There was no room to stretch. Of all the discomforts one experienced traveling by stagecoach, the lack of leg and elbow room was at the forefront of McCall Landry’s mind. He imagined extending his long legs to the opposite bench seat and resting his bootheels between the corpulent assemblyman on the left and the snake oil drummer in the center. If the drummer would only press himself closer to the heavily bearded miner on his right, Call figured there’d be about enough room to affect the semi-prone posture that suited him. Call believed in never standing when you could lean, never leaning when you could sit, and never sitting when you could be lying flat on your back staring at the clouds in daylight or stars in the night sky. Call thought a man should have beliefs, and if he stood by anything, he stood by this one. There was no chance of putting his belief to the test now, as he was wedged between a dandy who breathed behind a handkerchief to avoid the road dust that seeped into the stage and a flatulent minister who had been white-knuckling a Bible since boarding the stage in Denver. Given the narrow route, much of it mountain on one side and gulley on the other, clutching the Bible was understandable. The flatulence, though, was a trespass. A slim smile changed the shape of Call’s mouth as he considered taking the dandy’s handkerchief and using it to cover his own nose and mouth. It had been at least twenty minutes since the minister passed gas. Surely he was about to blow. Although introductions were made soon after the stage left Denver, Call was more interested in each man’s trade than his given name. The minister was identifiable by his collar. The assemblyman identified himself as an attorney, newly elected to his position on a platform of achieving statehood for the territory.
The snake oil salesman opened the black leather case he kept on his lap to show his wares and generously offered a sample of his liver-purifying tonic. No one took him up on it, and he simply shrugged and closed the case. The miner was an itinerant job seeker, moving between mines that were played out and ones reputed to hold promise. The dandy claimed to be a reporter for a New York paper, but since he’d never come out from behind his handkerchief to pose a question and showed little interest in the view outside the coach, Call harbored doubts. When it was Call’s turn to say something, he smiled briefly, let his gaze drop to the holstered Colt at his side, and told them he was a gun for hire. He wasn’t, but he could have been, so that’s what he told them. No one said anything for a long time after that, which suited Call just fine. He had learned enough to know that what they had in common was their destination. They were all headed to Stonechurch. After forty-five miles and three brief stops at swing stations, where the tired horses were exchanged for fresh ones and a new driver took over at one of the stations, Call regarded the vaguely queasy features of his companions and concluded they had something else in common.
They were all feeling wretched. Call slid down in his seat as much as he was able, rolled his shoulders, and tipped his broad-brimmed hat forward so that it shaded his eyes before he closed them. “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.” “What’s that you say?” asked the miner. Call didn’t open his eyes. The swaying coach was hardly a cradle, but traveling by this method provoked in Call a desire to sleep, which was preferable to staying awake and becoming increasingly nauseated. At the last station, Call had inquired about riding shotgun since the new driver had no companion for the next leg and Call’s own shotgun was packed on the roof beside his bag, but the driver was suspicious of his motives and he was summarily dismissed. “I said, ‘Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.’” “That something from the Good Book?” asked the miner, his eyes dropping to the minister’s hands, which were once again folded tightly around the Bible. “Shakespeare,” said Call.
“The Tempest. Also a good book. Well, a play.” “Huh.” The miner nodded, looked around, and nodded again, more emphatically this time. “I reckon we are strange bedfellows. No question that we’re miserable. Not you so much. Looks like you’re aiming to sleep.” “That’s the plan.
” The minister turned his head sideways and stared at Call’s slanted hat. “Are you likely to snore?” “Less likely than you are to fart.” Call thought the dandy reporter might have sniggered behind his handkerchief, but he was opposed to opening his eyes to confirm. Call touched the brim of his hat, lowered it another notch, and smiled ever so slightly under the cover of shadow. He was asleep in mere minutes. * * * The Henderson Express Stage Line was the sole provider of coach services along the Cabin Creek Trail from Denver to the mining town of Stonechurch. It was a lucrative route, funded in part by government grants because of Stonechurch’s value as a gold and silver mining operation. The coach carried payroll, mail, passengers, and occasionally gold and silver bricks. Transportation of the precious metals was naturally a secretive affair and not necessarily accompanied by armed guards, whose presence would have raised suspicions. Payroll for the miners was scheduled randomly to make robbery less likely, though the coaches and the living stations were still targets.
Stonechurch was a popular destination for men looking for work, for journalists looking for a story, for preachers looking for souls to save, for drummers looking to hawk their potions, and for politicians looking to make deals with the powerful Ramsey “Ramses” Stonechurch, but it wasn’t the end of the line nor was it the only town growing up northwest of Denver. The home stations, those sites chosen by the line to offer meals, accommodations, sell tickets, provide a fresh team and sometimes a fresh driver, were points along the route that served as living magnets to attract people and build a sense of community. The home station at Frost Falls was an important addition to the cattle town that was encouraging settlement, business, and law. Forty-five miles distant was another home station at Falls Hollow, where the station was the hub for the outlying farm families. With each business that was successfully established, the town drew more settlers and more entrepreneurs. Stonechurch Mining was vital to the financial health of Henderson Express and the home stations dotting the Cabin Creek Trail, but the mining operation’s success was also going to spell the end of the stage line and the home stations. It was inevitable. The railroad was coming. And Laurel Beth Morrison was ready. Laurel had operated the Falls Hollow home station since her father and two brothers were murdered when the rebel Grant clan attacked and robbed the stage while the horses were being exchanged.
She had been inside the farmhouse when the renegade rebels struck, and she was the only one with enough time to grab a shotgun. She made good use of it, killing one of the Grant boys and wounding another, but her effort was not enough to save her father and brothers or the stagecoach driver. The man riding shotgun was one of the renegades, so the gang had the advantage at the outset. That was seven years ago, not long after Lee’s surrender. She had been twenty then, old enough to take on the responsibility of the home station but grieving so deeply that she had almost no recollection of doing it. Now she employed four men to assist with managing the horses, keeping the grounds, house, and outbuildings in good repair, as well as help with the milking, egg gathering, tossing slops to the pigs, gardening, butchering, and smoking. She employed one woman to do the cooking and housekeeping. On her own, Laurel took care of the account books, purchasing, hosting, and telegraphy. She was also the one who maintained relations with Ramsey Stonechurch, Samuel Henderson, and just recently, Alexander Berry, the government’s man in charge of establishing the route and rails from Denver to Stonechurch. It was Laurel’s mission to make certain that Falls Hollow was a stop along that route and that she secured the contract to operate the station.
It made all kinds of sense for Alexander Berry to use the existing Cabin Creek Trail, which was already well worn and even widened in some places by the regular passing of the Henderson Express stages. But it was Laurel’s opinion that people who depended on a government man to do what made sense were more foolish than the government and the man. She had been doing her research. Money exchanged hands as often as a tired team of horses was exchanged for a fresh one. She didn’t know Mr. (please call me Alex) Berry well so she was reserving judgment as to his commitment to corruption, but in the event he was like so many others with a hand out, Laurel was saving her money. It was late in the afternoon when Laurel stepped outside and onto the wide, freshly whitewashed porch. There was a swing on her right, a pair of rockers and a hip-high stool on her left, all of them painted in cheery sunshine yellow. It was a welcoming entrance, and it often elicited comments from the stage passengers, especially the women, who were relieved to discover that niceties existed in the rocky enclaves beyond Denver. The farmhouse was stone that her father had quarried out of the mountainside.
It had taken years. Laurel had no memory of living in the tidy shack that was the family’s home until the house was ready, but her brothers did and liked to tease her about how she slept in a basket with a ham their mother was curing because there wasn’t much room for her and God forbid they find another place for the ham. Laurel had always liked it when the teasing circled round to stories about their mother because years of miscarriages and early childhood deaths separated her birth from her brothers. The baby that came after her was stillborn and the death of their mother quickly followed. Her brothers had had cherished happy memories while Laurel’s memories were elusive, occasionally triggered by the scent of lavender or someone’s tuneless humming. “Dillon! Hank!” Laurel called to the two young men loitering beside the barn. “If the stage is running true, it’ll be here inside of ten minutes. You’d be doing yourselves and me a service by looking sharp.” She watched the brothers exchange sheepish glances, lift their hats to run a hand through their flaxen hair, and then snap their suspenders into place. The boys—and that’s how Laurel thought of them because they were not yet twenty—came to attention, bracing their shoulders and straightening their spines.
They looked enough alike that it was not unusual for them to be mistaken for twins. At a distance, Laurel knew them apart because Dillon typically wore red suspenders and Hank preferred dark blue. “At ease,” she said when they were standing like Praetorian guards. She simply shook her head when they took that as a cue to simultaneously deflate and collapse backward against the barn wall, looking as if they were depending on it to keep them upright. They probably were. Laurel had hired the pair as a favor to their mother, who owned the mercantile. Mrs. Booker despaired of her younger boys amounting to more than a pond of frogs and said so frequently. Sometimes she feared aloud that they would amount to significantly less. Edna Booker had all the help she needed with her firstborn son loading and unloading freight and her two married daughters alternating days behind the counter while Edna saw to the accounts and assisted customers.
Mr. Booker sat outside the store except in the most disagreeable weather. He invariably had an open book resting on the arm of his chair, but few people had ever seen him read. Mostly he chatted with passersby or slept and was content to do either. Mrs. Booker went into hand-wringing spasms when she thought about Dillon and Hank going the way of their father. So Laurel had taken them under her wing, removing them from under their mother’s feet. All in all it was a satisfactory arrangement. They were quick learners, hard workers, and enjoyed being outdoors. Early on, Dillon showed an interest in tending the garden while Hank had a deft touch with the horses.
Rooster Keller, her handyman and right hand, who had arrived in the wake of the massacre and helped her bury the bodies and mark the graves, mentored the boys. She couldn’t recall hiring Rooster. He simply showed up and never left, and now she couldn’t imagine not having him around. If Rooster put her in mind of her father, then Dillon and Hank reminded Laurel of her brothers when she was yet a child. She had a place in her heart for all three of them. Her fourth hire was a different story. Josiah Pye was a recent addition brought on after Laurel noticed that Rooster was favoring his right hip and walking with a pronounced limp if he didn’t think she was watching. Mr. Pye had been on his way to Stonechurch in expectation of employment and lingered in the yard smoking a cheroot when the other passengers went into the house for a hasty meal. It was mere happenstance that during the team exchange one of the mares began bucking and kicking and rearing back in such a fierce fashion that Hank and Rooster were in danger of getting caught by a hoof.
It was Mr. Pye who took the horse in hand, flinging his cheroot to the ground and swinging himself onto the mare’s bare back. It was a wild ride, attracting Laurel’s attention at the window. She saw the stage driver was staying well clear of the animals as he should, but his riding companion had his shotgun raised in anticipation of putting the mare down. Mr. Pye made that unnecessary. He rode the mare until she calmed, and when he dismounted, he had words with the man riding shotgun. That confrontation ended with him delivering a blow that put the man on his backside in the dirt. Laurel had no problem with that. She only wished she had delivered the blow.
Over the meal that Mrs. Lancaster served to the passengers in the dining room, Laurel learned that Mr. Pye had honed his horse sense during his service as a Confederate cavalry officer. That lasted until his horse was shot out from under him, and with no replacement available, he became a foot soldier. Officers did not matter so much toward the end of the war. Without consulting Rooster and with uncharacteristic impulsiveness, Laurel offered Josiah Pye a job before he boarded the stage. If he was surprised by the offer, he gave no indication of it, while she experienced the first frisson of unease as he looked her over in a manner that was more carnal than considering. In Laurel’s mind, there was no reneging on the offer, so when he accepted, that was that. Mr. Pye proved his worth taking care of the horses.
He had a calming influence on the animals and possessed some healing skills as well. He made his own poultices and balms and was able to apply them to even the most recalcitrant animal, and while he was an asset in the horse stalls and the corral, he was, if not quite a liability with miscellaneous chores, certainly a reluctant participant. Laurel had overheard the boys remarking that it was easier to get chores done outside of Josiah’s presence than it was with him hanging around. Depending on the task at hand, Mr. Pye practiced incompetence as if it were an art form, pulling up plants instead of weeds, hammering his thumb instead of the roof tiles, setting fence posts at an angle so they were sure to fall, and spilling more whitewash than he applied. His horse skills would not have been enough to keep him employed, but he didn’t mind milking, retrieving eggs, or butchering the pigs and did those things capably. He was also an excellent cook, which they discovered by accident when Mrs. Lancaster took ill for three days and required her daughter to tend her at home. Mr. Pye volunteered his services in the kitchen but Laurel never seriously considered replacing Mrs.
Lancaster. The cook was family. Rooster and the boys called him Josey, but Laurel maintained a more formal boundary with him by always addressing him as Mr. Pye. She deemed it necessary after that initial sense of discomfort. At first he pointed out that they were of an age as though it should be reason enough to drop the convention, but after a number of attempts to get her to call him Josiah or Josey without success, he finally gave up. It was what Laurel wanted, or thought she did. The fact that he looked secretly amused by her formality made her question the wisdom of her decision. She did not want to amuse him. If Laurel had her druthers, she would avoid him altogether.
It was just not possible. He looked after the horses as if they were his own and made apple fritters that melted on the tongue. Laurel forgot all about that as she heard the stage approaching and saw a dust cloud rising in the distance. She stepped off the porch and felt the ground vibrate under her feet. Out of the corner of her eye she saw that Dillon and Hank had pushed away from the barn and were walking toward her. Rooster and Mr. Pye came from the backyard, where they had been filling the water trough, just as the coach came to a full stop thirty feet from the porch. Laurel waved a hand in front of her face to waft away the accompanying dust. The business of the Morrison home station was underway.