The Pony Express had galloped into being with riders like Buffalo Bill Cody; linking West with East by cutting communications time. On its heels came an even faster method, the Overland Telegraph. Indians along the route where the wires were strung amused themselves by listening to its "singing," while they watched surveyors trace a path for railroad tracks.
Athwart that path lay immense barriers the Rockies and the Sierras. But the railroads were building, and at the speed of rival giants. Eastward, mile by mile, reached the Central Pacific. Westward to meet and beat it pushed the Union Pacific's tracks. The prize for speed was staggering; for the Federal Government was granting immense tracts of free land one day to be worth millions for every mile of track that was laid down.
Zeb Rawlings, Cavalry Lieutenant, had been put in charge of the detail of horse soldiers assigned to protect the Union Pacific's crews of gandy dancers. In the railroad's construction boss, tough Mike King, he met the first of a new breed of men unlike any the West had known before. Mike King was an empire builder. To him, only the job counted. 'Men were as expendable as machines, so long as the track kept moving.
That way of seeing things wasn't quite Zeb's way. He preferred the men in camp whose roots sank deeper into the Western past, men like grizzled Jethro Stuart, who'd been signed on to hunt buffalo to feed the crews.
Afterhours, the big gambling tent was where everybody went to forget the day's sweat. Its tables offered fast action, its bar sold strong liquor, and its dancing girls all glittered. The prettiest was the show's star, Julie; and when she was singing Zeb never once took his eyes off her.
Mike King was supposed to have an inside track with Julie. And Mike was a man who generally got what he wanted. Still, Zeb didn't aim to knuckle under to him regarding Julie any more than he aimed to regarding the Arapahoes.
"I want my men safe," King had growled at their first meeting. "I want 'em safe from Indians if they're dead drunk and ten miles off our right of way. You understand?"
"You mean," countered Zeb, "that you want the Arapahoes chased right out of their own country. It would start a war. My orders are to keep the peace."
"Orders are a scrap of paper!" And to Mike King, they were. "You're here to help get this railroad built in a hurry. The country wants it."
"And you want it," challenged Zeb, cutting to the heart of things.
"That's right." Mike was like unblasted rock. "Think it over. . . ."
Zeb discovered startling news about Julie when Jethro Stuart came to warn him against getting involved with her.
"I've seen Comanches stake a man out and turn a varmint loose to gnaw his insides out," Jethro said. "Julie's like that. And her mother before her. Leave her to Mike King. He's got no insides to chew on."
"You seem to know a lot about Julie," Zeb glared.
"I ought to," Jethro said. "She's my daughter." He moved off, leaving Zeb speechless.
Zeb saw Jethro and Julie pass each other in the big tent in stony silence, never even nodding. But when Julie approached, she was full of smiles for Zeb, and he forgot Jethro's warning.
Julie had just had a fight with Mike King. "Zeb," she murmured, "there's never been anything serious between me and Mike. Believe that," she implored, and he did believe it.
As for Mike, he didn't even seem to remember Julie was alive. He was too busy goading his crews to even faster action. He'd decided to speed things up by taking a short cut with his track right across the hunting land granted the Arapahoes by Government treaty.
Heliograph signals from their scouts in the hills were the first warning Zeb's force had that the entire Arapahoe nation was massing in war paint. Zeb sought out old Jethro instantly. Then he went hunting for Mike.
But the railroad boss, seated comfortably in the flatcar that served as his office, was unconcerned. "We've the right to make any minor changes in route," he declared.
"The Arapahoes think they're getting a raw deal," Zeb explained. "This means a war."
"You say the Army's here to keep the peace. Then keep it! Convince the Arapahoes the railroad's no menace to them, only tracks and a whistle."
"It's not the tracks, King. It's what they bring in. Hunters to slaughter their buffaloes. Settlers. That's what the Arapahoes are afraid of."
"The Arapahoe hunting grounds are safe for our lifetime. Convince the Chief we're just crossing their land, and there'll be no war."
So Zeb rode out, with Jethro for an interpreter, and met the Chief and gave his solemn word pledging the sanctity of the hunting grounds. The Chief believed the earnest young white officer. His warriors faded back into the hills and were gone. Zeb and Jethro rode back to camp with the good news. And that same night, Zeb and Julie were married on the runway of the gambling tent, which had been transformed into an unlikely church.
"I don't want to see it," the grizzled buffalo hunter grated, when he heard of the wedding. "Get somebody else to shoot your buffalo. I'm goin back to the high lonesome, where there ain't no people at all yet."
By that next winter, the Central Pacific had broken past the High Sierras and was hurtling eastward. Mike King became a maniac, answering the challenge. It was an expensive race for both companies to maintain. They had to earn every possible dollar from the tracks already laid. Flatcars began rolling in with horses and farm equipment and with professional hunters. Zeb's Indian scouts, calling him a liar for his promises, deserted.
"Not in our lifetime, you said!" Zeb challenged Mike King angrily.
"I just build this railroad. I don't run it."
"I pledged my word on your say-so! I'm ashamed of my own white skin!"
King shrugged. "You shame too easy. Did an Indian ever build a railroad? Those tracks'll be there when you and I and the Arapahoes are gone!" He pointed to a new car, crowded with eager people, just pulling in. "See those people? Mostly straight from Europe. They'll have a rough time out here, but they'll make it because they're willing to change their ways. The Arapahoes can change, too, If they don't, they're finished."
But the Arapahoes had other ideas. They were massing for an attack even as Zeb was telegraphing his resignation to the Army. Julie was furious at Zeb's decision to resign. Patiently, he tried to explain.
"Mike King's made a liar out of me with the Arapahoes. I can't let him make a liar out of the Army, too. A lot of people are going to be killed around here unless I can convince the Chief it was my word that was broken, not the Army's."
"It's Mike's war, not yours!" Julie stormed. "Without a uniform, you're nothing! You'd better keep it on, Zeb Rawlings, if you expect me to stay with you!"
Zeb was dumfounded. "Taking off a coat doesn't end a marriage."
"It ends it for me!" Julie flashed. "Plenty of men back in Omaha have more money than you. I'll grab one, too!"
In civilian clothes, a heartsick Zeb rode out to parley with the Arapahoes. But the Chief didn't even give him a chance to talk, much less to convince the Indians of the Army's honor. A rain of bullets greeted the white man's arrival, and he had to wheel and spur back toward the camp for his very life.
The buffalo herd came close behind him. Arapahoe warriors had stampeded the herd dead on line for the railroad community. Hundreds upon hundreds of shaggy beasts swept along like thunder, smashing everything in their path. The water tower was toppled. Settlers taking refuge in root cellars were buried alive. Scores were trampled. When the herd had pounded past, there was no need for Indians to finish the job.
Mike King and Zeb had found refuge behind a flatcar on a siding. Dust still clotted the air above the ruined camp as they emerged. Zeb was dazed.
"Well, King," he said, "you brought those settlers here. You killed 'em."
"You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs," King grated. He looked around for surviving workers. "You men! Back to work!"
It was Zeb's last glimpse of railroad life. He rode out of camp that day, alone, and tracked Jethro Stuart to his mountain cabin. There, he settled in for the winter with one wise old man who still knew what honor meant.
The completion of the railroads meant that huge cattle herds were driven from ranches all over the West to meet the trains for shipment to far markets. But each year brought more settlers, who built fences that got in the way of the cattle drives. Cattlemen and homesteaders became implacable foes. Violence erupted. And law was only the gun behind a tin star here or there.
Zeb Rawlings, as the years passed, became known as one of the best of those marshals. Gradually, he saw civilization creep into the crude cowtowns. Folks began making them as refined as San Francisco.
And San Francisco, by the late 1880's, was a Queen above her Golden Gate. In her Nob Hill mansion, Lily Prescott Van Valen had watched her energetic husband make and lose three vast fortunes before he died. The collapse of the third one was a disaster. All her handsome furnishings and possessions had to be sold at auction to meet the bills.
"If Cleve had lived," she told their lawyer, on the day of the auction, "he'd have made and spent another fortune. But I'll get by. I have two things. This " she touched an old daguerreotype of herself and Cleve when they were young "and my land in Arizona." "That ranch?" the lawyer said. "It's nearly worthless. The cattle have been run off " "I'll get cattle!" she snapped. "The ranch is there, isn't it? I'll get someone to manage things for me. My nephew. He's a marshal out there somewhere."
The lawyer sighed. "But at your age it may be rough to "
"Rough?" she snorted. "My ma and pa were killed just going down-river looking for land. I've got some Prescott blood in me after all, I guess! . . ."
Lily wired ahead for Zeb Rawlings to meet her at Gold City, and then she took the train. The day it pulled in, Zeb was at the station waiting for her. With him was his handsome wife Julie, their little daughter Eve, and their two lively boys, Linus and Prescott: Julie, she liked on sight. A handsome woman, maturing well although she'd heard there'd been some whisper of trouble with her, years ago.
Lily stepped down, an elegant figure on the dingy station platform, and was immediately hurried by her delighted grand-nephews to the waiting; buckboard. But Zeb, she noted, lingered behind to eye a dark man who had arrived on the same train. Zeb had a look about him as if the stranger somehow spelled trouble.
Gold City was already
a flourishing community, with shops along the sidewalks and carriages in the
streets. As Zeb unloaded their gear at the hotel, where they were staying
overnight, Lily again sensed something amiss. Her nephew looked grim, and Julie
was obviously worried.
Lily wasn't wrong. As soon as his family was settled, Zeb headed for the office of Gold City's marshal, Lou Ramsey, who was also an old-time friend. Lou was glad to see him until Zeb explained his visit.
"Charlie Gant got off the train today," Zeb said. "There were three men waiting for him."
Lou's grin faded. "Zeb, we can't stop Charlie Gant from going where he likes in this territory. I know what he was before his brother died. Maybe you should have killed them both, that day. But you didn't, and now "
"Why'd he come here, Lou?" Zeb asked. "Ain't you even curious?"
"You want him run out of town at gun point? There's law here now, Zeb. Law with all its writs and decrees. We abide by our circuit judge. So, you get me a court warrant and I'll get you Gant."
Zeb still smelled trouble. There was a big gold shipment leaving the city's chief mine tomorrow. Gant's arrival seemed more than coincidence. But Lou wouldn't listen. "Ain't been a train robbery since Jesse James, Zeb."
Uneasy, Zeb took his sons with him that night as a reason to look,at the mine. He hadn't shown them half its points of interest before, sure enough, Gant and his cronies showed up seemingly, just idling around. But when Gant spoke to him, there was no mistaking the menace under his soft drawl. Charlie still was chewing on his hoodlum brother's sudden end at the point of Marshal Zeb Rawlings' gun.
The next morning, an angry Lou Ramsey called at the hotel to say that Gant had come directly to him with a complaint that Zeb Rawlings was out looking for trouble.
"You're taking your trouble out of here, Zeb. Now!" he ordered.
"Won't be any," Zeb said. "Gant rode out of here early this morning, and took his gang with him. They'll be somewhere, waiting for that train. Lou, if I could have three deputies to ride that baggage car with me "
Lou's gaze was steely. "You don't fool me a minute, Zeb. Ain't a robbery you're looking for. I know how you feel about Gant." He left Zeb with a warning not to go after Gant.
The Rawlings wagon was all hitched, ready to head home and then on to Lily's ranch well before traintime. But despite Julie's tearful pleas that he put his family first, Zeb said he had something he had to do before he headed them toward that green, promising valley. Lily tried to comfort her, after he'd strode away.
"Nothing more pigheaded in a man than his sense of honor," she told Julie. "They're all the same, every one of them." And she settled down resignedly, to teach the children five card stud and wait for news to come.
What Zeb wanted was precisely the opposite of what Lou Ramsey thought. He didn't want the inevitable showdown between himself and Charles Gant to be on a personal basis. He wanted to catch Gant red-handed breaking the law, and then take him in to let the law deal with him.
By the time the train hit open country with its gold shipment neatly stowed aboard, Zeb had already checked the passenger cars for Gant men and then had taken up his vigil in the express car. At the last minute, half-convinced, Lou Ramsey had swung aboard to back Zeb's play.
The barricade had been flung up across the tracks miles put from anywhere. The engineer sighted it and started to slow. But Zeb yelled at him.
"Don't stop! Open her wide! Wide open!"
The train plowed through the barricade at full speed, miraculously escaping a derailment. The impact sent people sprawling in the aisles. And debris was still flying when Gant's band of horsemen galloped alongside.
That fight was on its way to becoming Gold City legend by noon the next day. All over town, folks were talking about how the outlaws had come swarming over the train like locusts, and how gunfire had blasted them one by one; how Zeb Rawlings had fallen aboard a flatcar loaded with logs and had almost been crushed by them as they broke their moorings; how Charlie Gant had poured shot after shot at Zeb, and how, when the two men faced each other in the open at last, their shots had barked so close that they'd seemed like one shot; and how, slowly, Gant went down.
But even before Gold City heard the tale, right after sunup, the Rawlings wagon was on its way out of town. Zeb drove the team, with a silently grateful Julie beside him and Lily seated behind with the kids. They'd covered several leagues of their ride when shots and whoops and hoofbeats told them they were being followed. A posse of Gold City riders circled the wagon, yipping and firing into the air and doing rodeo tricks to show Zeb what they thought of him.
It was a rousing send-off. The kids were still talking about it all through the day, until sunset when they were coming on toward the valley, and everything else was forgotten in the excitement of seeing their new home.
How much further to the ranch, Pa? Linus demanded.
(The above section was printed in the March 1963 edition of Screen Stories magazine. End credits mentioned the following: Adapted from the METRO-GOLDWYN-MAYER CINERAMA Production. ... Screenplay by JAMES R. WEBB -- Adapted for SCREEN STORIES by JEAN FRANCIS WEBB.
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