Last month, I entered a contest sponsored by the Lewis County (WA) Writer’s Guild. Click that link if you want to see what the deal is, and all the criteria. There were three visual prompts given, and I chose the image you see above. This story — The Seventh Man — won first place for this particular prompt. The entry fee went to the Doyle McKim Scholarship fund for writing students at Centralia College (south of Seattle). If you enjoy the story, I hope you’ll consider doing what I did with my modest prize money and perhaps make a donation to the student scholarship fund at the college. Most of all, I hope you enjoy the story. As always, thanks for reading.
Part I. The Heist of the Mercury
The Central Pacific Mercury left St. Louis in a cloud of roiling steam and blue-gray dust before the first light of sun. The brakeman — a rail of a man with a silver-buttoned coat hanging loose over scarecrow arms, a long, black moustache, and a mop of dark brown hair under a faded blue short-brimmed hat — hung off the old mail car door and waved a dim lantern up then down three times, signalling the engineer. The big engineer, with a hard-lined, sun-bleached face, bushy blonde-gray mutton-chop sideburns, a faded denim coat, and a chaw of tobacco as big as a plum, turned to the cab console and yanked back on the red lever, listening as the brakes let out a long, metallic sigh. The engine and four faded green cars, along with the coal car, began to roll along the southbound line in the dark, on the way to Memphis. Wheels ground against the iron rails as the train picked up speed. The fireman, standing in the back of the engine, grabbed the wide shovel and worked more black coal into the white-hot fire of the blazing furnace.
By the time they were approaching Memphis, early daylight had broken on the horizon. Cold came in past the trees along the bank of the great rushing river and when the early winter wind blew threw the cab, the engineer frowned and pulled his jacket tighter. At the rickety wooden station platform, the brakeman, a Tennessee mountain man who, upon closer examination, was not too much more than a boy, helped the Memphis men unload canvas mail bags, pulling some off of cars, stacking them three, four high. More sacks, a few barrels, and some covered pallets were loaded in their place.
The operation didn’t take long, and only a few words were exchanged. The whistle blew shrill and long, the brakeman, named Ned Billows, waved a hand — no lantern was necessary in the soft light of morning — and the train took off, crossing a trestle over the churching, brown Mississippi River towards the cotton flatland and on to Little Rock.
The Mercury pulled into the station with a sigh of the brakes and a dramatic release of white steam. Again, Ned Billows joined the men on the platform in low hats and denim shirts and set to moving sacks, pallets, and barrels to and fro. It was here that the small crew — the engineer, the fireman, and Ned Billows the brakeman — took their lunch. It was also the first time the crew of the Mercury saw the gunmen of the armored car. Four of them, two with Winchester rifles, two with double-barrel shotguns, all of them with Colts strapped to their hips at the low end of leather belts loaded with gleaming brass-colored bullets.
Ned knocked once, waited a beat, then twice, then three times on the heavy wooden door, framed out by iron. He waited a beat until the knock was repeated, heard the lock clatter to the floor of the train car, then unlocked the outside. Ned pulled the iron latch to the door and slid it open with a grinding sound. The gunmen said nothing as they climbed down, barely nodding at Ned, squinting in the sunlight, boots scuffing the wooden platform. After the last man was down, he turned to Ned, looking at him with clear, bright eyes.
“Just out for a stretch in the daylight, Ned, and a quick bite. Be fine enough to lock ‘er up here on the outside, jus’ for a minute.”
Ned nodded, closed the door and locked it from the outside putting the key back in the pocket of his coat. He didn’t bother to look at the giant safe, a silent, black leviathan with a brass handle, dial, and hinges, tied down with thick rope in the center of the car.
“Gotta be hell,” said the fireman, leaning against the iron steps of the Mercury engine. Older than Ned but younger than the engineer, he watched warily as the vault guards slowly shuffled down the platform to a patch of grass where they would stretch their backs and look up at the clear sky, drinking in the sunlight. The fireman — an Ohio veteran of the war named Fred Waltrip — was covered in coal dust and sweat and the grime of hard, tedious work. Still, he held a cold biscuit in one filthy hand, anyway, eating it hungrily.
“Gotta be hell,” he said again, “sittin’ in that dark car. Not knowin’ what might happen one minute to the next.”
“Ain’t a dang thing gonna happen,” said the engineer, who had been sitting on the edge of the platform, chewing on a piece of deer jerky and a heel of bread. With an effort, he stood, brushed crumbs off his bib overalls, and went to the water barrel, filled his cup and drained it twice. “An’ ‘sides, they got sacks o’ mail they can sit on, take a rest. Deck o’ cards and a lantern. They’s fine.”
The engineer had been with the Central Pacific for many years. He had seen a robbery — attempted robbery. He never cared for talking about the unbridled horror he witnessed that day. Besides, he was right: running the train was mostly safe work, if sometimes a little boring. That’s what he liked about it, thinking about running up the tough hills and mountains at just the right speed, maybe cattle on the track coming out of a tunnel. Holdups, train robberies, well, that was for someone else to fret about.
Ned Billows, finishing his own tin cup of water, looked at Fred Waltrip, eyes grim and uncertain. The engineer could be dismissive if that suited him, but they had heard the brutal stories of outlaws robbing trains. And they knew the value of what was in the guarded car.
After the mail and supplies were loaded, and after the four guards were locked back in their dark car, the Mercury took off north, northwest at a fair clip, building all the speed it could before the rolling Ozark Mountains overtook them. The train steamed past the small towns — Sand Gap and Deer and Dryfork. It slowed around a rough, rocky pass called Harper’s Reach, on the other side of the small town of Fox Osage, then dipped south of Fayetteville before leveling west again to the plains of Oklahoma.
By Oklahoma City, they had been rolling for the better part of twelve hours. The last stop in Oklahoma would be Red River, dancing on the southern edge of Cheyenne Territory. Another mundane stop, a small stop. Exchange mail parcels, get a sip of water. Then a north turn to Kansas City, where they would lay over for the night. The next day, the Mercury would turn west, and the locomotive would begin the great haul to Denver, Salt Lake City, and finally San Francisco. As the train huffed to a stop at Red River, Ned Billows, tired from the long haul, yawned and stepped off the back of the iron step of the caboose, scuffing onto the platform in his boots. He nodded at the two men on the platform, already approaching the first mail car.
The shriek of the blast followed a brick wall of force that threw Ned Billows to the ground, clean off the eastern edge of the platform. He hit his head so hard on the dry, packed ground, his eyes went blurry. There was a blossom of smoke and dust and wood as the door blew off the guarded car. The noise of the blast echoed across the plain.
One of the Red River station men had been killed outright by the blast, lying halfway in the station itself, the shattered glass of the window around his broken, lifeless body. The other man had been knocked off his feet, the other side of the station from Ned. As the brakeman, still disoriented, watched him rise, he could see that the man’s ears and nose were bleeding, and he was covered in a fine, gray dust. The station man stood, wobbled, and ran from the mangled station towards a curving dirt road.
Though his ears rang like the sound of rushing water all around, that is when Ned heard the first shot. The station man went down, his body crumbling like paper. The brakeman couldn’t see where the shots had come from, and he took in a dry gasp, confused. He propped himself up on an elbow to see, turning his head desperately left, then right.
Two guards from the car stumbled out, coughing and covered in red and dust. Neither carried a rifle or a shotgun. The wide-brimmed white hat of one, barely on his feet as he jumped down to the platform, was missing, and Ned could see that his face was covered in blood that ran like rivers. The other man had fallen from the car and lay on the wooden platform, on his hands and knees, struggling to rise.
Four shots rang out this time and both gunmen collapsed, face down in the dust and wood and debris of the platform.
Finally, the brakeman saw them. Six figures silhouetted against the last light of the evening sky, standing on top of the money car. How long they been there, Ned Billows wondered. Since the mountains, maybe. Since the Ozarks. Half the damn day, he thought. The Mercury, coming out of a mountain tunnel — perhaps Harper’s Reach — and they could drop from the lip of the tunnel to a mail car with some ease, no one the wiser.
Two men climbed down south, four climbed down the narrow iron ladder of the back of the car to the platform, fast as they could go, sliding along the rails.
One of the two men who had climbed down the far side of the train already came around the front of the engine. When he got to the cab he paused, pulled himself up a step, aimed a long-barreled revolver and let loose with four shots. Ned Billows knew the engineer and the fireman would be dead, and he held back a cry of anguish. Looking to the cloudless sky, saying a prayer, he figured he would be next.
“If the last two of ye’ still alive in there, best come on out without no trouble,” said a voice behind a grimy red bandana. It was followed by a shotgun blast from inside the car which tore away a chunk of already destroyed wooden door and a bit of the side of the car, five feet away from the robbers.
The lead man, the one with the red bandana, a long, tan coat trailing behind him, nodded to the man behind him, who stuffed a fuse into a stick of dynamite, lit it, and threw it into the car. The men near the car shuffled half a length back, ducked. Ned heard one man scream inside before the explosion blew the sides off the car, timber from the roof pinwheeling through the air.
Ned Billows felt the thunder of horses before he turned his head to see them, a half dozen, fresh and ready to run. He coughed once, his lungs burning like fire, and fell back as the horses moved past him, towards the wooden platform. His head throbbed and the world before him began to fade.
Ned Billows would tell the Marshal he didn’t remember much after that, that things got hazy, then dark. But when he came to and realized he could stand, the men in long coats and bandanas across their faces were gone. Bodies lay where they fell, the old engineer half out of the cab, his arm splayed out and dripping blood to the ground. He couldn’t see Fred’s body, which was later found next to his shovel by the furnace.
The money car had been ripped apart, blown to pieces by the dynamite. The safe itself was opened wide and was as empty as the Oklahoma night.
Part II. Capture on the Whippoorwill Trail
The fight had been short but dramatic, wild, even. The six train robbers, along with a seventh man who had brought the horses up, had come out of a blind pass on Whippoorwill Trail, just over the Arkansas border, early the next morning. Sheriff Rip Crowley and his young son were there, still in their saddles, pistols drawn. Rip had been hoping the robbers would give up without a fight, but John-bird, his Osage deputy, had said You know better’n that, Sheriff. And it was true.
“Best stop there, Slade,” Rip said to the lead man, the one with a red bandana hanging from his neck. Slade Cleaver, the oldest brother of the six Cleaver Brothers, just smiled a dark, gummy smile back at the sheriff.
“Best do as he says, Sl…,” this was the old man who’d secured the horses, bringing up the far rear, but Slade had already started to pull his gleaming .44. He would never get a chance to use it.
The shot came from the south, in the deep trees — thick oaks, tall pines, a few stunted hawthornes — and Slade fell from his horse, which spooked and bucked and whinnied. The next two brothers behind Slade pulled, too. Rip fired once. Another distant shot came from the forest, and both men fell from their spooked horses, rearing and snuffing in protest.
Jeremiah pulled the hammer back on his .38 and held it steady at the men still on their horses.
The three remaining brothers, and the older seventh man, put up their hands, their horses trotting back and forth nervously. In what seemed to him like hours stretching into days, Jeremiah shackled each of the men as they sat in their saddles, then retrieved their guns and knives, putting them in a saddlebag on Rip’s horse.
The remaining Cleaver brothers just smiled wickedly at the boy with teeth blackened from chaw. Nervous, Jeremiah Crowley tried not to stumble over the growling dog at his feet.
Part III.The Trail Home
Jeremiah Crowley had been this far west before, on the border of Oklahoma and Arkansas, but not often. He sat watch over the four men, chained together, all sleeping now. Three were piled together like bears in a cave, one near the next, occasionally pawing at a nose, or snoring out a low rumble. The fourth man, the older man, had his legs crossed, one boot just higher than the other, and his old brown hat flopped over his eyes. The boy craned his neck to see that he was still cuffed at the wrists, shackled to the three other men.
His father was leaned against a rock on the other side of the dying fire, eyes closed. He knew his father didn’t sleep well, but it was a peaceful enough night — and had been an exciting enough day — that he figured his father deserved a night of sleep, and decided not to wake him with questions.
Only John-bird, his father’s deputy, had looked at Jeremiah with narrowed eyes when the boy suggested taking first watch.
“I can take first watch, Jeremiah,” the tall Osage man had said, voice flat, no hint of emotion. “You rest. Been a long day.”
“No, that’s okay, John-bird,” Jeremiah had said, countering with perhaps too much enthusiasm. “I can do it.”
And so it was that Jeremiah held the Winchester rifle in his lap, his .38 strapped to his waist, watching the men sleep around him. After everyone ate plates of beans and half a dry biscuit, water, and some berries John-bird had found, it wasn’t long before the fire burned low and sleep beckoned.
Jeremiah sat up until late in the night, thinking about the Marshal’s deputy riding into town only the morning before, talking with his father.
“Six of ‘em,” he’d said, the deputy outside the jail, not even dismounted. The Marshal’s deputies never stayed in Fox Osage very long. “Took the whole kitty off the Mercury westbound. Payroll for the railroad, better’n fifteen thousand.”
“Where’s Marshal O’Reilly?”
“Up in St. Louis, Sheriff. Else he’d come after those boys himself.”
Rip had just nodded, Jeremiah watching his silhouette in the doorway of the jailhouse.
“How’d they get the horses there?” Rip had said, looking at the deputy with those bright blue eyes.
Part IV. The Seventh Man
The boy woke to the feel of a cold metal barrel against his cheek. The shock was enough to cause him to catch his breath, even as his eyes fluttered open and adjusted to the dark.
He had fallen asleep, and somehow the men had freed themselves of the shackles, the old man just now dropping the chains to the ground with a clang and going to the saddlebag for his own gun.
“Told you we’d shoot you, boy,” hissed one of the Cleavers as he held an arm around Jeremiah’s throat tight enough to prevent him from responding. He could only hold his arms up, pulling on the strong man’s elbow and wrist to no avail, gasping for air.
John-bird and Rip were up, guns out. But the men had pushed Jeremiah to the front. They stood behind the boy, using him as a shield. As sharp as Rip Crowley and John-bird were with a gun, they wouldn’t risk the man shooting Jeremiah.
“Now, Sheriff, you know what we did at that train,” the man behind the one holding Jeremiah said through gritted teeth. “‘Fraid we’re in a bit of a bind, here. You’re gonna understand if we put a bullet…”
The shot rang out from behind the three brothers. The one holding Jeremiah dropped him, and his brother, the one who had spoken, fell to the ground, a red blossom growing around the hole in his back.
The second shot took the next brother, who spun and very nearly fell into the ashes of the night’s fire. His gun went off, shot towards the heavens.
Rip Crowley wasted no time and shot the third brother, who flew off his feet and was dead before he hit the ground. Jeremiah, able to breathe again, scrambled and turned around, his hand searching for his .38. He looked up into the eyes of the old man who held a silver .45 in one hand.
The old man took a last drink of whiskey at the Tack & Canter, Fox Osage’s saloon. He set the glass down with a sigh and smiled at Rip Crowley, sitting across from him.
“Reckon they won’t be too happy about the Cleaver Brothers being killed,” said Rip, looking at the old man, whose name was Kim Keaton.
The old man stared back, smiling just a bit.
“Not going to make it easy finding out who gave them the combination to that safe. Still, I reckon they care a whole lot more about the payroll than the justice comin’ to the Cleaver Brothers, anyway,” he said in a low, throaty growl. “Besides, killing the Cleavers sends a message.”
Jeremiah, sitting next to his father, a glass of water in front of him, looked confounded. His dog, Rupert, lay sleeping at his feet.
“So,” he said, almost shaking his head again, “you’re… like a Marshal?”
“Something like that,” said Keaton, smiling at the boy. “I work for a man named Pinkerton.”
“What I don’t understand,” said Jeremiah, his brow still furrowed, “Is why didn’t you just kill ‘em when they robbed the train? Why’d you run off with ‘em?”
“He was going to find out how they were able to open that safe,” said Rip Crowley, looking at Keaton, not at Jeremiah. “Someone at the railroad, or at the bank, gave them the combination.”
“Well… who?” said Jeremiah.
“Can’t rightly ask the Keaton brothers, now, can we?” Rip looked down at his son whose cheeks flushed with embarrassment.
“It’s alright, son,” said Keaton, leaning over and putting a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Happens to the best of us. Don’t you worry, neither. We’ll find out who was workin’ with the Cleavers.”
The boy kept his head down, ashamed.
“Your daddy tells me you’re pretty good with that .38, Jeremiah,” said Keaton.
“Yes, sir,” said Jeremiah, looking back up.
“Get a little older, you come see me and Mr. Pinkerton. Maybe we’ll put you to work.”
“Thank you, Mr. Keaton,” said the boy, Rupert finally stirring at his feet.
“In the meantime,” he said, standing and putting his white hat on his gray head, “listen to your daddy. Keep this town safe, Jeremiah. I’ll see you soon.”
Kim Keaton walked out of the Tack & Canter, mounted his horse, and tipped his hat to Rip and Jeremiah Crowley, who had followed him out.
“Take care, Mr. Keaton,” said Rip. Keaton nodded back, and as he rode towards the sunset, Rupert, barking all the way, followed him for better than half a mile.