Hunched by the fire, Terrell (OK) O'Kane poured some weak coffee into his tin cup, growling and snarling like an un-caged lion about to attack the great white hunter. "We hit a sheep camp and got nothin'," he spat. "We hit a ranch and got nothin'. Doesn't anyone in this country drink coffee or keep money in their pockets?" OK, Silas O'Malley, and Sonny Jameson had busted out of Green River, Wyoming's pitiful little jail more than a week ago, and managed to work their way toward the Nevada border, right through Mormon Utah.
* * *
Before jail-time in Wyoming, the three had not known each other, but each knew the others were outlaws and were willing to ride together. There had been friction from the first, each determined to be the boss.
"They don't drink coffee," is all Jameson said, spitting the last of his tobacco juice into the fire. "That train stop is about three hours from here. The trains stop and fill their water tanks and load up with wood if it's needed. There's a regular cabin there for the watchman. Surely he'll have coffee, and there's more. Many of the trains carry a Wells Fargo car, and that's more important than your coffee."
"You been pushin' me ever since Green River, Jameson," O'Kane snarled. "Keep it up and this here forty five will put you down, hard and long."
"Anytime you're fool enough to try, OK," Jameson smiled, tipped his hat, and simply walked away from the skinny Irishman. "Those Wells Fargo train cars carry gold, silver, and paper money as well as rich people's jewelry. I know this cuz I worked for the Central Pacific for two years." He sat down on his saddle blanket and leaned back on his upturned saddle, lit his last cheroot, and looked around the rough camp. "We pull out of here at sunrise, ride to the Montello water stop, raid the cabin, and wait where it's warm for a train."
"You just assume the train will stop? I've seen them trains whip right through those water stops." Silas (Slim) O'Malley was the largest of the three, weighing well over two hundred pounds. He carried his side arm low on his left hip and never used his left hand for anything other than grabbing iron.
"Naw, Slim, they be a red lantern that the watchman would use if he wanted the train to stop. It hangs right there on the water tower. Engineers look for it."
OK spoke up, quickly, wanting to take some of the steam away from Sonny Jameson. "How will we know if there's a Wells Fargo car on the train? They look different, do they, Mr. Central Pacific?"
"Won't matter none, O'Kane. We'll stop every train that comes through, going either direction, rob the crews and force them to head on down the tracks. If a train has the Wells Fargo loot, that's a special prize." Jameson had a nasty grin on his face, dared OK to go for his piece, taunted him with his eyes and easy manner, that left hand hovering close to a heavy hog-leg, strapped low for a quick draw.
Sunrise found the three in their saddles moving across the desert toward the water stop. The January winds were howling, scattering ice and snow with every step the horses took, forcing the men to keep their coats wrapped tight. "We been in this storm ever since we left Wyoming," Slim O'Malley cussed.
"This is a new storm, I think," OK said. "Coming out of the west this time." He remembered he would have been warm, would have had coffee, even food of a sort, if he had remained in that jail in Green River. "I hate winter," he snarled.
The water tower stood tall in the distance, the three could see cottonwood trees surrounding a small cabin as they neared the stop, and Sonny Jameson explained the layout of the water stop. "The cabin door is on the track side of the building, so we should be able to ride right up to it without being seen, and with this wind, we won't be heard either. If we tie off in those cottonwoods, we can walk right in, guns pulled, and take over.
"Since when you give the orders?" OK asked.
"Since I'm the one what knows what's goin' on, mister. You don't want to be in on this, then just ride off, Irishman." He snickered, and said, "Or make a play." There was silence as the three rode up to the trees, stepped out of their saddles and tied off the horses.
"Don't see no horses," Slim said. "Maybe ain't nobody here."
"There's smoke comin' out of the chimney. Someone's here," Jameson said, and led the three around to the trackside of the small building. He pulled his hefty Colt, made sure the others had as well, and slammed his body through the door of the cabin. Four Chinese road workers, startled and frightened, jumped to their feet and made a dash for the open door.
OK shot the last one out the door, the others fleeing faster than any had ever run before. "What kind of fool move you makin'? Why'd you do that?" Jameson growled. "Now we got a murder rap hangin' over our heads. One thing to rob a train, another to kill somebody. You're a fool, O'Kane." It wasn't just the small cabin that made things feel mighty close.
Both men still held their weapons, glaring at each other, and it was Slim O'Malley that stopped a second killing. "Looks like there's coffee and food, boys, and a warm stove to stand next to. You two, go ahead and shoot each other, I'm gonna make a pot of coffee."
"Looks like they're making for Nevada, Sheriff," Stony Welles said as the three walked their horses into a cold camp not too far from the banks of the Great Salt Lake. Green River Sheriff Emory Smith settled back into his saddle, after running his fingers through the cold fire pit.
* * *
"'Fraid you're right, Stony, that fire's cold. They're about a day ahead of us now, so let's put these pretty ponies into a nice long trot and catch up some." Sheriff Smith, his deputies Stony Welles and Warren Culbertson moved out fast, easily following the trail the three escapees left.
"They don't seem to care that we might be following," Stony said. "Course, listenin' to that fool OK for three days, they might be following a snake or something." They got a good laugh out of that. "Probably figure you wouldn't go outside your jurisdiction to find them."
"When we catch up to them," Sheriff Emory Smith said, "we want to be very careful of Sonny Jameson. He's a wanted killer, escaped from Leavenworth, and has two lawmen notched on the handle of his Colt. O'Kane is a loud-mouth idiot, and Slim O'Malley could pick you up and crush you with his bare arms."
It was late in the day when they found another fire pit and the Sheriff had a slight smile on his face. "They're not moving as fast as they were. They left here this morning. Let's ride well into the night, and we'll have their outlaw butts tomorrow."
"I don't know why, but it looks like they're headin' deep into the Nevada area. They tried to rob those ranches, and got nothing, and now they look to be headin' where they ain't any people."
"You're right, Stony," the sheriff said, "but there are railroad tracks. Ain't never been in this country, but I know the railroad that runs through Green River comes through here. Let's just stay hard on their tracks, boys."
"You got that lantern lit, Slim?"
* * *
"Yeah, and hangin' on the hook. You sure this will actually stop the train?"
Sonny Jameson just chuckled and walked back into the shack for another cup of hot, boiling, fresh coffee. "Engineer sees that red lantern and the brakes are set. All we have to do is walk out of the shack, guns cocked, and take their money. I don't much trust OK, so I want you to check for a Wells Fargo railcar."
"You keep pushin' him, and he'll shoot you sure as I'm standin' here. Let me have some of that coffee."
Sonny and Slim O'Malley seemed to get along fine, probably because Slim could crush Sonny before he could pull his big iron, and neither one got along with the sniveling O'Kane. OK was in the outhouse after wolfing down half a loaf of stale bread he found in a cupboard, and felt lucky that he got there in time.
"That dead Chinese ain't gonna go over well with the railroad, Slim. Help me toss the body in that gulch." They lugged the dead man to the edge and threw him into a seldom-running drainage ditch.
"Train comin'," OK hollered as he left the outhouse, still buckling his pants and gunbelt. The three dashed into the cabin and watched as the train with three boxcars and a caboose slowly puffed its way into the station, stopping exactly where the water tank could fill their boilers. As soon as the heavy steamer was fully stopped the three walked from the shack, guns drawn, bandannas pulled up over their noses, hiding well-known faces.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Engineer," Sonny Jameson said, swaggering up to the big iron monster. "Come on down here, bring the fireman, and let's have all your money. Is the conductor in the caboose? Good, we'll get his money too.
"Check those boxcars, Slim, and bring the conductor up here."
The engineer and his fireman climbed down from the slowly pulsing engine, hands held high in the air. "We don't carry no money," the engineer said, and OK slapped him across the side of the head with his revolver.
"Damn you, O'Kane," Jameson snarled, helping the man to his feet. "Just empty your pockets, old man. You, too," he said, pointing his pistol at the fireman. Slim O'Malley came back up the tracks leading the conductor, pushing him along with the end of his gun.
"One boxcar with heavy walls and door is marked Wells Fargo, Sonny. Conductor says it's empty, which means of course that it's filled with gold and silver." Laughter rang about and Sonny jerked the conductor over with the engineer and fireman. "Let's have your money, please," he said.
They herded the train crew into the shack and tied them up before trudging down the tracks to the strongbox on wheels. OK walked right up to the railcar and tried to open the sliding doors, which opened about three inches, just enough for a shotgun barrel to be jammed out. The shot blew half the Irishman's head off and the door slammed shut again.
"Open that door and give us your strongbox and you'll live to see another day," Sonny Jameson yelled. That was answered by two shots from a revolver, through the walls of the railcar. Sonny and Slim fired several shot in return through the walls and heard a muffled scream from inside.
"Open the doors, fool, or we'll just keep shooting." That was answered by two more rounds from inside the boxcar, one of them nicking Jameson. "Damn," he said, ripping the bandanna from his face and using it to stop the blood flowing from his right forearm.
"Shoot where the lock should be on the inside, and we'll get that door opened," Slim said, putting six quick rounds through the door. He reloaded while Jameson fired his cylinder full as well. The door seemed to move slightly, and Slim put his weight and strength into it, nudging it open some.
"Come out of there with empty hands," Jameson said, and helping Slim, got the door opened about two feet. "Right now," he bellowed. His command was answered by a shotgun blast that knocked him back about five feet, and left him with no throat and blank, staring eyes.
Slim ducked down and slid to the left of the boxcar so any gunfire from inside could not hit him. "You've had your fun, mister, and now it's time for you to die. You have five seconds to come out of the boxcar, hands empty, or I burn you out." He slipped down the tracks and into the sagebrush, ripping branches off and bringing them back to the Wells Fargo car.
He lit one of the branches, which tend to go up in flames fast, and tossed it through the boxcar's open door. He waited a moment, lit another branch and tossed it in. Acrid smoke filled the car and the Wells Fargo agent inside was coughing loudly. "Come out of there you idiot. With your empty hands where I can see them."
It took one more lighted branch of sagebrush before the man clambered out of the smoking inferno. Slim waited until he was all the way out and shot him dead. Climbing inside the boxcar, he tossed the smoking branches out and started looking for the money boxes and anything else of value.
"See those trees and the tank? That's the watering station, Sheriff," Stony Welles said, pointing at the Montello Station, several miles distant. "Looks like there's a train getting water now."
"If these tracks we're following mean anything, whoever's on that train might be in serious danger," Sheriff Smith said, kicking his horse into a strong lope. "We better get there before it's too late.
As they neared the station, they spotted three horses tied off near some cottonwood trees, and then heard a single shot fired, near one of the boxcars. "Let's go," Emory Smith shouted, giving his horse a goodly kick in the ribs, racing toward the stalled train. They spotted Slim O'Malley climbing into the boxcar, and it appeared that he did not see or hear them approaching.
The sheriff and his two deputies dismounted in a flurry of snow and ice alongside the Wells Fargo boxcar, all with guns drawn. Sheriff Smith spotted the bodies of O'Kane and Jameson, and called out, "It's over, O'Malley. Leave your weapons and climb down out of there." He also motioned his deputies to stand to the side of the boxcar. The gunfire from inside the car splintered a lot of wood, and that's about all it did.
"One last chance, Slim," the sheriff hollered. "Much easier for us if we just bury your sorry butt out here in the desert. Come on out of there." He glanced around, indicated that all should shoot when he did, and gave the huge man inside another few seconds to make up his mind.
"Time's up, Slim," and he emptied his pistol into the boxcar. Culbertson and Stony Welles did the same thing, and after the smoke cleared, Smith stuck his head inside, then climbed in. "Looks like we got some burying to do, boys," he said, dragging O'Malley's body toward the door.
They freed the train crew, buried the outlaws and the Wells Fargo agent, and went through the moneybox and train car. "All those dead bodies, and less than one hundred dollars in cash and some silver dinner-ware destined for a big old hotel in Chicago." Emory Smith was sitting at the table in the train station shack sipping on some hot coffee.
"These are the times I really don't like my job," he said. "Let's load all these horses on the train and take a ride back to Green River, boys. Not one of those fools was worth the life of the Wells Fargo agent or the Chinaman."