I watched the Wells Fargo stagecoach tip up on two wheels then roll on its side while a cold wind whipped my hat against the side of my face. From where I sat on my horse, there was no sound as it fell, sliding toward the place we call Sandy Cliff, southeast of my house. In the strange slowness of its tumbling, I considered for a time that the wind had tipped it. The box quit rolling at the very last point from which it could hold; another inch and it surely would topple over. A full minute seemed to drag by before the blanket of quiet was torn by the sound of mules squealing. When the noise came, it was a roar of sound: cracking wood and shearing metal, people crying for their lives, the animals’ awful bray, stirred and blended by a wind that threatened to tear every leaf from every tree, every tree from every root.
My horse and I had come to a stop to listen for quail at a stand of brush that marked the foot of Sandy Cliff when we saw the ruckus high above. It was a long climb up the side of the shifting powder that faced the cliff. I’d long ago discovered a series of irregular clumps of rock that made the only reliable route, and it was only manageable afoot. Riding the long way around would take half an hour or more, for in this weather my horse thought every branch that swayed was a spook coming at him.
I kneed Baldy through the brush and untied the morning’s hunt, a clutch of headless dove and quail tied by their feet in rawhide and hanging from the pommel of my saddle, found a broken branch high as I could reach, and hung them there. No telling how long I’d be climbing and no sense making wolf bait out of my horse. I left his reins hanging loosely from a stump where he could rest and forage, then started up the hill, shotgun in hand, working my way across the irregular rock clusters. Nearer the rounded edge at the top, there was nothing I could do but scramble on my hands and knees, trying to keep the muzzle of the shotgun clear.
When I could see the coach, I called, “You folks all right?” The voices that answered could have been men or women or both, hollering for help; a tormented howling mixed with the mules’ bellowing. I saw the poor animals now, kicking at the coach and like to killing themselves and the folks inside. While the front pair scrambled and fought for footing, lodged sideways in the loose sand, all but burying their rear team, the back pair of mules groaned and fought, slowly dying of their broken bones under the cloud of reddening dust.
I hollered again, saying, “Where’s your driver?” Another flurry of voices answered me, none of it I could make out. When at last I stood upon the edge, I thought for a bit that I was dreaming, for I’ve had a troublesome nightmare of being trapped in a coach or a wagon while it slid down a slope with me tumbling inside and helpless. The Butterfield nine-seater had lodged itself sideways, deep in the sand, and looked to be in danger of toppling the rest of the way. One of the rear mules was already dead. His harness mate was wild-eyed and foaming. One look at him and I wished the poor animal had died of fright before I got there.
“You be still until I loosen these animals,” I said, quieter now.
A man’s voice hollered, “Get me out!”
I laid the shotgun to one side and took my small .32 from my pocket. Three bullets quieted the tortured mule, but commenced all manner of howling from the humans in the contraption.
The front axle had broken and every wheel was cracked. The tongue was still fixed to the coach and the doubletree pinned the rear team fast, twisted and wrenched as it was, and all the chinks and buckles of leather and rope were knotted. I figured there was no way I could unharness the living mules. They were tangled and caught, and one dead mule was on top of part of the lines. The two living, frightened animals would surely work themselves to death if I didn’t loosen them from their trap.
I pulled the hatchet I’d brought for the birds from the sling at my waist, and went to chopping at the leather straps holding the mules. I had to shake my head at the waste of gear I was cutting; that’d cost Wells Fargo a pretty penny when this was righted. Reckon I’d make good on a couple of these straps for them, since I was the one cutting them. I saw the lead reins were half-hitched to the rail next to where the driver’s feet usually rested. Well, I got the two living mules up and standing and, for that few minutes, there was nothing but silence coming from the people in the coach. I leaned over as far as I dared and looked off the cliff, then I circled the place, hunting for the man or men who should have been driving from the seat on top. There was no sign of anyone, so I sucked in a breath and hitched up my split skirt, getting ready to climb up for a look inside. Tender at first, I gave the coach box a wiggle, to see if it was bound to slide off the edge. I determined that if it should start to go, I would jump clear, and not try to ride it down, as I believed the thing would likely tumble. It seemed steady, so I climbed up on the leaf spring, setting the shotgun on the coach’s side which was now its roof. There was a loud cry from more than one voice, “Robbers! Highwaymen! You can have my watch and chain, but don’t shoot me!”
“Hush, all of you,” I said. “This isn’t a holdup.” I slid the shotgun to a place it looked like it would stay, and got myself up on the side of the coach where I could stand. The walls were painted and finished up slick and now were covered with sand that made them slippery. I yanked on the door. The whole rig was racked at the corners and the door stuck tight. A man on the inside pushed while I tugged, until it finally came open and fell against the side. Someone inside gave a cheer. I pulled off my hat and stuck my head in the doorway. All I could see of the inside was a dark jumble of clothes and faces. “Any of you too bad hurt to get up here and climb out?” I said.
“Merciful heavens! It is a woman,” said a man’s voice. “Have you come to rob us?” The fellow looked to be standing where he could nearly reach the doorway. There were two women, one sort of hiding the other, and another man. The standing man seemed to be young and pretty stout, but the other fellow was old, probably older than my father-in-law.
“Give those ladies a hand up here, mister.”
“How do we know you aren’t going to shoot us where we stand?” he said. I pulled back and sat up stiff. “Seems more likely I should be worried about you, the bunch of you running hell-for-leather across my place. How come you decided to head this direction? Across this way there isn’t any road at all, just a cow track. You’re not even headed to town.”
“Ask the driver. If you can sober him up. He got up drunk this morning and has been surly the whole trip. Now let me up.”
I ignored the fellow’s outstretched hand and stood again on the slick wall of the stage. I knew all of the drivers who regularly came this way. Some of them, I knew their families, too. None of them were the kind to go wild and drunk down the road. The Company surely wouldn’t put up with that. I hollered down, “Who was driving it? Mr. B, or was it Dailey? Where’s he at?”
Three people looked back and forth, shaking their heads. I looked as far as I could see from up on top, standing up. The bushes at the side of the trail were undisturbed. If the driver had fallen, it had been before the mules charged up this sandy hill. “My name’s Sarah Elliot. I’ll go hunt your man. Mister, you and that lady help her friend stand up there,” I said. “Are you able to get up? How about her? Is she faint?”
“Oh, my Lord,” said the woman, “I think she’s dead.” She drew away from her friend. “Get me out of here, please,” she cried. She was a young woman, probably no older than twenty or so. I reached in through the doorway and she took my hand but she had no strength in her grip. She’d got a good crack on her head and blood seeped down her face onto her shoulder. I had to take off my glove to get hold of her hand.
I said, “Give her a leg up, men! Don’t stand on ceremony.” With a good bit of pushing and pulling and a genuine struggle by the poor woman, she was finally up with me. However, soon as we were both on it, the side of the coach began to sag and cracking noises came from the wood. “Get on down there,” I told her. “Take that step on the spring there and lift up your skirts so you don’t tear them. Go on, pull ’em up or you’ll trip. No one’s here to see you.” Then I turned to the young fellow. “You better pass the other lady up here next.”
His eyes widened and he stammered, “I won’t. I—I sha’n’t.” He looked to be some kind of bona fide sissy. Eastern clothes, a fresh white collar hanging by one button. Afraid of a poor dead woman.
“Well, I’m not helping you out if you leave her in there. There’s nothing to be afraid of.” The other passenger looked to be a man every bit as fancy as the young one, though scuffed up quite a bit more. The lady standing next to the wheel, I couldn’t rate, but she seemed genteel enough. I turned to her and hollered, “You there, hand me those cutoff rigging lines. We’ll tie up a sling and lift her out.”
“Get me out of here,” the young man demanded. “I insist you get me out first.”
© The Star Garden
- Nancy E. Turner
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