Gloria Mundy had suffered a lifetime of pretentious, educated Latin speakers snickering behind their hands in her native Boston, especially when she was sick; but that was soon to be behind her. The lumbering coach which made her head nod in time with the rhythmic motion was taking her to a new life as a married woman. This time next week she would be Gloria Llewellyn.
It was the only positive she had. Her future as an impecunious woman in the barely tamed west was terrifyingly precarious. For all she knew, Louis could be a liar, a toothless old coot, or a ruffian – but if she was very lucky he could look like one of the two men sitting opposite. Being a mail order bride was a sheer leap of faith, but it had to be better than a life scrubbing floors and emptying chamber pots. Surely his exquisite, elaborate verse and copperplate handwriting were indicative of a creative, sensitive man?
“And I said to him...,” the Philadelphian had been monopolising the conversation since he had climbed into the vehicle and had bored everyone rigid before the luggage had even been loaded. According to him, the west had never been wilder, wickeder or more wanton, and his soliloquy was making Gloria increasingly unsettled. The fair haired man gave a long, grunting snore and crossed his long legs at the ankle, briefly cutting off the anecdote with what may, or may not, have been a kick. She was certain the pair were feigning sleep to avoid talking to the droning fellow, “and I could swear he’d never seen one that big in his life.”
There was a screeching of brakes and she pitched straight towards the man with the dark blond hair. Her hands
instinctively shot out, grasping at air, until they clutched at a firm, muscular chest. She turned puce with embarrassment at the smile tugging at the corners of his mouth whilst long fingers curled around her elbows, supporting her to back to her seat. He fixed her with eyes twinkling like a calm sea on a sunny day, and his voice rang with restrained laughter. “No need to fret. This is one of the few advantages of ridin’ with your back to the driver; we get thrown back in our seats.”
“Why have we stopped?” demanded the easterner, pushing the glasses back up his long nose.
A gruff voice drifted in from the window. “’Cos it’s a holdup!”
The Kid threw a glance at Heyes and groaned.
“Got somethin’ to say, Stranger?”
The Kid shook his head ruefully. “Yeah. Ain’t there any honest folks about any more?”
“Not many,” snickered the robber. “Even white lies colour a man’s soul.”
Heyes arched his eyebrows in query. “That’s a bit profound for an outlaw, isn’t it?”
“I do my best, Stranger. Now, out of the coach and hands up.”
“This has happened before?” asked a tremulous Gloria.
“More times than we can count,” grumbled her dark haired companion, rising from his seat. “You’ll be fine. Come on, let’s get this over with.”
“Hand over your money. All of it.”
“All of it?” The easterner’s blue eyes danced with mischief as he grinned at the masked man holding the gun. “But most of it’s tied up in land.”
The Kid’s stomach sank at the metallic click of the cocking gun, but the potential danger seemed to go unperceived by the dude. Was this idiot deliberately provoking the man holding up the coach, or was he as stupid as he appeared? Blue eyes fixed rigidly on the gun.
The man raised the weapon to point directly at the easterner’s head, his bandana rising and falling with increasingly exasperated breath. “Are you dumb? Empty your pockets.”
The man gave a little sniff of derision, reaching into his pocket. “There’s no need for that gun, your accent is terrifying enough.”
“You gotta be the most annoyin’ critter who ever walked God’s good earth,” growled the masked man.
“You want to try taking a coach journey with him,” muttered Heyes. “Take him with you, he’s worth money. Please, I’m begging you.”
The crinkles forming around the robber’s eyes, betrayed the grin spreading under the mask as an unspoken alliance seemed to form between the criminal and the ex-outlaws at the expense of the Philadelphian.
“I ain’t no kidnapper, but you got my sympathies, Friend.” The man shook his head as the Kid proffered a handful of scrunched-up dollars. “Keep it. You gotta ride on to town with him. You’ll need a stiff drink by then. I ain’t no savage. Toss those mailbags down. That’s what I really came for.”
The Kid nodded, a conciliatory smile twitching at his mouth. “Thanks.”
“I just want the mail,” murmured the robber.
Heyes and Curry shared conversation in a glance. What was going on here? The coach had stopped without a single shot being fired, the road hadn’t been blocked and only the young woman seemed to be genuinely worried about the prospect of being held up; now the thief didn’t seem to want anything but the mail . The driver was clearly in on this, but what about the loquacious easterner?
“You looking for anything in particular?” queried Heyes, casually.
The robber flicked up a pair of grey eyes from the mailbag. “A letter from a woman,” he uttered, mysteriously.
The driver turned casually in his seat and began to toss down more mail bags.
“A woman?” the Kid demanded.
“Yeah. There’s weddin’ we gotta stop.”
Gloria blanched and her knees began to tremble. “Why?”
“None of your business.”
Heyes surveyed the mounting anxiety in the young woman beside him. He frowned before pressing on with his questioning.
“How do you know she’s written?”
The robber gave a snort. “It ain’t none of your business.”
The Kid’s brows knotted. “What’s it to you if someone wants to get married?”
The robber stood, hoisting the bags over his shoulder before he replied. “It still ain’t none of your business.”
“Do you know what is my business?” A ghost of a smile played over the Kid’s lips as he strode towards the bandit.
“Somethin’s real wrong here. I’ve seen enough robberies to know that”
The robber never knew what hit him. One kick was enough to knock the weapon from his hand, before a fist crashed into the bandana wrapped jaw. Heyes leaped at the same time, dragging the driver from his seat, quickly dispatching him with a blow. Ice blue eyes fixed on the easterner while The Kid picked up the outlaw’s gun. “Now, Mister, you’re just too causal. You’re in on this too, ain’t you?” A quick check showed that the robber’s gun was empty, before the partners retrieved their discarded weapons.
The man raised his hands in contrition. “Don’t be silly. Put that gun down,” he gulped heavily and fingered his collar nervously.
The Kid glowered at him before gesturing towards the men groaning on the ground. “Right you two. On your feet, right now and get that mask off.”
The robber complied, dragging away his mask to reveal an angular, sallow face set with deep-set eyes.
“How far are we from Palisades,” demanded Heyes.
The driver climbed unsteadily from his knees. “About half a mile.”
“Good,” barked Heyes. “It won’t take long before you lot are in front of the sheriff. Will it?”
The Philadelphian shook his head. “There isn’t a sheriff in Palisades. Didn’t you enjoy the show?”
“Show?” snapped Heyes. “What do you mean? And what kind of town has no sheriff? Who’s in charge of the law?”
“The mayor,” persisted the easterner. “Mr. Smith paid for Mr. and Mrs. Jones from Boston to experience the Wild West.”
The tall man shook his head in confusion. “She’s from Boston, she said so, and you two fell asleep almost right away after introducing yourselves. You don’t dress like easterners, but I thought you’d gone shopping to make yourselves look less... civilized.”
“What the Sam Hill are you talkin’ about?” barked the Kid, indignantly. “And what do you mean, ‘less civilized?’”
“Palisades, ‘the shoot ‘em up; no mercy town.’ I’m your guide. Why else did you think I was telling you all those stories about the old west?”
“Because you’re a real borin’ know it all?” ventured the Kid.
Heyes brow furrowed. “Are you telling us that this isn’t a real hold up?”
“Of course I am. My name is George Willard and I’m your guide. I wrote to you...,” George paused, indicating the unmasked robber. “This is Alvin Kittlebury. He’s a lay preacher. That’s why he didn’t take any money.” He dropped his head and muttered. “This is terrible. If you’re not the right Smith and Joneses, where are they? Are they on a coach heading off to who knows where? Oh, this is just awful. Absolutely nothing will happen to them.”
Heyes shook his head in confusion. “Well, we’ll see when we get to Palisades. Thaddeus, tie them up,” he turned to Gloria. “Just what is your place in this, ma’am?”
“I’m going to Palisades to get married,” she shot a nervous look at the assembled ‘players,’ lined up against the coach.
Heyes pinned the easterner with a glare. “What was all that talk about a wedding?”
George’s eyes widened. “Acting. Pure fiction. We need some kind of story when we refuse to take passengers’ money. We didn’t know you were getting married, ma’am. We don’t frighten folks; that’s why we joke with the robbers.”
“Who are you marryin’?” asked Kittlebury. “I don’t know of any weddin’s planned and it’s a real small town.”
“Louis Llewellyn?” The three local men started to laugh. “Are you sure that’s his name?” sniggered George.
“Yes. I have his letters here in my reticule.”
“I take it you ain’t seen his picture, then?” chortled Kittlebury.
“Why?” Gloria felt chills spreading from a heart which seemed to judder to a halt.
Gloria cut off the preacher. “What? A drunk, a thief. Is he violent?”
The driver shook his head. “I’ve known Louis all his life and I can truly say that he’s none of them things.”
“What then? What’s so funny?” she demanded. “Is he dreadfully ugly?”
“No. He’s far from ugly, in fact most of the women just adore him,” grinned the preacher.
“Is he a womanizer?” Gloria choked back a sob. “Oh, I couldn’t take that.”
“He’s clearly more of a womanizer than we had him down for, but it ain’t no never mind,” snickered the driver. “You’ll find out soon enough.”
“Turn around,” barked the Kid, approaching with the rope he found under the driver’s seat. “Hands behind your back. There’s a lot for us all to find out when we get to Palisade.”
“There really ain’t a sheriff in Palisades?” the Kid demanded.
The squat little man, as broad as he was tall, shook his head. “We don’t need one, this is a law abiding town.”
“No crime?” asked Heyes.
“None,” declared the Mayor.
“Except for your fake crimes?”
The mayor shrugged. “This was a mining town, but the silver’s all but dried up. We had to do something to keep the place going, so Mr. Willard had an idea. He’d come from Philadelphia to run the newspaper. There was a train full of easterners coming through here, on their way to experience ‘the real west,’ so we put on a train robbery, with fake robbers, and the local posse hunted them off, leavin’ all the passengers safe. They loved it and spent a fortune at the hotel giving ‘statements.’ Well, after George here ran a piece out east we can’t keep them away. The hotel’s so full we had to build another, the mercantiles can’t get stock fast enough and folks have finally got a reason to stay.” He grinned cheekily, “Palisades was very nearly a ghost town, but we’re full of tourists. It’s our major industry now.”
“But we were held up, and this lady was terrified,” barked Heyes.
“Please accept our apologies. Your stay in Palisades will be on us, meals included, of course.”
“I don’t suppose we got much choice,” growled the Kid. “No sheriff? How come the bank’s never been robbed?”
The mayor shrugged. “Too many men with guns, I guess, and the folks going around wearing stars shooting at actors pretending to commit crime. They probably think they’ll be dropped where they stand. We have three major incidents a day – all planned and rehearsed, of course.”
“Who pays for folks to do that?” queried Heyes.
“The business tax pays their wages. After all, they owe their trade to the easterners attracted to town. One hand washes the other.”
Heyes shook his head in bemusement. “Madness, utter madness.”
They turned as the door opened and a flustered woman in her thirties stomped up to Gloria. “Is it true? Are you here to marry my Louis?”
Gloria blanched. “That’s why I came. Who are you?”
“Mrs. Llewellyn, and I can tell you that this marriage is off It’s not legal.”
Gloria felt a chasm of emptiness eat at her. “I’m sorry. I had no idea. He didn’t tell me about himself...”
“Of course he didn’t, or you wouldn’t be here.”
Gloria’s voice rasped with emotion. “No. He sent wonderful poems, he courted me.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed before she swiveled on her heel. “I’ll kill him!”
Gloria rubbed her eyes and wandered aimlessly out into the street, sitting on a bench drenched in bright sunshine as caustic as her stinging tears. How stupid had she been to give up her position and spend her life savings to travel thousands of miles for a lie? She opened her little bag and ran grubby coins through her fingers. She had sixty five cents. A rasping sob suffocated the strangulated little cry fighting its way through her mounting anxiety. Yes, she had a room for tonight and food, but what about tomorrow? Her eyes drifted over to the whooping crowd hanging around the saloon, attracted by the jangling, tinny piano music drifting in the air. A woman could just be seen above the batwing doors her pale arm holding aloft a bottle, whilst scarlet satin drifted inexorably south from her ample bosom. Was that what she would become?
“Miss?” She looked up to see the fair man from the coach smiling at her through her filter of tears. “Are you alright?”
“For now,” she sniffed.
A frown flickered across his brow before he sat down beside her. “So... the wedding’s off?”
She nodded, catching a sniffle in an over-washed, limp handkerchief. He sat quietly, waiting and watching, until she was ready to talk. “Have you any family?”
Her gasping, heaving shoulders told him all he needed to know. “Where do you need to get to, darlin’? Where will you be safe?”
“Where?” she gave a hopeless, mirthless laugh. “Yesterday? A month ago? Anywhere where I’ve never heard of, ‘Louis Llewellyn.’”
Mrs. Llewellyn stomped up to them, dragging a red-eyed lad behind her. “This is my son.” she declared angrily. “I’ve brought him for an apology.”
Gloria groaned. “Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t know he was already married and I certainly didn’t know he had a son. Do you really think I’d have travelled all the way from Boston for this?”
“Married?” she snorted, pointing at the boy. “THIS is Louis Llewellyn... He’s thirteen and up to his ears in trouble. I brought him to apologize to you.”
Gloria’s eyes widened. “What? But his letters, the poetry...?”
“I copied them from school books,” the lad simpered, his ear getting redder and redder by the moment, pinched between his mother’s unrelenting fingers. “In my best writing.”
“He’s too clever by half; and willful. This is all because he’s been told that as long as he lives under our roof, he abides by our rules. He thought if he had a wife, she’d make a home and he could do what he wanted.”
The Kid hooked her with a warning glare. “Ma’am, this lady is stranded here because of your boy.”
Shame flickered across her face. “You must stay with us until you get sorted. I just feel so responsible,” she tweaked the boy’s ear. “I should never have taken my eye off him for a moment.”
“It’s all too embarrassing. I can’t stay here.”
The church bells started to peal. “Ten to twelve,” mused Mrs. Llewellyn. “The Indian attack starts at noon. We’d best get off the street unless we’re prepared to act, and frankly, I’m not in the mood.”
“Indian attack?” Gloria’s eyes widened in horror.
“Sure. The local Shoshone ride through at noon every day and fire off a few blanks, before our boys chase them off. It won’t be as good as usual though, Margaret Thompson just got married, so they’ve got nobody to kidnap anymore.”
“Huh?” The Kid ran his fingers through his hair as his brow furrowed. “Kidnapped?”
“Not for long. Hank Simpkins would catch up and rescue her. She was fearless,” she tweaked her son’s ear. “They’re desperate to replace her. She was in three raids a day and was just wonderful.”
The Kid arched an eyebrow. “How well do they pay?”
“Ten dollars a month. It was the centre piece of the whole attack.”
“Really? That’s better than most men earn.” A grin spread over the Kid’s face. “You gotta be pretty fearless to come all this way on your own. How about it Miss Mundy? You fancy leapin’ off a horse or two while you get some money behind you?”
“They’d never hire me.”
“My friend can be pretty persuasive when he puts his mind to it.”
Her eyes glittered with doubt. “I’ve never done anything like it.”
“Joshua and I know a bit about fancy ridin’. We can stay a few days. I’ll teach you.”
Temptation swirled in her eyes. “Do you think I dare?
“Darlin’, you came all this way for a new life. Surely you’re brave enough to leap at the chance when it’s put right in front of you?”
The town of Palisade, Nevada actually did start faking robberies, Indian attacks and shootouts from the 1870s and build a budding tourist industry out of visitors from the East coming to see the 'Wild West.' They made sure that they were mentioned in newspapers and Dime novels to court publicity for their 'shows.' It is now a ghost town. Alvin Kittlebury was the religious man who really did play the bad guy and the town was so law abiding that they had no need for a sheriff.