On a fateful day in 1889, the Oklahoma land rush begins, and for thousands of settlers the future is up for grabs. One of those people is Creed McReynolds, fresh from the East with a lawyer’s education and a head full of aspirations. The mixed-blood son of a Kiowa mother and a U.S. Cavalry doctor, Creed lands in Guthrie station, the designated Territorial Capital, where he must prove that he is more than the half-blood kid once driven from his own land.
In recounting the precipitous rise and catastrophic fall of the jerrybuilt city of Guthrie, author Sheldon Russell immerses us in the lives of Creed and other memorable characters whose ambitions echo the taming of the frontier—and whose fates hold lessons as important today as they were more than a hundred years ago.
Among the people McReynolds must contend with is Abaddon Damon. A ruthless newspaper publisher, Abaddon is quick to strike any bargain that will bring him the power he craves, and like many others, Creed McReynolds is swept into his whirlwind of greed and deception. Creed becomes the wealthiest man in the Territory—but at an unbearable cost to himself, the dreams of others, and the dignity of his mother’s people.
Dreams to Dust takes readers back to the early days of Oklahoma Territory—a sometimes dangerous place filled with nefarious dealings, where violence lurks behind even casual encounters—to tell the story of frontier men and women gambling everything to find their fortune on the windswept southern plains.
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About the Author
Sheldon Russell is the author of several novels, including Dreams to Dust: A Tale of the Oklahoma Land Rush, which won the Oklahoma Book Award for fiction.
Read an Excerpt
Dreams to Dust
A Tale of the Oklahoma Land Rush
By Sheldon Russell
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2006 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
Locking his legs against the inside of the rail car, Creed McReynolds pushed against the timbers. Even though it was April, the nights were cold, and when the train picked up speed, he would need shelter from the wind. The timbers refused to move. Once again he bore down, the muscles in his legs trembling against the weight of the lumber. As they gave way, first an inch and then a foot, the smell of resin rose into the night.
Leaning back, he adjusted his new hat and laid his rifle across his lap. He checked the medical bag at his side—his father's bag and all that was left of his memory. In it was everything that Creed now owned: a pair of socks, a shirt, gloves worn thin from loading timbers, the few remaining coins of Spanish silver brought out of the Territory so many years ago. The silver had educated him, made of him a civilized man or nearly so, bestowed upon him the credentials of Attorney at Law.
With what silver was left, he'd made payment on three freight cars of yellow pine, because this much he remembered from his childhood in the Territory: there was nothing so rare as lumber, unless it was water for drinking. After the stakes were driven and the claims were filed, there would be buildings to be built. For that there must be timber, strong and straight and true.
When that day arrived, he would be there with his pine, and they would come with their money and their smiles, because he would have what they needed most. It was not the way of his mother's tribe to profit from the needs of others, but in a world forever changed, that way seemed primitive and useless. With their money the settlers would come, this he knew, and when they did, they would no longer see the savage in his eyes, nor the black of his hair, nor the darkness of his skin.
In the distance, the light of the engine beam swept the horizon as the men filled the boiler with water and replenished the coal. Walking down the line, the railroad bull swung his lamp, stopping from time to time to check the cars for sooners. In his pocket was the hundred dollars Creed had handed him, along with the job application. Even though it had taken almost all Creed had, there was little option. No one got past the checkpoints into the Territory except soldiers and railroad employees. Without the badge Creed wore on his coat, his timbers would not make it to Guthrie station, where they would demand the price he needed.
From time to time the bull stopped, lifted on his toes, and peered between the boards into the blackness of the cars. A baton swung from his wrist, its end filled with lead to crush the skull of anyone foolish enough to hitch a free ride. As he approached, Creed drew down, not anxious to talk.
The bull stopped, listening against the chug of the steamer. Hooking his lamp over his arm, he swung onto the ladder with skill.
"Come up out of there," he said, laying the baton across his arm, "before you get a taste of my mate here."
Creed stood, moving into the light.
"It's me," he said, "the new car guard."
The bull held his lantern high.
"It's a smart man speaks up quick on the rails, boy. Been those left their brains hanging from the rods for less."
"You gave me my badge," Creed said, "to guard these cars. That's what I'm doing."
Setting down the lantern, the bull reached for his tobacco, rolling a paper between his fingers, tying off his Durham bag with his teeth. Leaning over the lantern, he drew on the cigarette until it glowed in the dark. The smell of tobacco drifted into the night. Leaning over, he pulled his lips back over the stumps of his teeth. Lines of coal dust glistened in the folds of his face, and his breath was raw and hot under the tobacco.
"So you are," he said, "but it's a way we have to go yet, isn't it. Last week we found a car guard choked dead with a packing wire. They'd dumped him over the side at the Cimarron bridge, but the wire snagged on the ladder. It was a surprise he had on his face when we found him, riding in on his wire. Being a guard can have its downside now and again."
"Where are we?" Creed asked.
"Winfield, Kansas," the bull said, "then Arkansas City, then on to Guthrie station, providing a hotbox don't hold us up."
"Wheel bushing out of grease and running hot, white-hot sometimes, setting fires up and down the line. Likely burn this here lumber to ashes, wouldn't it? Be a real shame, wouldn't it, a man like you set on getting rich."
"That's what guards are for," Creed said, "to make certain nothing like that happens."
The bull spat a piece of tobacco from his tongue and hooked his baton under his belt.
"The Territory is crawling with sooners, down-and-outers from every dried-up town between here and London, England, come to get their free land, come for anything free and easy. Soon enough they could ride in on any of a dozen trains, but they want it first, don't they. Want it over your dead body, if it comes to that. They'll be getting theirs while those other poor bastards are sitting on the border with their mules and half-dozen kids waiting for the noon signal, waiting to claim what's left over so's they can starve in the promise land."
Steam shot from the sides of the engine, and the bell clanged its intent. The bull's eyes flickered under the light of his lamp.
"We break down or take a curve," he said, "sons of bitches hop out of the grass like fleas on a dog. Half-starved, most of them, eating grasshoppers and living in holes under the ground so's the soldiers can't find them, thinking they can ride my train to glory. Well, let me tell you, there's more'n one wished he'd stayed in the city after he met up with my mate here."
"Maybe it's hope they're looking for. There's little enough of it."
"It's free land they're looking for. They want the best, and they want it first, smack in the middle of the Guthrie station town site so's they can make a fortune off their fellow man."
The bull fell silent, his eyes peering from under folds of skin, the flame of his lantern dancing on the breeze as he waited for Creed's reaction.
"That hundred dollars is in your pocket," Creed said, "and makes you no different than the rest of us."
Throwing his leg over the railing of the car, the bull flicked his cigarette into the darkness.
"Ain't nothing I hate worse than a sooner," he said, working his way down the ladder. When he reached the bottom, he looked up at Creed, "'less it's a red Indian."
Creed turned away, heat rising in his face. The one thing he'd learned in law school was to pick his battles with care. This bastard could wind up with his hundred dollars and the timber if he lost his head. Leaning back against the pine, he watched the bull's light bob as he worked his way to the front of the train.
A few minutes later the whistle blew—three blasts—and the train lurched, the report racing down its length. The smell of coal smoke rode in, the power and thrust of the engine pooling deep within him as the train gained speed.
Campfires stretched into the darkness, tents cropping from the earth like mushrooms. Thousands upon thousands were working their way to the border, sitting at their fires, their lights winking away as the train plunged into the night.
Pulling his collar up, Creed rested his head on a timber. When confident in the speed, he dozed against the clack of the wheels and the thrust of the engine. Once, he awoke, the night damp and cool about him. Overhead, stars stood sentry, indifferent to the train driving across the prairie below. Bones aching, he shifted positions against the jolt of the freight car.
Sometime in the morning hours they reached the border, the train pulling to a stop, brakes grinding, iron against iron, steam wheezing from the engine. A soldier rode the length of the train and then back again, the breath from his horse fogging into the cold. Moving to the top of the timbers, Creed laid his carbine across his arm.
When the soldier reined up, his horse squatted in reprieve, steam rising from the pool of piss gathering between its legs.
"Your badge?" the soldier asked, dusting his hat against his leg.
Creed held out the lapel of his coat.
"Much farther to Guthrie station, soldier?"
Putting his hat back on, the soldier shrugged.
"Depends whether you're sitting a ox or walking."
"How about riding a train?"
"Ain't that far riding a train."
Too long in law school, Creed had forgotten the simple logic of the Territory.
"I see," he said.
"From here on is the Territory, Mister. Might want to ride somewhere 'sides the top of that timber. Found a carcass dragged half-way to the switch point couple days back. Wasn't much left after scrubbing up three mile of track under a steam engine."
"Who was it?"
"Could've been a sooner riding the rods," he said, "or a Oklahoma colonist." Pausing, he slipped a glove from his hand. "Could've been President Harrison, though seems unlikely."
"Thanks," Creed said.
Tipping his hat, the soldier mounted and moved out, and within minutes they were underway. As the train banked to the left, a full moon rose and shadows rippled along the grade. From the horizon, scrub oaks lifted into the night.
As a little boy, he had stood in silence as they placed his Kiowa mother, Twobirds, on her burial scaffold. A detachment of the Seventh Cavalry had been lost and starving on the prairie. It had been she who saved them. Among the soldiers spared was an assistant surgeon, Dr. Joseph McReynolds, who sired him. It had been so long ago, like a dream. Now, he couldn't remember where she lay, but it was out there somewhere in the darkness of the Territory.
Clenching his fist against the knot in his stomach, Creed stared into the blackness. This was her place, her time snatched by circumstance and fate and a changing world. It was not a mistake he planned to repeat. The past was past, and the Indian way was as dead as the buffalo that once darkened the prairie. With little more than the ability to read, he had risen to the top of his law class, and before he was done, everyone would know that Creed McReynolds was not just a breed but a power to be reckoned with in any man's world.
At what point he fell asleep, or how long he slept, he couldn't be certain, lulled as he was by the clack of the wheels, the pull and rumble of the engine. But when he awoke, there was something foreign, something irregular and unsettling, like the skipped beat of a heart. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he adjusted the familiar weight of the rifle barrel across his lap. But when the moon slid from behind a cloud and the light spilled into the shadows, his heart stopped. The medical bag was gone, and the silver with it.
Standing, he gripped the side of the car, his jaw clenched. How could he have let it happen, the theft of his money while he slept? How could he have been so stupid? Without the silver, he could lose the timber, everything that he'd planned. Turning his face into the wind, he stared into the darkness, his eyes tearing with cold as the train drove into the heart of the Territory.
Leaping from one car to the next, Abaddon Damon stopped to pace the clack of the wheels, to gauge the slowing of the train as it pulled against the grade, steam erupting black and hot. As the train banked a curve, moonlight glinted from the rims of the drive wheels.
Up there was the enemy, those who would throw him into the darkness of the night and never look back. Crouching, he listened again, the medical bag he'd stolen from the sleeping guard held tight in his grip. If he could make it to the flatcar where he'd left his gear, there was safety in the stacks of telegraph poles destined for Guthrie station, sufficient room to hide, to move within them and away from the lantern of the railroad bull.
Balancing himself on the edge of the car roof, he drew a breath before blindly leaping the distance over the tracks below. Hitting hard, he shook his head and clawed at the wet slope of the roof. Feet dangling from over the side, he struggled to right himself onto the ridge at the top. Lying on the roof, he gasped for breath, the thump of the wheels drowning away the throb of his heart.
Scooting along its length, he clung on against the pull of the curve, against sliding over the edge into the wheels beneath. Pushing the bag ahead, he pulled himself to it, worming inch by inch to the ladder and to the safety of his poles.
Even now his hands trembled at the risk he'd taken in the darkness of the lumber car as he'd slid the medical bag from beneath the feet of the guard. It was an act contrary to his nature. He'd take persuasion over violence any day. It was more effective and far less dangerous. But it was a violent world in which he now found himself. When it came to his paper, he'd do what he must. As he opened the bag, his heart steadied. In the moonlight, he could see that it was silver, not a lot but enough to survive until his paper was under way.
Abaddon's skills as a newspaperman were limited. After an apprenticeship under trying conditions, he'd learned that, without exception, to control the word was to have power, a power to be reckoned with, even feared, if need be.
But he was not alone in this knowledge, and there would be others to come, others with backing and money. If he could be first, there before anyone else, selling his papers on that day, he would have an advantage.
Running his fingers through his hair, he opened the suitcase hidden between the stacks of poles, pulling out a copy of The Capital City. Predated, and in bold letters, it read, "Guthrie, 1889, Born in a Day, Destined for Glory." At the bottom it was signed, Abaddon Damon, Editor, The Capital City. Now but a single sheet, it would someday command all who fell under its spell. This was his vision. This was his plan, his promise, and no man would stand in his way.
At no small cost, he'd paid to smuggle a Washington Press into the Territory in a freight-car load of railroad ties. It was hidden near Cottonwood Creek under a tree split by lightning, at least so they'd told him, and covered with brush and rocks.
In his luggage was a small cache of salvaged type. By doubling up on the function of letters, he could manage for awhile, but it was newsprint that worried him most. Until a supply line was established, finding paper would be difficult indeed.
Leaning against the poles, he rested a moment before sifting through the articles of clothing, dropping the silver coins into his pocket, their weight cool against his leg. He'd paid the last of his own money to the brakeman for a slow signal at Guthrie station. Without it, jumping would be dangerous, with the risk of losing his gear, even his life. If there was one thing he'd learned, it was that everything could be had in the Territory, with proper payment.
From somewhere in the car, a thump resounded, and he held his breath to listen, his heart pounding in his ears. Perhaps it was the shifting of the load or the lurching against misaligned track.
The wheels clacked hollow as the train moved onto a bridge, moonlight shimmering on the water below, tributaries braiding through the sand, separating, and joining, and separating again. He guessed it to be the Cimarron, whose proclivity for salt and quicksand was well known among Texas cattlemen.
Guthrie station could not be far, and he fell to packing his gear. Three blasts of the engine's whistle, and the train would slow for one minute, enough time for him to throw off his things and jump. With luck, he'd locate a Guthrie town lot, remain hidden until the signal, and then make his claim.
The train slowed from the pull of the grade, and he steadied himself against the poles, listening for the blast of the whistle.
Holding the stolen medical bag to the light, he took a last look. It was old and worn from use, but of leather and sturdy in design. Embossed on the bottom was a signature, "Joseph McReynolds, M.D., Seventh Cavalry, U.S. Army."
Deciding to keep it, he dumped in the loose type and secured the leather straps before packing it away in the suitcase given to him by his mother.
Excerpted from Dreams to Dust by Sheldon Russell. Copyright © 2006 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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