JOHNSTONE COUNTRY. WHERE THE DREAMS ARE BIGGER—AND THE ROAD IS DEADLIER.
From the bestselling masters of Old West fiction comes a bold new saga of the American frontier. Set amid the sprawling plains and majestic mountains of Wyoming Territory, this is the epic story of a legendary stagecoach line—and the brave men who built it, drove it, and risked their lives to keep it running . . .
Founded in 1866, The Frontier Overland Company was no ordinary stagecoach operation. To begin with, its founding partners met in a Wyoming saloon brawl. After a raucous burst of punching, cursing, and chair smashing, the last two men standing become friends for life. Two kindred souls with the same fighting spirit, Tucker Cobb and former Texas Ranger Butch Keeling agreed to launch a business together: a brand-new stagecoach line through the wilds of Wyoming . . .
They called it the Frontier Overland Company. And a legend was born.
Cobb and Keeling knew it wouldn’t be easy. The nation was still healing from the War Between the States. Red Cloud’s War—an armed alliance of Lakota, Northern Cheyennes, and Northern Apaho against the United States—was heating up fast. And wealthy railroad magnates were itching to lay track for their western expansion to the Pacific. But it was one ruthless businessman—King Charles Hagen—who posed the biggest danger of all. He saw Cobb and Keeling’s fledging company as a direct threat to his growing shipping empire. And, unfortunately for them, he decided to squash their little stagecoach business while they’re escorting a young woman to see her dying father, an army colonel, at a Wyoming fort. With Red Cloud on the warpath, Wyoming Territory is about to become hell on earth.
This is the thrilling story of The Frontier Overland Company. This is how dreams are made. How legends are born. And how two fearless men staked their claim in America. The rest is history.
Release date: November 28, 2023
Publisher: Pinnacle Books
Print pages: 320
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The Frontier Overland Company
William W. Johnstone
But it appeared that young love had once again thrown a wrench into the driver’s plans.
“I’d do anything to make you stay with me, Jane,” the young cowboy pleaded with the lady about to board the stage. “I know I could make you happy if you’d just give me half a chance. I just know I could. You know my pa’s got all the money we could ever spend even if things don’t go well with the mine. I promise you’d never want for a single thing for the rest of your life.”
Cobb could see the pretty woman was a good deal older than her beau and not just in years. He suspected the elegant veil she wore served to hide some of the effects of the hard road she had traveled thus far in life.
“It’s not just about money,” Jane assured him. “It’s not about you and me, either. I have a chance at something better in Laramie, and I’d be a fool not to take it.” She looked down at her gloved hands. “I’d hoped I’d made myself clear about that when we spoke last night.”
Cobb watched the young man sag and, for a moment, thought he might throw himself at the woman’s feet. “I never saw a problem money couldn’t solve. You’ll have to work for your money in Laramie, but if you stay here, all you have to do is love me.”
She smiled up at him through her veil. “Love is hard work, too, if it’s the real thing, Bart. It’s best if I leave now, anyway. I’ve stayed here in town much longer than I’d planned to. The sooner I go, the sooner I can be settled in Laramie. That’s where my future lies, but there’s no reason to be sad about it. I’ll be sure to write you as soon as I’m able. We can continue our friendship that way. Through correspondence. And once your mine starts showing a profit, you can come visit. Think of how romantic it’ll be. Writing a letter, then checking with the mailman every day to see if you got a response back. It’ll give us something to look forward to.”
Bart stepped back from her as if she had slapped him. “That sounds a lot like friendship to me. Is that what you call this? We’re a lot more than just friends, Jane. You’re my girl. My woman. I want to take care of you, and I want to do it right here and now.”
Cobb watched Jane as she tried to shy away toward the coach, only to have Bart grab hold of her arm with his left hand.
She tried to twist her arm from his grip. “We’ve talked about this until we were both blue in the face, and no good has ever come of it. I told you I’m nobody’s girl. I don’t belong to you or anyone else, and I never will. Now, let go of my arm.”
But Bart’s grip only tightened. “People don’t say no to me.”
At six feet tall and a solid two hundred pounds or so, Tucker Cobb was bigger than Bart by more than a head and had about fifty pounds on the boy. He stepped forward and said, “This woman is one of my passengers. You’d best let her go, son. She’s had enough of your whimpering for one morning. Try to have some dignity.”
Bart tore his eyes from the woman and glowered up at Cobb. “Dignity? What does a lousy coach driver know about dignity?”
Cobb grabbed Bart’s left wrist and wrenched it, forcing him to break his hold on the woman’s arm. He snatched Bart’s right arm as Bart reached for the pistol on his hip and pushed the man back against the wall of the hotel.
As Bart struggled in vain to get free, Cobb looked back at his passenger. “You can board the coach, miss. This pup won’t be bothering you anymore.”
Jane brought a gloved hand to her mouth as she stepped up and into the coach before pulling the door closed behind her.
With the woman out of view, Cobb turned all of his attention to the lovestruck miner he had pinned against the wall. “Are you gonna behave yourself if I let you go?”
Bart continued to try to wriggle free. “You can’t treat me like this! Don’t you know who I am?”
“I surely do.” Cobb delivered a sharp knee to Bart’s stomach. The blow would have been hard enough to double him over if Cobb had not been holding him up. “You’re a man too long on feelings and too short on sense. You’re a man who’s going to get himself hurt unless he can see reason. If I let go of you, are you going to make another play for that iron you’re wearing?”
Bart did his best to push aside his pain as he glared up at Cobb. “My daddy’s going to wipe the floor with you, you miserable—.”
Cobb let go of the cowboy’s left wrist and delivered a short right-handed jab to his jaw. Bart’s knees buckled as Cobb twisted his right arm behind him, then he pulled Bart’s pistol from its holster before kicking him in the seat of his pants. The blow sent him sprawling into the mud of the thoroughfare.
Never having much use for handguns, Cobb opened the cylinder, dumped out the bullets, and tossed the empty gun into the street. He saw five miners standing in front of a saloon across the thoroughfare and looking on. They seemed like they wanted to help Bart, but something was holding them back.
When Cobb looked to his right, he saw the reason for their hesitation. Butch Keeling, Cobb’s partner, was leaning against the stagecoach. His Henry repeater was resting on his hip as he worked a toothpick around his mouth.
“A lot of help you were,” Cobb chided him. “That young sprout almost killed me.”
“Hardly.” Keeling kept his eyes on the men across the street. “But those boys over there would’ve given it a go if I hadn’t made them think otherwise.”
Cobb knew his partner always had a knack for spotting danger before anyone else. He nodded down at Bart, who was beginning to get back on his feet. “That fella said he’s somebody.”
“You don’t know who he is?”
Cobb did not. “All I know is he doesn’t like to be refused by a pretty lady.”
“That’s Bart Hagen,” Butch said. “King Hagen’s boy.”
Cobb might not have known much about the son, but he knew plenty about Charles Hagen. The rancher and financier had been called the king of the Wyoming Territory for a reason. He was said to be a frontier Midas, for everything he touched turned to gold.
Cobb said, “I’d have thought a boy with that kind of breeding would have better sense. He looks like a lousy cowpuncher to me.”
Butch grinned. “The closest he’s gotten to a cow is when it’s sizzling on his plate. His daddy put him in charge of his family’s mines in this part of the territory. And those friendly looking boys over there work for him. Since they knew better than to butt their noses into their boss’s business, I’d say they have more brains than he does.”
Cobb flexed the fingers in his right hand. He was coming up on forty-one years of age, and punching a man was not as easy as it used to be. “Who else are we waiting for?”
“The Right Reverend Earl Averill.” Butch thumbed toward his right side. “Looks like he’s coming this way.”
Cobb looked beyond Keeling and saw a tall string of a man in a long, threadbare coat making his way toward the coach. He was carrying a heavy black satchel that looked like it weighed about as much as he did, if not more. The wind was not particularly strong that morning, but Averill looked like he was walking straight into a hurricane. It would not take much to knock him over.
Cobb moved around Butch to help his new customer. “Keep an eye on those boys over there. Make sure they don’t do anything stupid.”
“That’s what I’ve been doing this whole time.”
Cobb forced a smile as he greeted Reverend Averill in the middle of the street. “I’m Tucker Cobb, Reverend. I’ll be driving the stage today. Let me help you with your bag.”
“Much obliged,” the preacher said as he let Cobb take his burden. “I’m afraid I packed too much, but it was necessary.”
Cobb was surprised by the weight of the bag. Having hauled freight for most of his life, he had a good sense of weight and measures and judged this bag to weigh closer to a hundred pounds. “What do you have in here?”
Reverend Averill held onto his black hat, though it was in no danger of blowing away. “A few items of clothing and my books for my congregation. The Word of the Lord is heavy in practice, but light in the heart to all willing to hear it.”
Cobb had never been much for prayer, so he took his word for it. “I’ll secure it up top with Miss Jane’s luggage. You won’t have to worry about it blowing off during the journey, though I might have to hitch up two more horses to haul it.”
Cobb knew his feeble attempt at humor had fallen well short of its mark when the reverend said, “No need for that, Mr. Cobb.” Averill surprised him when he reached the coach, opened the door for himself, and reached for the bag. “I’ll be wanting to keep it in here with me at all times if it’s all the same to you. It’s a long journey to Laramie, and I’ll want to keep up with my reading along the way.”
Cobb knew it was bad business to argue with customers, especially before his first official trip, but it was necessary. “This bag takes up a fair bit of room, Reverend, and we’re expecting a full coach by the time we reach Laramie.”
“Then I’ll be glad to keep it on my lap whenever space becomes a concern.”
“Suit yourself.” Cobb slid the heavy bag on the floor of the coach as the reverend took a seat by the door. He saw that Jane had moved to the far side of the bench and preferred to look out the window instead of greeting her fellow passenger. Cobb figured her run-in with the Hagen boy was still weighing heavy on her mind.
Cobb shut the door and, as he moved past Butch, saw Bart Hagen stagger toward his miners in front of the saloon. He had not picked up his empty pistol yet, which was fine by Cobb.
“Looks like you made quite an impression on that boy.” Butch laughed. “He can barely stand up straight.”
“Let’s hope he stays like that until we’re long gone,” Cobb said. “Check the luggage up top to make sure it’s steady and we’ll get going. It’s a long way to Bellwether, and I want to reach Delaware Station by dark. I’ve got a hankering for some of Ma’s fine chili.”
As Butch went to the wagon box to check the luggage, Cobb walked around to the other side of the coach and found Miss Jane still looking out the window, but too lost in her thoughts to see anything. Now that he was closer, he noticed a bruise under her left eye that had been covered by face powder. “I’m sorry things got rough just now, Miss Jane.”
“No need to apologize for being a gentleman, Mr. Cobb. And call me Jane, please. There’s no call for manners with a woman in my line of work.”
Cobb would not hear of it. “You’re my customer, which makes you something close to royalty as far as me and Butch are concerned. While I can’t do much about what happens outside of this coach, everything that happens in and around it is my responsibility. My domain, you might say.”
He patted the newly painted door as if the coach were a thoroughbred. “I know she might not look like much to you, but she’s all mine. Mine and Butch’s, I guess you could say. We pulled together every penny we had in the world and bought her last month. She’s two-thousand pounds of wood, varnish, and dreams. Even had new cushions and springs put in to make the ride more pleasant for you folks back here. She’s more than twenty feet long from the boot to the drawbar, and that’s not including the six horses pulling her. On this trip, you’ll be treated well, and anybody who thinks different is liable to find themselves on foot. You need anything, you just bang on the roof, and we’ll tend to you directly. That sound good to you?”
“It sounds wonderful to me, Mr. Cobb.” She smiled through the tears that streaked down her face. “And thank you.” She seemed to remember something as she reached into the small bag on her lap and produced her ticket. “I forgot to give this to you.”
He looked down at the ticket. It had been the first one he had printed up and the first one he had signed. He took it from her and tucked it into the pocket of his shirt. “I’m going to hang this on the wall of my office one day, as soon as I have call to have an office, that is.”
Cobb knew he was likely only one in a long line of men who had been taken in by her smile, but he did not mind the company. “You can thank me tonight when we reach Delaware Station. You’re in for a treat. Ma makes the best chili this side of Texas. And it’s easy on the innards, too.”
Averill handed over his ticket stub, too. “I trust we’ll be getting underway soon, Mr. Cobb?”
Cobb took the ticket stub and pocketed it. Leave it to a preacher to ruin a nice moment between him and a pretty lady. “Your trust is well placed, Reverend. We’ll get moving as soon as I get up top.”
Cobb climbed up into the wagon box and took the reins of the six horses waiting to go. After Butch finished checking the luggage, he settled in beside Cobb with his Henry rifle across his lap. “All’s secure, Boss. You may proceed.”
Cobb saw no reason to remind Butch that they were partners in this enterprise. He had grown accustomed to being called the boss.
He released the brake and snapped the reins, sending the horses into a decent trot. The first journey of the Frontier Overland Company of Wyoming was finally underway.
In all of his years as a freighter, chuckwagon cook, and stagecoach driver, Tucker Cobb had learned how quickly the monotony of the endless miles could play tricks on a man. It was why he was glad Butch had decided to ride up here with him instead of back in the coach with the customers.
It not only allowed Butch to keep an eye on their surroundings but also gave Cobb a way to pass the time as they approached the tiny town of Bellwether.
“How many are we supposed to pick up in the next town?”
“Four,” Butch told him without hesitation. “Edward Koppe, Joe Yost, Mrs. Kenneth Wagner, and Leon Hunt. We’re supposed to pick up Lee Pearson and Albert Thomas at Delaware Station. Then it’s a straight ride toward Ennisville and on to Laramie from there.”
His partner’s ability to remember names and details never ceased to amaze Cobb. “One day, you’re gonna have to teach me that trick.”
“What trick is that?”
“The one where you can call all those names to mind without looking at a telegram or a sheet of paper,” Cobb explained. “You read or hear something once and remember it forever. I can hardly remember what I had for dinner last night.”
“Biscuits and gravy,” Butch reminded him. “Same as we had for breakfast.” He shrugged off the compliment. “There’s no trick to remembering things that I know of. It’s just the way I was born, I guess. Remembering things isn’t always a blessing. Sometimes, it’s a curse. There’s plenty I’d like to forget.”
Cobb imagined there were plenty of events in every man’s life he would like to forget. Butch Keeling was no different. Cobb had met his partner almost two years before, back when Cobb had been running the chuckwagon for a cattle outfit out of Texas. The War between the States had just ended, and the weary nation sought to soothe its wounds with a nearly insatiable appetite for beef.
All Cobb knew about Butch was that he had once been a Texas Ranger before he had become a cowhand. He did not like to talk much about his past, which was fine as far as Cobb was concerned. He had never been one to enjoy looking backward, either.
He supposed that was why men like them always preferred the rigors of the open road as opposed to the safety of civilization. The trail ahead always offered more pressing challenges and excitement than whatever they had done the day before. The past held no lien on them and neither did the future, for now was all they had.
The war had come and gone without taking much notice of Cobb and Butch. Neither man had seen fit to complain.
Cobb remembered the exact moment when he and the quiet former lawman had struck up their friendship. They could not have been more different in appearance. Where Cobb was tall and powerfully built, Butch was shorter, but lean and quick. Where Cobb preferred the bench of a chuckwagon or stagecoach, Butch was a horseman to his core. Where Cobb was quiet and introspective, Butch enjoyed trying to make people laugh with his tall tales from his time as a Texas Ranger. Cobb did not know how much truth there was in his friend’s stories, but he knew Butch always found a way to make him laugh.
Cobb supposed they had become friends gradually somewhere along the many miles between Texas and the cattle markets in Nebraska. When the outfit dissolved after that final payday, the two men continued on together in the hopes of finding their fortunes somewhere in the wide expanse of a war-weary country.
While still in Nebraska, they had seen an advertisement in a newspaper about a man in Wyoming who had a small but profitable stagecoach line for sale and decided to see what they could make of the place. Both Cobb and Butch had been sensible with their money over the years. They had worked for others long enough to know the only way to get rich was to work for themselves.
Unfortunately, the stagecoach line had already been sold by the time they reached North Branch, but Bob Seary, the new owner, hired them on as drivers. They had spent the next year moving passengers and freight for him until Seary told them he had found himself a wealthy old widow to marry. He was looking to sell his business, which gave Cobb and Butch the inclination to buy it, including his team of horses. Out of such fortunes, the Frontier Overland Company of Wyoming had been born.
The old coach had seen many miles and needed a fair amount of work to make it presentable, but Cobb and Keeling had just enough money set aside to turn the wagon into a fine bit of carpentry. They had used the last bit of their combined resources to place an advertisement in the newspaper, promising a “rolling palace with every modern comfort” to prospective riders.
The idea had been Butch’s, but the words had been Tucker Cobb’s. He took a fair amount of pride in the fact that on this, their first trip, they were nearly sold out, with the prospect of picking up more business once they reached Laramie.
He watched Butch produce a small sack of chewing tobacco and bite off a mouthful of chaw. He did not bother to offer any to Cobb, who preferred a pipe with his coffee before bedtime.
His partner said, “That Miss Jane sure is easy on the eyes, ain’t she?”
Cobb nodded. “She’s got a real nice disposition, too.”
“Disposition?” Butch laughed as he tucked his pouch away. “She’s a woman, not a draft horse. No wonder you’ve never managed to find yourself a wife.”
“That’s because I never took the time to look for one,” Cobb declared, as he kept the horses on a straight line across the flat land. “There was always something more important that needed to be done besides troubling myself with marriage.”
“Like making money you don’t spend except on something that means more work for us.”
“Wives take money, too,” Cobb answered. “Families take even more. What would I do with a family, anyway? I’m never in one place long enough to put down roots. And before you go teasing me about it, I haven’t seen you going on bended knee before a lady.”
“And deprive all the other women out here of my charming company? That wouldn’t seem fair. These poor old gals out here in the wilderness need some excitement in their lives, and I aim to give it to them. You could call it a calling.”
“Sounds closer to something else to me.” Cobb had always enjoyed Keeling’s overabundant confidence. They had never gotten around to discussing age, but during the course of their association, Cobb had figured Butch was about five years younger, putting him at around thirty-five. He was no longer a young man, but further away from a rocking chair on a porch than Cobb. Butch’s wit and dark looks made him appealing to women and his Southern charm was often more than enough to secure their affections, at least for a few hours until it was time to leave.
Cobb kept the team moving at a steady pace. “Well, Miss Jane will be with us all the way to Laramie, which ought to give you plenty of time to get acquainted with her.”
“I ain’t like you, Cobb,” Butch said, “and I’ve always been a touch impatient when it comes to love. I was fixing to try my luck with her tonight at the station.”
Cobb glanced at him. “After a couple of plates of Ma’s chili? Those beans don’t exactly make for decent courting.”
“Don’t let it trouble you. I’ve got a way about me that the ladies find pleasing no matter my condition.”
“Grass doesn’t grow under your feet, does it?”
Butch settled back in the wagon box and hooked his boot on the edge. “Like my mama used to say, ‘No time like the present.’”
“I’m sure your mama also warned you about women like Miss Jane,” Cobb added. “And I’d advise you to hold off on doing anything until we get closer to Laramie. If she’s the sort of woman you think she is, you’d do well to be within a day’s ride of a doctor. I won’t have any sympathy for you if you come down with a case of the scratches.”
“You don’t have sympathy for anything that doesn’t have four hooves and can make you money. Don’t hate me for knowing how to live.”
“Live?” It was Cobb’s turn to laugh. “Is that what they’re calling it these days?”
“You’re about as much fun as a wet blanket in a rainstorm.” Butch pushed himself upright in the box and began to look around. He was almost as vigilant about watching their surroundings as Cobb was.
As he turned to look behind them, he said, “I can see some dust getting kicked up a good piece behind us. I think we might be expecting some company.”
Cobb knew better than to question his partner’s ability to gauge danger. For the moment, the best he could do was keep the team of horses running straight. “How many you figure?”
“They’re still too far back for me to say for certain, but they’re gaining on us. Faster than I’d like, too.” Butch turned back around and lifted his rifle from the floor of the wagon box. “Their horses will be just about played out by the time they get here.”
Since Cobb had been keeping the team moving at a steady pace, he knew there was a good chance they might be able to outrun them. “Seems like they’re out of North Branch. I hope it’s not who I think it is.”
“Hope can get a man killed out here,” Butch said. “I’d wager everything I own that it’s Bart Hagen and his men come to fetch Miss Jane. Or to pay you back for hurting his pride like you did.”
Sometimes, Cobb wished Butch was not always right. “I thought that boy’s friends might’ve been able to talk some sense to him.”
“Kind of hard to talk sense to the same man who’s paying your wages,” Butch observed. “How do you want to play this?”
Cobb knew their options were limited. They were too far away from Bellwether to make a run for it. The horses had come with the coach, and none were in prime condition. He did not know how far he could push them before playing them out. It would not be long before the riders caught up to them and overtook them. Then, Cobb and Butch and their passengers would be at young Hagen’s mercy. That did not sound like much of an idea to Cobb.
There was only one chance. The element of surprise. “You up for a fight?”
Butch rested the butt of his Henry repeater on his leg. “I was born ready. What did you have in mind?”
Cobb began to pull on the reins as the team crested a rise in the road, slowing the horses gradually. “The same thing we did in Abilene.”
“I remember it well.” Butch began to climb atop the stagecoach to take a position among the luggage. “The ground’s about the same, too.”
Cobb stood when the team came to a halt. He threw the brake and lifted the lid of his seat, where he stored the double-barreled shotgun. He hoped he was making the right choice. Getting killed on his first d. . .
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