The Speculator Line

Take a trip to Cedar City, where death is an illusion and some trains never stop running.

In this short story, Trace Conger sets this tale of suspense, desperation and abandonment against the vivid backdrop of the Wild West.

Caught between a charging posse of U.S. marshals and their fate on the gallows, three outlaws make their escape through a secluded mountain pass. Weary and wounded, they find hope in an unscheduled passage aboard the Speculator Line, a mining train that had ceased running years earlier.

They’re about to discover that survival takes more than being quick with an iron, that sometimes death is an illusion, and that some trains never stop running.

I crouched at the cabin window
squinting down the sights, my Sharps fifty rifle di
gging into my shoulder. I could see the marshals riding up. Six of them. They kept their distance, just out of range, getting organized, in no hurry to rush in. Some were milling about, talking to one another and pointing toward our cabin. Others were finding spots to wait us out, kneeling down and propping their rifles against the wooden fence posts about a hundred yards out.

Two hours ago Smilin’ John bailed me and Indian Joe out of the Cedar City jail by way of two dead deputies. He shot one through the gut as soon as he walked through the jailhouse door. The other, who was sitting at the desk, tried to stand up and draw his pistol at the same time. In too much of a hurry, he blew a hole in the floor before Smilin’ got him under his left eye. Then Smilin’ propped up his feet on the same desk and waited for the sheriff to return with his keys. When the sheriff walked in, Smilin’ raised his Colt and gave him the chance to surrender his keys or skin his pistol. The sheriff slid his keys across the floor just before Smilin’ shot him through the chest. He said the sheriff was going for his iron, but I didn’t see it.

The marshals were already in Cedar City on account they were going to take Indian Joe and me to St. George for some shit that happened awhile back. Smilin’ got to us first, and that probably pissed them off. It didn’t take the marshals long to close on us. We stopped at Smilin’s cabin to grab some gear before riding out of town for good this time. But those marshals were quicker than we thought.

Normally, I like our odds against six men. Hell, once, back in Wichita, Indian Joe, Smilin’ and me were holed up in an old barn facing down a dozen or so townsfolk. We showed ’em real quick what they were up against. We came inching out of that barn, rifles raised, firing one round after another, smoke rising up in the air like the ground beneath us was on fire.

Those townsfolk? I could see their eyes get real big. And that’s when I knew we had them. Once we saw those eyes, we knew their hearts weren’t in it. The way they scattered, you’d think someone rang the dinner bell. When you’re not keen on the job, it doesn’t take much to convince you maybe you’d be better off back home hugging on your wife or kissing your kids instead of facing off with three outlaws who know how to sling a rifle. It makes you rethink your priorities. I got nothing against men running away from a gunfight, especially when they know they’re outgunned.

But these aren’t townsfolk. These are marshals, and you can bet their eyes ain’t getting big. And they ain’t thinking about their kids neither. The only thing on their minds is how to best bring us in without getting dead. No, they’ll wait us out, and when they thought the time was right, they’ll come. Hunkered down in that cabin our odds weren’t too good to begin with, and they were getting worse by the minute. Smilin’ knew it too. He was posted at the other window, rifle raised. Indian Joe was collecting grub and bullets from the back room.

The marshals wouldn’t wait us out forever. It might take them some time to figure the best way to smoke us out, and once they did, it’d be over quick. Marshals don’t take kindly to men who shoot deputies, not to mention a sheriff, and there really was no reason not to blow us full of holes. It’d be easier to transport us in pine boxes than in leg irons.

That made our decision an easy one. Plus, night was coming, and that wasn’t good.

“How many you see?” Indian Joe said from the back.

“I see six,” I said.

“Better chance of more coming than some leaving.”

“Yup,” I said. “Think it’s time we ride out. Just as soon die on my horse as holed up in here.”

“Let’s buy us some time,” Smilin’ said, still crouching at the window, one eye staring down that silver barrel. He pulled the Winchester’s hammer until it clicked and slowly moved the barrel to his right, leading someone. I watched through my binoculars from the window. One of the marshals was still sitting high on his horse. Watching the cabin with his own set of peepers. He was motioning with his arm to someone, maybe telling his men to move forward, but they weren’t going nowhere. Not yet.

With a click and a crack, the Winchester’s hammer fell. The marshal still sat snug in his saddle. Smilin’ was as good a shot as me, but no one could hit a man from this range with that rifle. Now my Sharps, well, that’s another story.

The bullet whizzed past the marshal and his horse and plugged a large oak tree behind them. Smilin’s second shot was closer. It skimmed a fence post. That one must have got the marshal’s attention, because he hopped down from his horse and crouched behind the fence.

“That’ll give ’em something to think about,” Smilin’ said. “Let ’em know we ain’t sitting around shittin ourselves in here.”

Indian Joe slid our saddle bags across the floor. I could hear the lead knocking together inside.

“If we’re going, let’s do it now,” Indian Joe said.

No shame in running when you’re outgunned.


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