Posts Tagged ‘Pony Express’

Will and BonnieI have been writing for publication since 1998, when I sold my first novella, “Miracle on Beale Street,” to Tyndale House. The next one to appear was “Reforming Seneca Jones,” which released in the fall of 2000, in the anthology Prairie Christmas. PrairieChristmasCoverFourteen years and fifteen books later, I’ve begun to get back the rights to those early novellas and republish them as ebooks, giving them another editorial polish and fresh covers.

“Seneca” is one of my favorite stories, both because of its western Pony Express setting and its irresistible hero. Seneca Jones is an orphan cowboy who grows up wild and adventurous in a land and time full of such self-made men, just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. He loves his horse and his gun, he’s loyal to his friends, impatient of pretenders, and he’s protective of women and children. He also has a penchant for mischief and flirtation.

Bonnie displaying a bit of diva temperament

Bonnie displaying a bit of diva temperament

So after updating the manuscript and preparing it for upload to Smashwords, my e-publisher, I began to plan the cover. This was no easy task, since I live in South Alabama, where snowy prairies and rough-hewn cowboys are about as common as…well, prairies at the beach. I considered hiring a marketing company to design the cover. But I figured I might wind up spending a lot of money on a generic romance cover, featuring some stock-photo sissy masquerading as the one-of-a-kind Seneca Jones—or, worse yet, a middle-aged, grizzled cowboy with a cigarette dangling between his lips.

Um, no.

So I decided to shoot the cover myself, using one of my nephews as a model, my niece’s horse and my sister’s rural property as background—but schedules, weather, costuming, and all sorts of challenges prevented the project from coming together. The season for releasing the book passed, and I slunk back to Square One. Nearly a year passed.

Then I met Will Dorminy.

Will and Bonnie

Will and Bonnie

Will recently came on staff at our church as one of our music and worship leaders. He’s a talented musician, sings and plays guitar, and has a gift for leading people into the presence of God—which is amazing enough. But the first time I saw him, I did a double-take. He’s in his early twenties, blond and blue-eyed, with an infectious smile and a killer dimple—Seneca Jones come to life. Will probably wondered why the crazy lady in the orchestra kept staring at him, but I was just thinking, What if I could put a cowboy hat and duster on him, and get him on a horse? There’s my cover!

For a long time, I didn’t say anything to Will about my nutty idea, because where was I going to get a realistic cowboy outfit? Where was I going to get a horse? And I’m not a photographer, except with my handy iPhone, so who was going to man the camera?

Those horses were...big!

Those horses were…big!

My daughter Hannah is my favorite photographer, but she lives inconveniently far away, so I asked my friend Jan Johnson to do the actual shoot. She agreed, with the stipulation that Hannah do the artistic editing and design of the cover. Boom. Photography issue solved.

Meanwhile, I’d been checking costume shops, both online and in Mobile. Everything I found looked both fake and cheap. One night I mentioned the project to my friend Billy Graham (no, not that Billy Graham), our missions and evangelism pastor at North Mobile. Billy has always been one of my greatest prayer warriors and cheerleaders, and I probably should have gone to him at the beginning. Within twenty-four hours I got a phone call from Billy’s friend Roy Hill, pastor of First Baptist Church Satsuma.

HorsesRoy owns four horses and a stable. Roy’s son is a professional horseman who has a gospel-centered “horse-whispering” ministry (with the charming title “Spurs“) and owns all kinds of vintage cowboy clothing and accoutrements. Roy and Chance were both thrilled to help me out. Super-score!

So I finally called Will and asked if he’d ever done any modeling. He’s a very modest guy and kinda laughed at me, but agreed to give it a shot. With a little back-and-forth texting we found a time when model, host, photographer, and I could all get together. And this past Tuesday afternoon, in spite of seasonal torrential rain in our area, we got together at the Hill Hacienda in Satsuma, Alabama.

Donkey and German shepherd

The Hills’ donkey and friendly German shepherd checking out the strangers

You never know how these things are going to go.…But we got Will all togged out in cowboy gear, from hat to spurs, even a gunbelt and chaps, and trekked out to the barn. Jan and I spent a few minutes choosing a horse (what do I know about horse color?) and picked a buckskin named Bonnie, Pastor Roy’s personal mount. Bonnie wasn’t real excited at first about her new modeling gig, but a bucketful of oats enticed her to cooperate. You can see in the photo above that the Author was a little nervous, due to a Traumatic Horse Experience some forty years ago. And Jan’s Chocos got a little, um, coated with manure, but she was a good sport about that too.


Antique saddle

Here’s a shot of a hundred-year-old saddle that we would have used, except it’s missing a stirrup. All the rest of Will’s gear is well-used, real-life tack and clothing from Chance Hill’s Spurs Ministry. We spent about an hour trying various backgrounds and poses, and wound up with over two hundred shots that Hannah will be able to pick from. Fortunately, Will has some experience with horses, and dealt well with Bonnie, the mud and manure, and two bossy women. He now has a random entry to his resume that may or may not give him credibility as a musician and minister—but at least will make great conversation one day.

The shoot is a wrap! Whew!

The shoot is a wrap! Whew!

In any case, I’m grateful for friends who are willing to go along with my sometimes oddball adventures in publishing. If I can ever return the favor…


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Jacqueline awakened in the gray predawn, suddenly aware that, despite her knotted stomach, she had closed her eyes and gone out like a snuffed candle.

And because of last night’s fit of modesty, she desperately needed a trip to Charlie’s outhouse. She lifted her head and peered around the belly of the stove.

And bolted upright. Fitzgerald’s bedroll was gone and him with it. Had he left her alone? She’d cursed his presence, but once she’d gotten used to the idea of such solid protection, losing it filled her with terror.

She wildly looked around the cramped interior of the cabin. Then it dawned on her that the stove was still going. Fitzgerald hadn’t been gone long. Probably he would be back any minute.

Now was her chance to take care of necessary business without enduring his prying questions.

She scrambled out from under the blanket and shoved her feet into her boots. Snatching her hat off the table, she wound her brown woolen scarf around her throat and stumbled outside. The blast of frozen air on the other side of the door nearly made her forget the pain of a full bladder and head back to the warmth of the stove. Gritting her teeth, she put her head down against the icy wind and trudged toward the rear of the cabin.

A few minutes later, frozen of backside but otherwise considerably more comfortable, she headed back to the front door. Maybe she should check on Celeste, though. No telling where that nosy Micah Fitzgerald had got off to. She hadn’t heard a sound that would indicate his whereabouts.

He was a very quiet man.

Inside the barn, with the bite of the wind on the other side of the door, Jacqueline paused and listened. The snuffle and blowing of the animals drew her into the dim interior.

“Celeste? You all right?” She shuffled her way down the inner aisle as her eyes adjusted to the darkness.

The mule poked her bony head over the stall door and lipped Jacqueline’s shoulder.

She laughed. “Hungry, huh? I’ll find you some hay, hang on.” Shivering, she ducked into an empty stall, where she’d found clean hay yesterday. She picked up the pitchfork leaning in the corner, jammed it into the pile and took an armload back to Celeste’s stall—and halted. Fresh hay was already scattered on the dirt floor. Fitzgerald had beat her out here.

Uneasy, she glanced around. Was he hiding somewhere, watching her to see what she would do when she thought nobody was looking?

But there wasn’t another sound, except for the blue roan gelding in the other stall, munching on his own breakfast.

Jacqueline put the hay and pitchfork back where she’d found them and walked to the gelding’s stall. He ignored her as she rested folded arms atop the door.

“You’re just as quiet as your boss, big boy. Wonder what’s your name.” Fitzgerald hadn’t said, she would’ve remembered, but the horse was clearly cavalry stock. “Probably something military. Sarge or Major maybe.” The gelding looked up, sudden interest in the big dark eyes. “Major? That it?” Whuffling, the horse moved toward her and nuzzled her arm.

She petted him for a moment, enjoying his warm breath and body heat. It occurred to her that she had an opportunity to shake her unwanted companion. She could ride out, leaving the scout with her rickety mule, and he’d never catch up to her. The horse was nearly sixteen hands, much bigger than typical Pony Express stock, but she thought she could handle him.

Still, she’d have to hurry.

“Where’s your saddle, Major? Wanna go for a ride?”

She looked around the barn and found the gelding’s tack neatly piled at the far end. Hurriedly she gathered the bridle and blanket, leaving the saddle for the second trip. When she went back for it, she staggered under its weight, barely managing to heave it over the horse’s withers. But Major was well-trained and stood patiently while she tightened the girth.

She patted the winter-thick coat of his neck. “You’re a good boy.”

For a moment she stood holding the bridle, shivering, indecisive. Horse thievery was no small matter. If, as she suspected, Fitzgerald was a lawman rather than a telegraph scout as he claimed, she could be in big trouble.

If she got caught.

And she was a Christian. The right thing to do would be to go back into the cabin and face whatever consequences befell her.

On the other hand, she had no way of knowing what this stranger’s goals and motivations might be. Every man she’d known in her short life had focused on his own selfish aims—with the possible exception of her brother, and even he had his shortcomings. Didn’t the Bible say that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God”? How could she trust a man she’d known less than twelve hours, no matter how steady and gentle his eyes and voice?

Perhaps taking Micah Fitzgerald’s horse would be forgiven in the light of self-protection. Surely God didn’t expect stupidity out of her. And she could always leave the horse for him when she got to the next station—where, surely, she would find traces of Neil’s whereabouts.

Pressing her lips together, she gathered the reins and led the gelding to the door. She pulled the latch and pushed it open, gasping when a gust of wind yanked it outward with a thump against the outside wall of the barn. Major flinched but held steady as she whispered to him and stroked him. “Good boy,” she repeated, over and over, calming herself as much as the horse.

She peered outside and saw nothing but dark, still, silent prairie. The sky looked like gunmetal, heavy with snow clouds that smothered the rising sun. She hoped Micah Fitzgerald would stay occupied for long enough that she could get away.

“All right, then.” She sucked in an icy breath. Keeping the reins in her left hand, she put her foot in the near stirrup and grabbed the pommel.

She was off the ground, halfway in the saddle before the gelding reared. Caught completely off-guard, balance shattered, Jacqueline hung on as best she could as the horse danced like a circus performer. Jigging one way, slamming to all fours again, rocking to the left and heaving into a demented silent bucking, Major threw his would-be rider off in less than ten seconds.

Wheezing, Jacqueline lay flat on her back looking up at the horse. Apologetically he dipped his beautiful small head to lip her hair.

Without warning she started to cry. Just rolled over on the dirt-and-straw floor and buried her face in her arms.

That was where Micah Fitzgerald found her.

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Micah couldn’t have interpreted the look on the kid’s face if somebody had offered him a thousand dollars to do it. But he found himself mighty curious what Jack Sabiere was going to say next. Appeared the boy was an orphan. Not that that in itself was all that unusual on the Nebraska prairie.

For a moment Jack sat there on his broken-back chair, stiff as a cadaver, thumbing the gilt edges of the Pony Express Bible. Finally he punched a finger at its cover. “This here book says he’s real interested in everything about me. But it ain’t a question of what I want, it’s about what he thinks is best for me.” The dark, young-old eyes lit on Micah’s face. “Don’t you have no religious training?”

Micah felt his cheeks warm. “My parents took us to church when we were growing up. I’d just say it didn’t stick much.” His mother would be appalled to know he hadn’t set foot inside a place of meeting in nigh on five years.

Jack’s mouth twitched. “You must be pure spiritual grease. Where’d you grow up?”

“North Alabama. How about you?”

Wariness returned to the boy’s expression. “Round and about. Mostly Kansas.”

“Where’re your folks?”

“Got none, except for Neil. We’ve been on our own since I was about six years old.” He looked down at the Bible again, which told Micah he was lying.

No big surprise.

“Surely he doesn’t leave you alone when he’s out on a run. I was told there’s a couple of brothers running the Sabiere station. That your family?” Micah studied the boy’s hands, watched them clench the Bible.

“That’s my—uncle, yeah, but I don’t hardly claim him. He’s a lazy drunk, leaves most of the work to me.”

Micah pretended to believe that obvious fabrication. He nodded. “So you just up and left the station unattended, except for your lazy drunk uncle, and rode off into a blizzard to check on your brother.”

“Something like that.” The boy’s small cleft chin rose.

Clearly he was going to produce no further information, voluntarily at least. And Micah had an aversion to coercing infants. “All right, then Jack Sabiere,” he sighed. “Since you’re determined to be contrary, I’m gonna hit the hay, and I suggest you do too. I plan on leaving at first light. But first I need to see a man about a dog, how about you?”

The boy’s eyes widened. “Oh, no, I—I mean, it’s too cold out there. I’m gonna bed down, but you—you go ahead and—” He bolted out of his chair and lunged for his bedroll, which Micah had tossed onto the woodpile just inside the door. “Will you check on my mule again while you’re out there?” he mumbled.

What a funny kid, Micah thought, amused. Embarrassed to pee with a stranger. “Be glad to,” he said amiably and pulled on his gloves and hat.


In record time Jacqueline laid out her bedroll beside the stove, pulled off her boots, and slid between the blankets. Her heart was still racing when Fitzgerald returned from his trip to the barn. The scout knew she was lying, knew there was something funny about her story, but for some reason refrained from accusing her flat-out. But danged if she was going to admit anything until she had to.

She peeked over the edge of the blanket, which she had pulled to her nose. “The animals warm enough for the night?”

“They’ll survive,” he said laconically. He sat on a chair to pull off his boots and glanced at Jacqueline. “You warm enough, kid?”

“I’m just dandy.” At the sight of his big stocking feet in their gray wool socks, she slammed her eyes shut. What if he started undressing? “Thanks,” she added belatedly.

“Don’t worry, I sleep light. I’ll feed the fire during the night.”

“That’s good.” She was a light sleeper too. And she feared it was going to be a long night.

She did, in fact, lie awake for a long time after Micah Fitzgerald had doused the lamp and climbed into his own bedroll on the other side of the stove. Scraps of the scripture she had quoted kept rattling around in her brain, interspersed with prayers for Neil and anxious conjectures about what would happen if this big, non-religious telegraph scout figured out he was sleeping in the same cabin with a scrawny eighteen-year-old girl whose brother had absconded with the U S. mail.

It was enough to give a person nightmares.

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PonyExpress-3Micah considered how much of the truth to tell. It was no part of his plan to involve a half-grown man-child in the financial misdeeds of the Overland Stage Company. But since Neil Sabiere was integral to his investigation, it followed that Jack Sabiere could be a source of information.

“Durango’s an old army buddy,” he temporized. “I was in the vicinity, scoutin’ for the telegraph, and decided to stop for the night. Took a look around outside first, when I realized the stock was missing. The texture of the manure says the animals have been gone for a couple of days. Can’t tell how old these bloodstains are.” He scrubbed his boot across one six-inch splotch and gestured toward the gold-embossed book lying on the table. “I found that lying in the chair you’re sittin’ in. Dead center of the room, only thing standing upright.”

As if to avoid scrutiny, the boy bent to return the knife to its scabbard near his ankle. “Neil wasn’t much on reading the Good Book,” he muttered, picking up the Bible and retrieving the Spencer rifle, which he had propped against the wall. “I’m not surprised he left it. Obliged for the meal, mister. Good luck finding Durango Charlie.”

Micah’s hand snaked out to grab the boy’s elbow as he stalked toward the door. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“To look for my brother.”

“Boy, it’s gotta be close to freezin’ out there by now.” Micah’s hand clamped tighter as Jack attempted to shake loose. “And dark as Hades besides. You’ll get lost, maybe freeze to death, sure as God made snowflakes.”

“What if Neil’s out there somewhere, wounded, or—or dead?”

“Killing yourself’s not gonna make him any less dead. Use your brain, kid. Wait ’til daylight, and I’ll go with you. Chances are, Charlie and Neil are together.” Unless Neil had killed Charlie, in which case Micah would bring him back to trial.

He watched the boy, face averted, struggle with heroism and common sense. After a moment the hunched shoulders relaxed. At least Micah wouldn’t have to hog-tie him to his chair.

“All right.” Jack jerked his elbow loose and picked up his chair to plunk it down beside the stove. “But I’m leaving at first light.”

* * *

Jacqueline could hardly believe a man with those light-colored eyes, sharp as cut crystal, still believed her to be a boy. She must be the ugliest woman in God’s creation. Hunched into the collar of her coat, hat pulled low over her face, she sat with her chair tipped against the wall beside the stove, pretending to read Neil’s Bible. She’d never thought much about her looks before, except a fleeting mourning of the loss of her long hair. Being female in her position as relay station manager was nothing but a nuisance, and she usually dressed in comfortable men’s clothes. In her current situation, she knew she should bless the Lord for her thin, boyish shape.

But she couldn’t help crossing her arms over her chest.

Now that her stomach was full, she was beginning to get sleepy. She wanted to go out to the barn and sleep with Celeste, but Fitzgerald would think that odd. He’d already been out to check on their two mounts and brought back Jacqueline’s hastily-packed bedroll and gear, along with his own. Good thing she hadn’t brought any of her feminine items, because if he was halfway as smart as he seemed, he’d most likely gone through her pack before bringing it in.

She’d thought he might pester her with questions again, but he sat on the other side of the potbellied stove paring his fingernails and ignoring her. She wondered at a friendship between this big southerner and crusty old Durango Charlie. She’d guess Fitzgerald to be less than thirty, but it was hard to tell. His hair was a thick, sun-streaked brown without any gray, curling just a little at the ends, but his eyes had the hard, narrow quality of men who had lived outdoors much of their lives. And he hadn’t once smiled or laughed. However, there was a dry, humorous curl to one side of his mouth.


“You must have that verse memorized, kid,” he said suddenly.

She nearly fell out of her chair. “Wh-what?”

“You’ve been lookin’ at that same page for nigh on an hour now.”

“Oh.” Jacqueline glanced down at Hebrews 11. “Yeah.”

“Read it to me.”

Was he testing her? Did he think she couldn’t read? She cleared her throat and pitched her voice at the bottom of its range. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” She looked at him defiantly. “Hebrews eleven, one.”

“Evidence. Now there’s an interesting word.” He tested the blade of his knife against the callused pad of his thumb and watched her hands. She forcibly relaxed their death-grip on the Bible. “I bet a smart kid like you has already picked up some clues about where your brother went. I’m thinking he knew you—or somebody—would be coming after him. Why else would he leave that Bible smack-dab in the middle of the room where you’d be sure to see it?”

“I don’t know—I—” Jacqueline swallowed the fear congealed in her throat. “Are you with the Overland Stage? I swear Neil’s never lost the mail before.” She’d made sure of that, even delivering it herself one time.

Fitzgerald laughed, and she mentally pegged his age closer to twenty-five than thirty. Some of her fear drained away.

“I told you I’m scouting for the telegraph,” he said. “Pony Express will be out of business soon as the line’s completed to San Francisco. Sometime next summer.” He pulled a hunk of white-fleshed wood from his shirt pocket and began to whittle, the shavings falling in neat fragrant curls onto his lap and the floor. “What are you and your brother gonna do then?”

“I’ve—we’ve been saving our money for a wagon train to California,” Jacqueline said. “Neil wants to buy a piece of land and raise cattle.” What Neil wanted was to pan for gold, but Jacqueline counted on talking him out of it when they actually got there. The mesmerizing motion of Micah Fitzgerald’s hands took the brakes off some of her caution. “God promised me a home,” she blurted.

The fine mouth curled again. “I take it you don’t have one now.”

Jacqueline bit the inside of her cheek.

When she didn’t answer, Fitzgerald gave her an amused look. “What makes you think God’s interested in what you want?”

Jacqueline considered trying to run off again. If she kept talking, he’d figure out she was a woman and make her tell where Neil was.

She slid her finger inside the front cover of the Bible, where Neil had scrawled her name and four numbers. Fitzgerald must have seen it; otherwise, how would he have known her name? But he couldn’t know what the numbers meant. She and Neil had come up with this private code as children, growing up in the home of a violent father and spineless mother.

Every prudent instinct warned Jacqueline to keep her mouth shut.

But the Holy Spirit began to whisper. Child, I am your covering. Tell him.

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PonyExpress-3She held the gun steady with one hand and quietly lifted the door latch with the other. The muzzle of the rifle preceded her silent step into the room.

Her first thought was that a grizzly had taken up residence in Charlie’s domain after destroying every stick of furniture in the room—except for the chair he sat in beside the upended table. Seated facing the door, the man appeared to be well over six feet tall, his fringed buckskin clothing lending massiveness to his shoulders, arms, and thighs. His shaggy light-brown head was bent over a book held in one huge hand.

Feeling like Goldilocks facing Papa Bear, Jacqueline cleared her throat and aimed the rifle at the middle of that broad chest. He looked up and she found herself pinned by deepset water-gray eyes. She almost dropped the gun.

“Where’s Charlie?” she managed to grit out in her deepest voice. Questions wheeled wildly in her head. Where was her brother? Where was all the Pony Express stock? Why was this man sitting here without a fire?

Without answering, the man slowly closed the book.

Her eyes widened. It was a Pony Express Bible, and she could swear it was Neil’s. It had to be; there was the corner she’d accidentally burned off when she knocked over a lamp about a month ago. She’d insisted Neil take it with him on his last run. She never quit praying Neil would give his life to the Lord.

Suddenly the man was on his feet, a Colt revolver held rock-steady in his left hand. Aimed at her right shoulder.

“Don’t wanna hurt you, kid,” he drawled. “Put down the gun and we’ll talk.”

“I’ll shoot first.” Jacqueline’s knees buckled, but she managed to stay upright.

“You don’t want to shoot me, and I don’t want to shoot you,” he said gently. His free hand reached up to stroke the thick sandy mustache outlining a rather nice mouth. “I’m lookin’ for Charlie, too.”

His accent was southern, Tennessee maybe, the tone deep as a well. She searched his eyes, looking for meanness or deceit, but found neither. “That’s my brother’s Bible. I want it.”

“Are you Jack?”

Her mouth went dry. How did he know? She gave a jerky nod.

There was a fractional relaxing in the man’s jaw. He almost smiled. But the black hole of that revolver remained fixed like an empty eye. “Well, now, we might work up a little trade here. Give me the gun and I’ll give you the book.”

Jacqueline raised her chin and widened her stance. “First tell me how you got it.”

He regarded her coolly. “I got here a couple hours ago, found the place pretty much like you see it.” He jerked his head and she glanced around again.

For the first time she noticed the dark brown stains clotted at intervals on the dirt floor. Her voice came out strangled with terror. “How do I know you didn’t kill Charlie and my brother?”

“I guess you don’t know that.” He shrugged. “You’ll just have to take it on faith.” Just as suddenly as he’d aimed it, the man flipped his gun back into the well-worn holster low on his left thigh. He held out the Bible. “Here, kid. I swear I don’t mean y’any harm.”

Jacqueline took it, closed her eyes, and swung the muzzle of her rifle toward the floor. Shaken to the core, she hoped her knees would hold together. She forced a return of bravado into her voice. “Good. Now can we start a fire in here before we both turn into a couple of frozen carcasses?”

* * *

This has to be one of the scrawniest kids west of the Mississippi, reflected U. S. Deputy Marshal Micah Fitzgerald as he shoveled beans and salt pork into a tin pan. Trained to observe, first by the Army and then by the forces of self-preservation, Micah still could tell little about his young companion. The small head was covered by a broad-brimmed gray felt hat, from underneath which wavy black hair spewed like ink out of a bottle, hiding most of his face. The nose was straight and freckled, the mouth wholly occupied with consuming as much hardtack and beans as it would hold.

Micah suppressed a sigh as he sat down to eat his own simple meal. His younger brother Cane would be about this kid’s age, maybe thirteen or fourteen at the most. He hadn’t seen Cane since the boy was crawling around on his parents’ dirt floor. Home in north Alabama was an eternity away.

Daydreaming never served any purpose that Micah could see, so he scraped the bottom of his plate and scowled at Jack Sabiere. “You gettin’ warm yet, son?”

“I ain’t your son,” the boy snarled in a gruff voice that tried hard to cover up his youth.

Micah tried equally hard not to smile. “Good thing, too, or I’d’a hauled you across my knee pronto when you came in here pointin’ a loaded gun at me.” A gasp satisfied Micah that he’d made his point, so he relented and extended a hand. “Reckon I ought to at least introduce myself. Micah Fitzgerald.”

The boy glared up at him without reply, black eyes glittering under the shadow of his hat brim like onyx chips. Reluctantly he offered a dirty, chapped little paw. Micah took it and noted the small bones. He mentally took the boy’s age down to eleven or twelve.

“So, Jack, you got a ma and pa around somewhere?” Micah watched in amusement as the kid wiped his hand contemptuously on his pants leg. Mannerless little rapscallion.

“None of your business” was the cool reply.

“I made it my business when you aimed that gun at me. What you doin’ off by yourself in the middle of nowhere?”

“I told you, I’m looking for my brother.”

Micah could see they were getting nowhere fast. He wanted to jerk the kid up by his run-down boot heels and shake the truth out of him. “You and your brother live around here?”


“Your brother’s a Pony Express rider, right?”

“What if he is?”

Micah stroked his mustache with one finger and leaned across the table, which he’d propped up on a couple of sacks of meal.

The boy tipped his chair against the wall, away from him.

Micah said softly, “It’s a federal offense to make off with the U. S. mail.”

The chair crashed to the floor as the boy jumped to his feet. A long, deadly and businesslike knife was clutched in his left fist. “Take that back,” he gritted.

Micah slowly sat back, a soundless whistle pursing his lips. “Kid, you got to learn when to take offense and when not to.” He raised both hands palm out. “I didn’t mean anything. Honest. Come on, sit down and help me figure out what happened to Durango Charlie—and your brother.”

The boy stood there shaking. “Why are you so interested? What are you doing here?”PonyExpress-3

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by Elizabeth White


Kansas/Nebraska border – December, 1860

“Come on, Celeste,” crooned Jacqueline Sabiere to her punch-drunk mount, who staggered like a Virginia fence across the last quarter mile of endless, frozen plain between her and Solitaire Station. “Just a few more steps and I promise I’ll stuff you so full of oats you’ll think you died and went to mule heaven.”

She held onto the reins and saddle horn with one heavily gloved hand and yanked the sheepskin-lined collar of her coat closer under her chin with the other. Cheered by the thought of the pot of hot coffee sure to be bubbling on Durango Charlie’s stove, she goosed Celeste’s heaving sides.

As if mocking her optimism, a blast of icy wind ripped off her hat and slung it halfway to Fort Kearny.

“Oh, good night!” She scrabbled off the mule and took off on foot. She could hardly see where she was going for the chopped-off black hair blowing in her eyes, but she finally caught the hat when it snagged on a scraggly mesquite bush. Jamming it on her head, she stomped back toward Celeste, who stood shivering in the wind, head bowed to the ground and rabbit-like ears flattened in abject misery.

“If I ever catch up to that no-count brother of mine I’m gonna skin him and turn him into a throw rug,” she grumbled through stiff lips as she struggled into the saddle again. She clicked her tongue. “Come on, wolf-bait.” Celeste shuddered, balked again, then started plodding.

It was getting colder by the moment. Jacqueline continued her monologue to keep her numb lips from freezing together. Somehow it turned into a prayer. “Three days. Three days he’s late. I just know he’s gone and got drunk again and lost the mail. How’re we gonna get out to California if the Overland fires him? I can’t raise the money by myself.” Tears stung her eyes, and she wiped ice crystals out of her lashes. “I know I look like a boy, but I’m just a girl—and I’m scared. What if he’s not there?”

She was blubbering like a baby. Jacqueline shook her head fiercely against the fear. God had kept her safe when she’d had to ride for Neil that time. And again when that gang of prospectors had passed through the station and caught her with her hair down. Deliverance had come in a pack of wolves; the men had ridden off without touching her, and the wolves had disappeared as if in some strange dream. Alone again, she’d stood in front of her spotty little mirror, hands shaking as she hacked off her waist-length hair with a bowie knife.

Surely the Lord cared as much about her current predicament.

Since Celeste knew the way to Solitaire, Jacqueline closed her eyes and pictured her brother’s Pony Express Bible, by which she’d come to know the blessed Savior. The verses in Jeremiah she’d long ago memorized comforted her as she murmured them aloud. “‘For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end. Then shall ye call upon me, and ye shall go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you. And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart.’ Lord, I’m seeking you. With all my heart. I do feel like a captive, stuck out here in the middle of nowhere with nobody for company but this spavined old mule and a brother who’s about as dependable as a weather vane in a cyclone.”

Neil had been gone for over two weeks this round. Usually she saw him every ten to twelve days when he stopped at the relay station to change horses. The eastbound rider had come and gone three days ago.

“Lord, I know you’re good with promises. But what’ll I do if Neil’s disappeared for good this time?” Since there wasn’t a burning bush in sight, Jacqueline sighed and leaned forward over Celeste’s bony neck, set to endure the cold and discomfort for the remainder of the ride.

After what seemed like forever, but was probably no more than ten or fifteen minutes, Jacqueline’s watery eyes picked out the outline of Solitaire Station on the horizon. It was little more than a cabin and a couple of barns, but old Charlie kept the chinks plugged in the winter and the coffee hot. And he had a soft spot for the Sabieres. For the first time in days Jacqueline smiled. What a blessing it would be to get warm.

Celeste, too, seemed to perk up as her instinct for food and shelter kicked in. She picked up her pace to a slow jog.

As she drew close enough to pick up details, Jacqueline eagerly looked for signs that her brother might be laid up here with Charlie. Maybe he had some good reason for being late with the mail. Maybe he’d been thrown and broke a leg. Jacqueline mentally prepared herself to take the mochila containing the mail and deliver it herself. She’d done it once before. Except this time she’d have to ride a double stretch, going all the way back to Sabiere Station, plus the distance to Rock Creek. After having ridden all the way here. Her muscles tensed in anticipation of the coming endurance test.

There was nothing to indicate Neil’s presence—nor Durango Charlie’s for that matter. Impossible to see into the stable from this distance and tell how many mounts were put up there.

Then a detail she’d initially missed penetrated Jacqueline’s fog of cold and fatigue as she scanned the roofline of Charlie’s cabin. The stove pipe. No smoke. No fire.

Where was Charlie?

She started to shake, violent shudders that nearly threw her off the mule. Old Celeste suddenly took off like a bullet, and Jacqueline hung on as best she could until they were inside the barn. Clearly, her mount was her first responsibility. Inside the relative warmth of the barn’s center aisle, the mule came to an abrupt halt that pitched Jacqueline into the horn. With a squeak of pain, she tumbled out of the saddle, then led Celeste into a stall, where she quickly removed her tack and dumped grain into the manger.

“I’ll give you a good rub-down later,” she assured the mule, throwing a blanket over her and running a hand down the stubby mane. Chomping blissfully, Celeste ignored her.

Jacqueline shrugged. On to the problem at hand.

She looked around the barn. An eerie silence prevailed. The Pony Express stock were gone. Charlie’s sorrel gelding was gone.

Charlie might have simply ridden back to St. Joseph or another settlement, but he wouldn’t have left the station unattended. He was generally as reliable as Neil was not. Some violence had overtaken Charlie—and likely Neil, too.

Then a shuffling of hay and a snort came from the other end of the barn. Jacqueline’s heart bumped. There was a horse here after all. She approached cautiously but hopefully and found a magnificent blue roan gelding in the last stall. He poked a finely-shaped head over the half door and regarded her with intelligent dark eyes.

“Well, hello, fella.” Jacqueline stroked between the wide-spaced eyes. “Aren’t you the handsome stranger? Who do you belong to?”

Obviously not Charlie or Neil. And he was too big and finely bred for Pony Express stock.

Somebody was in that cabin. But why was there no fire?

She took stock of the two weapons at her disposal. One was the Bowie knife Pa had given her just before he’d disappeared five years ago. She kept it in a scabbard strapped against her right pants leg.

The other was a Spencer carbine rifle she’d sacrificed a big hunk of her savings on, after the incident with the wolves. She often practiced on it during the lonely hours alone at the station. She’d never shot anything human with it before, but she fancied she could protect herself if she had to.

She walked back down to Celeste’s stall, where she’d dumped her gear, and shucked the gun out of its saddle holster.

Please, God, don’t let me have to shoot anybody.

Stepping out of the barn into the freezing late afternoon shadows, she held the gun aimed and ready, rehearsing possibilities as she marched the hundred or so yards across to the cabin. That roan looked like Cavalry stock. Or maybe one of the Overland Stage higher-ups had deigned to visit the station. What about the telegraph? Their agents had passed through the area, not often, but every so often over the last year or so.

Still, she paused outside the door and jerked her hat down more firmly. Fear had her pulse thrumming in her ears, bile in her throat. Men could do awful things to a woman caught alone.

She could get back on Celeste and either ride back home or head for the next station. But the mule would never make another trek today like the one they’d just accomplished. It would be dusk in another hour and probably below freezing.

Come on, Jack, don’t be such a scaredy-cat.

She held the gun steady with one hand and quietly lifted the door latch with the other. The muzzle of the rifle preceded her silent step into the room.

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