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Noon Train

Noon Train

By Scriptorius


Noon Train

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 He was a morose, withdrawn character, sardonic in his attitude to everything and everyone, including himself and his affairs.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:

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.

Beresford laughed. “Oh, I didn’t just happen upon you,” he replied. “In fact I think I did my research work pretty well. You see, I’ve never been involved with anything like this before, so I had to make a lot of discreet enquiries. I started out with quite a list of names, but for one reason or another, I eliminated a dozen or more before I approached you. The decisive factor was the consideration that, apart from your individual reputations being at least as impressive as the others, you’ve all worked together before. I consider that critical.”

Wade broke in. “This must be some job you’ve got planned,” he said. “You’re offering us twenty thousand dollars each, so I guess you expect a bigger cut for yourself.”

Beresford nodded. “Yes indeed. Since I had the idea and had to work out the details, I think that’s fair. My suggestion is that I take half and you share the rest among you – I’ve assumed equally, as you’ll all be doing similar work and taking the same chances. I expect the proceeds to be just over two hundred thousand dollars, which means the twenty thousand each for you that I’ve already mentioned.”

The younger Moran goggled. “Mister, you must be planning to empty the Denver Mint.”

Beresford laughed again. “Well,” he said, “the Mint comes into it in a way.”

“Whoa, just a minute,” Broderick exclaimed. “If you’re planning to rob that place, I guess you can count me out. I’ve no taste for suicide.”

Beresford raised the calming hand again. “No need for excitement, gentlemen. Hear me out, then decide.”

“That’s what we came for,” Wade answered.

Beresford picked up a flat leather case from the floor, extracting a large brown envelope. “It’s all in here,” he said. “Now, I’ll just outline the scheme, then, if you’re all interested, we can go through the details after we’ve eaten.”

“Just one point first,” said Broderick quietly. “You mentioned ninety-five per cent chance of success. Why not a hundred per cent?”

Beresford pushed a hand through his hair, as though puzzled by the question, then shrugged. “Well,” he replied, “I guess nothing in this world is a hundred per cent certain. Why, if you want to push it to the limit, I suppose there’s no guarantee that we’ll survive this little outing.” He gave a short, barking laugh before continuing: “No gentlemen, I can’t be absolutely certain that it couldn’t go wrong, but I truly believe that the chances of success are at least as high as I put them. Anyway, you’ll soon judge for yourselves.”

“That’s right boys,” said Wade. “Let’s hear what the man has to say.”

Everyone relaxed and Beresford went on: “It’s really fairly simple. The fact is that I’ve a good head for business and over the past few years, I’ve made a fair amount of money legitimately. Now, I could go on doing that and end up wealthy – in ten or twenty years. However, one advantage I get is having a lot of connections and it was through one of them that I came up with this idea. If it works out as I’ve planned it, the operation will just save me a long spell of hard work and I don’t know of a man who wouldn’t like to do the same.”

Satisfied that he had his audience gripped, Beresford took a swig of whiskey, settled himself back and continued: “It’s like this. A friend of mine who’s in a strategically useful position was celebrating a deal with me a little while ago. He got drunk and let it slip that the consignment of merchandise I have in mind is coming through Denver next week, on its way to San Francisco. Fortunately, my acquaintance was so far gone that night that by the following day, he couldn’t remember a thing that passed between us. Anyway, I learned that the Mint has agreed, as a favour to the transportation people, to hold the consignment overnight, then it leaves the next evening, under heavy guard.”

“Well,” said the older Moran, “ that doesn’t sound too promising.”

Beresford lifted a forefinger. “Ah,” he answered, “on the face of it, no. But I also learned that nobody wants any public display, especially around the railroad station, where there are bound to be the usual loungers. It’s been decided that the trains carrying the goods are to make special stops just outside Denver, both coming and going, so that the transfer can be made without any unwelcome attention. Now, on the way in we have no chance, but as to the way out, I know where the stop will be made, when the stuff will leave the Mint and what route the guards will take. There’s just one weak point along the way and I’m as sure as I can be that we could walk off with the jackpot.”

“Wait a minute.” This was the older Moran again. “Two hundred thousand dollars in gold may take little transporting. You got that worked out too?”

“Gold?” Beresford replied. “Oh, no. I didn’t say anything about gold. I’m speaking of diamonds, gentlemen, and I hardly need to say that weight for weight they’re far more valuable than gold. There’ll be no trouble in moving them.”

While Beresford was speaking, the train began to lose speed as it approached the steepest, most tortuous part of the journey, where the track began to wind around the formidable mountain wall. As it was leaving the last section of open country, Wilson suddenly sat up straight and stared out of the window. “That’s queer,” he said.

“What is?” asked Beresford.

“Out there. A horse, all alone. Saddled, bedroll an’ all, an’ no rider in sight.”

Beresford shrugged. “Well, he’ll be around somewhere, I imagine. Now, if you’ll humour me by taking your places at the table, you’ll find that those tureens contain potatoes and a good spread of vegetables. I’ll just go see the fireman and get our steaks. You’ll probably be surprised at what a good engine crew can do with a nice piece of beef and all that heat.” He rose and made for the forward door as his guests sorted out where they were going to sit.

The train was taking a curve now, revealing the precarious stretch that Beresford had spoken of earlier. Now it was clear why the windows on the left were fastened. The sheer rock wall was only inches from the side of the car and any attempt to lean out could have had serious consequences. On the right was a vertiginous drop. Wade was peering out on that side. “Quite a sight,” he said. “Must be close to a thousand feet.”

“It’s six hundred,” replied Beresford. “This is the last spot where a man can get off and back on again, if he’s quick enough. Up ahead, there’s barely even room to walk alongside the train. Anyway, I’ll be back in a minute.” He jumped down to the track and, to his guests’ surprise, began to trot back towards the last bend.

“What’s he doing?” asked the younger Moran. “The engine’s up the other way.” A flutter of consternation ran through all five men, then Beresford came padding back, outpacing the train, which was now labouring along at walking speed. He waved to the outlaws and moved on ahead to the locomotive. As he did so, there was a loud explosion.

Broderick lowered a window, poking his head out almost over the dizzy precipice. “What was that?” he yelled.

Beresford looked back, waving his arms. “Engineers down in the valley,” he shouted. “They use a lot of dynamite.”

The desperadoes returned to their seats. Impatient as always, Wilson took the lid from one of the tureens, revealing a heap of whole boiled potatoes. He speared one with a fork and began munching. Broderick shook his head at the breach of etiquette. “Your table manners don’t improve, Tom,” he sighed.

“Manners be damned,” snapped Wilson. “I ain’t eaten yet today.” He jabbed up a second potato, satisfied that he had managed to shock at least one of his partners. By this time, all five men had helped themselves liberally to the whiskey and mellowness was coming to the fore. They began ribbing each other about the jobs they had done together. As they were taking their liquor on empty stomachs, no-one was stone cold sober, the intemperate Wilson being near-enough outright drunk.

The train was now close to the top of its ascent and moving at snail’s pace. Beresford appeared again at the rear of the car. He waved, fiddled with the door handle, then turned to kneel on the platform, where he grunted and strained for a moment, then rose to face the outlaws. Reaching down with his right hand, he produced a double-barrelled sawn-off shotgun. He used the butt to smash the glazed upper part of the door, then swivelled the weapon, pointing it at the bandits. “Right, gentlemen,” he said grimly, “the party’s over.”

For a moment, through the alcohol fog, none of the bandits grasped what was happening, then the younger Moran bawled: “Hey, the engine’s goin’ on without us. What the hell…?”

“Shut up,” snarled Beresford, all traces of the earlier geniality wiped from his face, now a fierce mask. “You don’t have time to talk. You don’t have much time for anything.”

The car, released from the locomotive and tender, had begun to roll backwards. Beresford raked the muzzles of his shotgun back and forth, covering the five men. Not one dared to draw in the face of that menace, for a single blast would have hit all of them.

“Now,” said Beresford, his glance taking in his guests, turned prisoners. “The noise you heard just now was an explosion right enough. I blasted the track back there. In about thirty seconds, you boys are going to take the long drop and there’s no way out. Before you go, you’d better know that my name isn’t John Beresford. It’s Richard Talbot and those people you killed six years ago in Montana were my parents. Now you’ll pay. I guess you don’t do much praying, but if you’ve anything to say, you’d better say it quick.” With that, he directed the shotgun barrels at the ornate ceiling of the car and pulled one of the triggers.

Instinctively the five outlaws dropped to the floor. As they did so, Talbot swung himself backwards off the platform railing and dropped to the ground, overbalancing and landing on his backside. Jumping up instantly, he ran after the car. He was just in time to see it reach the curve where he had, minutes earlier, wrecked the track.

To Talbot, it seemed that time stood still for an instant as the car followed the fractured metals, now hanging over the void. Then the rails bent under the weight and the outlaws’ temporary coffin began its long descent. It caromed off a rock ledge a third of the way down, then completed its last journey in one unbroken plunge, shattering on the valley floor.

Stepping forward to the break in the track, Talbot looked down at the roiling dust. “Yes,” he said to himself, “it’s six hundred feet all right.” Then he tramped off to join the waiting horse that Wilson had noticed earlier.

* * *

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10 Mar, 2018
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