An icy cold wind blew across the land. The wind brought with it the promise of snow to north-eastern Nevada, but winter snow was nothing new to the region. As it was, the Eastern Nevada Stage Company was getting ready to depart its daily coach from East Nugget to Mountain Ridge.
The coach was not a normal coach but four feet longer and pulled by a team of six horses. The coach was longer because it contained a wood burning stove in the center of the coach and featured glass windows on its sides. The stove assured the seven passengers making the journey that they would be warm and cozy while the stage made its way up a portion of the eastern hills.
Up on the drivers bench Will Renter, the shotgun rider, sat bundled up ready for the twenty mile journey. He was well dressed against the cold weather and wore a boot length great coat, a scarf wrapped about his neck and over his ears and a stout woolen hat. His hands were properly gloved and he wore two pair of socks. His pants were tucked into his boots and tied off with leather laces. In every way he was prepared for the long, cold trip. Next to him, coach driver Fred Lathe was similarly dressed. Even the six horses wore short blankets.
Will was forty years old. He was tall with good arms and legs and a narrow waist and a lean face marked with wrinkles and crow feet under his eyes from long days in the Nevada sun. He had been a sheriff in the northern California town of Preston for several years but was mostly bored with the job and started riding shotgun for the gold caravans coming down from the many mines scattered about Nevada. It was a well paying job and took him over the state which he loved. The majestic beauty of Nevada never failed him. It was always there in all its glory to behold, and the reason he never again wanted to leave.
Then, five years ago, Will began as a shotgun rider for the stage company as it often carried large mine payrolls and sometimes even gold dust. Every day, six days a week, he rode up on the driver's seat. Three times in the past five years he had beaten off robbery attempts, his good aim with a rifle and pistol earning him handsome cash rewards.
The stage, which was carrying a payroll of two hundred thousand dollars, was set to depart in just a few minutes; the station agent, a portly man wearing a blue uniform jacket, checked over the harnesses and made sure the stove was burning properly and an adequate supply of wood was aboard. When he was satisfied all was well he took out an elaborate pocket watch, noted the time as eight o'clock straight up and down and with a dramatic wave of his right arm, sent the coach on its way.
The coach went down the street about a quarter of a mile and made a gradual right turn out onto the road. The wind continued to blow cold and eagerly as the station agent watched it until it was out of sight.
âFeels like snowâ, Fred called out as he guided the horses into a right turn. He was thirty years old, short but well built and had been driving stages for ten years. A well regarded driver he was also handy with a rifle and his six gun and had helped Will fend off robbery attempts.
âWon't surprise meâ, Will said, pointing up at the leaden sky. âWe're overdue for a good snowâ, he said, taking his cigarette kit out from his jacket pocket. Quickly and expertly he rolled a cigarette, lit up and handed it to Fred. Then he rolled another smoke, lit up and sat back in satisfaction as he smoked at watched out at the tall hills and low mountains off the left side of the road.
âWe'll be going higher in a few minutesâ, Fred replied. âThat's when we'll run into the snow.â
And true enough, in several minutes, as the coach road higher up into the hills the first sputtering of snow began. It came in quick, little bursts, driven on the wind, fitfully, unsure of itself; and then the snow went away only to come back in a few more minutes, this time more eagerly, blowing down from the dark skies in long streamers of fine white powder. The wind was stronger now and colder and the two men sat facing the cold wind, scarves about faces, only eyes exposed. Fred bent down to the floor of the wide bench and retrieved a pair of goggles and slipped them on. The snow was thicker now, coming in great, puffy white sheets.
âGetting harder to see!â, Fred called out above the wind. âRoad sure is tricky hereâ, he yelled as he swept the stage into a gradual left turn, hugging the edge of a granite wall.
The stage came out of the turn and the road narrowed and the snow came straight at the stage and the wind blew stronger. The horses were going into the snow with heads down and they were unsettled by the snow and the cold wind and Fred had to keep tugging constantly on the reigns. The road bent into a right turn and the snow was heavier as they came out of the turn. Then the road ran straight and true and on the left was the granite wall of the mountains and on the right a rocky ledge and below the ledge the distant valley. Fred eased the reigns and the horses settled down. âLooks like its letting up someâ, Fred called out.
For the next two hours the stage made its way higher and higher up the slope of the mountain. The air grew colder and the snow was fitful. It looked as though they would make the crest and start down the other side without any trouble. But then the weather turned ugly again and snow started flying; it was difficult to see and the horses were unsure again.
âThink we better pull up at the relief station and wait âer outâ, Fred yelled over to Will. And Will was in agreement, for the weather had truly turned against them.
Less than half an hour later they pulled into the yard of the relief station which sat on a flat ledge on top of a bluff. There was a large wood cabin and a stable. The station was never staffed but it contained provisions and two large stoves and in the front yard a well and water pump.
Will climbed down and opened the coach door and instructed the passengers to go into the cabin and light the two stoves. Then he helped Fred un- do the team and led the animals into the barn. Meanwhile the storm had turned savage. Snow blew so hard that Will and Fred had trouble finding their way back to the cabin, even though it was only three hundred feet away! Once inside they secured the heavy wooden door and took stock. The passengers huddled around the two stoves, warming themselves. There were three women and four men and they seemed normal in every way.
âWe gotta wait out the stormâ, Will told the passengers. âMake yourself comfortable. We'll get some coffee onâ, he said. The passengers sat down at a long wooden table. The room began to grow warm. Will took down a large coffeepot from a peg on the wall and went outside and filled the pot with fresh water. When he returned he took down a can of Arbuckle's coffee from a shelf, poured the coffee into the pot and set the pot on the largest of the stoves to cook.
The coffee cooked and Will went down the table, filling metal cups; and so it was the passengers passed a safe and uneventful three hours while the storm blew itself out.
Meanwhile, just outside Mountain Ridge, two men rode horses up into the hills. The men were dressed against the weather, for they could see storm clouds on the distant horizon and knew the mountains well. They were desperate men out to rob the stage with its load of gold dust bound for the bank at Mountain ridge. The lead rider wore a long brown coat with the collar turned up. He was of medium build with a round face and mean gray eyes and a scar under his left cheek. His name was Eliot Neal and he was thirty years old. He had been in jail for the last six years for robbing a general store in Carson City. Behind him rode Jud Boyd, twenty-nine years old. He didn't look like very much. He was thin and fragile looking with a narrow face and bad teeth and thin brown hair. Jud had killed a man eight years ago and had been in prison where he met Eliot when the two of them shared a cell. Together they plotted to rob the stage. It was a simple plan, one that called for killing any passengers, the driver and shotgun rider. They would escape by riding into northern California and taking a train down into Mexico.
When the storm abated, Will and Fred readied the coach, loaded the passengers and set off. There was snow on the road, but the sky was clear and the wind dead and the stage was able to make steady progress as it wound its way along the road at the top of the pass and then began making its way down. As the stage wound down the pass the road narrowed, in places to no more than six feet wide. Fred had to slow the stage to a bare crawl to negotiate these difficult passages and Will was on constant alert, worried about an ambush.
Below them, making steady progress, rode the two outlaws. âWhat if the storm held the stage up?â, Jud asked, pulling up alongside Eliot.
âDon't matter noneâ, Eliot replied as he rolled a cigarette. âJust means our plans are set back some.â
âI don't knowâ, Jud replied, shaking his head. âBeing late an all, it don't help none.â
âQuit stewinâ, Eliot said. âWe'll run into the stage soon enough. So stay ready!â
And then they did run into the stage, but not as planned. The road made a sharp right turn and narrowed to only five feet and suddenly the stage was coming through the turn, the six horses leading the way and they came upon the two riders out on the road and Will saw one of the riders bringing up a rifle and he shot the man through the center of his chest with a single round. The other rider had his six gun out and was aiming it at the driver's seat when Will sent another round from his powerful rifle smashing into the rider's upper chest. The man flew backwards off his horse. The stage hauled up to a stop as Will jumped down from his seat and ran over to the two men he had shot. They were out on the road. The first rider was on his side, hands clutching his chest. Will rolled him onto his back with a hard push from his right boot, and it was plain to see the man was dead. Then he went over to the other man who lay face up, arms flayed out, sprawled on the road. He was dead, too, and Will shook his head. Then he walked back to the coach and opened the door and called out several of the men and together Will, Fred and the men put the bodies of the two dead men up on the roof of the stage.
âWhen we get to town, we'll see if the sheriff knows âemâ, Will said.
Then the passengers climbed back into the coach, Will closed the door and climbed up onto the seat next to Fred. âCountry's full of bandits and highwaymenâ, Fred said, taking up the reigns, urging the horses into motion.
When the stage pulled into Mountain Ridge the passengers hurried out into the cold and walked across the street to the hotel. Will walked down the street to the sheriff's office and brought the sheriff back to look at the two dead men. The sheriff was about sixty, short and heavy set with gray beard stubble adorning his face. His gray coat was open and his yellow shirt was frayed and spattered with coffee spills. He wore a gun belt low across his ample belly and walked slowly. âSay you shot these men?â, the sheriff asked.
âShot em' deadâ, Will replied, curtly. âThey were trying to rob the stage.â
The sheriff walked up to the stage and grunting loudly he pulled himself up to the driver's seat and turned toward the rear of the stage and looked at the two dead men who lay face up. âSay, these two are the Darcy brothers!â, he said, turning, climbing awkwardly down into the street. âPretty bad pairâ, the sheriff told Will, taking a short stubby cigar from his jacket pocket. He held the cigar in his left hand, waving it towards the jail: âHad em' locked up last night for drunk and disorderly. Gave me and my deputies a hard time, too. Wellâ, he exclaimed, clamping the cigar in his mouth, âI'll have the undertaker come down and fetch em'â he told Will. He walked a few paces, then turned and faced Will: âThey got brothersâ, he said, pointing up towards the roof of the stage. âBetter watch out!â Then he turned and ambled down the street.
Later that night, after dinner, Will was in the New Way saloon. He was at the bar, his left foot on the rail, drinking a beer. It was dim and smoky like all saloons, and it smelled of spilled beer, unwashed bodies and mildew. But it was a smell he was used to. Will stood up and rolled a smoke and lit it. Through the windows he could see a cold rain falling. He finished his beer and turned to leave when he saw two men push in through the according doors and right away he knew they were the brothers of the dead men.
The two men spotted him at the bar and they moved in fast and drew pistols. But Will was faster. Much faster. He had his .44 out and aimed before the men had cleared holster. He shot each man with a single shot in the center of the chest. The men took a few stutter steps and looked at Will in surprise, with wide open eyes, not believing how fast he was and then they fell face down dead onto the sawdust covered floor. It was over in just a few seconds and two more bad men were dead.