Riddled with bullet holes and shattered windows, the delayed 11:54 from Sweetwater limped into Odessa’s station around 9pm. The traumatized passengers wasted no time in alighting and rushing for the relative safety of the small town.
Less terrified, but more exhausted, D’Alembord, Barnes, Shepherd, Hogan and Quineros would have liked nothing more than to kick off their boots and collapse onto even a lumpy mattress into a hard sleep, but first they had to turn over the two surviving robbers to the local sheriff, safely stow Grainger’s precious crate, not to mention actually find somewhere that might even have a lumpy mattress.
The thanks of the passengers gave them a quick lift, as did that of the immensely grateful Station Master. Evidently, train robberies were a common occurrence in these parts; and rarely were they thwarted. The chirpy little man was so happy, he even offered to pay for their night’s lodging at the local flophouse. His offer was readily accepted.
Shepherd and Barnes turned their two glum and wounded prisoners over to the sheriff, then assisted in moving the crate from the train into the station house where they were assured it would be quite safe.
All the while, the same question was burning inside each man’s mind: “Just what the hell is inside that thing?”
Whatever it was, it was safe for now. A hard day was done and the group eagerly headed for Odessa’s saloon. Quique, initially staying to guard the crate, swiftly realised it would probably be all right in the care of the railroad and caught them up, gamely knocking back a sickly green liquor that the bartender appeared to have poured as a dare. Amazingly, the Mexican didn’t even flinch, much to the disappointment of the others.
The glum bartender advised that the village of Privilegio lay some twenty miles away and was populated by Mexicans. It was clear from his tone that the folk of Odessa harbored a fairly low opinion of their neighbors from south of the border.
Somewhat the wiser, the men subsequently retired to their rooms. It was far too late and they were far too weary to care about sharing. Unfortunately for Ebenezer, he discovered in the early hours of the morning that Quique suffered from terrible nightmares and nearly found himself on the wrong end of the confused rifleman’s Winchester.
The rest of the night passed without incident. After a cooked the group procured a wagon and some horses, then loaded their mysterious cargo and set off for Privilegio.
After three hours of travelling through the dusty, unremarkable wilderness, they sighted the tiny village. Erring on the side of caution, they pulled off the road and decided to send a couple of scouts ahead. It was felt that Quineros and Hogan, being Mexican and a man of God, stood less chance of being accosted should the villagers be hostile, so they rode on whilst Shepherd, Barnes and D’Alembord, thirsty for tea as usual, remained to guard the wagon.
‘Impoverished’ was the word that came to mind as the pair trotted up what passed for the village’s main street. Emaciated cattle plodded weakly around a modest corral, and the looks of barely tempered fear on the villagers’ tanned faces made it apparent that there was likely no threat here.
The pair secretly wondered, was it just that they were outsiders or was there something more to it?
Seeking answers, they tethered their horses and entered Privilegio’s lone cantina. The bartender seemed just as nervous as the other folk. Quique conversed with him in Spanish, translating for Ebenezer, yet, even so, the conversation was rambling and confused, the villager seeming to get tongue-tied out of fretfulness.
Suddenly, the doors burst open. The pair whipped about, ready to fight, but paused when they saw a boy standing there, ready to draw down on them.
“We not afraid of you!” he cried, although it was clear from his broken delivery that the opposite was true.
He was hastily ushered out, leaving an older, English speaking, Mexican man to apologise profusely, as though the lad’s life was in jeopardy.
These people obviously lived in terror of someone. The mention of the name ‘Wyatt Grainger’ seemed to prick the man like a needle. He seemed to have taken the two strangers to be members of Grainger’s posse, who apparently regularly descended upon the town like locusts.
Quique and Ebenzer returned to their comrades and reported their findings. Frustrated and thirsty for more concrete information, Shepherd rode in himself, along with Barnes and Quique. Once again, confusion muddied the facts, but there was little doubt that Grainger was bleeding Privilegio dry, taking whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted it; women, cattle, anything.
The blood in both Shepherd’s and Barnes’ bodies began to boil. Casting off any cover, Shepherd stated plainly to the bartender they were not in Grainger’s employ, though this too seemed to only confuse the flustered man all the more.
Shepherd looked at his newly found comrades. He had no intention of aiding a robber baron like Grainger, reneging on their deal with the man’s brother in the process, but what of them? What kind of men were they?
Quique pondered the situation for a moment. “No,” he stated at last. “I no do this job for him.”
“He’s a bully,” Barnes growled, his eyes flaring with righteous indignation, “and a criminal. He’s a rustler, a robber, a kidnapper, and Lord knows what else.”
Now they were in agreement, Shepherd asked, “So, what do we do with the crate?”
As he and Quique debated over whether to open it carefully, smash it and claim it was an accident, or take it back to Odessa, Barnes marched deliberately out. A short while later, they exited the saloon and spied him coming from the general store, a hoe, hammer and nails in his hands. It seemed Barnes at least had set his mind on what should be done.
The same conversation resumed when they returned to their companions at the wagon. Different courses of action were suggested, but on one thing all were in agreement: Wyatt Grainger would not receive his merchandise.
Before a further word could be uttered, Barnes dug the edge of the hoe under the crate’s lid and pried it carefully. The wood eased up little by little, yawning to reveal the nails along its length. At length, the men removed the lid and peered into the mysterious box.
None were surprised at what was concealed inside: a brand new, military grade Gatling gun.
Veterans of the war, Hogan and Barnes knew only too well what this mechanical monster was capable of. Two hundred rounds per minute spat from its six rotating barrels. They’d both seen these things take down charging walls of men and horses, turning them all into mincemeat. They dreaded to think what the despicable Wyatt Grainger had planned for it.
Once more, the five were faced with a myriad of options. After some debate, Barnes and Shepherd decided to ride back to Odessa to inform the sheriff of the situation, although they harbored little faith he would care about the fate of these backwater Mexicans, plus there was always the chance he was in Grainger’s pocket. Either way, their consciences spurred them into action, and they galloped away, aiming to return around sunset.
Tomorrow, Wyatt Grainger would be riding into Privelegio to collect his property. The sun already seemed to be making a beeline for the horizon.