I missed all the excitement the day the trains walked away. Just up and stomped away on great metal feet, to hear Eddie Hartford tell it.
“Trains ain’t got legs,” I told him. I had a pair of jackrabbits dripping on my belt, my hunting rifle on my shoulder, and a powerful thirst tickling my throat, so might be it came out harsher than it ought. Young Edward was always a sensitive soul, though, least when it came to slights against his manhood.
“What do you know, Bose? You wasn’t here. I’m telling you they walked away, and I dare you to find a man who’ll say different.” He tossed his head, hair flashing like copper, looking more like his mother than ever.
The town seemed in an awful tizzy, that was certain. I could see little knots of folks here and there, whispering rushed and dark like the ghost of a river. I could also see the marks in the dust, enormous circles pressed in the ground, as if God had dropped His pocket change. They were six, maybe eight inches deep, even in the hard-packed dirt along the thoroughfare. If I was to speculate on what a train’s footsteps might look like, I’d probably have speculated something near enough to that for spitting.
And Eddie’s an honest kid, for all his temper. He’d no reason to lie, nor I to doubt he was telling the best truth he could. But I was parched, peckish, and pugnacious, as Pop used to say afore he caught the train to Santa Fe and left me and Ginny to mind what I somewhat ironically call “the homestead,” and I didn’t feel like giving Eddie the satisfaction.
“Reckon I’ll find a man and ask him, now you mention it,” I said. “Get inside out of the sun, kid. I think you got a touch of heatstroke.”
“Kid!?” Eddie shouted as I walked away. “You got all of nineteen months on me, Ambrose Jedediah Tooms, and you’re shorter’n me for all that. Kid! You come back here and say that to my face.”
I waved a hand. “I’d only be addressin’ your chin, Eddie, as you so kindly pointed out.” I didn’t push things; I’d already taken my cheap shot. Eddie’s got the pale skin to match his red hair; he can’t take the sun and knows it.
Nothing irritates like the truth. That’s another of Pop’s little sayings.
The saloon was dark, even with the late afternoon sun blaring in like trumpets, and it smelled like mildew and liquor. I stepped to the side to let my eyes adjust—a man stands in profile in a doorway with a rifle in his hands and folks tend to get ideas.
Vic was behind the bar, one hand under the counter. I nodded to him, and he pulled it back up, empty. I maneuvered past the tables. The place was pretty crowded for the afternoon; most folks usually liked to work as long as the sun was in the sky.
“Evenin’, Bose,” said Vic. “I ain’t seen you in here since....” He trailed off, likely realizing a little late that it might be impolitic to bring up memories of me dragging Pop a mile and a half down the road to keep him out of the sleep-it-off cell at the Sheriff’s office. “You, uh, havin’ a drink?”
I tried not to grimace. “Today might be the day to start, if what I’m hearing is anything like what happened.”
“Trains’re gone,” Pete Rawlins piped up from the next stool over. I smelled the whiskey on his breath ten feet away. “Gone, and they ain’t coming back.”
“It’s the end,” Jesse moaned beside him. He’d have gotten a head start on the drinking, I’d wager. “It’s the end of everything.”
“It might be the end of Dead Mule, but I’m pretty sure the rest of the country’ll carry on without us,” I said. My throat was dry, and the thirst was on me good. “Depending on how widespread the troubles are, I mean. Anyone here not too drunk or crazy to help me figure out what’s happening? Eddie said the trains walked away.”
“They did,” said Vic. He was wiping the bar down, polishing the wood in a little circle, around and around and around. “Just stood up and walked. Like they was waiting for the chance. Like they’d just decided something. They had feet like barrel lids and eyes like searchlights, but they never looked back.”
“They didn’t even say goodbye,” Jesse said. The saloon erupted into a dozen voices babbling, arguing, shouting each other down and crying for what they’d lost.
“There’s a town hall meeting tomorrow,” Vic told me, leaning over the bar and raising his voice. “Once everyone’s dried out a bit—had some time to think it over.”
“We’re all doomed!” Jesse shrieked. Pete slapped him on the back of the head, and he fell face-first onto the bar, where he just lay, wheezing and sobbing.
I had to leave before I did something stupid, like throw a punch or ask Vic to pour me a double. Same end, different routes.
I needed to get home. I needed to talk to Ginny.
They say Dead Mule was founded because Augustus Felicitations Smith, who was trying to get to Santa Fe, was thrown to the ground when his last best mule fell stone dead beneath him, then hit his head on a rock, and found silver when he rubbed the bump on his noggin. The mine was more of an excuse than a reason, and it never did show many signs of life before it finally petered out a generation later.
By then, though, the trains had come. Tracks reached across the land like lovers’ hands straining to touch through a window, and where the trains went, there followed the need for coal and water and maybe just a chance to stretch your legs for a minute or two; merciful Lord, don’t that bouncing ever stop? Dead Mule was what they called a jerkwater town, a place where the trains only stopped to pull some water into gaping thirsty maws before heading on their way. It was crumbs from a table of untold savory delights, but a man can learn to live on crumbs if crumbs is what he has.
Now, it seemed, someone was looking to take the town’s crumbs away, too. I confess, I couldn’t quite nail down how to feel about that.
“It don’t make sense, Ginny,” I told my sister. It was dark out, now, and we were burning some of the last of our candles, trying to figure things out, to make sense of the day.
I’d been out to see the footprints, which were like someone had stamped a table into the sand. They led off into the desert, leaving a trail in the scrub almost wide enough to drive a cart along. Not that anyone was of a mind to do it, not with dark coming on and most of the men half-pickled. I thought I heard a steam whistle calling from out in the chaparral, wailing in the twilight like a coyote. “Who would make a train with feet?”
“Maybe they weren’t built that way,” said Virginia, tossing her hair over her shoulders. She’d got a touch of red in it from somewhere in our tangled family tree. “Maybe they weren’t built at all.”
“Someone’s got to build trains,” I told her.
“How do you know?” She raised an eyebrow at me and passed me a needle and thread. “Here, help with the darning as long as we’re going to use the light.”
“Because trains are made things. Humans built ‘em all.”
“You ever seen a train being built? You ever looked inside to see how they’re put together? Love is a made thing, too, and fashion, and cities and towns, but show me the man who can control any of those things to his liking.”
I caught her sly smile. She was baiting me on. The poor fellow who’d someday make her a husband wouldn’t know what side to butter his bread on most days, I figure. “Ginny, this is serious!”
She giggled. “You didn’t see them go a galumphing off on those silly turkey legs of theirs.”
I shook my head, smiling despite myself. “I mean it, girl. We’re barely hanging on. If the town dries up under us, we’re sunk. We starve here, or....”
“The city’d eat us both alive. We’re not cut out for it.” I leapt up, the candleflames seeming to run after me in the way they flickered. “I can’t live in stone and brick, and you....” I had an image then, like a vision, except instead of seeing the saints and angels, I saw Ginny bone-thin and hard-eyed, sewing some stranger’s pants for pennies in a room that was too poor even for a window. There was a knowing in her eyes, in the Ginny-That-Might-Be, and it burned me to see it. “What skills do we have that they’d need in a city?”
“You’ll figure something out,” Ginny said. “You always do.”
“Yeah,” I said. I leaned against the window. The moon shone down like the headlamp of a night train, rushing on. That’s the tricky thing about trains at night; you can’t tell how fast they’re coming till they’re there.
The town hall went about as well as I’d imagined, which is to say we all managed to get out of the bar with only a few injuries, and those mostly to pride.
After all the shouting was over, the upshot was that Mayor Gittelthwait had called for volunteers for a posse to hunt the trains down and bring them back. The posse was to use reason if possible and force if not, and it would be supplied with firearms and rope for this latter purpose, though what good a lead bullet and frayed hemp was supposed to do against three thousand horsepower was left unstated. It was quite possibly the stupidest, most poorly planned, least likely idea I had ever heard.
Mine was the first hand in the air.
To be honest, I didn’t know what else to do. It was either hare off into the desert on a wild goose hunt or go home and stare at the walls. At least the first option would keep my hands occupied. I’ll admit I was a mite curious to see the trains, too; I was one of a largish minority that hadn’t witnessed “The Event,” as Mayor Gittelthwait called it, with capital letters and a good long pause in front.
We rode out the next morning, me with my rifle and Pa’s shotgun slung alongside the saddle of my borrowed horse; Jesse and Pete Rawlins, both blinking like unearthed moles as the morning light smacked head-on into their hangovers; John Magaraw the smith, a quiet Swede who got on better with horses than people; Mayor Gittelthwait, as the representative of the Law; and little big-mouthed Eddie Douglas Hartford, whom I still suspect came along mostly to show me up.
The tracks were easy enough to follow at first, even two days old and in the sand. The weight of all that metal crashing down. They say a man hit by a train never has time to feel it, mass and speed multiplying to the devil’s own mathematics. Wasn’t much talking among the party, between Jesse and Pete nursing their heads and taking secret sips out of their personal canteens, and Eddie glaring daggers at my back—and at my front too, when I took a mind to look his way. Magaraw never had more than two words to string together at a time, and poor Mayor Gittelthwait looked like to drop dead of apoplectic dyspepsia.
“Nice day for hunting,” I said to him, juggling myself a titch awkward-like on an unfamiliar horse. “Might catch us a nice supper, even if we don’t find no trains.”
“Doomed,” said Mayor Gittelthwait.
“I’ll allow there’s that possibility, too.”
“Town, doomed. Farms, doomed. Me. Everyone. All doomed.”
“It’s a judgment!” Pete slurred, already halfway to rip-roaring again. I’ll give the man this much: what he set his mind to do, he did with a will.
“A judgment on what?” I shouted back.
“Hubris,” Eddie snapped.
“Doom,” said Mayor Gittelthwait.
I dropped my speed a bit and in due course came alongside Jesse and Magaraw.
“How far d’you reckon they walked?” I asked.
“As far as they could, if they have any sense,” Jesse said. “Who wouldn’t, if they was stuck in Dead Mule?”
“It’s not so bad as that, is it?”
“Hell, ask your pappy, Bose. I’d wager he’s still walking.” Jesse lurched forward, coughing and snorting. After a minute, I realized he was laughing.
In defense of my quickness of wit, it wasn’t particularly funny.
Jesse cottoned on to my mood eventually, though I’m fairly sure Magaraw gave him a quiet kick to catch his attention first.
“Sorry, Bose. No harm meant.” He licked his lips, his eyes like too-small marbles in wooden cups. “Hey, you want a nip?” He held out his canteen. I could smell the alcohol evaporating from where I sat my horse. I swallowed hard.
“Guess I’ll scout ahead a ways,” I said. “See if I can’t get us a rabbit, too, or at least a snake.”
I spurred my horse and tried not to cough on the dust it kicked up.
It turned out to be snakes, but snakemeat’s not bad if you’ve got the knack of cooking it, and almost anything’s better than trail food. It wasn’t the coziest campfire I’ve ever sat around, but at least it wasn’t the pack of starveling coyotes I’d been afraid of. The trail had run out once we hit the wilderness proper, a confusion of mashed-down circular prints all muddled over each other, and then nothing.
“Maybe they learned to fly, too!” Pete had joked. No one but Jesse had laughed.
Me, I’d seen the scrub pulled out by the roots and the dirt scratched in rough lines, and I’d come up with my own guess, which was almost worse: the trains had learned to cover their tracks.
They knew we were after them.
Shared misfortune draws folks together, at least to start with. The last of Pete and Jesse’s liquor did the rest, though not for me. Never for me.
“No, but I mean it,” Eddie was telling me, teary-eyed. “I know I give you a hard time, and I won’t say it’s jealousy, but you... you’ve got so much freedom. I wish sometimes I lived with... but it’s, it, it can’t really be. And Ginny, I mean—” He coughed, hiccupped, and shook his head. “You understand what I’m saying?”
“Sure, Eddie,” I said. Pete was snoring. Mayor Gittelthwait was watching the fire and looked almost calm, unless you peered close at his hands and saw the knuckles white and creaking. Jesse was cheating Magaraw at some sort of dice game.
I stood. “I’ll go bury the leavings. Don’t want coyotes sniffing around.” I didn’t think to take a gun with me. Not sure how things might have turned out, if I had.
Didn’t go too far initially. Kept the fire in sight while I scraped a hole and tossed the bones and offal in. Did some business of my own while I was out there.
Then.... I won’t say something called to me, but I got an itch along the back of my head and suddenly thought how pretty the night was, with the sky big and dark and empty and slammed down like a bowl on the endless flat prairie. I had my bearings with the stars, and really we were hardly out of my backyard just yet. I went for a walk. To clear my head, as they say.
Pa wasn’t what you might call a great provider while he was with us. Too drunk to work half the time, and shaky with the lack of it when he wasn’t. I used to walk the wilderness with the ghost of a living man stalking behind me, every step. Sometimes I thought about not turning around—I had the wiles to survive on my own—but Ginny always drew me back. I thought of her as a lodestone, as an anchor in my worse moments.
It wasn’t really about Ginny, though. It was about Pa. It was about what Pa’d done to Ginny by leaving, and what I meant to do different.
A child inherits a lot of things from his father; all mine left me was his reputation. People who see you born tend not to notice when you become your own person. I’d spent years proving I wasn’t my father, working myself near to death to do it, until I realized that no one but me thought that was anything worth mentioning. Kept on working, though; I’d kind of got in the habit. It was just a lot easier without a ghost standing over my shoulder.
Now I was out in the wilds, hunting runaways. Who said I had to bring them back, though? A train knows where it’s supposed to go, after all. A train, if it doesn’t follow the tracks, well, that bespeaks a certain deliberate nature to the decisions that led up to that choice, don’t it?
If the trains could up and leave, why couldn’t a man? Why couldn’t all of us just get off of our rails and go where we pleased? What distinguishes a man who only does exactly what his circumstances demand, who follows the lines and hauls his load and never even looks up at the big sky overhead? The preacher’ll talk your ear off about the virtue in honest toil, but you’ll notice he won’t be naming the names of any heroes crowned in laurels for working their asses off and not complaining.
I felt a tickle in my throat. I realized I was awfully thirsty. Then I realized I couldn’t see the fire.
Then the lights went on, and I saw the train.
You wouldn’t think a train could be so quiet. I’d have expected those feet to shake the earth when they moved, but here it was, looming up overhead, the big light at the front of it pointing down at me, pinning me in a circle of white light and turning the rest of the night to ink. It didn’t have a face, not really, but I saw the anger in every rigid beam and trembling wheel.
I lifted my hands to show they were empty.
The train lifted one foot, just a bit. I could see something black and spattered crusting the edges: blood. Tufts of fur still clung to it. They’d learned how to kill.
The light slid away from me, toward the camp. The foot started to swing forward.
“Wait,” I said.
The train hesitated.
“It’s all right,” I told it. “I understand.” I lowered my hands, bowed my head. “A man can only take so much,” I said. I don’t know if the train heard me.
When I looked up, it was gone. I never heard it. It didn’t even say goodbye.
Something hit me from behind, and I shouted and kicked.
“Holy damn, I’m glad I found you,” a voice, muffled, said into my shoulder. “I swear to God a train’s after me. I can hear it chug-chug-chugging along....”
“I don’t know what I’d do if you was dead. What’d I tell Ginny?”
“I reckon you got a lot of things to tell Ginny,” I said. “I’ll need you to be ready to help her, if she asks.”
“What? Why?” Eddie looked startled, boozy sweat on his forehead.
“I’ll tell you when we get back to town.”
The hunt wasn’t a success. But it wasn’t the end of Dead Mule. I explained it to Eddie and them on the ride back, but I don’t think they understood me.
A man can make a choice, though. If the trains can, I mean.
When we got back, I hugged Ginny goodbye and reminded her where I kept the ammo and our few saved dollars. Then I took a long drink from the water tower and stepped onto the tracks. If a train can walk like a man, then a man can haul like a train. If he wants to. If he works at it.
I burn coal. I belch smoke. I am plated in iron, and I will work as hard as I have to. I take a little longer to get up to speed, and I do work up a powerful thirst, but the tracks show me where to go. It’s hard, but it ain’t difficult, if you follow.
Sometimes I wonder about them trains, where they got to and what they did there. I wonder if they kept their legs for walking free or if they built their own tracks, somewhere far away, in a land where coal grows on trees, where you’re never too far from a cold draft of water, and you only carry what you choose to. It helps if you’ve chosen it.
At night, when I’m rolling across the empty plain, I can’t see the sky. My neck’s gotten awful stiff, and it hurts to know the stars are still there, where I can’t see them.
When it all gets too much, I crack my jaw and scream my whistle into the dark. Sometimes I fancy I hear someone whistling back across the plains, but I won’t ever know for sure it isn’t an echo.
I can’t leave the tracks. Not anymore.
Who would take my place if I did?