Jonas squinted in the harsh August sun. His long-handled hammer rung against the iron spike. Three blows per spike, ten spikes per rail, four hundred rails per mile. His hammer rung out again, driving the spike deeper into the timber. Thirty days until freedom. A third blow of the hammer; on to the next spike.
In the summer of 1866, the Nebraska territory was still wild Indian country. But the great Iron Horse, the mobile city of the Union Pacific Railroad, rolled westward, conquering the plains mile by mile, chaining it like a prisoner of war under iron rails. Four hundred rails per mile. Eighteen hundred miles to San Francisco. A skilled work crew—usually four or five men—could lay down one rail every thirty seconds. The men with the hammers came along behind, driving in the spikes to hold the rails in place. To hold a country together. Back-breaking, dangerous work in exchange for a bunk on the crowded train, three meals, and three dollars a day. Of course, Jonas didn't get three dollars a day; that was for free men.
The rail crew—three burly Irish men and an Irish boy barely old enough to shave—set the next rail as Jonas drove in the tenth spike. A man with a gauge checked the distance between the two rails. The standard was four feet eight and a half inches. Even the slightest variation would derail any train that tried to use the railroad. But the man gave a quick nod, and Jonas set the first spike in place for the new rail.
One, two, three strikes of the hammer. Another spike. One, two, three. Ten spikes to a rail, four hundred rails to a mile. Jonas had served ten days of the thirty. Thirty days for killing a man. That's what a life was worth to Boss Teague. Thirty days or he could take his chances with the law. As he drove yet another spike, he couldn't help wondering if he'd made the right choice. At least the law would have killed him quickly. But his throat tightened at the thought of the gallows. That was no way to go; not for a soldier. And so he swung the hammer again.
There was a cry of pain from further up the line. A bearded worker in a dusty blue uniform fell to the ground, screaming in agony as he clutched at his mangled foot. The iron rails weighed over six hundred pounds. They were carried by gangs of three or four, moving as fast as they could in a race to subdue a continent. Sometimes accidents happened. This time, a Yankee soldier who'd made it through the war without injury was hauled unceremoniously back to the train by a couple of Boss Teague's men. He would never walk on that foot again. Another worker, this one in a tattered gray uniform, was quickly brought up to take his place.
And so the Iron Horse moved forward. Three blows per spike, ten spikes per rail, four hundred rails per mile. Once again, Jonas brought his hammer down. He had twenty days left until he was a free man.
* * *
Boss Teague leaned back against the train car, bringing a match up to light his pipe. In the darkness of a waning moon, its dim glow flickered over a weather-beaten countenance, and a pale scar that ran from the corner of his mustache down to his chin. Tired yet vigilant eyes scanned the prairie ahead. While his men slept, Boss Teague silently watched the darkness. He couldn't sleep tonight. As happened often, his dreams were haunted by the dust of battle and the screams of dying men. He cursed under his breath.
Only three miles of track had been laid that day. He knew the crews could have laid more, just not with buffalo deciding to graze along the route. He drew in a deep puff of his pipe as he looked out into the night. There were still a few stragglers from the herd, their humpbacked silhouettes standing out against the moonlight. Boss Teague hated the buffalo. There were just so many of them, constantly blocking progress. And where there were buffalo, there were undoubtedly Indians.
The great native tribes of the plains resented the coming of the smoke-belching monstrosity. As he leaned against the hard iron of the train car, he reasoned that he couldn't really blame them. He wasn't that fond of the Iron Horse himself. Or of his job, for that matter. Every man under him was his responsibility, and he wasn't all that ready to lead men again.
It irked him to think how similar building the railroad was to a military operation. He'd had enough of those, more than enough. Years of blood that had torn North and South apart. Now sweat and blood was being spilled to bind the country together, East to West. Thousands of men who had been shooting at each other a year ago now carried rails and drove spikes together. They were no longer carrying rifles, but they were still placing their lives in the hands of their superiors, just like they had before. And that sat in Boss Teague's gut like the cannonballs he'd thrown at Confederates.
Just then, a shadow emerged from the darkness beyond the line, and Boss Teague rested a hand on his revolver as a man in a gray coat and hat came closer. It was only a moment, however, before he let his sidearm be. The gray outfit wasn't a uniform anymore: it was just the only clothes the impoverished ex-soldier had.
The man stopped a few paces from Teague and pulled a grubby cigarette from his pocket. "Got a match, Boss?"
Taking a step forward, Boss Teague pulled a match from the pocket of his duster and held it out to the Confederate. "How is the prairie, Maj. Tiller?"
The major took a deep pull of his cigarette, turning his eyes toward the hastily-constructed corral where he'd put up his horse moments before. "Pretty quiet tonight. Saw horse droppings day before yesterday, tracks in softer spots. Ten, twelve riders. Fifteen at most."
"Cheyenne most likely." Tiller put out his cigarette and dropped it back in his pocket, turning as if to leave. "Riding northeast," he added, almost as an afterthought.
Boss Teague watched him heading back toward the corral. "So, they won't be bothering us?"
A simple shrug. "Not tonight."
* * *
There were seventeen days left on Farragut's sentence. The blazing sun had given way to pouring rain overnight. The rain flowed like a river off his slouch hat and duster. Still he drove the spikes, throwing beads of icy water into the air with every stroke of the hammer. The Irish kept the rails coming, sloshing through the mud as the wet iron tried to slip from their hands. In between hammer strokes, Jonas watched the boy. Though they were wearing heavy raincoats, their hats were narrow-brimmed, and the rain ran off and into their coats. After an hour of rain, the boy was shivering so badly that his teeth clattered together, and Jonas noticed the men casting worried glances at him.
Jonas grit his teeth as he swung the hammer again. There were only seventeen days left, and then he was out of this hell. Seventeen days of swinging this infernal hammer; thousands of spikes. He could head further west, make his way to California. The gold mines had filled his dreams since even before the war. He was only 22, so there was still plenty of time for him to make his fortune. Or perhaps he would head south, to the booming cattle ranches of Texas. He would have all the time in the world in seventeen days.
The sound of coughing brought his thoughts back to the present. He lowered his hammer to watch the approaching rail crew. The boy's coughing increased in intensity, and he staggered forward, losing his grip on the rail.
Jonas took his place, pushing the boy aside before the iron could come down on his leg. Dropping to his knees in the mud, the boy continued coughing, his shoulders heaving with the effort. One of the Irishmen nodded in silent gratitude to Jonas; the boy's father, if Jonas had to guess. Without a word, they moved forward again, laying the rail on the track. His hands free, Jonas pulled off his broad-brimmed hat as they walked back toward the boy. He set the hat on the child's head without a word, and kept on to the pile of rails to help the Irishmen carry another. Someone else would have to pick up the hammer.
Boss Teague came down the line at this point, and noticed the shivering form kneeling in the mud. He also saw the hatless murderer, carrying the iron rails with the boy's crew. The scowl that had been resting on his face since the rain started deepened as he stomped toward the crew. With one less man driving spikes, construction would quickly fall behind schedule.
When he reached the boy, he stooped to grip him by the high collar of his rain coat and pulled him to his feet. The job must have meant a lot to the boy's family, since he did his best to stop the shaking and smothered his cough. Teague looked him in the eyes a moment. He'd seen those eyes before. Staring out of the faces of the wounded and dying in Virginia, Georgia, and every other state ravaged by war. They were boys, sent to do men's work.
Still holding the boy on his feet, Teague practically dragged him back to the train. As he passed by, he turned his attention to the rail crew, who had stopped their work to watch him with the boy. "What are you standing there for?" Boss Teague bellowed. "You're down a man: I suggest you get moving!"
Hoisting another rail, the crew got back to work as Teague hauled the boy inside the train car to dry off and get warm. The boss returned some minutes later, carrying Farragut's slouch hat with him. He thrust the hat out to Jonas as he walked by. Giving the hat to the boy hadn't gone unnoticed. There was almost a hint of newly-earned respect in the boss's eye as he regarded the murderer he'd pressed into service, but his tone was gruff as usual.
"If we don't lay another two miles of track before lunch, I'm doubling your sentence, Farragut."
Jonas was too tired to protest. But putting his hat back on his head, he wiped the rain from his face and returned to the stack of iron rails. Four hundred rails to a mile. Eight hundred rails before lunch.
Boss Teague watched from beneath his broad-brimmed cavalry hat as the crew got back to work. Then, rotating his arms to loosen up his shoulders, he lifted the hammer Jonas had dropped in the mud and went to work driving the spikes himself.
* * *
A cloud of dust was just faintly visible on the horizon, as the work crews of the Union Pacific sat around eating their lunches. Jonas Farragut chewed the slab of buffalo meat slowly, letting his hardtack soak in the tin coffee cup that sat on the ground beside him. He had reached the halfway point, with only fifteen days left working on the railroad. In fifteen days, he could saddle his horse and ride off in whatever direction he pleased.
He looked up, still shielding his eyes from the sun, as a figure sat down next to him. It was the young Irish lad, whose name Jonas had learned was Walter O'Bannon. He squinted at the dust cloud for a moment before turning to Jonas.
"Someone said yer not a worker like the rest of us. Yer a prisoner, or somethin'?"
Jonas could feel the boy's eyes searching his face to make sure the question hadn't offended. Scooping the hardtack biscuit from his cup, he took a gulp of the mud-like coffee before answering. "Yep."
The boy chewed his food for a minute. "You killed somebody?"
Young O'Bannon looked down at his plate, thinking for a moment. Finally he asked, "Why did you help me out the other day if yer a killer?"
Jonas pushed his hat back and looked directly at the kid, who quickly turned away from his stare. "I've got no trouble with you," Jonas answered slowly. "The man I killed had it comin'."
With that, he finished his coffee and pulled his hat back over his eyes. Walter was silent for a while, but his eyes wandered over to the murderer every few moments. Finally Jonas shook his head, knowing the question the boy was too afraid to ask.
"Yes, it was murder. The man didn't have a gun." Jonas let out a sigh before continuing. "But he did have a knife, and I wasn't about to let him use it. You understand? I had to shoot him."
"That's what you said."
Walter O'Bannon was startled by the new voice. He hadn't heard Boss Teague approaching, but quickly scrambled to his feet on seeing the boss. Jonas never flinched, his eyes still hidden beneath his hat. Pushing his own hat back, Boss Teague squatted down in front of the murderer, but his words were directed at the boy.
"Mr. Farragut was a good soldier. Fought to protect the Union. I first met him just after Vicksburg. He was a good soldier, but even then I suspected something was off. And when he shot one of my workers in that gambling house three weeks back, I knew it. You see, kid, Mr. Farragut doesn't know the war's over." Teague stood up suddenly, with both hands resting on his gunbelt as he finished with, "He thinks he can still kill whoever he wants."
Jonas had ignored the boss's speech, but with the final verdict he turned his head up to glare at Teague. There was a rage behind his glare that sent a chill down young O'Bannon's spine, but Boss Teague seemed unfazed. He merely shook his head. There was no doubt in his mind that, if he'd still had his gun, Jonas would have drawn on him in that moment. And, to be completely fair, he wasn't entirely sure how that would have turned out. But Farragut's revolver was securely locked away in a safe aboard the train, so the gunman could only glare at his captor. But, after a few moments, the rage faded from his eyes, and he almost smiled.
Boss Teague shook his head again, then looked around at the other workers, who'd been watching the exchange in silent anticipation. "Well, what are you standing around for? Lunch time is over; let's lay some track!"
Jonas stood up and walked past Boss Teague without even a hint of animosity in his features. As young O'Bannon rejoined his countrymen hauling rails, Farragut picked up his hammer and went back to work. Teague watched him for a moment before turning his eyes back to the dust cloud in the distance. After all, he knew full well that the ex-soldier wasn't the only killer on the plains.
* * *
Maj. Asa Tiller rode out midafternoon to investigate the cloud that was already disappearing from view. Two days passed without word, and the railroad's construction continued without incident. Sixteen miles of track were put down; sixteen miles of Indian territory civilized under the wheels of the Union Pacific, and watered with the sweat of Yankees, Confederates, and Irishmen.
The Nebraska Territory had been prone to conflicts between the Indians and the new settlers from the beginning. In fact, the surveyors who had first mapped out the course for the Union Pacific rail line did so in direct violation of the Indian territories, risking their lives to conduct reconnaissance for what amounted to an invading army. Now, as that army moved west, waging a brutal war with the land itself, the Cheyenne and Sioux grew increasingly hostile. Raids against small, detached groups were relatively common, despite the increased security Union Pacific had provided their workers.
Part of that security was the use of scouts, usually former cavalrymen like Major Tiller. Tiller would ride out, a day or two at a time, and look for signs of any hostile groups coming too close to the construction site. If he encountered a war party, he would ride as fast as he could back to the railroad to warn them about the coming attack. So far, no attacks had been mounted on the train itself, but tensions still ran high. Two days without a sign of Tiller after everyone had seen that dust cloud set those tensions on edge.
On the morning of the third day, right after the crews had filed out of the train with their tools, someone spotted a rider on the horizon. It was Tiller, riding hard. There was something behind him, but the meager light of the early morning made it impossible to judge what it was.
Boss Teague brought out a spyglass to take a better look.
What he saw made him snap the telescope shut quickly and stride toward the train. "Hays! Bring out the rifles!"
The crews quickly dropped whatever they were doing and scrambled to find cover. Ducking behind a pile of iron rails, Farragut reached for his revolver, only to curse as he remembered he wasn't carrying it. He looked quickly toward the open door of the train, where Boss Teague, Gunner Hays, and Long Tom Coville had emerged, each carrying a bundle of rifles—Springfields, Henrys, and a few Spencers. The trio moved quickly down the line, handing out arms and munition to some of the better marksmen. The rest of the workers either crowded onto the train, or hunkered down to wait out the coming firefight.
By this point, everyone could see what was coming. Galloping behind Tiller—a dozen yards at most—was a Cheyenne war party, twenty to twenty-five riders strong. That was a larger war party than most of the men on the line had ever seen in person. Their numbers made them confident, but not stupid. As Tiller galloped up to the relative safety of the rail line, his pursuers pulled back on their reins, stopping short just out of rifle range. The Union Pacific men under Boss Teague's command had the advantage of numbers. The Cheyenne, though, were mobile. Each warrior an accomplished horseman, they could keep moving even while fighting, presenting a difficult target to the white men's guns and cutting around to prey on their flanks.
Jonas watched them circling just out of reach, like wolves eyeing a kill. What he wouldn't give for a rifle when the savage cavalry charged . . .
Old Gunner Hays came back by, carrying a couple leftover rifles back toward the train. Jonas watched him pass with a mounting frustration. There was no way Hays would give him a gun, not with his reputation.
"Hold up, Hays," Boss Teague called. Both Hays and Jonas turned to the boss in some surprise, along with a half-dozen other men on the line. Teague was hunkered down behind a wheel of the train, ready to shoot under the car at the attackers. He nodded toward Jonas. "Give Farragut a Henry."
Gunner Hays scowled at Jonas through his gray muttonchops, but finally handed over a rifle and a box of cartridges before scurrying off to find shelter.
There was a spark in Farragut's eye that hadn't been seen since his sentence began. He worked the rifle's lever action, hearing the satisfying click of a .44 rimfire cartridge sliding into the chamber. The Henry rifle was a marvel of engineering, and the most advanced individual weapon on the market. Its 16-round tube magazine gave one soldier the firepower of an entire squad. Jonas could feel a grin spreading across his face as he looked down the sights.
Boss Teague looked his way again. "Let's see what you can do in a real fight, killer."
Jonas raised his hand in a mock salute before turning back to the war party. They were still circling warily, watching the invaders crouching around the Iron Horse. The employees of the Union Pacific waited in silent anticipation. Would the Cheyenne attack? Or would they just stalk the line, halting work until they decided to withdraw? There was really no way to know.
Until they charged.
The attack was sudden, without any sort of signal or a single moment where the die was irrevocably cast. One moment, the plains were calm, save for the snorting of a few horses. In the next instant, the sound of war cries and the thunder of hooves filled the air. The attacking warriors spread out in a wide arc, zig-zagging back and forth as they spurred their horses forward. Gunfire broke out all down the line, and the attackers answered with scattered gunshots of their own. The first volley had no effect on either side. But, as the Indians drew closer, their fire began to have an effect, picking off men here and there whenever they appeared from behind cover.
The gunfire from the rail workers, however, continued to be largely ineffective, due to the wild motions of the mounted attackers. While their shots were persistent enough and near-accurate enough to keep the Cheyenne from getting too bold in pressing their attack, they had yet to inflict any casualties.
As the riders came within fifteen yards of the railroad, they wheeled their horses suddenly and darted off to the side, galloping lengthwise along the line as they continued their barrage.
Jonas was surprised to see that many of the braves were armed with repeating rifles, either Spencer carbines or Henry rifles, while the remainder carried either single-shot Springfields or even large-bore Sharps. Jonas himself hadn't fired yet, but as the Cheyenne rode down the line, he peered across the top of the iron rails and took aim at a warrior on a speckled mare.
This particular warrior was relatively young, probably no older than Jonas himself, but like Jonas he certainly knew his way around a rifle. Jonas smiled as he watched the young man ride. He was a proud fighter, his bare chest covered in tribal paint and bold hues of the paint reaching up to his face. He rode high, his Spencer carbine belching smoke as he galloped along in defense of his ancestors' homeland. Jonas could certainly respect that.
Drawing in a deep breath, he squeezed the trigger.
The speckled mare reared up, snorting as the warrior slumped forward and slid off the horse's shoulder. His body hit the ground with a dull thud that was barely audible amidst the din of the battle.
A part of Jonas couldn't deny that he regretted being such a skilled marksman. He wondered if anyone would mourn the fallen warrior. For that matter, he couldn't help wondering who would mourn him if he fell today. Then he calmly worked the lever of his Henry, and took aim again.
The other riders wheeled their horses once more, retreating in order to circle around for another attack. As they turned, several more shots rang out from the railroad side, and another warrior dropped from his steed. The next instant brought a brief lull in the fighting as the horsemen slipped out of range.
Jonas took advantage of the calm to survey the losses on their own side. Despite their cover, the Union Pacific crews were clustered more closely together, and the attacking Cheyenne were excellent horse soldiers. Seven workers were down, and although two of them had only minor injuries, the others seemed more serious. From his position, Jonas couldn't see which were dead and which were alive.
The Cheyenne braves sat just outside rifle range. They held their rifles at the ready, as their horses skittered nervously back and forth. One warrior, who seemed to be the leader of the war party, scanned the faces of the men opposite. They were afraid, a few were even terrified. But most of the men of the Union Pacific—the veterans of a horrible war between North and South—seemed resolute, determined to fight in spite of their fear.
Prone behind the train car, Boss Teague clutched at the rail in front of him. He tried to control his breathing even as he watched the war party. Most of the braves were young, and seemed eager to fight. He wondered how many of them had actually seen death before. Two of the warriors were down, one wounded and one dead. But Teague knew that for every warrior that fell there were a dozen more that could take their place. This was their land, after all. The men of the Union Pacific were American citizens, on American land, but they were still the outsiders. And they were still outnumbered.
The chieftain scowled at the Iron Horse, and at the miles of track extending behind it. An iron road from the east, bringing death to his way of life. There was nothing he wouldn't do to stop the invasion, to protect the land where his ancestors were buried, the land the Great Spirits had given to him and his people. And yet, if he continued to attack here and now, his braves would die. And the Iron Horse would continue westward, rolling right over their corpses if it had to.
They had taken lives today. They had slowed the train down. There would be other days, other battles. For now, it was enough. Casting a final, hate-filled gaze at the Iron Horse, the chieftain turned his mount sharply, and galloped away from the white men. With angry glances over their shoulders, his warriors followed, promising themselves that they would strike the railroad again.
Jonas exhaled slowly as the rumble of hooves drifted away. A few relieved cheers went up along the line, but most of the men simply bowed their heads or tended to their wounded, grateful the skirmish had ended so quickly. Jonas looked to Boss Teague. To his surprise, the gruff former colonel was standing bent over at the waist, looking as if he might vomit his breakfast onto the ground as he steadied himself with one hand against the train car. It was only a moment, though, before Teague stood up and straightened his hat. Color returned to his face, and his features hardened.
"Alright, then," he bellowed down the line, "let's get the wounded taken care of and the dead buried. Come on, move it!" his gaze turned to Jonas. "Mr. Hays, collect the rifles."
As Hays came by, Jonas surrendered his Henry rifle without a fuss, though his eyes did linger on its smooth octagon barrel, and the shiny brass receiver. At the same time, he couldn't help noticing that Teague avoided looking at the firearms, almost as if he resented them.
Jonas thought about that unguarded moment, when the unshakeable Boss Teague had nearly buckled as the Cheyenne war party rode away. Then he shrugged, as he looked around for his hammer.
War could do strange things to men.
* * *
The final day of Jonas Farragut's sentence was over. Jonas sat on his horse, holding the reins loosely in his calloused hands. He was leaving the Union Pacific and its Transcontinental Railroad behind. There were better opportunities and easier ways to make a living in the wild expanses that the railroad was opening up. He'd spent his teenage years with a rifle in hand, learning to march and ride, to go without sleep or food, and to live on his own terms. For a man like him, the wild west was a paradise in spite of the dangers.
Gunner Hays emerged from the back of the train, carrying a Sharps carbine, a saddlebag full of beans and bullets, and a gunbelt with a LeMat revolver. Jonas grinned as he looked at the weaponry. Hays thrust it toward him begrudgingly as Boss Teague approached.
Fastening his gunbelt around his waist, Jonas turned to the Boss. "Come to see me off, colonel?"
Boss Teague laid a hand on the shoulder of Jonas' mare. He decided to ignore the way Farragut stressed his title, as if to show that he didn't have to call him "boss" anymore. "Yep, I'm here to wish you luck, Farragut." He extended his hand to the gunslinger. After a moment, Jonas accepted his handshake, and Teague pulled him forward in the saddle to look directly in his eyes. "If you want your luck to last, I recommend you get out of the territory. You may have put in your thirty days, but you still killed a man. If it happens again, I won't be able to help you."
Jonas nodded, so Teague released the handshake and took a step back. Jonas Farragut straightened in the saddle and, with a subtle movement of his wrist, pointed his horse west. Several men along the line had stopped their work to watch the gunslinger ride out. Young O'Bannon, holding the hammer Jonas wouldn't be using anymore, gazed in almost reverential awe at the now fully-decked out figure on horseback. It was a sight like nothing he'd ever seen before, with the fringes on the buckskin coat, the broad-brimmed black hat, and the strange-looking revolver gleaming on the rider's hip.
"Farragut," Teague called out, just before the gunslinger set his spurs. Jonas turned to look at the rail boss over his shoulder, one hand on the reins, the other on his gun. Teague looked at him with what almost looked like sadness in his eyes. "The war is over," he said. "You should move on."
Jonas Farragut smiled at him for a moment. He looked back at the miles of track laid, and saluted the colonel in a final farewell. Then, with a soft laugh, he rode out. Heading west.