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What happens when a young journalist and an outlaw join forces?
That’s exactly what Erin Bowman seeks to answer in Retribution Rails.
The book follows the adventures of Charlotte Vaughn, a young journalist (and Nellie Bly fan), who forms an alliance with Reece Murphy, a reluctant member of the train-robbing Rose Rider gang — who also happens to be in possession of a mysterious gold coin — in her quest to find the truth… and prevent a murder.
Set in 1887 Arizona, Retribution Rails takes place 10 years after Bowman’s earlier novel Vengance Road and serves as a companion piece.
Retribution Rails will be published Nov. 7. Read an exclusive excerpt below.
Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.
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 standing on the track with 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—two 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 these 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.
Hell, I was scared of ’em as a kid growing up with the drunk I called a father in Ehernberg, 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 steamroll us flat, the brakeman applies the brakes. The clamped-down wheels screech and scream, running over the rail. The shrill cry is like a pickaxe to my skull, the worst kind of headache. I got my bandanna up over my mouth and nose to protect from the dust, and I can still smell the metallic tang of the hot steel, the engine’s coal steam.
For a good half minute our world is nothing but dust and heat and screaming brakes. Sparks fly. With one final exhale from the engine, the train goes still. The herd continues south, taking the dust with ’em.
I fan dirt from my eyes.
The dark outline of the train engine sits a few yards ahead, air rippling ’round it. It’s a giant of a locomotive, a towering black behemoth that came to a stop just yards from our busted bit of rail.
A figure leans out from between cars, flapping a pale kerchief so he can see if the herd’s cleared out.
Boss draws his pistol.
The poor bastard don’t even have a chance to yell out a warning. The moment his eyes find us, going wide and fearful, Boss pulls his trigger. The man’s head snaps back, and he topples from the train, landing beside the track.
“Let’s move!” Boss orders.
We draw our pistols, tip our hats low so all you can see easy between the brims and bandannas is our eyes. And then we’re storming the train.
It is not my first ride in the elegant passenger car of a Southern Pacific locomotive, but when the engine comes to an unexpected stop and a pistol is discharged outside, I’m certain it will be my last. Lord knows trains do not make unannounced stops between depots for any good reason.
“Sir,” I say, nudging the sleeping lawman beside me.
He does not budge.
Since leaving Yuma, the engine’s been pulling us northeast, following the Gila River as she chugs toward Tucson. It’s provided a beautiful view of the southern plains, and had I known that the lawman intended to sleep the entire trip, I’d have requested the seat by the window. There’s little view now that the glass is caked with dust, but if I peer with determination, I can see a barren hillside and a wisp of the river in the distance.
This is what I get for chasing a story.
“Your father sank a small fortune into the Prescott rail project, Charlotte,” Mother said to me before she left for the capital yesterday. “He’d want me to see the final spike driven, maybe even say a few words on his behalf. Sit tight, and I’ll be home in but a few day’s time.”
Uncle Gerald’s been running the family mine since we moved to Yuma a decade ago. Always in the habit of stealing the accomplishments of others, he’ll surely “say words” on Father’s behalf. But it won’t end there. Father has been in the ground only a single week, and Mother has already confided in me her fears that Uncle Gerald might try to demand her hand in marriage in order to gain ownership of the mine. He’ll argue that this is his way of supporting us, that the business will need a respected man at its helm, but we both know he just wants the money.
Mother’s gone to Prescott to have a firm discussion with him about the will and what to expect—a lovely way to spend the holiday season.
And I’ve gone to chase a story, for while Mother doesn’t think Uncle Gerald would stoop so low as to hold me over her head, I worry otherwise. Don’t you want to be able to provide for Charlotte? he’ll croon. Wouldn’t it be a pity if something happened to her? But if I get my big break—a story with my name attached to it, a career reporting for a paper—I’ll be able to take care of myself.
I refuse to be a burden or a bargaining chip.
But now, sitting near the back of the train’s first-class car, I fear I’m about to pay for my stubborn determination.
To my rear is a locked car carrying valuables, and farther back are the rest of the passengers, where I can hear muffled demands shouted.
Way up front, our car door bangs open, and I lurch for the suitcase at my feet, feeling blindly until my fingers graze the barrel of Father’s most prized pistol. I’d taken it with me for protection, never thinking I’d truly need it. I snatch it up and press it to my ribs, hiding the weapon beneath my jacket.
“Hands where we can see ’em!” a man shouts as he climbs into view. A sweat-stained bandanna is drawn over his nose, and his hat is angled low across his brow. “Hands up, and no one gets shot.”
Throughout the car, passengers slowly reach for the ceiling, but I can’t bear to let go of Father’s pistol. I hunker down in the seat, breathing heavily, considering that if I appear small and frightened, the robber might not think twice about my hands being deep inside my jacket.
Another man steps into view—slighter than the first, but just as tall, and just as hidden behind his attire. He ducks past the first man and moves up the aisle.
“Murphy!” his companion calls, and tosses him a burlap sack.
The man named Murphy catches it. “Valuables,” he says, angling toward the nearest seat.
“Watches and purses!” the other adds from up front. “And yer jewelry.”
I nudge the lawman with my leg. Nothing. He’s still slumped against the window, a dark handkerchief clutched in his lap. He’d been coughing quite a bit when we boarded the locomotive in Yuma. Could be he’s like Father, fighting a losing battle with tuberculosis.
“That band on yer finger,” the stockier robber says from up front.
“But it’s my wedding ring,” comes a retort.
“Do you wanna die today?”
The woman breaks down, gasping and sobbing, but the man refrains from loosening bullets. How the lawman can sleep through this, even with his condition, is beyond comprehension.
The man called Murphy moves on to my row. I blink at the burlap sack dangling in my peripheral vision, squeeze the grip of the pistol beneath my jacket.
“Yer valuables,” he grunts at me. He’s wearing filthy trousers and a pale blue work shirt stained with a ring of sweat around the collar. The bandanna over his mouth matches his shirt, but it’s his hat that compels me to pause. A deep, rich felt material, broad-brimmed but high, with an intricately braided strip of leather encircling the crown. It’s too showy for a man of crime, too proud. Surely stolen. But I make note of it all, committing the details to memory. A description of these men is the first thing we’ll be asked for when we chug into town, robbed dry.
“I don’t have anything worth giving, mister,” I say, avoiding eye contact. I can feel him staring, though, and when I venture a look, his eyes are working a line over my entire person. The small suitcase at my feet, the visible portion of my black mourning dress, the fine winter jacket draped across my shoulders, my chin, nose . . .
“Yer earrings,” he says.
The small pearl studs were a gift from Father when I turned sixteen last month, and I refuse to give a piece of him to some no-good train robber who makes a living taking what others have rightly earned.
“The earrings,” he says again, “Put ’em in the bag, and no harm done.”
Suddenly I’m mad at the world. Father, for leaving me and Mama. The Law, for not being able to rein in these bands of robbers that continually plague the good folk riding the rails. The devil, for creating men as desperate and dark as the one standing before me.
My fear betrays me, and my lip trembles. I bite down on it, snuffing out the quiver. An expression flickers over the robber’s face, something that suggests he has no problem stealing, but doesn’t particularly like being reminded that his victims are human. That they fear and shake and cry.
But perhaps that can be used to my advantage.
There are only two robbers in this car, and if I’m able to surprise the man named Murphy—drop him with a bullet—surely someone else will spring to action. Certainly the lawman will wake from a gunshot fired in such an enclosed space.
A bullet goes off in the payload car, startling me so thoroughly I nearly drop Father’s pistol.
“Hurry up, dammit,” the robber snaps.
“All right,” I say, cocking Father’s pistol beneath my jacket, intent on giving Murphy a pearl-shaped bit of lead.
But as I draw the weapon, the door to the cash car bursts open and several men tumble into ours. The one in the lead sees the barrel of my gun appearing from beneath my jacket, and he dives at Murphy, knocking him to the aisle floor. My shot goes into the man’s shoulder.
And that’s when the lawman finally wakes.
Dropping his kerchief and drawing his pistol, he shoves me toward the window and opens fire on the robbers. I flinch at each shot, grabbing my ears as the car explodes with thunderous noise. Around the lawman’s legs, I can see a bit of the aisle: Murphy struggling to free himself from beneath the man I hit—a man he’s now calling “Boss.”
The lawman lets out an oof and slumps into me. There’s shouting and more gunshots, then silence. My ears still ring, barely able to hear the pound of fleeing hooves.
I peer out the window and find the gang on the move, their steeds kicking up dust as they fly for the river.
“Sir?” I say, turning back to the lawman. He shifts his weight off me awkwardly and lets out a low wheeze. “Sir, are you all right?”
The pistol slides from his hand, landing on the floor of the car with a clatter. His eyelids flutter.
“See it through for me, miss,” he says. “Please?”
I grab at his front. He is slick, wet. The breast pocket of his vest is glistening with blood. “What?” I gasp out. “See what through?”
But his only response is a ragged, uneven breath as his blood seeps through my fingers.