In a barren stretch of southern Colorado, a small shack links Powder Valley to the rest of the world. Every other day, Sam Sloan comes thundering over the range with a mail sack over his shoulder—just one link in the long line of riders known as the Pony Express. In all the time he’s been riding the route, he’s never been one minute late, and his perfect record has won the attention of company brass.
The Express is planning a new route linking Colorado and Wyoming, and they want Sam to break it in. The trail between Denver and Laramie is raw, with danger lurking on all sides. To deliver, Sam will need speed, ammunition, and the help of his two best friends, the one-eyed giant, Ezra, and Powder Valley’s sheriff, Pat Stevens.
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The Road to Laramie
A Powder Valley Western
By Brett Halliday
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1945 Jefferson House, Inc.
All rights reserved.
The little Pony Express relay station, ten miles south of Dutch Springs in southern Colorado, lay silent and seemingly deserted in the hot morning sunlight. It was in a desolate and barren section of the state, on the edge of the upper slope of Powder Valley, and the station itself consisted of a drab little three-room shack with a lean-to kitchen built on the back; with corrals and saddle shed behind that.
A tall rangy Westerner came strolling from behind the saddle shed leading a saddled horse behind him. The horse was a clean-limbed bay, showing the thoroughbred strain in his strong withers and the proud arch of his neck, and he snorted impatiently and nuzzled the man as they came to a halt in front of the station.
Howie Ellis tugged on a leather thong looped around his belt and pulled a watch from his Levis. He studied it a moment, then shaded his eyes against the glare of sunlight to peer intently up the road leading south from Dutch Springs. At that precise instant a cloud of white dust showed in the distance.
Howie pocketed his watch with a grunt of approval. He turned and grinned at a gingham-clad woman who had come to the front door of the way station. "Yonder he shows, right on thuh dot, Miz Sloan," he drawled. "Sam never has let us down on his end of it yet."
Pretty, blonde Kitty Sloan nodded her head and smiled, with her eyes fixed on the cloud of dust momently becoming larger and more distinct. She had been married to Sam Sloan for more than a year but had never gotten over the thrill of watching her husband thunder up with the south-bound mail to transfer the bags to the waiting rider on a fresh mount. During all that time, no matter what the weather or the road conditions, Sam had never been one moment late.
A small black speck became discernible in front of the cloud of white dust. It took on the shape of a straining horse and hunched rider, and then the pound of driving hoofbeats reached their ears.
Howie gathered up the reins and swung into the saddle. He lifted his big floppy Stetson to Kitty Sloan in the doorway and then rode out to the edge of the road. His fast bay tossed its head and seemed to crouch a little with tense muscles as Sam galloped up.
Sam didn't slacken speed until he was ten feet from the waiting rider. Then he reined up and his lathered roan came to a sliding stop with all four legs set rigidly. Sam quickly loosened the twenty-pound mochila — the leather skirt with the mail pouches that rested over the saddle — and he flung it across Howie's bay.
As soon as he felt the weight of the pouches, the bay lunged forward eagerly. Sam pushed his hat back and watched the fresh rider disappear in front of another cloud of white dust southward. He made a solemn rite of dragging out his watch and scrutinizing it anxiously. He swung off his roan and nodded to Kitty as she came out the door to meet him. "Minute ahead of time," he announced proudly.
Kitty Sloan laughed softly as she held up her face for his kiss. "I believe you'd go off and shoot yourself if you were ever a minute late."
"It's pretty important," Sam argued. "Folks pay big money tuh git their mail on schedule, though I dunno what's in them letters tuh make it wuth five dollars each to git 'em so fast."
He put his arm about Kitty's slender waist and walked with her toward the door, leading his winded horse. "How the young-un this mornin'?"
He tried to keep his voice casual, as though he wasn't particularly interested, as though four-months-old Sammy Ezra Sloan wasn't the most important thing in the world to him. Despite his effort, his voice trembled with pride. Married late in life after many years of free-living bachelordom, dark and wiry Sam Sloan was foolishly proud of his first baby. He knew he was but he just couldn't help it.
Kitty laughed softly and disengaged herself from his arm as they reached the door. "Sammy's taking a nap just as he should be. I'll have breakfast ready by the time you put up your horse and get washed. And come in quietly so you won't wake Sammy."
Sam said indignantly, "Shore. You know I allus come in quiet." Though it was mid-morning when he ended his ride, Sam always waited for breakfast until he got home where Kitty could fix it for him. After years of eating his own cooking, or batching with Pat Stevens or Ezra, Sam's stomach was insulted every time he had to eat any food that wasn't prepared by Kitty. That was the only thing he didn't like about his job of riding the Pony Express. It took him away from home every other night and he had to eat a meal at the hotel in Dutch Springs.
He went on toward the corral hoping Kitty would have pancakes again this morning. With some of her own homemade wild cherry jam. It was sort of funny what a wonderful wife and home-maker Kitty had turned out to be. He remembered how Pat and Ezra had tried to warn him against marrying the pretty dance-hall singer. They didn't think she'd ever be satisfied to settle down quietly at the remote way station after the exciting life she had led in Denver and other big cities. And they figured Sam would have to teach her how to cook and keep house.
Just showed how wrong folks could be about people. Kitty was probably, Sam thought proudly, the best cook in all of Powder Valley. And she was doing just as good a job of mothering her first-born, too.
Sam felt mighty happy and contented as he unsaddled the roan and used a handful of hay to wipe the sweat and lather from his back. He reckoned he was just about the most contented guy in the whole world. Seemed to him like he never wanted anything else than to stay right here and ride the mail the rest of his life.
It was funny too, the way he had always hankered after danger and action in the past before he married Kitty. He never had thought he'd be willing to settle down like this. Back in those other days he and Pat Stevens and one-eyed Ezra had made up a hard-riding, fast-shooting trio who administered their own rough ideas of justice wherever they met evil in the West; and they had played a major role in the taming of Powder Valley. Things began to change after Pat married Sally and settled down on the Lazy Mare ranch at the upper end of the Valley, though the three continued to go out on occasional forays when danger threatened the peace of the community.
Now, all three of them were settled down and it seemed like there wouldn't ever be any more excitement. Though not married, red-headed Ezra had recently acquired a spread of his own near the Lazy Mare.
It was funny how things worked out, Sam Sloan mused as he turned from the corral toward the house. He never would have thought things would end up this way. But it was a mighty good way, he told himself with huge satisfaction. A man couldn't ask for any more than this out of life.
He stopped at the pump near the kitchen door, and worked it up and down vigorously. Cold water gushed out of the spout and he set a pan to catch it, then rolled up his sleeves and turned his shirt collar down inside.
He took a square cake of soap and lathered his leathery face and forearms, then doused his head in the water, sputtering and blowing to get rid of the perfumed scent that Kitty insisted on adding to her home-made soap.
"Doggoned stihkin' stuff," he muttered to himself with a frown as he dried his face, though he was secretly pleased with this curiously feminine peculiarity of Kitty's.
He heard her call, "Breakfast's on," from the kitchen door, and he blinked at her standing there holding the door open for him.
He'd be doggoned if she didn't make a pretty picture in the doorway. Her figure was rounded and supple, no longer girlish, but soft and graceful in maturity. She had always been pretty, but being married and having a baby had made Kitty beautiful. Her smile was radiant with happiness and contentment, and the hard lines of earlier years had been erased.
She turned to the stove as Sam reached the door, and he sniffed deeply at the tantalizing odor of bubbling flapjacks on the fire. The small table was immaculate with a clean white cloth on it, and a mug of steaming coffee waited Sam at his place. A little bowl of blue wildflowers added a touch of color to the center of the table and it seemed to Sam like everything was mighty near perfect.
Kitty slid a plate holding three crisply browned pancakes on it in front of him and said, "Butter those while I get a can of sirup. Or ..." She paused with her hand extended toward the cupboard, "... maybe you'd rather have some of my wild cherry jam."
Sam was sliding thick slabs of freshly churned butter between the hot cakes. He said, "You know doggone well I want jam. I kin get sirup in town on my flapjacks."
Kitty laughed and handed him down a jar of cherry jam. She turned to the stove and deftly slid a pancake onto her plate and ladled more batter into the hot skillet. She never ate her own breakfast until Sam got home because it was so much more companionable that way.
She sat down opposite and smiled tenderly at the way he was wolfing down his food. He didn't have very good table manners, and his swarthy face certainly wasn't pretty but Kitty was convinced she was married to the finest man in the world.
The high, thin wail of a child came into the kitchen from the bedroom. Sam laid down his fork and looked at Kitty nervously, "Sounds like Sammy's done woke up," he muttered.
Kitty nodded calmly and went on with her breakfast.
Sam took a drink of coffee and fidgeted. The wails became louder as their son expressed his displeasure at being left alone to the full extent of his lung power.
"Sounds like he's took bad tuh me," Sam said hopefully. He pushed back his chair as though to get up. "Mebby I better go in an' see to the little tyke."
"Go on and eat your breakfast," said Kitty firmly. "You mustn't humor him that way."
"But he might have a pin stickin' him or somethin'," Sam argued weakly.
"Nonsense. You just want an excuse to go in and take him up. You'd spoil him dreadfully if I'd let you, Sam."
"'Tain't spoilin' tuh see what's wrong," he protested indignantly. But he steeled his ears against the baby's cries and hunched forward over his food again.
Kitty got up lightly. She stopped to stroke his cheek lovingly as she went past him into the other room. "I know you won't be happy until he comes to the table with us. And I do want you to be happy," she breathed to herself passionately, going on into the bedroom.
Sam turned in his chair to watch her with a proud smile spreading over his swarthy face. He felt warm and glowing inside, and he was sure he was the luckiest man on earth.
The wailing stopped as soon as Kitty bent over the crib and picked the baby up. She carefully wrapped him in a soft blue robe that was a gift from Pat and Sally Stevens, and brought him into the kitchen.
She stopped in the doorway and turned her head to listen to the sound of a horse trotting down the road from Dutch Springs.
Sam got up and turned back a fold of the robe to peer fondly down at the baby, and Kitty said, "Sounds like we've got company coming."
Sam said, "He gets more like you, purtier every day. Yep. Somebody is stoppin'."
He went past Kitty to the front door and frowned when he saw a stranger dismounting outside. He was a heavily built, middle-aged man, wearing city clothes. He rode a good horse and swung out of the saddle and ground-tied him with an easy manner that showed he was an accomplished horseman no matter what sort of clothes he wore, and he advanced toward Sam with a pleasant smile that showed two gold teeth in front.
He said, "You must be Sam Sloan."
Sam nodded and said, "Howdy." He held out his hand and it was taken in a strong grip.
"I'm Jim Stranch," the stranger explained. He spoke the name as though he expected Sam to recognize it, then added after a slight pause, "Western manager of the Pony Express system."
"Come on in, Mr. Stranch," Sam said quickly. "Nothin' wrong 'bout thuh way I bin ridin' my route, is there?"
"On the contrary," Stranch assured him. He stepped inside out of the bright sunlight and looked with polite inquiry at Kitty who came forward with the baby cuddled to her breast.
"This here's my wife," Sam mumbled. "It's Mr. Stranch, Kitty. One of my bosses, I reckon."
"I'm pleased to meet you, Mrs. Sloan," Stranch said formally. "It looks as though you folks are situated mighty comfortably here."
Something in his voice warned Kitty that this man from the city represented a menace to the peace and security of their home. She said quietly, "We are happy here. I hope ... you're not going to fire Sam."
"On the contrary." Stranch's booming laugh reassured her for a moment. "We consider Sam Sloan one of our most valuable men. I went over your record in the Denver office," he went on to Sam, "and I want to congratulate you on an outstanding job of riding your leg of the Pony Express." He had blue eyes that seemed to look through a man while he talked to him.
"'Tain't bin no trouble," Sam muttered modestly, though pleased by this praise from an official of the company.
"That's where you're wrong," Stranch told him warmly. "You're the only rider in this division with a perfect record. Never late and no trouble on your leg of the route. You should be proud of your husband, Mrs. Sloan."
"I am." Kitty lifted her head and her eyes challenged the Pony Express executive. "Does he get a raise in salary for doing his job so well?"
"Better than that," chuckled Stranch. "I've come to offer him an important job. With a higher salary and a lot more responsibility."
"Wait a minute," Sam protested. "If it's somethin' that'll take me away from home, the answer is no."
"Don't be too hasty," Stranch expostulated. "You haven't heard my proposition yet."
"You haven't finished your breakfast, Sam," Kitty reminded him. "And perhaps Mr. Stranch would like a cup of coffee."
"I certainly would," he told her heartily. "I always say there's nothing like a cup of coffee to help along a business discussion."
"Shore," said Sam, turning toward the kitchen. "Yo're welcome tuh set an' drink a cup of cawfee, but Kitty an' me ain't gonna like the kinda bizniss you wanta talk about."CHAPTER 2
Seated at the pleasant kitchen table with morning sunlight vividly touching the centerpiece of blue flowers and with a cup of Kitty's excellent coffee in front of him, Jim Stranch exhaled a deep sigh of satisfaction and nodded knowingly at Sam Sloan.
"It's wonderful the way a woman can make an out-of-the-way place like this comfortable and homelike. I'd say you are a very lucky man, Mr. Sloan."
"Don't think I don't know it." Sam glanced appreciatively at Kitty who sat in a low rocker near the window giving young Sammy his bottle. "Thass why I ain't int'rested in no proposition that'd break things up."
"And that's exactly why I've come to you," Stranch told him briskly. "You're the only rider in this division with a wife and family, Sloan. The job I have in mind needs a family man. One who is steady and dependable and can be trusted with responsibility. One who won't fly off the handle and go out looking for trouble, but will be cautious and avoid danger as much as possible."
Sam frowned incredulously and shot a quick glance at Kitty, unable to realize that the Pony Express executive was talking about him. Kitty smiled quietly and pretended she didn't see Sam's glance. Sam's first impulse was to angrily deny that he was the kind of man Stranch had just described. He wondered if the city man hadn't ever heard about any of the exploits of Pat Stevens and Ezra and him. Just because he was married and had a baby didn't mean he'd lost his quick temper or his habit of walking into trouble with blazing guns. Why, doggone it, the reason there hadn't never been no trouble on his leg of the route was that his reputation had scared any holdup men away.
But Stranch certainly seemed unaware of any of that. He went on affably, "This Pony Express system is trying to lead the way in the West in bringing in a new era of law and order. The old theory of shooting first and asking questions afterward is definitely on its way out. Now that I've seen you here in the peace and security of your own home, I'm more than ever convinced you're the man I'm looking for to go up north of Denver and help to inaugurate a new route into Wyoming."
Sam opened his mouth to blurt out an angry denial. It was on the tip of his tongue to tell Stranch he had absolutely the wrong idea about him, that appearances were misleading, that he was just the opposite of what Stranch thought him to be.
But Kitty spoke before Sam had a chance to put the visitor right. She looked over to them with a proud smile and nodded her curly blond head emphatically. She said, "I think that's wonderful, Sam. You don't know how it pleases me to hear Mr. Stranch say those things."
Excerpted from The Road to Laramie by Brett Halliday. Copyright © 1945 Jefferson House, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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