8. Unfinished Business

by Sally Wheaton

May 1863

Alex lingered in the store for a few moments after completing his purchases. Josef was on his own today and had just finished serving Mrs Godfrey and Alex was hoping to get an opportunity to speak with him alone.

“Good day Mr Heyes,” Mrs Godfrey nodded at him as she picked up the sugar she had bought and turned to leave.

“Good day Mrs Godfrey,” Alex replied, watching her leave.

As soon as the door was closed behind her, he turned to Josef.

“Any news?” he asked.

Josef looked around him anxiously and rushed to make sure that all of the doors were closed.

“Alex,” he said quietly, nervously. “You can’t just keep bringing this subject up.”

“Josef, I thought you wanted to help us?” Alex replied, slightly annoyed.

“I do, I do,” Josef assured him, again looking around with concern. “But you have to be careful, anyone could hear.”

“Josef, there’s no one around to hear. I already made sure of that. I am just as aware as you are that we have to be careful.”

Josef’s voice softened. “Yes, I know,” he nodded. “I do know Alex, it’s just, just …”

Alex nodded too. “It’s OK Josef, I understand.”

Josef looked at him carefully. “Do you?” he asked quietly.

“Yes,” Alex nodded. “We’re asking a lot, but it’s important and we do appreciate your help. We wouldn’t do anything to jeopardise you, you know that.”

Josef hesitated, but then reached under the counter. He did trust Alex and it wasn’t as if he didn’t know what he was getting involved with. He was as angry as they were about what was happening around them, it was just that … he shook his head to clear his thoughts and handed Alex the newspaper he had kept carefully under the counter. “I was given this whilst I was visiting at the Fort. You might find it interesting.”

“Thank you,” Alex replied as he took the paper and then stared at it open-mouthed. “This does look interesting,” he said looking back up at Josef. “Where did you get this?”

“Like I said, I was given it while I was visiting the Fort.”

“By who?”

Josef waved away his concerns. “Totally by coincidence, by someone who had no idea what it was they had just shown me.”

“Thank you Josef,” Alex replied, still staring at the front page.

“Yes, well, keep it safe,” muttered Josef.

“You know I will. I have all the newspapers locked up safely in the barn, in the old chest.”

“You have any success speaking with Bauer?” Josef asked.

Alex shook his head. “No. We were hopeful after what he told me last week, about the threats he’d received from McKenna, but when Nathanial spoke to him yesterday, he didn’t want to discuss it.”

“That’s a shame. After last week I was hoping he would tell you more.”

“So were we. I thought he would, but it looks like McKenna’s threats have got to him too. Everyone’s scared of him Josef, scared because they know what he will do if he discovers they’ve been talking.”

“Mmm.”

“It’s not like we’re asking them to stand up to the man. Nathanial and I are prepared to do that part, but we need more information first. All we’re asking people to do is tell us what they know. Everyone tells us they support us, they agree with what we’re trying to do, they want McKenna stopped, but then they are just too darned afraid to say anything to us.”

“Have you thought about the risks Alex?”

Alex nodded. “Yes Josef, we have. We know there’s a risk any of these people could tell McKenna about the questions we’re asking. We know that. We’re only talking to people we trust to keep that confidence.”

“But you never know.”

“Yes you’re right. You never really know who you can trust. There is a risk, but he has also threatened us, threatened to destroy us, so there’s a risk if we don’t try and do something about it. How else can we protect ourselves?”

“Yes, well, the political climate being what it is, the vigilante raids, the border wars all around us, he can do more than he did and get away with it. Who’s going to question the destruction of crops, of property – even deaths? It’s going on everywhere and no one’s going to blame McKenna for it.”

“Yeah, he’s taking full advantage of the cover, that’s for sure. It’s why we need people to talk, to tell us what he’s threatened them with. We need to find a way to prove it was him.”

“He’s getting away with too much.”

“You’re right on that Josef, which is why we have to try.”

Josef looked around him once more. He moved towards the door which led back into the house and checked again that it was closed and that no one was within earshot. Then he moved to the front door of the shop and made the same checks. Finally he came to stand directly in front of Alex, who had been watching every move carefully.

“There’s one more thing,” he whispered. “Someone asked me to give you a message.”

“Who?” Alex whispered back.

“They didn’t want me to tell you that. Just asked me to tell you that they have something which will be important to you. A ledger. It’s buried in the ground …”

He paused and looked around nervously once more.

“Where Josef?” Alex whispered urgently. “Where is it buried?”

“Just inside the barn, at your place.”

“Inside the barn?” Alex asked, puzzled. “But who could have …”

Their conversation was cut short by the sound of footsteps outside the store.

“Thank you,” Alex whispered.

Josef nodded, then added in a loud voice. “Give the family my regards,”

“I’ll certainly do that. They’ll have missed seeing you today,” smiled Alex in reply. Just as he reached the door it opened and Mr Wyatt came in, almost bumping into Alex.

“Good day,” Alex smiled at him.

A grunted “Hmph,” was the only reply he received.

Just behind the door from the store to the Mueller rooms, a hand pushed the door closed once again and a shadowy figure moved away.

***

Late that evening, Alex and Nathanial bent over the small hole they had dug in the ground just inside the Heyes barn. Nathanial reached in and brought out a small package, wrapped in a cloth, which he carefully removed to reveal a small, red leather book.

The two men glanced at each other as Nathanial opened it.

“Just as he said, a ledger,” Alex said quietly.

The two were quiet for several minutes reading through the pages as Nathanial turned them.

“Are these the debts detailed here?” Nathanial asked.

“It looks like it,” Alex agreed. “How far does it go back?”

Nathanial turned quickly through the pages until they came to 21 May 1855. There at the top of the page, were their own names, with the details of what they had borrowed to buy seed that year at the Fort, following the devastation to their crops caused by the grasshopper plagues.

Quickly Nathanial found the entries for 16 June 1855, the day they had paid McKenna back. The details of their payment were there, and next to their names was a large red cross.

“What is the red cross for?” Nathanial asked. His eyes scanned the page and he pointed at another entry. “William Harvey, $20 repaid, $10 outstanding,” he read aloud. Next to the name were a red cross and a black tick. He flicked through a few more pages, finding several more names with both a cross and a tick. Their own names were the only ones missing the black tick.

“What does it mean?” Nathanial asked, sure he already knew the answer. “Unfinished business?”

Alex nodded slowly. “I’d say so.”

Nathanial turned to the later dates and there he found others with only the cross. He paused when he spotted the name Charles Myers. His name had both the cross and tick. Flicking back through the pages, he came to April 1856. Daniel Webster’s name was listed with an increasing debt and then the words “paid in kind”. Further down the page was the name Bill Wyatt with a debt listed. Next to his name was the word “Webster”.

“So you were right back then,” said Alex. “Webster was in trouble with McKenna and McKenna had him work for him.”

“Looks like Wyatt was also in trouble with McKenna and so McKenna had Webster carry out his threats to Wyatt to make him toe the line.”

“Killing the chickens and pigs wasn’t it?”

Nathanial nodded “Something like that, His attention was drawn to his own name listed further down the page, still under April 1856. The word “Humiliation” was written next to it. Next to that was both a cross and tick, followed by the words “crop fire”.

“Crop fire?” asked Alex, looking over Nathanial’s shoulder.

“We had that fight with McKenna in the saloon, remember? I was trying to do a deal for the pigs.”

“To build bedrooms wasn’t it?”

“That’s right.” He looked up at Alex. “And not long after we had a crop fire,”

“You think that McKenna ….?” Alex’s voice trailed off as he remembered back to that night.

“According to the ledger, yes. McKenna, or someone working for him, must have started the fire.”

“My word, Nathanial, if this ledger documents it all,”

Again Nathanial nodded. “Powerful evidence to be sure.”

Both men stared at it for a few moments, the enormity of it suddenly hitting them.

“Alex,” Nathanial asked quietly. “Who did it come from?”

“Josef wouldn’t say. He only said that someone had given him a message, to tell us they had hidden something important for us. When I asked him who, he wouldn’t say.”

“That’s a big risk to take. You have evidence like this and you tell a third person just so that they can pass on a message?”

“Uh-huh,” nodded Alex.

“And then someone got into your barn and buried it here?”

“Uh-huh,” Alex continued to nod.

“And you’ll be thinking what I’m thinking?” asked Nathanial.

“Yes, I think I am,” Alex sighed heavily. “But darn it Nathanial, I so hope I’m wrong. How would he have got it? What kind of trouble might he have got himself into?”

“Ah, and maybe we are wrong,” offered Nathanial.

“Maybe,” Alex paused, looking down at the ledger again. He looked back up at Nathanial. “He was terribly nervous this morning though, checked both doors twice each.”

“Maybe we are wrong,” Nathanial stated again, mostly because he so much wanted them to be. “Come on Alex, we can be studying this in more detail tomorrow.”

Alex nodded his agreement. He took the key out of his pocket and opened the chest in the corner, the one he used to keep his farm tools in. He went to place the ledger on top of the pile of newspapers and other documents which were already in the chest. He paused suddenly.

“Nathanial?” he asked urgently. “Did you take the new newspaper that Josef gave me this morning?”

“No, why?”

“I put it in here this morning as soon as I got back from town.” Alex’s voice held a hint of panic. “It’s not here.”

Nathanial hurried over to the chest. “Don’t be silly,” he gave Alex an unconvincing half smile. “To be sure it’s in here, where could it have gone?”

Alex looked at him in horror. “It’s not here! Look!”

Nathanial reached into the chest and picked up the top two or three papers, He lifted aside the top one and then held up the second one in the pile, a genuine smile on his face this time. “Here, it’s here. It’s just not on the top is all.”

Alex let out a loud sigh of relief. “For a moment there,” he started.

Nathanial clapped him on the back. “Come on Alex,” he tried to reassure his friend. “No one knows they’re here, no one has seen them. You’re just letting it get to you.”

Alex paused for a moment then looked up and nodded. “You’re right.”

“It’s late,” said Nathanial. “Let’s be getting inside the house.”

Alex nodded again, this time with more certainty. As Nathanial turned toward the barn door, he bent down to place the ledger on the top of the pile and then started to close the lid.

Once more he paused and lifted the lid again, looking at the papers inside it. He had put the new newspaper on the top of the pile, he knew he had. His face creased into a frown. Hadn’t he? Maybe he hadn’t? He couldn’t have, could he? Or else it would still have been on the top of the pile. It couldn’t have moved, could it? He thought back hard. No, he told himself firmly, he couldn’t be certain he had put it on the top. Evidently, he hadn’t done.

“Alex,” Nathanial called from the doorway. “Are you coming?”

Alex slammed the lid of the chest closed and locked the padlock. “On my way,” he called out in return.

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