5. Desperate Times call for Desperate Measures

Thursday 14 June 1855
by Sally Wheaton

 

Alex sat slumped at a corner table in the saloon.  He watched as the door opened and Nathanial walked in, head down, mouth set in a thin line.  He knew without asking that his news would be the same.  They’d been back at the Fort for several days now, this time needing to find work to pay off their debt to Charles McKenna, but still there was no work to be found.  Nathanial shook his head as he slumped down next to Alex.  Words were unnecessary.  They both knew what the answers were so why ask the questions.

 

A sharp, screeching noise drew their attention to the other side of the saloon as a chair was pushed back from the table, allowing its occupant to stand slowly, his cold, dark eyes boring into the two of them from across the room.  He was a large-framed man with longish, almost black hair, somewhat straggly and greasy, and a moustache to match.  As usual he was dressed all in black.  Within seconds of standing, he was flanked by a group of five men, all ranged slightly behind him, arms folded across their chests.  The man stood perfectly still, staring at Alex and Nathanial for a long moment, not even blinking, his face expressionless.  After a moment, he turned his head sideways and spat on the floor.  He returned his eyes to the two men and then very slowly, deliberately, he raised his hand to his hat, tipped it toward them, turned and strode out of the door.  The group of five men hurriedly picked up the cash he’d left on the table in front of him and scampered out after him.

 

Alex let out a sigh of relief.  “We have to find work.”

 

“Ah now, don’t be letting the bully get to you,” replied Nathanial.

 

 

“Nathanial, I’m not a man to scare easily, but that was clearly a threat – come up with the money by Saturday – or …”

 

 

“And that’s exactly what he wants you to be thinking.”

 

 

“You don’t think that was a threat?”

 

 

“Ah now, I didn’t say that,” grinned Nathanial as Alex shook his head in disbelief.  “T’was a threat alright, but he won’t be carrying it out until Saturday.  For now, he’s just trying to bully us.”

 

 

“And I suppose you think we’ll find a way of getting the money by Saturday then?”

 

 

“No,” admitted Nathanial.  “I don’t.”

 

 

***

 

 

Friday 15 June 1855

 

 

He was there again the next morning, watching them from across the street as they walked into Joe Cooper’s store yet again.

 

 

“Morning Joe, I don’t suppose you’re hiring this morning?”

 

 

“No, I’m not hiring this morning,” Joe Cooper replied grumpily. “Fact is, I’m lucky to still be in business myself.”

 

 

“There been some problem?” asked Nathanial.

 

 

“You bet there’s been some problem.  I was robbed last night.  A couple of mean, drunken fellas got the drop on me, tied me up back here and helped themselves from the cash register.”

 

 

“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Alex.

 

 

“Yeah, well I won’t be hiring help for a long time now.  Won’t be able to afford to. I’m gonna have to do everything myself for a good long time now.  So you needn’t be coming in here again asking.”

 

 

Joe Cooper was clearly not in the mood for conversation, so Alex and Nathanial hurriedly bid goodbye and made their way back out onto the street.

 

 

“You know, I can almost understand it,” said Alex sadly.

 

 

Nathanial nodded and shrugged.  “There’s desperate men around.  Men just doing what they have to do to survive.”

 

 

“It’s certainly an easy way of solving the problem,” agreed Alex.  “Might turn out to be an easier way than the one we chose?”

 

 

Nathanial looked back towards the mercantile.  “It might at that, but it isn’t right that innocent men end up hurt.”

 

 

“You’re right.  Joe Cooper didn’t deserve that.”

 

 

***

 

 

“Seems like a big risk to me,” Nathanial cautioned, leaning back against the bar of the saloon and gazing across the room where several games of poker were in progress.  It was late afternoon, less than a day before their debt was due.  They didn’t have the money to repay it and they’d run out of options.

 

 

Alex sighed heavily and nodded his agreement.

 

 

“Just how good a player are you anyway?” Nathanial asked.

 

 

“Not bad.” Alex shook his head and sighed again.  “Not great, either” he admitted.

 

 

“And you want to risk what little money you have on a game of chance?  You’re out of your head.”

 

 

It was Alex’s turn to look at his friend.  “Nathanial, give me one other option here, tell me one other way that we can make this money?” There was a long silence. “Just one, Nathanial, just one.  And I’ll take it.”

 

 

Nathanial threw his hands in the air in resignation.  He could think of no other way.  They’d already tried everything they knew.

 

 

“We have to pay him back in less than 24 hours. You said yourself you won’t work for the man.  So one way or another we have to find the money.”

 

 

Nathanial closed his eyes and shook his head.  “I know Alex, I know.  It’s just that …” his voice trailed off.  He did know that Alex was right, and he didn’t have any other ideas.  It was just that this seemed like a high risk strategy to him.  They could end up losing what little they did have.  “Maybe we could try that wheelwright again?”

 

 

Alex shook his head in exasperation.  “One day’s work, last time we were here.  That’s all he had – and that was only because the heavy rains meant more wagon repairs than usual.  He told us at the time it was only one day’s work.”

 

 

“Hmm,” muttered Nathanial, again knowing Alex was right.  “What about the blacksmith?”

 

 

“He said he had nothing and he’d already had a dozen men ask the same thing today.”

 

 

“The mercantiles?”

 

 

“We tried them, Nathanial.  Every day, we tried them.  Just like we tried everywhere else.  Every day.  They don’t expect to be hiring.”

 

 

“There has to be something.”

 

 

“Look around you Nathanial – what do you see?  Men like us, all desperate for work because the hoppers destroyed their crops and their livelihoods.  They all had the same idea we had, come here to look for work – and in desperation they all did the same thing we did and now they’re all desperate to make the money to repay McKenna.”

 

 

Nathanial put his head in his hands for a moment. He’d been in dire straits before of course, and had always survived.  But, he hadn’t had a wife and five children last time.  He looked at his friend and nodded slowly.  “You’re right.  We’ll come back later tonight.”

 

 

“I’ll play cautious, assess the other players, take my time,” Alex assured him.

 

 

Again, Nathanial nodded.  “Desperate times call for desperate measures.”

 

 

***

 

 

It was already dark and the streets were almost deserted as Alex and Nathanial made their way towards the saloon.

 

 

“Do you get the feeling you’re being watched?” Alex asked Nathanial.

 

“I’ve felt that ever since we returned to town.”

 

 

“I know what you …” Alex stopped short as he caught sight of a shadowy figure moving in the darkness of an alleyway.  The two looked at each warily.

 

 

Just ahead, they saw three of McKenna’s men come out of  his office and head towards them.  One carried a large bag and the other two carried guns.

 

 

Alex looked at Nathanial.  It was hard to see the man’s expression in the dark, but he was sure Nathanial was thinking exactly the same as he was.

 

 

Again, he saw a movement in the shadows.  As they passed an alleyway, he thought he could see several figures in the darkness, though it was hard to be sure.  A shiver ran down his spine.  They were within hours of their deadline for paying back the debt and McKenna knew they hadn’t found any work.  He could feel the noose tightening around him.  Involuntarily, he moved his hand to his neck, as if trying to push away the invisible rope.  He didn’t want to think about what might happen tomorrow.

 

 

As they approached McKenna’s men, the three of them stopped and stood still, watching Alex and Nathanial approach.  They passed cautiously, expecting to be stopped or even jumped on from behind.

 

 

Two of the men started calling out.

 

 

“Well, look who it is.”

 

 

“Are you running scared?”

 

 

“Gonna be some fun tomorrow morning, boys”

 

 

The third man remained silent, simply twirling his gun, ending with it briefly pointing in their direction.

 

 

Alex and Nathanial kept walking, their eyes steadfastly looking forward and were surprised as they passed them and then started to put some distance between them and still nothing more had happened.  After a few moments, they heard men’s footsteps moving on down the street, away from them.

 

 

Alex turned towards Nathanial to comment, but before he could say anything, they heard the sounds of a scuffle from behind them, down the street.  They turned just in time to see several men jump out of numerous alleys and shadows and get the drop on McKenna’s heavies.  It was difficult to make out with all the movement in the darkness, but Alex reckoned there were at least seven or eight of them.

 

 

Nathanial pulled Alex into an alleyway, realising that they didn’t want to be seen, nor involved.  They watched the fight as the seven or eight men quickly got the better of McKenna’s men.  Punches were thrown and it wasn’t long before all three of McKenna’s hirelings lay still on the ground.  Two of the group pulled several smaller bags out of the large bag which McKenna’s men had been carrying and then threw it back on the ground.  Silently, the group disappeared as quickly as they had appeared.

 

 

McKenna’s three men were still lying on the ground, not moving.  Cautiously, Alex and Nathanial approached.

 

 

“These two are alive,” whispered Alex.

 

 

“This one too,” replied Nathanial.

 

 

Alex started to bend a little closer towards one of the men, but Nathanial put an arm out to stop him.

 

 

“Be careful.  He might be conscious, just waiting for you to do that – and if he thinks you’re the one who beat him up …”

 

 

Alex nodded, but continued to bend towards the man, quietly, cautiously.  After a quick look over him, he stood up again.

 

 

“There were no gunshots, doesn’t look like there’s any serious injuries.  They took a beating, but they’ll come round in a moment.”

 

 

Even as he spoke, the man grunted and moved, his arm lifting to his bruised face.

 

 

Alex couldn’t help himself, he kicked out towards him.  He hardly touched him, but it was enough to cause the man to roll over.  He landed on the large bag which was lying close to him and several of the smaller bags fell out of it onto the ground.  One of them opened as it fell and a bunch of dollar bills flew out, scattering across the street.

 

 

“They’ll survive,” said Nathanial.  “Nothing much we can do for them.”

 

 

“You’re right,” replied Alex.  “Come on, let’s get to the saloon, the barkeep can send someone out to them.”

 

 

***

 

 

Saturday 16 June 1855

 

 

Charles McKenna rose from behind the big sturdy desk.  “Good morning, gentlemen,” he sneered.  “I’ve been looking forward to our meeting.  Certainly doesn’t look like the luck has been with you in finding work.”  His eyes hardened as he spoke and two of his men appeared as if from nowhere, to stand at his side.  Nathanial glanced behind him to see two more men now standing either side of the door.

 

 

McKenna leaned forward across the desk.  “Now you gentlemen can’t tell me you haven’t been warned.  I believe the consequences of non payment of your debt have been made quite clear.”

 

 

He sat in his chair, leaned back and slowly crossed one leg over the other. He watched them, his hands arching under his chin.  “I’m sure I can find some suitable – work – for you two.”

 

 

Nathanial glanced across at Alex, whose face showed not a hint of fear, then reached into his jacket pocket and laid a wad of cash on the desk in front of McKenna.  McKenna stared at it, disbelievingly.  He looked up at Nathanial, his eyes narrowed into a thin line.

 

 

“Count it,” Nathanial told him.  “You’ll find it’s all there.”

 

 

McKenna raised an eyebrow, then slowly picked up the cash and counted it.

 

 

“Like he said,” said Alex coldly, “it’s all there.”

 

 

McKenna looked from one to the other, puzzled.  “Where did you get this?”

 

 

“Won it.  At poker,” Alex replied.

 

 

McKenna frowned.  “At poker? But I’ve seen you play.  You’re simply not that good.”

 

 

“What does it matter?” asked Nathanial.  “It’s all there.  Every dollar.  The debt is paid.”

 

 

McKenna stood and eyed them suspiciously across the table.  “Oh it matters,” he said slowly, his tone threatening.  “It matters.  You didn’t win this at poker.”

 

 

“It doesn’t matter,” said Nathanial.  “We repaid the debt. It’s over McKenna.”

 

 

With that Alex and Nathanial turned and walked out of the office.

 

 

Charles McKenna stared after them.  He took a swig from the small silver flask he kept in his pocket.  “This isn’t over,” he said, quietly.  “It’s not over.”

 

 

***

 

 

Sunday 17 June 1855

 

 

“Ma!” called eight-year-old Nate Curry.  “Look Ma, look who’s here!”

 

 

Elizabeth ran out of the house, wiping her hands on her apron.  “Who is …” she started to ask, but stopped when she saw the wagon approaching.  Was it them?  She peered hard into the distance, watching it come closer until it was close enough that she could make out Nathanial waving madly at her.  A broad smile lit up her face.

 

 

“Nathanial!”

 

 

“Lizzie!” he shouted back, getting closer by the moment.

 

 

“You’re home,” she smiled as the wagon pulled up beside her.

 

 

“Sure, I am,” Nathanial’s smile matched hers as he jumped down from the wagon and lifted her clear off her feet, twirled her around and planted a kiss on her lips.

 

 

“Nathanial!” she swatted at him playfully and blushed, though the smile remained on her face.

 

 

“It’s good to be home, Lizzie,” he smiled. “Believe me, it’s good to be home.”

 

 

He had no sooner placed her back on the ground, than he was surrounded by a happy group of children, each one calling him excitedly, each wanting to be picked up.  He hugged and kissed each one enthusiastically, marvelling at his blessings.

 

 

“Alex!  Welcome home,” Elizabeth called, spotting Alex walking towards the house.  He had his arm around Sarah and was holding Hannibal in his arms.  All three were smiling and laughing.  Clearly everyone was happy to have the men home again.

 

 

“Well now, we need a celebration,” declared Nathanial, pointing to the back of the wagon.

 

 

“Nathanial,” Elizabeth’s eyes widened as she looked at the sacks of supplies he had brought.

 

 

“I thought you’d be happy, Lizzie,” he smiled at her, then reached across and planted another kiss on her cheek.  She brushed him off, still in awe of the sacks in the wagon.

 

 

“There’s flour and sugar, corn too,” he said.  “I hope we didn’t forget anything.”

 

 

“Oh, Nathanial,” she smiled widely at him, watching as he attempted to adjust the assorted children’s arms wrapped around him, sufficiently at least to breathe.  “It’s good to have you home.”

 

 

“Well,” he said, his eyes glinting, “what are you waiting for?  How long will it take to bake a pie?”

 

 

She threw her head back with laughter.  She would be delighted to make a pie for everyone.  After so many months of scrimping and struggling to get by, it would be wonderful to bake something rich and sweet.

 

 

“I’ll have it ready in no time at all,” she declared.  “Come on into the house everyone.”

 

 

Hugging, kissing, chattering and laughing, the noisy group followed her into the kitchen.

 

 

The men were home, the crops were growing and the food stores were replenished.  Nathanial was right, it was time to celebrate.

 

 

 

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