©2017 Robert Lee Murphy
The black Morgan’s hooves skidded on the icy surface, and his forelegs almost buckled. Will Braddock leaned back in the saddle to help the horse regain his footing.
“Easy, Buck, don’t need you breaking a leg.” Will Braddock bent forward, pressing his cheek against the horse’s neck to shield his face from the bitter crosswind blowing down off the mountains. “We have to be close.”
Will strained to see ahead, but couldn’t make out the buildings of Echo City. It shouldn’t be much farther, though. He’d ridden out of Weber two hours earlier for what should have been an easy trip back to Union Pacific’s end of track in Utah Territory. Before he’d ridden far, storm clouds scudded down the slopes of the Wasatch Range and engulfed him and Buck in driving rain that turned to sleet.
Twenty minutes later, Will slid a boot out of a stirrup and kicked on the door of Echo City’s livery stable. A sheet of water cascaded off the brim of his slouch hat and splattered across his legs and Buck’s withers, adding to the horse’s already soaked coat. The stable door swung open, and he tapped his heels into the horse’s flanks urging him into the dim confines of the barn.
“Evening, Zeke,” Will said.
Ezekiel Thomas, the stable attendant, grasped Buck’s bridle and whisked the water off the white star emblazoned on the horse’s forehead. “Evening, Will. Nasty out, eh? Been expecting you.”
“Expecting me?” Will stepped out of the saddle.
“Sure thing. Your uncle’s over to the Chinaman’s café having supper. He said you’d be returning this evening.”
Will had ridden to Weber earlier that morning, at his Uncle Sean Corcoran’s direction, to pick up a package from Samuel Reed, the Union Pacific’s construction engineer, who’d telegraphed that his plans for Ogden were ready. The Mormon city would become the last major rail yard for the UP on its march westward to join with the Central Pacific and complete the first transcontinental railroad.
With tracklaying nearing its end, General Grenville Dodge, the chief engineer, had disbanded his Uncle Sean’s survey inspection team, which Will had joined two years earlier. Will’s uncle, being a capable engineer, had switched from surveying to supervising the construction of roundhouses, depots, and maintenance sheds. Will’s job as the team’s hunter had been discontinued, and his uncle gave him a part-time job as an errand boy. Will accepted the cut in pay, because it was better than being unemployed. What the fifteen-year-old would do after the railroad was finished remained a mystery he tried not to contemplate.
The braying of a mule in one of the stalls drew Will’s attention. “That Ruby?” he asked. The dim light made it difficult to see the mule clearly.
“Yep,” said Zeke. “That’s Ruby. Contrary animal, if ever I seen one.”
“She can be ornery. I can vouch for that.” Will chuckled, remembering the times he’d wrestled a pack saddle onto the back of the sturdy mule. Ruby had served as the pack animal for Homer Garcon, who’d been the survey inspection team’s cook. The former black slave now rode Ruby as his mount when he accompanied Will’s uncle on his rounds. Homer had taken an even steeper cut in pay when he, too, accepted the demotion from cook to errand boy.
“Homer with my uncle?” Will asked.
Will lifted his saddlebags off the Morgan’s rump. “Buck needs water and feed. Can you take care of him for me?”
“That’s my job. Your uncle done paid for his stabling.”
“I’ll leave my Winchester with my saddle. Won’t need them in the café.”
“I can see not needing a saddle in the café,” Zeke said. “But that fancy rifle might be handy, what with the likes of them customers frequenting the Chinaman’s place.”
“Too wet out, Zeke. Troublemakers like dry weather.”
Zeke shrugged his shoulders and threw up both palms. “If you say so.”
Will threw the saddlebags over his shoulder and ducked back out into the rain. The poncho the railroad provided kept his upper body reasonably dry, but his buckskin trousers were wet from mid-thigh to the tops of his calf-high, Wellington cavalry boots.
He sloshed up the main street of the latest iteration of the Hell on Wheels town that had quadrupled the size of the small Mormon community of Echo City when the tracklayers had arrived. Will’s boots crunched through the thin layer of ice on the dirt road and squished in the mud beneath the cracked surface. He hunched the poncho up around his neck to keep the biting wind from whistling down his buckskin jacket collar. He rubbed his left bicep briskly. The old arrow wound ached in cold weather.
Opposite the livery stable, the two-story, false-fronted Lucky Dollar Saloon dominated the line of ramshackle buildings and tents comprising the temporary town. The tinkling of a piano inside the saloon accompanied the warbling of a lullaby. A shadow moved behind closed curtains lining a front window of the Lucky Dollar. From the figure’s heavy-set outline, Will knew it was Mort Kavanagh. The self-proclaimed mayor of Hell on Wheels controlled all aspects of the gambling and drinking establishments that followed the railroad’s construction in order to entice the tracklayers into spending their hard-earned money on whiskey.
Beyond the Lucky Dollar, Will passed Abrams General Store. The Jewish merchant had closed up shop already. The miserable weather would have yielded few customers at such a late hour. Will planned to visit the store tomorrow. He’d chewed the last of the jaw-breakers on the ride in from Weber, and he wanted to buy another poke of his favorite candy.
Lantern light glowed from the bay-windowed office that jutted onto the Union Pacific depot’s platform. Will could see the station master hunched over his telegraph key. Normally, the depot would be dark and silent this time of evening. Must be a train coming in. None had arrived from the east for almost a week.
The current snowstorm was the latest of several that had blown through, creating drifts in Wyoming too deep for the 4-4-0 locomotives to push through. Passenger and freight traffic ground to a halt. If it weren’t for this bad weather, a person should be able to travel non-stop on the Union Pacific a thousand miles from Omaha, Nebraska, to the end of track in Echo City. From here, travelers rode the stagecoach to connect with the Central Pacific’s end of track, which was advancing eastward from beyond the Utah-Nevada border. Passengers then continued their journey to California by rail.
A few paces farther down the street brought Will to Wells, Fargo & Company. He opened the station’s front door and stepped inside.
Jenny McNabb turned from the wood-burning, iron stove where she worked at preparing the meal for the passengers who would arrive on the train. They would enjoy a hearty, hot meal before boarding the stagecoach. The fourteen-year-old girl had gained the reputation a year ago as being the best cook on the Wells Fargo line.
“Will,” she said. “You’re soaking wet. Close the door, and don’t come any farther. You’re tracking up my clean floor.”
Her blue eyes flashed grey, a sure sign to Will that Jenny meant what she said. He closed the door behind him and didn’t move.
Jenny had coiled her waist-length, black hair into a tight bun on the back of her head. She reached up and pushed a loose strand back into place.
“This storm’s bad,” Will said, “but from the activity at the depot, it looks like a train’s finally going to make it through from Wyoming.”
“I know. Papa said we’ll have to keep the passengers here until morning, though. He and Duncan are out back trying to put all the horses under cover. That old barn was only built for six teams, not nine.”
Echo City was the latest in a series of stagecoach stations that Jenny’s father, Alistair McNabb, had managed for Wells Fargo. The former Confederate officer had lost his left arm during the war, but he did the work of men who had both. Duncan, Jenny’s ten-year-old brother, served as the stage station’s telegrapher, when he wasn’t helping with the horses.
“Want a cup of coffee?” Jenny asked.
“Can’t stay, Jenny. Have to meet Uncle Sean and Homer over to the Chinaman’s café.”
“You given any thought to what you’re going to do once the railroad is finished?”
“Some. Haven’t decided, though. Try not to think a lot about it. You?”
Jenny raised her eyebrows. “Head on to California, I suppose. That was our original goal when we left Virginia two years ago. Once the UP joins up with the CP there won’t be any need for a cross-country stagecoach service.”
Will couldn’t think of anything to say. It was sad to realize his friends also faced an unknown future.
“Stop by later,” she said. “Might have a piece of pie left over if the passengers don’t eat it all.”
Will left the station and continued to the end of the street, where the Chinaman always erected his café. The other businessmen in Hell on Wheels tolerated the old Chinaman because he provided a meal at a decent price, but they certainly didn’t want him locating his eating establishment in the center of their town.
Entering the café, Will nodded to his uncle and Homer who sat at a table near the single window set into the wooden front of the canvas-roofed structure. Will dropped his hat and saddlebags on the floor and hauled the rubber poncho off over his head. He shook the water from the heavy rainwear and hung it on a peg beside the door. He slapped his hat against his thigh and hung it atop the poncho. Retrieving the saddlebags, he walked to the table.
He shivered when he sat down. “It’s as cold in here as it is outside,” he said.
“Old Chinaman’s too stingy to buy a stove for the customers,” his uncle said. “The only heat comes from his cook stove in the back.”
“And that sure don’t do much,” Homer added.
Will tapped a dark patch of ice on the tabletop. “Coffee?” he asked.
“Freezes as soon as you spill it,” his uncle said. “Want some of the stew? If you eat it fast, it stays warm enough.”
“Need something. I’m starved . . . and cold.”
Will’s uncle motioned to a young Chinese waiter who hurried over with a bowl and spoon and placed them in front of Will with a polite bow, causing his pigtail to swing over the front of his shoulder.
Homer pushed a plate of cornbread toward Will. “Can’t butter it.” Homer whacked a chunk of butter resting on a tin plate with his knife. The blade bounced off the top of the frozen lump.
Will dragged a thick bundle of papers out of his saddlebags and handed them to his uncle. “Sam Reed’s plans,” he said.
While Will tackled the bowl of stew, his uncle sorted through the documents.
“I see Sam even had ‘Colonel’ Seymour sign off on the plans.” Will’s uncle uttered the title in a sneering way.
Silas Seymour had bestowed the honorary title upon himself, much to the disgust of many former Army officers who now worked on the railroad. Thomas “Doc” Durant, the Union Pacific’s vice president and general manager, had sent Seymour to Utah to spy on Sam Reed, Sean Corcoran, and others. Seymour always thought he knew a better way to build the railroad, even if it cost more money and took more time. Seymour’s meddling earned him the nickname of “the insulting engineer.”
“How did Mr. Reed get Seymour to sign off?” Will asked.
“My guess is Sam pointed out that Durant wouldn’t be happy if Seymour antagonized Brigham Young anymore than he already has. When Young bought out the Mormon settlers’ farms along our right-of-way and donated their land to the UP for our Ogden yards, Durant knew he’d saved a lot of money.”
“That ought to make General Dodge happy, too,” Will said.
“Yes, but I wish General Dodge could wrap up his business in Washington City and get back out here. He’s the best at keeping Seymour in line.”
Dodge had recently completed a two-year term as a United States Congressman, but he’d remained in the nation’s capital to negotiate with Collis Huntington, the Central Pacific’s lobbyist, on where the two railroads should join tracks.
“In the meantime,” Will’s uncle said, “we’ll have to do the best we can. Fortunately Jack Casement’s on his way back. He telegraphed he was leaving Ohio this morning. He wants to review these plans as soon as possible and not wait until he returns. Wants me to meet him at Fort Fred Steele on his way back.”
“Can’t you give the plans to Dan?” Will asked.
“Jack’s brother has his hands full keeping the tracklayers from walking off the job because the payroll hasn’t been met for weeks. Doc Durant has no intention of sending any more money than necessary from New York, and this storm is giving him the excuse he needs not to do so. Besides, Dan Casement doesn’t know anything about estimating the kinds of materials required to do the job.”
Jack and Dan Casement held the contract with the Union Pacific for laying the tracks. Jack had taken a few weeks off during the winter down-time to return to his home back east for a vacation with his family. He’d left his younger brother, who was the company bookkeeper, in charge of looking after their warehouse and construction train, presently idled in Echo City.
The back door of the café banged open, and Will glanced up when the chilling blast of air reached his face. He dropped his spoon into the bowl of stew, and his mouth fell open. Staring back at him from across the room was Paddy O’Hannigan.