Nowhere Ch 2 - A Stranger Comes to Town

  
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(Previously: Chapter 1 - A Man Goes on A Journey)

The Journal of Archimedes Croryton, July 23rd, 1888

I have been informed that my train has just crossed into Texas and the terrain has already become wilder than I could ever have imagined. The emptiness of these spaces is immense. It seems scarcely possible to me that men could lead their lives here. Not merely from want of sustenance and water, the scope of the landscape itself crushes a man with his own insignificance.

In England each mile brings its a new town and a more pleasant vista. Ours is a land built on a scale a man can walk in a day. Well-tamed with its reassurances of ancient manor houses, village chapels, welcoming taverns. Our island is, as much as anything, a well-tended and civil garden.

But this is a vast wild expanse. There is nothing on the grasslands to stop the wind on its rush to the equator. How could this place serve to do else but drive men mad?

July 24th, 1888

Since San Antonio, the terrain has grown steadily more impossible. The train rises through rough terrain into a rocky desert almost devoid of life and greenery.

This is the New Mexico territory. A fellow passenger, seeing a look of unabashed concern writ upon my face, attempted to reassure me by saying that all of the savages had been pacified shortly after the end of the war. But, I suspect they are all savages here, to one degree or another.

What seemed a grand adventure in Boston and a splendid project in New Orleans now seems something else entirely. The wisdom of taking employment with Jean DuMont, a man I have never met, now escapes me. But as I have never wanted or needed employment before, perhaps mistakes are inevitable.

The fact remains that I have designed and built the components for the largest Cornish engine the world has ever seen. While my technical employment may no longer qualify me to be a gentleman in the strictest sense, it gives great satisfaction to both my purse and my person. And I feel that the future belongs not to gentlemen but men with great machines and greater ambitions.

On the morrow, I disembark the Union Pacific line in Tucson, with the 300 tons of my cargo. And from there, it and I go by wagon, to construct a pumping engine for the Morning Star Mine of Grantham, Az.

Archimedes Croryton stepped down from the train into a scorching Arizona day.

One of the roughnecks on the platform pointed him to the freight yard and Archie employed him to carry his trunk across the rail lines, and onto the freight platform, which was no more than a sea of railroad ties set directly on the desert floor. In the center of the freight platform was a crude shack, constructed against the relentless hammering of the Sun.

Archie took shelter there and watched the yard crew unhook his boxcars from the train by means of a crude, small steam engine mounted on a cast-iron platform. Everywhere he looked his engineer’s eyes saw the opportunity for mechanical improvement. The diameter of the engine’s drive wheels needed to be enlarged. The platform also would benefit a trailing truck wheel. Without, it the drive wheels unweighted while reversing and slipped against the rails. This made the whole process of moving the freight cars a Sisyphean cycle of start, slip, stop that pained Archie to watch.

Soon, he imagined, the cast iron platform would crack or bend so much against the strain that the engine would become unusable. Still, he allowed, it was easier than pulling boxcars by hand.

Some distance off the siding men had gathered in a circle. He had assumed they were some of the men meant to haul his freight. They were yelling and cheering some action within their ranks. As Archie approached, he saw a large man with a full red beard hoist another man by his collar and belt and hurl him out of the circle. Unable to regain his footing after such an undignified exit, the poor soul sprawled on the railroad ties, just short of Archie’s fine English riding boots.

The large red-bearded man disappeared back into the knot of shouting men and re-emerged with a battered black cowboy hat. He threw it at the man on the ground saying, “I told you nay to meddle.” Then looked up and saw Archie in his khaki expedition suit complete with pith helmet and quickly composed himself. He knuckled his forehead in the customary salute of the British Navy and said, “Beggin’ your pardon, sir. No offense meant to yer personage.” And then turned back into the crowd.

Archie heard an ear-splitting crack and the crowd gave a collective, “Oooh,” and went silent. He pushed his way into the ranks. In the center was a tall woman, dressed in men’s clothes — was that buckskin? — beating a man on the ground with a bullwhip.

Archie said, “Good Lord,”

A grubby man next to him who wasn’t letting a few missing teeth stop him from grinning ear-to-ear looked at Archie and said, “I don’t reckon, even the good Lord can save him now. And that’s sure. She told him. She told everybody. Don’t you dare show up drunk in the morning!”

The man with the red beard reached over several smaller people and clouted the toothless man in his ear, saying, “No blasphemin’!” Then he nodded to Archie as if somehow decency was their common cause.

The man on the ground struggled to rise and the woman let fly with her whip again. It snaked through the air and exploded into the man’s side, causing him to yelp in pain. He fell over and lay on his back.

The woman coiled the whip in her right hand, threw her hair back, and glared at the rough men of the crowd. “I told him the same as I told you. I don’t mind the drinkin’, but if you’re too drunk to walk your wagon, ya don’t get paid. Now anyone else feel like arguin’ contrary-wise?”

Most of the crowd said nothing, but here and there a few said, “No ma’am.”

“Alright then, back in line and I’ll see where our goddamn haul is!”

As the crowd broke up, Archie caught the eye of the giant with the red beard and waved him over. Archie said, “My good man, what is your name?”

“MacAllister. At your service, sir. Even if you are English.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“It’s a savage land, sir. We civilized, Christian men must stick together.”

“Am I to take Scotland for a civilized land, then?” Archie asked with a smile.

“Ach, only in the summertime, sir,” MacAllister said with a grin.

Archie liked the man’s easy and open way. He extended his hand. MacAllister took it and wrung it heartily, crushing Archie's knuckles with affection. “Thank you much, sir. A pleasure.”

As he rubbed his hand, Archie said, “I’m looking for,” and here he removed a letter from his vest pocket, unfolded it, and read, “John Siskin. Could you help me find him?”

“No sir. There’s no John Siskin. She’ll be the one you seek,” MacAllister said, hooking his thumb at the woman with the bullwhip. “Jane,” he said, nodding encouragement.

“But I’ve engaged a company to haul freight.”

MacAllister nodded at the wagons, “And the finest company in Arizona. But it’s her’s.”

“I don’t understand?”

“Husband drank himself to death and now she runs it better than he ever did,” MacAllister said with a shrug. “Mind your manners, and’ll you’ll do fine.”

From behind him, Archie heard the woman’s voice, “What the hell are you supposed to be in that getup?”

Archie turned and Jane Siskin was glaring at him, with her coiled whip around her shoulder and her hat pushed back.

Archie smiled and said, “Ah yes, Miss Siskin,’ as he bowed and doffed his pith helmet, “I am Archimedes Croryton, at your service.”

“Croryton? A. Croryton?” she asked, ”You’re our client for this haul?”

“I am.”

“Well, I hope you don’t mind me sayin’ but that’s an awful lot of shit to haul to a nowhere town like Grantham. What’s in them boxes. Like it said in my letter, I ain’t hauling no dynamite for nobody.”

“Mining equipment, parts for a large steam engine. Nothing explosive, I assure you.”

“And the A? that’s for Archimedes? Name like that sounds like you should be selling snake oil.”

“You may call me Archie. You know, my great great grandfather, the 18th Earl of Cornwall was said to have been quite harsh with the peasants. They were peasants in those days you know. But I don’t recall any stories of him whipping anyone.”

“You ain’t some kind of Prince?” she asked with a note of distrust in her voice.

“No. I am but one step above a bastard and far less convenient.”

“Less convenient than a bastard?”

“I am a second son. You see, one can reliably disown a bastard without consequence. I am thing that was had and then repented of. In brief, that is why I have come to your continent and that is why I have engaged you to haul my freight. If there are no more personal questions, can we proceed?”

Jane stared at him for a minute. Then she nodded her head once and said, “Red, can you do something about his Majesty’s hat? I’m worried he’s gonna melt his brain with that foolishness in this sun. ”

“I can try, but the English are powerful fond of their funny hats. I dinna think there’s anything I can do.”

“My hat?” asked Archie. “What’s wrong with my hat? It was recommended to me by Hanning Speke himself as just the thing for hot and humid climates.”

“Humid!” cried Jane, “It don’t rain here but once a year.” Then she laughed wildly, showing her white teeth against her tanned face and buckskin garb.

Another savage, thought Archie.

After six hours of cursing and dust and wrangling of ill-tempered animals, the boxcars were emptied and the component parts of Archie’s machine had all been loaded onto the wagons and made fast. It was a motley armada of craft; horse teams, mule teams, and at least two teams of oxen pulling a variety of wagons, 46 wagons in total.

It had been suggested to Archie that he might pass the time in town in the comfort of a saloon or hotel. But Archie would have none of it. He found a battered chair in the freight station, retrieved a book from his luggage and sat in the shade of the building, and read while keeping an eye on the proceedings.

When it was all done, a tired and somewhat subdued, Jane Siskin came to him and said, “It’s all safely loaded as you can see Mr. Croryton.”

Archie carefully marked his place in his book and said, “Very good Miss Siskin. What time do we leave in the morning?”

“Hell, we’re pushing on tonight. I ain’t gonna give these sons of whores another night to drink. I’d lose, two maybe three more teams at least. And we’re overloaded as it is. You stay over and catch the stage in the morning. You’ll beat us there by a day at least.”

Archie tucked his book under his arm, replaced his pith helmet on his head, and stood. “This is my equipment and my commission, and I intend to shepherd it every step of the way. Only after my machine has been installed, will I rest easy.” He kicked his trunk and said, “In which wagon are I and my luggage riding?”

Jane snorted a laugh. “Wagons is for cargo mister. Teamsters walk their teams. Especially with them damn the oxen.” She put her fingers in her mouth and gave an ear-piercing whistle. “Red! Get this trunk stowed, and go help his Majesty buy a horse.”

They were three days out of Tucson when the rear axle broke on the largest wagon in the train. The eight oxen in the team ground to a stop and bellowed for water. There was no water to give them until Grantham. And 200 tons of freight came to a dead stop in the blazing Arizona sun.

The teamster who owned the broken wagon, a man known as ‘Clod’ stood next to the oxen, mirroring their plodding expression of long-suffering. Neither he nor they looked at the axle. They had just stopped because they could go no further and waited for someone to come along and get them moving again. In this heat, and at this level of exhaustion, the biggest difference between them might have been that Clod was the one wearing a cowboy hat.

Archie rode along the stalled wagon train and reined up by the broken axle.“Well, don’t just stand there man! What are you going to do!”

Clod looked up at him blankly. After the last three days of bad road, he didn’t even have the energy left needed to shrug. He took drink from the canteen around his neck. There wasn’t much left in it, so he had to tip it way up.

Archie turned to Clod and shouted, “Did you hit every rut between here and Tuscon! I mean did you aim for them!”

Jane rode up, slapping the flank of her mustang lightly with a coiled bullwhip. She said, “You cain’t talk to my man that way!”

Archie scowled at Jane and was about to protest, but mastered his emotions and said, “If he wished to avoid excoriation, perhaps he should have taken better care of his wagon.”

Jane snarled, “As charmin’ as we all find your company, Mr. Croryton, I’ll remind you that you were advised to avail yourself of the stagecoach and await delivery in Grantham.” Then she turned to the teamster and said, “Aw for Christssake Clod! Did you break my fuckin’ wagon?”

“It done just broke, Miss,” said Clod.

“You did, Clod. You broke my fuckin’ wagon. You gonna fix my fuckin’ wagon? How many goddamn times are we gonna break down on this run! I knew I shoulda cashiered you in Gleeson, you big dumb son-of-a-bitch.” She spit and whirled back to Archie, “And you lied to me about the weight.”

“I did not!”

“Overloaded wagon. Whole damn train’s overloaded. Draggin’ axles from the start. And don’t you try to smooth talk me with your fancy words!”

“Madame,” began Archie.

“There you go again you slippery shitheel!”

Clod stood with the oxen, fat tears rolling down his hopeless face.”

Jane said, “Goddamn it, now look what you’ve gone and done to Clod!” She swungdown off her horse and changed her tone.“C’mon, Clod. Ya big softy. We’re not really yellin’ at you. We’re just yellin’ cause it’s powerful hot and we’re all sick of eatin’ road dust. Aren’t you sick of it?”

Clod nodded, rubbing tears and snot away with the heel of his hand. “Yes’m.”

“Then why ain’t you yellin’ you big lummox?”

“‘Cause the wagon broke. And it’s my fault.”

“Hell, Clod, it ain’t your fault. It’s the road’s fault. It’s the axel’s fault. It’s God’s fault. And most of it’s my fault for givin’ you such a shitty wagon!”

Clod looked very confused.

“Well go on,” said Jane, “Yell it out.”

“I hate this stupid wagon,” said Clod, timidly.

“Nah, Clod. You’re gonna have to do better than that.”

“STUPID WAGON!”

“There you go. You go on, you can even kick it a little if you want,” said Jane. Then she looked back to Archie. “Now. What in the fuck’s is in that crate!”

“I appreciate that tempers are high, Miss Siskin. And that this is a rough and ill-mannered land, but I am your employer and I will not be addressed in that manner,” said Archie.

“Fine. What the fuck’s in there, sir!?!”

Even Archie had to laugh at this. He recovered his leather-wrapped journal from his saddlebags and flipped it open. He matched the number scrawled on the crate and said, “that is one-quarter of the flywheel assembly.” Jane opened her mouth to swear again, but stopped when Archie raised his hand and said, “Allow me to save you the trouble of asking a profane and redundant question. Yes, it is a fucking flywheel. Now, what are we to do?”

Jane smiled and spit. Archie found it to be utterly unladylike yet still, charming behavior. Then she said, “I’ll have MacAllister have a look at it, but I don’t think we can fix it with what we got. And one thing’s for sure. Ain’t nobody coming along with an empty wagon to bail us out.”

Just then they heard a rattling noise drifting back towards them from the front of the wagon train. They looked up and saw a man driving an absolutely empty wagon bucking his way along the rocks and cresote bushes along the side of the road. They looked at the wagon. They looked at each other. Then Jane raised her hand.

“Hol’ up there,” cried Jane. As the man grew closer, she said, “Why Mr. Miller! Am I glad to see you!”

“Miss Siskin,” said Virgil Miller, bringing his wagon to a stop. “Be more glad to see you if ya’ll weren’t so much in my way.”

“We’ve had bit of trouble, as you can see. And we were wondering if you’d like to make an extra bit of cash with that wagon of yours.”

“Well, Ms. Miller. That depends. If you got seven tons of flour for me somewhere in this mess, I can oblige.”

“I do not. Who’s payin’ the freight on it?”

“Supposed to be Fetterman outta Bisbee.”

Jane made a face and spit.

Virgil said, “Guess that’s why I’m havin’ to go to see him.”

Jane said, “Ain’t my fault. And maybe ain’t his. This gentleman rented out ‘bout every damn wagon in the territory.”

Virgil looked Archie up and down and said, “Hunh, gennleman? Is that what you call a man in a funny hat.”

“Archimedes Croryton, at your service sir.”

“Ah, gennleman. That’s what you call a man with a funny hat and a funny name.”

“That’s as may be,” said Archie, “But it’s very important that I get these crates to Grantham in an expeditious fashion and as you have an otherwise empty wagon…”

“My wagon is engaged,” said Virgil, “And you Jane Siskin, you ain’t done nobody I know any favors. Good day, Ms. Siskin. Stranger.”

As they watched him go, Archie said, “But I’m not a stranger. I introduced myself.”

“He’s just prickly ‘cause his freight ain’t come through. And I ain’t exactly been, sympathetic to his predicaments over the years. Come on Clod, let’s get ‘em to drag it off the side of the road.”

With the aid of MacAllister and several of the men, they levered the back of the wagon up with a timber. Jane cracked the whip over the heads of the oxen, and the animals pulled the wagon a few feet forward until it slid completely off the timber and ground to a stop again. The process was repeated again and again until the road was clear.

When the wagon train was in motion again, Archie said, “But we can’t just leave it here!”

Jane said, “We’ll finish up the run into Grantham, unload a wagon right quick and come back for it.”

“Today?” asked Archie.

“Don’t you worry your Lordship. Nobody’s gonna steal your 3000-pound flywheel part.”

“I’m not a Lord,” Archie said quietly, “and I don’t like loose ends.

After leaving the wagon behind, the pace of the train quickened with the promise of good stable and fodder for two-legged and four-legged creatures alike. From somewhere in the back Archie heard singing.

They came over a rise and there was Grantham laid out before them. A cheer went up.

Archie was shocked at how small the town appeared. Around the two main streets were a collection of mud huts, tents and dangerously ramshackle frame buildings. On the periphery more of these wooden buildings were under construction. A haze of smoke hung in the air and Archie could hear the hammering of both carpenters and blacksmiths. To Archie’s eyes, having grown up in a place where the newest building in the village was over 300 years old, Grantham seemed a place that had been constructed yesterday and would be gone tomorrow.

The one exception to the frontier construction was an elaborate Victorian house set on a large lot on the far end of town. That had to be Monsieur DuMont’s house. With its elaborate turret and high-peaked roofs it could not have looked more surreal or out of place. Archie judged it to be a waste of resources. Who would build a fine house in this inhospitable place? This was a place for making a fortune and leaving behind as easily as a snake shed his skin.

What Archie did not see was the mine. There was no evidence of it on the slope beyond the town. He had been told that the mine in Grantham was built right in the middle of town, but had thought it an exaggeration.

As wagon train they worked its way down to the dry wash on the east end of town the enthusiasm dried up.

“They still ain’t fixed this damn road!” said Jane, spitting at the sight of the obstacle ahead. The wash wasn’t quite treacherous enough to require a bridge, but the way wasn’t smooth enough for overloaded wagons. It would require care and attention to navigate the freight through the cut in the bank and up into town. As the wagon train stopped Archie sidled uneasily on his horse. The excitement of being close to the start of his real work and finally meeting his unknown employer was unbearable.

He turned to Jane and said, “Ms. Siskin if you would excuse me, I must confer with my employer, and find a spot for the cargo.”

Someone in the next wagon back shouted, “I say a nice flat spot next to a saloon oughta do it.”

Archie and spurred his horse down the cut and through the wash and into Grantham.

(Next installment Friday, Jan 21.)