Zeke wanted to think of himself as a good man but it was difficult most times, specifically times like this. Granted, there weren’t many ways for a man like him to scratch out a living anymore. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox nearly ten years before and issued his General Orders No. 9 making Zeke, and more than one hundred thousand other Confederates, aimless soldiers, scarred and skilled at killing. Most happily returned to the lives they knew before the war, but for Zeke, there was almost as much pain waiting for him at home in Nashville than there had been for him in all the battles he had seen. He could still see her eyes of antique mahogany. Difficult times indeed.
Zeke closed his eyes and wished he were anywhere else. This robbery was going wrong in a hurry.
“Zeke.” Clayton snapped him out of his memory, “Anything?” Zeke cast his gaze out the window. Such a beautiful day. Such an ugly scene. Outside the way station, the vast landscape stretched to the blue horizon in all directions but one with mountains rising up faintly in the west. All around them the spare vegetation offered him an unobstructed view clear out to the horizon. There was nothing. He turned back and shook his head. Clayton turned his attention back to the station manager kneeling at his feet. The poor man was blindfolded with his hands tied behind his back. His terrified wife and daughter cowered in the corner, also bound and blindfolded.
“I’m not sure you’re telling the truth.” Clayton’s voice was eerily calm and cool, “My man here says he doesn’t see a thing, and I’ve never met another fella with eyes as sharp as his.”
“Please,” whimpered the manager, “I swear to you. The relief driver was delayed and the others haven’t arrived yet. I don’t know why, but nothing is here. There is no gold.”
“I know the relief driver is delayed.” Clayton assured him, “We delayed him.” The other three members of his gang chuckled, but not Zeke. Clayton knelt down beside the man and put his hand on his shoulder. “We can do this one of two ways, either you tell me where the shipment is, or I let my associate Jeremiah loose. Now before you answer, you should know that he’s got his lustful eyes all over your lovely wife and daughter.” The two of them began weeping more profusely.
“I swear to God,” the manager gathered all his wits, “there is nothing here.” Clayton stood and punched the man in the jaw as hard as he could. The manager fell to the ground, his head bouncing like a soft melon on the rough wooden floor. At the sound of it, his wife and daughter gasped and cried even louder.
“It’s okay.” he told them, “I’m okay.”
“Not for long.” said Clayton dismissively before turning to the hulking Jeremiah, “See what you can do.”
The burly miscreant sneered. He towered above the mother and daughter, then bent over and inhaled deeply. The girl, who couldn’t have been a day over fourteen, began weeping through her blindfold.
“Girl,” Jeremiah said to her, “you’re about to become a woman.” He grabbed her by the elbow and hoisted her to her feet. The girl’s mother did all she could to attack her daughters would be rapist, but with her hands tied behind her back, there wasn’t much she could do but wail and hurl insults. In return she received a sharp blow to the jaw from Jeremiah’s knee and fell to the floor silent and unconscious. The manager seemed too scared to say anything but “please” which he simply repeated over and over again barely audible whisper.
Zeke stepped away from the window.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he growled at the mountainous figure who now had the young girl slung over his shoulder.
“Stay out of this, Zeke.” came the reply. Theodore and his equally disturbing brother Samuel looked on and simply giggled at the sight. They would be no help. Zeke turned to Clayton.
“This ain’t what we agreed to.” Clayton seemed bored with it all
“Zeke,” he said, “sometimes you have to improvise.” At that, Jeremiah laughed and turned to carry his victim into an adjoining room. In a flash, Zeke had drawn his Colt revolver and was pointing it square at Jeremiah’s back
“You take one more step,” he said, “and I swear to God I will send you to your judgment.” Jeremiah stopped.
“You ain’t got the stomach.” he said over his shoulder. Zeke pulled the hammer back.
“You have no idea what I’ve got the stomach for, but you best believe that I will kill you where you stand if you don’t put that girl down.”
“What the hell’s got into you?” Clayton’s hand was moving slowly to his rifle. Before he could reach it, Zeke’s left hand flew to his holster and out came the second Colt. Wanting to make his point in a hurry, he pulled the hammer back without hesitation.
“I wouldn’t do that.” he said to Clayton, then to the other three, “If any of you move, I’ll burn you down. Now let that girl go.” Slowly, Jeremiah lowered the teenager to the floor.
“You’re making a big mistake.” said Clayton.
“No. The mistake was agreeing to do this job with you. You said we weren’t going to hurt anybody.”
“The only one’s gonna get hurt now is you.” Jeremiah’s teeth were clenched. In the distance, they could hear the faint sound of a stagecoach approaching. The five men stood frozen, not knowing what would happen next.
“What the hell is that?” asked Clayton of no one in particular.
“It’s the Wells Fargo driver.” whimpered the manager, “I told you he was delayed.” Clayton nodded to Theodore.
“Check it out, Teddy.” Theodore edged over to the window.
“Looks like he’s telling the truth.” he said.
“Goddamnit.” cursed Clayton under his breath, “So what do we do now, Zeke? You shoot that six off now, they’re liable to hear it and come in blazing with the scatterguns.”
“We kill him and rob the coach.” offered Samuel.
“You kill a Wells Fargo teamster,” said Zeke without taking his eyes off Clayton, “and they’ll cover this territory with Pinkertons.” Clayton considered this quietly.
“Then what do we do Zeke?” Zeke would have to admit that he had no plan. The coach would be there in minutes and he had absolutely no idea how they would get out. As he stood there trying to think of something, he felt a sharp blow to the back of his head. He would never know if it was that son of a bitch Samuel who had hit him or his brother who was, by definition, also a son of a bitch. The last thing he remembered was the floor coming up to meet him.
When he came to, he could hear the teamsters outside watering their horses. He opened his eyes and his gaze met the wide-open stare of the mother whose blindfold must’ve come loose when Jeremiah struck her. She did not blink.
Christ, he thought, they killed her. He struggled to his feet and made his way to the back door. In the distance he could see his four former compatriots riding away in a cloud of dust. They had taken his horse with them. He was stuck.
In a blaze, his senses came back to him. He had to get away. Quickly he slid down into a small gulch behind the station and headed in the opposite direction of the disappearing dust cloud. He concealed himself in a bramble thicket and waited. It was his only option.
Shortly, the teamsters burst through the front door of the station and jumped onto the coach. They were in a commotion and rode off in all haste after the four horsemen. Zeke lay in the thicket until night fell and then set off on foot in the direction that seemed to offer the most cover for a man who wished to remain hidden. The station manager would surely be able to identify him by voice if he was ever caught. He was on the run now and would be for the next three years.