New York City
“You don’t belong here, Aislynn Denehy,” Jimmy Tully shouted. “‘Tis a man’s meeting.”
While the huddle of men surrounding him voiced their agreement, Aislynn pointed to the announcement tacked to the church door. She addressed them collectively, “The sign says everyone is welcomed in the West.”
“Everyone who’s not a woman,” Jimmy replied.
Aislynn knew each man and through all her sixteen years, made it a habit to dismiss their good-natured taunts. Yet as she approached the Parish Hall, she saw they were correct; the entryway was clogged with men. Spying a woodpile, she dragged a log to the door and stood it on its end. Holding the doorframe, she hoisted herself up and surveyed the sea of masculinity. The bare-beamed room seethed with the unemployed and the adventurous. Some greeted each other, shaking hands and slapping backs, while others elbowed and nudged their way through conversations punctuated by outbursts of laughter and amiable insults. The smell of sweat and ale drifted toward her on a thin cloud of cigar smoke. Aislynn’s eyes searched the throng.
On the stage, a dark-haired man stepped up to the podium and cleared his throat. “May I have your attention?”
The sound of the speaker’s voice quieted the crowd.
“Gentlemen, my name is Liam Moran, and I am so glad to see you all here tonight. My colleagues and I have come to offer you the opportunity of a lifetime, the chance to go west. The chance to be a part of a new world, a new way of life, the chance to fulfill your dreams.”
Moran exhorted the gathering like a preacher. “You,” his arms stretched out as he roared, “all you Irish, you’ve dug the canals for a pauper’s wage. You’ve built this city and gained little more than your broken backs.”
With narrowed eyes and a sneer across his lips, he jabbed his cigar at the audience. “You fought the great Civil War. You freed the slaves. Now they’ve come north and taken your jobs. I’ve been around. I’ve seen the signs, No Irish need apply.” Moran leaned on the podium and scanned the assemblage. “The War’s been over for two years. What did you get for all your efforts? You earn three hundred dollars a year, a mere pittance! Is that why you and your fathers came to these shores?”
He straightened and paused until the murmuring died down. “You see these men?” His hands swept toward the speakers seated at the long table behind him. “They’re rich, wealthy. Do you know how they got rich? They went west, to the great American West. They cashed in on the abundance of natural resources just waiting for a man with a dream. Why, the forests are so thick the trees are falling down by themselves. The ground is so fertile you just have to scatter seeds and watch them grow. There’s grass everywhere just waiting for cattle to graze.”
A buzz of excitement rose from the audience. Moran motioned the crowd
closer as his voice became softer, “And, of course, there are precious minerals just
floating in the streams, hinting at the lodes below the surface, waiting to be struck.”
After a pause to catch his breath, Moran continued in a solemn tone, “This
nation is ready to explode again. Not into war this time. No, it’s going to explode with
expansion. That expansion is going to move on a bed of rails that’s fixing to run clear
across this continent. When it does, that ribbon of rails is going to tie our ranching,
logging, mining, and farming to all the big markets. You,” he called, waving his cigar,
“you can be a part of it. Now, my associates will step up and tell you about the
opportunities they have to offer. They’ll pay your fare, give you a decent wage, and all
you have to do in return is give them a year of solid work.”
As soon as the last speaker completed his sales pitch, a mass of men pressed
toward the stage to volunteer. One burly young man with broad shoulders bulging
under his worn shirt approached Aislynn. Hands on hips and a hint of sarcasm in his
voice, he demanded, “What brings you here?”
“I brought myself, Johnny Maher,” she replied, as he eyed her. Aislynn liked
Johnny and his constant pursuit flattered her. She found him agreeable and goodhumored.
Although his round face always brightened for Aislynn, his looks did not
appeal to her. Fair and freckled, he was too big and bulky for Aislynn’s taste.
“This is no place for a girl.”
Aislynn sighed with frustration. “The sign says everyone is welcomed in the
West. Didn’t the speakers say it’s the land of equal opportunity?”
“I guess any place asking for Irish would take women, too.”
Aislynn had to smile knowing the stigma they all bore. Regardless of their
looks, intelligence or talents, they felt the sting of discrimination. It was one of the
things binding them together and driving them west.
Johnny continued, “But I didn’t hear them offerin’ any women’s work.”
“I’ll just have to find work on my own.”
“I suspect you just want to follow Tim Nolan wherever he goes.”
“Is he here?” Aislynn tried to sound calm.
“Seems everyone’s here.”
“Did you see Tim?” Aislynn asked pointedly.
Johnny looked over the crowd. “No, but I’m sure he’s here; he’s unemployed
like the rest.” Returning his gaze to Aislynn, he stated, “If you’re goin’ west, you’d be
better off travelin’ with a man like me. I might not have the mind of Tim Nolan, but
I’ve a sturdy back and strong hands and from what I hear, they’re far more valuable in
“I don’t believe Mr. Moran or any of those men up there got rich with their big
fists, Johnny Maher!”
“Aye, so it’s money you’re wantin’?” He leaned closer. “Let’s combine our
talents. We could go far.”
Blushing, Aislynn replied, “I am not interested in going where you want to go.”
Johnny guffawed. “We’ll see, Aislynn Denehy. When Tim marries Emma
Greene, you’ll come lookin’ for me,” Johnny stated. “Bein’ the fool I am, I’ll be
waitin’. If I’m dismissed, your Royal Highness, I’ll take my leave.” Johnny lifted her
hand to his lips saying, “Till we meet again, your Majesty.”
Snapping her fingers from his grip, she suppressed a smile and ordered, “Oh,
As Johnny departed, Aislynn glanced toward the action on the stage and saw
Moran eyeing her. When he rose to the podium, Aislynn noticed he was attractive, for
an older man, tall, well-built, with hair as black as hers combed back from his face,
which was decorated with an equally dark mustache and closely-trimmed beard. The
darkness of his hair set off his light blue eyes, giving him an almost sinister look. He
seemed a man who could make a pact with the devil confident he could retract his
pledge when it suited him. Aislynn thought it unseemly for a man twice her age to
look at a girl of sixteen in this way. She turned her gaze away from him, but
movement in his direction brought Aislynn’s eyes back. She saw Tim approach
“No!” she screamed. Her tiny voice could not penetrate the din. She jumped
down from her perch and tried to push her way through the tangle of men who
smelled of hard work and limited means. They were packed tightly up against the
stage. She attempted to squeeze through small gaps between elbows and legs,
pleading, “Pardon me. Excuse me. I have to get through, please.” The hoop in her
skirt slowed her progress. It needed space, and the men were reluctant to yield any.
When some men stepped aside, it would snag on the others who were pressing to get
She slowly advanced through the mass of men, reaching the stage as Tim was
shaking hands with Moran. “Tim!” she called.
Tim’s head jerked in the direction of her voice. “Aislynn?” A puzzled look
crossed his face, but it quickly changed to a smile. He extended his hand to her.
“Come meet my new employer.”