What’s Coming on the 8:15?
by Scott Jessop
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
October 26, 1885. It was a simple room. A straw mattress draped over ropes tied to an oak frame, roughhewn table, two chairs, dresser, credenza with porcelain bowl and pitcher of water. The man occupying the room had a metal cup, a coffee pot, and several knives. He had Marx’s volume one, Knights of Labor pamphlets, a train engineer’s cap, and the red ribbon of a marksman’s badge.
On the table were the blood and bone remains of his last meal. His one suit and four shirts hung on a wood rail set on the wall. He did not build a fire that morning; the cold no longer bothered him. With the blast of a distant train whistle, he set out on command into the darkness of the day.
Ben Fishman clutched his lunch pail in one hand and his hat in the other and climbed the hill from the town to the railroad stretched along the upper foothills of the Rockies to the small, red stone station. The brisk west wind coming off Pike’s Peak foretold black clouds and billowing snows. As he fought the breeze, smells of cooking fires and autumn leaves filled his nostrils, and beneath the pleasant perfumes a whiff of rotting flesh that turned his stomach.
There was a chill inside the station. The building held the heat during the summer, and the cold during the winter. They’d be stoking the fires all day to try to drive it out. Stationmaster for the Overland Railroad in Ruxton Springs, Colorado, Ben hung his hat and coat, and paraded his black, business suit as the uniform of managerial authority in the station.
Several people were standing at the counter to purchase tickets for the ride to the mining camps and the gambling halls; a few more were waiting for the morning train coming down, as they said, headed to Colorado Springs. White-gloved women in long skirts and dour women in black skirts, tattered-clothed workmen clutching their tools, and businessmen in fine attire were all waiting for a turn at the counter for tickets. Ben counted them and made a mark in his notebook. He would compare it at the end of the day to the previous day’s numbers. He counted the people in the waiting room.
A mustached dandy working a cane, stood in the corner and gave a nod to Ben.
“Bonjour, Monsieur Fishman,” he said with a Cajun accent.
Ben glanced over his shoulder and tried to wear a smile. “How are you, Mr. LeCroyant?” he asked.
“I am here to meet the morning train from Willow Creek, and your man here tells me it is late. How can the train be late?”
“There are many reasons, Mr. LeCroyant. Surely, there were late trains in Louisiana.”
Ben turned to the ticket agent. “Why is there a delay with the 8:15?”
“No word” — and then aside as if he had possession of secret information — “I’ve been hearing of union trouble up in the mines.” The agent nodded knowingly. “But this one,” he said, “has been asking for the past quarter hour.”
“That nudnik can wait. What about the westbound?”
“Westbound is running on time.”
“Would you fault them, Mr. Cutlip?” asked Mrs. Morrand. “Would you blame those men who toil in the mines for demanding justice through unionization? Even if it comes at the cost of violence?”
“Which question would you like me to answer, Mrs. Morrand?” asked the ticket agent.
“Just sell tickets, Mr. Cutlip,” Ben said, glancing at the morning’s receipts.
With a nod, the agent pushed back his gray hair and adjusted his glasses before getting back to work.
“They should be grateful for the work,” said another waiting passenger peering over his newspaper.
“Of that I’m sure, Mr. Larimer,” said Mrs. Morrand. “But why should a man working in a mine for the profit of wealthy men be forced to pay for his tools, for his lamp even for the explosives used to blast the hard rock?”
“The blacksmith pays for his tools. The storekeeper buys his stock and pays for the building. Why should the miners be any different?”
Mrs. Morrand’s thin grin tipped off Larimer that he had walked into her trap. “The blacksmith and the shopkeeper are the beneficiaries of their labors and enjoy the profits of their businesses. Mr. LeCroyant does not ask his man to share in the expense of running the store, because it is Mr. LeCroyant who keeps the profit. It is such with the mine owners. If they are going to ask the miners to pay for the tools to extract the gold, then those men are investors in the enterprise and, therefore, are entitled to fair shares of the profits.”
“I still say they are ungrateful, ma’am,” Larimer said, pointing his newspaper at the old woman.
“It is men like you, Mr. Larimer, who exploit the workers,” said Mrs. Morrand.
“It is men like me,” Larimer said in a raised voice, “who built this state and made you a rich woman, Mrs. Morrand, or would you like to return the lease payments from my company for the use of your land?”
“Mr. Larimer,” Ben snapped. “Not in my station.”
Larimer nodded to Mr. Fishman. “My apologies, ma’am,” said Larimer with a slight bow. “And to you, sir.”
Ben bowed in return. Mrs. Larimer, standing silently with her husband, tugged at her gloves, the corners of her mouth curling ever so slightly into a grin. Ben allowed himself to grin as well. He had seen the miners around the company towns and on the streets of Ruxton Springs, and he had seen the poverty their families endured. They were men working seventy hours a week, broken and beaten by the darkness of gold.
“What’s the word, Malachy?” asked Ben escaping into the telegraph office.
“Nothing from dispatch but a lot of activity up the Pass. I put the most troubling on top,” he said shoving the tiny scraps into Ben’s hands.
Ben glanced at the clock. It read 8:40. He hated the incongruity of broken schedules. Looking at the dispatches, he noticed that there had been none from the terminal in Colorado Springs since the night before. Ben adjusted his glasses. The first was from Willow Creek, “S.O.S.” The second was Peakview Station, “Dead. All dead.” The third from Prince Albert, “Town on fire. Still coming. God help us.” The final was from Canada Falls and made the least sense: “Mortviv.”
Rubbing the bridge of his nose, Ben put them down on the table with a dozen more waiting to be read. “It must be the unions,” he muttered.
“I figure that last one refers to some kind of secret fraternity,” said Malachy O’Brien, who had come west from Manhattan. Somewhere along the way, he had learned Morse code, and that made him indispensable to the railroad. He had just lit a cigarette and took a long drag. “Like the Mollies or the A.O.H.”
“I demand an answer, Mr. Fishman,” said Roman from the door. “I have a considerable amount of money and merchandise on that train. If there is union trouble, perhaps you should talk to Mr. Larimer.”
Ben turned back to Malachy. “Send a message to dispatch. Ask them if we need to clear the tracks for the militia out of Colorado Springs.”
Malachy nodded and began to tap out the message.
“In a moment, Mr. LeCroyant, we are trying to ascertain the cause of the delay,” said Ben as he turned back to the last dispatch. “Mortviv, mortviv,” he muttered.
“Sounds like French,” offered Malachy.
“It means death and life,” said Roman.
Ben handed him the dispatch. Roman glanced at it and shook his head dismissively. “It’s impossible,” he said thrusting the papers back into Ben’s hands. “Probably gibberish.”
Ben sighed. He was worried about his station. Chaos was a precursor to violence, and violence often resulted in vandalism. The damage to the station would come out of his receipts: 25 cents a pane for leaded glass, plus a dollar a day for the glazer, the polished wood floors 5 cents per square foot and a crew of three to install them, the native oak doors, two dollars for the carpenter. It went on and on. Down one column then down the other each time arriving at a negative balance on the ledger he kept in his mind.
Roman was right, he thought, if it were union trouble, Larimer would know. Ben walked through the ticketing office to the waiting room. He gave a nod to the other passengers, and then crossed to where Larimer and his wife sat with a small suitcase and a couple of parcels at their feet from the Mays department store downtown. A small man in a big job with more responsibility than his twenty-four years should allow, Larimer was reading his newspaper.
Likely, thought Ben, he’s checking to see if his name is mentioned in the society columns. Larimer sniffed hard, sucking the air in his nose to the back of his throat and gave a little cough to let Ben know his presence had been felt.
Ben glanced at Larimer’s wife: tall, blonde, and stunning even under the piles of clothes propriety demanded. Some in town said she was a mail-order bride from Germany or Holland or somewhere. It was hard to say, since she rarely talked. Ben extended his hand to the gentleman. “Good day to you, Mr. Larimer.”
“Mr. Fishman,” Larimer said. His eyes never left his newspaper and his hands did not reply.
Ben nodded and placed his hand back in his pocket. He acknowledged the wife, careful not to linger. Ben handed Larimer the dispatches. “What do you make of these?”
Larimer leafed through the sheets, pursing his thick lips and giving an occasional grunt. “It looks like union trouble,” he said.
“I find that hard to believe, given your company’s usual manner in handling such situations.”
“Yes, well, it could be a rockslide has delayed your train,” Larimer said. “We’re opening up a new shaft at the Dolly Rose. That runs close to the tracks. Maybe the blasting shook something loose.”
Ben nodded, “That’s probably it.” Looking out the west window, he saw wisps of snow blowing off the summit of Pike’s Peak. Angels fleeing the Earth. “Except we would have been alerted through the telegraph.”
“Unless the lines were cut.”
“In which case, the next station, being only a mile away, would send us an alert. The conductor could walk the distance.”
“Well,” the mine manager sniffed, “I’m sure it’s nothing.”
“What do you make of the last dispatch?” asked Ben.
Larimer studied the note before shaking his head. “I’m not sure.”
Leaning over to his wife, he showed her the message. She studied the paper for a moment, turned it, turned her head, ran her finger along the letters then placed the finger on the side of her cheek as if transmitting the information through her jaw and into her brain. Finally, she whispered to her husband.
“My wife says if you place a space between the first “t” and the “v” you get the French word for dead. She suggests mort vivant or living dead. What do you make of that, Mr. Fishman?”
Ben felt a chill and turned away. He stirred the fire in the waiting room’s small woodstove before placing another log inside. Thirty-five cents a cord, delivered by Mr. Larimer’s poorer cousin, Franklin, he wrote in his mental ledger.
Ben shook the distraction of numbers from his head and looked back down at the dispatches. Words like “dead” and “chaos” leapt off the pages. He read: “Masses heading to Pentecostal church” and, most troubling: “Sheriff is arming men.” Dozens of cables about riots and fires, and the last was the only one that seemed written in code. He rubbed his head and neck hoping to ease the knot that was forming. This was no rockslide. There was trouble in the camps, and trouble had a habit of spreading.
Ben walked to Roman and pointed to the note. “Mrs. Larimer thinks this might say ‘living dead’.”
Roman’s eyes went wide, his brow narrowed, “Non,” he said in a voice dripping with humidity and Spanish moss. “Pas ici.”
“What does it mean?” asked Ben.
“The undead. The living dead. My good man, deep in the bayou, there are voodoo queens who can reanimate corpses, make them do their will, turn them against men. The Creole, they call it zonbi.”
“I do not believe in superstition and witchcraft. I do believe in the corruption of man and in secret societies, and I think this is such trouble.”
“I think not. I have seen the living dead with my own eyes,” said Roman with a grand gesture. “Saint Landry Parish back in ’59. A man named Renard, who had died more than three months before, came lurching down the street one night. His flesh falling off his bones, worms still feeding on his face, and the stench of rotting flesh being carried on the wind.”
Ben thought of the strange scent he caught outside the station.
“What happened?” asked Ben.
“After the sheriff killed him, an army of zonbi came out of the marshes. The mayor of Opelousas had the men lined up outside the church and ordered them to fire on the dead.”
“How do you kill something that’s already dead?” asked Ben.
“You must shoot them here,” said Roman pointing to his forehead
“Nonsense,” said Ben. “You’re talking rawmaish. I believe it was a man, drugged with laudanum or something, but a man nonetheless. What we have going on in the camps is hundreds of ruffians in the streets.”
“Perhaps. Or it is the living dead.”
Ben turned away with a scoffing guffaw and went into the telegraph office. “What about the militia?” he asked Malachy.
“No militia. And the westbound has been cancelled.”
“What?” asked Ben. “Ask them to confirm.”
“If the zonbi are being directed through dark magic, they will come for him,” Roman said with a nod to Larimer.
“I have no use for swamp stories.”
Malachy looked up from the telegraph. “Good news. The eastbound train just left Willow Creek, boss.”
Ben smiled. “Ah, there. Much better. All is well.”
Roman’s eyes grew wide. “How long?”
“Not much time to prepare,” said Roman.
Ben announced to the passengers, “Ladies and gentlemen, whatever the problem, it has been resolved. The eastbound will be here in less than an hour and a half. I apologize for the inconvenience.”
“What about our safety?” asked one of the passengers.
“Whatever was causing the delay has passed,” said Ben. “I’m sure the trains would not be running if your safety was in question.”
“Unless,” said another, “those union men have taken control of the eastbound.”
“That would be highly unlikely.”
Larimer rolled his newspaper. “If it is the union, my men will take care of them.”
“And the living dead,” said Roman, “what about them?”
Asked another passenger: “Living dead?”
“Nonsense,” said Mrs. Morrand.
“What are you doing about these threats, Mr. Fishman?” asked Larimer.
“The railroad will protect you,” said Ben. “You have my word.”
“It would be better if we had the militia,” said Larimer.
“To shoot and kill men fighting for their rights as laborers?” cried Mrs. Morrand. “I think not. Not as long as I have a voice.”
“We’ve all heard your voice,” said Larimer.
Ben watched as the passengers started arguing with each other, with Roman spreading his stories to each group. Some worried about union men. Talk of the Mollies and the Knights of Labor moved through the room but, under it, “zonbi” was whispered like a disease passing through a camp.
Copyright © 2018 by Scott Jessop