“Good news, it seems,” announced Bar Dellingwald as he approached the small cluster of people waiting to board the coach. He held up the Western Union parchment, which caught the light of the sun rising above the eastern treeline. It was a chilly morning, but with just a few wispy clouds in the cerulean sky. The note carried a message from his old friend Tucker Wyndham, a fellow veteran of the New York 2nd Cavalry. “The Brits got the Shenandoah.”
“The whole valley or just Luray?” asked the coach driver, a ruddy-skinned man about a decade older and a foot shorter than Dellingwald. His mouth curled into a wry smile beneath a bushy walrus mustache. He called himself Partway There – as he explained upon first meeting Bar – because people asked him where they were far more than they ever asked who was taking them on the ride. Bar had given a good-natured chuckle, then pressed for the man’s real name, to no avail.
“Not the Shenandoah Valley,” the soldier said. “The ship. Waddell’s meddlesome rebel bastard. Sank a bunch of whaling ships in the north Pacific. Do you people not read a newspaper?”
The young woman in the blue dress and eye patch standing next to the brownish-red coach favored Bar with a cold stare.
“Don’t tell me these pirates were friends of yours,” he quipped. He read from the telegram: “The captain and crew raised the Confederate flag one last time. Sailed up the Mersey to Liverpool. Officially surrendered to HMS Donegal, Captain Paynter commanding.” He folded the telegram into quarters and tucked the paper into a pocket of his blue wool trousers. “About time they realized the war’s over and they lost, don’t you think?” He smirked at the woman and extended his right hand. “Bartholomew Dellingwald. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
She regarded the hand as a mongoose might a cobra.
“Oh, come now,” he said, slowly drawing back the hand. “I meant no offense. Look, we are going to be jostled about together for most of the month and travel through some of the most unforgiving territory known to civilized man. I think it best that we endeavor to coexist in peace, at the very least. In friendship, if I may be optimistic.”
“What makes you think I know them?” Cinna Utley asked.
He barked a laugh. “The way you glowered at me. They should assign a caliber to your eyeballs.”
“Yes, well.” She smoothed the front of her dress and then patted her hair within its snood. “I do not know the crew of the Shenandoah. But, you are right enough, the war is over.”
“Can I ask your name?”
Bar smiled. “I knew a James Utley back home in Scarsdale. His family forged cannons for the Army of the Potomac.”
“No relation,” she said. The clipped brusqueness of her voice didn’t offer the soldier much hope for further fruitful conversation, so he took the hint and let it go. For now. Alistair Dellingwald raised no quitter in his son. His father had once told him that pursuing a woman was not unlike fishing for trout in the Catskills. “Give a little line, let her run,” he had said. “Tug from time to time, let her know you remain vested in the chase, and then…give a little more line. Let her run.”
Ever since Bar had enlisted in the cavalry, the sack coat and forage cap proved far more effective than a wriggling worm as bait. Cinna Utley would be a close companion at least until he left the stagecoach in Los Angeles – probably three weeks, weather and other mishaps permitting. She didn’t seem immediately impressed that he was a Union veteran. But he expected to have ample time to give a little line, let her run.
A grim, grizzled man in a black suit, black boots, and a wide-brimmed black hat sat on a steamer trunk that looked as though, even empty, it might exceed the Western Horizon cargo limitations. He pulled a silver pocket watch from the black vest, tapped at the glass face, and then looked toward the driver. “Are we departing any time soon?”
Partway There shrugged. “Just waiting on the last three passengers.”
Moments later, a second wagon arrived outside the Tipton stagecoach office. From that wagon emerged three men. Two wore gray and brown leather duster jackets, with pistols holstered at their hips. One of them held a third man steady. He was clad in dirt-smeared denim overalls and a long-sleeve white cotton shirt. The prisoner’s wrists were bound with manacles and shackles clanked around his boots. A dark wool hood concealed his head.
The soldier’s smile faded. He watched as the first guard helped guide the prisoner down from the other wagon. The second guard disembarked, then with his partner led their captive toward the waiting westbound coach. Bar raised an inquiring hand, asking the driver: “Is it quite common to mingle God-fearing, law-abiding people with criminals and cutthroats on these journeys?”
The man with the pocket watch grunted agreement.
“We make exceptions when they pay triple the fare,” Partway said. “If anyone else wants to match that amount so that I don’t take them along, well, I am certainly open to offers.”
“Don’t twist yourself in knots, Yank,” the first guard said. He was a burly man, at least Bar’s height but with broader shoulders and a scar that tracked from ear to ear and over his nose. He jerked a thumb toward the wagon. “Our boy here’s riding up top with Preston, so you don’t have to mingle any more than is absolutely necessary.”
The second guard, addressed as Preston, was a shorter man with close-cropped black hair, squinty pig eyes, and a perpetual smirk. “We’ll bid you fine folks adieu come Fort Smith. You’ll barely know we’re there.”