Sunset Stories
Chapter 4: Noon Train

Copyright© 2016 by Scriptorius

Jack Wade was happy, or at least as happy as a man of his temperament and way of life could expect to be. He was a morose, withdrawn character, sardonic in his attitude to everything and everyone, including himself and his affairs. As to occupation, he was a criminal. Now approaching forty years of age, he had not done a lick of conventional work for over two decades. His only job had been as a helper in a general store, from which position he had been fired when his employer could no longer tolerate his incompetence and pilfering.

Even at barely eighteen, Jack Wade’s personality had been firmly set. He didn’t philosophise. His response to adversity was, as it ever afterwards would be, invariably swift and frequently violent. During the night following his dismissal, he broke into his ex-employer’s store, emptied the tin cashbox, filled a sack with provisions from the shelves and rode off.

Young Jack soon fell into like-minded company and from then on his course never wavered. In the ensuing twenty-two years, he had chalked up an impressive list of felonies, including just about every kind of robbery imaginable, plus the odd killing. Sometimes he worked alone, sometimes with one gang or another. Once, during flight, he had taken a bullet in the left shoulder, but he had never been caught.

Had he been more careful with the proceeds of his activities, Wade would have been comfortably placed. But his attitude to his gains was cavalier and any booty he acquired soon found its way across one or other of a hundred gaming tables. Only when he had worked his way through most of his roll did he consider a fresh enterprise to replenish it, confident that the cornucopia of other people’s money would provide. This was his mission now, as he headed northwards through Colorado.

Wade had been surprised and flattered to receive the summons that had brought him from his usual haunts in the Southwest. Surprised because the call had come from a man not known to him, flattered because his talents were considered appropriate for the obviously big job in prospect. The approach had been made in the form of a letter, brought by a rider who’d claimed to be an employee of the sender.

In the ten days since he had received the note, Wade had pored over it at least a dozen times, seeking some nuance that might initially have eluded him. He could not find one. Adjusting his long thin leathery body in the saddle, he lit a cigarette and pulled the now grubby single sheet of paper from his shirt pocket. Checking it over yet again, he read: scrutinise

Dear Mr. Wade, Please excuse this unsolicited approach from a stranger, but I am hopeful that our relationship will soon become closer. I have heard of your abilities in your line of work and have in mind a project which I think would interest you. At this stage I must be circumspect, but I shall be happy to explain everything if you will kindly accept my invitation to call on me here at noon on Thursday, the twenty-fourth of this month.

Should you decide to participate in the operation, your share of the takings would be worth about twenty thousand dollars and I believe the enterprise is likely to have at least a ninety-five per cent chance of success. If, after our meeting, you feel unable to offer your services, I will guarantee your travel expenses both ways, plus a sum of five hundred dollars to compensate you for any inconvenience.

The work requires several men and I am inviting certain others to meet me at the time and place in question. I believe all of these gentlemen are known to you. They are James and Robert Moran, Tom Wilson and Martin Broderick. I am offering the same terms to each of you.

I do hope you will be able to join me and as I see it, the worst that can befall you is a reunion with old comrades and fair compensation for your trouble. I would be grateful if you could wire me your reply to the telegraph office here in Eden Ridge, Colorado.

Assuming your acceptance, I would request that you arrive at the time I have specified and not earlier, as this is a small community and a lengthy stay by five newcomers might attract attention. For this reason, I have taken the liberty of arranging a brief outing, so that we may discuss our business undisturbed. If you call at our one and only saloon, you will find me waiting. I ask you to bring this letter as confirmation of identity.

I look forward to your wire and to your company.

Yours truly, John Beresford

Wade stuffed the letter back into his pocket. Try as he would, he could find nothing sinister about it. Maybe a little quaint in its formality. Still, it was not unknown in Wade’s circles for a gang to be recruited in a piecemeal way. Perhaps the only odd thing about it was that Beresford had made his approach in writing, which Wade reckoned was indiscreet. Of course, all the letters would be handed back to the sender, who would undoubtedly destroy them. Even if he didn’t, there would be no conclusive proof that he had originated them.

There had never been any question about Wade’s acceptance – he had wired it at once. With regard to funds, he was far from desperate, but an unexpected source of income was not to be scorned, especially when someone else had done the planning, and anyway, a man could hardly turn down the prospect of twenty thousand dollars without careful consideration.

A thin smile twisted Wade’s lips as he considered the possibility of working with his old cronies again. Though not regularly operating as a gang, these men got together from time to time, if there was a job big enough to require their combined efforts. For a while, until six years ago, they had raised hell in Montana, finally making things too hot for them when they had looted and burned down the luxurious Talbot ranch house near the Big Belt Mountains, shooting dead the owner and his wife. Dick Moore and Clem Hawkins had been in the gang then. Later, Moore had been killed in a saloon gunfight in Wyoming and Hawkins had met his end while trying to rob one stagecoach too many in Texas.

Wade was, by a narrow margin, the oldest of the five men invited by John Beresford. He looked forward to seeing the Moran brothers and Martin Broderick for the first time in over two years, but was less enthusiastic about being reunited with Tom Wilson, who was an unstable, disruptive character. Well, a man had to take the rough with the smooth. Wade had little doubt that Beresford’s summons would flush out the other four. The chance of laying hands on so much money would be too tempting for any of them to ignore.

Wade removed his hat, ran a hand through his long scraggly dark-brown hair, rolled another cigarette and rode on slowly. Eden Ridge was, as far as he could make out, no more than a railroad halt, well south of Denver and now only thirty miles north of his present position. He would camp in the hills overnight and time his arrival for noon on the morrow, as requested.

As Wade had been riding north, so the Moran brothers, Robert and James, had been travelling west by train, intrigued by Beresford’s invitation. Both men were short slim black-haired and in their early thirties. They had been relaxing in St. Louis when they had received the single letter addressed the two of them. Like the one to Jack Wade, it was delivered personally by a man who’d said he was a member of the writer’s staff. It had come at an opportune time for them, as they had been contemplating a return to work, with no clear idea about what to try next.

Like Wade, both Moran brothers were given to gambling and in that activity they were no more successful than was their occasional partner in crime. When engaged in their chosen work, they were cool, competent and dangerous and neither was averse to killing if it became necessary, or even if it didn’t. Robert, the younger by eighteen months had, in separate incidents, shot dead two train guards, who hadn’t been spry enough in doing as they were told. James had once whacked a stagecoach driver on the head so hard that the man had died. None of these things weighed heavily on the conscience of either of the Morans, nor would either shrink from further murdering, if it promised a worthwhile return.

Tom Wilson, travelling south from Wyoming by horse, was already almost at his destination. At twenty-seven, the youngest of Beresford’s invitees, the lanky angular Wilson was also the most undisciplined and headstrong. It was he who had fired the shots that killed both the rancher Talbot and his wife, up in Montana. That had been the beginning of Wilson’s bloodthirsty career and there had since been four further killings on his record. To him, shooting was a first resort and at times his wild ways were too much for even his most hardened accomplices. However, he was usually tolerated as he was a great one for getting things done. Furthermore, if anybody wanted to take issue with him, he was lightning fast and deadly accurate with a gun and scarcely less lethal with a knife. Like many of his kind, Wilson had no illusions about living to a ripe old age and no great desire to do so.

Last of the five was Martin Broderick. He also had the shortest journey, as he was in Denver when he received his letter. He would travel south by train on the day of the meeting. Broderick, sandy-haired, of medium height and heavy build, was by far the most sober of the five men converging on Eden Ridge. At thirty-eight, he was just over a year younger than Jack Wade.

Brought up on the eastern seaboard, Broderick had been nearing thirty when he moved west, seeking whatever was on offer. It hadn’t taken him long to find the company of Wade and the other gang members. He had always been careful with his booty. Apart from the necessary risks taken during his crimes, he never gambled, didn’t smoke and drank little. His associates often wondered what made him tick, but if he knew himself, he showed no inclination to enlighten anyone else.

Of the five, Broderick was the only one who had never killed, but he had stood by during the infamous incident at the Talbot ranch. Young Wilson had once taunted Broderick about his aversion to bloodshed, only to receive a vicious backhander which spreadeagled him on the ground. Clawing for his gun, Wilson had found himself staring down the rock steady barrel of Broderick’s forty-five. He had never again tried conclusions with the stocky Easterner.

Though he had accepted Beresford’s invitation as readily as had the other four, Broderick’s interest at this stage was hardly more than academic. He was well placed financially and would try this job only if he could satisfy himself that the chance of success could be raised to virtually a hundred per cent.

The morning of the twenty-fourth was bright, clear and cool. Punctually at noon, the five desperadoes gathered in the saloon at Eden Ridge. There were no other customers. After serving drinks paid for by the host, the bartender disappeared. Beresford allowed his guests a brief period to exchange pleasantries then, at ten minutes past the hour, he emerged from an upstairs room and descended the bare wooden stairs. The five men saw before them a young fair-haired fellow of middling height and chunky build, well dressed, carefully groomed and smoking a large cigar. He advanced on the party, smiling broadly.

“Good day, gentlemen,” he said. “Glad you could all make it. I made sure that we wouldn’t have company. Now, I hope you won’t mind my hurrying things along a little. The fact is, I’ve arranged for us to take a short railroad journey – just a couple of hours. I hired the train specially for us, so we can talk privately.” Beresford spoke quickly and crisply, moving among the five men as he did so, shaking hands with each of them. He also recovered the letters he had sent them. Apparently satisfied as to the identities his visitors, he tossed the four sheets of paper into the pot-bellied stove and watched them burn away. “There,” he said. “That disposes of anything connecting us. Shall we go?”

Everyone but Wilson seemed to appreciate the host’s brisk, businesslike approach. Perhaps because of his relative youth and his fearsome reputation, the sharp-faced gun wizard had to be different. “Not so fast, mister,” he snapped, bellicose as ever. “I ain’t had time to wet my whistle yet, an’ I don’t take kindly to bein’ hustled around.”

Beresford, the soul of urbanity, met the ill-mannered outburst with a grin and the raising of a placatory hand. “No offence intended, Mr Wilson,” he replied. “Of course you must satisfy yourselves. However, I can assure you that you’ll be able to imbibe to your hearts’ content on the train. There’s food and drink aplenty on board. The only problem is, the engine has steam up and I have to make sure we’re back here back here at three o’clock because the driver has another commitment then.”

There was a general rumble of approval from the older men. Jack Wade grinned tolerantly at Wilson. “Tom,” he said, “I’ll swear you’re still the most cantankerous gent I ever came across. Mr Beresford here may be a mite eccentric, but he’s paying well enough for it. Let’s just do as he says.”

Wilson hitched his gun belt, shrugged and nodded. That settled, Beresford led the way and the party left the saloon, ambling along the single street to the train.

Behind the locomotive and tender, there was one carriage and no caboose. Obviously, Beresford believed in doing things in style, for the car was extravagantly fitted out for the brief trip. At the rear end, across the whole width, was a two-foot deep slab of mahogany, supported by a pair of wall-mounted struts and laden with bottles of beer, wine and whiskey. Lengthways down the middle was a narrow table with three chairs on each side, the top covered with a spotless white cloth on which were six place settings and three large, covered tureens. Most of the remaining space was occupied by a pair of three-seater couches, placed so that the six men could sit in two groups of three abreast, facing each other. It was a trifle cramped, but lacked little in opulence.

Beresford, still leading, entered the car by the front-end door, abutting the tender, and made for the drinks table. He helped himself to a whiskey, inviting his guests to pick what they fancied. All of them opted to follow their host’s example. Wade drank first, smacking his lips appreciatively. “Say,” he grinned, “this is good. I guess it set you back plenty.”

Beresford laughed. “Just a little,” he said. “I don’t think you’ll find anything better of its kind.”

The older Moran brother looked around, lost in admiration of the lavishness. “Well, mister,” he said. “I reckon you must have some connections to put on a show like this.”

Beresford nodded. “It just so happens I know the president of this railroad,” he said. “This is his personal car, but he’s happy enough to make a dollar hiring it out when he isn’t using it.”

The hot-tempered Wilson turned on Beresford. “Hey,” he shouted, “the windows are all fastened on this side.”

“They have to be,” Beresford answered. “Company regulations. Just a few miles up the track we pass around the mountains. There’s a sheer drop on one side and a steep rock face on the other, which nearly touches the windows, so if you tried to lean out you’d hit the rock and could get killed. It happened once.”

Wilson grunted. “Seems to me it would’ve been better to fasten the windows on the other side,” he said.

Beresford chortled. “I think not. You’ll only take one look at that drop and there’s no way you’d want to take any chances there.” Placated again, Wilson turned his attention back to his drink.

At Beresford’s suggestion, each man took a glass and a bottle of the whiskey and the party shuffled along past the dining table to occupy the couches, the Moran brothers bracketing their host and facing Wade, Wilson and Broderick.

As the train moved off, Beresford cleared his throat, commanding attention. “Now,” he said, “we have around two and a half hours to discuss my proposition. I’ve asked you here because I know you’re all eminent in your line of work and the scheme I have in mind will need six men, including me.”

The impetuous Wilson interrupted. “How come you just happened on us?” he said, his aggressiveness only slightly blunted by the show of hospitality.

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