I wrote this for my brother who was taken from me. The book is being published by Omega Press. Any resemblance to real persons is intentional.
And now…a sample of Laura Reno’s Brothers.
Laura Reno slowly descended into a cold, dark cellar. A few crudely cut boards lined the dirt walls, and sections of rusted chicken wire was wound tightly around the packed earth, keeping it in place. The floor was dirt too; soft, moist and pliable – the right density for digging a deep grave. The spurs on the boots of the deputy marshal in front of Laura, the deputy in back of her, and those belonging to Samuel Timmons, the sheriff of Anaconda, Montana, clanged as they tromped down the creaking wooden steps. Laura, a handsome woman in her early thirties, tight-featured and tight-haired, was uneasy, but she was damn sure not going to let the lawmen know it.
It wasn’t until she was well into the clammy, unpleasant room and a lit lantern was hung on a nail overhead, could she see that there was something leaning against the wall. A large, soiled, tan canvas was draped over a tall, thick form. Blood had oozed through the canvas leaving a faint impression of the outline of a torso. The smell emanating from whomever or whatever was under the canvas was overwhelming. The sheriff watched Laura, waiting for her to react. He thought maybe she’d take a handkerchief from her drawstring bag to hold over her nose in order to withstand the pungent odor. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.
“Miss Reno,” Sheriff Timmons began, almost grinning. “I thought you might be able to identify these no-good, bunko steerers that had been hanging around the fine town of Anaconda for the past week. I had a pretty good idea who they were when they were described, but I wanted to know what you thought. The sheriff was so anxious for her to identify the bodies under the canvas he could hardly contain himself. He tapped his finger on his belt buckle, waiting for her to respond.
Laura watched the sheriff tap his belt like an enthusiastic dog wagging his tail. She didn’t utter a word. She hated lawmen – this one in particular, and her eyes said it all. Sheriff Timmons nodded to his deputies, and in one quick move, they dragged the canvas forward revealing what lay beneath.
The corpses of two men bloated and ghastly were exposed. Blood drained from Laura’s face. She slid her hand over her stomach to keep from getting sick. “Don’t these boys look like your brothers, Daniel and Everett?” Sheriff Timmons asked with a sardonic glance at Laura. She was fighting hard to keep her composure. The men were indeed her brothers. Although their eyes were dead and their features were waxy, she recognized them. Tears welled in her eyes and she blinked them away. “You’re a brave man,” Laura said sarcastically, her voice breaking off a bit.
The sheriff wasn’t amused by her comment. His eyes were fixed angrily on hers. The tension in the musty, enclosed space was palpable. “This is only two of your brothers’ carcasses,” he snapped. “I want the three other brothers.”
Laura studied her deceased siblings’ disfigured faces, trying to remember what they once looked like. “I want all the Reno boys,” he added. She choked down sobs. “Good luck,” she told the sheriff.
Sheriff Timmons’ face twisted with insane rage and he reached for his gun. He hit her hard over the head with the barrel of the weapon, and she collapsed on the floor in a heap.
John Reno urged his horse from under a canvas of shade trees that covered a hillside, thirty plus miles east of Virginia City, Montana. The rider squinted in the bright sunlight as he scanned the countryside that unrolled before him. The magnificent sky was dabbed with streaks of pink and orange. John was a big man in his mid-30s with cold blue eyes, graying hair, and a bristly, full mustache. He had an air of grave and resolute authority. In the near distance he could see the Devolle Western Railroad tracks uncoil around rocky bluffs and over grassy slopes. Somewhere, far away, was the sound of a train fast approaching. The train whistle blew and an icy grin touched John’s lips.
From another hill vantage point, opposite from where John sat waiting, was his brother Frank. The sandy-haired, twenty-four-year-old had deep-set, dark eyes in a rough-carved face. Slim rider’s legs carried a horseman’s torso with his main weight concentrated in the heavy chest, back, and arm muscles. His hands were worn, scarred and competent looking. When he heard the train whistle blow, he hurried to a section of railroad track couched between groves of oak trees. Two men, William Sparks and Charles ‘California’ Nelse stood over the section of track, carefully placing explosives on the wooden ties. Frank’s fast approaching horse prompted them to abandon their nefarious task and remove their guns from the comfort of their holsters. Frank raised his right hand high as he came on the pair. “It’s me,” he announced. “Any problems?” he asked. “Not a one. We’re set,” California assured Frank.
Hard inquisitiveness left Frank’s face and he smiled. “Good,” he offered as he turned his horse around and hurried away from the scene.
After one last check that the charges were set and the blasting caps were in place, William and California jumped on their horses and followed Frank. The sound of the train grew closer.
John studied the train as it traveled on its way. That frosty grin touched his mouth again. He cradled a shotgun in his arms. For a moment everything was calm, tranquil. A covey of quail took off near the place where Frank, California, and William sat patiently waiting atop their rides. In the charged quiet the four men took off in full gallop in the direction of the train, their expressions stony and inscrutable. A rapid series of sequential explosions erupted, destroying the track under the train and the track hundreds of feet before it.
The high pitched scream of steel on steel echoed over the terrain. Sparks flew from the wheels of the engine and three cars behind it. The rest of the railcars were blown to bits. Debris rained from the sky, littering the picturesque setting, smoke hung over the twisted wreck. Pieces of lumber and metal smoldered. It looked like hell.
John and Frank, William and California arrived at the derailed and disheveled train with their guns drawn. A bewildered and shaken engineer and mechanic emerged from the engine of the train and were greeted by four forty-five pistols. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” the engineer asked as he dropped to his knees, his arms crossed his chest and he groaned.
“Thought we’d take the money in the express car,” Frank told him stepping off his horse.
“Robbing the Devolle Western Railroad,” the engineer responded, glancing back at the damaged car in question. “Never heard of such a thing,” he added.
“Yeah,” John snapped back, “we just came up with the idea.”
John kept his gun leveled at the engineer and the fireman while Frank, William, and California climbed off their rides and onto the charred platform of the express car. Three oblong, iron boxes sat undisturbed in the rubble. California pried the lids open that fit on top of the safes with a crowbar he was carrying with him. Frank and William inspected the contents then stuffed five canvas bags with thousands of dollars in gold and government bonds. They secured the treasure on their mounts tied to a stand of sagebrush, then rode off. Still shaken by the sudden, magnificent blast and disoriented by the audacity of the crime, no one dared stop the outlaws riding away.
Night had settled on Hills City, Montana. Through the darkness a horse and rider moved slowly toward the soft, glimmering lights of the busy cattle town toward the railroad. A five-car train waited on the track in front of the depot. The rider dismounted when he reached the last car and tied his horse to the ornate railing on the stairs leading to the caboose. The elaborate lettering scrawled above the entrance to the car read “D. G. Devolle Western Railroad”. The rider studied the name for a moment then knocked on the car door. He entered before being invited inside.
The interior of the car was Victorian elegance. Green velvet furnishing with gold brads and tassels was carefully stationed throughout the room. Medieval porcelain figurines rested on mahogany tables next to silver trays filled with pheasant, sweet potatoes, and pastries. A woman’s voice from a connecting room called out gruffly, “Take off your hat.” The man begrudgingly complied with her request. “Did you bring good news, Mister Stanley?” the woman asked as she entered the room.
Lotta ‘Lottie’ Devolle was a large, round woman with dull, thinning, red hair, and a cluster of freckles that ran across her wide nose. An upholstered crutch was tucked under her left arm and she relied heavily on it to move about. Her clothes were stunning. Any physical deficiency was nearly overshadowed by her stunning wardrobe. At least that was Lottie’s intent. She wore a handsome, maroon colored gown accentuated with diamond and emerald jewelry, and she carried a point-lace, needlework fan.
Myles Stanley’s blue eyes followed Lottie as she made her way to a table where a bottle of wine and two gold embossed goblets sat. Stanley was a well-built man with thick, dark hair. He carried himself as if he were born of royalty- shoulders back, chest out. He was charming and all too aware of it.
“The news, Mister Stanley,” Lottie reminded him as she poured a drink for each of them.
“The Reno Gang robbed your train,” he told her. “They took the money to pay off the politicians for the advancement of the Devolle Railroad and the pay you set aside for the workers.” Unperturbed, Lottie poured herself and Myles another drink. “Ambitious,” she announced as she turned herself around and made her way toward him, carrying both their drinks in her giant mitt.
“I thought you’d be more upset,” he told her, taking the wine she offered.
“I’m selective about when I show it,” Lottie responded, settling down in one of the chairs. She extended her hand toward the divan next to her and Stanley sat down. “I learned that a long time ago when I inherited this rail line from my father. Then, of course, D. G. Devolle was simply a stage and freight line.”
Myles watched her position her crutch between the chair and the folds of her gown. He seemed to drift in a channel of thought from which it was difficult to withdraw. “I saw you perform at a theatre once in San Francisco,” he offered, apropos of nothing.
“Back when I had both legs,” she announced matter-of-factly.
Myles shifted in his seat, unsure of what to say next. He lowered his eyes a little, embarrassed to look at her. This didn’t escape Lottie’s attention.
“There will be no pity for me, Mister Stanley,” she chastised him. “I won’t have it. This railroad is all that matters to me. I want the rail line, the land it runs on, and all the possibilities that come with that land.”
Myles nodded, took a sip of his wine and set it aside. He was ready to talk business.
Myles removed a map from his nicely tailored suit pocket and spread it out on the table between them. “With a few exceptions,” he said referring to the map, “every plot of land needed between here and Seattle, Washington has been – how would you say it? Acquired?”
Lottie studied the map and frowned. “And the exceptions?” she asked.
Myles removed a cigar from his pocket and smelled it. “That’s why you have me,” he told her, as he struck a match to the tip of the cigar.
Lottie breathed in the sweet aroma of the stogie and gave Myles an approving smile. “I want all the money back that was stolen,” she said. “I agree,” he replied, nodding. “Kill all the Renos if you have to,” Lottie added, gently laying her hand on top of his.
A brief, awkward silence hung in the air. Myles slowly pulled his hand away and refolded the map. “I agree,” he told Lottie, tucking the map inside his suit pocket.
Trying to hide that she was a little offended by his disinterest, she took a gulp of her drink and set it aside. “I’m glad you agree, Mister Stanley,” she said with a bit of a sarcastic edge. “Try to remember, however, when two people in business always agree, one of them is unnecessary.”
It was a backhanded threat, but a threat none the less and Myles knew it. He also knew that Lottie had the money and the power to make good on any threat made. Rising, he picked up his hat and headed for the door.
“Good night, Mister Stanley,” Lottie called out as he exited. Myles walked out into the dark without saying a word.
The intense heat of midday in the open land next to Swan River, seven miles outside the town of Anaconda, Montana, had passed and evening’s shadows lengthened rapidly toward the east. A herd of sheep moved slowly out from the shade of tangled underbrush to feed in the open. The two shaggy, snarling dogs, lying close on either side of a rough, poorly-clad herder, trotted out to take up their post in a vigil which now seemed necessary. The herder himself moved out from his position as well. Three horsemen fast approaching a small ranch house in the middle distance aroused the herder’s suspicion. His perfect peace had been broken. Very few visitors rode out to the Reno homestead; it was well to be prepared.
The herder watched as the riders had almost reached their destination and stopped at an empty corral between a log cabin and a barn. One of the riders dismounted and sauntered toward a wagon, filled with crates, trunks, and baskets. It was apparent there was a move in progress, but there was no sight of anyone around apart from the three riders.
The herder kept a close eye on the rider inspecting the items in the back of the wagon. After a few moments the curious rider entered the cabin. The herder smiled to himself as if he knew what awaited the rider on the other side of the cabin door. He made a clicking sound with his tongue and the dogs obediently flanked the sheep on either side and drove the animals in the direction of the herder. The herder led the way down the hill into a valley with the sheep in tow.
Myles Stanley peered inside the cabin cautiously. A crate set on a bare table, excelsior spilled out the sides of the crates, dishes had been stacked inside the crate and there were a few more waiting to be packed. Stanley stepped inside the empty room. Apart from a photograph resting on a crude shelf and a few dishes, everything had been cleared out. He picked up the picture and studied it. It was of Laura Reno surrounded by her five brothers. Everyone in the shot was beaming, but none more so than Laura. Her expression was one of delight and pride.
Sensing he was no longer alone in the room, Myles returned the photograph to the shelf and slowly turned around. Laura Reno stood in the doorway of the bedroom, a rifle leveled at the intruder. Myles raised his hands and Laura took a step out of the shadows into a stream of light spilling into one of the dusty windows. Her face was pale, but her expression was resolute.
“I’m with the bank,” Myles offered quickly. “I don’t have a gun.”
Laura wasn’t interested. She cocked the hammer back on the weapon and aimed. Yellowing bruises on her right eye and cheek were clearly visible.
“You wouldn’t shoot an unarmed man,” Myles coolly inquired.
“I would,” Laura responded sincerely.
“I didn’t mean to intrude,” he told her, his hands still raised. “I came out to look at the property so I can give an accurate description of the place for the auction.”
“You’re not helping yourself much,” she said, the gun still pointed at his head. “Surely you know that’s what happens to property that’s been foreclosed on, Miss Reno,” Miles explained. “You are Laura Reno?”
Laura slowly lowered the gun but Miles kept his hands up, uncertain of what she’d do. “I have a few more things to take care of, and I’ll be out of here,” she finally offered. Miles relaxed and when she put the rifle down, he lowered his arms. “I don’t remember seeing you before,” Laura said, as she gently placed the dishes into the crate. “What happened to Mr. Parker?” “He retired,” Myles told her. “My name is Myles Stanley.” He extended his hand to her, but she ignored him.
“The sheep rancher on the hill, is he part of your outfit?” Myles probed.
“He’s with the March homestead, a day’s ride from here,” she snapped back. “I sold them the livestock I had left.”
Myles stared out the open front door. He was feeling a little embarrassed but knew it would pass quick enough. “I know this must be a difficult time,” he said in his best sympathetic voice.
Laura wasn’t swayed by the act. “Concerned you won’t find a buyer to take the note off your hands?” she asked with a slight edge.
“Not at all,” Myles responded confidently. “Too bad your brothers aren’t here to help,” he said, referring to the picture on the shelf.
Laura walked over to the picture and picked it up. She stared at it thoughtfully and then asked, “Do you know my brothers?”
“I know of them,” Stanley confessed. “How long has it been since you’ve seen them? I only ask because the place looks like you’ve been the only one running it for a while. Buyers will want to know what’s in store for them.”
Laura ignored the question. She was suspicious of Stanley but didn’t much care what he was after at this point. She just wanted out. After she finished the last bit of packing, she hammered the lid down on the top of the crate and slipped the photograph into her drawstring bag. “I’ll leave you alone so you can continue your evaluation in peace,” she told Stanley as she picked the wooden box up.
“Let me give you a hand with that,” he offered.
“No thanks,” she said, lifting the crate, “I can kick myself out.”
Myles watched Laura exit, then eased himself to the door to watch her load the crate onto the wagon. She was bold and defiant – neither of which were traits he held in high regard. She didn’t look back as she drove the team and wagon from the ranch. Myles motioned to one of the men who rode to the Reno place with him. The man coaxed his roan to the front of the house and stopped. “Wait until she’s a few miles out,” Myles ordered the man as he continued watching Laura, “then kill her.”