by Sally Wheaton
Alex glanced up at the sun which was now high in the sky. It would soon be time to go back to the house for a well deserved lunch. They had made good progress this morning with the seed planting, Alex with the corn planter and Hannibal following behind him covering the seed with soil. Alex gazed across the rows they’d already planted as he took a swig of water before offering it to Hannibal as the four year old happily jumped up from his task.
“I’d say those are good straight rows we’ve planted there, son.”
Hannibal handed the water back to Alex and earnestly surveyed their work. “I’d say so too,” he agreed seriously.
“We’ll finish this row and then we’ll go see what your mother has for lunch.”
Hannibal nodded as he watched Alex pick up the corn planter again. Lunch sounded good – this men’s work sure was tiring. Before he could return to what his father had called the most important part of the work – leaving the seed uncovered after all would mean most of it would be eaten by the crows – his attention was caught by the sound of an approaching wagon.
“Mr Curry!” he called out, waving madly and running toward him. Nathanial climbed down just in time to catch Hannibal as he jumped up into his arms in greeting.
“Well now,” said Nathanial, looking across the rows of corn seed, “to be sure, someone has been working hard. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such straight rows of corn.”
“Wait till they come up,” Hannibal told him happily, still in his arms, “then you’ll see how straight we planted them.”
“I sure wish I could find myself such good quality hired help.” Nathanial teased.
“I’m not hired,” Hannibal objected, laughing and poking him in the shoulder to emphasise the point.
“He sure isn’t,” added Alex, also smiling. “If he were hired, we could return him. As it is, we’re stuck with him.”
“Ah, it could be worse,” Nathanial replied in a mock serious tone. “Those are very straight lines.”
Alex winked at Hannibal, and added in a conspiratorial whisper “Certainly straighter than what I saw over at the Curry place yesterday”.
Hannibal jumped down from Nathanial’s arms. “I’ll show you how we do it.” He trotted off to take a handful of seed and then started down the half finished line, dropping the required four seeds at regular intervals. The line soon began to curve quite markedly to the left, but both Alex and Nathanial kept quiet as he trotted back for another handful. He restarted where he had finished with the last handful, but this time the line angled across towards the right. Intently he returned for a third handful, which somehow managed to create something of a zigzag pattern.
Alex knitted his eyebrows and concentrated on not laughing.
“An interesting way of creating such straight lines,” observed Nathanial, somehow keeping a straight face as Hannibal returned once more for another handful of seed.
“Well, it’s one interpretation of the word straight, albeit an artistic one,” Alex agreed. Nathanial smiled slightly and it was too much for Alex, who had to turn away to hide his laughter.
As Hannibal trotted away from them once more, Nathanial handed Alex an envelope. “I collected your mail while I was in town. I was talking to Josef Mueller at the store. He told me Charles Myers has a problem. He’s injured his leg, fell badly and twisted his knee up, and he’s struggling to get his planting done. Martin Godfrey is hoping to get a few of us together to go over tomorrow and give him a hand.”
“I’ve got a good amount sown today, I can come and give a hand too. What about you? How is the work on the new house coming along?”
Nathanial nodded. “Well enough. It’s dry and comfortable, but Lizzie is wanting bedrooms. Can ya not believe it? Bedrooms! Fancy ideas I told her. Bedrooms she told me.”
Alex smiled. “So bedrooms it is then?”
Nathanial smiled too. “Not until I’ve sold some of the pigs and made enough to buy more lumber. I’ll be there tomorrow. Myers is a good man. Hard-working too.”
“You’re right. He’s always the first one there to help newcomers build their cabins.”
“Ah, and a shame it is when they don’t appreciate the help. He was there all day two weeks ago to help Daniel Webster get his cabin built.”
“I drove past the Webster place yesterday. Doesn’t look like he’s done much more to the place since then,” sighed Alex.
“He was in town this morning. Saw him stagger out of the saloon looking the worse for the drink.”
“He should be thinking more about his planting, especially it being his first crop. He’ll likely have no crops at all for the winter.” Alex shook his head. “I can’t see that his wife will be too happy about that.”
“Josef says he’s a gambler. Says he already has gambling debts in the town.”
Alex sucked in a breath. “A gambler? He’d be well advised to steer clear of that saloon. Has anybody warned him about Charles McKenna?”
“He could be heading for serious trouble if he’s a gambler and ends up in debt to Charles McKenna. You’re right, we should have a word with him.”
Alex nodded and looked pointedly at Hannibal heading towards them, signalling to Nathanial to change the subject.
Nathanial nodded in understanding. “Well, we’ll see you over at the Myers’ place tomorrow then.”
“Yes. We’ll be there. I’m sure we can get that seed planted for them if there’s a good group of us. Oh and thanks for bringing the mail.”
“My pleasure.” He climbed back into the wagon and then turned to Hannibal. “That Hannibal, is sure the best corn planting I’ve ever seen. But don’t you be telling any of the Currys I told you that, you hear? They like to think they’re the best – and to be fair, their corn rows were pretty good last year, but we all know the truth now don’t we?”
“See you tomorrow, Nathanial” smiled Alex.
“Bye Mr Curry! Tell Esther and Jed and Nate and Zach and Beth and Ruth I said hello,” Hannibal called out.
With a smile, he started the wagon on it’s way. “I’ll be sure to do that Hannibal – if I can remember all those names!”
Hannibal laughed and waved gleefully and as Nathanial disappeared into the distance, he turned back to his father, a thoughtful expression on his face.
“Father?” he asked. “What’s a gammler?”
Alex mentally kicked himself for the conversation he’d had in his son’s earshot. Of course, one wouldn’t normally expect someone to be within earshot at that distance, but Hannibal’s lynx ears didn’t miss much that was said.
“A gambler? A gambler is someone who makes bets on a card game, or other game. All the players put in their stake and at the end of the game, the winner takes it all. It’s always risky.”
“They bet with whisky? Like the bottle you and Mr Curry drink from in the barn?”
Alex did a double take – how’d he know about that? “No, no.” He composed himself quickly and decided to gloss over the comment. “They usually play for money. It’s a risk because you can end up losing money. If you win a game you can make a lot of money, but if you lose, you can lose everything.”
“Gammling doesn’t sound like a good thing to me.”
“Well let’s just say that your mother would be very upset if she ever found out that you were gambling.”
Hannibal digested this for a moment.
“But it wouldn’t be wrong if you knew you were going to win, would it?”
“Well I don’t think you could ever know that you were going to win. That’s the problem.”
Hannibal considered this carefully.
“But” he began thoughtfully, “if you did know that you were going to win, then it wouldn’t be wrong and mother wouldn’t be upset about it, would she? Not if you knew you were going to win?”
“I suppose it would make it different,” agreed Alex, somewhat bemused. “But as I said, you could never really know that, so it’s a hypothetical question.”
Alex smiled at him. “Son, one thing I do know, is that your mother will be upset if we’re late back for lunch, so let’s start back and I’ll explain as we go.”
Hannibal nodded and the two set off for the house, Alex’s arm around his young son’s shoulder.
“So, hypothetical ….”
Alex sat down next to Nathanial and stretched his weary limbs out in front of him. It was mid-evening and though the sun was quickly lowering in the sky, it was still warm. It had been a productive day on the land. Several neighbours had come over to help Charles Myers and between them, they’d got most of the job done. In the last hour, the women and children had all arrived, bringing with them the fruits of their own day’s labour, including fried chicken, cornbread and blackberry pie. One of the things Alex enjoyed about his new life was the sense of community. The number of settlers had grown tremendously in the last couple of years since the organisation of the Territory, and things had certainly changed since their early days here, but the strong ties with neighbours remained. Today was a good example of everyone working together to solve a problem and, as was now traditional, such a day always ended with a welcome feast and a general air of celebration.
Alex’s eyes drifted across towards where Sarah was busy with the other ladies. His eyes rested on her curved shape, hardly visible yet. This time they were both more optimistic, after Hannibal.
The ladies were setting out the food on a table someone had carried outside. Even from here he could smell the appetising aromas and he realised how hungry he was after a day’s hard labour.
In front of them, the youngsters were organising a game of baseball. The older teenage boys, Will Myers and Walt Bauer, had taken charge, with a team each. The teenage girls were now clamouring to get into their preferred team. Alex smiled to himself. To his older, wiser eyes, it was obvious which of the girls liked which of the boys, but Alex would have bet a fair amount that both seventeen year old Walt and sixteen year old Will were completely oblivious to their admirers.
Elizabeth wiped her brow and surveyed the table. There was certainly plenty of food, but she knew from experience that the men would be hungry after a hard day in the fields and so they’d probably demolish everything very quickly. Sarah joined her and took a pie out of her basket. Elizabeth looked at it in surprise.
“I know,” Sarah smiled at her. “It looks like one of yours, doesn’t it? I was quite proud of it.”
“It does look delicious,” agreed Elizabeth.
“Now hold on, I said it looked like one of yours, I never promised it would taste like one of yours!”
Both women laughed. As Elizabeth looked up, she spotted Winnie Webster who had just arrived and was looking around uncertainly. Elizabeth, realising it wasn’t always easy to be new in the community, called out to her and waved her over. The other woman smiled, relieved to see a friendly face, and hurried over to join them.
“My word, there must be five pies already,” she said looking at the table. “And I’ve brought another one.”
“There can never be too many pies” said Elizabeth, making room for the extra one on the table. “Not with these men around. You wait and see, they’ll all be wanting more.”
“You’re right, I’m sure,” Mrs Webster replied. “And I must admit to having brought my husband’s favourite apple pie. I know he’ll be hungry after working all day.” She looked around. “Do you know where my husband is?” she asked.
Elizabeth looked at Sarah, puzzled, before answering slowly “I, er, no, I don’t”.
“Oh some of the men are over in the barn, maybe he’s with them?” Sarah suggested.
“Oh probably. I’ll go and have a look.”
As she wandered away, Elizabeth looked at Sarah, concerned. “Have you seen Daniel Webster here today?”
“No, I haven’t.” Sarah shook her head. “But maybe he was here before we arrived? We’ll have to ask the men.”
“Have to ask the men?” repeated Alex as he came to stand by her side. “That doesn’t sound like the woman I married! What could we possibly know that you two don’t?” he teased, reaching out a hand in an attempt to steal a blackberry.
Sarah swatted his hand away. “You’re not four years old,” she playfully scolded him.
“What does my age have to do with stealing food?” he asked. “If my wife fed me properly, I wouldn’t have to resort to stealing.”
“You’ll be fed,” she told him in a mock serious tone. “There’s enough food here to last a week.”
“Where?” he asked. “I was thinking that after the amount of work we’ve done today, it didn’t look very much.”
Sarah and Elizabeth rolled their eyes as Mrs Webster came back over to them.
“Good evening, Mr Heyes.”
“Evening, Mrs Webster, glad to have you join us.”
“Mr Heyes, have you seen my husband?” she asked. “I thought he might be in the barn, but he isn’t. Did he already leave?”
Alex glanced at Sarah and Elizabeth. “No, Mrs Webster, I’m afraid I haven’t seen your husband. Not today.”
“Not today?” she asked, surprised. “You haven’t seen him at all today?”
“No, I’m afraid not,” Alex replied slowly.
“But he said he was coming over to help with the planting. He left early this morning.”
“Well now, I’m sure I haven’t seen him, but maybe I’m mistaken. Let’s check with Nathanial.”
Nathanial was quickly called over and the situation explained to him.
“I’m sorry Mrs Webster, I haven’t seen your husband today either. I was here early myself and had breakfast with the Myers. As the men arrived, Myers was organising them into teams to work the fields. I’m certain I would have seen him if he’d been here.”
“He hasn’t been here all day? I don’t understand,” she was flustered now. “Do you think something could have happened to him on the way this morning?”
Nathanial and Alex exchanged a glance, both men had a suspicion as to where they might find Daniel.
“Maybe he had to go into town for something?” suggested Alex.
“Yes, yes, maybe you’re right, maybe that’s where he is,” Mrs Webster agreed quickly. “I’ll go into town and see if he’s there.”
“Well now, hold on, Mrs Webster. It’ll be dark soon, at least let us come with you.”
“That’s very kind of you Mr Heyes. I would appreciate it if you would.”
“Of course,” nodded Nathanial. “We’d be happy to.”
It was quickly agreed that Elizabeth would stay with the children, including Hannibal, and Nathanial and Alex, together with Sarah, would drive into town with Mrs Webster.
As everyone else drifted towards the table of food, clearly in a celebratory mood, the four of them stepped away. Alex reached out and stole a small handful of the blackberries.
“Promises, promises,” he muttered under his breath as they prepared the wagon.
The baseball game was reaching its climax. They were into the final innings and Walt’s team, with Nate, Hannibal and Jed, were losing by one run to Will’s team, with Zach, Beth and Esther. Nate had to admit it wasn’t looking too optimistic for them. Hannibal had somehow scampered around to third base so there was a chance he could get home and make it all square. The trouble was, they had only one batter left – two year old Jed Curry. Nate sighed. Jed loved the running part, but he had never yet actually managed to hit the ball.
Zach pitched to Jed. Who stood perfectly still, perhaps in shock. The ball flew right past his face, missing his nose by a whisker.
Esther, at third base, turned to Hannibal. “It’s a good job he doesn’t have your nose Hannibal, he’d have lost it.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my nose,” retorted Hannibal defensively.
“It’s pointed,” declared Esther.
“My nose is not pointed.”
“Yes it is Hannibal Heyes,” she stood her ground, hands on her hips, her face pouting. “And if Zach had pitched that close to your face, it would have taken your nose off. It’s a good job my brother doesn’t have your nose.”
“Hmph” snorted Hannibal.
Meanwhile, the ball had been returned to Zach.
“Come on Jed! You can do it!” Walt encouraged the youngest member of his team.
“Careful Zach, he’s only two” Elizabeth warned.
Jed looked across at his mother. “Propy” he told her, seriously.
“He said to do it properly,” argued Zach.
Elizabeth did no more than look at Zach, but Zach received the message loud and clear.
Zach glanced quickly at his mother, then pitched to Jed again. With a mighty effort, summoning all his strength, Jed swung the bat – and somehow connected with the ball.
Zach’s eyes widened. Even though he was on the opposing team, he had to admit he was impressed by that. The cheers went up from the grandstand as the ball looped high into the air towards third base. .
Zach turned towards Esther to cheer her on with the catch – but wait! What was she doing? She had her back to the play, her hands on her hips, her head to one side and she appeared to be arguing with Hannibal, who was still standing at third base.
“Esther!” he yelled.
“What?” she yelled back, clearly unhappy about something.
“Catch …” Zach started – but it was too late. The ball fell to the ground, hit a divot and bounced off at an angle. It bounced along the ground a way and then started to gain speed as it reached the downward slope. Will was in pursuit, but the slope gave the ball the advantage and it was gaining on him.
“RUN JED! RUN” came the cries from the grandstand as the crowd got to its feet. Jed took off as fast as his little legs could go. He could hear them shouting to him to run, so he ran and ran … and ran.
“Come on Jed!”
He was approaching first base and the cries were still as loud.
“Run Jed, Run fast!”
He reached first base and kept running.
“Come on Jed!”
On and on he ran, straight over first base and straight on past it, straight on towards the rise.
The calls from the crowd seemed even louder to him as he ran and ran.
“No Jed, that way!”
“No, Jed, NO!”
“Come back Jed”
“JED! THAT WAY!”
The voices almost seemed as one, they wanted him to run, so he ran. Nate watched him running away from the field, straight off into the distance. He shook his head. There was only one thing for it. He took off after him.
Being several years older and therefore having much longer legs, Nate soon gained on him.
“Jed! Wait! Stop!” he called breathlessly from just behind him.
Jed heard a voice and turned to see Nate running after him. He shrieked with delight as an enormous grin broke out on his face. Nate was getting close and the crowd were still calling for him – he loved Chase. It was his very favourite game!
He screamed with excitement as Nate caught up with him, expecting the game to be over. But Nate wanted him to run again, was pointing off in the other direction.
“That way Jed! Run!”
Jed howled with joy. Nate was still playing! He turned and started running again in the direction Nate was pointing, Nate running close behind him. He could hear the crowd cheering for him again.
As they turned, Nate was amazed to see that Will was still in pursuit of the ball, and still nowhere near it.
“RUN JED!” he yelled.
Jed ran on. As he approached second base, Nate overtook him on the outside.
“That way Jed, run that way!” he directed him to run straight over the second base marker and pointed towards third and Jed followed his instructions, the cheers louder and louder now.
Again, the same at third base and as Jed turned towards home, he could see as well as hear the crowd. They were on their feet, jumping up and down and shouting and cheering him, their arms in the air. He wasn’t exactly sure why they were cheering him. But they were calling to him to run, so he did and they seemed to like it. He knew they were cheering for him because he could hear his name being called over and over. As he approached home base, his face still lit up with a delighted smile, the crowd started to come towards him. He stopped running and started jumping up and down, laughing with them all.
“Will!” screamed Zach urgently, waving his arms in the air as Will turned around with the ball in his hand, ready to throw.
The noise of the crowd changed.
“Jed!” they called as one.
“Touch it Jed! Touch the base!”
Jed looked up to see everyone pointing at a hat on the ground. He didn’t know why they weren’t cheering any more. Had he done something wrong? His lip wobbled slightly as he looked up at them.
“Touch the base Jed!” they screamed, almost in unison. “Touch the base!”
He was frightened, and took a step back. What were they saying? He couldn’t understand.
Nate’s face appeared right in front of him and smiled gently. “Jed, touch the hat,” he said softly and clearly, pointing to the hat. “That’s right, just touch the hat, that’s all.”
Jed reached out a small hand and touched the hat, confused.
The crowd roared! Suddenly Jed was hoisted up on to Walt’s shoulders, high above everyone. They were cheering and clapping again, calling his name. Everyone was excited and dancing around. Walt was dancing, with him, Jed, sitting high up on his shoulders. Nate was smiling up at him. He could see his mother clapping and smiling at him. But he wasn’t sure why.
He could see Hannibal, a few yeards away, dancing around in a circle and shouting. Above the noise of the crowd, he heard Hannibal shout to him “You were great Jed! You won it!”
Jed’s face lit up again as he understood. Hannibal had said he’d won it. The chase, he must have meant the chase. He’d run all that way and Nate hadn’t caught him once. Oh, he’d been in front of him a couple of times, but everyone knew that didn’t count. It would only have counted if Nate had caught him properly and wrestled him to the ground – and he hadn’t done! He had won the chase! He’d beaten Nate! Jed threw his arms in the air and cheered himself loudly.
“Wunit” he called to everyone.
It was almost dark by the time they arrived in the town. The streets were quiet, but the saloon was well lit and the sounds of people talking and laughing drifted across the street.
Nathanial pulled up the wagon outside the saloon, feeling a little uneasy.
“I’ll go check,” he said simply, climbing out of the wagon. Alex nodded, fully expecting him to find Daniel Webster inside.
Five minutes later, Nathanial re-appeared, looking grim. He signalled to Alex to give him a hand.
“Mrs Webster,” he said gently. “Your husband is inside the saloon. He is a little, well actually more than a little, worse for the drink.”
She gasped, clearly shocked by this news.
“I think it’d be best if we get him into the wagon and then we’ll take you home. Your husband just needs to sleep it off I’m sure. He’ll have nothing more serious than a hangover in the morning.”
She nodded lamely, her hand still over her mouth, her eyes wide. Sarah put an arm around her shoulder in support.
Another five minutes later, Nathanial and Alex half carried, half dragged Daniel Webster out of the saloon. He was clearly inebriated, staggering and shouting at the top of his voice. They hauled him up into the wagon, where he collapsed into a heap. Mrs Webster instinctively pulled away as she saw the state he was in. Sarah took her hand and gave it a squeeze, grateful that it wasn’t her husband in that sorry state.
After seeing the Websters safely home, the three of them returned to the Myers’. The party was just breaking up as they arrived and Alex carefully helped Sarah down. As she went off to find Hannibal, Nathanial quickly pulled Alex back.
“There’s been trouble,” he said in a low voice. “Over at the Wyatt place. The chickens and the pigs have all been killed and sacks of grain have been emptied out all over the ground.”
“Why would anyone do that? Why would they be interested in the Wyatts?” asked Alex.
“Why indeed. Does it sound like bullying to you?”
Alex let out a long sigh and shook his head. “I hope you’re wrong Nathanial.”
“So do I Alex, so do I. But I don’t think I am.”
“It could be anyone Nathanial, you know as well as I that there’s been trouble all over the place after the Kansas-Nebraska Act.”
“Bill Wyatt was asking around the town for work last week, reckoned he had a debt at the mercantile.”
“I heard that too. You think he could have been in more serious trouble?”
Nathanial shrugged. “There’s more. Daniel Webster wasn’t in the saloon most of the day, no-one seems to know where he’s been. He says he can’t remember and no-one saw him anywhere in the town.”
Alex sighed again. “You think he’s got himself into trouble gambling?”
“Could be. If he had a gambling debt to McKenna which he couldn’t pay, McKenna might have given him “work” to pay it off, maybe his work was to, well, …” his voice trailed off. He didn’t need to say it.
“Pa! Pa! Wunit” came Jed’s excited voice as he ran towards his father, a big smile on his face. “Jed! Wunit!”
His father lifted him up into his arms. “Two questions Jedediah Curry. First, what are you doing still awake at this hour? Second, wunit?”
He looked hopefully at the rest of his family as they gathered around excitedly, waiting to find out what a wunit was.
They all seemed to explain at once, but eventually Nathanial managed to get the gist of it.
“RUN JED!” Jed shouted loudly, pointing at himself and bouncing up and down in his father’s arms.
“Jed won it?” Nathanial asked his youngest son, beaming with pride.
“Jed wunit,” Jed repeated to him, delighted.
“That’s my boy! I always said you would be the baseball player of the family. Showed them all how to do it huh?”
Alex added his congratulations and helped all of the children up into the back of the Curry wagon, as Nathanial helped Elizabeth and baby Ruth up into the front.
With all of his family on board, Nathanial started for home. Alex looked around, a little puzzled. All of the chatter and noise seemed to have disappeared with the Curry family, which was unusual. The Heyes family were much smaller than the Curry’s it was true, but they usually gave them a good run in the noise department. It wasn’t like Hannibal to be so quiet – unless …
He turned around and as he did, he saw Sarah coming towards him, a blanketed bundle wrapped in her arms, two small arms holding tightly around her neck, a small dark head just visible above the blanket, nuzzled into Sarah’s neck. He smiled to himself. He was right. It really wasn’t like Hannibal to be so quiet – unless he was sound asleep.
“Mr Curry, I think we have a deal,” Joseph Higgins smiled as he held his hand out across the table to shake hands on the agreement with Nathanial.
“Let’s drink to that,” smiled Josef Mueller.
“Indeed,” agreed Alex.
The four men were seated at a table in the saloon. Josef had been responsible for introducing Nathanial to Joseph Higgins, who he himself had previously done business with. Nathanial had surplus pigs this year and had decided to sell some of them to raise more money to buy the lumber for his new house.
Nathanial raised his glass. He was happy with the deal. He would now be able to afford to buy enough lumber for his ambitious plans for the new house. He knew Elizabeth would be very happy about that, she was very keen to have bedrooms.
The air of joviality between the four was interrupted when Nathanial spotted Charles McKenna, the owner of the saloon, walk through the door. He nodded to Alex. The two men had had prior dealings with the man back at the Fort last year. It had not been a pleasant association and both Alex and Nathanial had felt wary when McKenna suddenly turned up in Larson Creek some months later, as the proud new owner of the saloon. In general they had tried to keep out of the saloon, believing it wiser not to cross paths with McKenna more than they could help.
Nathanial glanced cautiously at Alex as McKenna strode purposefully over towards them, a smile on his face.
“Joe!” he called as he approached them. “What are you doing here my old friend?”
Joe Higgins stood to greet him and the pair slapped each other enthusiastically on the back. “Well I’m in town on business. What are you doing here though?”
“I am the owner of this here saloon,” smiled McKenna.
“Well, I’ll be, I didn’t hear that.”
“You’re here on business you say?” McKenna asked more seriously, eyeing Alex and Nathanial suspiciously.
“Yes, that’s right.”
“With Josef here?”
“No, actually with Mr Curry here. He’s a friend of Josef’s. Mr Curry is selling pigs and Josef here knows how interested I am in buying livestock. Isn’t that right Josef?”
Josef nodded his agreement.
“And I’m very grateful he did,” added Joe. “Got myself a good deal here.”
“Hmm.” McKenna said doubtfully.
“I wish you’d spoken to me before you did that deal Joe.”
Nathanial glanced at Alex, concerned.
“Why?” asked Joe, worried.
“Well now, I’ve had some dealings with these two myself in the past. None too satisfactory either.”
Joe glanced around, clearly uncomfortable but at the same time wanting to know.”
“If that’s the case Charles, I’d appreciate if you’d tell me what you know. Might make a difference to this deal.”
“I’d be glad to tell you Joe. Hate to see you get taken by a couple of thieves.”
“Thieves!” Nathanial was outraged.
“Now hold on, Mr McKenna,” began Josef. “I’ve known these two men for years and I can assure you …”
“Wait a moment Josef,” Joe reached out an arm to silence him. “I know what you told me, but I’m interested to hear what Charles has to say as well,” he told him, firmly yet without anger.
“Last year at the Fort, I loaned them money to buy seed. Oh they weren’t the only ones, the place was full of men making the same deal. Most came back later and paid me back, or worked for me. Not these two!”
“They didn’t come back? They didn’t pay you?” Joe looked surprised.
“Oh they came back alright. Sure they did. Paid me back too, in full. Funny that. They couldn’t find work, didn’t earn anything. Then the night before the debt was due, three of my men were jumped on in the street.”
“I don’t understand?”
“They were beaten up – and robbed. Robbed of my money they were carrying.”
“What are you saying Charles? That these two men did it?”
“What I’m saying is that the next morning they turned up in my office and paid off the debt in full. When I know that only hours earlier they didn’t have the money – because I make it my business to know how much money a man has when he owes me.”
“We told you,” Alex spat out. “We got lucky at poker.”
“Ah yes, I forgot your great skill at poker Mr Heyes.”
McKenna walked around the table and slowly leaned down to face Alex. “One of these days,” he began, his voice dark, threatening. “I’m going to set up a challenge, a head to head game of poker between you and me, in front of the whole town. We’ll see how good you are at poker Mr Heyes.”
Alex stared straight back at him without flinching. Nathanial narrowed his eyes in anger.
McKenna stood up and continued on around the table. “Because you see, like I just said Mr Heyes,” he turned back to face Alex across the table. “I make it my business to know about men who owe me. And one thing I know about you, is that you’re just not good enough to have won that amount in one night. But,” he waved a finger in the air and turned back to the others, “I don’t want to have anyone say I’m not a fair man, so one day, one day Mr Heyes, we will play that little game and let the whole town see just how good you’re not.”
“Like he told you,” Nathanial’s voice was tight, “we won it at poker.”
McKenna turned towards him. “Yes Mr Curry, so you told me.”
Joe Higgins looked at Josef, concerned. He wasn’t quite sure what to make of all of this. Josef was torn between embarrassment and alarm. He looked apologetically at Joe, but didn’t say anything.
Nathanial stood up to face McKenna. “Are you calling us liars?”
McKenna watched him for a long moment, then smiled slowly. The smile grew into a small laugh, and then a guffaw as he threw his head back and laughed loudly. Abruptly he stopped. His face grew serious and he looked right back at Nathanial.
Nathanial made his move. Swiftly Alex stood and caught Nathanial’s arm in mid-air.
“Are you sure that’s wise?” he whispered to him.
“Wise? Who cares if it’s wise?” Nathanial’s voice was raised.
“You might do, later,” Alex kept to a whisper.
Nathanial looked at him and calmed a little. He sat back down, followed by Alex.
McKenna raised an eyebrow at him.
“He has a temper I see?”
Nathanial shook his head and looked away.
McKenna moved over to him and looked thoughtful. “Now see that surprises me Mr Curry. Like I said, I make it my business to know about people, but you, you have surprised me. Anger like that can be very useful to me – if it’s controlled properly. I hope you get my meaning Mr Curry?”
“I’m not interested in your meaning,” Nathanial snarled at him.
McKenna laughed again. “Oh but Mr Curry, it could be the very thing that saves you. It might make you very useful to me. It might make us even.”
Slowly Nathanial stood. “Let me get one thing very straight Mr McKenna,” his voice was low and hard. “I am not for hire. I am not interested in being useful to you. I will never, that’s never, work for you. Got that?”
He moved close up to McKenna’s face and to emphasise his point, jabbed his finger into his shoulder. “Never.”
“Nathanial,” Alex said gently, becoming aware that, suddenly, they had the attention of the entire saloon.
“I will not be bullied by you, not be owned by you.”
McKenna laughed loudly. “If I remember correctly, they were Bill Wyatt’s exact words.” The laughter disappeared. “He soon changed his mind.”
“Of course, once he had a debt he couldn’t repay, he was here begging me for help. It was a sorry sight. I remembered every word he said to me, and I repeated them back to him. Made him grovel. I will do the same to you. One day.”
Nathanial slumped back down into his chair, satisfied he had made his point. McKenna turned to walk away a few steps, then turned back.
“If I were a betting man, I’d say within a year. But then, I’m not a betting man. Dangerous you see. Gambling debts mount up and what can you do then? Just like your friend the other night. Gambling debts, that’s his problem. He’ll be working for me for a year or more to pay off what he owes me.”
“Working for you?” asked Alex quietly.
“Yes Mr Heyes” McKenna turned to him. “Working for me. A nice little job, keeping the others in line. Like your other friend Bill Wyatt. Lost a few chickens I heard? I wonder who could have done that?”
He turned back to Nathanial. “Just a little reminder to Wyatt, see? Don’t mess with me. If you owe me and you don’t pay, then you’ll do as a I say.” He paused. “You owe me.”
“We repaid the debt in full and you know it.” Nathanial’s voice was calmer, though he was still angry.
“Ah yes, so you did. And you won the money at poker didn’t you?” McKenna smiled at him. “Well, we’ll see.”
“I don’t play to bullies. You don’t frighten me.”
With that Nathanial shrugged and then stood up once more. “Alex?” he asked. Alex nodded and stood up beside him. Calmly, quietly, the two of them walked out of the saloon.
They travelled almost all of the way home in silence, each man thinking his own thoughts.
As they approached the farms, Nathanial looked at Alex.
“I have to admit, I am shaking in my boots.”
“You would be in my place.”
“If that’s the case Nathanial, you sure couldn’t tell back there. Even I couldn’t tell.”
“Oh, not back there,” Nathanial waved his hand dismissively back towards the town.
“There,” he pointed in front of him. “I have to tell Lizzie I failed to make the deal for the pigs. She wants those bedrooms – and she means business.”
Alex stared at him for a moment and then they both burst out laughing.