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The town took shape like a wintry mirage. On a wooded creek bank Ryan reined his gelding to a halt. He sat studying the distant buildings.
A light February snowfall covered the plains. Located in the southeastern quadrant of Kansas, the town stood framed against an overcast sky. It was called Parsons, the latest in a line of railheads advancing across the prairie. As yet, it appeared on no map.
Somewhat bemused, Ryan slowly inspected the layout. Only last spring he'd ridden through here on his way to Abilene. From Fort Smith, where he served as a deputy U.S. Marshal, it was a five-day trip by horseback. At the time there had been nothing along Labette Creek except a vast expanse of prairie grassland. But now, bundled in a mackinaw against the cold, he saw a bustling little metropolis. He was impressed, and all the more curious about the man who had summoned him.
Parsons was the offspring of the railroad. Chartered several years ago, the Missouri, Kansas and Texas had begun operations in Junction City. The company name, too cumbersome for everyday use, had been shortened by natives to the "Katy." Last year, the summer of 1870, the line had laid track to the border of Indian Territory. Then, some miles above the border, the Katy turned eastward and began layingtrack toward Sedalia, Missouri. The juncture, situated on a fertile prairie, was only a stone's throw from Labette Creek. Here, seemingly overnight, Parsons sprang from the earth.
Windswept and sprawling, the town was a beehive of activity. Along the main thoroughfare was a collection of stores and businesses, clapboard buildings wedged side by side. Immense piles of trade goods, offloaded at the Katy depot, were stacked in snow-crowned mounds. Beyond the main street board shanties and canvas tents were rapidly being replaced by newly built houses. The population was approaching two thousand, and the inhabitants seemed charged with the galvanic energy peculiar to boom towns. Parsons had assumed a look of permanence.
Gathering the reins, Ryan kneed his gelding forward into the creek. A short distance beyond the opposite bank, he skirted the train depot and the rail yards. The main street was jammed with wagons and a noonday throng crowded the boardwalks. As he rode past, he noted that everyone, even the farmers, seemed in a hurry. Farther uptown he spotted the Belmont House Hotel directly across the street from a bank. At the hitch rack he stepped down from the saddle, then loosened the cinch. He left the gelding tied out front.
Inside the hotel he took a moment to shrug off his mackinaw. The lobby was furnished with a horsehair-and-leather sofa and several easy chairs. The room clerk behind the desk was painfully frail, with a pursed smile and round moist eyes. He nodded as Ryan crossed the lobby.
"Good afternoon, sir."
"Afternoon," Ryan replied. "I'm looking for Colonel Robert Stevens."
"Oh, yes sir! Colonel Stevens is in room two-oh-one. Just take the stairs and turn left."
The clerk's snap-to-attention reaction amused Ryan. But it was hardly more than he'd expected. Colonel Robert Stevens was, after all, managing director of the Katy railroad. Upstairs he turned left and proceeded along the hallway. He idly wondered if Stevens' rank was from wartime service orsimply an honorary title. On second thought, he decided it wasn't worth asking. He rapped on the door.
The man who opened it was attired in a broadcloth coat, with matching vest and trousers. He was of medium height, with brown hair receding into a widow's peak and nut-brown eyes. Something about him gave an impression of raw vitality, an air of enormous confidence. He smiled cordially.
"May I help you?"
"I'm John Ryan."
"Well, do come in, Mr. Ryan. I'm delighted to see you."
Stevens thrust out his hand. Ryan pumped his arm a couple of times and moved through the door. The room was a combination bedchamber and parlor overlooking the town's main street. A brass bed along with a dresser and washstand were positioned off to one side. Nearer the windows were a small desk and two overstuffed armchairs.
"Allow me to take your coat."
Stevens hooked his hat and mackinaw on a hall tree. Then, leading the way, he motioned Ryan to one of the chairs. After seating himself, his eyes flicked over Ryan in rapid assessment. He noted the leather vest and and boots, and his gaze touched briefly on the Colt .44 strapped to Ryan's hip. He settled back, crossed his legs.
"You come highly recommended, Mr. Ryan. Oliver's letter was nothing short of a testimonial."
The reference was to Oliver Logan, U.S. Marshal for Western Arkansas and Indian Territory. Ryan shrugged off the compliment. "Oliver tells me you're old friends."
"Indeed we are," Stevens acknowledged. "We met some years ago in Washington. That was before his appointment west, of course."
"And before you got involved with the railroad."
"Exactly." Stevens was silent a moment. "I understand you've resigned as a deputy marshal. May I ask why?"
"Oliver must have explained it in his letter."
"I would prefer to hear it from you."
"Why not?" Ryan said equably. "Last month the President appointed Joseph Story as judge of the Western District Court. Story is a crook and an incompetent, and I won't work for either. It's just that simple."
"What do you mean by 'crook'?"
"Well, for one thing, he's appointed his cronies as chief prosecutor and court clerk. For another, the word's out that payoffs will buy leniency in criminal cases. I don't hold with corruption, so I quit."
"Why doesn't Oliver resign?"
"I guess he's too old to start over."
"And you're not?"
"Judge for yourself."
Stevens had already rendered judgment. He knew that Ryan had served with distinction in the Union Army. Following the war, he'd drifted westward, working at a variety of jobs. Then, at the age of twenty-eight, he had been hired by Oliver Logan. That was four years past, and by all accounts he had found his true vocation as a lawman. He had been assigned to Indian Territory the entire time and lived to tell the tale. He'd also killed nine outlaws in wilderness shootouts.
And now, scrutinizing him closely, Stevens understood why he came recommended so highly. He was whipcord lean, lithe yet broad through the shoulders, perhaps a shade less than six feet tall. His manner was deliberate and steady, somehow assured beyond his years. But it was his eyes, curiously pale and very direct, that set him apart. The effect of his gaze was striking, as though he looked at nothing and saw everything. His weathered features and sandy hair in no way dispelled the impression.
"Tell me," Stevens said at length, "how much do you know about the railroad business?"
"Not a whole lot."
"You're aware we intend to build through Indian Territory?"
"So I've heard."
Ryan actually knew a great deal about the Katy. ThroughOliver Logan, he'd learned that Stevens was an influential man with influential friends. The Department of the Interior had ruled that the first railroad to lay track to the Kansas state line would secure the exclusive right to enter Indian Territory from the north. Last summer, in a dead heat with other companies, Katy construction crews won the race to the border. As an added prize the Katy was awarded 1,300,000 acres in federal land grants along its Kansas right-of-way. Only two days later Congress passed a bill opening government lands in southern Kansas to settlement.
The Katy reaped a sudden windfall. Homesteaders and immigrants were pouring into Kansas, more than sixty thousand settling there in 1870. The virgin soil, along with a favorable climate and abundant streams, made it appear the promised land. In the months that followed, the Katy easily disposed of its federal grant. The price was ten dollars an acre, generating cash revenues in the millions of dollars. Quite clearly, Colonel Robert Stevens had friends in Washington.
Still, the largest prize of all was on the horizon. By federal grant the Katy would be awarded five alternate sections of land per mile on each side of its railway through Indian Territory. The purpose of the grant was to provide sufficient incentive for a company to spend the millions involved in construction costs. And in the case of Indian Territory, the incentive was very great indeed. The Katy grant, similar to that awarded for the first transcontinental line, would be ten square miles for each mile of road constructed. In total, the prize would represent 3,064,390 acres.
"I'm curious," Ryan said quietly. "How do the Indians feel about it? Won't a railroad through there open the Nations to settlement?"
"The price of progress," Stevens remarked.."Indian Territory is the key to a railway system throughout the entire Southwest. Here, let me show you."
Twisting about, he took a rolled map from the desktop. Then he leaned forward and unfurled it between them. His finger stabbed at the map.
"The shortest route to Texas is through the nations of the Five Civilized Tribes. A straight line between the Kansas border and Colbert's Ferry on the Red River."
"And after that?" Ryan asked.
"An empire!" Stevens said expansively. "We already have a grant to extend our road from Indian Territory through Texas to the Rio Grande. We'll eventually link Old Mexico and the Far West to the eastern markets. Just think of it!"
"Sounds like you've been burning the midnight oil."
"We have indeed. But what we're after now is to win the race to the Texas border. Then we'll connect with our Missouri division and establish an outlet to St. Louis and the East."
"What do you mean by a 'race'? I thought you had right-of-way through the Nations."
"Only the north-south route," Stevens advised him. "The Atlantic and Pacific has east-west right-of-way, and they're building from Missouri right now. We have to shut them off from the western markets by extending track to the Red River."
Ryan's expression revealed nothing. Yet he understood that Stevens was talking about establishing a monopoly of trade with Texas and the Far West. After a moment he shifted in his chair.
"How does all that involve me, Colonel? Your letter to Oliver wasn't too clear about what you have in mind."
"Have you ever seen a camp at end-of-track? Where we establish our supply depot until the next leg of the road is built?"
"Not that I recall."
"Well, it gets rough, very rough. There's always lots of money at end-of-track. Usually a settlement of some sort springs up as well. So it attracts whiskey peddlers and gamblers and prostitutes. What some people call the sporting crowd."
"I'm familiar with them," Ryan noted.
"You're also familiar with Indian Territory. Which in itselfadds considerably to our problems. So I'd like to offer you the job of special agent."
Ryan looked at him without expression. "What exactly does a special agent do?"
"Keep the peace," Stevens answered. "Hold down violence and make the sporting crowd toe the mark. Enforce the law."
"Whose law?" Ryan rocked his hand, fingers splayed. "In the Nations, there's Indian law and there's white man's law."
The problem he alluded to was essentially one of bureaucratic bungling. Of all the legal tangles created by federal government, law enforcement in Indian Territory was perhaps the most bizarre. White men, whatever their crime, were subject to arrest only by federal marshals. On the other hand, federal marshals could not arrest an Indian unless it involved an offense committed against a white. Light Horse Police, who enforced tribal law, were unable to arrest whites regardless of circumstances. The situation oftentimes became confusing and dangerous.
"To be quite frank," Stevens said, "I'm not worried about Indians."
"You should be," Ryan observed. "There are still some savages in the Five Civilized Tribes. They just don't like tibos--white men."
"Perhaps so. But my main concern is with the sporting crowd, or perhaps I should say with the safety of my construction crew."
A moment elapsed while the two men stared at one another. Then Ryan spread his hands. "What legal authority would I have?"
"I'll arrange to have you appointed a deputy sheriff here in Kansas. That should suffice until we reach the Texas border."
"Sounds pretty thin."
Stevens smiled. "Any badge is better than no badge at all."
"How much does the job pay?"
"Five hundred a month plus a bonus when we cross the Red River."
Ryan whistled softly. "That's a lot of money."
"You'll earn it."
An instant of weighing and calculation slipped past. Finally, with a tight grin Ryan nodded. "Colonel, I guess you've just hired yourself a special agent."
"Excellent! I'm delighted to have you on board, John."
There was a rumbling knock at the door. Then it opened and the entryway seemed momentarily blocked of light. The man who entered was tall and burly, with massive shoulders and a cannonball head. His hair was wiry and red, and his ruddy features were complemented by bushy ginger eyebrows and a ginger mustache. He lumbered across the room.
Stevens rose, motioning to Ryan. "John, I'd like you to meet Tom Scullin, our construction superintendent. Tom, this is John Ryan, our new special agent."
Scullin stuck out a gnarled, stubby-fingered hand. "Pleased to meet you. By your getup, I take it you're not from the old country?"
"A ways back." Ryan quickly extracted his hand from the big man's crushing grip. "My folks came over in 'thirty-nine."
"Aren't you the lucky devil. Most of my boys are fresh off the boat, and there's a fact."
"Our construction crew," Stevens interjected. "Tom has dubbed them the Irish Brigade."
"So now," Scullin went on bluffly, "you're to be our guardian down among the red heathens. Have you had experience at it, then?"
"Some!" Stevens echoed. "John's too modest by far. For the past four years, he's served as a deputy U.S. Marshal. And all of it spent in Indian Territory."
"You don't say." Scullin wagged his head appreciatively. "Well, John Ryan, I'd think you'll do very nicely. Very nicely indeed."
Stevens resumed his seat. "Enough of your blarney, Tom. Why aren't you on your way to end-of-track?"
"Would you have me leave without sayin' good-bye? The construction train's loaded and we'll pull out within the hour."
"Which brings us back to the question you keep avoiding. Our plans for Indian Territory are delayed until we have a direct link to Missouri. So I ask again--how soon will you reach Sedalia?"
"By the Jesus!" Scullin said in a booming voice. "A mile a day, and there's my word on it. You'll have your connection in thirty days, no more."
"Good. I'm pleased to hear it. And I'll hold you to your word, Tom."
"You'll have no need! Trust an Irishman to deliver every time."
Scullin winked at Ryan and walked toward the door. When he was gone, Stevens laughed and shook his head. "It's like pulling teeth to get a commitment. But Tom hasn't failed me yet. He always delivers."
Ryan appeared thoughtful. "I heard him mention thirty days. Are you planning on me starting then or now?"
"Consider yourself on the payroll as of today, John."
"You mean to let me loaf for a month?"
"Hardly. We leave for Indian Territory tomorrow morning."
"Any particular part?"
"The Cherokee Nation. You can act as my guide."
"You've never been there?"
Ryan smiled. "You're in for a shock, and then some."
Copyright © 1985 by Matt Braun.