The sun had set in Genoa, but when we reached the top of the pass, why, there it was again, like an old friend. It was very low in the sky, lighting up some puffy clouds all red & purple & yellow. This fiery sunset was reflected in Lake Bigler, which some folk call Tahoe. It was so pretty it made my spirit want to fly up into those clouds like a hawk.
Dizzy flipped a coin to a toll-gate keeper. A few moments later he guided the puffing team of horses off the road & onto a muddy patch of ground in front of a couple of raw-plank buildings. There was a smell of wood smoke & stables.
‘Is this Friday’s Station?’ I asked.
‘Yup.’ Dizzy reined in the team and we rocked to a halt. ‘Wanna get down or can you last one more stage?’
‘I need the jakes,’ I said.
While Dizzy was helping me down, two men came out of the shack. One had a little nose and a big mustache. The other had a big nose and a little mustache. Big Mustache went to get a fresh team and Little Mustache started undoing the whippletree.
When I got back from using the outhouse, Big Mustache was telling Dizzy how another California-bound stage had changed teams an hour before and a rider came by not long after.
‘Dang,’ said Dizzy. ‘They are now a whole hour ahead of us. We’d best not dilly-dally.’
It was chilly up here with a breeze coming off the lake. The pine-scented air came cold into my chest & made me feel light-headed. I pulled my pink shawl around my shoulders. Then I remembered the coat I had bought for the dummy to wear. I went towards the coach.
Through the window, I saw that the dummy was leaning against the corner & her hat was down over her watermelon face, so it really did look like a lady was sleeping. That was good.
I gave a soft knock on the door and opened it.
Mr. Ray G. Tempest was lying on his back upon the bed of mailbags with his head back, his eyes closed and his mouth open. His hat & Dizzy’s shotgun lay nearby on one of the other mailbags.
I took the coat off the dummy & gave her my shawl instead & restored her to her former position.
Ray snored on.
I quietly closed the door of the stage and then put on the coat. It was a lot warmer than my shawl. Mrs. Wasserman had called that coat a ‘sacque’ & told me it was the girliest coat she had & that it was the latest fashion. It was like a cape only with sleeves, made of silk-lined purple velvet & white fur trim. When I put my gloved hands in the little slits at the front I discovered a hidden pocket.
One of the things I hate about dresses is that there are no pockets so the only place to put things is in a purse or similar. But now I had found a pocket in this sacque. Hallelujah!
I took my four-shooter out of my medicine bag & put it in the secret pocket along with a few spare cartridges. Then I let Dizzy help me back up into the box. He took the reins from Big Mustache, released the brake & we were on our way again!
My stomach growled so I opened my yellow drawstring purse which I had tied it to the rail of the driver’s box. I took out some beef jerky & shared it with Dizzy.
I noticed a wooden sign down by the side of the road. It said, WELKOM TO THE STATE OF CALIFORNEE. We had left Nevada Territory behind and were now in California, a state I had not heretofore set foot in.
The sun had set for good & dusk was gathering fast.
I said, ‘Do you think the Reb Road Agents have held up the decoy stage yet?’
‘I hope so,’ said Dizzy. ‘Soon it will be too dark to see. If they miss the decoy they might hold us up instead. We should of set out earlier.’
‘At least they are an hour ahead of us.’
‘Yup,’ said Dizzy.
I said, ‘When Icy Blue and his agents catch them, what will they do with them?’
‘Why, clap ’em in irons and take em back to Virginee. Hopefully we will see them coming back this way, mission accomplished, at any moment.’
My spirits lifted. I might see my victorious pa soon & then he would turn around and ride to Sacramento with us and soon we would go to Chicago covered in glory.
‘Want to see something awful?’ said Dizzy, chomping his piece of jerky.
‘Sure,’ I said.
‘See that bend we’re coming up to? Scoot on over to the left and look down.’
I scooted over to the edge and looked down. As we came to a curve in the road I saw a steep slope tumbling down to a rocky gorge far below. My sharp eyes saw a wheel on the jagged gray rocks & some broken crates & then the worst thing of all: a smashed up stagecoach and what might have been the bones of a horse. I could not be sure about the horse bones, for the light was fading fast.
‘What happened?’ I asked.
‘Coach went off the road,’ said Dizzy. ‘Crashed on them rocks below. Happens more than people think.’
‘Stagecoaches going over the edge and crashing on the rocks below?’
‘Yup. That is why they never put glass in the windows. In case it breaks and cuts you to ribbons.’
‘Were the passengers killed?’ I asked.
‘Only a couple,’ he said. ‘The others escaped with just a few broken bones and cracked heads.’ He chuckled. ‘Driver broke both arms. When they took the bandages off, he found one arm was an inch shorter than the other.’
I held out my arms.
I tried to imagine having one arm shorter than the other.
I could not do it.
We rode for a while without speaking. I tried to listen out for the sound of a pa and the decoy stage coming our way, covered in glory & with the Reb Road agents in irons.
But it was hard above the noise of 24 thundering hooves and a creaky old stagecoach.
Soon it was so dusky I could hardly see the road.
I said, ‘How do you light the road when it gets dark?’
Dizzy said, ‘You don’t.’
I said, ‘Because there is an almost full moon tonight?’
He said, ‘Moon won’t rise for an hour or so. But we don’t use lights even when there ain’t a moon.’
I said, ‘How do you see in the dark?’
He said, ‘You don’t.’
I said, ‘You drive in the dark?’
‘Yup. Dark. Rain. Storm. Snow. You gotta remember that each team of six horses just goes back and forth over ten or twelve or fourteen miles at most. They know their stretch of road so well they could do it blindfolded. Why, some of the drivers just have a little sleep while they are holding the reins.’
‘You won’t sleep, will you?’ I asked.
‘Nosiree. Not with the chance of Reb Road Agents behind any pine and a crumbled road at any bend.’
‘The road crumbles some times?’
‘Yup,’ said Dizzy. ‘You got any more jerky?’
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘Gimme,’ said Dizzy.
He opened his mouth like a hungry bird and I gave him another piece of beef jerky.
I was glad of my gloves and velvet sacque for it was now cold.
We were going up a rising bend. Our fresh horses from Friday’s were working hard. I looked over the edge and saw what looked like a sheer drop. The granite rocks far below were almost as jagged as the hundred black pine trees that poked up like needles. I did not want to look, but I could not tear my eyes away.
‘Jumping Jesus!’ said Dizzy.
Dizzy swallowed hard & cussed. ‘Looks like we got ourselves company. Those Reb Road Agents must of let the decoy stage pass right on by. Here they are, all right: fixing to hold us up.’