I slowly poured myself a glass of cognac, as it was the most expensive liquor on the menu. I stared down at the brown liquid, uncertain if I was supposed it sip it like wine or down it like whiskey. After the dark brown taste nearly made me gag, I downed it. "Look at me, kids," I said; butchering an attempt at a New York accent, "I'm a big city guy."
Becky rolled her eyes. My daughter had entered the teenage years a month and a half ago, and she had decided that she was too smart for anything and anyone, especially her small town marshal father. Even though we didn't know anyone else on the train, she still looked around, terrified that one of her friends from school had snuck onto the train.
"I wish the train tracks went on forever, instead of stopping in San Diego, Daddy," Sean said, looking out the window at the landscape speeding by. "Wouldn't that be great, Daddy? Imagine if they just kept laying the track until we ended up right back in Arizona." My seven-year-old was always saying things like that, and I never knew how to answer.
The kids begged for a vacation every year, but they were both surprised when I told them that I was going to take them to the ocean. It sounded like the perfect Christmas vacation. The last time I was on the ocean, I was fighting in the Spanish-American War.
There was a sudden jerk in the train as it pulled to an emergency stop. Sean let out a scream, and my daughter gasped and then tried to act like she wasn't frightened. She brushed her auburn hair out of her face. "What was that, Daddy?"
Before I got a chance to investigate, a very skinny man in all black with a bandana over his face and a white cowboy hat entered the dining car. He carried a six-shot percussion revolver with his finger clutched on the trigger guard. When I saw the boy's eyes, I knew that beneath that bandana was a face that had yet to need a razor.
"Give me your cash," he said, his voice quivering from fear. Elsewhere in the train, more seasoned crooks were holding people up.
I shook my head. "You're alive for two reasons, young man." He flinched at those words. "The first and most important reason is that you are making damn sure not to point that pistol at my kids. You're pointing it at me alone. Well, pointing it to the right of my head, anyway, because you're afraid you're going to accidently shoot it."
Instead of arguing, the boy asked, "What's the second?"
"You're obviously not a professional. I'm pretty sure that pistol you're carrying is older than me." I laughed for emphasis. While he was distracted, I drew my brand new Browning Model 1903 and put it on the table. He took a step back. "Now, I'm willing to bet that you're what? Fourteen, maybe fifteen?" From the look in the boy's eyes, fourteen was correct. "I'll make it simple for you, son. You hand me that ancient flintlock monstrosity that you're carrying and sit down to a nice breakfast with my family, or I'll reach for my belt."
The boy's eyes narrowed. "But you ain't got a gun on your belt."
My smile faded. As a single father of two children, I had perfected the disapproving dad look. "Now, son, I'm willing to bet that you haven't had a lot of schooling, but you're smart enough to know what happens to a naughty boy when a man reaches for his belt." A lesson that I had learned early with outlaws was that they were far more terrified of humiliation than death. I could only kill them once, but shame would last forever.
"You ain't really going to whup me are ya, Mister?"
"The truth is; I'm not a violent man. I've never raised a hand to my children. But then, Becky and Sean never robbed a train before." I put my thumb in my belt, and he took a step back. "Besides, I won't need to take off my belt if you're a good boy."
The boy lowered his bandana and handed me his gun. "What are you going to do with me, Mister?"
"Marshal," Becky corrected. "Marshal William Walcott." She extended her hand to be shaken. For a girl obsessed with pretty dresses, she moved confidently like a man. My mother blamed it on her mother taking off when she was so little. "I'm Rebecca Walcott, and this is my little brother, Sean."
"Marshal?" the boy said with an audible gulp. "I'm going to jail, ain't I?"
"My daddy is the best lawman in Arizona," Sean said, with all the admiration only a little boy can have for his father. "He's better than Wyatt Earp. Daddy met him once. He said that he was crazy."
The Pinkertons entered the dining car. "Is everyone safe?" a hatchet-faced woman with a chrome pistol asked. "The Pinkerton agency is working hard to apprehend the criminals. They appear to have jumped from the train. You haven't seen anyone run through here, have you?" Two men followed her, silently pointing their guns too close to my children for my comfort. By instinct, I took the safety off my own gun.
"It's just me and my kids," I said, pointing to all three of them.
One of the male Pinkertons checked the tickets. "I thought you only had two children, Mister Walcott."
"Marshal Walcott," I corrected. There was no reason for the error because it was clearly written on the manifest in front of him. "My oldest was taking a nap earlier. He's been studying so hard, the conductor let him rest."
"Hi," the former outlaw said, standing up. His strawberry blond hair almost matched the auburn hair that I shared with my daughter, and he had the same blue eyes as my son. "I'll be Billy Walcott."
"Your namesake?" the male Pinkerton said. I recognized the smile. Somewhere there was a wife with a baby with his name waiting for him to get back for Christmas.
"Yes, sir," I said, knowing that men like him thrived on humility from their elders. "I'm just taking the kids to the beach for Christmas vacation."
When the Pinkertons left, Billy turned to me, his face twisted with confusion. "Why are you doing this for me? I'm an escapee from the orphan train. I don't even know if I'm a real orphan, because I never met my real father."
I shrugged and poured myself some red wine to kill the taste of the cognac. "Just consider it a Christmas miracle, son."