Hot and as thick as molasses, the air inside the Southern Star stagecoach was ripe with the body odor of its nine passengers. Toby Garrett, wedged hip to thigh on the rear bench seat between two other men, had tied his kerchief over his mouth to help filter out the worst of the stench and dust that blew into the coach through the small windows.
It helped, but barely.
Toby promised himself that he would do two things as soon as he arrived in San Francisco. The first was to treat himself to a hot bath and a fine, thick steak. The second would be to hightail it to the nearest telegraph office. He'd already composed the telegram to his boss in Kansas City in his head, right down to the part where he told the man in no uncertain terms that should Toby ever find it within himself to travel back to Missouri (a highly unlikely event considering that the only way Toby would submit to traveling cross-country by stagecoach again was if he were in a pine box) he would personally kick Millard Buford's ass six ways from Sunday.
"Garrett," Buford had said as he lit one of his expensive and ever-present cigars, "this is as fine an opportunity as any you're likely to see. Think of it, Toby! Stories have been circulating for years about men finding gold in every stream from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Why, tales have been told of men gutting fish and finding nuggets in their bellies! Now we hear tell that the mines have all gone dry, that there isn't an ounce of gold dust left in California. Yet they say the city of San Francisco has risen like a shining jewel on the edge of the sea. Our readers want to know what's going on west of the Rockies and you're going to find out, first-hand. All expenses paid," he'd said expansively, his jowls jiggling as he puffed out a cloud of thick cigar smoke.
It was an incredible opportunity, especially for a young reporter who'd only recently been hired and had barely worn down his first pencil writing anything for the paper yet. In retrospect, it was too generous an offer. Toby should have known better, but his ego had won out over his common sense. He'd jumped at the opportunity.
From the first bone-jarring jolt as the coach left the station in Kansas City to today, seventeen days out on the trail, the trip had been pure hell. The stagecoach line's primary purpose was to deliver the mail--paying passengers were just the frosting on the United States Postal Service's money-cake, and little thought went to their comfort.
Nine men, several of whom had questionable personal hygiene habits during the best of times, had been jammed into a roughly seven-foot square wooden box, sitting three abreast on as many bench seats. Two of the plain, unpadded seats faced forward and one backward, obligating the passengers on the second and third seats to sit facing one another with their knees dovetailed. Thick bags of mail had been wedged under everyone's feet, forcing the travelers to hold what baggage couldn't be strapped to the top of the coach on their laps.
Sleep was no more than a series of short, uncomfortable catnaps, taken while sitting upright. Every so often one or the other of the men Toby sat between would nod off, his head lolling against Toby's shoulder until he shrugged it off. It was bad enough that he had to endure the men's nostril-searing body odor--he'd be damned if he'd be made to suffer their bad breath and drool as well.
The roads--if they could even be called that--were chock full of holes and rocks and were often no more than a couple of wagon wheel furrows gouged into the rough prairie. Relay stations, where a fresh driver and "shotgun messenger" (a man whose duty was to protect the coach, its passengers, and first and foremost, the mail) would take the reins of the coach, were more often than not hastily erected, rickety huts that offered no amenities to the passengers.
They rode day and night, briefly pulling over to the side of the road three times a day for meals. Toby snorted to himself for referring, even in his own thoughts, to the slop dished out by the driver as a "meal." That morning they'd been treated to weak tea, jerked beef and a few mealy crackers, for which they'd paid the princely sum of one dollar. Toby barely had time to see to his personal needs and choke down breakfast before the driver and his messenger, a pair of hardasses with sour tempers and flasks of rotgut secreted away in their coat pockets, had called "all aboard." Scrambling into the coach, Toby had made it to his seat just as the driver cracked his whip over the mules' backs and the stagecoach had begun to rumble forward. He had no doubt that if he had been a hair slower he'd have been left behind in the middle of nowhere.
Late morning brought with it a heat that sizzled the air. They had torn down the canvas from the small windows to let in whatever breeze could be had, regardless of the dust that blew in with it. In a very short time all of the passengers were covered head to toe with a coating of fine beige grime.
Toby's kerchief soaked up the sweat that continually beaded up on his brow. His lightweight linen suit felt like a damp rag, clinging to his body. His feet baked in his shoes, perspiration soaking his socks. Staring out the window, he watched the sun climb ever higher into the sky, silently counting the hours until it would set once more and the fierce heat would subside. In the distance, billowing black thunderheads gathered on the horizon, wicked bolts of lightning flashing cloud to ground in crisp, bright white, vertical lines. He'd welcome a storm and the cooling rain and breezes it would bring, even if coach did leak like a sieve.
Bouncing, creaking and rattling, the driver raced the coach over rutted ground as fast as he could, whipping his team of slat-ribbed mules on. Toby could hear him bellowing at the beasts above the clatter of the stagecoach's large wooden wheels and the pounding of hooves. Concerned about the approaching storm and eager to pass the reins to the next driver, the driver worried the team on, irrespective of the gullied and rocky terrain over which they raced.
Suddenly, one of the wheels hit a deep ditch, tipping the coach precariously to the left. Baggage flew across the interior as the passengers, nearly jostled out of their seats, lost their grip on their carpetbags and valises. A heartbeat later the world turned upside down and rolled crazily amid the shrieking of splintering wood and the screams of men and mules alike.