Lumberjack Smallpox – A Walton Junction Story
This is the first in (what I hope to be) a series of fictional stories based on the life and times of those men and women who lived in Walton Junction during the heyday of the 1870s-1920s.
A Walton Junction Story (1897)
By Randy D Pearson (C) 2021
Harriet Dell tried to keep the scowl from her face as she looked from the open icebox to her husband. “The ice all melted,” she proclaimed evenly.
Looking into the top where the block of ice was supposed to reside, Clyde said, “Ice man didn’t come yesterday?”
By way of a response, she replied, “Did you remember to pay him?”
Now it was Clyde’s turn to glower. “Course I paid him. What do you take me for?” Clyde hoped the momentary search of his brain didn’t show on his face as he tried to recall if he actually did pay the iceman. He added, “I don’t forget about money.”
Bending down, Harriet removed a package of hamburger. “Don’t matter none anyway. Everything’s spoilt.”
He took the package from her hand, put it to his nose, and took a sniff. “Yup. It’s not edible. Shit!”
“Language!” Harriet stared toward their son’s bedroom for a spell before saying, in a hushed tone, “Don’t swear with Georgie in earshot!”
“Sorry,” he said softly. After a moment’s silence, he said, “Ain’t nothing left?”
Harriet shook her head softly. “Not much. No meat, no milk. Eggs is bad too. We got some dry stuff still – rice, and oats. A can of beans. That’s about it.”
Taking a deep breath, Clyde nodded rapidly. “All right then,” he said as he walked over to the front door. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Eyes widening, Harriet rushed over, stepping between her husband and the door. “Hell no! You ain’t goin’ out there!”
“Language,” he said, trying to keep the self-satisfied grin from his face. “I don’t see a choice. We gotta eat.”
Harriet looked back at the kitchen before returning her gaze to him, worry evident on her face. “We can make it on rice and beans ‘til Monday.”
Clyde rested his hands gently upon his wife’s shoulders, offering her a reassuring smile. “Don’t worry, dear, I’ll be fine out in the city. I can take care of myself.”
“But Clyde, those men out there are crazy! You’re just a postal clerk.”
She regretted the words as soon as they came out of her mouth as she saw the expression that filled and quickly escaped his face. “I may be just a postal clerk, but I’m a man, dammit.” He quickly glanced over at his son’s bedroom then back to her. Softer, he said, “Those Lumberjacks don’t scare me. The railroad men will keep ‘em busy. Besides, it’s all just talk. They’s just a few men blowing off steam.”
“Not just a few! I heard that last week, pert-near 2000 men came running through Walton Junction. Drinking, gambling, fighting…” She trailed off before adding, “I worry about ya. “
Clyde kissed Harriet on the lips. “I know you do sweetheart, but I’ll be fine. I’ll just head to the general store. They’re open late on Saturdays. I’ll get a few supplies, meat, bread, an ice block if they got one, and I’ll be back before you know it.”
As he grabbed the doorknob, she said, “But the stories –”
“Are just that. Don’t worry.” He pulled open the door, turned, and added, “I’ll be back lickety-split.”
“Wait!” She yelled. “What about your gun?”
He thought about it for a moment before shaking his head. “Won’t need it.” He had certainly heard the stories about the viciousness of the lumberjacks and the railroad men, and one thing always rang true. They fought with their fists, not weapons. They might beat him up just because he had a gun on him.
Pulling the door shut, he heard Harriet lock it behind her. Just like that, he was outside, on a Saturday night, for the first time in over a year. Ever sense the railroad built a junction in his little town and the first saloon popped up, the decent folk locked themselves inside their homes from Friday evening until Sunday afternoon.
He had obviously heard the tales from the hotel staff, the saloons, even the ‘ladies of the evening’ that came into the post office on Monday morning. According to them, Walton Junction went crazy each weekend.
But still, he had never seen it for himself. Though more than a little nervous, the thought invigorated Clyde. He was excited to see what his little town actually looked like on a Saturday night. He may not have the manliest profession, but he was still a man after all, and Walton Junction became a town for men on nights like these.
As Clyde walked the ½ mile into town, the noise level noticeably increased. All the bars and the hotels were in full swing.
Trudging past the Hardwood Saloon, he pulled out his pocket watch. It was a quarter past six. He took a couple more steps toward the store before pausing to watch a man being tossed out the swinging doors, falling heavily in the dirt in front of him. The man, bleary-eyed, looked up, pointed at Clyde, opened his mouth as if to speak, and then passed out.
Clyde took a few more steps before stopping again, looking back at the Hardwood. Ever since this and other saloons opened up in the past few years, he had been longing to go into one. Okay, longing wasn’t the correct word. In fact, he’d been known to have a beer or two in the Hardwood, but only on a weeknight, when the locals were the only patrons. In fact, he knew Joe, the bartender at Hardwood, pretty well. However, he’d never set foot in any of the bars on Friday or Saturday nights, when the lumberjacks, river men, and railroad workers filled the joints. The idea simultaneously terrified and elated him. He knew his wife wouldn’t be pleased, to say the least, and she would tell him, “you’re just a postal clerk.” As if working in the post office disqualified him from being a true man. He knew he could handle it.
The sound of raucous laughter carried out from the Hardwood, breaking him from his reverie. He knew the general store would be open until at least eight on Saturday. That would give him over an hour to have a beer, maybe two, before heading over there to get the supplies his family needed.
Yes, a beer. Just one. In the Hardwood. On a Saturday night. A smile turned his lips upward. The boys at the post office would be so jealous, he thought as he strode toward the saloon.
Putting both hands on the swinging doors, he nearly gave them a heavy push, but paused when a lumberjack, nearly a foot taller than he, hit the exit at the same time.
Stepping back to let the burly man pass, Clyde nodded and said, “Howdy,” in what he hoped would be a friendly way.
The man stopped, turned, and gazed down at him. Suppressing a smirk, he asked, “Wait! You goin’ in there?”
Mustering his courage, Clyde replied, “Yes I am. Gonna get me a beer.”
The Jack pivoted, pushing one of the doors open and holding it for Clyde. “After you.” Then, under his breath, he added, “This I gotta see,” and followed behind, half pushing Clyde inside.
The noise level was downright riotous, with groups of men clustered together at the bar and seated at the several tables strewn about the dirt-floored establishment. Looking around, Clyde’s brow furrowed when he didn’t see any opening at either the bar or a table. “Well shucks,” he said quietly, but not too softly for the lumberjack to hear.
“Follow me,” The Jack said as he marched up to the counter. Tapping a man in grubby overalls on the shoulder, he said, “Hey bud.”
The man turned to glare at the Jack, fire in his eyes. “What?” he asked.
Gesturing with his head toward Clyde, the lumberjack said, “This fine gentleman would like a beer. Get out of the way before he socks you one.”
A chuckle escaped the man’s mouth. “Certainly! Don’t want no trouble.” But instead of moving away, the man turned to the fella next to him, put both hands on his shoulders, and gave him a hard shove. The man fell off his barstool, crashing to the ground.
Immediately, he jumped to his feet, yelling, “Hey, what’s the big idea?” Not awaiting an answer, the two guys started punching one another.
“Um,” said Clyde as he stared at them, then at the now vacant bar stool, then at the lumberjack.
“Oh, never you mind them,” said the Jack with a grin. “You just sit right there.” Waving a thick arm over Clyde’s head, the Jack shouted above the din, “Hey barkeep! Bring this man a beer! And me a whiskey.”
When the bartender saw whom the Jack was with, he hustled over. “Hey Clyde,” he said with wide, disbelieving eyes, “what are you doing here on a Saturday night?”
“Hey Joe,” said Clyde with a sheepish grin, “how’s it goin’?”
“This man needs a beer,” yelled the Jack. “Don’t just stand there a-jabberin!”
Joe looked at Clyde, and when he saw Clyde nod his approval, Joe said, “Okay, sure. And whiskey for you, Jack?”
As Joe rushed off to get the drinks, Clyde turned back to the lumberjack. “So your name is Jack?”
This forced a loud guffaw to escape the lumberjack’s mouth. All the lumberjacks were called Jack around here, but he saw no reason to tell this tenderfoot that. “Sure thing! Jack’s the name. Cutting trees and drinking whiskey is my game.”
As the booze arrived, Clyde reached into his wallet, giving Joe enough to pay for both drinks, and then some. This was a special night. No point in quibbling about spare change. “Keep it,” he said to Joe, as he turned and hoisted up his beer. “This one’s on me, Jack. Pleasure to meet you!”
Jack’s grin grew even wider. “Right neighborly of ya.” He picked up his shot, clinking it firmly against Clyde’s beer.
They both had a couple more drinks while Clyde scanned the place, enjoying the floorshow. These were the first beers Clyde had drank in weeks, and he was feeling the effects already.
Setting his third beer on the counter, he smiled up at Joe. “Sure is raucous here, huh?”
“This ain’t nuthin,” was the barkeep’s reply. “But seriously, how are you here? I can’t believe Harriet let you outside on a Saturday night.”
Clyde began, “I’m the boss in my house! I say what goes in – ” but a couple of Jacks interrupted him with their hooting and laughing.
“Lookee here,” one with several missing teeth, scars on his face, and a line of spilled beer down his front said. “We got us a momma’s boy! With his clean and purdy shirt!”
Grabbing a fistful of Clyde’s shirt, the other one, smelling worse than a possum dipped in sewage, yelled, “Oh you’re right Bill! This here shirt’s so nice.”
When he pulled Clyde closer, Clyde’s elbow clipped his beer, spilling it all over the counter. “Oh, shucks,” the stinky man said with mock sadness, “I knocked over yer beer. I’m plum sorry. Buy yerself another one, and us one too while you’re at it.”
Clyde was about to tell them to get bent when he saw the one man’s expression change from playfulness to hostility. “Yeah, buy us a beer. You got the money. We can tell.”
All of a sudden, this went from fun, doing something a bit naughty, to scary. “Now fellas,” he stated, but didn’t really know what to say from there.
Jack dropped a heavy hand on Clyde’s shoulder. “You can’t let ‘em get away with that. They knocked over your beer. They wrinkled that…” he paused to suppress a smile, “that truly purdy shirt. You gotta fight one of ‘em.”
Spinning around with panic in his eyes, Clyde said to Jack, “Fight? I, uh, I’m –”
“You gotta! It’s your honor at stake. You can’t let ‘em push you ‘round.” Jack pulled Clyde off his barstool and onto his feet, holding onto him to keep him steady. “I’m here for ya. I’ll make sure it’s a fair fight. No weapons.”
“Weapons?!” The thought hadn’t occurred to Clyde until that moment. While he didn’t want to get beat up, he absolutely didn’t want to be stabbed or shot.
Leading him out of the bar with an arm around his shoulder, Jack said, “Don’t worry about that. I’m here. It’ll be one on one. I’ll help. Which one you wanna take? Ugly or Stinky?”
“Which one?” This was suddenly becoming a nightmare. “Ugly or…”
“Perfect,” said Jack with a wide grin. Before he could say another word, Jack reared back and hit Stinky with the strongest, heaviest punch Clyde had ever seen up close.
Instead of falling over, Stinky just grinned widely, turned his head, and spit out a tooth. “Thanks, Jack! That one was giving me trouble.” He then reared back and smacked Jack with an equally hard punch.
The other one, aptly referred to as Ugly, pointed at Clyde. His grin looked both joyful and ominous. “Oh, I can’t want to take you apart!”
“Take me –” was all Clyde had time to say before a fist caught him across the cheek in a roundhouse. He rolled sideways, lost his footing, and fell clumsily to the ground.
The man, looming down at him with an annoyed smirk, did not look any less ugly from down in the dirt. “Get up, ya pansy!” When he didn’t immediately jump to his feet, the man added, “Don’t tell me that’s all ya got!”
“I…I don’t want to fight you,” Clyde said slowly as he rested his hand upon his aching jaw. Looking over, he watched for a moment as Jack and Stinky exchanged blows, and they were both laughing. These are some crazy people, Clyde thought.
While looking over, he missed what Ugly had yelled to him. “I’m sorry, what?” he asked.
“I said, if ya ain’t getting up, you’ll be getting a case of Lumberjack Smallpox.”
Clyde’s brow crinkled. “A what? Lumberjack what?”
“Allow me to demonstrate,” Ugly said, with the most sinister grin. Lifting his foot high in the air, the lumberjack held it about a foot above Clyde’s face. He could clearly see the man’s boots had large, protruding spikes coming from the sole. “Where ya want it? The chest? The arm? Oh I know, how ‘bout your purdy face?”
The severity suddenly dawned on Clyde. Lumberjack Smallpox! That’s what these barbarians called it when they stomped on one another with their steel-spiked boots! He aims to puncture me!
“Okay then, the face it is!”
Too scared to move, Clyde just closed his eyes, awaiting the inevitable.
When he heard a loud scuffle, Clyde opened his eyes to see Jack on top of Ugly, beating him down something fierce. “Ya don’t brand a local! The hell’s wrong with you?”
After several more punches, Jack stood up, leaving Ugly unconscious on the ground. For good measure, Jack lifted his own boot and stomped on the man’s chest. “That’ll learn ya!”
Jack reached a hand down. “Here,” he said as he helped Clyde to his feet. “How’s your face feelin’?”
Instinctively, Clyde cupped the sore spot. “It’s fine. Sorry I’m such a wuss.”
“Eh,” he replied with a dismissive wave, “you ain’t a fighter. We all know that. They’s just having fun with ya.”
“Fun,” he replied slowly. He took a step, then stumbled. Between the beer and the punch, was felt woozy. “A wuss and a lightweight.”
“Let me help ya home,” Jack said with a friendly smile.
Jack let Clyde lean on him as they stumbled to Clyde’s house, leaving Clyde sitting on his front porch swing. “Hey Jack,” Clyde said more loudly than he had intended, “Thanks. For everything. You’re a good guy!”
“You ain’t so bad yourself. And thanks for the whiskey. I’ll see ya around. Come out again some weekend, and I’ll return the favor.”
As Clyde watched his new friend mosey off, the front door opened. Harriet stood in the doorway, arms akimbo. “Where have you been?”
Leaping up from the porch swing, Clyde tried to steady himself before speaking. “Hi hon! I made a new friend!”
She waved a hand in front of her face. “Yeah, I can smell that from here. Where’s the food?”
The color drained from his face. “Oh. Uh. I forgot. Sorry.”
“And what happened to your face?”
“Got in a fight. But I didn’t get Lumberjack Smallpox!”
(C) 2021 Randy D Pearson – All rights reserved