I have always wanted to write more about Virginia City, Nevada. I've published articles in historical journals and such, but this is my first attempt at fiction. Please let me know what you think and how I might be able to strengthen this piece. This piece is set in mid-November 1914.
|Looking North on C Street, Winter 1989|
Christine steps out of her home on Stewart Street. The night is not yet over. In the dim light of the gas street lamp, she sees her breath and wraps her shawl over her head and around her shoulders for warmth before reaching for her small suitcase. Duncan, her son-in-law, beats her to it and picks up the bag.
“You’re always such a gentleman. I can carry my own bag.”
“No, let me,” Duncan insists, offering his elbow.
Christine grabs his arm. Jennie, her daughter, joins them on the porch and the three step out, walking briskly through the dark streets. Although she is a woman of sixty-seven, there’s still a spring in Christine’s step. With her arm interlocked with her son-in-law, Jennie looks up. Shortly after dark, earlier in the evening, she been out on the porch and watched Orion rise. The constellation is now toward the west and appears to being chased by his dog out of the sky. The Gemini twins and Tarsus the bull, whose advent in the eastern sky had preceded Orion, is now about to set behind Mount Davidson. She wondered if they’d set before dawn erased them from the sky.
A neighbor’s dog barks as they pass and the horse in Old Man Sutton’s barn snorts. Far down Six Mile Canyon, a coyote howls. The wind rustles the loose tin on the dilapidated homes down the street.
“There are too many abandon houses,” Christine said. “When I moved here, I thought this place was at the end of the earth, but there was excitement, and no empty houses. We had three families sharing our house.”
“Virginia City now feels as if it has been abandoned at the end of the earth,” Jennie says with a laugh.
At the corner of Union Street, they turn east and begin the descent down the hill toward the station. Off in the distance, the waning crescent moon hangs over the Pine Nut Mountains. A little light is showing on the edge of the horizon, the promise of a new day.
Between A and B Street, the three of them walk past the darken Piper’s Opera House.
“Piper used to have the best shows on the Pacific Coast, but now there are only second-rate traveling companies. I wish you could have seen it in its heyday,” Christine says.
“I expect the moving pictures are going to take over,” Duncan predicts. “Jennie and I saw Ben Hur last weekend. It was quite a show with Murray Mack pounding on the piano.”
“I don’t like reading the script, I want to hear the actors talking!”
Between B and C Street, they step down the sidewalk stairs beside the International Hotel. In the kitchen, Won, the cook, is fixing breakfast, his long hair braided and hanging down his back under his skull cap. He is one of only a handful of Chinese left in Virginia City. When the city was thriving, Chinatown consisted of a large chunk of the lower city. In the dining room, under the bright electric lights, a couple of guests are finishing their breakfast in preparation for catching the train. Stepping past the hotel, they reach C Street and stop and look both ways out of habit. It is nearly deserted at this time of the morning, but it’s been nearly deserted for the past twenty years. They cross over and begin the final descent toward the V&T Passenger Station a block below.
Two toots are heard in the distance and then a rumbling as the locomotive chugs out of the roundhouse and stops on the turntable. Duncan pulls out his watch. “It’s barely Six, they‘re going to be late leaving.” After a brief pause, the engine and its tender rumbles to life and pulls off the turntable and onto the mainline, where it stops and then reverses and heads up into town tender first. The three step into the waiting room where a fire in the potbelly warms the air. They crowd around the stove warming their hands. A few minutes later, the locomotive emerges from the tunnel under the front steps of St. Mary’s of the Mountain and moves on past the station toward the car barn to the north.
“I don’t see why I can’t ride in the buckboard with the two of you,” Christine asks. “When I came to this country, with Ma and Pa and your Uncle Owen and his family, we all rode in a buckboard, all the way from Folsom. That was as far as the train ran, in those days. Ma and Pa rode up front, Owen and I rode in the back on top of our stuff. It took us four days to cross the Sierras. At night, we’d camp and fix dinner over a fire and then, sleep under the buckboard. By the time we got to Carson City, we were filthy."
“We’ve been through this, Ma. You’ll be a lot more comfortable on the train. It’s going to take us all morning to load up the wagon and a day or a day and a half to make it over the Geiger Grade and down to Reno. Hopefully, we'll see you tonight. If not, we'll be there tomorrow morning.”
Ten minutes later, the locomotive, The Dayton, pulls back in front of the station, dragging a coach and a baggage/mail car. A few businessmen who had been waiting to the last minute in the International Dining Room join Christine as they step onto the platform. Christine notices the stars have all but faded from the sky as the new day is beginning. A railroad worker loads a sack of mail and a handful of parcels into the mail car. Christine boards the car, turning waving to Jennie and Duncan before finding a seat near the stove at the far end of the car. She stows her bag on the rack above and sits down and presses her face against the frosty window pane. The conductor shouts all aboard and pulls up the stool. The whistle blows and although she can't see it, the engineer pushes the throttle forward and slowly the wheels catch and the train lunges forward. In the distance, the whistle at the Con Virginia Works blows, announcing the change of shift. The conductor punches their tickets as the train pulls into the dark tunnel under the Catholic Church.
When the train emerges from the tunnel a moment later, Christine catches the first rays of the sun race through Six Mile Canyon, glistening the windows of the town she’d called home for nearly fifty years. Morning always come quickly to this town, just as it became a major city almost overnight. Likewise, twilight seems always extended as the sun sets behind Mount Davidson long before dark, leaving the town in the mountain’s shadow. The town’s decline has been just as slow as evening is to come. As it withered, she buried a husband and a son in these hills and now wondered if she’ll ever see the town again.
The train passes the Collar Mine and enters a second, shorter tunnel. On the other side, she looks back but can no longer see much of the town. High up the hill on the right she sees the Fourth Ward School where her children attended. Then the car jerks and wheels squeal as the tracks snaked first to the left and then back to the right, rounding another curve at “The Divide.” The car is again plunged into darkness, the only light being the oil lamps of the car, as it moves through the third tunnel, the longest one on the upper end of the tracks. The air is smoky and heavy inside and the when the train emerges from the tunnel, Virginia City is gone.
This piece is partly based on real person who came to the Comstock Lode in the early/mid 1860s and lived her life there, before moving to Reno where she died in 1919. What kind of things would you now want to know about Virginia City or Christine? Do I need more or less detail? Help me out! What has been your experiences at writing fiction?