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Published onThursday, August 29, 2013

On the Path of Totality

By Nathaniel Lloyd

 

Separation sat upon a high vantage in the southern mountains of Wyoming Territory, directly on the path of the 1878 solar eclipse's totality, and as such the township suited well the observational needs of astronomers. It was a small municipality, consisting of several hotels and taverns–a community wholly dependent on the Union Pacific railroad, with its freight of travelers on their way to distant places and coalminers bound for or returning from work in nearby settlements. Upon my arrival, I found the local establishments packed with cosmologists of every stripe, from the amateur to the respected. I was counted among the latter, plied with spirits and asked to expound upon my work. The talk of the town was the search for the intra-mercurial planet and whether or not James Watson would finally, with the glare of the sun ecliptically removed, prove its existence.

In truth, I cared not a whit about the general hubbub. The existence of Vulcan was an exciting theory, but one that had been bandied about for nearly twenty years since Le Verrier first postulated it as an explanation for the discrepancies in Mercury's perihelion precession. It seemed every astrophile with a telescope had since claimed to have seen its transit across the disk of the sun. I was of the mind that all such sightings were of sunspots, and I highly doubted that Watson would discover anything of interest. Therefore I kept largely to myself those first days, and when the eclipse drew nearer and every man in town gathered in the muddy stable-yard reserved for their tripod-mounted telescopes, I remained indoors, enjoying brandy and solitude.

   

One may reasonably inquire why I journeyed so far westward only to exclude myself from the undertakings of my colleagues. In explanation, I might offer that my journey was more in the nature of a holiday. I had just published my didactic volume, PopularAstronomy, and for many months, as director of the Nautical Almanac, I had been engaged in the most ambitious mathematical endeavor ever undertaken, namely the recalculation of all fundamental astronomical data supplied by observatories since the middle of the last century. It was, if the figure can be excused, an astronomical undertaking, and one from which I required respite. Therefore a sabbatical was in order.

Bafflement might further ensue when one questions why I would travel to the very edge of civilization, to a rustic village atop a mountain, a glorified railway station offering but few comforts, when I might well have chosen any number of more suitable resorts. The plain truth of it is that I was seeking adventure. Although I am a man of science, I have always enjoyed reading fanciful stories. The scientific romances of Jules Verne had given me a taste for grand exploits, but in those days the grandest escapades described in popular literature were those that took place upon the western frontier. I will admit that I came to Separation hoping to witness firsthand that wild west country I had read about in so many serials and dime novels, my guilty pleasures. So it was that after Watson and all the rest of those who had gathered for the eclipse left Separation, I stayed behind, citing as an excuse the fact that I had grown used to travelling in a certain style, and the passenger train only boasted one Pullman car.

In fact I remained because I hoped that once all my colleagues had gone, I might witness the real frontier in all its excitement. Week upon week, I walked the dusty streets of Separation, lingering in refectories and haunting taverns, hoping I might see a pistol duel or knife fight, expecting contrary to reason that I might find myself in the midst of an Indian siege, obliged to take up arms against the threat of savagery. The town, however, was nearly deserted. What few miners and travelers arrived by rail took rooms and never emerged. The merchants and tavern-keepers came to treat me as rather a nuisance than a guest. I was the stranger who never moved on, the loiterer who watched all with wide, eager eyes. By the end of a month, I found myself fancying a restful passage back home, and I took a palace car on the eastbound train.

As often happens while entrained, I became dyspeptic very soon after my departure. Rail travel has never agreed with my stomach. The rocking and rattling leaves me queasy. As it sometimes helps settle my nausea, I thought to do some moon-gazing and produced from my bag my prized telescope, a collapsible brass and ivory. Opening the window of my Pullman car, I extended the instrument to its full length, braced it against my arm and had a look into the night sky. Somehow observing the lunar disk in the darkened firmament had always had a restorative effect upon my belly, and tonight was no different. When I caught the moon in my lens, the pale satellite still and firm in its orbit, reflecting for the benighted world all the brilliance of the sun, I felt my sickness immediately abate.

As I retracted the telescope from the open window, my car struck some defect in the track. The entire car jerked and shook, and to my horror, my precious telescope was knocked from my grasp and tumbled out into the night. I gasped and thrust my head through the aperture, hoping to see where it had fallen. Below, I saw the bend of a wide river. As the train carried me farther along and into a cedar forest, I watched its sandy bank recede.

Late in the evening, the train stopped at a small coal-mining town named Carbon. Thinking at any cost to recover my telescope, I disentrained and sought lodgings for the balance of the night. The next morning, I went straightaway to the office of the Union Pacific Railroad to inquire how best I might proceed in recovering my property. In a small clapboard office, I met with one Tip Vincent, a lean mustachioed detective for the railroad. "That river was the Medicine Bow," he said grimly after I explained my problem, "and there's a reason for the jolt you describe. Yesterday, a maintenance crew saw some spikes were pulled from the outside rail on that stretch of track, and the rail hammered loose. We believe Big Nose George Parrott and his gang were trying to derail a certain train carrying payroll for the Wyoming Coal Company. We stopped that train here, and the local deputy and I are putting together a posse to go after them."

At word of an outlaw gang and a posse comitatus, my pulse began to race. I insisted I be permitted to accompany them on the grounds I had lost valuable property at these ruffian train robbers' hands. Vincent offered some resistance, but eventually he acquiesced, saying that if I could procure a horse and gun, another man among them might be appreciated. This I immediately went about accomplishing, for I had no shortage of funds with which to do so. At the livery-stable, I obtained a fine bay house-colt, and at the gunsmithery a superior repeating rifle. I daresay, when the posse mustered on the streets that afternoon, I was the best-equipped of those assembled, and perhaps the most eager. We were a dozen, all told, and rode out led by Vincent and the deputy sheriff, one Robert Widdowfield, a rugged lawman with a strong jaw and stern brow. I felt the very soul of Western adventure, galloping along behind them into the canyons and moraines of that country.

When we arrived at the bend of the Medicine Bow River, I hunted along the riverbank for my cherished instrument while the rest examined the sabotage done to the tracks. After a short search, I found the telescope lying largely unharmed in the sand. Upon further examination, I found that grains of sand were lodged in between the various sections of the tubing, making the collapse of its body a difficult matter, but in the main I was happy that no further damage had been sustained. The lenses themselves appeared intact and unscathed. As the posse followed sign of our quarry southward along a crest they called Halleck Ridge and toward a nearby peak named Elk Mountain, I fell in behind them, occupying myself with freeing sand grains from the telescope's frame and wholly disregarding the passing countryside.

After I know not how long, I found that my colt had wandered apart from the rest of the posse. I rode alone through a steep gorge. No sooner had I turned my horse around, however, than I saw the detective and the deputy riding toward me, their faces red with consternation.

"Sir!" Widdowfield called out, his great jaw rippling. "We can't have you roving off alone! You have your toy back; now keep with the rest of us. Tip says you're a scholar and a gentleman. I won't have you straying away and getting killed. I'd lose my post over such a blunder."

"Very sorry," I replied, still examining my telescope. "I must have lost my way."

"Put that damned scope away and keep your eyes up," Vincent barked. "Rest of the posse's probably miles on by now. We got some riding ahead of us." The three of us brought our mounts to a trot back toward Elk Mountain. A few moments later, with the walls of the canyon still looming around us, Widdowfield raised his hand for a halt. In silence, he pointed toward the trailside, where a stand of cedars and tall scrub brush camouflaged a niche in the gorge wall. He dismounted, and Vincent followed his example, both of them brandishing their rifles. With my blood running high, I did likewise, though I left my repeater in its saddle holster and carried only my telescope. When I stepped into the encircling brush, I found Vincent and Widdowfield approaching the ashy remnants of a campfire. Widdowfield knelt, leaning on his rifle and waving a hand over the ash.

"Still warm," he said. "Must not be far." Then his eye caught sight of something in the fire-bed. With the butt of his rifle, he poked through the ashes, uncovering some sooty objects.

"Those are the spikes they took out the railroad," Vincent said. "They were here, for certain."

A snap of twigs in the underbrush and a sharp intake of breath initiated the ensuing violence. Widdowfield looked up at the sound, and then I heard a gruff voice say, "Let's fire," calm as if its owner were suggesting a rest or the taking of victuals. A deafening blast of guns clapped my ears, and smoke billowed into the clearing. Widdowfield's face gouted blood as he flopped over the fire-bed in a cloud of ash. Vincent raised his rifle, swing wildly from side to side, and then turned to flee. The murderers stood and stepped clear of their hiding place in the brush then, and the tallest, a swarthy man with a thick scraggly mustache and a prominent lumpy nose, fired a pistol into the railroad detective's back. Before Vincent had even fallen dead to the ground, the gang was upon me, their guns bearing on me.

"Unarmed!" I cried, lifting the telescope above my head, dropping to my knees. "I'm unarmed!"

There were five of them, men of hard visage with scornful eyes and sneering mouths. They looked down at me with something like pity tinged by contempt. I realized then that I had urinated into my trousers. At any other time, among different company, I would have felt acute shame at such indignity, but as it was I felt only unmitigated fear.

"What's that?" the one with the potato nose asked, gesturing at my telescope with his six-shooter.

After an inconcealable effort to overcome the stammer that sudden terror had given me, I answered. "A telescope, sir." Construing his blank expression as ignorance, I essayed an elucidation. "An instrument designed to render distant things more clearly visible to the naked eye."

"I know what a damned spyglass does," he scowled at me, and his empty hand shot forth, as I deemed, to cuff me. I cowered before him, defending my face with the telescope, but instead of striking me he snatched the instrument from my hand. "Never seen such a splendid one, is all." He examined it, twisting and collapsing its segments.

I winced, hearing the grinding of river sand in its works, and I could not keep myself from cautioning him against such rough usage. "Gently," I held out an admonishing hand, "It's a delicate device."

The outlaw's gaze snapped back at me, and he raised the telescope as if to use it for a cudgel. I shrank again, but before he could brain me, one of his subordinates stayed his hand. He was a round-faced man with pocked cheeks and a little puckered mouth that only showed glimpses of the rotten teeth within when he spoke.

"Wait, George. I heard that undersheriff say this one's a gennaman scholar. Might be he could make us famous like the Jameses if we leave him his wits and bring him along with us awhile."

The man, George, lowered the telescope and scrutinized me. "You a writer?"

"I am," I answered, and it was no lie, though I knew their narrow definition of the word did not encompass the type of compositions for which I was known. I saw a chance for salvation, and I am not ashamed to have seized upon it. "I'll write your story. Just please, let me live."

After more frank examination, he handed the telescope back to me and introduced himself as the man I had already deduced he was, though he did not present himself by the dubious appellation Big Nose.

"George Parrott," he said, "and this here's the Parrott Gang." He waved toward the portly pock-marked man, "Charley Burris, called Dutch Charley in these parts," and then to the other three miscreants, the last of whom, I discerned upon closer inspection, was a Chinese: "Jack Campbell, Frank Towle and Sim Wan."

"Pleased to meet you," my voice shook. "My name is Simon Newcomb."

"We had better get a move on," Burris said. "The rest of that posse heard them shots, they'll be ridin' down on us shortly."

"How many of you are there?" Parrott asked me.

"Nine others," I answered in good faith, "besides myself and..." I trailed away as I gestured to Widdowfield still sprawled across the extinguished campfire.

"Where they headed?"

"Away south around the base of that peak," I pointed at Elk Mountain. "Following a trail they think is yours."

The Chinese laughed, and Burris grinned. "That was us," he said proudly. "Sim's idea. Leave a dummy trail and double back up to Rattlesnake Canyon here."

"We'd of been long gone if you hadn't of roved off and brought these two after you," Parrott said. "Those dead're on you," he said.

To this day, I have never thought differently.

  

Parrott appropriated my horse, saddle and rifle, admiring each in its turn for its breeding or craftsmanship. I was put atop a piebald gelding with bony withers and a swollen belly that I believe suffered from some colical complaint, judging by the pitiful noises it made and its general bad temper. We set out riding westward through the canyon at a hurried but not hell-bent pace, and by nightfall had emerged into a valley. Straying away from the trail, we made camp in a secluded hollow beside a creek. With the night clear and moonlight glimmering across the water, I would have ventured to call the scene picturesque were it not for the belching and cursing company I kept and the ever-present threat of death that hung over me.

I kept to myself, crouching beside my colicky horse and fretting over my telescope, which for me had become the symbol of a world to which I might never return. In that dark hour, I counted myself twice the fool, first for having sought fulfillment outside of a life that was already more rewarding than perhaps I deserved, and second for having thought I would find that fulfillment in a frontier adventure. Like a child, I had romanticized the West beyond all reason, but having witnessed two men murdered on my account and ridden a day with their killers, I saw it for what it was: an unforgiving country populated by dull-witted, callous men, who are the only sort able, or willing, to adapt to such a cruel environment. I was, I realized, a lover of civilization, and from that night on, I gave up all idealized notions of the wilderness and borderlands. When it came to the good things in life, the territories were as desert wastes.

When the rest of the men had eaten their fill of beans and salt pork and gone to their bedrolls giddy-headed with brandy, Parrott stayed up to keep watch, and I to watch him. He sat by the small, flameless coal fire they had stoked to cook their victuals, and he cradled a brandy bottle like a wet-nurse might an infant. Then, as if he could sense me watching, he reached forward, took up the coffee canister in which remained the scraps of their meal, set it beside him and waved me over. I pretended not to notice at first, but I was so ravenous that my stomach betrayed me, groaning and grousing like a living creature. Taking my telescope, I walked over, sat beside Parrott and set to cleaning the canister's interior of its cold beans and grease, which I greedily sucked from my bare, filthy fingers. I had become like a wild beast.

When I had done, Parrott and I sat in quietude, he slowly draining his brandy and I gawking abjectly at the stars. Having emptied my French telescope of what sand I could, I made use of it, extending it to its full length and sighting through its lenses the waning gibbous moon, its face more pock-marked by far than that of Dutch Charlie Burris.

"Don't you want to know some about us?" Parrott asked, and his words, even in undervoice, seemed to cleave the night's tranquility like a thunderclap. "I mean, if you're writin' on us, ain't you better learn a thing or two to put down?"

"Of course," I said, taking my instrument's eyepiece away from my face and lowering its objective lens to the ground. "What can you tell me?"

He took a draught of his brandy and appeared so deep in thought that I anticipated his next words would be lies. "Dutch Charlie and me, we was in with the James and Younger boys a while. That trick of pullin' up the rails to stop a train was my idear. Everyone gives Frank James that credit." I was sitting beside him wringing my telescope in my hands. "Why ain't you writin' this out?" He sighed. "You ain't no writer, is you?"

"What makes you say that?" I asked.

"I known a few writers. Newsmongers and the like. Got ink stains on their cuffs and don't wear clothes fancy's yourn. Carry notebooks and little charcoal pencils with 'em, not spyglasses."

I protested, fearing that without the pretense of serving as their bard I would be dispatched forthwith. "It's not true, sir. I am a writer. Just this year I've published a volume to great success."

Parrott turned to look at me with a penetrating gaze that shone darkly in the moonlight. "And what was that on?"

For a few agonizing moments I stammered, trying to concoct a convincing lie, but in the end I hung my head and told him the truth. "It was a volume on astronomy," I said. "As you say, I'm not such a writer as I presented myself to be. I'm a scientist, a mathematician. Superintendent of the American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac. Formerly Professor at the U.S. Naval Observatory."

Parrot spat from beneath his mustache and onto the cooling bed of coals. "That supposed to mean something to me?"

"No, I suppose not. Only... I am a far more important figure even than you had originally thought. Were I to return to Cambridge and tell the newspapermen there about you and your gang, your fame would spread across the nation entire. You would become far more notorious than Jesse James."

"Save your breath, stargazer," Parrott said, tipping another dram from his bottle. "I'm too far drunk to kill you." He laughed at this, though it chilled my very soul. "What are you doin' out Wyoming," he asked, "if you're so damned special?"

"The eclipse," I answered. "The path of totality encompassed Separation. A lot of astronomers gathered there to search for Vulcan, the phantom planet."

"On second thought," he grumbled, "never mind that. I don't care."

"You don't care that we might have discovered a whole new world?" The thought of it seemed impossible. Although to an astronomer the question of an intra-mercurial planet might seem academic or even puerile, to the lay public it was generally one of the only topics within the field of any interest whatsoever. "You mean to say you don't find it at all interesting that our solar system might include a wholly unknown planet?"

"I don't waste a bullet shootin' after a man that's outta sight," Parrott said. "Why'd I strain my eyes searchin' out somethin' I wasn't meant to see? Sun and moon serve me fine. All else is darkness. Might as well dazzle yourself starin' at the bright blue sky, for all it gets you."

I shook my head. "I take it you don't put much stock in science and knowledge."

"Why would I?" He spat into the creek. "What's it ever done for men to know things? You think we're any better off now than before?"

Forgetting my danger, I spiritedly engaged with Parrott on the subject. "There is progress, sir. Of course we're better off as a race for our knowledge and our ingenuity. Just look to the telegraph, to the railroad, to the mining of coal and its use in the combustion engine."

Parrott scoffed. "Progress is only for the rich. You think the man down in that coal mine glories in the wonders of the modern age? You think the man feedin' that coal to a engine delights in the train's miraculous workins?" He shook his head and tipped the bottle again. "I used to work as a bullwhacker. Driving freight-wagon near Deadwood. About broke my back hauling gold for my bosses, and all for a pittance. I figured out that progress don't reward the likes of me. Only way I's ever able to get my fair portion of this world was to take it. To rob them wagons. Derail them trains."

He offered me the bottle. I accepted it, took a drink of its sweet contents and handed it back. As he seemed to have fallen silent again, I lifted my telescope and again beheld the grandeur of the moon.

"Just look through my glass," I said. "Look once through it at the stars and the planets and tell me you don't thirst for a greater knowledge of the universe." I held the instrument out to him.

After regarding it a moment, he took it, hurled it into the night sky, and faster than I could see, he drew his revolver and fired from where he sat. His shot struck the telescope as it spun through the air. It broke in half and fell into the creek. Some of his gang raised their heads, but seeing there was no danger, they returned to sleep.

"This here's the only science I need," he said, pointing the gun at me.

I sat dead-struck and quaking, expecting at any moment for my life to be taken, a burst of light before a suffocating darkness.

Then he holstered the pistol and asked, "What's the opposite of progress?"

I breathed shakily, regaining my poise. "That would be retrogression," I said when I had my wind again. "A return to a previous state. A step backwards."

"Then I'm an agent of retrogression," Parrott said. "I would be the mainspring of chaos, a firebrand of hell to raze this unjust world down to its foundations."

I sat mute, frightened into immobility. Parrott continued to drink until he had finished his bottle.

"I'll be falling asleep now," he said, and turned so as to rest his boots on my lap. "Don't think of running off. I'll wake and kill you." Within a few minutes, he was slumbering soundly, and I was terrified into remaining motionless and awake, fearing that the slightest movement on my part would cause Parrott to wake up shooting.

Hours later, Parrott rolled over in his sleep, and his boots slipped off of me. Still I sat stock-still, afraid to move. Then it occurred to me that, come morning, when Parrott told Burris and the rest that I was no romancer of highwaymen, they might very well kill me regardless. Therefore, with my heart so loud in my ears I feared it would wake them, I crept away.

Through the underbrush I crawled for the better part of an hour, afraid to move too quickly lest I rouse my captors. When I heard Parrott and then the others shouting execrations behind me, I had covered more distance than I thought, for their voices were faint. I dared not move from my prostrate position for fear they would spy my silhouette in the moonlight and shoot me dead. I lay with bated breath and listened as they beat the bushes and kicked the tall grass, closing inexorably on my location while they cursed me for a coward. With great trepidation, I anticipated them firing their rifles blindly into the scrub undergrowth and by chance striking me where I lay, leaving me to die with my face in the fetid earth or worse, dressing my wound and forcing me to carry on with them. True to his claim, though, Parrott refused to waste bullets on an unseen man. Eventually, I heard him call his outlaws back, and then I heard the hoof-strokes of their retreat into the night. Fearing some ruse, I still dared not stir from the ground for another hour, and when I did, I went along nearly backwards, peering through the darkness for some sign that Parrott pursued. Throughout the night, I trudged northward through that valley's dewy meadows and streambeds until my trousers were sodden. I tripped on rocks and roots, tumbled to the ground, cut my hands and bruised my knees, but always I rose again and carried on, driven by shame and dread. By morning, I had reached the edge of those lowlands and come upon a steeper terrain, and to my everlasting relief, the murderous Parrott Gang was nowhere to be seen in the valley behind me.

As it happens, I am an old hand at mountaineering, having enjoyed many a constitutional climb in the Swiss Alps, so I managed well enough among the mounts and ridges bordering that valley. By the evening of that grueling day, I descended from the foothills a half-starved tatterdemalion, came upon the railway and followed it to its nearest stop: Fort Steele. There, after some convincing oratory, I was permitted to board the next passenger train bound for Carbon, where I retrieved from the hotel my baggage and money and continued by rail back to civilization, never to tell a soul of the peril I had survived. Indeed, the question had been put directly to me in Carbon, where the rest of the posse, having lost the Parrott Gang's trail, had returned. Where had I been? Where were the deputy and the detective? To my shame, I lied, saying I knew nothing of Vincent and Widdowfield's whereabouts. I had wandered off alone and become lost. It was guilt held my tongue, for I felt and still feel responsible for their deaths, and spite as well, for I believed that to tell any tales of the Parrott Gang's crimes would be to give them exactly what they wanted.

I have never forgotten my conversation with Big Nose George Parrott. Indeed, when my thoughts turn to him, I am inspired to pen my own scientific romance, a eutopian story in which the scientist is a hero and the progress engendered by his discoveries brings peace and fulfillment to the world. Perhaps one day I will write that novel, just as perhaps I will one day publish these reminiscences, though I rather think that, if I do, I shall omit these pages, for Big Nose George has become famous enough without my increasing his legend.

The bodies of Tip Vincent and Robert Widdowfield were soon discovered, and Big Nose George and his gang became the most wanted criminals in Wyoming. Two years later, upon his capture, Parrott was being transported by rail through the town of Carbon when a mob stormed the train and lynched him. As a fitting end to one so diametrically opposed to progress and knowledge, he was hanged from a telegraph pole, and his corpse was dissected for study by medical doctors. Afterward, a tanner made of his skin a physician's bag, and for years his mortal remains were used as a vessel to keep and carry the instruments of that noble science.

As for the question of Vulcan, it is well known now that Watson claimed to have sighted not one but two intra-mercurial planets during the eclipse at Separation. An amateur named Swift, observing from Denver, claimed the same. However, their observations proved irreconcilable, and as the existence of four intra-mercurial planets was beyond credit, their findings were dismissed as mistaken. The search for Vulcan has since faded into obscurity, and I cannot help but think that Big Nose George would have found that amusing.

THE END

 

Nathaniel Lloyd's introduction to Western storytelling came from old John Wayne films and reruns of The Rifleman. He grew up immersed in the genre because of his father's love of Westerns, but his interest in the composition of Western fiction was born from his passion for history. Having studied American history in addition to literature and writing practices, he naturally gravitated toward historical fiction as his chosen form. Among the different eras of American history in which he has chosen to set his stories, he finds that the frontier lends itself best to great characters and drama.

 

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