What’s Coming on the 8:15?
by Scott Jessop
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
After dragging the body off the tracks, Ben entered a station colder than the one he had left. Several of the passengers were gone, and the rest cried or talked nervously in small groups. Most of the women had gathered with Mrs. Morrand in the Unescorted Women’s Section.
Larimer pointed his newspaper at Ben’s chest. “Just wait until that train arrives. If it’s unions, their cause will spread here as it is doing up there, and this whole town will be lost.”
“I think it far more likely it be saved,” said Mrs. Morrand, “once we get past this zonbi nonsense.”
“Madame,” said LeCroyant leaning hard on his cane, “they are a plague that can only be dealt with violently.”
“None of the consciousness of Christian men; they only act on the instinct to feed,” added Cutlip.
“The living dead,” sniffed Mrs. Morrand. She turned to Ben. “These men are merely trying to get you to do their dirty work.”
“To do what?” cried Larimer. “To shoot people on sight?”
“That is what you have done,” said Mrs. Morrand.
Larimer was incensed. “Do you have such a low opinion of the men who built this nation and won the war, Mrs. Morrand?”
Ben raised his hands and motioned them to stop. “Please, please,” he said.
Larimer stepped forward. “Every man in the mines has the same opportunity to achieve what men like Astor, Carnegie and Morgan have achieved.”
“Pshaw,” said Mrs. Morrand before Ben moved between them.
“Enough,” Ben said firmly. “There’s trouble up the Pass, of that I have no doubt. When that train arrives, this will be where that trouble disembarks so whether it is something as otherworldly as Mister LeCroyant believes or as earthly as Mrs. Morrand maintains, it is trouble nonetheless. We must be prepared. “
“It is the living dead, I tell you,” said Roman.
Malachy was rolling a cigarette. Ben seldom smoked, considering it a filthy habit but, right now, he needed it. He reached out for the smoke.
“You’re the head of the local militia,” Malachy said to Larimer. “What are you going to do?”
Larimer nervously rocked back and forth on his feet. “Yes. Yes,” he said. “We need to... we need to get organized.”
“This isn’t an Independence Day parade,” said Ben.
“Well, we’re on railroad property,” Larimer said. “Isn’t it the railroad’s responsibility?”
“We should fortify the station,” he said.
Ben’s head bobbed up and down with deliberation. “Yes, fortify the station. We will do that.” Looking up at the plaster ceiling with its gentle arch twenty feet above the pine floor, Ben considered the station. “This building has twenty-four-inch stone walls and very few windows.”
Malachy raised his hand. “You want to make a stand? We need to get out of here.”
“I aim to make a stand. There’s lumber in the shed. Mister Cutlip, you take several of the men, and get them to board up all the windows. Mister LeCroyant and Mister Larimer, barricade the tracks. I want the train to stop here.”
“This is madness,” said Mrs. Morrand.
“I don’t know what is going to get off that train, Mrs. Morrand. It might be union men; it might be the usual workmen and families down for a day of shopping and come to get an ice cream at the candy store by the creek. On the other hand, it might be the living dead, but we need to protect this valley, and I need to protect this station.”
Malachy pulled off his sleeve garters and let his cuffs down. “We can use the crane to lift the ties over by the depot onto the tracks.”
“Mister Fishman,” Roman LeCroyant said, “let’s distribute those Winchesters.”
Ben nodded then he snuffed the tobacco, tucked the cigarette into the waist pocket of his vest, and led the men outside. They got straight to work. The wind blew hard. Dust from the hills mixed with the few snowflakes and the fallen leaves in the air to obscure the mountains from their view. Squinting against the dirt, Cutlip and one of the passengers boarded up windows while Ben and Larimer lifted the first tie to set on the tracks.
“What about the westbound?” asked Larimer.
Ben looked up. “There isn’t going to be a westbound.”
Larimer stopped his work. “Perhaps, Mister Fishman, you should try to contact the militia in Colorado Springs, again.”
Ben nodded. “I have faith Colonel Butler will send us support. Still, it seems like a prudent thing to do.”
Back inside the freight office, he removed the cigarette from his pocket, lit it again, and rolled it between his fingers. The sharp whack of a hammer hitting nails told him the men were getting to the windows on the east side of the station.
Malachy joined him and went to the telegraph while Ben opened the blinds to look out into the yard. The pulley on the crane squeaked and complained under the weight of the ties lifted to the tracks. Ben knew that if the train barreled through at half throttle or more, it could plow through their meager barricade. At best, it would be a deterrent. Either way it would let him know if thugs or something else were controlling the train. He slumped in a stiff wooden chair and rubbed his face with his hand until he thought his nose might come off.
“You know, Mister Larimer is an empty suit,” said Malachy.
“And there’s a real war hero in our midst,” Malachy said pointing his pencil to Ben.
He shook his head. “I’m no hero.”
“You saved Colonel Butler’s life during the Battle of Nashville.”
“Corporal Butler was shot in the butt and lying in a trench near the front line. It’s true I picked him up and carried him away from the fighting.”
“Corporal,” said Malachy with a grin, “that’s a revelation.”
“But do you know what I was doing when I tripped over him?” asked Ben. “I was running away. The Rebs were advancing, and I ran. Other men stood and fought, but I ran.”
Malachy poured the boss a cup of coffee as Ben went back to rubbing his head.
“Some call that a strategic retreat,” Malachy said holding out the cup of coffee. “Better take a draw off that cigarette you’re burning.”
Ben took a drag and then sipped the coffee. He winced. Malachy made the worst sludge he had ever tasted and, whenever he drank it, he was up all night. He needed the tonic, as the morning was growing long. “I met Doc Holliday once,” Ben said taking another drag off his cigarette. “We were on a train headed to Pueblo.”
Malachy took a sip of coffee and grimaced. “Bat Masterson arrested my older brother for robbing the bank down in Trinidad.”
“Your brother robbed a bank?” Ben asked surprised.
“Right after we got out here. Walked right in, shoved a pistol under the teller’s nose, and asked for money,” said Malachy. “He walked out of the bank. Didn’t run, just calmly walked out. Took one look at the marshal, and knew who he was—”
“And his reputation,” Ben interjected.
“Yes,” said Malachy, “and he surrendered.”
“Did he have any accomplices?”
Ben leaned forward. “Did he turn him in?”
“No,” said Malachy, “you don’t turn in your kid brother.”
Ben nodded. Men seeking second chances filled the West. “There are better ways to rob a bank. My previous situation had been in Readington Township in New Jersey, working at the Erie Bank.”
Ben took a drag from the smoke. “That was before the scandal. Before my wife left me and took the boys to Albany to try to salvage what was left of her reputation. It’s all anyone really has, his or her good name, and mine was as tarnished as Mudd’s, so she abandoned it.”
Malachy reached out for the cigarette. “Is that what happened?”
“I lost everything,” added Ben handing him the stick. “I came out here to start over.”
“You seemed to have done all right.”
“I’ll never fit in. I’m a Jew in the West. A man who keeps to himself.”
“Those are the best kind of men.” Malachy took a drag and handed the cigarette back. “What happened to the money?”
“I gave it back. But if I ever step foot in New Jersey, I’ll be put in prison.”
Malachy gulped last of the coffee. The two men listened to the hammering of nails, and the fuss of Larimer and LeCroyant lifting ties onto the tracks. Out in the waiting room, the women moved furniture to block the doors. Ben gave a thought to what was coming. “Bat Masterson, eh?”
“And Doc Holliday.”
“We could use their guns.” Ben finished his cup of mud and stamped the butt out. He was the stationmaster.
He could hear voices of men gathering on the platform. The wrap of security was not to last. Far up in the hills, still unseen through the blowing dust and snow, a train whistle wailed against the canyon walls. Its echo plunged through the valley.
Roman emerged from the depot with a rifle in each hand and handed them to the men before giving Ben a Colt pistol with a holster.
Ben placed the holster around his waist and tightened the buckle. His fingers ran along the stiff cowhide to the pearl handle of the pistol and the leather flap that held the weapon in place. He had not fired a gun since the War.
“Gentlemen, if I could trouble you to tell me who blew the whistle?” asked Mrs. Morrand.
“Yes. Who blew the whistle?” echoed Mrs. Larimer in the quiet voice of a well-bred Virginian. Hearing her speak nearly knocked the men over while Larimer hunched his head below his shoulders in deference to his wife.
“I don’t understand,” said Ben.
“Do you believe,” said Mrs. Morrand, “that a train full of monsters would have the intelligence and wherewithal to blow the whistle? Or that an army of union rioters would announce their arrival?”
“I still don’t get your meaning, ma’am?” asked Cutlip.
“It is a train of innocents,” said Mrs. Morrand. “How will you feel, Mister Cutlip, if the train stops and instead of monsters you shoot a father or a young mother?”
“Casualties of war.”
Mrs. Morrand was undeterred. “What if you shoot a child, Mister Cutlip? An innocent child?”
Cutlip slouched. “Now, ma’am, that’s just not fair.”
“We know there are zonbi,” said Roman.
Mrs. Morrand stepped forward. “Someone blew that whistle, Mister Fishman. I have put forth a question, and I would appreciate an answer. Has anyone proved there are zonbi on the train?”
“Mister Fishman talked to Colonel Butler on the telephone,” said Malachy.
Ben looked at the platform. It was worn, scuffed, and covered in the dust being tossed by the cold, west wind. “No, ma’am, no one has proved the train has zonbi. Colonel Butler only said he was aware of trouble, which could mean anything.”
The wind stopped, as it will often do when the front arrives, and the snow is about to fall in earnest. Dead calm. The leaves fell back to the earth. The air cleared. Behind them, they could see the smoke from the train making its way across the hills.
“There is nothing more supernatural here than the fear of ignorant men,” said Mrs. Morrand.
Larimer’s wife was positioned far from her husband, “I do not agree with my husband’s assessment, Mister Fishman,” she said. “I think verification is in order. “
Roman leaned hard on his cane. “While you are verifying, they will be upon us like locusts. They do not reason. They do not contemplate. They are not remorseful.”
“And they do not blow train whistles,” said Mrs. Morrand.
“Perhaps the living dead retain something of themselves,” suggested Roman.
They watched as the train came around the bend of Mount Manitou pulling five cars and a dull red caboose off the Pass. The click-clack of the track and the cha-cha-cha of the engine echoed across the valley. The group stared at the western canyon as black smoke belched from the locomotive’s stack. All of them watched as it crossed the trestle and made its way down the south side of the valley toward the station.
The whistle blew again.
“Five minutes,” said Cutlip.
Ben’s attention shifted from the station to his passengers to his employees. Calculating the columns and the rows, he reached a sum. Precision, logic, and the station were all he had left. There was only one solution.
“I’ll stand,” said Ben. “Passengers go into the station. Don’t fire unless I give the order, and if the order comes, aim for their heads.”
Roman asked, “What’s your plan?”
“I’m going to see what comes off that train: passengers, ruffians, or zonbi. I’m going to welcome them to Ruxton Springs.”
Roman started to say something, but instead slowly placed his cane in front of him and went into the station. Moments later, Ben saw the barrel of the Cajun’s rifle sticking through one of the spaces between the boards. The rest of the passengers followed. Mike Cutlip closed the door behind them. Malachy went around the corner of the building, lit a cigarette and waited. On the platform, Ben Fishman stood alone.
The wind exhaled a final breath before the storm, and with it came the sweet smell of fallen apples and apricots decomposing on the earth. At what must have been a considerable expense, Years ago, Colonel Butler had lined the tracks with fruit trees and lilacs, making the Overland one of the most beautiful railroads in the world.
Beneath the pastoral scene, the coming winter just minutes away, Ben drew a breath of the rotting air. The paranoid discussions, the supernatural stories of modern legend put to rest, his logical mind again took control of his emotions, and he knew that rockslides and labor strife were the most likely culprits. In one minute, he would know if the passengers on the eastbound were refugees from the troubles, violent men come to bring their grievances to the captains of industry, or simply nothing at all.
The advantage he had, as a man of numbers and reason, was the comfort in knowing that, at the bottom of the column, the truth would reveal itself. The mind can take you in all sorts of wild directions, but the facts can lead only to one. In the past five years, he had learned to face reality’s truth and deal as best he could with the consequences, confident he would bear it; life would go on.
One hundred yards. The train was slowing. Water dripped from the pistons, and the boiler released a blast of steam. One long whistle, the train crept across Shoshone Street, and into the station yard with its bell ringing.
Looming over Ben, it stopped inches from the barricade, hissing, moaning, and waiting. Ben could see no conductor or fireman. There were passengers: pale ladies in petticoats and bonnets, men in dark jackets and hats, and ghostly children seated and waiting.
Ben approached the train and entered the cab. The engineer sat at the controls, one hand on the brake and the other on the whistle chain, his dead mouth barely visible under flaps of gnawed skin.
Copyright © 2018 by Scott Jessop