t even live on a farm, did you?’

‘Uncle Alex explained all about the ear tags and the birth registrations and he lets me help him when he’s tagging the young calves. When I’m helping him in the milking parlour he often tells me about the different cow families and stories about when he and Uncle Sam were boys, and about his parents. Bengairney must have been a very happy place. He remembers some of the grandparents and great-grandparents of cow families which are still in the herd and it makes it all more interesting and easier to remember each
one as an individual – rather than just another black and white animal.’

‘You really are keen, aren’t you?’ Fenella mused. ‘I used to come out on the farm to help. Ours are not pedigree animals but I loved the calves and we had sheep too, but when Derek left school he was so spiteful and nasty most of the time that I stopped going anywhere near him. I concentrated on my schoolwork, especially once I knew I wanted to be a vet. Liam wasn’t interested in farming but he always helped in the holidays because he thought it was our duty to help repay him for giving us a home and food and clothes.’

‘Did you always say “him”, never Father or Dad?’ Kim asked.

‘We used to call him Dad, because that’s what Derek called him and we couldn’t remember our own father. Now that I’m older I think Derek resented us even then. It was only after Derek was killed and he started treating Mother so badly that I stopped calling him Dad. He was always so strong and fit. I didn’t understand he was so ill mentally. I hated him latterly but Mum blames herself. She thinks she should have insisted on having him admitted to hospital for his own sake. She was never this pathetic and – and indecisive before.’

‘Uncle Alex thinks the shock will wear off. He is very relieved you didn’t accept the dealer’s offer. He feels responsible and he says she would have blamed him later. They are going to try and organize a sale from the farm. It will be an awful lot of work for everybody. Do you think your mother will cope?’

‘It may be good for her. Force her out of her
lethargy, perhaps? Deep down she thinks she has no right to the money from the farm but there are no close relatives and she was his wife for years. She did her best for all of us, including Derek, trying to help him see right from wrong.’

When Billy heard about the farm sale he suggested Michael Appleby might help with compiling the lists of stock and machinery on his computer, drafting adverts about the sale for the local newspapers and printing sale cards. Fenella was secretly pleased by this suggestion but she didn’t comment. The more she got to know Michael, the better she liked him, but most of her contact with him was via email rather than in person. She felt instinctively that he was sincere and trustworthy.

‘Michael is always pleased to earn some extra cash in the holidays,’ Billy said, ‘and he has a methodical mind. He’s a wiz on the computers.’

Ellen was impressed when he presented some rough proofs to her.

‘You can come and clerk for me any day when I begin to have furniture sales,’ she told him with a smile.

‘Are you really going to set up in business with the furniture? Even now you’re married?’ Jane Lennox asked.

‘Of course. Alex is quite agreeable. I shall keep it small enough to manage – quality more than quantity, but sometimes you need to be able to empty a house completely to pick out the pieces you want. I shall have plenty of storage with the Charmwood barns. I love my work.’

‘Do you think you could sell my furniture at the
farm sale? There’s only a few things I want to keep. Most of it will not fit in a modern house and I don’t want to pay for storage. There were five of us and now there’s only me. I don’t need all the bedroom suites.’

‘You decide what you want to keep then and show me the rest. If you have any antique pieces I will give you a better price than you will get as part of a farm sale, unless you prefer to sell them privately?’

‘Oh no. I’d be happy for you to take anything you want.’

‘She is grateful, but so naïve I can’t believe it,’ Ellen said when she and Alex were in bed later that evening. ‘She has a beautiful walnut dining table and all the leaves in a stand in the hall. She would have given it to me for the sake of getting it removed. She is delighted with the prices I have offered for that and one of the bedroom suites and a few other smaller items, and I know I can make a profit. There were several valuable ornaments which had belonged to Jane’s grandmother. She didn’t realize they are valuable until I told her, but she doesn’t want to sell them anyway, and I don’t blame her.’

The sale was arranged for a Saturday at the end of January so that Billy and Michael could be home to help with the clerking and records and Kim could be present to help Ellen. It was very well attended with neighbours giving their support as buyers and bidders, as well as helping to set out machinery and arrange straw bales for a sale ring. It proved to be a great success and Lou Hanson, the dealer, bought several cows at twice the price he had offered. This amused Alex. Fenella and Jane were both overwhelmed with gratitude.

‘I don’t know how I could have got through everything without your help and organization,’ Jane told Ellen, ‘and Alex and Sam and Billy have been wonderful. I do believe I shall miss you all now the time has come to leave.’

BOOK: Darkest Before Dawn
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