Authors: John Jakes
For Frank Curtis
the best there is
Prelude: California Dreams
I. A Thirsty Man
II. Welcome to the City
III. Life Among the Escrow Indians
V. Gentlemen of Riverside
VI. Power and Glory
VII. Into the Fire
IX. Smashing the Machine 1909-1910
X. California Gold 1911
Coda: El Dorado 1921
A Biography of John Jakes
Now I wish you to learn one of the strangest matters that has ever been found in writing or in the memory of mankind…Know ye that on the right hand of the Indies there is an island called
very close to the Earthly Paradise…
—Garcí Ordóñez de Montalvo
Las Sergas de Esplandián
In reading the biographies of Californians, I found some recurring themes: restlessness rather than rootedness, innovation instead of tradition, freedom replacing responsibility…I also found an obsession with bigness.
I don’t think of California as a place, you see. It is a certain kind of opportunity.
—James D. Houston
Eastward I go only by force; but westward I go free
—Henry David Thoreau
Thirty years after the Gold Rush, men and women of adventurous spirit began to discover the true gold of California. They found it hidden in her soil and her streams, in black oil and golden citrus, in seemingly impractical new inventions such as moving pictures and airplanes.
One such gold seeker set out in 1886, his destination a place steeped in legend, myth, and dreams. She was still a raw frontier, a land of stunning geographic contrasts, of parched savannas and snowy peaks, cold purple valleys and hot yellow deserts. She spilled across 158,700 square miles, and an entire 10 degrees of latitude north to south.
She had already known many cultures. Manila galleons had provisioned in her coastal bays, homebound for Europe with the riches of the Orient. Sir Francis Drake had careened his ship on her shore while searching for the fabled northwest passage to the Indies.
Early Spanish explorers waded her rivers and trekked her deserts in search of mythical cities paved with gold. Like a string of sacred rosary beads, twenty-one Franciscan missions were placed from San Diego to Sonoma. These first European settlers, the soldiers and clerics, practiced what they perceived as a benevolent despotism. In the name of God and civilization they enslaved the first Californians, native Indians whose most warlike activities were digging roots and weaving baskets.
As the years passed, others came to California in pursuit of good fortune or easy living. Mexican descendants of the Spanish soldiers settled on her hills to raise cattle on great
New England merchantmen sailed in to trade for tallow and hides—“California bank-notes,” the Yankees called them. Imperial Russia planted a colony on the northern coast in search of furs and perhaps new territory, only to see it fail after a few decades.
By then a new, menacing breed had appeared: bold mountain men who risked their lives to push through the snow-choked passes of the Sierras. They greedily eyed the sweet rich land sequestered, behind the mountain barrier, and soon word of their discoveries filtered east. Many more “Anglos” were shortly on the way.
“Manifest destiny” was a banner the Americans carried from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In 1846 they seized California, and four years later she was ushered into the Union as the thirty-first state. By 1851 Americans were using the courts to steal the land-grant
from their original owners.
All of this took place against the turmoil of a truly global event. On January 24, 1848, at Captain Sutter’s sawmill on the south fork of the American River, a cry went up and echoed around the world:
Hundreds heeded it, then thousands. They walked or rode across the prairies and mountains, or tossed in reeking ships that carried them to California after they trudged through the pestilential heat of the Isthmus of Panama. Other ships voyaged around the Horn, many sinking in its raging storms. By foot and by horse, by wheel and by sail, these modern seekers of the golden fleece, these Argonauts, came. They hailed from farms and cities all over America, from Britain, Germany, France, Switzerland, Russia, China, Hawaii, Brazil, and scores of other places. During the peak of the Gold Rush as many as a hundred thousand of them were swarming into California each year.
A few found gold; most didn’t. Those who did failed to keep it. The Gold Rush created not a single millionaire, not one family fortune.
Within ten years, however, other men with different perspectives began to seek and find the real gold of the Golden State. First among them were four shopkeepers, all of ordinary background but extraordinary avarice and energy, who planned, financed, and built the western portion of the first transcontinental railroad.
Other Californians began to strike it rich in silver mines just over the Nevada border. Still others found wealth in vast tracts of land where wheat could be grown bountifully and profitably.
Even by 1886, when she held almost a million people, California had not yet yielded all of her treasures. Despite the disillusionment of many who had already failed there, her shining myth remained undimmed. Her name was still a lodestone for the courageous and hopeful, and she still sang her siren song to young dreamers around the world.
This is the story of one of them…and of some of those he met on his journey in search of California gold.
THE THREE HANGED MEN turned in the wind as the timbers of the gibbet creaked and the blizzard covered the shabby coats of the dead with shrouds of white. The boy was frightened of the three, with their closed eyes, fishy white skin, purple throats. He knew them all: O’Murphy, Caslin, and Uncle Dave, Pa’s brother. They frightened him nearly as much as this sudden storm.
It came down off Sharp Mountain like a howling wolf, building the drifts an inch higher during the short time he stood by the gibbet. It stung his face, the snow more like pellets of ice, and drove against him so that he resembled a shrunken old man with white hair.
The blue medicine bottle dropped from his numb right hand. Frantic, he pawed in the drift till he found it and then put it in the left pocket of his poor coat, the only one without a hole. The bottle came from the store operated by the mine company—the Pluck-Me Store, Pa called it, because that’s what it did to all the miners, plucked them clean.
He started to run through the growing drifts. Hard going; soon his breath was tearing in and out in loud gasps. The storm gripped his bones and made them ache, and he felt he’d never be warm again, never see sunshine again. Stumbling past the last of the hideous frame duplexes where some of the miners lived, he feared he’d never see Pa again, because drifts twice as tall as he was blocked the path home.
He wanted to cry but didn’t, because he’d learned that lesson already. Even at seven years old, you didn’t cry. If there wasn’t enough food—and there never was—you didn’t cry. If the winters were endless, freezing, without sun except for a feeble yellow-white glow in the haze now and then, breaking your heart because you longed for warmth and light, you didn’t cry. If the mine’s hired detectives hanged your uncle for conspiring to strike, you didn’t cry. If you were out here, lost, afraid for your life and immortal soul, you still didn’t cry.
He ran, slamming through a drift, battering it with both fists, the wind yelling and sobbing and cluttering in his ear. His hair was white. Bolting left, he lost his balance and tumbled onto his side. He came up spitting snow and, wild with fright, cupped his hands around his mouth. “Pa? Pa, help me!” Under his nails dark deposits showed; the dirt came from his work, picking and sorting the anthracite with forty other boys. He had Pennsylvania black gold under his nails, but he couldn’t spend it.
He feared there’d be no answer. Stumbling, he nearly fell again when he heard a distant voice. “Mack? Mack—son!”
“Pa, where are you? I can’t see you. I’m lost.”
“Mack, I’ve been searching for an hour.” The voice receded as he ran toward it.
“But where are you?”
“Over here, this way.”
This way this way.
The sound whirled round and round him, the voices multiplying, echoing, confusing and frightening him more. He screamed for Pa, and swerved to the left, then right, running faster, his cracked old shoes somehow lifting him above the snow, carrying him on between cliffs of snow that formed a steadily narrowing canyon. “Pa! Pa?” he cried, and a hundred answering voices gibbered at him from all directions, the human sounds and the storm’s cry a hopeless tangle.
He heard a rumbling, felt it in his feet deep in the drifts. The rumbling grew, and the snow cliffs on both sides shuddered and began to rain down showers of white.
He ran into something solid and cried out. Snapping his head back, he saw the three hanged men. He’d run in a circle. Around the gibbet, ramparts of snow reached up to a sky he was seeing for the last time.
“Help me,” he said to the dead men as the snow cliffs burst open; great blocks of white hurtled down. “Somebody help me.”
The hanged men opened their eyes and looked down. He started to scream, but no sound would come. His mouth open, he watched tons of snow descending on him with a roar like the end of creation. Again he tried to force a scream out. Nothing. His throat was silent, dead.
But there was screaming enough. The storm screamed for him, louder, and louder, and—
His eyes flew open. The terrible sound gripped him until he sat up and his mind started to function. There was a thin scrawl of smoke along the horizon. Again the freight train signaled with its whistle, now quickly fading, the train dwindling in the west and leaving nothing but the smoke above the rolling harvested fields. He forced himself to breathe deeply; that slowed the beat of his heart.
The nightmare recurred every few months. It was as familiar as a friend, but not nearly as welcome. It was compounded of drab memories: the cold, sooty, hopeless world of the coal patch, the little village of Irish and Welsh mining families between Pottsville and Port Carbon, Pennsylvania, where his pa had raised him; and of terrifying ones: He’d been lost for half an hour in just such a snowstorm when he was sent on an errand, at age six. He hadn’t really been in danger of losing his life, but he might as well have been, so terrified was he before his pa came with a lantern to carry him home.
In the dream he always died, killed by the sunless world of his boyhood, where there was never enough food, never enough firewood, never enough in a miner’s bobtail paycheck because of all that the company deducted for rent, groceries, lamp oil, miners’ candles.
For most of those who had squandered their few years of health and vigor mining Schuylkill coal, there was never enough hope. In that respect Pa was an exception. Pa had his memories. Pa had his book. Pa had California.
He’d bequeathed all of those things to his son, who now combed a burr out of his hair and stepped over the golden leaves at the base of the tree till he was free of the shadows of the limbs and could lean his head back and let the hot autumn sunshine soak into him. It wasn’t as good as the sunshine of California, he was sure, but it was a foretaste.
His name was James Macklin Chance. Macklin was his Irish mother’s maiden name. She’d died bearing him, and perhaps his pa had always called him Mack because of his love for her, and his loss: He stood five feet, ten inches, and had a trim, hard frame developed during his years as a mine boy. Though he’d been out in the open almost constantly in recent months, he was only marginally darker man he had been the day he left Schuylkill County forever. He was still a pale easterner.
Mack had inherited his father’s straight brown hair and the hazel eyes of the mother he never knew. His beard, which he’d let grow for this journey, was distinctly lighter and redder than the hair above, and it hid a strong chin. He had a broad, likable smile when he felt like displaying it, but his early years in the mines had built a pugnacity into him too.
He relieved himself behind the tree and then hunkered over the big blue bandanna that carried his worldly goods, which consisted of a large clasp knife and the book. He wore corduroy pants and an old jacket of denim, much too heavy for this heat but necessary on the final stage of his journey. He’d set out with no money at all. The settlement after the mine accident was a princely $25, for which he’d signed a paper saying the mining company was absolved of all responsibility. Burying Pa properly had used up the entire sum.
Mack untied the bandanna and debated between the bruised apple and one of the crackers now hard as wood. He chose the cracker and then took out the book, brushing crumbs from its embossed leather cover. Inspecting each corner to make sure none was bent, he then smoothed his palm over the raised lettering, whose feel he knew by heart. The cover said:
THE EMIGRANT’S GUIDE
& ITS GOLD FIELDS.
Below this was the author’s name, T. Fowler Haines, and a date, 1848.
The book measured six inches by three, and was half an inch thick. Mack opened it to the title page and smiled as if meeting an old friend.
BASED UPON PERSONAL EYE-WITNESS EXPERIENCES OF THE AUTHOR. AND PUBLISHED AT NEW YORK CITY BY THE CASH BROS. PRINTING CO. PRICE 15 CENTS (WITH MAP).
Now leafing through the little book his father had carried all the way to California and back again, his eye touched on a favorite line.
The El Dorado of the early voyagers to America has been discovered at last, giving riches to some, and new hope to all.
His pa had believed that all his life, even though he was one of the thousands of failed Argonauts who came home with nothing but memories of a golden land of sunshine and promise. Mack believed it too, and now that his pa’s accident had set him free of responsibility—he’d never had any loyalty to the mine company, or to the cheerless cold land in which it bled its victims of their strength and hope—he was on his way to prove the words of the remote and godlike T. Fowler Haines. In California, he’d never be cold again, or poor.
Mack once more brushed off the book, considered whether the upper right corner might be slightly bent—it was not—and then tied up the bandanna and resumed his walk west through Union County, Iowa, as the morning wore away.
A half hour later he came on two farm boys rolling around and punching each other in the dirt. He jumped in and pulled off the one on top, a stern light in his hazel eyes.
“You let him alone.”
“Ain’t none of your business,” the bigger boy said. “He’s my brother.”
“I don’t care—you’re a whole head taller.”
“What gives you any right to butt in?”
“Why,” Mack said with a touch of a smile, “I just like to stand up for the underdog when he can’t stand up for himself. It’s something my pa taught me.” Then he lost the smile as he pointed his index finger near the bigger one’s face. “So you pay attention to what I say. Don’t let me catch you bullying again.”
“Yes, sir, awright,” said the bigger one, now less sure of himself.
“Is there a town anyplace close?”
“Three miles on,” said the smaller boy.
“Good. I have to find some work so I can buy some food.”
The frame building, the depot of Macedon, Iowa, baked in the midday heat. Rails polished to a dazzle by the sun ran away east and west through the vast fertile prairies, where silos and barns broke the horizon. Mack stepped up into the shade at the east end of the trackside platform, drawn by the sound of a loud, whiny voice. He’d been scrutinizing Macedon’s main street around on the other side when he heard the man’s singsong speech, or rather, just a tantalizing snatch of it:
“…never a better time to explore the wonders of California.”
The man sheltering in the shade of the platform was old. Actually he was about forty, but to Mack, who was eighteen, that was old. He wore a plaid frock coat, stand-up paper collar, cravat of peacock blue and green, and a derby. Shirt and collar studs winked like little gold nuggets. Mack saw the flash, not the cheapness.
When I’m rich I’ll dress like that.
The man had set up a folding stand to hold some pamphlets. As Mack drifted closer, he noticed a poster tacked to the depot wall.
The lecturer was swinging his finger in the air and saying, “And so, my friends…” His audience of three jowly farmers in straw hats and bib overalls and the mother of two little girls in ancient gingham sunbonnets didn’t exactly look like friends. “…do not believe what you may have been told by the envious or the ignorant. Citizens of California have the best of us. Far from living in some kind of rude exile, they enjoy, in fact, the finest climate, the most fertile soil, the loveliest skies, the mildest winters, the most healthful surroundings in the entire United States of America.”
Mack had no trouble believing that. He’d heard similar statements from his pa, and had read them in the pages of T. Fowler Haines.
“And now that the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad companies have reduced excursion fares to an all-time low, you cannot afford to pass up the opportunity to visit the Golden State, perhaps to discover your new home and—who knows?—the kind of wealth that has drawn the bold and courageous to California ever since the days when the homebound Manila galleons visited her shores, Sir Francis Drake sailed her coastline, and the hardy Spanish conquistadors roamed her valleys and mountain ranges in search of treasure. Step up, my good friends. I have the fare schedules and all pertinent information right here.”
The salesman displayed a handful of pamphlets. One farmer leaned over and spat tobacco on the rails. “Too gol-damn far to go. And what for? To be scalped by Injuns or shot by road agents? No thanks.” He left.
“Sir—gentlemen—that is a completely unenlightened and unrealistic—”
The salesman stopped. The other farmers were following the first. Then the mother shooed her sunbonneted daughters around the corner after they’d helped themselves to pamphlets. The man watched the girls skip past an old spaniel that lay scratching its fleas in the dust. “Well, I don’t suppose those young ladies will be forking out hard cash for train tickets anytime soon. Jesus, what a hick burg.” He swept the pamphlets into an open case and started to fold his stand.
Mack stepped forward. “I’d like one of those.”
The salesman fanned himself with his derby. “Son, I’m hired by the Central Pacific to travel around and drum up paying passengers. You don’t look like you could pay for a ride to the nearest privy.”
Mack gave him a level stare. “I can’t. But I like to read everything I can about California. That’s where I’m headed.”
“Is that so?”
The man rolled his tongue under his lip. “Then you’re smarter than the idiots around here.” He gestured west. “Greatest land boom in California history—and a cheap way to get there and take advantage of it—and they don’t give a goddamn. Maybe they’re not so stupid up in Des Moines.”
He flipped a pamphlet at Mack. The cover was a glorious lithograph of a California sunrise over grape arbors and stacked shocks of wheat, with patriotic bunting depicted at the corners, and a grizzly bear strolling in the background.
“Thanks for this,” Mack said, slipping the pamphlet into the book, which caught the man’s interest.
“A Gold Rush guidebook.”
The salesman wiggled his fingers and Mack reluctantly handed it to him. The man licked a thumb to turn the pages.
“Be careful of that,” Mack said. “My pa gave it to me. He carried it all the way to the diggings.”
“Oh, he lives in California, does he?”
“No, Pennsylvania. That is, he did till July—he’s dead now. He came back when he didn’t find any gold.”
“Not many did,” the man said, now plucking out the tacks that held his poster to the depot wall. Toward the bottom, garish type urged:
ORANGE GROVES & OTHER NATURAL WONDERS
REAL ESTATE & BUSINESS OPPORTUNITIES
NEW TOWNS FOR RETIREMENT & VACATION
The glorious promises rolled up out of sight. “And most of those who did,” the man continued, “pissed their wealth away on women or cheap spirits or games of chance. In my opinion, my boy, the gold in California’s creeks and rivers is pyrites. That’s fool’s gold.”
“But do you know this—the real gold out there is in the land.” He cast a melancholy eye on the burnished horizon. “Richest, sweetest country a man ever rested his eyes upon.”
“I’ve read that. And there’s no snow.”
“That’s true enough. Unless you live in the Sierras, I suppose.”
“Not me,” Mack declared. “I’m going to make my way in San Francisco. They call it the Athens of the West.”
Amused, the man said, “Mighty ambitious. Tell me something. How do you propose to get all the way out there?”
“Same way I got this far. Hitch a ride when I can, walk when I can’t.”
A board at the end of the platform creaked and a glum middle-aged man with a metal badge on his vest stepped around the corner and folded his arms, eyeing Mack, who was distracted by the salesman’s explosive exclamation:
In the hot stillness he heard Pa say, “The Argonauts knew of the wonders, the bounties, the incredible
of California—the wealth waiting to be taken, the freedom to take it with no one to gainsay your methods. Men with that vision wanted to reach California so badly, they sold everything to buy wagons or steerage tickets around the Horn. Those with nothing to sell—I was one—they walked. I saw the prairies black with walkers to California…”
“Yes, sir. A lot of people walked all the way in ’49 and ’50,” Mack said.
The salesman laughed, not scornfully so much as with pity. “Son, you’re crazy.”
“Maybe, but I’m going.”
“Then start now,” the man with the badge broke in suddenly. “We got an ordinance against loafers and tramps.”
Mack felt anger welling up, but he fought it down. “Sheriff—sir—I need work. I need to earn the price of a meal.”
“Not in this town.”
“Maybe the next one,” the salesman said. “Here.” He flipped a silver coin with his thumb. It spun through the air, right into Mack’s eager cupped hands.
A faraway train whistle sounded and the salesman squinted into the western light. “That’s my train to Des Moines. Good luck to you, son. I still say you’re crazy, but I’d give a lot to go with you, see California.”
“You mean you’ve never seen it?”
“No. The railroad just pays me to sell it.” He smoothed his peacock cravat. “Anyway, I have a wife and nine children in Rock Island…I couldn’t…well…I envy you.”
It thrilled Mack to have a man so worldly approve of his undertaking, and it took away some of the sting when the sheriff said, “Get moving.”
Mack waved to the salesman and stepped from the shade to the blazing light. Watching the Burlington & Missouri local pass him in a cloud of steam and cinders and a
of steel braking on steel, he grinned and waved at two girls in the single passenger car.
Then, whistling, he turned and resumed walking west.
Toward the Missouri River, the Platte. Toward the Rockies and the Sierras. Donner Summit, Emigrant Gap. California.
The first treasure California began to surrender after the Gold Rush was the oldest: her land.
After Mexico had freed itself from Spain in 1821, the new Mexican government in California secularized all the property that had belonged to the missions. The Franciscans returned to Spain, defeated, and the Indians were set adrift.
The first Yankees who reached California perceived the value of the land at once. To obtain their share, some of these Anglos professed Catholicism, married into leading families, and settled down to comfortable lives as owners and masters of rich cattle ranches.
After California came into the Union, other, less principled newcomers also recognized the land’s potential worth and set out to acquire it in a somewhat ruder but typically American way: by using the law. The United States Congress had mandated the clarification and settlement of land claims, and a commission was set up to hear the arguments of disputing parties. Unfortunately, not one of its members spoke Spanish.
Further, most of the original land grants had been written in the haziest of language, with claims described and delimited by such landmarks as a tree (perhaps blown down in a recent storm), a stream (its course changed over two or three decades), or a rock (gone completely). And if ill-defined boundaries would not carry the day for the claimant, a forged grant was certain to do so. With the great majority of claims decided by Anglo judges in favor of Anglo clients represented by Anglo lawyers, the Californios—the peaceful, civilized, gentleman-ranchers of Mexican descent—were soon robbed of their land.
disappeared and apocalyptic seasons of drought and flooding rains turned the once-rich beef-cattle trade into a risky and unpopular venture, land baron and small farmer alike turned to wheat, a more stable and profitable crop. Though wheat had been grown at a few of the missions, it was only now that Californians recognized its perfect suitability to the soil of the Central Valley. It would sprout in the short, wet winters, it matured and flourished in the hot, dry summers, it could survive seasons of scant rainfall, and it was hardy enough to withstand long sea voyages to the markets of the East Coast or Europe, where it was soon in great demand. By the 1880s, California was shipping forty million bushels a year.
This new golden crop transformed the flat and featureless Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys into a source of unprecedented wealth. It was the first great agricultural bonanza in one of the greatest agricultural regions on the face of the globe, and it was not to be the last.
But the bonanzas of the future awaited the arrival of something the flat, fertile land could not itself supply in adequate quantity—water.
IN OMAHA, NEBRASKA, MACK Chance swabbed floors in a saloon for a few days. On the afternoon that he received his wages, the barkeep’s bulldog bit him, and for the next week he was dizzy with a fever. Limping along a rutted pike leading west, he tried to convince himself that the salesman was wrong when he said, “Son, you’re crazy.”
Outside Kearney, a farmer shot at him with both barrels of a shotgun. Mack dove over the fence, stolen apples spilling from his pockets. He despised thieving, and being forced to be a thief, but the apples provided his only nourishment for the next four days.
With his mouth dusty-dry, he ignored warnings in the guidebook and sank to his knees beside the sludgy Platte and drank. The water had a peculiar acidic taste. By nightfall he lay on the ground, clutching his gut while his bowels boiled. He was ill for a week.
On the prairie he watched a Union Pacific express flash westward, a long, rattling segmented monster made of mail, freight, and first- and second-class passenger cars. One of the latter, packed with pale people in dark clothes, had a canvas banner nailed to its side.
The train raised an enormous cloud of dust. A few of the excursionists spied Mack standing beside the right-of-way and waved mockingly, and he clenched his teeth and trudged on after the train, the dust settling like yellow flour on his hair, his ears, his eyelids.
Camped near Fremont’s Ford, where the trail branched away for lower California, he sat reading T. Fowler Haines by the light of the full moon.
His father had kept a small shelf of California books, yellowing books, mostly secondhand, but full of bright visions, extravagant promises. But T. Fowler Haines was Pa’s favorite. Like the other guidebook authors, Haines gave mileage and described landmarks on the old Oregon Trail and, farther west, the California Cutoff. Mack intended to follow this route partway, though he didn’t need to rely slavishly on Haines. Almost forty years after Haines had made his trip as an “eye-witness” and written it up, many more hamlets and towns dotted the route, along with railway lines and serviceable roads. Even in the mountains, Mack expected to depend less on Haines than on the transcontinental rails. What he treasured in Haines were the wonders.
So he read again some of Haines’s excerpts from the old Spanish novel that had given California its name. The novelist said California was peopled by incredibly strong black women, Amazons, and “their arms were all of gold, and so was the harness of the wild beasts which they tamed and rode…There were many griffins, on account of the ruggedness of the country.”
That night he dreamed of the griffins and the black women instead of hanged men, snow, death.
Sometimes he sheltered in a barn or a stable, sometimes under a tree in a downpour, unless there was lightning. He saw spectacular things: a cyclone’s funnel cloud, a prairie fire burning over an expanse of ten city blocks, a herd of bison grazing—Buffalo Bill hadn’t slain them all, evidently.
His clothes tended to stiffen and smell despite conscientious washing whenever he found a suitable stream. He occasionally caught a ride in a wagon, but mostly he stayed on foot. The excruciating pain in his thighs and calves that had tortured and impeded him during the first part of the journey now reduced to a steady ache. He was discovering new muscles all over his body, and he’d not been exactly weak before.
Foraging food was the hardest part. Sometimes he dined on nothing but berries and water. He lost weight, a lot of weight.
Rather than follow the northerly curve of the railroad up through Wyoming and down again to the Salt Lake, he struck more directly westward, for Colorado. Wherever he could, he traded work for food and a bed, or a few cents. He cut and stacked firewood, slopped hogs, whitewashed the interior of a Grange hall.
As the land grew flatter and more desolate, he tended to forget that he lived in a highly civilized country where Grover Cleveland was president, the great Civil War was more than twenty years in the past, and men once considered young heroes were now garrulous old storytellers.
It was an age of plenty, an age of marvels, with Pullman Palace Cars and steam-driven elevators, public street illumination and incandescent lamps perfected by Mr. Edison, telephone service beginning to link major cities, and three years ago, the new Brooklyn Bridge—an architectural wonder to rival the Pyramids. Although Mack knew about all these things, and a lot more, increasingly they seemed to belong to some other place, some other planet. He tramped for long periods without seeing a tilled field, a freight wagon, telegraph poles, or even a single wandering sheep. He felt that he was approaching the remote border of the civilized world. Once he passed that, and conquered the mountain barriers, he would be in a land beyond all imagining—just as the old Spanish novel said.
There was less daylight every day, and it had a sad, cool cast. He tramped among aspens and alders and sycamores instead of the scraggly cottonwoods of the plains. The beautiful sunlit trees bent in the wind, which stripped them and flung clouds of bonfire-colored leaves around him.
The falling leaves made him sad, reminding him that he had no home.
Except the one that lay ahead.
He stood silently in a roadway that rose at an angle of thirty degrees and shivered. The snow was falling and blowing hard now, already covering the ground. It brought visions of his nightmare. He ran his icy hand through the long beard that reached halfway down his chest, his eyes fixed on the menacing obstacle before him. The Rockies. Black granite and gray ice. Common sense told him to turn back. He listened to other voices.
Never be poor again.
Never be cold again
He stepped out on the snowy, flinty road bordered with boulders and fallen slabs of granite and cried aloud when his weight came down on his left foot, swollen because his mule-ear boots were so tight, the left one especially. He’d cut it open with his clasp knife; now it resembled the ruined shoes he’d thrown away. He’d also ripped up one of the shirts from the roll on his back, and wrapped his foot. The shirting had been clean yesterday. Today it glistened and oozed blood.
He scorned himself for the outcry. Although there wasn’t anyone to hear, he thought it unmanly, an admission of weakness.
The wind raked and numbed his face, and fear swirled up as the snow stung his cheeks. He set his mouth and dove his hand into his pocket to clasp the leather cover of T. Fowler Haines, his thumb finding the bold embossed C in
Leaving bloody footprints in the snow, he climbed up the steep road toward the peaks.
WHITE LIGHT WOKE HIM. He sat up, grumbling, bone cold.
Hearing voices, he remembered where he was: miles east of Donner Summit and Truckee, in the Sierras, but still on the Nevada side of the border. A late-spring storm had driven him to shelter at sunset inside one of the high-mountain snow sheds built all along the Central Pacific’s right-of-way. He’d fallen asleep. Lucky he hadn’t slept all night; he might have frozen to death.
Creeping toward the light at the end of the shed, he resembled an upright bear more than a man, a shaggy thing bundled inside several shirts, a filthy buffalo-hide coat, and a fur hat he’d tied tightly under his beard. He wore three pairs of soiled socks, and work shoes he’d bought after cooking for a week for a CP section crew plowing the line in Nevada. He thrust his gauntleted hands under his arms and peered out. Light snow fell through the brilliant headlight of the locomotive hissing and squirting steam fifty yards down the track. Mack saw a coal tender, a single freight car, and a caboose. The night was vast, cold, forbidding, with a sense of implacable rock all around, and lifeless space.
A lantern swung to and fro between the train and the utility shed of a small coaling station. It belonged to the brakeman, who’d run up from the caboose. The engineer and firemen crunched the snow as they hurried back to join him, their voices carrying clearly in the still night.
“Saw him when he peeked out, Seamus. Hold my lamp while I get my truncheon.”
Mack clung in the shadow just inside the shed, squinting against the headlight. The freight car door rolled back noisily.
“All right, you. Get out of there. Out, I say. There’re three of us, one of you.”
That convinced the stowaway; a shadow shape in the steam jumped down. Landing off balance at the edge of the long snowy incline that sloped away from the track, he groped for the freight car to steady himself. The brakeman said, “No free rides on C. P. Huntington’s line, mister.” Mack blinked at the sound of the truncheon striking the stowaway’s bare head.
The man groaned and swayed toward the slope. Laughing, the engineer kicked the man’s rear and the brakeman clubbed him again. That pitched him over with a muffled cry. Down the slope he went, rolling, stirring up clouds of snow. Mack heard another strident yell from below, then silence.
The train crew exchanged comments he couldn’t hear as they returned to their posts. The brakeman stopped to urinate in the snow, then climbed aboard and waved his lantern. As the locomotive drivers shunted back and forth, the engineer sounded the whistle, and its throaty wail reverberated through the mountain fastness. Now the train came chugging toward Mack, its headlight reflecting on the two steel concaves of the jutting snowplow. For a moment they flashed like mirrors.
As Mack grabbed the beam at the end of the shed and swung around to the outside, his shoe slipped and he nearly fell. Clinging to the outside of the shed, he twisted to look over his shoulder. A chasm. Just a black chasm.
Chugging, rumbling, the work train entered the shed. Mack couldn’t help coughing loudly in the thick steam and coal smoke, but the train’s noise was so great, no one heard. His nose ran and his teeth chattered. The train passed.