There was no dishwasher, so all the cleaning had to be done by hand. It took him almost an hour to finish washing and replacing all the dishes he had used, since he had to hunt around the kitchen to find where each item went after cleaning it. Finally, he stacked the last plate, hung up his apron, and stepped into the main body of the Wanderer. Amazingly, even an hour after dinner service finished, it didn’t seem like the place had emptied at all. A few families had left, he noticed, but almost every patron had merely replaced their meal with a drink. Henry had moved behind the bar, and when he spotted Carter he waved him over. Carter scanned the room as he moved, and saw what he was searching for. Tobias’ group was huddled in a table in the corner, deep in discussion. Keeping one eye on them, he reached the bar, and Henry clapped him on the shoulder.
“Good work tonight. I’ll get you to help Gwen behind the bar. Gwen! You’re in charge!”
Henry called out to Gwen, who gave him a thumbs up to show she had heard, while she served two older gentlemen. Carter took his place behind the bar, and did a quick scan to familiarise himself with the layout. It looked pretty barebones – only a few bottles of spirits, some premixed drinks in a small bar fridge, and two beers on tap, both Victorian brews. It seemed like the Wanderer didn’t get many exotic orders.
As soon as the Wanderer’s patrons noticed that Carter had replaced Henry, there was a rush on the bar. Here was the chance they had been waiting for to get a good look at the stranger.
And ask their questions. It seemed as if everyone had come prepared with their own set of interview questions. What was his name, where did he come from, how long was he staying. Carter did his best to deflect their questioning, but soon he was in danger of being crushed under the combined weight of their curiosity. Even when Gwen stepped in to help, fielding the less personal questions she knew the answer to and pouring drinks at lightning speed, it was almost too much. They kept up the assault for hours. Everyone had their own conditions for allowing him the immense privilege of living in Fisherman’s Creek. Warning him not to try to buy any house from a Fisherman’s Creek resident, as no one would sell. Decrying his presence as the beginning of an influx of outsiders who would come and take all their jobs and destroy the community. Warning him not to wander in the bush, not to swim in the creek, not to play loud music. They were hopelessly fascinated by him, and yet seemed incredibly eager to make him feel unwelcome and convince him to leave.
And through it all, Tobias and his men stayed at their table, engrossed in their conversation, breaking ranks only sporadically, to send a man over to the bar for another pitcher of beer. Carter did his best to keep one wary eye on them – Gwen had warned him they could be trouble after one too many, and Carter himself was still on edge after Marcus’ earlier display of aggression – but he was soon too overwhelmed to divide his attention.
The worst part was, almost every time someone came up to ask him a question, they attempted to excuse their snooping by also ordering another drink. Since everyone had their own long list of questions and concerns, the effect was that half the Wanderer’s patrons had gotten rolling drunk. Carter began exchanging wary glances with Gwen. Henry was nowhere to be seen, lost amongst the increasingly chaotic crowd. Carter’s presence was causing tension. The air in the Wanderer was growing thick with potential danger, like a room slowly filling with gas. One stray spark could ignite the whole thing.
As it turned out, that spark came not from Tobias’ table, which Carter was preparing for, but from a table of young men in the center of the room. Carter didn’t catch what started the fight, but all of a sudden there was shouting, and two twenty-something footballers throwing punches in the middle of the Wanderer, one short and fair, the other tall and dark-haired. Carter rounded the edge of the bar, followed closely by Gwen. Henry appeared from the dense crowd and grabbed the shorter man from behind; Carter pushed aside some spectators and grabbed the other young man under the arms, pinning them. Henry was yelling at them to stop, take it outside and cool off, but his voice was lost in the noise of the crowd. Gwen stepped between the two young men, trying to get them to calm down. She very nearly succeeded, until Carter was hit in the back of the neck by a third young man, eager to help his friend. Carter’s hands reflexively flew into a boxer’s stance, inadvertently releasing his grip on the original fighter, who immediately launched a shaky right at his opponent, whose arms were currently being held by Henry, and connected with the man’s temple. The man went limp in Henry’s arms.
Carter, meanwhile, had turned to face his attacker, who swung again. Carter was ready this time though, catching the man’s fist on his left forearm, and launched his own punch into the man’s gut, winding him. The young man crumpled and Carter grabbed him by the shoulders, and shouted in his face.
“Enough! Stay down!”
The young man simply groaned, and Carter turned to face the first brawlers again. Gwen was pushing hard against the taller man, who was trying to get around her, still going after his opponent, who was sitting on the floor in a daze. Henry was yelling instructions at the spectators, struggling to be heard over the commotion. Carter noticed a thin trickle of blood coming from the injured young man’s head. This was quickly spiralling out of control.
Gwen was still trying to talk the first fighter down, but he was beyond that now, his mind too clouded with adrenaline and alcohol to listen to reason. Carter rushed over and put himself between the young man and his injured opponent. He put his hands up, fingers spread.
“He’s down, alright? He’s down. It’s over. Now stop, or I’ll have to put you down too. Don’t make me do that, mate.”
The young man glared at him, eyes bleary and red.
The man lunged forward to grab Carter, but although he was younger and fitter, his coordination was numbed by the booze, and Carter easily slipped behind him. He slid an arm under the young drunk’s own and placed a firm hand on the back of his head. With his other arm, he grabbed the young man’s left arm and forced it behind his back, being careful not to exert too much force so as not to break a bone. The young man struggled, and Carter pushed, forcing him to the ground. He looked up at Gwen and Henry, and nodded at the dazed and injured combatant now being tended to by a well-dressed older man.
“Get him out of here. And the other guy, the guy I hit.”
Carter looked around at the gathered crowd, who were staring at him. Beneath him, the young man was still struggling.
“Alright folks, bar’s closed. Go home. Sleep it off.”
The crowd began to disperse, slowly. Henry threw the injured man’s arm around his shoulders and lifted him, carrying him outside. Meanwhile, Gwen helped the man Carter had winded, who still held a hand to his stomach. Carter hoped he hadn’t seriously injured him, even if he was an idiot. Stupid, he admonished himself. Should have been able to defuse this one easily.
The young man in his grip had finally stopped struggling, and was now alternately groaning and pleading.
“Let me go, man. You’re hurting me.”
Carter leaned in, hissed in the guy’s ear.
“Hurting you, am I? I’m sorry. How about the guy you hit? He’s probably concussed. He might have brain damage – definitely would have, if Henry hadn’t caught him. You little idiot.”
The young man shifted, and Carter pressed gently on the arm held behind the man’s back. The shifting stopped.
“Screw him, he’s an arsehole, man-“
“- Screw you, pal. You think you’re some kind of tough guy, punching someone in the head like that? You’re an idiot, and you’re damned lucky you didn’t kill him.”
“I wish I did.”
Carter breathed deeply through his nose, counted to three.
“No, you don’t. Trust me. I’m going to let you go now. Your arm will hurt, but it’s not broken. You’re going to get up, and you’re going to go home and go to bed. And if I see you in here again except to apologise, or if you don’t get up and leave when I let you go, then I will break your arm. Understand?”
The young man grunted. Carter pressed on his arm, and he gave a yelp of pain.
“I said, do you understand?”
“Yes, man. Fucking hell.”
Carter released his grip.
The young man stood up, rubbing his arm. He glared at Carter, and left without a word. The Wanderer was almost empty now, the last of the patrons slowly trickling out. Carter scanned the room. Tobias’ group had left at some point during the fight. Carter rubbed his temples. What the hell was this town? He felt sick to his stomach. He had to go and check on the other two. He really hoped he hadn’t seriously hurt the man he hit.
Outside, the crowd was slowly dispersing. Carter stepped through the Wander’s front door just in time to see the injured young man be bundled into a car and driven away, presumably to hospital. He seemed to be conscious and walking around, which was something. Carter scanned the crowd and spotted the young man he had punched standing with a group of friends, gesticulating wildly with one hand, gripping his stomach with the other. He caught Carter’s eye, and extended a fist, middle finger raised to the sky. Fair enough, Carter thought.
Someone tapped him on the shoulder. He turned to see Gwen, looking incredibly tired.