Word Count 20,595
Note: This story was written and posted to one of the Lancer groups on Yahoo for a story challenge in March of 2013 using Picture Montage 3. I did some minor editing prior to archiving to the files of the Lancer Fanfiction group on Facebook in July of 2017.
“An easy trip,” Murdoch Lancer said. “We’ll be gone a week, ten days at the outside.”
Jelly Hoskins snorted and stretched upward, as if he thought he could look the nearly six-and-a-half-foot tall man in the eye. “Yeah, right, and since when does anything ever go as planned, especially where the Lancers are concerned?”
I laughed at the grey-whiskered man. My father was a good seven inches taller than me, and the hired man who had become like part of our family couldn’t look straight into my eyes if we were on level ground. “Jelly,” I said, “you’re not half as worried about us gettin’ back on time as yuh are about bein’ left behind.” That got me a stare that would freeze the sweat on your brow in July.
The train whistle cut loose and saved us all one of Jelly’s rants. Murdoch hurried my older brother Scott and me aboard. We barely got settled before the car jerked and pulled away from the Cross Creek station.
We arrived in Sacramento a couple of hours ahead of the eastbound train from San Francisco. After getting our string of horses unloaded and into a holding pen, we all had lunch. Then Scott and I hung out on the platform while Murdoch waited inside.
After a while I leaned against the wall beside the doorway. Scott stood on the other side lookin’ at the board that was used for posting notices of one kind or another.
My brother and I are about as different as night and day. His hair is light like his mom’s was. He’s taller; has me beat by three inches. He grew up in Boston and went to a college called Harvard. I got my mother’s dark hair . . . and her temper, if you ask Murdoch. He met her in Mexico a couple years after Scott’s mother died. I guess she didn’t like ranch life. She headed back to the border and took me with her when I was about two.
I watched Scott a while longer and got curious about what was on that board. “Find anything interesting?” I asked.
“Not really. Just the usual train schedule, sales notices and a few wanted posters.”
“So, who’s wanted?”
Scott turned toward me, his honey-colored brows pinching together. “Are you thinking of taking up bounty hunting on the side?”
I grinned at him. “I might, for the right stakes.”
“And just how much would that be?”
‘Oh, I don’t know. Five hundred wouldn’t be a bad start.”
Scott studied the board. “Here’s a tempting one.” He tapped the back of his hand against a paper hung high in the upper right-hand corner.
I didn’t move from my spot holding up the wall. “Yeah? How much?”
“Twenty-five hundred dollars, dead or alive.”
I let out a long whistle. “What’s he wanted for?”
“Train robbery. He sounds like a real charmer.”
“You don’t say.” I pushed away from the wall and went to stand beside Scott. This had to be some bandit. I wondered what he’d done to warrant that kind of money or being brought in dead.
Scott’s hand slid down across a drawing in the middle of the dog-eared poster. The brim of the man’s weather-beaten hat shaded his eyes and the dark, wide scarf wrapped around his neck hid the collar of his shirt. His chin sort of blended with the color of the paper, but his long, straight nose was plain to see. He looked like he had a bushy mustache, too. Then again it could have been a shadow. It was hard to tell for sure.
Beneath the picture and the words “For Train Robbery” was a warning about the man’s Gallic charm. “What’s Gallic?” I made the word sound like garlic without the “r”.
“Gay-lick.” Scott dragged the sounds out like he had a habit of doing when he corrected me for saying a word wrong. “It’s a term used for the French.”
“These French . . . they got some kind o’ special charm?”
“They can be very convincing, or so I’ve been told.” Scott chuckled. “As Jelly would say, they could charm the rattles off of a snake.”
I grinned. “That good, huh?”
“Yes, that good and especially when it comes to women.”
We joked some about this robber and speculated, as Scott called it, on how dangerous he might be, where he might be hiding out, and how hard he would be to capture. Not that we were serious. It was just a way to pass the time.
Our train arrived about ten minutes later. We loaded our string of horses into a boxcar, tossed them some hay, and joined Murdoch in the passenger car. I soon forgot all about that train robber. A couple of dark-haired beauties in the seat ahead of us kept eying Scott and me.
They were a sober pair with big brown eyes and unsmiling lips. Brown curls that parted at the tops of their heads framed their round faces. I thought the style a bit severe for girls their ages.
“We been to Frisco to get our pi’ture tooken,” the younger girl said a while later. I guessed her to be five or six.
“Anna Louise, now don’t you be bothering folks,” the woman between the girls scolded.
Anna rested her chin on the back of her seat as she looked at Scott. “I’m not both’rin’, am I?”
Scott flashed a smile at her. “Not in the least.”
She turned toward the woman. “See, Momma. Can I show ‘im the pi’ture?”
“Honey, I’m sure he hasn’t the slightest interest in seeing your picture.”
Anna’s lips puckered and her lashes fluttered. For a second I thought she was going to cry.
“Actually, Ma’am, we’d love to see it, wouldn’t we, Scott?” I gave my brother a don’t-you-dare-disagree stare.
“Yes. Yes, we would.” The sound of Scott’s voice was far more pleasant than the glare he gave me.
The woman twisted and looked over her shoulder at us. She had her hair pulled together by a clasp at the back of her head and fashioned into a few long ringlets that touched her shoulders. Her bangs were knotted into tight curls at the top of her broad forehead. The droop at the corners of her mouth made her look sad. When she spoke, she sounded tired. “You’re sure it won’t be a bother?”
“We’re certain, Mrs. . . .”
“Weston. Mrs. Peter Weston,” she replied to Scott. “And these are my daughters, Anna Louise and Mary Elisabeth.”
“Papa calls me Mary Beth,” the older girl said.
The younger girl stretched her chin higher over the seat. “An’ I’m Annie Lou.”
Scott tipped his head and touched the brim of his hat. “I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, ladies. We’re the Lancers. I’m Scott. This is my brother, Johnny, and that is our father Murdoch across the aisle.” He paused and motioned toward Murdoch, who sat against the far window with his hat tipped forward over his eyes, and then continued speaking. “Did you say Peter Weston? He wouldn’t be Captain Peter Weston of the cavalry unit stationed at Camp Halleck, would he?”
Annie’s eyes opened wider. “Does you know our papa?”
“I might. Was he ever near Abilene?”
Funny how it turned out this lady’s husband was the same Captain Weston that Scott had set us up a meeting with. They had both been stationed in Abilene under General Custer after the Civil War ended. Weston had been transferred to the newly built Camp Halleck about the time Scott returned to Boston.
Once Mrs. Weston knew that Scott was acquainted with her husband, she was more than happy to let her daughter show us the picture. It was in a rich looking frame of oiled leather that was tooled all around the edges with flowers, leaves, and vines and a row of dots along the inside edge. The corners that touched the glass were rounded, adding to its elegance.
Mary Beth, a head taller than her sister, stood with one hand on the edge of a small round table with a fancy tablecloth. She held Anna’s wrist with the other. Both girls wore dark checkered dresses that had short sleeves and necklines that didn’t cover their shoulders. Mary Beth wore what looked to be a gold medallion around her neck and bracelets on both wrists. Neither smiled. In fact, Mary looked a bit worried with her brows arched up the way they were.
Scott and I complimented them and returned the picture. We all had a pleasant visit as the train wound higher into the Sierra Nevada Mountains and made short stops here and there.
It was early evening when we crossed over the California border and reached Reno, Nevada, where the train had an hour and a half layover. It being a mining town, Scott insisted we take the Weston ladies under our wing after we watered the horses. Murdoch insisted we enjoy a decent meal at the hotel rather than eat at the train depot. He even paid the bill. Once back on board the train, we soon stretched out on some of the empty seats and slept. Dawn met us somewhere east of Winnemucca.
We were making good time and figured we should be at Camp Halleck in plenty of time for supper. That would give us two to three days to show off our horses, make our deal with Captain Weston, and return to the depot at the town of Halleck in time to catch the next train to Sacramento. The military camp was only a couple of hours or so south of the town named after it.
Some folks would call our trip a cake walk. There was no reason to expect any trouble or delays. The weather was dry and the snow was gone from all but the highest mountain peaks. All reports said the railroad tracks were clear up ahead.
The train route followed the Humboldt River for the most part as it passed through mile after mile of canyons that opened up into narrow valleys here and there. We were in a rugged area about fifteen miles west of Elko, Nevada when the train passed through the second of two long tunnels in that area and ground to a halt.
“Why we stoppin’?” Annie asked.
That’s what I was thinking. I looked out the window, but all I could see was barren ground slopping toward the river.
“I’m sure it’s nothing to be concerned about.” Scott spoke in that soothing tone he used with skittish colts. He wasn’t fooling me. I had seen his jaw tense up.
My hand dropped to the butt of my revolver, just in case I needed it in a hurry.
The front door opened and the conductor entered. “Bridge is out. Looks like we’ll have to back up.”
“How far?” Murdoch asked.
“About twenty miles. The hotel at Carlin should be able to put you folks up while the bridge is repaired.”
The train jerked and slowly rumbled backwards. Murdoch’s brow puckered. “How long will that take?”
“Week or more, most likely.”
Murdoch didn’t look at all pleased at that news. “Is there someplace closer where we can unload our horses? We can drive them the rest of the way to Camp Halleck.”
“Nothing with a loading ramp or holding pen.”
We entered the tunnel and the light faded in a hurry. “What took out the bridge?” I asked, my voice sounding farther away and the rumble of the train louder. The river hadn’t looked flooded from what I had seen of it, and the train headed west had gotten through earlier that day.
The conductor shrugged. “Don’t know. The brakeman only said we had to go back ‘cause it was out.”
Metal clanged against metal and the car lurched. My head snapped backward, pain shooting up my neck. More clanging and another jerk pitched me forward.
I grabbed in the darkness and my hands closed over the top edge of the seat ahead of me. Someone cursed. A child cried out. The car shuddered a few more times and stopped moving.
Mrs. Weston’s voice spoke hushed words. Loud sobs that most likely were coming from one or both of her daughters, quieted. I hoped neither girl was hurt.
I heard murmuring and someone asked, “What happened?”
A higher-pitched voice said, “Why have we stopped?”
These same questions were running through my head. I stood and felt for the end of the seat I had a hold of. Maybe if I could get out the front door of the car, I could see something.
I took one step. The floor rumbled and moved. I swayed and pressed against the back of the seat. After a few more jerks, the motion of the car turned into a steady vibration.
Darkness faded and daylight appeared through the window. I held tight, knowing the train would have to stop again.
The car had barely come to a standstill when the door ahead of me opened. A man holding a pistol stepped in, tipped his head and smiled. “Bonjour, mesdames and messieurs. I promise not to detain you long. Do as you are told and no one will be harmed.”
I was standing with my knees bent and belt buckle against the top of the seat in front of me that I had been gripping. Without thinking, I slid my hand down toward the gun on my hip.
A hand grasped my wrist and I glanced sideways.
Scott gave a slight shake of his head.
Although I was sure the bandit couldn’t see that I was armed, I settled back into my place beside my brother. I slouched and kept my eyes on the hold-up man. Scott was right. Now wasn’t the time to do something hasty. Not with women and children to think of.
The man handed a white sack to the passenger nearest the door. With a heavy accent that I couldn’t place at the moment, he told the man to collect everyone’s valuables and to see that all weapons where tossed out the windows. Something about his smile and polite manner brought to mind the wanted poster back in Sacramento. Could this man be him?
While the bandit was watching his sack being filled, I unbuckled my holster and slipped it under the folded blankets between Scott and me. I hoped no one would mention its disappearance.
The passenger with the sack, I think his name was O’Malley, worked his way toward us. He was a squat man, about Jelly’s size only heavier. His bushy eyebrows and beard reminded me of chili peppers.
He stopped beside me and faced the seat across the aisle.
Murdoch hoisted the window and pitched out his holstered gun. He scowled as he reached inside his jacket and pulled out his wallet. I knew his gut had to be tied in knots. He probably had well over two hundred dollars in there. I figured we could count ourselves lucky we hadn’t collected on the horses, yet.
Once Murdoch’s wad of bills was in the sack, it was my turn. I stood, dug a few coins out of the little pocket on the inside of the waistband of my pants and dropped them into the bag.
“That all yuh got?” O’Malley asked as he checked my coat pockets.
Ignoring him and looking at the bandit, I raised my hands and smiled. “Sorry, it ain’t much. I’m traveling light.”
The bandit smiled back. “Perhaps, monsieur, you will be so kind as to take off your boots.”
I kept right on smiling and did as I was told. No use giving him the satisfaction of seeing I wasn’t happy with the way my hand in the game had played out. Besides, a couple of twenty-dollar gold pieces weren’t worth someone getting shot over.
As I dropped my coins in the bag, I noticed O’Malley was eyeing my right hip. I looked up at him and licked my lips. His eyes met mine and my heart felt like it did a flip. “My rifle’s in the corner,” I said loud enough for the Frenchman, if that’s what the bandit was, to hear.
O’Malley shifted and looked at Scott.
Scott stood, unbuckled his gun belt, and dropped it along with the rifle out the window. He reached inside his jacket and took a step toward O’Malley.
While Scott was digging out his money, I let out my breath, slipped my feet into my boots, and slouched a little. I tipped my hat forward, hoping the robber wouldn’t catch on that I was watching for him to get careless. The last thing I wanted was for him to get it in his head that I might still have a gun hidden out.
When O’Malley moved on, Scott returned to his place next to the window and appeared to look outside. No doubt he was thinking about his guns out there on the ground. Like me, he was probably hoping they would still be there when the bandit left. There had to be others with that Frenchman. When we went after them, and I was sure we would, we would need more than my pistol.
It seemed O’Malley was taking a long time collecting from the rest of the passengers. This worried me some. I knew if I was in the holdup man’s boots, I would want to get out of there as fast as I could.
I was tempted to look behind me, but I didn’t. If the Frenchman did take a notion to hurry O’Malley along, I wanted to see it coming.
As I kept watch on the Frenchman, I recalled another train robbery. That time I was one of the holdup men. Scott and I had gotten tangled up helping our friend and neighbor Charlie Poe from over by Spanish Wells recover some land documents that could have cost him his farm. Before that, we hadn’t had any idea that Charlie had done time in prison for holding up trains.
I wondered if the Frenchman had a pal busting into the mail car. That could mean they had some of that dynamite juice that took out Charlie’s friend. I didn’t like that thought. I had seen the hole it left behind.
I heard the scuff of footsteps and saw O’Malley’s legs out of the corner of my eye. I looked up. Our eyes met and his step faltered. As he walked on to the front of the car, I went back to watching the Frenchman. I hoped he hadn’t noticed O’Malley hesitate beside me.
O’Malley handed the collection bag over to the bandit and sat down. I breathed a little easier. The sooner this was over, the better I’d like it. Despite his smiling ways, I had a feeling this Gallic charmer could shoot you dead and not blink an eye. It was the women, though, that worried me the most. A man with his reputation, if he was the man on the poster, might get ideas that would force me to take more risk than I liked.
The Frenchman looked down the row of seats. I kept my head tipped so he couldn’t tell I was watching from under the brim of my hat.
He motioned at someone ahead of me. “You there, ma chérie,”
I lifted my head a little and saw Mary Beth’s head come closer to her mother’s shoulder. That put a pinch in my brow. Surely the man wasn’t talking to one of them.
The man smiled, his hand outstretched. “Do not fear, ma chérie. I mean you no harm.”
I slipped my hand into the fold of the blanket where I had hidden my gun. There was no way I was letting him take Mrs. Weston or one of her daughters if that’s what he had in mind.
Scott laid his hand on my wrist.
I glared at him and he scowled back with a slight shake of his head.
The Frenchman called out again with a gentleness that would have soothed a wild horse. “Come to me, ma chérie. I have something for you.”
“Leave the child alone. Can’t you see you’re frightening her?” My father’s voice sounded like the roll of thunder.
I sat up straighter. Mrs. Weston’s girls were the only children on the train. My fingers closed around the butt of my gun. I wasn’t sure what Murdoch might do, but I was ready to pull iron. No one was touching those girls or gunning down my old man with me there to stop it.
The Frenchman’s eyes and his pistol shifted toward Murdoch. “She has no reason to be afraid. As for you, Monsieur, you would do well to not interfere.”
A shiver ran up my spine and I tensed.
“And you would do well to forget whatever you have in mind for that child. You take her and you’ll have every soldier in Camp Halleck on your trail.” My father’s deep voice never faltered.
The corners of the Frenchman’s mouth twitched upward and his brows lifted. “So, ma chérie is important to someone there? Perhaps her papa is the capitaine?”
Fear took a tighter grip in the pit of my stomach. I ignored Scott’s hand on my wrist as I waited with my hand under the blanket. Something told me Murdoch had said too much.
A gun blasted somewhere. The Frenchman motioned to the train conductor who had settled into the seat across the aisle from O’Malley when the robber had first come into the car. “You
Monsieur, bring her to me,” he said and pointed at Mary Beth.
O’Malley glanced at me. I pretended not to notice. It might not be wise to have him expecting me to step in.
The conductor stood. He had a nervous look on his face.
“Now Monsieur.” The Frenchman swung the barrel of his gun around toward the conductor’s chest.
“You’re making a mistake,” Murdoch said.
Again, the gun shifted. “The mistake is yours, Monsieur, if you interfere.”
Keeping my eyes on the Frenchman, I eased my gun over next to my leg. My heart pounded. How much longer did I dare wait? Would Scott try to stop me? He had twice already.
The conductor shuffled into the aisle and walked with long halting strides to the seat in front of me.
While the conductor blocked my view of all but the Frenchman’s head and upper chest, I chanced a glance over at Murdoch. His lower lip was tucked between his upper and lower teeth, and his eyes seemed to be on the robber. I wished I knew what he was thinking and what he might do to try to stop what was happening.
The conductor stooped and reached out a trembling hand to Mary Beth. His eyes pleaded for help from her mother. “Please, Ma’am. Tell her to come with me.”
Mary Beth shrank lower to where I could barely see the top of her head. “I don’t wanna go, Mama.”
Mrs. Weston leaned forward, facing straight ahead. “Please, let her be. If you must take someone, take me.”
“A tempting offer, Madame.” The Frenchman raised his free hand and ran the tip of his thumb across his lower lip as though he was thinking over the advances of some saloon gal. He smiled and lowered his hand. “Very tempting, but I must decline. My horse would tire too quickly. So, you see, I must insist that you send the fille here at once or perhaps I shall be forced to shoot this fine Monsieur.” His gun hand came up where I could see it and pointed at O’Malley.
Scott slowly stood. “Sir, may I be of assistance? The child knows me so she might be more willing if I were the one to bring her to you.”
The Frenchman nodded but didn’t drop his gun hand. “Oui Monsieur. You may bring her . . . if you are quick about it and you remove your jacket first.”
Scott slipped off his coat, laid it on the back of our seat, and stepped in front of me. As he moved around the end of the seat ahead of us and stopped in front of Mary Beth, the conductor stepped out of the way and settled into the seat in front of Murdoch.
“Come with me, Mary Beth. I won’t let anyone hurt you.” Scott held out both hands toward the child.
Mary Beth shook her head. “No, I wanna stay with mamma.”
“It’s all right, Mary Beth,” Mrs. Weston said. “I’m sure Mr. Lancer won’t let any harm come to you.”
While Scott blocked my view of the Frenchman, I again looked over at Murdoch. I cleared my throat to catch his attention. When he looked my way, I nodded toward my right hand and lifted the gun enough for him to see that I could back up Scott’s plan, whatever it might be. I didn’t believe my brother would hand a child over to a bandit any more than I would.
Mrs. Weston coaxed Mary Beth to go with Scott. He picked her up and she wrapped her arms around his neck. As he turned, his eyes met mine.
I nodded that I was ready.
Scott faced the Frenchman and sidestepped into the aisle. I heard him quietly tell Mary Beth that everything would be fine and not to worry.
“Why he takin’ Mary Beth?” Anna Louise asked.
Mrs. Weston leaned over and whispered something in her younger daughter’s ear. Whatever she said seemed to satisfy Anna. The girl didn’t say another word while Scott walked to the front of the car.
Scott stopped in front of the Frenchman.
I gripped my gun and wished I had a clearer view of the train robber.
The Frenchman stepped to one side and motioned toward the open door. “You first, Monsieur, and slowly,” he said. He turned his head and seemed to look right at me. “Stay in your seats and no one will be harmed.”
“My daughter. What are going to do with my daughter?” Mrs. Weston said as Scott carried Mary Beth out of the car.
“I will get a message to Camp Halleck with the conditions of her return. She will be safe provided no one follows.” Without turning his back on us, the Frenchman followed Scott. They passed through the doorway and he pulled the door closed behind them.
Mrs. Weston went right to fretting about her daughter.
I laid a hand on her shoulder. “Nothing’s going to happen to Mary Beth. That’s a promise.”
“But what can you do? You heard what he said.”
“I know what he said, but he’s not going to hurt her. Not if he thinks someone will pay to get her back.” I looked around, put my finger to my lips, and got down on my hands and knees in the aisle. I worked my way to the font of the car, stopping now and then to listen.
I reached the door. A shot rang out and I heard frantic screams. More shots sounded along with the sound of breaking glass and bullets striking the outside of the passenger car.
Murdoch yelled for everyone to get down.
I sat with my back against the wall on the hinged side of the door and reached out for the knob. Slowly I opened the door a crack.
A gun barked and the door casing splintered inches from my fingers. I jerked my hand back and waited. Where was Scott?
Anna Louise’s sobs mingled with Mary Beth’s cries for help. More bullets pelted the car, some passing through one of the open windows and striking on the inside.
Someone let out a yelp. The shooting stopped and the crying faded into sniffles.
I rolled to the other side of the doorway. Using the toe of my boot, I pushed the door open a few inches.
I nudged it a little farther.
I peeked through the narrow opening and saw three riders cross the river. Scott was nowhere in sight.
My heart thumped loudly. I looked at my father. “Murdoch, I think they’re gone. Keep everyone inside. I’m going out to find Scott.”
“Be careful, Son.”
“I plan to,” I said. I slipped my hat off, dropped it on the floor behind me, and eased the door open. A gentle breeze blew past me, but the only sounds I could hear were coming from inside the car.
Cautiously, I crawled on my belly out onto the small platform at the front of the car. “Scott?” I said, keeping my voice low.
A groan came from somewhere off to my right.
I crawled to the edge and looked down.
Scott lay on his side and was rubbing the back of his head with one hand. He let out another groan.
I looked beyond him at the river and the canyon wall along its far bank. Seeing nothing there, I swung my feet around to the edge of the platform and jumped down beside my brother. “You all right?” I couldn’t keep worry from creeping into my voice.
Scott sat up and held his head with both hands. “What happened?”
“I’m not sure. They had me pinned down until they left.”
“Mary Beth!” Scott’s head came up and his eyes searched mine. “Did they take her?”
He groaned. “I never intended for that to happen.”
“I know you didn’t.”
“What will I say to Mrs. Weston?”
“I never had a chance, Johnny. I swear it.”
I gripped his shoulder. “Scott, stop beating yourself up over it. If you hadn’t tried, he would have killed O’Malley and maybe others, too.”
Scott rubbed his forehead. “I think it’s coming back now.” He let out a long sigh. “He made me carry Mary Beth down the step and put her down. I told her to duck under the car, but someone must have shown up about the time I lunged for our Gallic Charmer. I heard a scream and then I must have been knocked out. I don’t remember anything else.”
I couldn’t help smiling at Scott’s name for the Frenchman. Apparently, my brother had seen the resemblance to the man on the poster, too.
Scott was scowling and I quickly sobered. “I’m sorry I couldn’t back you up. They started slingin’ lead.”
He looked around. “Where are they now?”
I shrugged. “Not sure. Last I saw they were high-tailing across the river. They must’ve cut up a draw on the other side. The canyon wall doesn’t look as high on up ahead.”
“Might they have turned back to this side again? From here you can’t see all that far up the river. There are too many trees.”
“Only one way to find out and that’s to trail ‘em,” I said. “Which I plan to do just as soon as I get my horse unloaded.”
Scott put his hand on my shoulder and stood. He teetered as he spoke. “Make that our horses. I’ll be joining you.”
I scowled at him. “You sure you’re up to it. Might be a long ride.”
“I’ll be fine.”
It was plain there was no use arguing. I got up and stood next to my brother. “If we’re going, we’d better get at it. No need giving ‘em too much of a head start.”
Footsteps sounded on the wooden platform behind me. “While you’re at it, unload my horse, too,” our father said. His tone told me he wasn’t open to further discussion, either.
I turned and looked at Murdoch. “Sure. How’s Mrs. Weston?”
“She’s worried, but she’ll be fine. One of the other women is with her. The conductor took a couple of men and went out the other door to go see what we backed into at the other end of the tunnel. As soon as they get the track cleared, the train should be able to get through to Carlin. Mrs. Weston can wire her husband from there and let him know we’re trailing the outlaws.”
It seemed a good plan to me. “I’ll get the horses,” I said. “Scott can come along with me to hold ‘em once I get ‘em out.”
“Any idea of which way they went?” Murdoch asked.
“South, most likely.”
Murdoch stroked the side of his nose like he had a habit of doing when he was thinking. “I’ll get our guns and see if I can find someone who’s familiar with this area. It wouldn’t hurt to know if there are any towns in that direction where we can pick up some supplies.”
We didn’t waste any more time talking. Every minute put the Frenchman and his bunch that much farther away. I figured we wouldn’t be ready to head out for another half hour as it was, and that was if the horses didn’t balk at the jump out of the boxcar.
My palomino, Barranca, jumped right out and Murdoch’s bay followed without a hitch. Scott’s sorrel was another matter. Chico didn’t like the slippery footing. It didn’t help that I wasn’t the one who usually handled him. I finally had to let Scott coax him out while I held the other horses.
Once Chico was unloaded, I collected our gear and we saddled up. Murdoch showed up carrying my hat and Scott’s coat and weapons just as we had the horses ready to go. “One passenger got nicked in the arm,” he said. “I also checked the mail car. The clerk was shot in the leg, but it’s only a flesh wound, too. He said the outlaws got about fifty thousand dollars in gold coins being shipped east from the mint in Carson City.”
Scott slipped on his coat and slid his rifle into the boot on his saddle. “At the current price of twenty-three dollars an ounce, that’s well over an extra hundred pounds they’ll be packing. With some luck, it will slow them down enough for us to catch up to them.”
I took my hat from Murdoch and put it on. “Did you find out if there are any nearby towns south of here?”
“The engineer said Eureka on the old Overland Stage route is the closest of any size.”
Scott frowned as he buckled on his holster. “Isn’t that close to a hundred miles to the south? That’s a four-day ride if the outlaws are headed there.”
“There is a mining town south of here about fifteen miles. We can take a chance they’ll go near there, or we can go up river about seven miles to Hunter, and get supplies there.”
“Seven miles, huh? That wouldn’t give us much daylight after we got back here.” I shook my head. “I don’t see how that’s a choice if their trail heads south. We can’t chance letting them get that much of a jump on us with them having Mary Beth.”
Scott and Murdoch both agreed. We mounted up and headed for the river. Murdoch had already filled Mrs. Weston in on our plans to follow the men who had her daughter. The conductor had returned to recruit more help in clearing the track of a pile of rocks that must have been dynamited out of the hillside at the other end of the tunnel after we had passed through the first time. With the rumble of the train, we wouldn’t have heard the blast.
The tracks of the outlaws crossed the river a little way below what was left of the bridge. From the splintered beams that were scattered about, I figured they had used dynamite on it, too.
We reached the other side. The trail led us over a wide gravel bar, up onto a small tree-spattered bench, and down into a draw that gently climbed toward the top of the ridge.
“It appears your hunch was right,” Scott said.
I looked behind me and saw Scott dig his compass out of his coat pocket. He studied it a moment, tucked it back into the pocket, and looked at me. “They’re headed almost due south. Let’s hope they keep in that general direction, at least until we reach that mining town.”
I had to agree with my brother. If we didn’t catch up to the Frenchman and his gang within a day or two, we were going to be mighty hungry. I also hoped the outlaws weren’t carrying much in the way of provisions, either. If they had to stop for supplies, we would have a lot better chance of catching up to them and getting Mary Beth without a fight. I doubted they would take her into a town anywhere near the railroad tracks. That meant at least one man would have to leave their camp. Once she was safe, we could tend to whoever was left of the gang.
Three horses on the run left an easy trail to follow. Murdoch insisted we hold to a slow jog. I didn’t argue. Scott still seemed woozy. We didn’t need him passing out. Also, as much as I wanted to catch the Frenchman and his gang, I knew we didn’t dare wear our horses out or chance riding into an ambush.
Before we had gone far, a side draw came in from the left and we reined our horses to a walk. I searched the ground and found the tracks all kept to the main draw. The only change was the shorter distance between the hoof prints.
I looked over at my brother. “Looks like they decided to slow up now the train’s out o’ sight.”
Scott rubbed the back of his neck. “I hope that means they aren’t expecting anyone to follow them.”
Murdoch’s voice came from behind me. “Most likely they didn’t notice there were horses on the train and figured it would have to get back to Carlin before anyone started after them. By that time, it would too late to do much before morning.”
I looked up at the ridges on either side of us. “Let’s hope that’s it. I don’t like the idea they might have a lookout up there somewhere.” When nothing I saw worried me, I bumped my heels into Barranca’s sides and settled him into a steady jog.
My father and brother followed my lead and we rode in silence most of the time.
Juniper trees dotted the bottom of the draw and the slopes on both sides. That helped ease some of my concern about being seen, but I still kept glancing up at the skyline. The gang could have someone watching their back trail.
Scott checked his compass from time to time and told us when we changed directions. We hadn’t gone south far before our path slowly turned eastward. Then it bent around to the right and lined out to the southwest. I wished we had some idea of the lay of the land. If we went too far west, we could miss the mining town by several miles.
A vision of Mary Beth’s wild eyes and puckered mouth stared at me from the shadows stretching toward us from the trees. Scared spit-less, Jelly would call her. And what child her age wouldn’t be. Her eighth birthday had only been a week ago. That had been the reason for the trip to Frisco and her having her picture taken with her sister.
I urged Barranca to stretch his stride. Thinking about Mary Beth tore me up inside. The Frenchman could have a three or four mile jump on us. If his trail hit hard ground or his gang split up, we would fall even farther behind. Sure, we could count on a clear night with close to a full moon that would let us keep going after sundown, but that didn’t mean we would catch up. The train robbers might keep riding, too.
We came across several side cuts. At each one, we slowed to check the ground for any sign that the tracks divided or headed another direction. They didn’t until the main draw swung straight at the sun and started to head northward. There the draw split and the tracks angled up out of the bottom between the two forks. I figured we had gone a mile or more by then.
Once we reached the top, we could see off both sides of the ridge. The main draw had circled around the end of the ridge and both forks travelled southwest. It looked like the Frenchman or one of his men knew the area. The ridgeline was smoother going with a gentle climb and plenty of trees to use for cover.
The outlaws stayed in the middle of the ridge until it widened. Then they hugged the eastern edge and followed its gentle slope into a draw that ran crosswise of the way we were headed. They crossed the shallow dip and lined out on another ridge that continued southwest.
As we climbed higher into the mountains, the land became more broken. We crossed another draw and lined out on a razorback with steep sides. It ended about halfway between two mountain peaks that looked to be a mile or better on each side of us.
The trail sloped into the bottom of a narrow draw. A short way farther on, the Frenchman and his men changed directions again and their pace slowed to a walk.
We gave our horses a breather, too, as we crossed a couple of finger-like ridges and dropped into a deeper draw that cut to the southeast. After a couple miles or so, the country opened up and the outlaws’ trail turned straight south.
We hadn’t gone all that far when we came to a wide creek that ran eastward from the mountains off to our right. All three sets of tracks went into the crossing, but only two sets came out the other side. That set my insides to churning.
“Why don’t I water the horses while you two check around for the other set of tracks,” Murdoch said.
Scott and I got down and handed our reins to our father. My brother went one way and I went the other for a couple hundred feet or more. We found nothing. The other set of tracks seemed to have vanished in the stream.
We walked back to Murdoch. “Looks like one of ‘em decided to stay in the creek a while to throw us off,” I said and looked west at the red glow along the skyline where the sun had slipped out of sight minutes earlier.
“Why don’t I take one direction and you the other,” Scott said. “We can each search this side for about a mile. If we don’t find where he came out, we should still have time to come back along the other side before it gets too dark to see.”
I agreed and took hold of Barranca’s reins. We had about thirty minutes of good daylight left. Then we’d have to wait about an hour for the moon to rise.
We climbed into our saddles and I set out upstream. As I rode, questions with no answers cramped my gut. Was Mary Beth on the horse we were looking for or on one of the others? How was she being treated? How and when did the Frenchman plan to get word to Camp Halleck? Had the train made it back to Carlin? Did her father know she had been kidnapped? Would he set out as soon as he heard from his wife, or would he wait for instructions from the outlaws? What if he was away on patrol or something?
My search for tracks along the creek bank chewed me up as much as the questions running through my head. There were none. The farther I went, the more that worried me. What if it got dark before we found where he came out? How much time should we spend looking when the others could be taking Mary Beth farther away from us?
The light faded sooner than I liked. I looked back and guessed I’d gone close to a mile. Part of me wanted to go on, but the other part knew I wouldn’t get all of the other bank checked if I did. Even though it didn’t seem likely the rider would have gone out that side, I couldn’t chance not looking. The Frenchman might do anything to throw us off his trail, especially if he knew he was being followed.
I crossed the creek and started back. When I couldn’t see the ground from the saddle, I got off and walked.
Across from where we had left Murdoch, Scott led his horse up to me and asked if I’d found anything. He sounded worn out.
I tipped my head back and breathed out a long “no.” I didn’t bother to ask him what he’d found. His question told me his luck had been no better than mine.
In silence, we climbed into our saddles again and crossed the creek. Murdoch rose from the darkness at the base of a tree and stepped toward us. “Any luck?”
Scott stopped beside our father and leaned forward. “No, Sir. None,” he said in a tired voice. Then he sort of rolled sideways out of the saddle and stood with his shoulder against his horse.
I couldn’t help smiling. My brother seldom slipped from his formal way of doing things. Generally, he had to be plumb tuckered out to be that sloppy about getting off a horse. The ride shouldn’t have made him that tired. I’d seen him go ten hours or more and still dismount in proper military fashion.
My smile turned to worry. Scott’s head had to be bothering him something fierce for him to be as worn out as he looked.
Murdoch let out a noisy breath and stroked his chin. “I followed the tracks out this side a little way. They should be easy to follow once the moon’s up.”
“I suppose that’s as good a plan as any,” I said. “We can always come back here if Mary Beth isn’t with ‘em.”
Scott looked over at me. “Perhaps they plan to meet up again. They could have noticed we were following and split up to slow us down.”
“Bullion’s only a couple miles south of here,” Murdoch said. “You know it is possible that’s where the two that crossed here are headed. If that’s the case, they could plan to pick up provisions and meet up with the other man.”
I slipped out of my saddle and led Barranca closer to my father. “How do know you that? Ain’t that the town we hoped to find?”
“I ran across a miner while I was following those other tracks. He just came from there.”
Scott perked up. “Two miles isn’t all that far. We could be there in thirty minutes or less if we don’t wait for the moon to rise first.”
“What if they didn’t go there?” I said.
“We get what we need, come back here, and follow their tracks. We wouldn’t be out much more time than if we waited for more light to leave here.”
“Scott’s right,” Murdoch said. “And if they did go to Bullion, we might be able to find them. With it being a mining town, chances are someone would remember seeing them.”
I chuckled. “Meaning they’d stick out like a sore thumb.” I sobered and scuffed the ground with the sole of my boot. “I guess we don’t have much choice, do we? Still, I don’t like it that the Frenchman might’ve takin’ off somewhere else with Mary Beth.”
Murdoch wrapped one hand over my shoulder. “He’s not going to hurt her. If I thought otherwise, we wouldn’t have chanced coming after her.”
“I know. It’s just . . ..” I toyed with one of the concho buttons on the side of my pants.
My father’s grip tightened. “I understand, Son, and I don’t like it any more than you do.”
“Murdoch’s right,” Scott said. “We’re not dealing with cold-blooded killers. Otherwise they would have shot me when they had the chance.”
They were right, but it didn’t make me feel any better about Mary Beth. She would be scared and missing her mother. No matter how charming that Frenchman was, she wasn’t going to be happy about being with him.
“Hadn’t we best be going if we hope to buy any provisions tonight? We don’t know what time the stores close for the night,” Scott said. Without waiting for an answer, he dragged himself into his saddle and started south.
Murdoch and I wasted no time getting on our horses and catching up.
Dark peaks loomed ahead of us. I urged Barranca closer to Murdoch’s horse. “We going through there?” I asked.
Murdoch spoke without looking over at me. “No. There’s a trail that goes around this side. We’ll hit it shortly. According to the miner I talked to, it’ll take us to a wagon road that runs between Elko and Bullion.”
I remembered seeing a trail while I was searching for where the other train robber had come out of the river. There hadn’t been any fresh tracks on either side where it crossed.
Stars filled the sky and gave us enough light to find the trail that crossed the broad, gentle slopes that lay around the eastern ragged edges of the cluster of peaks. We dipped in and out of one shallow draw after another with flat stretches of ground between that were covered with tufts of bunch grass, patches of sage brush, and a scattering of juniper trees. Other than for a few rocky spots, it was easy travelling and I hardly noticed the gradual climb.
Scott rode slumped forward, one hand on his saddle horn and the other holding his reins. He let Murdoch take the lead early on, but insisted we hold to a steady trot. Nothing would change his mind. That added to the turmoil inside of me. My brother could be as stubborn as our old man. I hoped we wouldn’t be picking him up out of the dirt somewhere along the line.
We hadn’t been riding more than twenty minutes, I’m guessing, when the trail crossed a deeper draw, turned to the right, and followed the edge of the draw as it climbed higher up along the side of the mountain. In a short while, it veered to the other side of the ridge and ended in a wide trail rutted by wagon wheels. There we stopped.
“Which way?” I said. I couldn’t see any sign of a town in either direction.
“To the right, I believe,” Murdoch said. He turned his horse and moved out at a slow jog.
Scott followed and I reined in beside him. I didn’t like the way he kept leaning off to one side and then the other. If he started to fall, I wanted to be where I could grab him.
We rode on in silence except for the clopping of our horses’ hooves on the hard ground. For a little while, the road ran along the edge of a ridge that dropped off into a canyon on our left. Barranca raised his head and perked his ears like he smelled water.
It wasn’t long before we came to a break in the canyon wall. The road sloped into the bottom, hugged the edge of a creek for a short distance, and then crossed to the other side and curved to the left.
I caught a whiff of smoke. The smell got stronger and I saw a faint light up ahead.
Murdoch slowed his horse to walk, and Scott and I did the same.
More lights appeared and the dark forms of buildings took shape. “Think we should all ride in together?” I asked.
Murdoch veered over beside a wide-spread tree and we all stopped.
“What are you thinking, Johnny?” Scott asked without lifting his head to look at me. He sounded worn out.
I leaned forward and stroked Barranca’s neck. “Oh, that anyone with eyes would know we ain’t from around these parts, and . . ..”
Murdoch’s deep voice finished for me. “You’re worried word could get to the men we’re looking for.”
Scott looked over at me and spoke barely above a whisper. “Makes sense. So, what do you suggest we do?”
I told them my plan was for me to go in first. I’d get our supplies and do a little scouting around to see what I could find out.
“Don’t you think you’ll draw too much attention?” Scott said. “Of the three of us, you look the least like a prospector.”
“You can’t go,” I replied. “If you don’t get some rest, you’re gonna fall flat on your face.”
Scott’s voice hitched upward. “I’ve been through worse.”
“Maybe you have,” I said, “but this ain’t the time to press your luck.”
Murdoch cut into our argument. “You’re both right, so I’ll go. I’ll say my partners were to meet me there and that we’re hoping to invest in some mines in the area.”
Scott agreed that that might work as long as Murdoch didn’t take any unnecessary chances and that he came to get us if he learned the men were in town.
I made it clear that I didn’t like the idea.
“I’m fully capable of taking care of myself,” Murdoch said.
That didn’t make me feel any better. He didn’t know what he would run into and I told him so.
My old man’s like talking to a stone wall once he’s made up his mind on something. It didn’t help that Scott sided with him. Nothing I had to say made any difference. Finally, I gave up and watched him ride on toward town.
As Murdoch faded into the shadows, Scott looked back the way we’d come. “The moon will be up before long,” he said. “It might be wise for us to wait in a more secluded place.”
I looked at the faint glow along the edge of the skyline and agreed with my brother.
Scott turned his horse toward the other side of the road. “That grove of trees over there should do,” he said.
I followed my brother’s lead into the lop-sided clearing in the middle of a clump of seven or eight junipers. Some of the trees were fair sized. Their bottom limbs spread out better than ten feet on each side and hung close to the ground. I doubted anyone would see us there.
We wrapped the ends our reins around a couple of stout branches and sat down next to a boulder where we could see between two trees and watch for Murdoch.
“How’s your head?” I said. “And don’t tell me it’s fine, ‘cause you’d be lyin’.”
Scott admitted it hurt some.
I knew he was worse off than he was letting on, but I didn’t argue. Instead I said, “Why don’t you make yourself more comfortable? I’ll take the first watch. Murdoch could be a while.”
“You will wake me if I fall asleep,” he said.
I assured him I would and he rolled onto his side. Before long, his breathing slowed.
The time dragged. I saw a dead twig within reach, picked it up, and fiddled with it for a while. When I’d peeled off all of the bark bit by bit, I found a couple of pebbles and rolled them around in my hand.
My mind was as restless as my fingers. What was Murdoch doing? Was he able to get us some supplies? Had anyone seen any other strangers in town? If our old man ran into the train robbers, would he take time to get our help? What if they got wind someone might be looking for them? Would they lay for him and cut him down without warning?
I stood, arched my back, and stretched my arms above my head. I needed something to do to make the time go faster. It didn’t matter what it was as long as it kept me from thinking about Murdoch.
The horses quietly munched on clumps of tall grass. I thought about loosening their cinches but decided that wasn’t a good idea. We might have to ride in a hurry.
I walked around the small clearing. That didn’t take long. I made a couple more loops, stopped at a narrow opening that faced the town, and studied the dense shadows.
Nothing moved. No sounds made their way to my ears except the chewing of the horses and a light squeak of leather rubbing against leather once in a while. Even the night birds, if there were any, were quiet.
I walked around some more, got bored with that, and settled against the rock beside Scott. How much time had passed? It didn’t seem as dark as it had been. Was the moon up? I couldn’t tell because of the trees.
It seemed like I’d been waiting for hours but I had no way of knowing. I didn’t have the watch Murdoch had given me. I’d laid it on my dresser the night before we left home and had forgotten to put it in my pocket the next morning. At least the Frenchman didn’t have it along with all of those he’d stolen from the rest of the passengers. That was something I could be thankful for.
Bits of light seeped through the boughs of the trees and speckled the ground around me. The road and the shapes of the buildings on the edge of the town became easier to see. That told me the moon had risen some.
Scott stirred and let out a low moan.
I watched him for a few minutes. He seemed to be sleeping but that didn’t mean I shouldn’t be worried. Head injuries weren’t easy to figure even for a doctor. We had a man get bucked off during the last roundup and he hit his head on a rock. Doc Jenkins couldn’t see anything other than a lump on the back of the man’s head. Still, it was more than week before he could make it from the bunkhouse to the corral without getting too dizzy to walk.
More time passed. My thoughts returned to Murdoch. Unless he’d run into trouble, he should have been back.
I got up and watched the road.
Still nothing moved.
I fidgeted. How much longer should I wait? Did I dare go looking for Murdoch without telling Scott? That posed another problem. I didn’t like the idea of waking up my brother. He needed all the rest he could get. Besides that, I knew he wouldn’t let me go into town alone.
A faint noise caught my attention and grew louder. It sounded like hoof beats somewhere up the road.
I watched toward town.
Two horses with riders came from the far side of a building, turned into the road, and galloped away from me.
My gut clinched. Were those the train robbers? If they were, they didn’t have Mary Beth. And where were they headed? Would they be meeting up with the man we’d lost back at the river?
I glanced at Scott and back toward town. While I was deciding what to do, another horse came into sight, turned into the road, and headed in my direction. I was sure the rider was Murdoch so I walked out to meet him.
Murdoch reined to a stop in front of me. “Where’s your brother?”
“Back there, napping.” I pointed behind me. “What happened? I saw a couple of riders. Was that them?”
I might as well have been talking to the wind. Murdoch rode past me and into the grove of trees. There was nothing I could do but tag along after him.
Scott looked to be sleeping when we got to him. “Better wake him,” Murdoch said with a frown.
I squatted and gave Scott’s shoulder a gentle shake. He grunted but that was all. “Come on, Brother, wake up,” I said and rocked his shoulder again.
Scott moved one hand to his forehead, let out a groan, and looked up at me. “What?”
I told him Murdoch was back.
“What happened?” he said, sitting up. “Did he find the men?”
Murdoch gave us a quick rundown of what had taken place. First, he had gone to the store to get the supplies we needed. He had mentioned he was meeting his partners to look at some mining interests and asked if any strangers had been in that day. Two men had been in the store not more than half an hour before that. They had bought food and a few other things and left. The storekeeper thought they had gone toward the livery barn.
“So, did you see them there?” I asked.
Murdoch shook his head. “No. They had left their horses and supplies there and paid the proprietor to replace a shoe on one of the horses. I went to the saloon next. There weren’t any strangers there so I sat near a window where I could see the livery barn.”
“Why didn’t you come and get us?” Scott said.
“I didn’t want to chance having the men get their horses and leave before we got back.”
“So, then that was them that rode out just before you showed up,” I said.
I didn’t wait to hear more. Those men could lead us to Mary Beth. If we didn’t get on their tail, we could lose them.
I got my reins free of the limb and had my foot in the stirrup when Murdoch called out. “Slow down, Johnny.”
“What for? We can catch ‘em if we hurry,” I said as I swung into the saddle.
Murdoch crowded his horse in front of Barranca. “Johnny, use your head,” he said. “With that moon, they could see us a mile away.”
Scott stood and took a staggering step in my direction. “Murdoch’s right. We can’t risk them seeing us. There’s no telling what they’ll do. They might split up or set up an ambush. Worse, yet, they might hold off meeting up with the man who has Mary Beth.”
I crowded my horse forward. “It’s Mary Beth, I’m thinking about,” I said. “That poor kid’s gotta be spooked half out of her mind. The sooner we get her away from that Frenchman, the better.”
Murdoch grabbed my rein. “We’ll get her, but we have to use common sense in doing it.”
Scott agreed with Murdoch and again I was outvoted. It seemed none of my arguments were good enough for them. I would have gone without them, except my old man wouldn’t take his hand off of my rein.
I was boiling mad at first. It seemed to take Scott forever to get on his horse, and I nagged him about being slower than a seven-year-itch.
Murdoch tried to calm me down. Finally, he got me to listen to reason, and I cooled off enough for him to let go of my rein by the time we left the grove of trees. That didn’t mean I was happy. I was wishing I’d gunned down that Frenchman back there in the train. Only down deep, I knew I hadn’t had a chance to get a clean shot at him. If I’d tried, someone else could have been hurt or killed.
As we started toward town, I glanced back at Scott. He didn’t look any too steady and I suggested he stay behind. That didn’t go over well.
Our old man agreed with me for once, for all the good it did. We would have had to hogtie Scott to a bedpost to keep him put until we got back. That would have meant taking time to rent him a room and making sure he ate something before we tied him up. I guess Murdoch didn’t want to be that far behind those outlaws. He gave in and Scott went with us.
The road west out of Bullion followed a draw as it climbed toward a swale on the edge of a tall hill. Murdoch had been told the road circled around the north sides of Bunker Hill and Pine Mountain. On the far side, it would pass through a canyon and into a valley that was a good fifteen miles long by a mile or better wide in places. There it would join the road that ran between Carlin and the town of Eureka on the Overland trail that was close to a hundred miles south of the railroad tracks.
There was no way to guess where the train robbers were bound. If they expected to get a ransom for Mary Beth, they would have to get word to the fort somehow. That would mean sending a wire, a letter, or having someone deliver the message. Once they did that, they’d need a safe place to hole up while they waited for the money.
We kept our horses to a walk. Most of the sagebrush was short and would have barely reached Barranca’s belly. It wouldn’t offer much coverage if the men we were following happened to be watching their back trail. Even if they weren’t on the lookout, we didn’t dare chance crowding them here where they could spot us from better than a quarter of a mile away.
Scott looked pretty peaked. Murdoch and I took the outer edges of the road and let him ride between us. That way we could keep an eye on him while we watched for any sign that the train robbers had left the roadway.
When we were halfway to the swale, I was sure I saw two horses with riders come into view up there for moment before disappearing again. Murdoch and Scott noticed them, too, and we cut into the bottom of the draw where we would be harder to see if they decided to stop and check their back trail.
The air was cooler than when we had started out from the train, but it wasn’t bad for as high in the mountains as we had gone. I was warm enough in my bolero jacket. Mary Beth was wearing a wool dress with a sweater. I figured that should keep her from getting too cold. If she was lucky the outlaws would camp for the night, and we’d have a chance to rescue her and have her home before another day passed.
We met up with the road where it hooked into the draw and angled out onto the little stretch of flat land on the other side.
“Maybe I should scout ahead,” I said.
Murdoch agreed so I dismounted and handed him my reins. Keeping close to what sagebrush there was, I walked along the upper edge of the road until it bent to the left at the crown of the swale. From there I could see for more than a quarter of a mile across the hillside.
I searched the length of a dark strip that appeared to be the road and studied every shadow alongside of its moonlit path. Nothing moved so I looked up and down the slope. Nothing moved there either.
My gaze shifted back to the road and I followed it to where it curved to the right to go around a bulge in the hillside. One of the dark splotches appeared to change shape like it could be moving.
As I watched, the dark blob separated into what could be two horses with riders. They didn’t stay in sight long enough to tell for sure. The road cut down the hill and hid them from me.
I glanced around as I turned back toward Murdoch and Scott. To the north and slightly east of us I could see a cluster of hills that had to be the ones we had come around the far side of after leaving the river where the train robbers had split up. The peaks looked much smaller from here. Some weren’t any higher than where I stood.
To the east and southeast, everything was lower than me except for the jagged ridge that stretched along the skyline. Distances are hard to figure in wide open country and especially at night. That range of mountains could have been anywhere from twenty to fifty miles or more away.
Once I was in the saddle again, we set out as before.
We reached the bend in the road where I thought I’d seen the riders. Their tracks continued to follow the wagon wheel ruts up into another swale that connected the main peak to a small outcropping of rock. Once on the other side of that short ridge, the road curled to the left around the main hillside, into another draw, and out again. Then it followed the outer edges of a couple of ripples and started downhill on what looked to be a long sloping ridge that bordered a narrow valley or canyon.
We didn’t go far when Murdoch pulled his horse to an abrupt stop. “Looks like they went off here,” he said in a hushed voice.
I looked at the tracks and studied the lay of the land in that direction. The ground broke away from us more steeply than in the direction the road had turned to follow the gentler slope of the ridge. I couldn’t tell if the road continued straight on to the bottom or cut back to the left again at some point. The light of the moon hadn’t reached that side of the ridge yet.
“Think you’re up to that?” I asked Scott, looking back at him while pointing down the hill.
“I can make it,” he said.
When Murdoch started out, I let Scott go next and I followed along behind where I could keep an eye on him. He didn’t look any steadier than he had before his nap. The way he was leaning over his saddle horn, he would be lucky to make it all the way to the bottom without parting company with his horse. He managed somehow to prove me wrong, though.
The trail angled closer to the steep side of the hill and met the road again on a bench at the edge of the canyon. Again, the thought struck me that the train robbers were familiar with the area. How else would they know they could cut some time by leaving the road in that particular place? Another thought also occurred to me. Could we be dropping into the bed of the same river the Frenchman had used to hide his tracks?
I edged past Scott and whispered to Murdoch. “That other man could be waitin’ for them up here.”
Murdoch halted and I stopped beside him.
“I was thinking the same thing,” Murdoch said.
We both looked up and down what we could see of the bottom of the canyon.
Scott eased up next to me and pointed toward the opening between the hillside we were on and the one on the far side of the canyon. “That grove of trees looks like a likely place for them to camp.”
I smiled. My brother was more alert than I had thought, and he was right. I didn’t see any other good cover in the area.
“We need to get off this hillside,” Murdoch said.
He was right, too. The moon wouldn’t stay hidden behind higher ground much longer. Once it reached us, we’d be easy to spot if one of the men was watching the road.
We got off of our horses and led them off the lower side of the road. The ground was soft with a sparse covering of bunchgrass to deaden the sound of our horses’ hooves. It wasn’t likely we’d run onto the outlaws in that direction. There weren’t any trees along the edge of the stream, just tall patches of sagebrush.
The edge of the canyon had enough of a slope that we didn’t have any trouble getting off and into the bottom. Sure enough, we found a wide stream that flowed from the direction of the trees.
“I’m gonna see if they’re up there,” I said as handed my reins to my father.
Murdoch reminded me I was only going to look. If the men were there, I was to come back for help. “Under no circumstance are you to attempt a rescue on your own,” he chided.
“I won’t,” I said. “You just make sure you keep these horses quiet. It wouldn’t hurt if you went a little farther downstream, either. I’ll find you.”
Scott and Murdoch agreed that that was a good plan and they got back on their horses. While they rode off in one direction, I started out on foot in the other.
When I reached where the road crossed the creek, I noticed the riders had turned upstream on my side. That made me breathe a little easier. I hadn’t been looking forward to getting my feet wet if the tracks had gone into the water.
The sagebrush in the canyon was quite a bit taller that what we’d seen up along the hillsides. I didn’t have to do much crouching as I worked my way forward from one clump to the next. At each one, I’d stop to listen before moving on.
I was moving between bushes not far from the first tree when I heard a horse snort from somewhere upstream. I sank to the ground and laid flat on my belly. Did I dare try to get close enough to see if Mary Beth was there before going back after Murdoch? There was an off chance the men we had followed weren’t the same men who had held up the train. If that was the case, we would be wasting time sneaking up on them while the real bandits were taking the girl farther away from us.
Only one choice seemed to make sense to me. I slowly crawled forward until I reached the nearest tree.
I peeked around the fat trunk and waited for my eyes to adjust to the denser darkness on the other side. Whoever was there hadn’t lit a fire. I couldn’t smell any smoke. Did that mean they were aware someone was following them, or were they just naturally cautious?
Taking my time, I eased from one tree to another. I had no way of knowing how far the stretch of trees ran upstream from the road crossing. It was too dark and I was too close to the stream to see farther up it than the width of the barn at home.
I reached an open space where there wasn’t even one clump of brush between me and the next tree that was a good twenty feet away. The paler sky above the hill we’d come off of told me the moon wouldn’t be long in showing its face. Once it did, we would lose any advantage we might hold.
With my face barely off the ground, I inched forward. I heard another snort and the impatient stamp of a horse’s hoof. A voice drifted to me from upstream. I was getting closer.
I made it to a bushy tree and crawled beneath its sagging branches. Slowly I eased around to where I could see what was on the other side.
A muffled cry broke the silence. A gruff voice told someone to hush. Mary Beth? Had that been her cry that was smothered?
I peered into the darkness. How far away were they? They had sounded close, but sounds were as deceiving as distances. On a still night, a normal voice could be heard from half a mile or more away.
Carefully I moved on to another tree and then another. I heard a horse stamp again. It sounded close. Real close.
I crawled into a patch of sagebrush and peered out through a narrow opening. Three dark shadows stood within the distance I could toss a lariat noose. There was no mistaking they were horses.
We had followed two men. The third horse meant they had met up with someone. I was sure it had to be the man we had lost track of in the river.
Another cry was cut short. Softer sobs followed.
“Hush, ma chérie,” a familiar voice said.
There was a sniff and Mary Beth’s voice spoke between sobs. “I . . . I’m scared. I wanna see my mama.”
The Frenchman spoke in a soothing tone. “There is nothing to fear. No one will harm you.”
“Don’t know why yuh brought her along,” someone else said. “She’s only slowing us down. We should orta been half way to ‘Reeka by this time tomorry. ‘Stead we won’t hardly be started.”
The two men argued amidst Mary Beth’s sniffles, hiccups, and sobs.
Without thinking, I pulled my gun and started crawling out and around the horses on my knees and elbows. My eyes searched the shadows and my finger itched to put an end to Mary Beth’s nightmare. It didn’t matter to me whether either of the outlaws lived. They’d made their bed back at the train.
I reached a tree on the other side of the horses and looked around it. My heart lurched and raced full speed. Even in the dim light, I could make out the forms of two men and little Mary Beth.
My grip tightened on the butt of my gun. I pushed up to where I was sitting on my heels and leaned my left shoulder against the tree. Through my jacket, I could feel the rough bark as I took aim on the man closest to Mary Beth.
A twig snapped somewhere.
The third man! I had forgotten about him. Was he behind me? Could I take the other two out and get to Mary Beth before he showed his face?
I wrestled with my choices. I could go back for help and hope we could sneak in this close again, or I could go it alone while the odds were in my favor. If it wasn’t for Mary Beth, I wouldn’t have had to think about it. She created an added risk, though, that I wasn’t sure I wanted to tackle. What if she got hurt or I failed to get her free of the Frenchman’s clutches? Then what?
Time was running out. The moon would light the area soon. If I was going after Murdoch, I had to go now.
The argument ended as suddenly as it had begun and one of the men started toward my hiding place.
My odds slipped. I could no longer see both men. The one coming at me had moved into line with the one who had Mary Beth.
Her sobs quieted.
I knew what I had to do. I eased back around the tree and looked for my best way out. There was a big clump of sagebrush no more than six feet from me. I eased onto my knees and elbows again and crawled toward it.
Footsteps crunched closer.
I hurried as fast as I dared without making enough noise to draw the man’s attention in my direction. Once I made it to cover, I waited to see where the man was going.
The outlaw stopped near the horses. They nickered and shuffled around. That gave me a chance to work my way to the downstream side of them without being heard.
All was going well. I had gotten past the horses. Now that I knew where the men were camped, I figured I could get up and walk the rest of way back to Murdoch and Scott. Most of the sagebrush was taller than me. If I needed to, I could crouch to keep from being seen.
I holstered my gun and sat up beside a sprawling bush. The strong scent of sage tickled my nose and I stifled a sneeze with my hand. When I raised my head, I looked toward the top of the hillside. A sliver of moon peeked from behind its ragged edge. It wouldn’t be long and the canyon would be bathed in light.
I shifted and put my left hand on the ground so I could push up with it. A light thump sounded behind me and I ducked lower and turned my head to have a look.
Nothing moved. I scolded myself for being jumpy and focused again on getting up.
Something pressed against the side of my hand. I looked to see what it was but the drooping branch of the bush was in my way. I told myself it had to be a rock that I felt and pushed up to where I got one foot under me.
“Don’t move,” a gravelly voice said as something hard and the size of the end of my finger pressed into the grove behind my jaw at the base of my left ear.
My heart skipped a beat. My breath caught in my throat and I froze. It looked like I had found that third man. Or rather, he had found me.
The words of a gambler ran through my head. “Never buck the odds, Johnny Boy. There’s always another deal of the cards.” That advice had kept me in the game more times than I could remember. I wasn’t about to ignore it while someone held a gun to my head.
I heard the whisper of metal against leather and my pistol slipped from my holster.
The pressure below my ear let up and moved to the center of my back. “Put yer hands on yer head an’ get up slow an’ easy. Try anything an’ yuh won’t never walk again,” my captor said.
A man would be a fool to argue with a gun jabbing his spine. I laced my fingers together, raised my arms, and rested my hands on the top of my hat.
Once I was on my feet, I was told to turn around and start walking.
Pain nagged my back with each step. We entered the grove of trees where I’d seen the Frenchman. In the dim light, I could see him hunkered down beside Mary Beth on the other side of the small open space.
“Hey, Laurent, looky what I found crawlin’ through the brush,” the man behind me called out.
I kept my head down and hoped it wasn’t light enough for Laurent to recognize me.
Laurent stood and told his man to bring me closer.
The gun barrel gave me a sharp jab. The poking and prodding didn’t let up until I was a step away from the Frenchman.
“Look at me, Monsieur,” Laurent said.
I licked my lips, let out my breath, and slowly raised my head. I was in a pickle and I knew it. My only hope was to buy enough time for Murdoch and Scott to get worried and come looking for me.
Laurent’s thumb hooked under my chin and lifted it higher. “I have seen you before, is that not so, Monsieur?”
I didn’t answer.
“So, the cat has your tongue,” Laurent said.
“Laurent asked a question. Answer it,” barked the man behind me. His gun barrel rammed into me just above my belt and barely missed my spine.
I gasped. My knees buckled and I fell against Laurent.
Laurent grabbed my arms and steadied me. He looked beyond me and spoke as though dealing with a small child. “Monsieur Puckett, that is no way to treat our guest. There are better ways to get a man to talk.” He moved back a step and looked me in the face. “Violence only makes the cat more determined to hold on. Is that not correct, Monsieur?”
It was plain to see that this Frenchman had a smooth way about him, and he was no fool. Anyone who didn’t know his kind could be taken in by his charm. Not me. I figured a coiled sidewinder would be safer to mess with.
Laurent leaned closer to me. “Have you nothing to say, Monsieur? Perhaps, you are deaf and cannot hear me.”
This kind of game could get ugly if I wasn’t careful. That wouldn’t do Mary Beth any good. She had been through enough as it was. There was no use lying, either. Laurent knew who I was, so I smiled and used my Madrid drawl. “Oh, I hear yuh, all right.”
A touch of moonlight slipped between the branches of the tree behind me and lit up the Frenchman’s face. He smiled back. “So, not only do your ears work, but the cat has loosed your tongue, as well.”
I didn’t know how well he could see me, but I kept right on smiling. “Yea, I can talk . . . when I got something to say.”
Pain burned a path along the side of my head, and I thought I was going to lose my ear. I sucked in a sharp breath as everything went blurry and my stomach reeled. For a moment, I was sure I was going to pass out.
Again, Laurent steadied me and scolded his partner.
Puckett turned surely. “Why you wanna coddle him? He’s just a Mex.”
“And you, Monsieur, are an imbecile,” Laurent replied.
I’d been around my brother long enough to know that Puckett had been called an idiot. I got ready to make my move. If he took offense, I wasn’t going to be in the middle of their shootout, and I wasn’t going to let Mary Beth be there, either. If we were lucky, they’d kill each other and the third man wouldn’t find us before Murdoch and Scott showed up to see what the shooting was about.
It’s funny how plans have a way of getting sidetracked. Mary Beth jumped up, ran to me, and wrapped her arms around my leg. “Johnny! Johnny! You came for me.”
I draped one arm over her shoulder and put my hand on her back. At the same time, watched Laurent’s gunhand.
“Dodd an’ me told yuh not to bring her along,” Puckett said.
Laurent ignored his partner and focused on me. “Who else is with you, and I want the truth . . . now, Monsieur,” he demanded.
“No one,” I said, looking him square in the eye.
“And your horse?”
I hesitated and then pointed my thumb toward where the road crossed the stream. “Left him down that way,” I said. A plan began to take shape. If Laurent took the bait, I had a good chance it would work.
Laurent shifted his gaze beyond me. “Find it, and take Monsieur Dodd with you. Perhaps, Monsieur Johnny is not to be trusted,” he said, making my name sound like Shawnay.
“We find anyone, we won’t be bringin’ back no prisoner, and we won’t be needin’ him, neither,” Puckett said.
I hoped I hadn’t made a mistake, but it was too late if I had. Murdoch and Scott would have to fend for themselves. I was going to have my hands full with the Frenchman.
Laurent pulled his sidearm and pointed it at me. “Sit down, Monsieur, and tell me . . . how did you get a horse?”
I heard Puckett leave, his boots crunching a twig now and then. If he and Dodd weren’t any quieter than that, my father and brother would have no trouble hearing them coming. That made me breathe a little easier, and I turned my attention to Laurent.
“Your men must not’ve checked the boxcars,” I said, continuing to stand with my arm around Mary Beth.
He nodded his head a couple of times. “I see. An oversight they shall have to correct in the future.”
I smiled. “It’d be a good idea . . . if you plan to keep in your present line of work. Wouldn’t hurt to have ‘em watch their back trail, either. I saw ‘em more’n once between here and Bullion.”
Laurent tipped his head again. “Merci, Monsieur. I shall do as you say.”
“How’d you come to join up with the likes of them, anyway?” I asked. “I mean, they’re not the brightest train robbers I’ve run across. Seems to me you could’ve found someone with a little more smarts to join up with. You, yourself called that one an idiot . . . Puckett was his name, wasn’t it?”
Laurent shrugged. “I did not mean Monsieur Puckett was stupid, but that he has no finesse. He only knows to inflict pain. You are fortunate he brought you to me. The last man did not survive his interrogation.”
I smoothed Mary Beth’s hair and her arms squeezed my leg tighter. Other than that, she didn’t seem upset so I kept talking while watching for Laurent to drop his guard. The sooner I could warn Murdoch and Scott the better I would feel.
A gunfighter has to be good at reading people if he expects to survive. I was good, really good. It didn’t take long to see that Laurent took pride in playing the part of a gentleman and that he liked it when I bragged on his gentle ways.
Mary Beth stirred.
I loosened her grip, held her hands in mine, and squatted in front of her. “You had your supper?” I asked while keeping track of Laurent out of the corner of my eye.
She shook her head and I asked her if she was hungry. When she nodded, I looked up at the Frenchman. “She’s hungry. If you don’t mind, I’ll fix her something to eat. You do have food, right? I mean, that is why your men went to Bullion, wasn’t it?”
“I am not without a heart, Monsieur Johnny. I was preparing to feed her when Monsieur Puckett brought you into our camp,” Laurent said. He pointed at a bulging gunny sack near a boulder a long stride away from his feet. “You should find all you need in there.”
“Thanks,” I said and led Mary Beth over to the sack. While I got her seated beside the rock and dug around in the bag, I kept up a string of small talk. My plan seemed to be working. Laurent’s gun arm slowly relaxed.
I pulled out a tin plate, a can of pork and beans, and a can of peaches. After setting them on the ground beside me, I looked for a can opener and a fork. They were at the bottom in one corner of the sack.
Mary Beth leaned forward and watched my every move. She seemed eager to eat, and I took that to be a good sign. If she’d been treated badly, I doubted she would be hungry no matter how long it had been since she last ate.
I opened the can of beans and used the fork to scoop some onto the plate. “There you go,” I said and handed the plate to Mary Beth. She went right to eating like she was starved.
By this time, the moon had lit up more of the area. I took a quick glance around so I’d know the lay of things. If I had to move fast, I wanted to know the best place to go.
My thoughts drifted to Murdoch and Scott. I hoped they were on the lookout and that Puckett and Dodd wouldn’t get the drop on them.
I rested my right hand on top of the can of peaches and shifted my gaze to the food sack. I needed a weapon of some kind, but I hadn’t found anything promising. A fork would be useless against Laurent’s gun unless I could get a lot closer. Even though I was a fair hand at flinging a knife, he was sure to see me make my move. I could be dead before the fork ever left my hand.
“Can I have some peaches?” Mary Beth said. Her voice was steadier and stronger than before.
“Sure,” I said.
I lifted my hand from the can of peaches so I could reach for the can opener. Something made me pause to look at Laurent.
The sharp pop of a pistol broke the stillness, and Laurent’s head turned in the direction of the sound.
There wasn’t time to think. I grabbed the can of peaches and pitched it right at Laurent’s face, leapt up, and dove for his waist with my arms spread.
My head hit Laurent in the gut. He let out a loud grunt and toppled backwards with me on top of him. We hit the ground with a thud. I grabbed for the wrist of his gun hand, and I called to Mary Beth to hide behind the boulder.
The Frenchman was no weakling. We scuffled and rolled. More shots sounded. I didn’t have time to worry about how Murdoch and Scott were fairing. I had my hands full with Laurent.
A fist clipped my ear.
I struggled harder. My left hand found Laurent’s right hand. It was empty. That spurred me on all the more. I clamped my fingers around his wrist and held on while trying to get in a solid punch with my other hand.
Laurent grabbed a handful of my hair with his free hand, making my scalp scream.
I drove my right fist into his armpit.
He grunted, let loose of my hair, and fished for my arm.
I twisted and turned and butted my head into his chin. All the while, I fought to keep his captured hand out to the side so he couldn’t roll in that direction.
Laurent bucked and loosened my grip on his wrist.
I latched on again, but he managed to get his arm up and rolled onto his side.
Neither of us had an advantage when it came to size and strength. My breath came in gasps. I could hear his doing the same.
His hand caught at the wrist of my free arm.
I twisted my arm out of his grasp and swung at his face.
My fist caught him a glancing blow, and I felt Laurent’s strength waver. I swung again, only harder this time, and felt my knuckles hit bone.
Laurent’s back arched. His head lolled to one side and his body relaxed.
The gunfire had stopped, and Mary Beth’s quiet sobs were all I could hear.
I stood, quickly searched the ground for the gun, and found it a few feet away. I snatched it up and gave Laurent’s body a quick nudge with the toe of my boot. He didn’t move, so I rushed to Mary Beth, swooped her up with my left arm, and headed toward the horses. I had no way of knowing what had happened with Murdoch and Scott, and I wasn’t about to wait around to find out. Now that I had Mary Beth, her safety came first.
Mary Beth clung to me and sniffled in my ear all the way to the horses. When I got there, I put her down beside a tree, untied the first two horses I came to, and spooked them off with a wild flapping of my arms. They raced away with the ends of their neck ropes dragging the ground while I headed for the third horse.
My hand closed on the rope. Mary Beth screamed and I turned.
Laurent stood about twenty feet away with a rifle aimed at me.
As I dropped to the ground, the rifle barked and a bullet brushed my ear. I fired back and rolled for cover.
My bullet clipped a branch beside Laurent. He dodged back behind a tree and sent two more bullets zinging in my direction.
I rolled behind the nearest tree and hollered for Mary Beth to get on her belly and stay put.
Laurent and I fired at each other a few more times.
“Give it up, Monsieur,” Laurent called. “You cannot win. I have the most bullets.”
My answer was to send another bullet flying at him when he peeked around the edge of his tree.
Laurent fired back.
Bark splintered a few inches from the side of my face. I checked to see how many bullets I had left. My heart sank. I was down to one.
All was quiet down the creek. I wished I knew what had happened there and whether Puckett or Dodd would be back soon. Even if I got Laurent, I might have to deal with the other two train robbers. If they showed up before I could get Laurent’s rifle, I wouldn’t stand a chance against both of them.
I rolled the cylinder of my gun back three clicks. When Laurent peeked out again, I pulled the trigger three times, letting the gun click on the empty chambers. Then I ducked out of sight and waited to see if he’d take the bait.
“So, you are out of bullets, Monsieur. I told you that you could not win,” Laurent said.
I kept silent and peeked around the edge of the tree to see if he would come after me.
Laurent slowly moved into the open.
My finger itched to pull the trigger. I told myself to be patient and let him get closer. I didn’t dare take a chance of missing.
Laurent took a step toward me.
My heart beat faster.
He took another step.
The bushes rustled behind me and a twig snapped.
I turned my head to look. My gut clinched and my chest felt like I’d been lassoed and snubbed tight. Not ten feet away stood Puckett with a gun in his hand. With only one bullet, there was no way I could win against him and Laurent. No matter which one I chose to take out, I wouldn’t be able to get his gun before the other one shot me.
On both sides of me, branches stretched out from the broad trunk of the tree that I was crouched behind. I was hidden from Laurent, but Puckett had a clear enough view of me.
I couldn’t tell if Puckett had seen me or not. He seemed to be looking beyond me at Laurent, not that I thought it would do me any good. My one bullet was no match for two guns.
“Where’s the Mex?” Puckett said.
“There,” I heard Laurent say.
Puckett’s head started to turn.
I lunged to my feet, dashed out between the branches, and made a flying leap at Puckett. His gun exploded—the sound ringing in my ear—and we hit the ground with a bone jarring thud. He landed on his back and me on my left side. The smell of blood tickled my nose.
Another gun barked and a bullet tore through the sleeve of my jacket and grazed my arm. I jammed the barrel of my gun against Puckett’s ribs and scooted tighter against him. “Move an’ you’re dead,” I said, my voice low and menacing.
Puckett obliged me. His thick body gave me some cover, but I knew it wouldn’t last long if Laurent came much closer.
With my head against the ground, I couldn’t see the Frenchman. I heard a twig snap somewhere on the other side of Puckett. I twisted enough to watch for Laurent’s head to come into view. With some luck, I could get him before he got me. Puckett had no way of knowing I only had one bullet left. Maybe he’d stay put.
“Get him,” Laurent said. “He has no bullets.”
“You wanna take the chance, it’s your skin,” I whispered.
“You get him, then,” Puckett said. “It ain’t your ribs he’s pokin’ a gun into.”
Another soft crunch. Then another.
My heart beat faster. I took slow, deep breaths. I would only get one chance. I didn’t dare mess it up.
Brush rustled behind me.
I sucked in my breath and my shoulders hitched up toward my ears. Not Dodd!
Laurent’s gun spoke. Another answered.
“Give it up,” a deep-throated voice called from behind me.
I let out my breath and my shoulder’s relaxed.
Footsteps pounded the ground and more gun fire echoed around me. Then all was quiet except the retreat of rustling tree limbs or brush and the soft tread of boots coming closer.
“You all right?” Murdoch asked.
I rolled back enough to see my father. “I am now. Where’d Laurent go?” I said.
“Took off into the trees, but I might have nicked him.” my father replied.
I gave Puckett a jab with my gun, collected his, and told him to get up nice and slow.
Puckett didn’t argue. When we were both on our feet, I asked Murdoch about Scott and the man named Dodd.
There was no need to worry there. Dodd had been wounded. The last Murdoch had seen, the man was on his belly with Scott bent over him and tying his hands behind his back.
I looked over where I had left Mary Beth. She was still lying flat on the ground, and I called for her to come closer. After Murdoch and I had Puckett trussed up with the neck rope from the third horse, I took the man’s cartridge belt, loaded his gun, and went after Laurent.
The first place I looked was the center of the grove of trees. Laurent might have been discouraged from trying again to take Mary Beth, but I couldn’t see him going far without the stolen money.
A search of the camp area didn’t take long. Most of the food supplies lay in a jumbled pile—the sack nowhere in sight. I found two empty saddlebags nearby. They lay in an awkward heap with their flaps unbuckled and folded back. All three saddles were there, sitting on end with their horns resting on the ground.
I threaded my way through the stand of trees. At the edge of the grove, I stopped to look around and listen.
A horse nickered. Another answered from not far away.
“Whoa,” a quiet voice said.
Brush crunched. A hoof stamped the ground.
I crouched and quietly moved closer to the sounds.
A dark shadow rose above the sage. As it moved into the light, it took the shape of a man on a horse.
“Laurent!” I called, raising my gun and pulling the trigger.
The Frenchman slumped forward and the horse broke into a run.
I fired again and my bullet ripped through empty space.
Laurent had headed upstream. I raced back through the trees to where I’d left Murdoch. “Frenchman got away on one of the horse’s I turned loose. I’m going after him,” I said while untying the other horse that I’d tethered to a tree by its bridle reins after removing its neck rope to tie up Puckett.
I grabbed a hunk of mane and swung aboard the horse’s bare back. With a dig of my heels, I sent him crashing through the sagebrush.
We broke into the open. I reined the horse to a stop and looked for Laurent. Nothing caught my eye at first. Then a shadow crossed a moonlit patch of ground up stream, and I kicked my horse into a run again.
The stream ran upward between two hills. I hadn’t gone far when the draw forked.
Sagebrush hid Laurent from me so I stopped to listen again. A rock clattered somewhere up the fork on the left, and I headed my horse in that direction.
This draw curved and headed upward between two hillsides. The farther I went, the steeper it got. Once in a while I caught sight of Laurent, but he disappeared into the shadows before I could get a shot at him.
I kept to the bottom of the draw, my horse splashing through a stream of shallow water that soon became patches of mud separated by strips of bedrock. The draw petered out where the hillside on my left ended on a small flat. Beyond there, the ground sloped in two directions. One way went upward toward the end of a ridge to the west of me. The other went down a draw that I guessed would meet up with the road at some point.
Moonlight flooded the slope ahead of me. I caught a glimpse of Laurent headed across the hillside at an upward angle.
I cut straight up to my right and then turned left to follow a rib of the hillside toward the knob at the east end of the ridge that looked to be about a mile long. My hope was to get there before Laurent.
My horse’s sides heaved with each stride, and I could hear his labored breathing. His neck felt frothy and my legs lost their firm grip against his sides. I had to hold tight to a hunk of mane to stay on his back.
At less than a hundred yards from the top, the rib of ground I was on dissolved into the face of the hillside. I couldn’t see Laurent. If he had reached the top, he had to be on the other side of the knob from me.
I rode on to the top, pulled my trembling horse to a halt facing the rising moon, and looked down the slope ahead of me.
A horse snorted and drew my attention south. I sucked in my breath. Laurent, gun aimed at me, wasn’t more than fifty yards down the hill.
Rock shattered in front of my horse as I swung my gun arm toward the Frenchman.
I snapped off a quick shot, and Laurent’s horse reared and toppled sideways. I stared, with mouth open, as the two tumbled down the steep slope and out of sight.
I waited for several minutes. When nothing moved, I turned my horse and slowly rode back the way I’d come. I wasn’t risking my neck trying to go down that hill without a saddle to keep me on my horse. If Laurent was alive, I doubted he would be up to going anywhere in a hurry. I could always track him in the morning.
By the time I reached Murdoch, Scott was there with Dodd and our horses. The two robbers were lying on their sides with their arms lashed behind their backs on one side of the camp. Mary Beth was bundled up in a blanket between Scott and Murdoch on the other.
“Did you get him?” Murdoch asked as I slid to the ground.
“Not sure, but he won’t be going far,” I said and gave him a brief account of what had happened. When I was done, I tended to the horse I’d been riding, tethered it near the others, and joined my father and brother.
We talked while I got a bite to eat, and I learned what had happened once Puckett and Dodd had gone looking for Barranca. Murdoch had left Scott with our horses and had gone upstream to wait for me near where the road crossed the stream. He had seen the two men coming and followed them—catching them in a cross-fire between him and Scott. Both outlaws had been wounded, but Puckett had managed to get away. Murdoch had followed him. The rest I knew.
The moon was about straight overhead. Murdoch offered to take the first watch while Scott and I got some rest. I relieved him a couple of hours before dawn.
We ate a quick breakfast. Scott still wasn’t as steady on his feet as he should be. As much as I wanted to go looking for Laurent, I gave up the idea. I didn’t like leaving Murdoch with the chore of returning Mary Beth to her mother and getting the train robbers to the nearest law without Scott feeling up to being much help.
Bullion was the closest town, but going there was out of the question. Murdoch hadn’t seen any sign of a jail there, and it would take us that much longer to get back to the train. We headed for Carlin, instead.
The horse I’d ridden the night before had a swollen leg. It must have gotten hit by splinters of rock when Laurent had shot at me at the top of the ridge. Luckily the other horse I’d turned loose had come back, and I was able to catch it for Puckett and Dodd to ride. Mary Beth rode in front of Murdoch.
By late morning, we reached a ranch house along Pine Creek, not far from where it dumped into the Humboldt River. Puckett and Dodd’s horse was done in from packing double. We left it at the ranch and rented a wagon to go the rest of the way to Carlin, ten miles north of there. Although, the town of Palisades was just across the river and less than two miles away, there wasn’t a jail there, and we would have to wait another day or more to make the trip to Carlin from there by train.
Two hours later, we turned into the main street of Carlin. Murdoch led our procession with Mary Beth still riding with him. Scott followed behind, driving the wagon with Puckett and Dodd sitting in the back. I brought up the rear, leading Scott’s horse.
Mary Beth’s family was waiting on the porch of the hotel. When we rented the wagon, we had paid to have someone send a wire from Palisades to let Mrs. Weston know we were on our way.
As soon as Mrs. Weston spotted us coming, she rushed out to meet Murdoch. Behind her came a cavalry officer and little Annie Lou.
Murdoch stopped and handed Mary Beth to the officer.
Scott halted a little behind Murdoch and I rode up alongside of him. I couldn’t help grinning at the happy reunion. It made my heart sing to see Mary Beth hugging her family and being hugged while some laughed and others cried.
The sheriff showed up and took charge of the prisoners. Captain Weston had already arranged for rooms for us at the hotel. Before settling in, we gave him a report of what all had happened, and I told him about the Frenchman. He said he’d send a detail of soldiers to look for him and the money.
A week later, Murdoch, Scott, and I caught the westbound train at Halleck, a blink of a town named after Camp Halleck where the soldiers lived. By then, the bridge over the Humboldt River had been rebuilt, and we had made a profitable deal on the horses we had brought with us and for supplying horses for the cavalry in the future. Scott had fully recovered from his knock on the head, too.
The stolen money and a handgun had been found a little below the top of the ridge where I had last seen the Frenchman. His dead horse lay near the bottom—its neck broken. The soldiers had found no sign of the bank robber, and had given up the search after two days of combing the area. It looked like no one would ever know for sure what had happened to him.
Our return trip started out quiet, except for the rumble of the train engine and the clatter of iron wheels on the tracks. I was slumped in my seat near the front door of the passenger car and halfway dozing when we pulled into Palisades for our noon stop.
The door opened. I heard a gasp from someone behind me and opened my eyes. In the open doorway, stood the train conductor, and behind him was a man with a gun in his hand. He was dressed like the man on the wanted poster in Sacramento.
I barreled out of my seat and hit the conductor with my shoulder. While he staggered into Murdoch who was sitting with Scott across the aisle from me, I tackled the Frenchman. My momentum carried us out the open door, over the edge of the narrow landing on the back of the passenger car, and onto the platform of the depot. I grabbed him by his bright blue scarf and punched him in the face.
The bandit sagged, and I let his head thump the wooden planks beneath us.
A hand patted my back. “Good work, Brother,” I heard Scott say.
More hands patted my back, and more passengers praised me. I felt like a hero and smiled at everyone. That is until I noticed the worried look on this woman standing near the station door.
“Is there someplace here to lock him up?” Murdoch asked the conductor who was now staring down at the Frenchman.
The conductor shook his head. “Uh, well, um, actually.” He stopped. His eyebrows arched and his lips parted into a sheepish grin. “It was all a joke. He wasn’t really holding up the train. Uh, you see . . . the folks here like to put on a show for the passengers when the trains stop for lunch.”
“Some joke,” I said. “A stunt like that can get a fella killed, especially in that get up. Don’t he know there’s a reward out, dead or alive, for a train robber dressed like that? He’s lucky I didn’t shoot him.”
A groan came from the fake bandit and the woman, I’d noticed earlier, rushed over and knelt by his side. I knelt, too. “He your man?” I asked.
She nodded, her lips clamped together.
“Look,” I said, with a wave of one hand. “I’m sorry I spoiled the show, but he’ll be okay. I suggest you get him a different outfit, though, before some bounty hunter mistakes him for the real thing.”
Things settled down once the excitement was over. We had a meal at the hotel. I was even the guest of honor. When we got ready to board the train, the fake Frenchman shook my hand and so did quite a few of the locals. They offered me a job in their theatrical productions, as Scott called them, but I turned it down. Murdoch and Scott were scowling at me. I think they would’ve hogtied me in the boxcar with our horses if I had showed any interest in taking up acting.
The rest of our trip passed without any further trouble, and three days later we rode up to the home corral. Jelly came out of the barn as we handed our horses over to Cipriano’s boys to tend to.
Jelly stopped in front of me and his mouth came open.
“Don’t ask,” I said.
“B-but,” he sputtered.
Scott stepped past me and put a hand on the little man’s shoulder. “Jelly, for once in your life, will you keep your mouth shut,” he said.
I couldn’t help smiling. Scott seldom ever spoke to his elders in such a bossy tone.
Jelly huffed. His chin went up and his chest bulged out.
Murdoch stepped in and called the tune. “Do as you’re told, Jelly. We’ve had a long trip. We’re tired, and we just want some time to relax.”
Jelly let out a snort. “Sure wouldn’t mistake any o’ you for the Gallic Charmer.” With that, he stalked back inside the barn.
We laughed and headed for the house.
A month later, Scott and I went to a cattlemen’s meeting in Sacramento with Murdoch. My brother and I went to a saloon that night after the meeting was over. We ordered our drinks from the row of bottles behind the bar and found a place to sit. As we settled into the chairs on the back side of a corner table, I noticed the newspaper someone had left there. I picked it up and stared at the front page.
“Find something interesting?” Scott asked.
I let out a sigh and handed the paper to my brother.
His brows arched. “You don’t suppose . . .” he said, his voice trailing into silence.
“Could be,” I said.
Our drinks came and we drank in silence. I guess we were both reliving our meeting with the French bandit.
I don’t suppose we’ll ever know if the Frenchman was the man in the wanted poster. According to the newspaper, the real Gallic Charmer had turned his charm on the wrong lady outside of Austin, Nevada, a town of about ten thousand people that was located on the Overland Trail close to a hundred miles west of Bullion. She blew a hole through the middle of him with a shotgun and collected the reward.
No name was given for the Gallic Charmer. If he was Laurent, I didn’t feel the least bit sorry for him. He had gotten what he deserved. If not, I hoped the bones of Mary Beth’s captor were bleaching somewhere in the Rocky Mountains near where I’d last seen him. No matter how charming he pretended to be, he was a worthless excuse for a man. The country was better off without the likes of him.
Scott and I had a second drink. When we had emptied our glasses and set them on the table, I looked at my brother. “Ready to go?”
He nodded and we left.
When we reached the hotel where we were staying, I glanced across the street and a shudder ran up my spine. I could have sworn I saw the Frenchman.
“Did you see what I think I saw?” Scott asked.
“Nope,” I said. “I didn’t see a thing . . . and you didn’t either.” I opened the door and walked inside. I hoped that someday I could see someone dressed like the Gallic Charmer without wondering if it was Laurent. I had a feeling it wouldn’t be very soon, though. Those memories of my meetings with him were too fresh in my mind, and they would take a long time to fade.
The picture montage I used to inspire this story had a photo of a train and one of a wanted posted with the name Gallic Charmer on it. It also had a picture of a woman with two young girls, which I described as accurately as I could. I can’t remember if there were any other photos that I chose from the group on the page.
I also did extensive research into the area of Nevada where most of this story takes place. I used a map program to see where the railroad line ran, where roads were located, and to get names of towns. I then checked out various town names to make sure they were in existence at the time this story takes place. I also looked at the map through a satellite view as well as one that showed the terrain by elevations in order to plot the trail the outlaws took and to give as accurate of descriptions as I could.
Below are notes and quotes from my research. The parts in parenthesis are explanations that I inserted into direct quotes. I don’t recall the exact sites I found these on, but you can find them by doing a search for the names of the places.
1: Palisade (originally Palisades) was the site of an elaborate hoax during
the early 1870s, probably to boost tourism. Whenever a train arrived, the
residents were said to stage rampant gunfights and bank robberies. Nobody was
privy to knowledge of the hoax except the residents, and the showmanship died
off after several years. In reality, crime in Palisade was low and the town did
not even have a sheriff.
2: Bullion was established in 1870 after the discovery of silver. Several
smelters were built in the town. In 1871, Bullion had a hotel, two saloons, a
merchandise store, and 12 houses, three years after Bullion started a period of
great crisis with a great exodus of population. At present nothing remains
but large slag heaps, smelter foundations, stone ruins, and a small cemetery.
3: Camp Halleck was established by Captain S.P. Smith on July 26, 1867, to
protect the California emigrants and construction workers on the Central Pacific
Railroad. The camp was named for Major General Henry Wagner Halleck, who at
that time was the Commander of the Military Division of the Pacific. In May of
1868, Camp Halleck became headquarters for the Nevada Military District when
Fort Churchill in western Nevada was abandoned.
On April 5, 1879, Camp Halleck was renamed Fort Halleck. The nine-square mile
reservation was set aside on October 11, 1881. It was a two-company post
consisting of approximately 20 buildings constructed of wood, adobe, and stone
arranged around the sides of a rectangular parade ground. Troops from the fort
took no part in local Indian troubles; however, they saw action in February of
1873 against the Modoc tribe in northern California; against the Nez Perce
uprising in Idaho in 1877; against the Bannocks in Oregon in 1878; and against
the Apaches in Arizona in 1883. Fort Halleck was closed on December 1, 1886.
4: Halleck (the town) came into being in 1869 when the Central Pacific
Railroad was completed through the future townsite that immediately became the
shipping point for supplies destined for Fort Halleck. During 1869, the town had
erected two hotels and one saloon. The saloon catered to soldiers stationed at
Fort Halleck. A store and a school were opened in 1874. The school remained open
until the 1950s. By 1875, the population had gown to fifty and by 1900 had risen
At the time Halleck had twenty-six buildings and numerous businesses flourished.
However, with the abandonment of Fort Halleck in 1886, the town had to rely on
ranching and ranchers to survive. But the town was slowly dying as small ranches
were bought by larger properties and combined into corporate operations. The
Halleck post office continues to operate from one of the two remaining buildings
in town as it serves the many local ranches.
Below is a brief summary that I wrote for this story, before the Frenchman
noticed Mary Beth in chapter 2 and decided to take her with him. I hope you
agree that that twist made for a much better story.
After the train robber leaves, the Lancers get their horses. Murdoch heads for
Elko to get help and wire Camp Halleck while Johnny and Scott trail the robbers.
They pick up a couple of men from a ranch. Scott and another man are wounded so
they give up the search and go back to the ranch to get a wagon to take the
wounded to Elko. The soldiers show up in Elko and Johnny rides with them to
show them where they last trailed the bandits to. After a week, most of the
bandits are captured. The foreign talking one escapes and his trail is lost.
By the time Johnny returns to Elko, Scott is ready to travel and the railroad
bridge has been repaired. The Lancers make their deal with Captain Weston for
the horses and head home.
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