1871 - Northern Colorado

MIDNIGHT GRAY EYES peered out beneath the brim of a cowboy hat that had been pulled down low to cut the starlight glare.  The man they belonged to was silent in his saddle, watching for any sign of movement below. Four horses stamped impatiently behind him, and the men atop them were just as restless. Their nervous musk almost washed out the scent of pinion pines in the valley.

"Boss, what’r we wait’n for?"

The youngest ones were always the hardest to train.  And usually the first to get themselves killed, or worse, caught.  Silence was usually the best teacher.

"Boss? We’re more’n five miles off the main road.  Nobody comes this way. Wouldn’t we have better luck closer to town?"

One of the regular crew rode up alongside and hissed, "Shut up ’n wait!"

The early-morning quarter moon rose over the eastern ridge, casting soft shadows over the men and their horses.  Of course he didn’t need the moonlight, nor often want it, but the dim light meant his men would be less likely to shoot each other.

Finally, he heard the faint rumble of wooden wheels over the hard, rocky ground. The creak of rusty springs bearing a heavy load assured him this was the coach they had been waiting for.  That, and the gold piece he had slipped the driver three days ago. "Get ready," he said, pulling a grimy bandanna up over his nose. He leaned forward in the saddle to let his horse know it was almost time to move.

The men took positions on either side of the road, hidden in the meager shadows of some scrub oak where they had chosen to wait.  As the coach approached their blind corner, the dark figure leaned over to his deputy and said in a low voice, "Leave no one alive."

"What about the driver?" asked the man, lowering his gaze immediately at the icy stare he received.

"When did you grow a conscience?  He made a deal with the devil, and now he’s getting his due.  Besides, that’s one less person we split the money with."  Any smart man would have begun to worry about his own skin at that comment, but these men weren’t hired for their intellect.

The coach driver saw dark shapes emerging from the shadows ahead and pulled up short, making the convoy an easy target. As the first gunshot echoed off the canyon walls, his last thought was a mix of surprise and regret. He clutched his chest and slumped forward in his seat, the reigns falling to the floorboards beneath his boots. 

Without a driver, the coach settled to a stop and the men quickly disposed of the armed guards riding shotgun in front and behind. As the gang closed in, they heard a slight shuffling from inside and prepared to empty their guns into the coach.  Their leader approached ahead of them, and before they could react he pulled a sword from somewhere in the shadow surrounding him. The crew looked on, startled by the sudden move, as he slid the wickedly curved blade between the coach door and its frame.  A slight groan, followed by silence, let them know the job was done.

"Who the hell carries a sword?" hissed a man under his breath.  No one answered, as they watched the dark figure wipe down the blade before sliding it back into its gilded scabbard.

With the raid quickly over, the men split the heavy load between their four horses.  The leader carried no additional weight, as he preferred to travel light.  He wasn’t worried about being double-crossed.  This crew didn’t have the brains or the nerve to pull anything on their own.  They mistrusted each other as much as they feared him.  Besides, he had a more precious cargo.

They rode for an hour away from the ambush site, traveling half their journey in a dry stream bed to hide their tracks. They exited the gully at a pine grove, the clean scent of evergreens drawing a stark contrast to the dust and blood they left behind. At the base of a mountain, the riders rode up to a cave which had been hidden from view by large boulders as they approached from below. 

"Put the gold inside," said the man they were all taking orders from.  He dismounted his horse and started untying a pack attached to his saddle as the men all did the same.  The box he carried toward the cave was just large enough for a good pair of boots.

A man close to him eyed the parcel. It appeared to be made from dark metallic stone, and was covered with strange symbols that almost resembled writing.  "What’s in the box?" he asked with a puzzled look as they stooped to enter the cave.

"It brings death to anyone who disturbs this place," said the dark-eyed ringleader.  A faint blue glow appeared around the lid of the box, making the curious man pause in his tracks.  Any attempt to sneak back and steal the gold later would probably be a mistake…

Next Chapter: Chapter 1