Word count 18,977
Thanks to Cat, Rob, and Barbara for the beta
Thanks to Sandy for clarification on the Military issues.
“How bad is it, Doc?” Val asked in a voice rough as a gravel road. Out of focus eyes failed to strike fear in the doctor’s heart, and Dr. Sam Jenkins could not help but smile.
“Val, I’m going to be honest with you. You’ve been seriously wounded. I won’t even venture a guess at this point when you will back on your feet. The bullet caused significant damage, and I had a heck of a time removing it.” Sam was ready for the fit of temper he knew would be coming; if not now, it would make itself known shortly.
Val could feel his mind drift. The drugs the doctor used had scrambled his brain, making it hard to think. And he knew this couldn’t have happened at a worse time. Damn rotten luck them idiots tryin’ ta rob the bank! He couldn’t be laid up! There was that job he had to do! He knew he needed help; as difficult as it was to admit, he had to ask for assistance. Oh, Murdoch sure ain’t gonna like this! he thought.
Sam could see the vexation build. He took the syringe out of its case and was about to fill it with morphine.
“Doc, wait a minute; I need ta say somethin’. It’s important.” Val’s concentration was fading, and Jenkins could see him struggle. “Need ta talk to the Lancers, Sam. Official business.”
“Alright, Val, I’ll send word to Murdoch; you can count on it.”
The trail of dust billowed over the hard-packed earth as Tag Billings galloped his horse under the adobe Lancer arch. He pulled his mount to a skidding halt as the hooves created a small murky cloud that hovered in the morning air.
Johnny Madrid Lancer came out of the barn when he heard the commotion and hoped it wasn’t bad news.
Tag reined his bay mare over to Johnny and reached in his pocket to deliver the message. “It’s from Val, Johnny. He’s at Doc’s house.”
Johnny immediately tensed. “What happened, Tag, why’s he at Doc’s?”
“Some fool outlaws tried ta rob the bank last night at closin’ time, an’ Val took off after them. He came back with a bullet in his chest. Think he’s gonna be alright, gonna be laid up a while, though. Anyway, he wanted ta send y’all this note. Gotta go, Johnny. See ya!” And with a wave of his hand, Tag was gone.
Johnny tore the envelope open and pulled out the note.
‘Need to see all three of you soon as you can get into town.’
Johnny ran to the house, his mind filled with concern for his amigo, and his brain going in seven directions at once. “Murdoch! Scott!” he called as he scoped out the kitchen, then heard thundering footsteps coming down the stairs.
“Johnny! Quiet down! What’s the matter?” Murdoch, equally loud, chastised.
“It’s Val. He’s been shot. He wants ta see us, all three of us.”
“Is he alright?” Murdoch asked as Scott stepped around him, alarmed at the disturbance.
“Dunno. Note doesn’t say, just that he wants ta see us.”
Scott retrieved his gunbelt and hat and was on Johnny’s heels out the door.
“C’mon, we can get somethin’ ta eat in town after we see Val.”
Once outside, Johnny called for Jelly to saddle Murdoch’s horse. The big sorrel was waiting when Murdoch stepped outside. Within minutes, Scott, Johnny, and Murdoch rode under the arch and headed for Green River.
It was early, and the town was quiet. Townspeople were just getting a start on their day. The Lancer men rode to Doc Jenkins’s neat, two-story house at the end of the street. Nestled in a small grove of blue oak and sycamore trees, shade covered the house and kept it cool and inviting.
Johnny knocked on the door, then went in as Sam greeted them in his waiting room.
“Good morning! Anyone care for coffee?” Sam asked.
“Val… how is he?” Johnny ignored the offer, anxious for the doctor to answer. He pinned Sam in a hard stare.
“Go see for yourself, Johnny. He was awake when I came out to answer the door.”
Johnny led the way to the room where he had spent many a night as Sam’s ‘guest’ and quietly edged his way to the bedside. The sheriff was ghostly white against the sheet and blanket that covered him. His eyes slit open, and a slight grin tugged at the corners of his pursed lips.
“Knew it was… you. No one else makes that… much noise,” Val groused.
“Hey, amigo! Ya alright? Ya look like twenty miles of bad road!” Johnny teased.
“Keep it up, ya jackass… ‘ll have Gabe lock ya up for disturbin’ the peace!” Val ended the statement with a cough.
Johnny turned to face Murdoch and Scott, then he smiled. “He’ll be alright. Sounds normal ta me!” Then he focused his attention back on Val. “What’d ya wanna see us about, Val?”
“Need for you an’ Scott ta take care a official business. I was ‘sposta escort a prisoner up ta Red Bluff, a favor ta the Governor, an’, well, now looks like you two’ll hafta do it for me. Sorry, Mr. Lancer, it’s important.”
Murdoch was not amused, at least that’s what he wanted them to think. Secretly, he was ready to bust his buttons. He was proud that his boys were needed to carry out critical business for Governor Steve Bronson, but he wasn’t going to let them know that. He just hoped it wouldn’t be dangerous. With his stern expression in place, he sighed.
“And just when, exactly, can I expect them home? We have a mighty big ranch to run!” he growled.
“Shouldn’t be more’n a few days. A week at the longest. Gabe’s gonna be here this afternoon till I get back on my feet. His deputy is takin’ care of things in Spanish Wells.” Val paused to catch his breath. “I hate ta do this to ya, Mr. Lancer, but I got no choice.”
“We’ll make do, Val. When do they need to be ready to go?” Murdoch acquiesced.
“Prisoner’s gettin’ delivered here late tanight, an’ you’ll be catchin’ the train outta here at eight in the mornin’. Just be here in plenty of time ta leave… an’ don’t be late! When ya get ta Sacramento, ya change trains for Red Bluff.” Val was tiring, and Sam nodded to the door indicating the visit was over.
“Oh, Val, one last question,” Scott inquired. “What is this prisoner accused of?”
“He got caught printin’ off a bunch of money in his barn,” Val answered.
“A counterfeiter. We’ll be escorting a counterfeiter. How hard could that be?” Scott chuckled as they walked out the door.
“Johnny, where are you going, son?” Murdoch asked. Their dinner now over, Murdoch expected both of his sons to turn in early. Having been asked by Val Crawford to transport a prisoner to Red Bluff, one hundred and fifty miles or so north of Sacramento, Scott and Johnny spent the day tying up loose ends. The trip would put ranch issues behind, and neither was eager to put any undue pressure on the Lancer patriarch.
Johnny glanced up from buckling on his gun belt and snugging it firmly around his hips. He offered Murdoch his cheeky grin and shrugged. “Gonna sit with Val for a while. He’s gotta be drivin’ Sam crazy by now.”
“Don’t be too late, Johnny. We need to be up early in the morning!” Scott reminded his impetuous younger brother.
“I’ll be up before you are, Boston!” And flashing his dazzling Johnny Madrid Lancer smile, he was out the door. A few minutes later, they heard the pounding of Barranca’s hooves thundering down the road and out under the Lancer arch.
“Would you care to wager, Murdoch? Will he be back in time?” Scott grinned.
“No, son, I don’t believe I would!” Murdoch laughed.
Sam Jenkins was liberated! He gathered his coat and was out of his house in less time than it took for Johnny to settle in the chair next to Val’s bed. The sincere relief that covered Sam’s face was comical, and for a minute, Johnny thought Sam was going to hug him.
“Take your time, Sam. I know ya deserve a reprieve!” Johnny chuckled.
“Yes, he is a handful, but still not as bad as you!”
“Get outta here before I change my mind!” Johnny laughed as he called out softly while Sam made it to the front door and was gone.
“He leave yet, amigo?” Val asked without opening his eyes.
“Yeah, he’s gone. Playing ‘possum, huh? How’s that workin’ for ya?” Johnny questioned, knowing how difficult it was to pull anything over on the good doctor.
“I swear that man is gonna be the death of me! He’s got me drinkin’ poison! Ya know what he did?”
“No, but I can guess… Hey, how’re ya feelin’?”
“Like a caged animal… he wakes me up ta give me somethin’ ta help me sleep! What the hell does he do that for? Don’t make no sense ta me!” Val grumped.
Johnny laughed. “Quit your bitchin’, Val! Ya oughta have Doc, Murdoch, Scott, T’resa, Jelly an’ Maria fussin’ over ya, all at the same time! Next time somethin’ happens ta me, I’m gonna come stay with you!”
“No, ya ain’t!” Val quipped. “No way I want your cranky, crabby ass at my place! All a them comin’ ta my house wond’rin’ how you’re doin’ an’ makin’ me crazy; you can just stay home! Ahhh! Don’t make me laugh, ya rowdy!” A coughing spell put an end to the shenanigans as Johnny helped Val with a drink of water.
Once again settled in the bed, Johnny asked about their ‘civic obligation’ in the morning.
“There anything we need ta know about this prisoner, Val?” Johnny was curious. His instincts snapped to attention when Val had told them he needed help, and Johnny kicked it around in his head all day, along with a nagging suspicion tugging at his brain.
“Nope, far as I know, he got caught printin’ off a bunch a money, an’ ya know how the government don’t take too kindly ta folks makin’ their own cash. Governor Bronson sure wanted this cleared up in a hurry. Came up awful sudden like. He sent a telegram sayin’ ta take care of it with ‘all due haste an’ discretion’ is what he said. An’ now that I ain’t up for the job, I thought the two of you could handle it. I wanna thank ya, amigo, Scott, too,”
“We’ll get it done, Val, don’t you worry none. A week with Scott, away from the ranch, no ornery, stupid cows ta deal with, heck, Val, it’ll seem like a vacation!”
Having informed Maria and Teresa they would be leaving early in the morning, and not to worry about their breakfast, Johnny and Scott quickly set about getting a little of food in their bellies before the ride into Green River. Slapping a thick slice of ham between two pieces of equally thick bread, the Lancer sons wolfed down the meal and headed to the barn. In minutes they were saddled and riding down the road to Green River.
The morning was chilly but comfortable, and the sun stained the sky in deep pink that quickly lightened and turned blue. White billowing clouds rested over the mountain peaks. Was it just the start to a beautiful day, or were those peaks standing guard to issue a warning? Johnny watched for signs of bad weather, but as long as those clouds stayed over the mountain tops, the weather would not threaten the trip.
“Sure gonna get there early enough. Hope Gabe’s got the coffee made,” Johnny drawled, knowing it had to be better than the swill Val always made.
“Yes, brother, a cup of hot coffee would taste good right about now! Johnny?!” The horrible thought exploded in Scott’s brain. “You don’t suppose that Gabe’s coffee is as bad as Val’s, do you?” Unknowingly, he echoed Johnny’s musings.
One look at Scott made Johnny convulse with laughter. “Not possible, Boston, not possible! C’mon, Scott!” Johnny spurred Barranca ahead, leaving his brother to catch up.
With Barranca and Remmie at the livery for Jelly to pick up later, Johnny and Scott continued to the sheriff’s office. Both men sighed in relief at the smoke that wisped out of the chimney; they wouldn’t have to wait for their morning libation. Startling Gabe, they clamored into the small confines, threw their saddlebags on the chair in front of the desk, and made a bee-line for the stove. Each grabbed a cup and wrestled for the pot.
“Lord A-Mighty! You two’re actin’ like a couple of rotten kids!” Gabe’s exasperation laced his words.
Scott suddenly stopped his struggles. “Yes, Gabe, I have to agree with you. I guess my brother’s bad habits are rubbing off on me. I apologize.”
“Apologize all ya want, Boston. I got coffee an’ you don’t… Hey, Gabe, before ya leave, could ya teach Val how ta make decent coffee? This’s pretty good,” Johnny said with appreciation, already topping off his cup.
“So, how’s the prisoner this mornin’? Give ya any trouble durin’ the night?” Johnny asked, hoping for clues as to what they might expect.
“Nope, not a peep out of him. Don’t know what ta make of him, though. He’s jumpy, real nervous. I brought him breakfast this mornin’ an’ he turned white as a sheet. Last night he asked if I would leave that door open so he could see out here. It was like he didn’t wanna be alone. Can’t figure him out. Oh, before I forget, here, you should be wearin’ these.” Gabe tossed the deputy badges on his desk.
“That is peculiar behavior for a suspected criminal. Has he said anything?” Scott inquired as he savored the coffee. Johnny was right, Gabe needed to show Val how to make coffee.
“Only when I talk ta him. Seems ta fret all the time, like he’s scared,” Gabe shrugged.
“And well he should be. Counterfeiting is a serious crime, and if proven guilty, he could spend years behind bars.”
“If it’s any consolation, he didn’t sleep much last night. I don’t see him givin’ ya much trouble,” Gabe assured them.
No sleep doesn’t mean squat. That’s when most trouble happens… Johnny had a feeling this wasn’t going to be as easy as it first seemed.
The train pulled into Green River right on time. It would take three to four hours to get to Sacramento. They would have a considerable layover before pulling out at 7:15. From there, they could expect to arrive in Red Bluff in the next twelve hours. Mountain travel would reduce the speed substantially,and that was not taking into account the condition of the tracks. Bad weather could wreak havoc on train travel, especially in the higher elevations.
“Time for you ta get goin’. I’ll get the prisoner an’ walk ya down ta the train.” Gabe took the keys from the hook behind his desk. He entered the cell area and told the prisoner to back away from the door until it swung open. Gabe then motioned him forward and snapped the cuffs around the outstretched wrists. The man looked a mess, black hair tousled, and worry etched his face.
“Alright, Timmons, time ta go.” And Gabe nodded, his pistol in hand, as Harvey Timmons exited the cell.
“Scott, Johnny, this is Harvey Timmons. Mr. Timmons, these two will escort you to Red Bluff. This here’s Scott Lancer an’ that one there’s his brother, Johnny.”
Timmons was distraught. “Only two, sheriff? Two guards?”
He’s expectin’ trouble… Johnny saw it in the man’s eyes.
Once out of the cell, Gabe nodded to Johnny and Scott. Rifles and Colts at the ready, saddlebags slung over their shoulders, the four men left by way of the back door and stepped out into the alley on the way to the train. Puzzled by the alley route, Johnny and Scott exchanged glances but remained quiet.
“You two get him settled in the last car; I got your tickets here,” Gabe said as he handed an envelope to Scott, leaving Johnny to watch Timmons. Then Gabe draped Timmons’ jacket over the cuffs, effectively shielding them from sight.
“Good luck, you two. Keep your heads down!” and with a wave, Sheriff Gabe watched as the Lancer’s boarded the train. They settled Timmons in the corner of the last seat of the last car, making escape impossible. He would not get past both Scott and Johnny. They stowed their saddlebags under the seat but kept their rifles handy. Johnny took his place next to the counterfeiter, and Scott sat facing them. In less than five minutes, the train lurched out of Green River, disappearing in a mushrooming cloud of gray-black smoke.
Relieved to have his part over, Gabe made it back to the jail. Glad that Timmons was no longer his responsibility, he stepped into the cell area to lock the back door. Walking past the cell that Timmons occupied, Gabe noticed a dark smudge on the pillow. What the hell is that?
Before the train had begun to move, both Johnny and Scott carefully took in their surroundings, noting who was in the car with them and where they were seated. It did not escape Johnny’s attention that Timmons kept his hands hidden, only once taking them out from under the coat to slip on a pair of spectacles, then his eyes seemed to flit everywhere.
The conductor came by and stopped to offer greetings. Johnny watched Timmons as he tensed in the seat, looking as if he was ready to bolt. Scott smiled pleasantly as he bid the conductor a good day. The Railroad employee shifted his glance to Johnny, then to Timmons, and continued down the aisle.
The constant rattle of wheels rolling down the steel tracks did nothing to relieve the mind-numbing boredom. The train car’s constant clatter and sway affected Timmons in the way Johnny hoped it would. The man slumped in his corner, chin sagged on his chest, and his eyes closed. Sleep overtook him, and he relaxed as much as the cramped quarters would allow. Wisps of dark hair hung down across his forehead, and his spectacles slid down his nose, seeming to defy gravity as they balanced on the tip of the man’s beak-like proboscis without falling to the floor.
Strange, them spectacles ain’t very strong, Johnny thought as he caught the striped pattern of Timmons’ shirt through the lens as the man slept. Why does he even bother ta wear them?
“Scott,” Johnny whispered, “why don’t ya try an’ catch some sleep while ya can? We can grab somethin’ ta eat later, then settle in an’ divide up the night in shifts.”
“Good idea, brother. It’s funny, though, Mr. Timmons did not want to eat earlier. It’s been quite a while that we left Green River. His alleged crime must weigh heavy on his shoulders.” Scott stretched his long legs out in front of him and crossed them at the ankles. Pulling his hat down low, he folded his arms across his chest and drifted off, confident in his brother’s ability to keep things under control.
The whistle blew, and the train began to decrease speed. The door in the front of the car opened as the conductor announced they would be stopping in Stockton. He hesitated for a moment and checked the seat in the back. Skimming his eyes over Scott and Johnny, they lingered on Timmons, then he turned and left the car going back the way he came.
Timmons came awake with a jerk. He looked scared.
“Easy, Mr. Timmons. It was just the conductor. Hey, ya alright? Ya look a little peaked,” Johnny asked, not quite sure what had upset the man.
“Yes, yes, I’m fine, thank you, Mr. Lancer,” Timmons responded absently.
“Johnny, call me Johnny. Ya keep sayin’ Mister an’ I’ll think our ol’ man is here,” Johnny said with a grin. Timmons did not return the smile.
“Mr. Timmons, is there something wrong?” Scott asked in hushed tones as he sat up, his rest disturbed with the conductor’s announcement. He waited as Timmons discreetly looked around the train car.
“Mr. Timmons, I been awake an’ no one has come in or left since the last stop. There’s hardly anyone in this car anyway. That ol’ woman sittin’ up there don’t seem like much of a threat, an’ those two over there, well, they don’t seem ta know there’s anyone here besides them. Can’t keep their hands off the other.” Johnny grinned as he nodded to the young couple deeply engrossed in the sweet caresses of newly married life and oblivious to everyone around them.
Scott couldn’t conceal his smile at the two lovers, but it quickly vanished when Timmons mumbled, “Don’t count on it.”
“Mr. Timmons, we’re here ta see that ya get ta Red Bluff. We ain’t gonna let nothin’ happen to ya. Is that what you’re worried about? Gettin’ there in one piece?” Johnny questioned but got no answer. Instead, Timmons seemed to shrink into the corner, leaving both Scott and Johnny to wonder what was really going on here.
The train pulled out of Stockton en route to Sacramento. The conductor stepped back into the train car, satisfied that no one saw the subtle nod to the man standing on the platform. The signal given, the conductor went about his duties. His friendly disposition and smiling face was effectively deceiving and a very effective cover.
“What’d ya say, Scott, ya hungry? I hear they got one a them fancy dining cars on this train. Mr. Timmons, ya hungry now?” Johnny hinted.
“Well, I know you’re hungry!” Scott laughed. “What about it, Mr. Timmons, you haven’t eaten all day. You’ll make yourself sick. As long as the state is footing the bill, you may as well eat,” Scott coaxed.
Timmons shrugged, then nodded.
Scott and Johnny picked up the saddlebags, not that they thought anyone would bother them, but took them just the same. Other than a few necessities, they were stuffed with ammunition. That would not get left behind. No matter what.
“Please stay between us, Mr. Timmons. When we get outside and into the next car, do not think about trying to escape. We will stop you.” Scott issued the warning in no uncertain terms.
If they only knew… Timmons agonized. Again he nodded, staying between the Lancers.
They had their choice of seating in the dining car. Either there were not many passengers on the train, or they had eaten earlier. And that was fine with Johnny. He found a table in the back of the car, and without having to be told, Timmons took the seat in the corner.
Scott went to the bar and ordered sandwiches and returned with three glasses of water that he sat on the table.
“No milk, huh?” Johnny asked hesitantly.
“Sorry, brother, no milk, but there is coffee. Would you like some? Mr. Timmons, coffee?” Scott took a step to the bar.
“No, thank you, Mr. Lancer. Water will be fine,” and Harvey Timmons reached for his glass.
Their food arrived, and they ate while Johnny and Scott joked about not having to deal with the stupid cows at the ranch. They wondered how Murdoch was getting along without them, and they talked of Val, hoping there had been progress with his injury and joked of Sam’s fraying nerves.
When Johnny finished eating, he stepped to the bar and signaled the waiter.
“You open till we get ta Sacramento?”
“Yes, sir! And if there isn’t anything here to your liking, there is a café very close when we arrive there. It has excellent food.” The waiter offered a broad smile.
“Thanks.” Johnny turned and headed to the table, taking his seat beside Timmons.
Both Scott and Johnny contemplated their prisoner. The nervousness, wide searching eyes, watching everyone, and the jittery movements as the conductor went from car to car was a puzzle to them. The man had gotten caught printing off money in his barn; it wasn’t as if he was fleeing for his life. They were beginning to think there was more to the story than what they had been told.
Once back in the passenger car at their seats, they settled in, waiting for the change of trains in Sacramento. Johnny figured another hour, maybe an hour and a half, and they would be at their next stop. The longer he thought about the situation, the more he wanted it to be over. Something was not right. That old niggling was back, and it was growing. But he would be listening intently, it had saved him before, many times in fact, and he wasn’t about to start ignoring it now.
The steady rail noise was mesmerizing. The train car’s sway came very near to lulling one into a relaxed state, and some on the train had to force their eyes to remain open. Even the lusty newlyweds sitting on the far side across from them had settled down. But Timmons wasn’t one. He was wide awake.
As he mulled the situation over in his mind, Johnny could not lose the notion things were not as they should be. Timmons sure is twitchy an’ for a man printin’ off his own money, he has clean hands, too clean. That printin’ ink don’t wash off that easy…
Johnny looked over at his brother, sitting opposite and facing him. He seemed lost in thought. He was hoping to get the chance to talk with Scott, get his opinions, and just maybe they could get a handle on a few things. If there was one thing Johnny hated, it was for him to take a job and not have all the facts presented… or to be lied to. But as this was a favor for Governor Bronson, it had to be alright… Right? Johnny asked himself.
Sacramento was a thriving city. It was big, and it was crowded, two issues that Johnny struggled to control. Thankfully, they wouldn’t be spending much time there. As the state was footing the bill for travel and food, they were definitely going to take advantage of the courtesies. After leaving the train and checking the street and boardwalks, Johnny searched out the café the bartender had told him about. ‘Hattie’s’ advertised the best food in town, and Johnny was going to see if that was true.
A table in the back served them well. Out of the way and behind a half wall, Timmons was completely out of sight to anyone that would step through the front door. The waitress was quick and efficient, not to mention very pretty, and soon they dined on a hearty meal. The roast beef was tender and tasty, and if this wasn’t the best food in Sacramento, it was darn close.
Timmons ate a good meal, for which both Scott and Johnny were thankful. The man did not look well. It was plain to them that Timmons was troubled, but he wasn’t acting like a man concerned about counterfeiting charges and an upcoming trial. He seemed more concerned about his life. It would come out, sooner or later, it would come out.
Conversation was light. Scott and Johnny bantered back and forth in an attempt to draw Timmons into talking. Under normal circumstances, a prisoner would be left alone to think over their evil deeds, but neither Scott nor Johnny had the feeling that Timmons was, in fact, a prisoner. And they were determined to find out, but Timmons remained distant.
Before leaving the café, they ordered food to take with them. Red Bluff was a considerable distance away, and not sure of when the next meal would be available, they took the question out of it and prepared for the worst.
“Scott, you take the food, Timmons, you stay between us. Wait’ll I go out, an’ I’ll let ya know if it’s safe,” Johnny said as he checked his Colt. He had no reason to think it wouldn’t be safe, but the old habits died hard. More than once, someone got his head blown off when he didn’t listen to that little voice, the little voice that, once you learn to respect and trust it, saves your life.
Looking around the café and sensing no danger, Johnny stepped to the door and out onto the boardwalk. Dusk was settling, and it was getting more difficult to see. Well, can’t stand here all night… and Johnny motioned for Scott and Timmons to follow. Then the three men headed to the train. They had fifteen minutes before they would leave Sacramento.
The train was two blocks away from the café. Sweeping his eyes from one side of the street to the other, Johnny kept watch of alleyways and second-story windows. There was nothing to indicate any danger that he could see. Until eight rowdy cowboys came stampeding down the street, suddenly shooting their guns. Johnny pulled the Colt from his holster, ready to fight as bullets shattered windows, and both Scott and Johnny tackled Timmons to the boardwalk.
He then thought it was just an attempt to release long pent up steam from days punching cows, but Johnny banished that thought as a bullet blasted a chair inches from Timmons’ head. Johnny returned fire, wounding one of the assailants, and the three lay in a pile as the cowboys left as suddenly as they appeared.
“Ya alright, Mr. Timmons?” Johnny asked as he holstered his Colt. Scott and Timmons got to their feet.
“Yes… I think so. Just a bit shaken!” But Timmons was trembling. Johnny could see it on the man; he was scared to death.
“That was too close,” Scott breathed out a heavy sigh. “Well, they’re gone now. Let’s get to the train.”
Johnny watched down the street, making sure there was no other threat.
Scott handed their tickets to the conductor; it was the same conductor that had been on the train they had just left. This, too, struck them as strange.
The train was only three cars long, not counting the caboose, engine, and tender. The lamps inside the passenger cars cast a creamy glow showing that all three cars were, at this point, empty. Scott and Johnny exchanged glances.
“You sure this is the right train, Boston?” Johnny asked in hushed tones.
“It’s the 7:15 to Red Bluff; it has to be the right train. Come on, let’s get aboard before it gets too full!”
Johnny had to smile at his brother’s attempt at levity. There were no other passengers in sight.
“Alright, the last car, just like before,” Johnny said as he climbed aboard and scouted the interior of the train car. All the shades on the windows were rolled up, exposing all the seating to anyone outside. That ain’t happenin’ Johnny thought. Once they got underway, Johnny would release the straps, effectively blocking any view into the cars from the outside. It was there again, that nudge in his brain that something was not right.
Precisely at 7:15, the train pulled out of Sacramento. There were no others in the car with them, and now on the last but longest leg of their journey, they hoped for a speedy and incident-free passage.
“Scott, I’m gonna go check out that car.” Johnny motioned to the one ahead of them. “I feel like we’re sittin’ ducks in here an’ we need ta know if anyone’s in there.”
Scott looked surprised at first, then nodded, leveling a glance at Timmons. “Do we have any reason to be concerned… Mr. Timmons?”
Harvey Timmons’ eyes widened. “Why are you asking me?”
“Well, my brother has a sixth sense about these kinds of things. If he seems to think there is cause for concern, then chances are, there is a concern.”
“I don’t have anything to tell you.” Timmons turned away from Scott. They suspect something… but can I trust them? I have no clue which side they are on…
Timmons watched as Johnny lowered the thick leather shades and secured them.
“I’ll be right back, Scott,” and as Johnny left for the car ahead of them, Scott sat in the seat next to Timmons with his rifle ready.
Alert for any sign of trouble, Scott was also mentally counting off the minutes as he waited for Johnny to return. Beside him, Timmons shifted in his seat. He looked around, his eyes, once again, wide and wary.
“There’s two men guardin’ him. We can take them; they’re not expectin’ anything, so we can surprise them. C’mon, what are you waitin’ for?” The sound of the door opening at the back of the train car silenced any further discussion.
Johnny scanned the interior. He had intended to pull the shades down over the windows in this car, too; however, there were two occupants. If these two are travelin’ tagether, they’re sittin’ too far apart. If they ain’t tagether, they’re sittin’ too close. It was as if they’d been interrupted and did not want to give the impression they knew the other.
Yup, we’re gonna have a little talk with Timmons… Johnny stood a minute and stared at the men long enough to make them turn and face him. Then he smirked. I’d like ta siddown with those two an’ have us a nice little poker game, cuz they sure as hell don’t have a poker face… As he stood, letting them know he was not fooled by their presence, Johnny’s attention was drawn out the windows as flashes of lightning lit up the sky. The black silhouettes of the trees stood out like sentinels sliding past the windows in a blur.
Giving the two men one last knowing glance that they tried to ignore, Johnny turned and left out the back door. He crossed the platform just as the rain started, gentle at first but increased quickly. He stepped into the car he shared with his brother and their ‘prisoner’. A grin tugged at the corners of his mouth. He knew that Scott would be watching the door he just came through, and Johnny took his time sauntering back to his seat.
As Scott was now in Johnny’s original seat, Johnny slid into the one Scott had vacated, sitting sideways with his back against the wall. There was no way he would provide a clear target to the men from the other car if they were inclined to launch an attack. And Johnny’s instincts were screaming for him to watch his back after he’d caught them talking, their shocked expressions when they realized he’d seen them were a dead give-away.
“Well, we’re in for some weather. Lightnin’s flashin’ pretty heavy. Could get rough the higher inta the mountains we go. Noticed the train’s slowin’ down.”
“Was there anyone in that car, Johnny? I didn’t see anyone around when we boarded the train in Sacramento,” Scott inquired, beginning to feel the tension as he saw the tug at his brother’s mouth.
Johnny sighed, taking time with his answer. Before he spoke, he turned to Timmons, looking the man straight on.
“Yeah. There’s two men in there, an’ they’re lookin’ suspicious. Mr. Timmons,” Johnny hesitated and gave the man time to get nervous. “You, ah, you wouldn’t have anything ta tell us, now would ya? I mean, I can smell somethin’s not right here. So can Scott. I can see it in his eyes, an’ I gotta tell ya, I, for one, don’t appreciate bein’ used.
“Those cowboys before we left Sacramento weren’t just blowin’ off steam. That was planned. They wouldn’t be shootin’ all at once. One woulda started, then more woulda joined in. An’ this train… only three passenger cars? An’ one’s empty, the second has two men an’ the three of us have the third car. Two men that were nowhere around when we got on this train are now sittin’ up there an’ lookin’ mighty suspicious, ta boot. I just get this feelin’ that ya know more’n what ya want us ta know.”
Timmons said nothing, but Johnny could see the sweat beading on his forehead and upper lip. And Johnny smirked.
“What’d ya think, Boston? Timmons, here, wears them spectacles with plain glass in them, an’ for a counterfeiter, his hands look mighty clean. Must use some kind of special ink. Ink that washes off with water, huh? Hey, Scott, did ya see the collar of Timmons’ shirt? It’s all dark like maybe the hair color is wearin’ off. Now, why do ya suppose this here ‘prisoner’ is wearin’ hair dye?” The smirk grew into a cold smile that made Timmons squirm.
“I’m being taken to stand trial for printing money illegally. That’s all I know.”
Scott listened to the conversation and wasn’t buying any of it. “We will get you to Red Bluff, Mr. Timmons, and you will not escape, so don’t even think about it.” Though spoken softly, Scott’s words were chilling, and Johnny couldn’t help but smile.
Timmons wished they would look away and not make him feel as if he were on display. He couldn’t tell them anything! For all he knew, they could be some of those that wanted him dead. No, he would keep quiet and hope to make it to Red Bluff in one piece. He had to make it to Red Bluff.
“Did you see the gun he carried? He’s no deputy, not carryin’ a gun like that!” Rusty Stoner did not like what he had seen, and his imagination was running wild.
“We can take them! There’s five of us and only two of them. What’d ya worryin’ about?”
The front door opened, and the conductor walked in, wearing a smug look. “Have you two come up with a plan? You’ve only got tonight to figure something out.”
“We’ll figure somethin’ out, Charlie, don’t you worry none. We might need some help, though. One of them was just in here an’ he’s not a deputy. Looked more like a gunhawk to me,” Aaron Flemming was considering their options now that he’d seen what they would be up against.
Conductor Charlie studied his accomplices and began to wonder if these two could carry out this mission. They would, no doubt, need the backup that was aboard.
The time passed slowly, their conversation exhausted. They took turns resting, not deep refreshing sleep, but enough to keep them alert and ready for trouble. The weather rumbled outside, and both Scott and Johnny wondered just how many miles they were from Red Bluff.
The conductor stepped into the car, then stopped to brush off the rain that clung to his coat. In the time it took to cross from one car to the other, he was wet.
Looking to Scott, Timmons, and Johnny, he offered a smile, being the attentive sort of person he was. “You folks alright in here?” he asked with feigned concern.
“Yes, thank you,” Scott answered, “We are fine. I take it the weather is deteriorating?” Scott nodded to the drops of water that beaded on the conductor’s coat.
“Yes, it looks like we’re in for a bad time of it. The engineer had to cut back on the speed so we won’t be on time into Red Bluff. But we’ll get there, no need to fret. As long as you folks don’t need anything, I’ll be going. Oh, there are some blankets under that seat there should you need them.” After pointing out the trunk space built under the seat across the aisle, the conductor walked past them and out the back door to the caboose. Before going out, he looked over his shoulder at Timmons then closed the door after him.
Knowing the conductor would return, Johnny made a show of wiping down his Colt and checking the cylinders. He set an insolent grin on his face that was known to rattle the nerves of one on the receiving end. And it didn’t fail him this time either. Minutes later, the conductor entered on his return trip, appearing to check that the lanterns were full of oil. Conductor Charlie felt his heart skip a beat at the sight of the hungry-looking barrel. His face paled, but he quickly recovered and continued on his way.
Alone again, Johnny met Scott’s stare.
“Was there a reason for that little display, brother?”
“Yup. Have you been watchin’ him?”
“Yes, I have. He appears interested in Mr. Timmons,” Scott responded.
“What about it, Mr. Timmons, ya know him? Cuz he sure has been watchin’ you,” Johnny said with that same grin.
“No, I’ve never seen him in my life.” Timmons’ hushed voice could not conceal the tremble that wavered in his words.
“As I said before, you will get to Red Bluff. The only way you will escape will be over our dead bodies.” Scott’s statement made Timmons go pale.
“Please don’t say that,” he whispered.
“Lieutenant, sir, how much longer do ya think it’ll take ta get ta Red Bluff?” Sgt. Taggart asked. The boredom was making him crazy, and the tight quarters of the caboose resembled a jail cell. But staying out of sight was paramount. No one could know they were aboard the train.
“I don’t know, Sergeant, but the conductor said we would be late due to the weather. We’ll make our appearance known if there is trouble, rest assured.”
Sergeants Taggart and Walker exchanged glances. Yeah, we’ll put in our appearance- when we take ‘Timmons’ out… an’ you, too, Lieutenant!
Scott kept watch on the front door, while Johnny watched the back. Pushing the leather shade to the side, Johnny couldn’t see anything other rivulets of water running down the glass, and he could only hope the kerosene lamps on the front of the train stayed lit. Wouldn’t do to have the train careening through the mountains with no lights.
“Hey Scott, toss me that bag, would ya? I’m gettin’ hungry,” Johnny said with a lopsided grin.
Scott shrugged. “And when aren’t you hungry? I swear you have two hollow legs. Where do you put all the food you consume?”
“I’m a growin’ boy, Boston, a growin’ boy.” Johnny grabbed the bag and proceeded to dig around, picking out what he wanted to eat.
Harvey Timmons had sat quietly without uttering a word unless spoken to. Until now. “Why does he call you Boston?” he turned to Scott.
“Because he’s a rowdy younger brother that doesn’t show the least amount of respect to an older and wiser sibling. That’s why… and because I grew up in Boston.”
Johnny turned to them, smiling widely, and chewed his food with enthusiasm.
“What some, Mr. Timmons?” Johnny asked as he held out the bag for Timmons to take.
“No… no, I couldn’t eat a bite. Aren’t you expecting trouble?” These men aren’t making any sense! They are expecting trouble, and they are eating and joking… They have no clue what they’re in for!
“Yup. An’ soon.” Johnny said as he attacked his sandwich. “That’s why I’m eatin’ now. Hate fightin’ on a empty stomach. Scott, ya better eat, too. Didn’t your Army trainin’ teach ya anything?” Johnny licked his fingers, now satisfied with something in his belly.
“Brother, with the training I’ve had…”
A rumble from the mountain drowned out their words as violent tremors shook the train. Thunderous roaring filled the air around them, reverberating off the granite mountains to engulf the train and all those on board. A second later, the car lurched sickeningly with a brutal concussion as it left the tracks, nearly toppling on its side before it pounded to a halt. The impact threw them forward as Scott and Timmons crashed into Johnny; the seatback broke, viciously slamming them to the hard floor in a tangle of arms and legs.
Johnny barely registered the tortured screech of couplers bending, the metal rails twisting and blared in a thunderous declaration of a collision. Their train car tilted upward then crashed down with a tremendous impact that pounded their heads on the wooden floor. The car settled as it listed at an angle, not quite on its side. Navigating the center aisle could not be done unless hanging onto the seats. Outside, rocks pelted the train, breaking through the windows, then the assault tapered off and finally stopped.
The saddlebags Scott and Johnny stowed under the seat slid to the front of the car but remained buckled, not allowing the ammunition they carried to scatter on the floor.
Now the only thing they could hear was the rain beating against the side of the train car and the groan of the wooden construction as it was forced to flex and contort with the stress of the odd angle.
Scott and Johnny scrambled to their feet, assessing the damage.
“Mr. Timmons! Are you alright?” Scott quickly made it to Timmons’ side. The man was stunned and shaken, but otherwise, alright.
“What… what happened?” the words whispered as he looked into Scott’s face. “You’re bleeding, Mr. Lancer.”
“Hey, Boston, ya alright?” Johnny came to his side as he examined the gash on his brother’s forehead. “You’ll be alright, with a head that hard, nothing’s gonna do much harm. We gotta find out what happened, Scott. I’m gonna take a look-see, you stay here with him an’ keep that rifle ready.”
Johnny stood struggling to navigate the tilted floor when the back door opened, scraping against the torqued frame. A blast of cold air washed through the car as Johnny grabbed his Colt and leveled the barrel at the blue-uniformed chest before the door was fully opened.
“It’s alright, gentlemen, I’m Lt. Hastings of the United States Army! It’s alright, my men and I are here to help! Is there anyone in the next car?” Hastings asked.
“There were two men in there when the train left Sacramento,” Johnny responded.
“Sergeants Taggart, and Walker, check it out!”
“Yes, sir, Lieutenant!” The two sergeants left by the back door and ventured out into the rain.
Hastings turned to Johnny and Scott. “Are you alright?” he questioned, motioning to the gash on the bloodied forehead.
“Yes, just a bit of a cut. It will be fine.” Scott sighed.
“You, sir?” Hastings watched as Timmons struggled to get his feet under him.
“Yes, I’m… fine.”
Johnny looked to the Lieutenant. “What’re you boys doin’ here?”
“We’re on our way to Red Bluff. I think we should try and see what happened out there. Are you hurt?” His eyes scanned the young man before him and saw nothing to indicate an injury.
“Nope, I’m fine. Scott, keep that rifle close an’ don’t hesitate to use it,” Johnny warned, his voice firm and grim.
“Be careful, brother!” Scott called out.
“Always am, Boston!” Johnny flashed his Johnny Madrid Lancer smile and followed the Lieutenant out the door.
The rain was cold. It felt as if tiny needles were piercing the exposed skin. The two sergeants joined them after they assured themselves that the two men in the other car were alright and asked for their assistance in checking the status of the train crew.
Johnny hung to the back of the group, attention now on the two men he suspected as trouble and making sure they stayed in front of him. Suspicions continued to grow regarding this whole issue. Soldier boys ridin’ in the caboose ‘on their way ta Red Bluff—‘ Why not ride in the cars along with the passengers… unless they ain’t supposed ta be seen?
Hastings passed the platform between the first and second cars, he swung the lantern around to reveal the conductor sprawled halfway down the steps to the ground. He was obviously dead. This car stood almost vertical, leaning on boulders and trunks of trees. Johnny looked up, unable to see anything in the dark, and was rewarded with the shocking kiss of cold rain stinging his face.
“Alright, everyone!” Hastings, raising his voice above the howling storm, began as he took stock of the situation. “Everyone here is now subject to the authority of the U.S. Army! I’m taking command of the situation and would appreciate your cooperation! We need to work together. You two,” and he motioned to the men Johnny was keeping under surveillance, “see to the conductor. The rest of us will check out the engine,” and he began moving forward. But the way was blocked. There was nothing but rocks, mud, and trees ripped out of the ground. The roots resembled skeletal fingers desperately reaching for help. The entire engine and tender were buried under tons of debris.
“My God!” Hastings muttered, his words swept away in the wind. “The whole mountainside came down on them. That first car came close to stacking right on top of them!”
Johnny inwardly cringed thinking on the engineer and fireman’s horrific deaths and knew it was too late to do anything for them now.
Lt. Hastings tore his eyes from the dark pile of rubble. Somehow it was worse imagining what was there in the dark. Getting a grip on his emotions, he was again in charge. “Sergeants Taggart and Walker!”
“Yes, sir, Lieutenant!” they called in unison.
“Search the train for anything we can use and report back to the last car!”
“Yes, sir,” the duet rang out.
“I never got your name, sir,” Hastings asked Johnny.
“Well, first of all, ya can drop the sir. My name’s Johnny.”
“Alright, Johnny, I think we need to stay together. There’s nothing any of us can do except to wait for help.”
“What’d are we gonna do now, Taggart?” Walker whined.
“I’ll tell ya what you’re gonna do! Shoot Hastings, now, an’ the man with him!” Taggart ground out.
With no hesitation, Walker snugged the rifle to his shoulder, took aim, and fired.
“Yeah, guess you’re…” The shot rang out, eerie and oddly deafening above the rain, and Lieutenant Hastings fell to the muddy ground at Johnny’s feet with a bullet in his back.
Johnny dropped to the ground, the Colt in hand as the rifle report exploded. The next bullet hit the side of the car; the hole splintered the wood where Johnny’s head would have been had he not followed Hastings descent. Returning fire, he crawled to the Lieutenant’s side and began dragging Hastings back to the car where Scott and Timmons huddled, no doubt, filled with worry.
With a handful of the Lieutenant’s collar, the going was slow. Slower than what was healthy. His mind was spinning. Why would anyone want to kill Lt. Hastings? Concentrating on the job at hand, Johnny kept going as quickly as was possible. In a few minutes, he was standing beside the train at the rear of their passenger car.
“Scott!” Johnny called before he opened the door. “Scott, it’s me; I need some help!”
The door opened, and Scott recognized his brother. “Johnny, I heard a shot! What happened?” He backed away when Johnny came through the door with a body across his shoulders. Reaching the corner where Timmons sat huddled and shaking, Johnny gently laid the Lieutenant on the slanted floor next to him, and the man paled.
“Don’t know who fired, but I think it was one of the sergeants. They were behind us,” Johnny panted as he lowered himself to the floor and began to assess Hastings’s injury. “Scott, see if you can blow out that lamp on the other side. We’ll turn this one down so they can’t see. Limit their targets. Maybe, with any luck, they’ll run out of bullets.” Not likely that’ll happen.
“Why would the sergeants want to shoot him? Unless… they’re not sergeants…” Scott stared at his brother, searching for answers. Then, in unison, they turned to glare at Timmons.
“You are not a prisoner, are you, Timmons?” Scott challenged as the thought began to take root. Things were starting to make more sense.
“Scott, gimme a hand, here. Ya can talk while you’re workin’. Gotta get this bleedin’ stopped,” Johnny said as he peeled the uniform from the Hasting’s torso. Even in the dim light, Johnny could see the wound was severe. Scott reached into the bag of food, remembering the packed napkins. They would use them to staunch the blood flow. Grabbing the cotton cloths, he handed them to Johnny to press against the wound.
“Alright, Timmons, you can explain everything… now!” The irritation in Scott’s voice made Johnny grin for a moment.
“With the attempted murder of a United States Army officer, you could be in some very serious trouble, and I strongly suggest you start talking. Now, if you please, we are listening, but you’d better hurry. I don’t think our traveling companions will wait much longer.” Scott faced Timmons and waited. The man was conflicted and scared; Scott could see the turbulence in his face.
He’d been sworn to secrecy. He didn’t know if he could trust these two, but he had no choice. To divulge any information had the potential to make this whole mission fail. And that could not happen.
“Mr. Timmons, I know you don’t know us, don’t trust us, but I can tell you this. We will get you to Red Bluff, but we need ta know what’s goin’ on.” Johnny shifted his eyes from his task to study the timid man before him. “Lemme tell ya this. Scott here was an officer in the Union Army. Even had his picture taken with… who’s that again, Scott?”
“General Phil Sheridan. I was under his command.”
“Did you say Phil Sheridan?” Timmons’ eyes widened.
“The one and the same,” Scott confirmed with a slight smile.
Timmons closed his eyes and sighed deeply, “Oh, thank God!”
Johnny, his attention on the wounded Hastings, continued. “You can trust him, Mr. Timmons. An’ you can trust me, too. I used ta work range wars, mostly down by the border. I was paid a lot of money to protect people an’ ta defend their ranches. Fightin’ ain’t anything new to either of us, so I think ya need ta trust us on this.”
Was he doing the right thing? Timmons really didn’t know, but suddenly he made his choice. Good, bad, or otherwise, he made his choice.
“You are right. I am not a prisoner. We thought this would be a disguise to throw the men after me off my track. I am sure, now, that there was inside help. My name is Jacob Henderson. I have critical information that needs to be given to the authorities in Red Bluff.” Timmons, rather Henderson, breathed deeply.
“What kind of information, Mr. Henderson? I wanna know what I’m fightin’ for,” Johnny urged him for more.
Again, Henderson was apprehensive.
“Mr. Henderson, I never took a job in a range war before I knew if I was fightin’ on the right side or not. I wasn’t gonna risk my life fightin’ for something I didn’t believe in.” Johnny leveled a hard stare at the man.
No choice… “There is a movement by Southern sympathizers to resurrect the Confederacy. I have proof, and it needs to be stopped.”
The involuntary gasp escaped Scott’s lips as he felt his heart plummet to his feet, taking all the blood along with it. His head felt as if it were stuffed with sand, heavy and suffocating, and the images, once again, exploded in his mind as if ignited by cannon fire. The horrifying sights played out in his brain, and the stench of burning and rotting bodies overwhelmed him, threatening to drag him to a place he vowed he would never go again.
“Scott! Hey, Scott! Stay with me, Boston!” Johnny’s voice came from far away. He felt hands on his shoulders, and he struggled mightily to the surface, out of the nightmare that was beginning to pull him under and into the depths of Hell. Cannon fire, smoke, and death… Johnny, find Johnny! And Scott focused his eyes to look into the worried face of his brother.
Johnny smiled. “Sorry ta interrupt ya, Boston. Ya looked far away, but I don’t think we have much time. Ya alright?” Relieved now that Scott seemed to be ‘back’ with them, Johnny’s heart rate returned to normal.
“Yes, yes… that was a shock to hear. Mr. Tim… Henderson, you’re sure about this?”
“There is no doubt in my mind. I wouldn’t be risking my life if it were not true, believe me, gentlemen.”
Scott quickly stuffed a hand into his pocket and retrieved the key to the cuffs. He reached across, inserted the key, and with a twist, the metallic click sounded as the cuffs popped open.
“Mr. Henderson, can you use a gun?” Johnny asked, hoping beyond hope the answer would be yes.
“I abhor guns…”
“That may be, but can you use one? We just might need your help. There’s four of them, an’ we don’t know where exactly they are right now. If I were them, I’d be thinkin’ about rushin’ this car. Scott’s got a cracked head, an’ I don’t think the Lieutenant’ll be up for fightin’ even if he does come around. Won’t be till mornin’ for anyone ta come lookin’ for us. We gotta make it through the night. So, we need you.” Johnny spelled it out in no uncertain terms.
Henderson shrugged. “Alright…” he said, dragging out the word.
The yell penetrated the night, piercing, and unearthly. It jolted Scott, and Johnny watched as his brother’s eyes widened in nightmares of horrific assaults. But it was quickly replaced with firm determination. He breathed deeply, getting a hold of long-buried emotions. The Rebel Yell. It was designed to strike fear and terror in the hearts of enemies. And it worked.
Scott shook his head as if to clear the horrors away. “I prayed to God that I would never again hear that!” He squeezed his eyes shut, then opened them, blinked, and blinked again.
“The only thing I can come up with if we stay here is ta keep quiet until they come through the door. They have ta be smart enough ta guard both doors, an’ I don’t see any other way outta here. The only thing we got goin’ for us is it’s dark out there.” Running scenarios through his head, Johnny discarded them all.
Bullets began to shatter the windows, and the rain poured in mixed with shards of glass. The leather shades still blocked most of the view into the train car, but it wouldn’t be long before they were shredded and useless. All it would take is a lantern to be lobbed into the car and burn them out.
Johnny grabbed a blanket and scooted up the tilted floor. He arranged it below a broken window, soaking up the rainwater. Then he made his way back over to Scott.
“If they decide ta burn us out, at least we’ll have somethin’ ta cut the flames. That wet blanket’ll help.” Johnny thought a minute. “Ya know what we could use, Boston?”
“No, what could we use, brother?”
“Just what do you have in that devious mind of yours?”
“Well, I need ta find out how many are out there an’ where they are. There were four that I knew of, but maybe I didn’t see ‘em all. But maybe I can get behind them an’, how do you military men say it? Maybe even dispatch one or two,” Johnny said with an evil smile.
“Absolutely not! You are not going out there! I won’t let…”
“Ya got nothin’ ta say about it, Boston. I’m goin’ an’ I could use some help. Now, I can do this alone, done it before, but you could make it a whole lot easier for me.” Johnny leveled Scott with a stare.
Why does he do this to me? I can’t let him go out there! I can’t lose him now!”
“Scott, trust me. I know what I’m doin’. Start shootin’ out the door an’ draw their fire. I’ll stay low an’ keep outta sight. Ready?”
The stare, unshakable as it pierced Scott, told him that his brother was going to do this and was going to do it now…
“No, I’m not ready…”
“Good, cover me, Boston, you too, Mr. Henderson!” Johnny hurried to the back door. “Start shootin’!” And at the first sound of the rifles, Johnny eased the door open. The low lamp eliminated light. Drawing no fire, Johnny slipped into the darkness.
The rifle shots rang steady, temporarily stunning the assault team. They scattered for cover, dodged the random shots then returned fire.
“Hey, Taggart! I think I just seen that back door open. I think someone came outta there, but he got away in the dark!”
“Well, what’d ya waitin’ for, ya idiot! Go find him!” Taggart didn’t wait for a response. He inched over to the others. “Walker thinks he seen someone come out the back of that car. We gotta stop him. If ya see somethin’, shoot! We hafta get Henderson! You two go to the opposite side and start shootin’ from there!”
Johnny kept to the side of the train. He peered through the dark, trying to pinpoint where assassins were. He saw the fiery muzzle flash in the inky black of the night, but the shots fired through the windows had come from the other side. Guns were firing on them from both sides now, numbering four if he had to guess. Johnny inched along the train getting to the rear of the caboose. With no time to sit and figure things out, he went with his gut. Whoever was out there would be watching the front and back entrances of their passenger car, not the caboose. But, if he ran into a problem, say a nasty man with a loaded gun, he would be waiting, and Johnny couldn’t help but smile. He reached into his boot and pulled out a knife. He was ready. Now he only had to find them.
The caboose provided adequate cover. It had derailed, but its momentum had been drastically slowed by the car ahead and sat just off the tracks with minimal damage. Johnny climbed to the platform on the back, then scanned the interior. No one was there. The lamp inside still burned to shed enough light, and satisfied he was alone, Johnny turned to the right side of the caboose. Slowly he took a quick look around the corner. Ignoring the cold rain that soaked his clothes, he went to his haunches, taking in what he could see around him, which was not much. A swift glance under the car saved his life, combined with the divine intervention of more lightning. Boots. Someone was walking alongside where Johnny had been less than a minute ago.
He stood and slipped onto the rear platform to wait.
Walker eased his way down the side of the car. He knew he’d seen one of those men. But hell, he couldn’t see anything now. Gotta get that bastard! Hafta get him… An arm snaked out of the black and slithered around his neck, pulling tight as a knife flashed in front of his face.
“Not a word, pendejo! You so much as sneeze, an’ I’m gonna slit your throat. Understand?” the low growl threatened. Johnny grabbed the gun out of the man’s hand and shoved it in his belt.
Walker’s eyes bulged as the air whooshed out of his lungs. “Under… understand,” he gasped.
“Nice an’ easy, now, back the way ya came. If ya don’t do nothin’ stupid, ya just might live through this. But I ain’t countin’ on it. Now, move,” the harsh whisper behind him commanded.
Lonnie Walker had no other option. He either went with the man holding him in a death grip or got his throat slit. It wasn’t much of a choice.
A bolt of lightning lit up the mountainside, and the ear-shattering thunder rolled as if more of the mountain was coming down on top of them. It quickly went dark, and Johnny shoved his prisoner ahead of him to the back door of their car.
“Scott, it’s me,” and Johnny backed in as he dragged the man in behind him, using him as a shield.
Scott breathed a deep sigh of relief at the sight of his brother with no extra holes in him.
“Hey, look what I found out there! Guess they ain’t too picky about who they have fightin’ for them.” Johnny grinned as he pushed his captive to the floor with more force than was necessary.
Scott’s eyes flicked over the Army uniform the man wore, and a shiver slid down his spine when he recognized one of the two soldiers that had accompanied Lt. Hastings just after the crash. “Could you see how many are out there?” he asked Johnny. “They’re down one now.”
“How do ya know I’m with them?” Walker snarled. “I’m trying to help you protect him!” nodding to Henderson.
“Mr. Henderson, can you identify this man? He seems to know you,” Scott questioned. He needed to make sure and didn’t want to eliminate a possible gun for their side if the man was who he said he was.
They collectively ducked as another volley of bullets crashed through the windows. Sporadic shots continued to pepper the car.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t know who they all are. I do know that they are growing in numbers and have to be stopped quickly.” Henderson looked worried. Scared and worried.
Scott took the cuffs that so recently had been on Henderson’s wrists and snapped them on the prisoner.
“Wait! I’m on your side!” Walker’s voice just became an octave higher as more glass shattered, and the shades bucked as the bullets penetrated them.
“If you’re on our side, why’d ya shoot the Lieutenant?” Johnny asked quickly.
“I didn’t shoot him! Taggart did.”
“Why?” Johnny kept the questions coming.
“I don’t know. You’ll have to ask him.”
“So, your fellow sergeant would simply shoot your lieutenant for no reason?” Scott joined in. “That’s attempted murder. You couldn’t stop him?”
“I didn’t know he was gonna do it or why he did it!” Walker kept getting louder.
“So, your partner just shot your commanding officer in the back for no reason, huh? An’ he was gonna trust you ta not say anything? You two must be workin’ tagether.” Johnny had seen in the dim light a flash of panic in the man’s eyes.
“No! He doesn’t know who I am! He thinks I’m one of them!” Walker’s calm was escaping him.
“Then why didn’t you shoot him? The man just shot your commanding officer, an’ you didn’t do anything about it? You’re lyin’,” Johnny’s resolute response caused Walker to pause.
“I couldn’t let the rest of them know who I am!” Walker persisted.
Dismissing Walker for the moment, Scott, Johnny, and Henderson returned fire.
“Hey, Scott, if we can get inta the car behind us, we might be able ta hole up till help comes. The only windows are on the front an’ back doors, an’ if we can get in there, maybe there’ll be somethin’ ta put over them an’ block the view inside. What’d ya think, Boston? Think the Lieutenant can be moved?”
Scott again checked the bandages around Hastings. “Sounds like the best option to me, Johnny. There’s nothing more we can do for him. Think we can all get back there without getting ourselves killed?” Scott asked as he returned fire.
“Dunno, but I figure if I can get inta that car and douse the light, you and Mr. Henderson there can take the Lieutenant, and I’ll take this one, SCOTT! Lookout!” Johnny brushed Scott aside as a shadow at the window of the front door fired into the car. The bullet, fired in haste, went wild, but Johnny’s did not. There was a satisfying cry of pain, and the shadow fell out of sight.
“Thanks, brother! I think we should move with all due haste!”
“Mr. Henderson, you keep an eye on our guest till I get back. If he moves, shoot ‘im. I’m gonna blow out this lamp. Maybe I can get out the back without annonucin’ what our plan is. Keep firin’, Boston; I’ll be back as soon as I can!” Johnny gathered their saddlebags and the sack of food, then left the corner as he grabbed the lamp.
Quickly, he extinguished the flame, and with the lantern in hand, he slipped out onto the platform at the rear of their car and waited. The shots continued to split the night, their sharp reports adding to the deafening thunder and sounding as if the world was coming to an end.
As if sent by God Himself, lightning hit a tree behind the two firing from the right side of the train. The blinding light temporarily robbed them of sight, and Johnny took advantage to jump across onto the platform to the intended refuge. He lunged into the last car without delay and slammed the door, throwing the saddlebags and food in the corner. Extinguishing the lantern there, he navigated around for the return trip, grateful the floor was free of debris. It would be challenging enough in the dark without having to avoid tripping or falling over anything lying about. Fervently hoping the lightning would hold off, Johnny slipped out the door and swiftly made it back to their passenger car.
“Scott!” Johnny pushed his way through the door and crouched down.
“Ya ready? Mr. Henderson? We gotta get in there quick as we can.” Johnny wondered how Henderson was holding up. Well, there was nothing he could do about that now. They needed to get out of the spot they were in, and fast.
“Johnny, help me get Hastings across my shoulders, Mr. Henderson, you go first, but you’re going to have to take my rifle,” Scott said as he gently struggled, with Johnny’s help, to get the Lieutenant off the floor and carry him across to relative safety.
Walker gauged their moves. Could he escape? Both of his captors were more than capable with a gun, but he couldn’t just sit here and wait. He’d taken an oath to the Confederate States and hoped to make President Jefferson Davis proud even though he was no longer the president.
One glance at the man told both Scott and Johnny more trouble was brewing.
“Guess it’s time ta move. Mr. Henderson, get on through that door as quick as you can,” Johnny said as Hastings was now settled across Scott’s shoulders. “Mr. Soldier on the Floor, don’t ya get no stupid ideas. I’d hate ta hafta… no, I wouldn’t hate ta do it.” Johnny leveled a glare, followed by an evil smile. “Get up, alright, go!”
Jacob Henderson raced across the platform quickly, followed by Scott. Just as Johnny was about to go, another round of bullets smashed through the windows and took a shade down with them. Johnny again looped an arm around Walker’s neck and backed out the door. If he were going to get shot at, he would have some protection, and he kept Walker’s body in front of him.
Crossing the platform, luck wasn’t on their side as lightning lit up the sky in glaring clarity, illuminating them as clearly as if it were noon on a bright, sunny day. Walker struggled, knowing he was going to be shot by his own men. Johnny’s arm tightened as he whispered: “I’m gonna blow your spine in two if ya cause any trouble, pendejo!” Then suddenly they were in the safety of the last train car.
“Scott, close the door while I get him settled somewhere,” Johnny grunted as he shoved Walker to the floor. “Mr. Henderson, you alright?”
“Yes, thank you, ” Henderson panted.
Johnny could hear the hard breathing as if the man had just run a mile. He was shaken.
“You got the key, Scott? I wanna get him secured where he ain’t gonna get in the way,” Johnny said as he felt for his brother’s hand and took the piece of metal. On Johnny’s initial visit to the caboose, he saw a steel bracket fixed to the wall, a brace more than likely installed to stabilize a large object to not move during transit. It was the perfect spot to secure Mr. Soldier Man.
They hung heavy sheets of canvas over the windows in the doors that would block the lantern’s light. Safe, now, they lit the lamps and took in their surroundings. It wasn’t much, but it was dry and relatively safe for now.
Johnny found a length of rope then smiled at Scott. The wicked grin spoke of an idea. Going to Walker, now secured to the wall, Johnny looped the rope around the man’s neck and threaded it through more brackets around the car. Then he reached the door. He pulled the rope tight, taking out any slack, and knotted the tether to the door handle.
“Hey! You can’t do this! What’d ya tryin’ ta do, kill me?” Walker protested, his panic growing.
“No, I ain’t tryin’ ta kill you,” Johnny replied with a grin. “Ya won’t do us any good if you’re dead. How’re we gonna tell if anyone’s gonna try an’ sneak in here if you’re dead? Boy, Scott, some folks just got no sense! If this was the best of the Confederacy, it ain’t no wonder they lost…” he laughed and shook his head. “The way I figure it, Boston, there’s only two at the most out there. An’ that ain’t countin’ the conductor, he didn’t look so good the last time I saw him,” Johnny couldn’t forget the sight of the conductor. His neck twisted at an odd angle. Musta broke it…
Scott rechecked the Lieutenant. The man was not doing well. Although the bleeding had stopped, Scott suspected there was much internal damage. His breathing was shallow and rapid. They propped him up, leaning against a pile of canvas, hoping the slight incline would help the man draw breath.
Scott stood and looked around them. “Well, I guess that’s it. There’s nothing more to do but to wait. Mr. Henderson, who were you to report to when you arrived in Red Bluff?”
“A General Brennan. Upon hearing the correct password, I was to go with him.”
Walker grinned. They had the password. Their inside spy secured the secret information to enable a successful capture of Jacob Henderson. All they needed to do was to get to Red Bluff. These two currently escorting Henderson, would deliver him into the hands of the awaiting Confederates disguised as Union soldiers. Now that the train was late, the Confederate sympathizers in Red Bluff would know something was wrong. If there was no word sent along the way notifying them the plans were still on track, the team in Red Bluff knew that phase two would be implemented to eliminate Henderson from delivering the crucial names, dates, and places that would condemn their plans to fail.
Giving it a second thought, Walker decided to settle in and not do anything that could raise any more suspicion on his part. It would work out either way. Kill Henderson tonight or wait until the Confederates from Red Bluff get here to take command. He couldn’t help but smile to himself. They would win. The Confederate flag would stand tall and proud over the southern states once again, and this time for good.
Scott and Johnny reloaded and checked their Colts and rifles, getting ready for another attack. After hearing Henderson admit to the secret mission he’d undertaken, there was no doubt in either of their minds this was not over, not by a long shot. They had to be ready.
Scott’s military training had kicked in. Firmly instilled in his brain and accessible at a moment’s notice, he was once again a soldier; the time spent at Libby did nothing to erase his dedication to his country.
On the other hand, Johnny readied himself altogether differently, but dedicated to his cause, like his brother. Where he’d been in the Mexican army, his training was not as regimented as his brother’s. He had developed his own fighting skills during the range wars and security jobs he and Val worked along the border. He laughed to himself, thinking that what one of them didn’t know regarding a looming battle, the other one did.
So, now they settled in to wait, each in his own way. Henderson huddled in the corner; he jumped nervously with every crash of the booming thunder. Walker, strangely quiet, sat with a grin he had to fight to keep from his lips.
Both Scott and Johnny noticed but said nothing. Johnny reached into his boot and withdrew his knife. The balanced weapon gleamed in the low light, the wicked blade razor sharp and hungry. He held it in his hands, tenderly caressing as if it were an entity, a smooth, sensual being that deserved his worship.
“Ya know, Scott, when I lived with them Apaches, I learned lots a things about makin’ people talk when they didn’t wanna,” Johnny said, not taking his eyes from the blade.
Knowing what his brother was doing, Scott indulged in the conversation. “Just what exactly did you learn, Johnny?” he asked, feigning his innocence and ignorance to the hilt.
“Well, them Apache squaws, ha, they can make a man scream a long time usin’ their knives. The knives don’t hafta be all that sharp, either. An’ after the squaws were done, well, let’s just put it this way, them captives, if they lived, don’t hafta worry about makin’ any bastard brats— ever again!” Johnny lifted his eyes to meet those of an appalled Walker and grinned broadly. His blue eyes held just a bit more sparkle than they had before.
“Well, I’d say that that would be a very persuasive technique. How long did it take?” Scott asked, taking a perverse pleasure as he watched Walker twitch.
“Ohhh, they could make it last a coupla days. Depended on how tough the man thought he was…” Johnny laughed.
Walker squirmed in his place on the wall as Johnny continued to caress the blade lovingly. Then he leaned forward and whispered to Walker. “Them Apaches are good teachers. I learned a lotta things from them.” He sat back and nudged Scott with his elbow. “I ever tell ya about the time Red Wolf,” he stopped and turned to Walker. “Red Wolf, he’s my adopted father,” then focused his attention back on Scott. “I ever tell ya about Red Wolf teaching me ta skin out a deer?”
As if hanging on every word, Scott shook his head no.
After a very long and detailed explanation, with Scott vowing to try it the next hunting trip they took, Johnny stopped again to look at Walker. “It works on a man, too,” he whispered as he stared at the prisoner, then he slowly raised his left brow, giving him a sardonic appearance.
“Hey, I’m hungry! What’d we got left in that bag ta eat, Boston?” Johnny asked as if the conversation as of seconds before never existed. He chuckled to himself as Walker sat with glazed eyes staring into nothing but did feel bad for Henderson, who looked sick.
“What’d ya think they’re doin’ in there, Flemming?” Rusty Stoner was running out of patience. “They shot Taggart an’ Walker’s missin’!”
“How the hell’m I ‘spposta know? An’ I ain’t goin’ ta that door, either! That fella that saw us in the train car, he didn’t look like he would bluff easy. With that gun strapped low on his hip like he had, hell, he prob’bly killed Walker. He knew what we was doin’ there, too. Jus’ the fact that Walker ain’t back yet has gotta tell ya somethin’!” Aaron Flemming knew they wouldn’t be finishing this alone. They would have to wait until morning when the other sympathizers would come to get Henderson.
“They been too quiet. Wonder if we shot ‘em?” Stoner said.
“One way ta find out. Go take a look-see in that train car…”
Harry Porter sat in the Red Bluff telegraph office, drifting off to sleep. Sheriff Spencer had asked him for a favor. A message might be coming in, but the Sheriff wasn’t sure when it could happen. He needed someone to be in the office just in case it would come outside of normal office hours and be notified when the message arrived.
It had been a very long night. Harry played solitaire until the cards blurred in front of his eyes. He drank enough coffee to make him float, and he read every piece of paper in the office.
“Dang! I’m tired of sitting here. I want to go home and go to bed. Don’t folks have enough sense to send telegrams at a decent hour? What the heck do they think? I’m just a normal guy that likes…”
The telegraph key began tapping out the message, and Harry grabbed the pencil.
To Gen. Calvin Brennan—New officer on time— Keep to schedule— No delay.
He pounded on the sheriff’s door until the sock-footed Spencer hastily donned his pants then pulled the portal open to reveal a very tired and rumpled Harry Porter.
“Did somethin’ come in, Harry?”
“Yes, I’m taking it to the General right now!” and off he went to deliver the message General Brennan was waiting for.
Ten minutes later, Spencer watched a detail of seven soldiers as they made their way toward the Red Bluff train station… It was too dark to be sure, but none of them looked like General Brennan.
Sheriff Spencer went to the station to wait for the train. Something was wrong; it was thirty minutes late. Confirmed by the station master after reporting there had been no contact with this train, Spencer’s doubts began to grow after hearing of the delay and the soldier’s exit from town.
That nagging feeling started to build in his belly. He worked his way to General Brennan’s camp on the outskirts of town. No one was there. Taking the time to search the General’s tent, his suspicions were confirmed. The General’s quarters had been ransacked, and blood splattered the inside of the canvas walls. Spencer’s belly flipped as dread flooded through his veins.
Spencer raced to the telegraph office just as Harry was locking the door to head home. “Harry, did you give the message to Gen. Brennan?”
“Sure did! Soon as you told me to. Didn’t you see the soldiers ride out of town?”
Sheriff Spenser’s heart skipped a beat. He had to notify the Governor.
Rusty Stoner was not a brave man. There was no way he would stick his neck out and let that gunfighter blow his head off. But if they waited long enough, the sympathizers in Red Bluff, masquerading as General Brennan and his troops, would be here to take over. All they needed to do was wait.
“Harry! Have to send an urgent message!” The two men entered the building and slammed the door, then flipped the ‘closed’ sign in the window.
“What’s goin’ on, Rich? Urgent messages coming in and going out, what’s the trouble?” Harry grumbled, knowing he would not be getting his rest for who knew how long.
“No questions, Harry! This is government business an’ needs to be kept quiet. Consider yourself sworn to secrecy!” Spencer replied as the pencil scratched over the paper, scribbling out the message he had to send. “Here, send this immediately!”
Governor Steve Bronson—Trouble— Send help— General Brennan missing— Suspected imposters— Situation grave
Porter tapped out the message in record time. “Alright, do we wait for a …” and he suddenly stopped and stared at the sheriff. The name at the bottom, ‘Rich’: it was on a personal level. “You never mentioned you knew the Governor,” Harry said as his mouth hung open.
Spencer replied absently. “There’s a lot about me you don’t know, Harry. I need you to find Joe Tyler and bring him to my office, then you come back here and wait for anything the Governor might send. Thanks, Harry!”
“Sure, Sheriff! What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to find Billy Mason. No more questions, Harry, just do what I ask!” And Spencer was out the door.
Harry was stunned. Joe Tyler and Billy Mason had fought bravely in the war and had the scars to prove it. So did Rich Spencer. What’s going on around here?
Scott attempted to get water into the Lieutenant. The man was hanging on by a thread, and unless help arrived soon, he wouldn’t make it.
“Well, brother, are you going to make me ask?” He’d waited long enough and needed to hear the story behind his rowdy younger brother’s days living with the Indians. Scott looked at their prisoner. Both Walker and Henderson were sleeping, so it appeared to be the opportune time to ask. Besides, he was bored.
“What’d ya wanna know, Boston?” Johnny asked as he tipped his hat back on his head.
“Was all that true, about what you learned living with the Apaches?”
Johnny had to hold back the laugh that threatened. “Oh, hell, no! I mean, they had their ways, but I didn’t learn any of them! Seen it done once, though. An’, yeah, the guy screamed for days,” Johnny said with a grimace.
Scott said nothing for a moment as the color drained from his face. “It’s quite drastic. I hope the punishment fit the crime,” he said in disgust.
“Rape an’ murder. She didn’t die easy. So, neither did he.”
“Governor Bronson, this just came in for you. It’s marked urgent.”
“Thank you, Mr. Smith.” Bronson read the message and decided against a reply, then, “Send this, immediately, Mr. Smith!” He scribbled out a request for backup.
Cptn. Sutter- Fort Mills— Needed urgently—Intercept suspected imposters south of Red Bluff— Train late—New officer in jeopardy—Move at once—Last known position north of Tehama
Mr. Smith left the office. Governor Bronson then wrote out a second message. This one to the commanding officer at the Presidio.
Cptn Jamison- The Presidio— Warning— Enemy activity detected— Increase security until further notice
The Governor sat at his desk, hoping he’d been in time with the warning to Capt. Jamison at the Presidio. A vast supply of guns stored there could not fall into enemy hands! Though guarded securely, it would take a near miracle to intercept them, but Bronson was taking no chances. He inwardly groaned. Enemy hands! This can’t happen!
There was nothing more he could do. He had known this was not the right plan. Sheriff Spencer had not been permitted to contact General Brennan other than to show where the soldiers were to camp. The fewer people that knew about this, the better he’d been told. Now, apparently, General Brennan and his men had been captured and were quite possibly dead. Had Spencer been involved, his experience with classified military operations could have been of benefit, and the secret detail wouldn’t be at risk.
Scott slowly lifted a corner of the canvas that covered the windows. “It’s early, but at least it’s light. How long do you figure it will take for someone to find us, brother?”
“Dunno, Boston. Guess it depends on how far we are from Red Bluff. How fast can your soldier boys move out?” Johnny asked with a grin.
“I think you would be impressed.” Scott risked moving the shade to allow a better view of their surroundings. “We haven’t been sitting here all that long. Three or so hours, I’d say. But they have to know by now the train is not coming in. Help should be here shortly.”
Scott moved to Johnny’s side as, once again, they monitored Hastings condition. Johnny raised his eyes to his brother and shook his head. “Not good.”
Josiah Flynn sent his scouts ahead to find the train. Disguised as Army soldiers, they could bluff their way through if need be. But they had to move quickly; their time was limited as he was sure any suspicions by the enemy were now acted upon. The Unioncouldn’t risk losing Henderson, and the Confederacy couldn’t let Henderson live. Flynn, alias General Calvin Brennan, was confident he and his men could reach Henderson before the Union could figure out what happened. He had the password, and quite an appropriate password it was. ‘April 9, 1865’. The date that signified the end to the war. Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse on that day. But we will change that. It’s not over yet!
At Fort Mills, a secret military training facility twenty-one miles southwest of Red Bluff, Captain Cliff Sutter re-read the wire. Summoning his sergeant, he and his soldiers were in the saddle in minutes. The ten highly trained men left the fort and headed northeast, ready for anything. The telegram was vague but urgent. There was trouble, and Captain Sutter and his men were ready for it.
Sheriff Richard Spencer, Joe Tyler, and Billy Mason rode as if the devil himself was on their tail. They took a longer route, hoping to get around the soldiers that left Red Bluff and beat them to the train. If they could accomplish this, they could, more than likely, hold off the imposters long enough for help to arrive. It was a gamble, but it was the only choice they had. Spencer sincerely hoped the men guarding Henderson could hold down their end of things until he, Joe, and Billy could get into place to cover them.
“Ya know, Scott, there’s somethin’ that’s been botherin’ me about this whole thing,” Johnny said as he, once again, checked his weapons.
“And what is that, brother?”
“Well, we know there was what, five men left out there firin’ on us? The conductor was killed when the rock slide hit, so that left four. Now, we got one here with us, an’ one got shot tryin’ ta get into the car we left. That means that unless we got real lucky shootin’ blind durin’ the night, there’s two out there. They haven’t tried anything an’ that makes me think that they’re waitin’ for something. Backup, I’d guess. Wanna bet that they’re waitin’ for more bad guys ta show up?”
Scott had been thinking that very thought. “No, brother, I don’t think I want to take that bet. But I think we need to be ready for whatever happens.”
Walker had difficulty holding back a grin. He turned his head away from his captors only to find Jacob Henderson’s cold stare pierce through him.
Fear of the Confederacy’s reprisal washed through Captain Sutter’s veins, but that was pushed aside by his dedication and honor to serve his country. He would make it his personal business to destroy any attempt to lead the country into that war again. It would not happen if he had any influence regarding the issue. Beside him, the flag clutched in the Corporal’s hand seemed to stand at attention as they rode, stretched out straight in the wind, resplendent and undefeated.
“We have to be getting close, Capt’n Sutter! Red Bluff’s only about ten miles down the tracks,” Sergeant Connelly observed.
“Thank you, Sergeant! Let’s move out!” And gathering speed, they advanced, doing everything in their power to make sure that Old Glory kept flying proudly in the breeze just as it had on the bloody battlefields. Captain Sutter sat straight in the saddle, honored to be a part of this mission, honored to be a soldier in the United States Army.
Spencer, Tyler, and Mason pulled their horses to a stop as they took in the debris covering the tracks in front of them. They could only hope the train wasn’t completely buried, and there were survivors. They had to find out and quickly.
“C’mon, you two, let’s get around this before the imposters find it!” Spencer ordered. If it could be done, Mason would do it. Mason and Tyler were excellent at what they did. They’d worked undercover together, along with Spencer, during the war and did their jobs well. Their expertise proved invaluable many times over, resulting in the defeat of the Confederacy. And they had the medals to prove it.
Their history working with Spencer during the war had sealed their loyalty and friendship. After their time in the Army, they agreed to settle in Red Bluff, occasionally helping with government issues. Clandestine activities were nothing new and handled with the utmost discretion. The war might be over, but they were at war now. Spencer, Tyler, and Mason knew what they were doing.
“Hey, Spence, I see two men located close to the train. Looks like they been waitin’ all night. They’re covered in mud.”
“Only two?” Spencer asked, surprised at the number.
“Yeah, but there’s a body layin’ on the platform between the cars. Can’t see the other side, could be more over there,” Tyler whispered, now fully immersed in the familiar covert mindset.
Spencer issued orders quickly. Just like old times… “Billy, I need for you to get across and check out things on the other side of the train. Make sure no more men are waitin’ in ambush.”
“Can do, Rich! On my way!” Billy began to circle his way back and navigate over the rock slide.
“Joe, come in on the other side.”
Tyler nodded, then moved out to take up his position.
Spencer couldn’t hide the smile that tugged at the corners of his mouth. He, Tyler, and Mason made a formidable team and easily slipped back into their former clandestine roles.
“What’d ya think, Scott? They still out there waitin?” Johnny asked as he watched Walker through lowered lashes and checked Hastings bandages, knowing it was futile.
“If they’re anything like the soldiers I fought against, I can guarantee they are. And there won’t be any backing down. They will get what they came for or die trying.” It was clear. Scott had spelled it out.
And Walker grinned proudly.
“Don’t worry,” Johnny said as he raised his eyes to meet those of their prisoner. “Any shootin’ starts an’ you’re gonna be the first one bleedin’, you can count on it.”
Josiah Flynn and the six men under him split up. Two men raced ahead in a hurry to find the train, rather Jacob Henderson. They had five men aboard the train and hoped those men had everything under their control. With only two guards on Henderson, and the lieutenant, the odds were in their favor, but nothing could be counted out. If Taggart and Walker were able to keep a lid on things, that Lt. Hastings pup wouldn’t be an issue. Flynn smiled. He liked their chances, and more than that, he was proud of the integral part he played in re-establishing the Confederacy to its rightful place.
In less than forty minutes, the scouts returned with news that the train was just ahead. They spent a bit of time in reconnaissance and had seen a man hiding in the rocks. Not knowing if the man they saw was with the Confederacy, they thought it best to let Flynn make the next decision.
“Good work, men! Alright, when we get close, Seiver,” he called to one of his men, “I want you to take out that man. He is not one of ours. Let’s move out!”
“They know that something has happened by now. It shouldn’t be too long before help arrives… or we start shooting again.” Scott voiced the thoughts that mirrored his brother’s. He glanced at Walker, his suspicions confirmed with the smug look on the man’s face.
Johnny sat, again checking his weapons. He could not afford damage to the Colt from time spent out in the rain during the night. His fingers wiped away any dirt that accumulated, disassembled, cleaned, and oiled the revolver, then quickly had it reassembled in record time.
“Scott,” Johnny whispered.
Getting his brother’s attention, Johnny nodded to Walker. “Why don’t ya see if our friend over there needs anything. Gotta ask Henderson somethin’.”
Scott stood and stepped to where Walker was tied, then occupied the man in a brief conversation.
Johnny motioned to Henderson to come to the other end of the car. When the man sat down, Johnny began to talk.
“Mr. Henderson, I know ya got a password that needs ta be said. No matter who gets here first, I want ya to make him say it first thing, no waitin’. If it ain’t the men you’re supposed to go with, I guess we stay here. Unless they got dynamite, I figure we can wait them out for a while, dependin’ on how many men they got. All we can do is wait an’ see.”
Joe Tyler heard the noise a split second too late. The knife blade slashed across his ribs with a red-hot jarring impact. He hit the ground and rolled as his enemy launched another attack, and though dazed, he was ready for the fight to continue. Years of training kicked in, and Tyler regained his momentum and successfully turned off the pain. He fought his attacker and fought for his life.
Josiah Flynn knew the time was near. Seiver would take care of the man hunkered down in the rocks, join the rest, and take Henderson into their custody. He could see the train from his position in the rocks and was concerned there were no signs of the men he had in place. However, there were two bodies, and one in a Union uniform; that he could see, neither was moving. Three of his Confederate brothers were missing.
But it was for the cause. Men can be replaced; their sacrifice was the choice they made, and glad to do so.
Billy Mason had found his way to the other side of the train. He took his time watching for men covering the battered cars, and with another scouring sweep of the surroundings, he left, staying tucked back into the trees, and began his return to make his report to Spencer.
He kept to the cover of the vegetation, his steps silent and quick. After crossing the rockslide on his way back to Spencer, he suddenly halted when he saw six men on horseback, all watching the train through the trees. He inched his way closer, catching bits of conversations amongst them. ‘The Rebel Yell’ and ‘we can take ‘em!” floated to Mason’s ears, and he knew he had to move, and fast. He looked at the ground and momentarily froze. Those six men had come from the exact location where Joe Tyler was stationed…
Mason again relied on his strengths. Stealth and speed. He rounded a pile of boulders, nearly colliding with a blood-soaked Joe Tyler.
“Tyler! Ya alright? Ya look like hell!” Billy steered Joe to a boulder and made him sit to check him over. He stuffed a bandana against the wound, and after a cursory glance, he got a shoulder under Tyler’s arm, then they stood, taking a minute to control the dizziness that could bring them both to the ground. They hurried to meet with Spencer and deliver the information they had to report. Billy’s findings not so good. Joe’s were worse.
Sheriff Rick Spencer saw them through thick brush, Tyler leaning on Mason and obviously hurt.
“What happened?” Spencer asked as they got Tyler settled on the ground.
Tyler met Rick’s eyes. “They’re here, Spence, one attacked me an’ before he died, he said that we’re too late.”
“Yeah, the good news is there ain’t no one on the far side of the train, but comin’ back I saw six mounted men, in Army uniforms, watchin’ it real careful. Got close enough ta hear parts of what was bein’ said. Picked things like the Rebel Yell, an’ ‘we can take ‘em’, so they’re gonna try an’ get them fellas outta the car,” Billy said as he got his breathing under control from the exhausting climb over the rockslide and half-carrying Joe to Spencer’s cover in the boulders.
“The thing to do is stay in the rocks and pick them off if they try an’ make a move. Let’s get into place, closer to that train,” Spencer ordered.
“Alright men, let’s go introduce ourselves!” Flynn said as they moved down the mountain to surround the train.
“Johnny! There’s men out there; it’s the Army! I can see three at the back here,” Scott said as he took a brief scan out the back window.
Johnny scrambled to the front window. There wasn’t much to see there other than the car they escaped during the night. “Unless they got that password, we ain’t goin’ out. Ain’t gonna trust no one, no matter what kinda uniforms they’re wearin’,” Johnny calmly said as if it was just another day.
Jacob Henderson looked scared again. And both Scott and Johnny knew that should a fight ensue, the man wouldn’t be much help. But they would find out very shortly.
“Hello the train! This is General Calvin Brennan! I am here to take Mr. Jacob Henderson into protective custody!”
Inside the car, Lonnie Walker sat, and this time, there was no covering the grin. They would take Henderson regardless if he went willingly.
“Mr. Henderson, I believe you need to ask for that password now,” Scott said, prompting the man to take this to the next step. He watched as Henderson took a shaky deep breath to gather himself as he and Johnny readied their guns.
“Give me the password, first, General Brennan!” Henderson called out.
“Mr. Henderson, I congratulate you! Your dedication to this great country is to be commended! Not to mention your bravery in taking this mission upon yourself! The password is April 9th, 1865,” he said, smug confidence washed over him with those words. There was a prolonged silence.
“That’s not the right password, is it, Mr. Henderson?” Scott asked. He turned to Johnny and explained, “No officer would have dragged that out with unnecessary conversation. It would have been direct and to the point. It looks as if we have a fight on our hands, brother! Mr. Henderson, I think it would be best for you to settle in against that wall for now. We may need you to cover us should things take a turn for the worst!”
“Mr. Henderson! We need to talk! I gave you the password. Come out!” Flynn called.
“I’m sorry, whoever you are! That’s not the password, and I highly doubt that you are General Brennan!”
Flynn was stunned. His information was wrong! The password must have gotten changed at the last minute!
“Alright, men, burn them out!”
The Confederates aimed at the window on the back end of the car and fired, forcefully blowing out the glass and shredding the covering, then lobbed a full and lit kerosene lantern through the window. The fire exploded, sending hungry flames climbing the car’s walls and fanning across the ceiling, singeing all inside.
Walker yelped as the lantern barely missed his head, and Scott and Johnny pulled Hastings as far away from the blaze as they could. The heat instantly seared their lungs, and thick, greasy, black smoke billowed in the interior that burned their eyes with instant tears. The oxygen quickly burned away, and they couldn’t draw breath. With no other choice available to them, they had to get out and get out now.
“Scott! Gimme that key!” Johnny yelled as he quickly unlocked their prisoner. “Get out, Scott!” The blade of Johnny’s knife sliced the rope as Scott dashed past the flames. Johnny pulled Walker to his feet and shoved him into Henderson’s arms.
“You still got that gun? Keep him in front of you! If he tries ta run, shoot ‘im! Get outta here!” Johnny didn’t wait to see if Henderson did as told or not. He bent and scooped up the Lieutenant, having no time for care, and carried the man over his shoulders and out of the car, mindless of the flames that grabbed at his body.
“Son-of-a-bitch! They just set that car on fire! Start shooing!” Spencer called to Tyler and Mason.
Once out of the burning train car, Scott had no choice but to stand with hands up after throwing down his gun. With the enemy guns trained on them, there was no other option. With Walker in tow, Henderson did the same, but not before he slipped the pistol Johnny had given him into his belt and pulled his coat around him. Johnny, with badly singed arms, deposited Hastings on the ground. The man was dead. Johnny knelt by the body a minute as he pulled together the temper that wanted to blast them all to Hell. And all hell broke loose at that exact moment.
An unknown source fired on Flynn’s men. Three bodies fell as if shot by the same bullet.
Captain Sutter and his men galloped into view just as Johnny drew his Colt and shot Flynn out of his saddle, wounding him in the shoulder. Scott took Henderson’s gun and covered the last two men visible. Now they had them, and the men would talk. Scott suddenly fell as a bullet tore into his left thigh.
“Scott!” Johnny gasped as he turned and fired, shooting the pistol from Flynn’s hand. The fake General Brennan slumped to the ground, knowing he failed in his mission.
Johnny spun and leveled the pistol at the men that had just ridden in as he went to Scott’s side.
“Mr. Henderson?” The Captain called out.
Henderson stepped forward.
“Of the people, by the people, and for the people,” The Captain said with no hesitation.
Henderson breathed out a sigh of relief and closed his eyes. He’d never been so glad to hear that famous line spoken so eloquently by Abraham Lincoln, God rest the man’s soul.
At that moment, three men walked out of the trees with their hands raised.
“Special agents Spencer, Tyler, and Mason. The Governor sent for us. These men impersonated General Brennan. I suspect foul play. The inside of the General’s tent is splattered with blood, Captain Sutter,” Rich announced as they came to stand before the Captain.
“Sergeant Stanley!” Captain Sutter commanded.
“Take charge of the prisoners!”
Captain Sutter turned to Spencer. “And am I just to trust you at your word, Mr. Spencer?”
Slowly reaching into his pocket, Spencer retrieved a small leather billfold and handed it to Captain Sutter. After a brief glance, Sutter returned it to Spencer.
“Well done, men, well done,” and Sutter saluted the three agents.
“Ya alright, Boston?” Johnny dropped to the ground beside Scott after knowing the correct password had been delivered, then inspected the injury. It didn’t look good. Looking at the Captain, Johnny asked, “You got a medic with ya? My brother took a bullet in his leg.”
The Captain summoned Sergeant Thompson forward. “Sergeant, see what you can do for that man and the other wounded. Then we will head into Red Bluff.”
“Yes, Sir, Captain!”
Sergeant Thompson was a busy man. It took the rest of the morning to tend the wounded men. First, he attempted a cursory examination of Henderson, but with an adamant declaration of his condition, he insisted the medic tend Scott and Tyler ahead of anyone.
Johnny stayed close to Scott and would breathe a sigh of relief when he knew that his brother would be alright. Boston was in capable hands, but it was a serious wound. He kept watching their captives, mainly, the General Brennan imposter. The man was a snake, and with no disrespect meant for the creature. Without a doubt, Johnny knew the man would not stop in his beliefs simply because he was caught. He would go to his grave, shouting praises to the Confederacy. Maybe he should stay and offer his services to help make the man talk… Apache-style.
Johnny watched his brother doze. It would be a while before they would get to town and get Scott into a bed instead of lying on the ground. The Army medic did his best to ease Johnny’s concerns regarding the gunshot to Scott’s leg. The bullet went deep, and he lost much blood, but Scott would heal completely with time. Johnny only wished the vision of Scott falling at his feet would leave him in peace.
“Boy, oh, boy, Boston, I gotta tell ya…” Johnny began as he struggled with his temper.
“What do you have to tell me, brother?” Scott asked as he ate his meal propped up in the hotel room bed. He knew Johnny had something on his mind. For the last day and a half, his brother had been too quiet. Johnny had been wrestling with… well, wait for him to spell it out.
“I’m thinkin’ I need ta talk with the Governor. I don’t appreciate bein’ put in a position where I don’t have all the facts. Next time he needs help an’ we’re elected for the job, he better lay everything out for me. Wonder if Val knew about it?”
Scott could only shrug. He definitely understood Johnny’s thinking; he also knew that issues concerning this country’s security would never be made known to those out of the loop.
“The next time Steve Bronson comes to the ranch for a visit, you can take it up with him. You and Val have done ‘favors’ for him before…”
“Yeah, yeah, we have, but he leveled with us those times.”
Scott smiled. He understood how Johnny felt. If he didn’t have all the information while fighting the range wars, he would not be alive. Working undercover for the government was not the same thing. It was a very different battle.
“All I can say, brother, is tomorrow we leave for home, and this whole thing will be behind us. Not to mention the fact that we have first-class accommodations, courtesy of the Governor!” Scott said with a smile.
Johnny smiled a bit. “First class, huh?”
“Yes, brother, good food, comfort, and all the amenities!” Scott couldn’t be happier.
Johnny huffed. “I’ll take Barranca any day!”
The train car was, indeed, first class. It was richly appointed and comfortable and would make the travel time pass quickly. Well, the accommodations and the company they encountered along the way would make the trip much more enjoyable.
Young, beautiful, and traveling alone, the ladies took advantage of the volunteer escorts and counted their blessings. The situation worked out well for both parties. The ladies were assured of safe passage by Scott and Johnny, and they, in turn, enjoyed the company of warm and willing, attractive traveling companions.
But it worked out a little too well. With no delays, no impostor soldiers, harrowing attempts on the country’s security, or gun battles to slow them down, the trip ended sooner than either Lancer would have liked, and the train chugged into Stockton, where they bid the ladies goodbye.
Scott huffed as he watched Samantha Carrington stand on the platform as the train pulled out of town. Her dainty gloved hand waved as she blew a kiss to her protector. With his palm pressed to the glass, Scott watched her disappear.
Johnny stood at the window and smiled at Heather, knowing that he would see her soon, already making plans for a return trip to Stockton. He walked to the bar and poured himself a drink.
“Hey, Boston, need somethin’ ta drown your sorrows?”
“Yes, thank you, make it a double.”
“You look a sight better’n the last time I saw ya, amigo!” Johnny greeted with a smile.
Val sat propped in his chair, arm in a sling as he glared at the intrusion that rudely barged through the front door. And if Johnny wasn’t bad enough, he brought Scott along with him.
Scott limped into the cramped interior and looked for a clean chair to sit.
“Guess I hafta make coffee if I want some, huh?” Johnny asked, unfazed by the glare that threatened to pierce his hide. He laughed. “What’s the matter, Val? Did ya miss me?”
“Like a toothache! What’d ya doin’ comin’ in here uninvited an’ botherin’ me?”
Scott decided to put his two cents’ worth out there. “Why, Val! We just thought we would drop by, you know, a little social visit, and tell you about the trip to Red Bluff, that’s all.”
Val did not trust the look on Scott’s face. Hangin’ ‘round that rowdy brother a his too much. Getting’ ta where a man can’t trust no one!
“That’s right, Val, borin’ trip with the prisoner, but gotta tell ya the trip back got interestin’!” Johnny grinned from ear to ear.
“Yeah, an’ what happened on the way back that was so all-fired in’trestin’?” Val groused.
“Wellll, see there were these two ladies on their way ta Stockton, an’ we just kinda kept them company, ya know, made them ta feel at home, offered our… protection,” Johnny couldn’t hold the laugh at bay any longer, especially after seeing the look on Val’s face.
“Yes, Val, we offered our services, you might say,” Scott joined in.
“An’, boy, oh, boy, Val, they really liked our services!” Johnny beamed as he ducked to avoid the barrage of pillows launched at his head.
Written July 2019
Edited October 2020
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