Strangers on the Night Train
by Richard K. Lyon
part 1 of 2
Handing a black wooden box to the station master, Sheriff Black said, “Ben, there’s something I want you to do quietly and not tell anyone about it afterwards. Adam Kane will be coming here to catch the night train, and I want you to give him this box.”
The little stationmaster knew that when the Sheriff of Gila Bend told you to do something, failing to do it could be distinctly unhealthy. “Sheriff,” the man protested, his voice quivering, “You know I can’t do that! Adam Kane is in Yuma Territorial Prison, and the only way he’s getting out is in a box like that fellow over there.”
As he spoke, Ben gestured toward a coffin that was awaiting shipment. Though the coffin was an elegant ebony box with silver handles, the Sheriff scarcely gave it a glance. His scarred right hand rested easily on his holstered gun, while his hard black eyes stayed focused on Ben.
“Yeah, but that don’t matter,” Sheriff Black replied. In a tone that did not invite discussion, he continued, “He’ll be here tonight. You see to it that he gets this box.”
Turning away from Ben, the Sheriff strode out the door and onto the dust streets of Yuma.
The box Ben was left holding was more than a foot long, five inches wide, and three inches thick. The hinged lid had red wax seals on all four corners, each of the seals bearing the imprint of a signet ring, a death’s-head.
What, Ben wondered, was in the box? Adam Kane was Sheriff Black’s half-brother. Five years ago Kane had caught Sam Cass laying in ambush, waiting for a chance to backshoot the Sheriff. Sam had holstered his gun, muttered a vague apology and tried to walk away. Instead of letting him go Kane told him to draw. He did, but not nearly fast enough.
Far from being grateful, the Sheriff had said that legally this was murder. While most people in town thought this was absurd, the jury did not. Convicted and sentenced to life in prison at hard labor, Kane had vowed to return from Yuma and kill his half-brother.
Was the box some kind of peace offering? Maybe, but Ben didn’t think so. The Sheriff was a very hard man. Nobody knew what had passed between him and his brother in the years before Black became sheriff, but now everybody knew they hated each other. With Kane suddenly free, what would Black be giving him?
* * *
As the shadows of late afternoon lengthened toward evening, Ben Holmes sat alone in the station. He wanted a drink but he wasn’t supposed to leave the station unattended. For a time his fear of getting fired fought with his thirst.
Just as the balance was tipping, he saw old Doc James trudging down the dusty street toward the station. Ben could make a pot of coffee and offer to share it with the old doctor. While the elderly physician was always complaining that he had one foot and four toes in the grave, he could be counted on to add a medicinal dose of whiskey to his own cup of coffee and to Ben’s.
The doctor’s progress, slow under any circumstances, was further slowed by people who stopped to talk to him. Night had fallen by the time he reached the station. Ben greeted him with a cup of coffee in each hand. Handing him one, he said, “Here, Doc. It’s a cold night but this’ll warm you up.”
“Why, thank ya, Ben,” Doc James replied as he opened his bag and poured a generous shot of good whiskey into Ben’s cup and his own... and then into the coffee cup of a man Ben had never seen before. The Doctor did this quite casually, addressing the man as Sir John.
Apparently this Sir John was someone Doc James expected to meet here, but Ben was annoyed. Without a by-your-leave this Englishman had just helped himself to the coffee. He’d just walked into the station and...
No. He hadn’t done that. The station had one and only one door. Ben had been alone and except for the Doctor no one had come through that door.
Ben wanted to ask the man how the devil he’d gotten here, but Sir John had turned toward the doctor and was saying, “Sheriff Black was here a while and mentioned that his half-brother was being released from prison and would be riding the train with us. Since Miss Abigail Atwater will also be joining us, it should be an interesting trip.”
For a moment Ben wondered how Sir John could have overheard his conversation with the Sheriff, but the mention of Miss Atwater drove all other thoughts from his mind. The woman was a demon for temperance. If she caught him drinking on the job, she’d get him fired. He had to get rid of the evidence, but the coffee was much too hot to gulp down. Alternatively sipping and blowing very hard on his cup he did the best he could.
As he’d finished this task, the train arrived. The Doctor and Sir John boarded and shortly thereafter Miss Abigail Atwater appeared. Instead of a tip, she gave Ben a suspicious glance when he helped her get on the train.
No sooner was she gone than Adam Kane came striding out of the night, still as tall and straight as ever. Though his face was hard, he thanked Ben most civilly when Ben gave him the black box. This emboldened Ben enough for him to ask, “Ain’t you going to open it, find out what’s inside?”
“Why, Ben, can’t you guess?” he asked, his voice soft with just a hint of danger, “I just got out of prison, so naturally my dear brother sends me a gift, something appropriate to our situation.” With that he got on the train.
While all the passengers were on board, Ben still needed to make sure the trainmen got all the freight properly loaded. There wasn’t much tonight. A shipment of canned goods and two boxes of horseshoes were quickly loaded, leaving only the coffin.
At the last minute Ben thought to check the lid. If the coffin wasn’t properly sealed, the trainmen could accidentally dump the dear departed on the ground. That would be bad under any circumstances, and with Miss Abigail Atwater around it would be a disaster.
To Ben’s horror the coffin opened easily, and to his astonishment it was empty. That had to be wrong. What was worse was that the cushioned silk interior looked as comfortable as any bed and... as rumpled as a bed somebody had just slept in. Ben did not know what this meant and he didn’t want to find out. At his urging the trainmen got the coffin on the train and, blowing its whistle, the night train departed.
As he watched its lights vanish in the distance, Ben felt great relief. An unpleasant mystery was gone. Whatever happened would do so hundreds of miles away and would be someone else’s problem.
* * *
The night train had two passenger cars, one of them empty and dark. As Adam Kane moved silently through the darkness toward the lighted car, he listened. To the gunfighter’s ears it sounded as though someone had just told a dirty joke and a young whore was laughing at it.
Easing forward he saw a once elegant club car that had seen better days. Years ago this car would have carried the elite of society in gracious comfort but now it resembled some of the bawdy houses he’d visited. Here and there the paint was peeling. The plush chairs covered in dark velvet had seen hard wear though they still looked comfortable. The whale oil lamp in the chandelier provided a soft pleasant light though many of the crystals were broken.
Seated around a scarred cherry table were a woman and two men, Doc James, and someone he didn’t know. This stranger appeared to be the one who told the joke. Another step and he stared in astonishment. The woman who’d laughed so gaily was the very elderly Miss Abigail Atwater. How, he wondered, could anyone make the stern old woman laugh like a schoolgirl?
“Adam,” Doc James called, gesturing at an empty chair,” we were just recalling days gone by. Come join us. This is Sir John and, of course you know Miss Atwater.”
As he sat down, Miss Atwater demanded, “That black box you’re carrying, what’s in it?”
“Well,” Kane replied in mild voice, “in Sunday School you taught me that my soul was the most precious thing I owned so I suppose I have to say it’s my soul in this box.”
Reaching into his vest pocket Sir John produced a small card. On it was written “He will say ‘my soul’.”
As Doc James passed the Englishman a five dollar gold piece, Adam Kane gave him a crooked smile. “That was most cleverly done,” he said. “It’s a great pity we can’t spend this trip playing poker.”
“Why can’t we?” Sir John asked.
“Because men just out of prison don’t have any money and, Miss Atwater, you do believe gambling is a sin, don’t you?”
“The Lady’s views,” the Englishman replied, “were not always so strict. Even now I believe that if I furnished the matchsticks, she’d be willing to play for them. Won’t you Dear Lady? To return a favor done long ago?” For the briefest moment a look passed between the old woman and the English nobleman.
They were lovers when she was a girl! No sooner did this thought flash through Adam Kane’s mind than he knew it was impossible. Sir John was a tall, broad-shouldered man with only a hint of gray in his full beard. He couldn’t possibly be old enough to have known Miss Atwater as a girl. Putting this puzzle aside, he replied “All right, but any matches I win, I keep.”
After losing three small pots and winning two large ones, Adam Kane had a good supply of matches and an unhappy memory: playing for matches had been a poor game in prison. “Isn’t there some way we can increase the stakes?” he asked.
Smiling, Sir John replied, “Yes, you and I could play for much higher stakes.” Sir John’s smile was broad. Kane couldn’t help noticing that the Englishman’s canine teeth were longer than those of most people, almost long enough to be called fangs.
Before Kane could think about this, Sir John spilled a host of tiny gold coins onto the table. “What I propose is that you mortgage something of value. In exchange for the mortgage and a hundred of your matchsticks, I will give you one hundred dollars in one-dollar coins.
“We then continue our game, you and I wagering gold while the Doctor and Abigail continue wagering matchsticks. If, at the end of this trip, you’re more than a hundred dollars ahead — or a hundred matchsticks — you can buy back the valuable thing you mortgaged.”
There was no “almost” about it. Sir John did have fangs. While the gunfighter didn’t believe he was in the presence of His Satanic Majesty, he was reasonably sure that the Englishman was something far from normal. “What’s this valuable property I’m to mortgage?” he asked, “My soul?”
“No, I want your appendix,” Sir John replied cheerfully.
Copyright © 2008 by Richard K. Lyon