John T. Cullen's San Diego Noir


Lethal Journey by John T. Cullen

Page 1.

Chapter 1. Kate & Tom Morgan, 1888

Two men, reeking of leather and tobacco, stood in the shade of a wooden awning at the small train station in Las Cruces, New Mexico. On this hot summer day in 1888, with tiny gusts of oven-like wind pushing through the ivy trellises around the wooden train platform, the two men looked as if they were not enjoying themselves much. On the other hand, they looked too busy to care much about their discomfort as they pored over a map together, while one of them held a packet of tear sheets with images and print on them. Wind rattled the paper every few seconds. The land all around was flat and far and baked like painted mud. Both men were tall, about the same height, and lean. Thinning hair stirred in white strands on a browned and blistered head when each removed his head gear to scratch. One man had a salt-and-pepper beard; the other, gray stubble over a mass of wrinkles around his mouth. Beard had dark brown eyes. The other was gray-eyed.

Each man, under his rumpled black suit, wore a shiny brass badge discreetly on his leather belt under a flap of his jacket. Each man’s badge bore a plain, engraved personal number in the center. Fancy scrollwork, around the number, read Union Pacific and Railroad Police. On the other side of the leather belt, under the opposite jacket flap, each man wore a shiny, nickel-plated 1888 Remington New Model Pocket Army Revolver with .44 caliber Winchester rounds in the cylinder, and a short 5.5 inch barrel. Each man wore a broad-brimmed hat covered with dust from a long ride on horseback, but they had traded their riding boots for stiff-soled city shoes. The men were on the hunt, just the same, only their hunting territory was coming toward them. They heard a distant train whistle, and were eager to get on board and search for quarry. Each good arrest meant a bonus. They worked hard for their money.

“I’ll send the boots out for cleaning,” hollered an elderly black man in shirtsleeves and great big boots, who puffed a corncob pipe and moved at a leisurely pace as he led the two tired horses toward a barn to be wiped down and watered. Man and horses both looked husky and sun-beaten.

The bearded detective gave a little wave of thanks, as if his every motion must be spare and economical. The hand that waved wore a scuffed, fine chocolate-colored leather glove whose index finger had been removed—leaving the business end of his finger exposed, when it needed to be, on the hair-trigger of his six-shooter. Both men were Civil War veterans in their late forties. Each had killed men and faced death enough times to get that dark, lean, haunted look around the eyes that was like a permanent shadow, a veil of nightmares.

The two men rifled through their assortment of Wanted posters, trying to memorize faces and read details. They had just ridden in from Santa Fe, where they had delivered two bank robbers and collected a hefty fee aside from their regular salary. Now they were ready for a new hunt.

“These two,” said Gray-Eyes as he pulled a fresh tear sheet from Beard’s gloved hand. “They’re new.”

“Ah-yuh,” said Beard. “That’s a new one. Should be easy to spot if they’re working as a pair.”

They looked at lithographic reproductions of the profiles of a young man and woman. Under the pictures were names in bold, black print: Thomas E. Morgan and Kate Morgan, born Farmer. Under that was printed, in smaller letters, a list of charges, including that they were cardsharps. Missing was the next line that appeared in some other sheets: Caution! Armed!—so evidently these were light-weights. Then came the small print, citing any known details about the two. As Beard and Gray-Eyes read, the distant train whistle drew near. Already, they could hear the chuffing of the engine as the coal-burner came racing through a distant mountain range. From experience, they could assemble a small drama in their imaginations.

Thomas Edward Morgan and his wife, Kate Morgan, were grifters who worked the Transcontinental Railroad trains. Tom was in his early 30s, while Kate was nearly ten years his junior. They hailed from the wheat belt in southwest Iowa, children of well-to-do farming and miller families. Somehow, they hadn’t set well—the land apparently had no lure for them, and they preferred to travel. Once the railroad bug got you, there was no turning back.

Typically, Kate would find a mark—some young man with a few whiskeys in him already, a gullible mind, and a fat wallet. She’d entice him into a deserted forward car, where the spider waited in his web: Tom Morgan, grinning easily under his short black hair, riffling a deck of cards. Tom would give the impression of sipping at a shot of Red Canary Straight Rye Whiskey from a colorful bottle that stood nearly full and invitingly at his elbow. “I want you to meet my brother,” Kate would tell their intended victim as she ushered him into the compartment. “I hope he will like you, because he is a good judge of men, and you seem like a fine gentleman.” She had the poor fool thinking, in his muddled mind, that he would somehow have his way with her in the next few days as the train clattered monotonously through the endless Continental United States. As the mark slid into his seat opposite Tom Morgan, the latter would reach into his coat for a silver etui and offer him a fresh cigar. Kate would sit in a corner and continue flirting with the man while Tom invited him to a friendly little game of poker. “You get to know a man when you play cards with him,” Tom would say. “Looks like my sister here has taken a shine to you.” Then he’d riffle the deck some more, and the game was on.

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