In which our hero, Bobby Brown encounters a famous outlaw.

California, 1882.

     Bobby Brown sat perched atop the driver’s seat on the Concord stagecoach, rattling up the gravelly trail south of Copperopolis, California.

     Some years had passed since she had volunteered, disguised as a man, to fight for the Union forces in the American Civil War. When the great struggle between the states had ended, Bobby had drifted out west, holding down a succession of jobs en route. She had punched cattle in Wyoming, served as a scout for the army in Montana, and broken horses in Idaho. Now at last, aged thirty-two, she had wound up driving a stagecoach in the eastern foothills of the Golden State.

     She handled the team of horses with confidence, having spent some time during her military service as a mule skinner. She was knowledgeable and experienced around animals. Being gentle but firm with them, they seemed to sense her mastery. It had taken no time at all for her to convince Mr. Rawls, the district superintendent of the stage-line, to hire her once he had seen her work with a team.

     She had managed to keep the secret of her gender in spite of occasional moments of curiosity and suspicion from some of the men she had encountered on her journey. Her body was wiry and strong, toughened by hard work under the hot sun. Her yellow-brown hair was kept short and tucked away under her fedora, and she wore baggy jeans and loose cotton shirts to hide the slim curves of her body. Her pleasant regular features, tanned and weather-beaten in the outdoors, had lost their youthful softness and had earned enough lines to pass for a man’s. Her years in the army had taught her how to swagger like a man, how to roll a cigarette and how to spit into the bushes!  She had made a point of keeping her own counsel and had thus made few close friends although most fellows she had worked with had found her agreeable enough.

      Hers was a lonely life and sometimes in the evening hours she would recall with sadness her dear friend, Sean, who had died years ago at her side on the battlefield, but she was determined to maintain the secret of her identity. She had no desire to return to what she considered as the subjugated and demeaning status of a woman. She had decided that these occasional moments of loneliness and yearning were a price she was prepared to pay in return for a life of freedom and adventure.

     That kind of life, she was beginning to learn, was far more available to men and women alike out here on the untamed frontier, and she was glad that she had finally made it to her ‘promised land’.

    

“So how was the trip, Bobby?

     The speaker was a grizzled old man with a heavily lined face and a grey beard.

     “Real good,” answered Bobby with a smile. “No problems at all.”

     “So ole Black Bart didn’t show, huh?” asked Abe as he began to unharness the team.           

     “Nope,” replied Bobby. “I warn’t carrying nuthin’ of value on this trip. No gold, no paper money, no payroll…nuthin!”

     She paused and frowned.

     “Ain’t it kinda funny how that varmint seems to know just ‘xactly when we carryin’ bullion and when we ain’t. Almost feels like there’s someone on the inside tippin’ ‘im off!” she concluded.

    “Naw, ain’t very likely,” argued Abe. “He’s just plumb lucky is all!”

    “I guess,” admitted Bobby doubtfully. “Listen, Abe,” she continued, “I reckon that back left wheel is comin’ loose.”

    “You sure?” asked Abe.

    “Yeah,” answered Bobby. “You kin hear it when she’s rollin’. The other wheels is turnin’ smooth with a good sharp creak, but the back left makes a kinda thump each time she turns. You betta take a look afore the next run.”

    Abe limped to the back of the coach, and bent over to examine the wheel.

     He had been one of the stage line’s best drivers until a brake had slipped and a coach had run over his leg. Although he couldn’t drive any more, the company had given him a job in Copperopolis, changing and looking after teams and making minor repairs on the coaches. He didn’t get the same pay as the drivers, but he seemed content enough, and he enjoyed the banter with the younger drivers. He kept his ear to the ground, and could usually tell them what was in store even before the district superintendent gave them their orders. He had taken quite a liking to Bobby, giving her advice and appreciating the respect she gave him in return for his years of experience.

     “You got keen ears and no mistake,” he declared straightening up. “Wheel’s loose alright. I’ll need to tighten her. Good you spotted it when you did. Next trip the wheel coulda come right off. Listen, kid, you hungry?”

    I jest cain’t get used to him callin’ me kid, thought Bobby. Hell, I’m nearly thirty-four. Still, I guess I look pretty young and green to an old goat like him!

   “So hungry I could eat one o’ them horses!” she replied with a laugh.

  “Soon as I’ve fixed this here wheel, we kin grab a bite,” said Abe. “I’ll see you over in the café in an hour. Okay?”

   “Okay, old timer,” said Bobby.

 

 “So where’d you learn to handle a team so well, kid,” said Abe as he swallowed a gulp of steaming black coffee.

   Bobby pushed her eggs around the plate a moment before answering:

   “Drove a team fer a lady doctor, name o’ Clara Barton in the War,” she said, and then shoveled a forkful of eggs into her mouth.

   “Seems I heard somethin’ ‘bout her,” said Abe thoughtfully.

  “She wus a special lady,” said Bobby, chewing bon her eggs. “When I wus wounded, she took real good care o’ me. Then afterwards she asked me to drive her wagon, full o’ medical supplies.”

    “Don’t know as I cotton to wimmenfolk fightin in wars,” interrupted Abe. “Wimmens shud stay home, look after the little uns!”

     Bobby had long since learned to control her tongue when hearing such remarks.

    “You know, Abe,” she said gently. “There wus quite a few wimmin fightin’ for both sides in the war. Knew a couple mysel’. They wus jest as brave and tough as the menfolk. But anyways Clara Barton weren’t no soldier! She wus out to take care o’ the wounded, and I wus glad to help her. I been in some scraps mysel’, seen some terrible things, men blown to pieces. I jest wanted to help her best way I could, so I drove her team close on two years while she wus lookin’ after them poor fellers.”

       “Wasn’t she iver scairt?” asked Abe, picking up a piece of bacon from his plate.

     “Oh sure,” answered Bobby, “but that didn’t slow her none. She was out in the thick o’ things, bullets flyin’ all round. ‘Twas me that was more skairt!” She paused to chuckle at the memory. “Lord, I sure admired that woman. She was the finest lady I ever met!”

      “Whyn’t you stay with her after the war was done?” asked Abe.

      “She wanted me too!” declared Bobby proudly. “Even said she’d help me git some learnin’ to be a doctor, but I got itchy feet. Wanted to come west. See the big open spaces. Git me some adventures.”

     “Well, you gonna have an adventure next trip,” remarked Abe. “The boss got you tagged to drive that payroll up to the mine.”

    Bobby’s arm paused, a forkful of eggs poised halfway to her mouth.

    “How you know that, Abe?” she asked.

   “I keeps my ear pinned back,” replied Abe with a sly grin.

     Bobby gave him an affectionate nudge with her elbow.

   “You’re an old rogue!” she said. “but I like you anyways!”

   

  “Charlie Curry’s gonna be ridin’ shotgun for you tomorrow,” said Mr. Rawls, the district superintendent for Wells Fargo. “You’ll be carryin’ a sizeable payroll up to the mine. This is the kinda trip where Black Bart’s liable to take an interest, so keep your eyes peeled.”

     “Yes, sir,” replied Bobby. “We’ll be special alert when we’s crossin’ that narrow bridge across the creek, and when we’ve to slow on the curves.”

    Mr. Rawls nodded.

    “You’ll be headin’ out at dawn,” he growled. “Git yerself a good night’s sleep. I want you bright-eyed and bushy-tailed come the mornin’!”

     As Bobby was leaving the office, she felt a tug on her sleeve.

     Abe beckoned her to follow him around the corner into the stable. He turned, and there was a troubled expression on his face.

     “I bin thinkin’, kid, mebbe you shud ask the boss to be replaced on that run tomorrow. Could be real dangerous what with all that money you’s carrtyin’,” he said.

    “I cain’t do that!” protested Bobby. “The boss don’t like shirkers! He’d send me packin’!”

    “You cud pretend like you’re sick,” said Abe hopefully.

    “Come on, you old coot,” ragged Bobby, “how come you’re so all-fired worried ‘bout my safety all of a sudden. Charlie Curry’s ridin’ with me. He’s a good man!”

    The old man’s lip curled.

    “Charlie couldn’t hit a barn-door even with a scatter gun,” he said contemptuously, “and he certainly ain’t no match fer Black Bart. If that rascal shows up, you’d better toss him the money right off. I wudent want to see you hurt!”

    “Why, Abe, I never knew you cared!” said Bobby in a mocking tone, leaning over to put her arm around the old man’s neck.

    “Doggone it!” spluttered the old man, wriggling clear. “Quit sassin’ me, boy,  and go get some sleep!”

     Bobby turned and with a parting chuckle headed off down the street to bed.

   

  She was dreaming.

     In her dream she was perched on her seat above the team, thundering down the trail. Suddenly a figure in a long raincoat, carrying a shotgun, emerged from the brush at the side of the trail. There was a sack over his head. He gestured threateningly with his gun, signaling her to stop the coach.

     She pulled back on the reins sharply, bringing the team to a standstill. He gestured to her to throw down the payroll bag. She did so, but just as it hit the ground, the robber fired both barrels of his shotgun at her.

     In the dream she flinched and ducked, expecting the impact of the pellets, but the scene dissolved, and she found herself sitting in a saloon, a stiff shot of whisky on the table in front of her. She was just reaching out for the whisky when Abe burst angrily into the saloon, Mr. Rawls at his heels.

    Abe halted in front of Bobby, and thrust out an accusing finger.

     “You lost the payroll!” he roared. “You’re in cahoots with Black Bart!’

     Bobby opened her mouth to defend herself, but Abe was not finished.

     “And what’s more,” he shouted, “You’re a woman!”

     Bobby woke with a start, and sat up in her bed. Her body was bathed in sweat, and her heart was pounding furiously. With an effort she forced herself to take several deep breaths to slow her heartbeat. Then she reached out for the glass of water at her bedside, and gulped it down.

     It’s a while since I had that kind of a nightmare, she thought. A long time since I dreamed someone done found me out. It’s the worst thing could happen.

     She sat there for a moment, listening to the sounds of the night around her. An owl hooting in the distance, the faint shuffle of footsteps in the street outside, and somewhere far away in the distance the cries of an awakened child. A wave of loneliness swept over her, and she shivered.

     Sometimes I long fer some company, she thought, someone warm to lie next to me in the night, but I cain’t seek it out. Too risky! Besides most times I’m comfortable in the skin of a man! I don’t never want no-one to find me out agin.

     Presently she lay back down to sleep, but it was a good twenty minutes before her gentle snores signaled that her mission was accomplished.

  

   “I want you to take this,” said Abe, thrusting something into Bobby’s arms the next morning.

    Bobby looked down at the pistol Abe had just given her.

    “You knows how to shoot, don’t you?” remarked Abe dryly.

    “Sure, but…” began Bobby.

    “No buts,” interrupted Abe. Stick it in your waistband under yer coat, and only use it if things git hairy!”

     “Alright, old-timer,” agreed Bobby. “And…thanks. I guess you’s really worried about me!”

     The old man swallowed, and opened his mouth to say something in reply, but then he seemed to change his mind. With an abrupt nod of his head, he turned and hobbled away.

     Bobby was giving the harness and lines one last check when Charlie Curry strode up to the coach, a shotgun cradled in his arms.

     “Hey, kid,” he said. “Ready to roll?”

     “Sure am.” answered Bobby. “But fer Christ’s sake, Charlie, keep that gun pointed away from me, will ya? We don’t want no accidents on this trip.”

     Charlie grinned and clambered up to the bench above the team. He laid the offending weapon across his knees, barrel pointing outward. Bobby vaulted up on the other side. Before sitting down she drew the pistol from her belt, checked that it was loaded and laid it carefully at her feet.

     “Packin’ a little extra protection, I see,” said Charlie with a grin.

     A picture of Abe’s worried expression suddenly flashed across Bobby’s mind. Cain’t think why he wus so scairt ‘bout me, she thought.

     She took the reins, called out to her team, and in a moment they were off.

      Bobby glanced across at her companion.

      Charlie Curry was wearing a duster, a long heavy overcoat that protected his clothes from the rigors of the trail. Bobby had never cottoned to wearing such a garment. She liked her arms free and unrestricted when she handled a team.

      Charlie was leaning forward alertly, scanning both sides of the trail ahead in an effort to anticipate likely spots for a hold-up.

      “Long wide curve comin’ up, kid,” he said suddenly.

      I sure wish they’d all quit callin’ me ‘kid’, thought Bobby. Why, Charlie’s not more’n a couple years older ‘n me! Guess it’s this damned smooth hairless face o’ mine. Sure wish I could grow me a beard! That’d shut ‘em up!

      “I know, I know, Charlie,” she replied impatiently. “I’ve ridden this trail as many times as you, mebbe even more!”

      Charlie looked hurt, and Bobby instantly regretted her sharp response.

      “I wus just tryin’ to make sure we’s both ready fer trouble,” he protested.

       “I’m sorry,” said Bobby, “I guess I’m just on edge.”

       “Well, okay,” said Charlie a tad sulkily.

       They traveled on in silence for a while, and then Charlie said:

       “I’ve always thought you was a fine driver, Bobby. You handle a team real smooth.”

       “Thanks,” responded Bobby with a smile. “That’s real nice of you to say so.”

       They had passed through the curve without incident, and Bobby felt the team surge forward as the road opened out before them. She drew back on the reins a shade just to let the horses know she was in control.

      No sense in having a runaway coach, she thought.

      As they approached the bridge over the creek, Bobby saw Charlie’s grip on the shotgun tighten. His face took on a nervous expression.

     The coach rattled noisily over the bridge, and on the other side of the creek the horses strained forward to haul their burden up a steep slope. By the time they had reached the crest of the hill, the coach was barely moving.

     “Perfect place for…” began Charlie, but he never finished his thought as a man wearing a flour sack over his head stepped out into the trail, levelling a shotgun at them. The masked man called out:

    “You’d best throw down that shotgun, friend,

      Or promptly you will meet your end!”

      “Black Bart!” breathed Bobby, reining in the horses.

      The flour sack with two eyeholes and the recitation of doggerel poetry were sure signs that they had encountered the infamous California bandit.

      Taken utterly by surprise, Charlie tossed his shotgun to the ground.

      “A wise decision, you son of a bitch,

        And now you’re gonna make Black Bart rich!”

      Bobby suppressed an instinctive desire to laugh out loud at the robber’s impudence as well as his truly terrible poetry.

      Charlie, however, seemed totally overawed by the situation, and was frantically scrabbling behind for the payroll pouch. At last his fingers found it, and he tossed it through the air towards the robber.

     As the robber’s attention was diverted for a split second by the bag traveling through the air, Bobby reached down and grabbed her pistol, cocking it as she drew it up to aim. Holding it steady in both hands, and pointing it like a finger as she had learned in the army, she pulled the trigger.

     There was a deafening crash, and a moment frozen in time. Bobby sat paralyzed with shock at her instinctive and rash action. A second later Black Bart grunted in pain, let his shotgun fall, and clutched his left shoulder.

       Bobby hurriedly fired again. This time her shot whistled harmlessly past the stunned robber, but moments later he whirled around and disappeared into the bushes.

      Bobby sat still as a statue atop the coach clutching her pistol tightly. Charlie sat openmouthed beside her. They both heard the sound of a horse clattering away through the brush.

      “Lord, Bobby,” declared Charlie. “That was either the bravest or the foolhardiest thing I ever did see!”

     “Durn it, Charlie,” said Bobby in a shaky voice. “Quit jawin’ and git down and fetch that money and your shotgun! I don’t wanna be around if he comes back.”

     She realized with a shock that she was trembling uncontrollably, and she couldn’t let go of the pistol.

     Charlie had climbed back on the seat, clutching his gun and the money bag. Once he had replaced the bag behind his seat and set his shotgun alongside it, he reached into his coat pocket, and pulled out a flask. He leaned over, and gently prized Bobby’s locked fingers from the handle of the pistol. Then he lifted the flask to her lips and tilted it. Some of the burning liquid found its way down her throat and she coughed and spluttered, but then a warm calming sensation swept through her body and she felt better.

      “Thanks, Charlie,” she said gratefully. “I sure needed that.”

  

   A couple of days later Bobby was back in Copperopolis. News of her daring defiance of Black Bart had spread. Everywhere she went, people slapped her on the back or offered to buy her a drink. Even Mr. Rawls had some kind words to say.

     Late in the afternoon she found herself in the Last Chance Saloon, leaning against the bar. Three separate admirers had bought her whiskies, and she was feeling a shade light-headed.

     Never was much of a drinker, she thought.

     “Friend o’ yours was in here a couple hours ago, playin’ poker,” said Ross the bartender.

     “Oh yeah?” replied Bobby vaguely.

     “Yeah, old Abe,” continued Ross. “Lost a passel o’ money. Fifty, sixty dollars. Not the first time neither. Old timer got no luck with the cards!”

    Bobby frowned. Mighty strange, she thought. Where in tarnation would Abe have gotten that kind of money? That tight-fisted Rawls don’t pay him nothin’. Scarce enough to feed and clothe ‘im!

   “Give me another whisky, Ross,” she said.

     The bartender poured her another shot.

     Bobby laid a coin on the bar, but Ross shook his head.

     “Your money ain’t no good in here kid!” he said. “All your drinks is on the house.”

    “Thanks,” said Bobby, a shade embarrassed at this outpouring of generosity. “How many times you think old Abe been in here playin’ poker?”

    Ross screwed up his eyes as if solving some complicated mathematical problem.

    “Oh,” he said. “A dozen or so times, easy.”

    “Always had plenty of money?” asked Bobby.

    “Oh sure!” replied Ross. “He lost a good many times. Still seemed to have more. Stood a round of drinks many a time. He wus real popular in this neck of the woods.”

    “Thanks, Ross,” said Bobby thoughtfully.

    She swallowed her drink, and left the saloon.

    

“I guess you’s the big hero of the hour,” said Abe sourly as Bobby strolled into the stable. “Hope you won’t fergit that it wus me give you that shootin’ iron you used to wing Black Bart!”

    “How do you know I just winged him?” said Bobby sharply.

   “That’s what you told everyone, ain’t it?” snapped Abe.

   “I’ve never said nothing ‘bout it,” said Bobby. “It’s Charlie been spreading all the stories! If he’s to be believed. I shot ole Bart in the arm, leg, stomach and a few other places I’d not care to repeat.”

    “I knew Charlie was telling tall tales,” said Abe scornfully, “so I got him to tell me the truth.”

    Bobby shrugged.

   “Okay,” she said

    There was an awkward silence for a few moments.

    “Where’d you git all that money to lose at the poker table?” said Bobby suddenly.       

     Abe stiffened.

     “Who told you that?” he asked in a subdued voice.

    “Ross down at the Last Chance,” answered Bobby.

    “He’s a blabbermouth,” growled Abe.

   “You ain’t answered my question, old man,” said Bobby.

   There was a pained expression in Abe’s eyes.

    “Don’t ask me kid,” he pleaded. “There’s some things it’s better not to know.”

    “Better fer me, Abe,” pressed Bobby, “or better fer you?”

    Abe was silent.

    “You’ve been tellin’ ole Black Bart ‘bout when we’s carryin’ gold or payroll,” said Bobby softly. “Don’t try to deny it, Abe. Ain’t no other way you’d have that kind o’ money. You been tippin’ ‘im off.”

     Abe hung his head in shame.

     “I jest couldn’t live on what Rawls wus payin’ me,” he said in a wheedling tone. “Give me a break, kid! I’m an old man. I’d niver make it in jail. I’m yer friend fer Crissakes?”

     Bobby stared at the old man. He cut an abject figure. Once a proud teamster, now a broken down old ‘dogs-body’. She felt an overwhelming sense of disillusion. She’d been fond of the old man, and she believed he’d returned that affection. He’d imagined himself her mentor and protector, and she’d indulged him.

     “If you hadn’t of loaned me yer pistol, I mighta ended up in the morgue,” she said. “You likely saved my hide, but I cain’t turn a blind eye to what you did. I  ain’t gonna turn you in, but you gotta git outa town right now, tonight. If you’re still here in the mornin’, I’m goin’ to the sheriff.”  

     “Where am I gonna go?” whined Abe. “Who’s gonna give work to a broken-down old cuss like me?”

    “You’ll survive,” said Bobby harshly. “I’m cuttin’ you some slack cuz I thought you wus my friend, but I cain’t look at you no more. Here’s your pistol back!”

    She handed the old man his revolver, and turning her back on him, walked out the door.

    

  “It’s mighty strange,” declared Mr. Rawls. “Abe’s done disappeared without a word. Didn’t show for work this morning, and nobody’s seen hide nor hair of him.”

     “Maybe, he just got itchy feet,” commented Charlie.

    “But where’s an old cripple like him gonna find a job?” asked Rawls.

     “He cud work in a liv’ry stable, or swab out a saloon,” answered Charlie, “or maybe sweep up in a store. Abe’s a tough old bird. He’ll get by!”

    “You got any notion where he went, Bobby?” asked Mr. Rawls. “Didn’t he tell you nothin’? You and he was thick as thieves.”

     Bobby shook her head, and turned away. There was a lump in her throat.

POSTSCRIPT:

I was inspired to write the latest episode about Civil War veteran, Bobby Brown, a young woman posing as a man, after I read an article about Charley Parkhurst, a California stagecoach driver. Charlie, a tough and skillful driver as well as a boisterous and profane character, handled teams of horses down rough trails for many years. It was only on Charley’s death in 1879 that it was discovered that ‘he’ was in fact a woman! I immediately pictured Bobby perched atop a stagecoach, and wondered what adventures she might have!

Black Bart was a renowned outlaw and stagecoach robber who struck 28 times in Southern Oregon and Northern California between 1875 and 1883. He was noted for leaving poems at the scene of his crimes. In committing his last robbery he was wounded, and left several personal possessions behind including a handkerchief with a laundry mark. A Wells Fargo detective traced the mark to a laundry in San Francisco, and Black Bart was subsequently identified as Charles Earl Boles, a Civil War veteran and unsuccessful gold prospector. He was arrested, tried and sentenced to six years in San Quentin. He was released in declining health after serving four years, and he vanished in 1888. There are many conflicting stories about where and how he met his end.

Bobby’s encounter with Black Bart described in my story is of course entirely fictional, and there is no evidence that the outlaw ever received ‘inside information’! All the characters in my story with the exception of Black Bart are fictional, but, I hope, entirely plausible. Enjoy!

   

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