Chapter One Left my Regrets on the Railroad The dawn smelled of gunsmoke. Bleeding in the high sky, the sun wheeled on the ten horses riding out from Brindle. Not a soul stalked the streets come cock’s crow, but sheltered eyes gazed from slatted windows and darkened alleys as the legends passed them by. Mustang hooves beat a rhythm into the ground. Miles from Mariposa, the posse had settled on a lead the governor had provided. “Governor.” Tipping his hat to the short man, Jack Redwood sat back on his chair, arms crossed behind his back. They were studies in contrast. Governor Radcliffe was a heavyset man in a maroon buttoned shirt and pressed collar. The chain of a pocket watch glinted from his breast and his manicured hands folded across the top of the saloon table nervously. Rings winked from them, gifts and pleasures purchased from across his fair state. His pants showed no wear of the road and his shoes, clacking together beneath the table shone like a silver dollar. Nervous blue eyes searched the faces of the men and women gathered for a sign of mercy, softness. They found none, forced to rove endlessly without hope of perch. A moustache, neatly trimmed, framed cracked pale lips over which a tongue passed earnestly, seeking to return a vestige of moisture to their canyons and caverns. Jack wore the road on him, from the prairie dust on the hilts of his blades to the wagon sand perching on the shelf of his nose. His skin was tanned to leather by the sun and he leaned back lazily, hat tipped forward over his eyes. Hands calloused like armor lay flat on the saloon table, as steadfast as the governor’s were shaking. “Governor.” Jack repeated the invitation, as laconically as he had before. But those who knew the outlaw would have put their hands to metal by now. Jack was anything but relaxed. Not since before the Civil War had the boy won any sense of peace from his travels. He was white hot, always burning. He moved like a snake, and his voice showed his rattle. “Brindle,” the smaller man said, “A Chinese fellow, in prison now, told the sheriff a story of an unsavory ruffian he cavorted with in Brindle’s Opium Den. Seeking a reduced sentence, he named the fellow as Riley Burr, an associate of Johnny Williams.” The Hessian, a phantom from a wartorn past leaned over the table toward Radcliffe, the scar along his face leering. Radcliffe leaned away from this silent phantom and a lawman behind him toyed with the handle of his pistol. Hessian leaned away, shrugging. Jack nodded at Radcliffe, bade him continue. Clearing his throat, the governor went on “Burr has a reputation in those parts, real clout with a gang of cattlerustlers and killers called Brinson’s Men. Law won’t touch him and Burr uses that power to bully good folk. I suspect he may be your only compass to Johnny Williams.” “Can we trust the words of a chink?” McNelly muttered suspiciously, knocking back a shot. Dressed in bright green, he was the strangest amongst them…and that was with the mummified Stranger in attendance. “Chink or not,” The Hessian said with a chuckle, “Men speak most truthfully with their necks in the noose.” Jack smiled, slapping his right hand on the table and standing. Radcliffe jumped, but stayed seated, “Well then, Mr. Governor,” He said, “We best be riding out. Powerful thanks for your assistance…and we’ll be back for our bounty” They left him sweating in the Mariposa saloon. Jack winced as he pulled back on the reigns of his painted stallion. The bullet had only grazed him, dead-aimed by a bandit and only passed between the skin and bone of his arm before burying into a swinging door. Nasty wound, but that half-Injun preacher fixed it up better than he’d expected. He cast a glance back at him. Hal was death-faced, a grim settling of his drawn features. It was as though the laughter had been drawn out of him, yanked out by someone, leaving lines of their passage across his eyes and mouth. He didn’t seem to notice the outlaw looking back at him, his eyes ahead as if on some distant horizon, the back of someone far away. He’d lost four men yesterday, part of their company that never left Brindle’s dusty streets. But he’d proved his worth there, he hadn’t run. The dog had bark in him. And that was enough. “Move aside.” Jack looked down at the moon-eyed drifter without seeing him. Shortly after leaving the saloon, the old man had blocked their path, holding out his arms. He smelled of the road, and a sweeter scent. Smoke clung to his features and wrote delusion across his face. Jack could smell the drug on him. “I won’t tell you again.” “I’m coming with you,” the older fellow croaked, his eyes snapping on Jack with alarming intensity, “You’re riding out for Blackheart.” The Hessian spit to the side of his horse. “What’s it to you?” “I’m coming with you.” “Like hell you are.” The Hessian pulled out his flintlock, the signature weapon he carried, pulled back the hammer and aimed it at the poor fool. “Move aside, or I’ll move you.” They were alone in the streets. The good folk of Mariposa waited for these shadows of death to pass them by. Only this man stood to oppose them. “No,” he said again, and in the light of the sun, Jack could see the bleached collar of a preacher winking from his neck. “He stole from me.” Jack held up a hand and the Hessian glared at him, the rest of their company looked on in mild amusement. “We go to gun him down. We are not looking for a preacher to lay his soul to rest, nor any who ride with him.” “To hell with him!” Hal snarled, once again fixing Jack with that frighteningly intense glare, “There’s no rest for that kind of man.” “I am neither looking to have God strike me down for letting his Word die in our company. Move aside, or the Hessian will make good on his threat. He has no fear of the Lord, they say.” The Hessian grinned, yellowed teeth jagged in his grin. “No.” the old man said again, “I will not move.” Hessian smirked, holding out his gun, finger tightening around the trigger. “Nathan.” The old man said, his eyes did not waver. There was a deafening crack, silence. The Hessian wheeled on his horse, his face a mask of fury. Jack Redwood’s right arm was extended, his face set as grimly as before. The pistol and one of Jack’s knives hit the dust to the left of the company. The old man stood, unharmed, unmoved, staring. “Hell of a name to call God.” “It’s the name of my son, the one he took from me.” “You got a name, preacher?” “Brandt. People call me Half-cut Hal Brandt.” “Well Preacher Brandt,” Jack said, nodding, “Get yourself a horse. And do not speak ill of me to your God if you perish.” Pushing past the half-blood, Jack was cut off by the Hessian, snorting fury. “You save this wretch? Now he rides with us?” “We made our plays,” Jack said earnestly, “He didn’t flinch, not once. Man has grit, faith, hell, maybe love. Lots of what we’ll need.” He wheeled around the Hessian, “Besides, might save your soul. Save all ours for the trouble.” A laugh hissed up from his throat, “Not too terrible, Hessian, to walk with God. I could use another gun I don’t have to pay.” The Stranger crossed in front of Jack, the white creature thundering, and yet its rider was strangely noiseless. The fellow never spoke many words, but his guns were true. Jack had seen him once, down in Arizona, outside Tilook. He’d looked the same then, a bandaged phantom wielding a pistol like Zeus hurled lightning. He’d seen him die there, take a bullet to the throat and pitch over back his horse, but he walked into that saloon in Mariposa sure as rain, living as the rest. Maybe there were more folks like that, all dressing under the same name. But Stranger…no…THIS Stranger was the same man he’d seen back then. What manner of devils would parlay with an outlaw like him for immortality? “God-Damn, God-Damn, God DAMN!” Jack Redwood hurled himself through the saloon window, crashing into the card-table in a cloak of shattered glass. Bullets followed him, shrieking past and through several of the astonished folk. Jack rolled with the table, pulling it down with him to use as cover. Blood coursed from his right arm, where a bullet had slid through his skin and exited. Cursing, he pressed his hand against it, held down by the hail of bullets smashing holes in his makeshift barrier. Burr’s posse had pulled soon as they heard their boss shout. McNelly, Stranger, and Jose had gone down first, ambushed by a burly Mexican with a shotgun and a pale fellow with a patch over his right eye. They were smart shooters, sure, but even fate can deal a damning hand. Hal had vanished in the crossfire, now Jack was doing his best to ready a throw while he was penned down by four. He had no opportunity to rise. He heard the glass shatter, breaking under the feet of that burly Mexican, the cackle of the three men behind him. Damn. No knife could be thrown fast enough or well enough to take them all down. He was a dead man, sitting behind a damned saloon table, waiting to- Four gunshots. The sound of bodies hitting the ground. Jack peeked around the edge of the table, knife held by the blade. He was prepared to hurl it, but what he saw shocked his grip from the edge. The Stranger stood at the window of the Saloon, tattered bandages around the wound that had been blown in his torso. Skin, bone, muscle, and blood glimmered there, but there was something else. It looked like…brambles, twisted dead branches holding his body together under all that. As if conscious of eyes, The Stranger lowered a hand to his abdomen, hiding the wound. His pistol smoked in his hand. “Took you for a dead man!” Jack shouted to his companion, kicking away the debris and replacing the knife in its sheathe. “Not for long.” The Stranger said, his voice muffled by the bandages. A shrill whinny brought the outlaw wheeling to the crow-haired flurry of hair passing him in pursuit of the Stranger. A’Way. Injun called herself A’Way. Grimacing, Jack put a hand to his neck, the scabbed cut breaking against his calloused fingertips. There was spirit in her, perhaps too much. She rode with a simmering fury like his own, and like him, she spoke little of her involvement with the Blackheart. Her horse passed in front of his and she looked back at him, startlingly beautiful in the light of the sun. It caught the edges of her skin, the vibrancy of her skin, her hair. Jack looked away. Better to remember her as she really was. Dangerous, and…if they were lucky, the key to Blackheart’s demise. Jack smashed against the wall, his breath leaving him in a painful whoosh. The savage girl had turned on him, drew her gun, pointed, and fired. The bullet misfired, flinging the weapon from her hand. By now, Jack had drawn one of his hunting knives and vaulted over the saloon table, blade raised. The agile woman, slipped his attack, rolling between splintered seats and coming up with her own knife. They circled each other, no words, only murder between them. He charged first, swinging his blade at her face. She ducked down, crossed her arms and rose sharply, catching him underneath his grasp, lifting, and throwing him backward. Hissing, Jack swung the back of his hand around, grabbing footing before launching forward. The blow took the woman in her high cheekbones, knocking her over a table and out of sight. Jack gasped for his breath, drew another knife and gripped it by the blade. She rose from around the table and he let the blade fly. Her eyes widened as it hurtled at her face, and she spun her own blade up desperately, knocking it off kilter, only gashing her cheek. Grabbing the back of a chair, she raised it in time to stop the second knife, quivering from its seat as she hurled it at the outlaw. Jack hurtled out of the way, rolling across the ground with a clatter. She was moving again, leaping out the front of the saloon, leaving the double doors flapping. Drawing another knife, Jack was quick to follow her out, pulling it back to hurl at the first sight of her raven hair. An arrow thudded against the double doors, pinning his the sleeve of his knife hand to the weathered wood. He reached for another blade, but she had knocked another arrow, aiming it at his head. Jack let his other arm fall to his side. Blood collected at the corner of his mouth, painting his grimace crimson. “Gonna kill me?” “Thinking about it.” Her voice was quiet. “I will not beg to a dog of Williams.” “I’m no dog.” “Slipped the noose with your little rape story, but you will not find a believer in me.” “If I am Johnny’s,” she asked, pulling the string taut, “Then I gain everything by killing you, here, and now.” She lowered the weapon, put the arrow back in its quiver. “But I want him dead as much as you do. We are not enemies.” Jack spit blood, ripped the arrow out of the door and tossed it to her. They were the first in town at the governor’s summons, so only the cowering bartender had the wherewithal to stop them. A smarter man, he’d chosen discretion as the better part of valor. “You owe me a new shirt.” He snapped irritably. The edge of a smile pushed at her lips. Bringing up the rear, a girl tried her best to keep the pace. Her horse was laden with the tools of her craft, and a flea-bitten hound trailed like a grey dot in the distance, following the trail he was too slow to run with. His master reached up to steady her top hat from being blown away, her tar-colored hair splaying out in the wind like daggers. Of them, her garb was the strangest. She lacked the decorum of a modest woman, but did not dally too far into the garb of a whore. Instead she straddled the in-between, seductive without being shameless. In any case, it was hardly appropriate for her craft, or their journey. Jack let the complaints drift out of his head. She’d proven her worth already and one way or another, she’d chosen this trail. Her death was her own to risk. “Move, please,” Hal urged the young woman looking on in awestruck horror, “I need to reach the wounded.” The preacher pushed past her, his hands gently pushing her aside. Hal worked with the little he had, side by side with the town doctor as they moved from bloody body to the next. More dead than saved, fourteen by the end of the shootout. Burr and Burr’s men had only numbered seven, but their reckless bullets had brought down friend and honest folk alike. Jack paused by the body of the burly Mexican, reaching down to take the shotgun from his twitching fingers. The piece wasn’t like one he’d seen before, an extra barrel lay atop the normal two, creating a strange three shot weapon that, by all accounts, shouldn’t work. “The hell is this?” “It’s mine.” Jack turned sharply to the voice, but the speaker had not moved from when Hal had pushed her. She had a pale face, made paler by the sick guilt running rampant behind her doe-eyes. Slowly, nervously, she held out her hands for the weapon. Jack tossed it to her, and she scrabbled to catch it, collapsing, not under the weight of the gunmetal, but perhaps under the weight of the souls it had taken. “Strange piece,” Jack commented, watching her twitch, wiping the blood from the barrel with brief spasmodic lurches, “You say this fellow took it from you?” She shook her head. “Paid, with cash. I thought…I mean…I didn’t think…” Jack said nothing, watching her wrestle with the burden. “I mean, I made this. I made this gun.” Now that was surprising. “Made?” He asked, seeking dishonesty in her voice, “Where does a woman learn to make a weapon like that?” “My…father,” She said at last, looking up at the outlaw, “A traveling gunsmith named Tourney, Joseph Tourney.” “Tourney?” The Stranger stepped over the body of Jose to approach the girl. He’d been on the stairs of the general store, rebinding his wound and trying, in vain, to fix his pistol. “Joseph Tourney made my gun.” She looked up to him, momentarily shocked by the bandages coursing up and down his body. It was only a moment before she swallowed her apprehension, putting the shotgun aside. She held out both hands to the Stranger, “May I?” The Stranger surrendered his gun and she pored over its length. Her fingers moved like expert snakes, seeking holes and niches to slip within and explore. She moved with unerring grace and skill, standing up, absorbed in her examination, and retreating to the ‘Tourney Rifles and Repair’ shop. The Stranger followed and Jack, having his fill of the terrified stares he’d been getting from the townsfolk, went with them. Inside the shop, she took the gun apart, hammered out the imperfections, shined, and repaired it within a half hour’s time. When she handed it back to the Stranger, the ghoul swung it from his fingers, flipped it, sighted down the barrel and then slid it into the holster. “Not bad,” he said, nodding, “What do I owe you?” “Nothing.” That same sort of abysmal sorrow had crept into her voice again. “I just…I want to ask a favor.” “Name it.” “I overheard you in the saloon the other night, when you talked up that harmonica drifter. You’re going after an outlaw, right?” “Johnny ‘Blackheart’ Williams,” The Stranger confirmed, “What’s it to you?” “Was he a friend of Burr and his men?” “Rumor has it.” She took a deep breath. “I want to go with you.” “No.” Jack snapped, already seeing where it was heading. “Why not?” “We have enough trouble without watching a kid.” “I’m twenty years old, thank you for asking.” “I was not asking,” Jack growled, “I was telling. You are not coming with us.” She turned to the Stranger, pressing her hands together as if praying for God to step in and intervene. “My father was killed by bandits, Brinson’s men. They keep me here to service their guns and make new ones. I sold to wretched people, monsters. My tools are used to kill good folk, honest folk. My pa wouldn’t want that. Please. I’ll do what I can. I’ll repair your guns for free, I won’t even take too much of the Ransom. Please let me clean my Pa’s name. He gave it to me when he didn’t have to and I’ve only sullied it. Please give me a chance to do something right with my talent. Something right for once.” The Stranger looked over to Jack, his expression inscrutable. “Guns need tending to.” “No.” “You are not our leader.” “God-damn if I am not!” Jack snapped, “I will not have her riding out with us.” “Not your choice. Not many know how to fix this pistol when it falls to disrepair. Girl has spirit. What was that you said about Brandt? Grit? Seems to me you’re in no position to refuse her.” “Fine,” Jack snapped, turning and pushing out of the shop, “But her life is on your hands.” The echoes of the confrontation with The Stranger weighed on the outlaw heavily. If they could not find common grounds in their company, how could they hope to stand against the Sun-downs? A’Way was quiet about their abilities, only mentioning that it was true what the legends said. The Sundowns could see without the aid of light, and that made attacking them in the dark a poor choice of tactics. They were riding into a disadvantage with a motley crew of cutthroats, civilians, and drifters. Speaking of drifters. Jack had not necessarily wanted Lonnie in their company, but the boy had a ticket to the railroad and that could be the key to outmaneuvering Johnny. The drifter had been in Brindle with a company of railroad workers, out of a job and looking to fix up places for a bit of coin as they pushed West toward another station. Jack hadn’t thought much of him when their company had slid into the saloon to ask questions about where to find Burr. At the time, Lonny had been playing a sweet melody on his harmonica, tucked into a corner and oblivious to the pennies tossed at his feet for the service of his tune. Perhaps that was where Jack had erred. Lonny was sharper than he looked, or at least was more aware than he let on. Hessian and Jose had gotten up for a drink, pulling The Stranger with them to talk about some shootout south of Topeka, Kansas. Jack nursed his drink, trying not to make eye contact with the Injun girl across the table. She was perfectly oblivious to his magnetized eyes, sharpening her knife. “Howdy, folks,” Lonny said, slipping into a seat beside A’Way, “Mind ifin I ask ya a question?” “I do not want to hear Dixie, nor is there any particular tune I will pay to hear.” Jack answered without looking at him. A’Way said nothing. “Shucks, aint for lookin to play. Heard me a little story while I was sittin back there, your friends speak loud something awful.” Redwood snapped up, eyes dangerously narrowed. The man was older than him, but somehow younger. Optimism and hope clung to his features like motes of light, and a ruddy glow shone through his beard. He was smiling, weaponless, only carrying the harmonica he’d been playing before. “Mind your ears,” Jack warned, “They will find you a peck of trouble.” “Aint lookin for trouble,” Lonny assured, “But you folk are lookin for some sorta outlaw, right? And, if I heard right, governor’s offering a pardon?” “Get yourself in some trouble?” A’way asked coyly. The music had livened her spirits from whatever dark place she usually kept herself. Jack, however, refused to be charmed. “No m’am,” he said respectfully, “But I bet folk would pay good money for a pardon.” “If it was for sale.” Jack muttered. “Well, I’d put it up for sale, sure as the railroad takes me place to place, I would.” Jack opened his mouth to insult the fellow, and his stupidity, but A’way held up a hand. Jack shut his mouth with the clack of a snapping turtle’s beak, biting his fury in half. “Poorly dressed to travel the railways,” She said with a smile, “Stowing away in boxcars?” “No, m’am!” Lonny beamed, fishing a crumpled letter from his shirt, “Robert Parker says me and my friends aint for payin.” “May I see it?” “Sure m’am. Don’t know what it says myself, but the folk at the stations sure know their letters.” A’way glanced over the letter, her eyebrow rising the farther she read down. Finally, she handed the letter back to Lonny. “Sealed and stamped, this is quite the prize.” “Thank you, m’am,” Lonny beamed, “I worked hard for that.” “Most men work to death without so much as a glance from a fellow like Robert Parker,” Jack said, looking to A’way and back to Lonny, scrutinizing him, “What else can you do?” Lonny blinked, scratching at the beard on his chin. “Weeell, I kin fix things up pretty good, know how to live off the land from my Pa in Oklahoma. I kin play my harmonicas real well, don’t need to hear a song more’n once or twice to get the tune. Not much for shootin, lost my gun a few years back in Colorado, but folk on the rail say I punch like a bear and work like a horse.” “Perfect,” A’Way said before Jack could interrupt, “Any reservations about killing?” “Well…” he was quiet a moment, “Way I see it, folk who hurt other folk aint for underestimatin. I aint killin no folk for the fun of it, but I’ll fight for my skin if it comes to it.” Jack put his head down on the table, already accepting the resignation that the boy would be coming with them. “Here, take this.” Lonny jumped back, looking up into the eyes of the Stranger. The bandages phantom was holding a pistol out to him. “Took this off a fellow who tried to kill me before I road into Mariposa. I was going to sell it, but you look like you could use it more.” “Thank ya kindly, sir” Lonny said with a face-splitting grin, “I’m mighty thankful for your generosity.” Jack tried to repress the urge to punch the musician, and felt he might have to for the rest of the journey. His attitude was bright, a sunny contrast to the gloom Redwood kept himself in most of the time. An annoying ray of sunshine, knocking on the lids of his eyes. The last new face in their company kept pace with the Hessian, a wild grin worn across his face like a bandanna. Of them all, he seemed to enjoy the reckless galloping the most. There was a certain freedom in it, an unbiased exhilaration. It showed on his ruddy face, wild hair kept at bay only by the capricious wind playing merry from lock to lock. Tarr had been instrumental in finding Burr while they’d been in Brindle, utilizing his strange mastery over locks to get them where they needed to go. Personal opinion among the other riders was that Tarr had killed the original recipient of the letter. Personally, Jack Redwood could care less. The man had proven himself on more than one occasion, ugly or not, and if the fellow who got the letter wasn’t cutthroat enough to keep it, they’d all be worse for his presence anyways. “Stop this! Stop this at once!” Tarr looked up from the body of Burr, his face streaked with blood and let the fellow drop. They had the name of where Johnny had been heading, now they only needed to reach him. Burr’s ruined face lolled from a broken neck, all of it thumping against the ground when Tarr let him go. The aftermath of the shootout had poured into the streets. Lots of good folk dead, a few outlaws with bounties on their head, and the sheriff, dressed up pretty, had paraded in to the street with a posse of three men, guns out, magnanimous. “You are all under arrest for murder. Surrender your weapons and we won’t give you any trouble.” “Murder?” Tarr laughed and it sounded like something dying, “Don’t know what you’re talkin about, sheriff. We were only exterminating.” He kicked the body beneath him, “See? Big ole possum, but I made sure he wasn’t playing dead this time.” A bloodstained smile spread across his face and the sheriff held out his gun toward him, his three deputies as well. Tarr looked like a devil, covered in the life of a dead man, grinning like a maniac. They might have shot him. But there was a click of gunmetal. Whirling, the Sheriff confronted The Hessian, stepping out from the general store, his flintlock pistol drawn and aimed. The Stranger stepped from around the side of the building, his gun, although damaged, glinted dangerously. Hal did not bother to stop treating the wounded, only looking at the sheriff for a moment, shaking his head, and returning to his work. Jack Redwood held a knife by the blade, poised from the ruins of the Saloon window. A sharp whistle alerted the deputies and sheriff that A’way was on the roof of a thatched home, an arrow drawn and lazily poised to pierce the sheriff’s heart. Lonny stood away from it all, staring down at his gun and Felicia peered from the open doors of her shop, pushing strange tools and stranger looking guns into a fourth pack. “I do not think I will let you arrest us today, sheriff,” Jack called out to him, “Best put away those pea-shooters and help the injured, I hear those guns can be dangerous.” Eying the superior odds, the Sheriff holstered his pistol, followed by his deputies. “I want you out of my town.” He said hotly. “Just give us the night,” Jack asked politely, sheathing his knife and pulling another out of a bandit’s throat in one motion, “We’ll be gone in the morning.” Johnny nodded at his companions, gleeful to remain free. No jail would hold him, not ever again. As one they moved across the dusty California terrain. The sun traveled its traditional path across the sky, diving towards the horizon as the stars came hot on its heels…the sparrows to its hawk-like singularity. They camped beneath the stars, a half-day’s journey from the railroad town of St. Clare’s. Burr had spoken, in his last breaths, of a train robbery in a few days. The Sundowns would ride in to take…something, he didn’t know what. A fellow working for the railroad knew the package, had already been paid off. The man they were looking for was named Langolier, or was called so by Blackheart. Those who took the railway knew the name Langolier. It was a whisper passed from passenger to passenger, conductor to conductor from New England to California. The Langolier was a monster, a flesh eating beast that spirited away good honest folk on long journeys through the evening light. It only left their clothes, lying where the victim had sat, as proof of its passage and monstrous hunger. No victim was ever recovered. Some said it preyed on the truly innocent. Men of God or children. Others still said it sought transgressors of the railroad, those who snuck aboard or harmed the passengers themselves. The only sure truth was that men and women disappeared through the United States setting out for somewhere. And it was likely their destination wasn’t at all what they had in mind. The Langolier was the undisputed secret king of the railcars. And now it worked for Johnny. Lonny helped Jack make the fire while The Stranger, A’way, and Tarr sought food. Gunsmith took her craft out by the firelight and went to inspecting the weapons. Tomorrow they would be on St. Claire and board a train. Tomorrow they would test their fate. As the fire burned and twisted, Jack tore a piece from his gamey venison, chewed twice, and swallowed. “Anyone but Lonny ever traveled the tracks before?” He asked.