A Hundred Acres
John Holliday graded the last mathematics assignment and placed it neatly on top of the pile. Then he capped his pen, covered his inkwell, and raised himself up from behind the old wooden desk. It had been a long day at the school, and he could feel his weariness weighing him down. He was only thirty-six, but at present he felt much older. He climbed the stairs at the back of the building to the small apartment above that housed himself, his wife, and their seven children. Even with the addition he had gotten added on it was cramped with so many people, but luckily they were seldom all there at the same time during the day.
When he reached the kitchen he found his wife Margaret preparing a stew on the stove with the assistance of their seven-year-old daughter Janet. The eldest daughter Jane was looking after the infant James and toddler George, while the rest of the family was elsewhere. "Good evenin' Maggie," he said, crossing the room to sit down heavily at the kitchen table. "How're things goin' tonight?"
"Well as can be expected, I s'pose. Couple of the bairns got a bit of the sniffle, but that's February for ye."
"I hope supper's not too close on ready, I got to go collect George McNab's tithe. He's due to pay up this week and he owes from last month too. I wish I didna have to go around collecting money from folks, but you know there's no one else in the Parish has enough 'rithmetic to be Officer. I'll try to be back soon." With that he made his way back down the stairs to the back door, where he stopped to put on his coat, hat, and scarf before setting out on the road. Once outside, the cold wind of a Scottish February whipped at him, succeeding in finding every gap in his clothing that would let it in. He walked along the frozen dirt road to the crossroads at the center of the little town of Boreland, turned right, and continued to the butcher shop that George McNab ran and lived above. He pounded on the door for what seemed like a long time until it finally it opened and admitted him into the dark butcher's shop. Without a word he followed the stout McNab upstairs where there was a fire in the hearth.
"What took ye so long? It's bloody cold out there!" he said, taking off his hat and holding out his hands to the fire.
"I was asleep," the butcher responded, shrugging his beefy shoulders.
"Right, and yeh've also just been crowned King of England," John said, exasperated. "Ye're just plain lazy McNab, ye know that? Anyway, I didna come to tell ye how to run yer life. Yer tithe is due to the Parish this week, and ye owe from last month too."
"I know, I know," the other man sighed, as he made his way heavily to a cabinet in the corner. He took out the owed money and handed it to the taller man, who pocketed it quickly. "Yeh've heard about the Deal then, 'ave ye?" he asked, changing the subject. John could hear the capital 'D.'
"No, I don't know what ye're talkin' about."
"I figured ye'd know all about it, working for the Parish an' all that." The butcher seemed to swell with the knowledge that he knew something John did not. "The minister of the Parish and the Boreland Post Office both got a notice this mornin' from the government in London. They want people to move to Upper Canada to settle the land and keep the Americans from trying to take it like they did in the war that jut ended. It says they're going to give anyone who goes a hundred acres of land, and the same to each of his sons 'on attaining his majority,' like when he grows up. And -I made special note of this, thinking of you— there's a possible salary of fifty pounds sterling for a schoolteacher."
This outpouring on the part of the stout butcher left him slightly winded, and it was a while before John responded. "Are ye leading me on? No, I can tell ye aren't. A hundred acres, ye say? I wonder what the land is like in Canada."
"I don't know. I don't care too much, myself. I don't have any sons to pass the land on to, so I for one won't be going. But I heard Francis Allan say that he'd do anything for a farm the size of what he'd get in Canada, what with three grown sons and all. He said he'll go if the ship leaves tomorrow."
John glanced at the clock in the corner and gave a start. "Look at the time. I'd better be getting home- Margaret will have supper on the table."
"It's quite a deal they're offerin'," McNab said as John pulled on his hat and headed toward the stairs. "I'd give it some serious thinking if I were you."
And he did, all the way home and through supper. He helped Margaret put the children to bed, and then finally broached the subject to his wife. "I heard some interesting news from George McNab while I was over there," he began. He told Margaret everything he had heard about the Deal, finally coming to the point. "I think we should go. Even workin' as Officer of the Parish, I earn less than twenty-five pounds, and this apartment is too small for us here."
"Are ye sure about this, John? It's a lot bigger than movin' here from Berryscaur, and then we only had little John with us."
"But think about it Maggie. A hundred acres and fifty pounds for me to be a schoolteacher. We're never going to get anything like that here. It's a once in a lifetime opportunity."
Margaret's face was coloring. She normally kept all her emotions completely hidden, so John knew that this meant she was under real distress. When she spoke, her voice cracked. "What about the bairns, John? Little James is barely one year old, how is he going to make it through a trip to Canada? We canna go, not like this."
"I've thought about that. What are they going to do when they grow up? They canna all become schoolteachers like me, and the only other thing I could teach them is dyeing. My sons deserve better than that. If we move to Canada, each of them would get a hundred acres too when they're old enough. Ye don't want to deny them that opportunity, do ye?
"But it's so far," Margaret responded softly, then was silent for a long time. John could see she was deep in thought. He followed the well-known expressions on her face as she thought about the length of the journey, the age of their children, the family they would be leaving behind, and the opportunity that was before them. Suddenly her face became resolute and she looked him straight in the eyes. That was the look he had fallen in love with. "When do we leave?"