Western Short Story
Ten Miles in a Single Day
Rich Ritter

Western Short Story

Burly Sam Logan. Born in Texas of impoverished Irish immigrants. Raised as a young boy in Los Angeles before California statehood. Displaced to Sacramento at fourteen to find work. Fluent in Irish, English, and Spanish (but not Chinese). Red hair flaming beneath a well-worn derby. Green-and-black-plaid flannel shirt fluttering across sinewy back muscles. Freshly promoted to crew foreman because of his relentless devotion to the Central Pacific Railroad. Burly Sam Logan marveled at the random clusters of scrubby green bushes and sporadic outcrops of wind-and-rain-weathered rocks and waves of sun-yellowed grasses flowing over the lumpy hills cascading away to the west. His gaze found the elegant railroad tracks and adjacent row of neatly-spaced telegraph poles completed just yesterday, and then followed both track and telegraph to a tiny vanishing point at the juncture of land and sky. He searched for a white man among the hundreds of Chinese laborers swarming along both sides of the railhead: he found two standing next to a water wagon. A whistle shrilled, and his attention jerked to the approaching engine and 16 flatcars loaded with materials sufficient for two miles of track. He confirmed the time on his pocket watch, deftly dropped the watch into a vest pocket, and bellowed encouragement to the six Chinamen under his direct supervision. “Eleven minutes to seven my lads, a beautiful morning of blue skies and white clouds with a bit of coolness in the air, and we have the honor of loading the first handcar.” Plumes of hissing mist foamed around the polished wheels of the soot-blackened steam engine when the material train braked at the staging area. Sam Logan removed his timepiece again and counted the seconds down. Hundreds of men clambered up both sides of the flatcars and threw down bundles of fish plates and kegs of bolts and spikes. Some of the kegs ruptured on the ground and scattered spikes and ragged shards of wood and bolts and rusty iron hoops across the track bed. When the fish plates and kegs were cleared, men scrambled over the 30-foot-long rails and wrestled over 700 of the 560-pound iron bars to the ground in an astonishing eight minutes. When the work had ended and the frenzied roar of shouting men and exploding kegs and clanging iron rails had diminished, the locomotive wheels spun into reverse and the empty material train pulled away to make space for the next material train, already approaching.

“Get ready my lads. Only a minute now. A few seconds more. Seven o’clock on the dot. Let’s get started.” Sam Logan and his crew of six Chinamen jogged along the north side of the track until they reached the first pile of materials. Sam Logan and five Chinamen organized into pairs and seized three of the heavy rails. The sixth man lifted a keg of bolts over his shoulder then trudged behind the last rail. Sam Logan and his Chinamen hauled the materials forward to the first handcar then dashed back for more. When they had accumulated 16 iron rails and sufficient bundles of fish plates and kegs of bolts and spikes, Sam Logan tied the neatly-whipped end of a stiff hemp rope to an iron ring dangling at the front of the handcar and the entire crew of seven men leapt aboard. Two horses with riders, one behind the other, jerked the rope taught and the car lumbered east. The riders dug their heels into the flanks of the straining horses and the handcar accelerated toward the railhead, only 200 feet ahead.

The Chinaman standing next to Sam Logan looked back at the next handcar where another crew of six Chinamen and one Irishman began loading rails and kegs and bundles. He faced into the wind and addressed his new crew foreman with appropriate respect. “Not to doubt the wisdom of the great Central Pacific Railroad, but is it really possible to lay ten miles of track in a single day?”

Sam Logan watched the knot vibrate under the tension of two surging horses. “Your name is Tseng Longwei, is it not? You’re the one who handled the nitroglycerine at the Summit Tunnel.”

The Chinaman chose not to repeat his original question. “Yes, I am Tseng Longwei. And yes, I worked at the Summit Tunnel.”

Sam Logan grinned just before a big-green-spiky-legged June bug buzzed into his derby and tumbled to the gravel bed between the tracks. “I remember now—the coolie who has no fear and speaks English like an American. Quite a novelty, if you ask me.”

Tseng Longwei agreed indirectly. “Yes, I suppose you could call it a novelty in a way. But is it really possible to—”

Sam Logan finished Longwei’s sentence. “—to lay ten miles of track in a single day? I have no idea if it is or is not, my lad. But those bastards on the Union Pacific said it can’t be done by anyone, especially a bunch of coolies, so we’re sure as hell going to try.”

Tseng Longwei cringed, but repeated the untoward word anyway. “Yes, those bastards—as you call them—on the Union Pacific do not believe the Chinaman and the Irishman can work together to lay ten miles of track in a single day.” The handcar slowed. “Today I think we prove them wrong.”

Sam Logan leaned back and shouted his approval, nearly losing his balance and falling off the handcar when it braked short of the railhead. “That’s the spirit, my lad. That’s the spirit!”

Sam Logan and his crew of six Chinamen jumped off the handcar, and a gang of four men armed with picks and wire cutters stepped aboard. The men broke open the tops of the kegs with decisive strokes of the picks and cut the bundles of fish plates with rapid snips of the cutters before tossing the materials to both sides of the handcar. Other men rushed forward to fill rusty buckets with spikes, bolts, and fish plates, then plodded away to distribute their heavy loads beyond the railhead. When only the rails remained, a single horse pulled the handcar a few yards more until it bumped the wood-framed iron track gauge at the terminus of the tracks. A handpicked crew of eight Irish rail handlers, under the direct supervision of Track Foreman H. H. Minkler and Gang Foreman George Coley, marched back (four to each side of the handcar) until they had properly aligned with the ends of the 30-foot-long rails. A pair of men clamped the front of each rail with iron tongs while men at the back slid the rails to either side of the handcar and set them on iron rollers. The tong men pulled the rails over the rollers until they advanced 30 feet past the track gauge and the men at the back dropped the rails into place. The track gauge was quickly dragged forward and the new tracks bolted and spiked into place by yet another track gang. Men pushed the handcar east another 30 feet and the handpicked Irish rail handlers repeated the process until they had extended the track 240 feet. Another handcar loaded with 16 rails, bundles of fish plates, kegs of bolts and spikes, one Irishman, and six Chinamen, approached seconds before the track gang hammered the last spike into place.

Sam Logan strolled alongside his advancing handcar—at a pace equivalent to a team of oxen pulling a prairie schooner across the Great Plains—and held his timepiece in front of his nose to better observe the ticking second hand and the handpicked Irish rail handlers at the same time. Exactly 67 seconds after his arrival at the railhead, the handlers wrenched the last pair of rails off the car and pulled them forward on the iron rollers. He waved his crew of six Chinamen into action with an expansive sweep of both arms and a shout. “Let’s get this empty handcar out of the way men.” Sam Logan and his crew of six Chinamen lifted the car up, muscled it off the newly-installed section of track, and carried it back 50 feet where they remounted it to the rails. Sam Logan roped another pair of horses to the front of the car and they were promptly off on their first return trip to the material dump to collect more rails, bundles of fish plates, and kegs of bolts and spikes.

Tseng Longwei resumed his earlier conversation with Sam Logan as the handcar gained speed. “What we just did required less than two minutes. At this speed of construction…” He completed a precise mental calculation: Sixty minutes each hour times 120 feet per minute equals 6,000 feet plus 1,200 feet which equals 7,200 feet of track per hour. “…the 10-miles of track will be done in less than 10 hours.”

Sam Logan roared, “Not so fast, my lad. You have not accounted for the curves; we have more than a few of those to deal with before the day is done.”

“Yes, the curves. I had not considered the curves. But I am not the one who knows of the curves. I only know what I see in front of my own face and feel below my own feet.”

“Not to worry, my lad. I do not know where the curves are either. We are both in the same boat. I only know the curves will come, and they will take longer to lay than our first stretch of track.” The handcar slowed as it neared the material dump. One Irishman and six Chinamen loaded another handcar just ahead. “But the curves are not our problem.” The handcar rolled to a stop. “Our problem is to get this handcar off the tracks. Off we go, lads.” Sam Logan and his six Chinamen leaped from the handcar, lifted it off the track, and pulled it to the side moments before the next car rumbled by on its way to the new railhead. They hauled the handcar back to the rails and dropped it down with a metallic thud. The pair of horses pulled the hemp rope taught and the handcar rolled into place between a mound of kegs and a stack of iron rails.

Burly Sam Logan and his crew of six Chinamen worked throughout the long morning: loading iron rails and bundles of fish plates and kegs of bolts and spikes at the material dump, riding the heavily-loaded-horse-pulled handcar to the new railhead where men installed the materials in minutes, riding the empty handcar back to the material dump, repeatedly removing the handcar from the tracks to allow other handcars moving east to pass without losing speed, each round trip longer than the one before by 240 feet. When work suspended for the noontime meal, only five hours since the effort had begun, the nearly 4,000 men and hundreds of horses involved in the heroic endeavor had accomplished six miles of track at a pace very close to Tseng Longwei’s calculation. But they could not maintain the astonishing speed of the morning. When work continued after lunch, the rising slopes of Promontory Mountain and greater number of curves slowed the advance, and a full six hours were required to achieve the last four miles. Even so, when the work halted for good at seven in the evening, a miraculous length of 10 miles and 56 feet stretched west back to the day’s starting point. To consummate the achievement, a steam locomotive raced the entire length of new track at a speed of 40 miles per hour, arriving safely at the new railhead before the weary men began preparing the evening meal.

♦ ♦ ♦

Strangely alone among thousands of men gathered around hundreds of fires twinkling in the darkness along both sides of the railhead, Tseng Longwei stirred the hot coals of his campfire with a blackened stick. When he had completed this task, he drank tea from a dented metal cup. On this day of days, his calloused hands twitched from gripping too many heavy iron rails, his hardened shoulders throbbed from hauling too many kegs of bolts and spikes, and his strong back ached from lifting the handcar too many times. A lone coyote howled in the distance, but the sound did not awaken the eleven exhausted men scattered around him. He thought of sleeping himself, but the exhilaration of the day’s achievement kept him awake. Tseng Longwei tossed the blackened stick into the fire and watched it smoke and burst into crackling flame. He stretched out his legs to move his feet closer to the warmth of the fire and a cramp erupted on the back of his leg just above the right knee. He dropped the cup of tea in pain and massaged the unruly muscle with the tips of his fingers. When the spasms had abated and he felt more comfortable, he noticed the familiar sound of hooves clicking against rocks. He listened to the sounds of the hooves grow louder, and when he explored the darkness and tilted his head a little he discerned a shadowy man on horseback. The man and horse appeared more distinctly in the glow of a nearby campfire, and then disappeared in the darkness outside the light of the fire. The man and horse appeared again and vanished into the gloom a final time, and then gradually reappeared in the flickering light of Tseng Longwei’s fire until both horse and man stopped a few paces before trampling on a sleeping Chinaman only twenty feet away.

Tseng Longwei finally spoke when the man did not utter a word or dismount. “You there on the horse. Are you looking for someone?”

A leather saddle creaked when the man slouched over the horn. He answered Longwei’s question with apparent joy. “I finally have the good luck to riding through the many of men who do not speak the English but are the sleep too and maybe it cannot be told if they speak the English or no, but who cares if it can be told or not of sleep because I have found who speaks the English and has no sleep in the now.”

This incoherently bombastic outburst suggested the possibility of a dangerous lunatic; Tseng Longwei chose his next words with care. “Are you certain you are not lost? I do not think you have found the person you are looking for.”

The dangerous lunatic laughed, dismounted, and shambled toward Tseng Longwei. “It is not my lost of your problem. There is no lost when I speak the English and the men who are not sleep in the dark speak words who are not the English. But you speak the English; I stay here tonight near the fire you have poured. If you do not know of a problem I cannot.”

Tseng Longwei decided that he would rather talk to the dangerous lunatic than move, and attempted to interpret what he had just heard. “Are you asking me if you can stay next to my fire tonight?”

The dangerous lunatic squatted down very close to Tseng Longwei. “Yes, it is what I mean to say, not when there is a problem or not.”

Tseng Longwei stretched his legs again and, luckily, the annoying cramp did not return. “Yes, you can stay. I do not care. I am too tired to care. And if you wish, there is still some tea in a pot near the fire. Please take some.”

The lunatic smacked his lips and rubbed his hands together. “I would love the tea cup, even tea not in a samovar like it is proper to make tea. But after much the miles riding on the forever track through the tunnel it is good to drink tea when is not in a samovar.” He stumbled back to the horse, groped around in a saddlebag, and returned with his own cup. He found the pot, poured hot tea into the cup, and sat to Longwei’s side. “This is good to have the tea cup. I thank you for it and wish you the good.”

Tseng Longwei inclined on a folded blanket propped against a large rock. “You are welcome. And do you wish to share your name and tell me where you are going?”

The lunatic slurped some tea. “This tea is truly of the hottest. Yes, I wish no problem to tell you of my name and the meaning to where I go. My name is Roshan Kuznetsov from Sitka of the north, and I walk on my horse of many miles above the road of tracks from Sacramento to the land of Silver City to find my wealth.”

This statement intrigued Tseng Longwei. “Where is this land where you will find wealth?”

“The land of Silver City?”

“Yes, the land of Silver City. I have not heard of it. Why is it the land of wealth?”

Roshan Kuznetsov finished the hot tea in two blistering gulps. “The land of Silver City is in the land of Idaho very close to the land of Fort Boise. But I am told by the who to turn one day to the left side, and it is hard to find the day.”

“And the wealth?”

“Oh, yes. It is the land of wealth because a man who also walked on his horse on the forever track told me I can pick up the biggest maggots of gold and the silver up from inside the river water when I arrive there in the months to come.”

Tseng Longwei’s interest increased, but also his skepticism. “You have been told of this gold and silver? How do you know it is true? There are always stories of gold and silver you can pick up with your hands without doing any work. I have heard these stories myself, but I have not yet found a reason to believe any of them.”

Roshan grinned, but Longwei could not see the grin in the darkness. “The man who said of the biggest of maggots in Silver City is the man who walked on the horse and said of my turn to the left some day when I find the day.”

Longwei kneaded the back of his leg. A Chinaman sleeping a few feet away coughed. “If I understand you, only one man told you all you know about Silver City? This is the extent of your knowledge?”

“No, he is the one man who walked on the horse. The story is arrived at other men who did not walk on the horse. But of this I do not think you are of concern. Are you glad to hear the gold and silver in the land of Silver City? I hear of pleasure in the voice of your words.”

Tseng Longwei speculated on the consequences of his next words. “Yes, I am interested in what you say. My work on the Central Pacific Railroad will end soon, and I must find other work to keep myself occupied. It is possible I may decide to travel to this Silver City, even if I do not fully trust you to know what you are talking about.”

Roshan Kuznetsov rolled onto his knees and stood. His back creaked. “Wait here, my newest of the friend. I must seek of something only my horse is know of.” Roshan successfully traversed the clutter of sleeping men to his horse and back without stepping on anyone. He plopped into a seated position and scooted his rump across the dry prairie ground. “We must drink of the vodka to celebrate the beginning of our friendly before we turn to the left side on the right day to the land of Silver City where there will big maggots to be, as you said, you can pick up with your hands without doing any of work.” Roshan poured vodka into each of two glasses he had also fetched from somewhere on his horse and handed one to Tseng Longwei. The campfire glinted in the swirling liquid of Roshan’s glass when he raised it up.

Longwei accepted the glass with a query. “Are you proposing a partnership?”

Roshan chuckled. “No, I am proposing vodka to celebrate our friendship on our travel to the left turn on the right day, where we are wealthy to the both of us.”

Longwei’s tone suggested apprehension. “I see. And what is it each of us brings to our travel to the left turn on the right day?”

Roshan reached out in the darkness and clicked Longwei’s glass. “It is of the simple. You bring the best English to tell people of what I say of the land of Silver City, and I bring the knowledge which we must turn to the left side when I find the right day.”

Longwei swiftly considered his options before clicking Roshan’s glass in return. “Yes, I will travel with you to Silver City as your business partner to seek great wealth.”

Roshan announced, “Hah!” then tossed the vodka into his mouth. “It is of goodly news you say to travel with Roshan to the land of Silver City. I overjoyed myself with the thought. If you say it is yes, we walk on our horses in the fast of morning.”

Longwei tasted his vodka. “I do say yes, but we cannot leave tomorrow. I have signed a contract with the Central Pacific Railroad, and I must first finish my work on the tracks. We can leave when I have fulfilled my obligation.”

Roshan rested the empty glass on his knee. “We wait to the end of the railroad? How much days for the end? The gold is arriving in the water now.”

“I don’t know, but I will not leave until the railroad is finished.”

Roshan Kuznetsov had grown fond of his new business partner, and decided the best course was to wait. “Good. I wait for the railroad to the end. Then we walk the same on our horses to the land of Silver City.”

Tseng Longwei, unexpectedly elated with his new opportunity, finished his vodka in two rapid gulps and stretched out his hand. “Also good. Then we shake on it.”

“Yes, we shake on it, and it is the deal.”

The new business partners shook hands vigorously in the gloom shortly after midnight. A white-faced barn owl clinging to one of the few surviving branches near the perimeter of the encampment screeched its approval.

♦ ♦ ♦

Early in the morning of May 10, 1869 (nearly two weeks after Roshan Kuznetsov and Tseng Longwei had arranged their unusual business partnership), the Union Pacific Number 119 locomotive travelled to within a hundred feet of the opposing Central Pacific Railroad locomotive—the word “JUPITER” emblazoned on the side of the tender—and squealed metal-on-metal to a standstill. Dozens of railroad dignitaries, including Central Pacific Railroad President Leland Stanford and Union Pacific Railroad Vice-President T. C. Durant, stepped off the platforms of special cars trailing behind each locomotive and merged into the already-waiting-decidedly-peculiar crowd of Irish and Chinese laborers, Mormons, Army officers (a few with wives), frontiersmen, Mexicans, buffalo hunters, Indians, mule skinners, camp followers, and even a couple of eastern bankers. The dignitaries and their entourage marched through the multitude of over 500 onlookers until they arrived at the spot chosen for the final tie. The two superintendents of construction, Strowbridge of the Central Pacific and Reed of the Union Pacific, carried that final tie—fabricated of polished California laurel with a commemorative silver plate nailed to the center—to the appointed spot and waited. After a reverend from Massachusetts offered a lengthy prayer of thanks, Tseng Longwei smoothed the ground with a square-ended shovel, the superintendents dropped the tie in place, and the last two iron rails were installed.

Tseng Longwei retreated into the crowd when Vice-President T. C. Durant strutted forward to drive a spike of gold, silver, and iron from Arizona and a spike of silver from Nevada. Two mule skinners and an Irishman shoved in front of Longwei and blocked his vision of the historic proceedings. Longwei heard the sharp metallic clang of hammer on spike and the cheers from the men around him but failed to see anything. He dropped to his knees and crawled between a U.S. Army Lieutenant and the wife’s frilly dress just in time to witness a man hand a spike of California gold to President Leland Stanford. Longwei tried to stand, but the excited crowd shoved him backwards and he fell to the ground. Again he heard the clang of hammer on spike and the cheers but did not observe the momentous event. The crowd surged forward. Tseng Longwei turned and trudged away. When he arrived at the rear of the dispersing multitude, he felt two brisk taps on his shoulder.

Roshan crossed his arms impatiently. “Do you see of the spike of the last gold as you wished in spite of you?”

Tseng Longwei dropped his head and focused on the toes of Roshan’s dusty boots. “I did not see it. My view was blocked by too many people.”

Roshan harrumphed indifferently. “Then can we leave about time for the land of Silver City in the Land of Idaho when you are now the ready?”

Longwei considered the significance of the two opposing steam engines one last time. “Truly, it is time to go.”