Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Short Fiction: Frontier Economics

"I don't like it," said Big Jim, and he took a swig. "We didn't move out here to smith. We moved here to get rich."

"Mind the liquor," said Mack. He made another swipe with his threadbare broom. He could almost see the floor now. "We need at least a finger to trade for laundry."

"We could have made more money smithin' in Cairo," Jim continued, with another deep gulp of whiskey. "We could have saved up. And bought some gold."

Mack scratched at the dirt with a fingernail. "You just need to be patient," he said. "Sure, we don't have much of a plot, but we've got something, don't we? The mayor's gonna give plots to as many folks as show up until the river's full, just the same as ours, and there's gonna be plenty of smithing work then. We'll get half the gold that comes out of that river, you just wait."

Jim held the bottle upside-down over his head. He had the mouth halfway beside his mouth, blowing into it to get the last drops. Mack sniffed his armpits and sighed.

The bottle crashed into the fire. "Nope," said Jim. "I've got an idea."

Samuel leaned on his broom. "I'm not wearing a dress again," he said.

Jim ignored him and grabbed the ash bucket. He flung the contents across the floor as Samuel groaned, and with a sweep of the tongs filled it with coals. "Come on," he said.

The Colorado boom town of Fairplay was putting down for bed, those that didn't have money or friends for Rachel's Place. Jim and Mack's shack was across town from that house of ill repute, so there was nothing to drown out Jim's booming voice as he erupted forth, singing.

"Mine eyes have seen..." He flung a coal on the roof of their shack. "The glory..."

"Jim, I don't think I understand..."

"Trust me!" Jim's eyes were gleaming. Mack shrunk back. "Grab the other tongs." He threw a coal on the neigbor's woodpile.

And down the street they went. Mack shivered a bit the first time he threw a coal, stared it down recalling unpleasant memories until Big Jim gave another shout, loud enough it felt like it threw the coal itself.

Jim donated generously to the neighbors, to the laundryman who'd given him more sober evenings than he'd ever wanted, to the bank and the drug store and the sheriff and the carpenter's and finally Rachel's Place, and by the time the saloon held the last of Jim's bucket the sky the way they came from was turning orange. It took longer to get a fire started here than in Illinois, but the outskirts of Fairplay were catching just fine.

"What do we do now, Jim?" Mack shot glances at the saloon's roof. He trusted Jim, but something about this plan just smelled funny.

"We head up this hill and watch."

When they reached the top the town was lit up well enough to see the entire population of Fairplay out on the street at once. At least three different bucket lines were bumping into each other. At least a dozen men were brawling around the well.

"You've never seen so much business in this town, have you, Mack?"

Mack fidgeted. "Well, no, I suppose you're right, but I just..."

The beam of the drug store collapsed in a pillar of sparks. A few points of light in the distance marked horsemen rushing up to Alma for help or, at the rate Fairplay was burning, just to spread bad news.

"You just what, Mack? In the morning we'll have all of them and all of the folks from Alma down here too. It won't be hard to find smithing work then."

I just have a bad feeling, thought Mack, but he kept it to himself.

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