Gunfighter's Legacy: Outlaws and Trains

A Preview of Volume 3 in the Beth Caver Saga

© 2019 CR Britting

I'm a paragraph. Click here to add your own text and edit me. It's easy.

Chapter 1

The Wait Is Over

 

Colorado, 1886

 

The day was fixin’ to be a hot one and even the wind didn’t help much. It did, however, succeed in raising a fair amount of dust, which covered the waiting men with the dry powder.

 

Axel Dugan wiped the lenses of his binoculars and lifted them to his eyes. Pointing them at the railroad track in the distance, he followed the rails to a place where the track curved out of sight behind a hill. He studied the spot for a few seconds and then grunted with satisfaction as a train rolled into view.

 

“There he is,” he said to his two companions. “I thought I heard a train coming.”

 

Axel was a tall, lanky man with dark hair and a thick mustache. Mid-thirties, he’d been on the wrong side of the law for over a decade and was well used to waiting for a quarry to appear. This train, in particular, was worth the wait.

 

“About time, too,” Caleb Cody complained. “He’s nearly an hour late and my canteen’s plumb empty.”

 

Axel rolled his eyes and wondered for the third time where Ruben had dug up this pair of misfits. Caleb and his friend, Zack, had just come in yesterday. Alex took one look at them and voiced his displeasure,

 

Ruben had replied in exasperation. “What you got is what you got, Axel. Make do.”

 

Caleb was about average height and build, but he hadn’t shaved in quite a while and his clothes were full of holes. He reminded Axel of a drunk he’d seen sprawled out in the mud behind a saloon. Worthless.

 

Zack was better, but not by much. He was tall and fairly good-looking, but he had a jagged scar on his cheek that made you want to turn away. Worse, he questioned everything and it made Axel want to just do without him. Rueben has insisted, though, and that had settled it.

 

Glancing to the south, Axel saw the lookout the boss had placed at the top of a small hill. He waved to catch the man’s attention and pointed down the track toward the approaching train. The lookout waved back and then disappeared on the other side of the hill. Ruben had another dozen men waiting there and they had blocked the track to force the train to stop.

 

“All right,” he told the other two. “Let me go through it one more time. The last car on the train is a private car belonging to an important railroad executive, a man by the name of Dalton Davies. Our job is to kidnap him and haul him back to the hideout for ransom. He is not to be hurt under any circumstances. Are we clear on that?”

 

The men nodded in rather sullen agreement.

 

“The boss says Davies don’t carry a gun, so we shouldn’t have any trouble. You may encounter his porter, but he shouldn’t be a problem, either. If you run into anyone else, tie ‘em up if you can, or if they give you trouble you can shoot them. Do not harm Davies. He’s important.”

 

The train grew closer.

 

“Looks like he’s moving along at a right good clip,” Caleb observed. “You think that stuff we piled on the track will stop him?”

 

“We’ll find out soon enough.”

 

The locomotive passed them and Axel noticed the train was a long one. Behind the locomotive and its coal tender were an express/mail car, two baggage cars and five luxury passenger cars.

 

“He should be stoppin’ right about…now.”

 

Sure enough, just as the locomotive disappeared around the next hill, they heard a squeal of brakes and the train quickly slowed to a stop.

 

“All right, let’s ride.”

 

He led them down the slope and it didn’t take but half a minute to reach their destination. Just as they pulled to a stop, they heard gunfire from the other end of the train. Rueben and his men would deal with the other passengers

 

“The two of you climb the rear platform and head inside,” Axel told them. “I’ll go in the front end and cut off anyone who tries to escape. Remember, we’re here to kidnap him, nothing else.”

 

* * * * *

 

Inside the private car, a lone figure watched the three outlaws dismount and separate, knowing time was short.

 

Two coming in the back entrance and another from the front. I’m trapped between them. What do I do now?

 

Stepping back from the curtain at the window, she looked for the best place to hide, deciding on the bar, whose thick wood should give her some protection. Crossing the room, she knelt near the end.

 

I’ve got to deal with these two quickly, otherwise, the other man will likely shoot me in the back.

 

* * * * *

 

Zack climbed the steps. To him, it still seemed stupid not to rob the passengers as well. What a screwed up mess.

 

Reaching the platform, Zack drew his gun. “You ready?”

 

Caleb joined him on the platform. “Yeah. Let’s do it.”

 

Zack pulled open the door, which protested with a squeak of rusty hinges. Then he stepped inside, his gun in front of him.

 

A flash of light startled him and the sound of a gunshot rang in his ears as a massive fist struck his chest, driving him backward through the door. He tried to raise his gun, only to be shot a second time. He stumbled backward and collided with Caleb. Both fell and they ended up pinned against the handrail of the rear balcony.

 

For Caleb’s part, it took him a few seconds to recover from the sudden gunshots from inside the car

 

“Zack?” he whispered in the sudden silence. “Zack? You okay?”

 

No answer.

 

Untangling himself from his friend, he lowered Zack to the floor and got slowly to his feet. Staying low, he backed slowly toward the steps, intending to put as much distance as possible between him and this stupid train robbery. Rueben could keep his money. What good is it, anyway, if you ain't alive to spend it?

 

Unfortunately, the rear of the car had two windows in addition to the door, making Caleb clearly visible from inside. Just as he passed the window, it blew outward, followed instantly by the roar of a third gunshot. Zack felt the hot breath of the bullet as it passed his nose, followed quickly by shards of flying glass, some of which cut up the side of his face, neck and left shoulder.

 

Yelping in pain, he ducked below the window, hoping to avoid getting shot. Whoever was inside, he sure knew what he was doing and Caleb had no desire to end up like Zack.

 

Staying low, he backed toward the steps, but in his haste to get off the train, he forgot he was standing at the top of the steps. So when he took another step backward, it was onto the steps below. He lost his balance and fell off the train, landing on his head and back in the rocky roadbed at the bottom of the steps. It was not a gentle landing. Stunned by the fall, he couldn't move, and just as he passed out, he had a fleeting thought he might have broken something.

 

* * * * *

 

At the front of the car, Axel Dugan had just put his hand on the door handle when he was startled by sudden gunshots.

 

“Confound it, who’s shooting?” he muttered. “I told them not to hurt anyone.”

 

The words were no sooner out of his mouth than he heard another gunshot. It sounded like it came from the rear of the car.

 

Turning the handle, he pushed his way inside. If they’ve hurt Davies, I’ll kill both of ‘em.

 

He looked around, realizing this must be Davies’ office. He quickly searched the desk but found nothing of interest.

 

A third gunshot rang out. “That’s it. I’ve had enough of this foolishness.”

 

The railroad car had a long corridor down the right side which connected the office with the rest of the car. Four small compartments lay off the corridor with a bar and parlor area at the rear.

 

Axel headed in that direction, but just as he turned the corner, he was startled to see a woman in a yellow dress coming toward him.

 

He was so surprised, he was slow to react. Then he saw her lift the gun in her hand and he quickly brought up his own weapon, but speed decreases accuracy and the bullet from his pistol flew over woman’s shoulder and smashed out the remainder of a window at the back of the car. Her return shot was hurried as well and her bullet, intended for his chest, hit his upper right arm instead. The impact spun him partially around and the pistol flew out of his hand.

 

Instead of shooting again, the woman hesitated, an uncertain look on her face.

 

"Step out, mister, where I can see you."

 

Axel couldn’t believe it, What a lucky break.

 

"Whatever you say, lady," he replied with a sneer. Partially out of sight around the corner, she couldn’t see Axel pull his other gun. He stepped fully into the corridor, lifting the revolver.

 

The woman was taken completely by surprise. All she could do was throw herself into the empty compartment to her right. For his part, the outlaw had to turn his gun to follow her unexpected move. He fired just as she dove through the open doorway and he heard a thump as she apparently landed on the floor inside the compartment.

 

Did I hit her? More importantly, who in the world is she and why is she in Dalton's private car?

 

Then he had another thought. Was it her shooting at Caleb and Zack? A woman?

 

His gun extended in front of him, he hurried down the hall, prepared to see her stick her head out the door.

 

He reached the doorway and risked a brief look. The woman was lying on the floor and she looked young, probably in her early twenties. She must have dropped her gun when she fell, but she had a fancy gun belt fastened around her, from which she pulled her other weapon. Axel barely had time to duck behind the doorframe when she shot at him.

 

Then he had an idea.

 

"Looks like we got us a standoff, lady," he called. "Why don't you just toss out that gun and I'll let you walk outta there?”

 

"You don't really expect me to believe that do you?" a feminine voice replied. “You’ll kill me the instant I throw down my gun.”

 

"Listen, ma’am. I ain't after you, but I really don't care all that much. You can either toss out the gun and I’ll let you go or I come in there and kill you. It don't make no difference to me one way or ‘nother.”

 

Silence

 

"You scared, lady? You should be. I’ve killed six people, two of them women. If you don’t come out, you’ll be another notch on my gun, just like rest.”

 

Silence.

 

“Last chance. You got ten seconds to come out, else I'm comin' in there to get you.”

 

He mentally counted to ten, then risked a quick glance into the compartment before pulling back to avoid getting shot.

 

The compartment was empty.

 

What…? Where’d she go?

 

He risked another look, longer this time. The compartment was indeed empty.

 

Then movement caught his eye and he noticed a gun barrel sticking out of the wardrobe cabinet.

 

The gun turned toward him and he pulled back just in time to avoid her gunshot.

 

That was close. But now I know where you are, lady.

 

A wicked grin crossed his face. It was a poor hiding place and the thin wooden door was no protection whatsoever.

 

He counted to ten, jerked around the door frame, and fired three quick shots into the wardrobe.

Chapter 2

Job Interview

 

Angel Creek, Colorado

Two hours earlier

 

The special train sitting in the Angel Creek station was a long one. It had stopped for about thirty minutes ago to service the locomotive and most of the passengers had gotten off to stretch their legs. It had been a long journey from New York, more than 1800 miles, and even the most enthusiastic of them were feeling the effects of the long train ride. Only a couple of hours more and they’d arrive at Denver, their destination.

 

Dressed in the latest styles, they appeared to be quite wealthy. Many were businessmen and they stood in small groups discussing the latest politics and the stock market news.

 

In one such group, David Voorhees and several of his friends were talking. A tall, distinguished-looking man with black hair, David was a member of the railroad’s board of directors and his friends were always interested in his opinions about it.

 

Just then he noticed a new arrival on the platform, a cowboy. Nearly six feet tall, he was dressed in brown leather pants and vest and had a hat pulled low on his forehead, leaving most of his face in shadow. The stranger walked down the platform looking very much out of place among all the rich people. He had a pair of fancy Colt revolvers belted around him, causing some folks to wonder if he was one of those western gunfighters they’d read about back east.

 

"Who in the world is that?" Voorhees asked.

 

His friend, a short, rather overweight man in an expensive suit, turned to look.

 

"Never seen him before," Morgan Farley replied with a shrug. "Probably just some drifter, come to see the iron horse.” He pulled a big handkerchief from his pocket. “Man, I hate this country," he said, wiping the sweat from his face. "Why does anyone want to live out here?"

 

"You don't have to live out here to make money, Morgan," Voorhees replied, steering his friend back to the topic he wanted to discuss. "You just have to make the right investments."

 

Farley snorted. "Like this railroad? On paper, it looks like a bust."

 

Voorhees nodded. "That's right, it does.” He glanced around to see if anyone was within earshot, then lowered his voice. "We want to make sure it stays that way."

 

Farley glanced over at him, a curious expression on his face. "You know something I don't, David?"

 

Voorhees smiled but said nothing as he pulled a cigar from his pocket. Farley lit it for him and after taking a drag, David examined the cigar a moment before replying. "You didn't hear it from me, Morgan, but there might be a change in railroad ownership soon. Save your money and be prepared to move when the stock price takes a dive."

 

All this time he had been watching the cowboy walk down the platform and something about the man pricked the financier's curiosity. The cowboy reached the end of the train and to Voorhees's surprise, stopped at the private car attached to the end of the train.

 

"Look there, Morgan," he said, pointing his silver-tipped cane in that direction. "Seems like he's paying Dalton Davies a visit."

 

"Maybe Dalton's hired himself one of those gunfighters I read about in the dime novels," Farley suggested with a chuckle.

 

Voorhees did not laugh. His eyes narrowed as he watched the cowboy climb the steps.

 

A gunfighter? Does Davies suspect foul play in the recent incidents on the railroad? If so, is he bringing in some help?

 

* * * * *

 

Seated at an expensive desk in the front of the private railroad car, a well-dressed man in his late thirties sighed as thumbed through the large stack of messages. I’ll never get to the bottom of this mess. Especially the last couple of days, no sooner had he resolved one problem when two more took its place.

 

Dalton Davies was Senior Vice President of Operations and executive assistant to the railroad president. It was a position of great responsibility and just now he could definitely feel the weight of the job. Davies was a tall man—some suggested handsome—in his late 30s, although lately, he felt older.

 

He leaned back, closed his eyes and stretched. Too much to do and not enough time.

 

Just then he heard a knock on the door frame. It was Henry Reeman, his longtime Negro porter.

 

“Excuse me, Dalton, but you have a visitor.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“Miss Elizabeth Carver, sir.”

 

That brought a tired smile. “Really? That’s great, Henry. Please show her in.”

 

At last. I’ve been looking forward to meeting her.

 

The visitor entered the room and Dalton’s mouth dropped open in surprise at what appeared to be a leather-clad cowboy.

 

“Mr. Davies?" asked a voice that was undoubtedly feminine.

 

"You're Elizabeth Carver?"

 

"Yes, sir. You wanted to see me?"

 

He got hurriedly to his feet. "I beg your pardon, Miss Carver. You're—you're—“

 

"Not what you expected?" she finished for him.

 

He stepped around the desk, a smile on his face now as he recovered his composure.

 

"Frankly, I didn't know what to expect, Miss Carver. The report we received about you at company headquarters was almost unbelievable. It sounded like you took on this Nathaniel Biggins character and his gang of cutthroats single-handedly."

 

"That's an exaggeration, sir," she replied, her face reddening a bit with embarrassment.

 

He looked skeptical. "And you did ride your horse onto the track in front of our train, didn't you?"

 

"Well, yes, sir, I guess I did. I was afraid they wouldn't stop and Mr. Biggins would get away."

 

"That's what I thought. And didn't you help our station agent discover an important missing document?"

 

"Oh, that. I just pointed out how the storage cabinet—“

 

He lifted his hand. "Miss Carver, there is no need to be modest. What you accomplished speaks for itself. You got the letter from Morton Deerfield, our president?"

 

She nodded. "Yes, sir. It was very kind of him to give me a lifetime pass."

 

"Well, the next day he called me into his office. He said, 'Dalton, I want you to go and meet this young woman. You tell her I want her to work for me.'"

 

Her eyes widened. "But, sir, I don't know anything about railroads. What could I—?"

 

"All things in good time, Miss Carver. I've traveled a very long way to meet you. Won't you sit down for a moment and hear me out?"

 

* * * * *

 

Standing on the platform outside, David Voorhees wondered about the cowboy. Excusing himself from others, he joined a man standing near the edge of the crowd.

 

"Did you see that cowboy, Lew? The one with the fancy six-guns?"

 

"Sure, Boss."

 

"I want you to keep an eye on him. When he comes out of Dalton's car, follow him."

 

Lew pulled back his coat, just enough to reveal the hilt of a knife. "Do you want me to…?"

 

Voorhees glanced down at the private car. "Not just yet. I want to find out what Dalton's up to first. If the cowboy's a part of it, we may have to get rid of him."

 

* * * * *

 

Looking across the desk in his private railroad car, Dalton Davies was still a bit in shock as he watched the leather-clad figure sit down opposite him. Carver was nearly as tall as a man and she carried her revolvers with the easy familiarity of someone who knew how to use them. The report from the local station agent had led Davies to expect a tobacco-chewing, tough-talking woman in her mid-thirties, but instead, Carver was a polite, soft-spoken woman, scarcely older than his daughter.

 

In his desk Dalton had another report, by a Sheriff Carson of Angel Creek, describing a late afternoon train robbery a few weeks ago. Not satisfied with the contents of the express car, the outlaws had begun shooting the train crew and the passengers. Carver somehow managed to fight her way clear, killing two of the outlaws in the process. Dalton had read the account several times on the trip west, but he still found it hard to believe.

 

She certainly had courage, but she seemed too young for what he had in mind. He needed her help, but if Carver got herself hurt or killed, the fingers would point right back at him. He was already in trouble with some members of the board of directors and another incident like the one with Abigail would surely cost him his job.

 

Maybe I should send her away; just tell her thanks for coming in and let it go at that.

 

"Miss Carver, running a railroad is a huge undertaking. With thousands of miles of track and a large number of employees, trying to control it all from a desk at company headquarters is impossible. For that reason, Morton needs people out on the line, keeping an eye on things, making sure everything is running smoothly. If it isn't, he needs to know, so he can make changes."

 

He hooked a thumb toward his chest. "That's what I do, Miss Carver. I look for problems on the road and try to solve them, or, if necessary, get management involved."

 

It was decision time. Offer her the job or not? He saw the curious expression on her face and thought of all the things he'd read about her.

 

He leaned forward, deciding to take a chance. "May I call you Beth?"

 

"Of course, sir."

 

"I need you to help me do my job, Beth. That's one reason I came out here to see you."

 

Her eyes widened. "But I don't know anything about—"

 

He lifted his hand. "I'm aware of your lack of experience, but you can learn what you need to know.

 

"What I want you to do at first is just ride the train. Mingle with our paying passengers and listen to what they have to say. Are they having a good time? If not, what do they complain about? Are our employees courteous to them?

 

"The point is they may be more likely to share their thoughts with a nice young woman than with our train crew. Every so often, send me a confidential report. It will give our Mr. Deerfield an inside look at how we're doing. Get the idea?"

 

"Yes, sir," she replied slowly. "It sounds like a lot of time on the train."

 

He nodded. "That's correct, but you'll get time off, too. Want to go to San Francisco? I can arrange that, first class."

 

"I need some time to think about it," she told him finally.

 

"Fair enough," Dalton said, getting to his feet. "This train is leaving here in fifteen minutes. I need your answer in ten."

 

"But—“

 

"Come, come, Miss Carver. If you can't decide in ten minutes, then you're not the person I need. Go take a walk and think about it. Make it a short walk; we've got work to do."

 

"Yes, sir."

 

She got up and saw the porter in the doorway. He held a tray covered with white cloth.

 

"Come in, Henry," Davies called. "Set that plate on the desk, would you? Miss Carver is going for a walk. We'll eat when she returns."

 

The porter did as he was directed, then headed for the door. As he stepped outside, he passed someone coming in. The visitor was a rugged-looking man and it looked like hadn’t shaved in a week. He looked tired and he barely glanced at Carver before turning to Davies.

 

"You wanted to see me, Dalton?"

 

"Yeah, TJ, someone I'd like you to meet. Miss Carver, this is Thomas Jefferson Thompson. Most everybody calls him TJ. TJ, this is Miss Beth Carver. I've been talking to her about a job."

 

Thompson glanced sharply at Beth, examining her closely for the first time.

 

Beth offered her hand. "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Thompson."

 

Instead of taking it, Thompson looked back at Davies. "You're hiring a woman?"

 

"Trying to, TJ. She's not sure she wants the job."

 

Carver dropped her hand back to her side, a frown on her face for Mr. Thomas Jefferson Thompson and his attitude.

 

"Something wrong with my being a woman, Mr. Thompson?"

 

"Some woman," he scoffed. "You sure don't look like one in that getup. Can you really shoot those guns, or are they just for show?"

 

She made an obvious effort to ignore his insult and turned instead to Dalton.

 

"Mr. Davies, I'm going to take a short walk. I'll have an answer for you in ten minutes."

 

"Fine, Beth. I hope you'll accept."

 

* * * * *

 

After Carver left, Dalton walked to the window and glanced outside, seeing her step down from the train. "What do you think?"

 

"About what, boss? Why are you still tryin' to hire a woman? I thought you'd know better by now. You haven't forgotten what happened to Abigail, have you?"

 

Davies watched Carver walk to the end of the platform, seemingly oblivious to the stares of the rich people watching her. No, he hadn't forgotten Abigail McClaren. They'd found her body one morning under his rail car and her death had hit Dalton hard.

 

He turned from the window. "So you didn't think much of Carver, eh?"

 

TJ made a rude noise. "Another tomboy trying to act tough, Boss. I've seen her kind before. Somebody ought to send her home to put on a dress."

 

"You think so?" Davies returned to his seat behind the desk. "Suppose I told you that young woman has killed four men, two of them robbing one of our trains?"

 

"You can't be serious?"

 

"Did you see the way she reacted when you insulted her? What would you have done if someone had said that to you?"

 

"I'd have reached for my gun."

 

Davies leaned back in his chair and smiled. "Exactly. Carver may not look like much at first glance, TJ, but my guess is looks can be deceiving."

 

Thompson thought about that. "Well, maybe so, Dalton, but she's just a kid. You expect her to ride the train by herself? Unescorted females are trouble, especially the young ones. Suppose some yahoo has too much to drink and decides to take advantage of her?"

 

Davies nodded. "You're right, of course, that's why you're gonna ride herd on her."

 

TJ lifted his hands in protest. "Aw, come on, Boss. Don't saddle me with a woman. I got work to do."

 

Davies nodded. "I know you do, TJ. It's important work, too, but I desperately need a female operative. I think Carver's the one, but we have to be sure. I've given her something simple to start with. If she does okay, I'll move her quickly to other things. She can go places you can't and she can pass for a man to the casual glance. That might be useful from time to time. She's demonstrated she can think on her feet and can handle those guns of hers. I think she'll be all right."

 

TJ got up and stepped to the window. Davies lit a cigarette and leaned back, waiting for his friend to make up his mind.

 

Finally, TJ turned from the window. "Whatever you say, Dalton, but I think you're gonna get her killed."

Chapter 3

A Decision to Make

 

Down at the end of the platform, Elizabeth Carver’s mind raced in several directions as she thought about the implications of Dalton's offer. She'd never had a real job before and except for her time at school back east, she'd never been away from home. In fact, until this morning her only thought about the future was to head for home and deal with Sam Johnson.

 

And do what? a part of her asked. Kill him? Get a warrant for his arrest? She knew that Sam had paid the three young men to kill her; they had told her so after dragging her off her horse in the middle of nowhere. It had happened only three weeks ago and she sometimes woke in the middle of the night, wondering if it was just a bad dream.

 

Unfortunately, it wasn't, and all she had to do was look in the mirror to see the long scar on her left shoulder, put there by Billy Joe's knife.

 

Beth sighed deeply. Forced to fight for survival, she had shot all three of them. Then she’d ridden back to town, the front of her shirt wet with own blood and vowing to get even with Sam if it was the last thing she did.

 

She probably couldn't get him arrested; it was her word against his and he'd just deny knowing anything about it. She couldn't prove otherwise and that left her with only one option.

 

Is that really what you want to do, Beth Carver? Do you really want to kill another man?

 

Well, why not? a part of her demanded. He said he'd kill you if he got the chance, didn't he? Find him and let's finish this.

 

Let it go, Beth, Nate's voice echoed in her mind.

 

Just as if he'd thrown a bucket of cold water in her face, the advice of her former mentor snapped her back to reality.

 

Don't go looking for trouble, he had told her. Walk away when you can.

 

A part of her protested, but Beth knew Nate was right. Besides, she thought with a grim smile, it might be even better to let Sam worry about it. Let him wonder if I'm coming after him.

 

The cry of a hawk caught her ears and she glanced up in time to see the bird land on a signal tower nearby. Oh, to be free like him. To just go anywhere you wish and not answer to anybody.

 

Her thoughts turned to Dick Thorne, her childhood friend, and a tiny pain pricked her heart at the memory of her lost schoolgirl dream.

 

"I'm sorry, Elizabeth," he had said that day at the cemetery. I didn't mean to hurt you. Things just happened so fast—“

 

"I know, Dick," she told him. "Maybe someday I'll be back your way, and we can make a new start."

 

"I'd like that, Elizabeth," he replied. "I'd like that a lot."

 

Maybe someday, Dick, she thought sadly, but not now.

 

That left only her father. She had gotten a letter from him the other day. He was doing fine, but he wanted to know when she was coming home. Beth was an only child and their ranch, the Circle-C, would belong to her someday. She knew she had an obligation to help run it, but if she returned home now, she would get caught up in the ranch work and might never have another chance to see the world beyond her hometown.

 

It's now or never, Beth. What's it going to be?

 

She stood a moment longer, gazing down the rails behind the train. They stretched as far as she could see toward the horizon, inviting her to follow them and see where they led.

 

Another cry from the hawk drew her attention and she glanced up in time to see the bird take wing, following the rails toward the morning sun.

 

* * * * *

 

After Beth left his office, Dalton Davies turned his conversation with TJ to other railroad business. They discussed several items, but what concerned Dalton the most was the new branch line the railroad was building to Larston. Located about 25 miles west of the railroad's main route, the town was the center of a new mining area. The railroad had been fortunate to win the contract to build into Larston and freight traffic on the new branch line promised to be an important new source of revenue.

 

TJ had just returned from an inspection trip to the construction area and Dalton made notes as he listened to the report.

 

"I think we're in pretty good shape," TJ concluded. "The only major obstacle right now is the trestle over Diablo Canyon. Thanks for sending Ted Rawlings to give me a hand.”

 

Dalton nodded. “He’s a good man.”

 

“He had to make a couple of small changes in the design, but he says five days should be enough to finish it."

 

"What about the station in Larston?"

 

"That should be finished the day after tomorrow. We also need a few days in the Walker Mountain tunnel and we have to lay the last mile or so of the track into Larston. Other than those things, we're done."

 

"That's good news," Dalton replied. "Our contract requires us to roll a train into Larston by the sixteenth. If we don't, there’s a $50,000 penalty and a $10,000 charge for every day we delay.”

 

“Ouch.”

 

Dalton nodded and leaned forward, lowering his voice. "Just between you and me, we've bet the farm on the success of the Larston branch. We borrowed a lot of money for construction and if we default on our contract, the penalties will probably force us into bankruptcy. Our competitors are practically licking their chops at the prospect of picking up the pieces."

 

"I don't see a problem with the construction," TJ replied. "Short of an accident or labor problems, we should be right on time, maybe even a day or two early."

 

Dalton took a sip from his china coffee cup. "What concerns me is sabotage. If someone wrecks the bridge over Diablo Canyon or causes a cave-in in the tunnel, we'll miss our contract deadline."

 

TJ sighed. "We've talked about that before, Dalton. How can we watch it all? The track is 25 miles long. There are lots of places where a couple of men with crowbars could pull up some spikes and wreck a train."

 

"Excuse me, sir," Henry, the porter, said from the doorway. "Miss Carver is waiting to see you."

 

"Ask her to come in, Henry. I know that TJ, but let's come up with a plan to put guards at the bridge and the tunnel, at least until the first train is safely into Larston."

 

Beth Carver appeared in the doorway.

 

"Hi, Beth," he said, waving her inside. "Have a seat."

 

The office was small and the only available seat was next to TJ. Carver hesitated for an instant before sitting down and Dalton could almost see the sparks fly between them. If Carver agreed to his job offer, the two of them were going to be a problem.

 

"Well," he asked her, "what did you decide?"

 

"I've thought about it, Mr. Davies and I've decided to accept your offer. If I ever want to see any of the country, I have to do it now. If I go back home, I might never get another chance."

 

"Excellent," Dalton replied with a broad smile. "You're on the payroll as of today. We'll be leaving in a few minutes, and then—“

 

"Oh, my gosh," she exclaimed. "I forgot about Josie!"

 

"Josie? Who's she?"

 

"My horse. She's still tied in front of the station."

 

"See the station agent. Ask him to look after her. Then get your things and get back in here as fast as you can."

 

Beth hurried out and TJ rolled his eyes. "So I get to play nursemaid. Thanks, I really appreciate it."

 

Davies grinned. "And just who was it that came to me last week, asking for some help?"

 

"I meant a man, Dalton, not a tomboy with a big mouth."

 

* * * * *

 

Outside, on the station platform, Lew Collier wondered about the tall cowboy who had entered Dalton's private car. Who is he? Someone from the Angel Creek area? Maybe someone Davies has imported to do his dirty work?

 

It could be nothing; men went to see Dalton all the time. Still, there was something about this particular cowboy that had drawn Lew's attention earlier. He couldn't decide what it was, but it made him suspicious. Maybe Davies is trying to hire himself another detective?

 

Lew fingered the knife under his coat, remembering the last detective Dalton had hired, a woman named Abigail something-or-other. Lew had been fooled at first, for the move was unexpected, but late one night she had caught some of Lew's men stealing supplies from the railroad warehouse.

 

She actually had them at gunpoint when Lew crept up behind her, the knife in his hand. Afterward, he had dumped her body under Dalton's private car. Davies must have kept it quiet because nothing about it ever appeared in the paper.

 

The rear door of Dalton's car opened and the cowboy came back outside. He climbed down from the train and hurried into the station. Lew followed and stepped inside just in time to see the stranger exit through the front door.

 

Curious, Lew crossed to the opposite window and glanced outside, seeing a palomino horse tied to the hitching rail. It was a beautiful animal with a silver-studded saddle and bridle. Lew whistled softly as he watched the rider pull his gear from the horse. It was an expensive outfit; too expensive for some local cowboy.

 

So then, maybe Davies had hired himself an outsider. That brought a smile. If so, he might just find another body under his private car.

 

The stranger turned back to the station and Lew quickly pulled away from the window. A moment later the door opened and the cowboy came inside. He walked to the ticket counter, carrying a rifle, a pack, saddlebags, and a bedroll. After waiting a moment, Lew got in line behind him, noting the fancy Colt revolvers the stranger carried.

 

"…can take care of that," the agent was saying. "I have a place in the back to put your saddle and after the train leaves, I'll take Josie over to the livery stable."

 

"Thanks, Joel. I'll be back to get her as soon as I can."

 

Lew was surprised to hear a feminine voice and when she turned, he saw a pleasant face and brown eyes.

 

"Morning, ma'am.” He tipped his hat and stepped out of her way.

 

"Good morning to you, sir," she replied with a smile and a nod.

 

She passed him and Lew couldn't help turning to look, watching as she walked out onto the station platform.

 

"May I help you, sir?" said the agent.

 

Still in shock to learn the cowboy was a woman, Lew turned toward the counter.

 

"Who in the world is that?" he asked, hooking his thumb toward the door.

 

The agent laughed. "That's Beth Carver. Quite an eyeful, isn't she?"

 

"You sure got that right. I could have sworn she was a man. She from around here?"

 

"Nope. Only been in town about three weeks. Came here with a couple of orphans after their father was killed.” The agent smiled. "Took the town by storm. Got the kids their inheritance and proved our county auditor had been cheatin' us."

 

"Really? How could she do all that? She looked like a kid to me."

 

"Well, read about it for yourself, mister," the agent replied. "There's a newspaper article pinned over there on the bulletin board."

 

"Much obliged," Lew told him, interested to see what else he could learn about this Beth Carver.

 

He found the article, but just then the train whistle blew, a warning for everyone to get aboard. Seeing the agent occupied with someone else, he quickly snatched the paper from the wall and slipped it into his pocket, knowing that David Voorhees would surely want to see it.

 

* * * * *

 

In a vacant compartment in the back of the car, Beth Carver watched the countryside pass the window, still a little amazed at how fast things had happened. The train had departed soon after she got aboard and she had little time for second thoughts about her decision to work for Dalton Davies.

 

When she returned to his office, Henry served them fruit punch and cookies and Dalton’s first question was if she had a dress.

 

"A dress?" she replied, surprised by the unexpected question.

 

"Well, if you're going to mingle with the rich and famous, you have to wear something suitable for the occasion.” He chuckled. "Those pants and guns might be a bit much for all those genteel folks from back east."

 

Her face colored a bit as she caught his drift. "I do have one, but it's in my pack. It needs to be ironed before—“

 

"Give it to Henry. He'll have it pressed and back to you in no time. We'll be making a brief stop for water in about half an hour. I'd like you to be dressed and ready to join the other passengers. Mingle with them, but remember that your job is to listen."

 

He saw the sudden look of panic on her face. "What's the matter? You haven't changed your mind, have you?"

 

“No, sir. It's just—it's just that I'm a tomboy, Mr. Davies. I'm more comfortable forkin' a horse than talking to rich folks. I did spend some time at finishing school, but I'm not sure I would know what to say to all these fancy people."

 

Dalton waved away her objection. "That's all right. We'll take it a little at a time. TJ will be your escort until you feel comfortable going by yourself."

 

Beth glanced at TJ, who had endured the entire exchange with a pained expression on his face.

 

"Thanks, Mr. Davies, but perhaps I should go by myself. Mr. Thompson has made it clear he wants nothing to do with me.” She turned to TJ. "Isn't that right, sir?"

 

"A woman should act like a woman, Carver," he growled. "I can't abide one who doesn't know her place."

 

"And what place is that, sir?" she shot back. "Under some man's boot? I can stand on my own two feet, thank you very much, whether you like it or not."

 

"Now you listen, Carver—“

 

"Enough!” Dalton interrupted, an irritated tone to his voice as he slapped his hand on the desk. "The two of you are going to have to work together, so get used to the idea. Now get out of here and go get cleaned up. We'll stop before long and I expect you both to be ready."

 

* * * * *

 

Three cars ahead, Lew Collier finally found David Voorhees talking to a small group of businessmen. They were apparently discussing land grants, and, rather than interrupt, Lew merely caught David's eye, then waited until the financier could join him in an isolated corner.

 

"How's it going, boss?" he asked quietly.

 

Voorhees shrugged. "Too soon to tell. Most of these folks are all excited about the trip west. They think investing in the railroad is a wonderful idea.” He grimaced. "They don't care about the balance sheet; Dalton's filled them with romantic notions of westward expansion. I have to admit it's a clever tactic."

 

"Anything you can do to change their minds?"

 

"Not much, at least right now," Voorhees admitted. "After all, I'm on the board of directors. I can't say too much without arousing suspicion. I have been dropping hints that the railroad isn't safe; you know, accidents, train robberies, that sort of thing."

 

Lew nodded. "It is safer than it was back in the seventies."

 

Voorhees frowned. "Well, we have to convince them otherwise. You gave Rueben his orders, didn't you?"

 

"Yeah. Just like you said. We've got a surprise in store for all these wide-eyed rich folks."

 

A car attendant happened to pass them and Voorhees lifted a glass of wine from the tray. "Did you learn anything about that cowboy?"

 

"That 'cowboy' is a woman, boss."

 

Voorhees paused, his glass halfway to his mouth. "What did you say?"

 

"It's true. I overheard her talking to the station agent inside. Her name is Beth Carver. Apparently, she's some kind of female gunfighter. She's created quite a stir around here."

 

He pulled the newspaper clipping from his pocket. "Here. Read this."

 

Court Awards Double-JF to Children

 

Angel Creek was abuzz yesterday when Judge Thaddeus Wilson awarded ownership of the Double-JF ranch to Angela and Tim Dawson, two minor children from Ohio. Their father, Jeff Dawson, of Boston, had purchased the ranch from local owner John Farnsworth. When Dawson was murdered before reaching his new home, Miss Elizabeth Carver, from Miller's Crossing, rescued his children and escorted them to Angel Creek.

 

This newspaper has learned that local attorney Nathaniel Biggins was actually the leader of an outlaw group that had been operating in the area for quite some time. Miss Carver, working with Sheriff Dan Carson, discovered the link between Biggins and the outlaws. She brought in an accountant from Denver at her own expense, to prove the lawyer had been embezzling money from both the Double-JF and local taxpayers.

Appointed a deputy sheriff, Carver learned that Biggins was attempting to escape by train. She rode after him, placing her horse on the track to force the train to stop. She then pursued Biggins into the forest, where railroad detectives later killed him.

In his closing remarks, Judge Wilson thanked Carver for her public service and this newspaper can only do the same. She will be leaving us in a few days and we wish her good fortune.

"Interesting," Voorhees said. Then he read the article a second time. "This Elizabeth Carver seems almost too good to be true. You think she's working for Dalton?"

 

"Not sure, boss, but before we left, she boarded his private car, same as before. She had all her gear with her."

 

"I'm going to have to meet her. What does she look like?"

 

"Couldn't tell much with what she was wearing. Carver’s tall, though, almost as tall as I am. She looked me right in the eye when I spoke to her and she was sure polite enough. She must have money, too. She rides a palomino horse, with a silver-studded saddle and bridle, and those Colts she's carrying are worth a fortune."

 

Voorhees paused, digesting what Lew had told him.

 

"Oh, one other thing, boss. She couldn't be much over twenty."

 

Voorhees' eyebrows lifted in surprise. "Twenty? Are you sure?"

 

Lew spread his hands. "Hard to tell. She looked mighty young to me."

 

Voorhees thought about that, remembering the cowboy he'd seen on the platform earlier. So why does a twenty-year-old woman dress like a man and pretend to be a gunfighter? Why does she go around chasing outlaws, when she could have a home and a family?

 

Voorhees didn't know, but another question was even more important. What’s she doing with Dalton Davies?

 

He vowed to find out as soon as possible. If she became a problem, they’d have to deal with her.

Chapter 4

Mingling With the Rich Folks

 

Thomas Jefferson Thompson swore as he tried again to tie his necktie, vowing to find a way to get even with Dalton for saddling him with Carver. It was bad enough she was a woman, but she was a pushy woman, too, and that made it even worse.

 

He braced himself against the swaying of the railroad car and tried again with the necktie. Had she really killed all those men? Despite reading the reports Dalton gave him, TJ still couldn't believe it. Carver was little more than a kid; he couldn't picture her as a killer, no matter how hard he tried.

 

He heard a knock on the doorframe and the porter stuck his head inside. "Ten minutes, TJ. We'll be at the station shortly."

 

"Thanks, Henry."

 

A smile touched TJ's face as he recalled meeting Henry for the first time. The porter had tried to call him 'Mistuh Thompson,' and it had led to their first disagreement.

 

"I'm a working man, Henry," he had said, placing a hand his shoulder. "Call me TJ, would you please?"

 

"No suh, Mistuh Thompson," Henry replied, a stubborn look on his face. "You work fuh Mistuh Davies."

 

In the end, they had compromised. The porter used his nickname when they were alone or with Dalton and the formal name when they were with outsiders. In the two years since they had become friends, TJ had helped Henry with his education and the porter had become a valuable member of Dalton's staff.

 

Finally, after several attempts and a few more choice words, TJ got the tie looking halfway decent. With a sigh, he pulled on his coat and pulled back the curtain, a grim look on his face as he contemplated the coming ordeal.

 

* * * * *

 

Dalton Davies looked up when TJ entered the office. "What happened to that bum who was sleeping in my private car?" he asked with a grin.

 

"Yeah, yeah," TJ grumbled, dropping into the chair across from Dalton. "A shave, some clean clothes, and I'm half a new man. What I really need is a bath and a good night's sleep."

 

"All in good time. We'll be in Denver before long. You'll have plenty of time then."

 

Movement caught TJ's eye and he glanced toward the door, seeing a woman in a pretty yellow dress. His jaw dropped when he realized it was Carver. Her hair, which had been tucked up under her hat earlier, now fell around her shoulders and down her back. It was the color of autumn leaves, a couple of shades redder than her yellow dress, but with sun-bleached streaks that made it quite attractive. Her dress was a simple affair, but it pulled in a bit at the waist, softening her lanky figure.

 

"Come in, Beth," Dalton called. "You look very nice. Don't you think so, TJ? "

 

TJ made a show of looking her up and down, then let out an exaggerated sigh. "Well, I suppose it will have to do. I'm sure she did the best she could."

 

Dalton laughed as Carver glared back at TJ.

 

"At least, sir," she retorted, her fists on her hips, "I have all of my buttons buttoned."

 

TJ blinked in surprise and glanced down. Sure enough, he'd missed a button on his vest.

 

"Ha. She got ya, TJ," Dalton said with a chuckle. "Sit down, Beth. Let's talk a bit before we get to the station."

 

* * * * *

 

A few minutes later, the train stopped to take on water and the passengers were asked to stay aboard since the stop would be brief. As she stood on the steps at the rear of Dalton's car, Beth wondered why anyone would want to get off here. The station, if one could call it that, consisted of a ramshackle building, a windmill, and a water tower. Beyond the station, rolling grassland stretched as far as she could see in every direction. No trees, no fences, no roads--nothing but grass and the hazy outline of the mountains to the west.

 

"What is this place?" she asked TJ as she climbed down, lifting her skirt to keep it out of the reddish-brown dust that seemed to cover everything.

 

"Hickory Station," he replied. "Ain't much to look at, is it?"

 

She looked around. "Why would they put a station here? We're in the middle of nowhere."

 

"What is this, Carver? Are we playin' twenty questions?"

 

She turned to face him. "Look, TJ. I'm curious, that's all. You can either answer my question like a polite person or not. It's up to you."

 

Without waiting for a response, she headed toward the station. Beth was nervous about having to meet with the rich eastern folks and she hoped she wouldn't make a complete fool of herself.

 

She'd only taken four steps when she heard his voice.

 

"Two reasons for the station. One is water. You can't see it from here, but near the track up ahead is a good-sized stream, one of the few in this part of the state that doesn't dry up in the summertime. Trains need lots of water to make steam."

 

She waited for him to catch up. "And the other reason?"

 

"Well, most of the road is single track, with only occasional places where eastbound and westbound trains can pass each other. This is one of 'em and there's a telegraph operator stationed here. His name is Jimmy and he and the other operators along the line keep the trains separated, so they don't run into each other."

 

"They must live a pretty lonely life," she suggested. "How can they stand being out here all by themselves?"

 

"Some, like Jimmie, actually like the solitude. Others we rotate every so often, so they work part-time here and the rest at a place like Angel Creek."

 

As they drew even with the station, Beth saw an old man leaning against the doorpost. He was a small man, with thinning gray hair and stooped shoulders. A thick mustache curled around his mouth and he was puffing contentedly on a long-stemmed pipe.

 

"Hey, Jimmy," TJ called. "Need some more tobacco for that fire starter?"

 

Jimmy took the pipe out of his mouth and shook his head. "Naw. I'm good for a mite longer, TJ. Say, who's that pretty little filly ya got there?"

 

TJ looked around as if he couldn't figure out who Jimmy was talking about. Finally, he glanced at Beth, acting as if he noticed her for the first time.

 

"Oh, you mean her?" he asked, hooking a thumb in Beth's direction. "Her name's Beth, but you got it wrong, Jimmy. She's more a mustang than a filly. Don't know how Dalton managed to get her in a dress."

 

Jimmy pointed at Beth with his pipe. "Well now, maybe so, TJ, but from here she looks mighty fine.” He tipped his hat to her. "Please ta meet ya there, Missy."

 

The highly offended look on Beth's face softened to a smile and she turned to the telegrapher. "Thank you, good sir. At least, there's one gentleman around here."

 

Jimmy's face broke into a grin, revealing a row of uneven yellow teeth. "I reckon you're mighty right 'bout that mustang, TJ. If I was you, I'd stay away from them teeth 'o hers; she might just take a chunk outta yer hide."

 

TJ was about to respond to that remark when the train whistle blew. Beth looked down the track and saw the crew swinging the water spigot away from the train.

 

"You’d best be gittin' aboard, Missy," Jimmy called. "Unless, ‘course, you'd care to stay here with me for a year or two.” The look on his face left little doubt that he wanted her to accept his invitation.

 

Beth laughed. "Thanks, Jimmy. Maybe another time."

 

"Go ahead, Beth," TJ said. "I'll be along directly."

 

When she reached the passenger car, Beth discovered the bottom step was nearly eighteen inches off the ground, requiring her to pull her dress up to her knees to reach it. Realizing the men were almost surely watching, but having no choice, she grabbed the handrail with her left hand, her skirt with her right, and pulled herself up. A few seconds later, she reached the platform, hoping to escape further embarrassment.

 

Once glance back toward the station, however, quickly dispelled that notion, for there was little doubt that they had witnessed the whole thing. They were grinning at each other and Beth realized that TJ would be sure to tell everyone about it.

 

Oh, how I hate that man.

 

The two men talked for a moment and at one point glanced in her direction. Beth grew angry at being the subject of their scrutiny and vowed to get even with them at her first opportunity.

 

The whistle blew a second time, and then, with a jolt, the train started to move. TJ and Jimmy shook hands. Then TJ sprinted toward the train and quickly pulled himself aboard.

 

He reached the top of the steps, only to come face to face with the mustang he'd told Jimmy about. Beth stood facing him, her fists on her hips, and an angry expression on her face.

 

"Something stickin' in your craw, lady?"

 

She took a step toward him. "We're supposed to be working together," she declared. "But you never miss a chance to ridicule me in front of other people. I've had enough."

 

"Is that so?" he replied, his own anger rising. "Well, that's just too bad. I don't like you, Carver. I don't like Dalton hiring you and I don't like it that you're gonna get yourself killed. Why don't you climb back into that leather outfit of yours and go back to bein' a man or a gunfighter or whatever you want? Just go away, and let me get back to work."

 

"You'd like that, wouldn't you?" she demanded, her face only a foot from his. "Well, whether you like it or not, I'm here. If Mr. Davies doesn't approve of my work, he can fire me. Until then, stay out of my way, or there'll be trouble."

 

Without waiting for his reply, Beth turned on her heel, relieved to finally say what was on her mind. Thoroughly angry, she grabbed the handle and yanked the door open as hard as she could.

 

She stepped into the car and thirty pairs of eyes turned in her direction. Beth halted, suddenly aware that everyone was staring at her. They were all dressed in the latest fashion and several of the women frowned at Beth's rather plain dress.

 

For a moment, she didn't know what to do. Sure she had made a fool of herself, all she wanted to do was find a hole and crawl into it.

 

Finally, a low murmur of conversation began, and people started to turn away. Beth took a deep breath and tried to relax, embarrassed, but determined not to run back to Dalton's private car with her tail between her legs.

 

She heard TJ come in behind her. "You're blocking the door, Carver."

 

Before she could move, he grasped her by the upper arms and shoved her gently to the right, into a small vacant space behind the last seat. Surprised, and offended at the liberty he had taken in manhandling her, she turned in his direction.

 

"Don't look now, Tomboy," he taunted. "But you're with the rich folks."

 

Her fists clenched with anger at the mocking tone in his voice, but as he walked away, Beth realized what he was talking about. She'd never seen such luxury. The car was nearly fifty feet long, with wide, plush couches on each side and overhead bins that held large amounts of luggage. The car was fairly crowded, with a mixture of adults and children.

 

Located about halfway down the car was a refreshment table and TJ stopped to pick up a plate. After filling it, he glanced in Beth's direction. She saw that same mocking look on his face and realized he was enjoying her discomfort. Had it not been for a small child, she might have done something rash.

 

"Hello," said a small voice. Beth felt a tug on her dress and looked down to see a dark-haired young girl standing next to her.

 

"I think your hair is so pretty," the girl said. She was about eight years old, with a lovely blue dress and a matching ribbon in her hair.

 

Beth forced herself to calm down. "Thank you," she said, stooping down to the girl's height. "I think your dress is pretty, too."

 

The girl giggled. "Mother made me wear it. I like my pink dress better. Are you from New York, too?"

 

"No. I live here in Colorado."

 

The child's eyes grew wide as saucers. "Really? You live in the Wild West?"

 

Beth's answer was cut off by the arrival of a prim woman in a fancy black dress. "Oh, there you are, Charlotte. Don't bother the lady.” With a frown in Beth's direction, she dragged the protesting youngster away.

 

"She wasn't bothering me," Beth murmured, getting back to her feet.

 

Feeling the need to do something, she walked toward the refreshment table, remembering that she had eaten almost nothing since breakfast. She passed several people who smiled and nodded to her. Most, however, were not so kind, and Beth saw several older women whispering as they glanced in her direction.

 

What am I doing here? Do I really want to be with these people?

 

Because of her tomboyish ways, Beth had been on the receiving end of whispered comments and snide remarks for many years. This was nothing new, but it sure proved that people could be cruel whether they lived in a small town in Colorado or in a big city like New York.

 

Reaching the table, she pointedly ignored TJ and picked up a fork and a plate, amazed at what she saw. The table was overflowing with food, most of which she didn't recognize, and vases of fresh flowers added color. Bottles of wine and pitchers of fruit punch provided liquid refreshment.

 

Still wondering what she was doing in such a fancy place, she thought of Josie, and how much fun it would be to go for a long ride together in the sunshine. The people back in Angel Creek had made her feel welcome and the idea of living there was worthy of further thought. Sheriff Carson had even offered to make her deputy job permanent. That brought a fond smile. Dan was like a second father to her and she missed him already.

 

But instead of Angel Creek, she found herself in a railroad car full of snobs, and Josie was in the corral back at the livery stable.

 

Is this really what I want? Maybe I should—

 

"That plate would work better if you put some food on it."

 

The quiet voice beside her pulled Beth out of her daydream and she glanced around, seeing TJ pointing at her empty plate.

 

She turned to face him. "Why don't you mind your own business?" she hissed, trying to keep from losing her temper again. "If I want food on my plate, I'll put it there."

 

"Well," he replied with a grin. "I just wanted to be sure you’re alive. You stood there for almost a minute, staring at the wall."

 

As she had done on the platform, she stepped in close. "TJ, I'll say it one last time. Leave me alone."

 

He waved a hand. "Aw, now, Beth, don't you go gettin' all lathered up. I—“

 

She lifted the fork in her hand and waved it in front of his face. "Another word, TJ, and I'll stick this fork up your nose. If you don't want to work with me, that's fine. Go tell Dalton to assign you somewhere else. I'm staying."

 

The mocking look on his face fell away and what Beth saw in its place startled her. His eyes narrowed and she suddenly felt the presence of something dangerous.

 

The change in him was so unexpected it took her breath away. She stood frozen to the spot, her heart beating so hard he could surely hear it.

 

What's he going to do?

 

For a few seconds, they remained there, practically nose to nose, her fork poised in front of his chin.

 

Then, carefully, he took a half step back and shook his head. "Carver, I think you might stick me with that fork after all.” A tiny smile touched the corners of his mouth. Then he set his plate on the table and left the car.

Chapter 5

Vulnerable

 

David Voorhees stood with a small group of businessmen in the luxury railroad car, their attention on the red-haired woman in the yellow dress who had just come inside.

 

"Who’s that?" asked one of the men, noting the angry expression on her face.

 

"Never seen her before," another answered. "Maybe she got on back there at the last station.”

 

"Whoever she is," the first man replied, "I'd hate to have her mad at me.”

 

They were near the middle of the parlor car, not far from the refreshment table, and Voorhees could see her clearly. She was quite tall and not much to look at, but her reddish-gold hair was actually rather attractive. No way to know what was bothering her, but she looked angry enough to chew nails.

 

A keen observer of people, Voorhees saw her expression give way to surprise, as she apparently realized she was making a scene. Her face colored with embarrassment and she stood there, clearly unsure what to do next.

 

"Well, as I was saying," a third man began, "I think the government is wrong in giving these land grants—“

 

Voorhees ignored the ensuing conversation, his gaze fixed on the woman. Who is she?

 

Just then TJ Thompson appeared in the doorway behind her. Voorhees was surprised to see him, for he was Dalton's troubleshooter and he was usually out with the construction crews. What's he doing here?

 

Thompson said something to the woman and although Voorhees couldn't be sure, it looked like TJ actually shoved her out his way. Whatever he'd told her, she didn't like it, because she glared after him as he walked to the refreshment table, located in the middle of the car.

 

Curious at this new development, Voorhees spent a moment excusing himself from the businessmen. Just as he turned, the woman passed him. He was surprised to see how young she was, probably not much over twenty, and something about her left him wondering if he'd seen her somewhere before.

 

She joined Thompson at the refreshment table and David finally connected the dots. She must be Beth Carver, the woman Lew told him about. Has Dalton hired her to replace Abigail McClaren?

 

Perhaps, but Carver seemed an unlikely choice. McLaren was a beautiful, sophisticated woman with blonde hair and blue eyes. Introducing herself as a rich widow, she had mingled easily with the investors Dalton wanted for the railroad. In reality, she was a very competent detective. So competent, in fact, they’d had to take action.

 

Carver, however, looked downright uncomfortable here with all the rich folks. She was a rather plain woman, too, although the yellow dress did give her lanky figure a bit of shape.

 

No, Voorhees decided, she was not a replacement for Abigail. Then he remembered seeing Carver striding down the platform back in Angel Creek. In that leather outfit, with the guns belted around her, she'd looked more like a man than a woman. That gave him pause and a few seconds later he realized the truth. She might lack the clothes and social graces to mingle with the high and mighty, but the newspaper article Lew showed him made it clear Carver was someone to be reckoned with. That was good to know and while he wasn't sure what Dalton was planning, Voorhees knew it would be a mistake to underestimate her part in it.

 

Then he noticed that Carver and Thompson were arguing about something. He couldn't hear their words, but the hard expression on Carver's face said plenty.

 

So they aren't getting along, eh? Now isn’t that interesting?

 

TJ turned abruptly and left the car, leaving Carver standing by herself at the refreshment table. She glanced around, almost as if she didn't know what to do next, and she looked very much out of place.

 

Vulnerable, too. Maybe I can find out what Dalton's up to. Setting his glass on a nearby table, he walked over to join her.

 

* * * * *

 

Still fuming over her words with TJ, Beth sensed someone come up next to her.

 

"Hello, Miss Carver. I've heard so much about you.”

 

She turned, seeing a tall, distinguished-looking man next to her. He looked to be in his late forties, with dark hair and gray sideburns. Dressed in an expensive suit, and carrying a heavy, silver-tipped cane, he was the perfect image of an eastern businessman.

 

"I'm sorry, sir," she said. "You have me at a disadvantage.”

 

He smiled. "You are Beth Carver, aren't you?”

 

"Yes, sir, but—“

 

"My name is David Voorhees. I'm on the board of directors for this railroad.”

 

She blinked in surprise. "Oh, uh, I'm pleased to meet you, sir. But how—“

 

"I saw you on the station platform back there in Angel Creek, Miss Carver. I don't get a chance to meet real western cowgirls very often. In that leather outfit and with those two big guns, you looked just like a female Wyatt Earp. I was—well, I was impressed, so I asked around and learned your name. And now, here you are, looking lovely as can be.”

 

Beth was sure her face was red with embarrassment. "Sir, you are being quite forward, saying such things.”

 

"My apologies, Miss Carver, if I gave offense. It's just such a pleasure to meet a real western person. Most of the people I know couldn't tell the difference between a steer and a sheep.”

 

She smiled as she pictured the contrast. "Better not say 'sheep' too loud around here, sir. This is cattle country and the mention of sheep is apt to get some folks all riled up.”

 

He smiled. "Duly noted, Miss Carver. So then, how do you happen to be on a train full of rich eastern people?” He pointed a finger at her. "Something tells me you'd rather be out riding your horse.”

 

"Yes sir, I would," she replied with a laugh. "Mr. Davies—do you know him?”

 

"Certainly.”

 

"Mr. Davies asked me to work for him. I'm supposed to talk to people and find out how they like riding the train. If they have complaints, I let Mr. Davies know about them.”

 

"How's it going?”

 

She smiled. "You're the first person I've talked to.”

 

"Is that so? Well, you can put in your report that I like riding the train a lot. It's great to see some of the country and I've met some fascinating people.” He lowered his voice and leaned in a bit. "Can I tell you something in confidence?”

 

"Of course, sir.”

 

"You're not going to put this in your report, are you?”

 

"Not if you don't want me to.”

 

"I think train travel is still too dangerous for most people.”

 

Her eyes widened in surprise. "Dangerous? What do you mean?”

 

He glanced around to be sure no one was listening. "Some of our trains are held up by bandits. Usually, they want money, but occasionally passengers are hurt or even killed. Our biggest problem, though, is accidents. We had one last winter, where a bridge collapsed, sending a passenger train into a ravine. That was bad enough, but there were wood stoves in each car for heat, and they overturned, causing the cars to catch fire. Many of the passengers were injured and couldn't get out.”

 

"That's terrible.”

 

He nodded. "It was. More than thirty people died and many others were hurt.”

 

He glanced around again and then turned back to her. "Frankly, Miss Carver, and I'm telling you this in confidence, I think the railroad has done a poor job dealing with safety issues. Many of the accidents are the result of poor maintenance.”

 

"Really? Why do you think that?”

 

"The people who run this railroad are only interested in profit. They don't care much about making it safer for their passengers and crews. They'd rather pocket the money than spend it on track improvements and new bridges.”

 

"If you're on the board of directors, why don't you do something about it?”

 

"I wish I could, but I'm only one member. There are a few others who feel as I do, but the majority always votes with railroad executives.” Voorhees sighed. "It's frustrating, but we do what we can to make improvements a little at a time.”

 

"That's too bad.”

 

"Yes, it is, Miss Carver. I'm sorry to be the one to tell you, but the job Dalton has given you is a waste of time. They don't want to make things better, no matter what Dalton may say.”

 

A puzzled look crossed her face. "Then why did Mr. Davies hire me?”

 

"That's a good question. Maybe there's something he's not telling you.”

 

"What should I do?”

 

He rubbed his chin. "Well, why don't you just go ahead and do the job, like he said. But when you prepare your report, be sure to send me a private copy as well. I know some people who do care about safety and I'll make sure they get your information. Can you do that?”

 

"Sure," she replied with a nod. "I can make two copies.”

 

"Not only that, keep an eye out for any suspicious activity.”

 

"Suspicious? What do you mean?”

 

"I hate to say this, Miss Carver, but Dalton and some of the people who work for him are dishonest. Not in a big way, mind you, but little things, like stealing company supplies and putting people on the payroll who don't actually work for the railroad. If you happen to see anything like that, let me know, would you? I'll take care of it.”

 

Dalton dishonest? What's he talking about?

 

"Are you sure, sir?" she asked, disbelief on her face. "He seems very nice to me."

 

"Looks can be deceiving, Miss Carver. Dalton is a thief. His assistant, TJ, is even worse. He's a killer. He shot two men when they caught him stealing supplies from the railroad warehouse.”

 

Beth remembered the cold look she'd seen in TJ's eyes. As much as she didn't want to believe it, she knew he was capable of killing a man.

 

Or a woman, she suddenly realized. A chill ran through her as she thought of her angry words to him. What if TJ had taken offense at the fork she had so foolishly waved under his nose?

 

* * * * *

Voorhees watched the emotions play across Carver's face as she digested what he'd told her. How fortunate he was to have met her before she established a strong relationship with Dalton and TJ. He could see the seeds of doubt he'd sown had landed on fertile ground. She was thinking about it and from now on she'd question anything they told her.

 

"If they've really done all those things," she asked, "why can't you have them arrested?”

 

"We will, Miss Carver, but they're looking for someone higher up. We want to know who it is, so we can get them all at the same time. That's where you can help.”

 

"I'm glad you told me, sir," she replied. "I'll let you know if I learn anything important.”

 

"Best keep this conversation between us, okay?”

 

She nodded. "Yes, sir.”

 

"Excellent. You know, there's someone I'd like you to meet.” He waved to Lew, who had been observing their conversation from across the room.

 

"Miss Carver," he said when Lew joined them, "this is Lew Collier, my associate. Lew, this is Miss Beth Carver.”

 

Lew nodded his head politely. "I believe we've already met, Miss Carver, at the train station in Angel Creek. I was in line behind you.”

 

She smiled and offered her hand. "Oh, yes, Mr. Collier. I remember you. Nice to see you again.”

 

"This pleasure is mine, Miss Carver. I'm always pleased to meet a pretty lady.”

 

Seeing Carver's face tighten, Voorhees jumped in first. "Easy, Lew. She doesn't like people complimenting her.”

 

"Well," Lew replied with a chuckle, "as long as she doesn't shoot me with those pistols of hers, I can live with it. You know, they're pretty impressive, Miss Carver. How'd you come by guns so fancy?”

 

Voorhees watched as Carver and Lew discussed her firearms, noticing how Carver's face lit up when she talked about shooting. His mind raced as he considered how he might use her to his advantage. Dalton had been quite effective in luring new investors to the railroad. Learning his plans from Carver might help neutralize those efforts.

 

Just then he noticed Dalton and TJ enter the car through the rear entrance. They stopped to talk and Voorhees realized he shouldn't be seen with Carver.

 

"Miss Carver, I need to speak with Lew on a business matter. Will you excuse us?”

 

"Of course, sir," she said with a smile. "Nice to meet you, Mr. Collier.”

 

Voorhees led Lew toward the door at the front of the car and pushed it open. He thought again of the newspaper article and compared it to the young woman he'd just met. Carver seemed much less formidable now that he'd met her. She might have courage, but in some ways, she was still a child.

 

"What do you think, boss?" Lew asked when they reached the next car.

 

Voorhees glanced back through the doorway window. "We have an opportunity, Lew.” He watched Carver standing alone at the refreshment table. "For the moment, I'll try to gain her trust. She looks like she could use a friend, someone she can go to for advice.” He smiled. "Who better than a distinguished older gentleman?"

 

Lew chuckled. "And then?”

 

Voorhees' smile faded and he glanced at his friend. "Then, if I'm very careful, I'll turn her against Dalton and make her an ally.” All in the name of safety, of course.

 

 

This the end of the preview.  In next half hour, the outlaws stage a train robbery and three of them attempt to kidnap Dalton. Beth must face them alone, and in later chapters, our heroine will save a trainload of passengers from a huge prairie fire.

 

This novel has not been published yet, so for legal reasons I can't show the whole thing here.  If you'd like to read more of it, please contact me. To protect my copyright, you'll have to identify yourself and sign a non-disclosure agreement.

The Gunfighter's Legacy Series

Volume 1: The Hard Road

Volume 2: Orphan's Inheritance

Volume 3: Outlaws and Trains

Volume 4: The Rising Start

Short Stories:  1  2  3

Entire site (c) 2019

Privacy Policy - Click here