• The President Killed His Wife
  • Counterblow
  • Never Bloodless
  • The Atomic Eagle
  • Sigma Division
  • The Kennedy Secret
  • The Gilded Treachery
  • Histats

Exclusive preview of my new book The Gilded Treachery

As promised, here is the exciting prologue of my upcoming historical thriller The Gilded Treachery:

Prologue

The rattle of the train had been unnerving at first. Now it was strangely soothing. There was something about the predictability of the gentle swaying that appealed to Chastity Parsons. After all, wasn’t that how you were supposed to put babies to sleep? She doubted the transportation engineers had had this in mind when developing the American railroad system. Anyway, she decided the infrastructure was too new in this early summer of 1869 for anyone to really know all the ins and outs of this engineering marvel.

For most of her contemporaries, train travel was still a thing of wonder. Journeys that once took weeks to accomplish were now being done in days. With the First Transcontinental Railroad now completed, it was possible for someone from New York to go to San Francisco in eight days. Before railroads, the same trip would have taken six months.

Chastity was no longer fascinated by this. She’d been using the train for half of her 27 years and most of the time it was for work. Just like today.

They were just outside Huntsville, Alabama, having just refilled the water tank. The rolling hills of the Tennessee River valley didn’t hold much attraction for her. Still, she gazed out her window and feigned interest. It was the only way to avoid having a chat with the man across the aisle from her. She had caught him stealing glances and knew that the moment she would look at him he would see this as a conversation invitation.

Not that she could blame him, she thought immodestly. She was quite easy on the eyes, as a former beau had once told her. She had high cheekbones and a slender face. Her lips were plump and naturally red which contrasted well with the jet black hair she kept in a loose chignon. The blue cotton dress she was wearing today wasn’t quite the high-fashion of New York, much less Paris, but it was miles above what local women wore. She had chosen it for comfort more than anything else. Traveling was rough enough without having to worry about tight clothing as well.

Finally, she made a mistake. She grew tired of the scenery and tore her eyes from the window. She instinctively glanced at the man sitting two feet away from her, against her better judgment. Just as she thought, he was looking at her.

He smiled at her. Well, she guessed he was by the angle of his eyes. She couldn’t see his mouth at all as it was hidden behind a bushy mustache. It was so thick in fact that she wondered for a moment how he managed to eat.

“Howdy?” he offered in the gravelly drawl of a hard-drinking farmer.

“How do you do?”

The man’s smile widened at her answer. Her voice surprised him. She had the appearance and demeanor of a well-bred city girl. He would have guessed New York or Boston. Her voice was however infused with southern inflections.

Chastity knew exactly what he was thinking. It wasn’t the first time someone had had his preconceived notions shattered. She was the daughter of a somewhat wealthy Atlanta businessman and had attended boarding schools in the north in her youth. She liked to think she had the best of both worlds: Northern wit and Southern charm.

“Mighty fine day for travelin’, ain’t it?” he asked when he had regained his composure.

“Yes, I believe it is.”

He nodded his agreement. The more she looked at him the less she was uncomfortable. The man was at least 15 years older than she was and he had to be married. This was confirmed when she spotted a thin wedding band on his left hand. There was nothing to fear from him. He just wanted to make time pass quicker.

“You’re going to Atlanta, I presume?” she asked.

“Yes ma’am, I sure am. Got me a brother over there, says he can get me work in his construction business. Times are mighty tough on our farm for the missus and the children. Figured I could scrape together a few more dollars.”

“Oh, I understand.”

It was the polite thing to say, she imagined. The truth was the concept of poverty was quite removed from her. She had grown up in relative opulence and had never involuntarily skipped a meal. The work she did was for personal enjoyment, not for money.

“And why exactly are you makin’ the journey down to Atlanta, if you don’t mind my askin’?”

She opened her mouth to reply when something outside her window caught her eye. It was a swoosh of brown, something a little brighter than a shadow. She frowned as she tried to establish the origin of what she had seen.

Her fellow passenger noticed her crimped eyebrows. “Sumthin’ the matter?”

“I’m not precisely sure.”

Five seconds later, she knew exactly what was going on. There was a ruckus as three men boarded the train at the front of the car. What she had seen had been galloping horses cutting across a curve to catch up with the train.

“Everybody get your hands up, this is a robbery!”

There were 13 passengers on board and everyone complied amid a few yelps of alarm.

The three robbers were similar in appearance. They were of average height, dressed in denim and brown overcoats, had Stetsons lowered over their forehead and scarves were hiding everything but their eyes. Each had a revolver in the right hand.

“You all git your money, jewelry, and valuables out right this minute. We pick it up and we goin’ be on our way. I don’t want no funny business!”

The coincidence was too great for Chastity. This couldn’t be a run-of-the-mill train robbery. Logic told her they were here for her. Before taking on this assignment she knew something like this could happen. She was prepared for it.

The other passengers were rummaging through their pockets, coming out with paper money, coins, pocket watches and necklaces. The robber who had thus far spoken stayed at the front of the car while his two acolytes walked down the aisle collecting the loot in burlap sacks.

“Whoo-hee! Look at them earrings, Scratchy. Si c’est pas d’lagniappe! I know a coonass who’ll give me a pretty penny.”

The third robber laughed and let out a rapid-fire volley of what sounded like French to Chastity. It was nothing like the French she had been taught in school, though. It had the same badly-enunciated drawl as their English.

She felt the train slowing down which could only mean other bandits had taken control of the locomotive. It made sense as they would have to stop in order to make their getaway. This also meant there were others still on the ground to join them with the horses.

The closer to her the robbers got, the more she was convinced this whole raid was staged in order to get to her. She had to act.

She had to act now.

She secured the string of her handbag around her left wrist and dug into it with her right hand. Her fingers quickly curled around the reassuring cold steel of her Derringer pistol. She let her forefinger rest on the trigger but didn’t pull out the weapon yet.

At last, the train having almost stopped and the robbers still a good five feet from her, Chastity made her move. She pulled out the gun but didn’t aim it. There was no use. It was a two-bullet weapon and there were three threats. It would be used only as a last resort.

She got on her feet, oblivious to the surprised looks she got from the robbers, and rushed further back to the rear of the coach. She opened the door and found herself on the open platform leading to the next car. She had no intention of going into it.

The train had now slowed to less than 10 miles an hour. It was slow enough. She jumped, keeping her feet together and her arms at her sides. The landing was hard but her body’s position absorbed the shock. Within three more seconds she was back on her feet.

Just as she had predicted, another robber was bringing horses — there were five of them — to the train for the criminals’ getaway. If these men were really after her they would be out of the train momentarily and getting caught would be the last of her problems. She could already hear them shouting inside the wagon. She had to get away fast.

She took off running toward the incoming horses. The rider, who was attired similarly to his companions, was taken aback by the running lady. This beautiful girl looked like she belonged at a party on the lawn of a plantation, not running away from a moving train.

He was further bowled over when she began firing at him from a tiny pistol barely protruding from her hand.

Chastity had only planned on shooting once, hoping to keep the second bullet for an emergency later on, but she changed her mind when she noticed the first round had only left the rider confused. She fired both bullets.

This had the desired result. The bandit was frightened and, as he ducked out of the way, he fell off his horse.

“Bitch,” he shouted as he hit the ground and realized his mistake.

Without losing momentum, Chastity continued running forward, crossing the last 10 feet between her and the horses. She grabbed the bridle of a buckskin, took hold of the reins, and expertly leaped atop the horse in a manner that was decidedly unladylike.

As the bandit got back on his feet and drew his revolver, Chastity kicked her heels and spurred the stallion to a gallop. She looked back over her shoulder and saw the three robbers scampering toward their mounts, no doubt hoping to give chase.

And that’s what they did. She was thankful for the small head start she had. She was also lighter than the outlaws chasing her which, by her calculations, should give her more speed. She’d been riding since she was a little girl, taught by her father who’d never hidden the fact that he’d always wanted a son.

She therefore had the advantage in this race for survival. The last remaining factor, the one over which she had no control, was the horse. If she had picked the lesser animal from the pack, she would soon be caught.

And killed.

She blanked her mind to avoid worrying about that likely option. Instead, she focused on the terrain. She was speeding back toward the west, toward Huntsville. She would be much safer around others than alone in the forest.

It had been a while since she had last ridden cross country but it was all coming back to her. The horse swiftly galloped through the grassy knolls and jumped effortlessly over brooks.

Before long, she could actually hear the bustle of the small city and see plumes of smoke rising from the chimneys of blacksmiths and textile mills.

It won’t be long, she told herself. Just hold on a smidge longer!

Within moments, she was rounding farm buildings and the town was within grasp. She was now on a genuine gravel road and she could hear the pounding hooves of her pursuers, somehow gaining on her.

She turned onto Greene Street before turning on Holmes. This proved to be too much for her stallion. The turn was too abrupt and she knew what was happening even before the buckskin did. She felt him drop below her as he twisted his right fetlock.

The dip turned into a fall as the horse fell sideways. Chastity was thrown off, landing harshly on the gravel. She felt scrapes on her left forearm although she didn’t dwell on them. There were much more pressing matters.

She got to her feet and took off further into the town. If she didn’t do anything, it would be a matter of seconds before the bandits reached her. She ran like she hadn’t done since she was a child, unmindful of the pain on her arm and in her legs, letting the adrenaline course through her veins.

Turning on Jefferson Street, she caught a glimpse of the bad men. Not risking the health of their horses like she had done hers, they were slowing down around corners. This would be her salvation, she judged.

Passersby looked at her strangely as she ran down Jefferson Street. The fleeing young lady was definitely something they didn’t see every day.

Instead of screaming for help, something that would have taken more energy than she could afford, she continued running until she saw something a block away from the courthouse. It was a Wells Fargo stagecoach.

It was stopped by the side of the road. There was no driver on top and, even more importantly, no shotgun messenger was visible. The vehicle was hers for the taking.

Using the last of her strength, she climbed on top of the carriage to the deck seat. Before she had even sat down, she reached for the reins and snapped the four horses forward. Well-trained, the animals began trotting before she snapped again for a quicker pace.

The outlaw who had brought horses to his buddies on the train swore as he saw her take off with the stagecoach.

“Goddamm it, Scratchy! I told you she was a bitch, didn’t I?”

Scratchy’s mask had fallen down below his chin and he didn’t bother lifting it up. It revealed a scraggy beard and a toothless grin.

“It don’t matter,” he replied. “Let’s git her.”

Their mounts were tired but would still be faster than four fresh horses pulling a 2,000-pound carriage. Soon, they were almost alongside the stagecoach. Scratchy was thinking about a way of getting aboard the vehicle. He didn’t relish the idea of leaping from his horse to a moving wagon.

And that’s when it hit him.

Calmly, he pulled out his revolver. Without slowing down he aimed at the two lead horses and fired into their heads. Then, to make sure his work was thorough, he killed the two others as well.

The effect was instantaneous. The forward motion of the stagecoach combined with the abrupt halt of the animals resulted in a brutal collision. The harness pole slammed into the ground, kicking up a cloud of dust, and the rear of the stagecoach was lifted off.

Had the horses been going faster, the carriage would have been flipped on its side and possibly broken in pieces. As it were, Chastity was catapulted from her seat and thrown against the Alabama ground for a third time today.

She had gotten into a seated position, aware of fresh scratches on her arms and face, when the outlaws surrounded her atop their mounts. She had nowhere to go.

Scratchy was loosely aiming his firearm at her. With his free hand, he reached under his hat and rubbed his scalp with gusto. When he was finished, he cocked his head to the side lazily and looked at Chastity, her face and arms dotted with blood, her pretty dress in tatters.

“You must be Chastity Parsons,” he stated flatly. “I think you got somethin’ for me.”

Unfortunately, she did.

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