Texas Badlands, 1886
The stagecoach lurched. John Jake McCutcheon opened his eyes and saw the young woman next to him grasp the leather loop that hung from the coach’s ceiling to keep from being tossed around. She tipped precariously to the right, then left, bumping forcefully into his shoulder. With an apologetic glance she moved away, then dabbed at her brow with a folded handkerchief. She looked at her elderly aunt.
“Tante Harriett? Are you all right?” she asked in a soft German accent. She opened the fan she held and swished it back and forth in front of the tiny woman. “Your face is extremely red.”
“Of course, Lily,” Harriett Schmidt said in a raspy voice laced with exhaustion. The old woman’s hair was swept up atop her head and fastened in a bun, but after the miles and miles traveled on the dusty, sun-baked road, it looked more like a weather-blown tumbleweed after a storm. She patted her niece on the knee. “Thank heavens we’re almost there. Just one more day and we’ll be out of this oven.”
John glanced away, not wanting to seem impolite. He’d met both Harriett Schmidt and her niece, Lily Anthony, when they’d boarded the stage together in Concepción. He’d seen them on the train from Boston, too, but they’d kept to themselves, never speaking with anyone else.
John gazed out the window, thinking. He was finally finished with his medical training and heading to West Texas. Anticipation coursed though him.
Rio Wells was a long way from his family ranch in Montana, but he’d get used to it. His plan to return to Y Knot after graduation hadn’t panned out. His hometown already supported two full-time physicians. If he really wanted to make a difference in people’s lives as a doctor and surgeon, he had to strike out in a place where the townsfolk were in need. At least he wouldn’t be a complete stranger in Rio Wells. Uncle Winston and his family were there. And his fiancée, Emmeline Jordan, would be joining him this fall.
John closed his eyes, recalling Emmeline’s elegant profile and dark, alluring eyes. In his mind’s eye, her mouth drew down into a seductive little pout, a manipulation he knew all too well, but one that fueled his blood all the same. She was like a beautiful, exotic bird, needing care and affection.
“Oh, just to take this corset off,” Harriett said to no one in particular, then chortled softly at her niece’s shocked expression at her bluntness. “It pinches horribly. I think I’ll throw it away for good.” She paused, thinking. “No…” Her eyes twinkled mischievously. “Actually, I’ll burn it.”
Cyrus and Jeremiah Post and Abigail Smith, the other passengers cramped uncomfortably on the opposite seat, just smiled, now used to the old woman’s antics. Miss Smith, a teacher, had been hired by the same town council that had hired John, and he felt a small kinship with her.
“You know, Dr. McCutcheon,” Harriett Schmidt went on, trying to catch his eye, “my Lily doesn’t need a corset. Her waist is eighteen inches without one.”
“Tante Harriett. Please.”
John chuckled and shrugged his shoulders. He’d tried not to notice something like that, but it had been difficult, if not impossible. The girl had practically been snuggled to his side for several days.
Without warning, the driver called out sharply to the horses and the coach picked up speed. The two guards riding on top of the stage scuffled around and one shouted something unintelligible. John glanced out the window.
A shot rang out. A second later, one of the guards fell from the top of the stage, past the window, landing with a thunk as the stage rolled on. Lily gasped and threw her arms protectively around her aunt. Abigail screamed and then fainted, flopping over onto Cyrus’s shoulder.
The driver bellowed to the horses again and the stagecoach heaved forward as the six-horse team was propelled instantly into an all-out gallop. Three more shots were fired, and the sound of horses’ hooves thundered from behind.
John looked back through the dust to see a number of riders racing toward the stagecoach, eating up the distance between the two. What the hell was he supposed to do now? He was a doctor. He’d taken the Hippocratic Oath to heal not three weeks before. His job was taking bullets out, not putting them in. But then, he’d also been raised on a rugged Montana ranch, where the unwavering reality was hard. Sometimes staying alive meant killing someone else. Besides, everyone’s lives were on the line, not just his. It would be especially bad for the women aboard. These hills were a common hiding place for Comancheros. They used women in the worst ways and then sold them into prostitution in Mexico. As pretty as she was, Lily Anthony would fetch top price. Hell, they’d sell the skinny teacher and the old woman, too.
Smoke and dust filled the coach. Pop. Pop. Pop. Lily covered her ears. Her elderly aunt coughed as she struggled to hang on. Abigail, now fully awake again, filled the small space with one shrill scream after the other, never even pausing to take a breath. John reached for his satchel under the seat, withdrew a Colt 45, and strapped on his holster. Carrying his guns was a habit he hadn’t been able to break even after his years at school. With hands nimble from experience, he loaded and fired several shots out the window. Two riders fell.
“You have another gun?”
John was surprised to see old Harriett Schmidt eyeing him expectantly. One hand was outstretched while the other grasped the windowsill as the coach careened down the road, jerking violently this way and that. “I’m not letting those filthy dogs take my Lily!”
“Can you shoot?”
“I wouldn’t ask if I couldn’t. My derringer’s not worth diddly.”
John squeezed off three more shots, then pulled another gun from his bag, handing it to Harriett. He pushed the bag toward Lily. “Bullets.”
Cyrus Post fired out the other side of the coach just as a bullet hit Cyrus’s brother in the chest, slamming Jeremiah violently against the back of the seat. Jeremiah gasped several times as he tried to hold back a rush of crimson that spurted through his splayed fingers, soaking his clothes. With just a glance, John could see he wasn’t long for this world. Abigail’s eyes grew round as she took in the blood. With a gasp, she fainted again, blessedly putting an end to her screams.
“Hell and damnation!” Cyrus cried out. “There’s too many. Prepare to meet your maker.”
“Hush your mouth, you old coot,” Harriett shouted as she hefted the heavy gun and shot out the window. “I have more faith in God than that.”
The coach rounded a corner dangerously fast and then slowed a bit as it began an uphill climb. One side of the road dropped off, falling some forty feet to a bed of jagged rocks.
Seizing the moment, John holstered his gun and opened the narrow door. He climbed the side of the rocking coach using the window as a step and, grasping the luggage rack, pulled himself up. He flopped onto his stomach, facing the oncoming killers and picked up the fallen guard’s Winchester. He took aim.
He was able to cock the rifle, shoot, and pick off three Comancheros. One thing about a McCutcheon was that their father took great pride in teaching them all how to shoot well. Even his sister Charity was a sharpshooter.
Two bullets whizzed by John’s head so close he felt a trail of heat. He hunkered lower behind the cargo and steeled his nerves. A third shot took the life of the driver, forcing the remaining guard to jump into the driver’s box and grab for the multiple reins before they were lost completely. The man scooped them up and slapped the leather across the backs of the charging horses, demanding more speed.
John paused to reload. He wasn’t ready to die, dammit! He’d worked his tail off to get into Harvard and get his medical degree. And now this? Angry at the turn of events, he unloaded his chambers, bringing down two more outlaws.
“Help me up,” a female voice shouted over the ruckus.
Lily Anthony dangled from the side of the stage, her white knuckles grasping the iron rod of the luggage rack to keep from falling under the steel-rimmed wheels. Her dress swished around her legs as she struggled to secure footing. John reached down, took a firm hold under her arms, and pulled her up next to him. “What the hell are you doing?” he yelled over the sound of gun-shots and galloping horses.
“Helping you,” she shouted back as she scanned the area. She picked up the abandoned Winchester, reloaded it from a bag of ammunition, and handed it over to John. He grunted his understanding, took aim, and fired three times, sending more outlaws into the dirt.
As the coach slowed, the seven remaining desperados prepared to come aboard. John grabbed for his Colt and brought down the two closest. Taking aim on a third, he squeezed the trigger, only to have the chamber click empty. The rest of the ammunition was inside with Harriett. At this range the Winchester was nearly useless.
He swung to his left as a man leapt from his mount and began climbing up. With his empty gun, John bashed him in the face, knocking him off. Lily hefted the Winchester to her shoulder and fired, taking down a rider who was bringing up the rear.
Lily screamed and again grasped the luggage bar. One of the Comancheros had her by the ankle, pulling her toward the side of the rocking coach. John fought to keep his balance as he swung around. Grabbing the Winchester, he struck the outlaw’s face several times, but the man was mad with evil intent, and hung on relentlessly.
The coach lurched as the hind right wheel spun off the road. John scrambled to keep from being pitched off the top. The outlaw faltered. Quickly dropping the rifle, he grasped Lily’s upper body and heaved. She bucked and kicked, finding the outlaw with her boot, the kick glancing off his temple, but still he clung fast. Again the careening coach swayed violently, almost toppling all three.
A volley of shots sounded from within the coach and from the corner of his eye he saw one of the remaining two mounted riders fall. The final rider fired once, then pulled up and stopped, abandoning his companion who still rode the stage.
John yanked Lily behind him as the Comanchero stood and pulled out a knife. With the agility of a cat, the man slashed out and John dodged to the side. Emboldened, the outlaw sprung forward, catching John around the middle. The two fell to the roof, wrestling for the weapon. John reached for his empty Colt and brought it down on the man’s head, but not before a searing heat flashed down his face from temple to earlobe. Hefting the unconscious man up, John threw him off the cliff side of the rollicking coach then slumped down, pressing his palm to his face.Return to Texas Twilight