Bullpen Western Short Story
John Foster always wanted to be a self-made man. A fire burned within him, under the rib cage, demanding more and absorbing everything. Opportunity was out there, and if he put in the work, he could make it, like Benjamin Franklin, or Abraham Lincoln, or his own father who had become a lumber baron. As he confronted the challenges of adolescence, he would seek relief in feeling better than others because, like the heroes he read about, he would turn out to have a great future.
At age eighteen, he went south to Massachusetts to study law. A family donation allowed him a space at Yale, as it did for his older brothers too. Through plenty of struggle, he graduated and became a barrister, finding his first paid position in New Haven. Many long hours of paperwork, with frequent mistakes both small and large. The employer let him go after only six months. It was the worst in a history of failures, and devasted him.
John moved back north to Ottawa, where he worked in his father’s office. Only a few months passed before both grew annoyed with each other. John’s work ethic was counter-balanced by clumsy errors, and his father’s hard-nosed fury made matters worse. He went to work for the man’s competitor, providing the excuse of needing his own way forward. This too went bad. The competitor grew frustrated at similar mistakes but did not mind because John’s presence served as a victory in morale in a tough business sector. The man said as much multiple times, often with a loud chuckle, sometimes alongside snide comments about the troubles facing his father’s business. The shame was too much and John quit.
He went West. West was the direction of opportunity, as everyone knew. Endless space, abundant resources, a landscape ripe and empty. Enough room for all the folks heading that way already plus more, with space left over for additional fresh starts if needed. Towns springing up on the Prairies, the mountains, the deserts, even on the Pacific Coast. He imagined himself somewhere with no lawyers around, allowing a head start in business before others came along. Documents ready, with a financial gift from his parents, he packed his things with a flurry of excitement and trepidation. Saying goodbye to the life he knew was difficult, but he left, knowing he would never return.
Canada was still building its transcontinental railway, so John went East to Montreal, then to Boston, and took a train West from there, towards Minneapolis and Seattle. The journey was long, and he took a first-class coach to avoid the crowds in the rest of the train. Sweaty, loud immigrants, Irish, Italian, Norwegian, the types his father employed. It embarrassed him to be around such people. He was educated and his family had been around nearly a century. Being better than them seemed part of his destiny, a destiny still to be discovered but surely grand.
It happened that he came across someone quite like himself. A few hours into the journey, both sat at tables in the dinning carriage in the first-class section of the train. The time was lunch, and the servant came by providing beef stew with cheese and bread. He was reading the newspaper, an update on the famous tycoon John D. Rockefeller, who was thriving off a new, lucrative resource: gasoline. A man walked to the adjacent table and then paused and asked for John’s attention.
It was a young man with a clean-shaven jawline, narrow face, dirty blond hair and sparkling blue eyes, the type considered handsome. His elegant waist-length frock coat, his cravat and top hat suggested stylish gentry. His smile suggested friendliness. Both seemed about the same age, as well as same size and height, a reassuring reality in a place where more and more seemed alien.
“May I join you?” The stranger asked. “It’s always nicer to have company on these voyages.”
“Of course,” John said, motioning at the empty chair opposite him.
“Thank, you,” he said as he reached out to shake John’s hand. “The name is Thomas Moore.”
“It’s a pleasure,” John said as he introduced himself and Thomas sat.
“I’m traveling to Montana on family business. How about yourself?”
John blushed a little. “I’m moving out West, but I don’t have clear plans. I’m hoping to start a new life somewhere. I’m not sure where exactly. I know there are decent opportunities.”
Thomas stroked his chin and glanced down the carriage, grunting agreement. “Plenty. Did you hear about the gold rush in Montana twenty years ago? It was almost as grand as the one in San Francisco. The town where it happened, Helena, really boomed. You won’t believe me when I say this, but it is home to fifty millionaires. Fifty millionaires! Most people think no place on Earth could have so much wealth, except maybe New York. It sounds crazy but it’s true.”
“That does sound hard to believe.”
Thomas nodded. “We’re living in a new world, where all things are possible. Outrageous riches can be had. Helena proves that. Maybe not for everyone, but for some.” He called for a servant’s attention and received a plate of food. He ate quickly and not with the polite manners John anticipated, speaking with his mouth full and having his elbow on the table.
“Oh, I have a great question I like to ask people. May I?” Thomas asked. “What would you do if you got rich? I’m always wondering about this myself, imaging the things I’d buy. A large home with two floors and a roof with a parapet, along with secret passages, a personal bar and space for servants. What would you do?”
Discomfort loomed in John’s mind as he considered the life he left. His father’s success with lumber meant they had money. They owned a house with three floors and though with no parapets it did have servant quarters.
“I grew up rich,” he said. “I was quite used to it growing up, and I left it to find my own fortunes.”
Thomas raised an eyebrow. “Did you? Huh. Why did you do that?”
“Well, it’s not so much about finding a fortune I suppose,” John said. He realized this as he spoke it. “Money does not matter to me as much as establishing myself in my own way, though it’s a nice reward. I hope to set up a practice as a lawyer somewhere. I have the skills and the education.”
“I studied law at Yale.”
“Did you?” Thomas smiled, his eyes widening. “That’s wonderful. Good for you.”
The train’s engines chugged along loudly. Trees passed by. Thomas looked out at the landscape for a moment, lost in his thoughts.
“What an achievement. Do you have the documents to prove it?”
“Yes, back in my compartment with my luggage.”
“Well, this just seems perfect then,” Thomas said. “I was hoping to come across a lawyer to help me solve a land dispute in Helena. It’s a real opportunity. You know how I mentioned there was a gold rush twenty years ago? Well, do you mind if I tell you a little story?”
“No, go ahead.”
“The story begins with my father.” Thomas become animated and motioned with his hands. Good stories were a thing he enjoyed. “His name was Bill, and he worked in the lumber industry just as his father had. It was a tough life, many long days of hard work. He wanted to get ahead or at least for us children to get ahead. So, he tried to save up money to send us to school and that never quite worked out. Different expenses came up, and debts associated with his employer the lumber baron. Money problems got in the way. Anyway, he was a hard worker but there was no chance in the lumber industry. The money always stayed in the hands a few. So, he left us. He went out West looking for gold. I never did see him again.”
“He arrived in Helena as soon as he heard about the gold rush, and he tried to strike it rich. Lots of people went with the same dreams, rubbing shoulders in the dirt for a few grams more. Some made loads of money but it’s not as easy as it sounds. Bill did find some gold and though it was not much, it was enough to buy five hundred acres of land not far from town. The thought was to grow wheat there and then profit on making and selling bread. He did not want to just become rich and lose it all in a few years. He wanted to stay rich and have a legacy. He sent a letter to my mother with the receipt of the land purchase. The letter also mentioned buried gold somewhere on the property.”
Thomas licked his fingers as he finished eating, wiping them on his trousers.
“You know,” he said. “There is a rumor that the local Natives, the Blackfeet, put a curse on every single one of the first men who bought land in that area. I’m not sure if that’s true. It could just be that a lot of folks killed each other over greed in the years that followed. Anyway, my father died. He was found face down in a horse trough one morning. The sheriff claimed it was a drowning due to drunkenness though I figure he was murdered.”
“So, this land that my father owned. It was taken by a man named Stevens. Stevens was a bully but a powerful one, good friends with the sheriff. He wanted to make money by leasing the property out. He had other properties too. Anyway, apparently the rainfall there isn’t enough for farming, or something. The land was no good.”
He stayed silent for a moment, lost in thought. “Why don’t we both go to your compartment and we can talk more there, or you can come to mine if you like. I have a good opportunity for someone like you.”
“Alright,” John said. He had no better plans and figured this could be a good opportunity. If not, they could become friends. After wiping the table and pushing in the chairs, they made their way to John’s compartment further down the train. Thomas only carried a leather satchel with him, clutching it at his chest as he walked through the dining carriage. They sat, and Thomas stretched out his legs on the adjacent seat.
“Right,” Thomas said. “I have two goals really, if you’re following.”
“Well, Stevens has never found out about the buried gold, not to my knowledge. I have reason to believe I know exactly where that gold is but Stevens is famous for having a violent temper. I don’t want to cross him without getting in trouble. Instead, I want to argue with the courts to give me have that land. Then, I can freely walk around and find that gold without risking getting shot by Stevens and his men. Moreover, then I can do something with the land, like sell it off to immigrants and make a profit. I have the receipt proving the purchase of land here with me.” He tapped his satchel.
“Well if the land is garbage, Stevens may want to sell it to us.”
“Yes,” Thomas sighed. He looked out the window and spoke carefully. “That’s a real option. I don’t have the money though as I am quite broke. We could buy it together if you’re interested.”
“That’s possible.” John was skeptical.
“Let’s both go there and see the land together if that suits you. Are you interested?”
“Let me think,” John said. The excitement he felt earlier was absent here and a troubled feeling sat in his gut. He wondered why Thomas had not just secretly snuck around to find the gold already. If Stevens were a violent man, a confrontation could also happen through trying to get the courts to dispossess him of the property. Thomas did seem trustable though. Moreover, John had no specific destination in mind, and Helena did sound like a fine place to start his life. He would not be the first lawyer to arrive in town as he had hoped but surely, he would find his way and settle in well.
“Are you interested?”
John was not sure how he felt though he was more interested than not. Simply looking at the land and asking questions at the courthouse seemed harmless anyway. “Yes, definitely. Let’s work together.”
Thomas smiled back at him, revealing nice, white teeth and they started making more details plans.
The sense of adventure began ringing strong as John imagined traveling across the open landscape by horse to see the property in question. He did not know how to ride one, but Thomas offered to let him ride behind him on the same horse.
He imagined owning property in the great outdoors. There was a joy in the thought and he pictured himself like the heroes of the novels he read, like Ragged Dick and Natty Bumppo, strong and capable but he would do it in his own way.
“I’m lucky we came across each other here on this train,” John said.
Thomas looked at him and shrugged. “No one ever finds success in this world by relying on luck. It’s one thing to imagine creating a better life for oneself, and it’s another to make it actually happen.”
“You’re right. I have lots to learn.”
The train traveled past the thick forests of Pennsylvania and through Ohio, stopping in Fort Wayne for the first night. The second night was spent in Minneapolis the second night. The Prairies stretched on and on as if the Earth had forgotten what a hill was, let alone a mountain. At first, the two young men chatted, sharing stories and jokes. They wondered about the future and dreamed about business ventures. By the second night, they had exhausted their conversation and read books. The third day, the train arrived in Montana.
Helena was in a valley in the foothills of the Rockies. Mountains loomed in the distance. Majestic peaks unlike anything John had ever seen. He studied them as the train drew closer as though he had discovered a treasure, as though the mountains could disappear if he looked away.
The train station ended at the center of town. Opposite, the Natatorium Hotel stood tall and proud, three stories with elegant Victorian-style architecture. Beside it, general store had the town’s name embellished in gold on the façade. Down the streets stood banks, furniture stores, tailors, smithies, a dance hall and a theatre. A cathedral was under construction, and work would start soon on a state capitol building too, along with many new houses. People milled about in stylish dresses and fine suits, some on horses and a few in carriages. The place teemed with human activity.
John and Thomas stepped off the train with an air of confidence and curiosity. The air smelled of coal and leather but also of the sweet countryside. The summer sun shined and Thomas wiped his brow. He smiled nervously at John, saying “welcome to the West, my friend.”
“It’s a beautiful place,” John said. He noticed a pretty lady walk by, holding the arm of an elderly gentleman. It was not just the location that looked nice.
The two of them walked straight to the Natatorium Hotel. The building’s size and central location demanded attention and it seemed grand on the outside.
A Native woman sat in the dirt leaning against the wall a foot from the entranceway. She begged for money, her hands out and her face downcast. A young girl of three or four years stood beside her with a dumbfounded look on her face, as if she were lost and in shock. None of the people walking by paid them any attention. Moving closer, John saw the woman carried a baby in the folds of her blanket. He also noticed her weathered, skinny face was not as old as it first seemed. She was skeletal but young.
“Food please,” the woman asked.
Thomas leaned in close to John’s face and whispered. “Survival of the strong against the weak.”
John was not sure what to say and they walked on, entering the saloon by the swinging wooden front-entrance doors.
The smell of tobacco and whiskey emanated out, and the sounds of billiards, laughter and music as well. Men lumbered at the bar and at tables, packing the place with sweat and heat.
“This is your new home,” Thomas said as he looked back at John and smiled. “The refuge of the common man.”
“You told me it was ritzy,” John said. He was somewhat joking but not entirely. Part of him had hoped for a fine drinking establishment like the spots he liked in Ottawa.
“Yes, it’s the ritziest place in the state. You can’t expect better than this out West.”
They walked to the bar and ordered whiskey. The barman welcomed them and encouraged them to sit and rest, offering hotel rooms above.
Thomas nodded. “We’ll be spending the night here. A room with two beds would be ideal, maybe with some company.” He winked.
“Talk to Madame Joan then,” the bartender said. He pointed to a well-dressed lady in the corner. She was in a serious discussion with a mustached man in a leather outfit.
Thomas and John walked over and talked to her. She set them up with a room with two beds. She beckoned one of her girls to come over.
“Alice here will show you your rooms. The company will join you later. For now, after you have settled in your rooms feel free to come back down and enjoy a warm meal or play poker.” She turned back around to continue her discussion. She had barely glanced at them, having seen their type many times before.
They settled in and went downstairs. Thomas wanted to gamble but John was skeptical, choosing to walk around town instead. He enjoyed seeing new places, especially ones so different like this.
He walked through the streets, perusing at the windows of different stores though not sticking around long in any single location. The sunset started setting and he wanted to avoid the streets at night. Western towns had a reputation for violence, and it seemed most men in town carried guns around. He considered buying one later.
The Native woman was still sitting in the ground outside the saloon, her daughter staring blankly and her baby asleep.
“Hello,” she said to him as he came close to her. “If you want company tonight, I’m cheap.”
He looked at her and blushed. What a thing to say in front of children, and where was her husband?
“No thank you,” he said. He didn’t want to be robbed. A thought occurred to him though.
“Do you know about land that was sold to a man named Stevens? It was Native land.”
She stared at him for a moment, her face empty of expression. “Land cannot be bought and sold. It belongs to the Creator.”
“Do you know about a man named Stevens who bought five hundred acres? He took it from someone else though it did not belong to him.”
She continued to stare. “Many white men have taken land that is not there’s. There have been many tears.”
He was not sure if the woman understood and wondered if asking was hopeless. “There is gold hidden somewhere.”
“Do not trust anyone. Many lies.”
He shook his head and began walking away.
“Please,” she said. “Help me. I am cheap but good.”
His discomfort grew worse and he went indoors. He was happy to be better a disgrace like her.
The saloon was busy and boisterous. He found Thomas playing poker against a few others and watched for some time. Thomas was a risky player but clever. He bet much and deceived his opponents once or twice, winning a good amount of money in the process. John never gambled, not wanting to lose the money he had.
After some time, the two of them went to their rooms along with the company paid for, two expensive Irish-born prostitutes.
In the morning, they prepared themselves to go see the land. John left his money and documents behind in the room, hidden under the bed for safe keeping. Thomas did the same with his satchel though he pulled out a volcanic pistol and a few bullets first. “We need to be protected out there,” he said as he tucked the satchel away and attached a gun holster to the belt at his waist. No more cravat or frock coat but rather a plain and a neckerchief. The man fit in comfortably in the environment.
They found a horse and rode out into the Montana countryside. Helena was nestled in a valley containing little space for farming East or West. Mountains and a small lake blocked such possibilities. They rode North of town.
The landscape was barren of trees, just grass, sometimes rising to form hills with a couple shrubs on top. The mountains stood tall and proud in the distance in most directions. The two of them traveled for two hours by horse, John saddled up and cramped right behind Thomas. Their thighs pressed against each other and John could feel the strength of Thomas’ chest. What an embarrassing way to ride, John thought. He was glad his father could not see. Riding a horse was another task he added to the mental list of skills to learn. That knowledge seemed crucial, even more than knowing how to shoot a gun.
They went out far, well past the last ranches on the outskirts of town. Then they arrived at the remnants of a derelict farm. A single log cabin with a large barn and a fenced area for pigs. The pigs were absent and the log cabin abandoned. A paltry wooden door partially unhinged graced the entranceway and the roof contained several gaping holes.
They unsaddled themselves and tied the horse up to a post outside.
“Here we are,” Thomas said. “It’s not in good shape.”
John grunted in agreement. He was thinking of what the Native woman had said and was growing more and more uncomfortable. “I don’t think Stevens has been here in years.”
“No, he doesn’t care much about this place, that’s for sure.”
They walked inside and from the natural light provided by the roof’s holes, John could see the decay and the shabbiness of everything, as well as the emptiness. Whatever furniture once existed here had long ago been removed. The rotten floorboards creaked as he walked about. The fireplace was blackened, scarred from smoke and poor ventilation. No windows existed. Not just bad maintenance but bad designs too.
“My father wanted to be a self-made man,” Thomas said. “And this is what’s left of that dream.”
John turned around and looked at him. Thomas had his elbows out, hands at his belt. The pistol sat holstered not far from his pinky.
They stared at each other.
“What are you doing?”
Thomas tried to smile but his lips trembled and his eyes looked sad. He pulled the pistol out of its holster and aimed it at John.
“Well, it’s the end. It’s the end for you, at least, and a new beginning for me.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, if I take those papers you left in our hotel room, and take your money, I can become John Foster, recently arrived with a law degree from Yale. Not a bad life.”
“Wouldn’t people know you? If they recognize you, they will know you’re not me.”
He shook his head. “I’m not from this town and even if I were, I could go somewhere else. Plenty of spots need lawyers.”
“You can’t do this to me.” His whiny tone of voice reminded him of the Native woman from the night before, and how she begged him to help her, and how she warned him about trusting others. He was more alike to her than he was willing to admit, troubled and dependent on others. He was naïve too though, and in this way he and Thomas were quite different. He had misread things, made mistakes, thought too much of himself. “Please.”
Thomas sighed. “It’s a tough world. These things happen. Who knows, maybe I’ll get mugged later myself. There isn’t much to say.”
They stared at each other in the silence of the cabin’s stale air.
“I’m sorry,” Thomas said. He fired the gun.