FICTION: Incident on the High Line by Debbie Mumford

Tom Easton patrolled the weathered boards of the Breckenridge railway station platform. Tall pines and whispering aspens rose behind the narrow gauge steam engine, the whole scene framed by craggy mountains capped in glacial snow. The blazing blue of the Rocky Mountain sky put such a shine on the white caps, Tom’s eyes watered just glancing at them. Despite the acrid tang of the steam engine, the late summer day smelled fresh and clean.

It was good to get away from the stink of Leadville. Too many unwashed miners crowded that booming town. Breckenridge was a thriving community, but for all its recent growth this end of the High Line was still wholesome as a newborn lamb in comparison to Leadville. Ever since that lone metallurgist had realized the heavy, black sand that had defeated the gold panners was actually a tell for silver, the mountains around Leadville had exploded with prospectors. And fortunately for Tom and the Pinkerton Detective Agency, where opportunity thrived, grift and greed followed.

The Pinkerton Agency had been good to Tom. His personal moral code closely aligned with that of the company, making his work deeply satisfying. His current assignment, guarding the High Line railroad, was light duty. He hadn’t had to deal with more than a few drunk and disorderlies in the five months he’d been riding these rails. The crisp mountain air and spectacular scenery made up for the lack of excitement, but Tom was counting the days until his six-month tour was up. His next assignment promised a raise in pay and a return to civilized society. With that advancement, he’d finally be in a position to offer for Emily. Delight tugged a curve to his lips at the thought of changing Miss Emily Langstrom’s name to Mrs. Thomas Easton. Gentle, sweet-tempered Emily, the lovely lady who owned his heart.

Putting away his tender feelings for his sweetheart, Tom studied the narrow gauge train with a practiced eye. Smaller than the standard gauge trains that had tamed the continent, the narrow gauge was well suited to the tight twists and hairpin curves that threaded these Rocky Mountains. The sturdy little locomotives did an excellent job of hauling ore to smelting centers and workers to the mines. Today they’d be hauling three empty ore cars back to Leadville, along with a single passenger car and, as it was the end of the month, an express car carrying gold for the payroll of the Matchless Mine.

Tom glanced at the hulking expanse of the windowless express car. Nothing for him to worry about there, the rolling fortress was already locked up tight. An expressman and two hired toughs hunkered inside to guard the gold. A glance forward elicited a satisfied grunt. The engineer and fireman were already building a head of steam that would pull them out of Breckenridge and carry them through to Leadville. Empty ore cars could tempt those who’d like a free ride up the mountain, but that wasn’t Tom’s concern. The railway’s station men would ensure that the open-topped ore cars stayed empty. All Tom had to do was keep an eye on the fare-paying passengers.

The Pinkerton man continued his restless prowl, boot heels ringing against the silvered boards, while passengers bustled around, calling to each other, hefting trunks and other baggage, and finally clambering up the wrought iron steps to settle in their seats. Mostly working class men, hair slicked back, beards and mustaches freshly trimmed from their time away from the mines. A few families boarded. Bonneted and aproned women herding youngsters up the steps and into the car, their men loaded with carpetbags and much needed supplies.

A handsome young woman caught Tom’s eye as she crossed the platform to be handed aboard by the conductor. Thinking of his Emily, he noted the propriety of her dress; voluminous gray skirts with a matching short cape buttoned to just beneath her chin. She presented a fine figure of a woman—firm jaw line, delicate features, golden hair upswept beneath a little alpine hat decorated with a pheasant’s feather. But where was her escort? Why would a refined lady be traveling alone? He shook his head. An unescorted female heading to a rough mining town was asking for trouble. Of course, she might be a new fancy lady for the saloon, but he didn’t think so. She reminded him too much of Emily to entertain that possibility. Her dress was too fine, her carriage too proper. Surely a father or husband waited for her at the Leadville station. Until then, Tom would keep an eye on her; make sure she came to no harm.

A cloud of steam belched from the engine’s stack, and the conductor bellowed, “All aboard!”

Tom saluted the engineer, nodded to the stationmaster, and climbed onto the narrow iron deck at the rear of the passenger car. The conductor grabbed the brass handrail and followed him up.

“That’s everyone,” he said, giving Tom a satisfied smile. “Should be a nice quiet run.”

Tom nodded, sweeping the Breckenridge platform with a final gaze as the train lurched forward, its pistons working to break free of their resting inertia. “Nothing suspicious caught my eye.” He paused before asking his question. “Do you know the lady? The pretty one without a man?”

“Wondered about her myself. Fine clothes. Nice manners. Looked to be alone.” The conductor shrugged. “Hope she knows what she’s about.”

“That makes two of us.” Tom grasped the door handle, twisted and stepped into the passenger car. The conductor trailed just behind and, after securing the door, began checking tickets. Tom moved down the aisle, adapting his pace to the slight sway and buckle of the train’s movement. He made note of each seat’s occupant as he passed, finally taking his place on a bench at the front of the car facing the passengers.

* * *

The train chugged through a valley following the flow of Tenmile Creek when the man seated behind the unescorted female leaned forward, tapped her shoulder, and then grabbed her arm and jerked her upright.

The other women gasped and clutched squealing youngsters close as their men spread protective arms across their own. Tom surged to his feet, only to stop dead. The man had his captive in a neck lock with a pistol shoved into her side.

“Sit back down, Pinkerton man. Slide your six-shooter to my partner, real easy like.” The outlaw dragged the young woman into the narrow aisle as another man rose from a seat a few paces from Tom. “Do it, or watch this pretty lady die.”

Tom swore. He knew that unescorted female would be trouble. Moving slowly, deliberately, he pulled his revolver from his holster with two fingers, set it gently on the vibrating floor, and pushed it toward the accomplice with his foot.

The first outlaw glanced around. “Don’t any of the rest of you get no ideas neither,” he growled to the other passengers. “I got me an itchy trigger finger and plenty of ammo.”

The second man grabbed Tom’s gun. “Got it, Coal Creek,” he crowed, shoving Tom’s revolver into his belt with his left hand while he drew his own weapon with his right.

The first man grimaced. “Ain’t you got the sense God gave a hog? We ain’t usin’ names here.” The second man reddened, but trained his six-shooter on Tom.

Coal Creek. Coal Creek. Tom searched his memory and dredged up the name from a recent watch list. Coal Creek Davis. Wanted for cattle rustling up Wyoming way, general thievery in several territories, and horse stealing on the plains east of Denver. He’d escalated some if he thought he could rob a payroll train.

Tom ignored the man pointing a gun at him and concentrated on the young woman. “Try to stay calm, ma’am,” he said, voice cool and confident. “I don’t aim to give old Coal Creek there any cause to harm you.”

“That’s right, Pinkerton,” Coal Creek said with a nasty laugh. “You just mind your Ps and Qs and nobody gets hurt. Little Miss Bradford here is gonna get us just what we want.”

Tom’s gaze snapped to Coal Creek and back to the young woman. “Bradford?” he asked. “Josephine Bradford?”

Eyes bright with fear, she managed a tiny nod before her captor tightened his hold.

“That’s right. The boss’s daughter, Pinkerton man, so make sure you don’t get her killed.”

James Bradford was a major stockholder in the High Line and part owner of the Matchless Mine. What in the name of all that was holy was his only daughter doing on this train? Why hadn’t Tom been notified she was expected? Why in hell was she traveling alone, unprotected? Good God! If Bradford’s daughter came to harm on his watch, Tom’s career would be over. He’d never be able to offer for his Emily.

Tom was still trying to wrap his brain around this new development when he felt the train slow. The door at the front of the passenger car opened and the conductor stepped in followed by yet another man with a gun.

“Sorry, Tom,” the conductor muttered. “They were waiting for me on the ore car cat-walk. There’s two more up watching the engineer and the fireman.”

The train rolled to a stop beside Tenmile Creek, and Tom felt his stomach knot. It would be another hour or so before the stationmaster in Leadville realized they were late. Nightfall would be on them before the Leadville sheriff could round up a posse and follow the rails back to their position. He was on his own. Disarmed, with innocents to protect and the payroll to guard. At least there were three armed men locked in the express car; they’d be getting antsy what with the train stopping unexpectedly. Honeycutt was a good man. He’d be on guard and have his hired men ready for whatever these outlaws had in mind. Five bandits against three express guards and a Pinkerton man. The knot eased a bit. Law and order could still prevail.

If only he didn’t have to worry about Bradford’s daughter.

“Everybody out.” Coal Creek Davis’ gruff voice snapped Tom back to attention. He stood and stepped forward, hoping to place himself between the outlaws’ guns and the families pushing for the door.

“Not you, Pinkerton,” said Coal Creek. “You stay put.” He motioned to the man holding a gun on the conductor. “You two, out. Keep the passengers together and out of trouble. The boys from the engine will back you up.”

“You got it, boss.” The outlaw grabbed the conductor’s shoulder and pulled him back out the door they’d just come through. They clattered down the iron steps and into the meadow beside the stream.

An odd sense of unreality assaulted Tom. This couldn’t be happening. The sun shone brightly above snow-capped peaks, meadow grass waved in a light breeze, and now that the train’s noise was hushed, Tom could hear the gurgle of Tenmile Creek, the high sweet song of meadowlarks. Yet here he stood, one of four people on a train car, with a cocked pistol aimed straight at his racing heart. Clamping down on his fear, Tom studied his companions: Josephine Bradford, her outward calm belied by a tiny line of sweat beading her brow; Coal Creek Davis, the gleam in his eye proclaiming his satisfaction with the day’s events; and Tom’s guard, an overly excited accomplice with loose lips.

Coal Creek released his neck lock on Josephine and pushed her onto a seat, keeping one hand on her shoulder. “Here’s the way this is gonna be,” he said, pointing the gun at her head. “The little lady and me are gonna go visit the expressman. She’s gonna tell him who she is and what I’ve got pressed to her head, and he’s gonna unlock that door.”

“What if he doesn’t?”

“Then she’s gonna get real dead. I don’t think her daddy would like that very much, do you?”

Josephine’s face paled and her lip quivered. A small whimper escaped, but she bit her lip and remained still, posture erect.

Anger laced with impotence burned in Tom’s belly. She shouldn’t be in this position. She was holding up well, but she shouldn’t be facing a gunman. He’d failed to protect her. Her father had failed to protect her. “What do you want from me?”

“You? I don’t want nothin’ from you, Pinkerton.” Coal Creek leaned down, rubbed his whiskers against Miss Bradford’s pale cheek. She flinched slightly and closed her eyes. A single tear slid from beneath delicate lashes. Coal Creek straightened. “I’m gonna get everything I want with no help, nor hindrance, from you. You just stay here and think about what’ll happen to her if you cause me any trouble.”

Pulling Miss Bradford to her feet, the outlaw moved toward the door at the back of the car. “Keep a close eye on him,” he said to his accomplice. “I’ll send one of the boys to get you when the time comes.”

Tom’s captor nodded and slipped into the seat directly in front of Tom as Coal Creek and the young woman exited the car. “Might as well take a load off. This could take a while.”

Sinking back onto his bench, Tom studied the other man. He’d noticed him when he boarded the train, but hadn’t been concerned. Just one of the less-well-groomed workingmen. Dark hair slicked back from an unshaven face. Eyes set too close together. Clothes fairly clean but hard-worn. Hands calloused, Tom had assumed from wielding a pick ax. Now that he had time for a closer inspection, he noted crooked teeth and a squint to the eyes that might indicate poor eyesight. Of course, he could hardly miss a target sitting this close even if he were half blind.

“How did you know?”

“How’d I know what?”

“How did you know Miss Bradford would be on this train?”

The man shifted in his seat, but kept his gun trained on Tom. “Heck, that weren’t nothin’ special. Thought you’d be more interested in the payroll.”

Tom shrugged. “The express car’s easy to spot, but one lone skirt? That’s different. Was she just a lucky break?” But Tom knew that couldn’t be right. Coal Creek had known her identity when Tom had not.

“Yeah. Luck. That’ll do.” The man shifted again, clearly uncomfortable with Tom’s question. This time, however, his aim faltered as he glanced out the window.

Tom took advantage of the momentary lapse. He lashed out, knocking the gun-hand aside. The outlaw flailed. The gun skittered across the floor. Heads knocked as both men scrambled for the weapon. Tom’s fist caught the outlaw’s temple, stunning him. Another blow and the man lay unconscious on the scuffed wooden floor.

Wiping blood from the corner of his mouth, Tom rested for a moment. When he’d caught his breath, he pulled handcuffs from his pocket, cuffed the outlaw to a seat support, and reclaimed his revolver. Moving low and as quietly as boots on wooden floorboards allowed, he positioned himself beside the door nearest the express car. He chanced a quick peek out the door’s window and saw Coal Creek and Miss Bradford framed in the open door of the express car. Honeycutt and his hired guns had their weapons drawn and aimed, but Coal Creek had the upper hand. He held a gun to Josephine’s temple.

With Coal Creek’s attention firmly fixed on the three, armed men, Tom straightened and caught Honeycutt’s eye. He mimed his intentions, and the big expressman shifted slightly to one side in acknowledgement.

Tom drew a deep breath, holstered his weapon, and eased the passenger car door open. He crept onto the iron deck, steadied himself, and when Coal Creek gestured, moving the gun momentarily from its target, Tom launched himself against the outlaw.

Coal Creek staggered forward. Honeycutt grabbed his gun hand while the guards wrestled the outlaw down. Tom caught his balance, threw an arm around Miss Bradford’s waist and dragged her down the steps and around the corner of the express car. Once out of the line of fire, he pushed her against the side of the car and flattened himself at the corner, between her and where the outlaw might reappear.

Drawing his weapon, Tom waited, tense but controlled. “Don’t you worry, Miss Bradford. I’ll keep you safe. Honeycutt and his men should have Coal Creek subdued by now.”

He’d pulled her down the closest steps, and had ended up on the opposite side of the train from where the rest of the gang held the remaining passengers. He wished he could see them. Wished he knew whether or not the other three members of the gang had noticed the scuffle. It had been quick and fairly quiet, but he and Honeycutt needed to disarm those men, ensure the safety of the engineer and the other passengers.

With his attention on their plight, Tom ignored Miss Bradford…until he felt the circle of cold steel press against the nape of his neck. A tingle of fear raced along his spine, heavily spiced with confusion.

“Be still, Mr. Easton,” the woman said. “This may only be a derringer, but I assure you, I’m not afraid to use it. Now, hand over your gun.”

Tom closed his eyes, defeat washing over him. He’d been taken in, seen too much of his guileless Emily in this unknown woman. She hadn’t been a hostage. She’d been a decoy. He should’ve listened to his instincts when Coal Creek called her by name. How would the outlaw recognize Josephine Bradford, know the lady’s itinerary when he, Tom Easton, a Pinkerton detective, didn’t?

He uncocked his pistol and handed it over his shoulder, making no attempt to turn toward his second captor of the day. “You know my name.”

“I checked the schedule. I needed to know who would be on the train, how many would be guarding the gold.”

“Are you really Josephine Bradford?”

She snorted softly, a sound he was sure his lady-like Emily would never produce. “Yes. As a matter of fact, I am.”

“Why?”

“You’ll have to excuse me, but I haven’t time for conversation right now.”

And with that, she screamed, an ear-splitting, banshee wail that had Tom jerking away despite the derringer barrel at the base of his skull.

“Honeycutt!” she screamed, panic rife in her voice. “Honeycutt, please help me. It’s Tom! I don’t know what to do.”

Footsteps pounded on the iron deck and steps and Honeycutt jumped from the train, his weapon at the ready.

The big man stopped, took in the scene before him, and cocked his revolver.

“Thank you, Mr. Honeycutt,” she said, her tones smooth as cream. “Now, if you’ll just have your assistants release Mr. Davis and hand over the gold, we’ll finish our transaction with no further delay.”

Honeycutt glanced at Tom, then narrowed his eyes at the woman behind him. “I don’t think so,” was his only reply.

The barrel of the little derringer dug deeper into Tom’s flesh.

“Well I do, unless you want Mr. Easton’s blood on your hands.”

Honeycutt caught Tom’s gaze and a look of understanding passed between the men. The expressman nodded once, and, eyes locked on Tom’s, opened his mouth and shouted, “Lock ‘er up, boys, and don’t open up again until you hear the sheriff’s voice in Leadville.”

Josephine screamed again, but this time the sound was pure fury. The hammer on the derringer clicked back, a soft sound, but one that could mean the end for her captive.

Tom closed his eyes and pictured Emily, his heart thudding as if to accomplish all the beats it wouldn’t have time to complete if the derringer served its purpose.

The gun barrel eased back a fraction and Tom took his chance. He dropped to his knees and rolled away from the tracks. Leaping to his feet, he saw that Honeycutt had disarmed Miss Bradford and had her restrained. The young woman was red-faced and furious, eyes flashing, hat askew and hair flying free from its upswept ‘do.

“Thanks, Honeycutt,” Tom said with a grin, his heart expanding with appreciation for life. “I owe you.”

“Nah. We were both taken in by this little skirt. What’s next? How many more are there?”

“They’ve got three more guarding everyone else on the other side of the tracks.” He glanced toward the aspen grove at the foot of the mountain behind him. He could just make out the opening to a narrow canyon. “No telling if there are more waiting in the trees. I’d guess they have horses stashed somewhere nearby.”

He glanced at Josephine, but the thin line of her lips told him he’d be wasting time trying to get answers from her. Movement in his peripheral vision caught his attention. When he turned to study the aspen grove, a stirring beneath their branches told him that whoever had waited with the horses had chosen to cut their losses.

“Got any rope?” Tom asked, nodding to Honeycutt’s prisoner.

The big man grinned and pulled a pair of handcuffs from his pocket.

“Even better,” Tom said as Honeycutt cuffed her to the brass handrail on the side of the express car.

With the lady subdued, the men climbed the steps, crossed the small deck and peered into the meadow beside Tenmile Creek. The unexpected sight caused them to raise a cheer. Nobody in that meadow needed rescuing, except maybe the last three members of Coal Creek’s outlaw band.

Tom and Honeycutt jumped down from the express car and loped over to join the conductor and the engineer. “What happened here?” Tom asked once they’d exchanged grins and back-slaps.

“Well, we heard the little lady scream like the hounds of hell were after her,” said the conductor, “and it surprised the gunmen so that us menfolk were able to make our move.”

The engineer nodded and took up the tale. “Denny, my fireman, and I took that one,” he said, pointing to an unconscious outlaw, “while Johnson here tackled another.”

“One of the miners helped,” added Johnson. “Conducting doesn’t usually require scrapping, so I was glad of the aid.”

“The last feller went down under a pile of men. Not sure who was who, but they got the job done.”

“Is the lady all right?” asked the conductor.

Tom’s face pinked a bit, but he nodded. “She’s fine, but she was in on it.”

The slack-jawed expressions on the other men’s faces told Tom he hadn’t been the only man on the train to be taken in by a pretty face and lady-like manners.

By the time they got everyone loaded back in the passenger car, Tom and Honeycutt had filled the others in on their part in the adventure. By mutual consent the male outlaws were bound and placed in one of the empty ore cars with Honeycutt on guard. Tom handcuffed Miss Bradford to the first seat in the passenger car and resumed his place on the bench facing her.

He shook his head as the engineer and fireman got the locomotive moving again. “You never told me why,” he said by way of conversation.

She turned and stared out the window. “You wouldn’t understand,” she murmured. “You’ve never been a woman.”

“That I haven’t,” he replied, and tipping his head back, closed his eyes.

* * *

When the train pulled into Leadville station, the sheriff waited with the stationmaster. “We were getting worried,” he said to Tom when the Pinkerton man stepped down from the train.

Tom nodded. “Good that you were. We had a bit of trouble.”

When he’d given the sheriff a run-down of the attempted robbery, the man shook his head. “Bradford’s own daughter. That’ll be a hard blow to weather.”

They walked to the ore car and watched as the outlaws were hauled out. “I’ll put these men in the jail. The district judge is due in a few days. But I don’t know what to say about the woman. Can’t rightly see housing her in the jail.”

They wandered back along the station platform and watched her through the passenger car window. Handcuffed as she was, she hadn’t moved from her seat.

“What would you think about taking her back to Breckenridge and handing her over to her father?”

Tom blew out his cheeks. “Well, I can’t say as how I’m anxious for the duty, but I see your point about the jail here in Leadville.”

They checked with the stationmaster and decided to do just that, arranging for seats on the next day’s train. The sheriff took charge of her, locking her in a room at the boarding house and putting a guard outside her door with another watching her window. Tom took the precaution of sending a telegram to James Bradford, to ensure the man would meet the train and take custody of his wayward daughter.

The ride down the mountain the next day was uneventful. An empty express car, loaded ore cars, and very few passengers, with Josephine securely handcuffed, quiet and subdued. Just the way Tom liked it. He hoped he’d seen all the adventure the High Line had in store, at least until his tour was finished and the next man rode the rails.

He recognized James Bradford immediately when the train rolled into the Breckenridge station. The meticulously dressed gentleman strode across the platform as if he owned it, which in a very real sense he did. His calf-length black coat was woven of fine wool and sported fur lapels and collar. Highly polished boots and a tall stovepipe hat spoke of wealth and refinement, especially when pitted against the frontier homespun of the platform’s other occupants. Tom noted the similarity between Mr. Bradford’s finely chiseled features, highlighted as they were with neat moustache and pointed goatee, and his daughter’s more delicate chin and cheekbones.

Josephine glanced out the window, espied her father, and squared her shoulders. She rose with quiet elegance when Tom released her after the train had come to a complete stop. He waited for the other passengers to exit before offering her his arm and leading her from the car. To the casual observer, it would appear that the young lady descending the steps to the platform was in the company of an admirer rather than a jailer. However, the glacial cold of the glance she exchanged with her father could hardly be misconstrued.

“Mr. Easton.” James Bradford nodded to Tom, hands resting on the carved top of a walking stick. “My thanks for escorting my daughter home. I trust that she afforded you no further difficulty today.”

“No, sir. Our journey was uneventful.” Tom touched the brim of his bowler hat in a gesture of respect.

James Bradford reached for his daughter’s hand, but she avoided his touch. Dark blue eyes flashing, he stepped closer to her and said in an angry whisper, “I can’t imagine what you were thinking. Allying yourself with such vulgar men. I shall have the devil’s own time keeping you from prison.”

Her own blue eyes, so like her father’s, mirrored his expression. “Can’t you? Well let me see if I can explain. I was thinking of my extremely wealthy father divorcing my invalid mother and leaving her very nearly destitute. All to be free to wed a woman younger than myself.” She sniffed and raised her chin. “As far as I’m concerned, the only true criminal here is you.”

Turning her back on him, she extended a slim hand to Tom. “My apologies, Mr. Easton, for any inconvenience my actions may have caused you.” And with that, she sailed across the station platform and disappeared into her father’s carriage.

James Bradford blustered for a moment before saluting Tom and following his daughter, with what was like to be a permanent scowl etched across his face.

Tom shook his head and strode across the platform thanking God and all the saints in heaven that Miss Emily Langstrom had nothing in common with James Bradford’s daughter.

#

Debbie Mumford specializes in fantasy and paranormal romance. She loves mythology and is especially fond of Celtic and Native American lore. She writes about faeries, dragons, and other fantasy creatures for adults as herself and for tweens and young adults as Deb Logan. Visit debbiemumford.com to learn more about her currently available work.

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