Two hours from Finn's Crossing, a Concord mail coach dubbed the Pride of New Hampshire rolled slowly up into the Black Hills, pulled by a lathered team of six. She swayed and jostled her passengers gently, testing the strength of the bullhide thoroughbraces which cushioned their ride against the roughness of the trail. Clouds of white dust swirled in her wake.
Perched up top was the driver, a stout, nearly bald man with a drooping gray moustache. He wore a brown cowhide hat with its brim pinned up in front. Shouting encouragement to the horses, he slapped the reins against their backs as the incline of the road grew steeper. "H'yah! Up thar! G'wan!"
Beside the driver sat a small black man with a double-barreled shotgun across his lap. He squinted against the trail dust, looking warily to either side of the road, his dark-skinned hands never loosening their grip on the polished stock of his weapon.
The bright yellow coach stood out sharply against the forest around it. The trees were tall brown pines, their limbs heavy with spikes of green needles and fragrant with sap. A jackrabbit bolted from the roadside bushes. Birds called from the high branches, fluttering off when the Concord rumbled past.
Inside the stage, Matthew Brackett swatted idly at a horsefly. He tilted his black top hat forward slightly to shield his eyes from the sunlight at the edges of the flapping leather curtains. His hat's narrow brim also obscured his view of his two fellow travelers, though Matthew had long ago dismissed them. A journalist and a missionary—a man of letters and a man of the cloth, he thought. And probably both Yankees . . .
Matthew stroked the stiff hairs of his salt-and-peppery beard, and let his thoughts turn to the object of his journey: a dead man lying many miles away, who required the attention of a craftsman graced with Matthew's peculiar skills. The tools and potions he would need for this job rode safely in the black case lashed to the coach roof above. He had carried only enough of these materials for one operation, to avoid the additional fee for heavy baggage.
Matthew's mind wandered also to the unusual payment he'd been offered for his work—a new Winchester rifle. He had accepted the offer, but was concerned by the customer's strict deadline. If the stage delivered him to perform his services on time, the Winchester was his. If not, the offer was cancelled. For want of such a fine firearm, he had accepted the gamble.
In the seat opposite Matthew, the missionary whistled nervously. The tune was "Marching through Georgia."
Matthew's heartbeat quickened. A Yankee indeed, he noted.
The missionary cut short his tune. "I say, gentleman," he intoned in the high, nasal voice of a native New Englander.
Matthew turned his head, repositioning his hat. "Yes?"
The man was young and soft. A small crucifix hung from a silver chain around his neck. His garb was somber, his Wellington boots not yet scarred by use. "I say," he repeated, leaning forward against the jostling and creaking of the coach, "are there many highwaymen active in these parts?"
Matthew smiled briefly. "Not many," he answered in his slow, cultured southern voice. He paused and then added, "Mostly scalphunters."
The missionary recoiled, clutching reflexively at his derby as if to protect his own hair from immediate removal.
Beside him, the journalist let out a boisterous laugh. This man's tone was merry, his voice softened by tobacco. He was roguish and auburn-haired, with a thick black handlebar moustache and a dark slouch hat. A small brown leather notebook lay open in his lap, in which he had periodically jotted observations.
Smiling, the journalist spoke up. "The quaint custom of scalping was not originally an Indian tradition," he chuckled. "The French taught it to them—very civilized, very Christian Frenchman, no doubt. You see, the white man has benevolently removed from the Indian his land, his birthright, and his manhood. In exchange, we gave him whisky, firearms, and Christianity—a bad bargain and an incendiary mixture."
He grinned. "Me, I would have left out the Christianity."
The Concord rocked violently as the bullets hit, scattering splinters of bass-wood and hardened ash. The conductor returned fire, emptying his shotgun in a single volcanic blast. Something heavy tumbled across, then off of, the stagecoach roof.
The Pride lost momentum, her driver reining back the frightened team. With wood and leather creaking, the Concord came to a shuddering halt. Matthew lifted aside one of the damask-lined leather window curtains and stared outside.
Four mounted outlaws blocked the route. They were rough men, with clothing as unkempt as bear pelts. Three of them wore filthy scarves to conceal their faces, while the last man's prominent red beard served the same function. They carried Sharps rifles and brandished Remington revolvers.
"All passengers, dismount and give up all yer armaments," ordered the bearded outlaw gruffly. "Driver, throw down them cases."
Reluctantly, the coachman began to unfasten the cargo and cast it over. Baggage fell to earth with dull slaps.
The journalist pushed open the door and stepped down, gently removing a massive pepperbox revolver from within his duster. He laid the weapon carefully at his feet. Matthew followed, placing his Colt Navy beside it. The missionary offered up no firearm.
"Ain't you got a weapon?" asked one of the masked thieves as he dismounted, pointing his Remington at the man of the cloth.
"My weapon is my faith," said the missionary, producing a Bible from his pocket and placing it near the pistols.
Odd, thought Matthew. I was certain he had a rifle . . .
A small masked outlaw darted over and scooped up the revolvers. He ignored the Bible.
The last of the cargo was now on the ground. Appointing one of their number as a guard for the hostages, the others rummaged through the bags and parcels.
The missionary became agitated. He licked his lips and somehow could not keep his gaze on the firearms pointed at him.
"Knives!" called out one of the men as he examined the contents of Matthew's embalmer's case. "I never seen so many queer little knives, an' hooks, an' such!"
"I am an undertaker," stated Matthew calmly, "and those are the specialized tools of my trade."
The outlaw let go of them as if he had touched a heated branding iron. He kicked the case roughly aside and opened another. "What in all creation is this?"
The journalist chanced a quick look. "Oh! The magnificent device you behold, gentlemen, is the Orphyrreus Compositor," he said, "an invention in which I have invested a considerable sum. It produces typeset text by the use of small levers, one for each character of our English alphabet."
"Pshaw! " huffed another bandit. "All the readin' a man needs is the XXX on whisky an' gunpowder." He joined the others in opening a large cube-shaped black trunk.
The journalist returned his attention to the pistol pointing at him. "Fortunately there is an X among the compositor's levers," he said quietly, "so that it may be used to correspond successfully with men as well-bred as yourselves."
At length a shrill cry went up from the outlaws rifling the cargo. One of them held aloft an enormous silver chalice, its ornate sides crusted with emeralds and pearls.
"Put it down!" called the missionary, his face flushed with anger. He took an abrupt step toward the one with the chalice.
The guard swung his revolver and struck the missionary across the head. The man of God fell to the ground, clutching at his temples and moaning weakly. The guard snorted, disgust evident even through his stained kerchief. He gestured at the other prisoners. "You two, put that feller back in the stage and let 'im sleep it off."
As they hoisted the missionary back into the Concord, Matthew saw a deerhide slipcase partially concealed on the coach's forward seat. The gleaming wooden stock of a repeating rifle protruded from its end. I knew it, he thought as he placed the wounded man there and leaned back outside again.
The outlaws were already fastening the last of the stolen valuables to their mounts. One freed the coach horses from their traces and strung them together in two groups of three. "We thank ye fer the hosses," chuckled the bandit leader. The outlaws mounted up and rode away toward the north.
Rifle shots thundered from the coach window.
The air filled with white plumes of sulphurous gunsmoke, furious shouts, and the whinnying of terrified horses. Matthew and the journalist ducked behind the hardened hickory spokes of the Concord's wheels as gunfire crashed and splinters fell. They were joined by the stage driver, who leaped down from the roof.
For the first time Matthew noted the absence of the small black guard. He nudged the driver. "Where's our conductor?"
His answer was a single word: "Dead."
When the shooting stopped and hoofbeats receded, the three men crawled from beneath the stage and stood up slowly.
One of the outlaws lay dead. Three coach horses and a Pinto, which apparently had belonged to the slain bandit, were grazing by the edge of the woods. Without hesitation the driver produced a rope from beneath the apron on the Concord's rear boot, and set off to recapture the animals.
The coach door swung open and the missionary stepped out. He held a Winchester in his hands, smoke trailing from its barrel. The bruise on his head was big as a goose egg and horribly discolored. He walked over and prodded the dead bandit's limp form with the toe of one Wellington boot. "Vengeance is mine," he announced, "sayeth the Lord."
The journalist stepped up beside him and returned his Bible to him. "I believe that's in here somewhere," he said thoughtfully. "But damned if I can remember if it comes before or after `Thou shalt not kill.'"
"Do not make light of this," said the missionary. "That chalice they stole is irreplaceable, one of a kind." Shaking, he sat down on a flat rock. "To imagine that the chalice of Joseph of Arimathea could fall to such foul company...."
The journalist was intrigued. "That loving cup—do you imply that it is the Grail, the one and true Holy Grail?"
The churchman nodded. "Yes, perhaps—or perhaps only a replica to which Joseph gave his blessing. In any case, it was in my family for centuries, and I must retrieve it."
The driver returned with all four of the remaining horses secured on a rope. Across one of them he carried his shotgun rider's body, blood glistening from a cavernous wound.
The missionary let out a sob. "The Grail . . . gone . . . "
"Don't fret, preacher man," the driver said encouragingly. "Them bandits is traders. Just look at this Indian paint-pony they left us. I'd wager a month's pay that they'll swap that cup right away. Most likely, a fortnight from now, some grand chief of the Sioux nation will be sippin' his firewater outa that thing. Maybe the Army can get it back for—"
The missionary's roar startled the others. "NO! To drink from it would give strength and power! Only a great and worthy man must use it." He looked up at the coachman. "Give me one of those horses. I will pursue the brigands myself."
The driver shook his head. "We'll need all four to pull the Pride, and even then it's gonna be slow. Usually use six. Course, we got another problem that's a mite more pressing."
"And what is that?" asked Matthew.
The driver slid his brown hat back and scratched at his hairline. "Well, this stretch of trail up ahead is one of the worst. The Sioux played hell with us here, uh, till we hired Jim. Musta been his black skin that spooked them, I reckon, but they almost never bothered us since he's rode with us."
The writer spoke up. "I have been informed, by learned astronomers back east, that there will be a partial eclipse of the sun late this very afternoon. In fact, I've been struggling with the notion of a writing an adventure tale in which this phenomenon has a profound effect on a frontiersman's ability to escape from hostile red men. Perhaps, gentlemen, I now have a rare opportunity to collect, by actual experience, the very inspiration I've sought for this story of—"
"Ya mean it's gonna get dark 'fore it's time?" interrupted the driver.
"Precisely," answered the journalist, "and we should be able to travel along the trail unmolested, under cover of this curious oddity in our heavens."
"Day or night," said the driver skeptically, "We're good as scalped without Jim."
"I have a solution to propose," Matthew offered quietly.
* * *
Dozens of flies buzzed around the spreading pool of blood.
The chill of the morning gave way to the heat of afternoon as Matthew labored, assisted by the dumbstruck, wide-eyed coachman. The rear boot of the Concord made a barely adequate cooling board for this operation, but it sufficed.
Like the others, the missionary had shucked off his coat in the midday heat and was troubled by insects. He remained at a distance, praying and bemoaning his fate.
The journalist set the Orphyrreus Compositor up on a flat rock, jacked a crisp brown sheet of stationery into it, and proceeded to test the peculiar machine. Every few seconds one of the tiny levers produced a snap as it imprinted a single alphabetic character on the page. He paused frequently to swat at the mosquitoes on his bared arms, and to brush curious horseflies from the paper. After more than an hour he rose, lit a pipe, and strolled over to watch the undertaker at his art.
Matthew winced at the pipe smoke but was grateful that it cleared the air of insects.
"Uh, I'm lookin' to retire soon," said the coachman. "Been stashin' my salary. You reckon that Orphelia Compostinator letter-making contraption might be a good investment for me?"
The journalist nodded enthusiastically. "Why, I would be quite delighted to put you in correspondence with the inventors of the, ahem, Orphyrreus Compositor."
Matthew carefully eased the tip of another long steel needle into the joint of the dead man's knee. "Tell me, sir," he said to the journalist, "are you a veteran of the recent conflict?"
The writer smiled. "I was in the Confederate militia."
The undertaker concentrated on the next insertion of the needle. "Me, I was in their infantry, before reassignment to the ambulance corps. I spent the last phase of the war burying the dead or, in many cases, burying the amputated parts of men who were unfortunate enough to remain living."
"Artillery," the driver volunteered. "Under Beauregard."
The missionary joined them. "I stand before you," he blustered, "a son of Connecticut and a champion of the Gettysburg conflict. Was not any one of you also a loyal Union man?"
Ignoring the missionary's indignation, the journalist leaned over to examine Matthew's handiwork. "Excellent job. Jim actually appears to live and draw breath!"
The undertaker shook his head and stood back to admire the fruit of his skills. "This delay has cost me the price of a stage ticket, one full unit of my supplies, and a Winchester rifle," he announced. "These expenses I will happily absorb, however, if only to secure the retention of my scalp."
He sighed and added solemnly, "Our friend Jim is ready."
"And so," said the writer, looking up at the darkening sky, "are the stars."
* * *
The inside of the relay station was crowded with soldiers wearing blue uniforms and gleaming black leather boots. The coachman had drawn a happy cluster of them around him as he awkwardly demonstrated the Orphyrreus Compositor. A fire crackled and spat sparks from the great fieldstone hearth. The air in the low-ceiling room was thick with the hovering smoke of cigars and pipes, the sharp aroma of whisky, and a mix of trail dust and sage. From outside came the whickering of horses, still confused by the early onset of darkness.
"You sure you don't want that drink?" asked a cavalry officer.
Matthew shook his head. "I have had one," he said quietly, "and one is enough." He turned his gaze to the gleaming Model 1873 Winchester lying across his lap.
The officer poured himself another glass. "So you embalmed the negro in a seated position, you say?"
The journalist looked up from lighting his pipe. "He certainly did, Major. You should have beheld noble Jim, steadfast and faithful even in death, riding proudly alongside our driver. Why, the pair of them looked calm as two schoolboys adrift on a raft in the Mississippi. A pity that your regiment did not arrive earlier, for you could have attended Jim's internment. That churchman's square portmanteau made an excellent casket for one in Jim's, ahem, unfortunate position, and the preacher gave him a most proper send-off. Why, that man spouted enough hot air in a quarter hour to lift Jim's soul all the way to the Pearly Gates. In fact, we had to bank the preacher's fires so Jim wouldn't overshoot the mark."
The officer waved his gloved hand. "Well, in this new occupation the preacher's selected, he'll have little time for such speeching-making."
"What new occupation is that?" asked Matthew.
The writer leaned forward, discreetly directing his pipe smoke away. "Why, from this evening forward, our missionary will accept his missions only from the United States Army."
"That must be why he made you a gift of his Winchester," added the officer. "Certainly, he wanted to show his gratitude, but such a weapon would be of little use where he's going. The Seventh Cavalry carries Springfield carbines. Our quartermasters don't stock the proper cartridges for lever guns like that."
"So," asked Matthew slowly, stroking his beard, "what prompted the man to make this curious change of career?"
The major smiled. "We identified that paint-horse from the outlaw he killed. Those bandits are well-known to us as traders with the Sioux. When we informed him, your friend determined at once to join us in action—or, as he called it, a `Holy Crusade'—against their great chiefs."
The journalist coughed on his whisky. "I think perhaps his decision was due more to that bruise on his head."
"Will he be taking orders from you, Major?" asked Matthew.
The major waved a gloved hand in the air, stirring the cigar smoke. "No. He requested assignment directly under one of my fellow officers, whom he apparently remembers favorably from Gettysburg—Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer."
Matthew chuckled. "It seems so preposterous—a Connecticut Yankee, seeking the Grail of Arthur in some Sioux Indian chief's court."
The journalist lowered his pipe. "Stated that way, friend," he said thoughtfully, "it seems to me there's quite a story to be written of the tale. A Connecticut Yankee . . . in . . . "
"Story?" asked the officer. "So, Mr. Clemens, you're a writer, then?"
The journalist nodded. "Yes," he answered, "guilty as charged." He turned to his pencil and began to write.
"And have you authored any book I might know?"
The journalist started to scribble something on his paper and then looked up, his bushy eyebrows converging. "Oh, damn. Now I've transcribed it wrong." He looked over at the officer. "To answer your question, Major Reno, I have a book due in print next year. It will be published under my pen name, Mark Twain."
He glanced back down at his page, smiled, and merrily read aloud from it. "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court—perhaps I can fashion that into an even more splendid story than our own. I believe I've now found exactly what I sought on this journey!"
Several yards away, the Orphyrreus Compositor snapped repeatedly as the coach driver made it hammer out a line of type.
The journalist nodded, indicating the driver. "I believe our coachman has also obtained something he very much wanted."
Matthew nodded. "Yes indeed." He quietly stroked the barrel of his new Winchester. "And so too have I."
"It's a handsome gun, indeed."
"I remember the early model, the Henry rifle, from back during the Battle of Atlanta," said Matthew. "Its capacity for repeated firing impressed us quite profoundly." A slight smile crossed his lips. "We used to complain that the Yanks could load on Sunday and shoot all week."
The sound of their laughter drifted outside to the darkness of the corral, where it joined the gentle whickering of the stage horses. Starlight gleamed off the smooth, curved basswood sides of the Pride of New Hampshire. The Concord stood, strong and alone, ready for the trail.
The seasoned elm shaft of her harness-tongue pointed eagerly to the west.