Chapter Two—Outward Bound

     The stage was ready to leave the next day, right after noon. Josh and Lem were going to ride on top again, and there were six passengers—Susan, Polly, Judge Horace Hightower, Garret, Lance, and—a little to her surprise—the intelligent-looking man she had seen outside the hotel and in the diner. She had seen him a couple of other times, just around town, but neither of them acknowledged the other. She had her hands full with Garret and Lance and had no intention of adding a third man to the mix. Not that he had shown any interest in joining the “mix.”
     The weather continued to be cold and gray, but there had been no precipitation yet. “We’re getting’ off to a bit of a late start, folks,” Josh says, “and we ain’t gonna push too much to make up for lost time. But some. We sent a wire on ahead to let ever’body know we was runnin’ late, so if you got any loved ones a-waitin’ on ye, they’ll know.”
     “Oh, good,” Polly said. “My sister might have been worried.”
     “When will we arrive in Blantonville, driver?” the judge asked.
     Josh looked up at the sky, and shook his head dubiously. “If’n the weather holds, pushin’ it, we can make it in four or five days. If’n it don’t…” he just shrugged. Then he said, “Plenty of way stations along the trail so we’ll stop ever’ thirty miles or so, change hosses, have a bite to eat, and sleep at one of ‘em when night comes.” That wasn’t news to anybody, it was the way stagecoaches always operated. Butterfield had done an excellent job providing for its patrons, though there wasn’t much they could—or did—do for the discomfort of the passengers. The roads were still bumpy and irregular and there was no protection over the windows except for leather shades that could be pulled down, so the coach could be hot and dusty in the summer and cold and dusty in the winter. Or maybe wet if it happened to come a good rain.
     Once everyone got inside the stage, Susan, the judge, and Garret sat on one side, facing the direction of travel, and the fourth man, Polly, and Lance on the other. Susan and the man she didn’t know sat across from each other. They still had never spoken to one another. She was thinking more about Garret and Lance, and she finagled it to where neither of them could sit by her. Just to irritate them. She did a good job of it, though neither man tried to show it. Another smile crossed her lips. It had been a long, boring trip so far for Susan, so having fun with Garret and Lance was finally adding some excitement and humor.

     The stage took off. I glanced around—the pretty lady sat across from me. Our eyes met briefly, but there was nothing in hers and she probably saw nothing in mine. The gambler was there, along with a young cowboy, both of whom seemed irritated at something. A chubby lady and older man rounded out the group. I had seen them all around town the past couple of days, but I had seen a lot of people around town. To me, this just happened to be the group that was going on this stage. I’d been on plenty of stagecoaches in my life; this particular collection of people wasn’t special.
     Nobody spoke for the first ten minutes or so; everybody was getting adjusted to the cadence and swinging of the coach. I wasn’t terribly surprised when the chubby lady broke the silence. “Well, we are on our way. I hope we don’t run into any Indians or bandits or anything.” She shivered.
     “No chance of Indians, ma’am,” the older man offered. “Army’s got them tight on reservations now. Can’t promise you about highwaymen, but they’d have to be really desperate to be out in this kind of weather.”
     I was holding the curtain back, looking out the window. I said softly, as if only to myself, “We’re going to run into snow, is what we’re going to run into.”
     “Likely,” the old man said, leaning over and examining the sky as well.
     “Oh?” Polly said, looking at me. “I think all the rest of us know each other, but you are the only stranger here. Can you tell us your name and what you do for a living and why you are on this stage?”
     I glanced over at her, still holding the shade. Then I continued gazing at the weather. “Kendrick. Done lots of things in my life. On this stage because I almost killed the horse I was riding on and thought this would be a better way to travel.” With that, I let go of the shade, leaned my head back and pulled my hat down over my eyes, indicating I was through talking and was going to take a nap.
     It wasn’t quite that easy, though. “A drifting hobo, huh,” the gambler said, with a bit of a sneer.

     Susan glanced at Garret. It was a little out of character for him to be like that, or at least what she had seen of him so far.

     I lifted my hat a moment and looked at him. “Yeah, maybe. But I’m an honest hobo.” And I saw his eyes blaze. Then I shifted my gaze to the pretty lady for a moment. She had a puzzled expression on her face.

     And Susan’s mystification was real. It seemed for all the world to her like Kendrick’s eyes were saying “What in the world do you see in that guy?” Then he lowered his hat back over his eyes. Strange man…

     The gambler wasn’t going to let it go, though. He thought he might have been insulted. “Am I to imply something from that, Mr. Kendrick?”
     I didn’t lift my hat. “Imply anything you want, gambler, just do it talking to somebody else so I can take a snooze.”
     The tension was palpable, but then Chubby Lady broke it with a nervous laugh. “Well, we are glad you are on the stage, Mr. Kendrick. I’m sure we’ll enjoy your company.”
     I said nothing. I wanted a nap. I’m a recreational sleeper. Besides, I didn’t think the feeling would be mutual. I don’t like anybody….

     Susan was watching Kendrick. Kinda rude. I don’t think I like him, but there IS something different about him…She dropped the thought and looked away.
     There was another few moments of silence, then Lance spoke up. “The only highwayman I’m a little concerned about is Charlie Wheeler. He’s operated up in these parts before and I don’t think anything stops him.”
     “Charlie Wheeler! Oh, my!” Polly said. Wheeler was a well-known outlaw. Everybody in the coach—except Susan, who was totally new to the west—knew of him and his reputation. Not only a thief but a killer. Hell on wheels with a gun. “He has a gang of cutthroats, doesn’t he? I sure hope he doesn’t show up.”
     “No chance,” Judge Hightower commented.
     “Why not?” Lance asked. “I know he’s been around here.”
     The judge shook his head. “True. But he’s dead. Ken Ross got him down in Arizona about two months ago.”
     Susan noticed that everybody—but Kendrick—stared at the judge.

     If they didn’t shut up, I’d never get my nap. As the day progressed, I did learn all of their names, though.

     It was Garret who spoke next. “Ross? The Ranger? Musta been lucky, nobody could outdraw Wheeler. I don’t think Earp, or Ben Thompson, or Hickok or any of them could.”
     The judge shook his head again. “From what I heard, Ross beat him to the draw. Wheeler barely cleared leather.”
     “Geez,” Lance said. “They are all falling now, aren’t they. William Bonney, John Wesley Hardin, Jesse James, the Clantons, now Wheeler. All gone now.”
     The judge nodded. “Yes, and high time, too. Civilization is coming to the west. Law and order. And hopefully the day of the gunslinger is almost over.”
     With that comment, everybody looked at Kendrick. He was the only one in the coach who was wearing an obvious gun. Susan had a small pistol in her purse, and it was likely that Garret had a gun on his person somewhere, too. But Kendrick wore his on his hip, tied down, and low. Is he a gunslinger?….

     I had my hat over my eyes, of course, so I didn’t know everybody was looking at me. I sensed it, though. “Bang!” I said loudly, not moving the hat, and Polly jumped three inches off her seat.
     “Don’t do that, Mr. Kendrick,” she said. “Scared me to death.”

     Susan smiled, thinking it was a pretty good joke. Lance and Garret glanced at each other, annoyance written on each of their faces. The judge gave Kendrick a bit of an irritated glance, but that was all.
     Polly then spoke up again. “Well, I’m just glad we have judges like you, Mr. Hightower, and lawmen like Ken Ross to protect us. I feel better knowing that so many of these outlaws are dead or in prison.”
     “I don’t think we’ll have a problem with any of them on this trip, Miss Plummer,” the judge said and smiled at her. Polly smiled back and blushed a bit. Susan watched the two of them, amused, wondering if maybe something was budding there.
     The coach droned on, mostly in silence. The monotony bored everybody so much that there wasn’t much talking. Susan saw Kendrick come out from under his hat a couple hours later….

     I had slept a little, but not much. I glanced back out the window and could see the snow falling now. Susan looked out as well and commented, “It’s snowing now.”
     “Oh, my,” Polly said. “Hard?”
     “Yeah. Pretty hard.”
     “Well, we can continue on in the snow, can’t we?”
     “Depends on how bad it gets,” the judge commented.
     Susan pushed the curtain as close to the window as she could, but the cold draft still came in. Sitting next to a window had its compensations; but in times like this, it could be disadvantageous. But it was cold—freezing—for everybody in the coach. She shivered and commented on how cold it was.
     I was sitting on my blanket, mainly for extra padding. There were a few areas where Butterfield could improve the comfort of their passengers and softer seats would help. But I pulled the blanket out from under me and handed it to Susan. Our eyes met.
     “Thank you,” she said. “But I’d prefer you give it to Polly.”
     “Oh, no, dear,” the older woman replied, though she was looking at the blanket with more than a small amount of desire. “You’re sitting in that drafty window, and I’ve got two warm men surrounding me.” She giggled nervously.
     I looked at the judge and made a motion with my two index fingers, indicating that he and Polly should trade places so that the two women could share the blanket. He nodded. “Miss Plummer, why don’t you and I exchange seats and you ladies can share that nice warm blanket together.”
     “Oh, I couldn’t do that,” and she fussed and hemmed and hawed all the way into the seat beside Susan. It took a little bit of doing in the rocking coach, and at one point she ended up in Lance’s lap to everyone’s amusement but his, but everybody helped and the switch was made. Susan and Polly situated themselves under the blanket, and the former once again expressed her thanks to me, a sentiment echoed by Polly. I made a slight “you’re welcome” gesture and that was all.

     Susan looked at Kendrick for a few moments, but he didn’t seem to notice. Why didn’t he and I move instead of Polly and the judge? It would have been much easier, she’s so heavy. Maybe he doesn’t want to touch me…It irked her a bit. Everything about that man was beginning to irk her. But he did give up his blanket… “You don’t talk very much, do you, Mr. Kendrick,” Susan said. It was a statement, not a question.
     He gave her a wry smile. “I think I’ve already said too much on this journey, Miss Bedford.” Susan couldn’t see Garret well without leaning forward. But she did catch Lance glancing at him, and the cowboy kind of shrugged and pulled a “well, that’s better than nothing” face. Kendrick turned and looked out the window again.

     I didn’t like what I saw.