Chapter 1 Homeward Bound from Larned

The westbound 8:00 AM stage from Larned carried two women and a man as passengers, their belongings, the mail, the driver, the man riding shotgun and a treasure box filled with $10,000 in paper bills and $20 gold coins from Fort Larned. The money was destined for Fort Dodge while the passengers were all headed for Dodge City. One woman was hardly more than a girl, but then the man she was traveling with, her husband of three weeks, wasn't much older. The newlyweds were on their way to his uncle's ranch where he'd secured work. The remaining passenger, who had been traveling home from Salina, was a striking, impeccably dressed blue-eyed redhead, who was heading home to her place of business after a short trip to see her friend Ellie and Ellie's small son.

The trip was uneventful until they were within seven miles of the Walling's relay station. When they reached it, they would have covered more than half the distance to their final destination. That's when things suddenly changed. The temperature had been dropping as they drove into an area of increasingly dark and menacing clouds. Still, it didn't appear to be a problem. They should reach the relay station before it struck and if the rain proved to be too heavy they would simply delay until it eased off some. That was the consensus among the travelers as they steadily progressed toward the shelter of the station. They were within three miles of it when the wind picked up and the temperature dropped drastically.

The passengers closed the window shades in an attempt to keep out the howling wind and what wasn't the expected rain. Instead it was swirling snow. The driver and his companion on the box could barely keep their seat and suddenly visibility was so poor they couldn't see beyond the tails of the two closest horses. They pushed onward hoping they were still on the stage road and would make it to the relay station. Blizzards were not uncommon on the high plains in winter, but it was only mid October. Then disaster struck. Somehow they must have wandered off the road because the left front wheel hit a hidden log or rock. The impact broke an axle and sent a wheel spinning off, hurtling the coach even further off the road where the pin broke loose from the tongue freeing the frightened horses to run off. The coach's momentum sent it tumbling off toward an outcropping of rocks where it finally came to rest.

The driver and the man seated next to him were thrown from the box. The luggage and mail spilled from the roof as the coach flipped end over end in its travels, but the treasure box wedged against the seat and footrest. The passengers were treated to a similar fate when the doors flew open. The young couple were thrown clear of the coach against the rocks, but the redhead's skirts caught on the edge of the door when her foot wedged under the opposite seat from her own, throwing her head hard against the door handle. When the coach settled, she rested against the door that had now become the floor.

Snow, coming down even harder blanketed the scene. If anyone could see anything in the midst of all that white, it would have been a series of misshapen lumps. Of course, no one was out in the storm, at least not anywhere near the wrecked stagecoach.

Sam Walling and his son Josh worked frantically to get the horses secured and sheltered. They just barely made it from the barn to the house before the blinding white of the storm disoriented them completely. Janet Walling hadn't been sitting around either. She'd gathered all the wood she could from the porch and brought it inside before building up the fire in the fireplace and putting a pot of stew and another of coffee on the stove. She handed her husband and son mugs of the hot liquid as soon as they rushed through the door and latched it behind them so it wouldn't blow open. Janet had done the same with the shutters on the windows throughout the three-bedroom cabin. Two couches, along with a cot in the corner could sleep three more people more or less comfortably if need be.

For two hours the Walling family sat at their kitchen table or by the fire, warming themselves, and listening to the howling wind and giving thanks that they were safely inside. They were grateful they had shelter, but didn't forget the people on the stage, which was now nearly three hours late. They prayed for their wellbeing and hoped to hear it arrive safely. The wind eased, but the stage didn't arrive. After three hours the storm had spent itself, leaving two feet of snow in its wake with drifts as high as five feet. Sam and Josh ventured out to hitch up the sleigh they kept for just such emergencies and set out around 1:30 with shovels to try to find the missing stage. Josh, with a 16-year-old's keener eyesight, spotted the unusual lumps first, guiding his father toward them.

They dug around each lump that appeared to be person-shaped and uncovered the driver as the sun made its appearance and the temperature began a slow climb. They decided to work their way toward the rocks where they would bury the unfortunate people riding the stage that day. They had uncovered four bodies, the last two near the entrance to a shallow cave, and dragged them inside for later burial. Their next task was the coach itself, although they held out little hope any passengers remained inside and if they were, the odds were definitely against them being alive. Sam knew their next task was to find the mail sacks and treasure box if they could for his employer. The passenger's belongings were of no immediate concern.

As the man and boy worked to free the coach that lay on its side, their task was made easier thanks to the rising temperature. Sam worked at the middle where he held a slim hope that he might find more passengers while Josh tried to uncover the front. Both were surprised by what they found. The boy cried out triumphantly to his father when he uncovered the treasure box, but the father was even more pleased with what he found, a redheaded woman whose chest was ever so slightly moving up and down with each tortured breath.

"Boy, I've found a live one here. Help me get her free so I can carry her to the sleigh. While I do that you can bring up the treasure box. We'll tend to the buryin' of the rest and findin' the mail sacks after we bring her home. She might die even then, but sure as heck she won't live if we leave her out in the cold any longer than we have to."

As soon as they reached home, Sam carried the woman into the house while Josh saw to the sleigh and horses. Janet didn't waste any time making a bed ready and getting the unconscious woman out of her wet clothes and into a flannel nightgown. She then began tending to her obvious wounds. She taped up the now swollen right ankle and cleaned the small cuts and bruises. She felt the lumps on her head and guessed from the feel of things that the woman also had at least three broken ribs. She asked Sam's help in binding them in place with as tight a bandage as they could manage. If the woman lived through the next few hours, they'd have to send a telegram from Spearville to fetch the doctor in Dodge to treat her head, Janet suspected. So far there was no fever, but it would likely develop.