Eleanor Gates is a long way from Baltimore. Love for a cavalry lieutenant has lured her across the western plains, to an outpost so remote that it can only be reached by overland stage. Accompanying her on this dusty, uncomfortable journey is her aged aunt, a leering salesman, and a mysterious stranger named Riley. As dusk falls, Eleanor spies a dust cloud on the horizon—a band of comancheros come to rob the stage, and kill its passengers. Riley’s quick shooting wards off the bandits, but the driver is fatally wounded. It’s up to him to get them to safety, but he’s not sure he wants to take them there.
His real name is Cameron Black, a notorious outlaw who will hang if he sets foot inside an army fort. But there are women in danger, wounded to think of, and the comancheros will strike again soon. There’s no way to go but forward.
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By Paul Lederer
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2006 Logan Winters
All rights reserved.
The stagecoach was traveling west out of Fort Lyon on the Arkansas River. Its evening destination was Calico, twenty miles ahead, which meant twenty miles from nowhere. Red dust plumed and twisted behind the coach, marking its passage. The springs of the old Concord coach creaked and swayed, shifting the passengers from side to side as it cut over the ruts and bare stones along the roadway.
To the north the sky was dotted with patchy gathering clouds, appearing like cauliflower segments. They were brilliant white where the shimmering sun touched them at their crowns, a menacing black underneath. The sky itself was clear, cold, uncertain in its mood.
The dust was what tormented the travelers. The young woman in the blue dress, small blue hat tilted on her head, held a handkerchief to her face as her dry eyes surveyed the empty distances. Distant mesas with a fringe of gray-green sage on their rimrock drifted slowly past. A red spire of sandstone jutted toward the lowering sky, but Eleanor Gates had seen not a single tree for the last five hours. The land, so different from her native Maryland, seemed limitless, dead and as alien as the moon, as it was to the Baltimore-bred girl. This all seemed a mad adventure, certainly ill-advised, as her father had repeatedly told her. But she was in love with a young lieutenant stationed farther ahead – years ahead – across these interminable distances, and she had vowed to follow him West.
Beside Eleanor sat her Aunt Mae, her reluctant chaperon. Poor Aunt Mae, suffering from the dust, the blast-furnace heat, the lack of sleep. It was, they had discovered, impossible to sleep on an overland stage. It jolts and jumps and sends a quiver along your spine. You rock and weave, nudge shoulders with your fellow passengers, listen to the driver curse the day and his fine four-horse team of matched bays, listen to the crack of his whip as he lashes them into a frothing frenzy to maintain his schedule across the glowering red-rock vista.
Aunt Mae had gathered herself to speak when a new insult hurled her across the coach into the lap of Axel Popejoy, a traveling salesman. The driver had slammed on the coach's brakes and the coach slewed to one side, tilted ominously and was dragged to a halt inside a fresh storm of roiling dust.
Eleanor poked her head fearfully out the window to see what had happened, wary of Indians or bandits – who could know out on this endless wasteland? What she saw was a tall man standing beside the stage trail, a beat-up saddle in one hand, Winchester rifle in the other.
'Trouble?' the driver called down to the stranger.
'Lost my pony. Guess you could call that trouble out here.'
'I guess you could,' the driver agreed. 'Indians?'
'No, it stepped in a squirrel hole and broke its leg! Amounts to the same thing. Appreciate you stopping.' Eleanor saw the tall man grin. 'I don't seem to have a ticket with me.'
'We'll settle that later. I'll not see a man afoot on this desert. Toss your saddle up top and climb in.'
Eleanor saw the stranger approach the cab, hook his saddle on top of the stage in one easy motion, open the door and clamber in to seat himself opposite her.
'The name's Riley,' he said with a nod to the two women. The older one, heavy in form, pale with the heat and apparently fearful, nodded back to him. The younger one, the girl with the dark eyes, just peered at him over the lace handkerchief she kept pressed to her face.
Riley, the new man, settled back in his seat, his Winchester held upright between his knees. The driver cracked his whip again and the team jerked the stage onward.
'Axel Popejoy,' the drummer beside Riley said, extending a pudgy hand. He wore a derby hat over barbered hair, a swept-up mustache and a professional salesman's unfailing toothy smile.
'I'm heading for Fort Wingate myself,' Axel said effusively. 'How 'bout yourself.'
'Well,' Riley said with a thin smile, 'I was heading the opposite direction myself, but when you got no way to get anywhere at all, any direction will do.'
'My niece is also headed to Fort Wingate,' the older woman said with unexpected eagerness. 'She is engaged to a Lieutenant McMahon. Maybe you know him?'
'No, ma'am,' the stranger said. 'I'm afraid not. My work doesn't take me around the army outposts.'
'I see.' The woman seemed vaguely disappointed. Riley thought that perhaps she just wanted reassurance that such a place actually existed.
'I'm sure he's a fine man,' Riley said, glancing at Eleanor Gates and their eyes met briefly, 'for you to have traveled so far to meet him.' She seemed to blush behind her handkerchief as he watched her. Quickly she looked out the window to study the long desert.
There was one other man crowded into the jittering, jolting coach, a man called Bell. He wore spectacles which he seemed to hunch behind. He wore a badly tailored black suit and a string tie. He had introduced himself at the start of the journey and thereafter fallen into an unbroken silence. He and the stranger sat flanking Axel Popejoy across from the two women. Bell did not bother to speak now, nor did Riley trouble himself to seek an introduction.
All strange, it seemed to the young woman. But then Eleanor Gates had been told by Lyle McMahon that she might witness much that seemed odd to her in the West. Perhaps these two were not accustomed to and did not wish to be bothered with civilities. It was not her concern after all. She only wanted to find Lyle and be with him as his wife.
The young army lieutenant in his dress uniform had charmed her with his manners and physical grace. On leave from the Western army, he had been visiting relatives in Maryland. These people, distant cousins of Eleanor herself, had brought Lt McMahon along to her ball. The two had danced and talked until nearly dawn and by then she was completely in love with Lyle McMahon.
'I'll be leaving within a few days, Eleanor,' he had said, as they sat on a bench in the rose garden with dawn flushing the sky. 'Will you come with me?'
'I can't, not so soon,' she said, frantic at the thought of losing him.
'Then will you follow me? When you can?' She had nodded in response, and the agreement had been sealed with a lingering kiss.
She had been full of questions: where would they live? What was it like out on the fontier? Were there still wild Indians around?
'I couldn't have taken leave if there were an immediate threat from the Indians,' McMahon had assured her. 'General Crook has pretty much driven the Jicarilla across the border into Mexico, although there are a few holdouts in the White Mountains. You will be perfectly safe, I assure you. Else,' he added intently, 'I would never dare ask you to undertake such a journey.'
The trip had begun cheerfully. She and Aunt Mae had taken the railroad West. But soon the farms became sparser, the towns spaced farther and farther apart. The land grew flatter and more barren. And then the railroad itself reached its western terminus and now, for the third day they had been riding in misery across the arid wasteland of the American desert. She had to hold Lt McMahon and the fading memory of his last kiss in her mind constantly to give her the strength to continue. Besides, there was no turning back, not now.
'We'll trade horses at Calico,' the drummer, Axel Popejoy said, leaning forward. The little man enjoyed being an expert on every facet of the trip. 'We'll spend the night at the way-station there, so that the driver can get his rest and we can eat! Then it's no more than a day and half to Fort Wingate. Day after tomorrow you'll be planning for dinner with your young officer.'
Eleanor had learned to mistrust half of what the drummer told them, but she clung to this reassuring statement, looking out once more at the unbroken land where only lonely stands of mesquite and clumps of gray creosote bushes grew.
The man to the salesman's right, Mr Bell, stretched his arms overhead, peered up briefly from behind his spectacles, folded his arms and went off to sleep again.
'I envy him!' Aunt Mae whispered. 'How can he sleep?'
'Long practice, I imagine,' Popejoy said. He had removed his hat and was mopping at his perspiration-beaded forehead. Then he spoke to the stranger, Riley, on his left who had his Stetson tugged low, his eyes open only slightly. 'So you're not going to Fort Wingate with us?' Riley didn't answer. He had already told them once, and seemed to feel that repeating information was a waste of time. Popejoy smiled at the women and shrugged as if to say, 'These taciturn Westerners!'
'I think I see dust off to the north,' Eleanor said, with some excitement. At first she wondered if somehow McMahon hadn't ridden out to meet her, but the fort was so far away that it was illogical. Aunt Mae leaned across her niece to squint into the glare of the desert sun.
'I can see it too. Are you sure there aren't any Indians around here, Mr Popejoy?'
'Not these days,' Popejoy said confidently, confirming what Lt McMahon had told Eleanor. 'Probably nothing more than a dust devil – a little whirlwind. They're common.'
Popejoy, after studying the distant dust cloud for a minute, now seemed to lose his earlier confidence. 'Could be anything. Maybe even a troop of soldiers,' he said for Eleanor's benefit. 'So long as it's not ...'
He fell silent and shifted uneasily in his seat. Both of the women were staring at him expectantly.
'Well,' Popejoy said, in a low voice, leaning toward them again as the coach bounced out of a huge weather-cut rut in the road and settled once more. 'Back at Fort Lyon there was some wild talk of there being comancheros in the area, but people always like to bring up the wildest of tales. I can't see what they'd be after around here.'
'Except the stage?' Eleanor said, her dark eyes growing wide.
"Course not,' Popejoy said, but his laugh was feeble and his smile unconvincing.
Aunt Mae looked at the others in dismay. 'What are they? The comancheros,' she asked. 'They sound dangerous. Are they robbers of some kind?'
The drummer answered, 'Yes, ma'am. Comancheros is a loose term for renegades. They are a group of disaffected Southerners, war veterans who have still refused to surrender to the Union, along with Indians revolting against the reservation system, some men who were formerly slaves, escaped or freed now and rootless in a strange land. Even a few Mexicans who still perceive the South-west as being a part of their own nation.' He sighed. 'Mostly they have no allegiances. They are just a collection of scum who find it easier to make a living with a gun than to resort to honest toil.'
'They sound horrid!' Aunt Mae said. 'Are you sure they wouldn't bother us?'
'Nothing is certain, ma'am, but how could the comancheros catch this fast-flying stagecoach?' He smiled again. 'Assuming there were any such men around.'
'Is that why the driver is running those horses so hard?' Eleanor asked, in a small, dust-choked voice.
'More likely he just wants to reach the Calico station by dark, miss. That's all. These wild stage drivers are always in a hurry.'
Still the drummer's eyes remained fixed on the distant dust cloud as did the eyes of the women. The blazing sun was wheeling slowly over toward the serrated ranks of the distant western mountains and the shadows grew longer beneath the scattered stands of brush and collecting in the shallow washes they passed. Still the stage raced on; still that distant dust cloud seemed to follow them. It was, Eleanor thought uncomfortably, lasting a long while for a dust devil.
Neither did the dust seem to grow nearer. It would not be long before they reached Calico, Eleanor thought, comforting herself. And it was certain that the wild stage driver would stop for nothing before he reached the way-station.
Sunset began purpling the sky, and beyond and above them the peaks of the hills cut silhouettes against the new stars. The land began to rise slowly, sweeping into the night-dimmed hills. Just beyond the ridge was Calico station where a warm meal and a soft bed awaited them all.
There was a sudden loud curse and a jerking of the coach beyond the normal and the passengers were thrown together briefly in a pile.
Atop the coach, the driver, Kyle Post, who had let the vicious curse pass his lips, had reined in roughly, his gloved hands pulling back the racing heads of the four-horse team so that the frothing animals stuttered to a ragged halt. The shotgun rider, the narrow-built Jerry Yount, had to brace himself with both feet and cling to the side rail to keep from being thrown head over heels into the team.
'Damn all!' Post said savagely. Yount stood briefly in the wagon box, staring at the roadway where a barrier of boulders had been built.
'Look out now,' said Yount, for he, too, had seen the dust of horsemen following in their wake. 'Something's up.'
'Unlimber that twelve-gauge, Yount! I've got a feeling ...'
It was then that two men rose up from a narrow gully to their right and loosed half-a-dozen shots at the stage. Yount seemed to leap from his seat, his shotgun clattering free of his grip. Kyle Post wrapped the reins tightly around the brake handle to keep the team from running, then dived to the protected side of the coach, hearing two more bullets slam against the coach's bodywork and whistle off into the settling dusk.
Inside the coach Axel Popejoy moaned and said, 'Here they come!'
At the same moment the man on his right shoulder, the one calling himself Bell, threw aside his spectacles, palmed a big Walker Colt and leveled it at the passengers. 'Just ease back in your seats, folks. Don't make this any more difficult than it need be.'
'Who are you!' Eleanor demanded.
'The man with the gun,' Bell said easily, drawing back the hammer on the big Colt .44. 'And you,' he said, to the man on the drummer's left shoulder. Then he balked and stiffened, his eyes focusing suddenly on his fellow passenger.
He shouted out a single word: 'Black!'
Riley, his rifle between his knees, swung the stock of the Winchester with a vicious upward stroke past the head of the shrinking Axel Popejoy. The butt of the rifle caught Bell on the temple and his handgun dropped to the floor of the stagecoach. Rising, Riley kicked open the door on Bell's side, the one opposite from the raiders' guns, and sent the man rolling out onto the dusty earth.
Riley snatched up Bell's handgun and shoved it at Popejoy. 'Use this!'
'I don't know if I can ...' Popejoy said.
'I can,' Aunt Mae said, with surprising alacrity. 'Give it to me, Riley. Eleanor, get down on the floor, these birchwood panels sure aren't going to stop a bullet.'
Riley grinned, passed the Colt to the older woman, stepped over Eleanor Gates as she got to the floor of the stage and leaped out into the night.
No sooner had he hit the sand than three or four horsemen appeared, racing out of the near darkness, guns blazing. Behind the high rear wheel he found the driver, Kyle Post, crouched. His left arm was hanging limply at his side, but his right gripped a Remington .36 revolver tightly as the outlaws pounded toward them.
'Neat trap,' Post commented grimly.
'Neater if their man inside had disarmed everyone as intended.' Riley glanced at the still, sprawled form of 'Mr Bell', and settled in beside Kyle Post as the gunmen in the gulch ahead were joined in their attack on the stage by the onrushing outlaws behind.
The night was settling rapidly and it was difficult to pick out a clear target. The raiders were only dark shadows rushing toward them from out of a deep purple dusk. Still a man on horseback, silhouetted like that, made a better target than the bandits were offered.
Riley's rifle bucked against his shoulder as he fired from his knee. Simultaneously the stage driver cut loose with his six-gun and they saw a rider fall, his horse somersaulting to the sand. The rifleman switched his sights and fired at a second onrushing badman. Almost at the same time two shots from within the coach were triggered off. 'Riley' smiled – he had forgotten that he had passed a revolver to Aunt Mae. The doughty matron seemed to know how to use it. A second charging outlaw was hit and he slumped to the side of his pony.
They saw two more men wheel their ponies away, firing back across their shoulders as they rode back onto the desert flats. The night went suddenly, deeply silent. The acrid haze of black powdersmoke hung in the air. The stage driver went to both knees and then rolled slowly onto his side.
'Are you all right?'
'They hit me. Do you see much blood?'
There was a lot, but the rifleman didn't say so. 'You'll make it, Kyle.'
'Jerry won't,' the stage driver said bitterly. 'He rode shotgun for me for eight months. Good man.'
'I'll see to him,' the stranger promised. 'What were they after, Kyle?'
Excerpted from Overland Stage by Paul Lederer. Copyright © 2006 Logan Winters. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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