About the Hackamore series

This story references the events iof several of the previous Hackamore stories, principally Hackamore 1 - Benedictus, Hackamore 2 - 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.





Hackamore 13 : CALIFORNIA


Chapter One

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.

What the—?

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."



Chapter Two

Life on the railroad was like being in a hothouse where plants were thrust into swift growth; a place where the normal careful nurturing with water and minerals, the slow cycle of light and dark, and sun and rain, were abandoned for the pressures of a constant heat and a certain humidity; a place for forcing an early start to tender plants started from seed. Charles wasn't much of a gardener, but he understood the value of the hothouse in propagating and experimenting with new plants and varieties.

In the case of the train, it was acquaintanceships that seeded themselves quickly and were pushed into an early flowering. The trick would be knowing which to cultivate and which to allow to wither on the vine.

Lancer's manners were those of a gentleman. He couldn't be more than twenty-five, but he had all the assurance of someone who'd been 'out' in society all his life. Without doubt, a scion of some Boston Brahmin family—a side-shoot maybe since Charles didn't recognise the name—Lancer was rich, leisured and languid, affable and sociable. But more to the point, he was well educated and well read. They discussed art and music and by the time that they had roamed over the theatre, poetry (Lancer had read Goethe while at Harvard, a definite point in his favour) and the modern novel, they found that they had a lot in common despite the difference in age. Young Mr Lancer would make an amusing and sympathetic travelling companion. He was certainly an intelligent one.

They had dissected the modern novelists, with some pithy observations on the best and worst of them, when Lancer asked the pertinent question. "Are you a writer, sir?"

Charles admitted to his career having taken a journalistic turn, and admitted also to the journalist's usual aspiration to write his novel one day. He even confessed, wryly, that in the interim his job was to extol the virtues of the new Great Transcontinental route and promote the idea of travelling it for pleasure on family vacations.

Lancer cast a speaking glance at the tribe of young heathens squabbling over their dessert, and they both laughed. It had been a pleasant dinner with good conversation. Charles could have done a lot worse when it came to someone to share it with. Still, he would have to see how well Lancer's company wore over the next few days. Those were beautiful manners and Lancer wasn't standoffish, precisely, but something did distance the young Bostonian from the people around him.

Time for a little probing of his own. Charles refilled Lancer's glass before his own. "Do you travel for business, pleasure or family, sir?"

Lancer admitted to all three. "But perhaps principally the latter."

"Excellent! They'll be delighted to be reunited with you, of course. And this wonderful new railroad will get you there all the sooner. Their own journey west must have been a most uncomfortable experience by comparison, whether by land or sea. The railroads will, I'm sure, be a remarkable tool for bringing together loved ones once separated by the great breadth of our mighty continent—"

Charles let the platitudes he'd penned earlier flow, his gaze flickering around the carriage to see why a lady two tables away laughed, or to watch the low-voiced waiter conferring with the fussy, elderly gentleman at the corner table, or whatever other little scene caught his eye. Good lord, that was a handsome woman, the one with the pleasant laugh. Her companion would have to be a clod not to appreciate the light in her eyes and the way her pretty shoulders were emphasised by her well-cut travelling dress. Charles nodded with approval when the lady's companion raised his wine glass to her in silent homage. Despite looking like a contented married couple, it seemed they were still lovers. Charles envied him. She was a very handsome woman. On the other hand, the elderly gentleman talking to the waiter looked dyspeptic and cross and alone. Snuff powdered on his cuffs and across his coat front. Charles could weave a dozen stories about the old man's life and disappointments in love and business.

And then, young Lancer. Why would he travel all the way across the continent alone? For action and adventure, or for love or for business—

Charles' mouth continued the flow of words while his hand drifted to the breast pocket of his jacket and the comforting bulk of his notebook. Damn the proprieties that prevented him from openly jotting these people down to use later.

And as if to prove that the truth about people was even more interesting than speculation, the little twist to Lancer's mouth became bitter as he listened to Charles rhapsodising. And wasn't that intriguing!

"Oh, I'm not visiting close family, sir," said Lancer. The bitter curve of the mouth tightened. "We meet somewhere in the family Bible, if there is such a thing, but we have not met anywhere else."

Well, well, well. There was a story behind this lone journey and that cool bitterness, that was certain. Charles smiled. He liked a good mystery. They were all the more fun to unravel.

The train's hothouse effect came from thirty people sharing the close confinement of the parlour car. That a man was never more than three or four feet from his neighbour, said Charles to Scott Lancer, meant either the blooming of friendship or deep mutual aversion. At all times, the occupants of the car pressed hard upon each other, always conscious of the others' occupations from dawn until dusk, trapped together as close as damned souls in Hades. Charles rose the next day under the bland gazes of a dozen sets of eyes. He took his turn to wash and trim his beard in too-close proximity to three gentlemen with whom he was only imperfectly acquainted but whose bodily peculiarities were obtruding too closely on his notice to be ignored. He would spend his day in the presence of thirty fellow human beings: he would eat with them, read his books with them, talk with them, try to nap with them, even (out of a sense of self-preservation) help entertain their bored children. And at night he would be forced to share quarters with the aforesaid three gentleman, with nothing but a curtain between them and the rest of the car's occupants, lying all night serenaded by rustling, sighs and snoring.

He had to find a way to endure, he told Lancer at breakfast, to admit these people as more than mere strangers, or the very sound of a train would be likely to bring on homicidal tendencies for the rest of his life. As it was, he was fast developing a sense of social claustrophobia.

"Why do you think I decided to take one of the staterooms?" asked Lancer, smiling as the waiter arrived with fresh coffee and a plate of fried eggs. The waiter, having brought them together at dinner the previous evening, apparently now considered them joined at the hip. Lancer had been ushered to Charles's table and had a menu put into his hands before the two had had time to do more than nod a greeting to each other.

"All the way through to California?" Charles forked crisp bacon onto his plate and set to with relish.

"Every train en route and every last inch of track."

Charles sighed. "I am deeply envious. The staterooms are small, of course, but they looked delightfully comfortable."

"Oh, they are. Delightfully." There was no mistaking Lancer's amusement, or the wicked glint in his eye.

Charles sighed again. "I may have to revise my impression that you are a gentleman, sir. It's unseemly to gloat."

Lancer laughed aloud and, as some sort of compensation, offered Charles the coffee.

They arrived at Council Bluffs at around 8.30, just as breakfast finished, and transferred across the Missouri to Omaha. Lancer strolled along with Charles as their valises were whisked away into a large shed to be reweighed.

"They'll be trying to charge us extra poundage, I suppose." Charles glanced around the shed and the dozens of people crowded into it, spotting several that he recognised from the platform at Jersey City.

"I should tell them that I'm a shareholder," murmured Lancer. "My grandfather has extensive interests in the railroads."

Charles laughed at the wry tone, and watched the crowds as they waited their turn at the ticket booth, listening with half an ear to almost as many languages as there were people. The slow poetic speech of Goethe and the distant Fatherland made him turn; that the speaker was merely ordering her brood to be still and silent was of no moment. It was still a joy to hear her.

"They all have such a lot of hope and energy." Lancer was so quiet that Charles had to strain to hear him.

He was envious, Charles realised, a little surprised. A healthy man of Lancer's age should be brimming with energy and ambition, but he was leaning against the counter as if it were all that were holding him up. The very picture of the languid young Brahmin, in fact. But no man that young should look so weary. There was a history there, a dark history: there was something shadowing Scott Lancer's eyes. It would be interesting to find out what.

He opted for a little platitude. "They're on their way to a new life."

Lancer frowned. "Yes."

"My father brought me here from Prussia when I was fifteen. My mother had died the year before and he wanted to get away, to make his fortune here. It was exciting, landing in New York and seeing everything so different to little Erwitte, where I was born . I don't think he regretted it. I know that I don't. This land has been very good to us."

Lancer offered a crumb of information. "My father came here from Scotland. Possibly he too thought he could make his fortune."

"You never asked him?" Charles kept his tone bright and light, as if it were a casual enquiry of no importance.

"Never met the gentleman." Lancer's mouth twisted into that bitter little line again.


Charles gave him a sharp look, but Lancer stared back coolly, giving nothing away. Lancer was a private man, even more reserved than Charles would have guessed from the easy society manners that the younger man used as armour. So Charles forbore to enquire further. Instead he caught the ticket agent's attention and, on behalf of Lancer and himself, used his credentials from the railroad companies to get it established that they were through travellers of some importance and therefore entitled to be amongst the first to be assigned their berths.

"I think, though," said Lancer as they boarded the train, still speaking in that same quiet voice, "that I'd rather like to know what brought him here."

"And if he found what he was looking for, if he achieved his dream of... what? Independence? Riches? Freedom?" Charles nodded. "In your place, I'd like know what he gained from coming to America."

"Yes." Lancer spoke slowly, thoughtfully. He glanced down the length of train, looking west, and swung himself abruptly up onto the car platform. "And what may have been lost upon the way."

The railroad ran out of Omaha across prairies so flat that the world seemed nothing but yellow-green grass and a sky vast enough to weigh down on the land. The track sliced across the boundless land like a knife blade.

Charles's three sleeping companions were through travellers too, and were playing cards at another seat. Charles had taken the opportunity to stretch out and get comfortable. He closed his eyes for a moment to rest them.

Lancer woke him when he joined him before lunch. He seemed fascinated by the wide vista outside the train and they spent some time gazing out and discussing their progress.

Lancer's hands—he had narrow, patrician hands, Charles noted—played idly with the cord of the window blind. "We're travelling so swiftly over land that only a generation or so ago was traversed with so much pain and travail. I don't think that we appreciate it enough."

Well, now. Every now and again the Brahmin exterior cracked a little and another interesting facet of the man was revealed. This yearning for a past that Lancer saw as what? Nobler? Simpler? More romantic? Well, perhaps there was more to the man than the rich Bostonian gentleman.

"It reminds me of the sea. There's something as relentless about it, as measureless and as hungry." It had been many years since Charles had spent any time at sea, but for a moment he seemed to feel the heave of the deck under his feet. "Watch how the wind bends the grasses, like the swell of waves."

"Are you a sailing man, sir?"

Charles laughed. "I may not look it now, but I spent almost ten years at sea, on a merchantman. I've sailed all over the world."

Lancer's eyes widened, and he looked astonished in a way that Charles considered a touch unflattering. It was true that Charles was a little older and, well, sturdier these days, and he knew that his was now a sedentary life, but surely it wasn't completely beyond the realms of possibility that he'd once been young and active? He was barely in his prime as it was.

Lancer had been to Europe. Before the War, he said, on a trip with his grandparents. He'd been a boy then, but he'd enjoyed London despite its dirt, and Paris despite its hauteur.

"My grandfather offered to go with me again, now. Now that I'm of an age to appreciate it better, I mean. He'd have preferred that to—" Lancer's mouth did that little twist again. "Well. Perhaps some other time."

"London and Paris will still be there," said Charles. "Did you travel far on the continent? I'd like to return to Germany one day, I think. Only to visit, though. New York is home now and I can't see Mrs Nordhoff taking kindly to being a Hausfrau. German society is a little too paternalistic for her tastes, I think."

They spent a happy half hour trading stories of their travels. But throughout it all, Lancer's gaze strayed to the window and the wide lands beyond. Charles let the conversation lapse for a moment, watching and waiting until Lancer remembered he was there.

Lancer reddened when he realised, and waved a hand at the glass. "Seeing this, I could believe that the world is flat. Couldn't you?"

Science, opined Charles, took all the romance and adventure from life, insisting on telling us that the world was a globe. "It looks flat enough out there, but it's illusory and the track's starting the long climb to the mountains. That should be a splendid sight. Even if science likes to pretend it knows how the earth and rocks were bent and folded to make them, it can't rob mountains of their grandeur."

Lancer's flush became one of eagerness, Charles thought. He leaned forward. "Science is a topic we haven't yet touched upon, sir. I assume that you have read Darwin? I'll admit that when the book was first published I was rather more interested in baseball than either biology or religious philosophy, but when I was old enough to read it, my grandfather told me of the stir it caused. And then, when I got to Harvard, one of the more radical professors allowed us to study it, although that caused a little controversy and our studies weren't prolonged or, to my mind, very deep. I'd be interested in your views on his theory."

And they were off.... By the time they repaired to the dining car for luncheon, they had reviewed the remarkable advances humanity had made in knowledge in the last fifty years and were hotly debating whether or not that had gone hand in hand with a spiritual decline. They reached the informality of using each others' surnames over coffee and a dessert of peaches and cream.

Dessert was excellent. The company even more so.

Shortly before three-o'clock, while it was still light, the train juddered to a halt. Lancer glanced up from Nelson's guidebook—he'd brought the more detailed Crofutt's guide and they'd swapped for a while. Charles was enjoying Crofutt. It was the better guide of the two.

"A stop for coal, I expect," said Charles. When this was confirmed by the conductor he marked his place in Crofutt and suggested going to see what was going on. Several gentlemen and several men who didn't quite meet that definition were already out on the prairie, stretching their legs after the confinement of the cars. Lancer agreed readily, although when it came to it he didn't want to walk as far as the front of the train, where the train crew were doing something arcane and fascinating. Charles left him watching the play of the wind on the grasses, walking up the length of the train to the depot while trying to get his notebook out of his pocket.

The coaling depot wasn't very large. A couple of cabins, a huge pile of coal and a water tower, with the foundations for a proper coaling tower being laid beside the track. It would be ready in a few months, the depot agent said. Six at the most, when the labour of getting the coal into the tender wouldn't be as intense. What's more, the railroad was selling all the land round about to farmers. Cheap, too. A bargain. Indeed, a couple of the farming families had disembarked from the train and were standing in the lee of one of the cabins, looking small and bewildered in the midst of all their baggage.

"There'll be a town here, soon," said the agent. "And then we'll make it a proper stopping place." He turned his head and spat out a wad of brown tobacco.

Charles nodded, smiled and moved upwind. He was no scientist, but he calculated that spittle would find it harder to reach him against the prevailing breeze. He had no objection to a good cigar but chewing tobacco... He suppressed a shudder of disgust and turned away to watch the refuelling. He took copious notes, watching as the train's stoker oversaw the transfer of tons of shiny coal nuggets from the wagons relaying it to the track from the depot.

A soft shriek from one of the farming families warned him. He turned quickly. His heart thumped once, hard. He hadn't expected this. He really hadn't expected this.

Five of them, riding thin, ill-kempt ponies through the long grass. Bare chested, with strings of beads worn like breastplates; leggings and moccasins of some sort of soft looking suede; black hair in long braids framing dark faces that showed no expression. They rode in single file, passing within a few yards of train cars where dozens of pale faces pressed against the glass to see them go. They rode as if the train weren't even there, for all the notice they gave it.

"Hold your ground." The railroad agent spoke softly, from the corner of his mouth, not shifting his gaze from the Indians as they approached. "There won't be any trouble."

Großer Gott! Charles hoped the man was right. At the edge of his vision he saw one of the railroad men go swiftly to join the farming families, heard a quiet voice talking to them, calming them. One of the women had fallen to her knees. She made a soft keening noise.

The Indians rode at a steady pace. They'd pass within a few feet of Charles and the agent, but the agent didn't move.

"Stay still," warned the agent. He straightened up, shoulders tense. His hands went to his belt. He had a gun in a holster on his left hip, the butt pointing forward. His hand was near, yet not so near as to be threatening. "Don't move."

Not that Charles could move. He could barely breathe. He thought perhaps that he'd been struck down with a paralysis, as some sort of biblical punishment for the journalistic sin of curiosity. He wouldn't be the first.

Not one of the Indians looked at Charles, but the one riding last, the one that rode a horse a little better than the others and had maybe more clay and turquoise beads looped around him—that one glanced at the agent. The agent nodded back.

That was all.

A moment later and the Indians had ridden past the cabins and disappeared. It was astonishing how quickly the grasslands swallowed them up, but the agent pivoted and watched them out of sight.

"Crow," he said to Charles. "They were Crow."

Charles had to swallow a couple of times. It was also astonishing how dry these arid lands made a man. "Are they much trouble?"

The agent smiled, an odd, tight smile. He shrugged one shoulder and spat out another morsel of wet, chewed tobacco before turning away and striding through the grass to where the refuelling operation had restarted as though nothing had happened.

"Ah," said Charles. He looked west, the way the Indians had gone, but he couldn't see anything. The farmer's wife was crying quietly, her husband at her side talking to her... Bohemian, it sounded like. Charles settled his shoulders back, found that he could move again and walked, briskly, back to the car where he'd left Lancer.

"Did you see them"? he demanded, as soon as he got within speaking distance. Lancer stood with his back against one of the car wheels. "Did you ever see anything like those wild savages, Lancer? They passed within a yard or two of me, up there at the depot, and it's lucky that I'm not a nervous man! Did you ever see anything so wild? What an encounter! Something to write about, I fancy!"

Lancer started. He had been staring the way the Indians had gone, and now he seemed to come back to himself. "Encounter, Nordhoff? They went past us as if we weren't here, as if we were below their notice. I don't think that was much of an encounter. And yet..." His voice trailed away.

"That's not much of a story, though," protested Charles. "I need something a little more exciting than five Indians taking an afternoon ride."

"I was thinking. I was thinking how much they looked as if they belonged to the land here, a part of it." Lancer slapped the side of the car with one hand. "Not like this. This scars the land it runs across; the Indians haven't left a trace of their passing."

Oh ho. Then there was a romantic then, beneath that cool Brahmin exterior. "It's our way, to want to put our stamp on the world, to change it."

"They belong here in a way we don't."

"It's a different way. We don't change the way we live to suit the land; we change the land to suit the way we live. The farmers will do that here, claim this place for us."

"Yes. But don't you think that that though we might gain the land, we lose as much as the Indians do? In a different way, of course. I know they can't win, not against this." Lancer shrugged, indicating the train and all it stood for. "But we lose something, too, if they pass away and are gone from the world. There's a story there."

Charles shook his head. "Not one that anyone would read or I could convince my editor was a good one to tell. The people who want the land won't read it. They don't think that Rousseau was right, you know, that there's more morality in natural Man than in you or I. They see the Indian as something that gets in the way of progress, of a bigger and brighter future."

"And that isn't a story."

"No," said Charles. "Not one I could use. We change or die, Lancer. They're of the past, you know, and they don't change."

Lancer nodded.

"Well, then, don't make the mistake they do. Don't cling to the past at the expense of the present, and certainly not by sacrificing the future."

Lancer gave him an odd look, a thoughtful look. "No," he said. "I won't do that."

They finished the day over brandy in Lancer's stateroom, mellowed and tired and, Charles believed, pleased with each other's company.

Charles liked Lancer, very much. He'd found the younger man to be intelligent and sociable, easy-mannered and good-humoured. There was a core of something underneath that Charles had seen glimpses of but hadn't yet been able to tease out into the open; but the social animal, the young gentleman of means and education, was a very pleasant companion indeed.

Pleasant, but a man with a strong sense of privacy. Lancer must have paid a considerable premium to have to himself one of the two private cabins at the end of the carriage, but it was a charming little room. There was space enough for a pair of armchairs set before the large windows, and even after the chamberman had converted the long couch into a comfortable-looking bed, it was spacious enough for Lancer and Charles to sit and enjoy their brandies.

Charles's own accommodation was comfortable, if a little cramped. "It's a little like sleeping in a small closet. Everyone snores and rustles all night, with only a curtain between my modesty and the other twenty-nine occupants of the car and as I said this morning, I'm forced into an unholy intimacy with strangers." Charles rubbed at his nose, pushing his spectacles back up into their proper place.

"I don't envy you that. I've shared close quarters in the past, and I've no desire to repeat it."

Charles suggested that the accommodations were perfectly adequate if one weren't an out and out sybarite.

There it was again, the thing that Charles couldn't quite define; the whatever-it-was that shadowed Scott Lancer's eyes. But all Lancer did was smile and incline his head. "Guilty as charged, Nordhoff; guilty as charged. Have another brandy."

They breakfasted at the Cheyenne stop the next morning, where according to the guidebooks, a bustling little city was growing fast around the spot where the railroad crossed Crow Creek, high up on the edges of the Rocky Mountains. Charles had been right about the long, subtle climb up out of the plains. They were very high up now, the line they'd travelled switchbacking up the foothills like a metal snake.

"And by bustling little city, the guidebooks mean a row of mean shacks with the most peculiar false fronts on them." Charles prodded the front of the Union Pacific Railroad Store as he spoke. "This is a mendacious building, Lancer. There's nothing behind this but a barn, and yet this frontage shows real glass windows."

"Probably shipped here at huge expense, too. It doesn't auger well for those of us used to the eastern cities."

"It most certainly does not." Charles sighed. "This is going to be rather hard to extol to the great travelling American public. 'Come to the West and eat in a barn.' Not a message I can see will go down well."

All the same, he had to pry Lancer out of the small store later. Breakfast had been indifferent, served at a communal (although spotlessly clean) table and insanely expensive at a dollar-fifty, but Lancer's complaint had died on his lips when he saw the shelf of books for sale. He'd been rummaging amongst them for quite ten minutes by the time that Charles lost patience, but he was good-humoured about being prodded into making a selection. Lancer pushed the books, thin and cheap-looking things, into the pocket of his suit, and followed Charles back to the train as the conductor rang his bell and shouted exhortations to the passengers to "Hurry along now!"

When they were back in their seats, Lancer offered him a choice of books. The train lurched forward as Charles picked through them, gathering speed as it headed towards Laramie.

"Good grief." Charles blinked at the lurid covers. "Dime novels!"

Lancer laughed. "Aren't they ridiculous? I thought you might find some lively copy in there, Nordhoff. A few anecdotes about these more colourful characters, perhaps." He flourished a book at Charles. "This one, for example. It recounts the trouble that someone called Wes Hardin is finding on something called the Pecos." He frowned. "I believe I've heard of Hardin. I assume he's real."

Charles admired the cover of the book he held, illustrated with a skilful drawing of a moustachioed villain in a sombrero, shooting an Indian at close quarters while a scantily dressed saloon girl cowered behind him, her hand upraised as if to ward off a blow. "I'm charged with attracting the visitors to the West in droves, Lancer, not frightening them into running home to hide under their beds. I hardly think that someone who calls himself the Border Hawk is quite the ambassador the railroad companies are looking for." He opened the book to take a closer look at it. Purely as research, of course. "It looks as though everyone in the West finds trouble, and that is not the sort of message we want our readers to take away from the articles."

"I suspect the only trouble I'll have will be tearing myself away from the delights of San Francisco to go south."

"I hope so, Lancer." Although it had to be said that if San Francisco was like the other western towns Charles had seen so far, then there may not be many delights and his article for Harper's would be short indeed. "The last thing any man needs is to meet one of these shootists. Good grief! This one is a murderous scoundrel by the sound of it." Charles looked at the illustrations with disfavour and remarked that swarthy men with moustaches were obviously born to be villains.

But Lancer, already deep in the adventures of Mr Hardin, waved a negligent hand. The books would while away the time until Laramie, at least, where the conductor had promised to take Charles along to the emigrant car for an hour or two. Lancer had begged to come along. Charles, magnanimous as ever, agreed and young Lancer, the cultured and elegant Brahmin, had brightened at the prospect of such a treat. What a sheltered life these Society types led!

Charles smiled and turned back to the first page, and lost himself in that timeless classic, Johnny Madrid, the Border Hawk; Trouble Along The Cimarron.


Chapter Three

"This is rather more like it!" said Charles as the cab came to halt outside their hotel.

He'd had his head half out of the window all the way from the Oakland ferry, giving a running commentary on everything en route, from the dizzy steepness of the hills ("What idiot thought it would be a good idea to build a city where every pavement is soaring up or plunging down a precipice? Großer Gott! We'll founder on this hill!") to the buildings ("Italianate and Classic in style, mostly, with a hint of Early Grandiosity influenced by Pretentious Perpendicular.") to the weather that was depressingly similar to what they'd left behind ("The guidebooks lied again. A soft and gentle climate indeed! Pneumonia. I foresee pneumonia.")

But their hotel, in one of San Francisco's finest streets, was a welcome surprise. "Civilisation, at last!"

Scott Lancer laughed, as he'd laughed at all of Charles's comments, and agreed. "More than I was expecting, I admit."

"I'm relieved. At least here in San Francisco I might find something worthwhile to write about." Charles admired the impressive Italianate façade that took up almost the entire eastern side of Montgomery Street. It was quite a building, and not even the largest hotel in the city.

Even so, the Occidental Hotel was one of the grandest that San Francisco had to offer; and from what Charles had managed to see from the cab on their way into the city, there was no shortage of large and grand, with the streets around their hotel as well built and as well lit as any that he'd seen back East. San Francisco was no grubbing little settlement hiding barns behind the illusion of false fronts and pretending they were hotels or restaurants. This was a real city, as rich and sophisticated as Boston or New York, with real buildings, elegantly designed and stone-built, set along paved streets lit by flaring gas lamps.

Make that wet paved streets, slippery with rain and mud. San Francisco on a dark, wet March evening was as chilly as New York. Thankfully a bellboy rushed out with an umbrella to get them into the lobby as dry as he could manage it, given the persistent drizzle. Lancer, of course, stood for a moment to look around him, heedless of the raindrops dripping from the brim of his hat. Rain hissed and spat on the hot glass of the gas lamp above his head.

"Not as old as Boston, of course," he murmured. "But it's an interesting coincidence that they were both founded by religiously minded colonists, don't you think? I'd like to take a look at the original mission, while I'm here."

Religion, opined Charles, could be an uncomfortable commodity, although it doubtless had its uses. He preferred his own life to be a little more rational. Too rational to stand around in the dark getting wet while contemplating historical influences, thank you very much, and would Scott care to get a move on?

"Religion's very useful. So many pretty girls attend church," said Scott, and grinned. He nodded his thanks to the bellboy and footed it for the lobby, hooking his arm in Charles's in passing and carting him along into the welcome warmth and light.

"Well now! Very welcoming." Charles took a moment to look around him.

The lobby was vast, opening up onto an even larger, and just as stylish, parlour. Fires in the hearths made the rooms warm and merry, and lamplight deepened the sheen of polished mahogany and glittered from more crystal than Charles had seen in any one place before. Very nice! Everything from the latest in wall coverings and velvet furniture to the most ornate and dazzling of chandeliers, to people in elegant and fashionable dress... yes. This would do.

"Something to write home about, at least! As fine as anything in New York. I'll admit I'm surprised. Whoever recommended this hotel to you, Scott, is to be congratulated on his taste."

Scott tipped the man bringing their luggage from the cab and joined Charles. "It was the gentleman I met in Boston who brought me my invitation to visit m... to come to California. He made most of the arrangements for my journey, actually. A useful sort of man. Good at finding things, he told me."

"Good at finding hotels, at any rate." But Charles was speaking to Scott's back: he was already on his way to the desk to claim his room. Charles hurried along behind him, wishing his legs were as long as Scott's. It wasn't dignified to be always bustling along behind the man trying to catch up. The Bostonian was so very long and lean.

"Lancer? Mr Lancer...?" The desk clerk frowned for an instant, a questioning note to his voice. His expression cleared. He hunted in the roll-top desk behind him and retrieved a letter. "Oh yes, of course. Mr Lancer. We were expecting you, sir. Mr Lancer—Mr Murdoch Lancer, I mean to say, sir—left instructions for your stay. He was quite particular about the details."

Scott stiffened. "I beg your pardon? He left instructions? But he's not a resident of San Francisco..."

"Mr Murdoch Lancer usually stays here when he visits the city, sir. He sent word that we were to expect you and, as I say, was most particular about his requirements. As you doubtless know, he can be exacting in what he expects—"

"I've never met the gentleman. He stays here, you say?"

"He's been a regular guest of ours since we first opened almost ten years ago, sir."

For the first time, Charles saw those polished social manners falter. Scott stood silent, the back of his neck and his ears reddening, though his face was pale. Charles frowned at the tightening of that thin-lipped mouth, seeing how the chin was set, that even Scott's nostrils had whitened and thinned down. Scott's hands curled into loose fists. He rubbed at his face with one, before cupping it with the other and pressing them together.

What in heaven's name had that cool Brahmin exterior showing the cracks?

"Scott?" Charles waited a moment. "Scott?"

It took that moment for Scott to see him and for his jaw to unclench. He raised a hand to his mouth to wipe it. "Tell me, Charles, would you say that this was an expensive hotel?"

"Oh yes." Would he be here if it weren't for the 'all expenses paid' part of this assignment? Hardly!

"We're one of the best in the city, sir," said the clerk.

"So not lack of money." Scott glanced at the letter, still clutched in the clerk's hand, and looked down at his boots. He shook his head, and when he looked up again, he seemed to be back to normal, to have regained control, but for the fact his hands were still clenched. "I'm sorry, Charles. A family matter. I was taken by surprise, that was all."

A family matter? The family that may meet somewhere in the Bible, if Charles remembered those bitter words aright and the family that Scott was going to meet for the first time. Charles said nothing. Indeed, even he couldn't think of anything to say since he wasn't certain what had set Scott off. After all, why get agitated at the thought that the unknown relative you were visiting was better heeled than you expected? Better than having them hanging on your pocket book all the time and if Scott doubted that, Charles would lend him Mrs Nordhoff's brother for a month. That would teach him.

A story there, for certain. But although he and Scott were, he thought, friends now that they'd reached all the intimacy of using first names, they were not such good friends that Charles could, or would, ask. And perhaps too good friends for Charles to be so unmannerly as to dig out answers. A journalistic dilemma, that.

The clerk was well trained. If he'd seen Scott's reaction—and really he couldn't have missed it—he pretended he hadn't. "I have a room reserved for you, sir. Seven nights, I believe."

"I'm supposed to be leaving a week today." Scott sounded a touch uncertain.

The clerk checked the register. "Yes, sir. That's what I have here. The account has been paid until the morning of April fifth."

"I see." Scott's mouth tightened again. "Yes. That's very considerate of Mr Murdoch Lancer. Very considerate indeed."

By the time they reconvened outside the hotel dining room for dinner, Scott was back to his equable, good-mannered self. He had changed into evening dress: dark trousers, a well-cut coat with tails over a silk shirt with stand-up collar and neat narrow-banded bow tie.

"Very elegant! Did you travel with a valet hidden in your valise?"

"The hotel provided one, Charles. All I had to do was ask."

Charles looked down at his own rather less well-cut coat and smoothed out a few wrinkles. He really should have thought of that. These hotels had all the amenities.

"I'd rather like a drink and cigarillo in the Gentleman's Saloon before dinner. Would you mind? I reserved us a table in the dining room for half-an-hour from now."

Charles hid his surprise at this slight departure from the norm—drinks and cigars usually came after dinner—and rubbed his hands together. "Excellent idea."

They crossed the parlour, bowing to the people they passed; all fashionably dressed, the ladies resplendent in rich silks, priceless old lace and jewels. One woman glittered in so many diamonds that Charles put his hand to his eyes when they were past, affecting blindness.

"I wanted to try the Gentleman's Saloon in any event. I was delighted when I realised that this was to be our hotel." He looked around in approval. It was altogether a dimmer, cosier place than the parlour outside. No ladies here, of course, so instead of all the light fripperies they liked so much, it was all mahogany and dark green leather, and comfort rather than fashion. A haze of cigar smoke hung on the air. Altogether a welcoming sort of haven for a man of taste. "I had dinner with Manton Marble last week... do you know him?"

Scott headed for the capacious bar. "Not at all. Is he real? It's a very improbable name!"

"Oh, he's real all right. There's rather too much of Marble to be a non-corporeal vision. He's the editor of the New York World. He has some sort of political anti-corruption coup in the works and he's enjoying himself hugely running about in the shadows around Tammany Hall." Charles shrugged. "Waste of time and energy, I expect, but he's in his element. He'd hoped to enlist my help, I believe and he was quite put out when I said I was to be away for a few months, but he did give me one tip about this hotel. Trust me on the drinks?"

Scott looked puzzled. But bless the boy, he was unfailingly polite, as always. "Of course."

Charles found himself rubbing his hands together again. He'd have to watch that little bad habit. "Excellent." And that little bad habit, too: he was starting to repeat himself. There were five bartenders working behind the long, polished wooden bar. Charles beckoned to the closest. "Trained by Jerry Thomas, I hope?"

The man grinned. "We all were, sir, and we use his recipes still. The Professor is very fondly remembered here. What can I get you?"

"Which of your mixed drinks do you recommend?"

"Well, our most popular mixtures are the Brandy Daisy, the Fizz, the Flip and the Sour, sir, but personally I think the Professor's best drink is the Blue Blazer. It's said he created it last year for the President himself."

"Well, if it's good enough for Grant..." Charles looked the question at Scott, who laughed and nodded. "We'll have one each of those, please. And bring the cigar box. Have you had a mixed drink before, Scott?"

"Hot toddies, of course. And punch."

"These are special. They were invented by the head bartender here, one Jerry Thomas. He's so celebrated that he was reputed to be earning more here in San Francisco than the President earned running the country. Thomas is in New York now. He's one of Marble's cronies. I've never met him, but Marble said to be sure to try out one of his drinks in the hotel where they were created. It seemed fitting."

Scott selected a thin cigarillo from the case proffered by the bartender. "What you're saying is that this will be an experience."

"Oh yes." Charles lit his cigar and together they watched the preparations. It apparently took two bartenders, this one. A bigger tip would be required, he supposed. Still, the expenses would cover it, although he may have to hide this one in the 'Sundries' column.

"It looks like a hot toddy," said Scott, indicating the preparations.

Whiskey, water, sugar and lemons... Mmmn. It did. Still, given the chill spring night, it would be welcome. If only to ward off incipient pneumonia...

But no hot toddy Charles had ever had—and he'd had a few—were made in quite the same way as this one. It was a performance. The bartender held out his hands like a pianist and flexed and exercised his fingers while Scott and Charles hid their smiles and the assistant heated the whiskey and the water in two separate vessels over small spirit lamps.

The assistant folded powdered sugar and the lemon peel into the whiskey, stirred it three times clockwise and three anti-clockwise. "Ready, Mr Williams."

The bartender took two silver cups and held them out. The assistant filled one with whiskey, and the other with hot water, waited for the bartender's nod and struck a match over the cup of whiskey. He jumped back when the fumes caught in a whoosh of blue flame. Someone exclaimed at the other end of the bar and there was a shout of laughter and one or two of the other patrons pressed closer.

"The trick's in the mixing them, you see, sirs." The bartender raised the flaming glass and from at least a yard away, he poured the whiskey into the hot water, and then poured the mixture back again between the cups, somehow without quenching the flames. He did it again, his expression intent and focused; and again, and again and again, pouring faster and faster between the two cups, until he had an arc of sapphire flame running between them, lighting up the entire saloon with its fire. The saloon was loud with clapping, Charles and Scott laughing and cheering with the rest.

Scott clamped the cigarillo between his teeth to free up his hands to applaud the bartender's skill. He was laughing, the shadow gone from his eyes. Charles nodded with satisfaction. It was as good a way as any to distract the younger man from whatever had troubled him earlier.

The bartender finally allowed the flames to die and poured the drinks into warmed glasses. He smiled, but the line of perspiration on his hairline showed just how difficult the task had been.

Charles sighed internally. Well, it was an experience and it had cheered up Scott, but the bartender had just earned the sort of tip that would take a very large Sundry to hide it. A very large Sundry indeed.

Perhaps he could itemise it as 'research'.

They dined, as Charles remarked, "Rather better, and with quite as much form and a more elegant and perfect service than in New York. I daresay the company is the best sauce." He toasted Scott with a very fine champagne, a Krug that Scott had insisted on to celebrate their arrival, and if his mouth had twisted over the words then Charles pretended he hadn't seen it.

The joy and cheer of the Blue Blazer had died away with its flames. Scott was quiet and reserved again, but still the ease of his company manners bore him through it. Charles could envy him that, the social polish that Scott probably barely realised he had. All his kind were social chameleons: Scott had brought up from birth to conform with his surroundings, to blend in, not to make himself conspicuous because a gentleman just did not do that. It would carry him through many a difficult situation with grace.

"I'll take that as a compliment, since you're no longer compelled to keep my company now we're free of the train at last." Scott returned the salute and downed his glass in one.

"It was less like a journey, and more like taking up one's residence there, wasn't it? Still, my dear Brahmin, take it as the compliment I intended. You've been the best of travelling companions, and I hope we can spend a few days exploring the city before you go south."

"I'd like that. I have tomorrow completely free, then on Thursday I must meet an acquaintance of my grandfather's. I have some business to conduct with him that should take a few hours and I'm already committed to spending the weekend with him and his family, I'm afraid, Charles. That was arranged before I left Boston. But outside of those commitments, consider me at your disposal."

"Thank you, I will! There's a lot we can see in the city before you go. We can breakfast at the Cliff House, and dine in the Chinese quarter before visiting the theatre there and looking our fill at the oriental beauties. How's that for a cultural contrast?"

Scott laughed and his mood seemed to lift as they planned their sight-seeing for the next week.

"How are you travelling south, Scott? They're just starting to build the north-south connecting railroads, I know, so are you condemned to the stage?"

"Sadly, yes. I'm taking an early eastbound train as far as Stockton and leaving the next day by stage to Morro Coyo. It takes a day and a half, they tell me. Something to be endured, I think."

Charles laughed and nodded. "I fear it won't be as comfortable as the railroad."

"No," said Scott. He looked gloomy.

"Well, my schedule is very unstructured. I may go back with you as far as Stockton, and then go on to the Yosemite valley. I intend to spend a couple of weeks exploring the wilderness there." Charles caught the little grin on Scott's face. "Now, now! I may not have the figure of the man of action, but"—and here he grinned himself—"I'm told that you can get to everything the discerning tourist may wish to see by horseback or wagon. I'm very prepared to see the wilderness from the upholstered seat of a surrey. I only wish you were coming with me."

"I wish I were, too, Charles, but I'm committed to Morro Coyo. Not that I think it will anywhere near as entertaining as exploring the Yosemite Valley. To be honest, I don't think much will come of my journey south. I don't think that there's anything for me there. Nothing I... " Scott blew out a soft breath. "I never had much in the way of expectation, but now I'm almost there, I have less."

"Must you go?" Charles caught himself up. "No, that was stupid. You wouldn't come all this way and turn back at the last moment."

"No. No, I won't do that. I gave my word, when I accepted the invitation. I can't renege on it."

"And I wouldn't ask it of you. But you can put off going for a few weeks, can't you? Come to Yosemite instead. I'm told there's good hunting there."

"My itinerary's fixed, I'm afraid, and the tickets already purchased. I won't put m... the gentleman who invited me to more expense. It doesn't really matter. It won't make any difference, not that I can see, except to delay my visit to Yosemite. I don't know how long I'll be in Morro Coyo—my invitation was open-ended—but perhaps we can join forces later. And in the meantime I'll be very glad of your company to Stockton, next week." Scott's smile was thin. "Very glad indeed."

Charles bowed and would have said more, but at that moment the waiter appeared with two servings of Beef Richelieu with Madeira sauce, served with Chateau potatoes and Flamiche aux Poireaux, and Charles was rather too occupied with that for some little time to bother with conversation. Indeed, it was several minutes before he had attention to spare for anything other than the refreshment of his inner man.

Scott picked at the food. He didn't appear to be hungry, yet the beef was wonderfully succulent.

"Locally procured, I believe, sir, from one of the larger ranches in the south," said the waiter when Charles complimented him. "I'll tell the chef it pleased you. As for dessert—"

"Just some fruit, please," said Scott.

"Of course, sir. We have fresh peaches, strawberries, pomegranates—"

"At this time of year?" Charles stared. Good lord. Fresh fruit in March? He'd been expecting tinned peaches again.

"Yes, sir. I'll bring a selection. We always have fresh fruit here." The waiter smiled and bowed. "You're in California now, sir."

It appeared that they most certainly were.

Scott was cheerful at an annoyingly early hour the next morning.

"Well, you did say that you wanted to breakfast at the Cliff House, Charles." And he bundled Charles into a cab with no respect for Charles's more advanced age and the unexpected (although thankfully, mild) bilious attack that an unsympathetic Scott put down to the champagne and the three Brandy Daisies that followed.

Charles, his eyes a little sensitive to the bright clear light of the Pacific coast, tipped his hat over his eyes and enjoyed the Cliff House as well as he could while feeling a trifle under par. He ignored Scott's imputation about the brandies; everyone knew of the hard heads of the Teutonic race. It was obviously something he'd eaten. For all that, they made a hearty breakfast and walked it off with a brisk tramp around the coastal paths before heading back into the city.

By daylight, the city was impressive. The newer buildings were every bit as grand as they'd seemed by lamplight the previous evening, but the streets still had something that set them apart from the cities of the east. Here and there stood the thick-walled adobe buildings that showed the city's Spanish-Mexican Heritage, mostly in the form of white-walled missions and churches that stood in massive testament to the power of religion or a great house surrounded by high walls.

"My grandfather said that when he was here twenty five years ago, this was a city of mud huts." Scott shook his head, smiling. "I should have remembered that he has a prejudice against California. His mud hut is obviously another man's adobe palace." His smile became a frown.

"He wasn't impressed, I take it?"

"Not at all. He said it lacked the refinement and culture of Boston or even"—and here Scott's smile looked a trifle forced—"New York."

Charles snorted.

"I have to make my own mind up," said Scott.

"Very wise. The older generation isn't as right as it thinks it is."

"No, but he has his reasons. And I can imagine that all those years ago, it may not have looked as it does now. Most of the building appears to be recent."

"Gold," said Charles. "It's been the making of the state." He clutched Scott's arm and nodded down the street. "Mind you, I have some sympathy for your grandfather. That is not at all refined and cultured."

The young man in clothes of the kind they'd seen in Laramie and the other small towns slouched past, his eyes on the buildings and not where he was going. He walked as if he expected everyone to make way from him. Hardly a surprise, given the young man's armament. They dodged around him, Scott grinning as he pointed out that all the pedestrians were giving the visitor in country garb a wide berth.

"And by country garb, you mean a plaid shirt and a revolver," murmured Charles. "Good Lord! I'd rather like to give him a wider berth, if you don't mind."

Scott made no objection. "I may not mention that to my grandfather. I wouldn't want to increase his prejudice, if that's possible. I'll tell him how cultured San Francisco has grown, instead."

"Although," observed Charles, several hours later, when they found themselves in a box at the Chinese Theatre, watching acrobats tumbling and listening to discordant Oriental music, "this is not a culture that I'm used to. I was right about the cultural contrasts to be had here!"

"I don't think grandfather would appreciate it either. Nor the fact we had to get a policeman to escort us here."

"It seemed a wise precaution. Scott, do you have any idea at all what's going on, on stage? I can't follow the plot at all."

"I'd rather watch her than that. Look, Charles. What a beauty!" Scott nodded towards the area across the theatre from their box, where all the Chinese women sat, segregated from the menfolk in the pit beneath.

Scott had a good eye. The girl he indicated was indeed lovely, dressed in rich embroidered brocades, a gold and kingfisher-blue headdress spiked into thick hair so glossy it gleamed even in the muted theatre lights. She leant forward, watching the stage intently, presenting a perfect little profile to their admiring gaze.

"Ah, that's the sort of culture that interests you!"

"And again, not one I can mention to my grandfather."

"You're lucky dogs, you single men. I can't afford to be dazzled by the exotic. Mrs Nordhoff has a good eye and an accurate aim with the frying pan."

Scott laughed. The pretty Chinese girl leaned back until she was screened by an obvious duenna.

"Besides," said Charles, gently. He indicated the crowds of Chinese in the pit. "She's too risky. They may not carry revolvers down there, but I'm told that many go armed with knives and have an acute sense of honour. You're better off with one of the ladies in that box over on this side instead." He jerked a thumb towards a box full of the sort of lady that would give Elizabeth an apoplexy. A pretty blonde had been giving Scott the glad eye for several minutes. She had a very come-hitherish sort of smile, too, when Scott turned his attention to her. Probably rather an expensive article, that young lady, but Scott wasn't a poor man and could probably afford her.

Scott and the blonde traded glances that Charles could only describe as significant. It looked like he'd have to forgo the usual brandy and cigars before retiring for the night. It was entirely possible that Scott would have other, shapelier, companionship.

Well, he'd have to get used to exploring the city alone, since Scott was to desert him for the weekend and then for the delights of the country in the south. "I have to start some serious sightseeing if I'm to go with you to Stockton on Tuesday, to take my trip up to Yosemite to see the Big Trees. Unlike you social butterflies, I can't afford to slack off. This is work for me, don't forget."

"It's a hard life." The sympathy was entirely false. Scott's attention was on the blonde, one raised eyebrow and a nod sealing whatever silent negotiations they were carrying on.

Charles took the nobler road and forbore to box Scott's ears. He had learned to be good at resisting temptation. Life with Elizabeth had taught him the value of self-restraint.

The Big Trees at Yosemite were very... big.


And in all directions. He had never seen trees so vast around the trunk or so very tall.

Charles tipped his head back so far to try and see to the top of them that his hat was in danger of falling off. He clamped it on with one hand and stared upwards. Gott im Himmel. That trees should grow so tall and yet still not touch the sky... he should perhaps apologise to Alden.

Then again. Perhaps not.

"Big, eh?"

Charles turned to face the guide he'd hired from the hotel at Calaveras Grove and who'd been his companion for the last week. "Pardon?"

Bill Franks waved a hand at the trees. "The trees. Big."

It was pointless allowing himself to get agitated. Franks had the most infuriating habit of stating the obvious. "You'll find that mud a little sticky, Mr Nordhoff," after Charles had fallen in it. "That grass is wet, Mr Nordhoff," after Charles had sat down for a picnic lunch and regretted it the instant he felt the chill seeping into his nether regions. "Your hat's blown off, Mr Nordhoff," after the wind snatched Charles's headgear and blew it merrily over the Nevada Falls. Charles suspected the man of wilful, subtle insolence, but every time Charles looked sharply at him, Franks looked back with such guileless innocence that he couldn't be certain.

It was infuriating, all the same, to listen to Franks' soft drawled absurdities instead of some pithy, intelligent conversion in the clipped tones of the East. Scott Lancer wouldn't have said "Big, eh?" He'd have looked at Charles sidelong and murmured, provocatively, "Now tall Agrippa lived close by—so tall, he almost touched the sky," and wait for Charles to splutter out a furious denunciation of the barbarities that translators perpetuated on the beautiful language of the Fatherland and their destruction of one of his happiest childhood memories. And Scott would have laughed and patted him on the shoulder in consolation, and they could have enjoyed an invigorating discussion of literature or morality poems or arboriculture or even the Harvard curriculum. One of the delights of a conversation with an intelligent man was not being able to predict where it would end up. Lancer's absence was hard to bear in the face of the inanity of "Big, eh?"

He nodded to Franks and settled more comfortably into the wagon seat, pulling his copy of Whitney's "Guide to Yosemite" from his pocket. Franks had learned not to disturb him when the guide book appeared; instead he lay down under one of those Big Trees, tipped his hat over his eyes and went to sleep. Peace, at last. Charles took out his notebook.

In the ten days since he and Scott had parted company at Stockton, he'd seen a great deal more wilderness than any rational man could envisage existed. The Yosemite valley was dramatic and beautiful, more wild and untamed than anything the East had to offer. He had, despite Bill Franks' best efforts, enjoyed himself. The scenery was spectacular and the weather had brightened as spring settled in. If there were moments of stunned disbelief at some of the joys on offer to the tourist (he still couldn't quite credit the children outside Murphy's Inn trying to sell him a tarantula nest as a souvenir– what on earth did one do with a tarantula nest? And what if it still had an occupant in there, sitting on its eggs or whatever it was that spiders did in their nests?), they were balanced with those of quiet joy when he sat for hours watching the waters tumble down the Nevada Falls or fished one of the dozens of clear-watered lakes. He couldn't quite see himself as the fearless hunter looking for trophy kills in Yosemite, although Franks had offered it, but each day's excursion to a new lake or fall or outlook had been a very pleasant diversion.

But he'd had enough of it. He had more than enough notes to write an article that would rival Whitney for completeness. He didn't need any more. Time to go back to the hotel, buy a souvenir or two to take home to Elizabeth—she'd love a pincushion carved from sequoia bark, he was sure—and pack his bags.

Time to go back to San Francisco. The wilderness was all very well, but Charles was a city man, through and through – urban man, personified. Not urbane perhaps, but most definitely urban. There was only so much green that he could take before being overcome with schwermut, and an intense longing for paved streets, stone buildings and the company of people who could manage more than "Big, eh?" as a conversational ploy.

He just wasn't bucolic enough to appreciate the country. And he didn't regret that for a moment.

He got to San Francisco in time to join the crowds on Telegraph Hill on what turned out to be a pleasantly exciting day. He sent a short account to the Morro Coyo address that Scott had given him, along with a description of the delights of Yosemite that Scott had ... sacrificed on the altar of familial duty, being the stern Puritan you are. But more to the point, my dear Scott, you missed a true spectacle yesterday when a Mr Von Schmidt, an engineer (and a fellow Prussian whose acquaintance I have now made), dynamited a large rock out of the Bay here in San Francisco. He told me that Blossom Rock was so called because a ship of that name discovered the rock by scraping its keel over it, and it is considered a serious impediment to navigation. I dare say the captain of the Blossom would not argue with that conclusion. Von Schmidt's engineers have worked for six months to excavate the interior of the rock and fill it with explosive and yesterday afternoon was the denouement, the grand moment when all his work would be successful or for naught... At three thirty, they used wires and batteries, and with whatever legerdemain it takes for these affairs, effected an explosion that sent a column of rock and water more than two hundred feet into the air! Such a noise, like the clap of thunder on Judgement Day. I don't know if I was deafened more by the explosion or by the cheers of the crowds around me—the citizens made it a holiday and came in their thousands to enjoy the sight of water and rocks hurling themselves towards heaven only to fall again within seconds, as even a passing acquaintance with Newton might have warned them would be the outcome had any of them been of scientific bent. Still they made a carnival of it and were very convivial. I've never had so much hospitality pressed on me by so many strangers... I find myself a trifle under the weather this morning...

He was travelling after that and it was a few weeks before he got a reply, and that was guarded and said very little. Scott had had some adventure or other, it appeared, although details were not forthcoming, and was staying with his relatives for the foreseeable future. I don't know when I'll return to Boston. Not for some time, I think. And he was very wry about the adjustments to be made: I'd prepared myself for meeting family that I knew about and had never seen, but let me assure you, Charles, that's a sinecure compared to meeting, unprepared, family I'd not only never met but didn't know about either. I'm still reeling from that little surprise. Still he was well and settling in to country life down in the San Joaquin learning to be a rancher and cattleman, and hoped Charles was enjoying his tour.

Charles was enjoying himself, on the whole. It would have been pleasanter to have had a travelling companion to share it with, of course; sightseeing alone wasn't as satisfying. And heavens, to a devoted family man it seemed far too long since he'd seen Elizabeth and the boys. The occasional letter and the increasing pile of presents—the boys would love the Indian arrowheads—weren't enough to fill a gap that he hadn't expected to feel so keenly. Scott was luckier than he knew, visiting family, however unexpected they were. Charles pushed the letter into the side pocket of his valise. In the meantime there were new acquaintances to make and if he didn't get a move on, he'd be late for dinner with Von Schmidt, who had a private supply of proper beer imported from Bavaria. In the absence of family and friendly travelling companions, courting another of those odd bilious attacks by spending time with a convivial fellow countryman would have to be some sort of compensation.

For the next month, Charles divided his time between exploring every last corner of the city, and the countryside round about. He wandered north into the Napa valley to admire the farms and vineyards there, spending more than a week at the spa at Calistoga, watching the geysers and taking a daily soda bath in the hot springs. In his twice-weekly letter to Elizabeth, he made a great story (he hoped) to amuse her and the children, recounting his trials and tribulations in being wrapped in healthful mud and hosed down later with hot spring water. It did nothing for his health, so far as he could see, except to provide him with some amusement and pickle him like a walnut in brine.

At the end of May he went to Sacramento. Alden wrote to say that he had pulled some strings and Charles was to interview none other than C P Huntington, one of the four businessmen behind the Central Pacific Railroad, and get the story of the Transcontinental direct from this important and influential equine's mouth. And that meant, of course, that Alden had been reminded who was paying for this little jaunt and what, exactly, was required in return. A large part of Charles's article would have to be given over to extolling the greatness of the man and Charles wasn't naive enough to think he could do anything about it. Except make the story stirring and interesting, of course. He was just the man for that.

Still, he treated himself to a new notebook. He rather thought that he'd need all the help he could get.

He bought the notebook in a shop on J street. It was a dark and curious place, where he had to almost wriggle his way in past a porcelain Chinaman with a nodding head, almost as tall as he was—and the Nordhoff physique, sturdy and as upright as the moral rectitude embodied therein, was not one that lent itself to wriggling. Charles, performing the manoeuvre with as much grace as he could muster, spent a happy hour in a shop full of curios imported from the Far East, from China or Nippon. He bought himself a notebook bound in padded boards over which a dark green Shantung silk had been stretched, the silk ornamented with Chinese alphabet characters embroidered in a dull gold thread picked out with scarlet. A motto, translated the clerk, that ensured that he who wrote within the notebook would pen words of burning gold that would speak to the hearts of men for a thousand generations.

In all probability it really translated to something closer to "Laundry List", but Charles allowed himself to be charmed and bought Elizabeth a pretty Chinese Goddess, all white porcelain and gold leaf, in gratitude for the compliment. The clerk, obviously a heretic at heart, wrapped the Goddess in newspaper.

It was two days later that, having found a pretty silk scarf to protect the Goddess better for her journey to New York and coincidentally provide another present to propitiate his own domestic goddess on his return home, Charles unwrapped the little statuette and in an idle moment, smoothed out the old wrapping and read the front page of the Sacramento Daily Record Union for 19 April. The newspaper was more than six weeks old. He didn't expect to find anything to interest him beyond some idle speculation about the advertisements and the stories behind them. Some were just sad, but some were fascinating. Whyever would anyone want to exchange a sewing machine for a horse? The two weren't even slightly comparable!

His eye was drawn to the second news article.

He wasn't normally given to leaping to his feet with a shout of dismay loud enough to bring the landlady of his boarding house running, or rushing around his room pushing his belongings into valises and giving poor Mrs Dane a dozen conflicting instructions for her harried staff—one superannuated Mexican and a cook-maid—or yelling for someone to take a telegram down and run to the nearest telegraph office with it and be quick about it, or shouting for Mrs Dane to find him a map of the San Joaquin valley, or loudly demanding the stage timetable, or scattering tips in all directions and running, literally running, to the stagecoach stop with his coat-tails flying and his hat gone.

But he did all these things, ending by hurling himself onto the afternoon stage for Merced-Fresno-Green River just before the driver slammed shut the door and started the horses for the south.


The Sacramento Daily Record Union, April 19 edition


To Part Two --->