Authors: Deeanne Gist
Tags: #Texas Rangers—Fiction, #Texas—Ficiton, #Bird watchers—Fiction, #FIC026000, #FIC042030, #FIC042040
© 2011 by Pressing Matters Publishing Co., Inc.
Cover design by Jennifer Parker
Cover photography by Kevin White Photography, Minneapolis
Published by Bethany House Publishers
11400 Hampshire Avenue South
Bloomington, Minnesota 55438
Bethany House Publishers is a division of
Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, Michigan
Ebook edition created 2011
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise—without the prior written permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available for this title.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
To my PIT Crew
(Personal Intercessory Team)
Harold and Sharon Hearn
Brian and Elaine Mustain
who agreed to pray for me daily during the writing of this novel.
This was such a big commitment and I want you to know your prayers were felt in a palpable way. Your encouraging words meant so much and lifted me when I most needed it. Thank you for walking this road with me. You are so very, very precious to me and a delight to Him.
I love you,
No matter how much research I do, there are some things I simply have to ask an expert about. One of the most delightful specialists I spoke with this time was Kenny Ray Estes, Museum Director of the Trapshooting Hall of Fame in Vandalia, Ohio. Oh, my goodness. Somebody put him on the payroll. He was
and so incredibly giving of his time. We spent days, no lie, on the phone and swapping emails. If he didn’t know the answer to my question, he researched it until he did. My hat is off to you, Kenny Ray. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Since the hero of this book is a Texas Ranger, I needed lots of help in the gun department. I connected with local vintage gun collector, Randal Hankla. He showed me a genuine turn-of-the-century rifle. He taught me how to load it, aim it, and fire it. He answered lots of questions, lots of emails, and he even took time out of a reenactment to show me what was what. Thank you, Randal!
In order to spread the love a little, I also called on longtime friend and world-renowned shooting instructor and titleholder, Gil Ash. (I know, Gil, you’re not supposed to look down the barrel, but it’s so much simpler in prose to say, “He looked down the barrel.” But you and I will know, he’s really looking where the target currently is, and shooting where it’s going to be!)
The heroine in our story contributed her own challenges as a telephone operator. I searched and searched but could never find a “How to Use a Switchboard” instructional video. But Oleta Porter of the Doc Porter Museum of Telephone History gave me books, articles, pamphlets, and a personal tour of the museum. She gave me a hands-on demonstration of how to work a turn-of-the-century rural switchboard. I took a picture of it, and it is the one our heroine uses in the story. If you’re ever in Houston, go to the museum and ask Oleta to point it out to you. She’ll know just the one you’re talking about.
Jack Dowling, of Houston, gave me lessons on how to climb a telephone pole back in the day. Imagine my shock when he informed me they didn’t use safety straps. Instead, they simply wrapped one leg around the pole to keep themselves in place. Crazy!
Diane Probst out of Rockport, Texas, gave me special attention during their annual Hummingbird Celebration, where
of hummingbirds stop in Rockport each September to fill up on sugar water before their six-hundred-mile overnight migration to South America. What a treat it was to see all those exquisite birds up close and personal.
With our antagonists being train robbers, I needed someone to tell me what a steam engine sounds and smells like when it idles. Lori Pennington and John Garbutt with the Texas State Railroad not only answered my questions, they sent me photos and an actual audio clip!
Amazing what a team effort a book is, isn’t it? And without these fine folks,
Love on the Line
wouldn’t have the historical depth and accuracy I so love to include. That said, any mistakes within these pages are indisputably mine.
“Everybody off the train.”
Jostled by other passengers, Georgie Gail raised her arms and shuffled past the man brandishing a gun. She strained her neck trying to obtain a closer look, but the aisle was too crowded.
No one said a word, even children sensing a need for silence. The press of bodies generated a touch of moisture beneath her brown wool traveling gown. A whiff of cinnamon from her homemade cologne water merged with the sweet perfumes and hair pomade of neighboring passengers.
At the door, two members of the Comer Gang stood on the ground flanking her exit. The February sun dipped behind the trees, blurring the sky with pinks and purples.
“Watch yer step, miss.” Like the desperado inside, a Stetson shaded his eyes while a neckerchief covered his face. Holding a gun in one hand, he lifted his other in assistance.
Swallowing, she slipped her gloved hand into his. He squeezed, helping her make the leap from car to ground.
“Thank you.” The automatic response was out before she could recall it.
“Ma’am. Hands up, now.”
She glanced at him and lifted her hands, but he’d already turned to help the next lady.
Is he Frank Comer?
she wondered. He was certainly polite enough to be, but she’d expected someone taller. Broader. Larger than life.
The outside air cooled her skin, though the warmth of an impending Texas spring tempered its bite. A jangle of bridles pulled her attention to a group of horses a few yards away. A palomino the color of a newly minted gold coin snorted and swished its white tail.
She took a quick peek toward the front of the train but found no evidence of the conductor or engineer. A thread of smoke and steam wafted from the smokestack.
A member of the gang stepped forward and did a double take before directing her to a line where three outlaws held several dozen passengers at gunpoint. A young girl with brown braids bumped her from behind.
“Careful there,” Georgie whispered, reaching down to steady her. “Where’s your mother?”
“I lost her.” The girl’s lip trembled. “I lost my hat, too, and when Mama finds out she’ll give me a whupping.”
Squatting down, Georgie brushed a loose strand of hair from the girl’s face. “No, she won’t. I’m sure she’ll understand.”
Tears welled in her eyes. “She said if I lose another, I’m gonna be in big trouble. And that means a whupping.”
“What’s your name?”
“Well, Rosella. I’m Miss Gail and I’m a telephone operator.”
The girl’s eyes widened. “You are?”
“I am. And when this is all over, I’ll help you find your mother. I’ll even—”
“Is there a problem, miss?”
Georgie lifted her gaze, then slowly rose, her hands following suit. A dirty vest hung open on the masked, powerfully built man. His thick gun belt cinched tight-fitting trousers at his waist.
“Rosella lost her hat,” she said.
“Well, now.” He looked at the girl. “I do believe there was a hat left behind on the train. Did it have a fetching brown ribbon wrapped around a straw crown?”
“Yes, sir,” Rosella breathed. “It did.”
“That’d probably be it, then. So don’t you worry none.”
A full head taller than Georgie, he turned his attention to her. “Might I have a look-see inside your reticule, miss?”
Blue. His eyes were definitely blue with thick brows above them.
Lowering her arms, she slid her handbag to her wrist.
“She’s a telephone operator,” Rosella offered, her voice filled with awe.
The man paused and looked again at Georgie. “That a fact? You run a switchboard?”
Leaning back, he angled his head for a better view beneath her hat. “Don’t reckon I’ve ever met a real switchboard operator.”
“Then I’d say we’re even, sir.” She slid her fingers into the mouth of her bag, loosening its strings. “I’ve never met a real train robber.”
His eyes crinkled; then he peeked inside the reticule and gently pushed it back toward her. “Thank you, miss.”
“But . . . don’t you want the money?”
“You on your own?”
“You earn that money telephone operatin’?”
“Well, you go on and keep it, then.”
Her shoulders relaxed. “Thank you.”
“My pleasure.” He continued down the line, but instead of grabbing purses or yanking watches from their chains, he reassured an elderly woman, refusing her handbag and telling her to put her arms down. “I reckon they’re awfully tired by now.”
A few steps later, he gave a thin, pallid youth a few coins he’d taken from the express car.
“Is that Frank Comer?” Rosella whispered. “The
“I believe it is,” Georgie answered, excitement bubbling.
“He likes you.”
Shushing the girl with her hand, Georgie willed away the heat springing to her cheeks and sliced another glance at the famous outlaw.
Comer clapped a man’s shoulder, said something to make them both laugh, then tensed and swung his gaze to the left. “That’s it, boys! Run for it!”
The gang members broke for their horses, their bags of loot banging against them as they ran. Some leapt onto their animals; others tried to grab hold of their frightened mounts.
From the opposite end of the train, a man on horseback burst from the forest. “Get down!”
The command sailed above their heads and broached no argument. Like dominos, the passengers tumbled to the ground. Rosella kicked, trying to wriggle as close to Georgie as possible.
“Shhh.” Georgie squeezed her shoulder. “Hold still.”
The men exchanged gunfire, and with each loud crack, Georgie jerked. The temptation to cover her ears was great, but she didn’t dare.
A woman close by screamed, setting off a chain reaction. Georgie felt as if she stood in a bell tower while every bell tolled. Still, she wondered if some of the screams were coming from wounded members of the gang.
She hoped not.
Please, Lord, let Frank Comer and his men make it to safety.
Like the rest of the state’s population, she closely followed the stories of Comer’s escapades and his continual benevolence toward the old, the infirm, and the poor.
The man beside her shifted. Dirt puffed into her nose and mouth, grit sticking to her teeth. Sputtering, she lifted her head just a mite and swiped a glove across her lips. A zing tore through the air, perilously close above her.
Flattening herself back down, she ignored the awkward angle of her hat and its holding pin, which pressed against her scalp. Instead, she absorbed the sound of hooves reverberating beneath her, amazed at how the earth trembled in response to the scrambling men and beasts.
Rosella began to whimper. Curling up, Georgie pulled the child closer, murmuring words of comfort.
As quickly as it started, the clash between the outlaws and the charging lawman ended. The tremors, the gunshots, the shouts . . . all replaced with stillness. Georgie remained frozen on the ground. Rhythmic hisses of steam escaped the train’s cylinders. The smell of coal and oil mixed with gunpowder.
Before long her head began to throb where the hatpin pressed. A rock beneath her skirts gouged her hip. The top of her left foot itched within her boot. And dirt continued to tickle her nose.
“Can we get up?” Rosella whispered.
But the men were already rising and assisting women and children to their feet.
“Rosella!” a woman cried.
“Mama!” Rosella scrambled upright. “I didn’t lose my hat; it’s still on the train.”
The mother’s response was lost to Georgie as the woman hugged her daughter and moved away, talking excitedly.
“It’s okay, miss. You can get up now.” A fellow passenger extended a large, beefy hand into Georgie’s line of vision.
She tried to use it for leverage, but her skirts had been hopelessly tangled by Rosella and she couldn’t rise.
“Beg your pardon, miss.” Grasping her waist, he swung her up, plunking her to her feet.
She swallowed a cry of surprise. “Thank you, sir.”
Even with his hat, he was an inch or two shorter than she and quite stout. “There now, no need to be frightened. Looks like one o’ them Texas Rangers got wind of Comer’s plans and hightailed it this way.”
Shaking her skirts, she glanced toward the engine car at the front of the train. The engineer stood toe to toe with a man whose features she couldn’t make out, particularly with the sun now having set and twilight fully upon them. But she could see his silhouette.
Tall. Broad. Muscular. And cocky.
“Where is everybody?” The engineer’s voice shook with anger. “They stole everything out of the safe, then emptied the passenger cars, and now Comer’s long gone. You fellas were supposed to be patrolling this whole area.”
“We were. We are. We’re spread out all along this route and have been for weeks.”
“Spread out?” the engineer screeched, arms waving. “You mean one by one? You aren’t gathered in large groups?”
“ ’Course not.”
“Are you crazy? That was the Comer Gang. You could have gotten us all killed.”
Georgie frowned. Comer wasn’t a killer. He was a . . . a kindhearted thief who, according to the papers, helped more people than he harmed.
The Ranger’s chest bowed out. “Listen, old-timer. One Ranger’s all you need. You only had one train being robbed, didn’t you?”
Georgie lifted a brow. It might take only one Ranger to make the Comer Gang scatter, but it’d take a great deal more to bring in its members.
With a sense of self-satisfaction, she glanced toward the woods, then froze. A half dozen bandits lay hog-tied together on the ground.
Her breath stuck in her throat. One Ranger did all that? She scanned the kerchiefed men but could barely make them out in the fading light. Still, from what the engineer said, Comer wasn’t among them.
“Maybe one Ranger would be enough.” The engineer leaned forward. “So long as that Ranger wasn’t you. Seems Comer gives you the slip ever’ time. The way I see it, you have about as much chance catching Comer as a jackrabbit at a coyote convention.”
Bunching his fists, the Ranger tensed, then turned and strode toward the passengers.
“Must be Lucious Landrum,” the stout man in front of her whispered to his wife. “He’s been after Comer for almost a year now. And look at the way he’s dressed, all spiffy-like.”
Georgie eyed the Ranger, unable to determine what he was wearing in this light, much less the clothing’s quality. All she could see was a cowboy hat, a vest, and a gun belt with two holsters.
“LOO-she-us,” his wife replied, drawing out the syllables. “Such a strange name. And look at his beard. I thought he wore a big, bushy mustache.”
“Normally he does. But you heard him; he’s been on the trail for weeks.”
The Ranger stopped several yards away and questioned two men at the front of the line. A woman in a black mourning gown began to quietly sob.
“We’ll know soon enough.” The portly man lowered his voice even more. “If his guns have bone handles carved with a boy on the right pistol and a girl on the left—closest to his heart—then it’s Landrum.”
The conductor emerged from the train with a lantern and walked it over to the Ranger, who moved within a few feet of Georgie. The light revealed a fine white Stetson. A big bushy beard. An olive shirt. A black string tie. And a gun belt strapped about his hips. A massive emblem buckle made of gold and silver held it together. She squinted, but couldn’t make out the handles of his pistols.
“And you didn’t see anything?” Landrum asked the short man and his wife. “Hear anything? Nothing at all?”
“Well, they kept saying, ‘Hands up,’ ” the wife offered.
Landrum rubbed his eyes. Between the shadow from his hat and the full beard, his face was every bit as hard to discern as the outlaws’. “Any distinguishing features, ma’am? A disfigured eye, a scar? Anything at all would be helpful.”
The couple looked at each other, as if it would help them remember something profound. But Georgie knew the Ranger was wasting his time. Frank Comer was nothing short of a legend in Texas. He rode fast horses, robbed trains, outwitted the law, and spread his newfound wealth wherever he went. Georgie had no doubt the man could knock on any door in the state and be welcomed, fed, and harbored.
No. The passengers on this train would become celebrities in their own right and would carry tales of Comer for many months to come.
The weeping woman refused to be consoled, her hysterics gaining momentum, her sobs sounding like a saw rasping through wood.
Landrum looked her direction. “Is she hurt or just scared?”
The gruffness of his voice whipped Georgie up to her full height. She opened her mouth to defend the woman, but the widow herself answered him.
“Neither, sir. I’m overcome with gratitude. When Mr. Comer found out I was on my way to my childhood home after burying Henry and losing everything, he gave me this.” She opened a gloved hand to reveal a handful of gold coins.
“He took my gun,” a man farther down shouted, “but then he emptied it and gave it right back.”
“He signed my dime novel.” A boy with a bow tie and short pants held up his pulp fiction pamphlet. Georgie had seen him reading it earlier on the train. Its cover held a colorful illustration of a masked man with kindly eyes. Thick block letters across the top read, The Legend of FRANK COMER.