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Nebraska, April 1875
Holly Sanders now knew two things for sure.
She knew that she was smart enough to convince the Prairie Trust Bank of Nebraska to loan rebuilding funds to her flood-stricken hometown. That was a fine victory.
She also knew that any such victory could be wiped out in the split second it took the man behind her to cock the hammer of his pistol.
"Afternoon, ma'am," sneered the greasy-haired bandit, his breath hot on Holly's neck. "Seems to me a smart gal like yourself ought to know you'd best do exactly as we say right now." He addressed the entire railroad car in which Holly currently stood. "Y'all shush up and no one will get hurt."
The woman in front of Holly, the pretty one who had just introduced herself as Rebecca Sterling, let out a terrified whimper. The girl sitting beside Miss Sterlingone of the several orphans Miss Sterling had said she was escorting to nearby Greenvillestarted to cry. For a moment, the schoolteacher in Holly was mortified. Children shouldn't have to witness the man's threats. It seemed an oddly logical thought for someone with a gun barrel poked into their shoulder blade, but then again, Holly had always been the sensible type.
The grimy man stepped up and glared at Holly with a look that made her skin crawl. "Where's that man?" She'd never heard a voice so sinister. Where had he come from? Had he been hiding in wait on the back railing of the car this whole time?
He couldn't possibly be asking about Curtis Brooks, the bank representative who had insisted on escorting her and the bank's loan of two thousand dollars' worth of gold back to Evans Grove. How could this thief know about the banker, or the loan? It took her a second or two to find her voice. "What man?"
The bandit leered over her, close and foul. "The one what was with you back in Newfield. Mr. Fancypants Banker." He nudged her with the tip of his gun, pushing Holly down into her seat.
Her brain scrambled to assemble the facts, to get a grip on what couldn't possibly be happening. He knew who she was and what she had. Dear Lord, save me!
"He's not here."
This clearly wasn't the answer the bandit wanted. "I know he ain't here!" He nodded to his partnera second man Holly hadn't even seen until just nowwho dashed down the train aisle to peer through the door to the next car. The first bandit leaned in closer to Holly. "Where is he? He went for it, didn't he?"
There would be no victory. Her town's future, the precious funds she'd labored to secure, the funds to rebuild Evans Grove after a storm and flood had nearly wiped it outall was being thieved right out from underneath her. She'd return to Evans Grove empty-handedif she returned at all. These men looked like the kind who wouldn't think twice to kill for whatever they wanted.
Too frightened to lie, she grappled for the safest truth: "He said he had business in another car, so he took one of the antsier boys with him." Mr. Brooks had told Miss Sterling's partner agent that he was going up to the express car "to check on something," and had invited him and a boy named Liam as a diversion to the long ride. Of course, Holly knew he'd gone up to check on the safe where the gold was stored, but she wouldn't tell that to these horrible men.
"Business, hmm? As if you don't know what kind of business." The bandit grabbed her arm with one hand while he brandished the gun around, sending the orphan boys in the car ducking into their seats, and the little girls into tears. "Where is he? Which car?"
"There are children aboard!" Holly pleaded as he wrenched her arm.
A second little girl across from Holly began to sob. "The mail car!" one boy yelped, pointing to the door Mr. Brooks, the other orphan escort called Mr. Arlington and Liam had gone through. At that moment, two more men burst into the car behind the first bandit. Mercy, how many of them were there?
"Go get him, boys!" shouted the leader, nodding his head in the direction the boy had pointed. "And don't forget to mention how many precious little lives are at stake."
"You wouldn't!" Miss Sterling suddenly found her voice.
The bandit's glare silenced her. "Don't try me, missy."
Just then, the train slowed with a shuddering lurch, wheels squealing. Someone had thrown the brake, and bags and boxes flew from seats and shelves as the train slowed far too quickly. Shouts rose up from the cars ahead. Holly startled as the sharp sound of pistol fire split the warm afternoon, feeling as if the breath had been ripped from her lungs. Miss Sterling yelped and even the boys now looked close to tears.
"What's going on?" an old woman from the far end of the railcar cried. A storm of falling and tumbling belongings raged as the car lurched, surged forward, and then lurched again. Holly was held firmly in place by the bandit's iron grip. Once the car finally stoppedwhich seemed to take foreverwhimpers and groans filled the air. Still, none of the passengers dared to move, even to pick up the things that had fallen.
"Is anyone hurt?" Holly said as calmly as she could manage with the bandit's glare so close. While everyone was frightened and upset, she was glad no one replied that they were injured.
"I am an agent of the Orphan Salvation Society, sir. May I stand and see to the children?" Miss Sterling asked.
"No." The bandit's voice was low and cruel. "Everyone just said they's fine, didn't they?"
"We are, ma'am," came one of the boys' voices. The attempted calm in the poor lad's tone twisted Holly's heart. "But I don't know about Liam."
This sent one of the girls into crying again. "Where's Liam?"
"He went with Mr. Arlington and that other man," Miss Sterling whispered. "Just hush up now."
A second later the far door pushed open and a burly hand shoved Liam and Mr. Arlington into the car. The older agent looked roughed up while Liam had a nasty bruise above his left eye. "Keep this feisty one outta my way while the banker man gets the safe opened."
"Why'd we stop?" The bandit next to Holly squeezed her arm so tight she winced.
"This little rat." The second bandit nodded at Liam. "He ran to the engine car and told 'em to pull the brake."
"We ain't at Evans Grove yet." The leader's comment made Holly look out the window, trying to judge where they were.
"We're close enough," the second man said, and Holly guessed him to be right. Their awareness made Holly's stomach drop. Usually, no one paid much mind to tiny Evans Grove. It wasn't even large enough to have a rail station. Today's train was only "whistle-stopping" there at the request of Curtis Brooks. The bandits couldn't know thatunless they'd seen the wire she sent this morning telling of her change in travel plans. Holly's stomach dropped further.
"If we're close enough, then stick to the plan," came the leader's voice, now pitched with frustration. "Why ain't it open yet?"
"We cain't get it open."
The safe. Of course.
The leader cursed, making Miss Sterling cover the ears of the little girl in her lap. "It takes two seconds to open one of those, and he must have the key so don't you let him tell you otherwise." He turned to peer at Holly. "Unlessen you have a key, too?"
Holly wasn't used to people paying her any mind. Small and "mousy" as Mama used to say, she mostly went unnoticed. Would that she'd gone unnoticed today, instead of finding herself at the center of a crime. A crime in front of children, no less. "I don't know anything."
The bandit cocked his gun again, demonstrating his disbelief. Holly flinched and fought for breath.
"Stop threatening her!" Mr. Arlington, a rather bookish gentleman in his fifties from the looks of it, was attempting to sound commanding but failed miserably.
The bandit all but ignored him, still looking straight at Holly. "You know how much gold is in there. You know what kind of 'business' he has, and how much. That ain't hard to figure."
Holly shut her eyes, wrestling the panic that threatened to swallow her. "There's two thousand dollars. It's a loan for my town. To rebuild after the flood."
"Ain't that sweet." His voice taunted. "Y'all will have to find another way."
The thought of everything this man was stealingmoney, hope, a chance to rebuildburned the fear in Holly's chest into a growing anger. He knew exactly what he was taking from good people, and seemed to enjoy it. Any jury in the county would send him to the gallows for such crimes, and all her good Christian charity wouldn't give her enough compassion to object.
A second bandit ducked his head into the car. "Boss, we still can't get it open."
"What do you mean you can't get it open? It's a safe, he has the key, you have the gun. Make him open it."
The new bandit, obviously the muscle of the operation rather than the brains, scratched his chin. "Something fell against the safe. A big crate hit the lever and twisted it."
"So move the big crate. It's a safe, Earl. You can't break a safe." He looked around again. "Why ain't we there yet?"
Liam pulled away from the two men. "Not too smart, these two. I reckon your gold isn't going anywhere." Holly had only been in the boy's company half an hour and Liam had already proven to have a mouth that often ran ahead of his sense.
The ill-timed insult sent the leader off Holly's arm to lunge at the boy. Before she could get out a warning, the man backhanded Liam so hard he fell against Mr. Arlington. "You," the bandit barked, "need to shut your yap or die yelping." He looked as if his anger would boil over any second, his fingers working the hammer of his gun with an irritated twitch. "Get over there with her." He pointed back to Holly. "You keep him in line."
Liam pulled himself up out of the seat and came to sit next to Holly. His lip was already swelling and his face burned as crimson as his red scraggly hair. He breathed hard, and Holly placed a calming palm over his fisted hands, praying he'd know enough to keep quiet from here on in.
"You," said the leader, pointing to the beefy man who'd shoved Liam into the car, "stay here and make sure no one gets any ideas. I'm going up to the express car to see if I cain't" he cocked the pistol again "hurry up the fetchin'."
"We're finished," Miss Sterling moaned, gathering the children around her. "Stranded in the middle of nowhere at the hands of bandits."
"They're not very smart bandits, ma'am," Liam whispered. "I watched 'em up in the express car. We're not so finished as you think." He looked out the window, making Holly wonder what kind of life the orphan boy had known to stay so remarkably calm and cocky under such rough treatment. "Where are we?"
Holly looked out the window again. Evans Grove had nothing more than a sad little platform built alongside the spot in the tracks where the train occasionally stopped. She could see that sad platform just beyond the next outcropping of rocks. They were very nearly at Evans Grove. Someone small and fast could get to town and bring help.
"Liam," Holly whispered with her eye on their enormous captor, "how fast can you run?"
"Sheriff! Sheriff Wright, did you hear what I just said?"
Mason Wright pinched the bridge of his nose and longed for patience. When he envisioned breaking up feuds and brawls in the tiny town of Evans Grove, he hadn't pictured the combatants wearing bonnets.
"Yes, I heard you clear." He glanced over at the door of his office, still swinging open from Beatrice Ward's blustering entrance, and thought it might be time to make up a "Closed" sign to hang in the window. "But, Miss Ward, I don't have to tell you times are tight all over these parts. I don't see how requiring curtains is going to solve much of anything. People have more important places to put their time and money."
Miss Ward puffed herself up like a fussing hen. The way that woman clucked, it wasn't hard to draw the connection. "Ephraim always said, 'appearance is everything.'" Beatrice was forever quoting "wisdom" Mason had never seen the spinster's late brother display. "If we look respectable and civilized, why then we behave respectable and civilized."
Mason didn't see much he'd call respectable and civilized in the "basic privacy of curtains" battle Beatrice Ward had launched at this week's town meeting. He'd seen less contentious hound fights. Honestly, the woman had been on a righteous tirade ever since the storm took the roof off her house. Always proud of her fussy little cottage on Second Streetor what she liked to call "the high side of town"Miss Ward took her home's destruction as a personal insult, as if no one else in town had ever lost their home or kin. Truth was, far too many had lost homes and kin when the storm burst a nearby dam last month. Most especially the Widow Evans, Beatrice's current opponent in the room. He offered Pauline Evans a sympathetic glance before saying, "I have to agree with Mayor Evans. I can't enforce this."
"Acting Mayor Evans," Beatrice corrected, casting a derisive glance at the other woman. Some days Beatrice treated Pauline Evans as if she had stolen the title off her late husband's still-warm body instead of the sad inheritance it was.
Robert Evans had been a fine man and a huge loss to the town, and Mason had to give Pauline credit for setting aside her grief to uphold her husband's office. If the widow never did anything else for Evans Grove, her decision to step in kept Beatrice Ward from declaring herself mayor. Beatrice always acted as if chairing the Evans Grove Ladies' Societywhich merely consisted of eight grandmothers who met weekly in the church parlor for tea and criticismgave her supreme authority.
"We've sent off for funds as it is, Beatrice." Mayor EvansMason refused to think of her or address her as "acting mayor" no matter what Miss Ward insistedsquared her shoulders and jutted her chin in defiance. "We need to rebuild, not redecorate."
"One fuels the other," Miss Ward preached. "Who'd want to invest in a drab little town?"
"The Prairie Trust Bank of Nebraska, if you both remember. Miss Sanders wired yesterday to say she'd be on this morning's train to Greenfield and taking the stage back here this afternoon."
"Why on earth doesn't the train stop here regularly? We have a station," the spinster declared with undue pride.