1876 Fort Worth, Texas: When it looked as if the Texas and Pacific Railroad would not make it into town under the deadline set by the state legislature, beautiful Josie Laclede leading a citizens' committee, joins with handsome railroad man Gabe Corrigan to complete the job. The sparks that fly aren't all from the steel on steel.
“People, people, people!” James Courtright shouted in a fine, deep voice. He held his arms up to get everyone’s attention. Courtright, who was Marshal Redding’s jailer and all-around janitor, waited until the room grew quiet before he spoke again. Then he turned to Buckley Paddock. “We’re about to start now, and Mr. Paddock has been chosen to chair the meeting. Mr. Paddock, the floor is yours.”
Paddock walked over to a podium on one side of the room. Behind the podium was an easel, but whatever was on the easel was covered by a piece of canvas so it couldn’t be seen. Paddock stood for a moment looking out over the room. Easily more than a hundred people were present, and he was pleased with the turnout.
“First, I want to thank Henri Laclede for making this dining room available for the meeting, and I think we should all give him a hand.” Paddock waited until the polite applause ended before he continued, “Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t have to tell you the problem, we all know it. When we thought the railroad was coming to Fort Worth, professional men from all over the country left their homes and businesses to start anew.
“They, and we, believed that Fort Worth was destined to become the metropolis of Texas.
“But it didn’t happen. The railroad came as far as Eagle Ford, and then it stopped. And what has been the result? New businesses, once with bright futures, have been closed. Homes have been abandoned. The cattlemen who once made Fort Worth their departure point for the drive north now give all their business to Eagle Ford. And the roads into Fort Worth, once crowded with people flocking to the city to start new businesses and enterprises, are now crowded with residents fleeing the city.
“Those of us who stay are struggling to hang on.” Paddock made a sweep with his arm. “I invite you to look around, gentlemen, at this hotel. The Empress Hotel is as fine a hotel as you will find between New Orleans and San Francisco. Yet every room is vacant, and the dining room is not even used.
“We cannot let this condition remain. We cannot give up. We must find a way to overcome this travail, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is the task we will set for ourselves at this meeting.”
“Did you see the article in the Dallas Herald?” Daggett asked from the floor.
“What article was that?” Tidball asked.
“I brought it with me,” Daggett said. “The article was written by Robert Cowart.”
“Is he that lawyer who used to live here?” Henri asked. “If I remember, he was always complaining about something.”
“That’s the one,” Daggett replied. “He skedaddled over to Dallas as fast as a rat leaves a rotting ship.”
“Well, what did he have to say?” Courtright asked.
Daggett cleared his throat, then began to read: “‘Fort Worth is rapidly becoming a town of so little consequence that one wonders how much longer it will maintain its charter. There are more unoccupied buildings in the town than there are those that are occupied. Like a hollowed-out pumpkin, it is collapsing in on itself, so lazy a town that recently a panther was seen to be sleeping, undisturbed, in the middle of Rusk Street.’ ”
“What?” Jennings shouted in anger. “The Dallas newspaper actually said we had a panther sleeping in the middle of Rusk Street? Why, no such thing happened.”
“It doesn’t matter whether it actually happened or not.” Daggett tapped the newspaper with his finger. “The thing is, it has been written, and this story will be believed. Soon, we will be the laughingstock of the entire country, and we’ll be known as Pantherville.”
“We may not like what he has said, but it is a pretty accurate description of what has happened in Fort Worth,” Jim Courtright said.
“I think Cowart has gone overboard with his sense of the ridiculous. He knows the people in this town are used to taking the bull by the horns, and in a way he is goading us to do something,” Henri said.
“Pantherville,” Paddock said. “I like that.”
“You like it?” Jennings asked.
“Think about it,” Paddock replied. “Panthers are noble beasts. Quick, strong, intelligent. They are the hunters, not the hunted.”
“Buckley is right,” Tidball said. “Instead of being angered by what the Dallas paper intended as a slur, I think we should adopt it as if it were a great compliment. In fact, I think it is an accolade, whether or not Cowart realized that when he wrote it.”
“I like it so much that I intend to put a panther on the masthead of my newspaper,” Paddock said.
“All right, other than change the name of our town to Pantherville, what else do we have in mind?” Jennings asked.
“We aren’t changing the name to Pantherville—we are merely saying that Fort Worth is the Panther Town, like New Orleans is the Crescent
City,” Tidball responded. “And this is how we are going to become that Panther Town,” Paddock said as he stepped to the easel and pulled off the canvas that was covering it. Displaying a slate board, he put a large dot in the middle, then drew nine lines extending out from the dot. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is Fort Worth”—he pointed to the dot in the middle—“and these lines are railroads, starting with the Texas and Pacific.
“These railroads will connect us to San Antonio, Galveston, New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis, Kansas City, Denver, San Francisco, and San Diego. In short, ladies and gentlemen, this is the future I see for Fort Worth. A dynamic city that is connected to the rest of the world. Here we are, in the middle of Texas, but once this comes to fruition, we would be but four weeks from London or Paris.”
There was a murmur of excitement among those present.
“Buckley, that’s very nice and all, but the only thing you have there is a bunch of squiggly lines. It looks like a tarantula.”
“Tarantula, yes!” Paddock said enthusiastically. Picking up a piece of chalk, he wrote above his map TARANTULA MAP.
“You’ve got railroads running hither and yon—there’s only one thing wrong with your map,” Daggett said. “We don’t have even one road coming into Fort Worth yet.”
Paddock held up his finger. “Ah, yes, and that brings us to the purpose of this meeting. Major Van Zandt has some proposals he would like to advance. I think you will find them interesting.”
Van Zandt nodded. “Thank you, Buckley. I’ve discussed this proposal with Mr. Laclede, Mr. Daggett, and Mr. Smith, and they have all given their approval. But whether or not we can actually implement the plan depends upon you. All of you. Because the proposal is of a nature that will require universal participation.”
“Well, quit talking about it, Khleber, and tell us what it is,” Jennings said, to the nervous laughter of the others present.
“If the railroad won’t finish laying the track into our fair city, I propose that we do it for them.”
“What?” shouted at least half a dozen of those in attendance. Others shouted their own questions.
“What do you mean?”
“How do you propose to do that?”
“We can’t do that, can we?”
“I believe we can,” Van Zandt replied. “The reason we have the women with us tonight is because this is a woman’s idea, and who better to explain it to you than she who proposed it? Josie Laclede, will you come up here?”
Josie moved to the front of the room. When she first began speaking her voice was shaky, but as she continued her voice became strong.
“I ask you, what is so special about the railroad crew that abandoned laying the track at Eagle Ford? Were they highly trained professionals who know how to pull stumps or cut trees any better than any one of our people?
“Can they lay ballast and put down crossties any better than we can? And is any man stronger than our own blacksmith, Bull Turner? He can drive spikes as well as anyone.”
Josie was getting the crowd excited as they listened to what she was saying.
“Mr. Van Zandt has asked Walter Roche and his brother to head up a company that we want to call, appropriately, the Tarrant County Construction Company. We say Tarrant County and not just Fort Worth because we will have to call on everyone in the whole county to help out. No one can do this alone, but we can do it if we all work together. And that is where you all come in. No one will be paid for any labor, nor will you be paid for any supplies that you can provide, but everyone will help everyone. If you are a farmer and you need your crop put in, those who are not working on the railroad will do it for you. If you are a shopkeeper, someone, whether it be a man or a woman, will keep your store open. We will become a commune in the purest sense of the word, but when this railroad reaches Fort Worth, we will all benefit. We can do this, and no one will ever say, even in jest, that a panther roams our streets again!”
When Josie sat down, the crowd erupted in hoots and hollers. When everyone had settled down, Major Van Zandt again began to speak. “Do you see why we all love our Josie? But there is one thing missing from her plan. We cannot manufacture rails.”
“Are you telling me you have gotten us all excited again, only to say we can’t do this?” Jennings asked.
“I’m not saying that, but I am saying we will need some help from the Texas and Pacific. I believe they can get the steel if we supply the labor. And they have now moved their vice president, Frank Bond, to Dallas. I believe he should be able to help us.”
“Tell me, Khleber, do we need to vote on this proposal? Because if we do, I vote yes.”
“I vote yes as well,” Tidball said.
The issue was brought to the floor, and the proposal received unanimous approval.
“Then, it is done,” Paddock said, resuming the chair of the meeting. “Major Van Zandt, when will you see Mr. Bond?”
“We leave on the morning stagecoach,” Van Zandt replied. “I’m taking Henri and Josie with me because I believe if the lady speaks with the same passion you heard here tonight, how can Mr. Bond say no?”
Thanks for joining us today for this excerpt from Sara Luck's novel, CLAIMING THE HEART. Follow her on Facebook and read her blog.