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Part One (Detectives)
Chapter 1. January 1861
"We must be near Galena already," Lon said with a look at the closed door of the baggage car. "Nothing's happened."
"Wait," his partner said. Sledge sat on a crated shipment, legs stuck out, the payroll bag between his heels. His boots were dirty and scarred. Lon's were spotless except for a few streaks of slush. Around the office they called him Gentleman Lon because of his manners and neatness. He out-Englished the English operatives, of which there were several.
The Chicago & Galena express was traveling northwest, toward Dubuque across the Mississippi. Adams Express paid almost four hundred dollars a month to rent space in the line's baggage cars. Its competitor, American Express, had similar arrangements, necessary because trains were favorite targets of thieves, and their routes crossed the territories of a legion of sheriffs who were crooks, bunglers, or both. Lon Price's agency had contracts with both express companies and a group of six rail lines who together put up ten thousand dollars a year for protection for their real estate and rolling stock.
Lon and his partner were replacing a regular guard because of a robbery attempt on the same train at the same time last month. The attempt failed; the inept holdup men had blocked the track with a flimsy barrier of barn siding. The engineer had smashed the locomotive right through without stopping. The boss had tried to persuade the Chicago & Galena to ship its next Dubuque payroll by another train, at another time, but management lived by schedules and timetables. So here they were, rolling through the winter night, waiting.
Lon blew on his hands. The car was frigid even though he could see flames in the small stove. The flue pipe went out through the solid wall at the head of the car. Near the stove, the railway mail clerk sat on a stool with his elbows on the counter. All his mail was sorted in pigeonholes and he appeared to be dozing. The clerk struck Lon as suspiciously furtive. Careful observation was a habit the boss demanded.
From his left pocket Lon took a well-thumbed book. Sledge Greenglass, whose given name was Philo, worked his gold-plated toothpick in a crevice in his teeth. Where Lon was fair and broad-shouldered, but otherwise slight, Sledge was taller, heavier, with curly black hair and perhaps an Italian or Greek ancestor. He was ten to fifteen years older than Lon.
"What's that?" Sledge said with a nod at the book.
"The latest by Charles Dickens. The latest novel published here, I mean. There's a new serial running in England, Great Expectations. Dickens is my favorite writer after Edgar Poe." Lon showed the book's spine.
"A Tale of Two Cities. Invite him over, maybe he'll write A Tale of Two Countries."
Sledge's sarcasm was justified. The Union was collapsing. Five days before Christmas, South Carolina had passed its ordinance of secession, and other Southern states were following-Mississippi, Florida, and Alabama last week. The commander of the Army garrison in Charleston had shifted his men to Fort Sumter in the harbor, and Star of the West, lame-duck President Buck Buchanan's relief ship carrying reinforcements, had already been turned back by Charleston harbor defenses. The problem would confront the President-elect, whom Lon had met once in Chicago. He was a downstate lawyer who had for a while represented the Illinois Central. Lon wondered if such a peculiar, ugly man could do anything to save the country from war.
The locomotive whistled mournfully. The train creaked and rattled around a bend. Three oil lamps hanging from the ceiling swayed and smoked. The car reeked of old cigars. Lon read half a page, then read it twice more. He shut the book and made a face.
Sledge said, "Nervous?"
"Some. I've only been at this for a couple of years. Do you ever get used to the danger?"
They noticed the mail clerk watching. Sledge lowered his voice. "Been a copper nearly thirteen years, since I joined the New York force." Sledge and the agency's senior operative, Tim Webster, a former police sergeant, had been assigned to guard the Crystal Palace exhibition in 1853. The boss had met them, liked them, and hired them away.
Sledge continued, "I been shot at, knifed, mauled in the line of duty maybe a dozen times. And no, I'm not used to it. But even if they hit us tonight, I wouldn't worry too much. Holdup men aren't only crooked, most of them are stupid. Look how they mucked up last time. The rule is, no matter how scared you are, no matter what your belly's telling you, keep it hid and always give back more than you take. That's how you stay alive. That's how you win."
Lon Price mostly liked his more experienced partner, but not this kind of talk. "We're supposed to be professional operatives, not roughneck detectives." In fact the boss forbade the use of the word detective in his presence.
"Oh, I forgot," Sledge said with his familiar mockery. "You grew up with a preacher in a preacher's house. All hymns, holiness, heaven and hallelujah."
"Listen, Sledge. My father was a good man. He cut his life short trying to help Negroes escape to Canada. He was even shot once by slave-catchers. You can say anything you want about me but keep still about him."
"Sorry. Forgot my manners. Police work slaps 'em out of you pretty fast."
Lon was silent. Sledge changed the subject. "Think those Southron hotheads will start a war?"
"I hope not. They can't be allowed to destroy the Union. They can't go on enslaving an entire race and breaking up families for profit. The Negroes have got to be free."
"And then we'll all invite a few of them to our parlors for tea? Like they was white? I doubt it."
"Damn it, Sledge, that doesn't-"
Sledge shot his hand up for silence. He eyed the car ceiling. Lon heard faint thumps, moving toward the blind end of the car next to the tender. "Someone's up there."
Sledge turned back his coat and put a hand on the butt of the shiny new Remington .36-caliber stuck in his belt. Lon carried a smaller Colt, a .31-caliber pocket pistol, a city weapon; a gentleman's gun. "Bastards are already on the train," Sledge said. "Sons of bitches bought their own tickets."
He ran to the wide door and slid it open. Icy wind blew in, and a few snowflakes. Outside, snow-covered fields flashed by, lit by the moon. Trees by the right-of-way slashed the side of the car like whips. Sledge hung on and leaned out, trying to see whoever was clambering down over the tender to force the engineer to stop the train. Someone else would uncouple the rest of the cars, and the engineer would pull the train a mile or so ahead, where the baggage car would be looted.
In the corner of his eye Lon saw the clerk open a drawer. "Sledge, watch out!" The Colt .31 snagged in the lining of Lon's pocket. The clerk pulled a revolver from the drawer and pointed it at Sledge's embroidered vest.
"You stand still. I mean it." The car was freezing, the wind moaning and tossing snowflakes in, yet the clerk's pale face ran with sweat. "Put your hands in the air."
Sledge obeyed. "They bought themselves a worm inside," he sneered. Lon freed the pocket Colt. He stood with his left side toward the clerk, who was so nervous he either missed the movement of Lon's right arm or didn't know what to do about it. Lon heard a noise to his right, the door at the rear of the car. He wheeled, gun in hand. A lanky man in a black, floppy hat and long, fur-collared coat stepped inside with a drawn revolver.
"All over, boys. Get their pieces, Vernon."
The clerk stayed at arm's length as he pulled Sledge's Remington from his belt. Sledge looked mad enough to bite the clerk's
arm off. Visibly trembling, the clerk turned around toward Lon. Sledge threw an arm around the clerk's neck and pulled him against his chest as the other man fired. In the next coach passengers screamed.
Sledge was a hair faster than the gunman, shoving the clerk forward and dropping to the floor. The gunman's round killed the clerk instantly. He fell on his side near the open door. The train curved into another bend, losing speed. The ceiling lanterns swayed, flinging shadows across the walls. Lon turned right to present a narrow target. He shot the older gunman a second before the gunman could fire.
Lon's round went low, catching the gunman in his middle. He fell face forward. His revolver spun away out of his hand. It landed a foot and a half from his spread fingers.
The cries and shouts from the day coach were louder. The drive wheels shrieked on the rails. Even if the man in the cab had the engineer and fireman at bay, he wouldn't know what the shots meant. The gunman on the floor made whimpering sounds. His hat had fallen off, revealing long, stringy, gray hair and a sizable bald spot. To Lon, recently turned twenty-three, he looked old and somehow pitiable.
Lon moved to pick up the man's revolver but turned around when Sledge snarled, "Goddam. Bet there's just two of them-two, and this slug." He shoved the clerk with his scuffed boot; the body dropped out the door. "You need four or five to pull a train robbery. I told you holdup men are stupid." Sledge peered past Lon. "For Christ's sake, shoot that one."
"Why? He's down." Sledge reached out with his revolver and fired past Lon, planting his bullet in the middle of the robber's forehead, a third eye. The dead man had grasped the butt of his gun before Sledge got him.
In his two years with the agency Lon had only been in one other shooting scrape, and he shook as much now as he had then. Sledge hung from the door of the car and shouted. "Hey, you, jackass! You up there in the cab. Both your pals are dead. They're dead, get that?"
The baggage car moved over a level crossing with a lamplit farmhouse nearby. The shouted reply was faint but clear because the locomotive had slowed down. "Who is that?"
"Operative Greenglass of the Pinkerton agency. You know, the Eye. There's two of us and one of you. The clerk and the old man are goners. You better get off and save yourself."
"We should take him into custody," Lon said.
"How? Time I climb up there, he's liable to kill the driver or the fireman. And I'll be a fine target in the moonlight."
"I'm willing to try it."
Sledge gave him a sharp look. "I think you would. You're a damn polite fellow, but you've got sand." He leaned out the door again. "Jackass? Listen here!"
The locomotive and train had stopped. Sledge's shout was followed by a heavy, slamming sound. A moment later they heard the engineer:
"Feeny brained him with his shovel. He's out."
Sledge stepped back in the car and laughed. "All accounted for, then." He picked up the canvas payroll bag. "The C-and-G boys around Dubuque will get their pay. I'd say it's a fine night's work."
"Two men are dead." Lon couldn't feel any of Sledge's pleasure.
Sledge shrugged. "Remember what the boss says. The end justifies the means if the end is justice."
"Mr. Pinkerton says a lot of things I admire, but that isn't one of them."
"Someday maybe you'll figure out that we're in a dirty line of work." Sledge walked over and clapped Lon on the shoulder. "In the meantime, we make a pretty good team."
Reprinted from On Secret Service by John Jakes by permission of E. P. Dutton, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by Raymond Benson. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.