A Dusty Road Somewhere in Texas—July 29, 1868
The stage driver pulled up short. Masked figures holding repeating rifles had appeared from behind the brush on either side of the road. Three more on horseback emerged behind him. And two additional riders waited on the trail ahead. He thought about whipping the horses onward and charging past, but one look at the rifles convinced him otherwise.
The guard riding beside him held his shotgun at the ready, leveled at one of the men on foot. Like the driver, he was unsure what to do next, but the sound of a revolver cocking less than a foot from his head decided for him.
"You hold that shotgun by the barrel and hand it to me real slow," said the rider beside him. Strangely enough, the voice behind the mask sounded like that of a woman. Her right hand held the reins, while her left held a Colt Dragoon.
He did as she asked, though, slowly handing the shotgun over. Once she had it, she returned revolver to her gunbelt and aimed the scattergun at his head instead. The moment he was unarmed, one of the men on foot pulled him down off the stage and the other climbed up to take his place. The one who had pulled him down now kept watch over him with a Sharps carbine, while the robber on top of the coach opened the hatch beneath the driver's bench and pulled out a heavy strongbox.
"Here it is," he exclaimed triumphantly. "On its way to a Yankee bank."
"Careful there," said the woman with the shotgun. "Don't forget your friend is a Yank." She nodded toward the man with the Sharps, who responded by tipping his broad-brimmed hat.
The man on top of the coach shrugged, then turned to poke the barrel of a Remington 1858 revolver into the driver's ribs. "Which one of you has the key?"
The driver swallowed, his face pale. He kept both hands on the reins. "My shirt pocket."
"Thanks a lot, friend."
The box was open a moment later. The masks hid the bandits' smiles, but not the gleam in their eyes as they saw the sacks of gold coin completely filling the box.
"Alright," said the leader, turning on her horse, "fill your saddle bags and let's move out."
The bandit on top of the stage chuckled as he put his revolver away. He was still chuckling as he started passing pouches full of gold to the other bandits.
A Livery Stable in Santa Fe, New Mexico Territory—August 7, 1868
Wiping the perspiration from his brow, Eleazar Jessup studied the harness with his one good eye as the teamster hitched up the horses. He chewed his tobacco slowly. "This stage leaves in ten minutes. Think you can have her ready by then?"
The man cinched down the strap on the lead horse. "Ready and waiting, boss."
Jessup nodded in approval, turning to look through the open barn door at the Cantina Del Rey, where the passengers had already begun to gather for the trip to Silver Prairie. Three, no, four of them so far. The old driver leaned against the doorframe as he sized his passengers up. Of the four, two were what he would call dangerous.
The first—who'd come in on the Denver and Santa Fe Stage Line yesterday—was Bill Huxton. There was no mistaking him for anything other than a gunslinger. He looked to be about thirty, probably a veteran from the war. He was clean-shaven with a face tanned almost like leather, and deep blue eyes that seemed to take in everything in his surroundings at once.
The gunbelt on his waist was well-worn but also well-cared for, and the 1860 Army Colt sat ready in its holster. A second revolver rested in a cross-draw holster on his other hip. He was travelling light, with a single pack and a McClellan saddle, and a rifle wrapped in an Arapaho blanket.
Jessup chewed his tobacco thoughtfully as his eye drifted over the other figures sitting outside the cantina. Next to Huxton was Mr. Ulbricht, a Silver Prairie native Jessup had taken on the coach a few times before. Then there was Elizabeth Tulley, on her way to meet up with family in Silver Prairie. Her clothes and mannerisms showed she had grown up somewhere in the East.
The fourth passenger was another gun-hand, or at least he seemed to be. He had only just stepped out of the cantina and joined the others, leaning against the pueblo wall with a broad-brimmed hat shielding his eyes from the sun but allowing his red hair to flow down onto his shoulders. His buckskin jacket was decorated with fringes and beads, he wore white cavalry gloves, and had a saddlebag thrown over his shoulder. Probably a former scout. Definitely dangerous.
A Spencer carbine leaned against the wall next to him. There was a Remington 1858 in his gunbelt, and an ivory-handled Bowie knife on his opposite hip. His face was as tanned as Huxton's and—like Huxton—it was the eyes more than the weaponry that marked him as a gunslinger. Cool, intelligent, and constantly searching. His eyes were those of a man who expected danger to arise from any direction, but who also knew from harsh experience that he was up to most challenges.
Jessup grunted, spitting another mouthful of tobacco juice on the stable floor. They'd all paid their fare, and as long as they didn't cause any trouble along the way, he didn't care who they were or what they'd done. Eleazer Jessup was no saint either, as a warrant in New Orleans could confirm. He'd gone straight, though, and even given up drinking since coming out here, so he wasn't about to judge anyone else.
The fifth and final passenger for the Barlow and Sanderson stage tumbled unceremoniously from the cantina, where he'd likely spent the night. 'Turtle' Sweeney was the town drunk, never more than a dozen steps from Del Rey's front door. Why he had suddenly decided to book a trip to Silver Prairie was anyone's guess. Drunk as he now appeared, he would probably be passed out the better part of the trip.
"Ready to go, Mr. Jessup."
Jessup stood up and ran a hand through his beard. Turning his good eye to the horses, he went over the harness one last time before climbing up on the box. "Well . . . guess I'll head out then."
Clapping the reins lightly, he started the horses forward, turning the coach out onto the street and pulling up alongside the Cantina Del Rey.
The Road to Silver Prairie, New Mexico Territory—93 Miles to Go
As the coach rattled down the road, Bill Huxton drew in a deep puff from his cigar and thumbed through the newspaper sitting in his lap. With the arrival of the telegraph in Santa Fe, the news was a lot more current. And there was certainly big news to be had. On the Great Plains, the war with Red Cloud had finally come to an end with the signing of the Treaty of Fort Laramie. General Sherman, Huxton's old commander, had overseen the treaty, and it had been signed by representatives of the Sioux, the Arapaho, and several smaller tribes. Red Cloud himself hadn't signed yet, but he was expected to before much longer.
Local Indian troubles seemed to be at an end as well: in June, the Treaty of Bosque Redondo had been signed with the Navajo, which ended fighting between the settlers and the tribe and allowed those of the tribe held in internment camps to return to their lands. It seemed the federal government was ready to treat the Navajo as a sovereign nation.
Bill Huxton shook his head, breathing out a light cloud of smoke. They must have realized there was nothing on the Navajo land they wanted. After five years in the Union Army, fighting Confederates and Indians alike, he knew better than to believe in the magnanimity of government.
A faint cough as the smoke from his cigar drifted throughout the coach reminded him that he was not alone.
"Apologies," he mumbled, glancing at the other passengers even as he stamped out his cigar and dropped it into his vest pocket.
Mr. Ulbricht nodded gratefully, pushing his glasses up on his nose. "Thank you, friend. Say, have you ever been to Silver Prairie before?"
"No," Huxton replied. "I've just come down from Denver."
"I think you'll love our little town," Ulbricht assured him. "Silver Prairie is growing rapidly. I'm quite eager to get back there myself and tend to my store and family."
"That's good to hear," said Roth, leaning forward to introduce himself to the shopkeeper. "I must say, I've missed New Mexico these last few years."
"So," Ulbricht asked, "you're from these parts?"
"Yes, indeed," Roth answered. "Grew up here in the territory. Moved to Texas, though, to join the army when the war broke out. After it was over, I stuck around there and in Kansas, doing odd jobs and watching the big cattle drives. Been a bounty-hunter too. Just got tired of it all, and decided to come back home."
"What about you, Mr. Huxton?" Miss Tulley asked suddenly. "What brings you to Silver Prairie?"
"Work, ma'am." He rode in silence for a moment before continuing, "I got a letter from the mayor asking me to be the new sheriff."
"Well, that's wonderful to hear," Ulbricht exclaimed. "We've had nothing but a citizen's committee to maintain the peace for quite a while now. I mean, it's a wonderful community like I said, but like all towns it has its problems. And there's a rumor going around that Charity North is back in the territory."
The soon-to-be-sheriff was curious. "Who's Charity North?"
"Well," Ulbricht began, "something of a local black sheep, you could say. It was rumored that she had killed a judge before the war, but there was no evidence that it was her. And when the war started, she went east—Kansas I think—and joined the irregular soldiers. Raiders."
Huxton was now even more curious. "A woman fighting in the war? Sounds like an interesting lady."
"She sounds absolutely horrifying," said Miss Tulley. "She killed a judge, you say?"
Ulbricht nodded. "That's the rumor. A judge and maybe seven other men."
Listening to the story, Roth grinned broadly. "I'll bet she made a hell of a soldier."
Ulbricht chuckled, not quite sure what to say. "Yes," he finally agreed, "I suppose she did."
The Road to Silver Prairie—67 Miles to Go
Atop the coach, Jessup squinted his good eye and fumed at the hot afternoon sun. Wiping the perspiration from his face with a grimy bandana, he bellowed at the horses. "Come on, there! Keep moving!"
His good eye widened suddenly as he pulled back on the reins. A figure had appeared along the side of the trail, holding a long gun at their side.
"Whoa, easy there."
The coach pulled to a stop. Jessup looked down in surprise. A moment later, Roth and Miss Tulley both leaned out of the windows to see why the coach had stopped.
"What is it, driver?" Miss Tulley asked, concerned about bandits. Even as she spoke, however, her eyes fell on the reason for the delay.
Standing alongside the road was a young woman—no older than 18—in a blue homespun dress. A broad-brimmed hat shielded her face from the sun, and a tangle of blonde curls fell to her shoulders, framing bright green eyes and a cheerful smile. What the old driver noticed, however, was the sawed-off shotgun she held at her side, and the heavy Mexican saddle on the ground next to her.
She curtsied nervously to the driver. "I'm sorry to be a bother, but I wonder if you would be willing to take me the rest of the way to Silver Prairie." She looked down at the saddle, and her cheerful smile faded somewhat. "I'm afraid my horse went lame."
Jessup cleared his throat. "Well, uh . . . "
She followed his gaze to the shotgun at her side and laughed. "Oh, that." Spinning the weapon lightly so that the stock faced the driver, she held it out for him to take. "Silly thing; I don't actually know how to use it, but my sister says it will ward off desperados. My name is Maria Parker, by the way."
Jessup stowed the gun carefully amongst the other luggage on top of the coach. "Well, I reckon it wouldn't hardly be proper to leave you stranded out here. Climb aboard."
"Thank you so much." She beamed a wide smile, dragging her saddle toward the coach.
Roth stepped out of the coach and put a hand on the enormous saddle. "Allow me, Miss Parker."
"Why, thank you, sir." She locked eyes with him for a second. A moment later, he swung the saddle up atop the coach, then held the door for her to climb aboard.
Jessup shook his head as the door closed. Picking up strays wasn't something that happened every day. But, with a snap of the reins, he got the coach rolling again. They needed to get to water after all.
Mendoza's Half-way House—54 Miles to Go
Jessup watched the moon climb higher in the sky as he played checkers with old Esteban Mendoza. Lately it seemed the darn game was all that kept his brain alive. Endless driving the coach through sagebrush. Nonstop monotony, the horses his only company day in and day out. Checkers was the one thing that occupied his time when he wasn't up on his box. At least, it was the only thing now that he had stopped drinking. One of these days, he thought, he would settle down completely. Maybe even have a house and a family. But he was probably too old to start any of that nonsense.
Ulbricht sat by the fire, and fell asleep reading a book he had brought along on the trip. 'Turtle', feeling the warning pangs of sobriety, opted to spend the night in the bar, regaining his normal equanimity. Miss Tulley retired to the room given her and Miss Parker as soon as supper was over. His mind too preoccupied for sleep just yet, Bill Huxton lit his cigar and stood on the porch. He could just see the old-timers' checker game from the corner of his eye, while his focus rested on the road that led southwest to Silver Prairie.
Old-timers? he thought. He laughed to himself. He was hardly a spring chicken either. At least, not in the way the West measured years. From the Army to the plains to the mountains of Colorado, it hadn't been an easy life, and he carried every mark and scar of it. He hoped silently that Ulbricht was right about Silver Prairie being a good town. Perhaps he could establish order quickly, then live peaceably for a while. He shook his head thinking of it. If he wanted a peaceful life, he should have found a peaceful job.
He looked up at the full moon overhead. He wished his life was different, alright: he just wasn't ready to change himself. He took another deep breath off his cigar. One of these days.
A gunshot pulled his thoughts back to the present.
Jessup and Mendoza leapt to their feet, scattering the checkers to the floor. The noise had come from the corral.
Revolver in hand, Huxton raced around the house and toward the gunshot. When he reached the corral, he came to an abrupt halt. Jessup and Mendoza appeared beside him moments later, while the others were just emerging from inside the house.
There, facedown in the dirt, lay Nigel Roth. His Remington revolver was on the ground, inches from his outstretched hand. Facing him—still pointing a Colt Pocket Revolver—was Miss Maria Parker.
As she saw them arrive, she dropped the revolver to the ground and turned with a look of horror on her face. "He . . . " she began. "I had . . . "
Jessup darted forward, checking Roth for a pulse. When he shook his head, Huxton turned back to the shooter.
"What happened here?" he demanded.
Unable to speak, Miss Parker pointed to a saddlebag laying on the ground beside Roth's corpse. Huxton remembered seeing it earlier in the day, attached to Miss Parker's Mexican saddle.
Jessup now passed him the saddlebag, along with the revolver Miss Parker had dropped. Huxton looked at the diminutive weapon for a moment, then tucked it into his belt. It was essentially an older, smaller version of his own revolvers, and it had clearly just been fired. He held up the saddlebag next.
Miss Parker's gaze drifted anxiously from his face to the leather bag. Her fingers plucked at the fabric of her dress, and her eyes slowly lowered to the dead body on the ground.
Jessup scratched his beard. Things certainly hadn't gone how he expected. His good eye squinted up at Miss Parker. From his position squatting on the ground, the full moon made a halo behind her head. Who would have thought she could actually kill someone? And why was her saddlebag so heavy?
Huxton felt the weight of the bag, but he didn't open it. He recognized the clinking of coins even over the jingling of the decorative steel studs in the leather. Miss Parker was transporting money, a good bit of it. Enough to tempt Roth.
"So," Huxton asked, "you caught him trying to take your saddlebag?"
"Well, sheriff," said Ulbricht, speaking up now for the first time since arriving at the corral, "this seems like a pretty straightforward case of self-defense to me. After all, his gun was drawn."
Huxton thought for a moment without answering. He hadn't even been sworn in yet, and here he was cleaning up after a shoot-out at the half-way house.
Jessup noticed the look in his eyes. "Might I suggest," he said, "we move his body into the storeroom and figure out the rest tomorrow."
Huxton agreed that was a good plan. No one was going anywhere overnight. Things could be sorted out in the morning. He looked around. Everyone was watching him, waiting for an answer.
"Alright," he agreed. "Jessup, you and Mendoza carry the body in. Miss Parker, I'm going to have to ask you not to step outside until we leave tomorrow morning."
Miss Parker nodded, suppressing a sniffle. "I understand."
Mr. Ulbricht accompanied her inside, while Mendoza and Jessup carried Roth along after them. Huxton stood for a moment, thinking about what had happened. He looked down at the saddlebag still in his hand. Then, shaking his head, he followed Mr. Roth's funeral procession into the house.
The Road to Silver Prairie—August 8, 1868—48 Miles to Go
Huxton rode up on the box today, Miss Parker's sawed-off shotgun in his lap. Somehow he didn't feel like riding in the coach this time. Instead, he kept his eyes on the road ahead, thinking about last night's events. Senor Mendoza would bring Roth's body to Silver Prairie in his wagon. The dead man's father could bury him where he chose.
And what of Roth's family? The bounty-hunter was far from a good man, but if there was one thing Huxton had learned—often the hard way—was that even bad men had people who cared about them. People who wouldn't react well to their death.
Jessup took a swig from his canteen. "You thinkin' about Roth or Parker?"
"Both, I reckon."
"I've never met the Parkers, but Samson Roth is a respected merchant in Silver Prairie. He'll grieve for his son, but I don't think he'll retaliate. Younger Roth's friends might be a different story, though."
Huxton scowled. "What do you know about them?"
"Not much. After all, he's new to the territory. But I hear he ran with a tough bunch over in Kansas. Bill Destry, Reb O'Lory, Jonas Farragut. They move around a lot, and it's hard to say how they'll react to the news. They may come here looking to find out what happened."
Huxton sighed. "Everybody's got friends, I reckon."
Inside the coach, Maria Parker watched the sagebrush and rough brown grass roll by. She had never planned to kill the bounty-hunter. Then again, she had never planned for her horse to go lame either. If that hadn't happened, she never would have ended up on the stage with Roth. This entire situation could have been avoided. He would have arrived in Silver Prairie on the stage, and gone on about his business. She would have finished the trip on the stage and met up with her sister.
For that matter, she couldn't help wondering what her sister would think of what she had done. After all, her sister was far more accustomed to the wild frontier life than she was. Had Roth tried to steal from her, she probably would have killed him and felt no guilt whatsoever. But that didn't mean she would approve of what she had done. Maria shook her head, silently fuming at Roth. Why did he have to go for the saddlebag?
He could still be alive if he hadn't been so greedy. This whole situation could have been avoided, and now it interfered with her plans. But at least she was still on her way to Silver Prairie, even if she arrived later than she had intended. Whatever happened next would have to sort itself out.
A Ridge Above the Road to Silver Prairie
Three riders reined in their horses atop the ridge. It was late afternoon, and they had ridden hard since mid-morning. The leader—a black-haired woman in her late twenties—shifted in her saddle and watched the road below. Her right hand held the reins, and the other rested on the Colt Dragoon in her belt.
"Are you sure about this, Reb?" she asked quietly.
The man to her left nodded. "That was definitely her horse. The stage would be the only way for her to get to Silver Prairie."
The leader nodded. "Turnbull, tell me again what Mendoza said when you rode through this morning."
The other rider on her left leaned forward on his saddle horn. "He said the stage stopped in last night on schedule. A blonde girl calling herself Maria Parker was on the stage, and she killed Nigel Roth."
"Hm." The woman lowered her gaze, thinking for a moment. "That must be her. Too bad about Roth. Good man with a gun, but he did have a way of finding trouble."
"Hey, captain . . . "
The woman saw it a moment later: dust rising on the trail northeast of their position. The Barlow and Sanderson stage was coming.
"How do you want to play this, captain?"
The two men held their reins ready, waiting for her command. Her eyes narrowed as she watched the coach pulling closer. By now she could see the driver, and another man riding shotgun with him. She came to a decision, taking up the slack in the reins.
"Above board. If anything starts, let them start it."
They nodded. Then, putting heels to their horses' sides, they started toward the stagecoach, expertly guiding their horses down the slope. Riding in front, the black-haired woman smiled as she approached the coach. But her hand still rested on the revolver in her belt.
The Road to Silver Prairie—12 Miles to Go
Huxton noticed the three riders coming down the ridge, and gently turned the shotgun in his lap. Not enough to be taken as a threat, but enough to be ready as they rode up to the stage. There had already been a killing on this trip; he certainly wasn't in the mood for a hold-up as well. Jessup looked over at him as the riders approached. When Huxton nodded, he pulled to a stop. The horses snorted at the chance to rest.
The woman leading the riders was smiling, and she waved in greeting as she came alongside the coach. "Howdy there."
Huxton noticed the casual way her hand dropped to her revolver as she finished waving. The two men flanking her were silent, as if waiting for an order. Jessup chewed his tobacco, watching them.
"Howdy," Huxton answered. "Can we help you?"
By now, the faces of both Mr. Ulbricht and Miss Tulley had appeared at the window openings. The woman tipped her hat to them before turning her smile back to Huxton.
"I certainly hope so, Mister . . . "
He pushed his hat back on his head with his free hand. "Huxton," he answered.
She pulled her hat off with a flourish. "Pleasure. My name's Charity North."
Huxton heard a gasp from Mr. Ulbricht.
Charity North chuckled. "Now that the introductions are out of the way, I don't suppose you've seen my sister? Gold hair, blue dress, baby Colt?" She tapped her own enormous revolver for emphasis.
The door of the stage opened suddenly, and Maria stepped out. "Hola, Charity."
A relieved smirk appeared on the older sister's face. "Hola, hermana." She turned back to Huxton, but continued talking to her sister. "Did you really shoot Nigel Roth, Marisol?"
Maria North, alias Parker, looked down at her feet. "Si."
Looking up, she saw a frown cross Charity's face. "He pushed you? He had it coming?"
"He tried to take my saddle-bag."
Charity's eyes widened. "You still have it with you?"
"I was bringing it out to the ranch. Sorry, hermana."
Charity didn't answer, addressing Huxton instead. "Was it legal?"
"Near as I can tell," he admitted. "It looked like self-defense from—"
"Excellent," she interrupted. "I'd like to take her back to the family ranch with me then."
Huxton shook his head. "Just so you know, I'm on my way to be sheriff of Silver Prairie."
"Really? Congratulations." Charity leaned back in the saddle, her hand still on her revolver. "As I see it, my sister acted in self-defense. I can almost guarantee the judge will let her off."
She chuckled, and Huxton remembered what Ulbricht had said about the judge Charity had supposedly killed before the war.
"If you do decide you need to arrest her," she continued, "anyone can tell you where our ranch is. So . . . how do you want to play this, sheriff?"
Huxton shook his head. So this was how it was going to be in Silver Prairie. He had never met Charity North before, but he had met gunslingers like her. She surrounded herself with dangerous men and commanded their loyalty. Not the kind of person Huxton wanted to make an enemy of until he knew how things were in the town itself. How did he want to play it?
Finally he shrugged, remembering the last person he'd killed. Maria was every bit as justified as he had been. But what about the money she had with her. Hard currency, as much as she could fit in her saddlebag. Gold, most likely. Stolen, quite probably. But stolen from whom? When? Charity North and her gunmen had just arrived in the territory. Figuring out what had happened and bringing charges against them would be impossible.
He should have known better than take this job. But he had taken it, and now it was his duty to uphold the law. And he had been through too much to be afraid of Charity North. But he was tired. So, he made a decision.
"It's outside my jurisdiction anyway," he said. "She's all yours."
Charity smiled. "Thanks, sheriff. I'll remember that. By the way, you can deliver that saddle to Mr. Douglas at the livery stable. I'll take the saddlebag, though."
Huxton grinned, reaching back and grabbing the bag without breaking eye contact. One move, and he could expose the money he knew was inside. He knew it was stolen. He could feel Jessup's eyes on him. The shotgun was still ready in his other hand.
He passed the saddlebag to the other rider as he brought his horse alongside the coach. He handed the shotgun down to Maria North.
"Thank you, sheriff. You're a good man." She climbed up behind her sister and tipped her hat to those still in the coach. And without another word, all three horses turned and loped away from the stage.
Jessup heaved a sigh of relief, wiping the sweat from his forehead. He turned to Huxton. "For a minute, I thought you were gonna get both of us killed. Who would drive the stagecoach then?"
Huxton thought about the choice he had made. Jessup's simple question summed up the logic behind his final decision. He knew it wasn't the right choice, strictly speaking. But he also knew that it was the best choice under the circumstances. It wasn't his job to do the right thing. It was his job to keep the peace and keep everyone alive.
And when it came to keeping the peace, he would rather have the North sisters as friends than enemies.
"It'll be dark in a couple hours," he said, lighting his cigar. "Let's get to Silver Prairie."
Jessup shook his head, chuckling softly. He clapped the reins, sending the horses forward again. The sheriff was right. Things hadn't gone according to anyone's plan, but they each still had their own jobs to do. One mile after the other, one day at a time, on the road to Silver Prairie.