Deadline by Kenneth Schalhoub

Kenneth Schalhoub tells of a stagecoach journey through the perilous Wild West, fraught with highwaymen, hostile natives, and deadly smallpox.

1858 - New Mexico Territory
Day 1

We depart at sunset. I share the stagecoach with five strangers, three banker types across from me, one extremely pallid. Next to me sits a young woman with wavy coffee-colored hair mostly hidden by a flowered hat. Next to her rests an angular monk, his head buried in a bible.

We are passengers on an Overland Mail stagecoach. The company's main source of income is the mail contract with the federal government. We, the paying passengers, share the coach with mailbags under our feet. And although most find their bodies stiff and twisted after a long stagecoach journey, not so with me. Being born on a Conestoga wagon train prepared my bones for the travel conditions on the rutted, muddy ways.

I am a storyteller, or rather, an embellisher of the truth. I sell my stories to newspapers throughout the territory. My income affords me passage inside the coach, while hangers-on up top wipe grit from their faces. The stage only stops for two reasons: a team change at a swing station, just long enough for a man to relieve himself, or a home station where we might stay for a half hour and be served a meal by the station keeper. The runs, seemingly unending journeys between stops, confuse a man's perception of time.

I am ready to write a new story and this stagecoach journey might provide the canvas. A report of a stagecoach robbery north of El Paso was covered in the local newspaper. It was said a doctor named Tom Bell, also known as Outlaw Doc, who had served in the Mexican American war as a surgeon, orchestrated the first ever stagecoach robbery in these parts. Being held up by Tom Bell would offer great story material if I were to survive. I convince myself the outlaws are only after the valuables.

My body vibrates in rhythm with the team's pounding hoofs. The crunch of gravel is a single-note lullaby. The stage is hidden in a shadow of dust. To the driver in the box, the Jehu, the road ahead must appear interminable.



I wake to points of light dimmed by the crescent moonlight. The plump bankers snore in unison. The monk remains hidden in the dark. The woman next to me sprays perfume into the stagnant coach air. Inhaling deeply, I am overcome by the scent. My eyes begin to adjust, perceiving her dark outline. I picture her untanned winter skin, chocolate eyes, and waves of chestnut hair. She's quite attractive, maybe even beautiful. I turn toward to her.

"Will you tell me your name and talk with me for a while? We can keep it to a whisper," she says.

"Albert Edelstein, reporter and storyteller, Miss -"

"- Stuart. You may call me Margaret."

She presents her hand which I hold carefully for a few moments.

"And what is your destination, Miss Margaret?"

"Los Angeles."

"Did you enjoy your time in El Paso?"

"Just passing through, Mister Edelstein. I embarked from Dallas."

"Are you from Dallas?"

"My, Mister Edelstein, you ask many questions, but I forget you are a reporter. Yes, I've lived my life to this point in Dallas."

"Why Los Angeles?"

"A well-to-do man found me on a list."

"What kind of list?"

"It was in the Los Angeles Tribune, in the personals, you understand, contact ads."

I nod, unsure if she could see me.

"I know they can be trouble, but how else is a woman to find a decent man?"

I do not pursue further conversation. I touch her hand for a moment and wait for dawn.



Day 2

Gray sky gives way to a blazing sun burning through the coach curtains.

The ashen banker has a coughing spell.

The growing aroma of frying pork welcomes us as we approach a home station. We eat quickly, conduct other business, and return to the stage. The new team responds to the Jehu's whip.

Late afternoon I recall an incident from less than a year ago. I was en route to Los Angeles in an Overland coach. A woman sat next to me. She introduced herself as Sarah Worthington. We whispered together each night. She had been educated back East and wanted to be a publisher. We planned how we could work together, me on the outside and her on the inside. I disembarked at the Tucson station to talk with some of the townsfolk. I was working on a new story about the most dangerous towns in the territory. She was to return and meet me in El Paso after her business meeting with a Mister Zander Penman of the Penman Printing Company. "I've come into some money and plan to invest in the printing business," she told me. I waited in El Paso for her arrival. Multiple stages passed through on their way into the heart of Texas with no word of a Sarah Worthington. After several weeks, a Jehu on an incoming stage jumped down from his box and entered the station's waiting area. "Is there a Mister Edelstein here or has anyone seen this man?" I looked up from my bowl of Pasole. The Jehu handed me a letter and returned to his stage. My shaking hands could barely break the wax seal.

Dear Albert,

Los Angeles is a very young town with little to offer financially. Mr. Penman's business is small and not a viable investment. Also, this town seems to be taken ill from smallpox. Everyone is staying indoors.

I will have already left for better opportunities in San Francisco when you receive this missive.

I did so enjoy our time together, but the frontier is not my future. Please contact me if you decide to make the journey.

Yours,

Sarah Worthington

Arrival at the evening station startles me from my memory. I turn to face Miss Margaret and inspect, for the first time, her quite inappropriate travel clothing. Her shoes are not the kind for walking, her dress is so voluminous it doubles as an added cushion for me to sit upon, and the hat, large enough for a hidden bird's nest.

We're given thirty minutes to eat our second and last meal of the day while the station keeper changes the team. Everyone leaves the coach except the sweaty, pale banker. We spoon our Pasole with haste and return to the stage. A rusty-western sky greets us as the Jehu whips the four fresh horses.



I wake to the sound of a cough echoing through the coach.

"Albert?"

"Yes?"

"Shall we whisper again?"

"If you wish."

She begins to talk about herself with no prodding from me. Spring, eighteen forty-one, Margaret Stuart was born in a Dallas boarding house. Her family was originally from Philadelphia and traveled on a wagon train to Dallas some years before her birth.

"I have lived in Dallas my entire life. When I was a child, I was a proud Texas girl; not anymore. I learned, when I was a teenager, in these parts there are only two ways for a woman to live. She could find a good man to marry or be a prostitute. I chose the first."

Miss Margaret opens a worn envelope, postmarked Los Angeles, removes a note and hands it to me. The Moon illuminates the impeccably handwritten words.

Dear Miss Margaret,

I am a single man of adequate health and age. I desire a woman of fine upbringing with whom I may share my life. I thank you for providing a photograph of yourself. I have read your beautiful prose many times. Please come and marry me.

Yours,

Zander Penman

Owner and President, Penman Printing Company

"That is the man I am to marry."

"I've heard of this man. A woman I knew visited him several months ago for a business opportunity."

"He has told me he is very successful."

I do not have the heart to tell this unsuspecting woman what Sarah had written regarding Mister Penman's business.

"And this Zander Penman will be waiting for you on the platform?"

"Yes, I trust he will."

I find her hand in the dark and embrace it. The outline of the ailing man haunts the coach.



Day 3

The stagecoach slows as dawn breaks. Margaret sits motionless with hands joined on her lap. The monk stares at the obviously sick banker curled in fetal position on the opposing bench. The other two bankers crush against each other away from the motionless man.

"Home station! Thirty-minute break!" the conductor announces.

Miss Margaret and I duck into the station. Cool air dries our perspiration. The station keeper sets two bowls of Pasole with a bit of floating bacon and a cracker on the table. We eat automatically. When I finish, I touch her hand, then convince my frozen legs to move again and leave the adobe hut. The rapidly-heating air smells from rotten food and waste. The sick banker stumbles toward the back of the station, helped along by the conductor.

"Yer goin' to have to stay back here," the conductor says to the sick man.

"What's going on here?" I ask.

"None of yer damn business," the conductor says.

I see the banker's neck covered with emerging blisters.

"Make water if ya need to, fast. We leave in five minutes," the conductor barks.

I glance at the pox covered banker sitting upright, back against the adobe wall. He looks up at me with dead eyes. I relieve myself and leave the man to his last thoughts among the human waste from countless stagecoach passengers.

When I enter the coach, Miss Margaret sits as a statue might. The monk appears to be asleep. The space that has been occupied by the sick banker is vacant. She looks at me and smiles with kind eyes. But I sense they belie her true feelings: fear of not knowing the man she is to marry, fear she will be abandoned, fear she will fall ill.

The conductor leans into the coach. "The man needed some rest. He's out back waitin' for the next stage."

I think about the image of the dying man as the Jehu uses his whip without spare on the lead horses. We speed through a rutted canyon road while Indians watch from the southern ridge. The conductor shouts into the cabin. "Apaches. We'll be outta their territory soon."

I smell terror from the bankers.



As the sun leaves us, she begins whispering.

"Albert?"

"Yes?"

"I have never been so frightened," her voice falters. "Will those savages come back?"

"I doubt it. They always send out scouts," I say. "I've been on many of these journeys and never been confronted."

I know the Apaches can be unpredictable, but I don't want to frighten her.

"Zander told me in his last letter I would be protected. He told me he would pay someone to make sure I was comfortable and safe. Now I must purge my memory of that horrible sick man and the vision of distant savages."

Mister Penman had lied to her, of course. There is no one he could have paid. No one could guarantee her safety.

"What do you think was wrong with that man?" Margaret asks.

"He had blisters. I think it may have been smallpox," I say.

Margaret finds my hand.

"Blisters?" the monk, suddenly alert, booms. "You saw them, sir?"

I nod. The two silent bankers look at each other.

"Other than the two gentlemen seated across from us, who else had contact with the deceased?" the monk asks.

"I saw the conductor pushing the man with his hand," I say.

The monk stands and thumps his fist against the ceiling of the coach. "Stop this stage!" He continues pounding until we feel the Jehu slowing the team to a stop.

The conductor jumps down and approaches the cabin.

"Stay back, sir. Come no closer," the monk says. He opens the door and steps from the coach.

The Jehu jumps from the box and stares at the monk. "I'm in charge of this stage. Let's git back into the coach so we can git movin'."

I step from the coach and pull Miss Margaret with me.

"Are you aware that the man who you abandoned at the last station had smallpox? He may already be dead," the monk says.

"You don't know that," the Jehu says.

"I do know that. This man, Mister Edelstein, revealed the information to me and I believe him. And your conductor came in direct contact with the ill man. And you came in contact with your conductor. And the other two in the coach also had contact with their gravely ill travel mate. I'll decide what happens next," the monk booms.

"He has a gun!" Margaret yells.

The monk points a Burnside Carbine single-shot rifle at the Jehu. "My hobby, when I'm not praying," he says.

"What the - who the -" the Jehu stammers.

"Let's just say I've been hired by Overland to watch over things while this Tom Bell gang is on the loose. Seems we may have bigger problems." He looks at Miss Margaret and me. "The man and woman were not touched by the dead man, and I had no contact with him either." He points his rifle at the two bankers inside. "You stay in those seats until we reach Los Angeles." Then he points the barrel at the Jehu. "Take your conductor and get into the coach. I don't care if you stink up the place. You're stayin' put until we arrive at the station."

The monk watches the men step into the coach, then climbs up to the box. "You two will want to be hanger-ons behind me."

The situation gives us no choice.



Day 4

I come to think of the monk as our guardian. He drives all night until we reach the next home station.

The keeper approaches as we slow to a stop.

"You sir, do not approach this stage. We've been touched by a smallpox death."

Our former Jehu attempts to exit the coach, but the Carbine says no. The monk jumps from the box and explains our blight to the keeper.

"The man and woman can eat in the station. The rest of you'll stay where ya are. Food'll be brought to ya," the keeper says.

Margaret and I eat the beans and crackers and lard. I steal a glance at her and see beauty behind the miles of soot.

We maintain a steady pace through the blazing, unending day. Night brings the sound of hoofs approaching the stage. The monk continues driving. One armed rider emerges from the shadowed desert and stops in the middle of the trail ahead, forcing the monk to pull hard on the reins.

"Hey Jehu, I ain't seen you before. You an Overland man?"

The monk stares at the gunman blocking our way. "I've been known to help them out from time to time."

"Where's George?" the gunman asks.

"You mean the driver you were expecting to see up here? He's in the coach with the conductor and two others. But I wouldn't go near them if I were you, Doc."

"Bell! Get us outta here!" George shouts.

It's the Tom Bell! The possibility of death grips me. I lift my head for a better view.

"You keep your ass where it's at, George. I'll take care-a-this," Bell says. "Okay, Mister Jehu, why're they being held in the coach?"

"Might have smallpox," the monk says.

"I bet their jewelry ain't got the pox."

"Heard tell you have a posse from El Paso after you," the monk says, head and rifle fixed on Bell.

"That's none of your concern. Just collect me all the jewelry!"

"Can't do that."

From the corner of my eye, I see a second gunman emerge from the shadows with pistol drawn. "I reckon you best listen to the Doc." He cocks his revolver.

"Who's hangin' on up top?" Bell shouts.

Margaret moves against me, body stiff with fear.

"Just a man and woman. Pay them no mind," the monk says.

"Hey, you two up there, get down here!" Bell yells.

I jump down first and help Miss Margaret. She's crying silently. I watch the monk's attention move from Bell to the second gunman, keeping both men guessing.

"Who're you?" Bell asks me.

"I write stories," I say. My voice sounds separate from my body, drifting away after I say the words.

Miss Margaret screams as a third gunman grabs her from behind and holds his cocked revolver against her neck.

"Keep that whore quiet!" Bell growls. "Start gettin' the jewelry."

The gunman holding Margaret rips her necklace off, drawing blood. He drops it into the dust.

I remove my pocket watch and stare at the engraved initials before dropping it near the necklace. From the corner of my eye, I spot the coach door beginning to open.

"You can take 'em, Doc!" George shouts and dives to the ground.

I freeze.

The arm of the second gunman is blown off by the Carbine. Blood splatters into the darkness.

A bullet from the monk's Colt shatters the knee of the gunman holding Miss Margaret. He crumbles to the ground in howling pain.

She falls into my arms sobbing uncontrollably.

George finds his hidden Derringer and fires a shot at me. My shoulder erupts in burning pain. "There, storyteller. Now you got something to write about."

The Carbine fires on a cowering George, blowing his hand into nothingness.

Cocked Colt points at Bell's chest.

"Okay now, this is better," the monk says. He pulls down his head covering.

"Goddam Stanton!" Bell yells into the night.

"I knew you'd recognize me."

The monk bangs the butt of his rifle on the side of the coach. "Get out! All of ya!"

The two bankers and conductor stumble from the coach.

The monk motions us to get back up top. I snatch back the necklace and watch from the dust.

"I'm not sure what you boys'll do out here with some of you bein' shot up and all," the monk says to Bell and the others. "I'm sure the Apaches'll come by for a visit."

The monk gives the command and the team lurches forward jerking the empty stage.

Tom Bell shouts as we disappear down the trail. "You're headin' into hell! Smallpox everywhere!"

Miss Margaret rips a cloth strip from her slip and puts pressure on my shot-up shoulder. Can words truly describe what we experienced? The confrontation took only moments, but the fear continues to echo.

I stare at the gray sky.



Day 5

The journey will soon be over. We should arrive at the Los Angeles station by tomorrow morning. After the confrontation with Tom Bell, it has become evident that our monk is not a man of God. He is a feared man and a respected man. Many of the keepers know him well.

I write my notes and wonder if a man consumed with evil is worth a story. Do the readers want to read about outlaws and other despicable men? Yes, but they also want to see the same dangerous dregs brought down and defeated.

The monk drives the stage.



Day 6

Late morning, we arrive at the Los Angeles station greeted by an empty platform. The keeper walks slowly toward our stage.

"Clarence! Long time," the monk says and jumps down.

"Ha! Disguising yourself as a monk now, James?"

"Where's everybody?"

"Smallpox. Lotta people dyin'." He looks toward the stage. "What happened to you?"

"No time for that now. I got a man with a bullet in his shoulder and the woman up top was supposed meet a man here." The monk motions for Miss Margaret to get down.

"Haven't seen our doc for a while," Clarence says, and turns his attention to Margaret. "What's the man's name?"

Margaret tries to fix her dusty-brown hair. "Zander Penman. His name is Zander Penman. He told me he has a printing company here. Quite successful."

"Zander Penman... yes, I know of him and his printing company in town center. Are you sure it was today you were to meet 'im?" Clarence asks.

"Yes, this very day. We are to be married."

"Haven't seen Penman. He used to come here for news on incomin' stages. Haven't seen him since people started gettin' sick."

"What will you do if something has happened to Mister Penman?" I whisper to Miss Margaret.

She looks at me with regret. "I will have to return to Dallas."

"Why go back to Dallas?"

"I have nothing here. I do have a past in Dallas."

"A past you tried to escape by accepting Zander Penman's offer."

She looks away.



James prepares two fresh mounts.

"You comin' with me?" James asks after he swallows his last spoonful of beans. "Should be a doctor in town."

The thought of riding a horse with my throbbing shoulder nauseates me, but I cannot say no to the man who saved us. Stanton and I head west toward town center. I ask him if he thinks we'll die.

He stares straight ahead. "We might... and we might not."

It takes less than a quarter hour to reach the center of town. Neckerchiefs cover all but our eyes. Boarded up adobe shelters surround us. We are nauseated by the stench of death. Doors are splashed with red. James hands me a loaded Colt Navy revolver and nods as if he knows I have never fired a gun.

We stay mounted and scan the deserted town. The Penman Printing Company façade is across the square, streaked in scarlet. We both dismount with guns drawn.

"Those pistols won't help ya!" a voice echoes around the square. "You can shoot. I reckon it won't matter. I'm already dead."

We cross the square to Penman's partially open door.

"I wouldn't go in there!" the voice resonates.

James pushes the door open with his boot. A wave of diseased air escapes past us. I light the nearest oil lamp. The office has been ransacked and two dead people rest frozen at their desks, faces and necks filled with dried, disfiguring pustules.

"We've got to find some proof of Penman, dead or alive," James says.

We leave the infected building.

"Lookin' for Penman?" the voice says. "He's the dead man in there. Odd man. Had a wife that used to visit from time to time. Would come on the stage from Dallas, complain' all the way. Can't blame her. But, heard tell he convinced another woman from Dallas to be his bride, even though he was already married! Can you believe that? I reckon he musta been one of them Mormons from Utah."

"We know this other woman!" I shout. "She wants to know if her future husband is alive or dead. We need proof."

"See that stack of newspapers over by the saloon? Last ones printed. There's yer proof."

I run to the saloon. There, on the front page, dated a week ago, is our proof.

President and Owner of Penman Printing Company Dies of Smallpox
No services planned.

I stash the paper in my bag.

"Is there a doctor in town? My shoulder's shot up," I shout.

"First to die," the man yelled back. "His nurse was the second."

James and I head back to the station. I try to block the searing pain from my ruined shoulder while story details race around my mind. Sarah had seen the illness when she met with Zander Penman in Los Angeles. That illness now blankets the prairie with death.



We arrive back at the station before nightfall.

"What'd ya see?" Clarence asks. "Many dead?"

"Most dead or dyin'," James says.

"Miss Margaret, we have some unpleasant news. Mister Zander Penman died a week ago from smallpox." I place the newspaper in front of her.

"Hold it!" Clarence shouts. "Did you touch any dead people?" He looks at James and me.

"No," I say.

"We're not takin' any chances. You boys need to stay outside for a few days, see if any blisters appear. If none show up, then yer free to come in."

The pain throbs without mercy. I lie out back against my saddle and watch James mount and ride off. I don't know if I will see him again.



I wake to the tumult of a stage arriving. I have been writing my story for three days during the daylight hours, through the feverish pain in my shoulder. I search only for an ending.

One passenger is in the coach, a woman not unlike Miss Margaret. I watch as the Jehu explains their ill luck to Clarence. He had to leave seven behind with the blisters.

"You'll have to park that stage back by the corral and stay there for three days to see if pox show up," Clarence says.

"Keeper, I have ridden on these Godforsaken coaches since I boarded in Dallas. I cannot sit one minute longer," the woman says.

"Yer free to leave the coach and sit out back, Miss...?"

"Penman. Olivia Penman. I have come to visit my husband."

"Penman you say?"

I listen as Clarence tells her the bad news. She remains motionless in the coach staring straight ahead. After a proper time, Clarence brings her a bowl of beans.

"I don't mean to upset you more, but there's a woman been waitin' here. Claims to be Zander Penman's future bride."

Miss Margaret stands on the platform, staring at the woman in the stage.

Mistress Penman fixes her straw-like hair and steps from the coach. "And who are you?"

"My name is Margaret Stuart."

"Well, I see his tastes haven't changed," she says.

"Forgive me for saying, but you do not seem upset about the news of your husband." Miss Margaret asks without raising her head.

"He was a decent man when I was with him. And my family provided the money for him to start his little printing business. But I was taught by my parents to be independent. So, we lived apart, turning our heads the other way. This country is too vast to avoid infidelity."

Tears begin to drip down Miss Margaret's cheeks. "I never really knew him except through his letters."

"I bear no ill will toward you, dear. Please come with me and help me bury my husband. I'm sure you would have liked him, although he was a flawed man as you now know."

The sound of a rider cuts through the sage.

"I would advise against that!" the approaching horseman shouts."

"Keeper, who is this man?" Mistress Penman asks.

"That there's -"

"James Stanton, madam." He tips his hat. "If you go to bury your husband, you'll certainly die. I've been riding day and night waiting for my first blister. It never came. I'm a lucky one. You may not be."

"I appreciate your concern, Mister Stanton, but I must do what is right by custom and religion. Keeper, please prepare two mounts with a bit of food and plenty of water."

"Make that three," I say as I walk toward the platform.

"Mister Edelstein, you cannot ride with that bullet in your shoulder." Miss Margaret says. "You're going to need a doctor."

"The only doctor is dead." I walk to the platform and pull up my undergarment. Scores of red bumps cover my chest and stomach.

"I'm a dead man, Miss Margaret."

"Oh, Albert, after such a horrible journey and all we endured, I am now to lose you as well? What will I do?"

"You will kindly take my completed story and secure its publication. In return I'll assist you and Mistress Penman in town center, but you must keep your distance from me."



An hour later Mistress Olivia and Miss Margaret ride away from the station. I follow several lengths behind. The desert opens before us with blooming yuccas and cacti. I daydream of my own story. Riding the rails east, attending Harvard College, trying to learn the art of words. I achieved degrees in journalism and English. The train brought me back to Saint Louis, but there was no one with whom to celebrate my accomplishment. My mother died of consumption a week before I graduated. My father was already dead from working too many factory hours.

I disembarked in Saint Louis and purchased a Conestoga wagon. One month later, I sold the wagon for a profit in Dallas and used the money to purchase a stagecoach ticket to the frontier, my writing palette.



I bury Mister Penman's pox-ravaged body and quickly write the ending. With gloved hands, Miss Margaret stows my words in her bag. The two women want to stay for a while but to what end? They cannot help me, and dusk will come soon.

I watch them ride away.

The late-afternoon sun makes me dreamy. Riders, gunman, and bounty men, I have written about them all. But I have never written about anyone as odd as Zander Penman. My life became connected to this man and to the smallpox his town laid upon the frontier.

In the quiet of a dying Los Angeles, I imagine so many stories still to be told, if only I had the time.

4 comments:

  1. Thank you for a most enjoyable story.

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  2. Enjoyed this briskly paced Western, which didn't feel like a long story at all. And from a technical point of view there were some deft transitions. Cheers.

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  3. Thank you, Edward, for reading my story. I appreciate your comments!

    ReplyDelete