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The Cloud Train

by

"Jackson Lowry"


Frigid mountain wind smothered his angry words. Augustus Mullins sucked in a deep breath and filled his barrel-chest and roared, "What do you mean the damn creosote's all used up? We had twenty barrels this morning."

Terrence Wilkerson refused to be cowed. "Go check the supply tent, Gus. Ain't there."

Mullins started to shout at his gang boss, then pushed past him and walked along the narrow ledge his crew had chiseled from the side of the mountain. Far south of his precarious perch, the mighty peaks of the Rocky Mountains were already covered with snow. General Palmer had offered a bonus for chipping away the rock to lay the narrow gauge railroad tracks before winter froze even this low altitude passage. Mullins felt the reward slipping away.

The Denver & Rio Grande found only the hardest places to lay track, or so it seemed to him as he roared past the crew setting a steel rail down and then pounding in spikes to hold it on the ties. The railroad ties were soaked in creosote so the fierce weather wouldn't rot them away in a single season. He shuddered, and it wasn't from the wind. A blasting accident had killed two of his powder monkeys the week before. His lumbering team had increasing problems supplying the ties and the supply train brought the wrong inventory items. His men had grumbled when he kept them from drinking dry the twenty kegs of beer mistakenly sent when he had wanted beef and potatoes.

Young, the clerk, looked up in surprise when Mullins yanked open the tent flap and stepped inside. The sound of the canvas walls snapping like a whip muffled his words, but his fury made the clerk drop his newspaper and try to hide it. The wind snaked past the flap and caught the sheet, wrapping it around the man's fumbling hands.

"Boss, what can I get for you?"

"Terry said we've run out of creosote."

"I suppose."

Mullins resisted the urge to grab the man's throat, squeeze and shake like a terrier with a mouthful of rat.

"We had twenty barrels to treat the raw wood ties."

"It's not in the supply tent. The damned tarry shit stinks so bad I keep it outside."

"Show me."

They walked around the tent to the rear where a head-high stack of freshly cut ties dried in the wind. After they cured for a week, the crew soaked them in creosote and let them dry for a day before using them to lay another mile of road. The process worked like a fine watch. Woodcutters supplied the planed ties, crews blasted away the rock to make the ledge on the side of a mountain while others laid tracks. If any part of Mullins' crew fell behind, the other parts of his efficient process failed.

He had worked laying track since he was sixteen, laboring on the Transcontinental road for close to a year before General Palmer hired him away to help on his new road, the D&RG, stretching from Colorado Springs down to the steel mill at Pueblo. Mullins took pride in how he had become an assistant, just as young Wilkerson was for him, learned the best ways of going through different terrain and had finally been promoted to foreman of the main crew driving down toward Durango. He took pride in the three years he had worked for the General and had been rewarded for it.

But he had never fought both the elements and lack of supply before. One or the other. Not both.

"Behind the ties. You know that, boss." Young circled the stack and stopped dead in his tracks. "They were there this morning. You have 'em sent back down to the Springs?"

Twenty barrels of the tarry creosote made quite a pile on its own. All Mullins saw was emptiness. He scuffed his boot along the rocky ground. Here and there he saw where the barrels had been rolled. He followed the trail to a drop off. He just stared at the cliff face below.

The clerk crowded closer, braced himself against Mullins' bulk, peered over the edge and said, "You suppose the wind blew 'em over?"

Stretching from the edge of the cliff down more than a hundred feet, a streak of sticky creosote crept down the precipice. The cold turned the creosote tacky, making its downward progress slower than if it had been in the summer sunlight only a few weeks earlier. He saw staves from the ruptured barrels already frozen into place from the brown creosote. A deep whiff caught only a slight hint of the pungent odor. Wind and cold robbed it of discovery except by staring into the abyss.

A gust of wind caused Mullins to rock up onto the balls of his feet to keep his balance. He almost let it take him over the edge. Nothing made him happier than seeing another mile of track laid, unless it was the completion of a spur he had built himself. Him and a decent crew. But this job made him want to let the wind take him outward, soaring on the updraft, flying away from it all.

Young gripped his shoulder with surprising strength and steadied him, then pulled him back.

"You don't want to try fetching it, boss. I don't rightly know how twenty barrels got down there, but we can get more from the Springs. Don't cost much for the creosote. The barrels it's in and shipping'll cost more."

"That'll take several days. We're almost out of cured ties," Mullins said. He shrugged off the clerk's hand. "Somebody did this. It wasn't an accident."

"You mean sabotage? Who'd want to go and do that? I mean, we all share in the bounty General Palmer offered if we get another ten miles of track laid."

The clerk sounded genuinely confused.

"Could be all the trouble means the General has business rivals who don't want a road cut through until next year. That would give the stagecoach companies another year of no competition."

"I did hear how the stage through Mosquito Pass upped their rates. My sister lives in Leadville, and the freight rates have more 'n doubled."

"The General isn't an easy man, either. Business rivals might not be responsible. Personal enemies would delight in seeing him go bankrupt."

"Do tell. Never thought on that." The man paused, then asked, "Are we taking a few days off when we run out of cured ties? The boys would like that for certain sure."

Mullins held his temper and gave a message to wire back to the base station. When the clerk had faithfully recorded it and went to the telegraph key to send it along, the foreman found himself standing alone, staring out over the raw beauty of the Front Range, his mind tumbling like rocks in a polishing machine but getting nowhere. A new frigid blast warned him time was wasting. He stalked back to the end of the line. The crushed stone bed had been laid down. A half dozen men worked to set the ties into place. He beckoned Wilkerson over.

"You were right," Mullins said. "How many ties are ready to lay?"

Wilkerson scratched himself, hitched up his pants, considered spitting and reconsidered because of the gusty wind, and finally said, "One day, at the rate we're going. Can you get more creosote in?"

"I've had Young send a message."

"What happened to the creosote we had?"

The question was open, honest and, as far as Mullins could tell, sincere.

"Somebody doesn't want us going much farther."

"We have to get past the summit in less than a week or we'll be stuck on this side of the hill until spring thaw."

"Tell the entire crew there'll be as much beer as they want tonight."

"You want the lot of 'em drunk? Is that a good idea?"

Mullins laughed without humor.

"I always thought I wanted to be a barkeep. Tell them. And don't let any of them take a piss unless I say so."

"That's mighty harsh, in cold like this."

"Do it."

Mullins rolled out a couple barrels of the beer that had been sent mistakenly. He would gladly trade the lot of them for one more barrel of creosote. Better to slather the pitch onto ties rather than let his men suck up the bitter brew, but he had an idea.

As darkness fell and the men finished their section of track, they drifted back to camp where Mullins stood next to the cook.

"All the beer you can swill, men," he announced.

"You trying to kill us, boss?" An older man spoke up, pointed to his crotch and added, "My back teeth are floating and my pecker's about to explode, and not in a good way. Wilkerson said we wasn't to take a leak."

"Until I told you," Mullins said. "There's a barrel. Fill it up, get some beer and keep filling up the barrel. All of you."

Several men went and used the communal wooden thunder mug, got their tin cups filled with beer and settled down to a hearty meal. The way they had worked today, they were hungry. Mullins quickly saw that they were as thirsty as he'd guessed, too. The level in the first barrel went down even as that in the second rose.

"Want me to roll this over the cliff?" Wilkerson had his hands on the barrel filled with urine.

"Don't spill a drop. Use it to cure the raw ties piled up out back."

"Boss," Wilkerson said slowly, "you're out of your mind if you think this will seal the wood the way creosote does."

"Don't care if it does. As long as it works for a spell, we can keep laying track and not have it warp from weather the second we move on."

"I reckon a crew could come replace it next spring," the assistant foreman said. He scratched himself some, then began working on his button fly. "I need to add to the pot. If it cures leather, why not wood, I guess."

"Drink up, too. I was going to send the beer back down, so whatever's left is at jeopardy. I want it gone tomorrow, either all drunk up or ready to ship down to Colorado Springs."

"You have to keep the bar open until the creosote gets here," Wilkerson said. He sighed in relief as he moved around so he wasn't pissing into the wind. "By the way, has anyone from the cutting team reported in?"

"Young didn't mention it." Mullins cursed under his breath and went to find the clerk.

"Message sent," Young said, glancing up. He held his newspaper down with rocks on a tabletop. The canvas tent walls slapped with a savage regularity that warned of a building storm. In the Rockies, storm clouds formed and dripped inches of rain in the span of an hour, but they'd get lucky to get snow at this altitude. If luck ran against them, it would turn to sleet and freeze everything with a layer of half-melted ice.

Mullins inhaled deeply and caught a trace of rain mixed in with the wind.

"That's what I think, too. I've got everything lashed down, but the ties will get wet. No way around it."

"There's hardly a week's worth in the pile. Have you heard from the woodcutters?"

Young looked surprised. "I've been so busy with keeping records for the General, I plumb forgot them. They were supposed to be back this morning."

"Where were they cutting?"

"You know the canyon crossing the rails two miles back? Just before the slope up became too great and we started blasting the ledge along the mountain? That canyon goes into a meadow and wooded area that's about perfect for sturdy trees. Jake took the portable sawmill when he spotted a stream running along one edge of that meadow."

"If he didn't have to work the saw or plane the wood by hand, why isn't there a month's supply of ties here? Jake and his crew have been gone for a week now."

"You know how it is in the mountains, boss. The Utes aren't too friendly in these parts, not like that Ouray chief fellow down south."

"The General got his signature on a deed giving us right of way through to Durango."

"Ouray's not chief of all the Utes. Only the peaceable ones," Young said, shrugging it off. "If you want, I can send another 'gram back down the line and have them look for Jake. The next supply train's due in a couple days."

"Too long," muttered Mullins. He left the tent still grumbling.

After checking to see that the men enjoyed their beer and were dutifully trying to each fill an empty keg by his lonesome, he left Wilkerson in charge and rode in the dark down the treacherous grade to the canyon.

He wobbled in the saddle from exhaustion, but kept going. More than the bonus for finishing the line before winter socked them in, Mullins had his pride. He had promised to get the tracks laid. His one bit of good luck was a late winter. A couple years prior, the storms would have driven his crew to Colorado Springs for the winter by now. It was always chancy predicting the weather, but he felt in his gut that he had another week, perhaps two. Most of the blasting was done. The rock was being crushed to gravel for the bed and two more miles would be all he needed to have bragging rights on the best danged railroad crew in all of Colorado.

The best danged crew except for one. Someone had spent a considerable bit of effort rolling the barrels to the side of the mountain and pushing them over to slow progress.

He began singing songs, bellowing out The Irishman to keep himself awake.

"Just then the parrot began to sing

"God Save the Queen."

Old Pat woulda killed it then and there

But its feathers they were green.

He couldn't harm that color

And his anger held in check;

"Oh, if you were a canary bird

I'd wring your yaller neck"

His voice died down into a hoarse whisper from the cold air. Mullins thought back on times when he'd had it worse. An Arapahoe war party had surprised him right after he'd come to Colorado. He'd run three miles barefoot to get away. And then there was the time he had been stranded out on the prairie. Everyone in the party had died of cholera except him, and he was so weak from puking that a newborn kitten could have bested him. But he had kept going. Somehow he had boiled water and drunk it, almost burning off his tongue. But the purified water and little else had seen him through until the Central Pacific sent out a party to see why they had lost contact. In two weeks he had been back at work swinging a hammer and driving spikes with the best of them. All he felt now was a touch of fatigue.

Being tired was no excuse for stopping. He had to get more rail, more ties, more distance. He drifted off to sleep and laid a mile of track in his dreams. When he snapped back awake in the saddle he panicked, worried he still had a mile of track to go. Then he calmed his racing heart when he realized wood smoke caused his nostrils to flare. Instinctively he turned his horse toward the fire. When he came upon the four men huddled under their blankets, snoring as if they sawed wood in their sleep, he knew he had found his woodcutters.

"Jake," he bellowed. The cry came out hardly more than a croak, but it was enough to awaken the man across the fire from him.

"Mr. Mullins." Jake sat up, rubbed his eyes, then got to his feet. He stumbled over his boots, bent to put them on and then sat down heavily.

"Where're my railroad ties? I don't see a pile of them."

"The wagon's creaking with them." Jake pointed off into the dark.

Mullins urged his horse to jump the fire. Embers scattered and woke the others. He trotted away from camp to where the wagon stood. To be sure, he reached over and ran his hands along the wood stacked in the bed.

"Jake, get your worthless carcass over here. Now!"

"Boss, it's been hard finding good wood. Nothing but stunted trees in these parts and--"

"You've been lollygagging. You've been collecting your pay and sleeping till noon, haven't you?"

"No, sir, we haven't done any such thing. Look at the saw blade. It's damned near worn smooth."

Stretching, Mullins found the saw and ran his thumb along the edge. Most of the teeth were missing.

"You're cutting wood for some reason, but it's not ending up in my work camp. What's going on? Tell me or I'll fire you and make you walk back to the Springs."

"Aww, boss, it's nothing. Really nothing," Jake said. From the way he refused to lock eyes, it was more than that. "Come on back to camp. We got some fried chicken left over from dinner. It's better 'n that swill we get slopped onto our plates by that jackass you call a cook."

Mullins wheeled his horse about and walked back to camp, following Jake at a distance. When he reached the low campfire, the smell of freshly fried chicken made his nostrils swell. It had been a month of Sundays since he'd had a good piece of chicken. The General insisted on sending his crews beef and nothing more. That suited him just fine, only most of the beef had maggots in it that were tastier than the meat itself.

He dismounted and hunkered down by the fire. It flared when Jake tossed a couple branches onto it. He warmed his hands, then saw the chicken stored away in a Dutch oven and knew what had delayed the crew.

"How much did they pay you?" His question caused the whispers among the crew to fall silent. For the longest time only the whistle of the wind and the beating of his heart kept him company. Then Jake spoke up.

"They woulda froze to death during the winter, boss. We was doin' them a charitable act."

"How much firewood did you cut for . . ." He let the sentence trail off, wondering who would finish it for him. The giant of a man called Hick spoke up.

"Twarn't more 'n a dozen families," he said.

"What'd you cut? Five cords a family?"

"Naw, we didn't have time for that," Hick said. "A couple cords, 'cept for the Dawsons. They got the cutest little girls."

"Little girls," Mullins said thoughtfully. "About sixteen summers or so?"

"Older," Jake said. "The oldest one's dang near twenty and--"

"Fill the wagon with cut ties and get back to camp --the railroad camp -- by sundown tomorrow."

"But, boss, that's not possible."

"I don't care if you have to chisel the trees down with your front teeth like a beaver. You get that wood to camp or don't bother coming back at all."

He hesitated as he looked into the iron pot at the fried chicken. It had been so long since he'd eaten his belly rubbed up against his spine, but taking the meat would weaken his authority. As it was, he wondered if Jake or Hick or any of the others would show up with the cut ties. Pretty young girls out here in the mountains made for a powerful lure. Truth to tell, he was drawn back to Denver himself by invisible ties almost as strong as keeping his word. He had promised General Palmer to get the railroad over the mountains to the far side of the Rockies before winter.

His word was his bond. But Isabelle kept him mighty warm on winter nights. He hadn't found out if she could fry up a hen, but that made for a touch of mystery.

He heaved to his feet and glared at Jake. Without another word, he stepped up into the saddle and aimed his horse through the night in the direction of the tracks. Once he found them, he didn't need to worry. Just keep heading uphill until he got back to camp.

He arrived after sunup, so groggy from the ride he almost fell from the saddle. Luckily the men were so hung over from their beer drinking no one noticed but Wilkerson.

"Go rest up, boss," his assistant foreman said. "I can keep 'em moving."

"What about the ties?"

"Curing them is going to be a chore. It's too cold unless we put the pissed-on ties near a fire. That means we have to burn some of the untreated ones."

"Go on and do it. Jake's coming with a wagon load of fresh cut wood."

"If you say so, Gus." Wilkerson steered his boss toward their tent but paused outside it.

"What's wrong, Terry?"

"Is that trick with the piss and ties going to work? I never heard of any such thing in all my born days."

"Who knows?" Mullins said. "Who the hell knows?" He staggered into his tent and flopped on his cot, asleep instantly.

He came awake as quickly when a half dozen sounds collided. Mullins clapped his hands over his ears, then sat up. He tried to guess how long he had been asleep. From the sunlight sneaking into his tent, it had to be well past noon. Groaning, he got to his feet, hit his head on a coal oil lantern dangling from the ridgepole and stumbled outside, hardly in better condition than when he had entered hours before.

From the far end of the tracks rose a cloud of dust. The final stretch of rock had to be blasted away to build the ledge for the tracks. But the rattle of a wagon drew him toward the supply tent. He poked his head inside, but Young was nowhere to be seen.

A steam whistle sounded, signaling the arrival of the supply train. He went back down the tracks a ways and saw the train backing away. He waved to the engineer, who loosed another blast on the steam whistle. Then the narrow gauge engine disappeared down the slope, hidden by blowing snow.

"We done it, boss."

"What?" He saw that Jake and two of his crew sat in the wagon.

"We done sawed up enough to fill the wagon and brung it 'fore nightfall."

As good as his word, Jake had already begun stacking newly cut ties beside the pile of old ones. For a moment, Mullins tried to figure out what was wrong.

"Hick, he sorta snuck away in the night," Jake said, seeing his boss' confusion.

"So he's a farmer now?"

"The Dawsons raise sheep. Never took that big galoot for a sheepherder, but he says it's worth it to smell like a woolly when he crawls under the blanket with his honey."

Mullins stifled the comment that he had expected Jake and the rest to desert, too. He stood on tiptoe and looked over the pile of ties as his curiosity flared.

"What's wrong, boss?"

"Back there, down by the tracks? What is it?"

"The crew unloaded supplies. You reckon we got any good food? Don't look like more than a mountain of barrels."

"We're not going to be here much longer. A week, maybe, ten days. We have plenty of food--and beer." Mullins skirted the ties and saw forty barrels of creosote. "Why'd they bring us so damned much? The twenty barrels that were tossed over the side of the mountain would have finished the job. This is twice what we need."

As he said it, the thought came to him that it was three times as much as necessary, and the D&RG had been billed for it all.

"Young? Where the hell are you? Young!" Mullins' voice turned hoarse as he shouted for his quartermaster.

"He climbed onto the train. I saw him in the cab with the bakeman and engineer," Jake said.

"Why? Was the stoker ailing and they needed a hand?"

"The bakeman was fine as could be, boss. It looked like Tomasson moving the shovel back and forth. You know him, always bragging on how he's never missed a day of work in more than five years, like that was something important. In all that time the General's not got a full day's work out of him." Jake looked at him curiously. "You been drinking that beer I heard the others talking about?" Jake dragged his coat sleeve over chapped lips in silent entreaty.

"No, I just haven't slept enough. You know how to use a telegraph?" Jake's mocking laugh gave the answer. "Never mind. Somebody other than Young has to know how to send a message down to the General."

It was a product of his foggy brain that he thought such a thing even for an instant. Young was the only one other than himself who could tally a column of figures to keep inventory, and Young was the only one who knew Morse code.

The railroad needed men who could work twelve hours a day moving steel rails into place, then hammering in spikes. Telegraphy wasn't highly valued in most work camps.

He jerked around when another explosion sounded.

"That's not right, boss," Jake said. "I don't know nothing about blasting, but that sounded lame."

Mullins already headed for the end of the line. Wilkerson and their blasting engineer stood there, arguing. Now and then the engineer pointed at the still solid plug of rock barring their way.

"What went wrong?" Mullins demanded.

The engineer turned and being mostly deaf as a post, shouted, "The dynamite's punk. It doesn't explode like dynamite. It slow burns like powder."

"It got wet, maybe," Wilkerson said.

"That don't matter," the engineer said. "I heated it up because it was all frozen overnight. Hell, I left it in the sun all the livelong day. It was a bad shipment of dynamite."

"Wait, Terry," Mullins said. "He might be right. I think Young's been responsible for ordering too much of some things and maybe supplying us with shoddy supplies. That might be true for the dynamite."

"Why?"

Mullins thought on that and realized he had blurted out his suspicion without a good reason. He started talking and the answer came out.

"He threw our creosote over the edge of the cliff, then ordered twice as much to replace it. It arrived just now. He's charging three times what the railroad should pay. He's getting paid off by the supplier's my guess."

"This is cheapjack dynamite, that's for certain," the engineer said. "If he paid top dollar and got this"--he waved a dull red, papered stick around like a magic wand--"he stole better than twenty dollars a case."

"With the creosote, he could make another forty or thereabouts," Mullins said. "And the beer. I never ordered the beer." He ran through the calculations there and knew Young overcharged the railroad a hundred dollars minimum for the beer.

"I'll strangle him with my bare hands," the engineer said. "No, I'll ram this up his ass so far I can light the fuse when it comes out his nose!"

"He hightailed it back down the mountain," Mullins said. "Nobody in camp can send a telegram to the base to have him arrested."

"Arrested? The General will court martial him and stand him in front of a firing squad," Wilkerson said. "We're going to have to send a message on horseback down for more dynamite."

"Maybe not," Mullins said. "How much is left? If we use it all, would that bring down the hillside?"

"All? That's not the problem, Gus," said the engineer. "I don't know how it will blast. I need a quick, sharp detonation. If it burns slow or some doesn't go off, it might give us a daisy chain of an explosion. There's no telling what would happen."

"If it all detonated like it ought to, well, boss, it might blow up the underpinning we intend to use as road bed," said Wilkerson.

Mullins paced to the rock wall and then back, hands clasped behind his back and his gaze on the rocky ledge they had already fashioned. Snow pellets peppered his face as he walked. Winter was closing in. Ten days or even a week of work might be denied them by the insistent winter. He stopped and stared at the rocky plug and glared at it. The stone face mocked him.

"Drill your holes. We'll use all the remaining dynamite to see what happens."

"But, boss--"

"Do it."

"I'm not lighting the fuse," Wilkerson said. "Fire me, if you want."

"Me, neither. Terry's right," said the engineer. "Setting off any of this shit is too dangerous."

"Get the holes drilled. I want to blast before we have to do it in the dark."

Wilkerson and the engineer exchanged a glance, then set to work. Mullins went to the end of the tracks and found a spot to sit down. The cold rock caused him to shiver. He still fell asleep in spite of the wind and the drilling.

He came awake with a start when Wilkerson shook his shoulder.

"We're ready. The holes are all tamped and the blasting caps set."

"How much fuse?"

"Three feet ought to get you away."

Mullins nodded. Black miner's fuse burned at one foot a minute. He got up and saw that his men had drilled five holes. Fuse dropped from each down to form a yoke. A single fuse lead from the junction. Light the fuse, then run like hell. He took a deep breath and accepted a tin of lucifers from the engineer.

"Get on back and be sure the men are safe," he told Wilkerson. "I'll be there running like the demons of hell are after me."

"They might be," the engineer growled.

Mullins shooed them away, then worked to get the match to light in the fitful wind. The magnesium-laden fuse caught when the tip of the guttering flame touched it. Nothing would put it out now. He foolishly watched for ten seconds as it burned along toward the yoke. Only Wilkerson's shouted warning got him turned around and running. He put his head down and pumped his arms. His legs propelled him forward fast enough to catch up with the engineer as he reached a stack of ties used as a shield.

Mullins vaulted over and sat heavily, panting. Wilkerson and the engineer sat on either side as they waited for the explosion. And waited. And waited.

"What happened?"

The engineer peered over the top and cursed.

"We got trouble bad," he said. "The fuse burned to the top sticks but they didn't go off. The blasting caps must be bad, too."

Mullins closed his eyes and tried to keep his heart from running away with itself. This was the worst thing that could happen. Somebody had to go pull the explosive out and put new caps on the sticks.

He heaved himself to his feet and walked around the barricade.

"Give me new blasting caps," he said.

"We can get the rifle and shoot at the dynamite," said Wilkerson. "It doesn't matter what sets it off as long as something does."

"I've seen how good a shot you are. You missed that deer, and you were only twenty feet away. And you're the best shot in camp." Mullins held out his hand, took the new caps in his right hand and rushed out to finish the job.

A gust of wind caused him to stumble. He fell facedown, his hands going out to break his fall. He heard men screaming behind him, then the fulminate of mercury blasting caps in his right hand went off and the world went away in a black rush.

#

Augustus Mullins came awake with a start. He grabbed the side of the bed and found a soft feather mattress. The air didn't stink, and the soft light making him squint carried the warmer hues of a gas lamp, not a harsh coal oil lantern or unfiltered sunlight. More than this, he was warm. Trying to remember when he had been warm--and clean--made his head hurt some. He sank back into the bed, took a deep breath, then tried to scratch his nose to hold back a sneeze.

That was when he panicked.

Strong hands pushed him back and held him down.

"It's all right, Mr. Mullins. Don't struggle so."

He blinked away the last of the sleep from his eyes and saw an old man with muttonchops and a forehead like a washboard staring at him.

"You're a lucky man."

Mullins tried to push him away, but his arm wouldn't respond. He turned and stared at where his right hand should have been and found only bedclothes. Try as he might, he couldn't lift his right arm.

"It got blown off by the blasting caps," the man said.

"Who're you?"

"Dr. Lloyd. I'm General Palmer's personal physician."

"General Palmer?"

"You've been unconscious for nigh on a week. The General had you shipped down to Colorado Springs where I could better tend your injury."

Mullins struggled to put it all together. The fog over his brain came from opiates. They had drugged him.

"You sawed off my hand?"

"There was no need. As I said, you were lucky. The caps blew off your hand and took your arm above the elbow. The explosive seared the flesh or you might have bled to death. The cold helped, too. When shock set in you were already unconscious. That saved your life since no one in the camp had any idea what to do."

"The blasting engineer?"

"He wouldn't have known. Injuries are quite rare among such engineers, but deaths aren't."

"Is he alert, Doctor?" The question came from a million miles away. Mullins tried to find the source of a voice he--almost--recognized.

"Yes, sir, he is." Dr. Lloyd stood.

Mullins tried to flop about but found himself too weak to do more than turn his head.

"General Palmer."

"Yes, Mr. Mullins. I had you brought to my home for recuperation. The good doctor says you will make a complete recovery." The General coughed politely. "Complete, that is, other than for your hand, of course."

"Young, sir. He--"

"Your Mr. Wilkerson passed along your suspicions. The trouble has been taken care of. Young was being paid to order more material from a particular company than was needed and at exorbitant prices. You have saved the D&RG a considerable amount of money, sir. I thank you for that."

"The tracks?"

General Palmer laughed and sat beside Mullins on the bed. He patted his chest.

"You need to recuperate and not worry about company business. I have every confidence in Mr. Wilkerson finishing the project. Thanks to you, only a mile more had to be laid after the rock was blasted free."

"The dynamite?"

"While I cannot determine if it can be laid at Young's feet purchasing old dynamite, it doesn't matter. The barrier was blown away and work has continued over the past week. The storms have held off, in your honor, I suspect. You have served the D&RG faithfully and well."

Mullins held up the stump of his right arm. A thousand thoughts collided.

"I won't be able to work anymore. Not missing a hand."

"Perhaps it is time for you to retire and pursue another occupation."

"What is there for a one-armed man?" Mullins couldn't keep the bitterness from his question.

"Swinging a hammer and driving spikes is out of the question."

Mullins laughed to hide the pain at the image of him trying to swing a ten-pound hammer with one hand. It was a backbreaking job with two good, strong hands wrapped around the handle.

"I own a saloon in Denver. After hearing what you did with the surplus beer that Young ordered for the camp, perhaps managing the Emerald City would appeal to you."

"Denver?"

"Life on a railroad crew wears down even the best. You've served me well. Continue to do so. I need a man I can trust behind the bar."

"I've never--"

"I can't expect you to work for a salary. Forty percent of the saloon is yours, if you accept my offer."

"I'd be an owner?"

"I need you, Gus, and your honesty."

"No, I won't do it."

General Palmer's eyes widened in surprise.

"Why not?"

"Fifty-fifty. I can read and cipher, I'm honest as the day is long and I've got a few ideas how to make those worthless layabouts in Denver drink just a glass or two more of beer."

"Very well. You drive a bargain as hard as you drove spikes, but I will not lose a good man. Shake, Mr. Mullins, shake hands with your new partner."

The General held out his left hand. Mullins swung around in bed and thrust out his good hand.

"A deal," Augustus Mullins said. "And you can call me Lefty from now on."


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