Jefferson Tanner gulped down his first whiskey and signalled for a second.
“Hello, Jeff.” Lucille let her fingers trace the edge of her low-cut neckline. “Wanna buy a girl a drink?”
Jefferson’s eyes lingered on the saloon girl’s breasts. An arm slipped around her, a hand rested on the exposed flesh.
“And one for the lady,” he agreed.
Lucille noticed the barkeep wait until Jefferson’s cash hit the bar before pouring. McKenna must have stopped his credit. Jefferson, too, saw the barkeep’s hesitation.
“Sheesh!” he muttered, to Lucille. “What’s the problem? McKenna KNOWS I pay back, once the luck runs my way! How am I supposed to pay him back if I can’t get me a little stake? Huh? Huh?”
Lucille made a soothing sound. No way was she getting drawn into criticising the saloon’s owner. On the other hand, she made her living by keeping customers sweet – no way was she arguing with a profitable regular like Jefferson Tanner. Especially when she had just seen the fistful of coins from which he had paid for the whiskey.
“You seem flush tonight, anyhow, Jeff?” she purred. She pressed her body against him, let her hand brush the inside of his thigh.
“So so,” he responded. He tapped his glass for a third whiskey. Slammed another two bits onto the bar. Nodded as the barkeep raised his eyebrows at Lucille’s proffered glass.
“Wanna go upstairs?” she offered. Lucille adopted her professional expression of hungry eagerness. Into his ear she cooed, “You know no one makes me feel the way you do, don’t you Jeff? You’re so…”
His exploring hand pulled her closer, but…
“Not right now, honey. I’m waiting for McKenna. You see…”
Lucille drooped, slightly. Still, this was not a complete waste of time. As long as Jefferson kept drinking – and she kept smiling – the nods to Tom to fill her glass would continue. Every tot poured from the watered ‘girl’s bottle’ knocked a few cents off the room rent. It all helped. And, Jefferson WAS drinking. Beginning to get talkative…
“I know something. I was round at Mueller’s place, yesterday. I knew the house would be empty. I slipped in the back. Why disturb old Mueller, huh? That suspicious b—- had moved the tin where she keeps the cash…”
Lucille kept up the smiling and fascinated nodding, as she surreptitiously scanned the saloon. Nope. No other likely customers. Still a shade too early. Drinks from Jefferson were her best option.
“I wasn’t going to steal, you understand. Just take an – an advance on the money they’ll owe me for a delivery run to Endeavour next week. That’s fair enough, huh?”
A pause. Lucille started. Huh? Her attention had wandered. She brightened the smile. “Sure, Jeff.” She batted her lashes admiringly.
“Anyhow, I was searching for the tin when I heard that stuck up *ssh*l* Heyes out in the store. Him and Mueller talking. Real interesting stuff. Real interesting to McKenna, anyhow, I reckon…”
Still drinking. And the hand was still groping. Knowing Jeff he WOULD cough up two dollars soon enough.
“Stoppin’ MY credit! He’ll change his tune when he hears what… I’m gonna walk right up to him an’… HE’LL be the one doin’ the grovellin’…”
Lucille looked at the smug smile of the man facing her. Her carefully appreciative gaze did not waver, but internally she gave a sceptical shrug. This picture Jefferson painted of himself marching confidently up to Charles McKenna must be nothing but whiskey talking. Like most other men in town, she guessed Jefferson Tanner’s guts turned to water when he thought what McKenna might do to men who couldn’t pay. Not that she blamed him or any of them. Lucille’s opinion of men in general placed them somewhere below sewer rats as companions of choice. Nevertheless – she could empathise with that fear. Lucille did not like to dwell on what might happen if she – or any of the girls – failed to turn the required number of tricks in a week.
“It’ll cost him a lot more than wiping my debt clean! A lot more!”
A movement in the saloon. Men standing aside. Deferential foot shuffles. Murmurs of ‘Evenin’ Mister McKenna’. Lucille saw most of the bombast go out of Jefferson like a pricked balloon. Still, he stepped forward and caught the saloon owner’s eye.
She heard the tremor in his voice, as he stammered, “Mister McKenna, could I – could I have a word?”
“Repayment by the end of the month, Tanner,” McKenna snapped, “You know that.”
Jefferson took another step nearer. He spoke in a low voice. Lucille could no longer catch the words. She watched McKenna. His dour face frowned and then creased into a smile. The heavies with him were gestured back. The saloon owner’s arm went around Jefferson’s shoulder. Jefferson was led into the private room at the back.
Josef Mueller came back down the stairs of his eldest daughter’s place. He had driven Charlotte and the boys home, after she delivered the shirts sewn for the store. Charlotte had protested there was no need. She was grateful for the kindness though. Little Horatio was getting so heavy. Josef stayed for supper – much to young Frederick’s satisfaction. He loved his kindly Grandpapa. Charlotte was pleased too, of course. Except…
The anxious wife glanced first at the clock, then at the door. Was she hoping Jefferson did come home soon? Or hoping he didn’t?
“Frederick’s asleep,” Josef reported. “I was telling him stories about growing up in the old country…”
“Oh, Papa,” smiled his daughter, “you were born over here!”
“I didn’t tell him WHICH old country,” grinned back the fond grandfather, “I just told him about the wild wolves in the dark, dark forests…”
“PAPA! He’ll have nightmares!”
“No! These were friendly wolves!”
“Have you time for a coffee?” asked Charlotte. Josef glanced at the clock. Once again, so did Charlotte. She flushed, as her father threw her a questioning and – worried look.
“Sure,” said Josef. “Thanks, Liebchen.”
“Jefferson must have been delayed on – on business,” said Charlotte.
At once she bit her lip. Her mind raced, ‘Why? Why did I do that? Sheesh! It don’t fool no one! It certainly don’t fool Papa! Jefferson’s right – I talk too much.
Charlotte tried to cover her blunder; started to talk about the boys. Her voice ran on. Then a heavy step fell on the porch. A clumsy hand fumbling with the door handle. An oath. A giggle. A hiccough. The door banged open.
Charlotte shut up. She did not know whether to be glad her husband was not so late as she feared, or, sorry because, from the sound of it, her father would see him drunk. Again.
Jefferson came in. He was not just drunk. He was very drunk.
“Hello, dear,” Charlotte smiled, nervously.
“Hello, Jefferson,” said Josef.
Jefferson’s eyes followed the voice. It took him a moment to focus.
“Papa’s here,” said Charlotte. She always found it hard NOT to talk when she was anxious. “Isn’t that nice?”
“Hello PAPA!” Jefferson enthused, loudly.
Charlotte flushed. Her husband did not call her father ‘Papa’. He sometimes made fun of her for doing so.
“How’s PAPA?” Jefferson threw an arm around Josef’s shoulders. “Good to shee ya, PAPA!”
Charlotte felt a shaky relief that her husband was at least in a good mood. Though, whether it would last was anyone’s guess.
“Would you like supper now, dear?” she offered. “I kept yours hot…”
The hazy gaze switched to Charlotte. Jefferson went over to her. Another giggle as he tripped. His arms circled her.
“I WOULD like shome su…” hiccough “Supper. BUT…” grinning, “D’ya know whad I wan’ first?”
‘Oh, please,’ thought Charlotte, ‘Don’t let him say – that – in front of Papa!” She felt herself tense up and she flinched back from the whiskey-tainted breath.
“I wan’…” One hand let go. Jefferson fumbled in the pocket of his pants. “I wan’ my bewd’ful wife…” Still fumbling. “To take this…” A smothered oath. A wad of notes was tugged from his pockets. Coins spilt onto the floor. A few bills fluttered down to join them. “I wan’ my bewd’ful wife to take…” He frowned at the money in his hands. He let go of Charlotte, held the money at arm’s length, concentrated hard on peeling off two ten-dollar bills. “I wan’ my bewd’ful wife to take THIS an’ I wan’ her to buy some’n real…” Another hiccough. Jefferson paused. He swallowed down whatever had just come up. “Some’n REAL preddy for the …” More frowning. Trying to remember. “For the Fourth! For the FOURTH! Of…” Hiccough. The voice tailed to a belch, “Shuly. The Four Fer Shuly. Some’n – some’ preddy.”
Charlotte looked at the bills pressed into her hand, then at the money still in her husband’s loose grasp and scattered on the floor.
“Where did this come from?” she asked.
“Sheesh!” Still grinning. “That ain’t much of a… “ Hiccough. “A thank you.”
“Thank you, Jefferson,” she said, hastily. “Thank you very much.”
“You’re – you’re welcome!” He made, unsteadily, for the table; plumped down in his chair. His fists thumped down – though only joshing, so far – on the wood. “NOW, Woman! Where’sh that supper?”
Josef looked at his daughter, at the money, then at his son-in-law. Jefferson was STILL in a good mood.
“Jefferson,” he said, evenly. “Where did you get this money?”
Again, it took the drunken man a moment to focus on the source of the question. Another beam.
“I got thish – this money from…” He looked round, as if checking for listeners. He beckoned Josef closer. Exaggerated whisper. “From my ver’, ver’, VER’ good friend Charlesh Mc-Mc-McKenna. From him! But…” Another glance round. “But Shhhhh!”
“From Mister McKenna!” exclaimed Charlotte. “Oh, Jefferson! You promised! You said…” Her nervous hands twisted and twisted at her apron. “Oh, Jeff! You know what kinda man he is! Alex warned…”
Her hand clamed over her mouth. Jefferson was right. She DID talk too much and, she WAS stupid! Why was she SO stupid? She should never have mentioned Alex. It ALWAYS made Jefferson mad! Always! She KNEW that! Charlotte heard herself start to bleat, “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean it…”
Jefferson’s brow started to darken. Josef asked him another question.
“What did McKenna give you this money for, Jefferson?” He kept his tone even, but real clear. So his words would get through the fug of whiskey fumes around his son-in-law. For a moment, Jefferson continued to scowl. Then, a return of the smug grin. Again, he beckoned Josef closer…
Not for the first time, Josef internally kicked himself for not seeing what kind of man this was BEFORE Charlotte married him. Six years ago Jefferson H Tanner seemed so – so perfect. Charming, full of smiles, generous. A fine business inherited from his father. Josef had thought – both the Muellers had thought – Charlotte had made a good match and was set up for life. What could be better? The mutually beneficial business alliance they wanted AND, Charlotte – bless her affectionate heart – compliantly fell in love. Josef gave a small shake of his head, as he bent towards his son-in-law. What a fool he had been.
“I recsheived thish – thish payment,” Jefferson began, trying to sound important, “from my good, GOOD friend Charlesh for…” he inflated his chest, “Servishes ren – Servish rend’ed. Mishter McKenna was …” Hiccough. “Delighted… DELIGHTED with the way I helped him… With … With…” The eyes began to glaze over.
“With what, Jefferson?” Josef encouraged, although from the churning in his gut he reckoned he could guess. He should never have helped! Never! Still, too late now.
“With the recov’ry of some losht prop’ty. I was able to …” The sour breath came even closer, “Tell him where he might find it.”
“What was it?” Josef asked, hoping against hope he was wrong.
“Some’n he wanted back real bad. I can’t …” Josef was pulled still closer to the drunken mouth, “I can’t dive –dive- difluge what, ’cos the le’ger – it’s a secret!”
Jefferson sat back. Then, he pushed aside the plate Charlotte had set before him. She caught it up, quickly, to stop it falling to the floor. Her husband sprawled his arms on the table, lay his head upon them and – seconds later – father and daughter heard the first sonorous snore.
Charlotte had not heard the last drunken whisper. It would have meant nothing to her if she had. She saw her father’s stricken face though.
“What’s wrong, Papa?” she asked. “What is it? What has he…?” She did not finish the last question. Charlotte tried her best, always, to hold by the ‘My husband, right or wrong’ principle.
Josef tried to wipe the fear off his face. “Nothing, nothing,” he assured her. “Nothing for you to worry about, anyhow, Liebchen.”
Josef knew what he had to do. He must warn Alex and Nathanial Curry. He managed a would-be comforting smile. “I have to go.” As he put on his hat, a qualm struck Josef. “Will you be alright?”
“Of course, Papa.”
Father and daughter looked at the snoring figure slumped forward over the table. Josef reckoned it would take Jefferson a good twelve hours to sleep it off.
“Good night, Liebchen.” He kissed her cheek. Her eyes still looked scared. Josef realised his efforts to wipe the fear off his face had failed, miserably. “Nothing for you to worry about,” he lied.
“So, McKenna knows?” said Nathanial Curry. He watched Alex Heyes’ finger run down the ledger. It stopped. The light in the barn was growing dim but the two friends could still make out the name. They exchanged a glance. Jefferson Tanner. In debt to McKenna. Not that THAT was exactly unexpected news! Both men squared their shoulders.
“Sure an’ at least, thanks to Mueller, we have warnin’,” said Nathanial Curry. “I guess that’s something.”
A tense silence.
Nathanial watched Alex’s dark eyes. It was not often he saw that look. Alex looked at the rigid set of Nathanial’s usually cheery face. Both men realised the danger they were now in.
“We need to get extra supplies in the root cellars,” said Alex. “In case…” He stopped. Another look was exchanged. “Just in case,” he finished, making an effort to keep his tone matter-of-fact.
“Shotguns too,” said Nathanial. “And rifles. And ammunition.” He managed a smile. “Sure, an’ we probably won’t need them. It’s ‘just in case’ I’m thinking.”
The door of the barn pushed open. Both men jumped. Alex thrust the ledger under a blanket. Nathanial reached towards the shotgun he had propped by a stall ready. ‘Just in case’.
It was only Hannibal. After a searching glance at his eldest son’s face, Alex decided he had not heard a word of the conversation. Alex and Nathanial relaxed. Clutching his big brother’s hand was young Samuel; a coat wrapped around his nightshirt, boots looking incongruous beneath the flapping calico.
“Someone,” Hannibal explained, “someone who was supposed to be tucked up in bed has been lookin’ outta the window. Someone saw Grandpapa arrive. Someone was caught tryin’ to slip past me and his mother…”
“Not ‘someone’, Han’bul,” Samuel corrected. “ME! Was ME!” Sparkling blue eyes searched the barn. “Where Gran’pa? I wan’s story!”
“He’s gone home, Samuel,” said Alex.
“Gone!” exclaimed Hannibal. If it was not like Mister Mueller to pay surprise visits after supper, it was certainly not like him not to come say ‘good-bye’.
“Gone!” echoed Samuel. Then, predictably, “Why?”
“He needed to get back,” replied Alex. “It’s getting late, son.”
“But…” Samuel frowned crossly. Did no one realise the problem here? “I wan’ed hear ‘bout the wollufs!”
“There’s nothing wrong, is there, Pa?” asked Hannibal. “There wasn’t bad news from town?”
“Nuffin’ wrong?” echoed Samuel. He mimicked his big brother’s worried forehead pucker.
Alex picked Samuel up, propping him on one hip. He ruffled Hannibal’s hair. Hannibal straightened it, shooting a glance at Mister Curry. Didn’t his Pa realise he was getting too old for that? Well, in front of folk, anyhow!
“Nothing for you to worry about, Samuel,” Alex said. “Nothing at all!”
“But …” There WAS something to worry about! “I wan’s story! ‘Bout wollufs!”
“Sure an’ I’m thinking your Grandpapa shouldn’t be telling you those anyhow,” said Nathanial. “Wolves! They sound…” he pretended to shudder, “Scary!”
“Should!” argued Samuel. “SHOULD! NOT scary, Misdercruy! I – I LIKES wollufs!”
“If you’re real good an’ go back to bed without any whinin’,” offered Hannibal, “I’ll tell you a story about wolves. How’s that, huh? A SHORT story!” he stressed.
“Wild wollufs?” Samuel checked.
“Uh huh,” agreed Hannibal, rolling his eyes.
Alex put Samuel back down and Hannibal held out his hand to the youngster. As the two boys left the barn, Samuel turned back.
“Papa?” The cherubic face looked troubled. Alex wondered if, despite his and Nathanial’s efforts, Samuel had picked up on the men’s tension. He certainly suspected Hannibal had not pressed his own questions because he could see Alex did not want Samuel made anxious. “Papa, there’s nuffin’ to worry ‘bout?”
“Nothing for you to worry about at all,” lied Alex.
“Nod even…” the blue eyes opened wide, “the wild wollufs!”
“I told you before, Samuel,” said Alex, “there are no wild wolves. Not hereabouts. Only in…” a smile, “Grandpapa’s old country.”
“An’ – an’ Han’bul will tell me ‘bout ‘em?”
“Uh huh,” Hannibal confirmed. “But…” he added, leading his small brother out, “Like Pa says, they DON’T live round here.” The door shut, as Hannibal added. “There’s nothin’ at all to hurt you around here…”
The two fathers in the darkening barn exchanged a glance.
If only that were true.