This story makes reference to several previous stories in the Hackamore universe, with which it would be helpful to have at least a little familiarity - principally (in order) Hackamore 1- Benedictus, Hackamore 3 - Fancy Dan and Hackamore 12 - Trade Secrets.
Also I've played a little fast and loose with Charles Nordhoff's journey to California and his articles for Harper's magazine. He probably took the Transcontinental in very early 1872 - I've moved his journey to the spring of 1870, to fit the Lancer timeline.
If there was one universally accepted truth in the newspaper business, it was that Henry M. Alden (and heaven help you if you ever forgot that 'M') wouldn't know a good joke if it bit him on the posterior.
Not that the said joke would get much of a mouthful, mind you. Alden was thin and ascetic and didn't have much of a posterior to bite, his sparse frame mirroring that sparser jocularity. And Großer Gott! but the man's good humour was so meagre as to be lacking entirely. More than once when Charles had been particularly cheerful and out of sheer benevolence was spreading the bonhomie around the office, Alden had peered at him over half moon spectacles, eyes round with astonishment and affront. It was usually enough to dampen Charles's good spirits.
No, there was no mistaking Alden had no sense of humour at all. It was doubtful the man ever laughed.
So Alden striding up and down his tiny office, windmilling with his arms and sweeping everything before him, had to be sincere in offering Charles the trip of a lifetime. The moon would fall out of the sky before the man found the wit and ingenuity to play a prank of this magnitude.
But a three-month long assignment to explore California? All expenses paid? It had to be a joke.
"Are you serious, Henry?"
Charles dived to rescue a set of proofs that took flight in the wake of Alden's passing. The flimsy galleys fluttered under his fingers as he smoothed out the wrinkles. He stacked the papers neatly on the corner of Alden's desk.
Alden made an abrupt turn at the fireplace and strode back. "I'm always serious."—something Charles had worked out for himself, thank you—"You're going to California on the new Transcontinental Railroad. As I said, all expenses paid. That means first class travel, the best hotels, excursions and visits... everything that the discerning tourist would like to see and do, you will see and do it. And a reasonable living allowance, of course."
"Of course," agreed Charles.
Alden came to a halt in front of Charles and rocked on his heels, smiling. "We're looking for a series of lead articles that will be the main features of the magazine for several months." He held up a hand and, with the air of a man conferring unprecedented favour, added, "With illustrations."
Well, of course with illustrations. The main articles of Harper's Monthly Magazine were always illustrated; lavishly so, and often to the detriment of the prose. That wasn't much of an inducement. Still, Charles managed a hearty "Splendid!"
"Perhaps there's even a book in this, Charles." Alden's smile broadened. The earnest innocence of the man fairly shone out of him, a sort of childlike naiveté. Some days he seemed too unworldly to cross the street in safety, much less edit New York's finest, most prestigious magazine.
And thinking of the magazine... maybe Alden was serious, but surely Harper's wouldn't pay for a trip like that? Of course, if anyone deserved a plum assignment, then Charles Frederick Nordhoff was the man. After all, he was the best journalist on staff. But Charles had looked into the costs of travelling to San Francisco when the Transcontinental railroad had first opened for business the previous year. Unless a man wanted to travel in the emigrant cars—which Charles most decidedly did not—the total had him gaping and reaching for a nip of brandy. Purely restorative, of course, as he'd told Mrs Nordhoff at the time. Mrs Nordhoff had merely sniffed.
"The railroad's very new, of course, but it's already the chief way that we're opening up the West." And Alden was off again, arms waving to add emphasis. "Emigrants leave on the trains every day. But we want to encourage a better class of traveller to use the railroad for pleasure. A series of articles extolling the journey and the delights of California will help entice the more genteel travelling public to use the route to explore our own great nation instead of frivolling away their time and dollars in Europe. The United States broke with Albion a century ago—why should good Americans continue to pay homage with their hard-earned dollars?"
The proofs were swept off the desk again. Charles missed the catch this time and the papers showered over the floor. Not that it mattered. It wasn't anything he'd written. He picked up the pages he could easily reach and dropped them back onto the desk any-old-how, wedging them into place under couple of books. "Who are 'we'?"
"The editorial board has reached an accommodation with the railroad companies. It's a very generous arrangement. Your expenses for the journey will be met in full, and not only to San Francisco and back. They've also granted you the time and funds to explore some of the attractions of California."
Well that accounted for a lot. If this was being subsidised by the railroad companies desperate to drum up business, then maybe it wasn't an elaborate practical joke but a real and (it had to be admitted) exciting opportunity. But California? What was there in California other than old missions and played-out gold mines? "There are some attractions then, for me to extol?"
Alden gave him the sort of pitying smile that men bestowed on precocious, but errant, grandsons. "Many. Six months would perhaps not be too long to see everything, but we have our limits. For all that, you'll have time to see a wide range of places. San Francisco, for example, is a bustling and thriving city and the countryside around it is unparalleled. Sacramento and Stockton are growing rapidly and have their own attractions. Farther south, you have—" Alden's hands twitched and he frowned. "Well, I'm sure you have something. I'm told that the Big Trees at Tulare and Yosemite are not to be missed."
Charles could almost hear those capital letters. "Trees."
Alden's arms waved again. "Big Trees, Charles."
Charles looked down quickly as he fought back the image of Big Trees swaying and ruffling in the wind, every branch wearing sleeves identical to Alden's, complete to the ink stains on the cuffs. There was no point in laughing and explaining. Charles allowed himself a smile, directed at the toes of his shoes for safety's sake, and a "So, California first class, eh? Well, doubtless that makes the Trees all the Bigger, and being American, all the Better."
No, Henry M. Alden had no sense of humour whatsoever. The man just did not understand irony, and sarcasm went right by him without so much as winking and tipping its hat as it passed.
"Quite," said Alden, and beamed.
No one expected to work regular office hours in a newspaper room. Getting off early 'in search of a story' was one of the few perks of the job. Well, perhaps the clerks and compositors had to be there at fixed times and ungodly hours, but such trammels were not for the genius who produced the copy. No one noticed, or cared, when Charles left early to share the news at home. Alden, scowling down at a jumbled pile of proofs, didn't even glance up as Charles called a jaunty farewell and hightailed it out of the door.
A cold wind sliced into him as he stepped into the street, blowing inland up the East River and laden with rain. It took him by surprise after the close heat from the stoves indoors. Wasn't California reputed to be warm? That was an added attraction to extol to readers still shivering as the tag end of a glacial northern winter gave way to a raw spring. It certainly attracted Charles.
He huddled into his overcoat, turning up the collar against the trickles of chilly water dripping from his hat brim. His usual stroll home to the Upper West Side became a brisk walk, but he took the time to stop off at a bookstore in Herald Square to buy himself a guidebook for California, if such a thing existed. He was lucky. The Nelson publishing house had just produced one, complete with several rather charming illustrations. He was delighted with it.
His delight wore off a little when he reached home. The expenses didn't run to Mrs Nordhoff and the little Nordhoffs going with him, and Elizabeth, bless her, was eloquent in expressing her opinion of what she called his desertion. Eloquent? She was positively operatic. Charles had been married for more than twelve years, but it was only when he broke the news of his imminent departure that he discovered that she had an impressive upper voice register that hitherto he'd thought restricted to the Queen of the Night. Moreover, she seemed to have an instinctive dislike for trees, no matter what their size and nationality.
"And you an American, born and bred," remonstrated Charles. He glanced at the ceiling and the unmistakable sound of someone using a broom handle to encourage them to reduce the volume. Apartment living might be cheap, but it had its drawbacks. "Perhaps, dear, you could show your lack of interest in arboriculture in a less strident manner?"
Ah, that was unwise. Elizabeth reached new vocal heights, Charles had burnt dinners for a week and his upstairs neighbour cut him dead whenever they met in the lobby of an evening. He had to console himself with reading his guidebook and anything else he could find on California to a constant refrain of Elizabeth's complaints. He was rather glad, in the end, to take his valises and his notebooks, and cross the river to Jersey City to take the Chicago Express, the first stage in a journey that would take him a week. In the cold rain of a raw March dawn, the Transcontinental Railroad awaited him with all its romance and potential and glory.
Elizabeth consented to kiss his cheek when he left, but it was a close run thing.
Jersey City station was damp, chilly and crowded. Charles was spared the full experience there, luckily. As the railroad's favoured traveller, he was wafted past the milling passengers as if by sorcery. Not for him the mad, panicked scramble from the ticket and baggage offices in New York to the ferry and thence to the train. He reached the train comfortably ahead of his fellow travellers, took a tour with the head conductor and was escorted to his seat in the parlour car as the rest of the passengers poured into the station.
A closed stove in one corner made the car pleasantly warm. Charles shed his overcoat and settled into a seat beside the wide window, using a handkerchief to wipe the glass clear of condensation. He put his notebook on the table in front of him, his pen ready. Outside on the open platform huddled the masses, waiting for the signal to board. He looked from group to group, eager to capture them, to sketch their portraits in prose. He couldn't draw a straight line without a ruler and the most precise measurements, but give him a pen and a blank page and words, and then see what he could do!
Ships carrying immigrants arrived in New York almost every day. Most of the new Americans on board were swallowed up by the city's endless hunger for workers, but some escaped the lure and set their eyes on the West. The station was full of immigrants from dozens of countries; families mostly, surrounded by bundles and baggage. Everything they owned appeared to be parcelled up into old valises and trunks or swathed in blankets tied with string and ropes.
It was still raining, a cold drizzle blowing in from the northeast. Most of the passengers endured the wait with shoulders hunched against the cold. A group of men pushed and jostled each other, each defending a little space around his worldly goods and trying to keep his family near. One reached out to snag the arm of a child running past and pulled her into the shelter of his coat. The child laughed, throwing back her head in joy, untouched by the strained anxiety of her elders. Beyond them several men in dark coats and hats stood in a loose circle, their women quiet behind them, heads covered and bowed as they prayed. Brothers, perhaps. They looked very alike. Over to the right, a group of stout, dark women, tucked into shawls and heavy coats and red-faced with cold, shouted shrilly at their offspring. Not that the children cared. They ran and shrieked and laughed, playing amongst the piles of baggage, dodging in and out between the wagons drawn up at the back of the station, and getting too close to the tracks. They fell and tumbled like so many little jesters, bouncing back up again as if they were made from vulcanised rubber and were just as indestructible.
Charles had been fifteen when his father had brought him to America to find a new life. He'd been too old to play like that. The young Karl Friedrich had arrived at the disembarkation wharf so bewildered and excited that he could barely remember enough of his new language to answer to his name when the immigration officials called him. His father's painfully correct English had had to do duty for both of them. He walked out into New York's teeming streets with a new, Americanised version of his name and a head spinning with this new world, his life a whirl of faces and voices, strange accents and languages.
He'd felt like the immigrants must now: apprehensive, uneasy and hopeful, all at once. Like him, they'd be almost too excited to take it all in. They were going on such a great adventure but his own... well, his own had ended in more prosaic places. Not for Charles the wild romance of the West. After a stint at sea, he'd lived in the cities of the Northeast coast, scratching a living with an article here and an article there until he had made his name and reputation as a journalist. He was a man of letters, not action. Sometimes he regretted that.
Maybe he could share a small piece of their adventure now. Of course it wasn't quite the same. He would be travelling in a comfort that rivalled his parlour; they would sit upright for the next seven days while the train – several trains, it would be – rattled west. He'd arrange with the conductor to spend some time in one of the emigrant cars, all the better to describe it for his article; get some local colour. An hour or two should do it. He didn't want to spend the night there. That would be too much colour.
He flipped to the back of his notebook and the notes he'd already made for the opening paragraph for the projected article. A literary allusion or two to start with always went down well. Readers liked to be flattered with the author's assumption that they were cultured and well-read. Hadn't Swift mentioned California somewhere, and with hilarious imprecision about where it was and what it was like? Charles pencilled the name in quickly, with a note to check the reference later.
THOUGH California has been celebrated in books, newspapers, and magazines for more than twenty years, it is really almost as little known to the tourist — a creature who ought to know it thoroughly, to his own delight — as it was to Swift...
Charles chuckled. Good lord, but that was pretentious rubbish! Just as well he'd learned to ignore it. Anyhow, if it came to it, he quite liked bombastic grandiloquence. It amused him.
At ten thirty precisely in the morning of Wednesday, March 23rd 1870, the Chicago Special Express blasted one harsh, triumphant note on its steam whistle and moved slowly away from the platform, heading west.
If it weren't for the people, travel would be a tedious business.
Scenery was all very well, but see one farm and you've seen them all. There was only so much enthusiasm Charles could force for the sight of another herd of cows chewing the cud. But the people now... they were fascinating. Such interesting company to work into his article and maybe for the book he'd write one day, so many odd personalities to weave a tale around. He never could look at a group of people and keep his inner storyteller at bay. Well, if he were honest, he didn't even try. His fellow men were all grist to the authorial mill.
So with an occasional glance out at the rolling New England scenery, he was happy jotting down fragments of description and eavesdropping on murmured conversations, capturing his travelling companions between the notebook's leather covers.
Take the two men in adjoining seats, sitting a little apart from the rest of the passengers. Father and son probably. The elder, hair long and lank, kept his eyes downcast and watched his hands writhe about in his lap. He had scrupulously clean hands, every fingernail beautifully pared and shaped, the fingers long and narrow. An artist's hands or a musician's. Perhaps he—
The murmur of voices near him, fractured by indignation, startled him into looking away from the old man.
"George's behaviour has always been unnatural, and if you had an ounce of maidenly modesty, you'd blush to mention his name. You always had a soft spot for a handsome, sweet-talking fool." The elderly woman seated opposite Charles nodded so briskly that the black lace cap perched on her white hair looked liable to fly off. A widow, then, if her clothes and the exquisite jet collar around her thin neck were any indication. Her companion, a little dab of a woman in a brown velvet hat decorated with a punch of artificial pansies, made some soft protest, fluttering with impotence. "Don't you speak to me, Mattie Spencer, unless it's to apologise! I don't know how you dare have the brass-faced impudence!"
From the look of her, the companion didn't know either. She made a noise like a hen clucking, and her hands lifted and fell again.
Chuckling, Charles pencilled in George's name and a query. Now, what could George have done to deserve such scorn? Embezzled the widow's funds, perhaps. Or forged her name on a bank draft. Or kissed the companion when he thought no-one was looking...
When Charles looked up again, the widow, having vanquished her companion into red-faced incoherence, had lifted her lorgnette to her eye to examine the rest of the car's occupants. She looked grimly pleased with herself, her eyes bright. Her companion gulped and dabbed at her face with a linen handkerchief. The linen was spider-web fine and edged with thread lace. He hadn't expected the drab little companion to have anything so pretty. Above the flounce of lace, Mattie Spencer's faded blue eyes met his and he looked away hastily. He was no good with crying women; Elizabeth could tell them that. Best not get drawn in. The onlooker saw most of the game, after all and the other passengers were the perfect diversion.
The old man's hands still writhed. The younger put one hand, shorter-fingered and squarer, over the old man's to still them, never looking up from the Bible he held in the other. The old man drew a shaky breath, shaking his head. A bereavement, perhaps? Those writhing hands shouted a mute desperation.
Two men in one corner seat carried on a low conversation. Businessmen, going as far as Chicago, Charles gathered. He'd talk to them later, perhaps. The family at the other end of the car had each raised a book to his or her face, not interested in either the scenery or, apparently, each other. All the children wore spectacles and not one of them looked like they knew how to play. The smallest of the two boys raised a hand to shade his eyes from the weak sun slanting in through the windows.
They were all his to use—father and son, businessmen, bookish family, this demanding old woman and the dowdy middle-aged spinster who was at her beck and call. In his head, he could give them names and histories. He could let his imagination paint their stories in the brightest colours, limning each one out as if with the new vivid aniline dyes, the way he'd have to shape them on the page. Like all writers, he was shameless in taking something from each of them. Oh, it was nothing they'd ever miss or even know about, but essential to help him fashion the characters that he hoped would one day make his literary fortune.
Charles jumped, startled for the second time in as many minutes as the widow claimed his attention, this time with an imperious poke from the long handle of her silver lorgnette. She gave him another of those decisive nods when he faced her. Her eyes, still a clear bright hazel, had an amused glint to them. Beside her little Mattie Spencer looked washed out and worn down, as if all the mirth in her employer (mother? wondered Charles. Aunt?) came at her expense. The widow smiled at him, an improbable dimple at the corner of her mouth. He didn't know if she had been a beautiful woman in her youth, but in old age she had a vivacity that charmed. Well, it charmed him, but it was quite possible that the companion didn't share his appreciation. She looked too downtrodden for that.
He bowed slightly, smiled back, and made a sort of flourish with his free hand. "Can I be of service, Madam?"
All she wanted him to do was get her wrap from the overhead locker where this fool Mattie Spencer put it. She should have known I'd need it but she's bird-witted. Always was and always will be! A small service, and one that he performed willingly, and with the ice broken, he and the widow were cosily confidential before the train had puffed its way along more than a couple of miles of track. Charles spent the morning listening, fascinated, to a life story that put most novels to shame while poor Mattie Spencer fluttered and fussed beside them.
Sadly, he never did find out what George did.
He changed trains in Chicago. When he stumbled down the car steps onto the platform and turned to offer the widow the support of his arm, all Charles could see were the dark shapes of buildings set against a slightly lighter sky. Chicago was a damnably gloomy place with the evening fog rolling in from the lake.
He handed the widow and Mattie over to the middle-aged son awaiting them, bowing over her hand in a way that had that dimple showing and Mattie Spencer fluttering, before taking his leave and collecting his valises. He didn't bother exploring the city, although he had the evening before him. He was too tired to think of anything but dinner and bed. He headed for the Sherman hotel—he'd been promised the best and the best he would have!—longing for a bed that didn't shake with every lurch of the train. He wasn't disappointed there. The Sherman didn't shake and the bed was comfortable, and if he missed Elizabeth beside him, he comforted himself with a hearty breakfast the next morning before setting off for the station belonging to the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad. The streets were as crowded and dirty as Manhattan and his cab made slow progress. It was a relief to reach the train. He spent the day alternately speculating about his fellow travellers and watching the landscape change as they ran southwest to Omaha to pick up the true Transcontinental railroad.
The dining car was crowded that evening. The head waiter greeted Charles with a ceremonial bow, but was quite unceremonious in pushing him into a seat at one of the smaller tables. Charles barely had time to unfold his copy of Harper's latest edition to glower at a preposterous article on Bolivar by that fool, Eugene Lawrence, before the waiter was back, herding an elegant young man before him.
"There's a space here, sir." And the waiter had deposited the young man into a seat opposite Charles before either could draw breath. Charles didn't quite see the waiter trip the man and hook his feet out from under him, but it wouldn't have surprised him.
The young man's thin-lipped mouth twitched into a smile. "My apologies, sir. It seems they're a little over-run this evening."
Charles folded away the magazine—why did Alden keep that hack, Lawrence, on staff? The man's prose was positively banal—and took off his spectacles. "It's of no account, sir. Please don't apologise. We may have had worse dining companions thrust upon us, after all."
Pale blue eyes glanced sideways at the very large family that was taking up far more tables than it could possibly be due. The expression in them was more horrified than impressed. The young man's smile broadened. "Very true, sir. Very true."
Charles laughed. He'd seen this young man in the breakfast parlour at the Sherman and in the railroad car throughout the day, although they'd done no more than exchange polite nods. Charles introduced himself with a hearty handshake and the observation that "At Chicago, the journey to California really begins."
"Do you think so?" The young man accepted the proffered hand and smiled. "Scott Lancer, sir, of Boston."