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WHEN THE STAGE slowed to allow the horses to walk up the long grade, Mary Breydon was the only passenger awake. Or so she believed. There was no telling about the man with the hat over his face. Several times during the night, she had seen him move, and his movements did not seem to be those of a sleeping man.
Feeble yellow-gray light was filtering through the fly-specked, dust-filmed windows. She peered out.
The rolling brown hills were beginning to take shape from the darkness. It seemed a harsh and barren land, this new home of hers, its monotony broken only by occasional outcroppings of craggy sandstone. Somewhere farther west lay the front range of the Rockies, of which she caught an occasional glimpse beyond the low hills.
Aside from Mary and her daughter, Peg, there were four passengers caught in the awkward, uncomfortable positions of people trying to sleep on seats designed only for sitting.
The man with a black hat over his eyes sat in the back of the coach beside Peg and herself. Before he had gone to sleep, she had seen him as a lean, hawk-featured young man with a level, direct gaze from eyes that never seemed to smile. He wore a dark, shabby coat, a plaid shirt, gray pants, and a pistol in a tied-down holster. When he shifted position, she glimpsed a second gun tucked behind his belt, butt forward. A new Henry rifle leaned against the wall of the coach at his side.
She recognized the rifle at once, although she had little knowledge of such things. She remembered how pleased her husband had been when he had been able to purchase one, and that rifle was now wrapped in a roll of her bedding atop the stage.
Opposite him sat a well-dressed young man in a checkered vest. When he was awake, he had kept trying to catch her eye, and he had a bold, insinuating expression she found difficult to avoid, for whenever she lifted her eyes he was looking right at her.
The other man on the stage was stocky and powerfully built, wearing a short beard and a store-bought suit. He also carried a gun on his left side, butt forward. The only other person on the stage was an Irish girl only two or three years younger than herself.
As if sensing Mary's gaze, the Irish girl opened her eyes. She glanced at Peg, who was sleeping with her head on Mary's shoulder.
"It's a fine lass you have there, mum."
"A very tired one, I'm afraid."
"You've come a long way, then?"
"Ah? 'Tis where the fighting is? This War Between the States they talk of?"
"Yes, it is. We've seen some of it."
Peg stirred, sat up, and rubbed her eyes. "Mother? Is it much further?"
"Only a little further. We're almost there."
The heavyset man glanced at her. "Don't expect much at Cherokee, ma'am. The station's the worst run on the route. It ain't like Ben Holladay to let it get so run-down."
He peered from the window, then added, "The food's scarcely fit to eat, and Scant Luther, who operates the station, is a mean, brutal man who's drunk half the time. A fine-looking woman like you shouldn't even get off the stage."
The man in the checkered vest leaned toward her. "Don't I know you from some place? You sure look-"
"No." Her tone was definite. "You do not know me. We have never met."
From under the brim of the black hat, the voice was abrupt, impatient. "You heard the lady, mister. She said you hadn't met. You haven't."
The man in the checkered vest flushed angrily. "I don't think-!"
"That's right, mister, you don't think. If I was you, I'd start thinkin', right now. Think slow and careful. In this country, when a lady says she doesn't know you, she doesn't. Also, it is likely she doesn't want to know you."
The man's lips parted as if to make an angry retort, but the one gray eye he could see was like looking down the barrel of a gun. His face tightened with anger, but some vague intuition of danger caused him to keep silent.
The heavyset man's eyes met Mary's, showing faint, shared amusement. "Scant Luther runs the roughest station on the route, ma'am, and he keeps a bad crowd around him. Always drinking and fighting.
"Mark Stacy-he's the division agent-he told me Ben Holladay wanted Luther fired, but he was waiting for his replacement."
"Did he say who the replacement was to be?"
"Yes, ma'am, he did. He's hired a former soldier, Major M. O. Breydon, formerly of the U.S. Cavalry. Seems the major was invalided out of the army. He'd applied for the job."
Her eyes met his. "I am Mrs. Breydon. I am also M. O. Breydon. The major was killed by guerrillas a few weeks ago, and I am taking the job in his place."
There was a moment of astonished silence, and then the Irish girl spoke. "Ma'am, beggin' your pardon, I am, but you don't know what you're saying! You an' that sweet little girl in such a place! It's not to be thought of! You can't be serious, ma'am!"
"Indeed I am. I am very serious. Nor do I have a choice. A part of the Battle of Bull Run was fought across our plantation. Our buildings were burned and our stock run off. When the war is over, we shall go back, but now I have to make a living."
"Scant Luther," the heavyset man warned, "is a very disagreeable man. Most of us respect womenfolks, but Luther is drunk half the time."
"He will have no reason to stay after I dismiss him. I am sure we will have no trouble."
"You'll soon know, ma'am," the heavyset man commented. "That's it, right ahead!"
Mary Breydon leaned forward to see better. They were racing along a road through a small but lovely green valley scattered with trees. Before them was a cluster of gray, weather-beaten buildings, a corral, and more trees.
As they rolled to a stop at the station, the door banged open, and a big, slovenly man in his shirt-sleeves emerged. "Howdy, Wilbur! Get down an' have a drink! Tell the folks to come right on in!"
"We're runnin' behind time, Scant. Where's the team?"
"Aw, don't get yourself in a sweat! They'll be along! Come on in; grub's on the table!"
Wilbur Pattishal stepped down from the box. "Scant, we've no time to spare. I want that team out here, and I want them now."
Luther turned around slowly. "Well, now. If you're in such an almighty hurry, you just go get 'em yourself!"
Two or three rough-looking men were standing about, one of them with a bottle in his hand. He laughed.
Mary Breydon stepped from the coach, drawing all eyes. In her hands, she held an open letter that she handed to Wilbur.
"Mr. Pattishal? Will you read that, please? Read it aloud."
Wilbur glanced at the letter, then looked around and cleared his throat.
To Whom It May Concern:
This letter is authorization for M. O. Breydon to proceed to Cherokee Station and upon arrival to take over its operation. It also authorizes M. O. Breydon to discharge Scant Luther and such others as Breydon shall deem necessary.
In the moment of startled silence that followed, Mary Breydon said, "Mr. Luther, you are discharged. You will vacate the premises immediately, removing only such articles as belong to you personally."
Luther stared, then laughed. "Ma'am, you're makin' a ruddy fool of yourself! No woman can run a station on the Cherokee Trail! Why this here's the roughest-
"There's Injuns, outlaws. Ma'am, you wouldn't last two days!"
"We are not discussing my qualifications, Mr. Luther. You are discharged. I suggest you take what is yours and leave. And please!" She gestured toward the hangers-on. "Take these with you!"
For a moment, she thought he would strike her. He took a half step forward, then glanced to the right and left. The heavyset man stood, hands on his hips, watching. So did Wilbur Pattishal.
Then, for the first time, Luther seemed to see the man in the black hat standing to one side, alone. Something in his manner, in the very way he stood, warned Luther to be careful. He glanced at the man again, then his own stubbornness took control. He backed up and sat down in the doorway, blocking it.
"All right, lady, if you figure you can fire me, you just go right ahead and do it! This here's betwixt you an' me. If you're good enough to run this station, you're good enough to fire me. You just have at it."
He gestured to his men. "These here men are out of it, an' so are those who come in on the stage. If they step in, there'll be some shootin', an' somebody will get killed.
"Now I say you ain't goin' in there. Not you or anybody else least I say so, and I-"
She moved so quickly it caught them unawares. One step and she had the whip from Wilbur's hand. It had a four-and-a-half-foot stock and an eight-foot braided lash, and the moment she took it in her hand, it was obvious she knew how to handle a whip.
She struck swiftly. The whip cracked like the report of a pistol, and the buckskin popper on the end of the lash bit flesh from Scant Luther's neck. With a cry of pain and startled anger, he lunged to his feet, and the second blow of the lash took him over the shoulders, the third on his leg.
He swore and lunged toward her, but she stepped quickly aside and struck again. Turning, he ran in a stumbling run, the popper ripping his shirt with one last blow.
Luther stumbled and fell. For a moment, he lay in the dust, and Mary gathered her whip. "Mr. Luther," she spoke quietly, "you are discharged."
Slowly, he got up from the ground. The man in the black hat had turned casually, facing him and, beyond him, his men. Blood trickled down his neck, and there was a livid streak across his shoulder and back.
"I'm goin', ma'am, but I'll be back. You can depend on it. When you least expect me, I'll be back."
Ignoring him, she turned toward the passengers. "If you people will wait, I'll see what there is to eat."
One of the men had lingered, and now she turned her attention to him. "Is there something you want?"
"I'm the stock tender, ma'am. What of it?"
"You've got five minutes to get that team out here and hooked up. Otherwise, you can start down the road."
He put his hands on his hips. "Now what if I did just that?"
"I'd hitch the team myself, and I'd pass your name to Ben Holladay. You'd never work another day from St. Joe to Sacramento."
He stared at her; then his eyes fell, and he walked away toward the stable.
She went inside the station and stopped, appalled.
The table was stacked high with dirty dishes, and on the very end of the table were some empty plates and a plate of steaks swimming in grease.
More dirty dishes were stacked in the sink. In a corner was a pair of worn boots caked with dried mud, and several dusty coats hung from nails driven into the wall. At a window, a dirty curtain hung from a broken rod.
Taking off her jacket, she rolled up her sleeves and went to work. First she opened the shutters on the other windows and let light stream into the room; then she put water on to boil and, taking a broom, began sweeping up the worst of the mess.
When the water was hot, she washed enough dishes to feed the few passengers and the stage driver.
The man in the black hat appeared in the door. "Don't worry about me, ma'am. I'll get something to eat later."
"You're not going on the stage?"
"No, ma'am. A man left a horse here for me. I figured to pick him up an' ride on." He paused. "Gettin' late to start a long ride. Maybe I'll just throw my bed on the grass under that tree, just for tonight," he added as he moved off.
"Mum?" The Irish girl stood in the doorway. "My name is Matty Maginnis. If you'd let me, I'd be glad to help. I've done a sight of it in my time."
"Please, would you?"
When they were working, washing dishes, cleaning up, Mary asked, "Are you going far, Matty?"
"Rock Springs Station if there's no work in Laramie."
"If it is a job you want, why not stay here and work for me? I'll need somebody to help around and to cook."
"I'll do it, mum, and pleased for the chance."
Working swiftly, they wiped off the benches and the table, put clean dishes in place, and dumped out the greasy steaks Luther had provided. It needed a little longer, but when they sat down, it was to a meal they could enjoy.
It was when she went to the door to call the passengers to the table that she saw the boy.
He was standing alone by the corner of the barn. He looked tired, and he looked hungry. He was shabbily dressed and barefooted. Suspended from a cord around his neck was a pair of boots, man's boots, hand stitched and polished.word