An Inconvenience Rightly Considered

by Julia Verinder

Webmaster Note: This fic was formerly archived on another website and was moved to blackraptor in October 2008

The title comes from G K Chesterton:

Adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered.
Inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.

It was the summer of 1876 and my first journey after Papa died. My brother's horse ranch in New Mexico was going from strength to strength and he had invited me to visit until I decided what to do next. I took the train from San Francisco to Denver and joined the stagecoach there. Thriving in the wake of a silver strike, Denver would quadruple in size within a year of my brief stay. Looking back, what I recall most readily is the dust. It swirled around me in the street, coated my clothes and somehow even managed to penetrate my suitcases.

I clearly remember my trepidation as I waited for the stagecoach, which had come to signify my entrance into the Wild West, a world I knew only from Robert's letters, the newspapers and a few dime novels. Its arrival was heralded by shouts several streets away. I peered eagerly from the window of my hotel room as it drew near, obscured by a swirling cloud of dust, then leaned back in disappointment when I saw a coach and four much like any other. Of course, I was foolish to have expected anything else - a coach is a coach, after all.

The coach stopped in the home station for two hours, plenty of time to unload and load luggage, to change over teams and drivers, but hardly sufficient for through-passengers to relax and recover. My surveillance soon revealed that only one man intended to continue his onward journey on the same coach. His neat but inexpensive attire led me to suppose that he was most likely a commercial traveler. I had encountered several of his peers on my travels and found them generally clean and considerate, if somewhat more talkative than one might choose.

I saw the hotel porter take out my luggage, a modest trio of medium-sized brown leather suitcases. I had no wish to burden every porter and driver with an embarrassment of unnecessary baggage and doubted I would have need of much other than serviceable riding clothes on a remote horse ranch. I continued my vigil until I heard the first call for passengers, then went down to the lobby to settle my bill. Never having subscribed to the notion that it is either fashionable or attractive for a woman to be late, I intended to take my place on the coach when it was ready to leave, causing no inconvenience to the drivers or to my fellow passengers.

As it transpired, the gentleman I had observed was to be my only companion. The southward route to New Mexico was clearly less well traveled than the main East-West corridor I had so far traversed. I thought again of the ranch with excitement, trying to picture a vast wilderness that was in truth beyond my imagination.

The gentleman was most courteous in making his introduction. His name was John Fitzpatrick and he represented a long-established manufacturer of timepieces that had, he was clearly proud to relate, originated in England during the preceding century - something he believed paid testament to the admirable quality of their output. I passed no comment, merely giving my name and thanking him for helping me into the carriage.

Once we were underway, I lost myself in the passing landscape. Beyond the dusty plain, snow-capped mountains towered into the sky, their summits indistinguishable from the fluffy clouds above them. I believe more than an hour passed before I tired of the vista. Retrieving an edition of The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins from my handbag, I resumed the story in the third narrative of the second period, eager to discover what Mr Franklin Blake could contribute to the tale.

Mr Fitzpatrick had endeavored to engage me in conversation on several topics during my perusal of the landscape, attempts to which I had responded with polite brevity, but he now resigned himself to my new occupation and settled to sleep. Over the coming days, Mr Collins was to prove my savior on many occasions; whenever my companion became too garrulous for my ease, out would come The Moonstone to quiet him.

The stagecoach made excellent progress, following a course parallel to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains out of Colorado and into New Mexico. I was once again studying our surroundings when Mr Fitzpatrick announced our movement from one territory and into the next. I was curious in spite of myself.

'How can you know that, Mr Fitzpatrick? I see no feature by which the border might be discerned.'

His pride in his superior knowledge of the region was clear. He pointed to a peak on the western horizon. 'The border follows a trail through a pass up there.'

'I see. Thank you. That knowledge makes my journey's end seem that much closer.'

By the time we reached a swing station in a backwater by the name of Santa Rosa, I had begun to regard myself as a seasoned traveler. Thoroughly accustomed to our routine, and to the restrictions it imposed on my personal regime, I looked forward to conducting the remainder of my journey in the same manner. It was therefore with considerable surprise that I discovered we were to be joined there by two new passengers.

As had become my custom, I used the rest stop to full advantage, even to the extent of taking a hotel room so that I might wash and change in comfort. Our driver, a most obliging man by the name of Joe, called on me there with advance warning of our departure - a delightful habit he had established on his own initiative, confirming my belief that courtesy and consideration towards tradesmen is generally reciprocated.

When I returned to the coach, Mr Fitzpatrick was waiting to help me in as always but his manner was changed. His eyes darted frequently to two men leaning against the stagecoach office, leading me to suppose that they were our new travelling companions. Knowing I should have plenty of opportunity to examine them during the journey, I entered the carriage without further ado.

Until that point, Mr Fitzpatrick and myself had occupied opposite corners of the carriage. He now seated himself beside me, perhaps with some intention of protecting me from the strangers. However, even my brief glance had revealed them to be wearing guns at their hips, so I doubted Mr Fitzpatrick's protection would count for much if a situation should arise.

When the newcomers joined us, they took their places on the facing seats without comment, merely touching the brims of their hats in my direction. I was by then aware that what passed for courtesy in those parts differed in many respects from what I might expect in San Francisco society so I took no offence at their casual manner. I knew from Mr Fitzpatrick's stiff bearing that he was irritated by the their behavior but justifiably wary of engaging them in conversation.

We rode in silence for more than an hour. Mr Fitzpatrick remained ill at ease but the strangers chose not to notice this, leaning back into their respective corners, hats over their eyes, apparently asleep. I took the opportunity to examine them closely, impolite perhaps but - in my judgement - prudent.

The man opposite Mr Fitzpatrick appeared to be around forty years of age, of average height and slight build. Most noteworthy perhaps was that he was dressed entirely in black, from hat to boots. He carried a bone-handled gun, of what type I could not speculate, in a black leather holster with white-metal adornments. His fair hair was short, barely visible under his hat, and he wore a short but untrimmed beard.

His associate was perhaps ten years younger and a shade shorter and heavier. He wore a fringed buckskin jacket over a dark green shirt and pale pants. His tilted slouch hat obscured a good part of his head but brown hair falling to his shoulders and several days of neglected beard growth were clearly visible. He too was armed, with a larger weapon somewhere between a handgun and a rifle.

Both men were fortunate to have inherited passable good looks but neither seemed to take much pride in the fact. I had been thankful when my senses informed me that they were tolerably clean but their personal grooming clearly did not extend beyond basic hygiene.

When we broke for rest, Mr Fitzpatrick was reluctant to leave me to attend to his own comfort. Touched by his kindness, I said nothing but headed off decisively to find my own privacy. When I returned, he was absent. Joe and Bill were brewing coffee; I enjoyed our halts for refreshments, finding the drivers pleasing company in their rough and ready way. Accepting an enameled mug from Bill with thanks, I noted that they were at ease with the armed men. Knowing the dangers that sometimes beset stagecoaches, I surmised their drivers were apt to be sound judges of potential threats. Their confidence reassured me that I had little to fear.

Joe confirmed that when he asked in his informal way, 'All right, Miss Clark? Not so comfortable now we're full up, I'll be bound.'

'You will hear no complaints from me, Joe. I am thankful we are making such good progress without trouble.'

'Reckon your friend ain't so keen on us,' the man in black remarked.

'Mr Fitzpatrick is not a friend,' I informed him. 'We are merely fellow passengers, although he has been most kind.'

'Where you headed?' his long-haired companion asked.

I was somewhat taken aback by the impertinence, seeing my destination as no concern of his. On closer inspection, something in his eyes reassured me that his intention was only to make conversation so I gave up the information. 'A town called Four Corners.'

His companion fixed me with an appraising stare that I found somewhat unnerving. 'Same as us. What brings you all the way out here?'

My own good manners compelled me to respond to his interrogation. 'My brother raises horses in the region. He is to meet me there.'

'Clark… Don't reckon I know him.' At his raised eyebrow, his friend gave a shrug to indicate that he also did not recognize the name.

Mr Fitzpatrick rejoined us at that moment, not pleased to find us conversing. The contrast between my own upbringing, his rustic manners and the crude company of these men amused me. I wondered if I should find Robert changed, perhaps seeking to blend into his chosen society rather than remain an outsider. Although it was not my place to do so, I decided to introduce myself. The alternative, to spend the remainder of my journey not knowing how to address my companions, seemed still less acceptable.

'His name is Robert Clark but I believe his land is quite some distance from the town. I am Constance Clark, Mr…?' I looked at the fair man, leaving him little choice but to respond.

'Chris Larabee, Miss.' He gestured to his friend. 'This is Vin Tanner.'

'I am very pleased to meet you, gentlemen.'

I might easily have taken the look of amusement that passed between them as an insult but Mr Tanner's tone was civil enough when he said, 'Likewise, Miss, likewise.'

It was not long before we resumed our journey. Mr Fitzpatrick had already told me that he would be disembarking at a town called Dexter and by then I knew it to be our next stop. The conversation over coffee had done much to allay my fears at being left with the newer passengers. Though undeniably coarse, I now judged them to be trustworthy. Mr Fitzpatrick's replacement was to be another story.

Dexter was small but a clean and friendly town nonetheless. My hotel room was plain but spotless, with crisp sheets and every little comfort the charming proprietress could lay her hands on. I savored a fine home-cooked meal and a steaming bath before I retired to bed.

I was ready to leave when Joe brought my regular call and came down to find Mr Larabee and Mr Tanner waiting beside the coach. Mr Tanner helped me in, unceremoniously but no less effectively for that, and waited until I was seated before taking the place opposite me. Mr Larabee sat beside him and eyed the empty seat.

'Do you know if another passenger is to join us?' I enquired.

'They're expecting one,' he confirmed.

While we waited, I considered the difference in our manner of speaking, entertaining myself with the possibility of adopting the lazy drawl my companions affected. I quickly reminded myself that, even in this vicinity, women did not speak in that way. However, if I decided to stay in the territory, I preferred not to be quite so clearly a stranger as I was at that time. Perhaps I might find a respectable woman on whom to model any transition.

The last call for passengers had long passed when the latecomer emerged from a nearby saloon. Through the side window, I watched his approach with foreboding. He was clearly the worse for drink, something I would not condone at any hour but particularly not at one more appropriate to breakfast.

When he took the seat next to me, his lewd glance and extravagant use of the space available forewarned me that the coming miles would be a trial. I resolved to bear it with grace but two hours of his suggestive posturing had my nerves on edge. I thought of Mr Fitzpatrick and lamented his departure; I had been harsh in judging him a rather boring rustic - compared with the man now at my side, he was an embodiment of noble virtues. Mr Larabee and Mr Tanner made no move to intervene, making me wonder if I had been too generous in judging them - I hoped I might depend on them if things deteriorated further.

Even Wilkie Collins failed me. I could not concentrate on the words before my eyes and, in any event, they offered me no escape from the man's increasingly insolent attentions. When he rested a hand on my knee, I closed my book, turned to face him and adopted the sternest tone I could summon:

'I should be grateful, Sir, if you would remove your hand.'

I could see that the man was not so intoxicated that he did not know what he was doing. The look he gave Mr Larabee and Mr Tanner revealed two things: the first that he believed they would not intervene and the second that he would be willing to share his prize.

'And what if I don't? What are you gonna do about it, Lady?'

'I shall have you ejected from this coach.'

'Oh yeah?'

'Yes. I believe our drivers are more than capable of removing a man in your condition.'

'Like they're gonna leave me out here.' He waved the hand at the vast landscape beyond the window.

'They are entitled, indeed obliged, to do so under the provisions of the Stagecoach Act of 1863. By purchasing a ticket, you implied your acceptance of those provisions.'

The man examined my face for the first time, his attentions having hitherto been confined to other areas of my person. 'That so?' The anger in his voice was plain but there was also a note of uncertainty. 'Don't know why they send you women to school. Just ruins you for the one thing you're good at.'

'I have no interest in your opinions on the rights of women. I ask only that you leave me alone.' Feeling the color in my cheeks, I turned stiffly towards my own side of the carriage and returned to The Moonstone.

I had made my point, and made it well I believe, but the exchange had distressed me. That distress was compounded when, from the corner of my eye, I saw Mr Larabee and Mr Tanner smile at one another. Not satisfied to leave me to defend myself, they now mocked my efforts.

After several miles of silent misery, I realized that I had not turned a page. What use was an empty pretence of reading anyway? I closed the book and my eyes, huddling into my corner to feign sleep instead.

When we paused for rest, I was tempted to remain in the coach but my bodily needs regrettably made that impossible. The reprobate took barely a dozen paces along the hillside, remaining in clear view to answer the call of nature. I made off in the opposite direction, with some misgivings but reasonably confident that Joe and Bill would prevent the man from following me if he attempted to do so.

When I returned, the latest passenger was not in evidence, having, it subsequently emerged, returned to the coach immediately. I cannot say whether it was due to the aspect of my face or the tone of my voice when I thanked Joe for my coffee but he quickly realized that my spirits were low.

'What's wrong, Miss Clark? That fella been giving you trouble?'

My fellow passengers had the audacity to smile at his question.

'Not for long,' Mr Larabee remarked. 'She told him you'd throw him off under the provisions of the Stagecoach Act of 1863.'

His words embarrassed, as well as incensed, me. I had not expected my threat to be repeated to the drivers, who looked at one another and laughed. Feeling that they were all entertained at my expense, I turned away but Bill caught my arm in an inappropriate but well meant gesture.

'Good on you, Miss Clark. Act or no, I'll throw him off if he tries it again.'

Mr Larabee and Mr Tanner looked at him in some surprise.

'Ain't there no Stagecoach Act of 1863?' Mr Tanner asked.

Joe shook his head but added, 'Don't tell him that though.'

It was only then that I realized that all four men were on my side. My fellow passengers had not intervened because they did not deem it necessary - a compliment of sorts, albeit a perverse one. My coffee tasted far better in that knowledge.

When we returned to the coach, the subject of our discussion had fallen into a sound sleep. Snoring notwithstanding, unconsciousness improved the quality of his company considerably. We had been jolting along for quite some time when Mr Tanner spoke suddenly, without prefacing his conversation with any of the conventional pleasantries or throat-clearing one might expect.

'You like horses?'

I assumed the question was addressed to me, given that the man was looking directly at me. Casting my mind back, I related it to my remark of the previous day about my brother raising horses. My instinctive reaction was to bridle at the blunt interrogation but something in his manner stopped me. I endeavored to take the enquiry as I believed it was meant, a genuine reflection of his interest in the answer.

'Very much. My father used to breed racehorses back in Kentucky, before we moved to San Francisco, and Robert is breeding Morgans now. And you, Mr Tanner, do you like horses?'

He considered at some length before replying, 'Nothing fancy like that but there ain't nothing better than riding open country.'

I was surprised to find myself in agreement. 'Indeed. I hope to be doing a great deal of riding at the ranch.'

We fell into silence but it was an amiable quietude. For all his disheveled appearance and untutored diction, the man opposite me exuded an air of gentleness and kindness that made his presence really quite enchanting.

Thinking over his few words, it occurred to me that it was odd for men like them to take a stagecoach. I knew that commercial travelers frequently did, finding it safer than riding alone, and the slumbering man beside me might have any number of reasons, from not needing to sober up to losing his horse on a card game. However, these men were incongruous in a coach and would make better progress on horseback. The guns at their hips seemed to suggest that they did not rely on Joe and Bill for protection. Curiosity eventually got the better of me.

'Would you gentlemen forgive me for asking a question, though the matter is no business of mine?'

Mr Larabee smiled. 'Ask away.'

'It seems unusual for men such as yourselves to be travelling by stagecoach. Would it not be faster to make your journey on horseback?'

The looks they exchanged and the delay in their answer confirmed that it was unusual. It was fully two minutes before Mr Larabee leaned forward, lifted our companion's head by the hair and checked he was not feigning sleep. The precaution confirmed that something was amiss but, strangely, did not alarm me. Mr Larabee studied me briefly but was presumably satisfied with what he saw, since he finally explained.

'Been a bit of trouble recently on stages in this territory, robberies, sometimes worse. Lawmen are doing what they can but it ain't so easy to tackle it with the distances. Anyways, we keep an eye on Four Corners with some other men and we been riding the stages when we can, just on the off-chance.'

His reference to keeping an eye on the town reminded me of one of Robert's letters, distracting me from his explanation of their mission. I am ashamed to admit that I had no thought for manners or propriety when I put my next question.

'Are you two of the seven?'

I blushed when Mr Tanner smiled at me, knowing that my voice had contained a note of girlish eagerness that I should certainly have erased from it had I thought before I spoke.

'Looks like we're famous, Chris. Even heard of us in San Francisco.'

His light-hearted riposte gave me a moment to recover my composure. I told them that Robert had mentioned them on occasion, thankful that their presence had brought stability to the area, and Mr Larabee conceded that there had been a considerable improvement during the period in which they had known the town. I sat back, confident now that my instinct to trust the men had been correct. It was a comfort to know that they would be on hand should we be attacked during our journey. I had steadfastly refused to surrender to anxiety about such an event but had always known that there was a degree of risk in visiting Robert in that wild country.

We had one more overnight stop to make before reaching our destination. Named Brandon, the town was larger than Dexter but far less pleasing. Were I pressed to describe it, I would have to say that it was rough. It will come as no surprise when I reveal that Brandon proved to be the destination of our inebriated companion. Mr Tanner helped me from the coach, as had become his habit since we left Dexter, but did not release my hand immediately. A glance at his face told me that he had something to say so I waited without pulling away.

'Ain't much of a place. I'll walk you to the hotel… if you like.'

Now familiar with his curious turn of phrase, I took the offer in the spirit in which it was offered.

'Thank you, Mr Tanner. I should be in your debt if you would.'

He did not take his leave until I was safely at the reception desk. His parting words were to implore me to stay in the hotel and to send for him at the saloon if I encountered any difficulties. I thanked him warmly for his concern, doubting I would need his services but grateful for the offer nonetheless. I bade him goodnight and retired to my room.

The night passed uneventfully for me but, when I reached the coach the next morning, Mr Larabee and Mr Tanner were nowhere to be seen. Joe helped me into the carriage and something in his countenance alerted me to the possibility that something was wrong. I was on the point of questioning him when our escorts arrived and we resumed our journey. I detected a similar tension in them as I had in Joe and quickly succumbed to my inquisitive nature.

'Is something amiss this morning, gentlemen?'

It was Mr Larabee who answered. 'Saw some men hanging around last night, looking like they were up to no good. They rode out afore it was light.'

I must have looked anxious because Mr Tanner added, 'Most likely ain't nothing but we wired ahead for backup just in case.'

With what I hoped was a confident smile, I said only, 'I have every faith in your precautions.'

Later, at our afternoon break, Joe informed us that he and Bill had seen our escorts' associates high on a ridge. His use of the names Buck and Josiah told me that he was acquainted with the gentlemen in question. One thing had been puzzling me and I took the opportunity to raise it.

'Is robbing stagecoaches profitable? Our combined resources seem small compensation for the risk.'

My companions exchanged uneasy glances before providing several possible justifications. In summary, it was not unusual for passengers to carry large sums of money and valuable personal possessions - something I had been careful to avoid but then I was merely visiting a relation rather than commencing a new life - and the coach also carried the mail, which might include items of value.

It was Mr Tanner who raised the specter of an altogether more disturbing risk from my own perspective. By oblique allusion, he implied that on this occasion they might find something more tantalizing than pecuniary reward in the form of my person. I confess that the possibility had not even crossed my mind, naïve as that may sound now, and my discomfiture was plain to all.

Mr Larabee then explained that the country now separating us from the town of Four Corners was well suited to an ambush. It was his belief that, if the men whom he and Mr Tanner had observed in Brandon posed a threat to us, they would make their move during the next hour. Consequently, he and Mr Tanner intended to subject themselves to the unpleasant experience of travelling under the luggage canvas, enabling them to intervene more effectively if we should be stopped.

In spite of my apprehension, I was determined to do my utmost to support their valiant efforts in our defense. I informed them that I possessed a rifle, packed in one of my suitcases, and that I would endeavor to play my part. My offer amused them somewhat but I believe that it touched them also. They declined firmly, with the justification that arming myself would increase the risk of my being killed, something they intended at all costs to prevent.

When we resumed our journey, I found myself alone and - yes, I admit it - afraid inside the coach. Mr Tanner had drawn the drapes at our break but there were gaps enough to allow me to watch for trouble, which was not long in coming. Perhaps five miles from our last halt, riders descended from the ridges that ran parallel to the road. I counted nine, a figure that later proved accurate. My dread escalated at their fearsome demeanor and filthy garb but it was not until I saw the neckerchiefs covering their faces that I began to tremble.

I have many faults but selfishness does not number among them. Afraid for myself as I undoubtedly was, with a picture of the fate at which Mr Tanner had so delicately hinted fixed stubbornly in my mind, I was doubly - perhaps triply - afraid for the men on top of the coach. Exposed as they were, I had no hope that they would evade injury and prayed only that they would be spared death. I regretted reading the dime novels to which I have already made reference, now that their authors' graphic imagery served only to intensify my terror.

My memory of what followed is as clear as crystal but, since my view was far less so, it is not easy to relate precisely how events unfolded. From between the drapes, I watched the leader of the bandits issue a challenge.

'Hands up. You fellas don't give us no trouble, maybe we won't kill you.'

His voice was cruel, an impression confirmed by the glittering black eyes above his mask. I suspected he had issued the warning many times before and that it was the same to him whether he killed or spared the drivers.

I heard no reply and assumed that Bill and Joe had complied with the order. The riders clustered around the coach, some ready to investigate the luggage platform while others approached the door. As I prepared myself to face them, shots rang out across the valley and more riders closed in from all directions. In my relief at recognizing our backup, I released a breath I had not known I was holding.

Confusion ensued, while the bandits assessed the new threat to themselves and our saviors raced to enclose them. Shots above me announced the presence of Mr Larabee and Mr Tanner. The situation rested on a knife edge: would the bandits resist or submit? Several of their number looked for orders to their leader, whose reptilian eyes showed no emotion but rather a calculation of the chances of escape or capture. Perhaps their guilt of crimes for which capture was death made the decision for him - with a curt nod, he unleashed chaos.

Now close enough to shoot accurately, some of our rescuers began to pick men off while others rode in for closer combat. I saw Mr Larabee and Mr Tanner drop from the stagecoach roof onto two of our assailants, pulling them to the ground. Bill followed suit while I heard Joe whip up the horses to take us out of the conflict. We covered the ground at a fearful pace, while I tried in vain to watch the struggle behind.

Mere seconds later, I saw Joe's body fall from the coach. My horror at his death delayed my realization that there was no one in control of the horses. When my senses returned, I waited to see whether the team was slowing down or speeding up. Recognizing the latter, I knew the animals were bolting and that it was only a matter of time before the coach overturned. Whilst the thought of bullets chilled me to the bone, horses held no fear. I had raced carriages in excess of our present velocity and quickly resolved to regain control.

I opened the window to its fullest extent and threaded my body through the aperture. The coach was by now swaying ominously, complicating my task, but I succeeded in grasping the luggage rail on my third attempt. Once I held it firmly in both hands, it was not so difficult to haul myself onto the roof. From there, it was the work of seconds to roll onto the drivers' seat. I was grateful for Joe's prudence in securing the reins to the whipholder. I had not seen him do so before but he had presumably foreseen a contingency such as this.

Taking a firm grip on the leather and bracing myself against the footboard, I slowly gathered in the slack and gradually renewed contact with the panicked team. Our speed began to fall and, giving them space aplenty, I allowed the horses to settle to a fast trot before making a large loop to reverse our direction.

We were soon on our way back to the spot where Joe had fallen. Mr Tanner and Mr Larabee had been in hot pursuit of the coach, on steeds I could only assume they had purloined from the bandits, but reined back when they saw that I had recovered the situation. We reunited beside Joe's body, which I regarded sorrowfully from my perch. Mr Larabee dismounted and examined it, looking up before long with a smile to assure me that the man would recover. They lifted Joe into the coach and then led the way back to the scene of the confrontation.

When we reached the other men, I quickly saw that Bill was unharmed but for a shallow wound to his upper arm but I could not judge whether the fallen men were friends or foes. I remember asking whether everyone was all right and being assured that they were. A youngster among their number demanded to know where I learned to drive and then Mr Tanner lifted me from the coach. When my feet touched the ground, my knees buckled and, I am ashamed to confess, I must have fainted since the next thing I recall was a well-dressed man plying me with a foul spirit from a silver flask.

There were smiles all round when we evaluated the success of our maneuvers. Four bandits, including the leader, were dead and five others securely bound. A negro by the name of Mr Nathan Jackson soon treated the wounded, finding no cause for concern among our friends. Even as I write the word 'friend', I realize that it was then that those men, two dedicated drivers and seven courageous custodians, became my friends. For all my shock at their rough manners and casual ways, they were never anything other than considerate of me and selfless in their defense of my person.

When we moved off again, I rode in the coach with Joe, who rested peacefully. Bill drove while the other men escorted the bandits. Mr Larabee and Mr Tanner rode alongside on their new mounts, with the corpses loaded in pairs on the spare horses. Our arrival in Four Corners was greeted with consternation, excited children gathering round the bandits while their relieved parents thanked their protectors for eradicating another threat from the country that was now their home.

The greatest pleasure for me was the sight of Robert approaching down Main Street. It was three years since we had last been together and my delight at seeing him, handsome as always and also in wonderful health, knew no bounds. We embraced unashamedly but I quickly felt bound to pay tribute to the men who had saved me, perhaps from a fate even worse than death. I made the introductions and Robert added his thanks to my own.

Robert had stabled his team and taken rooms for us at the hotel, wisely anticipating that I would welcome the opportunity to recuperate before undertaking the journey to the ranch. Consequently, it was not until the next morning that we prepared to leave the town, which had proved to be charming and to which I hoped to return at a later date. I noticed Mr Larabee and Mr Tanner observing Robert load my cases onto his buggy. The Morgan colts in the shafts were a perfectly matched pair and I recalled Mr Tanner's words about fancy horses. Conscious once again of my debt, I threw propriety to the wind and approached them.

'Thank you so much for everything. I wish there were some way in which I might repay you.'

Their response was the customary nod and touch of their hats - men of few words. However, after a moment, Mr Tanner stirred himself to speak.

'Will we be seeing you again?'

'I am sure I shall come into town from time to time during my stay.' I faltered but then gathered the courage to extend an invitation. 'I should be pleased to receive you, were you to call on us. Perhaps we might go riding.' Recalling his words in Brandon, I added, 'If you like.'

'I'll bear that in mind.'

A twinkle in his eye assured me that he would indeed be passing, probably quite soon.


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