The railway that traveled through the Chislom Trail was built in 1867, now four years ago. The girl was picked up at one of the early stops of the railway in Newton, Kansas. Typically, the train was used to transport cattle to the wealthy barons along the line, however for some of the folk willing to empty their pockets, the train accommodated some passenger cars. She stared out the window watching the farmlands zip by her field of vision, her body gently swaying to and fro in rhythm with the train’s wheels.
She wore a neatly pressed blue and white checkered dress and had her hands folded in her lap as she passed the time away on the locomotive.
The kindly ticket-taker walked down the aisles, punching the passenger’s stubs with his metal tool that hung from a small chain attached to the pocket of his vest.
“Ticket ma’am”, he politely said to the girl.
She dutifully reached into her tattered school satchel and produced the yellow ticket, frayed at the edges from repeated handling.
“Where you off to, little miss?”
The ticket-taker brushed up the top of his cap so it rested on his protruding forehead. “Duncan? Why that’s quite a ways away. Five hours from Newton I reckon.”
“My dad told me five and a half.”
The ticket-taker regarded the empty seat beside her. “Dad on the train with you?"
She shook her head, the sunlight illuminating her strawberry blond locks.
“No, no he’s at work back in Kansas. I'm going home to my mom in Oklahoma. Dad says he’ll be along there soon, but he has to stay for work.”
The ticket-taker paused for a moment, in thought. “Work …in Kansas? What’s he in… mining?”
“Yessir he is. Owns a mine in fact,” she replied.
“What’s your name sweetheart?”
“Rose. Rose McCollum.”
“How old are ya?”
Rose straightened her back. “12 years, sir.”
“12 years? That’s mighty young then. Well Miss Rosie, you sure’n need any help with anything, you let me know. Name’s Mr. Jasper.”
She smiled graciously and returned to the window.
The car was about three quarters full which was odd for the middle of the day in the middle of the week but still enough bodies to make the railroad profitable.
The stranger sat alone, just like the girl, directly across from her as the train rolled onwards. He did not regard her as his interest lay in a newspaper which he held upright, obscuring his lower features from sight. His black Stetson hat was pulled down in the front, likewise making his eyes difficult to discern. He had a small leather knapsack by his side, tightly enclosed by a brass buckle.
They had been riding for about three hours now and the train was due to make its next stop in Medford, Oklahoma for re-fuelling and to allow some of the passengers to stretch their legs.
Once the train came to a stop in the sleepy depot, the girl observed the three men come on board.
The first was lanky thin with deep, sunken cheeks that made him almost resemble a skeleton. He wore a long brown trench coat that was buttoned from bottom to top, so all one could make of his garb were the bottom of his black leather cowboy boots with their inch high heels.
The second man was younger and stalkier with traces of bearded stubble along his lower jaw line and wisps of pre-mature gray hair along his temples. He avoided eye contact with any of the other passengers and slunk into the first of three seats they had purchased side by side.
The third man was of medium build and wore a black bowler cap which encompassed his entire skull. His skin was olive brown, suggesting that perhaps he was of Indian or mixed heritage. Rose could see his droopy black moustache that dripped down his cheeks like melted ice cream. He wore a grey vest over his brown checkered shirt and he sported a large silver belt buckle in the shape of a buffalo. He joined the others in the triad of seats.
The man in the Stetson hat paid them no heed and continued to stare intently at his newspaper.
The girl heard the conductor blow his whistle three times signaling the passengers to get to their seats for immediate departure. No further people came on board and very few departed.
The train began to rumble forward, billows of black smoke emanating from the chutes and dispersing and melting into the sky like snakes.
The girl sighed deeply and removed her journal from her satchel and began to doodle some pictures of the farmlands passing by as she rode. She often dreamt that someday some of her pictures would make it into the newspapers like the man in the Stetson hat read. The satchel did not contain much apart from her travelling documents, some of her school texts and note pads and a black woolen shawl should the weather prove to be non-co-operative.
As she was part way through her sketch of an abandoned barn with cattle grazing nearby, her thoughts were interrupted by shouting near the rear of the car.
The three newcomers were on their feet, lower features covered by red bandanas wrapped tightly around their lower skulls.
“Nobody panic, this here’s a stick-up!” hollered the younger of the three over the sounds of the mighty train’s engines. He was clearly the born leader. “Empty your belongings and no one’ll get hurt!”
The Indian and the lanky one made their way to the aisle and started approaching the startled passengers. The skinny one roughly grabbed a woman’s purse and she screamed in terror. He opened his long trench coat and exposed a sawed-off shotgun which he violently smacked against her face.
Rose felt her pulse rate quicken as her heart slammed into her chest. She immediately grabbed her satchel and clutched it until her knuckles blanched. Panic seared through her body and she wished she had her daddy beside her for protection.
“We mean business!” yelled the bowler-hatted one. “Give us all ya got and we know ya got plenty!”
The girl saw them jostling wallets, purses and watches while their leader stayed where he was, observing the scene, exposing two silver Smith and Wesson handguns for all to witness.
As the two men approached the girl, the man in the Stetson hat leapt up and threw himself onto her neighboring seat, grabbing his knapsack in the process.
“No one touches the girl,” he growled.
The Indian chuckled and yelled backwards. “Boys, we got ourselves a hero here! Well Hero, what are you all gonna do about this?” He extracted a stag horn handled Bowie knife with sharpened six inch blade from his belt behind his back.
Like a flash of lightning, the stranger pulled out a black Schofield handgun from his waist holster and sent off a blast which embedded itself into the Native’s abdomen.
As a reflex action, the Indian jammed the knife into the stranger’s right thigh as he collapsed to one knee and the life drained from his body. Rose screamed in horror.
The man in the Stetson hand grabbed the hilt of the blade and removed it from his thigh in one fluid motion and tossed it on the ground, useless as the Indian fell to the floor of the train.
Jasper the ticket-taker appeared through a sliding door from the back of the car to assess the commotion. “What in God’s name!” he started and was met with a single shot to the chest from the young man brandishing the Smith and Wesson’s. The impact of the shot threw his torso backwards, leaving a bloody streak along the glass partition. A lady screamed at the gore.
The man wrapped his arms around Rose and lay his body over hers as a shield.
“You follow me and we’ll get out of this alive,” he whispered in a gravelly tone.
By this point, the skinny man and the young leader had both pistols blazing, creating an orgy of fire, sound and chaos in the car.
Men and women alike ducked down in their seats as the gunfire erupted all around, deadly bullets embedding in the material of the seats inches from their heads.
The young one gestured to the thin man with his chin and grunted through clenched teeth, “Kill ‘em both and make it quick!”
The man in the Stetson hat shot off three rounds as he made his way into the aisle, still sheathing the girl.
The two stealthily moved toward the attachment door of this car to the neighboring car as the potent smell of gunfire and smoke permeated the air.
The two desperadoes were hunched behind two seats several rows back, popping their heads over intermittently to return gunfire.
“Go! Open the door outside!” the man ordered Rose, who was temporarily frozen with fear.
She did as she was told and bravely pulled down the latch to open the car door with quivering hands.
The rush of the wind entered as the train continued it’s journey at breakneck speeds. Rose’s hair flew across her face and she had to frantically push it out of the way to gain clear vision.
The man looked down at his bleeding thigh and cursed aloud, wondering how he was going to save both himself and the girl in this condition.
His cold grey eyes focused on Rose. “Stay where you are! We’re getting off the train!”
He leapt forward and enveloped her in a sweeping hug, the two leaping off the speeding locomotive, narrowly dodging the continued gunfire.
The man and girl rolled over each other as they tumbled on the rough terrain, the man thinking he had cracked some ribs in the process. Eventually the two lay on the grass, she on her back, and he on his stomach. A few stray shots were heard in the distance, just barely audible over the train’s engine roar.
Rose was in state of near shock and was barely conscious. Her knees were scraped and bloodied and she had torn her blue checkered dress on the left side, exposing her thigh.
“What…what just happened?” she murmured, fighting to stake awake.
“Grissom’s men.” the stranger replied and then all went black.
The night was cool when Rose awoke. The flickers of the small fire cast a reddish glow illuminating the streaks of grime and dirt along her cheeks.
She looked over and saw the man in the Stetson hat hunched over a tin plate and was eating with a wooden spoon.
“Evenin’ Rose,” he said in an oddly soothing tone. “Hungry? Got some baked beans, dried beef and stale bread here. Not much, but I never pack a lot of food.”
She stared at him for a moment, and tried to reflect on the events of several hours before.
“You..you know my name?”
“Heard you say it on the train. To the ticket-taker.”
“You heard that?” she asked. “I didn’t even think you were paying attention.”
The man grinned in the glow of the fire. “That’s the sign of a good gambler. Always watch and listen but don’t talk much.” He stuffed the end of the wooden spoon into his mouth. He had cooked the grub in the tin plate directly on the fire he had made from assorted trigs and branches.
They were clearly in a wooded area and Rose did not know the hour, but she was certain it was late.
“Where are we?”
The man took a swig of water from a canteen. “I reckon we’re in the Ouachiutas Forest. Indian country. Near south east Oklahoma.” He handed her the canteen.
She accepted and greedily sucked down a sizeable portion. “How did I get here?”
The man snorted. “You don’t remember much, do ya? Well, maybe that’s a good thing. You passed out from the gunfight on the train and I dragged ya out here for safekeeping. Carried you on my back I did. A good 3-4 miles, I figure.”
She noticed a tattered cloth wrapped around his right thigh were the knife had bitten in to his flesh. It was stained crimson.
“It’ll be fine,” he said. “Just somethin’ to stop the bleeding for the time being. Hey, I got the both of us out here, didn’t I?”
Rose sat thoughtfully and took a spoonful of the beans. They were full of salt and the sauce they were in appeared to have congealed into a thick mess, but she was starving.
“Go ahead n’ finish them. We don’t have a lot more to go on and you are gonna need as much energy and you can get. We got a big day tomorrow.” He offered her a hunk of bread and some of the chewy dried beef. “Here, take this. It may be hard but the sauce will soften it up somewhat.”
Between gulps Rose asked, “Are you a lawman?”
The man chuckled, “Do I look like a lawman to you?”
Rose shrugged her shoulders. “I reckon I don’t know what a lawman looks like.”
He raised the tip of his Stetson which cast a shadow on the ground like a vampire bat. “Nah, I ain’t no lawman. Fact is, most of my life I been dodging the law.”
Rose idly played with a few strands of her hair. “Why did you help me?”
The man cleared his throat. “Because Grissom’s men woulda killed both of us.”
“Who’s that?” she asked.
“Grissom’s a bad guy. Nastiest player in the game. Loves his liquor, loves his cards and loves his money. Him and his boys have been robbing trains for a long time now and never got caught to the best of my knowledge. They never keep anyone alive even though they says they will.”
Rose shuddered at the thought of the number of corpses that would have been in the car.
“Why did they kill them if they got their money?”
The man’s stone cold eyes narrowed, “Because they could be hung in a court of law if you identified any of ‘em.”
Rose looked down and took a bite of the hard meat. Her neck snapped back as she fought with the toughness of the beef. Through laborious chews she said, “You are a good man. What do I call you?”
“Call me Miller”, he replied, spitting on the ground.
Rose cleared her throat, “Well, Mr. Miller…how did you know of Grissom?”
Miller poked at the fire with a long branch, causing multiple sparks to flutter into the sky.
“I played many a poker game with Kyle Grissom. Man you saw on the train, the young one with the gray hair on the sides? That there’s Kyle Grissom, Jr. His prodigy.”
Rose nodded. “Does he know you?”
Miller shook his head vehemently. “Hell no! Does he know me? You think I cavort with those types? No girl, I played many a poker game with his dad when Jr. was barely up to my knee. Everybody knows of the Grissom gang. I don’t know the others though. Injun included.”
Rose stifled a laugh with her left hand, the other clutching the piece of stale bread.
“What’s funny?” asked Miller, his face in a cock-eyed smile making his graying moustache resemble a snake along his lips.
“You still have your hat.”
Miller smiled. “Yeah, yeah you’re right. Darn nearly lost it after we jumped. Train almost ran over the damn thing, but you know what? Appears as though it’s my good luck charm.”
Rose bit into the bread and nodded.
Miller reached into his bag and pulled out a black woolen shawl. “Here’s your shawl. Best put it on. Gonna get cold tonight.” His face was deathly serious.
“We’re sleeping here?”
“Got any better ideas?” The light from the fire illuminated half of his face, emphasizing a scar on the bottom of his chin that Rose had never taken note of before.
She saw him arise from his stooped position on the brown tree trunk and deliberately paced himself slowly over to her. He draped the shawl casually over her shoulders, this raw man, able to draw blood in a minute and show sympathy the next.
As he slowly made his way back to the fallen tree stump he said, “Mom back in Oklahoma?”
“Yes,” replied Rose, laying on her back, the warmth of the dying embers enveloping her body and making her feel safe. “Yes, she’s a school teacher.”
Miller’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “Schoolteacher? Why that’s a reputable profession. I’m sure she’ll take care of you just fine.”
Rose felt her eyelids getting heavy. “Mr. Miller…” she muttered through closing lips.
“Will Grissom’s men come to get us?”
Miller stamped his boot near the fire trying to get some of the caked mud and dirt off. “Not sure ‘bout that. Not sure at all.” He spat once again. “You get you some rest. I will take you to Duncan. About three hours by foot from here. I know an Indian guide nearbys that may be able to help us along the way, I think.”
Rose nodded, near slumber. Her head rested upon a white birch log that was situated near the fire. A tiny bug flitted upon the fallen tree and just as quickly flitted off into the night. The shawl was wrapped around her mid torso and her strawberry blonde locks glistened in the dying embers of the fire making her seem like an enchanted princess.
“Mr….Miller………” she slurred.
Miller stared at her now sleeping form. “Long time since I heard that”, he said, dumping the tin pan’s remaining contents in the foliage and started preparing sleeping quarters for himself.
© Copyright 2016 Steve Balsky. All rights reserved.