Houston slathered the lard over his jowls and chin. He stropped the razor and began shaving. As he shaved, he considered the matter of the ransom recovery, one shit load of money. But it wasn't the money, was it? Naw, it was feeding of some of his own shit to that fat-assed, pompous bastard who called himself a general. And satisfaction. Satisfaction for Billy's memory. That's what it was all about. Finished shaving, he called to his partner, "Get the horses, Charlie; we've got a train to meet."
"First I say goodbye to the prisoner, then we go."
General Rolf E. Pollson, superintendent of the Arkansas and Canadian Rivers Railroad, shivered in the mine tunnel wrapped in the Mexican blanket. How many days was it now? Ten? The ten most miserable, godforsaken days of his life. Where in Christ's name was the law? Where were those overdressed, overpaid dandies hired to protect him and the railroad? Goddamned slackers. Heads were damned sure gonna roll when he got out of this shit. And this piece of garbage; he would see this pistolero's head on exhibit in a jar of formaldehyde on a shelf in his office, by God he would. Dammit to hell, where is that bastard with my food? "Hey you. Hey. I'm freezing in here, can I have my clothes and I need more blankets? Hey? Can you hear me? Hey!"
Houston put the sack mask over his head and carried the bucket with two rusty tins of cooked pinto beans to the old zinc mine's entrance where he unlocked the grill and lowered the bucket with a piggin. "Hey General, time for grub. Not gonna get your clothes yet, maybe 'nother blanket if you're sweet. Before we go though, you got a visitor, General."
The Indian, Charlie Quick, also wearing a flour sack mask, lowered the ladder down into the mine shaft and descended into the darkness. Once his eyes accustomed and he had located the naked man cowering against the rock wall, Charlie punched him hard in his gut then broke the General's jaw with a fierce back hand. General Pollson was terrified of this man, who three days earlier had terrified him with a hatchet, jambing his hand against a shoring timber and chopping off his ring finger with one swift deliberate whack.
As Charlie pulled the ladder to the surface he yelled down to prisoner, "When I come back maybe I scalp you, fat man."
They had stripped the General of his boots and every stitch of clothing to prevent escape and to humiliate the rich man, although escape was unlikely as the only access to the mine shaft was an iron grill and the twelve foot ladder. With the grill padlocked and the ladder pulled up all hope vanished for the fat prisoner. For water General Pollson had to lick from a seep down the dark east wall of the tunnel, he had to lick the water from the stone like a damn rat. In fact he soon found that he indeed shared that very seep with rats in the mine shaft. Before leaving, his captors locked the grill and covered the opening with a piece of canvas and a brush pile. " Holler your fool head off; can't nobody hear you."
In Ft. Smith there had been much talk of the kidnapped superintendent. Legions of peace officers combed the Indian Territory, Kansas, and as far away as Texas looking for signs of the important man. Some said Bill Dalton was likely the man who had kidnapped the railroad superintendent. Some said it was Mexicans. Others maintained it was most likely injuns as everyone knew there were still plenty of young bucks who would just not let go. Wasn't there plenty of mischief against whites over there? Cut telegraph wires? Obstructions placed on tracks, and even occasional rifle shots at rail crews? Fact was nobody knew a damned thing other than the train hauling a tender, two freight cars of rails and cross ties and the superintendent's private coach had been halted near midnight by burning logs placed on the rails, a common nuisance in the Indian Territory. While the crew cleared the tracks the superintendent's coach had been uncoupled from the gondola. By the time the engineer reckoned the superindendent's coach was missing and got the engine reversed, Houston and the Indian Charlie Quick were a half mile away. They had tied and chloroformed the sleepy superintendent and with a bag tied over his head had thrown the fat man over a packhorse. Earlier that day with a hired a wagon, they had laid a trail clear enough for a blind possee, a wagon trail leading from the Indian Territories toward Texas, while the pair with their prisoner doubled back north on a worn cattle trail. The railroad had put out a $5,000 dollar reward for information leading to the General's safe return and rumor was that the reward would be raised an additional $5,000 every seven days. The ransom notes appeared on the seventh day of the General's kidnapping.
Before the war Rolf E. Pollson's factories manufactured steam locomotives and rail cars. Among themselves his workers referred to him as "Boss Roly Poly," alluding to the short man's 275 pound frame. The war which had quickly elevated the importance of his manufacturing business was an event Pollson had prayed for. Once President Lincoln realized the full extent of the war he had quickly marshaled Yankee industrialists, bankers, ship owners and merchants to the Union's cause by dispensing worthless, titular Army commissions that so appealed to the vanity of these civilian leaders. This, to curry the financial and material support so crucial to the war. Pollson received a nominal commission as one of the two thousand such non-combatant Quartermaster Corps brigadiers. This august rank took him no further than his tailor for his custom filigree laden uniform. His foundries and factories would pull in wartime contracts fetching millions, enough to later underwrite his dream, to build a railroad.
Houston Wells had suffered a miserable damned war. Pressed into service by a squad of cavalry just before the Battle of Pea Ridge, the young mining engineer had been captured on only his third day of military service in the Forty-Fifth Arkansas Military Regiment. He was marched to Memphis, loaded onto a steamer and carried up river to the Yankee prison camp at Rock Island. Prison camp was hell. Rations were barely enough to survive; a dead horse or mule the only meat prisoners ever saw. It was three years of short rations of dry corn or beans, and hard tack once a week. Gangs within the prison robbed food, blankets, clothing, anything of value. One had to join one of the organized gangs for protection. Yankee officers took money from local businesses to supply day labor. Seven days a week Houston's gang was marched to the Pollson Iron and Steel works where they riveted boiler plate nine hours a day, guarded by some blue-belly private soldier who pocketed a dollar a day from Pollson. A wagon from the prison brought a bucket of cold slop and hard tack for the prisoners, while bacon, bully beef or salt pork and soft bread was given to their guard. A complaint from a civilian worker could put a man on diminished rations for three days or could even have a man flogged. And there were plenty workers who had lost a son or brother and were only too quick to levy punishment on Johnny Reb. Houston reckoned it was the same down South in their prison camps, though. The War, was there anything more evil than war?
General Roly Poly, particularly fond of goading his POWs, would waddle down from his plush office above the factory floor in his fancy uniform to announce some Union victory or give his oft repeated urging " Men, we are going to treat these damn Rebels just like they treat the poor niggers down South." When Richmond fell he had trestle tables set up with hams, turkey, and buckets of beer for his workers; nothing for the starving POWs who had to watch the civilians stuff themselves with Pollson's offerings. Billy One Horse, a consumptive fifteen year old Chocktaw, and the youngest prisoner in the camp, picked up a half-eaten turkey leg that had been dropped or tossed on the floor. Pollson spotted the boy and called for the guard. "That young Rebel thief needs to placed on report, Private. You see that it's done, you hear me?"
"Yessir General, the boy will be dealt with, sir."
"See that he is and report back to me, son."
Next morning the entire company fell out to witness punishment as Billy took two dozen lashes. Three days later the boy died.
On the day General Roly Poly announced Lee's surrender, Houston's gang was loading rails onto flat cars. As the town Rock Island celebrated the great Union victory an Army marching band passed and all the Yanks rendered honors, he slipped from the work detail with two eight foot lengths of harness leather he snatched from an unattended saddler's wagon. Creeping under the flat car, he quickly fashioned a suspended swing seat under an axle of the rail car that would carry him to freedom.
The rail car was shunted off near the river seven miles from the foundry to allow passage of a troop train. Houston slipped out of his sling and crept under the loading dock of a military warehouse and there he hid until dark. The victory celebrations were still going on all around. He watched as they contented themselves smoking pipes and laughing in the dark next to a campfire. Within the warehouse he found pallets stacked high with tinned corned beef, sacks of beans, dried apples, and potatoes. Uniform items, trousers and jackets, were tied in large jute bundles, a huge crate held boots, others held cooking gear, tents, saddles, and surveying equipment - a lucky find for Houston who left sometime after midnight dressed in the uniform of a Union soldier with a haversack crammed with food, a razor, sewing kit, candles, a canteen, and extra socks. Posing as a returning wounded soldier he easily begged his passage onto the riverboat, The Lewis-Merriweather, bound for Natchez. The Union, ecstatic with victory, could not do enough for its conquering heroes. The boat's captain saw that Houston was assigned his own cabin and given free access to the galley and dining room.
The boat's tiny cabin exuded the warmth and security of a womb. Houston wept. He wept for his deliverance from hell, he wept for all those still confined, he wept for the dead of all wars, and he wept especially for Billy One Horse. He vowed that he would find Billy's people and convey to them his condolences and the sad truth of Billy's death. Clearly the years of harsh, brutal, dog-eat-dog survival in prison had taken a toll within. He'd had no religion before and having endured and seen the worst in men certainly had none now. No, Houston Wells was sour. Sour on people - their stupid religions, their corrupt governments, their incessant greed and their willingness to inflict pain on others. He was sour on plutocrats like Pollson under whose feet the innocent suffered and died. Oh sure there were the good people, but in such a morass of evil they were like abandoned fledglings, with no one listening or caring to attend their diminishing peeps. He wished to live with no one, in no community, in no home. The best thing about this country, he reckoned was that if one chose to be alone it was easy, easy to be alone and easy to just drift.
The war's end enabled government and business to resume the westward expansion. Smart investors looked west and the key to opening the West was clearly railroads. Rolf Pollson knew that his time had come. The fortune he had garnered during the war would build his railroad and yield wealth beyond common man's imagination, millions upon millions in land and government contracts. Pollson risked it all in development of the Arkansas and Canadian Rivers Railroad. Construction was in the final months and the country's newest rail line would go operational on the 4th of July. His official title, Chairman of the Board, gave him complete control over every aspect of the fledgling enterprise. The railroad was only days away from completion and once the final rails were laid and the stations opened at Shawnee in the Indian Territories and at Arkansas City in Kansas, the Arkansas and Canadian Rivers Railroad's coffers would open, and by God wouldn't the money flow like a spring flood! Like manure, thousands upon thousands of dollars in bribe money had been spread among the governors of Arkansas and Kansas, and all over Washington, D.C. including President Johnson himself who had personally assured Pollson's lawyer that the land grants and government contracts were locked in. Until the railroad went operational, General Pollson assumed the title and salary of superintendent. Why pay someone to sit on his ass when there was not yet an operational railroad? He wasn't a general for nothing, was he? In June he would inspect the entire line from his plush new personal railway car.
The war over and the South in tatters Houston had known the future was assuredly in the West. He easily found work and by the autumn of '65 as Western Mining and Drilling Company's District Engineer in the Indian Territories. Supervising mining and hydrographic surveys of the Indian Territories suited his ascetic nature and took him into areas few travelled. When his business brought him to Billy One Horse's poverty stricken people in Black Rock, an Indian village north of Ponca, his heart went out to them. He stayed with Billy's brother Charlie Quick for a full month; the two became friends while Houston supervised and paid for the drilling of two wells for their village. When the time came for him to move on, Charlie Quick accompanied him as the newest surveyor for Western Mining and Drilling.
In the summer of 1872 United States marshals from Ft. Smith rode into the Indian Territories to serve eviction notices to all Black Rock villagers. The land had been ceded under eminent domain to the Arkansas and Canadian Rivers Railroad by Presidential Executive Order signed by President Andrew Johnson, the same president who incidentally held a seat on that railroad's board of directors. The Choctaws asked Houston how such a treaty violation could occur. He told them, "Greed, corruption, and hate; that's how." Later when he read in the Ft. Smith paper that the president of the railroad was none other than General Rolf E. Pollson his gorge rose. When he informed Charlie Quick that this was the man responsible for his little brother's death, Charlie responded, "Well, let's me and you get him."
"Okay. Newspaper says he's making an inspection in his special superintendent's coach. Be comin' through next week. I reckon we could arrange something for the big man."
The plans were laid to grab the General and hold him in an abandoned zinc mine they had surveyed earlier; the mine located miles from any track. Food was laid in and an iron grill secured over the entrance.
Simultaneous ransom letters were delivered to the Railroad's Headquarters in Kansas, the Indian Territories, the Rolf E. Pollson Foundry and Iron Works in Rock Island, Illinois and the Rolf E. Pollson Bank in Ft. Smith. The note was short and simple.
If you want General Roly Poly alive it will cost $100,000 in gold. You have seven days to prepare delivery. Signify your acceptance by painting a large yellow star on all company signs. Details will then follow.
Yellow stars appeared two days later. Houston then sent the small packet containing the finger with Pollson's signet ring to the Ft. Smith bank with the final note.
The enclosed is to assure you that we do indeed hold General Roly Poly. On Sunday next send a locomotive with no cars other than the fuel car with orders to leave Shawnee Station at eleven o'clock p.m. and make the run to Arkansas City. Aboard this train will be only the engineer, fireman, and the bank president with a heavy canvas sack containing $100,000 in gold. All will ride unarmed in the cab. When three small fires laid in a triangle pattern are spotted, the engineer will slow the train. The train will not stop. From the moving train the ransom money will be thrown from the cab as close to the three fires as possible. The train will not stop until it arrives at Arkansas City. Our people will require two days to insure the quality of the gold. Once satisfied we will provide directions to the General's location for his recovery. Any presence or involvement of law or soldiers or armed parties will effect the General's death. You are further charged to keep these instructions secret from all law men, military, and the press.
Three days later the rescue party found a badly shaken man wrapped in a serape mumbling about rats and Indians. Doctor Selwin treated him for exposure and for the loss of a finger, and prescribed keeping the General sedated in a dark room until he recovered his wits. By that time, however, the Financial Panic of '73 had set in. In retaliation for former president Andrew Johnson's accusing him of installing a military dictatorship, President Grant abrogated and nullified all of Johnson's Executive Orders. The Arkansas and Canadian Rivers Railroad was dead. The Choctaw's land was restored, Without federal backing, without his health, without gold reserves in his bank, the Panic destroyed General Rolf Pollson who hanged himself three days after hearing of the death of Andrew Johnson.
Charlie Quick built a school, a hospital, and a community center for his people and lived a happy fulfilled life until he died at the age of 93 after falling from his horse. No one questioned where his wealth had come from. Houston Wells continued to drift west to Gila Bend where he established the One Horse Mining and Copper Company. As an honorary Pima Indian he, like his friend Charlie Quick, built schools, hospitals, and community centers throughout southern Arizona Territory.