KaktusKontainer VIII

A Line in the Dirt

The sound of screaming steel heralded the arrival of the locomotive, as it screeched to a stop at the Grand Junction station. Gold lettering on black metal glistened in the sun as steam cascaded down the sides of the engine, briefly obscuring the words "Kervier-Pacific" from view.

"Grand Junction station!" the conductor shouted, leaping from the front of the train. "Last stop 'til Provo! Next train leaves in two hours! Passengers departing for Provo by Kervier-Pacific, two hours!"

His voice was drowned out by the throngs of people disembarking the cars. To the casual observer, this was not uncommon; trains came and went everyday in Grand Junction. But to the man standing beneath an awning at the end of the platform, this mass of people meant opportunity.

He stood no taller than the average man, but carried himself with the swagger of wealth. If he had intended to blend in with the crowd of blue collards, his pressed pants and fitted jacket might have given him away. The gold chain at his waist certainly would have. But Emmitt Hoadley had no intention of pretending. His thick, waxed mustache shook in the wind, and he chortled deeply at the sight of the locomotive.

"Do you see that?" he said to a man next time him, his voice full of bravado. He gestured with a cigar towards the steaming, creaking engine. "That is an American made, United Locomotive #11. The finest engine in the world." He puffed the cigar. "Do you think that Union-Pacific has such a machine? Or Hinchfield-Foster?"

The other man, a thin, pursed figure, squinted slightly. "No, likely not."

"No, they don't." He puffed again at the cigar, with vigor. "Of course not. And why don't they?" He didn't wait for an answer. "Because they're poor businessmen, Francis. The elite of America want the best. When they think of the best, they're going to think of Kervier, and they're going to think of Hoadley."

Francis Goldmann nodded. "The investors will be impressed."

"Impressed! I'd say so. Look at her!" Hoadley strolled up to the engine and gave it a hearty slap. He pulled his hand away at the heat, laughing. "A fierce bitch if I ever saw one! And I've seen a few, Francis. Been married four times, you know. I know my way around a bitch, and this here is the finest bitch west of St. Louis!"

He began to walk down the platform, and Goldmann fell in behind him. The mass of people had begun to file out of the station, but the majority stood idly near the entrance, waiting to have their paperwork processed.

"See these men?" Hoadley nodded towards them. "Of course you do, you're not blind. These men are railroad men, I can tell it. They've got a fierceness about them, Francis. A spirit of industry. I can smell it, you know. That's how I built this business, by sniffing it out." He stopped for a moment to consider the group. "In the last year, we've hired five-thousand men. Five-thousand, Francis. Five-thousand souls who have moved west to build a life for themselves. Make something out of nothing. Good men, each one of them. I have no doubt."

He puffed the cigar, and considered it as well. "Union-Pacific wants to build their line to San Francisco through Santa Fe. When I said Salt Lake City, they laughed me out of their boardroom. Called me crazy, Francis. "Nobody can build a line through the mountains," they said. I gave them a fair deal, an honest deal, and they laughed me away." His brow furrowed and his tone grew dark. "Cowards," he spat.

Hoadley sighed, and continued on past the group towards the offices at the other end of the platform. "But here we are, Francis. Five-thousand eager, willing souls, and a straight shot through the Salt Lake towards California. A year ahead of Union-Pacific. Two and a half ahead of TransAtlantic. Who's laughing now?" He guffawed. "Me, Francis! I'm laughing! I think it's hilarious!"

They stopped at the door to the office, and Hoadley flicked the thick butt of his cigar towards the gravel.

"We have some obstacles ahead of us, no doubt. This won't be an easy road. But when Kervier is pushing ten-thousand people into San Francisco every day, and we're reaping the spoils of war, it will have been worth it." He reached into his pocket, and pulled out a gold watch at the end of the chain. "2:45. The train leaves at 4:30. Have them hook up my car; I want to be there when the investors see the #11 roll into the station. The look on their dumb faces will bring me no end of pleasure, I'm sure."

Goldmann nodded. "Of course, sir. Right away."

Hoadley nodded curtly, and opened the door behind him. He took a step, paused, and then turned back.

"It occurs to me, Francis," he said, with no hint of joviality remaining in his voice, "that if we come out here to build our line through the mountains, and if we bring five-thousand men to build this line, and we come out of this with no line, well, they'll definitely have something to laugh about then, won't they?"

Goldmann hesitated, and then nodded slowly.

Hoadley nodded, the smile quickly returning to his face. "I'm glad we're in agreement." He turned back to the door and strode across the threshold. "We're going to be rich, Francis!" he shouted, as the door slammed shut behind him.

The sun slunk slowly behind the mountains, casting long shadows that crept across the Utahan landscape. A cold wind had picked up in the evening, and the chill found its home in the darkness as night settled in over Glover Ranch.

Anderson Glover sat atop his horse, the wind scattering his auburn hair like summer straw. He gazed across the plain towards another man, a man he didn't know, who had been approaching for nearly an hour. The man rode in from the north, but from where only God could say. The closest settlement to the north was nearly three days travel, in Provo.

When the man was within shouting distance, Anderson called to him.

"Whoa there, stranger." His voice cut across the moonlit plains. "Where do you come from?"

The man and his horse came to a stop, no more than fifty lengths from where Anderson stood.

"Provo, three days past. Is this the Glover Ranch?"

Anderson nodded. "It is. Come up here, son. Easy though, let's not try anything foolish."

The man on the horse trotted up towards the crest of the ridge. His long jacket fluttered in the breeze, and beneath his wide brimmed hat Anderson could see dark eyes and dark hair.

"What's your name, stranger?" Anderson said, his voice cool. He realized his hand had fallen backwards towards his holster.

The man looked up, and for the first time Anderson could clearly see his face in the fading sunlight. He was not an old man, but his features betrayed his age. Scars and burns littered his face, and his right side was tight and unmoving, like a mask. He was not an unattractive man, Anderson thought, or would not have been save the disfigurements.

"Owen Dark," the man said, "55th Michigan Infantry."

Anderson hesitated. "Under whose leadership?"

"Colonel Bright, sir."

Anderson laughed. "Howland Bright. I didn't know he made it to the war's end."

Dark smiled. "Just barely, sir. Caught a bullet in the shoulder near Appomattox, but stayed on his horse until it was over."

Anderson nodded slowly, before suddenly drawing his sidearm. Dark raised his hands, his horse whinnying and pulling back.

"Whoa there, Glover," Dark said, calmly.

"I just find it difficult to reconcile what you've told me with that I know," Anderson said, "which is that Colonel Bright died at Old Church Road, and that there was no 55th Michigan Infantry." He pulled himself up in his saddle and aimed. "Misrepresenting military honors is a crime, son, and I'm not keen on it myself."

Dark reached down into his jacket and produced his own sidearm, which he flipped onto the ground between them. "I meant no disrespect, of course, though I promise that I've told no untruths. If you'd give me the benefit, I'd like to explain my meaning, if it pleases you."

Anderson held his weapon at eye level for a long moment, and then relaxed. He holstered the weapon, dismounted, and picked up Dark's off of the ground.

"Alright then," he said. "Let's hear it."

Dark looked past him to the ranch in the distance. "There's no chance we could do this somewhere more casual, is there? It's been a long time in the saddle, as I'm sure you know."

Anderson spat on the ground. "You won't take one step onto my property until you give me some reason not to shoot you where you sit."

Dark sighed. He rolled sideways and dismounted, then reached into his pack to produce a sealed envelope. The seal was in wax, and bore a strange emblem that Anderson didn't recognize. Three arrows pointing inwards, connected with a circle. Anderson broke the seal and set to reading the letter.

"Those are my standing orders," Dark said, carefully. "Written in the hand of Colonel Bright himself. I've got a list of individuals I've been tasked with seeking out, certain distinguished individuals from the war. Yours is on that list, of course, otherwise I wouldn't be—"

Anderson looked up. "You expect me to believe this bull shit? This here, this is just some sort of smoke and mirror trick. Howland Bright was shot off of his horse in at Old Church Road, I saw his body myself. Lying in the mud."

Dark grimaced. "I can't deny that, sir. The wounds that Colonel Bright took that day were grievous, no doubt, but I assure you that the man lives to this day. I've seen him myself, in St. Louis, before I set myself west."

Anderson studied the letter again. "What's this about the Michigan 55th? It doesn't exist."

"Didn't exist." Dark corrected him quickly. "This is a recent development. Are you sure we can't sit down somewhere?"

Anderson looked up slowly, peering at Dark through the shadows.

"Fine," he said, "follow me."

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