I don't own Hell on Wheels or any of the characters created by Joe and Tony Gayton.
The train shuddered as it crossed the Livingston Avenue Bridge. Nora pressed her forehead against the cool glass of her train car, closing her eyes, feeling the vibrations of the train; it rattled her lungs in her chest. She'd grown accustomed to that rattling during the three day journey. And now her journey neared its end; the Livingston crossed the Hudson. Her father described this bridge to her, when she was young; one of the only bridges that took western trains into New York across the Hudson River.
The day before, Nora had chosen to sit in another passenger car with several ladies chatting pleasantly. She discreetly listened to their conversations before turning to ask them about the city. Nora told them about her journey, her quest to find her uncle. She described her mother's work as a teacher at the small Presbyterian school on the Hudson. One of the women knew the small building, it had been converted into a small church, providing weekly services; there was a small boarding house nearby, where Nora could seek lodging; it was owned by a woman widowed during the war.
Nora had thanked them, and returned to the other cabin, silent, except for the occasional snores of the heavily mustached man sitting to her left; Nora stifled a laugh with a cough when he did this. This man's snoring kept the anxious feelings Nora felt at bay. What would her Uncle Declan say? Would he be bereft to hear of his brother's death in the war; fallen at the battle of Gettysburg. Perhaps he would resent his brother fighting for the Confederacy, perhaps Declan was on the field that day, fighting for the Union. Nora pictured a dramatic scene, the literal representation of the concept of 'brother fighting brother'. She felt ridiculous; it was unlikely Declan fought, he lived, he owned a townhome on Orange Street, which sounded pleasant enough. How desperate could his circumstance be?
Her father refused to speak of his brother. What if they had parted in anger? She and her brother had always suspected there was bad blood between the Boelter men, but dared not ask. Perhaps Declan would take pity on her in the face of such loss. Perhaps he'd have a wife and children, Nora smiled at the thought of cousins she'd never met; young girls whose hair she could braid, older boys whose flirtatious friends would bring her oranges and pears in exchange for a peck on the cheek.
She stared down at the small scrap of paper the Swede had handed her several days before. The tear stained paper held no evidence to frighten or encourage Nora as she neared the city. If only he'd been a bit more thorough in his research she would have known what she was getting herself into. She felt the bitterness burn in the back of her throat. That cruel man sent her away, without so much as a goodbye, for merely questioning him. He had the nerve to tell her whom she could and could not speak with, felt no guilt allowing a man to be strung up for nothing more than the color of his skin.
Whatever she was to face in New York City could be no worse than what she'd left behind in Hell on Wheels.
Nora knocked against the paneled blue door. The white house on the Hudson looked dainty near all of the docks and tall ships. A woman balancing a red faced, screaming child answered. Her forehead was sweaty and her hair mussed. Before Nora could tell her she was looking to rent a room for the night, the woman ushered her in and slammed the door shut, announcing that it'd be thirty cents for the evening. She approached the stairs and Nora fumbling with her bag, followed closely behind. Handing over the money as the woman pointed down the hall "Number four". As Nora took the stairs the woman turned to scream at two rowdy children that had just come running through the front hallway.
Nora's room was clean and plain. It reminded her of the Swede's caboose: little adornment on the walls, linen bedding like his. She took off her hat, and sat heavily on the bed, heaving a sigh of relief, enjoying the stillness of the room, dreading the afternoon walk to her uncle's townhouse. She wished she felt excitement to be reunited with family, her only family. She thought she should feel anticipation, but she could not shake the heavy feeling in her stomach. It was a quarter past one, she would have to visit him this afternoon. She could not justify paying for two nights' stay in the boardinghouse if she had an uncle in the city, who would have gladly taken her into his home. It would be rude and unseemly of her to refuse such hospitality to instead stay alone across the city.
Nora ventured into the street outside the boarding house. The sky was grey, or perhaps it only looked grey because she could hardly see the clouds between the tall buildings. She had never seen such tall buildings. Richmond's stately Antebellum buildings could not compare to these industrial monstrosities. She walked along the cobbled streets until she saw a black cab she could hail. She stepped inside and handed the driver her now wrinkled scrap of paper. He eyed the address slowly, turned to look her up and down, clicked his tongue, and shook his head. "Orange it is'".
The cab winded through streets that became increasingly narrow, the light seemed to be squeezed out of these alleyways. Heaps of trash lining the alleys seemed to move of their own accord, and Nora covered her mouth to stifle a gasp when a small head poked out of one of the piles. It was a child, black from soot, ash, or dirt, she couldn't decipher. Her dark blue dress was brighter than any other patch of color she saw in the neighborhood. The driver slowed the horse. "Orange Street, Miss".
Nora shakily pressed a coin into his hand. He gripped her wrist before she could turn for the door. "Best not be in the Five Points past dark, Miss". She nodded and stepped out of the cab, nearly missing a murky puddle, the stench of the street burned her nostrils.
She gripped her scrap of paper tighter than before, tight enough to tear it. Women with heavily painted faces leered at her, these women were covered in bruises, Nora had to look at her shoes when she notice one woman nearby with an irritated bite mark on one of her shoulders. Many of the women had large scabs and healing wounds on their faces, broken teeth and bloody lips. There were men lying in the street, several of them still gripping empty bottles, several missing limbs. The legless and armless men, veterans of the bloody war, leered and whispered threats as she stepped over them, nearly tripping on a few of them.
Her hands shook as she clenched her teeth, trying to ignore the stench, fear slowing her steps. She neared the building with the address matching the one scratched on her piece of paper. She wondered what the Swede would think of this hell he'd sent her to. Would he be happy now? She pushed the door open slowly and looked up the narrow staircase, she could see the flickering of light against the banister, there was a candle lit in a room to the left of the stairs.
"Hello?" She called up the stairs. "Mr. Boelter?"
A man peered out from the room. "Eh?"
She stammered, "Ehm… excuse me, sir. Are you Declan Boelter. That is, are you the brother of Isham Boelter?"
The man let out a wicked laugh, and motioned Nora up the stairs with a carless wave. He turned his back and walked back into the room. She walked carefully up the stairs, avoiding the loose boards, and patches where the wood had rotted through.
She stepped into the small room with the candle. The man was pouring two drinks, stale smelling alcohol, into tin cups. The smell of which hung heavy in the air. The man was tall and dark, dark eyes, and a grey grizzled beard. He looked nothing like her pale father, with his fair hair and fair eyes. He was missing his left hand, Nora attempted not to stare; the memory of her 'brother fighting brother' reverie returned to her.
"Sit, girl. Don't shake so. You're safer in here than you are anywhere else in this slum."
Nora cleared her throat. "I'm not afraid." He looked over his drink mockingly.
"Isham Boelter. Been years since I heard that name." Nora noted his accent. It didn't sound like her fathers, the lilt was different, but he had a distinct accent.
"My father. Your brother? Are you Declan Boelter?"
"Aye. Declan. Boelter" He laughed.
"How's your dear, Ol' Da?"
"Dead. He died at Gettysburg." The man stilled his hands on the bottle as he prepared to pour a second drink.
"Dead. And your Mum?"
"My brother Joshua was taking his wife and children and my mother and I with him west. We were attacked by raiding Cheyenne. They were killed in the attack. I survived and spent several weeks in a railroad camp. I've come because you're all the family I have."
The man shook his head hard. He stood from the table and walked to the dusty window. To Nora's shock, the man began to laugh.
"Oh my, Isham. You always were a bastard."
Nora stood. And prepared to run for the door. It was apparent as soon as she exited the cab that this had been a mistake.
"My girl, you've been a fright misled, I'm afraid."
"I don't understand."
"Naw, and why would you? Sit. Sit down. I won' bite ye"
Nora sat stock straight in her chair, hands folded primly in her lap.
Declan stared hard at her until she felt her cheeks begin to burn and she broke the intense eye contact. He emptied his cup and filled it again. He looked expectantly at her, and she took a small sip, trying not to wince at the taste. He laughed at her again.
"Aye. Awful swill. You'll want to empty the bottle when I finish tellin' ya, what I'm about te'".
"I'm afraid I don't understand."
"You're the daughter of a conman and a whore, Darlin'"
Nora nearly dropped her cup on the table. She stood quickly, straightening her dress. "I'm afraid coming here was a mistake, sir. My father was a humble man, of simple means, but Isham Boelter worked hard every day of his life and died with honor-"
"Aye. No doubt Isham Boelter did. But your Da didn't. Isham Campbell stole and swindled every day I knew him. It took a sweet piece to turn him right, and he weren't humble or simple, Darlin'. You're presence here is evidence of that."
Nora swallowed hard, tears blurring her vision as she held her chin high and nodded for the man across the table to go on.
"I aint your Da's brother. My name is Anderson. Declan Anderson, your Da, Isham Campbell and I were grave robbin' as boys in Edinburough for the medical college there. Good coin for that business, but they started stringin' up grave robbers, an' so we decided to take our chances west. Journey to the 'New World' as it were. We robbed brothers fresh off a boat down at the docs. Named Boelter; took them papers, boarded a ship, and came to New York City. We worked here in the Five Points, odd jobs and such, few fights here and there. We lived with the Irishmen in a townhouse like this. Thirty to a room then, it was."
He shook his head with a grin. Nora felt sick.
"Isham an' I had a good business goin', odd jobs for the bosses here. Even worked for 'The Butcher' once. He gave all that up for your Mum, he did. She was a whore from the west end. She'd learned to talk like a lady by laying with influential men there. Turned your father's head with that fancy talk, she did. Isham wanted to go straight, so he and Anne planned to move to Richmond, where her people came from. We fought like mad, I told him he were a fool to leave what it had taken us so long to set up. He loved Anne more than he ever loved the money we stood to make".
Nora sat in silence. Tears streaming down her cheeks, splashing into the whiskey she gripped with now shaking hands.
Seeing her despair the man reached across the table to still her hand. She studied his fingers, bandaged, dirty, nails black. She pulled her hand away slowly. "Thank you for your time, Mr. Boe- Mr. –"
"Anderson. Declan Anderson."
"Thank you, Mr. Anderson. I'll be leaving."
"Take a cab back to wherever you come from, don't walk out there." Nora nodded shakily and stepped away from the table, her unfinished drink, and the reality she wasn't ready to face. She nearly tumbled down the stairs she took them with such speed. Once outside, she grasped the sticky stone wall of the townhouse and felt her knees giving way. Gasping sobs wracked her body. The reality of her predicament hit her hard. She remembered her mother's loving smile, her father's kind eyes, his prickly bearded face, his throaty laugh, her mother's cracked hands, her gentle voice. Nora remembered the last time she saw her father, her mother's shaking voice filled with fury, "what do you know about honor, Isham Boelter?!" Even his name was a lie. Her name.
She brushed past the limbless men gripping and pulling on her skirts as she passed, she pushed by the painted whores, she chased a cab and headed for the boardinghouse. She couldn't still her shaking chest, slow her rapid breathing. It seemed the horror of the loss she'd been running from for weeks had finally found her, in her moment of weakness the pain she'd been hiding from settled solidly on her chest.
She cried all night long. The sun rose, and light shined through her window, illuminating her shaking body, still clad in her blue dress, mud from the Five Points still caked on the frayed hem. She walked back to the train station. She bought a ticket. Took it in her shaking hands, and sat down in an empty train car.
There was only one place should could go. She was changed. She could survive anything now.