I had been looking over the edge but now I turned to look ahead. Sure enough, there in the gloaming were two men standing either side of the road.
‘Halt!’ they cried, and both put up their hands, palms forward, in the universal gesture that means stop. They wore butternut-colored uniforms which meant they were Confederate soldiers, AKA Rebs.
I swore under my breath, using language unfit for publication.
Pa’s Plan had failed.
‘Don’t cuss!’ said Dizzy out of the corner of his mouth. ‘Remember, you are supposed to be a helpless little girl. It is our only chance.’
He was right! If I played a convincing girly-girl, they might take pity on us & let us go & we could get the silver to safety. Then we could alert Pa and the guards in the other stage of their whereabouts.
The team slowed and stopped. I noticed Dizzy did not push the footbrake forward.
‘Good evening, y’all,’ drawled one of the men. He held a Henry rifle and wore a small, round, slope-top hat with a visor. I think folk call it a ‘kepi’.
Kepi said, ‘I am gonna have to ask you not to make any sudden-like moves.’ His rifle was pointing at Dizzy.
‘Heck, you don’t want to bother with us.’ Dizzy’s voice cracked a little. ‘It is only me and my little girl here and some children back from a picnic. You can see their sleeping schoolmarm there in the window. Surely you will let us pass?’
The reins in his left hand were trembling but I felt strangely calm. Maybe it was because I could not see the Road Agents clearly. Or maybe it was because they sounded so polite.
I reckoned I should play the part of a little girly-girl.
‘Grandpa?’ I said in my high girly voice. ‘Are those men going to rob us?’
‘Not if you cow operate,’ said the other man. He wore a slouch hat & his voice was deeper than Kepi’s.
He cocked his piece and said, ‘My pard is just gonna have a little peek inside your coach while I cover you. Y’all seem to be riding pretty low, like you are maybe carrying a lot of silver.’
‘We ain’t got nothing of value,’ said Dizzy. ‘Just them kiddies, like I said.’
While they were talking, I had started to sneak my gloved right hand inside the secret pocket of my sacque to get at my Muff Deringer.
‘Hands where we can see them, Missy,’ said Kepi politely.
I froze. Then I took my (empty) hands out of my sacque.
‘Raise ’em high,’ said Slouch.
I could not believe this was happening. Did I not look girly enough?
I had to convince them! But how?
I reckoned a girly-girl would whimper.
‘Oh, grandpa,’ I quavered. ‘They are going to kill us!’
‘Cheese it, brat!’ growled Slouch Hat. He pointed his big revolver at me.
So much for the Reb Road Agents having a soft spot for little girls!
The one with the Kepi was about three paces from the stagecoach when Dizzy grabbed his black leather whip & yelled, ‘Hi-yi!’
Three things happened real quick.
No. 1 – With a report like that of a gun being fired, Dizzy’s whip knocked the Henry rifle right out of Kepi’s hands.
No. 2. – Our team of horses started moving.
No. 3. – The man wearing the Slouch Hat shot Dizzy with his big Army revolver.
Dizzy did not make a noise. He only slumped against me. The reins started to slide through his gloved fingers.
Quick as a streak of chalk, I grabbed the reins. ‘Hi-yi!’ I cried, and gave them a flick. ‘G’lang! G’lang, you sons of blanks!’
By the side of the road, Kepi looked up from where he was scrabbling to recover his rifle. He rolled out of the way just in time to avoid getting trampled.
The horses had to strain to get the heavy coach moving. They seemed to be wading through winter molasses.
‘Come on, you sons of blanks!’ I bellowed again. I was leaning way over to the left on account of Dizzy was slumped against my right side.
We had just passed the road agents when something batted my bonnet forward & Dizzy jerked against me & at the same time I heard three more loud reports.
BANG! BANG! BANG!
They had shot him again!
I flicked the reins & yelled, ‘Git!’
I forgot to say ‘G’lang!’ and ‘Hi-yi!’ but the horses were moving faster now. I reckon the shots had spooked them as much as my hollering and cussing. We finally crested the hump in the road and were heading downhill. Now the six steeds were running at top speed. It was almost dark and the tall black pine trees either side blotted out the purple sky. I have eyes about as sharp as a telescope but even a telescope cannot see at night. I could hardly make out the road ahead.
I had to trust the horses, like Dizzy had told me.
I kept hold of the ribbons but let them go slack.
Yes, I gave those horses free rein.
The team curved left, following the road, and the curve made Dizzy slump against me even more.
I could hardly breath & I was in danger of being crushed by his bulk so I gave him a little shove. But I must have pushed too hard for now he was slumped way over to the right, leaning over the side and in danger of tumbling out!
I held the reins in my left hand and grabbed at Dizzy’s sleeve with my right.
I caught the cuff of his jacket sleeve just in time!
I knew if his jacket cuff slipped out of my grasp he would tumble over the side of the stage and off the mountain!
I needed help.
‘Ray!’ I cried. ‘Help!’
I used all my lungs to holler, ‘RAY!’
‘Wha?’ came his slurred voice from down below. ‘Wha’s happening?’
‘The Reb Road Agents struck! They shot Dizzy. I think he might be dead.’
The horses were going fast now.
I reckon they were spooked.
There was a bend coming up with a three thousand foot drop on the right-hand side.
‘Help!’ I cried. ‘Ray! PA!’
(I do not know why I shouted for Pa as he was about an hour ahead of us.)
As we took the bend, the coach listed to the right. I reckon if we had not been carrying a ton of silver we would have been driving on two wheels.
Out of the corner of my right eye, I saw Dizzy twitch. Then his sleeve was jerked from my fingers.
He flew out of the driver’s box & went sailing into the thin air above that three thousand foot drop.
Then he was gone.
A moment later, Ray’s head appeared beside the coach! He was hatless and his red bandana was pulled down around his neck. He was clinging to the slender iron railing around the roof!
‘What happened to Dizzy?’ I cried.
‘Dead weight,’ he shouted back. ‘Thought it was better to ditch him.’
‘He might of still been alive!’
‘Whoa!’ cried Ray. ‘Slow her down!’
He was still hanging off the side of the coach. Even with all those silver bars as ballast I was pretty sure I felt the two left wheels lift off the ground for a moment!
‘Get up on top!’ I hollered. ‘You are throwing the stage off balance. It will fall over and we will be kilt!’
‘Stop the coach!’ he cried. ‘We cannot outrun them.’
He gave himself a heave & was suddenly up in the box beside me.
He tried to pull the reins from my hands but I held on tight.
‘Don’t!’ I cried. ‘They are spooked but they know this road.’
‘Let go, you d-mn blank!’ He called me a bad word and I was so astonished that I let him take the reins. But he was not expecting me to let go and he jerked them violently to the right.
I saw the horses thundering straight off the edge of the road towards a three thousand foot chasm.
It was my stagecoach-going-over-a-precipice nightmare coming true.
But this was no dream.
This was really happening.
Suddenly we were in the air & my stomach & lungs were all up in my throat & time slowed down & we were falling, falling, falling.
Then everything went darker than the inside of a black bear on a moonless night.