Them Thar Hills

They had a decent sort of property, a bit rough in parts, but it was theirs. They raised cattle, sheep and a few pigs, and heaps of chooks. They grew wheat and canola, lentils and corn, and they fattened a pig each year in time for Christmas. Not a bad life, really.

And then one morning Jimmy came bursting into the kitchen, excited as hell. He almost skidded to a halt at the kitchen table and stood there trying to catch his breath. He pointed through the door.

‘Gold!’ he blurted.

‘What?’ asked Dad. He thought Jimmy had said ‘gold’, but that seemed unlikely.

Jimmy held out his hand and slowly opened his fingers, displaying a small nugget of something that certainly looked like gold. The family peered at the nugget, astonished.

‘And that’s not all,’ Jimmy exclaimed, dragging a small bottle from his pocket and holding it up for them all to see. ‘Oil.’ It certainly looked like oil, black and treacley.

Jimmy, home from university for the summer, had put his new-found knowledge of mineralogy to good use. The family listened, amazed, as Jimmy told them of everything else he had found. ‘There’re opals down by the creek, copper and tin in the hills behind the house, uranium, bauxite, iron and sulphur, and heaven knows what else.’

Mum put the kettle on and they sat around the table to think it all out.

Dad took an old envelope from his pocket and a stub of pencil from behind his ear and started to make a list of everything that they would need. ‘Eight shovels,’ he wrote. ‘That’s one for everyone except Mum,’ he explained. ‘No, hang on, better make it nine, in case one gets broke.’

‘Dad,’ said Jimmy in an exasperated tone, ‘that’s not the way to go about it.’ And he explained that with all that wealth in the ground, they would need lots of money for heavy equipment, and experts in each of the minerals he had found, and accountants and solicitors and vehicles and miners by the thousand, and builders to house the miners and shops to sell them stuff and hotels to cater for visiting executives and swimming pools for everyone to play in and...

‘Now hang on a bit, son,’ Dad interrupted. ‘Why don’t we just get some picks and shovels and things and dig the stuff up for ourselves?’

‘Take too long, for a start,’ answered Jimmy; ‘And anyway, why should we break our backs now we’re rich?’

Dad looked around the farmhouse. It looked pretty much the same as it always had. The roof needed mending and they could do with a new carpet in the lounge. Didn’t feel as though he was rich. ‘Well I reckon we should get a bit of gear and start digging. Do the first bit by hand, and when we can afford better equipment we can buy it for ourselves. Get the stuff out of the ground bit by bit. From the sound of it, there’s enough to keep us busy and pretty well off for generations.’

The youngsters around the table giggled. ‘Dad,’ said Fred, ‘you’re living in the past. We lease out the various plots, let someone else invest their money and we sit back and take royalties on the minerals. We’ll be rich in no time, and all without lifting a finger.’

Dad scratched his head. ‘Sounds to me as though we’d be just giving it all away to other people if we do that. And it’s all very well getting rich quick, but what about your grandchildren? The money will have been spent by the time they arrive, and the farm won’t be much good after all that digging. Why don’t we just buy some shovels?’

But his sons wouldn’t have it, and in the end he gave in.

Jimmy and Fred and all the other children dashed off into town to organise things, and in no time at all it all came true.

Strange men in funny clothes arrived at the farm, stuffed large bundles of money into Dad’s pockets, and clattered around all day and most nights making a terrific din and lots of mess. Trucks trundled back and forth, engines whined and generators droned.

Explosions rocked the foundations of the farmhouse, and Mum complained that the chooks had stopped laying.

But the kids loved it.

They bought themselves new cars and huge TVs, game consols and computers. They moved into the cities and bought very large houses in very dull but exclusive neighbourhoods, and they went overseas for holidays. They telephoned home at Christmas to say that they couldn’t get home that year. Maybe next Christmas, eh?

They complained a bit that they weren’t getting quite as much money as they had expected, but the miners explained that it was proving much more expensive to get the stuff out of the ground than they had thought at first. And with so much of their minerals on the market, prices had dropped away.

But they were, after all, getting nearly one percent of the value of the minerals, and even at the new depressed prices they were making a fortune.

But one day, a few miles up the valley, another farmer found that he, too had huge deposits of gold, oil, bauxite, opals, iron, copper, coal and all the other minerals on his farm, and his were easier to dig up, too.

Overnight the miners, the engineers, geologists and all the rest of them moved out, setting up their equipment at the new site.

Mum and Dad sat on their verandah that evening and looked out over the hole that had once been their farm. They sat in their rocking chairs, and tried to look at the stars through the clouds of dust that still hung in the air.

‘Chooks might start laying again soon,’ said Mum.

Dad nodded. ‘I was just wondering if I should build a pig pen in time for Christmas,’ he said. ‘Reckon Jimmy and the rest of them will be coming home before long. Rate they’ve been spending, they’ll need somewhere to stay.’

‘Think you’ll be able to plough that lot?’ asked Mum, pointing to the hole.

‘Dunno,’ said Dad. ‘I expect I’ll find a way, somehow.’

Mum looked doubtful, but she she hoped he was right.