3. Whatever It Takes…

Monday 21 May 1855

by Sally Wheaton

 

“Sorry gentlemen,” replied the owner of the saw mill.  “I’d like to help you, but I can’t.  And I’ve had seven other men asking the same thing already this morning.”

 

“Thanks anyway,” Alex sighed as he and Nathanial left the mill.  His eyes lingered for a moment on the stacks of milled lumber, half hidden behind the new machinery.  He breathed in the distinctive smell of the cut wood.  Ordinarily he would have been fascinated by the new saw mill, excited by the prospects of building with flat planks of wood and all the new possibilities that opened up.  The mill had only been open for a few months and already it was one of the busiest places in town. Yet still, there were no jobs.

 

They were becoming more and more despondent of ever finding work.  They’d been at the Fort for ten days now and so far, they’d managed only one day’s work.  That had been labouring for the wheelwright after heavy rains had turned the wagon trails approaching the fort to deep mud, which had resulted in a greater than usual demand for wagon repairs.

 

Every day they made the rounds of every store and business and every day the answers were the same.  When they’d first arrived at the Fort, they’d fully expected to be able to find work and earn enough to buy what they needed. It was a busy army fort as well as a bustling town, thanks to the almost constant stream of wagon trains passing through.

 

What Alex and Nathanial needed, and quickly, was seed.  The grasshopper plagues of last autumn and this spring had left them facing serious problems.  They’d had to use what little supplies they’d had to feed their families as well as the animals which provided an important source of food.  Without seed there would be no harvest at all this year.  If they could buy some quickly and plant it right away, there just might be a decent crop by late summer.  Neither man wanted to think about the prospect of trying to feed their families through the coming winter with no harvest.  One way or another, they had to get that seed.

 

Unfortunately, they weren’t the only ones whose crops and livelihoods had been destroyed by the hoppers.  It seemed like every man for miles around had had the same idea and was in the town looking for work.  The town was generally prosperous, but with all the extra men, there just wasn’t enough work for everyone.

 

 

The two men crossed the road and made their way into Joe Cooper’s mercantile.  Once again, the answer was the same – just as they’d known it would be.  There was no work, and no, Joe did not expect to be hiring tomorrow.  They thanked him anyway, as they did every day.

 

 

As they moved towards the door, Alex spotted the sacks of seed.  “The supplies of seed look to be dwindling,” he commented to Nathanial.  “Someone somewhere is buying it.”

 

 

“You gents looking to buy seed?” Joe asked, watching them sympathetically.

 

 

“We would be,” Alex replied, “if we had the money, but nobody’s hiring.”

 

 

“Hmm.  It’s been difficult I know,” Joe was a short, stocky man, a kindly fellow who hated to see so many men as desperate as they were.  “You’d want to be hurrying up though, time for planting is getting short.”

 

 

“As we well know,” Alex nodded.

 

 

“We’re open to ideas,” added Nathanial.

 

 

Joe Cooper frowned.  “There’s been many a desperate man in this store the last few days.  Most of ‘em eventually take the only way out I know.”

 

 

Alex and Nathanial looked at each other, then turned and came back to the counter.

 

 

“Way out?” asked Nathanial, cautiously.

 

 

“Like I said, them were desperate men.”  He paused. “Maybe I should tell you who has been buying that seed?”

 

 

“We’re desperate enough to listen,” replied Nathanial.

 

 

“There’s a man in town, sees his way fit to make money out of fellas like yourselves, likes to take advantage of a poor man. It ain’t an easy option, you can get yourselves in worse trouble than you’re in now, but it is an option, if you aint got no others.”

 

 

“It looks pretty bad from where I’m standing,” replied Alex.

 

 

Nathanial nodded.  “Tell us more.”

 

 

“He buys the seed from me and then he sells it on to men who aint got the money to buy it.”

 

 

“If you ain’t got the money to buy it, how does he sell it to you?” asked Nathanial.

 

 

“He lets ya have it for one tenth of the price, he even lets ya go home and plant it.  Then you come back here and work ‘til you’ve paid him what you owe – which is more’n the original price of the seed of course.  Like I said, he makes his money out of poor men.”

 

 

“It’s tempting of course, risky though,” Alex replied.

 

 

Cooper shrugged.  “It’s a dangerous game for sure.  If ya can’t pay him by the date he gives you …, well, like I said it’s a dangerous game.  His, er, Men don’t take kindly to those who don’t pay up.  I heard they search out those who disappear and …, well, let’s just say they all pay in the end.”

 

 

“And if you come back and there’s still no more work than there is now?” asked Nathanial.

 

 

“Then you always have the option of working for him.”

 

 

Nathanial and Alex looked at each other, fully understanding the implications of that.

 

 

“We should turn and walk out of here right now,” said Alex.

 

 

“Ah, that we should,” replied Nathanial.  There was a long pause before he finally added.  “Don’t look like we have yet though.”

 

 

Alex nodded seriously, considering.  “We should.”

 

 

“Yes, we should,” agreed Nathanial.

 

 

Another long silence followed.

 

 

“But …” Alex began.

 

 

“… We can’t, can we?” Nathanial finished for him.

 

 

“Nathanial, we should leave.”

 

 

“And be doing what Alex?  We need that seed.  I’ve five children to feed, have you thought about that?”

 

 

“Yes,” Alex stared across the street.  “Yes, I’ve thought about that.”

 

 

“Five children, Alex.  I don’t have any choice.  I have to do whatever it takes.”

 

 

Alex looked at him for a long time.

 

 

“You don’t have to be coming with me, if you don’t want to Alex, there’ll be no hard feelings, but I have to feed my family.”

 

 

“I have a family too, Nathanial,” sighed Alex.  “I’ll be right alongside you.”

 

 

“There’s one more thing,” added Nathanial.

 

 

“What’s that?”

 

 

“Whatever happens, I won’t work for him.  Not ever.”

 

 

Alex half smiled and nodded at his friend.  “I’m agreed on that.”

 

 

Joe Cooper had been watching them carefully.  “Down the street, past the lumber yard, next door to the doctor’s office.  Ask for Charles McKenna and tell him I sent you.”

 

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