THE TRAIN was some miles west of Boonville. Lillian sat by the window, staring out at the verdant countryside. She thought Missouri looked little different from Indiana or Ohio, though perhaps not so flat. Her expression was pensive.
September lay across the land. Fields tall with corn, bordered by stands of trees, fleeted past the coach window under a waning sun. There was a monotonous sameness to the landscape, and the clickety-clack of steel wheels on rails made it all but hypnotic. She wondered if she would ever again see New York.
Chester, her brother, was seated beside her. Three years older, recently turned twenty-two, he was a solid six-footer, with chiseled features and a shock of wavy dark hair. His head bobbed to the sway of the coach and his eyes were closed in a light slumber. He seemed intent on sleeping his way through Missouri.
Alistair Fontaine, their father, was seated across from them. A slender man, his angular features and leonine head of gray hair gave him a distinguished appearance. He was forty-four, an impeccable dresser, his customary attire a three-piece suit with a gold watch chain draped over the expanse of his vest. He looked at Lillian.
“A penny for your thoughts, my dear.” Lillian loved the sound of her father’s voice. Even as a young child, she had been entranced by his sonorous baritone, cultured and uniquely rich in timbre. She smiled at him.
“Oh, just daydreaming, Papa,” she said with a small shrug. “I miss New York so much. Don’t you?”
“Never look back,” Fontaine said cheerfully. “Westward the sun and westward our fortune. Our brightest days are yet ahead.”
“Do you really think so?”
“Why, child, I have no doubt of it whatever. We are but stars following our destiny.”
She sensed the lie beneath his words. He always put the best face on things, no matter how dismal. His wonderfully aristocratic bearing gave his pronouncements the ring of an oracle. But then, she reminded herself, he was an actor. He made reality of illusion.
“Yes, of course, you’re right,” she said. “Abilene just seems like the end of the earth. I feel as though we’ve been … banished.”
“Nonsense,” Fontaine gently admonished her. “We will take Abilene by storm, and our notices will have New York clamoring for our return. You mark my words!”
Chester was roused by his father’s voice. He yawned, rubbing sleep from his eyes. “What’s that about New York?”
“I was telling Lillian,” Fontaine informed him. “Our trip West is but a way station on the road of life. We’ve not seen the last of Broadway.”
“Dad, I hope to God you’re right.”
“Never doubt it for a moment, my boy. I have utter faith.”
Lillian wasn’t so sure. On the variety circuit, The Fontaines, as they were billed, was a headline act. Her earliest memories were of traveling the circuit of variety theaters throughout the Northeast and the Eastern Seaboard. Originated in England and imported across the Atlantic, variety theaters were the most popular form of entertainment in America.
A child of the theater, Lillian had been raised among performers. Her playmates were the offspring of chorus girls, song-and-dance men, comics, contortionists, and acrobats. At an early age, she and Chester became a part of the family troupe, acting in melodramas with their parents and sometimes accompanying their mother in song. The family ensemble presented entertainment for the masses, something for everyone.
Alistair Fontaine played to popular tastes by appearing in the sometimes-histrionic melodramas. At heart, he considered himself a tragedian, and his greatest joy was in emoting Shakespearean soliloquies in full costume. Yet it was his wife, Estell Fontaine, who was the true star of the show. Her extraordinary voice rendered audiences spellbound, and she might have had a career in opera. She chose instead her family. And the variety stage.
The magnitude of her stardom became apparent just three months ago, in the early summer of 1871. A bout of influenza quickly turned to pneumonia, and two days later she died in a New York hospital. Her loss devastated Alistair, who stayed drunk for a week, and left Lillian and Chester undone by grief. Estell was the bulwark of the family, wife, mother, and matriarch. They were lost without her, emotionally adrift. Yet, strangely, made somehow closer by her death.
Their personal tragedy was compounded in their professional lives. With Estell gone, the Fontaines soon discovered they were no longer a headline act. Her voice was the stardust of the show, and without her, they were suddenly unemployable anywhere on the variety circuit. Theater owners were sympathetic, but in the months following Estell’s death there were no offers for an engagement, even on the undercard. Their booking agent suggested they try the budding variety circuit in the West.
Alistair Fontaine was at first opposed and not a little offended. But then, after three months without work and facing poverty, he reluctantly agreed. Their agent finally obtained a booking in Abilene, Kansas, the major railhead for shipping Texas cattle. Whatever was to be learned of their destination was to be found in the pages of the Police Gazette. Abilene was reported to be the wildest town in the Wild West.
Today, watching her father, Lillian wasn’t at all convinced that he had reconciled himself with their situation. In off moments, she caught him staring dully into space and sensed his uncertainty about their trip West. Even more, she knew his posturing and his confident manner were meant to reassure herself and Chester. His oft-repeated assertion that they would return to New York and Broadway was fanciful, a dream at best.
She longed for the counsel of her mother.
“When’s our next stop?” Chester abruptly asked. “I wouldn’t mind a hot meal for a change.”
There was no dining car on the train. A vendor periodically prowled the aisles, selling stale sandwiches and assorted sundries. Their last decent meal had been in St. Louis.
Fontaine chuckled amiably. “I fear you’ll have a wait, my boy. We’re scheduled to arrive in Kansas City about midnight.”
“Wish it was New York instead.”
“Be of stout heart, Chet. Think of us as thespians off on a grand adventure.”
Lillian turned her gaze out the window. Abilene, for all her father’s cheery bluster, hardly seemed to her a grand adventure. The middle of nowhere sounded a bit more like it.
She, too, wished for New York.
The train hurtled through the hamlet of Sweet Springs. Coupled to the rear of the engine and the tender were an express car and five passenger coaches. As the locomotive sped past the small depot, the engineer tooted his whistle. On the horizon, the sun dropped toward the rim of the earth.
A mile west of town, a tree had been felled across the tracks on the approach to a bridge. The engineer set the brakes, wheels grinding on the rails, and the train jarred to a screeching halt. The sudden jolt caught the passengers unawares, and there was a moment of pandemonium in the coaches. Luggage went flying from the overhead racks as women screamed and men cursed.
Then, suddenly, a collective hush fell over the coaches. From under the bridge where trees bordered a swift stream, a gang of riders burst out of the woods. Five men rode directly to the express car, pouring a volley of shots through the door. Another man, pistol drawn, jumped from his horse to the steps of the locomotive. The engineer and the fireman dutifully raised their hands.
Four remaining gang members, spurring their horses hard, charged up and down the track bed. Their pistols were cocked and pointed at the passengers, who stared openmouthed through the coach windows. No shots were fired, but the men’s menacing attitude and tough appearance made the message all too clear. Anyone who resisted or attempted to flee the train would be killed.
“My God!” Alistair Fontaine said in an awed tone. “The train is being robbed.”
Lillian shrank back into her seat. Her eyes were fastened on the riders waving their pistols. “Are we in danger, Papa?”
“Stay calm, my dear,” Fontaine cautioned. “I daresay the rascals are more interested in the express car.”
The threat posed by the armed horsemen made eminent good sense to the passengers. Like most railroads, the Kansas Pacific was not revered by the public. For years, eastern robber barons had plundered the West on land grants and freight rates. A holdup, according to common wisdom, was a matter between the railroad and the bandits. Only a fool would risk his life to thwart a robbery. There were no fools aboard today.
From the coaches, the passengers had a ringside seat. They watched as the five men outside the express car demonstrated a no-nonsense approach to train robbery. One of the riders produced a stick of dynamite and held the fuse only inches away from the tip of a lighted cigar. Another rider, whose commanding presence pegged him as the gang leader, gigged his horse onto the roadbed. His voice raised in a shout, he informed the express guards that their options were limited.
“Open the door or get blown to hell!”
The guards, much like the passengers, were unwilling to die for the Kansas Pacific. The door quickly slid open and they tossed their pistols onto the ground. Three of the robbers dismounted and scrambled inside the express car. The leader, positioned outside the car, directed the operation from aboard his horse. His tone had the ring of authority, brusque and demanding. His attitude was that of a man accustomed to being obeyed.
“Holy Hannah!” one of the passengers exclaimed. “That there’s the James boys. There’s Jesse himself!”
Jesse and Frank James were the most famous outlaws in America. Their legend began in 1866, when they rode into Liberty, Missouri, and robbed the Clay County Savings Association of $70,000. It was the first daylight bank robbery in American history and created a furor in the nation’s press. It also served as a template by which the gang would operate over the years ahead, robbing trains and looting banks. Their raids were conducted with military precision.
A master of propaganda, Jesse James frequently wrote articulate letters to editors of influential midwestern newspapers. The letters were duly reprinted and accounted, in large measure, for the myth that “he robbed from the rich and gave to the poor.” Comparisons were drawn between Jesse and Robin Hood, the legendary outlaw of Sherwood Forest. Not entirely in jest, newspaper editorials made reference to “Jesse and his merry band of robbers.”
Tales were widely circulated with regard to Jesse’s charitable nature toward the poor. The loot taken in the robberies, so he contended in his letters, was simply liberated from the coffers of greedy bankers and corrupt railroads. In time, with such tales multiplying, Jesse became known as a champion of the oppressed and the downtrodden. To backwoods Missourians and gullible Easterners alike he came to represent a larger-than-life figure. A Robin Hood reborn—who wore a six-gun and puckishly thumbed his nose at the law.
The holdup took less than five minutes. The robbers inside the express car emerged with a mail sack that appeared painfully empty of cash. There was a hurried conference with their leader, and his harsh curses indicated his displeasure. He dismounted, ordering one man to guard the train crew, and waved the others toward the passenger coaches. They split into pairs, two men to a coach, and clambered up the steps at the end of each car. The leader and another man burst through the door of the lead coach.
A murmur swept through the passengers. The two men were instantly recognizable, their faces plastered on wanted dodgers from Iowa to Texas. Jesse and Frank James stood at the front of the car, brandishing cocked pistols.
“Sorry to trouble you folks,” Jesse said with cold levity. “That express safe was mighty poor pickin’s. We’ll have to ask you for a donation.”
Frank lifted a derby off the head of a notions drummer. He started down the aisle, the upturned hat in one hand and a pistol in the other. His mouth creased in a sanguine smile as passengers obediently filled the hat with cash and gold coins. He paused where the Fontaines were seated.
Lillian blushed under his appreciative inspection. She was rather tall, with enormous chine blue eyes and exquisite features. Vibrant even in the face of a robber, she wore her tawny hair upswept, with fluffs of curls spilling over her forehead. Her demure dimity cotton dress did nothing to hide her tiny waist and sumptuous figure. She quickly averted her eyes.
“Beauty’s ensign”—Frank James nodded, still staring at her—“is crimson in thy lips and in thy cheeks.”
Alistair Fontaine was an avid reader of periodicals. He recalled a curious item from the Police Gazette, noting the anomaly that robber and mankiller Frank James was a student of Shakespeare. He rose as though taking center stage.
“M’lord,” he said in a mellifluous voice. “You see me here before you a poor man, as full of grief as age, wretched in both.”
“King Lear,” Frank said, grinning. “I take it you fancy the Bard.”
“A mere actor,” Fontaine replied modestly. “Known to some as a Shakespearean.”
“Well, friend, never let it be said I’d rob a man that carries the word. Keep your money.”
“Frank!” Jesse snapped. “Quite jawin’ and tend to business. We ain’t got all night.”
Frank winked slyly at Fontaine. He went down the aisle and returned with the derby stuffed to overflowing. Jesse covered his retreat through the door and followed him out. Some moments later the gang mounted their horses and rode north from the railroad tracks. A smothered sun cloaked them in silty twilight.
The passengers watched them in stunned silence. Then, as though a floodgate was released, they began babbling to one another about being robbed by the James Boys. Chester shook his head in mild wonder.
“Some introduction to the Wild West,” he muttered. “I hope Abilene’s nothing like that.”
Lillian turned to her father. “Oh, Papa, you were wonderful!”
“Yes,” Fontaine agreed. “I surprised myself.”
Twilight slowly faded to dusk. Fontaine stared off at the shelterbelt of woods where the riders had disappeared. Abruptly, his legs gone shaky with a delayed reaction, he sank down into his seat. Yet he thought he would remember Frank James with fondness.
It had been the finest performance of his life.