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Prologue

September 18, 1877

             Stepping out for a breath of fresh air, George W. Barnhart smiled at the full moon, brilliant against the black sky; the stars flickered dim in comparison.  Not a cloud in sight.  The night air remained warm from the heat of the day.  Along with the darkness came silence.  No one stirred at this hour in Big Springs, Nebraska, a small town eighteen miles upriver from Ogallala, and only a few miles north of the Colorado/Nebraska state line. 

Big Springs was a small, quiet town compared to its neighbor, which carried quite a different reputation.  George knew that as the night progressed in Ogallala, the noise usually increased.  It was the end of the trail for many cowboys and that meant time to celebrate and spend some of the money they’d earned moving a herd north from Texas to meet the train. 

            George was the station agent for Big Springs and ran the town’s railroad depot as well as the telegraph located inside.  He hoped the cool night air might help keep him awake. No telegraphs in or out, no travelers waiting for the train, no visitors expected until morning.  Once the train passed the station, he planned to curl up on his cot for a night of sound sleep.

            Moving down from the wooden steps, he strolled out to the railroad track.  He stood between the rails looking toward the west.  By the light of the full moon, he was able to read the time on his pocket watch.  It was just past ten.  The train would be arriving soon.

            As he turned to walk back to his post, he marveled at the shadows cast from the moon’s soft glow, no need for a lantern tonight.

            He returned to his desk.  Suddenly, the door burst open and George found himself face-to-face with two masked men.  Each of them was armed with two pistols, which they aimed directly at him.  Had it not been for the guns he would’ve thought it a joke.  Crime was a stranger to the small town.  He kept little money at the depot, nothing more than a few dollars from the locals sending telegraphs or purchasing a ticket to ride the train. 

            One of the gunmen instructed him to destroy the telegraph machine.  Obediently, he disconnected the sounder, which would not render the telegraph completely useless.  The same gunmen noticed, obviously a telegraph operator at some point in his life, and demanded he hand over the relay switch, which he took with him. 

            They ordered Barnhart outside and instructed him to hang the red lantern. The signal would tell the engineer, George Vroman, to stop the train, a routine occurrence to pick up passengers, mail, or freight. 

            Once in clear view of the red light, Vroman eased the train into the station at 10:40 that memorable evening. 

As Vroman glanced out from his window, he caught a glimpse of a man standing in the ditch beside the engine.  The moon illuminated the man as he stepped out from the shadows, revealing the rifle he held aimed at Vroman. 

At first, he, too, thought it to be a joke¾some prank from the locals.  That is, until he heard the glass beside him shatter. The man in the shadows had shot through Vroman’s window and yelled to Vroman to step outside.  Vroman ignored him.  Instead, he leaped through the open window on the opposite side, ran along the engine then climbed behind the boiler to hide. 

            Soon the train was surrounded by a total of six armed men wearing masks.

            The thieves made their way throughout the train, surprising the passengers and stealing their money and valuables, totaling over $1200.00, plus four gold watches. 

They found the guard, Charles Miller, asleep in the express car and insisted he open the safe.  When Charles tried to explain to them that he did not have the combination, one of the cowboys hit him alongside the head with his revolver, certain he was lying to them.  Charles begged for mercy while they roughed him up in an attempt to convince him to open the safe.

 Finally, when another employee of the Union Pacific explained that no one on the train had access to the combination because it was not to be opened until it arrived in Omaha, Nebraska, they ended the cruelty inflicted upon Miller.

            Not satisfied with the small amount they had stolen from the passengers, they searched the express car and discovered three ironclad boxes.  When asked what was inside, no one could respond with any certainty.  The robbers broke open the boxes and, to their surprise, they found gold coins¾not just any gold coins but uncirculated, fresh from the mint in San Francisco, twenty dollar gold coins. 

            Excited with their find, the masked men quickly fashioned bags using the burlap and twine they had purchased earlier in the day to hold their anticipated loot. 

            The six men, finally content with their plunder, headed south on horseback while the group of passengers and employees helplessly watched them fade away into the darkness.

Later that night, George worked on the telegraph until he was able to send out, but not receive messages, and word spread quickly about the first and largest train robbery of the Union Pacific Railroad, and the sixty thousand dollars in gold coins stolen by the unknown masked men.  

            The gang headed southeast across the open prairie, through unsettled land, confident no one would spot them while riding at night.  They stopped only to water their horses.  Feeling comfortable about their wide head start, they set up camp the following afternoon.  The next night they continued southeast through the unexplored prairie until they came upon a lake, presently known as Arterburn Lake, settled deep in a valley, hidden from view.  As they rode along the ridge, the full moon danced on the sparkling water, inviting them to stop.  They eased their horses down the steep hill and set up camp.  Well secluded, they were finally able to rest their horses properly and feed themselves.  It was at this out of sight spot where they decided to count and sort their coins. 

Sam Bass and Joel Collins, the leaders of the gang, stacked the coins into six piles.  There were three thousand coins in all.  Each rider tore off a piece of burlap and formed a satchel to hold his share of the loot.  Each bag weighed approximately thirty-five pounds.  They camped one more night then parted ways in pairs to avoid being recognized.  Two men rode north to Canada, while the other four headed south, taking two different trails.  A few days later, two of the men were spotted and killed near Buffalo, Kansas, but when their bodies and packs were searched, there was no sign of the gold….

 Chapter 1  

June 20th, 2010

             Slivers of sunlight made their way through the spaces between the boards covering the windows.  Soon darkness would envelope the basement of the old deserted farmhouse.  Shay attempted to remain brave as he watched his two friends struggling to hold back their tears.  He, too, could feel tears gathering at the corners of his eyes. 

            Hours had passed since they were forced into the basement, bound and gagged.  Except for Isha.  She had convinced their captor not to place the silver-gray furnace duct tape over her mouth.  Fear triggered her asthma, which, combined with her allergies, made it impossible for her to breath through her nose.  Perhaps her tearful pleading had somehow touched their captor’s cold heart.

            When the three young teenagers, Isha, Brianna, and Shay had set off on their secret adventure they had no sense of the danger that would bring it to an abrupt end. 

            “Are you guys okay?” whispered Isha, her voice trembling.

            Brianna nodded her head then both girls turned to Shay, who gave them a quick nod before he turned his tear-filled, dark eyes away.  Being the only boy in the group, he felt it his responsibility to take care of the girls, even if this whole scheme was their idea. 

            “He said he was coming back,” said Isha.  “Do you think he will?”

            Brianna shrugged her shoulders and Shay shook his head. 

            Their captor had blindfolded the kids before he left but they were quickly able to remove the strips of cloth by rubbing the sides of their faces against their shoulders.  Until now, they had not attempted to free themselves for fear he’d return and catch them in the act.  With daylight fading, if they were to escape, they hoped to disappear into the shadows of the night.

            “We’ve got to find something sharp while we can still see,” said Isha.

            Their eyes scoured their surroundings.  The floor, covered with over fifty years of debris, had an old mattress with exposed springs, and two old, upholstered rocking chairs laying on their sides.  The house appeared vacant but upon closer examination, small animals and rodents had found their way in.  Some never found their way out as evidenced by the bones and, of course, the unmistakable odor of dead mice. 

            Old beer cans were scattered across the floors of the three tiny rooms.  The kitchen, directly to the north of them, had a large portion of the ceiling hanging dangerously low, ready to fall in with the slightest shift of the old house.  Nothing remained upstairs but part of the floor and the skeletal frame.  Gone were the sturdy walls that once protected the family who lived there from the harsh elements of Nebraska storms. 

            Brianna forced a silent scream, muffled by the tape across her mouth, as a mouse darted across her legs, bound together at the ankles by tape.  She kicked her legs and pushed herself backwards until her hands hit the wall behind her.  She didn’t have much feeling in her hands, with the tape cutting into her wrists. 

            “Oh my God!” screamed Isha.  “There’s two more.” 

            As the room dimmed, the creatures of the night began to stir.  The three sat motionless when a small snake emerged from behind a pile of old blankets and magazines to snatch a mouse for dinner.

            “Okay, that’s it.  We’re outta here,” cried Isha.

            Shay’s eyes scanned the room for a sharp object.  That’s when he noticed one of the windows. Although all of them were boarded shut, this one still contained a partial pane of glass.  Dried mud from years of blowing dirt and rain had caked against the glass and held it in place.

            He struggled to roll over onto his stomach, gagging at the smell of the filth on the floor.  Face down, with his hands taped behind his back, and his legs bound at the ankles, he rolled over onto his side and drew his knees to his chest.  Pressing his face hard against the floor, he tried to rock up onto his knees.  Each time he tried, he winced in pain as the bits of fallen plaster cut into the flesh of his face.  The girls watched with a hopeful curiosity. 

            Finally, Brianna squirmed closer to him and pushed her feet into his back during one of his attempts to roll onto his knees.  The push was enough to make it work.  He now found himself on his knees but his efforts to stand were futile. 

            “Wait, I have an idea,” said Isha.  “Brianna, let’s get behind him and let him lean on our feet for support.”

            Brianna looked around the floor as the mice scurried past them.  She closed her eyes to gather her courage. 

            Isha rolled across the floor over layers of dust, bug parts, and old food wrappers until she reached them.  “This is so gross,” she said. 

            The girls pressed the sides of their hips together while they lay on their backs, giving them the leverage to lift their legs.  They placed their feet against Shay’s back so he could lean into them as he rose to his feet.  It worked on the first try. 

            He hopped across the room toward the window, nearly falling several times.

            “Be careful,” said Isha.  “If you fall, we might not be able to get you back on your feet.”

            He stumbled again just inches from the wall containing the broken window.  He threw himself forward and hit his face on the wall, scraping the skin above his eyebrow, but managed to remain upright.  He hopped sideways until he reached the broken pane of glass.  With no way to pry it loose without the use of his hands, he turned his back toward the window and pressed his head against the glass.  They heard it crack.  He pressed harder until he felt it shift. 

            “It’s falling the wrong way!” screamed Isha. 

            Shay stopped.

            He rubbed his face against the broken windowsill, snagging the tape on an exposed nail.  Pulling back, he ripped the tape from his dry lips. 

            “Ouch!  Damn, that hurt,” he said as droplets of blood surfaced on his lips.

            He positioned himself in front of the broken pane of glass that had cracked into three smaller pieces.  Slowly and carefully, he gripped the smallest piece at the outer edge with his teeth and gingerly removed it.  In one quick movement, he jerked his head toward the mattress, releasing his hold on the shard of glass.

            “You did it!” screamed Isha excitedly.

            Shay threw himself onto the mattress next to the glass and slowly moved his body until he could feel it beneath his fingers.  He worked the tape carefully back and forth across the glass. 

            Several minutes later he said, “I’m not sure this is working.”

            Isha squirmed closer to examine his progress. 

            His wrists bled from rubbing against the sharp edge.

            “Move your hands a little to the left, so I can see them in the light,” she said.

            Brianna watched.

            “You almost have it.  Just a little more,” cheered Isha.

            Shay, excited, worked more vigorously until he felt the last strand of tape break.

            A sound from outside the house set fear rising in the three kids, as Shay frantically freed his feet and the girls’ hands.