When she fires the first shot, her heart is racing, her head spins, and she trembles so much she thinks she will collapse. She is sure she has missed the target but, about one hundred meters ahead, a man is on the ground, blood flowing from a hole in his chest. She is mortified, panting, looking at times to the smoking barrel and the corpse on her property. A noise coming from the house brings her back.
“Sally, go back inside, now!”
The little blond girl clearly doesn’t understand what is going on and was just checking what made that loud sound. Betty walks slowly towards the man she just shot, fearing he is just pretending. She has the shotgun ready, pointing to him. She has seen his face many times now, his crooked nose and badly-kept beard, one of the strangers harassing the farmers these last months. There is a large hole in the upper section of his thorax, blood all around him. No movement. She kicks his feet and takes a step back, the barrel still aimed at his face. Another sound catches her attention, steps coming from the other side of the farm. In one swift movement, she turns around cocking the shotgun and fires.
It was coming out quite nice. Most people thought they were crazy, moving to the middle of nowhere, having to build everything yourself. But they were never afraid of work. Just the opposite, in fact; they were afraid of not having work, of the life they had before. Donald was finishing up the structure and soon they would be able to begin the walls. Then, it would be only a few days before it is ready. A tiny house, one bedroom, one living room, one bathroom, one kitchen, enough for them to restart their lives. During a pause, they looked around. It was a clear day, they could see far in the distance, the virgin lands waiting for its new occupants. They were one of the firsts to respond to the government program giving lands to those willing to move out west, help the country expand. They were the first ones to travel, which gave them the unique chance to pick whichever piece of land they wanted. They slept in a tent the first week, the time they built the shaft that later would be the toolshed. Then, started on the house, while already planning the land for cultivation. That was the deal: you would be given land, but you had to go live there and cultivate.
And they did. Over the next five years, they lived out of the land and grew tobacco that Donald sold in the nearest city every other month. Back then, it was a two-day travel to the nearest populated area. Their first neighbour arrived three months after the house was finished. They enjoyed the isolation. It gave them time to get used to the place and to themselves, how they would come by in that new environment. It was quiet.
As the government program carried on, more people arrived. New farms were built, there were dirt roads connecting them, a small settlement started appearing right after the first commercial outpost was built. In no time, it all resembled a town. They were a small community, just under two hundred people, living in harmony, still receiving newcomers but otherwise visited only by government officials checking on the program success. Betty and Donald gave birth to the first child of the land, baby girl Sally. They all gathered to celebrate what was, for them, the milestone of a new beginning. The joy became even greater after some other news arrived: the government was planning a railroad to increase the speed of the expansion and help farmers move their production.
Five years passed since they first heard of the railroad without ever seeing any actual signs of it. But the news kept spreading, bringing new people and growing the small population. The government visits got more and more scarcer, and the community started fearing they were forgotten. They had been talking about setting an organized local government for some time now and, as is usually the case, a common goal pushed them towards it. The first order of business was a petition to the Capital requiring the future railroad route to pass through the now small town.
For the first few months after the petition was sent, nothing happened. No answer from the Capital, no visits, no perspectives. The townspeople got on with their lives, the farmers cared for their crops and herds, the newborn organization continued progressing to the point where they held a weekly assembly. It was in one of those gatherings that Roger, the cattle breeder, brought some new information to the attention of his neighbours: he had an odd visit just the other day.
“I’ve met the man walking by my fences, taking notes, accompanied by two other fellows. At first I thought he was just passing through, or maybe looking for the town, but when I approached he started asking all kinds of questions about the size of my land and of my herd.”
“And what he wanted?”, asked someone at the back.
“He offered to buy my land and everything in it, right then and there.”
People looked at each other, confused. It was the first time someone arrived with business other than transporting goods or looking for his own land from the government program. Had someone else seen those men?
“Yes”, said Burt, “they appeared by my crops just yesterday, but I couldn’t talk to them so they went away. Four fellows in horses.”
Four? And where were they staying, the town didn’t even had a hotel or an inn or anything that could host them. No one else had seen them, and neither Roger nor Burt knew where they came from and where they went to after their brief encounters.
Over the next weeks, though, most everyone got their chance to meet the strangers and hear the same offer. The four men took turns visiting the farms and repeating their speech, growing more insistent each time. There have been stories of heated conversations almost to the point of verbal violence, the people started fearing the band.
“It’s still Mr. Turner to you, Mr. Foster.”
“Oh, come on, Donald! We can go past last names now, can’t we? What is it, the third time we’ve seen each other?”
“Fourth, which is one too many.”
“And you haven’t invited me for soup yet. But that’s OK, I hold no grudges. I’m still here on business, and I have another offer for you. This one’s final, though.”
“Your last one was already final, Mr. Foster, and, as I told you time and again, I’m not interested in selling.”
“You could buy yourself a nice house at the Capital, settle down, watch your beautiful girl grow up. Isn’t that what you want most, to provide for your family, to protect them? It is much safer in the city, you know? Out here, who’s to say what can happen to them?”
Donald’s grasp on the hoe he’s working with strengthens, and he must close his eyes not to let the tool fly over Foster’s face.
“I can see you have to think about it, Donald, so I’ll just leave you be. But I’ll be back.”
“I’m sure you will”, says Donald to himself. He is trying hard to, but can’t filter the menace in Foster’s words.
It was an agitated couple of weeks for the still unnamed town. Besides the stranger’s harassment, the news of a railroad continued coming through travelers and freight carriers. Some said it’s already routed and in construction, bound to get there any time now. Maybe because of the men trying to buy the town out, some people changed their minds about the train. “We’ll lose our peace and quiet”, they said, “and in no time we will be facing the same problems we fled to be here”.
“I didn’t flee just problems”, Donald says in a town meeting. “I couldn’t find a job and had no perspective. I came here to build another life, and that I did. Going back to the city is not an option for me. I still believe the railroad will bring good things for all of us.”
Most heads nodded in response, but some were still reluctant.
“I came here for a new opportunity, too. But I like the way things are now. We have a simple life, and I want to keep it that way”, said Olson, the rice farmer. He too received some nods and cheers.
The discussion was cut short by the sound of someone bursting through the door. The whole assembly turned their heads to see Taylor, one of Foster’s men, walking in as if he owned the place, sitting in the back with a watchful grin. The townspeople looked at each other, without knowing what to discuss next. Donald suggested talking about the implementation of some local services such as health and security. So far, they relied on the nearest town, a two-hour ride, for a hospital. So far, security had never been a problem. At the mention of a local police force, Taylor let out a loud laugh.
The next day, the people were astonished to see Crane, one of the first farmers to arrive, leaving town with was apparently everything he possessed that could be carried. He didn’t stop or gave any long explanation for his leaving to the folks approaching him on the road. All he said is that he sold his land. At the mention of his wife, not in the wagon with him, he just said that she was dead.
That first victory turned the strangers even bolder. They began threatening the farmers without measuring words, showing up in large groups and acting on the menaces. Within a week of Crane’s departure, Olson’s crop was lost in a fire that nearly killed his entire family. Roger’s herd started dying, apparently poisoned. Foster’s crew made no effort to hide who was behind all that. They still showed up with buying offers, only now each visit lowered the price, rather than bringing it up as it was when they first arrived.
At the same time, news from the railroad continued to come, saying it was closer to the small town. Still, there was no official word. Amidst the growing violence, the town assembly sent two deputies to the Capital to inquire about the railroad. There was a heated discussion about soliciting law enforcement aid, Donald’s idea, but the majority voted that it should start as a local initiative. Each day, a new example of Foster’s men insistence appeared in the face of a beaten up farmer or property loss. Some days after the deputies left, a two years old boy disappeared. The family is in despair, the entire town started looking for the kid. He was found dead a few days later, and another farm was sold.
The child’s death united the town like never before. Foreseeing the confrontation, Foster’s crew decided on a strength display, killing an entire family and simply taking over their land. The farmers agreed to fight back, taking up arms for the first time in the new community’s history. When the strangers attempted to invade another farm, a full-on war began. It is the first time Foster’s entire crew showed up at the same time, the first time the town realized how big an enemy they were. Twenty-two men surrounded the farm’s house. Protecting the land, seventeen farmers and townspeople. One of the invaders was killed in the fight. They succeed in preventing the invasion and tried to follow the strangers to their lair, end this once and for all. They didn’t get that far, as the fight continued throughout the way. When they came back, there were only fifteen of them. Nobody knew what happened with the other two, they simply vanished in the middle of the confusion. Betty looked at the returning fighters, some of them injured but most unharmed. Donald was not among them.
The peace and quiet of the town quickly became a war zone. Another family was killed, the conflicts lingered. There was no word from the deputies sent to the Capital, and no signs of the two men who disappeared. Amidst the war, there was no way to gather together and send someone for help. There wasn’t time for organizing and protecting the lands, the strangers started sending small groups of two or three at once to wipe out families and take the lands. Betty locks the children inside and waits at the porch with a shotgun.
The first shot had Betty even jumpier, so she didn’t realize until the last moment who the second person entering her property was. To her despair, she sees Donald falling to the ground, blood coming from his left shoulder. She drops the shotgun and ran towards him, but he is unconscious when she gets by his side, at the same time as Oliver, the other man who disappeared, arrives. They take Donald inside and do their best to mend his injury. Luckily, her second shot wasn’t as lethal the first. Still, there’s no end to her tears, watching her husband suffering from her own hands.
When Donald and Oliver disappeared, they went right to the Capital, exhausting their horses and themselves to get there as quick as possible. They brought back a full police force and doctors, one of which helped Donald recover. The thug Betty killed was the last one left, all the others either dead or arrested.
During the first confrontation, the two men flanked the band and discovered their camp. In there, the railroad’s route plans with several new communities mapped, including their new town. The plans were official, including government stamps and signatures, and they included timetables to each portion of the road to be built. Donald and Oliver realized they couldn’t go back and share all this with their neighbours, there was no time. It was risky, but they decided to run to the Capital with the proof they just uncovered and bring back help, hoping the townspeople could hold the bandits until then.
In the Capital, they learned that the band was being wanted for some time now, but for different reasons. They were all government employees that vanished some time ago, carrying with them official papers and confidential documents. Their plan should be simple enough if the people of the small town weren’t so reluctant to sell their properties. Knowing where the railroad would pass and when it would be built, all they had to do was buy the properties on the sidelines and wait to see their investment grow by a tenfold.
Donald stays in bed for another week. When he recovers, he sees a big stage set in the middle of the town, most people already gathered to see what it is all about. For the first time, they receive the Governor’s visit. Up on the stage, he points out to the machines and men preparing to set the first bullhead rail, marking the official beginning of the railroad construction.