Josh Murdoch rode into Apache Wells with blood in his eye. There really wasn't much to Apache Wells beyond a few tents and the large watering hole. Several barrels sunk into the ground and nearly filled with water marked the area people expected to drink from; otherwise, it was catch as catch can for animals and Mexicans.
Josh was wearing his Schofield revolvers in a pair of cross-draw holsters; this marked him as a man who knew what a gun was for and how to use it. He pulled his Henry Yellow Boy carbine from its boot and stomped into the tent that served as a saloon. He was hot and tired and in no mood to put up with any shit from anybody. He slapped a coin on the bar and demanded a beer in a voice that showed a throat covered in trail dust.
He drank about half his beer without even tasting it, which was probably a good thing for the bartender; it kept him from getting shot out of hand. Josh turned around to face the few men sitting at the tables and shouted, "Anybody here know where I can find One-Eyed-Jack Simpson?"
One of the men pointed down the line of tents and Josh slammed his beer mug on the bar and marched out with a curt, "Much obliged, mister." Josh turned left and walked down to the next tent. He stuck his head in through the flap and looked at the men waiting for a haircut, shook his head, and moved on to the next tent.
He looked into that tent, but saw nothing but some drygoods on display. He nodded to the man standing behind a makeshift counter and made his way to the rope corral which defined the livery stable. There he saw his quarry.
"You dirty son of a bitch, Simpson! Draw or I'll blast you where you stand!" Simpson dropped to the ground and rolled under the horse he was standing next to. Simpson came up with his gun drawn and looking for Josh. When Simpson had dropped to the ground, Josh jumped to one side to try to get a shot at Simpson as he appeared from under the horse on its other side.
Josh levered a cartridge into the Henry's chamber and fired at Simpson's head as it appeared above the horse. He missed, but the horse jumped at the sound of the shot and Simpson had no opportunity to get off a shot of his own. Simpson fell back to the ground and this caused Josh's next shot to miss, also. Simpson's gun fired as he hit the ground, but the shot went wild, off into the never-never somewhere. By this time, Josh had calmed down enough to take aim before shooting and put a hole between Simpson's eyes. The .45 slug split the back of Simpson's head into so many pieces that not much could have been found if anybody had been interested.
The livery stable owner came up and asked, "What was that all about?"
Josh growled back, "That bastard, Simpson, stole my only canteen of water this morning and I ain't had a drink till I got a beer a few minutes ago."
"Shit, I don't blame ya! I would a shot the SOB, too, if'n he'd a done that ta me. Grab his other leg and we'll drag him to the draw where we throw the trash. It's right over there."
On the way back from the draw, Josh asked, "There any place around here where a man can get a bed?"
"'Fraid not. I'll let ya sleep in my hay stack if ya put up your horse here. That's the best ya kin do in Apache Wells."
"Reckon I'll do that, then. My horse is about played out. I'll get him and be back in a minute. Say, where can I get somethin' to eat?"
"Try the saloon where you got the beer. The food's not much good, but it's cheap."
With a nod, Josh left to get his horse.
After supper, Josh ordered a beer. The bartender asked, "Ain't you the hombre that shot One-Eyed-Jack Simpson this afternoon?"
When Josh nodded assent, the bartender pushed his money back and said, "In that case, your supper an' the beer are on the house. I've hated that bastard since the day I got to Apache Wells."
"Much obliged. Do you know any jobs open around here?"
"There ain't much since the place started to dry up. You might try Land's ranch about five miles north of here. I also heard that the stage line is hiring drivers and guards. They got a office in the next town over, about 10 miles east."
"I think I'll try the stage line. I'm tired of punchin' cows. Good night."
The next morning, Josh saddled up and rode out toward Smithville without eating breakfast. The livery stable man was right, the bartender was friendly, but the food was terrible. Josh could hold off eating for a while, but he needed a job pretty soon if he was going to feed his horse.
The ride to Smithville was uneventful until he came to a line of hills. As he rode around one, he saw the stage stopped ahead. One of the horses was down and there were a lot of people standing around. One man was standing off to one side holding four saddle horses by the reins. Josh stared harder at the scene and realized that this was a holdup.
He cut off the road and around the other side of the hill where the coach was stopped. He dismounted and tied his horse to some brush where it could graze a little. Josh pulled out his carbine and started to climb the hill. He figured that the bandits would not expect somebody to come down the hill at them.
He looked over the top of the hill and saw that he was about 40 yards from the coach. That was close enough; his carbine was deadly at that range and the bandit's pistols would be ineffectual. He concentrated on those men holding pistols and started measured shooting. The bandits were confused at first and couldn't find where Josh was hiding. By the time they had spotted his gun smoke, he had hit two of the bandits and they were rushing for their horses.
One of the bandits didn't make it all the way to the horses; he collapsed about 10 feet short and didn't get up. The rest of the bandits got on their horses and rode away as fast as they could move. The loose horse started to run with the others, but stopped to graze; it even came back a little toward the downed man.
Josh made his was down the hill and was greeted by the passengers and crew, standing around the coach. One of the passengers rushed over to the downed man and announced that he was dead. The passenger riffled the dead man's pockets and came up with a handful of items and money. He grabbed the horses reins and walked back toward the coach. He handed the reins to Josh and said, "I guess this belongs to you, now."
The man handed out the watches and rings he had pulled from the dead man's pockets and started counting the money. He took out some money and handed the rest to the man next to him. The rest of the passengers sorted out the remaining money and turned to climb back into the coach. The man who had run out to the dead man turned to Josh and said, "If you are looking for a job, stop by the stage line office in Smithville."
Josh helped the crew cut the dead horse from the traces and rearrange the reins so that the driver could manage the odd number of horses in the team. The coach drove off and Josh mounted his new horse to go around the hill to retrieve his old horse he had picketed a few minutes before.
Josh stopped at the restaurant to get the breakfast he had skipped in Apache Wells and ate enough to count for lunch, too. When he finished, he went to the stage office.
The man from the stage was standing in a doorway in the back of the main room when Josh walked in. He hurried to Josh and put out his hand. "I'm John Randall. I own and manage the stage line around here and you look like the kind of man I want to hire."
"I'm Josh Murdoch and I'm looking for a job," he said as he shook Randall's hand. "What do you have to offer?"
Randall beckoned for Josh to follow him into his office. He offered Josh a seat and a cigar. "I don't drink this early in the day, but I can offer you coffee."
Josh shook his head and Randall sat behind his desk. While Josh lit the cigar, Randall began to explain his proposition. "My stage line has been hit by too many robberies lately. My guards on the coaches just cannot stop the bandits. I need to try something else. I'd like to hire you to do just what you did this morning—sneak up behind the bandits and shoot as many as you can before they ride away. I'll pay you $50 a month and $50 every time you kill a bandit, wounding doesn't count. I know that a single horseman can't keep up with the coach on a long run, but the bandits only hit us along certain short stretches, so I hope you can cover those by riding cross country. What do you think?"
"Well, Mr. Randall, the pay is good and I think that I can do what you want. I'll give it a try. When do I start?"
"You started today when you shot that bandit. Pick up your bounty from the paymaster as you go out the door. And please call me John. May I call you Josh?"
"Certainly. Where can I get a map of the route with the hit points marked?"
"I'll give you the map right now. There are five places where we are hit most often. I hope that you can cover them all. Take a look at the route and let me know what you can do. We make a run every day except Sunday. We leave Smithville on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and we return from Santa Rosa on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Anything else?"
"I think that covers it for the job, but is there a decent boarding house in town?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact. The place where I stay is comfortable and the price is reasonable. There was a vacancy this morning, so I am sure that you can get a room there. The place is run by Mrs. James, a widow who keeps a sober house. Here's how to find it." John handed Josh a sketch map showing how to find the boarding house and bid him a good day.
Mrs. James answered the door when Josh knocked. "Yes, what can I do for you, sir?"
"Mr. John Randall sent me around to see you about renting a room and board. He said that you had a vacancy and I might be able to get it. I just started to work for the stage line, today. I'm sorry to be so dusty, but I just got in from a long ride."
"Don't worry about it. If Mr. Randall sent you, you must be all right. Just follow me and I will show you the room." She led off up some stairs and turned into the first room on the left. "I hope you find this room acceptable. The bathroom is at the end of the hall. I don't charge extra if a guest wants to bathe in hot water; I just need about half an hour's notice.
"I charge $3.00 a week for this room and two meals a day; the charge is $3.25 if you want a bag lunch fixed. Breakfast is served at 5:00 AM and supper at 6:00 PM. Other arrangements can be made if necessary."
"No, that sounds fine. I'd like the bag lunch, please. I expect to be on the trail a lot during the day, so a bag lunch will be welcomed. May I move in today and may I get a bath before supper? Oh, please pardon me, I forgot to introduce myself; I'm Josh Murdoch."
"Thank you, Mr. Murdoch. I'm pleased to welcome you to our establishment. I'll start heating your bath water, now. You can pick it up in the kitchen whenever you're ready."
Josh met the stagecoach crew before they left for their daily run. He told them of his general instructions from John Randall, but it would be a few days, maybe even a couple of weeks, before he could really be effective as an additional guard. He would have to work out a way to get from one danger point to another fast enough to stay ahead of them and this could take a while, since he was not familiar with the territory. He might not see them in Santa Rosa, but he would make a point of checking in with them when they got back to Smithville.
Josh left for the first danger point as the stage pulled out. There were two passengers, which was normal for this part of the route, and a moderate number of express packages. This load didn't look to Josh like a very good target for bandits, but you could never know in advance what some people would try to do. He rode at a brisk lope cross country to reach the first danger point and reached it well ahead of the stagecoach. Josh rode back and forth, looking for a good place to set up his watch, until he finally found a place among some rocks which gave him a good view of the potential ambush sites.
This lookout point was high enough to see both ends of the usual range of dangerous road, yet close enough to the road to allow him to reach any part in a very short time. Josh hoped that his other lookout positions would be just as advantageous, but he doubted it. He was covered by some tall rocks to his back and sides, so that he could not be easily found or attacked. There was even room to picket his horse conveniently to hand; if he stocked the place with some hay, the horse wouldn't mind the wait.
The only approach to his lookout position was from the front, so this was a ideal location for defense, if the situation ever demanded it. All in all, Josh was very pleased as he settled down with a cigar to wait for the stagecoach to put in an appearance.
There it was! The coach came barreling down the road and was forced to slow down for the first uphill grade. This was a rather long climb, though not very steep. The coach disappeared from sight a couple of times, but not for long enough to cause concern as it wound along the curving track. The coach reached the top of the grade and swung onto a slight downward pitch as it picked up speed before disappearing again for a few moments.
The coach was already on a fairly steep down pitch and traveling fast as it came back into sight. The driver had to reign in the team a bit to slow it for a sharp curve before speeding up again. The driver built up as much speed as possible before starting up the steepest grade along this section of road. Fortunately, this was a straight run and he was able to take full advantage of the inertia he had built up as they ran for the top of the rise. The six horses in the team were struggling to maintain speed as they topped the hill and were out of the danger zone as they continued on their way.
Josh extinguished his cigar and shoved the butt into his shirt pocket as he made ready to ride to the next danger point.
This might well be the most dangerous one of Josh's cross-country dashes. This was an area of sinkholes and quicksand. The danger from the sinkholes was usually easy to avoid, because the holes in the ground were obvious, but the quicksand was a different story. The quicksand looked like any other section of open ground, but a running horse that stepped in it was almost sure to break his leg, and a man out here without a horse was in a deep pit of trouble. Therefore, there were long sections where Josh was forced to keep his horse to a walk, which meant that he would be late getting to his next station.
He arrived at this danger point just as the stagecoach hove into view; he wouldn't have time to find an observation point this day. The best he could hope to do was to ride to the nearest hill and climb to its peak. He had just done so when shots rang out. There were several pistol shots, followed by the blast of the guards shotgun. Josh could now see two men chasing the stage and firing their pistols madly at the fleeing coach.
"Amateurs!" scoffed Josh as he watched the coach steadily pull away from the chasing bandits. The team had been changed not long before and the skilled and experienced driver had not pushed it too hard. As a result, the horses were reasonably fresh, and, as everybody should have known, there was no way a single horse carrying a rider was going to catch a fresh team of horses pulling a coach. All Josh had to do was to wait for the parade to come into the range of his carbine.
Josh dismounted and took a steady position with his carbine resting against a large rock. From this steadiest of all possible positions, he waited until the first bandit closed to within 100 yards. The road was straight and flat here, so it was a trivial shot to shoot one of the horses. Josh hated to do it, but he was certain to hit the horse and chancy to hit the rider. He fired and quickly switched his aim to the other horse. He missed, but quickly levered in another round and fired. This time he missed the horse, but hit the rider! Oh, well, it did accomplish the same result, even if it was not a very good shot. The rider fell to the ground and was killed by the fall if not by the bullet.
The stage was now well out of sight and on its way to the next relay station. Josh remounted and caught the uninjured horse; he led the horse to the first bandit and hoisted the man onto the horse. He then tied the second man to the same horse, after making sure that the downed horse was indeed dead. Leading the other horse, Josh rode to the relay station and got a receipt from the foreman that he had seen the two dead bandits. They dumped the two corpses into a convenient arroyo and Josh left to scout the route to the next danger point.
Josh spent the rest of the day looking for the quickest safe routes between the danger areas. It was well after dark by the time he finally returned to Smithville. He was late for supper, of course, but Mrs. James took pity on him and fixed him some food. He was dead tired and had to leave early the next morning to reach the first danger site out of Santa Rosa before the stagecoach got there, so he plopped into bed and was asleep immediately.