Wherein a Young Man Loses his Way, Falling Victim to Drink and Loose Women
Ned Abernathy was an ordinary young man, unprepossessing in appearance without being handsome or downright ugly, neither tall nor short, possessing plain brown eyes and hair, and lacking any significant distinguishing features. If your eye fell upon him in the street, it was likely to slide right back off, there being nothing about him by which to hold your attention. He was hard working and honest--two attributes which earned him the approbation of the elders of the little cow town of Hammond's Bluff. Unfortunately, Ned's two aforementioned attributes were cancelled and then some by two failings common among the young men of the Dakota Territories--he had a quick temper and a fondness for hard liquor.
The town was named for Ezekiel Hammond, the founder, and also for the steep hill which overlooked the small collection of clapboard buildings strung along the packed dirt road that the town father's insisted on calling Main Street, despite the absence of any other thoroughfares. The inhabitants were, for the most part, staid and unimaginative townsfolk dedicated to earning a living through hard work and solid investment, though a sizeable minority maintained the fire and zest for life that typified men on the frontiers of civilisation. The nearest water supply of any size was the Bellefourche River, near its confluence with the Cheyenne, though small streams also bisected the countryside. To the west lay the forested Black Hills and the lure of gold drew a steady stream of adventurers through the town.
Ned had come to Hammond's Bluff two years before, rawboned and callow, knowing little of the world and owning nothing but his horse, his Army revolver, and the clothes he stood in. He knew his way around his mount, could fire a gun when it was needed, and had lived in his clothes long enough to be comfortable in them. He had some basic schooling, but little else, and was looking for work. He found it, first fetching and carrying for the hardware store, and then as a ranch hand on the Double-B spread outside of town. It was at the Double-B that he first met Billy Edwards and later the woman who led to his downfall. There is always a woman, and truth be told, in this tale she was pretty. However, she came along a bit later. First, there was Ned and Billy, two firm friends who were well-nigh inseparable.
Life at the Double-B was hard, but no harder than at any other spread. The men rose before dawn, washed at the well and ate a quick meal of bacon and biscuit washed down with strong black coffee before saddling up and spending the long hot and dusty days roping and branding cattle, riding the boundaries, mending fences, chopping wood and the hundred and one other chores that were part of daily life on a cattle ranch. Bacon and biscuit became monotonous after a while and some of the older hands joked that was the origin of the Double-B name, though others held out for the other staples--beef and beans. Either way, the food was plain but plentiful, as young men need a lot of feeding if they are to do a full day's work. The owners of the spread, brothers Samuel and Nathan Beecham--the real two B's--worked their men hard, but fairly, paying them decent wages and allowing them time to spend their money in the town once a month, on payday.
A young man and his money are soon parted, especially when there is little to occupy their evenings in a small town. A poker game could always be found, and a plentiful supply of raw liquor in any of the three saloons gracing Main Street, and the two pleasures were usually sufficient to whittle away a pocketful of cash on payday. If not, there were the working girls equipped with a fixed smile, a bare bosom and welcomingly spread legs ready to extract the last dollar from a man's pocket. There were few 'decent' women in Hammond's Bluff and all of them were married to merchants, ranchers, or other well-to-do men, so if an unmarried man sought female companionship or just physical relief for his masculine urges, the saloon ladies or the girls working from cribs were his only outlet.
Ned had frequented the working girls most paydays, along with his friends, but that had all changed three months before, when Nathan Beecham's daughter Hannah arrived back at the ranch from her school in the East. He took one look at the fresh young girl and fell in love. His first tentative advances met with adamantine opposition from her father and uncle.
"She's too good for you," Nathan Beecham had said. "In fact, don't let me catch you even looking at her again."
Not one to take a warning too seriously when his heart told him otherwise, Ned tried again, and this time Nathan Beecham administered a short, sharp lesson with his fists. Samuel was there to haul the young man to his feet and render rough medical treatment to his worst injuries, and that was that.
Ned still looked, but surreptitiously, as did his friend Billy and every other ranch hand with red blood still flowing in his veins. The girls in town noted an upturn in custom from the Double-B hands around this time, and if some of the men liked to call them Hannah during the throes of passion, that was all one to them as long as they paid. The only man who refrained from seeking solace in town was Ned. He chose to suffer his unrequited love and grew steadily more edgy and desperate.
Different spreads favoured different saloons, and the Double-B hands tended to congregate in the Nugget, where the whiskey was cheap and the card games as lively as the girls. Other saloons might offer cheaper girls or other entertainment, but the Nugget offered a certain ambience that was appealing to the Double-Bs and many other hard-working men. On one particular night in August, Ned and Billy sat at a table in the smoke-filled bar of the Nugget, studying their hands of cards while a cacophony of raucous voices, piano music and female laughter dinned their ears. Ned was finding it difficult to concentrate, a result of too much liquor consumed too quickly.
"Are yer in, or are yer jes' gonna sit there scratchin' yore ass?"
Ned rolled his eyes toward the extravagantly mustachioed man to his left who had uttered the comment. He looked down at the dwindling pile of dollars in front of him and then at his cards again. They drifted in and out of focus and a wave of nausea made the sweat break out on his forehead.
"Well? Are yer in or out?"
Ned shook his head and threw his cards down. He scooped his remaining money into his hat, spilling several coins on the floor and lurched to his feet, knocking his chair over with a crash. The hubbub in the room dropped a notch and several heads looked round expectantly. "I...I gotta piss," he mumbled, and staggered toward the doors.
The air outside was hot, but after the furnace of the saloon, came like the breath of a mountain zephyr. Ned stumbled along the boardwalk to the narrow alley beside the Nugget, fumbling with his clothing and letting loose a strong stream of urine. He leaned against the weathered boards and groaned with relief, unmindful of the liquid spattering his dusty boots. When he finished, he stood leaning against the building with his eyes clothed, not bothering to tuck his member back into his pants.
"Are you keeping it out because you ain't finished or are you contemplating putting it to more pleasurable use?"
Ned turned his head and opened his eyes blearily. "What would you suggest, Billy?"
"The girls down at the White Horse are cheap."
"With good reason, so I hear. I don't want to have to visit the doc afterward. Besides, I don't want a girl." Ned considered his statement for a few moments. "Well, not just any girl."
"Hey, you watch yourself, Ned. If Nathan catches you sniffing round again, he might just kill you."
"Hannah should be able to choose for herself."
Billy shrugged. "I won't dispute that, but it'll do you no good as long as her father is opposed to your suit. In the meantime, enjoy yourself. There are plenty of others."
"It wouldn't be right."
Billy stared at his friend in perplexity. "You ain't keeping yourself for her, are you? You're not engaged to her, you know. Nor are you likely to be. All you're doing is piling up a heap o' hurt." He grinned suddenly. "What a sight you are, Ned. Standing there espousing your love with your member hanging out for the whole town to see."
"I can't help it, Billy. I love her." Ned tucked himself back into his trousers.
"Don't we all? But Ned, I'm realistic. The closest I'm going to get to her passage of delight is to close my eyes and imagine I'm doing her while plumbing some other more accessible girl."
"Goddamn it. Don't speak of her like that."
"She's out of your reach. Settle for what you can get." Billy jingled the coins in his pocket. "Look, I won a bit at cards. How about I stand you a poke? Come on, you'll feel better for it."
Ned told his friend what he could do with his money, and Billy flushed. "There's no need for language like that. If you don't want to, you don't want to. I'll leave you to your solitary misery and take myself down to the White Horse." He turned on his heel and stalked away.
Ned watched him go, feeling miserable. In truth, he'd have liked nothing better than to lose himself for a while in a woman's soft arms and willing body, but he had openly admitted his love for Hannah Beecham and did not now feel he could turn his back on the lady. Billy entered the White Horse, and Ned turned back to the Nugget and sat down on the stoop. He stared at the rutted road and the passing townspeople, wondering what on earth he could do. Inspiration eluded him and after a while he got up and wandered back into the smoky, raucous interior and ordered a whiskey. He was still standing at the bar, sipping his way through a bottle of the fiery liquor an hour later, when Billy returned.
Billy slapped his hand on the counter and ordered a drink, declaring in a loud voice, "Damn, but I enjoyed myself, Ned. You should have come with me. There's a new girl at the White Horse--Jane--and she's got more moves than a barrel of eels."
"That good, huh?" asked a grizzled man a few yards along the polished bar. He pushed himself away and stood swaying, hitching at his crotch. "I think I might try her out myself."
"Best three bucks you'll spend tonight," Billy said.
The man laughed and essayed an unsteady course from the saloon.
"You shouldn't speak of her like that," Ned mumbled. "She's...she's a lady."
"We're not talking about your Hannah, just plain Jane, though she's anything but plain and certainly no lady."
"Well, you shouldn't anyway. Women were made to be admired and revered and..." Ned hiccupped. "And loved."
"Oh, I admire them all, and love them when I can afford it," Billy said. He drained his whiskey and signaled the barman to refill their glasses. "You've had your share of the girls in this town. Are you telling me you didn't enjoy them?"
"That was before..." Ned stared at the amber liquid in his glass as if it held the answer. "I aspire to higher things now," he enunciated carefully. "I have renounced my former ways and will endeavor to keep my body as a temple for Miss Beecham's worship."
Billy grinned and shook his head. "You'll be telling me you're giving up drink next."
"There's nothing wrong with occas...occasional imbibitions of spirituous liquor."
"That's not what the preachers say."
"I have no intention of drinking to excess."
"What are you doing now then?"
Ned examined his friend myopically, and then picked up his glass, fumbling the drink and spilling some on the bar. "After tonight," he amended. He drained the glass and set it down on the polished wood with a thump. "'Nother one."
Billy poured them both another. "If tonight's your last night of reckless abandon, then how about a last carnal adventure before you begin your life of abstinence?"
Ned leaned back and studied the smoke-blackened beams of the room in the hope of inspiration. When none was forthcoming, he frowned and asked Billy to repeat the question. He listened carefully and considered for several minutes before saying "I'll allow that such a course of action might be advantageous..." The contents of his pockets were spread upon the bar and he carefully sorted the coins, adding up their value.
"A dollar, two quarters and a dime won't get you more than one of the crib girls," Billy observed. "Your last one needs to be a memorable one, so how about I lend you a couple of bucks? Then you can try out Jane if the previous gentleman has finished with her."
"You're a good friend," Ned opined, "But it's Hannah I want."
"Well, who knows?" Billy said, refusing to explain further.
The two men made their way unsteadily down the dusty, rutted street to the White Horse. The street was considerably less crowded than earlier, though there were still plenty of people about. Passers-by tended to avoid the drunken cowboys, stepping widely around them and avoiding their gaze so as not to risk causing offense.
The White Horse was a saloon like the others in Hammond's Bluff, but catered more to carnal demands than to drink and gambling. There was the usual long polished bar with a brass handrail, polished brass spittoons and round tables hosting games of chance, but the piano was in tune and velvet curtains half-hid sofas and fine furnishings at one end of the room. Men occupied the bar and gaming tables, but women were in evidence in the more opulent area.
Billy steered Ned past the bar to the curtained area and thrust the hangings aside. A richly dressed older woman with sagging cheeks and hard eyes looked up from a book she was reading, and fixed the two men with a calculating stare.
"Billy," the madam said. "I hadn't thought to see you again tonight. Have you come for a rematch?"
Two or three young women lounging around on the sofas smiled and sat up straight, preening.
"I brought my friend Ned along, Bessie. I promised him a session with Jane."
"Ah, a good choice, but Jane is presently occupied with a customer. Can I perhaps interest your friend in another of my fine girls?"
"We could wait for Jane," Billy suggested.
"A pity to let gentlemanly ardour cool off, particularly as the lady in question may be some time yet." Bessie's eyes narrowed. "You're both from the Double-B, aren't you? Perhaps I could suggest..."
Billy lifted a finger to his lips in caution, and stepped closer to Bessie after sparing a glance at his friend. Ned was staring at the bosoms of the girls on display and was paying no attention to the conversation.
"Amy?" Billy whispered.
Bessie smiled. "Indeed. Very popular amongst your friends, as you well know."
Billy handed over two dollars. "Don't tell him her name. Just send him up."
Bessie tucked the money into her purse. "Well Ned, you have a good friend here who has paid for a brief dalliance with one of my most popular girls. Up the stairs, second room on the left."
Ned tore his gaze from the female forms hinted at beneath diaphanous garments and glanced at Billy, who nodded and gestured toward the stairs.
"Go on. She's waiting for you."
Ned licked his lips nervously and mounted the stairs, turning left at the landing. He hesitated outside the second door, tapped softly on the panels, and opened it.
A blonde girl sat with her back to the door in front of a small mirror, brushing her hair with languid strokes. She was clothed in a camisole and slip with a sheer shawl draped over her shoulders.
Without looking round, she said, "Come on in, darlin'. What's your pleasure?"
Ned gaped, trying to make sense in his drink-befuddled mind of the sight in front of him. "H...Hannah?"
"Ah, another Double-B cowboy. Well, whatever excites you." The girl turned, exposing full, sagging breasts and a gap-toothed smile. "How do you want me?"
"Y...you're not Hannah," Ned gasped.
"I can be. What would you like me to do?" She sat on the edge of the bed and parted her legs, revealing a glimpse of tight, dark curls. She patted the bedclothes beside her. "Come and get comfortable, darlin', an' tell me how much you love me."
Ned reeled backward. "You're not Hannah."
The girl pouted. She got up and swayed over to him, putting one hand on his shoulder. "Of course I ain't really, darlin', but I can be anything you want me to be." Her other hand tugged at the buckle of his pants.
"No." Ned lifted his arms to throw her hand off and caught her a solid blow on one cheek. "I don't want you; you're a whore." He turned and stumbled out of the room and down the stairs.
The madam and her girls looked up startled, as did two or three men negotiating a price, when Ned clattered down the stairs. The girl leaned over the balustrade and shook her fist after him.
"You goddam piece of shit," she screeched. "I don't mind bein' hit, but don't you dare call me a whore!"
Ned fled the saloon, followed by the sound of laughter. A few men followed him outside, calling out ribald suggestions.
Billy caught up with Ned out in the street and grabbed hold of him. "What the hell's the matter?"
"You bastard. You set me up. That wasn't Hannah."
Billy stared at his friend. "Well of course she wasn't. That was the girl called Amy that looks like her. Lots of the fellahs..."
"She looks nuthin' like her!"
"She's blonde, female and willing. What more do you need if you can't have the real thing?"
"She...she's an insult to Hannah, an'...an' what you did was an insult too." Ned pushed Billy away and his friend tripped and fell.
Billy got up and dusted himself off. "I was only trying to help you, you fool. There's no cause to get violent. Now say you're sorry and we'll go and have a drink and forget the two bucks I spent on her."
"Sorry? You're the one who should apologise to me... and to Hannah. That was a foul thing to do."
"You're right. Let's go have a drink."
Ned scowled but nodded. "Okay."
Billy grinned. "I don't suppose you were up there long enough to give her a poke. Pity. She'd make you forget your troubles."
"Damn it, I said not to..." Ned swung his fist at his friend and more by chance than good aim, connected with the side of Billy's head. He went down, and Ned whaled in, kicking and punching and screaming incoherently. Around him, he vaguely heard the sounds of people laughing and cheering him on.
Billy rolled and scrambled to his feet, and as Ned kept coming, drew his revolver. "Stop right there, Ned. I'll allow you're feeling hard done by, but I ain't gonna let you hit me again."
Ned glanced down and saw that the hammer on Billy's single-action Army revolver was still in the uncocked position, and took another step forward, his fists clenched. The click of the hammer cocking was loud in the sudden silence on the street.
"You ain't gonna shoot me, Billy Edwards."
"Don't want to, but might have to...unless you back down."
"You ain't gonna." Ned stepped forward.
The shot was thunderous between them and dirt sprayed up from by Ned's feet. He stopped dead in his tracks, staring at the pale face of his friend.
"I'm warning you," Billy whispered.
"Take heed, young fellah," said one of the dozen men who had emerged from the White Horse. "No sense getting' kilt over a stoopid argument with your friend."
"He ain't no friend of mine," Ned growled. "You apologise, Billy."
Billy shook his head.
"Then I'll have satisfaction."
"You're mad. I've got my gun out and pointing at your belly. Just back off and go home, Ned. You're drunk."
Ned went for his gun, his left hand coming across to fan the hammer back as his own Army revolver came level. Although his actions were slowed by drink, Billy's reactions were no better and he pulled the trigger of his own revolver only a fraction of a second before Ned drew his gun. Unfortunately for Billy, he had forgotten to cock the hammer after his first shot and his efforts went unrewarded. Instead, the bullet from his friend's gun slammed into his chest, hurling him to the ground.
A man detached himself from the small crowd outside the saloon and ran to the fallen man, dropping to one knee beside him. His fingers explored the blood-soaked front of the shirt for a few moments. He looked up at Ned, who stood with his revolver hanging down from his hand, his face blank with shock.
"You kilt him, young fellah. You murdered him."