On the Colorado railroad, two men enforce the law: a hired gun named Tango and a smoothly dressed sleuth named Ned Chambers. As they pass through the frozen landscape on their way to Denver, Ned watches two well-heeled guests: the aristocratic beauty Lady Marina Simpson and Adam Wilson, the vice president’s brother, who has come to assess the territory’s readiness for statehood. When a bonfire on the tracks stops the train, Tango and Chambers hustle their VIPs out into the night. The wilderness is dangerous, but to stay behind means certain death.
Hijacked by bandits, the train pulls away without the small party, abandoning them on the frozen prairie. Tango and Chambers have only one chance to reach Denver alive: They must make like outlaws and steal back their train.
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About the Author
Paul Lederer spent much of his childhood and young adult life in Texas. He worked for years in Asia and the Middle East for a military intelligence arm. Under his own name, he is best known for Tecumseh and the Indian Heritage Series, which focuses on American Indian life. He believes that the finest Westerns reflect ordinary people caught in unusual and dangerous circumstances, trying their best to act with honor.
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By Paul Lederer
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2011 Owen G. Irons
All rights reserved.
Ned Chambers passed the lanky blond-haired kid with his legs stretched out on the facing seat and made his way to the front of the railroad car. He recognized Tango, of course, and he knew that Drew Tango, hat pulled down over his eyes, had noted his passing. They were on the same side, but had different responsibilities. Tango and Chambers were both railroad security men. Tango was known for his gun skills and ability to spot the grifters on board at a glance. He was also just a little too quick to shoot and was rough around the edges in manner.
Ned Chambers was the smoother sort. He never wore a weapon that could be seen, was impeccably barbered and wore a neatly pressed dark suit. He was along to watch the special passengers headed for Colorado. Two of them were very special, indeed.
Lady Marina Simpson, an American girl who had gone to England and married a British aristocrat, now deceased, was returning home. Besides a faint British accent, she was also carrying close to half a million dollars in jewelry. It was a secret, of course, but matters like that did not remain secret long. The New York newspapers had interviewed her on her arrival, and the reports of her fabulous collection had filtered West.
The other passenger Ned had been dispatched to keep a close eye on was Adam Wilson, the younger brother of the vice-president of the United States, Henry Wilson. His given reason for traveling to Colorado was a vacation. Many people thought there was more to it. Colorado was thriving with new gold and silver strikes almost daily, and it was well known that neither President Grant nor his vice-president had ever so much as crossed to the western side of the Mississippi, and had no real knowledge of the far lands.
It was speculation, but seemed to be based on solid evidence, that the real purpose of Wilson's trip West was to test the political waters there concerning statehood – a proposition vigorously opposed by the mining interests in Colorado.
Ned Chambers had met both of the luminaries entrusted to his protection. Adam Wilson was a drinking man, heavy enough to be described as rotund, with a florid face and seemingly unkempt mustache the color of wheat straw. He was hardly prepossessing, but the balding little man seemed to have the energy of a dynamo flickering behind his pale, watery eyes.
Lady Marina Simpson, on the other hand was languid, drily humorous and startlingly attractive for a woman who already had strands of gray among the raven-black of her hair. She could easily have charmed a nobleman – she could have charmed a king. But she was not haughty and gave no indication that she had ever been a grasping or status-seeking woman. She spoke plainly but thoughtfully. She was not widely read, but her native intelligence was evident. She had told Ned Chambers that she had been born in a one-room log cabin, and when she moved up in the world she took the memory of the hard life on the plains with her, counting herself only lucky, not clever in the way she had arranged her life. Now she was returning home, not to wait for death but, as she put it, 'To see how gently one can age surrounded by the wild country.' She had not wanted to die penned up in a castle, and when her husband passed away, she had packed up and come back to the rugged land of her birth.
Ned Chambers found that he liked each of the two in different ways. Wilson was blunt in his opinions, but seemed to carefully consider any opposing view. True, he was in his sleeper room most of the day and night, drinking bourbon and playing cards with the small entourage accompanying him, but Chambers felt that he was focused on his mission – whatever that might be – and needed only to alight from the train to shift into action. That is, Wilson was only biding his time since nothing could be done at the moment, as the wood-burning locomotive clanked and huffed and plowed its way westward.
Lady Marina met Ned Chambers in the corridor in the next car. All of the sleepers had an aisle to one side of the train, accommodations on the other. Lady Marina stood at the windows lining the corridor, elbows on the brass sill. Glancing up, she smiled at Ned. Beyond the window twilight was settling, casting deep-purple light across the plains.
'I was hoping to catch sight of an Indian village,' she admitted. 'Funny, when I was a girl out here the very mention of an Indian sighting sent me into a panic, enough so that I would hide under my bed, shivering. Now I think I would give anything to see some wandering Cheyenne.'
'You'll see plenty of them not a few hours on,' Ned Chambers told her. 'Though not near the cities, of course. Is that where you're traveling to – Denver?'
'It was my plan, certainly. Now I wonder if I belong in Denver – in any city – though I don't know what I'd do with myself in the country now,' she added with a cheerful little laugh. 'It's undecided, I'd have to say. I've had enough of cities – Rome, London, New York, but how long would it take the lonely prairie nights to pale?' She looked wistful.
'I'm sure there's time to consider all of that, Lady Marina,' Ned answered. 'It's not a decision you have to make today, and you can always change your mind. Or, in your situation, you could probably afford both a town house and a country place.'
'I'd never thought of that,' she said, straightening to look up at him. 'But when you mention my situation, I have to believe you are probably laboring under a misapprehension. Death taxes, bequeathals to other family members by my late husband, have left me with little more than I have on my back, or around my neck.' She touched the diamond necklace at her throat with her long, tapered fingers which also sported diamonds. 'These jewels are not evidence of my vast wealth – they are my only wealth, Mr Chambers. If I were to lose them. '
'That's why I am here, Lady Marina,' Ned Chambers replied, trying for a confident smile. 'You needn't worry about train robbers.'
What a liar I am, Ned thought as he continued toward the back of the train. As soon as the first tracks had been laid for the railroad, outlaws had focused on the opportunity. Now, instead of having to ride to where the money was, the railroad was delivering it to them, and there was no pursuit after a train robbery. The thieves simply disappeared on the plains while the passengers could do nothing but stare after them. Train robberies were increasing every year in all parts of the country, but especially out here, where the nearest law might be a hundred miles away and unable or unwilling to track down the hold-up men.
Which was where men like Ned and Drew Tango came in. True, their jobs were different: Tango's specialty was trading lead with men trying to rob the train or otherwise stir up a ruckus. Ned Chambers was a sort of detective, if you will, whose job was to discover trouble in the making and prevent it, especially when it came to dignitaries. Ned saw Lady Marina to her compartment, cautioned her again to keep the door locked, and had started back up the aisle when he was nearly jerked from his feet by the engineer applying the brakes – hard.
Out here on the open plains with nothing but flat ground to travel across, the sudden application could mean only one thing to Ned Chambers: they had trouble, and serious trouble. He drew his Russian .36 revolver from where it rode in a holster at the back of his belt and hurried forward.
Drew Tango had been lounging in his seat when the brakes were applied. Without hesitation, Tango leapt to his feet and pushed through the front door of railroad car, to be met by freezing cold and the acrid smells of oil and burning wood.
He mounted the tender, crossed the piles of fuel wood there and descended toughly on to the steel-plate deck of the locomotive cab.
'What's happening?' he asked the engineer, Frank Polk, who was leaning out of the cab, looking down the tracks. His fireman, Danny Short, was at his elbow.
'Have a look,' Frank growled and Drew Tango leaned far out. A steam valve hissed and released a cloud of white vapour, blurring his vision temporarily. When it cleared Tango could see the reason for Polk's caution. Someone had built a bonfire square in the middle of the tracks, a mile or so ahead. It blazed brightly, though at this distance it was not much larger than a firefly's light.
'What do you think, Tango?' Polk asked in a worried voice.
'It looks like a robbery for sure,' Drew had to say as he turned to face the engineer in the glow of the firebox.
'What should I do – try to run through it?'
'You can't know if they've torn up the rails on the other side of it,' Tango replied. 'If you try to run it, they'll be sure to open up with their weapons. We don't want a lot of passengers shot up.'
Tango glanced at the purpling skies. The robbers had chosen the right time of day for their ambush. They would be uncertain shadows in the darkness, and an attempt of this sort was never made without a large body of men.
'Aren't we going to fight them?' Danny Short, young and wild-eyed, demanded.
'I don't see how,' Tango answered honestly.
'Well, damnit!' the young fireman shouted. 'Isn't that what you're here for? Where's Mr Chambers?'
'He's busy right now. Look, Frank,' Tango said to the engineer, 'give it a few minutes and then start forward again – keep your speed down –'
'And hope for the best!' Danny Short squeaked nervously.
'And hope for the best,' Drew Tango said. He briefly placed a hand on the engineer's shoulder and again clambered up on to the wood-tender. As he dropped down to the platform below he found Ned Chambers waiting for him, pistol in hand.
'What's up?' Chambers asked.
'It's a hold-up. We've got about five minutes to get Lady Simpson and Wilson off the train.'
'You think it's one of them they're after?'
'Don't you?' Tango answered. 'If it's just a gang of bandits who want to walk through the aisles, collecting wallets and rings, well, the railroad can apologize and shrug it off as just one of the hazards of traveling in rough country; apologize and be forgiven. If we lose Lady Simpson and her jewels or the vice-president's brother, we've got more than an incident, we've got hell to pay.'
'All right,' Ned said without enthusiasm. 'I suppose you're right, Tango. Let's get those people off the train.'
Eyes lifted as Tango and Ned hurried back through the passenger cars toward the sleeper, but no one demanded to know what was happening. Lady Simpson was awake and alert when they found her at the door to her room. 'We've got to get off the train,' Ned Chambers told her. 'Grab a change of clothes and secure your jewelry.'
'Yes, I'll be right with you,' she said without question. That was one well-fashioned lady, Ned decided. No screaming, no tears, just action.
The same could not be said for Adam Wilson. Tango had already knocked on the door of the vice-president's brother and it had been opened to exude the rough smells of whiskey and tobacco fumes. There was another man visiting Wilson, and as Ned approached he could hear both of them arguing with Tango.
'What are you talking about?' the slender, sallow visitor was objecting. 'Why should we get off here?'
'For your safety,' Tango tried and Ned could tell that the hot-blooded Drew Tango was making an extreme effort to restrain himself. Ned took over, arming Tango out of the way.
'We have reason to believe, Mr Wilson, that there are bandits up ahead who may be there for the purpose of capturing you.'
'Those robber-baron profiteers! The big mine-owners?'
'That's possible,' Ned answered calmly. 'We can't really be sure. We only feel that for your personal safety it is urgent that you exit the train. Within the next few minutes. The train will be moving forward again shortly.'
'I have no fear of robbers and brigands,' Wilson said, striking a political pose. 'If they think they or anyone can thwart the will of the people of Colorado to achieve statehood by using such tactics –'
'Let's get going, Mr Wilson!' Tango snapped. 'Grab a coat and any important documents you have and let's get moving.'
'And who are you, young man?' the pale, sharp-faced man who was with Wilson demanded arrogantly.
'The man who's going to save your hide if you listen to me,' Drew Tango said as they felt the train lurch beneath their feet. 'We have to go now!'
'This is unconscionable,' the man said, skittering on his boots as the train jerked again. 'I am Senator Ruben Knox of Delaware.'
'I don't care if you're the King of Prussia, we've got to get going.'
'I demand personal security!' Knox sputtered.
'You'll have to go back to Delaware for that,' Tango said. 'Right now I want you to go to the rear platform and exit this train.'
Wilson seemed to have understood the peril by now. He wore a winter coat into which he tucked a bundle of official-looking letters. Senator Knox had taken a belligerent posture, arms crossed defiantly. Wilson took Knox by the shoulders and said, 'Ruben, we have to take these men at their word. They are in charge of security matters out here.'
Knox appeared ready to argue further, but surrendered his obstinacy at Wilson's request and followed them out into the corridor, where Lady Simpson was waiting for them, holding a small leather satchel.
'What's this?' Wilson wanted to know. 'What's she got to do with this?'
'That's just it,' Ned Chambers told him. 'We don't know.'
When they reached the rear platform the train was still only going a few miles an hour as the great drive-wheels on the 4-4-2 locomotive fought for purchase against the iron rails. It was bitterly cold, and smoke and embers drifted along the spine of the train and flowed over them. Tango nodded to Chambers and swung over to the ladder. He dropped from the train and hit the ground running, but at that speed it wasn't much of a trick to stay upright. He called up to Lady Marina.
'Toss me your bag, then get to the bottom step. I'll catch you as you jump!'
Without hesitation Lady Marina Simpson tossed her bag to Tango, who was now trotting alongside the train. Then, astonishing all of them, she went down to the lowest step and leaped quite nimbly to the ground, holding her skirts high.
'There's more to you than a person would think.' Tango laughed as he handed her valise back.
'I'm still spry enough for an occasional game,' she answered, panting.
Adam Wilson was a different story. The pudgy man hesitated too long, and the train continued to pick up speed. Watching the dark, rock-strewn land rush past he was frozen with indecision. Ned Chambers continued to encourage the man, gently at first and then more harshly.
'If you don't jump now, you won't be able to,' Ned shouted above the rush of the wind. 'And those people up ahead are after your blood.'
His eyes wide with panic, Wilson bleated an unintelligible word, looked into Ned's eyes for pity and finally stepped off into space, hitting the ground hard enough to make keeping his feet impossible. He rolled down the embankment roughly as Lady Simpson and Tango rushed to aid him. Ned Chambers wasted no time on the other man, Senator Knox. He shouldered the man roughly, practically throwing him from the train. Ned followed, taking three running steps as he hit the ground before his feet went out from under him and he fell, skinning his knees and the heels of his hands.
Tango was striding toward him, grinning. 'Took your time about it,' Drew Tango said.
'Where's the train?' Ned growled, standing to dust himself off in the purple night.
'It looks like Frank is braking to a stop just this side of the bonfire.'
The two railroad operatives stood together, watching events as Wilson, Knox and Lady Simpson caught up with them. Two shots rang out near the train and Ned saw Wilson flinch.
'Who are they shooting?' he asked nervously, peering along the track toward halted train.
'I'd guess those were just to warn people that they were serious,' Tango answered.
'What are they doing now?' Marina Simpson asked. She was clinging to Ned Chambers's arm, shivering as night settled in. A few drops of rain hit Tango's face as he stared at the halted train.
'They're unloading the passengers,' he said.
'Why?' Knox asked irritably.
'Searching for something, I'd think.'
'For Adam Wilson?'
Excerpted from Derailed by Paul Lederer. Copyright © 2011 Owen G. Irons. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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