The Derailers

11 May

The ranchers of Mussel Slough in the central San Joaquin Valley were angry men in the spring of 1880. These wheat farmers were about to have their land taken from them by the Southern Pacific Railroad’s local representative, the banker and politician named Sam Behrman.

The farmers had leased the acreage from the railroad ten years before, with the intention of eventually buying all of it outright. Great improvements had resulted from the labors of the cultivators, but the Southern Pacific had secretly kept full legal title to all the ranches. In 1880, the land was valuable. The railroad’s managers demanded $25 to $35 per acre for a fields that the farmers believed they had purchased control over for $2.50 to $5 an acre. Indignation and calls for vengeance rose to a high peak that May.

Herman Annixter, a farmer who belonged to the inner circle of the Ranchers League, conceived of a way of threatening the Southern Pacific Railroad with disaster, damage, and loss. He revealed his idea to a friend and neighbor, the young Harran Derrick, whose father was the president of the League.

“That is a daring plan, and against the law,” reacted Annixter. “I doubt it could be done the way you say. What material would be used to make the rails that greasy and slippery? I don’t know of anything that would fit the bill.”

Harran grinned wickedly. “I do. Are you familiar with what is called petrolatum? It is a paraffin-like jelly coating that is found on oil rigs. I have no doubt that this lubricant is strong and viscous enough to do the trick.”

“How can we know that, though?” countered Herman Annixter.

“We must obtain a load of the substance and rub it on a rail-line belonging to the Southern Pacific. The results should be evident to us petty quickly, I think.”

“Let me consider this a little,” frowned Herman. “It is very risky and could backfire on us if it doesn’t work or is traced back by the authorities.”

Melvin Presley was the son of a rancher who had literary ambitions that had taken him up to San Francisco. He had returned home to his parents with all the emotions of failure and disappointment, though he continued to create what he called his “California verses”.

Melvin provided the labor of a ranch hand for his father as he composed his Western poetry late at night or in the hours before dawn.

He was surprised when Harran Derrick walked out to where he was engaged in removing weeds one morning and started a conversation about the crisis with the Southern Pacific.

“Things are heading toward a climax, a final showdown,” said the man planning violent action. “We must either defeat and destroy the railroad octopus, or else be strangled to death by it, every last one of us. What do you think is going to decide the fate of us farmers, Melvin?”

The poet looked up into the bright cerulean sky, then focused his eyes and attention on Harran. “I do not believe that any single moment or event will determine the course of the world and all of its people. There are ages and centuries of history to come. I am satisfied to be a small molecule in something as gigantic as all of nature and the entire universe.”

The farmer gaped at him in wonder. “Most of us cannot afford to be so confident and philosophical, Marvin. There are millions of people all over the earth depending upon receiving the wheat that we grew here in this valley.”

“Neither I nor anyone else can predict the outcome or the results of a single warring conflict such as that of the ranchers and the Southern Pacific. But it will eventually become lost in the general flow of life over many, many generations.”

Harran leaned forward toward the writer and spoke to him in a hushed, significant whisper. “Would you be ready to take direct action for the sake of the tillers of the California land?” he asked. “Would you be willing to break the technical provisions of the law with the aim of reaching an elevated, higher goal?”

The poet seemed confused and overwhelmed by what he had just heard. “I cannot say for sure,” he stuttered. “It would depend on the precise circumstances whether I acted or did not. It is impossible to decide that before the situation presents itself before me.”

The shout of an approaching field hand interrupted the exchange. Harran excused himself and departed without a definite answer of any kind.

Sam Behrman was a fat giant with a protruding stomach. His cheek and thick neck ran together into a monstrously large jowl that was blue gray. A roll of fat wet with perspiration hung over the back of his stiff, starched collar. He wore a strange vest covered with interlocking horseshoes, his symbols of greedy confidence.

Behrman personified the Southern Pacific Railroad to the ranchers and farmers, acting as its local agent, while also being a banker who dealt in grain and mortgages, and a buyer and seller of real estate. He was the man who had bribed the California Board of Railroad Commissioners to raise all freight rates into and out of the San Joaquin Valley.

He appeared at the ranch house of Herman Annixter to lodge a complaint and berate him.

“I wanted to inform you of a problem that you are creating for the railroad line that passes next to your farm, my friend. The fencing that you are responsible for maintaining has fallen into disrepair, so that the sheep of your tenant farmers are wandering onto the right-of-way and impeding the smooth movement of the Southern Pacific locomotives. The situation is growing unsafe and is a threat to the train engineers. I expect you to repair this condition immediately, Herman.”

Having finished his long, verbose statement, the local political boss slowly moved away, toward the horse-drawn gig he had come there in.

That puppet of the railroad octopus must be given his deserved punishment by the activist members of the Ranchers’ League, vowed Herman Annixter.

Melvin Presley described the plan to use petroleum jelly as a weapon of combat against the Southern Pacific octopus that was strangling the economic future of the independent ranchers and their tenant farmers.

“I do not know what I should do,” pleaded the poet. “My calling is that of a writer and thinker. I am not one who is adept at practical action, especially when there is the chance of violence and destruction involved.”

Vanamee gave his friend a warm smile. “As everyone knows, I have always been a wanderer in search of the purest truth. I have read many books on many subjects, as well as the poetry of many authors. My opinion is that your unfinished poem entitled “The Toiler” will be recognized as a significant epic in American letters. But it should not be published in any of the elitist literary magazines. It deserves to be presented to the general public, both rich and poor, in the popular press. That is where its proper place must be, and you must always stand with the great majority, the commoners of this land.”

“I intend to take your advice to heart,” murmured Melvin. “But what is the best course for me to take in connection with the farmers’ battle with the Southern Pacific? What should I say to those who plan direct action?”

Vanamee drew a deep sigh. “I believe that we human beings have a sixth sense that should always guide and direct us. There exists an entire system of unnamed senses beyond the reach of our reason and understanding. People who live alone and close to nature as I have done experience this sense very often. It is a fundamental property that we share with the plants and the animals. The birds fly south before the first cold because they share this sixth sense of ours.

“This is the same invisible force that makes the grain of wheat struggle up out of the ground to meet the sun. It is a sense that never deceives the wheat, nor us human beings.” He gave Presley a hard, intense stare.

The poet began to mumble, as if thinking aloud.

“I know those like Behrman for what they are, ruffians in politics, in finance, in law, in trade. They are bribers, swindlers, tricksters. They swindle our country of hundreds of millions and call it financing. They levy a blackmail and call it legal commerce. They corrupt the legislature of California and call it democracy. They bribe a judge and call the result law. They hire thugs and blacklegs and call them the police. They prostitute the honor of our state and call it business.

“What action is called for to protect the farmers of our valley from the evil of the octopus of rails? I promise you this: I shall consult with my natural sixth sense, my instinctive intuition, and follow its advice and guidance.”

He took the hand of Vanamee and shock it with vigor and feeling.

Herman Annixter organized what became a series of successful derailments of trains carrying exclusively freight. The sites were scattered up and down the San Joaquin Valley. His two partners, Presley and Vanamee, were the operatives who carried metal tubs full of petroleum jelly to the chosen locations at a distance from Mussel Slough in a large, flat wagon pulled by a team of farm horses. They traveled the roads at night, avoiding any unnecessary stops that might attract attention to them.

Within one month, they poured the impenetrable petrolatum over main tracks in the vicinity of Merced, Fresno, Modesto, and finally Tulare. The two perpetrators were able in each case to make a successful escape long before the derailment of the speeding freight locomotive appeared at the damaged spot. Two engineers were killed and two seriously injured when the steam engine ran off the slippery tracks, off the side of the rails.

As expected, both the public and the Southern Pacific Railroad were aroused by these disastrous events. Farmers both secretly and openly expressed their agreement with the feelings and opinions of the saboteurs, whoever they might have been. How far would this campaign of direct, violent action go? All of the communities touched by the Southern Pacific network of lines asked that question. The authorities were ignorant and baffled by the derailments, as were all the officials, employees, and agents of the octopus railroad.

But Sam Behrman suspected that the area of Mussel Slough was the center of the conspiracy to harm and intimidate the Southern Pacific. At the top of his list of possible suspects stood the name of the insolent malcontent called Herman Annixter.

He decided to make a night-time inspection of the latter’s fields and barns well past midnight under starlight, with no moon up or shining.

The heavy banker, agent of the octopus called the Southern Pacific, cautiously approached the wooden shed thrown up to cover and hide from view the large iron tank without a top that held the supply of petroleum jelly in storage for future derailings.

Behrman slowly climbed the half dozen steps that led up to the platform surrounding the metallic tank that had come to fascinate and bewitch his curiosity. What was the rancher named Herman Annixter hiding in the strange container? His suspicious mind drove the man consumed with greed and hatred to find out for himself.

What he had no way of knowing was that there was someone else up there on the platform that went around the iron tank.

Melvin Presley could not have produced an explanation of what he was doing up there above the new substance? Was he contemplating the viscous weapon that was able to defeat and destroy the octopus railroad that was strangling the San Joaquin Valley? Had some instinct native to poets like himself directed him to be present that night, at that particular moment in time? He could not have given any rational answer at all.

But hearing and seeing the great bulk of flesh making its way up the rickety steps, the preoccupied mind of Presley shook itself awake, moving forward to tangle with the large, unidentified form.

The moment that he knew who the intruder was, the poet knew that he had a fight ahead. A man-to-man battle to the end became instantly inevitable.

Behrman, peering through the darkness, perceived a figure rushing toward him and prepared himself to fight it off by attacking first. He brought his weighty torso to life and plunged forward, aiming to hit the unidentified individual guarding the secret of the iron tank.

Presley, in the nick of time, stepped to the side, away from the enormous container of the secret substance.

The banker, misjudging his own speed and momentum, struck the side of the tank and lost control. What were his final thoughts as he plunged over the edge into the mass of formless petrolatum below in the storage container?

When he looked over the side, the poet could make out no form, for the enemy had been absorbed into the deadly jelly below.

In a few days, the Southern Pacific Railroad gave in to the demands of ranchers and farmers on freight rates and land prices. All foreclosing on ranches was ended. Needless to say, no more nighttime derailments occurred.

The unexplained disappearance of Sam Behrman went down as a mystery of California history, for Presley never told his partners about his fight above the petrolatum that had absorbed their foe.

In the peace that followed, the poet completed his ode to the wheat fields of the West.

(Dedicated to Frank Norris and “The Octopus”, from which much was taken and borrowed.)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s