Lust, revenge, greed, and betrayal. One piece of American history incited them all.
J. E. Dyer
Published by Joshua Dyer
This is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, brands, and media are either the product of the author's imagination, or used in a fictional manner. The contents of this book may not be reprinted or redistributed, in whole or in part, without prior written consent from the author.
The most powerful steam train in the world does you little good if there is no conductor to guide it.
New York City
Which has eroded more, time or greed?
Collis Huntington sat pensive behind the massive mahogany desk in the study of his sprawling mansion. Instances such as the upcoming confrontation always put the tycoon in a mood. The horses’ hooves echoed off the cobblestone street as they pulled their carriages along the Manhattan thoroughfare.
A fascinating proposition indeed.
He turned his attention toward the clopping just beyond the reach of the tall widow on the far end of the room. Huntington’s weary brown gaze wandered over the towering library that he had amassed over the past few decades. He ran his arthritic right hand over the book of newspaper articles.
I am the last of us – the Associates. We dared to dream big and run headlong into the unknown in their pursuit. It’s funny how it all began.
He lowered his stare to a black and white photograph of four powerful tycoons in a better time.
We all went from struggling store clerks on K Street to four of the most powerful men on Earth. Entrepreneurial spirit, the rails, and one man’s vision of a road spanning our great nation from coast to coast drew us in with their seductive boldness.
His rotund gut heaved under the strain of another coughing spasm. Collis pulled a silk handkerchief from the breast pocket of his charcoal jacket and blotted his lips. The stained page of his memories crackled as he turned it. He grinned over the worn photograph of several dozen men and dignitaries huddled near an old steam engine.
When your candle has burned its wick down to the last strands, you come to understand a few things.
Huntington’s gaze scanned the trove of special treasures at the center of the room.
Shimmering trinkets, rare editions of Ben Franklin, one-of-a-kind coins costing me a year’s worth of a regular man’s wages. Such a waste.
Three light raps on the tall doors to his sanctuary snapped the magnate out of his thoughts.
“Excuse me, sir,” a lean stately man said in an aristocratic Scottish accent. “The gentleman you were expecting has arrived.”
Collis coughed into his rag, waving his guest in. “Of course. Please show him in, Jameson.”
His loyal footman turned his head of graying curls over his left shoulder in the doorway. “Shall I have Kate bring you in a cup of coffee, sir?”
“Yes, thank you,” Collis said, stuffing his hanky back into its breast pocket. “Have her make a cup for our guest as well.”
Jameson turned and bowed. “Very well, sir.” Upon righting his torso, the butler extended a long arm toward the study.
“Thank you very much,” a young man said, clasping his hat as his breast.
“Your drinks shall be along shortly,” Jameson said, grabbing either doorknob. He closed the towering oaken doors to the study with a light click.
“Excellent,” Collis said. He watched his nemesis with a stern eye as the young man’s neck craned to take in the room’s entire splendor. The reporter’s blue irises followed the gilded crown molding along the haughty ceiling.
“I had no idea,” he said, taking confident steps toward Huntington’s desk.
“Very few do.” Collis held a shaky hand to the open leather seat across from him. “Please, make yourself comfortable, Mr. McClure. Something tells me that this may take a while.”
McClure sat his beige leather satchel next to the chair and laid his bowler on the polished desktop. “This is quite an impressive collection, Mr. Huntington.” He dug in the bottom of his leather pit for a pen and some paper. “How many people did you have to fleece to afford it all, I wonder?”
Collis shrugged off the gouge. “Most of the things that mattered to me left this world a long time ago. As you covered most of their stories, too, I’ll spare you the details.”
McClure retrieved a small notepad and a writing implement from the pit of his satchel and sat them next to his hat. “Why did you ask me here, Mr. Huntington?” McClure loosened his thin blue tie and leaned back into the chair with an air of arrogance. “After all of those scathing articles in the Times, why invite me into your home?”
The reflective study doors creaked open interrupting Huntington’s reply. A youthful woman of nineteen shuffled into their meeting toting a large silver tray in her hands. Her emerald eyes wavered behind long curls of fiery hair.
“Your beverages, sir,” Kate said in an unsteady Irish accent. She curtsied and slid the elegant tray of find china onto the bureau and bowed once more before departing.
“How do you take your coffee, Mr. McClure?” Collis asked, filling his cup from the porcelain pot.
“A little of both, if you please.” He leaned forward in his seat. “You’re avoiding my questions already.”
Huntington did his best to fill the reporter’s cup, but his wavering hand dribbled a puddle of Arbuckle’s onto the sterling silver. “Damn. I wasn’t avoiding your question, Mr. McClure – merely maintaining focus.”
Collis leaned away from his desk in defeat. “Enjoy your youth while you still have it.”
The reporter from the Times sat sipping his concoction in stately silence.
“I’m sorry,” Huntington said at last. “What was your question?”
McClure sat his cup on the tray. “Why me?”
“Ah, yes.” He threaded his fingers over his belly and eased back into his throne. “I requested you in particular because I wanted to set the record straight once and for all.”
Collis felt a small resurgence of the adrenaline had had always gotten in the heat of a great negotiation. “I want your readership to know the truth.”
“The truth?” McClure echoed in an offended tone.
“Yes,” Huntington said. “All of it.”
The baron rocked slowly in his chair, studying his adversary’s every move. “Where shall we begin?” He had always loved the mental chess match that ensued following a proposition. As a born salesman, it was in his blood. “Perhaps the money? The scandals? The affairs?”
McClure’s eyes widened in delight. “You’re the last of the great barons. Your power and wealth rival those of any king or queen that Europe has ever produced.” He scribbled a few things onto his notepad. “How did you get there?”
Collis chuckled as he turned his scrapbook back to the first page. “Ah, American royalty.” He leaned forward in his seat and caressed a picture of his younger self standing next to a tall, lanky gent. They huddled arm in arm under a big storefront that read Huntington & Hopkins Hardware Company.
“In as many words,” McClure said, “yes.”
“Well,” Collis said, tapping the photo, “it wasn’t as easy as your journalistic regurgitation implied.”
His guest cleared his throat and fidgeted with his pen.
“If you want to know that story, then we should begin around this particular timeframe.” He slid the book across the surface to his guest. McClure’s eyes grew as they studied the piece of living history.
“As with any story worth investigating, Mr. McClure,” Huntington said, “there are always two sides.”
Fall of 1854
The hustle and bustle of sodden miners seemed to have no end, not that it bothered Collis Huntington in the least. Various shades of copper and gold seeped into the deciduous hillsides outside his apartment’s small window. His wife, Elizabeth, wrapped her lean arms around his youthful waist as he put the finishing touches on his tie.
“All ready for another day, dear?” she asked, brushing the dust from his right shoulder.
Huntington turned from their apartment window overlooking K Street and pecked her on lips. “Looks like it’s going to be another busy one.”
Elizabeth sat her hands at the small of her back and leaned closer to their small window. “This gold fever doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.”
He tugged her closer by her slender hips and brushed a stray curl of light brown hair from her face. “So long as they continue to pan the streams and dig in the hills, we’ll always have a steady flow of customers.”
Collis pulled his watch from its nest in his right vest pocket and sighed when he read its face. Beth looked up to him with disquieted pride.
“I won’t keep you from work any longer, dear,” she said, patting the small of his back. “Off you go. These debts won’t pay for themselves.”
He kissed his wife once more and strode across the rickety floor to the front door. “Yes, ma’am.”
“I’ll have some supper on the table for you when you wrap up downstairs.”
He took his black hat off its hook on the wall and tugged the old wooden door ajar. “Thank you, darling. I’ll do my best to get in at a decent hour tonight.”
Hundreds of tiny dust particles swam in the daylight that pierced the front windows of his store. Collis made quick work of straightening up his sales counter and pulled the register’s cash from a small safe underneath. He sorted out the denominations, his eyes bouncing back and forth between them and the growing traffic on K Street.
Looks like it’s going to be another busy day.
Huntington strode to the front doors and swung them open. Fresh, crisp air billowed into the stale space carrying the odor of mud and manure into his shop. A lone pair of boots clopped down the wooden boardwalk from his left.
“Mornin’, Collis,” an older, stately male voice said.
Huntington walked up to meet his neighbor and competitor with a cautious grin. “Mark.” He took Hopkin’s hand in his and gave it a firm shake.
“How’s business been for you this month?” Mark Hopkins had always been a man of few words – right to the point.
Collis shrugged. “About as busy as the last two.” His brown eyes wandered up from Mark’s long, black beard to meet his blue stare. “You?”
Hopkins leaned against a cypress post, shoving a lean hand into the pockets of his black slacks. “Could be better. Could be worse.” He used the other to take the pipe from the corner of his mouth and poked it toward Huntington’s front windows. “Seems like things have been looking up for you over the past couple of years.”
Collis eyed a buckboard wagon as it lumbered down the street on a squeaky wheel. “True. I had quite the scare back in ’52.”
Hopkins nodded with a chuckle.
“The Crocker brothers damn near bought me out.”
Mark turned his pipe upside down and tapped it against the side of his post. “Bankruptcy will run anyone out of business faster than anything else.”
“I’ve never been much of a man for bookkeeping,” Huntington said, arching his back in the chilly air.
“Personally,” Hopkins said, stuffing his pipe with fresh tobacco, “I’d much rather be handling those matters than dealing with angry drunkards out front.”
Collis’s eyes lit up. He knew a great opportunity when he saw it.
“You know,” Huntington said, “those Crocker boys have been getting a pretty big slice of the pie for some time.”
Mark nodded and lit his pipe. Fragrant clouds of cherry-tinged smoke billowed into Huntington’s nostrils.
“I’m much more comfortable with sales than the books.” Collis studied his neighbor’s body language. It gave away no weaknesses. “You, on the other hand, have a knowledge of accounting that I couldn’t imagine being able to obtain.”
Mark puffed out another aromatic cloud of white smoke and laughed. “You really think we could give them serious competition?”
Collis stepped closer and lowered his voice. “With my salesmanship and your accounting prowess, we could own this town.”
Hopkins calculating gaze scanned the growing crowd. “I don’t know, Collis. That would be a big gamble.”
“Life’s a gamble, Mark.” Huntington had done enough selling to sense common objections like second nature. “We can’t win the pot if we never roll the dice.”
Hopkins exhaled another stressful cloud of pipe smoke into the wooden overhang.
Collis went in for the close. “Now, we’d be playing with two dice instead of one.”
His tall counterpart’s solemn face bent up in a smile. The hook’s in -- time to start reeling. Collis waved at a couple of approaching miners caked in dried, sand-colored mud. “We should discuss this further over a cup of Arbuckle’s later.”
Mark turned around and trailed after a pair of mountain men that meandered into his general store. “I think you might be onto something.”
Collis extended an arm into his store, inviting the trio of miners into his hardware store. “Today after closing, then?”
Mark bobbed his head. “Have a good day over there.”
Huntington strode into his business riding on an adrenaline high. “You do the same, Mark.”
“What can I do for you gentlemen?” Collis asked. He dusted off his charcoal vest and approached his customers.
One of the grungy men strode up to meet him with an extended hand. Huntington glanced down at the soiled paw. The miner’s hand held stories and secrets of its own that its features revealed. The caked earth under its unkempt nails, a deep gash across the flesh of its palm – they told the dark tales that his mind refused. Many a man was sent to his grave on those mountains over a lust for the nugget. How’d you get that cut?
Huntington gripped in firmly and looked the gent in his blue eyes. “My equipment comes with a full replacement guarantee if it ever breaks on you.”
The miner nodded his jet black hair. “Name’s, Burt.” He broke away from Collis’ grip and jabbed a dirty digit at his cohorts studying the pickaxes. “We’re in need of some supplies and a couple of dependable picks.”
Huntington led Burt back over to the others and set a pick in the man’s hands. “Feel that?”
Burt bobbed the pickaxe up and down with a smile.
“That’s the feel of dependability, my friend.” Huntington turned Burt’s attention to the cast iron fasteners at the instrument’s head. “See here?”
Burt turned the pick over on its side.
“Solid craftsmanship, Burt.” He thumbed the tip of the sharp tool and slapped Burt on the shoulder. “Cast iron fittings welded from one piece of metal. She’ll be less likely to snap on you.”
Burt tested the pick in his grip and bobbed his head in accord. “How much?”
Collis pulled two more from the row of hanging picks and handed one to each of Burt’s partners. “I usually charge two dollars apiece for these.”
The younger blond man over Burt’s left shoulder let loose a testy whistle. “That’s mighty steep for one pick, mister.”
“They’re guaranteed for life,” Collis countered. The boy’s amateurish attempt to haggle went nowhere.
“I think we might just go next door,” Burt said, pushing the tool back to Collis, “and see what they’re price is on one.”
Huntington sat two mining pans in Burt’s arms and continued, not missing a beat. “That’s why I’m going to practically give them to you along with the rest of your supplies at a discount.”
Burt’s bushy black brows furrowed as he pulled the equipment back into his barrel-like chest. “Just how much are we talkin’ here?”
Collis smiled. “Follow me.”
He heard the crew trailing behind his bulky strides as Huntington led them over to the sales register. He noted each item in his receipt ledger and tallied up their cost.
“All together,” he said, scratching his forehead with the end of his pencil. “That comes to a total of eight dollars and fifty-two cents.”
Burt’s lower jaw hit the dusty planks of his store. “I thought you said --”
Collis loved this part of every transaction. “Now,” he said, jotting some quick math into the margin of his ledger, “with a discount today of forty percent,” Collis scribbled the new figure at the bottom and circled it, “that brings it down to a grand total of five dollars and twelve cents.”
“For the whole lot?” the copper-haired string bean guffawed to Burt’s right.
Collis nodded and leaned over his side of the counter. “That’s right. Do we have a deal?”
Burt muttered to Blondie and Red for a few seconds while Collis sorted their purchases into neat stacks. Burt stepped to the counter and cleared his throat.
“You got yourself a deal!” he exclaimed, shaking Huntington’s hand once more.
Each of the men produced two crumpled dollar bills from their pockets and slapped them on Huntington’s countertop. Collis collected his earnings and came back from his register with their change.
“A pleasure doing business with you gentlemen,” he said, helping them carry their new pickaxes out to the empty buckboard. Marking the inventory up fifty percent last week may have been my best strategy to date.
Burt tipped his cowboy hat toward Collis and readied for the journey back up to their secret spot. Collis waved as the rickety wagon departed back down the rutted streets of Sacramento. He turned back toward his hardware store and released a sigh of satisfaction into the warming breeze.
“If the meeting with Mark this evening goes this well,” he muttered, striding behind his counter, “this merger’s in the bag.”