There’s a nice stretch of rail between Painted Rock and Gila Bend, and that’s where we’ll take the train.
Diaz and Hobbs are hunched over the track, sweating and cursing beneath the Territory’s winter sun as they work to uproot another spike. Hobbs is yapping advice in a tone that’s earning him rude gestures from Diaz. Besides their banter and the clank of tools hitting metal, the morning’s silence is damn near deafening. No cactus wrens singing. No breeze. Not even the far-off whistle of the train we know’s coming.
A robbery ain’t how I envisioned spending my eighteenth birthday, but after three years riding with this crew, I’ve learned to expect nothing and be ready for anything.
Boss checks his pocket watch and tucks it away without comment. Means we’re still on schedule. For now.
“Nothing yet, Boss.”
I been sitting in the saddle ’longside him all morning, checking the horizon with his binoculars. The train’s due in Gila Bend at quarter past twelve, meaning it should be chugging our way ’round high noon. We heard it’s carrying a mountain of money to a bank in Tucson. Payroll, plus general funds being transferred. Has something to do with the approaching new year. Exact details don’t matter to us. Boss’s got an informant, and his info ain’t steered us wrong, save for one skirmish a few months back, so when we hear money’s on the move and can be lining our pockets before the sun sets—?three days, even, before the calendar reads 1887—?we follow the lead.
“How ’bout Crawford?”
I turn my attention east. The Gila carves through the parched Arizona soil in the distance, but on a slight rise before its banks, a mass of cattle’re grazing. The rest of our boys—?Crawford, Barrera, DeSoto, and Jones—?are out there among the beef. The herd belongs to some rancher, but when the train breaks the horizon, Crawford and the others’ll get ’em moving, coaxing ’em this way till they’re stampeding for the tracks. If’n things go smooth, the rail Hobbs and Diaz are wrestling with won’t matter. Conductor’ll see the herd and shout for the brake. Then we’ll step onto the cars as the dust settles, taking ’em by surprise. But if the herd don’t cooperate or their timing ain’t agreeable, a busted track ain’t the worst way to stop a train. We done it before.
“He’s still getting in place,” I say. The hillside ain’t speckled with nothing but tan hides and dull-green shrub, and Crawford’s supposed to turn his jacket out when he’s ready. It’s got a red lining.
“Lemme have a look,” Boss says, reaching.
I surrender the binoculars and watch as he observes the herd. His brows’re pulled down tight, his expression stern and focused. It ain’t a rare look. I think I only caught him laughing twice in the three years I been forced to ride with him.
“Were I wrong?” I ask after he hands the binoculars back.
“Nah. Didn’t think you would be, but a boss’s gotta check or he ain’t much of a boss.”
My chest puffs up a little, then deflates from the shame. I ain’t sure how it’s possible to admire and despise someone in the same breath, but that’s how it is for me with Luther Rose. I can’t forget the scar he put on my forearm—?the half-finished rose brand of pink, puckered skin—?or what his men did to the Lloyds that day they dragged me into their crew. Or the waste Boss lays at his feet day in and day out, never seeming to feel an ounce of remorse or guilt. None of the Rose Riders seem to. And yet, this is my life now. This is how I gotta live. I’m here ’cus I got something Boss wants, and I’m gonna be his prisoner till he gets it. Surviving is easier if I pretend I’m one of ’em.
And if I make Boss happy in the process.
Luther Rose runs a tight outfit, after all, as savage and unforgiving as his half brother, Waylan. Back when he were still alive, the gang hit the stagelines, not the rails, and local folk didn’t even know Waylan had a sibling. It were a secret within the gang. Waylan never wanted his kin to be a target, and since they had different mas and didn’t bear a striking resemblance, he had Luther act like any old member of the crew. It was only after his passing that Luther made his true relation to the late Boss known. It helped strike fear. Now people quake at the mention of Luther Rose just as much as they did when hearing of Waylan a decade earlier. The gang’s as feared as ever.
Hell, I was scared of ’em as a kid growing up with the drunk I called a father in Ehrenberg, and I was downright terrified when they rode into my life three years back. Most days, I’m still on edge. The trick is, I try not to show it. You display yer weaknesses ’round these type of men and they’ll eat you alive.
The shriek of an engine whistle shatters the afternoon quiet.
“Soon now, Murphy,” Boss says to me. A plume of dark smoke puffs ’long the horizon. “Soon.”
I check for Crawford and find a swatch of red, hear the gunshots popping next. The herd starts lumbering.
Diaz has finally pulled the last spike, and now him and Hobbs are wrestling with the rail, yanking it so it don’t line up with one farther down the track. Soon as it’s free, they circle back on their horses, pulling up behind me and Boss.
The stampede comes on, our boys riding ’long the outskirts to keep the cattle confined and on target. My mare, Girl, is already getting spooked. She ain’t never liked trains, and she twitches beneath me. I squeeze her tight with my thighs, trying to assure her all’s well, but if I had it my way, I’d clear out a little, let the beef run their course, and swoop in when the train brakes for the animals. But Boss is sitting proud in his saddle, unfazed and barely blinking, so I try to do the same.
The engine’s bearing down on us like a bullet come outta the barrel, a blot of black on the horizon that flies straight and true. It ain’t slowing, but neither are the cattle. Crawford and his men draw rein on the north side of the rails, letting the herd lumber on. Dust billows ’round the beef.
Beyond the dirt cloud, the train keeps blowing its whistle.
“Boss?” Diaz warns at a shout.
But Boss just holds up a hand.
Right when I’m certain this is the time a train’ll derail and go flying, the brakeman applies the brakes. The clamped-down wheels screech and scream, running over the ra...