The Mason & Thorn Western Series
Welcome to the Mason & Thorn Western Adventure Series. This series invites you to ride along with US Marshal C.J. Mason and Deputy Marshal Thorn Hickum in turn-of-the-century Montana, when a bad man with a gun could only be stopped by a good man with a gun.
“What a great story. I love the depth of period research that you include. The plot made it hard to put the book down. Your characters are well fleshed out, relatable, and most have redeeming qualities. You paint word pictures that I see so clearly in my mind.”
The Gold Train
“Winner of the Silver Medal Award in the Global Book Awards 2021 Competition in the “Western” category”
A Mason & Thorn Western Series
Book 1: The Showdown at Yellowstone
The Showdown At Yellowstone Ch. 2 Audio Sample
From the edge of the tropical forest to the 150-foot summit of San Juan Hill and nearby Kettle Hill, five hundred yards of open savanna separated the American soldiers from the entrenched Spanish stronghold. Corporal Thorn Hickum squatted behind an oak tree to catch his breath and dodge the hail of bullets coming down from the ridge. He removed his slouch hat and wiped the dripping sweat off his face. Not that it did much good; his entire uniform was drenched in sweat. In July the infernal humidity of Cuba made any outdoor exertion insufferable. The sweltering heat and dehydration could drop a man as sure as bullet and the Spaniards knew it. They hunkered down in their earthworks along the ridges and dared the Americans to assault.
The U.S. Army had landed a 17,000 troop expeditionary force on the Island of Cuba on June 22, 1898, with the plan of sweeping over the San Juan hills and capturing the city of Santiago along with the Spanish fleet anchored there. Among that force was the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, a regiment of nearly 600, named Rough Riders, led by the charismatic Colonel Theodore Roosevelt.
Now, on the morning of July 1st, the Americans wavered. To reach this point, they had already suffered heavy losses in open battle and relentless ambushes. Ebullient confidence gave way to hesitation as they considered their next move; an open-field frontal assault against an elevated fixed position. Every instinct held that this would be suicide. This had been born out 35 years earlier with the horrific failure of Pickett’s Charge up Seminary Ridge at the battle of Gettysburg. Over 12,500 Confederates attempted an open-field frontal assault on the Union line, suffering over fifty percent in casualties before they were forced to retreat.
Corporal Hickum scanned the soldiers that were milling about to see who was in charge. No one dared to issue orders or rally the troops. He sensed the rumblings of retreat. Suddenly, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt galloped into the thicket on horseback with a blue bandana fastened around his hat to make himself easier to spot. Though his Rough Riders were horseless, Roosevelt chose to stay mounted to make it easier to see and be seen by his men.
“On your feet,” he shouted. “We’re moving forward. We’re going to take that hill.” A captain objected.
“My orders are to keep my men right here. I don’t have the authority to charge that hill.” Bullets from the ridge whizzed by, gouging the bark off a nearby tree. Suddenly, one prone soldier took a bullet through the top of his head that passed through his entire body and exited through his boot. Soldiers began to panic and retreated further back into the forest.
“Damn you, Captain,” Roosevelt bellowed. “Where’s your commanding officer?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then I’m the ranking officer here and I give the order to charge.”
“I don’t care what your rank is,” the captain blustered. “You’re not taking my men anywhere. We’re staying put.” Roosevelt nearly exploded.
“Let me give you a piece of military advice, Captain,” he shouted for all to hear. “Orders or no orders, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.” The captain had no reply.
Roosevelt urged his horse to the edge of the clearing and repeated, “Everyone get on your feet. Let’s move. If we’re in range, they’re in range.” Thorn looked around and saw only four or five men jump to their feet. Roosevelt shouted to the rest.
“What are you afraid of, getting shot on your bellies while I’m on horseback?” He angled his horse through the mass of hunkered troops. “You think you’re safe here? Anything you do can get you shot, including nothing.”
That was enough for Thorn. He grabbed his rifle and joined the others. He made up his mind that he would rather die in an inspired attempt than to cower in gutless caution. Roosevelt turned to the Captain.
“If you’re not going to join us, then get out of the way so my Rough Riders can get through.” Then turning to his men, he called out, “Rough Riders follow me. We are taking this hill!”
With his pistol drawn, he galloped into the clearing. At first only a handful of men joined him. But as more Rough Riders poured through the lines, the regulars could do no less than join in. They jumped up and came along, their officers and troops mingling with the Rough Riders. Spreading out like a fan, row after row of men slipped and scrambled through the smooth grass, trudging uphill as if they were wading through water.
Rifle fire from the nearby ridge began pouring down on them. Those struck by bullets pitched forward and disappeared into the high grass as the others waded on. Suddenly, three American Gatling guns began spraying the top of the ridge from artillery troops dug in at the edge of a clump of trees. Each gun poured 700 rounds a minute along the crest of the hill, wreaking terrible carnage. The withering cover fire helped keep the Spaniards at bay, allowing the Americans a chance to ascend the summit. To those troops watching from below it appeared like a thin blue ribbon creeping higher and higher up the hill, unstoppable as the rising tide. Onlookers later described it as a triumph of bulldog courage as they watched in breathless wonder.
Roosevelt rode up and down the hill, and side to side, with total disregard for his own safety, shouting encouragement for his troops to continue the assault. “We are almost there, keep moving.”
One bullet nicked him in the elbow, another grazed his horse and a man running alongside him was shot and killed. Other soldiers fell to the ground, overcome from sheer heat exhaustion.
Thorn eyed Roosevelt’s charge with awe. He knew a commander should inspire his troops by example, but this bravado bordered on utter recklessness. He acted as standard bearer and rallying point for the assault, a job usually assigned to 3-4 low level recruits due to the suicidal nature of this gallant gesture. But Thorn felt his heart quicken at the sight of Roosevelt’s courage, despite his dread for how the assault might crumble should Roosevelt fall.
“Rally on the Colonel!” Thorn shouted to the men around him, pointing to their intrepid leader. Fifteen to twenty troops closed ranks around Roosevelt as they all neared the summit.
When the Americans approached the Spanish line at the crest, the Gatling guns ceased fire to avoid hitting their own men. That allowed the Spanish troops one final chance to repel the assault. They raised their rifles over the parapets and began pouring down bullets to the approaching troops. The Rough Riders returned fire, at almost point blank range. Spaniards dropped by the scores.
Thorn set his eyes on the Spanish flag on the ridge and trudged straight towards it, stopping to fire on any Spaniard target.
Roosevelt reached the trenches on the ridge, where he quickly killed one of the enemy with his pistol, allowing his men to continue the assault. Near the peak the broken fragments in the American line closed ranks. With a sudden burst they reached the top. The Spaniards appeared for a moment to hold the line, but not for long. The first wave of Rough Riders delivered a vicious volley of rifle fire, and the Spanish resolve melted. They turned and fled. The Rough Riders, along with remnants of the 9th, 6th, 3rd, and 10th Cavalry, and the 6th and 16th Infantry dropped to their knees and opened fire on the retreating enemy.
Roosevelt dismounted and joined his men in clearing out the blockhouse at the summit. Thorn spotted him.
“Look at the Colonel!” Thorn shouted at the trooper beside him. “He’s gonna get himself killed.”
“He ain’t gonna die,” the trooper glibly replied. “That’s our job.” Then he cocked both pistols in his hands and busted down the next door in search of Spanish snipers. Thorn frowned.
“He may be a lot of things, but he ain’t bullet-proof,” he muttered. Thorn felt the sudden need to protect the Colonel. Holstering his side arm, he ran to the door where a clutch of troopers stood behind Roosevelt, ready to bust in.
Roosevelt turned his head behind him, pistol raised.
“All right, on my count,” he glared at the nine troopers, each man ready to follow his leader to the doors of Perdition. Roosevelt cocked his pistol and turned back to face the heavy oak door. The sound of gunfire around them faded from attention.
“Three, two, one,” he called out, his gaze riveted on the door, as if summoning vision to peer into the room to know the danger inside. Nine pistols behind him cocked, some pointed to the side. Others aimed toward the sky, arms resting on the back of the man in front of him. Roosevelt’s knee raised to his chest, spring loaded to explode with full force.
“Go!” Roosevelt shouted, and his boot smashed the door wide open.
In that instant, Roosevelt suddenly flew through the air, to the side of the shattered door. The troops behind him craned their necks to watch him land hard, face down in the dust. Just then a furious volley of Spanish pistol fire sprayed death to the would-be attackers at the door. Three troopers dropped. The remaining six spun back into action, emptying their pistols into the gaping doorway. Then silence. The smoke lifted. Every Spanish defender lay dead on the floor.
Thorn had made a flying shoulder tackle, knocking Roosevelt to the side. As they sprawled to the ground, the point-blank gun exchange ensued and the room was cleared of all treachery.
Roosevelt sat up and looked at the three dead soldiers, then gawked at Thorn, like he’d just met his guardian angel.
“You just plowed through me like Aunt Sally’s mule,” Roosevelt said. Thorn offered a salute in apology.
“Sorry, sir.” Roosevelt delicately touched his side.
“I always wondered what a football tackle would feel like. I think you broke a rib.”
As the two leaned against the wall, the remainder of the blockhouse was cleared out. The battle was over. This hill was theirs. The silk flags of the cavalry and the Stars and Stripes were planted on the crest, and the victorious troops waved their hats and cheered. Thorn got up and walked over to the edge of the hill he just ascended. His fallen comrades lie scattered from the base to the summit. Down along the clearing below, he could see those soldiers who stayed behind now waving their hats and answering the cheer from the crest with their own shout of exultation in reply.
Thorn returned to the wall of the blockhouse to catch his breath and drink some water from his canteen. He watched the Spaniards fleeing in the distance, pursued by the Americans. Roosevelt removed his glasses, covered with sweat and dust. He wiped them clean and put them back on, then turned to Thorn.
“Corporal, I could sure use a gulp.” Thorn immediately offered up his canteen and Roosevelt took a few swigs. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve and handed it back with a hearty sigh, “Dee-lightful. What’s your name, Soldier?”
“Corporal Thorn Hickum,” Thorn replied. He studied Roosevelt’s countenance as the Colonel took that name and tucked it into a special place in his brain.
“I swear, you’re something else, Colonel,” Thorn shook his head. “How the hell did you make it up that hill alive?” Roosevelt smiled.
“It’s an amazing thing, corporal, how so few bullets seem to hit the men they are aimed at.” He gave Thorn a wink, and mounted his horse.
Thorn Hickum was no stranger to dodging bullets. In his time, he had wrung up so many near collisions with ruination as a deputy sheriff that he often quipped that he joined the army just to improve his chances of staying alive. But through his many near-misses with death, he had to admit that Lady Luck had a soft spot for him.
Thorn stood just over 6 feet tall, not as tall as some but a shade taller than most. Somewhat rakish, his ruddy complexion came from years of cowboying that kept him lean, trim and solidly built. At 180 pounds, his stature intimidated most would-be tough guys.
Basically a shy man who didn’t talk much, to some he appeared aloof, which belied an easy-going manner. He loved a good joke and enjoyed playing pranks now and then. With sandy brown hair and pale blue eyes, he was considered good-looking if not handsome. Those men and women with whom he became friends found him welcome company.
Thorn put you in one of only two groups; friends and everybody else and most belonged in the latter. His friends he counted on one hand and the one man he trusted with his life was C.J. Mason, Sheriff for the City of Coulson, Montana. They first met in their early 20s in the fall of 1890, in Billings at a cowboy contest. Both were accomplished wranglers and fierce competitors, besting each other back and forth in various events. Thorn saw something in Mason that impressed him; a fierce commitment to fair play and decency that was rare even among cowboys, a code of honor that set him apart.
It was at that competition that Mason was bucked off a vicious horse and got his boot wedged in the stirrup. As others desperately tried to lasso the wild bronco, Mason fought to free himself or die. Thorn leaped on an idle strawberry roan and chased down the thrashing beast. He sprang on its back and took it to the ground, saving Mason and amazing every buckaroo in the arena.
The two became fast friends, sharing meals and drinks, celebrating each other’s rodeo triumphs. When it ended, Mason returned to Coulson, where he served as a young deputy. Thorn chose to stay in Billings as a wrangler for a large cattle ranch, but the pay was meager and the work brutal. Branding cattle, mending fences, and chasing steers for a living began to lose its charm. He didn’t want to end his days old, stove-up and nothing to show for it and no tales of glory to tell his grandchildren. His thoughts strayed to Coulson.
One day the door to the Coulson sheriff’s office swung open. Mason was busy sweeping out an empty cell. He looked up to see Thorn covered in trail dust.
“What the hell brings you to paradise?” he asked with a smile.
“Just wondered where a fella can get a drink around here,” Thorn said.
“Well, that depends,” Mason smiled, leaning against his broom. “What do you favor?”
“I’ll take a beer if it’s cold, but if I got a choice then make it a whiskey,” Thorn said.
“I know just the place,” Mason said.
They walked over to the Crystal Palace Saloon on Minnesota Avenue. It was a sizable drinking establishment whose doors never closed and where Jake was not only the bartender, he was part owner, and took great pride in stocking the widest selection of spirits west of Bismarck.
“Jake,” said Mason, “I want you to meet Thorn Hickum.” Jake gave him a strong hand shake and a welcome nod. Mason continued with the introductions. “He’s that fella I told you about what jumped on that hellcat bronco and saved my neck.” Jake eyed Thorn with a new respect.
“Well, we’re rather fond of young Mason here, so your first drink is on the house,” Jake declared. “What’ll it be?” Thorn scanned the liquor shelf behind the bar.
“You carry Old Bushmills whiskey?” Thorn asked. Jake wagged his finger at Thorn and gave him a devilish grin, then turned to Mason.
“This lad’s got expensive taste.” Then he slapped the bar counter with his open hand so loud it startled the patrons nearby. “I like your style, boy,” Jake laughed. “I promised you the first drink was free, and I’m a man of my word.”
Mason and Thorn made their way over to an empty table and settled in.
“OK,” said Mason, “So, what really brings you here?”
“I just wanted to see how glamorous your job was,” Thorn replied. “You look pretty handy with a broom.”
“Oh, that. The sheriff’s out making rounds and it’s the maid’s day off.” Thorn paused for a moment then spoke his mind.
“Truth is I’m looking for work,” Thorn confessed. “I drew my pay, packed my saddlebag, and lit out. Wondered if you needed an extra hand?”
“Deputy-type work?” Mason asked. Thorn just nodded as he took a sip of his Old Bushmills whiskey.
They finished their drinks and wandered back over to the sheriff’s office.
“I can’t speak for the sheriff,” Mason explained, “but I know he’s turned down other fellers.” Thorn’s eyes wandered over to the bulletin board full of wanted posters.
“It looks like you could sure use some kinda help,” Thorn said, pointing to the wanted posters. “Bringing in desperados might be a fulltime job.”
“You don’t need to be a lawman to do that,” Mason said. “Ever thought about bounty hunting? It pays pretty good if you don’t get your head blown off,”
“Are you serious?” Thorn asked.
Mason walked over to the posters. “There’s $2,000 to bring in Kid Curry, $4,000 for Butch Cassidy, and $15,000 for the Dalton Gang – dead or alive.” Thorn had never considered a career in bounty hunting, but the reward dollars were pretty enticing.
“Got anything more in my wheelhouse?” Thorn asked.
“I think we’ve got a $10 reward out for anyone who’ll bring in Walt Jenkins to pay his fine for spitting in church,” Mason offered. They both laughed. Mason went over to his desk and sifted through some papers.
“OK, here’s a job you can handle,” Mason said, handing the complaint notice to Thorn. “Horace Blunt is wanted for bustin’ up the 15th Street Tavern three weeks ago and never payin’ for the damages.”
“How much does he owe?” Thorn asked. Mason checked the complaint notice.
“He threw a chair through the window, smashed up the liquor counter, and ruined a portrait hanging behind the bar.” Mason said. “The total came to $95 but he refuses to pay. It’s either that or jail time. Anyway, somebody’s gotta bring him in.”
“What’s the story?” Thorn asked.
“Well, there’s some blame to go around for that little fracas. That particular watering hole brews some pretty deadly drinks,” Mason began.
“Oh, yeah? Like what?” asked Thorn.
“They got this thing called a Tanglefoot. It’s made out of raw alcohol, burnt sugar, and turpentine,” explained Mason. “It’s supposed to be some kind of whiskey, but it’s just pure coffin varnish.”
“What happens if you drink it?” Thorn asked.
“It affects everyone a little different. I’ve told Harry, the owner, that he’s gonna get somebody soused on that stuff and he’s gonna be sorry.”
“So, what happened?” asked Thorn.
“Well, Horace came in a few weeks ago and drank about three shots of that rotgut, and everything started goin’ fuzzy. He was trying to clear his eyes when he fixed his gaze on the portrait of a naked lady lying on a bunch of pillows hanging behind the bar,” Mason said.
“Was something wrong with it?” asked Thorn.
“Not to me, but in his condition, old Horace swore that naked lady’s face looked just like his sister, and he was morally outraged. He demanded they take the picture down,” said Mason. “They tried to explain to him that they bought that painting in St. Louis, and it was NOT his sister.”
“I take it he was not satisfied?” Thorn concluded.
“He got pretty worked up…said if they didn’t take it down, he would. By the time it was all over, the painting was torn to shreds, the liquor counter was all busted up, and a chair went through the front window. Harry demanded payment for the damages, but Horace drew his gun and backed out the door. No one’s seen him since,” said Mason.
“How do you wanna play it?” Thorn asked.
“Sheriff Webb had a talk with Harry – told him as long as he served that red lightning he could just figure property damage as part of the cost of doin’ business. But for the sake of good will we need to bring Horace in to pay half.”
“What’s the bounty on him?” Thorn asked.
“The sheriff posted a $25 reward,” said Mason.
“$25?” Thorn frowned.
“He ain’t exactly Black Jack Ketchum,” Mason replied. “Just go get him. He’s got a little spread west of town.”
Thorn rode out to the Blunt ranch, such as it was. The main gate was assembled from assorted fallen tree branches. A weed-lined dirt road led to the house, a modest single story clapboard structure with a front porch, stone chimney, water trough and hitching post. A small barn nearby was in need of attention, and the corral was sad and empty. A dozen cattle grazed in the field behind the house. Thorn approached the house slowly, not sure what kind of reception he might receive.
A loud voice bellowed through the window, “That’s far enough!” Thorn reined his horse in and waited for Horace to make the next move.
“Who are you and what do you want?” Horace hollered.
“Thorn Hickum. I come to collect a debt, that’s all.”
“You the law?” Horace called out.
“No, sir. Everybody just figured it’d be a lot less hostile if an outside third party could work out a settlement,” Thorn said.
“I don’t owe anybody anything,” Horace hollered from inside.
“Look, I’m going to get off my horse and tie it off and get out of the sun. Why don’t you come out on the front porch and let’s figure out what’s fair,” Thorn offered. “I’m going to drop my gun right here.” He waited for a reply. Hearing none, he unbuckled his gun belt and dropped it on the ground. Then he slowly dismounted and walked his horse up to the hitching post and tied it off, then slowly sat down on the front porch step, with his back to the door.
He waited. And he waited. And he waited. Thirty minutes later the front door slowly opened and Horace walked out. He was in his 30s, unshaved, hair mussed up, wearing overalls and heavy boots. He said nothing – just stood behind Thorn.
“You got a nice little ranch here,” Thorn said. “You got the makin’s of something special – a place to call your own and a town full of folks to share your life with. That’s more than I got.”
Still no words from Horace. Thorn pointed to the corral. “I could imagine some horses in that corral, hay stored in the barn, some cattle in the field. I used to work on a ranch. I always thought I’d like to start my own place, kinda like this.”
“It ain’t that easy,” Horace muttered.
“Course not,” Thorn answered. “Nothing worth anything is. But it ain’t out of reach. You’ve made a good start. You gonna throw it all away now?”
“No,” Horace snorted.
“That’s what you’re fixin’ to do. You busted up somebody else’s business – his dream. You gotta make it right.”
“I ain’t got the money,” Horace said.
“You bring in one of your steers. It’ll fetch $50. That’ll settle you up.” Horace let that idea play around in his mind.
Thorn went on to sweeten the deal. “I’m gettin’ paid $25 to bring you in. You do this thing and I’ll split the $25 with you and I’ll come out here next week and help you get your corral back on its feet.”
“Why would you do that?” Horace asked.
“I don’t know. You and I may be neighbors one day, and I might just need a favor from you. I help you now and one day you help me. That’s how it works. Whaddaya say?”
The two rode into town with a steer in tow. As they rode past the sheriff’s office, Simon Webb and Deputy Mason stepped out onto the boardwalk to witness this creative resolution. Thorn glanced over and tipped his hat, a Stetson with a classic Montana crease in the crown. Webb raised his coffee mug in reply.
“You keep that up and I may have to find a use for you. Come on back here when you’re done,” Webb called out.
That’s exactly what Simon Webb did – he put Thorn to work. He needed someone trustworthy to hand deliver legal documents and escort prisoners from jail to trial and back again. Occasionally he helped provide extra protection for important dignitaries traveling to and from Coulson. On one such assignment he was away from Coulson when fate dealt a heavy blow to the town.
The Crystal Palace Saloon was the center for drinking, gambling and dancing in Coulson. One of the three men who owned the saloon was Jake Bass, a Texan who moved to Coulson near the end of the buffalo annihilation in 1884, and built up a thriving business. He welcomed one and all but ran a tight ship, tolerating no card sharps or grifters, and no gunplay or fighting whatsoever.
On Sunday evening in February of 1891, Jake was tending bar. The saloon was packed with patrons that night, and at the corner table a game of monte was in full swing. The dealer was enjoying a run of luck that cleaned out the pockets of two cowboys with two week’s wages to burn. With a crowd of onlookers growing, these fleeced cowhands started grumbling about cheating and demanded their money back.
The dealer, an experienced card player, spoke calmly, assuring them that nothing crooked occurred. Unsatisfied, the tall cowpoke pulled out his gun and began waving it around in a reckless manner. The crowd suddenly pulled back and turned silent, leaving the gunman and the dealer front and center. The piano player stopped and the room hushed. The dealer set the deck of cards down and slowly placed both his hands on the table, staring straight ahead. Jake saw the confrontation and called for someone to get the sheriff. Then he drew a shotgun from behind the bar and moved to a position beside a support column close to the card table.
“Son, put the gun down,” Jake called out, his shotgun pointed straight at the cowboy. “You ain’t done nothing you can’t walk away from yet, so take a breath and think about what you’re doin’.” The cowboy gave Jake a look and saw the double barrel 12 gauge pointed at him. His partner backed his buddy’s play by drawing on Jake, showing more loyalty than brains. The showdown suddenly escalated from explosive to deadly, but Jake held his ground. The crowd continued to ease back and away from the line of fire.
“Boys, there’s no way this ends well for anyone here if you start shootin’,” Jake said.
“Oh, nobody’s gonna start shootin’,” the tall one laughed nervously, “‘cause this card thief’s gonna hand us back our money and we’re gonna walk outta here.” Jake did not want to cave in to a couple of rowdies, but he didn’t want his bar shot up neither. Bad for business.
“Dillon,” Jake called out to the dealer, “how much did you win from these gents?”
“Fifty dollars,” Dillon replied slowly. Jake thought for a moment.
“Tell you what, you refund $25 and the house will pony up the other $25. How’s that sound?” Dillon turned and stared down the barrel of the pistol pointed at him, giving serious thought to testing the accuracy of these two cowpunchers. Jake saw that Dillon needed to save face as well.
“And you two tadpoles slither out of here and never show your faces again, or I’ll shoot you myself,” Jake pronounced loud enough for everyone to hear. The insult stung the pride of these two buckaroos, but getting their money back was a tempting offer. The tense grip on his gun softened as the cowpoke looked to his partner and nodded.
Suddenly, Sheriff Simon Webb and Deputy C.J. Mason stormed into the saloon, guns drawn. With the shout of a growling bulldog, Webb hollered, “Drop your guns!” His style with cowpokes was to overwhelm them with shock and awe, which usually rattled them enough to acquiesce. But not tonight.
The startled cowpoke whipped his pistol around and fired at Webb. The bullet hit Webb in the chest and spun him around. Jake immediately emptied his shotgun on the cowpoke, who flew back a good ten feet from the impact. He was dead before he hit the ground. The second cowpoke fired back at Jake, but missed as the bullet tore a chunk out of the support beam that Jake hid behind. Mason drew on the remaining cowpoke and dropped him with a single shot.
“Oh, my God!” he gasped as he went down. He died on the floor. The crowd remained frozen for a few seconds to be sure the fighting was over. Jake inspected the fallen cowboys and nodded to Mason, who turned to see his boss lying on the saloon floor in a pool of blood. He dropped to his knee and held Webb in his arms, as the life slowly left his eyes. Without a word, Webb slowly exhaled and his eyes turned vacant.
After a brief investigation, Ed Randolph, the county marshal, pronounced Jake and Mason innocent of any wrongful death – strictly a case of self-defense. Mason sat at the undertaker’s office to oversee the preparation of Simon Webb for his burial, and to commiserate with Samuel Stokes, the undertaker. Sam and Mason had cultivated a solid friendship over the years. Sam was about 15 years older than Mason, and seemed to Mason almost a father figure. Sam had studied medicine for several years but never got his degree. But that didn’t stop local folks from seeking his medical care for their aches and pains and broken bones. He relished the role of doctor. It gave him the satisfaction of filling a vital need in the community, and afforded his wife Elinor endless bragging rights with the society ladies that she was married to a doctor.
However, as Coulson continued to grow, two young legitimate doctors hung out their shingle and basically put Sam out of the doctoring business. He settled on a career of tending to those past all medical help – the dead – and he inherited the job of “undertaker” when the previous mortician passed away. He kind of liked a job where your customers never complain. It was sort of a peaceful line of work.
And he could use the peace. His wife deeply resented his new chosen profession, and never forgave him for leaving medical school. Their marriage descended into a relentless squabble-fest over the most inconsequential matters. At first, he accepted her criticisms as part of the bargain in the “for better or worse” clause of their wedding vows. But the proverbial “last straw” that broke his back occurred the day she excoriated him for pouring gravy into the gravy boat the wrong way – as if there was a right way. At that moment something inside his heart died. He knew he would never leave her, but his home just became God’s great waiting room for the two of them.
Sam enjoyed Mason’s easy going ways and willingness to learn. They would sit in his office of an afternoon while Sam shared his pearls of wisdom, gleaned from his vast personal library. He basically became Mason’s mentor, and Mason loved it. It was education by individual instruction, like a father to a son.
One theme he repeatedly stressed with Mason was to “trust your instincts.”
“Never base your decisions strictly on what others say you should do,” he lectured. “If you look inside yourself you’ll find the truth.” Sam never tired of reminding Mason that a camel was a horse that was built by a committee.
The mayor and the city council were sick of the lawless behavior in Coulson. They knew Sheriff Webb did his best to maintain order, but they felt he was not aggressive enough to root out gangs and bullies who gravitated to this community. Coulson was never going to become an inviting place for families to call home as long as ruffians could ride rough shod with no consequence.
In a closed session, the city fathers agreed to offer Mason the job of sheriff at the young age of 25. Mason immediately went to Sam Stokes for advice.
“Take the job,” Sam advised. “Webb would have approved.”
“But I’m only 25. You think I’m ready?”
“Horse shit. Morgan Earp was Deputy Marshal for Wichita when he was only 24. You’re plenty ready,” said Sam.
Mason met with the city fathers for his marching orders. “We are deeply troubled by the wanton killing of Sheriff Webb,” the mayor began. “But unfortunately, Coulson seems to have a reputation as a safe haven for outlaws, murderers and criminals. We want that reputation extinguished, squashed without hesitation. Do you get my meaning?”
“I believe I do,” Mason said. “But just to be clear, are you giving me a free hand to dispense justice as I see fit without the formality of a trial?”
“We want you to put the fear of God into anyone who poses a menace to Coulson,” explained the mayor. “As far as I’m concerned, you can shoot first, then ask permission.”
Mason did not reply. He just sat and thought about it to see if the concept would take root.
“Listen, Mason, we want any scoundrel thinking of making mischief to ride wide of Coulson. Are we clear?”
“I’ll need a deputy,” Mason said.
“Then you got yourself a sheriff,” Mason concluded.
The funeral for Simon Webb was attended by most everyone in the city. The cemetery was full to overflowing. Sheriff Webb had served Coulson for over 25 years and was respected by all. He had stepped in harm’s way countess times to maintain law and order at great personal risk, and his death was a loss sorely felt.
At the edge of the cemetery Thorn stood, hat in hand, waiting for the service to end. As the mourners filed out, Mason, wearing his shiny new sheriff badge, spotted Thorn and took him aside.
“There’s an opening for a deputy, if you’re interested.”
“I’ll take it,” Thorn said.
Book Formats Available:
A Mason & Thorn Western Series
Book 2: The Big Horn
The Big Horn Ch. 1 Audio Sample
The Big Horn Ch. 2 Audio Sample
Sixty miles west and a mere thirty years after the debacle at the Little Big Horn, the town of Coulson, Montana was all grown up. The 20th century had arrived six years ago, and for some it couldn’t have happened soon enough. The city fathers had big plans for this town. It could even become the San Francisco of the Northern Plains if they played their cards right. Clapboard buildings were being replaced with brick. Gas lit street lights bathed the main streets with a warm glow at night. Muddy dirt roads were giving way to cobble stone. And even horses, those manure machines, were being replaced with automobiles. Not many in 1906, but enough to let folks see what the future looked like.
Yes, sir. The future looked good. At least for some, if not for all. Old ways die hard, and traditions are like religion – if it was good enough for your grandpappy, it should be good enough for you. Today the clash between the old and the new was about to play out again on Minnesota Avenue. Cowboys on horseback and gas-powered vehicles just seemed unable to share the road. Disagreements between horseman and motorist often began with shouts, escalated to fists, and occasionally ended in lead.
Right now some young jasper at the far end of the street was riding his brand spankin’ new $200 motorbike from some eastern manufacturing company called Harley-Davidson. It was noisy, smelly, and sounded like it wanted to explode. This young fool was treating the town to his dubious skills as he weaved from one side of the street to the other. Pedestrians dropped bags of groceries, others dived for alleyways, horses bucked and reared in fright, dumping their riders onto the ground.
A trio of cowboys loafing in front of the Atlas Saloon watched the spectacle until they by-god had seen enough.
“Watch this,” one of them announced, as he reached for his lariat hanging on his saddle horn. As the motorbike rider made another pass, the cowboy swung his lariat into the air with the ease of man who made his living roping moving targets. His aim was true and he lassoed that rider by dropping the loop over his head and around his chest, pinning both arms to his side. In an instant he yanked the rider off the motorbike, landing him hard on his rump. The riderless motorbike continued down the street, careening wildly until it crashed into a hitching post in front of the barber shop.
His cowboy buddies let out a rodeo cheer. And most of the pedestrians breathed a momentary sigh of relief, until their benefactor got ugly. Not content to restore order to the street, he decided to dish out some cowboy justice to this impudent tenderfoot. With his hand still tight around his lariat, he swung up into the saddle of his horse and began dragging the hapless motorist the length of Minnesota Avenue and back. His pards roared their approval, but most folks on the street began shouting at the cowboy to stop before somebody got killed.
Full of himself, the cowboy decided to make another pass, when another lariat sailed into the air and caught him around the waist. As he felt the rope tighten, he dropped his lariat and reached for the rope that now held him prisoner. Before he could extricate himself, it jerked tight and pulled him off his horse, landing him flat on his back. As he tried to get to his feet a tall imposing figure grabbed him by the collar and sent him sprawling to the ground again with a crashing fist to the jaw.
His name was Mason – C.J. Mason, sergeant with the Coulson Police Department. He just finished a late lunch at the Oasis café and stepped outside to let his bowl of chili settle. The weather was warm this afternoon, blue skies interrupted by occasional white puffy clouds that looked like cotton, and the light breeze made it good to be outside. But the sudden clamor down the street demanded a lawman’s decisive action.
As the subdued cowboy looked up from the ground, he saw Mason standing above him, slowly coiling up his rope and shaking his head in disapproval.
This cowpoke’s other two saddle pals were not so ready to call it even. Mason’s abrupt termination of their fun was an affront to their pride and, law or no law, they were going to settle up right now. Running towards Mason, the two rambunctious cowpokes unwisely pulled their pistols and snapped off a few poorly aimed shots at Mason. One bullet shattered a window across the street, and the other crashed into the upper door jamb of the livery stable. They might have been pros with a rope, but they were clowns with a gun. Still, they had to be taught a lesson.
Mason whirled around, drawing his pistol from its holster at the same time, thumbing the hammer back and firing at one of the cowboys, hitting the crown of his hat and blowing it clean off his head. The stunned cowboy stopped dead in his tracks. He couldn’t have been more surprised if he’d been dealt a fifth ace in a poker game. The other instantly threw his gun away and surrendered.
As fast as it started, the fracas ended. Mason congratulated himself for a job well done, until he scanned the boardwalks and saw the expressions on some of the onlookers. Mothers were hunkered down, shielding their children from stray bullets, and store owners huddled together, whispering their outrage and calculating the loss of business. He turned and offered his apologies – “Sorry. Couldn’t be helped.” Then he turned and escorted the remorseful cowboys to the police station.
Mason was old school. At the age of 40 he was steeped in frontier justice. After 15 years a lawman, he had developed a few essential rules: meet aggression with superior aggression, in the street dead or alive is up to them, and it’s not over until you’ve crushed the will – not just the ability – to resist. Once a man takes a shot at you, you have to believe he means it. That’s how you stay alive. And while Coulson was evolving into a civilized community, the law of the gun still lingered. As it turned out, these three cowpokes were just bullies bent on malicious mischief, a mild threat by any measure. Even so, it all had to stop, and that was Mason’s job.
Fifteen years ago the Coulson city fathers gave him that job, with a free hand to dispense justice and impose the law as he saw fit. Even though Montana had been granted statehood in 1889, it had an unsavory reputation as a haven for law breakers. “Dutch” Henry Yeuch and the outlaws of the Big Muddy Creek valley terrorized settlers of northeastern Montana and southern Canada with horse thievery, kidnapping, and robbery. “Long” Henry Thompson, the “terror of eastern Montana,” was a notorious gunman and killer. Con Murphy, the “Jesse James of Montana” was finally hanged, as was Stephen Marshland – A road agent in Montana and thought to have been a member of Henry Plummer’s gang.
Mason was well suited for the clean-up task. As a kid out of Wyoming, he was a fearless wrangler and a born leader, with an innate sense of fair play. He was tall, broad-shouldered and rawboned, respected by all who knew him. He could size a man up, good or bad, by the look in his eye and jut of his chin. There were few men he would walk down a dark alley with, but once you proved yourself, Mason would stand by you, win, lose, or draw.
Under Mason’s tenure as sheriff, the worst of the worst were rounded up and hanged. Banks were fortified, gunplay in the streets ended, cattle and horse thievery shrank, and a thankful citizenry welcomed Mason whenever he walked in the door.
In the name of progress, Coulson chose to create a formal structured police department in 1903. A political insider with questionable credentials was selected as Chief of Police, an obvious slight to Mason. As a courtesy to Mason for his years of service, he was offered the rank of sergeant and invited to join the fledgling police force. Although rankled by the snub, he accepted his new position, and even submitted to wearing the standard police uniform, a navy blue dress coat with brass buttons and a ridiculous looking pith helmet. Hot, uncomfortable, and gaudy, the getup looked like a cross between military dress and the Salvation Army.
The Chief of Police considered Mason a relic, and wanted him gone. For the last three years Mason was assigned street patrol, a largely symbolic duty involving walking the streets to check door knobs and to project the image of law and order. The Chief was betting that Mason’s ego would chafe and he would simply resign.
Today’s mayhem on Minnesota Avenue was another reminder of the violent past that was Coulson’s unsavory heritage. A hastily gathered clutch of city leaders quietly convened and a vote was taken to get rid of Mason.
Mason was chatting with the desk sergeant in the police station, where the three cowpokes had just been incarcerated. Mason was in high spirits. The two got to joking.
“So, he told me how to stop a grizzly bear from attacking you,” chuckled the desk sergeant.
“Oh, really,” replied Mason. “How?”
“Throw fresh shit in his eyes.”
“OK, and where exactly are you gonna get fresh shit at that particular moment?” asked Mason.
“Just reach around the back of your britches – you’ll find a fresh load,” roared the desk sergeant. Mason joined him.
At that moment the door opened and a timid councilman entered. He was dressed in his suit and trying to be worthy of his important office.
“Mason, you’re needed over at the town hall,” he offered. The two policemen exchanged a curious glance with each other.
“Promotion?” suggested the desk sergeant.
As soon as Mason walked into the town hall, he could tell this was no award ceremony. It looked more like an ambush. The Chief of Police and two city councilmen were waiting for him.
“Have a seat, Sgt. Mason,” ordered the Chief. He was an imposing bully of a man, with a menacing demeanor. Mason stopped short and eyed the councilman who brought him in.
“The Chief of Police would like a word,” he stuttered, clearing his throat. The councilman pointed to an open chair for Mason and skittered over to his own chair. Mason sat down uneasily and studied the other men in the room. The Chief began.
“Mason, I’ve talked to you before about your heavy-handed methods.”
“Those three cowhands today?” Mason replied.
“That gunplay in the street,” the Chief countered.
Mason was bewildered. “You thought that was heavy-handed?” One of the councilmen chimed in.
“They’re still alive, aren’t they?” Mason reminded everyone.
“Mason, the only reason you’re not in jail now is out of respect for the 15 years you were sheriff here,” growled the Chief.
“If you think I broke some law with those cowpokes, then go ahead an arrest me,” Mason replied. The councilman intervened.
“Nobody’s arresting anybody,” he urged.
“It’s just that your methods are entirely obsolete.”
“Nobody thought I was being heavy-handed when I rooted out the Butler gang when they were riding rough-shod over this town,” snapped Mason.
The other councilman attempted clarification. “I agree that things used to be uncivilized here, but those days are past. We have a police department now, and we want a peaceful place to raise our children.”
Mason started steaming. “I was restoring the peace.”
“This isn’t the first time you’ve bashed in a few heads,” the Chief noted. “I told you a few months ago – either get with the times or else.”
“Or else what?” Mason snarled.
The Chief could see that attempting reason was getting them nowhere. “Mason, I didn’t want it to come to this, but it’s time for you to retire.”
Mason couldn’t believe his ears. “To what?”
The Chief knew this day was coming, and it might as well be now. “I’m sorry, but you’re just not what this town needs anymore. I’m punching your ticket. You’re done.”
At the very moment Mason was getting his walking papers, a few blocks away four shadowy characters began scuffling in an alley way, between the Crystal Palace Saloon and the dry goods store. In the twilight of the evening, the gas lit street lights offered some flickering visibility, but the figures in the alley were still hard to make out. However, the clatter was starting to draw attention. Thorn Hickum, one of the passers-by, suddenly stopped. Thorn was in his 40’s and retired from the military, where he had served in the Spanish-American War. He still wore his campaign hat and leggings as a reminder to others that he was, and maybe still is, someone to reckon with.
It was hard to tell if the action in the alley was friendly or hostile, but suddenly one of the silhouetted men screamed out, “Help! Somebody help me!”
Thorn shouted back, “Hey, you in there – what’s going on?” To his shock, one of the shadowy figures drew his gun and fired at the man crying for help, who crumpled to the ground. That was enough for Thorn, who immediately drew his pistol. “What the hell…” he muttered. With his gun aimed at the alley, he shouted to anyone listening, “Somebody get the police.” A school boy went running for help.
Thorn instinctively turned sideways to present less of a target, and growled, “All of you get the hell out of there or I’m coming in.”
That was all it took. Immediately the three remaining silhouetted figures began firing their pistols at Thorn. Their aim was poor, but one bullet kicked up dirt at his feet. Thorn remained cool and returned fire, hitting one of the assailants. The other two lost interest in the fight and retreated into the darkness of the alley. For a moment Thorn stared into the darkness, as a crowd began to gather. He slowly entered the alley, gun drawn, listening for sounds of motion. In a moment he was standing over two dead bodies.
The exchange of gunfire could be heard all the way to the town hall. Looking out of the window, the Chief of Police called out, “What the hell was that?”
“Sounds like some of that damned uncivilized gunplay,” Mason jabbed.
The door to the town hall flung open and the school boy from the scene burst in. “Come quick. Somebody’s been shot outside the Crystal Palace.” Just then the sounds of two more shots rang in the distance, and the councilmen become livid. They descended on the Chief.
“You’re supposed to put a stop to this. If you can’t, we’ll find someone else,” threatened one of the councilmen. The Chief bristled.
“What the hell! Mason!” he shouted.
“Don’t look at me. I don’t work here anymore,” said Mason.
“Your shift’s not over yet. Go check it out and put a stop to it, that is, if you want your last paycheck.”
The Coulson undertaker’s office was near the end of the street, next to the livery stable, where the hearse was stored. The name on the window read: “Samuel Stokes – Undertaker.” Sam was a fixture in Coulson. He had tried his hand at medicine in his early years, but never finished medical school. That didn’t stop ranchers from calling on him in the 1870’s when there was no better qualified doctor around. But as Coulson grew, the need for an actual licensed doctor brought two young and capable professionals to town, which put Sam out of the medical business.
He turned to undertaking, much to the humiliation of his wife, who used to delight in telling her society friends that she was married to a doctor. She never forgave him for washing out of medical school, and bitterly resented his new line of work. Now in his 50’s, his wife had expired of pneumonia, and he was reconciled to his profession of preparing bodies for their final journey to the great beyond.
Mason first met Sam when he was a young sheriff. Their lines of work often intersected. Mason would punch an outlaw’s ticket, and Sam would send him on his way. The two became close friends and would often steal away to the open range to hunt elk together. Sam was never good at it, but enjoyed getting away from his insufferable wife, even if it meant sleeping on the cold ground for a few nights.
The skirmish in the alley just brought two new customers to his establishment, and he was busy with the paperwork needed to properly plant these fellows. In his day, Sam buried every strata of humanity, from politicians to paupers, religious leaders to convicted criminals. The two before him tonight were his least favorite – total strangers. That meant an extra bother to track down the next of kin to pay for the funeral.
Mason cantered past the Crystal Palace Saloon, and saw that all the hubbub had dissipated, so he continued on to the undertaker’s office to see if anyone had died in the shootings. He took note of two surly strangers lingering across the street. He could tell immediately they didn’t belong. They weren’t engaged in conversation, which is what you would expect from regular folks. These characters were both staring across the street at the undertaker’s office, an odd behavior under any circumstance, but given the recent gunplay, he thought they might be friends of the deceased. He gave them a second glance as he dismounted, tied off his horse, and entered Sam’s front door.
Mason removed his hat upon entering, an almost reflexive gesture to honor the dead.
“Sam,” was Mason’s single word greeting. It meant, “Hello, my good friend. Good to see you. It has been awhile.”
“Mason,” was Sam’s standard one-word reply, which meant, “What the hell took you so long? And why didn’t you bring me a sandwich?”
Mason stepped on a loose floor board and almost tripped. It had been needing repair for over a year, and Mason was getting sick of it.
“Sam, when are you going to fix that damned floor board?
Sam ignored Mason’s nagging, which was starting to sound like his old wife.
“You missed all the excitement just now,” he countered, as he finished some paperwork. Mason made a cursory examination of the two corpses.
“Uh huh. So, what happened here? He asked. Sam offered his clinical summary.
“We had a little fracas outside the dry goods in the alley. It appears that this one killed this one, and then started shooting at Thorn Hickum, which he did not appreciate – as you can see,” Sam concluded, pointing to the second corpse.
“Where’s Thorn now?” Mason asked.
“Waiting for you at the Crystal Palace,” Sam replied.
Outside, the two strangers across the street made their move. They approached Sam’s establishment. The front door slowly opened as Sam and Mason continued talking. The first stranger eased into the room, gun drawn. He was hard bitten and brutish. Mason was still chatting with Sam.
“Either of these two got a name?” he asked.
The stranger butted in with the answer.
“That one there on the left is my dead partner,” he snarled.
Mason spun around instinctively as his hand dropped to his colt. The stranger already had the drop on Mason.
“Don’t do it. You’re not fast enough,” the stranger warned. Mason took one look in his eyes and saw death. Just then his partner entered the room from the back door, gun drawn. Mason could see that his intuitions out on the street were right on. The stranger continued the introductions,
“And that’s my alive partner over there,” he smiled. “So, just drop your guns and step back.” Mason dropped his gun. The stranger looked expectantly at Sam.
“I’m not armed,” Sam noted, with his right arm in the air. The stranger pointed at one of the bodies.
“This man has something I want, and I mean to have it. So, back the hell up,” demanded the stranger. Mason and Sam complied. As the stranger stepped forward, Mason noticed that he was about to step on that pesky loose floor board.
“Help yourself,” Sam offered.
The stranger moved toward the exam tables, but stepped on the loose board. The board finally gave way and his leg sank into the sub-floor up to his hip. He tried to get off an unbalanced shot as Mason grabbed for his own gun from the floor. The Stranger missed, but Mason’s aim was better, ending the stranger with his first shot. He then whirled to face the back door partner. They both got off a wasted panic shot as they dropped behind furniture while Sam squatted behind a table.
Mason searched quickly for an advantage, noticing a row of bottles and jars on the shelf above the crouching Stranger. A quick read of the labels and he found the one he wanted – “Embalming Fluid”. He took a shot at the bottle, which shattered, spraying the partner with its contents. The chemicals burned his eyes like fire.
He screamed and stood up, firing blindly. Mason ended him with a final bullet. He fell on top of the mysterious victim on the table, and both bodies fell to the floor.
“You were saying something about my floor boards?” Sam asked. Mason nodded in appreciation for Sam’s procrastinations.
“Who is this guy, and what does he have?” Mason queried.
“If you’ll help me get him back on the table, I’ll check his pockets,” replied Sam. The two grabbed both ends of the mystery man to hoist him up. Sam grabbed his legs by the boots, but one of his boots slipped off as Sam lifted. The leg flopped to the ground and a heavy object dropped out of his boot, landing on the floor with a “thunk.”
“What the hell was that?” asked Mason. They both leaned over to see a 9-oz gold bar lying on the floor. Mason picked it up to examine it. It was stamped with the name and emblem of the Bozeman Mining Company, dated 1876.
Sam smiled. “Well, ain’t that fellow downright considerate. He just paid for everybody’s funeral.”
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Book 3: The Treasure of Bittercreek
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Just as Tom Reed stepped into the cellar of his stylish New York City Victorian style home for another bottle of wine, an explosion rocked the house to its foundation. The blast shook two city blocks and could be heard a mile away. The dwelling was flattened, with bits of roof shingles scattered over the neighborhood. As he pulled himself out of the rubble, he stared in shock as local firemen poured water on the blaze in vain hopes of saving the structure. Neighbors gathered in search of survivors. There were none. His wife and two children that he left at the dinner table for a new bottle of red, were charred beyond recognition. Tom quickly retreated into the shadows to avoid notice. Gripped with panic, he knew he had but one chance, and that was to run for his life.
Tom was an 1893 graduate of the Columbia College School of Mining, with expertise in the properties of various precious minerals, including gold, silver and copper. He stood about six feet, clean shaven with a ruddy complexion. While he wore a business suit well, he was equally at home in rugged back country gear. He was 30 years old and fit as a boxer.
By 1902 Tom worked his way up the ranks to a position with the New York office of the Federal Bureau of Land Management. As he sipped morning coffee in his office, reading the business section of the New York Times, his attention turned to an article celebrating the remarkable success of the American Allied Mining Company (AAMC), with stunning revenue numbers from its copper mines in Arizona.
“Tom?” said his boss, Stanford Williams, angling his head in Tom’s doorway.
“Stan, if you’re looking for the mineral reports, I won’t have’em till this afternoon.” Tom offered. Stan pointed down the hall.
“Would you join us in the meeting room?”
The meeting room featured a large conference table in the center, with several topographical maps of various regions of the United States and its territories hanging on the walls. A dozen executives from various federal departments sat around the table, bristling in heated debate. Stan and Tom entered the room.
“Gentlemen, you all know Thomas Reed,” said Stan. “He’s one of our claims inspectors.” Tom shook a few hands within reach then took a seat.
“Tom, for those who may be new here, why don’t you give us a quick overview of your responsibilities,” Stan said. Tom nodded and turned to the group.
“Glad to. Like Stan said, it’s my job to ensure that mining operations in the US Territories are lawful and proper.”
“And how exactly do you do that?” interrupted one of the members at the table. Tom detected a little edge to his voice.
“I’m sorry. I don’t think we’ve met,” Tom countered. Stan intervened.
“This is Henry Douglas. He’s with the Justice Department.” Then pointing to the far end of the table, “And these gentlemen are with the Department of the Interior.” Tom looked each man in the eye as he rotated his gaze around the table.
“Fine,” said Tom. “My job is to verify that mining companies are confining themselves to the geographic boundaries of the claim they filed with the Bureau.”
“I hope you don’t mind me getting right to the point,” inserted Charlie Harrison, a dark-haired man with a thick mustache.
“But that’s exactly why we’re here. Yesterday my boss over at the Interior Department jumped all into my chili about the widespread mining claim violations across the country, and demanded to know what we are doing about it. According to him, claim jumping is a bigger plague than malaria.”
“I assure you that here at the Bureau of Land Management we aggressively oversee all claims in the US territories,” Stan defended his team.
Henry Douglas raised his hand. “Over at the Justice Department my people are telling me that the district courts are chokin’ with cases of mining claim violations. I’m not sayin’ you’re not being aggressive,” as he gave a nod to Stan, “I’m just sayin’ we gotta get downright ugly and make it so it just ain’t worth it to poach somebody else’s claim. You need me to translate that?” No one replied. They got his meaning. Charlie pulled some papers out of a valise and passed them down to Stan.
“For starters here’s what we’re doing over at the Interior Department. Stan, this list is every mining claim filed in the United States in the last twelve months.” The list ran for several pages. “We are assigning our inspectors to divvy these up and make a personal inspection of each and every one to make sure that the mining location and the claim filed are one and the same. I’m suggesting that you folks do the same with claims filed in the territories.” Stan slowly nodded in agreement. Charlie summed it up.
“This is a new century. You don’t see widespread horse thievin’ anymore, do you? You know why? ‘Cause we hung the bastards, that’s why. Now, let’s get to work.”
It took a few days to collect a complete list of all mining claims filed in the US Territories in the past 12 months, but when the list was dealt out to the Bureau’s inspectors, Tom knocked on Stan’s door.
“Come on in, Tom,” said Stan. “What’s on your mind?”
“The list of claims assigned to me,” Tom began. “I was wondering if I could swap out one of mine for the American Allied Mining Company, whoever’s got it.”
“Why? What’s your interest?” asked Stan.
“According to their records, their operations are out in Arizona, and they’re strictly copper.”
“So?” Stan shrugged.
“My specialty at Columbia College was copper. I did a summer internship with my mineralogy professor out in Arizona, so I know the lay of the land, and I could spot anything irregular in their mining operations that somebody else might miss.” Stan gave it a moment’s thought.
“Fair enough.” Stan scanned through his assignment list. “Why don’t you give Jarrod your Oklahoma inspection, and you take the Arizona job.” Tom revealed a relieved smile.
Tom spent the morning pouring through the files of the American Allied Mining Company. It was a new upstart, only six months old, but they were reporting amazing success. They already reported large quantities of copper ore from their mines. Production numbers dwarfed any other Arizona copper mine, of which there were many. This piqued Tom’s curiosity. He pulled their title claim from the records room and mapped out the coordinates of the property description – it was located in the Warren District of Arizona. The claim was named the “Copperhead Claim.” He fired off a telegram to the local Territorial Marshal of his travel plans and the need for an escort to the mining camp.
As he packed for the trip, his wife, Sarah, quizzed him.
“Where are you going exactly?”
“It’s close to Bisbee, Arizona. I won’t be long.”
“That’s a long trip,” she spoke the obvious to break the silence in the room. Tom made no reply – just kept packing. She sighed softly.
“Is it dangerous out there?” Her tone clearly betrayed her vague worry.
“I might get a sun burn – that’s about all,” Tom smiled. He stopped folding his field clothes and gave Sarah a hug.
“This is just a site inspection, that’s all. Nothing to worry about. I’ll check out the operations, have a beer at the local bar and be back home before you know it.”
Before he left, he gave his wife a kiss, hugged his two children, and promised to return with a souvenir or two.
Six days later his train pulled into the Southern Pacific depot at Bisbee in the late afternoon. Tom gathered his bags and walked inside the building. He was stunned at the growth of this little community since he had last seen it nine years ago. Bisbee was founded as a copper, gold, and silver mining town in 1880, and just a few months ago it got officially incorporated. Tucked in the valley of the Mule Mountains, the town was booming. Main street buildings looked like Denver with handsome two-story brick structures, and horse-drawn wagons shared the streets with automobiles. Population was soaring and mines were yielding the mother lode of minerals, especially copper. Streets were bustling all day and saloons lit up the night.
Tom waited inside the depot to stay out of the heat of the day. It was in the high 90’s with 20% humidity. He could feel the sweat trickling down his neck as he looked out the window.
“You must be Tom Reed,” declared Sam Boswell as he approached. Sam was the Arizona Deputy US Marshall. Tom shot to his feet and turned.
“Yes, I am, and you would be?” Sam grabbed Tom’s hand and gave it a solid shake.
“Sam Boswell. Welcome to Bisbee.” Sam looked as crusty as a dried-up orange peel, with deep age lines creased into his sunbaked face.
“I forgot how hot it gets out here,” Tom said. Sam smiled.
“At least it’s a dry heat. Let’s get you set up over at the hotel. I’ve got you a room and some clean sheets.” He eyed the mix of dust and sweat that caked Tom’s neck. “You could just about stand a bath, too, I’d wager.”
“Since you offered,” Tom smiled. He followed Sam out the door, where two mounts stood tethered to a hitching post.
“I got you a good horse for our little adventure tomorrow. I trust you’re saddle ready.” Tom offered a look of resignation.
“Ready and raw.”
Sam got Tom settled in, then the two walked over to the Copper Queen Saloon. The evening was young and customers were full of beans and bull. No sooner had they grabbed a table, a rowdy miner began ranting at the bartender.
“What’s the problem? Why can’t I pay my tab with a gold nugget?” the flustered miner objected loud enough to be heard by everyone nearby.
“Cause this ain’t no assay office and I ain’t no gold expert,” protested the bartender. The miner took the nugget and rubbed it on his shirt sleeve to bring out its luster.
“Well, you can see it’s gold. Lookie here at that shiny yellow. That’s gold,” the miner insisted. The bartender waved him off.
“And I said hit the road.” The miner grabbed the bartender’s shirt and looked like he was about to beat some religion into him, when the bartender deftly pulled out a club from behind the counter. Tom stood up and called out.
“Hold on, you two,” he shouted. They both froze, expecting the stranger to pull a gun. When they saw he wasn’t packing or wearing a badge, the bartender waved Tom off.
“Mind your own business, buster. This ain’t your concern.”
“On the contrary, if you’ll unhand each other, I believe I can settle this for you,” Tom said as he stepped forward. The two antagonists eased their grip on each other to see what this stranger had in mind.
“Let me see that nugget,” Tom said to the miner. The miner tossed it to him. Tom let it play in his hand for a moment, noting its weight and color.
“I will say it kinda looks like gold when it’s all buffed up, but I’m afraid what you got here is a nugget of copper.” The miner was outraged.
“The hell you say! I bought that off a prospector just this morning. He said it was pure gold.”
“How much did you pay for it?” Tom asked.
“He took a hundred dollars for it,” the miner said with a chuckle. “And everybody knows a pound of gold is worth over $300.” Tom reached into his vest pocket and pulled out a $20 gold piece.
“I hate to be the one to break it to you, but he sold you a pound of copper. Now, I admit they look alike, but gold is a soft metal -” Tom displayed the $20 gold piece in one hand, “- and copper is a hard metal,” as he held up the nugget of copper in the other hand for comparison. “Copper will scratch gold but gold cannot scratch copper.” He tossed both the nugget and the $20 gold piece to the miner.
“Go ahead, see for yourself. Try to scratch the copper nugget with the gold coin.” The miner swallowed his pride and did what Tom asked as everyone in the saloon suddenly took interest and leaned in for a closer look. He was right – the coin would not scratch the nugget. “Now, scratch the coin with the nugget,” Tom continued his little demonstration. The miner reluctantly complied, and sure enough the nugget put a scratch in the gold coin. The spectators buzzed with excitement over this spontaneous lesson in mineralogy. The miner looked dejected at the thought of being duped.
“How much is this nugget really worth?” he sheepishly asked Tom.
“A pound of copper?” Tom thought for a moment. “About three bucks.” The miner cringed as the crowd taunted him for his gullibility. Tom collected his coin and returned to his table.
“Hey, mister – who are you, anyway?” asked the bartender.
“Federal mining inspector,” Tom said, then sat down. Several customers remained standing. Tom looked at everyone for a moment, then figured it out, and stood back up.
“How many more of you fell for that copper nugget swindle?” About 15 people raised their hands. Sam Boswell shook his head.
“I can see you’re gonna be popular around here.”
The next morning Sam and Tom rode on horseback into the back country in search of the Copperhead Claim. The coordinates put the claim several miles east of Bisbee. By noon they came up to a line of barbed wire fencing and a sign reading “Copperhead Claim. Private Property. No Trespassing. American Allied Mining Company, New York City, New York.” Tom scanned the horizon for any signs of a mining operation. Nothing.
“Well, this, uh…” his words trailed off as he found himself speechless. He looked at Sam, who simply shrugged his shoulders. Tom turned and busted open the gate. The two rode in and searched for any signs of activity. There was none – not a mine or an open pit, not a tent, no old campfire ashes, not a sign of any human activity. They rode their horses around the site until they came across an old skeleton of a steer, baked to pure white from endless days in the searing heat.
“You know what that steer thought to himself just before he died?” Tom said.
“What?” Sam asked.
“At least it’s a dry heat.”
Sam chuckled. They rode on.
“What the hell is going on?” Tom muttered out loud. “According AAMC financial records, this claim is supposed to be pulling out 150 tons of copper ore a month.”
“Are you kidding me?” Sam replied.
“I expected to see a hundred miners, railroad cars, conveyor belts, crushing equipment, open pits or mining tunnels. You know anything about this claim?”
“No. I never been out here before. I don’t know anyone who has.”
“Well, if that don’t beat the skin off a drum…” Tom muttered.
They returned to Bisbee, and Tom asked around. He spoke to the other mining operators, the assay office, local authorities, hardware stores, blacksmiths, anyone who might have serviced this claim. Tom had to conclude this property was untouched since the day of creation.
The train ride back to New York gave Tom a chance to sort out this mystery. He knew that AAMC was smelting and selling copper – that was no hoax. So they had to be getting copper from somewhere. Why would they claim to be getting it from Arizona if it wasn’t true? He could only conclude that they had a secret mining operation going on somewhere else. If it was their land, then why hide it? Unless it wasn’t their land. That thought started Tom fuming. This had to be the most flagrant instance of claim jumping he’d ever seen, and right under his jurisdiction. What he did not know was the utter ruthlessness of the men he was about to cross swords with.
The owner of AAMC was Frank Morgan, a cold-blooded businessman who made millions in underhanded land deals that swindled people out of land deeds in Nebraska. He was never convicted of any crimes and snuck out of Nebraska before irate citizens strung him up. He surfaced in New York as the new owner of the American Allied Mining Company, determined to cash in on the copper craze going on in the country. With his son, Michael, he circumvented the mining claim laws to line his pockets with countless more millions.
Tom marched into the New York City office and demanded an audience with Frank Morgan. Waving around his credentials with the Bureau of Land Management, the company could not exactly ignore him. Tom was ushered into the company’s spacious board room while the principals were rounded up.
“All right. You have our attention. Now what can we do for the federal government?” Frank asked with forced politeness. Tom stood up and got right to the point.
“Where are you getting your copper?”
“Excuse me,” he answered. “You have our mining claim on file.”
“Don’t bother to tell me that it’s coming from your Copperhead claim in Arizona.” Frank was not sure how to reply. Tom continued.
“I went there myself. That’s right, all the way out to Bisbee. I walked your claim. You got nothing happening out there.” Tom stopped to read any facial reactions on the faces of his audience. They all looked like the proverbial cat that swallowed the canary. “Yet your annual report states that you are extracting 150 tons of copper ore a month, and primarily district shipping ore. That’s odd, because most Arizona mines are yielding milling ore. Now either your claim lists the wrong location of the mine, or you’re mining copper somewhere else. Anybody care to explain?”
The executives all looked at each other to see who might cook up an excuse that this federal agent would swallow. They all resembled a cage of monkeys trying to figure out who had the banana. Finally, Frank Morgan cleared his throat.
“I don’t think I like your tone,” he said.
“My tone? That’s your answer? That’s all you got?” Tom was flabbergasted at their cavalier posture. Frank’s son, Michael Morgan, attempted intimidation.
“You think you got the juice to walk in here and go toe-to-toe with us, you don’t know who you’re messing with.” Tom cut him short.
“I’ll be back tomorrow morning with the Department of the Interior and a US Marshal. We’ll see who’s got the juice. If we find you’ve been mining on somebody else’s land, somebody’s going to jail. Have a nice day.” With that, Tom turned on his heels and marched out the door. The conference room was silent as all eyes turned to Frank Morgan. He calmly looked out the window for a moment, then slowly examined his own finely manicured finger nails. Looking up at no one in particular, he spoke deliberately.
“I want him dead before the day is over. Be sure you include his wife and kids.”
“Anything else?” Michael asked.
“Yeah. Just to be safe, kill his boss too.” Then he walked out of the room.
* * * *
That night Tom and his family gathered around the dinner table for a lovely meal. Sarah prepared a roast to celebrate Tom’s return from Arizona. Before the meal was served, he distributed to his two children the trinkets he purchased out west. They squealed with delight. Then Tom poured the wine for Sarah and himself. He was still stunned at the untimely death of his boss Stan Williams, mysteriously struck that afternoon outside his office by a runaway freight wagon.
Outside, three goons lurked in the shadows, among them Michael Morgan himself. They watched from a distance through the dining room window as the Reed family enjoyed their last meal on earth. Tom emptied the bottle of wine, then rose to fetch another. No sooner did he enter his wine cellar, an explosion detonated with such force that it flattened the house in a fireball that could be seen and heard for blocks.
Neighbors rushed to the scene, but the flames were too intense for anyone to approach. Fire trucks arrived and firemen began pouring water on the inferno. After an hour the fire reduced to smoke and steam. Workers sifted through rubble. At the far end of the foundation charred planks that covered the cellar moved, and under the cloud of smoke and shadows Tom emerged, covered in soot and ashes. He staggered into the darkness as firemen dug through the remains on the far side. Shaken and disoriented, he sat near the tree line of his back yard, collecting his wits. He could hear men talking about the dead woman and children pulled from the debris, and his heart stuck in his throat. Stricken with grief, he dropped to the ground in anguish.
As he randomly scanned the crowd of onlookers, he spotted a familiar face – Michael Morgan stood watching the firemen at work with a smirk on his face. He recognized that face as the man that talked about “the juice” from the meeting earlier that day. Like a cruel bolt of lightning, he realized this was no accident, and neither was the death of his boss. He stared into the night, knowing that he must disappear to escape further attempts on his life. The devils responsible for this horrific deed believed him to be dead and for now they must go on believing it. Before turning to run, he gazed one more time with deadly focus at Michael Morgan. He must never forget that face, those lines, that chin. His eyes burned every detail into his brain. One day there would be recompense, but for now, he knew only one thing – he must flee.
The eyes that etched the memory of Michael Morgan in his brain were now lining up a new iron bar door for installation in the Coulson Police Department holding cell. Four years older, but his gaze was just as keen. In his previous life, he was Tom Reed. After the decimation of his house and the brutal murder of his family, he disappeared into the far reaches of the western frontier, where nobody asks your business or checks your past. On the banks of the Yellowstone River he took shelter in the growing community of Coulson, Montana. He let his hair grow, sported a trim beard, and called himself Clay Sanders (his father’s middle name and his mother’s maiden name). To make a living he opened a small metal fabricating business, creating anything from door knockers to strap hinges, weather vanes, iron fencing, and various tools such as hammers, pick axes, shovels, and mauls. His life was slow-paced and gentle. But every day his heart ached and every night his mind burned with dreams of revenge.
He lived alone and avoided the public. When folks sought his expertise in metal, he delivered a quality product at a reasonable price, but dodged questions about his background and history, relatives, previous jobs, schooling, childhood home, anything that might provide clues to his true identity. He never allowed photos to be taken of him, and shunned any interviews with newspapers. He fiercely protected his privacy, as though his life depended on it, which it did. After a few years it was obvious he had no spouse, and of course people were curious why. When customers inquired about his relationship status, he made it clear he was not available. End of discussion.
“That’s it – hold it,” Clay called out. “No, a little bit more to the left.” Thorn Hickum, the newly installed Chief of Police, inched the door over a bit more, until the new hinge lined up properly. Then Clay dropped the massive bolt pin in place and hammered it down.
“Perfect. Now one more,” he muttered almost to himself. With fingers nimble as a harpist, he lifted the last bolt pin from inside his belt and slid it into the hollow of the side knuckle, then whacked the bolt head with his hammer.
“That does it,” he declared as he stepped back to admire his work. Thorn let go of his end and stepped back as well. He nodded.
“Nice job,” Thorn exclaimed. “I gotta have you out to my ranch to fix a few more doors.
“Just say when,” Clay smiled. The street door opened and C. J. Mason walked in. Thorn craned his neck looking down the hallway to see who it was.
“Mase,” Thorn called out. “C’mon down here – have a look at Clay’s handiwork. He just upgraded our cell door.” Mason walked down the hall to the holding cell area and gave the door a whistle.
“Mighty nice.” He wrapped his hands around the new bars and gave them a shake.
“Like a rock,” Mason said. “Where’d you learn how to do this?”
“Oh, back east,” Clay replied, hoping that would end the questions. Not today.
“Where abouts?” Mason probed. Clay began squirming at the inquiry.
“No place special,” Clay said illusively.
“My favorite place,” Mason replied. He could tell when a man’s answer meant “None of your business.” He respected that. Thorn gave Clay a friendly slap on the back.
“Just lucky for us you settled here.” Clay collected his tools.
“Just be sure to oil up them hinges, and you’re set to go,” Clay said as he gathered his tools. “I guess I’ll be on my way.” He put his hat on and eased over to the door.
“Didn’t you forget something?” Thorn asked. Clay stopped short.
“Your bill. What do we owe you?” Clay gave a sigh.
“I gotta figure things up. I’ll get it to you this week.”
“Bring your missus with you when you do and we’ll down a steak over at the Coulson Diner,” Mason offered.
“I’m – I’m not married,” Clay said. “But thanks for the offer.” With that he tipped his hat and left. Mason turned to Thorn and scratched his cheek.
“He’s been living’ here for four years, but I’ll be damned that I never knew he was single.”
“He’s a loner. No crime in that,” Thorn admitted.
“I s’pose,” Mason shrugged. He changed the subject. “Anyway, the rest of the men are in the meeting room, whenever you’re ready.” He turned to lead the way, when Thorn gently grabbed his arm and gave Mason an uneasy gaze.
“What the hell have I gotten myself into?”
“Hey, partner, relax. You’re the best thing that’s happened to this police department since me,” Mason smiled. Thorn was not convinced.
“I don’t know.”
“Horse shit. You got more experience than any three men in that room. Your deputy days, Rough Rider, Secret Service. Hell, these guys are lucky to have you.”
“Let’s put it this way,” Mason concluded. “You’re a hell shot better than that snake Sebastian Huntley.”
The Coulson Police Department boasted a force of nine officers, all waiting for their marching orders from the new chief. All chatter ceased as the door opened and Thorn entered, with Mason close behind. Mason took a seat with the others as Thorn approached the small podium at the head of the room. He scanned the faces of the officers and took a deep breath.
“OK. We start fresh today. Some of you know me. Most of you just heard of me. As far as that goes, believe some of what you see and none of what you’ve heard.” The officers chuckled. “I did march up Kettle Hill with Roosevelt, but I did not shoot McKinley. That’s all you need to know for now. I don’t stand on formalities, so you can call me Thorn or Chief, but not Mr. Hickum.” He pointed to Mason. “I’m sure you all know C.J. Mason, and yes, he killed your previous boss. I’ve asked him not to do that again.” More chuckles. “Mason will serve as my Assistant Chief. If anyone has a problem with that, now would be the time to resign.”
Rollins, the desk sergeant who had been shot by Huntley in the shoot-out with Mason raised his hand.
“I got no love for Huntley. He put a bullet in me. I say welcome home, Mason.” The rest of the officers nodded in agreement.
“All right, then,” Thorn continued. “Here’s how I’m gonna run things. Rule number one – enforce the law. Rule number two – we don’t play favorites. Kingpin or small fry, no different. Follow those rules and I’ll back your play. Any questions?” No one spoke. Thorn noticed the Mayor’s assistant slip into the room and take a back-row seat. “OK. I guess that’s all for now. Check with Rollins for your assignments.” The officers rose and welcomed Thorn to his new position. “Proud to serve with you,” said one officer.
“Thanks,” said Thorn, as he eyed the Mayor’s assistant stand and approach him.
“Hello, Mr. Hickum. I’m with the Mayor’s office.”
“I know,” Thorn smiled.
“When you have a free moment, the Mayor would like to welcome you to your new job. His office – whenever.”
“Tell him I’ll be right over.” The assistant nodded and excused himself. Thorn gave Mason a look as he drew near.
“What do you make of that?” Thorn asked.
“I’d say you’re about to find out who’s in charge here,” Mason warned.
Thorn ambled over to the Mayor’s office, taking time to greet townspeople that happened by, tipping his hat at the ladies and giving a nod to the gents. He knew enough to always remember to extend courtesies and respect to the folks in town.
In the Mayor’s office Thorn was ushered into the plush surroundings of the Mayor’s chamber. The walls were covered with oak inlaid paneling. The carpets were deep and luxurious, no doubt imported from San Francisco. The usual frontier visitor might respond with awe and reverence at such trappings, but Thorn didn’t impress so easy. His days in Washington D.C. showed him what real jaw-dropping splendor looked like. The Mayor entered from a side door.
“Welcome, Mr. Hickum,” said Ambrose Hackett, the Coulson Mayor for the past 18 years. Over that time, he perfected the warm handshake and broad smile. Too broad, in fact, for Thorn’s liking. He had a rule – never trust anyone whose smile reveals more than eight teeth at once.
“Can I offer you a drink? Whiskey? Brandy?”
“You carry Old Bushmills?” Thorn asked
“I don’t think so,” the Mayor admitted. Thorn shrugged.
“That’s OK, never mind.”
“How about a cigar?” He extended an open cigar box. Thorn thought a moment, then reached into the box and lifted one out, gave it a sniff, and tucked it in his vest pocket.
“I believe I’ll take one for later.” He smiled.
The Mayor nodded and returned the smile.
“I just want to tell you how lucky we are to have a man of your background and stature.” Thorn was not exactly sure what part of his background the Mayor was so impressed with.
“Preciate the kind words.” Thorn knew how badly Mason had been treated as Sheriff, and ultimately tossed out on his ear. Thorn’s days with Roosevelt taught him that flowery words were simply tools of the trade for public officials. They signified nothing. Intended only to lower your guard.
“You just let me know if there’s anything I can do to make your job easier. Any door I can open – or any door I can close,” he nudged Thorn with his elbow and a wink. “You just come to me. You see, we can help each other make both our jobs so much more profitable. You get my meaning?” Thorn got his meaning only too well.
“I believe I do,” Thorn acknowledged.
“And of course, if I do you a favor, you might be able to do me one in return some day.”
“Sure. Kinda like a quid pro quo,” Thorn said. The Mayor was not familiar with that Latin phrase.
“I do something for you that would violate my integrity in order to get you to do something for me that would be equally underhanded,” Thorn explained.
“I wouldn’t quite put it that way,” the Mayor cringed.
“That’s good. Because I can’t imagine you would ever ask me to do something illegal or unethical, would you?” The Mayor could see that Thorn would be no pushover as the Chief of Police. His smile faded.
“You never know what you might be capable of doing under the right circumstance,” the Mayor declared gravely. Thorn felt his gut twist into a knot at the kind of snake he suddenly realized he was working for.
“Oh, and don’t forget,” the Mayor added. “City Council meeting tonight. Be there. In this town the chief of police gets a vote.” He gave Thorn a sober look. “And we need every vote to count tonight.”
Once back in the office, Thorn sat at his desk and fiddled with wanted posters. In the hallway Mason stared into a mirror trying to tie a little string bowtie, much to his frustration.
“How’d the meeting go with the Mayor?” Mason turned to ask.
“I believe we came to an understanding,” Thorn sighed. “He understands I’m not for sale, and I understand he’s a dangerous person.” Mason gave up wrestling with the tie and yanked it off his collar.
“I give up on these things,” he groaned.
“What are you dressin’ up for? Did someone die?”
“Yeah – me pretty soon. Grace has been in town for the last few weeks, stayin’ over at the hotel, waitin’ for me to come callin’. I just can’t pull the trigger.”
“Oh,” Thorn nodded.
“She finally cornered me and asked if we could have dinner tonight,” Mason said. “She said ‘We need to talk’.” Thorn shook his head.
“Well, don’t ya think it’s about time?”
“Time for what?” Mason asked.
“For the dad-blame talk,” Thorn said, as he put on his hat and coat. “And for Pete’s sake, take some flowers with you.” Mason suddenly realized he was empty-handed.
“Good luck. I gotta get to a city council meeting.” And with that, Thorn walked out the door.
The city council room was packed with local citizens and businessmen determined to sway the councilmen in a critical matter before them. Mayor Hackett rapped his gavel to call the meeting to order.
“If everyone would please settle down, we’d like to call this meeting to order.” The public chatter settled to a mumble. “We have a case of eminent domain before us. The esteemed Mr. Henry Walton is requesting that the land upon which the Christian Fellowship Church sits be condemned so that he can build a convention center that will serve a vital need for this community.” Henry Walton himself stood up to say a few words. He was stout of build and dressed in his business suit, with a double-breasted vest that showcased an expensive gold chain connected to an elegant time piece tucked in his lower vest pocket.
“Gentlemen of the City Council, if I may. No one is more devout than myself in matters of faith. I myself attend the congregational church here in Coulson. I struggled a long time over this eminent domain request and the inconvenience it would cause to the members of that church. But in the long run, the benefits of this new convention center will be a blessing of another kind to the citizens of Coulson regardless of their religious persuasion.” Joseph Leland, the minister of the church in question, stood to respond. He was in his 30’s, lean of build and devoted to his congregation, so much so that he chose to remain single to permit him to focus all his time and energies to his followers.
“I just want to go on record as stating that we do not want to relocate our church. We are quite happy where we are. And it seems to me the public good of a centrally located church serves the community every bit as much as a new convention center.” He sat back down as loud rumblings of agreement spread throughout the hall. The Mayor rapped his gavel again.
“Thank you, Pastor Leland. We’ve already heard quite a bit on this matter over the last several months, so we are not taking any more comments.” The Mayor knew he had his work cut out for him. The justification of condemning the church property to make way for this convention center was sketchy at best. But Henry Walton was a wealthy and powerful businessman who donated regularly to causes favored by the Mayor. Those donations were in danger of drying up if his convention center development failed.
“The council will now retire to vote on this matter,” Mayor Hackett announced. You are all welcome to stay to hear the outcome.” The audience chose to wait to hear the results of the secret ballot vote. The councilmen filed into an adjoining conference room. Thorn sat among the group of five councilmen. With Thorn and the Mayor, a total of seven votes would be cast. The Mayor’s secretary handed out blank slips of paper to each person.
“You all know what you need to do,” the Mayor explained. “You will write the word ‘YES’ if you agree to the condemnation measure, or ‘NO’ if you do not agree. Fold up your ballot and the secretary will collect them. Then with the secretary as my witness, I will take them to my office and count them.” The group quickly rendered their vote and turned their ballot over to the secretary.
“I shall return in a few moments.” The Mayor and the secretary retreated to his office, and the conference room took on an awkward silence as if it were a hospital waiting room. The suspense lingered for barely a few minutes. The Mayor returned with a grim demeanor. He cleared his throat.
“I’m afraid we didn’t get it right, so are going to need to vote again.” Thorn was stunned.
“What do you mean, vote again? What the hell are you talkin’ about?”
“The measure did not pass on the first vote,” the Mayor explained. “So, we are going to have to vote again.”
“The hell we are,” Thorn replied.
OH, yes,” the Mayor said. “We are going to vote and vote and vote until we get it right.” Thorn stood up and looked around the room.
“I’m not voting again – what about the rest of you?” The room fell silent. “Look, I don’t care one way or the other how the vote turns out as long as it’s fair and square. But I’m not going to be part of a rigged and jiggered up vote.” Still no response from anyone.
“Mr. Hickum, you are free to vote as you wish. Now, shall we continue? We are going to hand out a second round of ballots.” Thorn gave a scathing look to everyone in the room.
“Well, I can see my vote don’t really matter here, so I’m goin’ to get back to work, where I can do some good.” He rose, took his hat and walked out of the conference room.
While Thorn endured his cutthroat civics lesson, Mason checked his collar one last time in the mirror and began the long walk to the Prairie Star Hotel. With every step his heart beat harder and his collar felt tighter. He finally loosened his top button for relief.
“The last time I my heart pounded like this was two years ago when I rode the Ferris Wheel at the St. Louis World’s Fair,” he thought. As he walked, his mind drifted to that June afternoon in 1904. The Olympic games were being hosted by the United States for the very first time, and St. Louis was chosen as host city, in conjunction with the St. Louis World’s Fair. Mason, Thorn, and Sam Stokes made the trek from Coulson to St. Louis to witness this monumental event and to cheer the American athletes. Out of curiosity they wandered the fairgrounds, and that’s where they saw it – the 250-foot Ferris Wheel. Attached to the enormous wheel 36 carriages held up to 60 passengers each. Sam turned to Thorn.
“You should ride it,” said Sam, as he sipped his Dr. Pepper, a brand-new drink introduced for the first time at the fair.
“Like hell,” replied Thorn. “I didn’t dodge bullets all my life just to die on that thing.”
“How about you?’ Sam turned to Mason. “I’ll pay the 50 cents myself.”
“I ain’t never been 250 off the ground,” Mason said. “Ain’t even sure man’s supposed to be up that high.” Sam slipped away while Mason watched the wheel in motion, then returned with a ticket in hand.
“Here you go, Mase,” Sam said as he handed Mason a ticket. “Get on that thing and laugh at the Devil.”
Mason swallowed hard and stepped into one of the carriages. His heart pounded like a blacksmith’s hammer. Was it fear? Maybe some. The ride certainly tested his nerves. But as the wheel lifted him into the sky, fear subsided and exhilaration took over. He recognized that excitement can masquerade as dread.
Now, as he approached the hotel, he knew that his future with Grace would be a Ferris Wheel ride, and the thrill was worth the price of admission.
Once inside the hotel lobby, he approached the front desk and gave a nod to Mrs. Gordon, the receptionist, and her daughter Lydia.
“Mrs. Gordon,” he said. She gave him a broad smile in return, then turned to her daughter.
“Lydia, get up and go tell Miss Marsh her escort’s here.” The girl scampered upstairs and disappeared down the corridor. Mason stood with hat in hand, feeling as awkward as a cow on ice.
“Dinner plans?” Mr. Gordon pried.
“I noticed you haven’t been by lately.”
“Couldn’t be helped. Work and such.” Mrs. Gordon eyed him fiddling with his hat.
“Relax. She ain’t gonna bite,” she reassured him.
“She’s capable,” he said.
Mrs. Gordon looked up at the top of the staircase and saw Grace all dolled up and posing like a store window mannequin.
“If that don’t make your eyes dance, then you need glasses,” she said. Then she turned to her daughter.
“Come along, Lydia. You got chores.” She took her daughter’s hand, and the two stepped into the office to leave Mason and Grace alone.
Mason turned his gaze upward and fixed his eyes on Grace. Suddenly the entire lobby faded into a haze. His eyes danced at the sight of her. She wore a smart silk blouse and a gored skirt combination with a jacket. The s-bend corset she wore underneath emphasized the curve of her hips and bust, raising her chest and curling her hips forward. Without speaking, she glided down the stairs. Mason marveled that her head never bobbed as she descended. “How does she do that?” he thought to himself. When she reached the landing, she gave Mason a girlish smile.
“What’s the matter? Never seen a woman in a dress before?” she said.
“Oh, I’ve seen lots of women. Just never you.” His mind strayed to the very first time he laid eyes on her two months ago. The hotel lobby faded away as the Bismarck train station emerged in his imagination.
* * * *
As passengers disembarked, Mason and Thorn stepped off the train, carrying their saddlebags and Winchesters. They scanned the landing for their host, when Grace Marsh approached them. She was an attractive woman in her early 40’s, trim, wearing jeans, boots, and a stylish blouse. She stepped right up and introduced herself.
“Mason?GraceMarsh,”sheoffered,witha firmhandshake. Then she turned to Thorn. “And you must be Thorn Hickum.” Mason and Thorn couldn’t quite find their words. Finally,Masonspoke,
“Uh, ma’am, we were expecting a Grant Marsh.”
“I know. I’ll have to do for now. I’m his daughter, Grace.” She pointed to the car in the distance.
“That’s my car over there. I’ll drive you to the house.” As they walked to the car, Mason took stock of this bold and brassy lady. He had to admit he was impressed with her spitfire confidence and manly attire.
* * * *
Then, in a flash, his mind transported him to the banks of the Big Horn River, where the brave steamboat defenders drove back Black Wolf’s renegade war party. On the main deck of the Nellie Peck II Mason turned to see Grace race down from the hurricane deck to find him. What a sight she was – her hair a tousled mess, her face covered with grit, dirt, and gun blast residue. At that moment she never looked more beautiful to him. Their eyes met and they embraced.
* * * *
As Mason stared blankly in the hotel lobby, still lost in memories, Grace regained his attention.
“Well, you’re seeing me in a dress now – so what do you think?” Mason searched for the right words.
“You look like a picture.”
“Why, thank you.” Mason offered his arm, and the two strolled out the door.
At the Coulson Diner Hannah, the proprietor, led the couple to a corner table for more privacy. Grace stood beside her chair waiting.
“Mase,” Hannah whispered harshly, eyeing Grace’s chair. Mason suddenly took notice and slid Grace’s chair back to seat her.
“Why, Grace, you look so lovely tonight. What’s the occasion?’ Hannah asked
“Why, Mason and I just…” then she thought for a moment. “You tell her, Mason.”
“I, uh, well, we just hadn’t seen much of each other lately and felt it was time to take inventory.” Hannah, shook her head.
“Inventory? Mase, she’s not exactly a warehouse,” she whispered. Then she turned to Grace “You got your hands full with this big hunk of manhood.” Grace gave Mason an approving smile.
“He’s all of that.”
Pot roast was the house specialty, and Hannah cooked it to perfection. It was served with potatoes and butter beans, fresh sliced bread with a dish of strawberry preserves. Dinner conversation dodged the obvious topic that begged for attention.
“How’s your father?” Mason asked.
“He got fired. The company didn’t appreciate his little up-river detour, or getting their steamboat all shot up by river pirates.”
“I know he made that whole trip against his better judgment,” Mason said.
“I pushed him as much as anyone did,” she said. “I really thought we could find that gold.”
“It’s a shame he got fired.”
“Don’t worry. He’s shipping cargo for a new company now.”
“That’s good to hear.” Grace reached across the table and took Mason’s hand.
“I don’t want to talk about him. I want to talk about us.”
“Yeah, sure,” Mason agreed.
“Where do we stand, Mase? I mean, you and me?”
“It’s hard for me to put into words.”
“I don’t need to hear the long of it – just give it to me straight. Have we got a future?” Mason drew a breath.
“Grace, you knocked me flat on my heels the first day I met you. You wore pants, drove a car, spoke your mind, you were spirited and independent. Now, I know some fellas might not fancy that in a girl, but that’s just my cup of tea.” He paused.
“Go on,” Grace prodded.
“I’m 40 years old and I never been married, that don’t mean I ain’t been lookin’, ‘cause I know deep down life’s meant to be shared,” Mason continued. Grace cut him off.
“But what about us? What about me?” Mason drew another long breath.
“That’s what I’m tryin’ to say. I liked you from the start – your spunk, your grit. You’re a steamboat pilot, for the love of Pete.”
“Speaking of steamboats – that night on the steamboat when we kissed, what did that mean to you? What did that night mean to you?” Mason swallowed hard.
“It meant everything. It meant you’re my girl. It meant I want you in my life.”
“But you’re not ready to make it official? You know, to put your brand on me?”
“I wouldn’t quite put it that way,” Mason replied. Grace held up a telegram.
“Let me put it this way. I got a telegram yesterday from my father. He needs me. Work is picking up and his office manager just quit. He needs me to keep the office running till he can find a replacement.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Mason asked.
“I’m telling you now.”
“What did you tell him?”
“I haven’t answered him yet. What should I tell him?” she asked. “Do you want me to stay? Just say so and I’ll tell my father to find someone else.” Now Mason felt the pressure bearing down on him. His brain desperately searched for the right words.
“What we’ve got feels good,” Mason said.
“Is that all? ‘Cause I’m pretty sure I love you.”
“You do speak your mind,” Mason said.
“Yeah – and it’s your turn to speak your mind.” Mason got his back up.
“You sure know how to back a man into a corner. You gotta give me some slack in that rope of yours.”
“For what? Are you lookin’ for a way out? ‘Cause there’s the door.”
“I just wanna be sure. Hell, we’ve only known each other for two months,” Mason countered.
“My parents married when they were 19. I’m past 40 now and so are you. I think I know what I want in a man, but if you’re not sure, I don’t know what more I can say.”
“Say you’ll wait. Let’s get to know each other some more.”
“I have waited – waited till I was 40. I don’t see the point in waiting any longer. I found the man of my dreams. But if you don’t feel the same way, maybe we’re not meant for each other.” Tears began to well up in her eyes. “Actually, I think it’s time for me to go.” She stood up to leave. “I’ll be in Bismarck if you ever figure it out.”
A mason & Thorn Western Series
Book 4: The Gold Train
US Marshal CJ Mason and deputy Thorn Hickum, along with 40 deputies and troopers, ride shotgun on a two million dollar gold shipment from the Denver Mint to The Miles City National Bank, unaware that a daring heist is about to steal the entire load right from under their noses. While they frantically search for the culprits, the lawmen’s two wives team up to compete with 50 other drivers in the first ever Miles City to Denver Cross Country Road Race, not realizing this very event will provide the cover needed by the gold thieves to escape Miles City unnoticed. Race car drivers, gold thieves, and two dogged lawmen all collide, where one wrong move could mean death along the race course.
The Gold Train Ch. 1 Audio Sample
The Gold Train Ch. 2 Audio Sample
Digging a simple hole in the ground shouldn’t cost so much. That’s why the entire offer smelled fishy. But out of curiosity, and needing a job, a crew of ten out-of-work coal mine tunnel diggers from Butte, Montana, answered a newspaper advertisement promising jackpot wages for a winter-time rush job in Miles City. Standing in a vacant warehouse, they waited for their mystery employer to show up. The door finally opened and a slack weathered old man stepped to the front of the group. He stood a shade under six feet tall, with a pronounced limp and eyes that looked like they’d seen too much. He studied these rugged diggers for a moment.
“I’m not gonna ask for your names, and you’re not gonna know mine,” he began. “I paid for your passage from Butte ‘cause you’re all experienced diggers, and I’m in need of a tunnel – 200 feet long, with a set of rails to run the length and a coal bucket car. I’ll pay you each $1,000 to finish it in sixty days. That’s a year’s wages for most of you. And I’m not just blowing smoke.” He tossed a hefty cloth bag to the nearest miner. The miner reached in and pulled out ten stacks of greenbacks bound into thousand-dollar bundles. His eyes fairly danced as he fanned through the stacks, then tossed it back, satisfied.
“Okay – you got our attention. So, what’s the hitch? Nobody pays this much for a tunnel.”
“I do. I’ll pay you ten percent now, another forty percent when you’re half done, and the rest when you’re finished. Once you’re paid, I never want to see your faces again. I expect you all to head straight back to Butte the day you’re paid. We clear?” Nobody budged an inch.
“Okay. Any questions?” A husky brute stepped forward.
“Just two – when do we start and where do we dig?”
“You start tonight.”
“Look at the floor you’re standing on. You’re going to rip up the floor boards and dig twelve feet straight down, then 200 feet due west.”
“Where do we haul all that dirt?” a second miner asked.
“Here’s how it’s gonna work – you’re only gonna dig at night, and you’ll haul the dirt out the back door to freight wagons and dump it outside of town. If anybody asks what you’re doing, you tell ‘em you’re diggin’ a basement.”
“What are we really doin’?”
“Maybe I’m lookin’ for coal.”
“You really think you’re gonna find any coal under this building?”
“You let me worry about that. Anything else?”
“Yeah – stop talking and get out of the way. It’s time to get dirty.”
Mason and Thorn couldn’t recall another year as bitter as the winter of 1906. Blizzards roared across the Northern Plains in November. Temperatures dropped to minus thirty degrees in some places and hit minus forty-three degrees the next month. Day after day snow blanketed the earth, thawing, then refreezing and piling itself higher and higher. By January the drifts filled the deep ravines and coulées to near level. After one raging storm, Coulson’s Minnesota Avenue disappeared under a nine-foot wall, making it nearly impossible to cross the street. As flurries howled, a brave city worker lashed one end of a heavy rope to the street lamp in front of the Crystal Palace Saloon and tied the other end around his waist. Then, battling the blinding whiteout, he trudged through the rising drifts to fasten the other end of the rope to a street lamp on the opposite side. Once in place, that rope became the lifeline for anyone fool enough to risk it. One desperate rancher tempted fate during a brutal squall. He grabbed hold of the rope and inched his way along, as if he were performing a circus act. Near the halfway point his leather gloves iced up and he lost his grip on the frosty rope. The winds carried him away, and his body was not found until the snow melted in the spring.
During the worst of it, men hollowed out snow tunnels in the colossal drifts that buried the downtown area to permit resolute travelers to cross back and forth. Other than these token attempts, transportation ground to a halt. Trains sat idle. Even stout snow-busting locomotives could not muscle through the twenty-foot snow drifts that buried the tracks. For most folks there was nothing to be done but hunker down and sit it out. Except for the cattle ranchers. Those old enough to recall the deadly winter of 1886 did what they could to prevent a repeat of the devastation to the cattle industry that fateful year.
Old-timers dubbed 1886 the year of the “Great Die-Up” – in mocking contrast to the usual “Great Round-Up” each fall. That winter the region endured three straight months of sub-zero conditions. Grazing cattle could find no shelter. They huddled together for warmth, but the vast grazing fields turned to tundra and all drinking water froze to the point of bovine extinction. The starving wolves finished off the few hardy steers that managed to survive the ordeal.
The warm chinook winds in early 1887 thawed the land enough to reveal the deadly results. An estimated hundreds of thousands of cattle carcasses littered the land – many pushed up against wire fences or lining roads. Total losses went unreported, but in some areas, up to ninety percent of the herds were wiped out. Small ranches – what few existed – went out of business. Even some huge cattle companies declared bankruptcy.
Thorn Hickum was twenty years old in 1886, when the “Great Die-Up” occurred. He wrangled for one of those small spreads that got wiped out. The memory of Mother Nature’s cruelty haunted him for years. Now a cattle rancher himself, and recently married to Amanda Walter – also a cattle rancher – he hounded his foreman Hank to do everything possible to protect their vast herds from over-exposure.
“What can I do?” Hank asked. “We got 10,000 head of cattle. I got no place to shelter them.”
“First, you spread that winter hay we got stored up – pile it up out there so they got something to eat. Cut our fencing wire so they can drift with the storm and maybe find some cover. Then have the boys chop down some of our timber. Drop ‘em so they pile up on top of each other, then set ‘em on fire. Do that in a hundred places – give’em bonfires to try to stay warm. If we can just save half the herd, I’ll be thankful.”
Christmas in Coulson found U.S. Marshal C.J. Mason tossing another log into the living room hearth as his wife, Grace, wrapped in a luscious lace crochet blanket, warmed herself on the couch. A Christmas tree stood by the window, festooned with various ornaments and candy canes. Mason joined her with a hot buttered rum in his hand. For Christmas they treated themselves to a brand-new Edison Triumph B Cylinder Phonograph. It came with six cylinders featuring popular singers of the time. Tonight, they chose the Christmas Cylinder with songs from the Edison Male Quartet.
“This is our first Christmas together,” she smiled. Mason took a slow sip of rum and stared quietly at the dancing flames.
“Never had a reason to celebrate the season ‘till now,” he said.
“What did you used to do on Christmas?” she asked.
“Usually worked so’s others could be home with their families. Used to just raise a glass with Jake Bass over at the Crystal Palace Saloon.” He took another sip and kicked his leg up on the oak stool in front of the couch. “But I could get used to this.” Grace stroked his cheek.
“I loved Christmas when I was growing up. Father made it special with games and songs. The Christmas dinner took all day for mother to prepare, but it was worth it. After dinner we gathered around the fireplace and father always read ‘A Visit From Saint Nicholas’. He liked to end the poem imitating the voice of Saint Nick – ‘Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.’”
She sighed with a deep longing. “I wish he could be here. The weather’s just too harsh.”
“We’ll make a point to visit Grant in the spring,” Mason offered. A silence settled over the room as their thoughts strayed.
“You know, Mase,” she said, “I’m gonna be forty-one in a few months, and you’re gonna be forty-two.” “Yeah?” he asked.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if next Christmas we had a little baby boy to help us celebrate the season?” Mason made no reply. She knew he heard what she said, and he knew she expected a reply.
“We just got married. Can we just let it be the two of us for a while?”
“We get any older and we won’t be parent age anymore – we’ll be grandparent age.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Don’t you want a family?”
“Of course, I do. Just, does it have to be now?”
“Now’s the time, sweetheart.” She wrapped her arms around Mason and held him close. The warmth of her love melted his anxiety.
She held his head in her hands and kissed him.
“Merry Christmas,” she cooed.
The day after Christmas Tommy stopped by Mason’s office in the Federal Office Building.
“Merry Christmas, Mr. Mason,” he greeted Mason, sipping on a hot cup of coffee.
“Same to you, Tommy,” Mason said. “Why aren’t you home?” “Telegram came for you yesterday,” Tommy said.
“On Christmas day?” Mason asked.
“Some people got no respect for the holidays,” Tommy shrugged as he handed Mason the telegram. “You don’t gotta read it now – I just thought I’d give it to you while I can,” Tommy suggested. “You can wait for a day or two before you open it.”
“Get on home,” Mason said, holding the door open. Tommy bundled up and eased out the door to battle the cold. Once alone, Mason opened the telegram. It came from the Denver Mint.
FOURTH QUARTER GOLD EXCHANGE POSTPONED DUE TO WEATHER. RESCHEDULED FOR MARCH. EXPECT A DOUBLE LOAD OF CASH TO COVER TWO QUARTERS’ WORTH OF PURCHASES. WILL ADVISE YOU LATER ON SPECIFIC DATES.
“Damn,” he thought. The message left him with mixed feelings.
Each month all the gold mines in Montana redeemed their gold for cash at their local banks. Some gold mines delivered gold dust, others produced nuggets, while the more sophisticated operations melted their gold fines down into nine-ounce bars for uniform measurement, counting, and transport. By the end of the month most banks found themselves cash-poor and forced to redeem all their gold for cash to get ready for the next month’s transactions. For Eastern Montana, all the local banks delivered their purchased gold to the Miles City National Bank, where they exchanged gold for cash. The Miles City Bank then waited once every quarter for the Denver Mint to purchase all of its gold stores for cash, which the Mint needed to produce gold coins. The Denver Mint just recently opened, in February of 1906. In its first year it produced 167 million coins, including $20 gold coins, $10 gold coins, $5 gold coins, and assorted denominations of silver coins.
The exchange procedure followed a set routine established by the previous Montana U.S. Marshal, Ed Randolph. Each quarter the Mint commissioned a specially outfitted train to make the trip to Miles City from Denver under heavy guard. The exact date of the arrival was a closely held secret to minimize the possibility of train robberies. Few people knew that the Mint train carried over a half million dollars in cash for its quarterly gold purchase. The responsibility for overseeing security for this massive gold exchange now fell to C.J. Mason, the new U.S. Marshal for Montana. Mason’s job required that he rendezvous with the train at the Warren, Montana, train depot and take over escorting duties from the Wyoming U.S. Marshal’s team. From there the train made a non-stop run to Miles City, sidelining all passenger trains that might be coming the other way.
Mason had never overseen any of these deliveries before, since he was only recently installed as the U.S. Marshal a few months ago. The fourth quarter exchange would have been his first. Now, due to weather, that delivery was postponed for another three months. He felt some relief, since it gave him extra time to prepare, but also worried that the double load of cash made that train a more tempting target for criminals of all stripes, from hapless dunderheads to experienced gangs, all itching to score a big payday. Mason knew he had to anticipate all possibilities, and for that he relied on the wisdom and experience of his faithful partner – Thorn Hickum.
Shortly after New Year’s in 1907, Mason swapped out the wheels on his carriage for runners to glide over the snow-packed road and pointed his horse to the Lazy Y Ranch, the home of his good friend. Even with the sun out, the bitter cold required several layers of coats, gloves, and neck warmers. Mason bundled up for the five-mile ride out to the ranch. He marveled at the work of Mother Nature. The blanket of white shimmered in the sun’s rays, and the occasional white-tailed jackrabbit and the lone foraging mule deer reminded him of the gentle pace of life outside the city. The chimney smoke from the ranch house ahead told him he came at the right time.
Thorn and Amanda greeted Mason at the front porch.
“Ain’t you a sight,” Thorn smiled. “What brings you out?”
“Let’s go inside,” Mason smiled as he tipped his hat to Amanda. “How about a fresh cup of steaming coffee?” Amanda offered.
“You read my mind,” Mason replied as he sat beside the roaring fireplace. Amanda knew how her men liked their coffee – the same way they liked their women – hot and rich. Thorn joined Mason near the fire as the three sipped their brew. Thorn started the conversation in a neighborly way.
“So, how do you like the snow?”
“I respect snow,” Mason said. “Snowflakes may be the tiniest of little things, but look what a helluva thing they can do when they all stick together.” Thorn and Amanda had to agree. Mason continued. “Speaking of snow, how are things out here on the ranch?”
“We’re doin’ all we can, but we won’t know for sure if we’re still in business ‘till the snow melts come March.”
“Well, I wish you all the best, but let me get right to the point,” Mason said. Then he looked Thorn straight in the eye. “I could sure use some help if you could cut yourself loose.”
“Help with what?”
“The quarterly gold exchange in Miles City – I just got word they’re putting it off ‘till March. That means the Denver Mint will be sending a half a year’s worth of cash on that gold train – close to a million dollars.” Thorn raised his eyebrows and gave out a low whistle. “Yeah – you get my point,” Mason added. “I gotta raise a team to ride shotgun on that train. From Warren to Miles City and back.” Thorn gave a look to Amanda, then turned back to Mason.
“I might could help you strategize, but I expect my hands will be full come March.”
“I’d sure feel a lot better if you were on that train with me, but I’ll take whatever I can get.”
“And I’ll give whatever I can.”
“Can’t ask for more. Why don’t you two come over for dinner tomorrow night, and we’ll talk about it.”
“Love to,” Thorn said. He gave Amanda a quick glance for confirmation. “That seem okay with you?” he asked. Amanda smiled.
“We could use a little change of scenery,” she said.
Mason rose to say his good-byes. “Amanda, as always, you’re a picture.”
“You give your wife my best,” Amanda offered in return.
The next evening Thorn and Amanda pulled up to the ranch house of Mason and Grace, at the south end of Coulson, bundled in their two-seater rig. Mason met them at the front porch.
“You two look as cute as a couple of snowshoe hares. Amanda, why don’t you get on inside and warm up while Thorn and I get your rig in the barn.”
“That’s a fair deal,” Amanda said. Mason helped her out of the rig.
“Grace is in the kitchen. Just help yourself inside.” Amanda went indoors while Thorn took his horse by the bridle and led him into Mason’s hay barn. Mason walked beside him.
“Grace fixed your favorite meal – pot roast and mashed potatoes.”
“She sure knows my weakness,” Thorn said.
Amanda called out to Grace as she walked in the front door.
“Grace, we’re here.”
“I’m in the kitchen – come on in.” Amanda followed the delightful smells coming from the kitchen and found Grace pulling biscuits from the oven.
“Those look pretty tempting. Anything I can do?”
“If you wouldn’t mind putting those biscuits in the basket, we’re just about ready,” Grace said.
And ready they were. The table cloth featured a lovely checkerboard pattern and was set with china plates and a delicate silver setting, a wedding gift from Grace’s papa Grant Marsh. The pot roast waited to be carved as the boys hung up their coats and joined the ladies. Mason sat at the head of the table with the carving knife ready.
“Thick cut or thin?” he asked Thorn. Thorn merely cocked his head and grinned.
“Why do I even ask?” Mason smiled as he cut a one-inch thick slice of pot roast on the rare side.
Conversation flowed easily. Mason and Thorn often caught themselves finishing each other’s sentences. Grace and Amanda accepted their place in this sacred fellowship and honored their husbands’ need for time together. At the end of the meal, Mason turned to Grace.
“I hope you girls will excuse Thorn and me. We got some work to talk over in the study.”
Amanda took this opportunity to bond with Grace. An elegant picture of Grant Marsh, Grace’s father, proud in his steamboat pilot’s uniform, hung in the dining room. At times throughout the meal Amanda caught Grace glimpsing at the picture with a mixture of longing and admiration.
“We haven’t known each other for all that long, but I can already sense that you and I are kindred spirits,” Amanda confided.
“What do you mean?”
“We both hold our fathers in high regard, and we both embrace a healthy spirit of adventure. I know I got that from my father, and I expect you did too.”
“You’re right,” Grace said. “My father raised me. I practically grew up on a steamboat.”
“You’re singing my song,” Amanda nodded. “My father built our ranch into the biggest spread in the county. He taught me to ride a horse, shoot a gun, split firewood.”
“Can you keep a secret?” Grace asked with devilish delight.
“Like a bear trap,” Amanda replied as she slid closer to Grace to permit the exchange of confidences in hushed tones.
“My father once won an illegal steamboat race in St. Louis – I was sixteen years old at the time, and I was on the ship when he did it.”
“Oh, my, yes. Steamboat racing has been illegal on the Mississippi for a long time. It’s just too dangerous, what with boiler explosions and all.”
“Oh, I see.”
“Well, I don’t know if Thorn ever mentioned that Grant Marsh set a steamboat speed record back in 1876 when he piloted the wounded survivors of Custer’s massacre from the Big Horn to Bismarck – 710 miles in fifty-four hours. An average of thirteen miles an hour.”
“No, I’m not sure he knew. So?”
“Another well-known steamboat captain at the time, name of John Cannon, previously held the speed record when he averaged 12.8 miles an hour in a race from Natchez to St. Louis. He always scorned my father’s thirteen-mile-an-hour run because it was all downriver, where the current added to his speed – his run from Natchez to St. Louis was upriver, which, of course, slowed him down.”
“So, what happened?”
“He never let my father live it down. He mocked him every chance he got. Finally, my father couldn’t endure John Cannon’s insults any longer, so in 1882 the two agreed to a secret race from Natchez to St. Louis to settle the matter. It was all so very exciting. My father let me ride in the pilothouse. Both ships were identical in design, and both took fuel barges in tow, so they wouldn’t have to stop to load more firewood.”
“So, who won?” Amanda asked. Grace’s face broke into a beaming smile as she looked proudly at Grant’s picture.
“Who do you think? My father won by a half an hour.” Amanda squealed with delight, then her eyebrow took a devilish turn.
“Sounds like you got racing in your blood.”
“I guess you could say that,” Grace admitted. “But there’s no steamboat racing in my future.”
“I think I have just what you need – what both of us need.”
“Why don’t you and Mason come on over to the house on Sunday and I’ll show you.”
While the women schemed, Mason and Thorn prepared a list with every conceivable method to rob a train or bank, along with counter-measures to thwart each attempt. It took an hour or two, but by evening’s end they agreed that every scenario known to man made the list. Thorn set the list down on a side table. “That’s it.”
“Is there any other possibility we haven’t thought of?” Mason asked.
“Yeah – Houdini could sweep in and make all the cash and gold disappear.”
“Not much we could do to stop that, I s’pose,” Mason smiled.
The evening came to a close and Thorn collected their buggy.
Mason helped Amanda climb aboard.
“Thanks for your help,” he said to Thorn.
“You’ll be fine,” Thorn replied. Thorn flicked the reins on the horse and the Hickums eased their way down the road as Grace and Mason waved from the front porch. Grace took Mason by the arm and drew him near.
“What are you doing next Sunday?”
The next morning, Mason put together a list of possible deputies for the gold run. He sent a telegram to the U.S. Marshal’s office in Cheyenne for suggestions. The reply came back the next week.
WE PLAN ON TWENTY DEPUTIES AND A DETAIL FROM FORT RUSSELL. ADVISE YOU DO THE SAME.
Mason recalled the valuable assistance from Fort Custer several months earlier in providing troops for the capture of Black Wolf. He contacted the Post Commander, requesting twenty troops to help escort the “gold train” from Warren to Miles City and back. He estimated the detail would be needed for no more than a few days sometime during the month of March. The Commander agreed, insisting that the Post be reimbursed for their time away from regular duties.
To fill the need for temporary U.S. Deputy Marshals, Mason placed a discreet ad in the local newspaper asking for any veterans from the Spanish-American War to serve as paid guards for one week in March. Details were avoided to prevent any unnecessary attention to the real purpose of these recruits. The response was surprising. A line of over a hundred able men stood outside the Federal Office Building in the snow to interview for the job. Mason concluded that the brutal winter forced the layoff of many workers throughout the county who needed employment of any kind, hazardous or not. Mason thinned the candidates to the most promising twenty on the basis of military record, physical fitness, and marksmanship with a pistol and rifle. The selected twenty were told to await further instructions around the first of March. Mason satisfied himself that he now had the manpower needed. But he still lacked one.
“I’d sleep a lot better if I knew that Thorn was going to be on that train,” he pondered.
Slade Hill took the reins of law enforcement in Coulson when
Thorn retired on the eve of his wedding with Amanda in the late fall. Slade and Mason shared police duties from 1903 to 1906 when the old sheriff system converted to the current police department organization. Slade joined the department in 1903 at the age of twenty-four, previously a store clerk in desperate search for a hero and mentor. He measured an inch over six feet, with a tangle of thick brown hair and a lean, gawky frame.
Slade had admired Mason’s cool head and steely nerves ever since he watched him in action on Minnesota Avenue that day last June when Sergeant Mason faced down a reckless buckaroo and his two cowpoke buddies. Slade was off-duty picking up supplies at the Coulson Mercantile when he saw three rowdies draw down on Mason in the street for busting up their deadly lariat horseplay with a rambunctious motorcyclist. When stray bullets from these buckaroos’ pistols gouged holes in the store’s door jamb, Slade crouched behind a flour barrel to watch the fracas play out. He gazed in awe as Mason shot the hat off one of the three yahoos to show them who was boss. In that moment his respect for Mason multiplied to new levels.
That same day he stood by in disbelief, along with the other officers on the force, as Police Chief Sebastian Huntley fired Mason for reckless endangerment and excessive force. His disbelief turned to astonishment when he learned three weeks later that Huntley died in a shoot-out with Mason after Huntley got caught red-handed with evidence that proved he killed Samuel Stokes, the city’s long-time undertaker and dear friend of Mason.
Slade stayed on with the police, figuring Mason and Thorn would restore dignity to the department. He was well rewarded when none other than President Theodore Roosevelt addressed the town hall to extol the virtues of Mason and Thorn. He beamed with pride that night, along with every citizen seated in the opera house. When Thorn hung up his badge and Mason accepted the position as U.S. Marshal for Montana, Slade feared his two mentors were snatched away too soon. The city cast about for a new Police Chief, and Slade threw his hat into the ring, despite feelings of inadequacy, to fill the shoes of his two heroes. To his shock, the city offered him the job, and despite his own ambivalence, he accepted the offer.
Two weeks after he took the job, Slade sifted through the arrest warrants issued earlier that morning by Hale Forsythe, circuit court judge for the Yellowstone County district. One warrant in particular stood out. Herd Banner was wanted for suspicion of stealing automobiles in Yellowstone and Sweetwater counties and selling them on the Crow Reservation. One Indian agent recalled seeing him driving automobiles into Lame Deer, then walking back out on foot. What happened to the autos was anybody’s guess. The vast Crow Reservation simply swallowed them up.
Slade’s heart sank at the sight of the warrant. In their youth they cowboy’d together and raised a little hell from time to time – nothing serious, just sowing wild oats as young bucks do. Slade outgrew his hooligan youth, but Herd just never found his way out. Now the job of reining in Herd’s lawless predilections fell to his old compatriot. Automobile thieving presented a new wrinkle to law enforcement. Back in the old days, horse thieving was nearly a capital offense. Taking a man’s horse and leaving him afoot could, in some cases, mean death for the man stranded in the wild among vicious critters and hostile Indians. But with automobiles, no one quite figured out the proper punishment. That was just kind of left up to local peace officers.
Slade was pondering the best way to talk Herd into surrendering when Rand Falstaff barged into his office. Rand published the Coulson newspaper and wrote most of the articles himself. A wordsmith in his own right, Rand freely confessed to one vice – alcohol. No one could be sure if the job of gathering news drove him to drink or if whiskey simply unlocked his rhetorical creativity, but one thing was sure – booze and news went hand-in-hand with the colorful editor of the Coulson Daily Appeal.
“Hello Slade,” Rand spluttered. “The good judge Forsythe informed me that you are in possession of several warrants issued from his bench. Any fugitives of justice that our readers might need to read about?” Rand paused to light the cigar stub clenched in his teeth, then flung away the spent match and flopped into a chair next to Slade’s desk, putting his shoes up on Slade’s desk and crossing his legs. Slade chafed a bit. He didn’t exactly want Herd’s name splashed on the front page in such unflattering circumstances.
“Not much to write about,” Slade replied as he poured himself a cup of hot steaming black coffee. “Mostly routine paperwork – nothing to captivate your readers. What about the price of oats? That would be downright informative.”
Rand studied the soggy end of his cigar and flicked the ashes into the cuspidor on the floor. “No, the price of hay cannot compare to a riveting story of a criminal brought to heel in a hail of gunfire. I need villains and heroes in my paper to quicken the readers’ imaginations and elevate their mundane existence. How else do you expect me to sell ladies’ corsets and the newest medical elixir?”
“Well, today I’m chasing down some common thieves – no one special,” Slade offered. “Is that exciting enough?” Rand stood up, clearly disappointed in Slade’s reluctance to expose the juicy identity of any malefactors.
“The free press does not defer to the well-connected or favored.
You can be sure my paper will present the facts in a fair and dispassionate manner. So, I bid you good day!” Rand marched stately out of the office, walking in a serpentine fashion to the Crystal Palace Saloon in search of libation.
Slade walked down to the livery for his horse, carrying his 30-30 and a saddlebag. He knew where Herd lived and decided the best way to serve the warrant was to ride over to Herd’s house and meet him head-on. Since they were friends, Slade felt confident Herd would come along peaceably and straighten this whole mess out. He couldn’t have been more wrong.
Herd lived in a small, 600-square-foot house about three miles outside of Coulson. Calling it a house actually stretched the definition – the word “shack” might be more deserving. He rented the place from Deck Johnson, a noted gambler in Coulson. Deck cared little about his tenant’s illicit tendencies. So long as Herd paid his rent, Deck didn’t pass judgment on the man’s line of work.
By 2:00 that afternoon, Slade pulled up to the front door. He noticed a thin wisp of smoke coming from the house chimney. The window shades were pulled, and the corral sat empty. Slade stepped off his horse and tied him off on the front porch railing. His boots clumped up the wooden steps to the home’s wrap-around veranda. Out of courtesy, he took his hat off and brushed a bit of trail dust from his pants. He shifted his 30-30 to his right hand, which already held the warrant, to free up his left hand to give the door a knock. In the exchange the warrant slipped out of his hand and fell to the floor in front of the door. Just as he bent over to pick it up two shotgun blasts from the inside crashed through the door, barely missing Slade’s head. His hat was not so lucky – it caught some buckshot and flew into the front yard. Slade fell backwards, stumbling off the porch and dropping his rifle. The door opened slightly and the shooter stepped out, certain his shotgun blasts did the job.
Slade recognized the assailant – Cheyenne Smith, a no-good soulless thug. He joined up with Herd and an Indian named Big Lobo to make some fast money selling stolen cars. The three of them just returned that morning from the Crow Reservation, where they sold two automobiles to the highest bidder. Tired and hungry, they intended to split up the money while Herd cooked up some biscuits and hash. Big Lobo dozed on the davenport, and Cheyenne Smith kept one eye out for any posse that might have followed them back to Herd’s lair. They had just gathered around the table for chow when Cheyenne Smith noticed movement outside through a slit in the window shade. In a panic, he called out to the others, “Rider coming.”
As Cheyenne reached for the double-barreled shotgun, Herd shouted back, “Who is it?”
Not wasting time answering, Cheyenne leveled off and fired two blasts through the closed door. Pulling the curtain aside, he saw a lawman tumble backwards off the porch and onto the dirt. “Got him,” Cheyenne yelled, then stepped outside.
Cheyenne walked onto the porch with his shotgun broken open, extracting the two spent shells, confident he had killed the intruder. Lying flat on the dirt, Slade jerked his pistol out of its holster. To Cheyenne’s mortal surprise, the intruder was far from dead. Slade fired his pistol still on his back. The heavy slug slammed into Cheyenne’s chest and threw him back through the open door and into the house. The door slammed closed a second later, kicked shut by somebody inside. Big Lobo grabbed his Winchester and dove off the couch and onto the floor. Herd joined him on the floor, fearing they were all about to die for their lawless deeds.
“Who is it?” he shouted at Lobo.
“Dunno,” he shouted back. Big Lobo had never met Slade, so he wouldn’t have known him from Geronimo. Taking the butt of his Winchester, Big Lobo smashed the window and pointed the rifle outside. He snapped off a wild shot at something that moved. Lobo’s shot struck Slade’s horse, tied up at the porch railing. The wounded animal bolted and tore away from the railing. It managed to run a few yards before it dropped dead. Slade flew into a rage.
“They shot my horse,” he growled. In righteous indignation he sprang to his feet and jumped onto the porch. Pausing only for a moment to catch his breath, he kicked the broken door open, covering the inside for any movement with his revolver. Big Lobo panicked at the flying door – he didn’t expect such aggression from someone who had just been shot at. His rifle was still pointed outside the window. Big Lobo frantically tried to pull his rifle inside, but could not bring it to bear before Slade put three slugs into his chest. He died before he hit the floor.
That left only Herd, who was not the kind of desperado who fancied gun play. He preferred to joke and drink and play cards. He never would have fired at Slade and probably couldn’t hit him if he tried. Now his two dim-witted partners lay dead, and the shack reeked with gun smoke and splattered blood. His ears still rang from close-quarter gunfire when Slade spun around to see his old partner, crouched by the corner wall, both hands raised high. “Don’t kill me Slade,” he shouted.
“What the hell’s wrong with you?” Slade shouted back, his gunhand still trembling from the deadly shoot-out.
“I didn’t know it was you at the door and I sure as hell didn’t tell them boys to shoot.”
“Stand up, Herd,” Slade yelled. “All I did was come out here to talk to you, have you come in with me to answer some questions about stolen automobiles. Now look at this – my horse shot, two men dead, almost got my head blow’d off, and I darn near killed you too.” Slade kept Herd covered with his six-shooter while he took a couple of minutes to cool off. As Slade’s trembling body began to settle down, he exhaled a few deep breaths.
“Turn around and lay down on your belly, arms stretched out away from your side,” he ordered sharply. Herd complied immediately and offered no resistance when Slade snapped on handcuffs. Pulling Herd up to his feet, Slade walked Herd out the door in front of him, down the road to the nearest house he could find that might loan him a good horse for the ride back to Coulson. Herd could damn well walk.
Now a few months older and worlds wiser, Slade smiled to see Mason through the window coming his way. Slade met him at the door. “Howdy, Marshal,” Slade said with his hand outstretched. Mason returned the shake with a grin.
“How ya’ been, Slade?” Mason asked.
“Glad for the snow, actually – keeps the rowdies indoors.” “That’s lookin’ at the silver lining,” Mason nodded.
“Come on in – sit a spell,” Slade offered. They sat beside the glowing pot-bellied stove in the lobby.
“What brings you out?”
“I could use your help with security on that gold train coming through in a month or so.”
“It’d be an honor. Just say when.”
“It’s probably overkill,” Mason shrugged. “Like swattin’ a fly with a Gatling Gun, but I’d rather play it this way.” Slade nodded in total agreement.
“That’s good advice. Let’s go back to my office.”
The two walked past the desk sergeant, who gave Mason a warm welcome.
“Good to see you, Mase.” Mason pointed right back at the sergeant and gave him a wink.
Slade offered Mason a chair as they gathered around his desk.
“How about a cup of coffee?” Slade offered.
“That sounds mighty fine.”
Slade fetched a fresh cup from atop the pot-bellied stove out in the lobby and walked it back to Mason.
“How you like your new job? What’s it been – three months?” Mason asked, after a sip of coffee. Slade shook his head in amazement.
“I still can’t believe they hired me. I’m just twenty-seven.”
“Are you kiddin’? I was two years younger than you when they pinned that same badge on me back in 1891. It looks good on you.”
“So, this gold train business – where do we start?”
“I’ll need your crew to help ride shotgun when we pick up the gold train in Warren.”
“Do we know the day yet?”
“Not yet. It’ll be another month or two. Just be ready to jump whenever I say,” Mason said. “I’m heading up to Miles City as soon as the rails clear to check out the bank and meet up with Tom Culpepper.”
“Ain’t he retired?”
“Not yet – he’s still the law in Miles City, and he’s anchored the local security for the gold exchange four times a year for the past ten years. I wouldn’t think of doin’ this without him.”
“I thought he was done after that shoot-out crippled him.”
“He’s still a force of nature with his one good leg – more than most men are with two.”
“Whatever you say, boss. So, how many guards you figure altogether?”
“With temporary deputies and troops from Fort Custer, I expect over forty,” Mason said. Slade slowly exhaled.
“That’s a nice army,” Slade smiled with relief.
“Yeah. I learned that technique from Simon Bass, my boss when I was just a tadpole here. He preferred to overwhelm his opponents with superior force. I’m goin’ to play that card to disabuse anyone of mischief. We’re gonna send a message that we’re not lookin’ for trouble, but if trouble comes a’ callin’, we got a welcoming committee.” Mason stood to say good-bye and gave Slade a warm slap on the back.
“You like elk huntin’?” Mason asked. Slade grinned at the apparent invitation.
“I do, actually.”
“When the snow melts a bit, why don’t we head up to the Musselshell with Thorn.”
“I’d love that,” Slade said.
“Thorn,” Amanda said, “you know, Mason and Grace are coming over this afternoon.”
“Yeah,” Thorn said.
“Before they get here, I thought you’d better know why I asked ‘em over.”
“Didn’t know we needed a reason.”
“Even so – you need to see it – it’s out in the work shed.”
“Sounds mysterious. Let’s have a look,” Thorn smiled. They walked out to the shed, where they could hear the sounds of a hammer pounding on iron, like a blacksmith at work.
“Before I open the door and show you what’s inside, le’me say a few things. Six months ago I saw a notice in the newspaper about a road race scheduled for Miles City comin’ up on March 25. They’re callin’ it the ‘Miles to Mile High’ – it’s a car race from Miles City to
“Sounds like a crazy fool thing, but what’s that got to do with us?”
“Just have a look,” Amanda said as she rolled open the door to the work shed, revealing Trot Molesworth, their mechanical engineer, attaching a bumper to a wild four-wheeled two-seater contraption that looked like a freight wagon gave birth to a hand-powered washing machine. The frame borrowed metal parts welded together from the ranch’s surplus inventory of pipes. The floor board, dashboard, and passenger seats were made of wood, and the engine came from an old Shawmut Runabout. Trot beamed like a proud papa.
“What the hell is this?” Thorn asked.
“It’s a cross-country race car,” Trot said. “I call it ‘The Trotter’. It’s got four cylinders, forty horsepower, a wide wheel base, and a large enough gasoline tank in the rear to carry 150 gallons.” Thorn studied Trot’s creation thoughtfully.
“How fast does this thing go?”
“On flat ground maybe twenty miles an hour or so,” Trot said.
“That’s all? My horse can do that.”
“Not on rough terrain or hills. And you can’t run a horse for five straight hours at that speed,” Trot countered. Thorn had to admit he was right.
“What do you plan to do with this thing?” Thorn asked.
“Well, Miss Amanda here, she wants to enter the Miles to Mile High road race and needed me to build her a car so’s she could enter.” Thorn turned to Amanda.
“You want to do what?”
“I want to enter that road race.”
“Like hell you are,” Thorn scowled.
“You’re not takin’ this thing across 500 miles of wagon ruts and coyote passes.”
“You don’t think I can?”
“For starters, you don’t know the first thing about racing motor cars, and in the second place, it’s just plain dangerous. I wouldn’t even ask Trot here to make that run.”
“Well, as a matter of fact, I was thinking of entering the race too.
I’m gettin’ ready to build a second car.”
“Are you both crazy?” Thorn blustered.
“No. These cross-country races are all the rage now. Later on
this year, in June, there’s gonna be a road race from Peking to Paris,” Trot said.
“Peking, China, to Paris, France?” Thorn asked, to make sure he heard it right.
“That’s right – 9,000 miles with barely any roads,” Trot said.
“What the hell they tryin’ to prove?”
“That as long as a man has a car, he can do anything and go anywhere.”
“That’s their opinion. And I still say you’re not goin’. It’s just too damn dangerous for a woman out there by herself,” Thorn told Amanda.
“I don’t plan to ride it alone. Grace is going to ride with me,” Amanda said. Thorn’s mouth dropped open.
“Did Mason agree to this?” Thorn asked.
“He doesn’t know yet – neither does Grace. But I know as soon as I ask her, she’ll jump at it. She’s got more spunk than any three cowpokes I know.”
“Mason will never allow it,” Thorn said.
“The prize money for first place is $10,000,” Amanda added.
“That would sure go a long way to get our ranch back on its feet.”
“And I don’t care if I win or not,” Trot said. “I’ll just ride alongside Miss Amanda and Miss Grace to make sure nothin’ goes wrong.” “You just can’t,” Thorn began to beg.
“I ran this ranch for twenty years without your permission,” Amanda countered. “And some of it was damned dangerous, more dangerous than riding a flivver down the road. You forget, I almost got killed last summer just watching my foreman chop a tree down at the meadow lake. I’m not scared of nothing after that.”
“Okay. Show me you can drive this thing,” Thorn said.
“Glad to.” Amanda jumped into the driver’s seat. Trot ran over to the choke, located at the right front fender, and pulled it while simultaneously turning the hand crank lever one-quarter turn clockwise to prime the carburetor. Next, he jumped into the car, inserted the key into the ignition, and turned it. Immediately, Trot moved the timing stalk up and moved the throttle stalk down to set the idle correctly. Then he pulled the hand brake back to place the car in neutral. Finally, he jumped out of the car again to turn the hand crank a half-turn to actually start the engine. It revved up and started purring.
“Ready,” Trot called out to Amanda over the sound of the engine. He pushed the car out of the shed and aimed the front of the contraption toward the road leading to the front gate of the ranch. Amanda applied the hand brake while Trot jumped into the passenger seat. He turned and handed Amanda a set of goggles to keep flying particles out of her eyes.
“Out and back,” he called as he pointed down the road. Amanda donned her goggles, then gave the car some gas, and the two bolted away from the work shed. The tires splattered mud and snow into the air, and away they flew. Thorn jumped out of the way and watched in shock and fear as they rambled out of sight.
Mason and Grace loved the quiet ride out to the Lazy Y Ranch. The scenery along the road displayed assorted boulders, meadows, clusters of trees, and gentle creeks. Winter birds fluttered from one tree to another, adding to the serenity of the outdoors. As they approached the front gate to Thorn’s ranch, they heard the echo of a roaring engine – not deep-throated like a tractor, more like a high-pitched whining sound.
“What’s that noise?” Mason muttered. “Sounds like a sawmill.” Grace scanned the meadow in front of them and saw nothing.
“I don’t know.”
Their horse flinched as the pop of a tail pipe echoed across the valley.
“Was that a gunshot?” Mason asked. They hurried to the front gate, expecting trouble, but Mason braced himself as he yanked the buggy reins tight to stop their horse from bolting at the sight of something rapidly approaching.
“What the hell…” Mason said as Amanda and Trot roared up to the gate at full speed. The horse whinnied and bucked.
“Let off the gas!” Trot shouted at Amanda as he applied the hand brake. The race car skidded to a stop just short of the gate post and the engine died. Amanda pulled off her goggles, laughing at the expression on Mason’s face. Grace recognized her in an instant.
“That’s Amanda,” she called out and jumped out of the buggy.
“What are you doing?” she asked, all smiles. Amanda turned to Trot. “Jump out,” she said. Trot obeyed. Then she turned to Grace.
“Let’s go for a ride,” she said. Grace turned to Mason for permission, but despite Mason’s gaping jaw, he could not find words to utter. Not waiting for a veto from her husband, Grace jumped into the vacant passenger seat. Amanda fired up the car and roared back down the road to the ranch house.
“What’s goin’ on here?” Mason asked Trot.
“You better ask Thorn,” Trot replied. He joined Mason in the buggy, and the two rode together to the work shed. They found Thorn surrounded by Amanda and Grace, embroiled in debate.
“Mason, get over here,” Thorn waved at Mason. Mason tied off the reins and joined him.
“These two ladies want to enter the Miles to Mile High road race in March driving that contraption.” Thorn pointed to the overheated bucket of bolts. “Would you please explain to them why that is not going to happen?”
Mason knew an ambush when he saw one. He chose to play dumb to buy time.
“What are we talking about here?”
“For some reason Amanda is entertaining the absurd notion of entering a road race and is enticing Grace to join her.”
“Who put that notion in her head?” Mason turned to Trot. “Did you?”
“No, sir. Miss Amanda thought it up herself. She just asked me to build a car to get the job done.”
Amanda braced herself for the whirlwind. “Mason, before you say anything, you are not in charge of me. I’m a big girl and I’ve chewed off bigger bites than ridin’ south to Denver.” Mason knew better than to get between Thorn and his wife.
“You okay with this?” he asked Thorn.
“Certainly not, but I’m dealin’ with a woman who don’t seem to recognize Death when she’s staring at him right in the face.”
Mason turned to Grace. “Are you in on this?”
“Don’t look at me. I just found out when you did,” she assured Mason. “But, when I think about it, I could sure use a change of pace. Steamboats aren’t runnin’ right now with the rivers all iced up, and I think Amanda and I would make a good team.”
“Just so you know, I’ll ride alongside ‘em in a second car to keep ‘em safe,” Trot added again, just for emphasis.
“And the first-place prize is $10,000,” Amanda said.
“That’s a hell of a lot of money,” Mason said. “Enough to make a man throw fair play out the window to make sure he wins.” “Please,” Grace pleaded.
“Gi’me a chance to think about this. You just dropped this on us a second ago,” Mason said. He turned to Trot.
“Can you build a second car in time?”
“Yes, sir. I got the parts. I can’t promise it will stand up to the road cars the big boys are bringin’, but it’ll do.”
“Le’me talk to Thorn,” Mason said. Grace turned to Amanda.
“Let’s go for another ride.” While Mason and Thorn stepped indoors, the two girls took The Trotter for several laps around the back forty acres, scaring all the wild critters half to death.
“I knew the idea was crazy when Amanda first suggested it, but we gotta admit, we chose to marry wildcats, not wallflowers. These girls got grit. Grace is a steamboat pilot, for Pete’s sake. And Amanda’s run the biggest spread north of the Elkhorn Ranch for twenty years. She’s a spitfire if I ever seen one. You just try to out-bid her in a cattle auction and you’ll see what I mean.”
“But, hell, Thorn, this ain’t exactly their wheelhouse.”
“So what? All I know is I can’t put Amanda in a bird cage. She won’t stand for it. We’ve only been married a few months. She’ll chafe like the devil. Besides, like Trot said, they ain’t gonna be no threat to the front runners, so nobody’s gonna feel the need to sabotage their car.”
“If you say yes to this hare-brained adventure, that’ll make me the lone fly in the punch bowl,” Mason groaned.
“Well, what’s it gonna be?” Thorn asked.
“I can’t believe I’m about to agree to this,” Mason sighed. They both went back outside and waited for the girls to finish their third lap around the meadow, with Grace at the wheel. They pulled up to the shed and shut off the engine. Mason had to admit, he hadn’t seen such a big smile of delight beaming from Grace since their wedding day. She scrambled out of the race car and ran to him.
“Did you see that?” she asked.
“Yeah, I did,” he said with a painted smile on his face.
“It’s not near as plum as my old Ford Model C, but she runs like a stallion,” she added as she wiped her frosty nose on her sleeve. Mason took her by the arm and gently led her out of earshot from the others.
“Grace, it’s nothing like your old Ford. It’s a race car, made for speed, not for comfort, not for safety.”
“I know, but a car’s a car, and I can handle her. Besides, what can go wrong?”
“Everything,” Mason said.
“Can you just trust me?”
“Grace, I’m not really worried about you – I’m worried about the other drivers who may not have the same regard for your life, or theirs for that matter. There’s no referee out there to enforce the rules of the road, and they’ll do whatever they need to beat you. They could send you into a ditch or off a cliff.”
Grace looked deeply into Mason’s eyes and understood his reservations.
“I don’t wanna win – I just wanna ride.”
Mason knew that feeling himself as a young wrangler on the back of a bucking bronco and knew he’d married a woman with the same spirit. That’s why he loved her.
“Okay,” he nodded. “Just promise me you won’t take chances. Lay back and let the hellcat drivers pass.”
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A mason & Thorn Western Series
Book 5: The Bone Cave
US Marshal C.J. Mason and his deputy Thorn Hickum mount a search for a missing stagecoach in Montana’s Crazy Mountains. During this quest they encounter Dr. Nevil Baker, a paleontologist, whose team just uncovered a trove of dinosaur skeletons in a remote cave, worth over a million dollars to museums across the country. They agree to ride shotgun overland to San Francisco to protect this precious find from ruthless bandits determined to steal this treasure at any cost. Treachery is afoot, as one of Dr. Baker’s own disgruntled team members intends to eliminate the marshals himself and abscond with this prehistoric prize.
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In 1908, there were only two ways to get from Big Timber to White Sulphur Springs, Montana. You either followed the valley road around the Crazy Mountains, or if you dare, you took the perilous stagecoach route over the mountains. The second option saved you at least one day, maybe two, weather permitting. During the winter, the stage line closed the mountain route due to impassable snow drifts. By late April to early May, the snow melt made the mountain route possible, but the Gilmer & Salisbury Stage Line paid their drivers to use their judgment in choosing this option. Right now, road conditions seemed acceptable, but the weather looked nasty. At the Big Timber station, the road-savvy driver gathered his four paying passengers, along with his conductor, for a vote.
“We got a choice to make,” he said. “I’ve driven this mountain route plenty, and she’s a touch temperamental – some sketchy patches on a good day, but a widow-maker when she wants to be.” The one female passenger cleared her throat.
“What do you mean?” she said.
“The road’s worn away in spots from rain and wear, and some of those turns,” he paused. “Well, I’ll just say it – a stagecoach is eight feet wide from wheel to wheel, and there’s some spots up there where the road is only about twelve feet wide. That doesn’t give us a lot of leeway, with the mountain on one side and a 100-foot drop on the other. They should have made the road wider, but for each foot of width they had to blast away tons of rock.”
“What do you recommend?” another passenger said. The driver gave a quick glance at the darkening sky to the north.
“We got some weather comin’ in,” the driver said. “Down at this level it could just blow past us. You never know. But up there at 5,000 feet, it could get ugly.”
“How ugly?” a third passenger said.
“I got stuck in a bad one last year,” the driver said. “We were near the saddle when a rainstorm hit – washed the road out. I busted a wheel, and we were stranded for four days before help got to us.” He studied the expression on the faces of his passengers. “So, here’s what we can do. The valley road is a sure thing. It’ll take us around the Crazy Mountains and get you to White Sulphur Springs in two days – about 110 miles.”
“Or?” one of the male passengers said.
“The mountain route will get you there in one day, God willing,” the driver said. “What’s your pleasure?” The passengers hemmed and hawed among themselves.
“I got business in White Sulphur Springs. I need to be there tomorrow,” one passenger wearing a bowler said.
“Yeah, but we get stuck on the mountain, you won’t get there for a week,” another replied.
“I’ll take that chance,” the bowler clad passenger said. They turned to the one female passenger for her thoughts.
“My sister is waiting for me,” she said. “She wired me to come help care for our ailing mother.” The bowler passenger nodded.
“All the more reason to get there as fast as you can,” he said. “I say we take a vote – all in favor of taking the mountain route raise your hand.” Three of the four passengers reluctantly lifted their hand. The driver intervened.
“Sorry. It’s all or no go,” he said. “You all have to agree.” The three yes votes turned to the one holdout. Feeling the pressure of his fellow passengers, he slowly raised his hand to make it unanimous. They turned to the driver for confirmation. The driver scratched his scruffy neck and nodded.
“OK, then. Let’s get your gear on board,” he said. “Tie it all down and we’ll hit the road,” he said. “Let’s see if we can beat that storm.”
While the passengers and conductor loaded luggage in the boot, the driver hitched up two extra horses to give him a full team of six to make the uphill grade. The driver and conductor climbed into the driver’s box, the passengers made themselves comfortable in the coach, and the stage departed from the Big Timber station at nine o’clock in the morning heading for the Crazy Mountains.
The Crazy Mountains were an isolated island range east of the Continental Divide, offering an imposing craggy silhouette against the Montana sky. The female passenger in the coach asked, “Why are these mountains called ‘Crazy’ anyway?”
“I heard the full name was ‘Crazy Woman Mountains,’” one of the passengers said. “Supposedly, she went insane when her whole family was killed traveling west. The story has it she wondered off into the mountains where she wailed and moaned the rest of her days. The Indians swore she was crazy and named the mountains after her.” The cabin fell silent for a moment.
The driver kept one eye on the road and the other on the black horizon creeping over the peaks, and shook his head.
“I don’t like it,” he said to the conductor. “I’ll feel better when we reach the saddle and start downhill.” The conductor buttoned up his duster and held tight to the side rails.
The stagecoach road took them into the foothills. Up ahead they could see Crazy Peak rising up over 11,000 feet, already covered with clouds. Near Twin Lakes, they gave the horses a rest at the stagecoach way station.
“Stretch your legs a bit,” the driver called out. “I need to rest the horses and water them. The next leg is gonna be the bitch.”
In November of 1907, Mason & Grace welcomed a new baby boy to their home. At the age of forty-one, Mason felt way too old to be a father, but he knew that he possessed the maturity and stability to father a boy – much more than he might have twenty years earlier. Grace, at forty-two, knew she got a late start at motherhood. Some of her friends were on their third or fourth child by her age. Even so, Mason and Grace felt confident, with all their wisdom and life experience on board, they would make sensational parents. They named their boy Jacob – good solid biblical name – borrowed from some distant relative from a remote branch of Grace’s side of the family tree.
Thorn and Amanda accepted their childless marriage as the hand they were dealt, and chose to celebrate Mason and Grace’s good fortune rather than allow envy to drive a wedge between them. They stopped by for a visit after attending a screening of The Great Train Robbery silent movie at the town’s new movie house.
“How was the movie?” Mason asked.
“You just can’t believe what folks like Thomas Edison and his compatriots have achieved with this moving picture invention,” Thorn said. “Just think about how our world is changing. Radio, telephones, the Wright Brothers flying their new airplane twenty-four miles in twenty-eight minutes, it’s just too much too fast. And now this.” Mason just smiled.
“Just tell me about the movie. Should Grace and I go see it?” Mason said.
“It’s not exactly a full evening’s entertainment,” Thorn said. “It’s only about eleven minutes long. And from a lawman’s perspective, the plot is pretty thin. The robbery is unbelievable, the acting is completely exaggerated, and some of the characters are pretty comical. But, all in all, it had my attention all the way through.”
“Well, give me a for instance about the robbery,” Mason said.
“OK, so this train full of people is stopped and everyone is ordered to get off the train and line up along the railroad tracks. There must’a been a hundred people or more, many of them men packing pistols, all being held up by two or three crooks. It made no sense. I can tell you for sure if three hoodlums marched a hundred armed passengers off a train in real life, and demanded that everyone turn over their valuables, there’d be three dead crooks layin’ beside the train in less than ten seconds.”
“I think I get what you mean. By the sounds of what you say, I doubt if this moving picture thing has a future,” Mason said.
While the girls played with Jacob and took turns holding and kissing his pink chubby face, Thorn presented a gift to Mason. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a new 1907 twenty dollar gold piece recently minted at the direction of President Teddy Roosevelt and designed by the famous sculptor Augustus Saint- Gaudens.
“Take a look at this,” Thorn said. “This is the first series of coins not to bear the motto ‘In God We Trust,’” Thorn said.
“How’d that happen? Was it a mistake?” Mason said.
“No, it was done at the request of President Roosevelt himself. And from what I hear, it’s caused quite a firestorm across the country.”
“I could imagine,” Mason said. “Thanks. I might want to hang onto this. It could become a collector’s item someday.”
“If you get a chance, I’d like to have you come out tomorrow and see the new baseball field south of town,” Thorn said.
“I’m not keeping up,” Mason said. “We’ve got a baseball field now?”
“You bet,” Thorn said. “It’s all the rage,” Thorn said. “I even threw in some funds to help build a few grandstands for folks to watch the games.”
“Really?” Mason said.
“Yeah, Coulson even has its own team – The Cattlemen. They’re playing the Miles City Bankers tomorrow. Could be fun. Trot’s playing for the Cattlemen – he’s our catcher.”
“Trot Molesworth – he never ceases to amaze me,” Mason said. “Engineer, auto mechanic, and now baseball player.”
The next day, the Masons and Hickums joined the raucous crowd to watch The Cattleman trounce the Mile City Bankers by a score of ten to one. Trot even slugged an impressive three-run homer, sending the ball over the fence and into the Yellowstone River.
Back in his U.S. Marshal’s office the next morning, Mason sorted through his notices and spotted an urgent telegram from the Gilmer & Salisbury Stage Line. It stated that in April one of its stagecoaches failed to arrive at the end of its run from Big Timber to White Sulphur Springs. A search party departed White Sulphur Springs, heading south to find the stagecoach, with no luck. The telegram asked Mason for assistance to find the missing stagecoach and solve the mystery. Mason sat down with Thorn to discuss the matter.
“How could a stagecoach just disappear?” Thorn said.
“I know. It doesn’t make sense,” Mason said. “If they got turned around, it seems they’d end up someplace where they could get their proper bearing and get back on track.”
“I wonder if they got stuck in snow and had to hunker down somewhere?” Thorn said.
“Even if they did, it seems somebody would have walked out by now and called for help.”
“We better get on it,” Mason said. “We’ll catch the train west to Big Timber in the morning. Get your gear ready and meet me at the train station.”
That night, Mason explained the situation to Grace.
“Can’t you send somebody else? Hire a search party or something? Does it have to be you?” Grace said.
“It’s my job, and I’m not exactly busy right now,” Mason said. “It shouldn’t take more than a week. We’ll be back before you know it.”
The morning train to Big Timber arrived at noon. Mason and Thorn offloaded their mounts and supply mule from the cattle car, and followed the stage line into the Crazy Mountains.
My brother Tom, who co-authors the series, and I grew up in Los Angeles, with our big sister and two other brothers. Our Dad, who himself grew up on a ranch, recalled with fond memories his life on the range. His collection of Zane Grey novels and Louis L’Amour tales testified to his abiding affection for the west, a love he instilled in us. He modeled the code of the west in his own conduct and boiled down its essentials in our upbringing. “How will I know when I’m grown up?” I once asked my Dad. His answer summarized the core of the cowboy code. He said, “You’ll know you are grown up when you do what’s right even when no one’s looking.”
Our lifelong love affair with the western genre extends from literature to film to music to cowboy poetry. The very idea of “The West” captivates our imagination for that time when the freedom, purity, and solitude of unsullied vistas and wide open spaces wooed pioneers to its embrace. Even now, when we steal away to the cathedral of the Tetons or the vast expanse of Big Sky country, we are enriched by the lullaby of a whispering breeze and the faint scent of sage. We hope that our books capture your imagination as we endeavor to preserve that uniquely American brand that helped to shape the distinctive American character.
About the co-Author
Tom Richardson has had a lifelong love affair with the western genre, in literature, music and movies. From the novels of Louis L Amour and Elmer Kelton, the Music of The Sons of the Pioneers, Michael Martin Murphy, and Don Edwards, the poetry of Waddie Mitchell, and the movies of our beloved John Wayne, the western has fueled his imagination and his desire to contribute to the preservation of that uniquely American brand that has helped to shape the distinctive American character. Tom works as a Registered Nurse in the Cardiac Catheterization Lab at a local hospital. He has been married to his wife Kelli for 30 years and has two grown children, one currently serving in the U.S. military, the other retired from military service. Tom Lives in Billings, Montana.
More Reader Reviews
“Excellent! It keeps you on the edge of your seat the entire time. The writers are the best I’ve come across. The whole family will enjoy them.”
“Larry & Tom Richardson have woven a story using historical facts and a fast-paced story to keep the reader entertained. I am ready to look for the gold myself – it must still be out there. I recommend this book to everyone who loves a mystery and adventure.”
“The Big Horn was a fast-paced read in the spirit of a Louis L’Amour novel.”
“Couldn’t put the book down! Read it in an afternoon.”
“Great story – worth reading.”
“The yarn will keep you glued to the chair once you begin. Very well written with a great twist in the final pages.”
“Prepare to lose yourself in the wild west for a day or two. If you like historically based fiction, or if you just like a great story, this is a must-read.”
“You become one with the story – it’s that good.”
“I was actually angry when I got to the last page because I didn’t want it to end. I wanted more.”
Podcast Hosted by larry & Tom Richardson
Where the west commences
Western authors Larry & Tom Richardson have long shared a passion for the west that led them to write the western novel series we call “The Mason & Thorn Western Adventure Series.” From that literary effort, they went on to create a weekly show, where they gather around the kitchen table to compare their nostalgic love for the rich legacy of the American West and the profound ways it shaped our culture. With a touch of humor and a dash of reverie, they pay homage to a time that once was and still calls to that cowboy in all of us. Once a week their 30-minute episodes share their thoughts about western movies, TV, music, art, trivia, and just about anything about the west that strikes them as fun to explore. From time to time they even take their audience with them as they visit western historic sites, museums, and landmarks that celebrate the heritage of the west. So, they invite you to join them each week as they take you to “Where the West Commences.” Just click on the following link: https://wherethewestcommences.libsyn.com or wherever you get your podcasts.