A Detective’s Bloody Pursuit (Preview)

Chapter One

1892

Redwood Ridge
Shasta County, California

“Today’s the big day, eh, Mr. Malone?” Harry the barber asked, squinting through his spectacles as his squeaky scissors snipped.

“A big day, yes,” Marlowe agreed. “Not the big day, of course, but a big day, nevertheless. And, please call me Marlowe, Harry, or Marl, like most folks do.”

“Sure, sure,” Harry cooed, sounding far away. “Marlowe Malone: just like the sign.”

Noting his own puzzled expression in Harry’s mirror, Marl could only deduce that Harry was referring to the sign at the office of Marl’s business, MF Detectives, of which he was the M. He shook his head the way a gold panner might shake his pan from side to side, hoping for a nugget of logic to emerge, but to no avail.

Well, Amanda certainly wouldn’t want to be welcomed by that look on his face when he greeted her at the train station. Marl flashed a wide grin back at himself, trying to imagine his appearance through his fiancée’s eyes as she spied him for the first time in two years. His dark hair was still dark, not yet betrayed by even a single white hair, though he was fast approaching thirty. The mustache would be new to her, along with the adjoining sideburns, but Harry’s sure touch with the scissors ensured Marl wouldn’t look like some sort of walrus on the loose.

He was still in good physical condition, of course. Not quite as fit as when he’d first courted his commandant’s daughter, but still fit enough, given his devotion to pugilism and to vigorous calisthenics. He was certain Amanda would have no difficulty recognizing him.

“Just about done,” Harry muttered, setting down his shears. He picked up a straight razor and sharpened its edge by brushing it on his strop. “So, how’s your business doing over there?”

Marl flinched as Harry slapped a gob of warm lather on the back of his neck. Or was it the question itself that made him wince?

“Slowly, but surely,” Marl replied as the razor scraped down his neck. Although Marl had no regrets about throwing in with Frank on their venture, he did wish that they could actually make a living at it.

“Well, one business begets another and another. All boats rise with the tide. More heads to shave, more faces to cut, or something like that.”

Marl felt a sharp slap on the back of his neck, followed by the burn of the astringent cologne Harry used as his coup de grace. Marl bolted up from the chair, pausing only to press a coin into the shoeshine boy’s hand as he made for the door.

“Wish me luck, fellas,” he said, dodging the bell dangling above the door.

Onward to the tailor shop!

As he strode up the incline of the boardwalk, two men on horseback passed by. The cloud of dirt generated by the horse hoofs wafted over Marl, causing him to stand still to allow the dirt to settle before proceeding. The back of his neck still burned like an open wound.

It was unfortunate that Amanda would arrive in Redwood Ridge as the second year of a severe drought manifested itself. There was still plenty of greenery to behold, thanks to the abundance of shade trees that had yet to succumb to the dry heat, and he hoped she would revel in the same charm the town had to offer as when he’d arrived two months ago.

Marl arrived at Tom’s Tailor Shop just as the proprietor was flipping his door sign to read, “WE’RE OPEN.” Tom smiled through the glass pane and opened the door.

“There he is, the lucky man, and right on time.”

“As are you, sir.” Marl nodded, tipping the brim of his bowler before removing it. “I trust that everything is on schedule?”

“Oh, absolutely, Marl,” the tailor replied, taking Marl’s hat. Tom was a short man and very light on his feet. He almost skipped when he walked as he guided Marl to the fitting area in the back of the shop. “A nip here and a tuck there, and you’ll be fit to meet the President!”

Marl smiled as he removed his coat. “It’s funny you should say that.”

“Oh, I know,” Tom beamed. “Your reputation has preceded you. You served in the Secret Service under President Arthur. And the fact that he didn’t meet the same fate as President Garfield speaks highly of your abilities.”

There were rare circumstances when Marl had occasion to acknowledge this stage of his professional career but, for the most part, he avoided mentioning anything about his background that might be misconstrued as braggadocio.

“Well, I suppose I was luckier than my predecessors,” he observed. “Should I remove the trousers, as well?”

He stepped behind the embroidered partition, in case a customer entered, and received the garments Tom had labored over on his behalf: a three-piece checked suit, in “Emerald Isle green,” as Tom described it, with black piping running up and across (a “tartan” pattern, as Tom described it).

Marl couldn’t help feeling a bit of trepidation as he stepped from behind the partition. “Honestly, Tom, you don’t think it’s, perhaps, a bit much?”

“Oh, Marl, my friend, you could not look more cosmopolitan, believe me. Now, I could have stayed on Long Island and contented myself serving only the discerning palates of the sophisticates there. I could have done that, yes, but I didn’t. I traveled here, to the Wild West, they call it, to bring a taste of culture to the hordes. It takes talent, courage, and vision, but I can’t do it alone. I need men like yourself who are willing to put their best foot forward and show these gold-panners and cowboys that they don’t have to wear nothing but long johns and bibbed overalls. Would they only eat raw potatoes their whole lives?”

Marl had no doubt that some would do just that if left to their own devices. He felt better after Tom’s testimonial but couldn’t quite shake the feeling that the outfit was going to draw unwanted attention. This was confirmed when he looked over his shoulder and saw a man outside the window waving another over to behold the sight within the shop. The men seemed very amused.

Well, there was nothing he could do about it now. Amanda’s train was due to arrive in less than an hour. As he left the shop and walked back down the boardwalk, he wished there were a less traveled route to the agency, As the passersby grinned and winked, the blood burning on the back of his neck made the barber’s astringent feel like a cool compress in comparison. Marl couldn’t have felt more conspicuous if he’d been stark naked.

He stopped and looked across the street at the sign facing him: MF Detectives. He couldn’t help but smile. Imagining how impressed Amanda would be when she first beheld it, he no longer felt put upon by the judgment of others. He decided to stop in and see his partner and friend, Frank Fairfield.

***

Frank Fairchild pulled the folded copy of the Sacramento Bee from his desk drawer and settled into what was fast becoming his morning ritual: a leisurely perusal of the paper, accompanied by a cup of coffee, while awaiting the first customer of the day. 

Sadly, most days, that customer never showed up.

The newspaper was nearly a week old, but Frank felt certain there was still an article or ad that he’d yet to glean. Fortunately, today’s train would bring a fresh edition of the Bee, and just in time, too: his stock of outhouse accoutrements was running perilously low.

To be sure, Frank would rather have had a passel of potential clients lined up at the agency door, clutching fistfuls of greenbacks while clambering for their services. Regrettably, this vision had not yet come to pass. A business, like a garden, required sufficient time to thrive, and he and Marl had signed fewer than a half-dozen customers in the initial eight weeks of the agency’s existence: two embezzlement investigations, surveillance of a cuckolded Methodist minister’s wife (not likely to generate much in the way of word-of-mouth referrals, that), a stake-out to uncover who was pilfering product from the local moonshiner, and riding shotgun on a payroll shipment from Redwood Ridge to Redding for the Union Bank due to the extreme intoxication of their own employee.

Fortunately, Frank and Marl didn’t pay themselves much of a salary, so they could survive on the agency’s slim pickings, at least in the short-term. As for the division of labor, Frank’s patient temperament lent itself to the more sedentary aspects of the business, such as poring over ledger sheets and contracts, while Marl reveled in the more physically active pursuits, like surveillance and shadowing folks on secretive, shady missions. Frank chuckled, recalling his partner’s claim that he could will his being to become undetectable to the human eye if he required it to do so.

Suddenly, the door swung open and there stood Marlowe Malone, bedecked in a green garment so ostentatious it could outshine the gaudiest Christmas tree.

“Ye Gods,” Frank gasped, thankful that he’d been sitting as Marl made his entrance.

“Like it?” Marl beamed. “Old Tom the tailor says this style is the rage back East.”

“You don’t say,” Frank said, rubbing his sandy beard with his hand. “I guess I’ll just have to stay put here, then.” Seeing Marl’s smile falter, Frank hastily added, “That is, it’s not just anyone can wear a suit like that.”

“Well, Tom did a real good job with the fit, that’s for sure. You know, Frank, for a small town, we’re blessed with some amenities you’d usually only find in a more cosmopolitan clime, don’t you think?”

“I hadn’t considered it,” Frank said, “but you’d appear to be living proof of that. To be honest, Marl, I wasn’t expecting to see you today. How are you holding up?”

“Oh, I’m about as nervous as a turkey in November,” Marl gushed. “Today’s the day Amanda and I begin building our love nest.” Frank was about to make an observation about turkeys and nests when Marl chose to clarify his comment. “After the proper legal arrangements, of course. I didn’t mean to imply that we might…”

“Marl, there’s no need to trip all over yourself trying to explain to me. I know you well enough to attest that you wouldn’t even steal a kiss unless it was legally sanctioned.”

“Well, that’s perhaps a slight exaggeration.” Marl smiled. “But speaking of nest-building, I sure hope you and I can start bringing in some revenue soon. Now, I don’t mind sleeping in a chair or up in a loft, but I couldn’t bring myself to ask Amanda to do likewise. I booked a nice room at the Ridgeline Hotel, with an option to extend the stay, but…”

“Don’t you worry about any of that today,” Frank interrupted. “Between your detective skills and my good looks, there’s no way that we won’t succeed. And you know you both can stay with Ingrid and me for as long as you like. Who knows, maybe Amanda’s been saving up a little nest egg all this time. It’s been how long since you’ve seen each other?”

“Since the Colorado mining strike,” Marl replied. “That would make it two years ago.”

“You know, Marl, I’d suggest that you get in the habit of using dates and the names of months when you’re trying to recollect something,” Frank advised. “Folks around here might not take kindly to a former Pinkerton referring to mining strikes he’s had a hand in breaking up.”

Marl nodded. “Good point. May of 1890. Just before I left the Pinkertons to come out West, Amanda took the train from New York to Chicago.” Sorting out his chronology seemed to yank Marl back to that time, but he quickly returned to the present. “Gosh, what time is it? Train’s due in at noon.” He consulted his pocket watch and then answered his own question. “11:45. I’d better dash, Frank.”

“That Thursday train’s never on time,” Frank observed. “Marl, just let me say that I wish you the best of luck, however this thing goes.”

“You don’t think she’s gonna show, Frank,” he replied, his tone a bit accusatory.

“I didn’t say that. Besides, what do I know about some far-flung romance?” Frank asked. “Ingrid and me, we grew up together with just one other farm between our homes. I’d consider you to be more of a man of the world, Marl. That’s a whole different kettle of fish, brother.”

Frank’s explanation seemed to take the edge off Marl’s demeanor. “I appreciate your candor, Frank, I do, but just because Amanda and I were separated by time and distance doesn’t mean we aren’t close, in our own way.” He paused, as if trying to find exactly the right words to enlighten Frank. “Our letters seem to fan the embers of our hearts.” Marl’s face reddened slightly. “Sorry, Frank. I think I began to lilt there for a moment.”

“No need to apologize, partner,” Frank assured him. “Now, Ingrid and I never had much occasion to write to each other like you did, and I know the ladies really appreciate language like that. But those ‘embers’ would have turned cold long before I’d have ever gotten around to composing anything.”

“Well, I understand your skepticism,” Marl offered. “And it’s still not too late if you’d care to make a wager.”

“I believe I’ll pass on that.”

As Marl neared the door to leave, he turned. “You’re still glad that you’re married, aren’t you, Frank?”

Frank didn’t hesitate. “Would have had it any other way.”

Marl smiled. “Hey, would you mind if I brought Amanda by the office for a moment? I really want you to meet her.”

“That would be wonderful,” Frank said. “You’ll find me holding down the fort.” He stared again at Marl’s suit, taking in the shades of green and the square patterns, and shook his head. “You know, I’m sure I’ve never seen a suit like that before, yet there’s something about it that seems familiar.”

Marl tipped his bowler and left. Frank sighed and looked back at his newspaper. Then, it struck him. Sliding the paper to the side, he looked down at the topographic map lying under the glass plate covering his desk top. The map was a sprawl of shades of green framed with longitudinal and latitudinal grids. Squares.

He looked up to where Marl had just been standing and chuckled to himself.

***

Noon came and went with no sign nor sound indicating the imminent approach of the train. Marl grew increasingly uncomfortable as he waited. The June sun fanned a warm draft of air that made his suit hang like a cloak of damp fleece upon him with the sheep still in it, compounded by the anxious knowledge that his entire way of life would change drastically the second Amanda descended the railcar. Most discomfiting of all, the stares, whispers, and snickers he detected from those around him on the platform—Philistines, he thought—made him decide to seek shelter posthaste.

The swinging doors of the Sidetrack Saloon, attached to the depot, welcomed him inside, the dark interior and the backs of the murmuring patrons offering the anonymity he sought. A line of customers stood shoulder-to-shoulder at the bar, making it difficult for Marl to order. Approaching the spot nearest the bartender, he tried to wedge between two men: one side-stepped slightly to accommodate him, but the one on his left, a shorter man, seemed to slump further toward him, blocking his access.

“Excuse me, fella,” he said, tapping the short man on the shoulder. “Do you mind if I squeeze in here?”

The short man turned toward him and revealed himself to be… a woman. “Fella?” she repeated in an incredulous tone. She pulled off her floppy felt hat to give him a better look. “Mister, you’d better put on your spectacles before this fella gets real unladylike and teaches you some manners.” She set her shot glass down hard enough on the bar to attract the attention of those nearby.

“If you don’t teach him, Cass, I surely will,” the man to her left offered. He was tall with gray, scraggly chin whiskers and dark, leathery skin. Along his right cheek ran a furrow of scar tissue that Marl surmised had been made by a knife blade. The woman he defended, Cass, wore her blond hair cut short, with the back barely grazing her collar. Standing straight, the crown of her head reached the defender’s jaw.

“My mistake and my apologies,” Marl said. “I can see now that you’re a woman, if not exactly a lady. Unfortunately, from the angle you first presented, I couldn’t distinguish the difference. I meant no disrespect.”

Cass turned toward her companion and scoffed. “You know, Cal, I could’ve sworn I heard an insult buried in all that word salad he just spewed. Am I mistaken?”

Cal shook his head. “I didn’t catch all of it, but I sure didn’t care for his tone. Have I got time to stomp him before the train arrives? I think he needs a quick lesson in etiquette.”

Marl ordered a beer and smiled back at Cal. “Mister, the only thing you can teach me is how not to behave in public.” He gripped the handle of the beer mug, ready to ‘toast’ the side of Cal’s face if their conversation escalated much further. “And, miss, it’s obvious to me that your father spared the rod to the detriment of your good manners. I don’t know what kind of finishing school you might have attended, but I suspect that they handed out blue ribbons at your graduation. Am I correct?”

Cass held her hand against Cal’s chest as he lunged forward, holding him back. “Listen, mister, I don’t know what carnival you escaped from, but it’s obvious that you weren’t the strong man. My guess would be you’re the Bearded Lady, and you shaved to disguise yourself. Most likely, though, you’re some carnival barker who earns his keep by braying like a jackass all day.”

Marl wasn’t sure which he found more irritating, the loud, rude woman verbally dressing him down to the amusement of the other patrons, or the leering buffoon standing behind her, his self-satisfied smirk stretching from ear to ear. But just as it seemed that words would devolve into blows, the hoot of a train whistle filled the air. Most of the denizens gulped down their drinks and evacuated the bar, leaving Marl and the two antagonists behind.

Perhaps it was the absence of an audience to goad them on, or the sound of the train whistle that refocused the trio on their original tasks, but the confrontation deflated as quickly as it had swelled.

“You’re lucky we’ve got to meet the train, buddy,” Cal said through gritted teeth. His companion, Cass, merely walked away without a look back, giving the unpleasant encounter no more thought than one might a cow patty in one’s path.

“Nice to meet you, sir,” Marl called out, raising his mug in mock salute. “And you, ma’am.” He turned to the bartender. “I wonder if there’s more like her back on the farm.”

The bartender, a towering, thin-haired man, shook his head. “Ranch, not farm,” he corrected. “That’s Cassidy McAllister. She’s a rancher. Her father is Ross McAllister.” He stared as if expecting some acknowledgment on Marl’s part. “R.J. McAllister?” he added, again awaiting a response. He looked Marl up and down, no doubt taking in the cut of his jib, as it were. “You’re not from around here, are you, mister?”

***

Marl didn’t bother finishing his beer. He was never much of a drinker, but he hoped that what little he did drink would help to steady his nerves. As everyone on the railway platform turned toward the bend in the tracks a half-mile west, he felt calmer knowing he and his suit were no longer a source of attention.

Oddly, the train stopped a good distance short of the platform, causing those gathered to murmur to one another. 

“Could be it’s a new engineer,” Marl overheard one man speculate. “He might be playing it just a little too safe.”

“Well, I hope they don’t expect the passengers to walk all the way from there,” one woman sniffed.

Marl spied the unruly woman from the Railway Saloon on the platform, along with her lackey. He wasn’t sure whether she wore a permanent scowl across her face or if the light made her squint, but he hoped that after today, he never had to encounter her again.

The conductor, recognizable by his dark coat and cap, hopped down from the train, followed by a stocky Black assistant, similarly outfitted. The two men walked purposefully along the tracks toward the platform. When they reached their destination, the assistant veered off down a side street while the conductor addressed the crowd.

“Ladies and gentlemen, by way of explanation, we’ve had an unfortunate incident aboard our train involving our engineer. There is no need for concern. All is as it should be, and all our passengers are in fine fettle. As soon as we have the train in place, we will begin deboarding. We ask you to stand back, away from the train to allow the passengers to exit. Thank you.”

Walking back to the track, he waved to the train. Steam hissed loudly as the brakes were released and the train inched forward. Using hand gestures, the conductor signaled the brakeman to keep it steady. In anticipation, the crowd surged toward the south end of the platform to catch the first glimpse of the passengers and to wave as they spotted their loved ones.

Amanda would be too dignified and demure to engage in such showy antics, so Marl remained at the other end where the crowd was sparser. He would collect her once the more eager passengers had disembarked.

But there were no joyful waves from those on board, and the faces visible from the windows appeared apprehensive and fretful. The onlookers noted this, as did Marl, as the train came to a halt. A woman screamed as the engineer slumped against the open window in his compartment, revealing a large, gaping wound where his ear used to be. Blood had trickled down his neck and stained the collar and shoulder of his shirt.

Instinctively, the crowd recoiled, stepping back as the men held their women and the women shielded their children. In the next instant, however, some men moved forward as though to board the train in some misguided notion of rescuing the passengers. Fortunately, the conductor appeared on the grating between cars, which gave the men pause.

No sooner had the conductor stepped down, carrying a small stool to bridge the steps of the car and the ground, than his assistant returned accompanied by the town marshal, Kentwood Smith. The marshal was a young man, possibly twenty-two or twenty-three, but in the few, brief interactions Marl had had with him, he seemed a level-headed and honest lawman.

Marl watched as the conductor’s assistant walked to the tail end of the train, perhaps to oversee the off-loading of baggage, while the conductor assisted passengers down from the cars. The marshal seemed to be waiting for assistance when a burly-looking man from the depot appeared and, together, they climbed into the engine compartment.

The engineer’s wound hadn’t come from a long-range shot from a rifle—that would have likely taken off a good part of his head—but rather from a pistol at relatively close range. It appeared that the blood had dried some time ago, so the man had likely been dead for a good portion of the trip. It was, indeed, an “unfortunate incident.” Marl hoped the conductor hadn’t painted as rosy a picture with his portrayal of the passengers being in “fine fettle.” As he watched them descend from the passenger car, though, they seemed to be functioning normally.

Tempted though he was to offer his expertise to the marshal, Marl couldn’t get bogged down in such matters at the moment. Not only was this the marshal’s turf, but Marl had other reasons for being at the depot, and nothing was going to lead him astray.

The passengers deboarding had thinned to a trickle, so Marl made his way to look for Amanda. As he approached, Cassidy and Cal stepped down from the train and came toward him. “There he is,” Cassidy said, but after coming within inches of Marl, they walked right past him and began haranguing Marshal Smith.

Ah, the joys of public service.

At this point, Marl didn’t think he’d be interfering with anyone’s departure if he boarded the train. Perhaps his fiancée was having trouble with her bags or she might have fallen ill. As he entered the passenger car, he saw a man struggling with a large suitcase. He was a young man, not yet twenty, with red hair and a pasty complexion.

“Let me help you there, son,” Marl offered, seeing the buckles and snaps were caught on the next seat. He wanted to expedite the man’s departure as much for his own benefit as the passenger’s. Freeing the suitcase, he received the man’s thanks.

“I guess I tend to get frustrated when things get sticky,” he admitted.

“Glad to help,” Marl replied. “Say, you were on the train, right? What happened, exactly?”

“Oh, it was really scary,” the man said. “These train robbers rode up and they shot the engineer, and they came on board, and they had their guns drawn.”

“While the train was moving, or had it stopped?”

“Oh, it was moving,” the man replied. “Yeah, they hopped on like it was nothing, two of them. But then we stopped once they got on. I don’t know if they robbed anyone or stole anything. All I saw was when they held R.J. McAllister and his daughter, Constance, at gunpoint. They made them get up out of their seats and go with them. I think they had them get their bags, too. Then they all got off and we kept going.”

“So, there was another robber?” Marl asked. “He would’ve brought up the horses.”

“I suppose. I didn’t see any of that,” the young man said.

“Did you see any of their faces, the robbers?”

“I sure didn’t. They were all wearing masks, I’m pretty sure. Listen, that’s really all I know. I should get going.”

“Sure. But you’re okay, right?” Marl asked. The young man smiled and nodded. “Good. Say, what’s your name, son?”

“Obie,” he replied. “Obadiah Stubbs, Jr.”

Marl shook his hand. “Pleased to meet you. And you knew the folks that were taken off the train, right?”

“Sure. I’ve known Connie most of my life. We went to school together. She’s nice.”

“And did you sit with them? Talk with them?”

Obie looked somewhat uncomfortable. “Not really. Her father’s not real friendly with my father, so I kept my distance. I just said hello.”

“I appreciate your time, Mr. Stubbs. Say, I don’t suppose you saw a lady on this train? She’s about twenty-four or twenty-five, blond hair, thin. Really pretty. Her name’s Amanda.”

“No, sir,” Obie said. “Didn’t see nobody like that on either of the passenger cars on this train. I got on first in San Francisco. I was attending Heald’s Business College.” He grimaced. “Was. Anyway, then Connie boarded in Palo Alto. And we did chat a bit until we changed trains in Sacramento. That’s where her father got on, and we didn’t talk after that. But as far as this lady, Amanda, she wasn’t on this train from Sacramento.”

“Okay.” Marl nodded. “Well, thanks again. I’m going to go check the other cars. Can you handle that bag now?” Obie laughed and went on his way.

Marl moved forward through the train until he reached the last car before the engine. He opened the door and saw the clerk speaking with Marshal Smith, who gave a curt nod of the head but didn’t offer any sign that could be interpreted as an invitation. Marl noted the blood spatter on the window across from the one the driver had been dangling through. While he had a strong constitution, Marl wasn’t in the mood to view that sort of thing right then.

He retraced his steps and beyond until he came to the caboose. There stood the brakeman, handing mail sacks down to a waiting porter. “Who are you?” the brakeman asked.

Marl didn’t expect he’d get too far if he confessed to being a curious bystander, so he responded with a half-truth. “Pinkerton,” he said.

“Well, I wish you’d have been on this train, mister,” the brakeman said. “Not that there was much you could’ve done. These robbers were professionals, you could tell. This wasn’t their first rodeo. They overtook us when the train was chugging up a steep grade and we were slowed way down. They were waiting for us right at the spot where we were most vulnerable. And they all wore masks. They were on and off within five minutes or less.”

“You called them robbers,” Marl pointed out. “What did they take?”

“They didn’t take anything but the man and his daughter: no mail; no strongbox; no shaking down the other passengers.”

“Baggage?” Marl asked, knowing the answer.

“That’s right. The gentleman had a small satchel, and then a porter was told to fetch the lady’s trunk. That was it. Actually, instead of taking things, one of the men gave me something. Handed me a letter and watched me stuff it in the mailbag. Didn’t see who it was made out to, and I sure didn’t ask. They wore masks the whole while, so don’t ask me what they looked like.”

The brakeman had confirmed the information that Obie Stubbs had relayed pertaining to the outlaws and how they overtook the train. “I saw one of ’em riding a buckskin blaze toward the engine. He must’ve shot Chester, the engineer, before he could try to speed up, which is what Chester would’ve done. These other two jumped onto the caboose and made me stop the train. They don’t issue me a weapon, mister. I had to comply.”

“I understand,” Marl said. “Did you see the other two’s horses? Anything that stood out about them?”

“Not that I recall,” the brakeman replied, shaking his head. “But one of the two that boarded was a real big fella, I remember that. He had to duck his head when they went through the door toward the passenger car. The guy on the buckskin trotted back and collected the other horses and kept an eye on me through the window. I thought I was a goner, for sure.”

“And how did they get the man and woman off the train?” Marl asked. “Did they come back through here?”

“No, they exited from the passenger car. They were all just standing there when we rolled away.”

“Did you see more horses, or a wagon nearby, to transport the man and woman?”

“Can’t say that I did,” the brakeman replied.

Marl nodded. “From what I could see, the shot was a fatal one. How did you get moving again with the engineer dead?”

“As soon as they got off the train, I just let up on the brake line and off we went. The conductor managed to get in the engine compartment and stayed there, watching the speed and looking out for cows and such on the tracks, but I pretty much controlled things with the brakes. They warned us to use ‘em sparingly because of the drought. Don’t want to spark a fire, you see, but it worked out.” 

Marl asked about Amanda, but the brakeman couldn’t help. “I don’t mix with the passengers, sir. Say, how much longer is that marshal going to be with Mr. Wilson, the clerk? I’ve been holding onto a full bladder ever since we left Red Bluff.”

Marl tried to look calm, although he, too, was anxious to talk with Mr. Wilson. “You go ahead and take care of your business,” he said, “but get back here as soon as you can.”

“You don’t have to tell me twice,” the brakeman said. He closed the side door, bolted it, and followed Marl out the front, locking it behind him.

When Mr. Wilson finally headed back to his office, Marl was in lockstep with him the entire way.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Wilson. I know you’re very busy, but I was expecting someone to arrive on the train from Sacramento. Well, she was traveling from New York, actually, with many stops along the way, as you can imagine, but she doesn’t seem to have arrived, and I was wondering if you might have any information regarding her itinerary, or when she might arrive. Perhaps another train…”

Mr. Wilson came to an immediate halt and fixed Marl with a sour stare. He was an older, white-haired man and the sun glinted off his glasses. “Is this passenger’s name Constance McAllister?”

“Why, no, it’s Amanda…”

“Well, then I can’t help you. I don’t know what you think I can do about a passenger not arriving on this train, sir. Unless they’re brought on in shackles, people are free to travel or not to travel. If you were expecting some kind of miracle, I’m afraid I’m going to have to disappoint you. Good day.” The railway clerk walked briskly away.

Marl was taken aback by the brusqueness of the man’s demeanor but tried to placate him in hopes of getting information. He tailed him like a puppy would his master.

“I really don’t know much about railway communications, sir, although as a former Pinkerton agent, I did provide security on numerous occasions…”

“You’re a Pinkerton?” Wilson asked, pausing to eyeball Marl. “Well, you don’t have to be a detective to deduce the answer to your query, sir, but I’ll spell it out for you: The missing passenger simply did not board the train. If she had, she’d be here, wouldn’t she? I suggest you put your efforts into contacting her for the reasons she chose not to come. Again, good day, sir.”

The finality of his words was punctuated by the door slamming behind him.

As Marl stood there, he could have conjured a multitude of theories to explain why his fiancée had not arrived as planned. But something about the certainty of the clerk’s words rang true. Amanda wasn’t there because Amanda changed her mind.

Perhaps he’d be proven wrong in the days ahead, but at that moment, a veil had been lifted from Marl’s eyes, and as he stood there, attired in that ridiculous suit, he realized he was the biggest fool ever to walk the boardwalk of Redwood Ridge. There was only one course of action he could take.

He turned and walked back to the Railway Saloon, and he wasn’t coming out until he’d spent his very last dime.

 

Chapter Two

The Morning After

Marl awoke to the sound of a ceaseless hammering that synchronized with the painful throbbing in his head. If it doesn’t end soon, he vowed, I’ll bound out of this bed and thrash whoever thought it a good idea to bang around this early in the day.

Señor,” a voice called out. “Señor Malone, are you in there?”

Peeking through one eyelid, Marl saw that he was not in his room at the boarding house. But where was he? The hotel, of course! And the hammering didn’t come from a nearby construction project but from the other side of the door.

It is he who shall be thrashed, Marl determined, throwing off his sheet. My God, I’m still wearing that hideous suit. Flinging the door open, he saw that the incessant door-beater was a brown-skinned lad of fifteen years, or thereabouts. Marl had startled the boy, who held his arm up to his face in a defensive gesture.

“Are you alright, Señor Malone? I knocked for five minutes, but you didn’t answer. I have a letter for you,” he explained, holding out his hand.

Marl snatched the envelope from his hand. It was from Amanda, and it was addressed to Marl in care of the agency. Frank must have dropped it by the hotel.

“What time is it?” Marl demanded.

“Nine-thirty, sir,” the boy replied, lowering his guard.

Marl shook his head and made a clucking sound. “I suppose you want a tip. Well, here it is: When things don’t go your way, don’t try to drown your sorrows in drink. It may offer a temporary refuge, but when reality knocks at your door, you have to face the consequences head-on.”

“Yes, sir,” the boy said, without enthusiasm. “Thank you, sir.” He turned to walk away.

“Hold on, son,” Marl said. “I’ve got a task that could earn you a tidy sum. Do you know where Mrs. O’Shea’s boarding house is located?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, go there and tell Mrs. O’Shea that I’ve sent you to pick up a fresh shirt and pants, understand? And try not to wrinkle them on your way back.”

“Yes, sir,” the boy said. “And you’ll pay me?”

“Of course.” Marl smiled. “Wait. I’ll sweeten the pot and offer you the clothes off my back. For your labors, I will give you this beautiful suit I’m wearing. Only worn once. Custom tailored. You’d be the cock of the walk wearing this. Have to beat the ladies off.”

The boy looked him up and down, appraising his apparel. He scowled. “It’s too… tall.”

“But you’ll grow, and it’ll be waiting for you, like an inheritance or money in the bank. And a suit like this never goes out of style.”

The boy scrunched up his face as if he’d smelled something unpleasant. “I’d rather have the money, sir.”

After the boy had left, Marl peeled off the suit and tossed it in a corner. He opened Amanda’s letter and sat on the bed.

“Dear Marl,” he read aloud, under his breath. “As you know by now, I am not aboard the train. I wish there was a way to tell you this in person, but I’ve decided that the plans we made together no longer appeal to me. At the time we made them, a future with you seemed to be all I wanted in life, but after serious consideration and soul-searching… other interests… I’ve made the acquaintance of a rather dashing fellow… please understand… yours always… Amanda.”

Marl crumpled the letter and tossed it atop the pile of clothes in the corner. He was breathing hard, angry at Amanda’s betrayal. If a bottle of spirits had been within reach, he would have grabbed it and drunk it dry, despite the counsel he’d shared with the boy.

Then, he grew calmer, telling himself that the time spent pining for Amanda had been time wasted, and he refused to waste any more. He would devote himself to his fledgling business and channel his energies toward achieving the pinnacle of professional excellence. Women would no longer be part of the equation for success. If he needed a trustworthy companion, he’d just get a dog. Possibly, a cat of some kind. 

Maybe a turtle. 

When Marl returned to his office, he shared as much with Frank.

“A turtle?” Frank repeated, sounding confused. 

Marl could feel his fog of inebriation burning off a bit. Frank folded his new copy of the Bee and placed it in his desk drawer.

“Did you know that some indigenous tribes believed that a turtle held the world up upon its back? This happened after the Great Flood. We should respect the turtle,” Marl pronounced.

“Oh, I do, Marl,” Frank drawled. “Your sense of humor seems to be returning. That’s always a good sign.”

Returning to the routine of the office seemed to put things right, as it were. Marl’s anger melted a little. He knew, though, that he would still grieve for a while no matter what logic dictated.

“Yep, I believe that foregoing female companionship would be extremely beneficial in the short run, at least. And add alcohol to that list.” Marl removed the whistling pot from the wood stove flame. “Thanks for putting on some coffee, Frank. I know you don’t usually drink it this late in the day, but I can sure use some now.” Marl poured a cup and moved gingerly toward his chair. Kicking his feet up on his desk, he asked, “So, did you hear anything more about what went on yesterday?”

“With the train?” Frank asked. “Sure, there’s lots of talk going around. I stopped by the marshal’s while you were sleeping in. He said the only thing the outlaws wanted was those two passengers, R.J. McAllister and his daughter. Took ’em off the train at gunpoint, just south of Red Bluff.”

“You’re from around here, Frank. Do you know the McAllisters?”

“Heard of ‘em, but not really. They moved here just about the time I hired on with the Siskiyou County sheriff. Ross McAllister—R.J., they call him—started out with some kinda shop, might have been a feed store, or some such. It folded, and he tried his hand at some other enterprises but without much success. A few years back, he started a lumber operation, even built a sawmill, but they say a competitor somehow blocked his access to the railroad. Now he’s raising cattle, maybe fifty head.”

“What’s the name of this competitor?” Marl asked.

“Obadiah Stubbs,” Frank replied.

“That name sounds familiar.” Marl dredged the well of his memory but came up empty. “Can’t place it, though. What’s the marshal going to do? Is he investigating the murder or the abductions?”

“Says it’s not his jurisdiction,” Frank replied. “I see his point. The dead man ended up here, but the murder actually took place in another county. And even though the abducted folks were from here, that happened elsewhere, too. You know it’s just the marshal and two other fellas working there, right?”

“Yeah, I know,” Marl said, sipping his coffee. “They’ve got enough on their plate here in town without traipsing across all of Northern California.”

***

They sat in silence for a few moments. Frank thought he could see the wheels in Marl’s mind turning over the information they’d discussed. Frank cleared his throat.

“Of course, if it were my case, I’d probably interview some of the passengers while they were still around.”

“They’re still around? The folks heading North?”

“Yeah, they can’t leave until they get an engineer on board. I heard they’re bringing in some retiree from Tuttle.”

“Yeah, I’d want to do the same,” Marl declared. “You never know what you might learn—maybe something, maybe nothing.

Frank nodded, and they sat in silence again. Something was gnawing at Frank. He was hesitant to ask the question, but he felt compelled to do so.

“Marl, in light of everything that’s happening with you—from a personal standpoint, I mean—would it be alright to ask you a private sort of question?”

“No harm in asking, Frank,” Marl said. “I’ll decide whether or not I want to answer it.”

“Okay, then, here it is: What are you planning to do with that silly new suit you bought?”

The men laughed so hard that Marl almost fell off his chair. He swung his feet down on the floor to steady himself.

“I’ll tell you what I’m going to do with it. I’m gonna burn it!”

Frank brought his hand down on his desk to applaud Marl’s decision. “You see? Something good did come out of all of this.”

Still chortling, Marl rose and walked toward the coffee pot when the office door swung open and in stepped a blond-haired woman dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans and wearing a black Stetson. Her expression was one of surprise, if not outright shock, at encountering Marl.

“You!” she growled, freezing in place and looking like she was about to draw on Marl, though she wore no holster.

“You,” Marl seethed in return. Frank thought Marl might splash the contents of his cup into the woman’s face, such was the rancor the two exhibited for each other. It reminded Frank of when a cat and dog collided, both ready to jump.

A voice cried out from behind the visitor. 

“Cassandra, if you don’t move out of the way, I swear I’m going to march right over you. Move.” An older woman strode up to Marl and asked, “Which of you is the detective?”

Marl sought to deflect their attention toward Frank, but Frank spoke first anyway. “I’m Frank Fairfield, and this is Marlowe Malone. We’re both investigators, ma’am. Please have a seat and pardon me for not getting up.” 

He opened a drawer and pulled out some papers while Marl showed the woman to a seat next to his desk.

“Mister Marlowe, I’m Beatrice McAllister and this is my daughter, Cassandra,” she announced.

“Cassidy,” the younger woman corrected her.

“Marlowe Malone,” Marl pointed out. He noted the look of contempt from Cassidy as she sat near Frank’s desk.

“I assume that you’ve heard about the abduction that took place yesterday on the Sacramento train? Well, the two people taken were my husband, Ross, and my daughter, Constance. Constance was returning home from her first year at Stanford University, and Ross took the train to Sacramento to accompany her from there. I want to hire you to find and return them to me.”

Mrs. McAllister’s phrasing was more appropriate for a pair of missing shoes, but Frank kept his silence. He was certainly impressed at the daughter attending Stanford. 

“This is the first year that Stanford has admitted women, correct?” Marl asked.

“That’s been Stanford’s plan all along,” Mrs. McAllister surprisingly deviated from her momentary sense of urgency to preen a bit about her daughter. “California is a progressive state, Mr…”

“Marlowe,” Marl prompted.

Out of the corner of his eye, Frank saw how Cassidy stared daggers at his partner. He wondered if Mrs. McAllister could smell the alcohol on him.

“We’d be glad to help,” Marl said. “Have you discussed the situation with the marshal or sheriff?”

“‘Not my jurisdiction,’” Beatrice quoted in a mocking, childish voice. “We haven’t gone to Redding to ask the sheriff there, but if jurisdiction is their preferred word for evading their responsibilities, then I shan’t waste my time. Now, tell me how your investigation would proceed.”

“Well,” Marl began, “we’ll ask you for information that would be helpful—physical descriptions, habits, enemies…”

“Why would you need to know about their habits?” Cassidy inquired in a sharp tone.

Frank spoke in a soothing voice. “The more we know about them, the more likely it will be that we find them. For instance, if your father was in the habit of smoking cigars, that odor might linger in a location, or we might find a butt he left behind.”

“He does smoke cigars,” Beatrice offered. “Two a day. But let’s go on with the search. Just how do you go about it?”

“We would speak with the railroad personnel to pinpoint the location where they disembarked,” Frank continued, “along with any details they or the passengers might remember about the outlaws, their horses, and such. I would travel there, make inquiries for possible sightings, and try to pick up their trail.”

“Try?” Cassidy echoed. “Are we supposed to pay you for trying? What if you can’t find them? Do you offer any guarantees?”

“Of course they don’t, dear,” Beatrice replied, patiently. “Now, shush. I’m the one paying for this. And I’d like to know how much this will cost me.” She turned to Frank. “Are the both of you going to be involved in the search?”

“No, ma’am,” Frank replied. “Just Marl. He does the bulk of the legwork on our cases.”

“And you, sir? Are you more of a clerk or bookkeeper?”

Frank stood and reached for the cane beside his desk. Holding the contract in his left hand, he put his weight on the cane to balance himself due to the loss of his right leg.

“I try to help in any way I can,” he said, smiling at Beatrice as he handed the contract to Marl before returning to his chair. As he sat, he noted the embarrassed expression on Beatrice’s face. 

He’d seen that reaction many times. Frank’s missing leg often caught people off-guard: one moment they were putting on airs or otherwise throwing their weight around and in the next instant, they were swept away by a surge of compassion toward one they viewed as less fortunate than themselves. Frank didn’t force these situations; he merely observed them.

Cassidy, on the other hand, was young enough not to feel uncomfortable in the presence of Frank’s disability, and the wide grin on her face indicated that she enjoyed seeing the way her mother squirmed. Frank gave her a quick, conspiratorial wink as Marl showed Beatrice where the contract required signing. He caught Marl’s sidelong glances pertaining to the contract and the inflated rates Frank had quoted, but Frank just smiled back at him.

“There’s just one more thing,” Beatrice announced as she rose to leave. “Two things, actually. I want you to begin your search today. I want you to leave by noon, at the latest.”

The startled expression on Marl’s face was evident, and Frank spoke up. “It may take some time to interview the train personnel and witnesses, ma’am. And if we leave in the morning, we’ll arrive at Red Bluff that evening, then start the next day fresh.”

“This is not negotiable, sir,” Beatrice said, dismissively. “My husband and daughter are the prisoners of dangerous killers. Time is of the essence. You shall not tarry.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Frank replied, shooting a cautionary glance at Marl. Like the lady said, he thought, it’s non-negotiable. “And what was the other thing, ma’am?”

“My daughter, Cassidy, will accompany you on the search.”

“Now, ma’am…” Marl began, but she cut him off.

“Again, non-negotiable,” Beatrice declared. “I want her to protect my interests and make sure there’s no lolly-gagging or backsliding in this endeavor. Cassidy insisted, actually; she’s her father’s favorite and she wants to be able to say that she did everything she could to ensure their safe return.”

She wasn’t asking. Frank tried the diplomatic approach. “I can see how she could be an asset, as far as being able to identify your husband and daughter, ma’am. But aren’t you hesitant about entrusting your daughter’s well-being to a man you don’t even know, let alone the danger she might encounter if they’re unfortunate or fortunate enough—take your pick—to encounter the outlaws?”

“As I said, my daughter insists,” Beatrice replied. “Further, our ranch foreman, Cal Standard, will also be joining you.”

“Absolutely not,” Marl said. He picked up the contract and held it with both hands. “If this is another non-negotiable demand, then I’ll tear this contract up right now.” He looked at Cassidy. “Cal Standard? Is that the belligerent, billy goat-looking jackalope who shadowed you in the Railway Saloon?” 

Before Cassidy could respond, Marl turned back to her mother. “This is not a lynch mob, Mrs. McAllister. I have my methods of investigation, and if you want to form your own search party with your own rules, you’re free to do so, but I want no part of it.”

Frank studied Beatrice’s face for her reaction. She was stunned, clearly, and Frank reckoned it wasn’t often that she was spoken to like that. He hated to see that contract torn to shreds, but Marl was right, and Frank was going to back him 100 percent.

“Very well,” Beatrice said, calmly. “Just the two of you, then.” She turned to her daughter. “Sorry, dear. Do you still want to do this?”

“More than ever,” Cassidy fumed, addressing herself to Marl. “Any man who won’t accept another man’s help in a situation like this has something to conceal, but he won’t hide anything from me. I’ll be watching your every move like a hawk, mister.”

“Then it’s settled.” Beatrice smiled. “I’ll have my lawyer, Sampson Swain, contact you about the advance payment you require. Is there anything else?”

“I’m probably going to need some sort of statement waiving any liability on our part for anything that may happen to your daughter on this search. I can write something up…”

“I’ll have my lawyer do it and bring it to you. And if you have any questions or updates, you can direct them to him. I have other matters requiring my time and energy, not to mention being in a state about this whole affair. Good day, gentlemen.”

Marl opened the door for Beatrice. “Don’t forget,” she called out over her shoulder, “no later than noon.”

“Thank you, Mr. Fairfield,” Cassidy said, standing and holding out her hand to shake. She smiled as he shook her hand, and Frank couldn’t help but notice that her face radiated a warmth when she did, the way a rising sun lit the sky. But when she approached Marl at the door, that radiance was eclipsed by a scowl, and Marl’s expression turned slightly sour, too. Frank briefly thought they might start hissing and spitting. 

When the door closed, Marl exploded. “What have you gotten me into, Frank? Agreeing to chaperone that sawed-off tomboy on a mission like this? Are we that desperate for the money?”

“I would say so,” Frank said coolly. “Look, I know it’s unorthodox, but you’re going to be covering the same ground with or without her. It’s the only way we got the contract, Marl.”

“I know, I know,” Marl admitted, running his fingers through his hair. “Speaking of which, where did you get those numbers? Those aren’t our usual charges.”

“Well, I knew she could afford it, for one thing. Now, if she’d been an hysterical, aggrieved housewife, I’d have shown more compassion, but if she was feeling any of those things, she hid it very well.”

“I noticed that, too,” Marl said. ”You might have tacked on an Insolence and Impudence fee for the daughter. She’s going to be a burr in my backside.”

“Oh, you just turn on your charm and everything will be fine.” Frank grinned. “Now, why don’t you go get ready for your trip. Pack what you’ll need and saddle up your horse. You need to hit the trail in two hours.”

“And what are you going to do, Frank?”

Frank reached for the crutch he used when he planned to cover more ground than the cane would allow. “Me? I’m going to talk with some of those folks down at the depot. Somebody’s got to be doing some detective work while you’re off chaperoning.”

“Don’t rub it in, Frank,” Marl groused. “You know I feel guilty about you having to do all the legwork on this.” 

Frank could see Marl flinch at his wording as soon as he said it. “That’s alright, partner. Sometimes being a one-legged feller has its advantages. People tend to be overly helpful & let their guard down.”

Marl nodded. “But I thought you didn’t want other folks’ sympathy, Frank.”

“That’s true, but that doesn’t mean I won’t take advantage of it.”

***

“So, you’re going alone, then?” Cal Standard asked Cassidy. “I don’t know what to say, Cass.”

She could hear the disapproval in Cal’s voice and saw it on his face, but there wasn’t a thing he could do about it. And he knew it.

“I have to, Cal,” she explained. “I’ve got a lot of misgivings about hiring this dandy to find Pa and Connie, but what choice do I have? We don’t have time to run to every other town to try and find someone else.”

“It just ain’t proper for a young woman to be going off alone with some man she don’t even know.” He sulked.

Cassidy came closer until they were almost nose-to-nose. “Who said I was proper?” She smiled coyly.

Cal stepped back, putting some space between them. She enjoyed his look of discomfort when she asserted herself in their relationship. When her father started the ranch, it was Cal who had passed on to her his knowledge of cattle, and she’d learned to share his appreciation of the running of the ranch. They’d become friendly, and sometimes more than friendly.

But Cassidy never hesitated to remind Cal of his place in the McAllister universe. And this was one of those times.

“You need to focus on the ranch, Cal,” she said firmly. “From what I can tell, somebody’s out to hurt this family. One way they could do it is to hurt our business. You might want to take turns keeping watch till I get back. It’s better to prevent a thief than to try and track one down. And you need to keep an eye on Mama. She’s holding up well, but it might not have hit her yet, the situation.”

“I understand,” Cal said. “You better get packed, I guess.”

“I’ve been packed,” she corrected him. “Do you think I was going to let that tinhorn tell me no? Mama told him what’s what.”

“I’ll bet she did.” Cal grinned. “Well, can I at least get a hug before you go?”

Cassidy allowed herself to be enveloped by Cal’s arms, and she reciprocated. He gave her a peck on her cheek.

“I’m gonna miss you, Cass,” he confessed. “You make sure you come back safe. Don’t let that dandy detective put you in harm’s way.”

“I can take care of myself just fine,” she said, tapping his shoulder to terminate the hug. “You may go and get my horse ready to ride.” She smiled. “I’m going to stay with Mama till it’s time to go.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he replied with a sly smile, tipping his hat. “And don’t forget to pack that Derringer I gave you for Christmas. I knew it would come in handy someday.”

Cassidy nodded. That was a good idea. And she’d do Cal one better and bring her hunting knife with the five-inch blade, too.

***

“You wanted to see me, Dad?” Obie Stubbs asked, sticking his head around the open door of the study. His father looked up and imagined that his son’s head was actually floating in front of the bookshelf, like an apparition or a balloon. He would do his best to put that image out of his mind forever.

“Yes. Last night, actually, but you slept through dinner and beyond,” Obadiah said. I trust that you’re sufficiently rested after your trip?”

Obie smiled and entered the study, feeling the tension ease with his father’s pleasantry. He pulled on his suspenders, easing the straps onto the nightshirt he had tucked into his pants.

“Oh, yes, Father. I feel like a new man.”

Obadiah stared coldly at his progeny’s appearance. He looks like a pauper, he thought. Eighteen years old and he knows nothing of life.

“And did the year of formal education that you just finished also contribute to this… new man before me?”

Obie squinted and looked at the ceiling, considering the question, the way he might ponder a mathematical formula. He smiled and tapped his head with his knuckles.

“Oh, that. Yes, they found some space in there I wasn’t using and filled it with knowledge… or, they tried.”

“And when will you receive the results?”

Obie shrugged. “Not until sometime in July is what I heard.”

“July?” Obadiah repeated. “This coming July, when I’ll be in Kentucky for the better part of the month?” He stared hard at Obie, trying to detect the slightest uncertainty in his response, the twitch of a cheek or flicker of an eyelid.

“Yes,” Obie gulped, “I guess so.”

A cunning smile spread over Obadiah’s face. “Is that so?” He picked up a letter from his desk. “I already have your academic results. I’ve had them since March. That’s when I received a letter from the Heald Business College telling me that they were expelling you from their school. Not only were your grades substandard, but your character was also found wanting. ‘Criminal mischief?’ ‘Destruction of a building’?”

“We just painted the side of a barn, Father.” Obie sighed. “It was a prank.”

“Oh, a prank, is that what you call it? They call it a crime. Unfortunately, the college has the final say in the matter.”

“It was an empty building owned by the school,” Obie explained. “We painted it black, but we were going to change it to its original red. We just didn’t have enough time before they caught us.”

“Probably half the embezzlers in the world claim that they fully intended to repay the money they stole from an employer. They just got caught before they could do so.”

Obadiah launched into his standard upbraiding involving his being a widower and a successful businessman who only wanted his son to take over his holding someday. He made clear, however, that he wasn’t going to turn the keys to the kingdom over to a complete dolt.

After he’d finished the obligatory scolding, Obadiah shook his head and sighed, exasperated. “I don’t know what we’re going to do with you, son. Maybe I should just move you out to the bunkhouse and have you do manual labor.”

“Dad, you know I can’t stay out in the sun for very long,” Obie squawked. “And my hands get blisters just thinking about holding a shovel.”

“Well, we’ve got to do something, son. I can’t just keep throwing money down a hole with you. I had to pay the college to allow you to stay till the semester ended, just to keep up appearances.” Obadiah sighed again. He couldn’t stay angry at his son. “Go get dressed and we’ll have Margarita make us some lunch.”

As he started to leave, Obie paused. “Dad, did you hear about the train robbery? Armed men stopped the train and kidnapped R.J. McAllister and Connie.”

Obadiah nodded and looked out the window, facing away from his son. “I did hear something about that. Was anybody injured?”

“They shot the engineer,” Obie replied. “Killed him.”

“But the McAllisters, they weren’t harmed?”

“Not as far as I could tell,” Obie said.

“Did you see the faces of the men who stopped the train?”

“That’s what this other man asked me. I told him these men were professional. Their faces were covered with scarves.”

“What man?” Obadiah asked. “The marshal?”

“No, he was just some man I’d never seen before. I think he was looking for someone on the train. All the passengers left as soon as we got there. I didn’t see the marshal at all.”

“I see,” Obadiah replied. “Just curious.”

“You know, Dad, after it was over and I had time to think about what had happened, I wondered, why didn’t they kidnap me instead? We’re richer than the McAllisters, aren’t we? If it was money they were after, why not take me?”

Obadiah turned his gaze back outside, admiring the sculpted fountain in the courtyard, the green meadow beyond it, and the distant woods. “I don’t know, Obie. To understand men like that, you’d probably have to be one of them. Those are men who’ll do anything to get what they want. Go get dressed, son. I’m getting hungry.”

*** 

Having packed up enough provisions for a two-day jaunt, Marl returned to the agency office at 11:55. When he entered, only his partner was present, seated at his desk.

“I wonder if she changed her mind.” Marl smirked.

“She didn’t strike me as the fickle sort,” Frank countered. “I’d bet money that she’ll show up by the time the clock strikes twelve. Speaking of which, I ran into that lawyer of McAllister’s, Sampson Swain—or rather, he sought me out. He deposited the first half of our base payment at the United Bank. There’s fifty dollars in Treasury Notes there for your trip.” He nodded to the small stack of bills on his desk.

“I doubt I’ll need that much at the moment,” Marl said, nevertheless scooping up the bills and sticking them in his wallet.

“Well, you never know. You and Miss McAllister might want to paint the town of Red Bluff redder still, or head down to Sacramento. Take in a show, sip some champagne…”

“You’re a hoot, Frank,” Marl deadpanned, leaning against his desk. “Did you pick up any useful information down at the depot?”

“A little bit,” Frank replied. “The conductor was able to pinpoint a more precise location for the abduction. He said it was fifteen miles south of Red Bluff. He said one of the bandits rode a buckskin with black points. I talked to a few of the passengers, but they weren’t much help. One man described the daughter, Constance, as ‘very attractive.’”

“The other one must’ve gotten the brains,” Marl hypothesized, “though I haven’t seen any demonstration of it.”

The door swung open just as the wall clock chimed twelve, and there stood Marl’s newly appointed companion, Miss Cassidy McAllister.

“I hope you’re ready to ride, because I am,” she declared.

Marl held up his hand. “Mr. Fairfield and I were having a discussion that we would like to finish, if you don’t mind.” Turning to Frank, he asked, “What do you make of it all, Frank? How would you undertake this if it were you going?”

“Same as you, I reckon,” Frank replied. “First stop, see the sheriff in Redding and ask if he’s involved in the search at all. Probably not. The area where I’m thinking this happened would be about thirty miles from the county line. It’s close, but he could justify it being out of his purview.”

Cassidy scoffed and shook her head but said nothing.

“Well, you were a sheriff, Frank. How do you think you’d have handled something like this?”

“It would depend on a lot of things: weather, terrain, manpower, and what other pressing matters I was dealing with. Sheriff Curry has four, maybe five deputies to cover four thousand square miles. If the sheriff in Tehama County, where this happened, wired and asked him to assist, he might peel off a man or two, as a professional courtesy, but only if the requestor had a clear idea of the bandits’ whereabouts. My hunch is Sheriff Curry might offer to keep an eye out for the bandits, but he ain’t gonna look very hard for them.”

“Oh, so if the bandits stumble right into his arms, he might give ’em a bear hug and put ’em in jail?” Cassidy asked.

“That’s one way of thinking about it,” Frank replied. Turning to Marl, he added, “It’s still worth a shot. It’s right on the way.”

“Thanks, Frank,” Marl said. He stood and stared at Cassidy for a moment. “Frank, did you get that waiver you told Mrs. McAllister about?”

“I did. Mr. Swain brought it, along with the payment.”

“Then I guess we’re ready to roll, Miss McAllister,” Marl said, opening the door. “After you.”

“Thank you, Mr. Marlowe,” Cassidy replied. She gave Frank a wink before exiting.

“I saw that,” Marl protested. “And it’s Marlowe Malone, as I’m sure you’re aware.” 

Marl turned to Frank and shook his head in irritation. Frank, on the other hand, wore an amused expression, as if he found this interaction all very entertaining.

***

Bobby Floyd was a patient man, but the river crossing at Balls Ferry was sorely trying that patience. The ferry crossings had to be split into two trips due to the narrow width of the boat. Bobby made the first crossing with the men’s three horses with the fool ferryman yakking in his ear for nearly half of the duration, going on about the drought, and how he and his family had manned the ferry since just after the Civil War. Bobby finally had to resort to rudeness to cork his relentless jabbering.

“Do I look like a damn tourist to you, mister?” he asked. His hand played over the handle of his Colt for added emphasis. 

It worked. The man shut up just as quickly as if he’d swallowed a mouthful of mud.

It had taken nearly an hour for the ferryman to make it to the west side of the Sacramento, and then an hour back, pulling hand-over-hand on the block-and-tackle pulley he used. Apparently, he’d felt the need for rest after that, though he did oversee the loading of the covered wagon and the two-horse team driving it. Bobby’s kid brother, Lonnie, and Big Dan must have been feeling charitable toward the ferryman because they allowed for a half-hour before he shoved off again.

If it had been Bobby, he might have drawn his Colt and got things moving a whole lot sooner. As it was, he was tempted to put an end to the family ferry business once they off-loaded. It would be one less witness standing should the law come calling. He could hear the ferryman’s voice echoing off the water. If he got nosy and tried to take a look in the wagon, that would settle things for sure.

Their cargo had been bound, blindfolded, and gagged since their capture, and they’d been dosed with a rag soaked with chloroform. Big Dan was perched on the jockey box, and he would’ve administered another dose before the ferryman’s return, so no suspicion should be aroused—unless the ferryman was naturally inclined to being a busybody.

Bobby puffed on his cigar—actually, one of R.J. McAllister’s cigars—and felt himself growing calmer as he watched the steady movement of the river with the occasional flapping of a fish as it surfaced. To be honest, he wasn’t in a hurry. They’d arrive in Redwood Ridge with their captive cargo in a day or two, a deliberate pace necessitated by intervals of interrogation with their guest. If R.J. was cooperative, things would move quicker. If he balked, then things would get more… complicated.

As the ferry reached the shore, Bobby stubbed the cigar into the grass. A trickle of flame burst forth, the way a spilled drink would run along a surface. He stood and stomped the dry, crackling grass until it ceased smoldering.

We’ll need to be careful, he thought. Before you know it, a tiny spark can turn into a sheet of hellfire

And that wasn’t the way Bobby wanted to go out.


“A Detective’s Bloody Pursuit” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!

In the town of Redwood Ridge, Marlowe Malone, a former Secret Service agent with a penchant for trouble, awaits the return of his long-lost fiancée, Amanda. Sporting an audacious emerald green suit made by the town’s eccentric tailor, he goes to welcome Amanda. However, his grand plans are derailed when her train arrives along with a shocking scene; a murder, a kidnapping, and a town teetering on the edge of mayhem. Marlowe will soon discover that his haunting past is part of this web of deceit…

Will he uncover the bloody secrets that lie beneath Redwood Ridge?

As Marlowe grapples with the chaos, he crosses paths with Cassidy McAllister, a fiery rancher’s daughter armed with a sharp tongue and a quicker draw. The lines between love and loyalty become blurry as Marlowe, accompanied by his wry ex-Pinkerton partner, dives headfirst into a mystery threatening to engulf not just his personal life, but the entire town…

Will Cassidy hold the key to solving the mysteries that shroud the town in darkness?

From rowdy saloon brawls to high-stakes kidnappings, Marlowe and his allies unravel a tapestry of intrigue and betrayal in the untamed heart of the Wild West. As he dons his detective hat in time to unveil the sinister plot looming over the town, a ruthless gang and a man with a hidden agenda appear in his way. Will he mend his shattered heart amidst the chase for justice? Can the detective in the green suit finally seek peace and redemption in the midst of bullets and vengeance?

“A Detective’s Bloody Pursuit” is a historical adventure novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cliffhangers, only pure unadulterated action.

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