What’s Coming on the 8:15?
by Scott Jessop
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Some passengers took their children and left the station. Others sat on the hard, wooden benches and stared out the windows while listening to the debate. Ben was not a fan of ghost stories or the supernatural. He had seen war and treachery, and he had walked the dark paths of life.
“See what you’ve started,” he sneered to Roman. “No more talk of zonbi.” Then to the waiting room he said, “No more careless speculation. The train is on its way. That’s all that need concern you.”
In the telegraph office, the staccato rhythm of the tapping key on the contact strip of the telegraph and the steady scratch of pencil lead on paper drifted from the table. Ben was a bookkeeper by trade. For many years, he was a man of dirty cuffs, the sign of a person of books and numbers. It was why he had hired Malachy for the telegraph. The young man had dirty cuffs.
“Is that thing hooked up?” he asked, pointing to the wall.
“Doctor Bell’s invention,” said Malachy. “It’s going to put me out of a job.”
“Does it work?”
“Well, right now, it only links this station with Colonel Butler’s office, but eventually it will connect the whole line.”
Ben studied the box. As he understood it, he could talk to another person miles away.
“Put your ear to the receiver, then crank the magneto until you hear the connection,” said Malachy.
Ben put the little cup to his left ear and cranked the handle until he heard a clicking sound in the receiver. “Hello. Hello. This is Charles Butler. Can you hear me?”
“I hear you just fine, Colonel,” said Ben. “You don’t have to shout.”
“My law, you must be twelve miles away.”
“Are you aware of our situation, sir?” asked Ben.
“Is there cause for concern. Sir, is it union trouble?”
“It’s trouble, Mister Fishman. Like nothing you or I have seen.”
“Then you know we need help.”
There was a long pause. Long enough that Ben placed his hand on the crank and was about to wind the magneto again when Butler replied, “I’m afraid it’s not coming, Ben.”
“Sir, we need a military man here. Perhaps you could ride up.”
Butler cleared his throat. “Now, Ben, you know I’m not really a military man. The militia is getting together and, in a few hours, the troops will move in, but I’m afraid all of that will come too late.”
“Then we should evacuate,” said Ben.
“No, Ben, stay put.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but that’s not practical.”
“The militia needs time,” said Butler.
“Colonel,” said Ben. “We have passengers.”
“Most of the town has already been evacuated. The passengers are safer within the stone walls of the station. A man has been dispatched to stop the train before it reaches you.”
“Sir, you know what I am,” whispered Ben. “Surely, someone in town, perhaps, the constable?”
“You’re the stationmaster, Mister Fishman.”
“Colonel, this is all I have.”
“And you will defend it.”
“Defend it? Do you think it will come to that?”
“You are the authority for the railroad; my representative in Ruxton Springs. Whatever may come your way, Mister Fishman, it is your responsibility.”
“Yessir,” Ben stammered, “just perhaps—”
“I have the right man for the job.”
With that the line went dead. Ben replaced the receiver and stepped back from the box.
“Short and sweet conversation,” said Malachy rummaging around the office for coffee beans, “I imagine that will be the future.”
Ben looked about the room. It encompassed the east turret of the long building. Like both turrets at either end of the station, it was a pentagon and other than the water closet, it was the smallest room in the station.
Stone and wood. Glass and cement.
He looked up at the clock and noted the time, 9:04; the train would put in at 10:13. He wrote this on his pad. Then he glanced at the note he made about the cryptic message from up the Pass, “mortviv,” and ran the lead across until the pencil was down to the wood.
Outside, the wind continued to blow, and a dark cloud leaked over the mountains to the west. In the distance, he heard the crash of some wood structure falling in the gale. He went outside to see if something on railroad property had fallen.
Lying across the platform was the wooden remains of a small fence constructed to keep passengers from wandering onto the tracks. The wind had taken its toll, thought Ben, until he saw a small herd of deer trotting across the rails. A big buck looked across the tracks to the fence that he and his herd had knocked down and, for a moment, he caught Ben’s eyes. The buck seemed to accuse him, and then his attention turned back to his harem, and the group bolted into the woods and up the hillside.
Ben laughed to himself and went to the small wood shed they called the depot where they kept freight to load on the train.
He found a crate from the Winchester Company bound for Roman’s store in Willow Creek. Using a crowbar, he pried the lid off and took one of the rifles and a box of ammunition from the straw packed box.
“Mister Fishman,” said Mrs. Morrand from the platform across the tracks. Ben placed the rifle on the crate.
“What is this ridiculous story about undead monsters delaying the train?”
Several of the passengers also walked out of the station just as a blast of wind swept through the valley. Dust and dead leaves filled the air.
Ben gave them his practiced smile. “We don’t know why the train was delayed, Mrs. Morrand.”
“Apparently, there is concern enough to warrant confiscation of my private goods, Mister Fishman,” said Roman, pointing his cane at the open crate.
“I was simply inspecting the freight prior to putting it on the train. As is my right.”
“You know what the trouble is, Mister Fishman,” said Larimer. “Arming yourself is a prudent measure.”
“I’m not armed, Mister Larimer. It is nothing but a late train.”
“Or perhaps it is what I had described,” Roman said.
“Would that be the undead from your swamps?” asked Mrs. Morrand.
“Mister LeCroyant is telling ghost stories from Louisiana,” Ben said.
“Not ghost stories,” said Roman, “zonbi. And you should not be so quick to dismiss them.”
“It’s true,” whispered Cutlip. “Five years back, at a gathering of Union soldiers in Chicago, I met a sergeant who had been a prisoner at Andersonville. He told the story that one day, a man who had been dead came back to life. According to the sergeant, he had no will, no intelligence, and he did not recognize his friends or the guards, but he would fall on anyone who got close to him, and feed on their flesh.”
Roman thrust his cane at Ben: “There, you see.”
“Am I the only one who has not heard these stories? They are stories, Mister Cutlip. You have not seen them for yourself, and you forget that I know how yarns can spread through an army camp,” said Ben.
“I have seen them, sir,” said Roman.
“My Bubbeh told tales of the Prague golem when I was growing up. I didn’t believe her stories; I have no cause to believe yours.”
LeCroyant pointed the tip of his cane at him: “Zonbi.”
Ben shook his head.
“You should protect us from these union monsters,” said Larimer. “It’s the railroad’s duty.”
“I know my duty, sir.”
“Look,” said Malachy, pointing westward along the track. Through the dust, they could see a figure hunched over, pulling itself along in a jerking, lurching motion.
“There,” shouted Cutlip, pointing. “There is your proof. LeCroyant is right. Zonbi.”
Peering through the dust, Ben tried to get a look. The creature stumbled and seemed to lift its upper body erect with difficulty. The wind drew the air tight as the fabric of the world was about to tear. Mrs. Morrand stepped forward and raised her hand, “Hello,” she called. There was no reply.
“Mort vivant,” said Roman. “In Opelousas, they came at us, dragging their feet as if still tied to the grave.”
“Something is not right,” said Ben.
He watched. The monster seemed consumed by the dust, gone in the penumbra of the storm, only to partially emerge through the opaque atmosphere. Limping, limping along. It was true. Roman had been right.
“What do we do?” asked Malachy.
“Maybe...” said Mrs. Morrand her words lost in the wind.
The creature’s arm hung low at its side.
“Seems...” said Ben as a shot rang out. He turned and saw Larimer lowering one of the rifles. “What the hell?”
The monster tumbled to the dirt.
Malachy ran down the tracks. Lying across the rails was an older man dressed in a Civil War uniform. “It’s Major Tuttle.”
Blood ran from a small hole in the center of the Major’s forehead; a handful of his brains were scattered in the dirt behind him. He was covered in sweat, and as Ben looked at him the rosy hue of his skin was already starting to go gray. He had been working hard climbing the hill with a leather bag and a large wooden box in his hand.
The box was a covered in layers of shellac with two bright silver bolts and wing nuts on opposite corners and protruding from the top an iron rack with quarter inch teeth and a wood handle.
“That’s a blasting machine,” said Larimer. “Smith Rack Bar.”
His hand forming a fist so tightly that it trembled, Malachy shouted at Larimer, “Dastard!”
Larimer stepped back.
Ben opened the leather bag. The syrupy smell of nitroglycerine hit his nose, and he saw three red sticks of dynamite. “He was carrying dynamite and a blasting detonator,” Ben said. “He was weighed down. Tuttle was injured at Bull Run. That’s why he limped.”
“How was I supposed to know?” cried Larimer.
“Zonbi. Zonbi,” said Malachy shaking his fist. “Now you’ve murdered a man.”
“It wasn’t murder,” Larimer pleaded. “I couldn’t take the chance. You heard Roman. I couldn’t.”
“Why was he carrying a detonator and dynamite?” asked Cutlip.
“I reckon he was going to blow up the tracks,” said Ben.
He picked up the bag and handed it to Cutlip. “Back to the station.”
“You have to protect us,” said Larimer handing the rifle to Ben.
“I’m also going to protect this railroad.”
“I’ll fetch the town marshal,” said Malachy.
“There’s no one left in town,” Ben said. “We’re on our own.”
“What do you mean?” asked Larimer. “Surely, the militia is coming.”
“The town has been evacuated,” said Ben.
Roman tapped his cane. “Then we must be prepared for all contingencies.”
“Is this dead man your idea of a zonbi?” said Ben, pointing to Major Tuttle. “After this, you still want to beat that drum?”
Copyright © 2018 by Scott Jessop