Silk Train

“Ladies and gentlemen, no need to be alarmed,” the conductor said as he opened the front connecting door. “We’re just going to move to the side for a few minutes as another train passes. It’ll only be a ten-minute delay.”

He walked the length of the coach car and out the back door, a rush of frigid air blowing into the rear of the coach car. Loud questions calmed to whispered murmurs as Nazaire and Raoul sat back down.

“Probably a silkie is all,” a grizzled old-timer said. He fidgeted in his seat while eyeballing the goings on outside.

Nazaire turned in his seat, and said, “Silkie?”

The old-timer turned to look at Nazaire.

“Silk train, out of Vancouver prob’ly. Push th’other trains off the main line on accounta the cargo they’s carry’ng,” he said.

“What kind of cargo?” Raoul asked as surrounding passengers leaned in close to overhear.

The old-timer whispered, “Not suppose’ta say. Railroad don’t like people findin’ out. Secret, you know.”

“What’s in the cargo cars?” Nazaire asked.

The old-timer let fly a wad of chaw, the snuff hitting the edge of the gray velveteen seat with a twang.

“Silk worms come into Vancouver Harbor di-rect from Hong Kong in Jay-pan to the rail yard. Them gets loaded onta special heated cars. Under guard. Orders are shoot to kill anyone who’s delay the packin’ and trainin’ out. Each train worth mabbe five, ten million dollars.”

“Sounds like a story,” a well dressed, young woman said from across the aisle.

“No, no story, lady. Them silkies run from Vancouver inta New York in ‘bout thirty hours. They’s goes non stop ‘cept for puttin’ on water an’ food with fresh crews, an’ wood o’ course, for the engine.”

“So the train don’t stop for all the stations?” Raoul asked.

“Right. It’s gonna stop mabbe three times before it gets ta New York. Mabbe change engine to a fresh one.”

“Where on the wrong train,” Raoul whispered to Nazaire.

“No, it don’t take no passengers, only the worms. Ain’t that a hellofa thing.”

“They shoot to kill, you say?” The young woman asked.

“Yessum, they’s do. You watch. Ev’ry time a silkie comes by a station, you’ll see two riflemen come outside, hang on the handrails of the Engineer’s Walk an’ two others standing on each side the caboose, leanin’ out far, watchin’ for trouble, damned ready to shoot anyone who slows down them trains. I reckon them worms must be real delicate, easy to die.” He looked from the young woman to Nazaire and Raoul, then back out his window.

“What do they do with the silk worms?” A young boy asked.

“Delicates, boy, fancy silks for women,” he said, “stupid boy.”

A Canadian Pacific Railway cargo train came upon the passenger train on the siding, its engine roaring louder that Jehovah. Each coach car swayed in the wake of the displaced air as the faster train whizzed by, like a herd of buffalo outracing an idle animal, the thrown air rattling against the window glass.

The Dominion Exhibition

On the road, the horses nickered and blew as the expedition entered the congested city of Calgary with a population of twelve thousand. The expedition rode by hundreds of souls, most on horseback, giving little leeway to electric cars. The Dominion Exhibition filled the city with excitement.

At the north edge of Calgary, Sherman scanned Blackfoot elders who squatted around their large tipis, each adorned with unique images, and contrasting colors around the bottom border. As was his custom, Coppaway lingered by the Indians, introducing himself and asking after their health. The Blackfoot men wore leggings and thigh length buckskin tunics with moccasins of moose hide decorated in colorful bead work.

In front of the Sarcee camp, newly constructed grandstands and exhibit buildings for livestock and entertainment stood on many empty acres, with new barns and stables lined up neat-like in a row. Behind one main thoroughfare, Sherman’s men could see a column of vendor carts with signs reading ‘Beaver Balls,’ and Saskatoon Pie.’ Near the standing stalls, other signs read ‘Bannock & Jam,’ and ‘Blueberry Grunt.’

NOTE: The Dominion Exhibition became the Calgary Stampede the following year.

Wild Horses of Brandon

For miles, Sherman’s group watched as wild horses galloped through coulees and over scrappy plateaus from a south ridge. The wild horses broke into open fields of rich pastureland bordered by fields of wheat grasses, golden against vermilion canyons. Then the expedition reached Brandon, a pioneer town settled by agency Indians and immigrants who had become farmers and ranchers.

The whole of Brandon Township, a much larger area than the town itself, earned its nickname, ‘horse capital of Canada’ as it contended with almost thirty thousand horses. They came in every possible size and color: flea-bitten grays, liver chestnuts, rich buckskin browns, skewbalds and velvety blue roans. Every kind of sock a horse could wear appeared on mismatched legs while stars and blazes emerged like smudged paint on their faces as they galloped by in sheer abandon.

They would bolt at the least flash of heatstroke lightening and run themselves slavered with mouths foaming white or crusted yellow. No trough of clear water or open stream was safe from the nuisance of their thieving ways. To lasso one was a sure way to get bitten. Angry clouds of trampled wheat followed them everywhere. To dare take up their rear caused temporary blindness with the whirl of speckled prairie grasses that rose from the ground in a violent dance.

This early spring, the rains brought blow flies and biting midges. They bled the muzzles of horses into an angry maroon as the animals struggled to shake the wretched pests from swollen eyes. No flicking of lips or flapping of their muzzles would bring the horses any comfort.

Skerrit the Wolfer

Skerrit and his crew had come up from Montana, through Billings and into the badlands of Alberta, where the likes of the Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy had hidden from U.S. Marshalls in those miles of caves. They crossed the Medicine Line and made their way into Cypress Hills, a godforsaken set of crowded hills and valleys. Imagine God had taken a nice stretch of open flat country and crushed it together in one angry motion. That was Cypress Hills, surrounded by majestic mountains that rose gracefully from flat, treeless plateaus and shallow valleys with near a dip where wolf or coyote could hide.

Skerrit had the dirty habit of salting bait cattle with strychnine and gave upset to all who learned of it, including Sherman’s party.

“Them rowdies could be atop you before you know it,” the proprietor of the Imperial Hotel on 11th Avenue said.

“What’s he look like?” Sherman asked.

“He’s tall and wiry, skinny as a starving calf, and his eyes flicker up and down when you talk to him like the strokes of that Morse code machine at the Telegraph office. He’s one sonofabitch hooligan, that one,” a saloon keeper said.

“I heard tell he laid still as a newborn deer for near two days and nights and ferreted out a den of twelve pups at thirty dollars a skin. That was back in ‘05. They drank to their hearts’ content coming back over the Medicine Line that time,” a second man said.

“For three nights, those wolfers hollered at the moon with their drunken cries, bringing trickery wherever they go,” a saleslady said from the Sykes Piano Parlors and Village Blacksmith Company.

Wolfers never stayed long enough to clean up their treachery as birds and insects spread the poison. It was the homesteaders, the hard-working settlers, who paid the price for their quick-kill methods.

Victoria’s Death

The doctor’s remedy of milk laced with strychnine remained untouched on a small table in the bedroom. A clean strip of cloth looped around Victoria’s head, securing the jaw closed. Two cabbage leaves still covered her breasts, the country remedy for drying up mother’s milk. Victoria’s ivory skin was dull and wax-like.

Every good thing that had happened to Nazaire came after he met Victoria. It’s not that she was good luck or that she was good for him, it’s that all the goodness in the world came to him through her, with her. This goodness that was her, it was love, and it was gone from his life. The children were gone, and something had to change or the farm, his land would also be gone.

Inside Nazaire’s stomach, a tight knot throbbed. His shoulders relaxed, he took in a shallow breath and felt the smallest hope that tomorrow might be better.