“Weatherford?” Jan De Vries stepped out of the trading post and looked across the low clearing to the river. A Muscogee warrior in hide trousers and a French waistcoat strode along the bank, and a pair of small barges headed downriver towards the Mississippi. If just one of them had stopped by, they might have doubled the post’s takings for the day. But if wishes came true, he would be back fixing dams with his father in the Netherlands, not scratching to get by in the wilds of America.
With no business to attend to, Jan ambled along the veranda, boards creaking beneath his feet. If he didn’t find his business partner he might at least alleviate the boredom.
A steady thudding drew him to the rear of the building. There Charles Weatherford stood, sleeves rolled up and axe in hand, lopping branches from a fallen tree.
“What are you doing now?” Jan asked, folding his arms so that they sat atop his belly. “Why aren’t you helping me mind the store?”
“I’m building a racetrack.” Weatherford pointed to a pile of crude fences, hammered together with cheap nails they’d bought off a Spanish trader.
“Because it’s boring out here,” Weatherford replied. “I’m bored. You’re bored. Everybody’s bored. So I thought I’d build something interesting.”
“And where do you think you’re doing that?” Jan asked.
“I hardly think that’s the most sensible-” Jan’s ears pricked at the sound of creaking floorboards. “A customer!”
He dashed off, ready to double their takings for the day.
“It’s not fair.” Weatherford stomped into the store, muddy footprints trailing out behind him.
“What’s not fair?” Jan reluctantly looked up from counting their meagre funds.
“My race track,” Weatherford flung himself down on a pile of blankets, making Jan frown as mud covered the goods. “The ground’s all damp. I can’t flatten it out properly.”
“Never mind,” Jan said. “Maybe now you can get on with something sensible, like working with me on the stock check.”
Weatherford’s expression brightened.
“We could work together on my race track,” he said.
“No.” Jan shook his head. “We have real work to do.”
“It can be your race track too.”
“No. Now stop playing at sports and come work.”
“You never let me do anything fun.” Weatherford leapt upright and stormed out the door.
“I came to this place with you!” Jan yelled after him. “How much more fun do you want?”
He looked around at the empty store and piles of unsold goods.
A lot more fun was the answer. And a lot more profit.
Jan followed the Welsh farmer and his Muscogee wife out of the store, helped them load up their waggon, and watched them drive away. They’d traded him enough corn and pork to stave off hunger for the next couple of weeks. It was no fortune, but it was a start.
Spirits rising, he paused on the veranda to watch Weatherford struggle with his race track. Rickety fences formed an uneven oval around the lumpy field. Weatherford himself was up to his thighs in mud, digging what Jan assumed was meant to be a drainage ditch. Though he was filthy and cursing like a true a Scotsman, nothing seemed to deter Weatherford from his task.
And why not, Jan thought. It wasn’t like they were doing much else.
Laughing at his own foolishness, he fetched a shovel and some boards from the store.
“My father fixed dams and drained fields outside Amsterdam,” Jan said as he approached Weatherford. “I was his apprentice once upon a time. Let me show you how it’s done.”
“What if I don’t want your help?” Weatherford said. But he stepped aside, letting Jan join him in the ditch.
A small crowd cheered as the horses crossed the finish line. There were curses as well, foul words in half a dozen languages, as men and women who’d bet badly went to settle their debts. With the morning’s races over, many of them headed into the store for food, drink, and the supplies they used as an excuse to come out here once a week.
Rushing back and forth to meet their demands, Jan watched cash and bartered goods pile up behind the counter. He took a moment to catch his breath and grinned at Weatherford, who was weighing out chicken feed.
“Was this why you did it?” Jan asked. “You knew everyone was bored, and if there was entertainment to be had then they’d shop here too?”
“Sure, yes,” Weatherford said, then shook his head. “Sorry, no. I just like races.”
* * *
This story is based, incredibly loosely, on the real historical figure of Charles Weatherford, an 18th-century trader. Weatherford was actually a successful trader and horse enthusiast who used his earnings to build a race track at his trading house.
I’ve also been trying to apply some storytelling lessons from Steve Kaplan’s The Hidden Tools of Comedy. I haven’t exactly nailed it yet, but there’s a lot of interesting stuff in Kaplan’s book, and if you write then it’s worth having a read.
If you’d like more stories like this straight to your inbox every week then please sign up to my mailing list. You’ll get a free e-book, and you can unsubscribe any time you want.