Morning Cloud and the Desperados

Devil’s Den, Gettysburg, Afternoon, July 2nd 1863

Lieutenant John Anders was exhausted. His small troop had become separated from what was left of General Sickles’ 3rd Corps as they had retreated from Longstreet’s Confederates. The Federal army was in disarray and Anders found himself in command of the remnants of the troop following the chaotic action of the morning and the death of the troop’s captain. Himself, Sergeant O’Brien and a half dozen raw recruits being bloodied for the first time now found themselves retreating through the woods fighting for their lives as they went. Bullets buzzed past their heads like bees but with a more deadly sting and branches brushed against their bodies and scratched their faces as they stumbled back seeking somewhere to hunker down and make a stand. They found a hollow that had been occupied by the Confederates a few hours earlier and grey-coat dead lay among the discarded weapons, gore and blood. There was a respite in the fighting and for a few moments there was relative peace and Anders allowed himself to draw breath and try to think, despite the echoing from the gunshots and artillery fire leaving a ringing in his ears. He felt disorientated and the adrenaline flowing through his body was now retreating, leaving him feeling dizzy and light headed. He was sure he had been shot as he could feel pain in his left side and the dampness was, he was convinced, not sweat from the leaden heat of the summer afternoon. He put a hand to the pain and pulled it away. As expected, it was red and sticky with congealing blood. “Damn!”

“Lieutenant!”

He looked up at O’Brien. “Sergeant?”

“Here sir, a reb. He’s still alive.”

***

Arizona, December 1889

The first time I met Sinistré, she shot me. I was lucky, if my horse hadn’t shied right at that moment, she’d probably have killed me.

I guess I need to go back a bit and tell yer how it all started, ’cos it all got a bit complicated. My name’s Tyler Brody and I was riding with the Clancy boys in them days. Joshua Clancy was the elder brother and mean he was too. Spent most of his early life in and out of jail; robbin’ banks mostly, but latterly took to trains and stages. Wells Fargo had a price on his head that kept gettin’ bigger with each raid. The way I figured it, he was goin’ to end up ridin’ into town one day and ridin’ out on the back of the funeral director’s wagon. Was just a matter of time, I guessed.

His younger brother Jacob was more easy going and a bit simple, I sometimes thought, but he went along with what the rest of us figured was a good idea even if it weren’t. He and his brother were both big young men, born for the outdoors and the wild life of the old west and both could pull a pistol from its holster damned fast. Dark hair fell about rough features that looked a good ten years older than their mid-twenties as a consequence of living on the run in all weathers.

There was also their cousin, Frank, who had the looks of his mother’s side rather than the Clancy’s – where they was dark and burly, Frank was slim and fair with pale blue eyes that would bore a hole through your skull when he fixed you with a stare. Frank had a spiteful streak about him and would kill sooner than not if cornered and I worried that one day he’d get us all hung.

Like his cousins, he was handy with a six gun. We rode together with a band of outlaws numberin’ a dozen or so give or take over those years. How I came to be riding with this bunch of desperados is a long story, but to cut it short, we spent time in jail together and when our time was up, we stayed together. And, I guess, Frank felt he owed me seein’ as I saved his life during our time in San Quentin. He’d picked a fight he was goin’ to lose and I stepped in and fought alongside him. Turned the odds just enough even if we was both battered and bruised afterwards.

Along with those dozen other boys we picked up along the way, we made a fearsome gang and for a while we made a good livin’ relieving the banks of their cash as we moved from town to town often with a posse on our tails.

Although Joshua was always looking out to make it big as if this weren’t big enough. I sometimes think that it was the notoriety that drove him rather than the money, for we could do alright with the steady income we got from the bank raids although with each one, the prices on our heads rose and the likelihood of capture – or worse – grew ever greater.

That December as Christmas time was comin’ up, we was in Arizona and lookin’ to fill our coffers seein’ as we was feelin’ the pinch a bit. As quick as we filled the coffers with money and valuables we’d stolen, the boys burned it all up on drinkin’ whorin’ and gamblin’. Then we was always on the run. We’d been tracked by a posse that nearly caught up with us that winter. The bank we’d robbed had paid a professional tracker to hunt us down and he nearly got us. We lost a couple of the boys in a shootout and the posse ended up in the dust on the plains. We was lucky that time. It couldn’t last, I told myself. But the next posse would be more determined and we was lookin’ at a hangin’ now.

Joshua had in mind to rob the bank to get us back on our feet. It was a fairly straightforward job, he assured us. A quiet town where nothin’ much happened and as the local sheriff had a no guns policy, we would be the only ones with guns, so we had an advantage.

“What about the Sheriff?” I asked. Surely he would he armed, I figured.

“Jest him and a deputy. Two of them and four of us,” Josh snorted in derision. “Easy money. The cowhands get paid after the drive, so the bank will have plenty of cash.”

So we made our plans. Decided exactly who was going to do what.  Hank Jenson and I got the job of waiting outside with the horses, keepin’ ’em ready for a quick getaway while the others went inside to do the job. Deep down I was happy with this arrangement. Holdin’ up banks and getting’ the money was all very well, but I didn’t much like holdin’ guns to innocent people and Frank was a little too trigger happy for my liking. If anyone dared to stand up to him, like as not, they would be shot for their troubles and I ain’t no murderer. Hank seemed happy enough to wait outside too. He was still carrying a gunshot wound from the shootout and was in no mood to be brandishing a gun just yet, so looking out and holding the horses suited him.

So that cold December, we rode into town and made our way to the bank set on the main street. No one much took notice as we rode in, but then started runnin’ for cover when they see’d us pull our neckerchiefs about our faces. We pulled up outside the bank and Hank and I took the reins of the others’ horses as they went inside. I heard shouts then shots. Then all hell broke loose. The boys came runnin’ out and reached for their horses. At about that time, the sheriff and deputy ran down the sidewalk drawin’ their guns. My horse reared up as we swung around to leave and I felt a searing pain in my left shoulder. Frank had his gun drawn and returned fire, bullets splintering the woodwork of the veranda outside the building and I saw the two pursuers diving for cover before returning fire. The boys reached for their horses as a firefight broke out, bullets whizzing everywhere and folks diving for cover. My horse skitted and turned and I lost control as my right hand went numb.

Once saddled up, the gang let off a series of shots forcing the sheriff and deputy to duck while the boys made off with a pounding of hooves on the dusty street.

Me, I fell to the street with a thud and everything went black. As I woke I saw her looking down at me. “He’s alive,” she said. Injun I thought to myself. Didn’t know no injuns was here.

“Best call for the Doc,” her companion replied. “Meanwhile, let’s get him to the jailhouse and make him comfortable.”

I felt myself being lifted and carried as I drifted in and out of consciousness. Partly the bullet wound and partly concussion from the fall, I suspect.

I woke on the hard jailhouse bunk. The Doc was peering at my injury. “Have to get the bullet out,” he said, chewin’ on a cigar stub. “Best get that fire going.” He turned to me, sympathy for my plight missing in his demeanour. “This is gonna hurt. A lot, son.”

They held me down while the doc dug around and got the bullet out. After he’d cauterised the wound, I lay there in excruciating pain. No one seemed to care a jot that I was hurt. Guess they felt it was no less than I deserved an’ all.

A young blonde woman came into the jailhouse. She was carryin’ a letter. “Sinistré, sweetheart,” she said. “I’ve got a letter from my aunt Isobel back East. She wants me to go back to see her this Christmas. She’s sent train tickets.”

“Uh huh,” the Injun woman said disinterestedly. A slim woman of about thirty, I reckoned, she had the high cheekbones of the redskin and dark eyes and swarthy skin to match. She was busyin’ herself with cleaning a Winchester rifle and the Sheriff was sat sittin’ with his feet on the desk with his hat pulled over his face. He pushed it back and smiled at the young woman as she came in. The woman continued. “She wants you to come as well.”

Sinistré stopped her cleaning and looked up. She wore her dark hair tied in plaits that came down the side of her face, restin’ against her dark cotton shirt, injun fashion. Sinistré, I found out later, was her white folks name, given to her by a card sharp she once knew called Frenchie Bresson. Her Comanche name was Morning Cloud and folks slipped easily between the two and she responded readily enough to either name. Didn’t seem to bother her none. “Is that what you want, Lucy? I ain’t sophisticated like those fancy folk back east. And… Well… Let’s just leave it at I ain’t like the folks back east.”

“Sinistré you do yourself down,” the sheriff said. “You’d look all fine and dandy in a nice dress an’ all.” I could tell by his manner that he knew she wouldn’t approve.

“I ain’t wearin’ no dress.”

Lucy pouted then smiled. “You won’t have to. I will, though.” She looked down at her own body and the shirt and pants she was wearin’. She looked good, I thought, even in men’s pants. I wondered what she would look like in a dress.

“What happened to the boys?” I asked.

Sinistré shot me a glance. There was fire in those dark eyes as if annoyed at being reminded of my presence. “They got away,” she said flatly. “Which is more’n you did.”

I laid back and sighed. At least they were alive. “What happens now?”

“When that wound is healed over, we have to get you to the US Marshall’s office in Tucson, so’s you can be tried and hung. Now, quit your yappin’.”

I settled back and drifted off to sleep, the pain in my shoulder was pounding and pulsing and I slept uneasy. I woke a little while later and the pain had settled down to a dull ache. There was some commotion going on. The Sheriff was discussing me with Sinistré. He had a telegraph message in his hand. “What is it, Pat?” she asked him.

He gestured in my direction. “This fella is wanted in Texas for holdin’ up a bank there, so it seems we have to send him there instead of Tucson. Sheesh!”

“How we gonna do that?”

“Well, we will have to ride to Tucson then take him by railroad. Job for you, sweetheart.”

Lucy piped up at that point. “We could carry on East to see Aunt Isobel straight after handin’ him over. Get there in time for Christmas.”

Pat smiled “well there you go, then. It will all fit nicely. I’m sure you could keep an eye on an injured prisoner.”

Sinistré seemed to be less happy about the arrangements than did her two companions. Come to that, I wasn’t too pleased about it either. I didn’t fancy spendin’ time in a Texas jail and even less inclined to end up danglin’ from a rope, which was lookin’ increasingly likely. Not that an Arizona jail or rope was any more appealin’. I wondered if the boys had any plans to break me out. At least, I was hopin’ they had a plan as I didn’t fancy wastin’ years rottin’ in jail – or worse.

They kept me in that cell for several days. As things was, it weren’t too bad. Pat had a stove that kept the place warm and the bench in the cell wasn’t so uncomfortable – certainly it was better than some of the rough ground I’d been sleein’ on lately. The doc came and went and checked my wound. I think I got an infection as I was in a fever for a few days and was delirious. I heard him talk about maybe cutting off my arm. But as it happened, I got through it and recovered. The pain was still there; a dull ache that came and went, but the wound was looking clean and I could move around and talk easy enough. I reckon my draw was going to be affected, though. I had nothing much to do to pass the time so I spent it listening in on what the sheriff; Pat Benson and his deputy, Sinistré and her friend Lucy McClure were planning for the coming Christmas. The two women had decided to go back East after all, it seemed and were busy making plans. They would have to ride to Tucson and catch the Southern Pacific railroad across to Texas then on up to Washington DC. It was a long journey and I said as much, but they told me to shut up and mind my own business for my pains.

“Just bein’ friendly, like,” I said.

“Well, don’t,” Sinistré snapped.

Pat came in one day and told them that Senator John Anders would be travelling back to DC on the same train, so, it seemed, would I as the doc had decided that I was now fit to travel. “He’s invited you two to travel with him,” he said, reading the telegraph. “I guess your notoriety travels across the state, eh?”

Sinistré snorted as she wasn’t bothered none if she travelled in the box car, nor was she fussed about notoriety she told him much to his amusement. Lucy, however, smiled, evidently pleased at the attention and said how honoured they would both be to be travellin’ with the senator. I did ask if that meant me as well and they figured that I would have to be tolerated seen’ as I was under guard and Sinistré was the guard in question – although, as she pointed out, she was more’n happy for the both of us to travel in the box car while Lucy travelled in the comfort of the senator’s luxury carriage. I shut up, which was what they intended by their response. Indeed, tellin’ me to shut up and mind my manners seemed to have become a regular refrain. I was getting’ the message, but I figured as we was thrown together, there was no harm in being sociable like, despite the rebuffs. I don’t think she did sociable with anyone, mind. I guess from the looks she gave me, if she was minded to be sociable, it certainly weren’t gonna be with me anytime soon.

It was cold that day in late December. Christmas was only a few days away and winter was starting to bite. I shivered as Morning Cloud led me out in cuffs to the horses. I had to borrow a warm coat from Pat Benson as mine was back in the gang’s hideout and I didn’t figure goin’ to collect it was an option. The two women loaded up their horses. I protested that I was expected to ride to Tucson while handcuffed, but I got a short reply and no sympathy for my plight. Indeed, Morning Cloud advised me that if I didn’t like it, maybe I shouldn’t have taken up a career in bank robbin’. She had a point, I suppose, and I didn’t push it any further. I did, however, make up my mind to keep an eye open for any opportunity to escape. I guess she figured as much ’cos she kept close as we rode and she had the Winchester lyin’ across her lap and aimed directly at me. “Don’t even think about it,” she warned.

“I didn’t say nothin’.”

“You didn’t need to.”

She said her goodbye to Pat and watched as Lucy mounted up and we was all ready to go. Lucy seemed excited by the journey ’cos she hadn’t seen her aunt Isobel for a number of years and she wanted Morning Cloud to meet her – a desire that seemed less enthusiastically received by her companion.

The ride to Tucson was pretty much uneventful and conversation was minimal. I did try once or twice to engage the others, but the monosyllabic responses told me I was wastin’ my time, so I ended up savin’ my breath. The weather was raw and cut through my bones. I pulled the borrowed coat close around me as best I could, given the cuffs around my wrists.

Eventually we arrived in Tucson and rested up in a hotel for the night. The women set the horses up in a livery stable and walked me through the streets at gunpoint to the hotel. They cuffed me to a rail next to the chair, so I spent an uncomfortable night. I don’t think Sinistré slept much either, as she just lay on the big bed next to Lucy and lifted her head every so often to check on me. So we was both weary that morning.

The following morning was Christmas Eve. We had a desultory breakfast then went out to the station to catch the train. Senator John Anders was waitin’ there already. A tall man dressed in black frock coat and tall hat. His greying beard was cut close to his face and neatly trimmed. He greeted Sinistré and Lucy expansively. “Ladies,” he said. “It’s an honour to meet you. I see you’ve got this varmint under control. The Texans will see he gets his just desserts.”

I thought, then I would see if I could wipe the smile off his face. “Senator,” I smiled. “Do you ever think about Gettysburg much these days?”

The look on his face was all I could have hoped for and then some. He froze and it weren’t for the cold weather neither. His jaw went slack and his eyes bored into me briefly before he turned to Sinistré. At that moment, the train came into the station all hissing and steaming with smoke, steam and smut flyin’ around and drowning out anything anyone might have said. “Let’s board the train, Madam and keep this man under control if you would,” Anders said coldly as the relative silence descended after the train came to a halt, punctured by the shouts of the train crew and platform staff and the busy activity that accompanies a train when it’s in the station. There was some more activity as they filled the locomotive with water while the passengers boarded. Some were takin’ their horses, so they had to be loaded up one at a time, snickerin’ and kickin’ as they was led up the ramps. We headed towards the front of the train where the Senator had a carriage set aside for his entourage.

Sinistré nodded and shot me a glance, but it wasn’t all contempt like it usually was, it was mixed with curiosity, for I knew something and she was wonderin’ what it was but she said nothin’. Likewise, Miss Lucy looked but said nothin’, neither.

***

Devil’s Den, July 1st 1863.

Lieutenant Anders sat astride his horse. Longstreet’s 1 corps lined up before them. He glanced across at Captain Elijah Morgan sitting next to him, waiting and watching the line of grey coated rebels. The calm before the madding rage of battle. When it came it came suddenly in claps of thunder – artillery and small arms fire, with the whistle of bullets as they flew by his head. He ducked instinctively. Morgan took a bullet to the chest and fell to the ground as they surged forward into the fiery pits of Hell – Devil’s Den, he mused was aptly named. He looked down briefly to see Morgan spread-eagled on the ground, his lifeless eyes staring at the blue sky above, blood trickling form the corner of his mouth. Oddly at this moment, he realised that he had just been promoted.

His ears were ringing with the sound and he could hear little or nothing and men fell about him and below his sabre as he sliced at the greycoats charging toward him. Men lurched at each other, bayonets held forward, their screams of pain lost in the rattle of gunfire and the pounding of artillery. Blood spurted from the flesh torn apart by bullets and shrapnel and the slicing of bayonets and sabres. He would see an agonised face that would slip out of sight as the man slid to the ground and he moved onto the next. War was a bloody, brutal matter and Anders felt the bitter taste of fear and excitement surging through him and in the vile taste of vomit in his throat. One by one, the troop fell as they were forced back. The Federal army was losing this battle and regrouping was all that was left for them. And he was now in command. The bloodiest engagement of the war was starting to take its toll.

***

We boarded the train and made our way through to the senator’s carriage. He had a whole carriage set aside for his use while the rest of the passengers sat elsewhere. It was certainly ornate with drapes at the windows and fancy seat coverings. There was a drinks cabinet at one end – these were luxuries denied the rest of the travellers sittin’ on hard wooden seats. We sat and waited for a while – there was a great deal of fussing about before the train could move. The engineerer and fireman were busy with the taking on water and some folk were still havin’ their horses brought aboard. The platform staff were carryin’ bags and cases on and stowin’ them for the passengers. I watched idly out the window and I thought I saw one of the boys among the throng. I screwed my eyes up and glanced briefly at Sinistré but she seemed not to notice, so I looked again at the crowd outside on the platform. Yes! Yes, I was right! The boys were out there scoutin’ the situation. And as there was a safe full of dollar bills on board, I figured Josh would be killin’ two birds with one stone alright. I settled back with a smile. All I had to do was wait for rescue.

“What you grinnin’ about?” Sinistré asked sharply, her eyes narrowing as she glared at me.

“Oh, nothin’, nothin’ at all. Jest the time of year, I guess.”

She snorted. I hadn’t convinced her, but she said nothin’ more. She refused the senator’s offer of a drink as she wanted a clear head, she said. Lucy took a glass of whisky and sipped it all dainty like, savouring the taste. “It’s a single malt,” he explained. “From Scotland.”

“Never heard of it,” Sinistré said.

“Near England.”

“Where’s that?”

“A long way off, I reckon,” Lucy said and that conversation died out.

Eventually, following a whistle from the engine, there was much hissin’ and puffin as the wheels started to turn and the train rolled out of Tucson heading for Texas. But before it got there, anything could happen for there was bandit country ahead and I figured Josh had a plan to either stop the train or get aboard durin’ one of the long, slow curves in the track as it slowed to walkin’ pace.

Sinistré stared out of the window at the plains outside. The senator was talkin’ with Lucy – if I didn’t know better I’d have thought he was getting’ sweet on her – him bein’ a married man an’ all. I turned to look out the window at the plains as they swept by. In the far distance I could see mesas poking up from the flat plains and reaching for the sky. Even at this time of the year, the sun shone brightly, casting harsh shadows and the buzzards circled in the sky having found some poor creature about the breathe its last. The overall colour was of browns and oranges with the harsh blue above. If I had a mind to be artistic, I would have appreciated the mix of tone and colour. But I had experience and experience told me that this was a harsh environment for man and horse and at this time of the year; that sun gave little warmth. A man could die out there just from the environment if he didn’t know what he was doing. Bewitching and deadly.

Several hours passed and I must have dozed a bit ’cos I started awake. Sinistré was starin’ out the window so I looked too. There were riders on the high ground off to the right of the train. They was heading down towards us, dust kicking up from the horses’ hooves. I felt the train slowin’ down as we reached a curve in the track. I smiled to myself, Josh and the boys was comin’ to rob the train and set me free. Although, there was only a half dozen or so. I wondered where the rest were. They rode up close to the train as it slowed, guns drawn and shootin’ at the windows.

Sinistré saw ’em too. “Get back from the windows,” she snapped. As we all moved away, she swung her Winchester about and smashed the window with the butt. Spinning it about, she put it up to her shoulder and loosed off a couple of shots. Two riders fell from their horses. The train slowed some more and the surviving riders came alongside. One of the boys reached out to the railing at the end of one of the carriages and started to lean across when one of her slugs threw him back, falling in the dust. Josh returned fire and she ducked back as bullets smashed into the woodwork sending splinters flying into the carriage. I ducked too as a splinter flew right by my face. “That was close.”

“Shut up!”

By the time she looked out again, the boys had boarded the train. “Stay here,” she commanded. She got up and headed towards the door at the end of the carriage. “I’m coming with you,” Senator Anders said, reaching for his pistol. She looked as if she was about to protest. “Lucy, git your rifle and keep an eye on the prisoner.” Lucy picked up her carbine and aimed it square at my belly. “Sure thing,” she said. “What if he tries to escape?”

“Shoot him.”

“Can I just shoot him anyway?”

I didn’t much like the sound of that, so I sat quiet and watched as Sinistré and Anders made their way towards the back of the train. It didn’t worry me none as Josh and the boys would soon be along to free me and I wasn’t disappointed. Numbers were on our side even if Sinistré had despatched three of the gang. We heard a brief exchange of gunshots, then nothing. Eventually, Sinistré and Anders came back into the carriage, hands held high and Josh followed, along with Frank and a couple of the other boys, their rifles pointing at their prisoners.

“Josh,” I said startin’ to stand. Lucy thought briefly about protestin’ but decided numbers were against her, so lowered her weapon. “I need these cuffs off,” I said. Josh nudged Sinistré with the muzzle of his gun and she fished the keys out of a pocket and tossed ’em across to me. I fiddled a bit with the lock, but was soon free. “Here,” I said, “Hold your hands out”. Sinistré complied, but if looks could kill, I would ’a died on the spot. “Should ’a let Lucy shoot you when I had the chance.”

“Too bad,” I said.

I clipped the cuffs about her wrists and snapped them shut with a sense of satisfaction. I reached into her holster and took out the forty-five. I slipped it into my belt. “Don’t want you gettin’ no ideas, there girl, eh?”

“This ain’t over, boy.”

Josh turned to Anders. “Well, Senator, nice to meet you eventually.”

“I doubt it. You renegades will be doing jail time for this little stunt. I’ll spend the rest of my life if needs be to hunt you down.”

Josh laughed – it was a bark really, rather than a laugh, for there was no mirth in it. “Senator, you don’t recall my pa, do you?”

“Should I?”

“Aaron Clancy. Lieutenant Aaron Clancy, 1 Corps.”

The senator looked puzzled, but there seemed to be a dawning of realisation. Soon he would get it.

“Gettysburg,” I whispered.

***

Devil’s Den, July 2nd 1863

Lieutenant Anders followed O’Brien’s call. “Here,” the sergeant said. “This one’s still alive.”

Anders looked down at the greycoat lieutenant. He was bleeding from a gut wound; dark blood telling of a major organ struck. The man was in a bad way, Anders realised. He pulled his pistol from its holster, aimed and shot the man through the forehead. The wounded man’s head snapped back and the life went from his eyes as blood soaked into the dirt below his shattered skull.

“Sir…” O’Brien started a horrified expression on his face.

“Sergeant, we are losing this battle and our numbers are dwindling. How, precisely, are we supposed to take care of a prisoner. We haven’t the resources. He was an enemy combatant and a danger to my troop. Understand?”

“A danger, sir?” O’Brien looked down at the dead soldier. The gut wound that originally disabled him spread about with dark blood. He hadn’t seemed to be much of a danger to O’Brien and his face said as much to Anders.

“This man was a casualty of war, Sergeant. Now, collect the men together, the rebs will be upon us soon enough. That’s an order!”

The Sergeant stiffened. “Sir!”

“Besides,” Anders finished. “He was gonna die anyway.”

O’Brien looked down at the corpse. “Sir,” he said. Didn’t make it right, though, he thought to himself, but he kept those thoughts to himself. His priority now was keeping his charges alive during the vicious onslaught to come.

***

“Now do you recall?”

“We had no choice. It was war,” Anders replied flatly. “What would you have done? I had less than a dozen men, we were fighting for our lives. We hadn’t the means to look after injured prisoners. You have no right to judge me.”

“You keep convincing yourself of that, Senator,” Josh said. “Tyler, you come with me.” He turned to Hank. “Hank, you stand guard here. Make sure none of these folks leaves this carriage.”

“Okay, Josh,” Hank replied with a grin.

He turned back to Anders. “Don’t go makin’ any plans for the New Year, Senator. You’ll be dead before then. But I have a little surprise for later. You might even like it.” Meaning, of course, that he wouldn’t.

Leavin’ Hank in charge of the prisoners, we made our way back through the train, relievin’ the passengers of their valuables as we went. Folk weren’t happy about giving up their stuff like that, but a 45 pointed at their heads had a persuasive effect. By the time we got back to the box car we had collected a small fortune in jewellery, pocket watches, and cash. Josh showed me the safe lurking in the back of the car. The guard was sittin’ on the straw on the floor, glowering at us from under a badly bruised forehead where one of the boys had struck him as they boarded the train.

“Well, Tyler, reckon you can open it?”

“Got any dynamite handy?”

’Course, I’d never opened a safe before, but how difficult could it be? Just a matter of taping the stick to the door of the safe and lighting a decent length of fuse. I was mildly concerned that the horses stabled down the far end might take fright and try to bolt, but Josh swept my concerns aside. “Just get on with it,” he ordered.

The boys had got some dynamite in preparation and gave me some sticks. “Stand clear,” I said. I fixed the sticks against the lock and set a fuse. We all took cover in the first carriage next to the box car and waited. The sticks went off with a deafening bang. Then there was silence. We went back to the boxcar to find a gaping hole in the side and dollar bills was floating in the air. “You idiot!” Josh shouted.

“Well, I ain’t done this before, so I guessed.”

“Well you guessed wrong. Tyler, you idiot! Boys, gather as much as you can, that what ain’t flown outside.” He pulled his hat off his head and swiped me with it as we all grabbed handfuls of dollar bills as they flapped about the remains of the boxcar. The horses were stamping and whinnying, but seemed not to have taken as much fright as I thought.

“What now?” I asked. “I’m set free and we’ve raided the cash.”

“I have a nice little surprise for the senator as a kind of send-off,” he said.

I raised my eyebrows in question.

“There’s a viaduct comin’ up. I’ve got some boys settin’ charges on it so’s as the train goes over it will blow. I’m hopin’ they is better at this than you are, Tyler.”

So now I knew where the others were. “How will we get off?”

“There’s a sharp curve not long before the viaduct. We’ll get off the same way we got on.”

I reeled in shock and tried not to show it. Sure, we shot people from time to time. We only did that if they got in our way. We’d never killed folk in cold blood. Even if Senator Anders had killed Josh’s pa, well that was between them, not the folks travellin’ back east. They was innocent. “That’s mass murder,” I said, the shock still in my voice.

“You getting’ soft, now, Tyler?”

“No, Josh, you know me, we’ve ridden together long enough now. But what about all those folks who have nothing to do with this. They ain’t done nothin’ to you. Don’t seem right, somehow.”

“Casualties of war. Senator John Anders can tell you all about that.”

“So what now?”

“Make ourselves comfortable. Count out the loot and wait. I’ve got several of the boys waitin’ with horses all ready for us. We can wait by the ravine and watch as the train goes over. Should be quite a spectacle, I reckon.”

My God! I thought. He’s mad. I’d known he hated Anders ’cos of Aaron at Gettysburg and I understood that as I’d have felt the same, but this; this was insane. And I realised that I would have to do something, although I wasn’t sure what exactly.

So we sat for a while. Despite my over blowin’ the safe, there was several thousand dollars to be shared out and valuables we’d taken from the passengers. We had some time to wait, so Frank and the Clancys settled down to a game of cards sheltering in the undamaged end of the boxcar next to the horses. Eventually, I stood having decided on a course of action. I wasn’t sure it would work and it meant betraying everything that I stood for, but I had no choice, I thought, echoing Anders’ words involuntarily to myself. “I’ll go take over from Hank,” I said. “You can give him his share.”

Josh nodded. “Sure thing, good idea. Don’t kill none of the prisoners, mind, I want ’em to be alive when the train goes over that ravine.”

“Sure,” I assured him.

I made my way back, steadyin’ myself on the seat backs as the train rocked to and fro, my mind a turmoil for I was about to commit the ultimate treachery. Even at that moment, I wasn’t sure I could go through with it. Hank was standin’ on the open platform outside the carriage, smokin’ a cigarette. He had his rifle cradled in his arm. The weapons we had taken from the prisoners were lying next to him.

“Hank,” I said.

“Tyler. Everything go okay with the safe? I heard the bang.”

“Yeah. Overdid the dynamite a mite. Blew a hole in the box car. Look, Hank, you get back to the others now. They can give you your share.”

Hank nodded back to the carriage with raised brows. “Never mind them,” I said. “I’ll keep an eye on ’em. Be my pleasure.”

“Okay, sure thing.” He stepped past me and started to walk back through the carriage I had just vacated. I watched him go for a couple of moments before picking up the rifles he had been guarding and went inside. I took a deep breath as I pushed open the door. Morning Cloud looked up at me with fury in her dark eyes. I figured she hadn’t forgiven me and I didn’t blame her none. The senator stared blankly at me. I wondered if the past catchin’ up on him had affected him as he seemed deflated. Lucy just looked coldly at me. I put the rifles down and reached into my waistcoat pocket for the key to the cuffs. I walked unsteadily with the movement of the train over to where Morning Cloud was sitting and sat down beside her. I reached across and unlocked the cuffs.

“Why?” she asked looking at me with genuine surprise.

So I told her about Josh’s plan. “He’s plannin’ on coming here just beforehand so’s the senator is aware that his actions back at Gettysburg led to all this. He wants you to go to your death full of guilt,” I said turning to Anders. “He wants to gloat.”

“I see,” he replied. “Well, I guess he has a point. He is right after all. I did kill his father. But I had no choice. We couldn’t take prisoners. Besides, Aaron Clancy was dyin’ anyway. All I did was hasten his departure. How did he know?”

“O’Brien. He went down to Virginia to find Clancy’s wife after the war. Wanted her to know what happened. He stayed on and helped with the ranch. Married her in the end. Helped raise Josh and Jacob. I guess he was disappointed at how they turned out and all. He was a straight upright God fearin’ man was O’Brien. Didn’t approve of no bank robbin’.”

“Was?”

“Died a few years back.”

“Ah, I see. Yes, he was a good man. It was an honour to serve with him.” The Senator lapsed into silence, his conscience troubling him. Sinistré had no such qualms. “We need to stop this train and we ain’t got time for no reminiscing or navel gazin’.”

I nodded. However, that was easier said than done. There was no way through the train to the driving cab of the locomotive, I explained. “Then we have to go over the top,” she said. That was what I was afraid of. She took charge and I got the feelin’ that this was how she always operated. People just followed. She fixed me with those dark eyes of hers. “Tyler, for once in your miserable, useless life, you’re gonna do something smart. You and I will head for the engine and get the engineer to stop the train. Lucy, you and the senator will hold off any desperados coming this way as they will soon enough. Take the rifles.” She turned back to me. “I need my forty-five.”

I reached to my belt where I had stowed it earlier. “Sure,” I said, handing it to her.

“Obliged. Now, we’d best get goin’.”

As we went out onto the exposed platform at the end of the carriage, we saw Hank comin’ back. He must ’a forgotten something I figured. Either way, he saw what was goin’ on soon enough and pulled his pistol and took aim, the bullet passed harmlessly by us, smashing the glass window and struck the wooden body of the carriage behind us scattering splinters of wood. One scratched my face drawin’ blood. Subconsciously, I wiped it away with my hand. Sinistré drew her gun and shot him. The bullet passed through the remains of the shattered glass in the door and straight through his forehead. He went back with the half surprised, half betrayed expression still on his face, his brain matter splashed across the passengers sitting horrified in the seats behind him. I froze for a moment. Hank had been a friend; I had ridden with him and fought alongside him and now he was gone and it was my fault.

“Tyler!” Sinistré snapped me out of my reverie. “We ain’t got no time for grievin’.”

“The others will have heard that,” I said, statin’ the obvious. We’d better hurry.”

She didn’t argue. She swung out over the railing and hauled her lithe, snake-like body onto the roof of the carriage and I followed, looking down briefly at the ground passing rapidly beneath us, causing my stomach to turn over.

Just as I hauled myself onto the roof I heard the report of a gun and a bullet whizzed past my head. Staggering on the awkward carriage roof, I turned to see Josh, gun drawn, on the carriage behind us. “I had a feelin’ you was goin’ soft,” he shouted above the noise of the engine and the wind. “That’s why I sent Hank back.”

“I’m sorry, Josh. Really I am, but I can’t stand by and let you murder a whole train full of people. Your beef is with Anders. So have your fight with him.”

Somewhere below on the train, I heard gunshots as Lucy and Anders fought off the others.

“Nah. Not good enough, Tyler. He needs to suffer afore he dies. He needs to know that these folks all dyin’ is his fault. You know that, damn you.”

“But it ain’t, is it? It’s your decision to do this and it’s your fault. No one else’s and I can’t go along with it. It ain’t right, Josh and you know it.”

We stood there, arguin’ as the train rattled towards the ravine, the clickety clack of the wheels reverberating through the carriages and under our feet and the smoke and motes from the chimney on the engine flying past us, causing our eyes to water. Like drunken sailors we swayed to the rhythm of the train and tried to steady ourselves as it swung one way and another.

Out the corner of my eye, I saw Sinistré makin’ her way forward to the front of the carriage, holding out her arms to keep her balance as she tried to make haste yet keep a steady footing coughing as she took in a lungful of smoke and steam. There were two more carriages to go before she got to the engine and I figured if I could keep Josh occupied she might just make it okay. Josh saw what was goin’ on and loosed off a shot at her. It missed but she staggered and swore as she fell to her knees, slipping precariously close to the edge.

She reached the edge of the roof and swung out with one arm to grab the edge. There was a brief moment when she hung there in mid-air before she manage to swing back, her foot landing on the roof and as the train lurched she used the momentum to get herself fully back face down and panting with the exertion.

Balancing herself she got up again before swinging round and taking a shot back at Josh. She fired twice. The first one missed but the second hit him in the right shoulder. He dropped his gun and nearly fell from the roof, but managed to stay on. The gun fell off the roof and clattered away in the wake of the train. He lay there for a moment clutching his shoulder. Then Frank and Jake came in sight above the end of their carriage. Jake kneeled down to check on his brother. Frank started shootin’ at me and Sinistré.

“You bastard traitor, Tyler! I’m gonna kill you.”

I returned fire, but the shots went wide as the train swung through a bend and he staggered as he tried to regain his balance. I slipped and fell, clutchin’ at the edge of the roof with one hand and clinging onto my pistol with the other as I got myself back onto my knees. I looked up at the track ahead. Then I froze in horror. “Tunnel!” I shouted.

“Yeah, I seen it,” Sinistré replied, dropping to her stomach and holdin’ herself close to the roof as I did likewise. The cool of the tunnel swept over us and the smoke and motes swirled around us burning the back of my nose, throat and eyes. Coughing and spluttering, we emerged into the daylight again and Sinistré got to her feet and staggered forwards, moving her body in rhythm with the train, while Frank and I exchanged gunfire.

I ran out of bullets and was reaching to my gun belt to reload when Sinistré ran out of patience.

“Oh, fer cryin’ out loud.” She stopped, turned and lifted her piece. Just the one shot but it hit its target. A red bloom opened up in the middle of Frank’s forehead and I watched in horror as my erstwhile friend bucked back, landed on the roof, bounced then fell, swept away by the slipstream and landing like a bundle of rags on the dusty plain below, twisting and turning before finally coming to rest like a crumpled doll broken and abandoned to the care of the vultures that circled overhead, ever ready for an opportunity.

Jacob looked up and returned fire as Sinistré again tried to make her way forward. Time was runnin’ out and if she didn’t get to the engineer in time, we was all gonners.

Jacob lifted himself onto his knees and took aim again. I loosed off a couple of shots causing him to miss. Sinistré had made it to the tender and soon she was out of sight. I let off a couple more shots in Jacob’s direction and followed her, dropping down onto the footplate. The engineer was in heated discussion with Sinistré as I landed. “What she’s saying is true,” I panted. “If you don’t stop this train before it gets to the viaduct we’re all dead.” Convinced – not least by her forty-five poking at his generous midriff, he put in the brakes and the train juddered as the wheels slid and sparked and squealed on the metal railroad. Ahead the viaduct loomed closer and closer. Just as we reached the edge of the ravine, a series of explosions on the timber structure ripped it apart and it collapsed into the abyss. The engineer and fireman looked on, white faced in horror.

“The rest of the boys are here somewhere, I expect we will need to get back,” I said.

“Sure.” She dropped down onto the ground from the footplate and ran back towards the carriage as the rest of the gang rode up from behind the train. There was a hail of bullets both from them and Jake up on the roof. Lucy and Anders returned fire from the carriage as did we. Jake stood up and took aim right at me. I returned fire and caught him one in the chest. He buckled at the knees and fell to the dust right in front of me.

“Traitor!” He said as he died. He was right, I was and felt it keenly.

“I’ll find you and kill you if it’s the last thing I ever do!” Josh shouted from the roof, his right arm dangling useless at his side. I looked up at him and looked into his eyes. “It’s over, Josh.”

The exchange stopped almost as soon as it started. Seein’ both Clancy boys out of action the others turned their horses and rode off letting off some shots behind them to discourage immediate pursuit. Anders ran through the train seein’ who would join him in a posse. Several of the men on the train were more ’n happy to go after the renegades and get some vengeance for what they had been through. Couldn’t say as I blamed them.

“Someone help me get these horses off the train,” Anders commanded. The newly formed posse rushed to the boxcar and there was busyin’ about as they unloaded the horses skittering and clattering down the ramp from the damaged carriage to the ground. There was some fevered activity as they was saddled up and the dozen or so men equipped themselves with rifles and chose a mount with which to ride off after the remnants of the gang.

I figured that senator Anders wouldn’t be makin’ his appointment in Washington DC this Christmas after all.

Anders turned his mount and tipped his hat to Sinistré. “Ma’am,” he said before reining the animal round. They spurred the horses into action and set out after the departing bandits, the horses kicking up plains dust in their wake.

Sinistré and Lucy stayed behind. They watched the departing riders for a few moments. Then Sinistré walked back to the locomotive and spoke to the engineer. “There’s a town not far back along the line. There will be a telegraph there. So you need to set back slow like so’s we can get the remaining passengers off and decide what to do next. She holstered her gun and turned to me. For a moment, she said nothing. She just looked at me as if making a decision. “Go,” she said eventually.

I stared back at her.

“I said go, don’t make me change my mind.”

“I…”

“Tyler, you did the right thing today and you covered me at risk to yourself. So I owe you. This is payback, okay? No one will question that you got away in the confusion. But don’t ever let me hear you going back to robbin’ banks and trains or I swear, I’ll hunt you down and kill you myself.”

“What about you?” I asked. “Your trip back east is done for.”

She smiled. “I guess so. We’ll go back and have a quiet Christmas with Pat, I reckon. I think mebbe he would like that. Mebbe then we can take a stage in the New Year to see Lucy’s aunt Isobel. I don’t reckon the railroad will be fixed for a while.” She looked across at the ravine where the remains of the viaduct could barely be seen far below.

“Well,” I said, “Texas is out. Perhaps I should ride north. Colorado. I ain’t robbed no banks in Colorado.”

“Looks like a plan, then. I suggest you go before anyone notices or I change my mind. And see you don’t rob no banks in Colorado,” she reminded me.

I turned to look her in the eyes. Those dark pools had a glint of humour in them that I hadn’t noticed before and the full mouth below the straight nose was curled in a slight crooked smile. In that moment, I realised that I liked her very much. Even though I knew that I would never see her again.

I turned to Lucy and tipped my hat. “Ma’am,” I said.

“Goodbye Tyler, you take care and stay out of trouble.”

I spurred my horse and rode off across the plains in the opposite direction to where the gang with the posse in hot pursuit had gone. I looked up at the vultures circling above. “Not this time,” I said to ’em. Prompting my horse into a canter.

I was right. I never saw neither of them again. But I kept true to my promise to both of them and stayed out of trouble. I did hear that Senator Anders retired from public life shortly after that. Wanted to spend more time with his family apparently. Well, I guess if that was so, that was so.

They hanged Josh after his arm was fixed and the rest of the gang was rounded up eventually and most of ’em ended up doing jail time. As for me, I went north to Colorado I got a job driving the stage and it paid well enough, so I was content to keep a low profile until the law forgot about me.

I always wondered if they ever did get to see Lucy’s aunt Isobel in Washington DC. Not if Sinistré had anything to do with it, I suspected.