New York City
Which has eroded more, time or greed?
Collis Huntington sat pensive behind the executive mahogany desk in the study of his sprawling mansion. Instances such as the upcoming confrontation always put the tycoon in a mood. A racing heartbeat. Sweaty palms. He’d decided to trade a sliver of his reputation for principle. The horses’ hooves echoed off the cobblestone street as they pulled their carriages along the Manhattan thoroughfare.
A fascinating proposition indeed.
He rose and moved toward the traffic just beyond the reach of the tall window on the far end of the room. Huntington’s weary brown gaze wandered over the towering library that he had amassed over the past few decades. Collis shuffled from the window closer to a collection of personal effects on a shelf at eye-level. He ran his arthritic right hand over a brown book of newspaper articles, and smiled as he pulled it from among its companions.
I am the last of us---the Associates. We dared to dream big and run headlong into the unknown.
Collis carried his treasure across the Persian rugs back to his desk. He lowered his stare to a black and white photograph of four powerful tycoons in a better time.
We all went from struggling store clerks on K Street to four of the most powerful men on Earth. Entrepreneurial spirit, the rails, and one man’s vision of a road spanning our great nation from coast to coast drew us in with their seductive boldness.
His rotund gut heaved under the strain of another coughing spasm as he dropped into his armchair. Collis pulled a silk handkerchief from the breast pocket of his charcoal jacket and blotted his lips. The stained page of his memories crackled as he turned it. He grinned over the worn photograph of several dozen men and dignitaries huddled near an old steam engine.
When your candle has burned its wick down to the last strands, you come to understand a few things.
Collis’s gaze scanned the trove of special treasures at the center of the room.
Three light raps on the tall doors to his sanctuary snapped the magnate out of his thoughts.
“Excuse me, sir,” a lean stately man said in an aristocratic Scottish accent. “The gentleman you were expecting has arrived.”
Collis coughed into his rag. “Of course. Please show him in, Jameson.”
His loyal footman turned his head of graying curls over his left shoulder in the doorway. “Shall I have Kate bring you in a cup of coffee, sir?”
“Yes, thank you,” Collis said, stuffing his hanky back into its breast pocket. “Have her make a cup for our guest as well.”
Jameson turned and bowed. “Very well, sir.” He extended a long arm toward the study. A young man entered, clasping his hat as his breast.
With a modest nod, Jameson held both doorknobs and closed the towering oaken doors to the study with a light click.
Collis watched his nemesis with a stern eye as the young man’s neck craned to take in the room’s entire splendor. The reporter’s blue irises followed the gilded crown molding along the highest parts of the room.
“I had no idea,” he said, taking confident steps toward Huntington’s desk. A shimmer of sunlight caught his attention near the chamber’s center. “Such elaborate collections and displays of wealth.”
“Very few do.” Collis chuckled. “Shimmering trinkets, rare editions of Ben Franklin, one-of-a-kind coins that cost me a year’s worth of a regular man’s wages.” His prideful chest deflated. “Such a waste.” Collis held a shaky hand to the open leather seat across from him. “Please, make yourself comfortable, Mr. McClure. Something tells me that this may take a while.”
McClure sat his beige leather satchel next to the chair and laid his bowler on the polished desktop. “Your home is quite an impressive, Mr. Huntington.” He dug in the bottom of his leather pit until he produced a pencil and some paper. “How many people did you have to fleece to afford it all, I wonder?”
Collis shrugged off the gouge. “Most of the things that mattered to me left this world a long time ago. As you covered most of their stories, too, I’ll spare you the details.”
McClure sat his pencil and notepad next to his hat. “Why did you ask me here, Mr. Huntington?” He loosened his thin blue tie and leaned back into the chair with an air of arrogance. “After all of those scathing articles in the Times, why invite me into your home?”
The reflective study doors creaked open interrupting Collis’s reply. A youthful woman of nineteen shuffled in toting a large silver tray in her hands. Her emerald eyes shook behind long curls of fiery hair.
“Your beverages, sir.” Kate’s Irish accent faltered. She curtsied and slid the elegant tray of fine china onto the bureau and bowed once more before departing.
“How do you take your coffee, Mr. McClure?” Collis filled his cup from the porcelain pot.
“A little of both, if you please.” He leaned forward in his seat. “You’re avoiding my questions already.”
Collis did his best to fill the reporter’s cup, but his wavering hand dribbled a puddle of Arbuckle’s onto the sterling silver. “Damn. I wasn’t avoiding your question---merely maintaining focus.” He leaned away from his desk in defeat. “Enjoy your youth while you still have it.” Collis placed the cup before his guest.
The reporter from the Times sat sipping his coffee in distinguished silence.
“I’m sorry,” Collis said at last. “What was your question?”
McClure placed his cup on the tray. “Why me?”
“Ah, yes.” He threaded his fingers over his belly and eased back into his armchair. “I requested you in particular because I wanted to set the record straight once and for all.”
A small resurgence of adrenaline sped through Collis. He adored being in the heat of a great negotiation. “I want your readership to know the truth.”
“The truth?” McClure sounded offended.
“Yes,” Collis said. “All of it.”
The baron rocked slowly in his chair, studying his adversary. McClure’s jaws clenched. He gave his brow a nervous scratch. “Where shall we begin?” He had always loved a mental chess match. As a born salesman, it was in his blood. “Perhaps the money? The scandals? The affairs?”
McClure’s eyes widened in delight. “You’re the last of the great barons. Your power and wealth rival those of any king or queen that Europe has ever produced.” He scribbled a few things onto his notepad. “How did you get there?”
Collis smirked at the reporter’s feeble condescension as he turned his scrapbook back to the first page. “Ah, American royalty.” He leaned forward in his seat and caressed a picture of his younger self standing next to a tall, lanky gent. They huddled arm in arm under a big storefront that read Huntington & Hopkins Hardware Company.
“In as many words,” McClure said, “yes.”
“Well,” Collis tapped the photo, “it wasn’t as easy as your journalistic regurgitation implied.”
His guest coughed and fidgeted with his pencil.
“If you want to know that story, then we should begin around this particular timeframe.” He slid the book across the surface. McClure’s eyes grew as they studied the piece of living history.
“As with any story worth investigating, Mr. McClure,” Collis said, “there are always two sides.”
All That Glitters
Fall of 1854
The hustle and bustle of sodden miners had no end, not that it bothered Collis Huntington in the least. Various shades of copper and gold seeped into the deciduous hillsides beyond his apartment’s small window. His wife, Elizabeth, wrapped her lean arms around his youthful waist as he put the finishing touches on his tie.
“All ready for another day, dear?” She brushed the dust from his right shoulder.
Huntington turned from their apartment window overlooking K Street and pecked her on lips. “Looks like it’s going to be another busy one.”
Elizabeth sat her hands at the small of her back and leaned closer to their window. “This gold fever doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.”
He tugged her closer by her hips and brushed a stray light brown curl from her face. “So long as they continue to pan the streams and dig in the hills, we’ll always have a steady flow of customers.”
Collis pulled his watch from its nest in his right vest pocket and sighed when he read its face. Beth looked up to him with disquieted pride.
“I won’t keep you from work any longer,” she said, patting the small of his back. “Off you go. These debts won’t pay for themselves.”
He kissed her once more and strode across the rickety floor to the door. “Yes, ma’am.”
“I’ll have some supper on the table for you when you wrap up downstairs.”
He took his black hat off its hook on the wall and tugged the old wooden door ajar. “Thank you, darling. I’ll do my best to get in at a decent hour tonight.”
Hundreds of tiny dust particles swam in the daylight that pierced the front windows of his store. Collis made quick work of straightening up his sales counter and pulled the register’s cash from a small safe underneath. He sorted out the denominations, his eyes bouncing back and forth between them and the growing traffic on K Street.
Busy day, all right.
Huntington strode to the front doors and swung them open. Fresh, crisp air billowed into the stale space carrying the odor of mud and manure into his shop. He was no stranger to them. His mind stirred with the memories of hustling from farm to farm and town to town in search of work as a boy. He grinned as he inhaled once more. A lone pair of boots clopped down the wooden boardwalk from his left.
“Mornin’, Collis.” An older lanky man eased in next to a pillar in the porch.
Huntington walked up to meet his neighbor and competitor with a cautious grin. “Mark.” He took Hopkin’s hand in his and gave it a firm shake.
“How’s business been for you this month?” Mark Hopkins had always been a man of few words---right to the point.
Collis shrugged. “About as busy as the last two.” His brown eyes wandered up from Mark’s long, black beard to meet his blue stare. “You?”
Hopkins studied the growing swarms of locals with a careful eye, and slipped a lean hand into the pockets of his black slacks. “Could be better. Could be worse.” He used the other to take the pipe from the corner of his mouth and poked it toward Huntington’s front windows. “Seems like things have been looking up for you over the past couple of years.”
Collis eyed a buckboard wagon as it lumbered down the street on a squeaky wheel. “True. I had quite the scare back in ’52.”
Hopkins nodded with a chuckle.
“The Crocker brothers damn near bought me out.”
Mark turned his pipe upside down and tapped it against the side of his post. “Bankruptcy will run anyone out of business faster than anything else.”
“I’ve never been much of a man for bookkeeping,” Huntington arched his back in the autumn breeze.
“Personally,” Hopkins said, stuffing his pipe with fresh tobacco, “I’d much rather be handling those matters than deal with angry drunkards out front.”
Collis’s eyes lit up. He knew a great opportunity when he saw it.
“You know,” Huntington said, “those Crocker boys have been getting a pretty big slice of the pie for some time.”
Mark nodded and lit his pipe. Fragrant clouds of cherry-tinged smoke billowed into Huntington’s nostrils.
“I’m much more comfortable with sales than the books.” Collis studied his neighbor’s body language. It gave away no weaknesses. “You, on the other hand, have a knowledge of accounting that I couldn’t imagine obtaining.”
Mark puffed out another aromatic cloud. “You really think we could give them serious competition?”
Collis stepped closer and lowered his voice. “With my salesmanship and your accounting prowess, we could own this town.”
Hopkins’s calculating gaze scanned the growing crowd. “I don’t know, Collis. That would be a big gamble.”
“Life’s a gamble, Mark.” Huntington had done enough selling to sense common objections like second nature. “We can’t win the pot if we never roll the dice.”
Hopkins exhaled another stressful cloud of pipe smoke into the wooden overhang.
Collis went in for the close. “This way, we’d be playing with two dice instead of one.”
His tall counterpart’s solemn face bent up in a smile.
The hook’s in---time to start reeling. Collis waved at a couple of approaching miners caked in dried, sand-colored mud. “We should discuss this further over a cup of Arbuckle’s later.”
Mark turned around and trailed after a pair of mountain men that meandered into his general store. “I think you might be onto something.”
Collis extended an arm into his store, inviting the trio of miners into his hardware store. “Today after closing, then?”
Mark bobbed his head. “Have a good day over there.”
Huntington strode into his business riding on an adrenaline high. “You do the same.”
“What can I do for you gentlemen?” Collis dusted off his charcoal vest and approached his customers.
One of the grungy men strolled up to meet him with an extended hand. Huntington glanced down at the soiled paw. The miner’s hand held stories and secrets of its own. The caked earth under its unkempt nails, a deep gash across the flesh of its palm---they told the dark tales that his mind refused. Many a man was sent to his grave on those mountains over a lust for the nugget.
Huntington gripped in firmly and looked the gent in his blue eyes. “My equipment comes with a full replacement guarantee if it ever breaks on you.”
The miner nodded his jet-black hair. “Name’s, Burt.” He broke away from Collis’s grip and jabbed a dirty digit at his cohorts studying the pickaxes. “We’re in need of some supplies and a couple of dependable picks.”
Huntington led Burt back over to the others and set a pick in the man’s hands. “Feel that?”
Burt bobbed the pickaxe up and down with a smile.
“That’s the feel of dependability, my friend.” Huntington turned Burt’s attention to the cast iron fasteners at the instrument’s head. “See here?”
His customer turned the pick over on its side.
“Solid craftsmanship, Burt.” He thumbed the tip of the sharp tool and slapped Burt on the shoulder. “Cast iron fittings welded from one piece of metal. She’ll be less likely to snap on you.”
Burt tested the pick in his grip and bobbed his head. “How much?”
Collis pulled two more from the row of hanging picks and handed one to each of Burt’s partners. “I usually charge two dollars apiece for these.”
The younger blond man over Burt’s left shoulder let loose a testy whistle. “That’s mighty steep for one pick, mister.”
“They’re guaranteed for life,” Collis countered. The boy’s amateurish attempt to haggle went nowhere.
“I think we might just go next door,” Burt pushed the tool back to Collis, “and see what they’re price is on one.”
Huntington sat two mining pans in Burt’s arms and continued, not missing a beat. “That’s why I’m going to practically give them to you along with the rest of your supplies at a discount.”
Burt’s bushy black brows furrowed as he pulled the equipment back into his barrel-like chest. “Just how much are we talkin’ here?”
Collis smiled. “Follow me.”
Huntington heard the crew trailing behind his bulky strides as he led them over to the sales register. He noted each item in his receipt ledger and tallied up their cost.
“All together,” he scratched his forehead with the end of his pencil, “that comes to a total of eight dollars and fifty-two cents.”
Burt’s lower jaw hit the dusty planks of his store. “I thought you said---”
Collis loved this part of every transaction. “Now,” he said, jotting some quick math into the margin of his ledger, “with a discount today of forty percent,” Collis scribbled the new figure at the bottom and circled it, “that brings it down to a grand total of five dollars and twelve cents.”
“For the whole lot?” the copper-haired string bean guffawed to Burt’s right.
Collis nodded and leaned over his side of the counter. “That’s right. Do we have a deal?”
Burt muttered to Blondie and Red for a few seconds while Collis sorted their purchases into neat stacks. Burt stepped to the counter and cleared his throat.
“You got yourself a deal!” Burt shook Huntington’s hand with vigor.
Each of the men produced two crumpled dollar bills from their pockets and slapped them on Huntington’s countertop. Collis collected his earnings and came back from his register with their change.
“A pleasure doing business with you gentlemen.” He helped them carry their new pickaxes out to the empty buckboard. Marking the inventory up fifty percent last week may have been my best strategy to date.
Burt tipped his cowboy hat toward Collis and readied for the journey back up to their secret spot. Collis waved as the weathered wagon departed back down the rutted streets of Sacramento. He turned back toward his store and released a sigh of satisfaction into the warming morning.
“If the meeting with Mark this evening goes this well,” he muttered, striding behind his counter, “this merger’s in the bag.”
A thin crowd of locals had gathered inside the dimly lit billiard hall a block away from Huntington’s hardware store. A pair of businessmen chuckled over the most recent shot. The inviting odor of their burning tobacco wafted over from the billiard table. Collis strode up to the long oaken bar and leaned against its dented surface.
“What’ll you have?” A pudgy middle-aged man waddled down on the other side of the bar. The balding gent pulled a mug from under the oak slab and wiped it clean.
Collis waved off the mug with a look of disgust on his face. “I’ll just have a cup of Arbuckle’s, thank you.”
Another crack from the billiard balls filled the barkeep’s silent nod. Huntington scanned the room for any sign of his neighbor, Mark. Just the two lone players behind him and the bartender.
“Slow evening, then?” Huntington accepted the steaming cup from the barkeep.
The tender nodded his ring of white hair. “Most of the action these days is still up there.” He poked a stubby thumb toward the mountains. “Business still doin’ well for you?”
Collis shrugged wearing a smile. “No use complaining.”
A tall, lean fellow slumped into the empty seat next to Huntington.
“Nobody would listen to you anyway.” Hopkins looked to the tender and pointed at Collis’s coffee. “Eh, Collis?”
The barkeep nodded and fetched another cup.
Huntington extended a calloused hand over the bar. “Evening, Mark.”
Hopkins shook his hand and bellied up to the bar. “Evening, Collis.” A shallow sigh passed his thin lips. “So, what brings us together on this fine sunset?”
Collis took a nip from his porcelain cup. “The Crocker brothers.”
Mark grumbled beneath his long salt and pepper beard and moustache.
“My thoughts exactly.” Collis turned his concerned face to Hopkins. “They’ve got a pretty big operation going down on the other side of town.”
Mark nodded as the barkeep set his coffee before him.
“Almost too big.” Huntington spun his cup on its saucer. “As I said, I damn near lost the farm a little while back.”
His neighbor nodded, taking a swig from his own cup. “I recall the incident in question.”
Huntington turned to face Hopkins, propping his elbow up on the bar. “The reason I asked you here tonight is because I think that we need one another.”
Hopkins crossed his thin arms over his lean frame.
“Not so much in that sense.” Collis tapped the bar with a bent index finger. “Hear me out. I have a knack for salesmanship, but I can’t stand the bookkeeping part.”
Hopkins relaxed his arms and went back to sipping his coffee. “So, you need me to do your books for you?”
“No.” Huntington edged closer to his neighbor and lowered his voice. “What I’m sayin’ is, I think we should partner up.”
Mark bent his haggard face over the rising steam from his cup. “I’m not so sure.”
“Why not?” Collis jabbed the question in like stoking a dying fire. “We’d be far stronger together than we ever could be now.”
Hopkins’s blue gaze lifted to the row of different colored bottles on the back wall. “I hardly know you.” Those unwavering eyes fell into Collis’s own. “How do I know I can trust you?”
Another chance to close! The adrenaline surged through Huntington’s veins. His face lit up.
“Look, Mark,” he said, falling into his element, “I’ve been working for myself for most of my life. I grew up on a decent spread up in Connecticut and helped out with chores around the farm, as I’m sure you did, too.”
Mark chuckled through a smile.
“When I turned fourteen,” Collis continued, “I went into business for myself. I’d go around to my neighbors’ farms and do the same chores for a little money. I socked it all away for a couple of years, and when I turned sixteen, I hit the open road as a traveling salesman.”
Huntington took another nip from his brew. “I eventually settled down in Hampton Roads, Virginia. Gorgeous country out there. I opened up my first general store there and grew it until I moved out here for the gold rush.” Collis studied his counterpart’s eyes. The apprehension was melting fast. “How about you? What’s your story?”
Mark set a long arm on either side of his steaming cup and leaned over the bar top. “I grew up in Henderson, New York. A smaller town that you’ve never heard of, I’m sure.”
Collis shrugged through another swig.
“My God given name is Mark Hopkins, Junior, but no one ever calls me Junior.” Mark turned a cold eye to Huntington. “And I don’t expect it to commence anytime soon.”
Collis chuckled. “Junior?”
“My father passed when I was still young.” Hopkins turned his attention back down to his coffee.
“What did your father do?”
Mark stared off into the black reflective liquid. “He served as the Henderson Postmaster and later was appointed as a judge up in Palmer, Michigan.” A buried pain resurfaced on the businessman’s bearded jowls. “When he passed in ’28, I left my studies to become a clerk.” Hopkins wiped a shaky palm on his black trousers. “Eleven years later, I picked my law studies back up. I managed the books for a firm called James Rowland and Company before I moved out here.”
Collis set his empty cup on its saucer and motioned the tender to circle back for a refill. “It seems as though fate has brought us together to do great things.”
“I might be interested in entertaining a merger.” Mark turned on his stool to face Collis and leaned an elbow on the bar. “What are you thinking, fifty-fifty?”
Huntington sucked a mouthful of fresh brew through gritted teeth. Hit him high and settle in where he wants to be later. “I was thinking more along the lines of seventy-five, twenty-five.”
Hopkins choked on his drink. “That’s awful steep.”
Collis formulated his defense. “The way I see it, if I’ll be doing the majority of the selling and deal making, then I deserve the larger cut of our profits.”
Mark’s eyes narrowed into slits. “That’s something I’m going to have to sleep on, Collis.” He shook his head in slow and deliberate movements.
Huntington sat a hand on his neighbor’s sleeve. “Come on.”
Hopkins’s stare fell to his invasive gesture and returned to meet Collis eye to eye.
“You know as well as I do,” Collis said, “that this move makes all of the sense in the world right now.” He leaned in closer, tapping the bar with his finger to accentuate the points of his argument. “Our time is now. We need to strike the iron while she’s still glowing.”
Mark stood up and knocked back the last of his bean tonic. “As I said, I’ll have to sleep on it and get back to you.” He slid the tender a few coins and lumbered toward the batwings. “Good evening to you gentlemen.”
With that, Huntington’s neighbor disappeared back into the growing dusk.
“You’re doing the right thing.” Elizabeth examined her reflection in the windowpanes, fluffing her light brown curls with her palms.
Collis moaned under his breath and put the finishing touches on his bow tie. She’s right. God knows I can’t stand it, but she is.
“Hurry up,” she insisted, heading for their front door. “The ceremony’s going to start pretty soon.”
Collis eased into a hand-me-down jacket that he had inherited from a late relative and smoothed out its shoulders. “The church will still be standing when we get there, dear.”
Beth spun around at the open door wearing an indignant expression.
“Coming, love.” Collis moped out the door behind her in a defeated heap.
The Sacramento streets sat still which was a far cry from their usual buzz on any other given Saturday morning. Several of the mining town’s storefronts, including that of his neighbor, had a small wooden placard strung from inside their front doors: CLOSED.
Beth led them around a turn and down a street Collis would have avoided any other time. “Looks like Mark and Mary’s little event is quite the spectacle.”
“Are you sure we have to do this?”
His wife shook her head. “If you boys are going to be neighbors and partners, then you need to be there.”
“No,” Collis eyed up the Crocker Brothers general store. “I mean, couldn’t we have taken another way there?”
Beth snickered into her lacey gloves. “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Isn’t that what they say?”
He muttered something along the lines of her being an intolerable woman as they passed by his competition’s establishment.
“What was that, love?”
“Huh?” Collis snapped his guilty face around to some of the goods in the storefront. “Oh, I said, my, what a price for such a tiny panning tin.” His wife perked a brow from beneath her decorative hat. “Simply intolerable.”
They rounded another corner and came upon a large gaggle of well-dressed townsfolk. The men and women caught up on one another while their insufferable offspring ran amuck trying to destroy their Sunday best.
“Marjorie!” Beth said, wrapping the black-haired woman in a bear hug. “Wonderful to see you. How are things out on your ranch?”
Collis hated gossip almost as much as he detested Charles and Ed Crocker---almost.
“Speak of the devil,” he whispered to himself.
The two brothers came around the far corner of the chapel in a jovial conversation with the town mayor. Up to no good, I guarantee it.
“Collis,” a short man said from over his left shoulder. “Good to see you.”
Huntington turned to greet one of his regulars. “James!” He gave the banker-turned-miner a healthy slap on the back. “How are things up there in the hills?”
James shrugged his narrow shoulders. “Could be better. I had a good run there a year ago,” he shook his ragged light brown mop and spat a line of tobacco juice out into the grass, “but I fear the fever is wearin’ off.”
“Don’t say that.” Collis shoved his hands into his pockets. “It’ll be the end of me.”
The ring of the little chapel’s bell startled the men out of their hearty laugh.
“Suppose it’s that time.” James smiled and turned a thumb toward the chapel.
Huntington bobbed his head. “Time to watch another innocent man take a beatin’ ---” Beth punched him in the arm “— er, tie the knot.”
James’s wife hooked her arm around his. “Something like that.”
The Hopkins wedding went off without a hitch. They followed their hearts despite the swirling rumor mill about Mary being his first cousin. Collis saw the affection that the couple shared in their eyes on that altar. It was pure and genuine, a rarity out in this unforgiving country. He now stood on one of the upper steps to the church clapping as the newlyweds scurried underneath of the shower of daisy petals. It happened within the span of an eye blink, but Collis caught it all the same. Mark nodded to him and smiled as his taller counterpart bounded down the stairs and out into the awaiting carriage.
Collis took the small bundle of envelopes from the town Postmaster and headed for the door. “Thanks again, Milt.”
“See ya again next week, Mr. Huntington.” The brawny mailman stroked his receding brown hairline and went back to sorting out the large sack of letters and parcels.
Collis flipped through his small collection of mail and stopped in front of Hopkin’s store. It sat cold and abandoned once again.
“They’ve been on that damned honeymoon for over a week!”
He untied the string holding his mail together and inspected the envelopes. “He better not have forgot.” The big man’s eyes lit up in delight as he slapped the letter with his fingers. “About time!”
He raced into his store and took up residence behind the cash counter. Huntington’s heart pounded beneath his soiled white shirt and black vest.
“Come on.” He had a feeling how this would play out, but held anticipation all the same. His hands ripped the top of the envelope apart. “Take the deal.”
His eyes scanned the lines on the unfolded paper.
It is with some regret that I inform you that your offer of partnership, as it stands, will not be accepted. While I do want to entertain the prospect of a merger, your proposal of a seventy-five percent majority holding is completely unacceptable. Mary and I feel that, if you are indeed serious about this venture, then you will have to meet us in the middle on even keel. Therefore, I propose my counteroffer at a split share in the venture of fifty percent each. I do look forward to your reply in this matter.
“That no-good…” Collis thumped his plump fist into the countertop, wrenching the letter. “Of all the nerve!”
He glared down at his watch and scanned the street one last time for any last-minute patrons. Satisfied that none existed, he shoved the letter into his hip pocket and locked up shop for the night.
The door to his apartment slammed shut behind him as Huntington marched over to the small desk in the corner. “Why couldn’t he just take it?”
Beth wandered into the front room from the cozy kitchen space and wiped her hands on her apron. “You’re in a mood.”
Collis’s dagger-like stare pierced her as he slid off his shoes.
She cocked out a hip and sat a hand on it. “What’s under your skin tonight?”
“I’m sorry.” He sat the crumpled letter on the desk and rocked forward into his open hands. “It’s the damned merger.”
He groaned from behind his fingers. “Mark didn’t take the deal.” He sat back up and rested a hand on his thigh. “Said it was completely unacceptable. Can you believe that?”
His soulmate strode over to him and sat her hands on his tense shoulders. “Well, was it?”
“I’m giving him a twenty-five percent share in the company for doing nothing more than bookkeeping.” Collis rubbed her elbows. “That’s more than generous, I think.”
Beth leaned in and pecked him on the forehead. “What sounded fair to him?”
Huntington huffed out a long lung full of stress. “Fifty-fifty, an even split.”
“You both want to block the Crockers from being the only game in town, right?”
“Then it would seem to me that you two boys might want to make this deal happen, no matter what it takes.” She stroked his cheek with a flour-coated hand. “Otherwise, you’ll both be run out of town soon.”
Collis hung his vest over the back of the rickety chair and meandered into their kitchen for a warm meal. “I suppose I’ll sleep on it and talk to him in the morning, provided that he’s back.”
Beth giggled as she sat his dinner on the table. “I think Mary had mentioned something about them coming back no later than tomorrow before they left.”
He forked in a mouthful of green beans. Fifty-fifty? Right where I want you.
Mark Hopkins did return as promised the following day, and Collis was there to greet him.
Mark gave him a cursory nod. “Collis. I trust you got my correspondence.”
Huntington burned holes into his neighbor with his eyes.
“Well,” Mark said, packing a fresh pinch of tobacco into his pipe, “if this going to be a joint venture, then it needs to be an even cut.” He struck a match and nursed his pipe to life.
Hook, line, and sinker. Even Beth bought it. Collis extended a hand. “You drive a hard bargain, but you’ve got yourself a deal.”
Hopkins’s lean hand pumped his in accord. “Very well.” He turned toward his front door and motioned for Collis’s company with his smoldering pipe. “Come on in. We can draw up the papers right away.”
“I love how you think.” Collis rode the snaking cloud of fragrant smoke across the showroom and into Mark’s back office.
The lofty gent bent over his small desk. Several neat stacks of ledgers and record books lined its squared-off front edge.
“You’ve definitely got your accounts in order,” Collis said.
“I took the liberty of drawing up the papers, assuming the outcome.” Mark scribbled his signature on the last page and handed them to Huntington. “Feel free to read over them, but I can assure you they’re accurate.”
“Huntington, Hopkins, and Company,” Collis smiled.
“It has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?” Mark blew out another mouthful of his smoke. “Sounded better than any of the other alternatives.”
With a lone nod, Collis set them on top of a book stack and penned his name below his new partner’s.
“I’ll take them down to city hall right now and file them with the clerk.”
Hopkins extended a hand back into his storeroom. “No time like the present.”
Huntington tucked the documents into his inner coat pocket. “They should open for business any minute. I’ll swing back by here once I’m done and we can start talking logistics.”
Mark acknowledged him with a lift of his pipe. “Until then.”
Traffic on K Street trickled in from either end as he made his way toward downtown. The adrenaline still coursed through him as Collis bounded into the town’s main square.
“This is exactly what we need to give them a run for their money,” he whispered as he ascended city hall’s stairs.
A pair of men chatting about the recent thunderstorms stopped mid-sentence and eyed Huntington as he strode into the main foyer. Something about them felt off, sinister. Collis walked over to the sole clerk nestled behind his counter.
“How can I help you, Mr. Huntington?” The middle-aged administrator straightened his bowtie at the customer’s advance.
Collis snuck a quick glance back over his shoulder and pulled the folded papers from his coat. “I’d like to have these filed, please.”
He felt the clerk give them a ginger tug across the table to his side of the counter. Seconds later, the clerk’s green eyes rose to meet his.
“Looks like everything’s in order.” He dipped a large round stamper onto something on the other side and dropped it on the paper with a thump. “I’ll have the council review them at their meeting tomorrow afternoon.”
“Excellent.” Huntington tapped the counter. “Thank you.”
“Anytime,” the clerk said, “and good luck.”
As he strode back out onto the street, he caught the two suspicious men giving chase down the block. Collis glimpsed into the bakery window as he passed. Still back there. Who the hell are you two? As he made the turn back onto K Street, his followers turned in the opposite direction, but not before staring Collis down one final time.
Huntington hurried back into Hopkins’s store, peeking out the front window to ensure that the men hadn’t changed their minds.
“What’s eating you?”
Huntington met Mark over at his register and beckoned him closer. “Two men just trailed me the whole way back here from city hall.”
“How do you know that they were following you on purpose and not just going the same way?”
Collis snuck another glance out the front windows to quell his paranoia. “They sized me up as I was going in, too. Do you call that coincidence?”
Mark rubbed his chin and hummed into his fingers.
“There!” The word jumped out of Collis’s mouth and gouged Hopkins. “Across the street. That’s them.”
Mark took cautious steps up to his door and surveyed the men in question as well as the other window shoppers. Satisfied, he came back to the cash counter and barred Collis’s view. “I know those two.”
“I knew it.”
Mark leaned against his counter and slid a hand into his trouser pocket. “They run with the Crocker outfit.” A sense of unease came over him. “They’re not the sort that you’d want to get mixed up with.”
Collis leaned around his partner’s lofty frame for another look. “What do you think they’re up to?”
The corner of Hopkins’s lips curled. “No good.”
“I figured that much.”
Mark turned and set his back against the counter. “Those apples didn’t fall far from the company tree.”
Huntington’s brow furrowed.
“I found out from several reliable sources that Charles is on the City Council.”
A warm wave of fury welled up from deep within Huntington’s gut. “That double crossing, slimy, two-faced ---”
“Take it easy,” Mark said, holding up an open palm.
Collis drew back from his counterpart and thrust his hands on his hips. “Take it easy? He’s going to sit on our filing for weeks on purpose!”
Hopkins strode up to him and set a hand on his left shoulder. “Let me go into town later and have a chat with one of my acquaintances. He’s a judge and might be able to ensure that Mr. Crocker doesn’t go overstepping his bounds.”
The cheery jingle of his doorbell broke the otherwise silent morning the following day.
Huntington glanced up from his copy of the morning paper at the mailman. “How are things, Milt?”
The thirty-something delivery man raised a shoulder. “Right as the rain, I suppose. You?”
Collis took the small bundle of letters from the short fellow’s grimy grip. “I’ll let you know once I’ve read through these.”
Milt pushed his thin spectacles up his button nose with the pad of his thumb. “Expecting something important, then?”
Collis flipped through the other envelopes, paying the rude interruption no heed. His big brown eyes lit up at the long envelope from the Sacramento City Council.
“That’s it!” He slapped it against his countertop. “It’s gotta be.”
Milt fidgeted with the strap on his mailbag and shuffled toward the exit. “Well, I suppose I’d better get back to my rounds.” He propped the front door ajar and turned back to Huntington. “See ya next time.”
Collis dropped the rest of his mail and hustled straight over to his next-door neighbor. Mark stood halfway up his shelf ladder, sliding another small tin of polish into its place atop its stack when Collis barged into his store.
“It’s here,” he pushed through labored breaths. “We’ve got it!”
Autumn had dwindled down to its last death throes. Mild air filtered in from the coast, keeping the area warm enough to evade winter’s white stuff, but daylight couldn’t escape the inevitable. Collis tugged the collar of his coat closer around his neck as he made the turn onto K Street. His gaze scanned the new storefront with a welling pride that warmed his spirit against the biting November wind.
Huntington & Hopkins Hardware Company
It’s all falling into place. He waited for a passing buckboard to lumber by, then navigated through the worn ruts in the street. Mark stood on the other side of their store’s matching red doors sorting through the most recent delivery of powder kegs, trail kits, and other sundries.
Huntington shuffled indoors and hung his overcoat up in their office. “It’s getting colder out there.” He rubbed his hands together and puffed into them.
Hopkins handed him some trail kits, and took his own armful of sleep rolls to the far wall. “They’ll be coming down out of the mountains for the season soon.”
Collis set the kits on the back wall with the others and made his way back up to the cash counter. “I know. We’ll need to come up with some other means of cash flow.”
His older partner rolled a powder keg into the front corner of their establishment. Mark placed his hands on the small of his back and stretched his frame to its extent as he studied the quiet streets. “There’s an interesting story in the paper today.”
Hopkins bobbed his head as he strode over to the opposite side of the counter. “Talk of freedom for Southern slaves and the formation of a new political party are in the mix.”
Huntington’s brow peaked. He spread the local paper out on the counter and thumbed through its pages. “The times are changing, partner.”
Mark laughed. “That they are.” He tapped the article in the lower corner with the mouthpiece of his trusty pipe. “It says there that the Republicans are for more businesses, factories, and railroad expansion.”
“This could be our ticket.” Collis’s finger hovered over the lines as his mind hurried to formulate a plan. “Aligning ourselves with them could lead into bigger and better business circles.”
“My thoughts exactly.” Mark leaned his back into the counter and pulled a tobacco pouch from his hip pocket. “I don’t believe that our booming little town has an official party structure yet.”
A grin spread across Collis’s face as he folded the paper. “Then, we’ll just have to make this place the headquarters of the Sacramento Republican Party.”
He read Mark’s curling smirk as an affirmation.
A trail-hardened miner lumbered in through their front doors. He shivered and patted the clay and earth from his brown overcoat.
“Mornin’.” Collis set a hand on either side of the cash drawer. “What can we do for you this chilly day?”
The gent approached the counter. “Lookin’ fer some new rolls, a bit o’ twine, and some flint if you have any.”
Mark pulled a bedroll from the inventory and ambled to a barrel full of wound rope. “Got some fresh supplies in just yesterday.”
The miner rested an elbow on the countertop. “Must be my lucky day.”
Huntington nodded. “Indeed, it is.”
His partner set the order next to the register and drew his pipe from its vest pocket. “How’s things farin’ up there?”
Their customer shrugged. “Most of us are packing up and coming down for the winter.”
Collis rang up his bill while he continued.
“Been rainin’ on and off for weeks. Winds are whippin’.” He shook his head of graying black hair. “Saw the damnedest thing yesterday.”
“Oh?” Mark struck a match in the end of his trusty pipe.
The man grunted. “Some feller was up there doin’ all sorts of measuring and surveying.”
Collis penciled the total on a slip and slid it across the countertop. “Any ideas?”
“There’s been talk of a Pacific railroad that’s supposed to run through there and cut up into the mountains.” The man sniffed as he scrounged into a pocket for the tender. “Mighta been that.”
Hopkins and Huntington glanced to one another.
“There ya go.” Some bills hit the countertop.
Collis made change and handed it back. “Any talk of who was building it?”
The man stuffed his coin into a pocket. “Some Publicans, Pelicans… I don’t know for sure.”
Collis leaned closer, his eyes wide. “Republicans?”
The miner snapped his fingers. “That was them. Some boys from that bunch was jawin’ about it back over the summer.” He tipped his brim and wandered back out into the streets.
“That settles it.” Huntington dusted off his counter with a rag.
“Settles what?” Mark blew a fragrant cloud up into the rafters.
“We’ve gotta be in the middle of that party.” He scurried to the office, tossed on his coat, and scrambled for the door. “Hold down things for a while?”
Mark nodded through another puff.
“This is big, Mark.” Collis tossed up his arms. “Huge!”
Huntington’s first stop was down the street at the bank. The portly teller glanced up from his counting at the excited cloud of blue collar that hurried to his window.
“Morning, Mr. Huntington.”
Collis looked around. “Is Mr. Tidwell in?”
Edgar’s chest deflated. His ring of black hair motioned toward the large office in the back.
Collis tapped his counter with his hand, “Thanks,” and sped off after his prey.
Morty Tidwell sat at his desk jotting some figures into a ledger. His eyes lifted over the brass rims of his glasses. “Collis. What can I --?”
Huntington made himself at home and shut the door. “The party, Morty.”
Tidwell lifted an upturned hand. “Party? My wife never received an invitation.”
“No, no.” Collis waved it off and marched to the front of his bureau. “The Republican Party.”
“I don’t follow.”
Huntington leaned over the front edge on his hands. “Politics, Mr. Tidwell. More importantly,” he took confident strides to the window on the back wall, “the way of the future.”
Morty chuckled. “If you’ll excuse me, Mr. Huntington, I have some important business to attend to.”
“I’d say you do.” Collis surveyed the back lot that stretched out to meet a wandering brook. “Millions, Mort.”
Tidwell penned something into his profits column. “Another one of your half-baked schemes?”
“Oh, no.” Collis suppressed a grimace. That barb stung.
A huff from Morty. “If there’s nothing else I can do for you,” he pointed at his book with his pen, “I really have other work.”
This one’s stubborn as an ox and bears a striking likeness to one.
Collis strode to his side and studied the numbers in the banker’s book. “The Republicans, Mort. They stand for all of the progressive ideas that we’ve talked about at the saloon.”
Tidwell ignored him and transcribed more figures.
“Freedom for all men.” Huntington was in his element. “Innovative business. The railroad, Tidwell.” His finger tapped the bottom line in the profit column. “The Pacific Railroad.”
Tidwell sat his pen down and laced his fingers.
“Tonight.” Huntington stared into his soul. “My store. Through the party, we can make it happen.”
He wasted no time making his way back out the front. Collis went around town, hitting up all the major power players and businessmen in Sacramento. Some had agreed to be at his inaugural meeting, but most had refused to get involved in the heated debate that surrounded slavery and emancipation. By the time, he had returned to his store, Mark was closing up shop for the day.
The sour look on his partner’s face stalled Collis at the front doors. “I’m sorry.”
Mark propped a door ajar, allowing Huntington to pass. “Busy day, then?”
Collis locked the door and floated to the register. “It wasn’t easy, but I think I got us some members.”
“Us?” Hopkins always had a way with making him feel his mistakes to the bone. “I was here all day by myself, Collis.”
“I know –--”
“All day.” Mark returned to sweeping the dust toward the back door.
“Don’t do this to me, Mark.”
Collis trailed the towering silhouette into the shadows of their office. “I apologized. Look, this could be the break that we need.”
Mark brushed the growing hummock of filth to the back door and cracked it open. “We need? I’m doing just fine here with our store.” He swept the crud out onto the porch.
“Yes, we.” Huntington followed him. “If we can even get a sliver of this venture in our hands, we’ll be set for life.”
His taller counterpart pushed the remaining dirt out between the slats on the porch. A sidelong glare.
“Owning a part of this railroad could help both our families retire a hell of a lot sooner.”
Leaning on his broom, Mark hung his head. “All right. What time’s this big meeting of ours?”
Collis patted him on an arm. “You’re not gonna regret this.”
“Lord, I pray not.”
The storeroom at Huntington & Hopkins stirred with the chatter of several local business owners. Even their rivals, the Crocker brothers, had decided to attend.
“All right, gentlemen,” Collis said, striding to the center of the room. “Let’s get this meeting started, shall we?”
A few moans and utterances of distaste.
“I know. We’re all taking some extra time away from our families to do this, but I promise you it’ll be worth it.”
“I sure hope so, Huntington.” It was the doughy Charles Crocker. His lanky older brother, Edwin, joined in the laugh that made Charles’s belly wiggle.
Mark handed out a card and flyer to each person. “Rest assured, Charles. You’ll want to hear what he has to say.”
Huntington took his card and a pencil. “As I said to a lot of you earlier today, this party stands to do all of us some benefit.”
“In what way?” a man barked from the front of the establishment.
Collis bobbed around to make eye contact. “I’m glad you asked.” He held up his membership ticket in both hands above his head. “The Republicans stand for small business. They stand for the rights of all men.”
Grumbles from the gathered mass.
“Hear him out, folks.” Hopkins crossed his arms and propped himself against a barrel.
Collis continued. “They stand for all of us, white, red, black. We the people should retain the power.” He made his way to the register. “We the people know what’s best for our families, our towns, and ourselves.”
Edwin laughed. “What are you getting at Collis? We haven’t got -–”
One of the front windows shattered. The round culprit landed on the floor with a heavy thud. Somewhere in the street, a voice followed it inside. “Black Republicans! Bunch of neegruh lovers!”
Other shouts rose up around these. Mark and Collis charged out the door.
“What did you say?” Huntington’s rage erupted.
The crowd scattered as others filed out and moped back toward their homes.
Mark sat his hands on his hips. “Where’s everybody going?”
“Home,” Tidwell said. “I’m tired, and my barn isn’t going to clean itself.”
Another shout from the mob: “Negro lovin’ traitors!”
Hopkins had had enough. He stomped farther out into K Street. “We are for Fremont and the Pacific Railroad!”
These words stopped the Crockers in their tracks.
“Say what now?” Charles tilted his head of red to one side.
Collis ushered the Crockers back into the solitude of his store. He picked up the stone on the floor to toss it out but decided against the idea. “Sherriff will want to see this.”
Mark slid past him and huddled their rivals around. “We weren’t going to bring this up until later once we saw who the serious members were.”
Huntington placed the stone next to the register and joined them. “We have a major proposition in the works.”
Edwin’s brow rose. “What sort of proposition?”
“The highly lucrative sort.” Collis fetched his watch from his vest. “I don’t want to keep you gentlemen much longer.”
“Oh, no.” Charles eradicated that notion. “Go on.”
Collis shrugged. “A lot of this will depend on what path the railroad project can take eastward and whether or not we can get a Republican President in the office.”
A thin grin grew across Charles’s face.
Mark took his cue. “If we have someone in office that will support our railroad bills…”
“… we’ll stand to make a small fortune!” Edwin said.
[end of excerpt]
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