ABNER WEED’S BARREL CHEST AND BEEFY SHOULDERS were sweating as he shoveled coal into the firebox. There was an art to creating an efficient fire, but he had no idea how. He simply heaved coal through the open door into the fire, ignoring the complaints from the engineer who shouted that too much coal would drop the fire temperature.
Abner took on the job only to spell the fireman, Ralph Wilbanks, a big, burly man who soon became exhausted after a few hours of sustaining the necessary steam temperature that kept the big Pacific locomotive running up the steep grades of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. They traded one hour shoveling, one hour of rest.
Abner stayed alert during the effort, his Smith & Wesson revolver stuffed in his belt. He kept an eye on the engineer, who was constantly busy maintaining a fast but safe speed around the many mountain curves while watching the track ahead for any unforeseen obstacle, such as an unscheduled train coming in the opposite direction. At last, they crested the summit and it was all downhill until they met the flat-lands of the desert.
“We’re coming into Reno,” yelled Wes Hall, the engineer, above the roar of the flames in the firebox. An intense man with the features of a weathered cowboy, he would have stopped the train in protest when he found his passengers demanded he set speed records across the mountains but relented after Abner put the Smith & Wesson to his head and threatened to kill him, and his fireman, if they didn’t do as they were told. A thousand dollars in cash from Cromwell added to the persuasion, and Hall and Wilbanks now pushed the Pacific locomotive through the mountains as fast as they dared.
“The signal ahead reads red,” said Wilbanks.
Hall waved that he saw it, too. “We’ll have to stop and lay over on a siding.”
Abner pointed the gun at the engineer’s head. “Lay on the whistle. We’re going through.”
“We can’t,” said Hall, staring Abner in the eye. “There must be an express carrying relief supplies to San Francisco coming toward us on the same track. I’d rather you shoot me than cause a collision with another train that would kill all of us and stop traffic in both directions for maybe a week.”
Abner slowly slid the revolver back under his belt. “All right. But get us back on the main track as soon as the relief express passes.”
Hall began closing the throttle arm. “We can use the delay to take on coal and water.”
“All right. But mind your manners or I’ll blow holes in the both of you.”
“Ralph and I can’t go on much longer. We’re done in.”
“You’ll earn your money—and stay alive—by pushing on,” Abner said threateningly.
Leaning out the left side of the cab, Abner could see the train depot and the small town of Reno, Nevada, looming in the distance. As they came nearer, Abner spotted a figure waving a small red flag standing by a switch stand. Hall blew the whistle to announce their arrival and to let the flagman know that he understood the signal to slow down and was prepared to be switched off the main track.
Hall precisely stopped the Pacific’s tender directly under an elevated wooden water tank on one side of the track and a coal bin on the other. Wilbanks jumped up on the tender, grabbed a rope, and pulled down the spout hinged to the tank until water flowed on board due to gravity. Climbing down from the cab with an oil can, Hall began checking all the bearings and fittings of the locomotive, and, since Cromwell had refused to wait for the arrival of a brakeman, he had to examine the bearings on the wheels of the tender and freight car as well.
Keeping a sharp eye on Hall and Wilbanks, Abner moved past the tender to the door of the freight car. He rapped twice with the butt of his Smith & Wesson, waited a moment, then knocked again. The door was unlatched from the inside and slid open. Jacob and Margaret Cromwell stood there, looking down at Abner.
“What’s the delay?” asked Cromwell.
Abner tilted his head toward the locomotive. “We switched to a siding to let an express relief train through. While we’re waiting, the crew is taking on coal and water.”
“Where are we?” asked Margaret. She was dressed uncharacteristically in men’s pants, with the legs tucked into a pair of boots. A blue sweater covered the upper half of her body, and she wore a bandanna on her hair.
“The town of Reno,” answered Abner. “We’re out of the Sierras. From now on, the landscape flattens out into desert.”
“How about the track ahead?” inquired Cromwell. “Any more relief trains to delay our passage?”
“I’ll check with the switchman for scheduled westbound trains. But we’ll have to stand aside as they come.”
Cromwell jumped to the ground and spread out a map on the ground. The lines drawn across it displayed the railroads in the United States west of the Mississippi. He pointed to the spot signifying Reno. “Okay, we’re here. The next junction with tracks going north is Ogden, Utah.”
“Not Salt Lake City?” asked Margaret.
Cromwell shook his head. “The Southern Pacific main line joins the Union Pacific tracks north of Salt Lake. We swing north at the Ogden junction and head toward Missoula, Montana. From there, we take the Northern Pacific rails into Canada.”
Abner kept his eyes trained on the crew. He saw the fireman struggle with the coal flowing from the chute into the tender and the engineer moving about as if he were in a trance. “The crew is dead on their feet. We’ll be lucky if they can run the locomotive another four hours.”
Cromwell consulted the map. “There’s a railyard in Winnemucca, Nevada, about a hundred seventy miles up the track. We’ll pick up another crew there.”
“What about these two?” inquired Abner. “We can’t let them run to the nearest telegraph office and alert law enforcement up the line that we’re coming.”
Cromwell thought for a moment. “We’ll keep them with us, then make them jump the train in a desolate part of the desert. We’ll take no chances of Van Dorn agents getting wise to our leaving San Francisco and wiring officials down the line to stop our train, so we’ll cut the telegraph lines as we go.”
Margaret took a long look toward the Sierras and the track they had traveled. “Do you think Isaac is onto us?”
“Only a question of how long, dear sister,” he said with his usual high degree of self-assurance. “But by the time he realizes we’ve flown San Francisco and finds a locomotive to give chase, we’ll be halfway to Canada and he’ll have no chance to stop us.”