Thursday, March 12, 2020
Antecedent: Gold Hill and Virginia City, Part I
Good Day, Fiction Forge Indy Followers
I am still writing my Western that I had mentioned in a couple of posts (see B Street, Virginia City, NV). I am providing a chapter that is written in the form of a Preface, of sorts, although the story is well on its way by the time this chapter comes along (hence, the Antecedent). Please feel free to comment! Here is Part 1 of a two-parter:
Antecedent: Gold Hill and Virginia City, February 1871
He should have known of her unhappiness by the time they left the valley. As if the fear of stage coach robberies from Reno to Carson City were not unsettling enough, the railroad trip up to Gold Hill was one of fright and torture. The Virginia and Truckee rail from Carson City to Virginia City ascended too quickly for their likes and hugged too closely the sides of the mountain as it rocked its passengers back and forth as they circled up the slope. Of course, the newly laid track was far worse than any they had experienced since Salt Lake City. Rolling up along the edge of this barren land made the rails feel less secure and the steaming iron horse's endeavor to stay on it questionable.
“Did little boys lay down this foolish path? With their toy train set?” Lillian exclaimed holding on, of all things, to her hat.
She had a fair analogy. But, to Alastair, what was worse than the crooked railway that seemed to circle back upon itself and its frightening tunnels (Evelyn screaming as they entered everyone one of them); the environs of this desolate state left Alastair feeling uninspired and questioning his own judgement in removing his family westward from their safe and most civilized home in Chicago. Nevada was primitive, stark, and rugged; the vagueness unnecessarily absolute. Miles of depressing stumps of what looked to be once a mighty forest dotted the hills like grave markers. Abandoned mines and their pilings looked like giant ant hills, and derelict shacks that wouldn’t have been fit to be outhouses had coal smoke billowing from their thin furnace pipes. With each pull of the train engine up the moonscape that was Mt. Davidson, Alastair felt a foreboding of what awaited them at the summit in a town strangely called Virginia.
“Oh, why couldn’t we have stayed in Carran’s City?” Lillian mumbled.
“Carson City.” he corrected her with a grin. She didn’t hear him -- or she effectively ignored him.
More tester mines. More shacks. More turns of the rail and looking away from the window. But, he couldn’t for long. He could now see for dozens of miles out below. For as primitive as this high desert appeared, the entire area had been disturbed and extracted and trekked upon. The upturned land made it all too real that symbolism of Man’s nightmarish industrious nature and ingenuity to cut, saw, erect, dig, extract, discard, and forever exhaust anything that lies in the path of Man’s greed. The wasteland all around made for want of a restart; a re-seeding of nature -- to correct a wrong and heal an open wound with the salve of nature’s green or the scrubbing by a thunderstorm. Nevada was want for recovery with deep, meandering rivers and wetlands, green broad leaves, or even tall prairie grasses and landscapes which were alive and horizontal and near sea level and...normal. Even the Washoe Lake was too thin, too fragile to be considered a true oasis. And, what of that giant lake he had been told about, Lake Bigler? “The cleanest, clearest, deepest water in the West” that could rival a Great Lake? Such a place sounded unreal to him and more a fable than fact.
“I can see right down to the bottom, Dad!” Seán had exclaimed in a wheeze; his asthma not quite going away since the night before, but thankfully, not getting worse.
Alastair was more astonished than amused when looking down at the Washoe as the sun’s reflection broke near the shore. “Most unfortunate.” He acknowledged, gently patting his son’s back. “No doubt, it dries up in summer.” For, what could keep it from soaking into the thirsty desert, or subliming to the ether?
“Dad. I hope we don’t roll off the edge. I can’t see the --”
“Seán. Sweetheart.” Alastair warned and then whispered into his ear, “Best not get your Mum and sister --”
“Dad, please. Don't call me sweetheart. We're in public. Oh no, look Dad. Another tunnel.”
Another ear-shattering scream from Evelyn. Alastair closed his eyes and hoped this was the last of the tunnels. “Oh, this is a nightmare!” Lillian exclaimed, pulling Evelyn onto her lap and bracing her and sinking further into her seat.
Yet, Alastair was just as spooked as her. Did she not see it? They all more or less held their breaths for the fifteen mile trek. Did she look at him at all?
No. She's questioning my soundness.
And, so was he. Only when the buildings of Gold Hill and its working mines and buildings of commerce and the dozens of house rooftops came into view did they relax.
“So, we’ve reached an end?" Lillian exclaimed, "And not our end? The boys must have used up all of their tracks." She stretched to look out the window for the first time. "Please tell me we’re able to walk the rest of the way.”
Unfortunately not. They had to transfer to a carriage that would take them from Gold Hill to Virginia City, “… Just over the Divide. Ain’t long.” claimed one of the brakemen before he poured himself some coffee from a pot set up at the station.
"I bet he's got himself a fine pot of salted pork and beans." Lillian scorned, more to herself.
"Lil. We've made it. Look at all of this amazing stuff!"
"Amazing you say? Huh. The only thing amazing is that we survived this preposterous ride. You know what they say: Tis a long road that has no turning. I had so many turns on this iron horse that I long to be dragged through the straight and narrow. And now we have some divide to get over?"
Lillian’s concern must have grown with every block as she no doubt expected to bear the burden of yet another great expanse of emptiness between the two cities on some divide. Certainly, Alastair was concerned for her. Yet, no such expanse came as they discovered the Gold Hill scene was repeated with one-bit saloons and stamping ore mills and beer fermenters with their burnt barley and smoke stinging the eyes -- all cuddling the same mountain slope and blurring the two cities into one.
“Stinky.” Evelyn remarked, holding her mitten over her nose.
“It’s the lager.” Seán explained, his eyes glued on the scenes passing by at a steady rate.
“Like Dad’s wiver.”
“Canal.” Seán corrected her as he wiped the fog from his window and watched in amazement the wondrous industrial municipality of a kind he did not seen since Chicago. Alastair took note of his son’s excitement, for he shared his curiosity and awe at the steam-laden, noise-riddled commotion. This place was, indeed, terrible - but terribly fantastic, just the same!
The carriage now made frequent stops due to the traffic and often without warning, hurling the family and personal belongings into the other’s knees and laps and Lillian’s huffing and puffing grew louder -- until it fell silent, having sunk into the simmering cauldron of one of Lillian’s moods that Alastair and, no doubt, Seán understood quite well. Thankfully, one of those stops lasted a good fifteen minutes giving everyone time to recuperate, and the family had nothing to do but listen in on conversations outside the carriage and hear the constant booms of the stamping mills echoing in the valley mountain as both Alastair and Seán rubbed the glass regularly of breath fog to catch a face or a passing carriage and to try to guess if the odd looking ‘bridge’ they could just see north of them was actually...finished and usable.
“Let’s hope not.” Seán declared as he stretched in his seat to look for any evidence.
Despite the clatter and noise of the mining town, Evelyn had no trouble falling asleep on Lillian’s lap as Lillian trailed her fingers through her hair and Lillian, herself, had closed her eyes and slumped into the corner of her seat. Yet, far from being sedated or bored, Alastair and Seán watched in awe as a train engine suddenly took to that tallest and flimsiest looking wooden trestle over the small, yet perspectively deep valley to Virginia City.
“Incredible!” Alastair exclaimed. It was a good thing, he added, that passenger trains were not allowed to take it. “Who could do so without fainting? Lillian!” Alastair, in his momentary lapse of judgement, nudged Lillian awake from her doldrums. “You must see this. What’s your best guess as to its height?”
Lillian shushed him and waved the whole scene off; not even bothering to open her eyes. “Salted pork and beans.” She mumbled; a curse of hers since Omaha, spurred by the terrible food served at the watering stations along the way; a curse that lost its meaning except to say: Nothing is worth this misery...nothing could be better than Chicago.
“Please, Lil. Let’s not judge our destination too quickly. I mean… ,” Alastair’s attention returned to the window, “out of nowhere, there’s a thriving… magnificent city of amazing industry.”
“And saloons.” Seán added with a wink at his dad who did not appreciate the addition.
“Oh dear God, help us all.” Lillian responded, ungluing Alastair and Seán from their trestle fascination and raising some concern for a few moments before he and Seán returned to their study of Man’s latest accomplishments.
As the carriage jutted forward once again was on the move, Alastair overheard two men crossing the street just then that an arsonist was terrorizing the cities. And by the looks of the new construction, he could easily see how a loose flame could render everything back to ash. Did they worry about landslides, too? Many of the houses coming into view were perched on slopes and one or two stories facing the street, yet actually built to three or four stories higher on the backside of the drop! One would think a single, unsound footing could send a house collapsing down the slope and into another. Terrifying heights all around.
Seán, momentarily forgetting his mother hated everything about this move to Nevada, grabbed his mother on the knee to get her to witness this bizarre American town. Lillian slapped his hand away, but even she gave in and looked out. She shook her head in disbelief and seemed genuinely perplexed. But after a few traffic stops, she gave up looking out altogether, preferring to bury herself in a week’s old Omaha newspaper, the last of a stack of newspapers that she had already read on the train as they were crossing the continent.
However the nuisances of that bizarre stretch of Gold Hill and Virginia City, Lillian’s mood changed for the better once they came to their new house on a street called ‘B’. A white, two-story sat alone on the corner and seemed to have only a blacksmith shop and butcher’s across the street as well as a livery stable to share the cross street. The house was newly built; the paint was bright, and the house looked impressive against the backdrop of dreary brown and gray Mt. Davidson. Although furnished with a sitting porch, the house was half a size smaller than their Chicago house and less charming to be sure, yet was fitting for their class; perhaps opulent in comparison with the other houses further up the street. And their house had luxuries the other houses lacked, such as an iron fence, stained glass trimming the front picture window, and a secured mail box. The yard was actually larger than their Chicago home, fitting for a good-sized vegetable garden and roses… if such things could grow in this strange climate and its seemingly scrubby, dry, sandy-clay soil. Yet, that was wishful thinking.
“Huh. What’s this?” Lillian muttered as she studied a handful of near frozen soil, then crushed it and watched the grains take flight in the cold wind. “Even the Devil couldn’t grow a thicket of thorns here.”
Part II will be posted Saturday