Sunday was supposed to be a day of rest. Or, at least in theory Sunday was supposed to be a day of rest. In practice, it never quite managed to work out that way, not for the folk of Hell on Wheels and especially not for Cullen Bohannon. Most Sundays, the railroad laborers got to take the first half of the day off to tend to body and soul but were expected to go back to work in the afternoon and lay fresh track until sundown, which in the long lingering days of high summer meant working nearly as long of a shift as a full stretch of daylight in winter would be. This Sunday was one of those rare days with no scheduled railroad work at all, but in the end that just translated into work of a different kind for everyone and not much rest at all.
It started, like so many things do, with an opportunity, a small idea, and good intentions. For certain people, it would end not quite in tears but certainly in irritation and a lot of puncture wounds. But nobody knew that yet. Or at least they better not have known, because if Bohannon ever found out otherwise then he was going to have Words with those people, whoever they might be, and then those people would have to answer to Elam, who would probably do something even less polite.
On a more tangible level, it started with a shortage of rails. Somewhere back east, the chain of production and distribution had broken, and the westward flow of the Transcontinental Railroad's single most essential building supply first slowed to a trickle and then halted altogether. Without rails, there could be no railroad, and unlike wooden railroad ties, properly shaped lengths of iron could not be harvested from whatever stand of trees happened to be nearest at hand. Work continued as well as it could for as long as it could, but there came a point one hot Tuesday when the men of the Union Pacific hammered down the last piece of rail that they had with them.
For the next few days after that, they did what they could to work the cut further along the planned route. However, there were only so many miles that teams of workers could be expected to trudge between camp and the worksite before the distance became wholly impractical, and the main camp of Hell on Wheels could not be moved further west than it already was without the usual accompanying completed railroad tracks to ensure a constant source of provisions and materials. Those holding the Union Pacific's purse strings reluctantly made a decision, and by the end of Saturday word of it had spread through all of the labor teams: no work tomorrow.
Word also spread amongst all those people who did not work for the railroad but called Hell on Wheels home. When word reached Ruth Cole, she decided to throw a party, a church social to be exact. It was not a frivolous idea. No, it was a calculated gamble to let everyone blow off steam in a controlled environment and hopefully distract them all from the desire to let loose into full chaos as they raged against everything from stopped work meaning stopped pay to the harshness of their daily lives to the rats that followed Hell on Wheels as surely as the saloon keepers and prostitutes. The more that she thought about it, the more ideas she had for how to make the event into a true benefit to the community, though she knew some of those ideas would quite a lot of skill and effort, both her own and others', to implement.
This was how, despite neither of them being particularly prone to church-going, Cullen Bohannon and Elam Ferguson both found themselves fetching, carrying, assembling, and arranging things right alongside every other able body Ruth could rally to her cause, which looked to be most of the population of Hell on Wheels. A few people, mostly regulars from her congregation, had volunteered without prompting as soon as she shared her idea with them. Some people she had simply asked for help and they had agreed. Some people she had appealed to their sense of charity. Others she convinced by playing on their desire to cultivate social capital. And others she convinced by way of sighing sadly at a man's initial refusal and then just standing there and looking at him with those huge, liquid eyes of hers that promised she would be quietly but very thoroughly Very Disappointed in him if he refused to aid her in this holy endeavor to bring together the community.
Bohannon would not have been proud to admit it, but he fell into that last category, and his only consolation in the matter was that he suspected that Elam did too. Hell, half the people lugging boxes around at the moment probably did. There were times when almost nobody could say no to the Church Lady when she got herself on a crusade, especially not when said crusade promised good food, music, and a little dancing for everyone as the fruits of their labors.
Anyway, things would have been fine if only Bohannon had not noticed that lone box sitting apart from the others.
It was another wooden produce crate, just like the ones he had spent the past half hour gathering from various locations around camp and then delivering to the row of open sided tents where a surprising number of women were working with fire and knives to prepare the evening's refreshments, but someone had left this one sitting just inside the shadows past the open flap entrance of the large tent that served as Ruth's church. The label roughly stenciled in bold letters across the side proclaimed that the box contained cabbages, but judging by the way that the box appeared to be making occasional unidentifiable noises and small movements of its own volition, the label was probably wrong.
"You slacking off over here, Bohannon?" Elam asked, coming up behind him, having just finished a delivery of his own to the temporary communal kitchen. He sounded like he was only half joking, because slacking off on railroad business might be tolerated under certain conditions, but slacking off on a duty set to you by Ruth Cole might be considered a sin.
"No, I'm investigating," Bohannon said. "That." He pointed at the box.
"Cabbages? Why are you investigating a box of cabbages?" Elam was using his 'you're doing something crazy again, aren't you?' tone of voice, not that Bohannon blamed him for it in this instance.
"I'll bet you anything it ain't cabbages in there." The contents of the box helpfully chose that moment to prove Bohannon's point by knocking against the underside of the lid hard enough to make if jump slightly.
"Leave it alone, whatever it is. No way there's anything good in there. For all you know, it might be snakes."
"I doubt it's snakes either, but there's an easy enough way to find out." Bohannon leaned forward and flipped the lid open to look inside.
Immediately, even before the lid had time to hit the ground, five small dark shapes shot out from the box, going in all directions. Kittens! Why did it have to be kittens? Bohannon would have rather it had been snakes. At least snakes probably would not have been able to move quite so quickly. One kitten was already heading deeper into the church, two outside, and one went right up Bohannon's leg before he could take note of where the last one had gone. He tried to shake the animal loose but to no avail. The kitten just dug in harder and continued to climb.
"Damn it, Elam," he growled out between teeth clenched in pain as claws sank through the fabric of his pant leg into his skin.
"Oh no, Bohannon, don't you dare try to pin any of this on me. I'm the one who told you not to open that box. This is all on you, not me " Elam immediately snapped back, not even bothering to look up. He was too busy gently dealing with a tiny four legged assailant of his own, which must have been number five, so he could only spare Bohannon a small fraction of his attention and none of his sympathy.
The kitten on Elam's leg mewed, as if in agreement.
"Exactly," Elam said to the kitten, practically cooing. "Now come here. Yeah, just like that." He bent over and carefully unhooked the kitten's claws from his clothes one paw at a time with one hand while supporting its small black and white body with the other. In almost no time, he had the kitten fully disengaged from his pant leg and cupped in his hands. "There's a good little ball of fuzz," he said, bringing the kitten up to his face to give it a closer look. It was mostly black with a white belly and paws, and when brought close enough it happily batted at Elam's beard.
Meanwhile, the kitten on Bohannon's leg, also mostly black with a little bit of white, continued to pull itself higher, step by painful step. Bohannon tried to mimic what he had just seen Elam do, but for his troubles he only received a set of tiny sharp kitten teeth sunk into one of his fingers. He tried again, just in case the bite had been a fluke, because Elam's hand motions had not looked like there had been anything about them that couldn't be copied. The kitten bit him again.
"Damn it," he grumbled again, not sure who he was more angry at, the kitten or himself. His only consolation was that for the moment at least they had this small corner of camp to themselves, so there was no one else to witness his ignominious defeat at the tiny clawed hands of this most vicious enemy.
The kitten mewed at him, but it was not nearly as playful sounding as the one in Elam's hands, which was starting to purr and looked like it might be willing to go to sleep right where it was. Bohannon's kitten continued to climb, getting uncomfortably close to family jewel territory now.
"A little help here, please?" Bohannon begged.
Elam did not call him an idiot out loud, but he was clearly thinking it as he gave his kitten one last stroke down its back with one thumb before returning the animal to the box and replacing the lid and then finally bent down to assist Bohannon with his little feline problem.
"Seriously, Bohannon?" Elam said, unhooking one of the kitten's paws. "You're fine with facing Indian attacks, drunken Irishmen, or that crazy bastard the Swede, but you can't deal with one little kitten." He unhooked another paw. "What's wrong with you?" While Elam unhooked the third paw, the kitten took the opportunity to try to sink one of its free paws back into Bohannon, but it must have been some kind of ruse on Elam's part to lull it into a false sense of security, because somehow he used to use the kitten's own movement to get its final paw unhooked and then was holding the animal aloft where it could no longer reach its victim. Elam did not even look triumphant, just perplexed. "Didn't you have cats to keep the vermin under control on your plantation?"
"Sure we did, and I left them alone, and they left me alone," Bohannon said then shrugged and added, "I was always more of a dog person."
"Of course you were."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It can mean whatever you want it to mean," Elam said, squatting down next to the box, "as long as when I say, 'now,' you open that lid just wide enough for me to get this one inside without the other one getting out again."
"Fine," Bohannon said with a huff, and though he gave Elam his best glare (which was duly ignored) he too squatted down next to the box.
Elam adjusted his grip on the kitten (which squirmed but showed no inclination of biting Elam the way that it had so readily bitten Bohannon), and then he said, "Now." One awkward shuffle and a near miss of bumping heads later, and the two men found themselves standing with nothing in their hands and a box containing two kittens at their feet.
"Well," Bohannon said, dusting his hands off and already wondering how long it would be before he could pretend that none of this had ever happened, "that's that out of the way. Now let's get back to making sure Ruth's big to-do gets done." He turned to leave but froze when he heard what Elam said next.
"You're gonna be the one to tell her that you lost half her kittens then?"
"You don't know they're hers," Bohannon said, more out of stubbornness than out of any sense of conviction in his beliefs. He refrained from mentioning that three out of five was more than half.
"And you don't know they ain't," Elam said. He gestured to the church tent. "Whose else would they be, sitting in here like that?"
Bohannon let his shoulders slump. He did not say, 'You're right, Elam' out loud, but he was sure Elam knew that already. "Shit," was all he said, because as far as he was concerned that one word fully summed up the situation. He still had a thin sliver of hope, though. "Wait here," he said, turning to go, even more purposefully than before.
"Don't you dare run away and leave me with this!"
"I'm gonna come back," Bohannon called over his shoulder, and he wasn't running. He was walking quickly. Running would have drawn too much attention.
"You damn well better."
Bohannon did not bother to answer. He was on a mission. Along the way, he kept an eye out for any of the missing kittens that might just happen to be docilely sleeping in the sun or whatever it was that cats did, but no such luck.
Ruth was exactly where Bohannon expected to find her, right in the thick of things, directing everyone's activities even as she bent her own back to labor alongside them. Specifically, she was in central-most of the makeshift kitchens and in the process of rolling out pie crusts to be filled with early season apples which had been shipped in from the Northeast by the very railroad they were building. Every few seconds, someone new would approach her to ask her about one thing or another. Through it all, she looked tired but exhilarated at the same time and thoroughly in her element.
"Ruth," he said without preamble as soon as he saw an opening.
"Mr. Bohannon," she said, looking up from her work but not stopping it. "Is there anything you need from me?"
"Not exactly," Bohannon said. He was very careful to not shuffle his feet or fiddle with his hat in anything resembling a guilty manner. "I just had a quick question."
Ruth smiled at him as she transferred the circle of dough into a pan and added to a collection of others which were already sitting and waiting for their filling. "What did you need to know?" She took another ball of dough and began rolling it out.
"Did you know there was a box of kittens in your tent?" And okay, so maybe he guiltily shuffled his feel a tiny bit, but hopefully the table between them blocked the view.
"Yes," she said, and now her smile grew distant but fond. "They've just been weaned from their mother, and I put them in there to keep them safe and out of the way for a couple hours until I could take care of them." Then her smile faltered. "Why? I just checked on them a little while ago. Has something gone wrong?"
"No," Bohannon said a little too quickly. "No," he said again, a little slower and more controlled this time. "I just wanted to say that they're, uh, cute is all, cute but feisty." When that did not feel like enough praise of the kittens to divert any possible suspicion away from his current predicament, he added, "I'm sure they'll grow up to be, um, fine cats and good mousers."
"I'm sure they will too," Ruth said, her smile once again firmly in place. "Hopefully they'll go so far as to be good ratters too. Watch your fingers around them, though. A couple of them are sweeties but like to play bite, already practicing for their future professions, I suppose." Then someone else needed her attention, and Bohannon was happy to slip away before she could find the time to dismiss him or, worse yet, want to talk more about those kittens.
He returned to Elam, filled with a sense of impending doom. "Yeah," Bohannon said by way of a greeting to the still irritated looking man, "the kittens are Ruth's, and I'm gonna need your help in getting 'em back."
"Exactly," Elam said, looking somewhat appeased. "Don't worry," he continued, grinning and clapping Bohannon on the shoulder. "It's only two more to go."
"It's three," Bohannon said with a sigh.
"Even better," Elam said. His grin grew wider. "Maybe three will be enough practice for me to teach you how to herd cats."
"Somehow I doubt that."
"Yeah, I do too, Bohannon," Elam said, "but I'm trying to stay positive here. C'mon," and here he gestured over his shoulder with a thumb, directing Bohannon's attention towards the tent's dim interior. "There's one that hasn't gotten far, unless if found a hole to slip through in the back. If we tie the tent's front closed, then it should be the easiest one to catch. After that, we can work our way up in level of difficulty."
"If you say so," Bohannon said, and he prepared to do battle with a small kitten.
Four hours of searching high and low (while doing their best to avoid Ruth), many nips and scratches, and one case of mistaken identity leading to a harrowing run-in and narrow escape with a baby skunk (in the shadows it looked like a kitten, Bohannon would've sworn as much in a court of law) under the railroad platform later, Cullen and Elam had finally caught the last of the kittens (this one's fur was a jumbled mix of black and orange, making it extra hard to spot in the shadows; Elam called the pattern tortoiseshell, Bohannon didn't care) and secured it within the cabbage box with the rest of its littermates. Even Elam had been bitten and scratched a few times along the way, for all his skill in handling cats. The last one really had been the most difficult.
Now, it was after dark, and from what they had been able to see and hear during their kitten hunt, they had already missed most of the festivities and probably all of the food. Both men were so tired that they did not think before taking the most direct route through camp to return the box to its original location. That route happened to take them right by the kitchen tents, Ruth Cole's unofficial headquarters for the duration of the church social.
"Mr. Bohannon! Mr. Ferguson!" Ruth called from where she was in the process of handing out what looked to be plates containing the very last slices of pie to Psalms and a few other freedmen who, rightly suspecting that Cullen and Elam might want to claim that bounty for themselves, said their thank-yous and quickly made haste for points elsewhere. "I was just about to go looking for you," Ruth said. She stepped out from behind the table and approached the two men. "Earlier, you had been talking to me about the kittens, Mr. Bohannon, and then the next time that I went to check on them, they were gone!"
"It's alright, Ruth, they're fine," Bohannon assured her. "I've got 'em right here." He held up the box which Elam had insisted he be the one to carry as part of his penance. A chorus of mewing arose from within the box.
Ruth looked relieved but slightly confused. "But what are you doing with them?" she said.
"He just couldn't keep his hands off that box of kittens," Elam interjected, his voice syrupy sweet and less than helpful as far as Bohannon was concerned. Then Elam said, less sarcastically, "They really are adorable, Miss Cole."
"Yes they are, Mr. Ferguson, and oh dear, I see what you mean," Ruth said, noticing Bohannon's now thoroughly scratched up hands. "I did warn you about some of them liking to bite, Mr. Bohannon."
"That you did, Ruth," Bohannon said, not able to keep the tired sigh out of his voice. "That you did." After all the work that he and Elam had put into getting those kittens back, he hoped that Ruth turned them into the most spoiled pets ever.
"You know," Ruth continued, now looking very serious and turning those huge, liquid eyes of hers full force on the two men, "I had been meaning to scold the two of you for disappearing right in the middle of preparations like you did, but since everything has gone so well and you were looking after the kittens, I can't hold it against you." She still looked serious, but at least she didn't look Very Disappointed in either of them. "I know it isn't much," she said, "but I wanted to show my appreciation for your work, so I set these aside in case you turned up." She reached for what appeared to be an innocuous stack of hand towels and, whipping off the top piece of cloth, revealed two plates, each one containing a large slice of pie. They looked and smelled delicious, and Bohannon could only watch as Ruth handed both plates to Elam, since both his hands were free. Then she reached over and took the box of kittens from Bohannon, saying, "It's actually quite convenient that you should turn out to have the kittens, Mr. Bohannon, because you've arrived with them just in time for the presentation!"
"What presentation?" Bohannon and Elam both said at the same time, unable to stop themselves.
"Come and see," she said with a smile then walked off, taking the box of kittens with her.
Well, that didn't sound ominously biblical or anything.
Torn between curiosity and dread, Bohannon followed, too focused on the retreating box to have the presence of mind to claim his slice of apple pie from Elam. It was just another of the many decisions in his life that he would later regret. Ruth led them around a corner to the makeshift dancefloor, which still held a good portion of the population of Hell on Wheels.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Ruth called in a voice made clear and strong by her time spent preaching, and the volunteer musicians stopped playing, and everyone present turned their attention to her. "I have, as promised, the solution to this camp's constant rat problem!" She held the box above her head, which only gave everyone a good view of the crude stencil saying, "Fresh Cabbages," but either the crowd was drunk enough to be easily impressed or they already knew what she was talking about, because they all cheered.
Then, to Bohannon's horror, Ruth carefully lowered the box to the ground and pulled off the lid, allowing the kittens to go springing off in all directions, quickly disappearing between people's legs and around corners as everyone cheered again. With his tired brain slightly stunned by this turn of events, Bohannon looked back and forth between where the kittens used to be, Ruth, and Elam.
The box, of course, looked empty.
Ruth was being surrounded by a small gaggle of people congratulating her on a job well done, and she looked so happy and proud of herself, knowing that she had managed to help her community in multiple creative ways in a single day. She had talked about wanting the kittens to be ratters, hadn't she? Bohannon just wished that she had gone into a little more detail at the time or that he had maybe been brave enough to ask more questions. Too late now.
And Elam? Well, Elam hadn't thrown a punch at him yet, which was a small mercy, but he looked like he was mad enough that he wasn't going to let Bohannon have either of those two slices of pie, and Bohannon didn't blame him for that sentiment at all.
Unaware of, or maybe simply not caring about, Cullen Bohannon's tragic but well-earned lack of pie, the musicians picked up where they had left off in their song. The dancers took a few more beats to find their rhythms, but they too were soon back in the swing of things. The only indication they gave that they had ever stopped at all was that now people tended to glance downwards more often, having to worry about avoiding the possibility stepping on a kitten as much as, if not more than, the possibility of stepping on their partners' feet.
Bohannon hoped that a fresh supply of rails got to Hell on Wheels soon, because too many more supposedly work-free days like this one might be the death of him.