Summary: A hot day and a lot of frayed tempers so Adam suggests going into town for a cool beer… only to be challenged to a duel
Word count: 2500
When the days stretch unremittingly and continuously forwards under a seemingly treacherous sun and work is a relentless grind of hauling in calves, branding them, the stench of burning hair, stoking up the fire and the heat of white-hot branding irons, then tempers tend to stretch thin, patience flies out of the nearest window to be replaced by the itch of irritation and petty annoyance.
Joseph Cartwright pushed his hat back and a dark flock of hair trembled an instant before falling upon his brow upon which beads of sweat nestled in the creases of his frown, he wiped them away on the back of his sleeve
“How many more?”
The tall figure of the man in black turned towards him, twitched his shoulders, grimaced and pulled a black and white handkerchief from a pocket, with his eyes on the sun now he wiped around his neck, sighed, pushed the piece of cloth back into his pocket and shrugged,
“Too many.” he hissed and then squatted down on his haunches to push the branding iron back into the white-hot embers of the fire.
Joe brushed aside a fly that was investigating the warm sweatiness of his face, pulled his hat back low to shade his eyes and turned to the direction of the chuck wagon where his father and brother were in deep conversation. He scowled and watched as Ben and Hoss discussed the problem of the burn now blistering on the palm of Hoss’ large work toughened hand,
“Some people will do anything to get out of work -” and he leaned forward to snatch at the leather canteen of water that was hanging by its strap on a thin pole near to hand, he unstoppered it and took several glugs of the cool liquid, some of which trickled down his chin, his throat and bedewed his chest
“Huh, yeah -” Adam frowned and straightened himself up, looked at Hoss and his father and with a roll of the eyes at Joe, sauntered over to the chuck wagon, “What’s going on?”
The enquiry was said in concerned tones, his eyes looked anxiously at Hoss and then at his father, Hoss pouted, scowled
“You know dang well what’s wrong, dang it, I burned my hand on that iron -”
“Let me see -” he sighed and peered at the blister, shook his head, and turned down the corners of his mouth as though in a concerned grimace, “Looks nasty.”
“It is nasty, it feels nasty, and – and -” Hoss paused and looked at Joe, “What’re you grinning at?”
“Who? Me? I ain’t grinning, I was sympathising” his brother assured him, and looked at Adam, “Weren’t I?”
“Wasn’t I?” Adam swiftly corrected him and Joe laughed, rolled his eyes, and shrugged.
“There you go, Hoss, we were both sympathising with you.”
“Wal, it don’t make me feel no better.” Hoss grumped and waved his hand about in the hope of a cool breeze taking away the sting of the burn
“Well, it doesn’t look very good, Hoss, perhaps it’ll teach you what part of the iron you should grab hold of in future.” Ben said consolingly, and he slapped his son reassuringly on the shoulder.
“Shucks, Pa -” Hoss rolled his eyes, if that was all the help he was going to get from his father after all the years spent branding those calves, any fool knew what end of a branding iron one got hold of, it had just happened that, by sheer accident, that fool Ian Harding had dropped the dang thing and he had reached out to grab it and burned himself.
“I think we should go into town, get this seen to -” Adam ventured cautiously, unsure of how this would be greeted by their august parent who, given the heat, dust and sheer monotony of the days work, might just agree but who, remembering schedules, time and urgency to get the work done, might just as well not … he bit down on his bottom lip and raised dark eyebrows.
Ben paused in mid-stride. He glanced up at the sun which looked more like a white hot furnace than ever, and then at the fire in which the branding iron was glowing like a cinder from hell, he cleared his throat,
“Hank, you able to take over from us for an hour or so?”
Hank Myers sighed, wiped his brow and kept his eyes down so that the glint of envy would not be noticed by any of the Cartwrights, he mumbled his agreement, of course he could take over and any hope of a cool beer in town later that day faded like mist before the sun.
Tim Hannigan was a nervous young man who had problems of his own, and as the sun beat down on his head that particular afternoon, the problems seemed to multiply as quickly as bees to a honeypot. He looked at the bill in his hands and then glanced up at Mr Cameron and shook his head,
“You sure you added this up right?”
His voice was thin and querulous, and when Mr Cameron nodded with that narrow eyed look of a man who wasn’t going to back down, Tim swallowed his pride and pulled out his pocket book. He pulled out the necessary amount of money and slapped it down on the counter,
“I’ll come collect later -”
“You do that, Tim, it’ll be ready for you,” Mrs Cameron said, forcing a smile into her words although she glanced anxiously at her husband for Tim was known to be short tempered, quick with his words, fists and for pulling out a gun.
The door slammed shut, the bell tinkled overhead; both of them released their breaths without having realised that they had been holding it in.
Tim pushed his way to the counter, nudged a miner out of the way and spilled the old mans drink over the mans hand, it splattered onto the saw dusted floor
“Hey, you -” the old man snapped out the words, waving his hand about to remove the wet slickness of beer
“You should be more careful,” another miner said, scowling over at Tim and taking the old man by the elbow to lead him to the safety of a nearby table into which he was bundled.
Tim scowled, ordered his drink and flipped coin onto the counter. He stared down at the froth covering the brown liquid in his glass and thought that the life he led was just like it, brown and murky, any pleasure like the froth which could be blown away by anything, anytime, anywhere. Life was just like a glass of beer. He glugged it down his throat and ordered another one.
“It’s hotter than ever -” Hoss groaned as he dismounted from Chubb and looked up and down the street as though expecting something cool and refreshing to tumble along to make him feel better.
“The buildings trap the heat, make it more enclosed and -” Adam ventured an explanation only to get a hissed ’Shut up’ from Joe and a glare from Hoss and a shake of the head from his father. He swallowed all the other words he had been about to expound and followed them into the saloon.
There were quite a number of people already inside, retreating into the smoky stuffy confines of the saloon to escape the heat of the day outside, but roasting slowly in the even warmer interior. A young man was slouched over the counter staring into a glass of beer. The bar tender was conversing with Doc Martin to whom Hoss wandered to display his blistered hand, after all, everyone knew that with the wrong treatment a blister could go really bad, and even lead to blood poisoning and who knew what else. He knew Doc Martin would be sure to tell him what the what else could be …
They stood at the counter and ordered their drinks, and Ben waited for Harry to pour them, the glasses lined up neatly along the counter, whiskey to cut the dust from the throat, later a cool beer for refreshment.
He looked at the counter and smiled, his dark eyes watched the reflections of his three sons as they stood by him, Hoss now content that his hand would recover from the burn, and licking his lips in anticipation of the whiskey that Harry was pouring slowly into the glasses.
The older man looked at the mirror image of his eldest son standing by his side and gave him a slight smile. For some time now he had wondered about his quiet son. He wondered when it was that the chattering, laughing, spontaneous little boy had changed to this quiet, contemplative, sombre young man who, to the outside world at least, displayed no nerves. .
Sometimes he wished he could put his hand on his sons shoulders, stare into those dark honey brown eyes and just say ‘It’s alright, son, you don’t have to be brave all the time. You are allowed some nerves at times. There’s no prohibition against laughter, merriment, stupidity. Laugh at yourself a little. It doesn’t matter if you fail once in a while.’
He swallowed the thickness in his throat. Was it his fault perhaps? Had he been the cause of this transformation? Had he pushed his son too far, expected too much? Would he himself dare to ask the questions that would elicit blame on himself?
He turned to look now at the reflection of his youngest son whose merry laughter seemed to bounce about the room. There were no inhibitions about him. No holds barred, this lad let a person know out right who he was and what he was; no pretensions about him. Ben paused, but there were no pretensions about his eldest son either. People looked at this dark clad handsome young man and knew they had to respect him, look up to him, and admire him. They could hate him, loathe him, abuse him but they would always know that they faced a man who commanded due respect.
He sighed and now regarded his middle son. Another youth of whom he could be proud. Hoss had become a man unafraid to show his innermost self. But then, how could he not do so, he wore his heart upon his sleeve all the time.
But Adam, this eldest son of his, seemed to have set his heart deep within some unreachable inner sanctum. Ben bit his bottom lip and sighed again, and then glanced over at his son once more. He noticed the slight smile on the well shaped lips, the stubborn tilt of the chin and the twinkle in his son’s eyes.
“What’s on your mind, Pa?”
Ben smiled, shook his head, raised a shoulder in a futile attempt to shrug away the question, and picked up his now full glass, his sons reached out to do the same and as Adam did so his elbow jostled the arm of the young man standing close by his side.
“Why, you dang fool -”
“I’m sorry, here, let me -”
“You did that on purpose.”
“If you hadn’t been standing so close, crowding me in -”
“I was here first, I ain’t exactly made outa glass, am I? You coulda see’d I was right here.”
“Well, again, I’m -”
“You Cartrwights are all the same -” a nervous hand trembled over his gun butt, “Thinking you can swagger in anyplace and just do what you like. Wal, Mr High and Mighty Cartwright, it won’t work this time, you ain’t going to go pushing me around no more.”
Harry reached out a hand, it hovered between the two young men like the broken bough of a tree,
“That’s enough, I ain’t having no fighting here today.”
Tim turned, his eyes blazed,
“When did the Cartwrights put you on their pay roll, Entwhistle? You giving them leave to push anyone around anytime like they wants?”
“That’s enough, Tim, Cool down now.” Harry’s voice was thick, he glanced at Adam and raised an eyebrow, and Adam stepped back a few paces to give Tim room and Harry a chance to haul the young man away.
“You -” Tim pointed a finger at Adam, he may not have noticed how it trembled but most of everyone else there did, “You – outside in ten minutes – I’ll be waiting for you.”
“Don’t be stupid, Tim” Adam said in a slow even deep voice, and saw the way the black pupils of the other mans eyes dilate, the thinning of the nostrils, the way the flesh whitened around the narrow lips,
“You calling me stupid now, huh? Well, in ten minutes time we’ll know who’s the stupid one, won’t we?”
He slouched out of the saloon, leaving the batwing doors to flap wildly upon his exit.
“For a man who is supposed to be educated into using fine words, Adam, you sure picked the wrong ones just then.” Hoss murmured and placed his hand consolingly on his brother’s shoulder.
“No, why should I be?” the deep voice answered the question Ben has asked and the handsome face turned towards his father, “You always taught me to face my fears, remember?”
“Yes, but it does no harm to admit nerves once in a while.” Ben replied gently.
“To whom? Myself, to you or to the man waiting out there in the hope of killing me?”
Ben said nothing. He knew the reply he would have given had the question been asked of him, but was unsure of the reply his son expected of him. He turned towards Joe who was walking towards them with a slight smile on his face,
“Alright, Adam? Nervous?”
“I would be if I were in your shoes.”
“Well, you’re not, are you?”
“Tim Hannigan couldn’t hit a barn door on a calm day, you’ve nothing to worry about.” Joe said with a nod of the head which was meant to reassure a man less calm than his brother. Joe would have hated to admit it but sometimes Adam’s calm at times like this unnerved him.
“Could be his lucky day today.” Adam grinned and crooked an eyebrow.
“Nah, not Tim. Besides, he’s drunk.”
“Now I’m nervous.” Adam laughed slightly, but his eyes hadn’t changed. He sighed and shook his head, “It’s all such a waste, isn’t it? A man gets drunk, says things he shouldn’t, loses his temper and expects another man to either get shot or to shoot him.” he glanced at Hoss who was walking towards him with an amused expression on his face.
“Tim’s collapsed in the street. Too drunk for his legs to hold him up any longer.”
Adam shrugged and turned to the bar keeper,
“Four beers.” he pursed his lips and looked at his father, “You weren’t nervous, were you, Pa?”