Brief Lives of the Trainmen
He is awake before daylight greases the black pan of the sky. The cook rousts him with the swat of an iron ladle across the brake spring. He hears the cook curse her rheumatic gout, the withholding chickens, the moths that have drowned in her uncovered pots. Her voice is as complaining as a crow’s. He worms his feet into the square-toed brogans left behind by the gauger who caught gold fever from a bullwhacker out of Rapid City. The brogans are too large, but he’ll keep them until he can trade for something better. He bundles his spare shirt and stockings with the grain sack that is his bed, then reties the rope that belts his woolen trousers. The rope is a gift from the cook. She used it to lead the pig before she butchered him.
He tucks his belongings under one arm and shimmies open the boxcar door. The morning smells of mule and tar. The engineers’ tents, set like a great aunt’s tea cups on the flat plain to the south, are barely visible against the chalky soil he can taste when the wind blows his way. The engineers will snore until their biscuits are baked. They aren’t his worry. It’s the first shift he’s after, the gangers who sleep too late this time of year, except for the Chinese. The Chinese aren’t his worry either. They take care of themselves.
He jumps to the roadbed in his gentleman’s shoes.
When he reaches the first of the boarding cars, he finds Mr. Donahue preparing to piss onto the link and pin. The gang boss has forbidden this practice, which only makes it more pleasurable and frequent. He likes Mr. Donahue, who signed payroll as Mr. Garrity the month before, and Mr. Haughey the month before that. Mr. Donahue is free with his pennies. “Morning, scalpeen. Are ye seeing the men to their labors?”
He nods. It is the same every morning save Sundays when Mr. Donahue seldom cracks an eye before noon.
“Good on ye,” says Mr. Donahue, unbuttoned, steaming. “I’ll utter me first prayers here.”
There are three boarding cars, three tiers of bunks each. The Chinese, who aren’t allowed, make camp nearby, though never among the engineers. The callboy monkeys the grab bars and swings into the stink of the first car still lugging his belongings which he hopes to leave under the blanket on Billy Dolph’s bunk. Farts, oil of maccasar, whiskey distilled through unwashed skin. The smell of tumored liver in the vicinity of poor Pascal. Creosote, harness soap, tobacco marinated in spit. Bay rum and sweat above Nattie Finn. The assault of Peg Farland’s remaining foot. Mold stewed from wet belches and canvas. The callboy touches shoulders, tugs at pant legs, ducks the slaps and roundabouts that come from the sweltering dark. He darts through all the cars, wrangling the right men for each crew. He tosses his small bundle over Billy Dolph, who sleeps hugging his knees. He leaves Billy alone for now. But he screws the rest—bolters, spikers, gaugers, gandys old and young—to the post of another dollar-and-a-half day.
The Tallow Pot
He sleeps behind Engine No. 212 in the tender, armored by his stacks of wood like a beetle trapped in amber. He likes it that way. His name is Ode Redfern, and this is his first work train. He started as a yard goat in Nebraska, kept all his digits, lost his wife to typhoid, tried the mines in Colorado and hated the delving. He has more affinity for steam and rail. He finds harmony in the careful tending of a boiler. But building a rail line is slow. Too slow for some. And what good man of the nation doesn’t clamor for forwardness and speed?
He’s been pushed hard before. There’s a story he’ll tell over the crackling bowl of his pipe, how he was fireman on a narrow gauge hog near Spearfish Canyon trying to buck snow without a proper plow, just ramming the heavy drifts under orders from a bank man who was in a hurry to get where he was going, and they blew too hot, had to shovel the coals right out of the box because the cab was beginning to sizzle and smoke. His engineer, a high rolling hogger with a reputation for running trestles during gully washes, threw the bank man into the snow with his Gladstone bag. They waited four days before they were towed free. The engineer died a few months later when Elkhorn No. 107 lost air to its brakes and skipped the tracks above Blacktail. He was thrown clear of the engine only to land in a mill pond where he was trapped under ice and drowned. This is what keeps Ode Redfern thinking at night, what stacks him in the tender like a sawed-off length of pine. He can’t swim a stroke. He’d rather scald like a peeled rabbit than flail his way to Heaven’s gates. Worry makes him an attentive fireman.
This morning, like most others, Ode and the engineer complain about the paymaster as they fry eggs on a shovel held over the boiler’s fire. The cook sells them eggs at an exorbitant price. They don’t dare complain about her.
Is lonely for Chicago. He hasn’t perused a city in eight months, hasn’t set foot in Illinois for more than a year. He broods as he measures grounds for coffee, ignoring, as he must, Captain Hallock’s discussion of his irritable bowels. In Chicago an engineering man can make his fortune. He can erect soaring buildings and defiant bridges that are the darlings of the newspapers hawked on every corner. Patricia writes to him of such marvels. She wishes he were there. Her letters, which no longer tickle the nose with lavender water once they reach him, are very particular in their desires.
He hears it again—the luff and snap of the canvas that roofs the boarding cars on the work train. It is a constant sound, day and night, now that they are laying track on the naked plains of the Wyoming Territory. The canvas, as he himself discovered, was manufactured by Thos. A. Moran & Sons, Sailmakers, Chicago. Captain Hallock needles a frequent thread of jokes around this fact. The captain is not above repeating his jokes.
He places his calfskin journal on a knee and licks the nib of his pen as the coffee (sans the eggshell he was unable to procure from the cook) begins to boil. Yesterday, for his own wicked consolation, he recounted the pomposity of Professor Jules Vanocker, purveyor of Mathematics and Ancient History at the university. The professor enjoyed quoting Seneca: “It is better to know useless things than to know nothing at all.” Now, as he anticipates his daily performance as second-in-command of a miscreant surveying crew, those words convey the sad blare of an anthem. He knows less than he did when he left Chicago. About himself. About ambition and America.
The crew will forge ahead of the work train again this morning. All rod and chain. He will read western sunlight through his lenses until his head bursts because there is a problem with the grade along the slope that Caldwell, the draftsman, insists on calling Bosom Hill. It is only half possible this problem will relieve him of his thoughts of Mrs. Baird Gardner. She, too, will leave camp this morning, riding south to the Union Pacific line in Cheyenne, thence to Omaha. Baird Gardner is the topographer, green and eager, a boy who speaks of little other than his wife (whom they have all admired these past six weeks; whom they have all, indeed, overheard in the throes of love) and his desire to make the Geological Survey.
The transitman never thought he would consider the presence of the neckless, mustachioed Mrs. Hallock a blessing, but he does.
The coffee is brewed. He can already taste it on his embittered tongue, redolent of local alkaloids and the kerosene in which he soaked buffalo chips to make his fire. The eastern sky is bottomless, unfloored, as dizzying in its scope as a bachelor’s lust. He etches persistence onto the gilt-edged pages of his journal, calibrates sentences of the sort his Patricia might wish to read. How there will be no rain today. Only steady calculation and degree. And length after length of taut, manhandled chain.
He asks to be called Boda, though no one knows whether those brief syllables belong to his first name or his last. He’s danced on section gangs since the Union Pacific hawsered itself to Utah in 1869. The palms of his hands are worn down to yellow tendon, but he can still drive a spike, three knocks. And he always wants a baseball game on Sunday, even in a gale. He isn’t much for bathing. Donahue says Boda’s neck will get its first scrub from the coroner. Boda was, however, the first to offer money for a one-hour lease of Pascal’s varnished Victrola. His delight in music, particularly the melodies of Mr. Stephen Foster, has little apparent influence on the cook, for whom he bears a wordless affection. She isn’t a woman for a tune. Yet Boda, who once hung an Idaho card cheat from an upraised wagon tongue because there were no trees nearby, wrings the necks of the dinner fowl when the cook asks him to, and it was he who rescued the Easter ham from the marauding coyote who dragged it off the table during sermon.
Billy Dolph tumbles free of his dreams like a circus aerialist. He’s up early, hoping the trick will earn him a chance at two breakfasts, one with each shift. It doesn’t. The cook and the pocked girl who’s come from a placer mine in the Black Hills to help with the laundry are on to his grin and games. Cook curses the grave of his mother and sends him down the track for curative spices from the Chinese. It’ll be his own fault, she says, if Boss Stall sees him and orders him into the hot sun to set spikes. He doffs his cap to Peg Farland who’s doling picks and shovels from the tool car. When Mr. Hanna, the engineer, plays out his sharp, two-tone whistle for the start of first shift, the rush leaves Billy to barter alone with Old Soo at the Chinese camp. Soo’s teeth are as stained as the lip of No. 212’s diamond stack. Billy wonders if they got that way from the dog-desperate way Chinamen eat. They pluck slimeys and scaleys from under rocks, that’s what Donahue says. Donahue also says Chinese don’t wash with soap, but Billy knows whatever they do or don’t do, you never see the yellow bastards yanking at their braids because of lice. He tries not to inhale the steam that curdles above Soo’s kettles as he acquires a cigarette paper creased with lumpy brown powder. The price is a dozen peppercorns, two sewing needles, and a worm-free portion of lard. Old Soo pantomimes how the cook should pour the spiced tea directly onto her aching knuckles.
Billy dodges Boss Stall once more, just long enough to corral Eddie, the callboy. Has Eddie talked to the new freight hauler, the one who knows a prospector who hides gold in the crops of his yard geese? The prospector feeds his best nuggets to the birds with their grain. Cashes in whenever he wishes, one swing of the ax. Billy wants Eddie to donate the pyrite he got from that engineer’s wife so they can try it on the chickens. Sure, they plan to use the pyrite and Boda’s dice that are carved from a whore’s teeth as exhibits in their lending museum. That doesn’t have to change. They’ll get the rocks back. Nothing can hurt those birds.
Will not make it. He’s laid up at the Hotel Niobrara in the soot-and-vinegar town of Newcastle with a scrofulous swelling of the testicles. The Frontier Pioneer Index, courtesy of the Martineau Brothers of Sandusky, Ohio, will not print an on-track edition to jubilate over this strand of the Great American Steel Web. George, younger of the ink-stained Martineaus, hopes to placate the railroad’s Boston backers by hiring a wagon to haul him and his drawers of lead type north to the frenzy of the corporation’s Montana venture instead. Once the mercury pills have doused his iniquitous fires.
Lieutenant Marriner “Peg” Farland lost a leg in Virginia. He was commanding a battery for General A.P. Hill when the Yankees blew splinters of gun carriage and draft horse through his knee. There are whispers that Peg has won and lost fortunes at faro in St. Louis, that he was nearly strung up in Texas. Peg is good with numbers which means Boss Stall gave him the company store after the Jew absconded for the wonders of the Burlington line. Peg Farland also manages the tool car and is a fair hand over an anvil, which is a blessing since the chief smith, Dot Commiskey, has been slowed by boils.
The truculents gripe that Peg keeps the best tobacco for his own diet, lining his bollinger hat with quality plugs so they will stay moist in the veritable desert clime. But none dare accuse him to his face. Peg sports one leg, two swift fists, and the pride of a vanquished officer. He tells the dying Cuban, Pascal, that his terminus is the sparkled waters of San Francisco. Pascal doesn’t believe him. Pascal tells Nattie Finn, who tells many others, that Lieutenant Peg Farland of Virginia is meant to live where living is undermined.
Peg Farland is the one who hears the ambush of the chickens.
The Eagle Eye
If only he’d stuck to wiping engine brass or blustering to Redfern about the flanges on the pony truck. But, no. The succulent strut of what he believed was a prairie cock was too much. The bird’s parade of arrogance impaled him with appetite, and he discharged the gun he keeps mounted in his engine cab. The bird swooned in a mist of blood and feathers only to be identified by the fireman as one of the cook’s mysteriously freed domestics. Thus he, Engineer Joseph Hanna, most recently of Fort Pierre, and the quiet Mr. Redfern are sure to face a culinary future of boiled mush and recalcitrance unless they make swift amends. Redfern claims to know the terrain. He has spoken of nearby waters and trout the size of long toms. Joe Hanna asks himself: Will the aggrieved cook accept a tribute of fresh fish if he can cajole an efficacious amount of dynamite from Mr. Stall? He is somewhat experienced with dynamite. And the poor luck that has pursued him since the misunderstanding with the bank draft in Ogallala is bound to change. How can a gentlemanly gesture go wrong?
Brakeman Lafayette Rule is waiting, waiting, waiting in the slim shadow of the crummy for the overdue supply train to appear. He’d rather eat sparks on a spongy spur line than scratch his ass on a work train, but he’s got two brats to feed with another in his wife’s belly that may or may not be his own. The five Mormon brothers who teamster fresh ties off the flatcars don’t need an extra hand this morning, so Lafayette is whittling a busted ax handle into a new brake club when comes the uproar. General hue and cry. Like brawling on a Saturday. Lafayette skates down the incline of the roadbed in time to dodge a riderless horse headed west, stirrups slapping. He shades his eyes long enough to note that the horse, a bay mare, belongs to Captain Elijah Hallock, surveyor and indifferent equestrian. The mare will soon dig in her heels. She won’t care for the blinding miles of unmarked prairie.
Lafayette Rule trots the length of the train. Flatcar, stock car, dining car, washhouse. A whirlwind has descended in the vicinity of the cook’s awning. The new laundress, whom Lafayette has already dreamily cast in scenes of unclothed drama, is weeping. The hens are loose and flapping. The cook is beating some young fool with a tent stake amid cries of robbery and murder. The wash cauldron has somehow spilled itself over a prostrate Captain Hallock. The brakeman shoulders through a phalanx of perplexed engineers until he can assure himself the captain hasn’t been poached alongside the week’s ration of bed bugs. Someone says the portly captain was pinching sugar when he ran afoul of the cook. A stuttering Swede says n-n-no, the captain was only paying his compliments when a thunderclap loud as a gunshot caused his saucy mare to toss him into the laundry pot. Lafayette Rule reckons the surveyor is lucky the water wasn’t at full boil.
But that won’t be the last word. The tale will have ten verses and a chorus once the gangs slaver into it. They will redouble the humiliations and intrigues. They will shout them out like sailors. Hallock will have to billet with the pagan Chinese if he wants one moment of peace.
A rising whistle susses into his reverie. It’s Engineer Joe Hanna’s signal that the train is moving up. While the least of them have created calumny out of idleness and sport, another mile of singing rail has been laid down like a babe. O creation, thinks Lafayette Rule, as he fingers his vest pocket for the tidy sum he owes the whiskey trader. There will be spirit to spare over the cards tonight. Despite the absence of eggs in the oversalted hash, there will be laughter and roaring in the dark. And how else might a fellow wish to end his day if he must end it within this national wilderness of buoyancy and theft? We are the living fuse, snorts Lafayette Rule. We are black hands on the Diviner’s line.