Cinna heard the wagon driver shout before the whip cracked. The coach started rumbling forward. She counted herself lucky on one hand, not so much on the other.
The fortunate part: She sat with her back to the rear of the coach, facing forward with the motion of the vehicle, and thus felt less susceptible to sickness. The last thing she wanted was to find herself scrambling for the window so she could retch into the wind.
Less lucky: She sat directly across from the taller bounty hunter with the mordant, predatory smirk. Cinna felt chills anytime their eyes met, which she felt happened more often than necessary or, to be sure, respectable. Next to Mr. Reed was the gaunt constable, who didn’t seem quite as unsettling to Cinna, but wanted nothing more to do with her than she with him.
And that left her with, conveniently, the all-too-eager Bar Dellingwald sitting to her left as the wagon rolled south and west through the Missouri wilderness.
“First time on a stagecoach, Miss Utley?” he asked.
She clenched her jaw against her kneejerk inclination, to ask how, precisely, the Yankee idiot thought she got to Missouri from Virginia. Yes, of course, part of that journey had been by rail – but she had taken the stagecoach from Tuckahoe to the rail terminus. And, during the war, she’d taken wagons from one Confederate camp to the next on her nursing details. However, Cinna anticipated that an already long and potentially miserable trip would be made even more so by ill feelings this soon. So, she opted for civility.
“I have traveled by coach before,” she said. “Never a journey this long, though.”
Bar offered a winning smile. “Becomes second nature after a while. The worst part is past Fort Smith. Wild country, that.”
Deacon Hunt interjected: “It’s only bad if something goes wrong with the wagon or our supplies.”
She heard echoes of her father’s indignant rebuke of her plans. Defensively, she insisted, “That seems unlikely, though.” Did she sound convinced? Probably not.
Reed, the bounty hunter who carried himself like a sort of human mantis, shrugged. He said nothing.
Hunt continued: “Depends on how competent our driver is. We will make several stops prior to our arrival in Springfield. He should check the wheels, the springs, the supplies…”
“The horses,” Bar finished, nodding at Hunt. Then he looked at Cinna. “As you say, mishaps are unlikely.”
“Of course,” the constable said, “one can never be certain about what desperate men may be driven to do in trying times.” He struggled to find a smile. “The war shattered the Confederate economy. Men in such circumstances, trying to provide for themselves or their families by any means necessary, may turn to larceny and violence. I’m on my way to Texas to help protect against the criminality of such wayward souls.”
Bar scratched his cheek as he considered the older man. “If I may say so, sir, that seems dangerous work for someone of your…” His voice trailed off. Age, obviously. But he opted for: “Experience.”
Hunt chuckled. “I can handle myself. You’re not the only war veteran on this coach, I suspect.”
No, Cinna thought, certainly not. She lifted an index finger to touch the leather patch covering her eye.
“So,” the young soldier said, turning his attention back to the southern woman. “What in the world possessed you to choose to make this journey on your own? The dangers of the frontier are well documented, but you should also consider the predators that may travel among us.”
That earned an arched eyebrow from Reed, but the bounty hunter said nothing more.
“Would you add to the conversation?” Bar asked Reed.
The other man met the soldier’s gaze with a thin smile. Remained silent.
Bar scowled. “Never trust a quiet man,” he muttered in conspiratorial fashion as he leaned over toward Cinna. She felt immediate discomfort at the thought of sharing the Yankee’s opinion of the bounty hunter, and thus did her best to focus on her hands.
Hunt shook his head after favoring Reed with an appraising stare. “I wouldn’t bother attempting to bait this one, Lieutenant,” the constable said. “Spare yourself the frustration.”
“Am I to have no sport whatsoever on this journey?” Bar huffed and crossed his arms. He seemed on the verge of actual pouting.
“I didn’t pay my fare to entertain anyone,” Cinna replied. It just spilled out, against her better judgment. In a split-second, it seemed, her mind had weighed the cost of enduring Dellingwald’s pokes and prods for a month against the benefit of implying that he shut the hell up from time to time. She wanted only to look out the window at the passing landscape and dwell on the new life awaiting her in San Francisco. No good as it was for this Union soldier to serve as a constant reminder of the war, of all she lost, of all she had left behind. For him to keep calling attention to himself would drive her to distraction before they had even completed the first day of the westward trek.
“Best that I didn’t pay to be entertained, then,” Bar countered. Then, unnecessarily, he added: “Because you are remarkably unamusing.”
The constable set his jaw as he watched Bar. His eyes narrowed. His head took on a slight tilt. “That is quite enough.”
Bar met Hunt’s eyes. For the moment, the soldier said not a further word. Instead, he waited to see what Hunt might say next.
“Miss Utley is correct that none of us is here for your amusement,” the constable said. “I, for one, find it baffling that you survived the war without becoming a victim of friendly fire.”
“Tell me,” the soldier snapped, “precisely how many times you picked up a rifle and faced the enemy.”
Hunt shrugged. “I made sure you had a rifle. I made sure your rifle had ammunition. I made sure your feet had boots. Your socks? They came through my storehouse.”
“A glorified stockboy, then,” Bar replied.
“Oh, my god, that is enough from both of you,” grumbled Cinna. She had zero desire to watch grown men puff and preen their egos for the next five hundred miles. No matter how Reed made her skin crawl, he at least showed the good sense to keep his mouth shut.
Then, as if the universe wanted to tweak her nose, Reed piped up with a treacly: “No, do go on. I find the entire discussion fascinating.” He looked from Deacon Hunt to Bar Dellingwald. “One fancies himself a hero. The other, a maker of heroes.”
“And which are you, Mr. Reed?” the constable asked.
“Just a survivor.”
Bar laughed. He gestured between the constable and himself. “We survived.”
“The war, yes,” Reed intoned.
“And what, precisely, is that supposed to -” Hunt’s words choked off in a gurgle of blood as the bounty hunter buried the blade of a Bowie knife in the old man’s throat.
The young soldier’s eyes widened and he shouted something incomprehensible before lunging recklessly across the stagecoach cabin toward Reed, who casually withdrew the knife from Hunt’s severed windpipe and rotated the weapon so that Bar Dellingwald’s own momentum drove him onto the blood-slicked steel blade. Bar winced and then coughed blood, his hands touching the knife where it impaled his abdomen. “Whuh…” he said.
Reed leaned in close beside the soldier’s right ear and said, calmly, “Such a fate awaits all heroes.” He twisted and tugged at the blade three times, hoping to ensure that some vital internal organs – perhaps the intestines – would be breached. Then he yanked the knife free and turned his attention to the woman with the eyepatch.
Who now held a Union service pistol in what appeared to be a fairly competent grip, aimed at Reed’s forehead.
“His, I assume?” The bounty hunter nodded his head toward Dellingwald. “If he had the gun but didn’t draw it when I dispatched Mr. Hunt, then it must be because the weapon is unloaded. Which, per stagecoach policy, is the only way he would be permitted to carry a weapon on his person while among other passengers. Therefore…”
The shot seemed to boom inside the coach.
National Novel Writing Month: Installment 6