In the Wild West of the 1880's, a man on a quest misses what he's looking.
The fireman stepped out into the daylight glad to have a break from the searing heat of the confined room in which he had been trapped for the past two hours. He knew it was only a temporary respite before returning to tending the fire, but a welcome one nonetheless. His face, neck and shoulders were as black as the coal he had been shovelling into the furnace, indistinguishable from his blackened shirt.
The driver had told him to start slowing down 20 minutes before when he had seen something across the tracks up ahead. At that distance it had been impossible to tell what it was, but with one mile to go, the driver had been able to make out the wheels of an expensive stagecoach flanked by two horses. Now he could make out the uniform of a captain of the Union Army atop a magnificent white stallion and alongside him, on a smaller, darker mount, a young cadet. The driver was relieved that they were not bandits.
His relief was displaced by annoyance that his train was going to be delayed. Thanks to his excellent fireman, they had been making record time, but if this interruption caused them to run late getting into Promontory, the connecting train would have to wait and the Union Pacific Railroad Company would dock his bonus - again. It was never easy making the eastward journey – finding a decent fireman was always the stumbling block. Young men returning from the war were happy enough to speed west with the smell of gold in their nostrils, but only despondent losers and drunkards headed in the opposite direction.
This time he had been lucky; the lad may be quiet, but he was eager and a good worker. He had not even wanted to visit the whorehouse in Sacramento on the night before they departed or partake of the 'cowboys’ medicine' dispensed in green bottles in the local saloons.
“My people wouldn’t approve," the lad had said.
“How would they know?” he had asked in return with a playful nudge.
“They’d know as soon as they next saw me. It would be written all over my face."
So instead they had spent the evening, conscientious driver and sober fireman, looking after the train and chatting. He had found out quite a lot about his colleague. He had been involved in a freak mining accident, and was only too glad to no longer be underground. Faulty dynamite had gone off without warning. He had scrambled out unharmed but his partner had not been so lucky. He was returning to his partner’s ranch to break the news to his young widow and hand her the deeds to his claim and offer whatever help she might require.
“You must think a lot of your partner to go to so much trouble. Most would’ve just shrugged their shoulders and taken the claim for themselves.”
“He was a good man – he stood by me when no-one else would – I owe it to his memory to do the right thing.”
And so the night had passed smoothly and quickly, as had the journey thus far, until this unexpected hiatus.
The driver climbed down from the carriage and started to walk towards the waiting party. As he approached the
Captain raised his hat.
“Good day to you, sir. We have important business to discuss with you, please join us in the carriage." With that, the Captain swung himself off his horse and climbed into the stagecoach. The driver followed him.
"Allow me to introduce you to Miss Gabriella Brookes. We are searching for the murderer of her father and believe he may be fleeing to the east, possibly on your train. With your permission, we would like to interview your passengers."
"Do you know what this man looks like?"
"He's about five nine, 140 pounds or so and has sandy hair" replied the Captain.
"Not especially distinctive then," remarked the driver.
"He also bears the mark of a cattle rustler," offered Miss Brookes.
"In Wyoming we brand cattle rustlers with an 'R' on their right cheek to protect decent God-fearing folk."
"This will take about an hour or so. Please remain behind and guard Miss Brookes." With that the army Captain hurried from the carriage, remounted his steed, turned it round on a dime and trotted up to the waiting train, his young cadet following closely behind.
"D'ya mind if I open the window, Mam?" the driver asked, feeling himself becoming overwhelmed by her heady perfume.
"No sir, you go ahead. You know you are mighty kind to let me hold y'all up like this."
"Anything to be of service, Mam."
There was an awkward silence for about five minutes. Neither made eye contact with the other. Eventually, to make conversation, the driver asked:
"This man who killed your father, how do you know about his branding?"
"It was my father's cattle he was rustling."
"And this same man killed your father in California?" The driver asked after another pause.
"That's right, not more than five days ago."
They kept up the sporadic conversation for the next 60 minutes, during which time the driver found out that Miss Brookes was an only child (her mother dying in childbirth) her father had finally remarried last year and then one misty morning he had decided to head out west on the hunt for gold so that he could provide himself with a more comfortable retirement.
“What makes you think the man followed your father to California?”
“He went with him as his hired hand."
"Your father kept him on despite the cattle rustling?"
"Err yeah, I guess so."
They both looked out the window and saw that the Captain and finished his methodical search of each carriage and
was now heading their way.
"Well, we've spoken to all your passengers and none of them match the description we're after, so you're free to be on your way."
"Much obliged to you sir."
The driver climbed down from the stagecoach and wandered slowly back to his engine. He was glad to be on his way again. As he approached the engine, it suddenly occurred to him that he had never asked the girl how she had found out about the death of her father so quickly, nor how she knew who was responsible. It was almost as if she knew too much about it. Still, it was none of his business, he had simply been asking her questions to kill the time; now it was time to get back to their journey.
He found the fireman slumped against the wheel sheltering from the baking sun and flicked a rusty nail at him to wake him up.
"They've given us the all-clear; we can be on our way now boy."
The fireman sighed and reluctantly got to his feet. He gratefully took the flagon from the driver and took several large gulps and poured just as much water over his head. He picked up the driver's glove and used it to mop his face. It was a half-hearted attempt to get clean that served only to smudge his grimy face and partially reveal a livid scar on his right cheek caused years before by a blacksmith's iron.
This Decamot was inspired by the following Decamot items: gold, stallion, cadet, misty, rusty nail, green bottle, heady perfume, uniform, glove, passenger