This is the story of two travelers, Gabe Valentine and Violetta Talbot, who ride out into the untamed wilderness of the Old West, hunting ghosts for fun and profit, haunted by sinister forces, and always finding trouble, even when they don’t try. The two travelers are waiting for a train, which carries with it darkness and horror.
This is the Calhoun train depot.
All that really was in Calhoun was the train depot. It wasn’t for passengers. The small town was a collection thin buildings, and in the dead of night they were all quiet and lifeless, like a long forgotten city. Tonight was different though. There were people at the train depot, because tonight it wasn’t just the post or goods. Something different was coming.
There are two travelers waiting for the train.
They didn’t wait with the inspectors at the top of the platform. They used darkness as their cover. The inspector checked his pocket watch, and the man did the same. The man was tall and thin, muscled with a hint of desperation to him. He wore hat over his dark hair, and at his hip he carried a gun.
The woman watched the tracks. The daisies on her dress had long since faded, and she covered it with a dark jacket and wore tall black boots. She might’ve been pretty if not for the cruel look to her eyes, and a slight smirk to her lips as she played with the knife.
A train sounds in the distance.
The horn cut through the darkness, and the circle of light from the oncoming engine was like a great eye in the gloom. It was impossible to see the engine behind it. In the blanket of night it was a black shadow that growled like a tiger.The men moved closer to the platform. The travelers stayed where they were. The man was looking at his watch.
The train screeched to a stop. The iron beast was dull in the low light, the gold streaks on the side faded off by wind and dust, and the logo of the cargo line was nearly disappeared entirely. The only sign that it was less than the usual transportation was the inspection team who lined in to view the property within.
“Alright,” the man said. “Let’s go.”
They moved quietly. The night provided cover enough, and they grabbed the rungs on the side of the cargo car and started up the side of the train.
The man was named Leith Vilaro. The woman was named Aggie West. The two of them had been robbing banks from here to the Guadalupe River. In their room at the inn a few miles west of here was a bag stuffed with bank notes from the previous jobs they’d pulled, but they’d left it stored there for another day. They needed the horses to be carrying as little as possible. Gold was heavy.
Leith pulled back the hatch on top of the train barely an inch, and Aggie propped it up with her knife. They watched as the inspectors took careful note of how much gold was in the large safe. They’d weighed it, made sure the amount on the ledger matched the same on the cargo manifest. The bank was transporting it fast, but they’d scheduled several inspections. Lawlessness was on the rise these days, and you could never be too careful.
The inspectors each signed off on a sheet of paper that the engineer took. The engineer took the key back and started towards the front of the train. Inspection completed, the men turned back to their homes.
Carefully the bank robbers set the hatch back and crawled off the train. They went around the opposite side, where the shadow of the train fell on them, and the dirt softened their footsteps.
It’d been Aggie’s idea. Usually Leith had the ideas, but Aggie was ambitious, and she’d told him she’d wanted to rob a train. They’d robbed six banks without a hitch and only two where they’d had to actually shoot someone. Banks were fine, she’d said, but imagine robbing a train.
Leith was ambitious too and prone to rash thinking. When he’d met Aggie two years ago, he’d shot her father the same night. It had been a romantic gesture. He’d liked the idea of a train heist. That’s how they did it in books.
The problem with train heists had been: trains move rather quickly, and there’s always people on board them. So, with a little luck, and a little gun pointing, they’d discovered a bank transporting a lot of gold across the states, hoping to do so quickly and quietly. But a lot of gold needed to be checked to be sure no one was skimming off the top, so it made occasional stops in small towns, sometimes in the middle of the night. While not as glamorous, it was still gold, and they weren’t about to get mad over money.
The engine on the train started up again. Black smoke billowed out of the chimney as the engineer went to work. There were men minding the coal, but if they were quick enough and lucky enough, they’d never know anyone else was there. The missing gold wouldn’t be discovered for five hundred more miles, and they’d wonder who done it.
The black smoke of the train choked the stars from the sky. The moon was empty and gone, and the thick stench of it made it hard to breathe as they moved closer to the conductor car. The engine growled where it sat, like a hunting dog who’d spied a rabbit. Its great eye spread light onto the track in front of it. From here the train would go west, and the world would move on the back of its iron spine.
They strode up to the conductor car. Leith stood watch while Aggie climbed up the small set of stairs. She’d put her knife away, and in her hand was a metal pipe. She strode up behind the engineer, who was muttering to himself, and didn’t notice when she struck him across the head. He slumped to the ground, and she turned him over, taking the key from his pockets.
Job done, she slipped back out of the train. She showed Leith the key, and he kissed the hand that held them.
The world moved.
The black smoke seemed to consume the entire sky, and they both held onto each other as a sudden dizziness passed over them. The iron of the train seemed blacker, no longer marred by faded paint, and the symbol gone from its side. It seemed shinier, new, and the lantern at its face was bright and blinding. The engine chugged faster, and they realized it was moving.
“No!” Aggie shouted, but Leith held onto her.
“What happened?” He was shouting as well, because the noise of the engine was deafening. Even behind the lamp, the light from the front was blinding.
“It’s moving, he must’ve started it already! Leith!”
She’d grabbed onto the side and held out her hand to him. There was something wrong, something had happened, the sky had changed, and he—
And he looked at the face of his belle and took her hand. She pulled him into the car and shut the door.
It was pitch black in the compartment. The train rumbled beneath them. They were moving. They were moving fast. This hadn’t been part of the plan, but so few things were these days. Aggie’s hand clamped tight around Leith’s. They stood in the darkness, unsure, their hearts both beating together.
A light flickered on, causing Aggie to gasp, and then the whole car was lined with lanterns. These were passenger seats, the edges of them wood carved to curl with gold at the edges, and red lined seats. The windows outside the car were pitch black, and when they turned around the sliding door they’d come through was gone. There was a small door. The horn rang through the air, causing them to tremble.
“Something’s wrong,” Leith said, even though it was plain as day. He wanted to be sure, because he felt like he was going insane.
“Where’d it go? Where’d it all go?” Aggie spread out her arms. “This wasn’t here before. It’s a cargo car. Where’s the gold?!”
He wrapped his arms around her. She got like this sometimes, panicked and scared. She’d kick in the darkness, and he’d hold her until she stopped. Aggie never cried, but he could hear her ragged breath and feel her unsteady heart.
“It’s here,” he said, uncertain. “It’s got to be. It’s the same train. It’s got to be the same train.”
They walked down the empty passenger car. Except for the rumble of the track, it was dead silent in there. The backs of the chairs were like tombstones. Leith pulled at the door, and it opened to a bar car. Small booths were sat around tables, and the bottles jingled on the shelves as the train rocked with movement. The windows were still black outside. Aggie put her face up to one.
“What does it mean?” she asked. “There’s no land or sky or anything. Where are we?”
Leith’s hand had gone to his firearm. He walked up to the bar and pulled a bottle of whiskey from it, bringing it to his nose. It smelled real. It smelled strong, and he suddenly wanted a drink, but Leith’s mother had been superstitious, so he put it back.
The door opposite them slid open.
They both pulled their pistols and held them at the door. The two folks who’d come in did the same. They all stood, motionless, each with a finger on the trigger.
“We don’t want any trouble,” the man said. He was tall, dark skinned, his brown eyes focused on Leith. The woman beside him was white, her hand a little less steady. They both wore work clothes, covered in dust and dirt.
“All we are is trouble,” Aggie said, but she lowered her gun and nodded to Leith. “They aren’t lawmen.”
They lowered theirs as well. “Who’re you?” the woman asked in a British accent.
“You don’t know?” Leith asked, disappointment creeping into his voice.
The two looked at each other. The man shook his head.
“It’s Leith Vilaro,” Aggie said, gesturing to her partner. “And Aggie West. Did you two come to rob a train too?”
“No,” the man said. “We didn’t. Gabe Valentine.”
“Violetta Talbot,” the woman piped in. Conflict over, she strolled into the bar, her eyes also on the assortment of booze. She took the gin and did much the same as Leith had just done.
“It smells real, doesn’t it?” She looked at Gabe. “I bet it tastes real too.”
“Best not,” he said.
Aggie pushed her way towards them. “We don’t got a clue what’s going on here. How’d you two end up on this train?”
“We got on at the depot,” Gabe said. “Is that how you ended up here?”
“It’s supposed to have gold on it,” Leith said. “A cargo train was transporting gold from one side of the country to the other, and that’s it. That’s it!”
The lights flickered, and Aggie reached for his hand. They all watched the ceiling as though something would spring down from it. Somewhere in the distance, there was music.
“It’s not real,” Violetta said. “None of it’s real. It’s like a–a ghost train.”
The music grew louder, and the car began to shake. Violetta had to grab onto the bar, and Gabe held the door. Leith and Aggie held each other.
The lights pitched into darkness, and all there was was music. The sonata was tapped out on piano keys, moving fast in a minor pitch. It was everywhere and nowhere at all, and not a one of them breathed while it sang out. There was a sound like thunder, and then an unearthly silence.
The lights flickered on.
Aggie drew a hand to her mouth as they gazed around. They were still in the passenger car, but every seat was filled. Bodies slumped over in them, men and women, some of them young, a few of them old. They lay still, glassy eyes staring out at nothing at all. They all drew together, staring at the bodies.
“I recognize some of them,” Leith whispered. He pointed to a man and woman in Sunday clothes, slumped together. They each had a red stain right above their heart. “They were at the Redding Trust.”
“He tried to arrest us.” She pointed to a sheriff, his throat cut. Next to him was an old man, blood staining his belly. “And we robbed him.”
“They’re not all yours,” Violetta whispered. She was looking at a woman in all white, blond hair framing her face.
A body near the front groaned, and they watched in horror as a body jerked forward. What had once been a man raised himself up, wide shoulders giving way to a wide body. He turned, and Aggie made a sound like gasp and a sob. Her father shuttered forward, the wide gash of shotgun spray peppering his belly. His face was ghastly white, eyes rimmed dark, and he raised a hand towards her.
Leith moved first, raising his pistol and fire one, two, three times before realizing it wasn’t doing a thing. The body shambled closer, and Gabe grabbed them both, pulling them back. They all ran towards the compartment door and dragged it open. As soon as the last of them was piled into the car, they slammed it shut. Leith pulled a bar down on the door, locking it in place.
Aggie had dropped to the ground, shaking, and he knelt down to take her hands.
“He’s dead,” she said. “He’s dead. He has to be dead. You killed him. Why isn’t he dead?”
Leith didn’t have answers, so he turned to the other two.
“What the hell is going on here?” he said, and he realized he was shouting. Panic pushed the words out of his throat. He stared at the strangers desperately.
“It’s not real.” Violetta unpacked her words carefully. “It can’t be real. I saw–I saw someone who can’t be dead. I know she’s not dead.”
“It’s a trick,” Gabe agreed, as though he were convincing himself. “It’s trying to scare us.”
“You said it was a ghost train,” Leith said. “What does that mean?”
Violetta sucked in a breath. “I don’t know. There’s been these sightings of a train, unmarked, without a conductor. It just travels the rail lines and seems to snatch people up. People think they’re getting on the right train, and then…”
She looked around. They were in a cargo car, completely empty. There were no windows, and Leith was happy to not see that empty blackness outside. With the rocking of the track beneath them, they could almost pretend they were somewhere real.
“People don’t get seen again,” Gabe said.
“You knew?” Aggie looked at them. “You knew and you got on the train?”
He shrugged. “It’s sort of our job.”
Leith helped Aggie onto her feet. She still held tightly onto his hand, but she was breathing again.
“Who are you anyway?” She turned to them. “You just go around finding ghost trains?”
“We’re—” Violetta looked at Gabe. “Yes. We’re professional ghost hunters. This is what we do.”
“You two were going to rob the train.” Gabe’s voice stated it like a fact, not a judgement. “You got on the wrong train.”
“Those were your dead.” Violetta did accuse.
“We don’t go around shooting people,” Leith said defensively. “How many banks have we robbed without hurting a soul?”
“Six,” Aggie said. “Most people don’t need shooting.”
“I’m guessing the one who came at us did,” Gabe said.
“More than you know.” Leith pulled out his pistols and checked the ammo. “Three shots and he didn’t even flinch.”
“It’s just tricks,” Violetta insisted. “Maybe they can hurt us, I don’t know. But don’t believe anything is real.”
“If it can hurt us, does it matter?” Leith asked.
She ignored him. “But why? Why is it doing this?”
“Who cares why,” Aggie said. She’d swung back around to angry. There were only so many ways you could keep going in a world like the one she’d lived in, and she’d chosen to get mad at it. “Can we get out is the question we oughtta be asking.”
“Ghosts usually do things for a reason,” Gabe said. “Usually finding the reason is the best way to stop them from doing it again. But trains don’t have a soul, they don’t have unfinished business. They’re just things.”
Violetta was thinking. She’d pulled out a small leather notebook and was flipping through it.
“This is grand,” Leith said. “Just swell, but I’m not here to get disappeared. We’re getting out of here.”
“There’s nothing outside,” Aggie said, looking at him. “Not even light. Maybe they know something.” She turned to the other two. “How ‘bout it? What’s your plan for getting off this thing?”
Gabe gave a nervous glance to his partner. “Most of our plans end with ‘and somehow not die.’ How did you think we were going to get out of here?”
“It’s a train,” Violetta said, uncertainty making her voice unlevel. “Can we get to the front? Can we just stop it?”
The room was quiet for a moment as they considered a plan. The tracks rattled beneath them. In the distance, there was music.
Violetta turned around, back to the door. Leith and Aggie both shouted when she reached for it, and when she pulled it back there was nothing. No passenger seats, no dead, just another cargo car, still empty, with the lamps shaking against the wall.
“Who said it was going to let us get to the front?” Gabe murmured as they walked through it.
It had been a cargo car, from one side of the door, but the moment their feet touched the other side the whole scenery changed. They grey-black walls of the train faded away, and there was sunlight. Stretched around them was a desert plane, yellow and endless, not even patches of green bearing against the sun. The air was still, but they could still hear the sound of the train beneath them, and the distant horn. The ground shook.
“Is this a real place?” Gabe asked, and then shook his head. “I mean, is this a place any of us know?”
The patch of desert was perhaps one of a thousand miles that surrounded the small town Leith had grown up in, but it didn’t hold particular weight to him. Aggie shook her head as well, but Violetta seemed dazed by it. She walked around in a circle, as though trying to retrace her steps.
“It could be anywhere,” she said distantly.
“And now there’s no door,” Leith said. “Are you sure you’re professionals?”
“It’s mostly guesswork to be honest,” Gabe said.
“Well there’s gotta be something.” Aggie marched forward. “We’re still on a train, ain’t we? This is like you said. Made up.”
She strutted forward, ignoring the dust kicking up on her shoes, and the feel of the sun on her back, and the warm air that touched her skin. It wasn’t real. The crazy girl was right. Trains didn’t turn into different trains, they didn’t magically transport you to another place, and they didn’t change like this. And even if they did, no train was disappearing her. She and Leith were getting out of this. Nothing was stopping that.
She walked forward a few feet, arms out. She’d expected to find the side of the train or the handle for the door, but behind her she heard a cracking sound, like something being snapped in two. Aggie turned, and the ground behind was snaked with lines that shattered the earth like ice. Muddy water bubbled up from below, and her feet slipped beneath her. The river grew like a flood. She reached for Leith and was surprised to see Violetta running for her, the other two close behind. Violetta grabbed her hand and dragged her out of the flood that was consuming plain, just as the earth fell away beneath them. Aggie shouted as they sunk into the mud, but she only swallowed river water as she scrambled desperately for anything. She held desperately onto Violetta’s hand, and then a great wave rushed over them, knocking them down. Aggie tried to see up or down, but she tumbled as the water took her.
And then, all at once, the water drew back. Aggie landed on the cool, iron floor of the train car, water running off her. She coughed up the river as Violetta groaned beside her. They staggered up and looked behind them. The door was closed. Aggie pulled on the handle, but it didn’t budge at all. Violetta gripped a hand as well, and together they pulled.
The door did not open.
The ground fell away beneath Gabe and Leith, and then they were on the floor of a train car. Leith rose up and grabbed at the door of the compartment, but he could not get it to budge. Gabe struggled to his feet. They were back in the bar car, but now the bottle were empty, and the lights flickered.
Leith growled at the door and whirled around, marching to the bar. He began tossing around items, and Gabe watched him.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“There’s gotta be something!” He found a corkscrew and tossed it aside. “I can’t leave her there! She’s all alone!”
“Violetta’s with her. They’ll work it out.”
“Yeah?” He turned on Gabe. “And what’s your girl going to do? She’s half-dazed walking around like she knows something.”
“She does.” He placed a hand on Leith’s shoulder and gently pushed him aside. “And panicking’s not going to help.”
“What will then, huh?” Leith sneered at him. “You’re the expert.”
Gabe picked up the whiskey and gave it a disappointed look. The bottles were empty now. “How long have you and your girl been together?”
Leith stared at him. “What’s it to you?”
“Curiosity. It’s a special kind of love that gets you to rob banks together.”
He turned away from him, turning to the windows outside. “It’s been three years since I first saw her.”
“Ran away with her in the night?”
“Sure.” The landscape outside had changed. Now the desert plain was all around them. “It’s no longer black outside.”
Gabe moved onto the door on the opposite end. When he pulled it open, they were at the end of the train. A small balcony showed the landscape rushing past, the yellow sun-baked ground cracked and endless. The sky had no sun, but it was lit, cloudless, and a bright blue. In the distance they could just make out a strange, muddy river surrounded by thin, scraggly trees.
“Where are we?” Leith asked.
Gabe stared out at the desert. “I have no idea.”
Behind them was a sound like a stampede, and they both turned. The door opposite them flew open as a figure burst through. A rider in all black was astride a black horse, and he rode forward at full speed. His face and skin were covered head to toe in his black suit, a black hat over his pale face. At his side was a whip, and in his hand was a brand. The black horse didn’t hesitate as it flew at them, and Gabe grabbed Leith, shoving him aside as the rider drove past. The smell that he carried was like fire and smoke, like the fire of bonfires as righteous folks threw books into them, or the thick smoke of pyres meant to roast human flesh, or the flames they threw the sick into to keep an illness from spreading. A revulsion passed over both of them as the rider passed and then exploded out into the desert. The sky darkened without moon or sun, and the landscape began to turn black. The door swung back, locking into place.
Leith grabbed Gabe and dragged him up, running towards the other door. He shoved him through, and they stumbled into the other side just as it swung behind them.
Every door opened for Aggie and Violetta, but they all led to the same car. Passenger seats were in thin rows, all empty. After the tenth door, Aggie gave up. She tossed herself into a chair, kicked up her boots, and crossed her arms.
“I’m not going any further,” she said.
Violetta turned, sighing loudly. “We’ve got to keep moving.”
“Have we? Have we got to?” She mocked her British accent. “Because as far as I can see, there isn’t anywhere to go. For all we know this is what it wants. It wants us to end up nowhere.”
Violetta looked at the next door before letting out a frustrated groan and sitting in front of Aggie, throwing her arms over the back of the chair.
Aggie studied Violetta a moment before she took her boots down and leaned forward. “So who was she?”
“What?” Violetta asked.
“The girl in white. The one you’re sure isn’t dead.”
She glared at Aggie. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“I bet you don’t. No one likes to talk about their dead.”
“You have quite a few of them.”
“Sure, but I saw your face when you were looking at her. You said she wasn’t dead, but your face wasn’t sure.”
Violetta looked at her. “You really want to know?”
“Not really,” she said. “But if we’re trapped here, we got time for a story.”
“Fine,” she said. “Fine. Her name was Philomena. I was in love with her.”
She gave Aggie a glare that defied her to say anything. Aggie waited.
“She was in love with me,” Violetta said a little more softly. “Both of our families were prominent in London, so when we got caught, there was a scandal. Philomena’s parents put the blame on me. They said I was destructive and sick. They took her away, and they put her in an institution. She was crying when she told me.”
She grew silent. There was only the sound of the train.
“She could be dead,” Violetta said after some time. “I thought I’d rather kill myself than go to some mad house. I haven’t spoken to her in years. Sometimes I don’t even think about her anymore.”
“Is that why you’re here?” Aggie asked. “In America?”
“They were going to lock me up as well, and I stole some money from my father’s safe and took a boat.” She gave a sad smile. “I ran away.”
“Oh I run away all the time,” Aggie said. “The night I met Leith, he shot my father dead, and we ran away together.”
“Is that the man? The one who got up?”
“He was a terrible man. Leith had a terrible father too, and he took one look at me and he couldn’t stand it.” She didn’t like to think on it, so she quickly changed the subject. “So you only like girls?”
Violetta shrugged. “I suppose so.”
Aggie nodded. “I thought you and your partner might be a couple. A little disappointed by that.”
“Leith’s got a white father. Would’ve been nice to meet someone who understands. He’s light skinned enough, so we don’t get a lot of trouble for it, but he’ll get real mad. Sometimes he worries he looks too much like his father.”
Violetta leaned her back to the seat. “I’m a criminal too, I guess. I might’ve been quick to judge.”
Aggie waved a hand. “People have been looking at me like a criminal long before I was one. Guess it’s why it felt so natural when Leith came along.”
The train rocked as they descended into silence. Outside there was only empty blackness. Sometimes the light would flicker, and Aggie flinched, waiting for the bodies to show up again.
“It’s this train,” she said. “It knows what scares us.”
Violetta was looking out the window. “Maybe.”
“Well it ain’t showing us true things. It’s just showing us things we’re scared of. I get nightmares sometimes that my daddy comes back. I imagine you don’t like thinking on the fate of your girl. Leith doesn’t like getting trapped. He won’t even spend too much time indoors, says the walls feel too close. Trapped in a little metal train is probably enough for him.”
“It did know, didn’t it?” Her eyes narrowed in concentration. “What we were scared of.”
“It tried to separate me,” Aggie continued. “I don’t like being on my own too long.”
“Why would it do it though?” She’d stood and was pacing back and forth. “It’s a train. They don’t have feelings. They don’t have hearts. They don’t have souls.”
She stopped suddenly. Aggie looked at her.
“If you’re about to tell me a train has a soul,” Aggie said, “I’m leaving you here.”
“They don’t, but people do. It’s all people, isn’t it? People laid the tracks and made the metal and work the train and how many of them do you think died? How much blood do you think was shed for it?”
“That’s not how it works. I don’t slice my finger and suddenly the nail I nicked it on is alive. That’s not how things work.” Aggie looked unsure. “Is it?”
Violetta was rummaging in her bag for her journal. “It’s like sacrifice, I imagine. There’s a certain level of intent. And then the blood gives that thing power. They slaughtered Indians for this land, sent Chinese into holes to blow away mountains, watched immigrants die or lose limbs to make a thing true. For an idea.”
“Alright.” Aggie waved a hand at her. “The train is people, but what does that mean? How do we get out of here?”
“Trains do have a heart.” She walked up to the door and placed a hand on it. “And to get to it, we may have to face our fears.”
She pulled the door back, and it was another passenger car. The same music played somewhere in the distance, and at the front of the car sat a woman in white, her blond hair falling over her shoulders. Hooded crows sat on the backs of the seats, black eyes staring at them from grey and black bodies. Not a one moved or cawed. Violetta stepped forward, her feet splashing at the muddy water beneath it, and the woman turned her head. Blood poured from her mouth and eyes.
Violetta turned and gave an easy smile to Aggie. “This one’s for me.”
The door slammed shut.
Aggie screamed, not out of fear, but out of anger. Of course it had! The train knew! She’d said it out loud! She kicked and slammed her fists at the metal door. The music was growing louder, and she screamed again as she whirled around. The lights flickered out, and when they came back on she saw her father standing there, exactly as she last saw him. His thick chin and neck gave way to broad shouldered body grown softer by fat and age. His belly still had the shotgun spray Leith had left him, still bleeding. They hadn’t even bothered with the body. They’d left him there on the kitchen floor, letting him bleed out like a stuck pig. Leith had come in like a knight in shining armor and chased away the boogeymen. He’d protected her from the moment he saw her face.
She reached for her pistol, but her hands were shaking too badly. Her daddy looked at her, and his face grew bright red as he opened his mouth to scream.
“This is what I get raising a whore for a daughter!” he shouted. “Runs off with the first man who smiles at her! You need to learn some discipline!”
She dropped her gun as her hands went to her ears. It wasn’t real, that’s what Violetta had said. The train was just scaring her. Keeping her here instead of figuring a way out. But the words were too familiar, and his voice made her shake. She dropped to her knees and curled her head to the floor as he marched towards her. He had his belt in his hands. First he’d beat her, and then he’d do worse, and if she cried he’d do it all over again.
“Please,” she whispered, “don’t.”
“Crying out for your boyfriend?” He raised the belt over her. “There’s only me listening, girl. You’ve got no one left.”
The belt came down.
Everything smelled like fire. Acrid smoke was thick in the air, so thick Leith couldn’t breathe. He pushed his way forward, searching for anything at all. His fingers found metal walls, not even an arm’s length away. He pushed against it, but the wall wouldn’t budge, and then he slammed the other wall, which only bruised his arm, and in a panicked gesture he kicked against the other two. The smoke wasn’t in with him, but it was all he could taste, and his lungs were working fast to suck in all the oxygen, and he couldn’t move it was like a coffin, a steel coffin with no way out.
There had to be something. There had to be something but there wasn’t and did there have to be? The two ghost hunters had said it made people disappear, why did it have to give them a way out? It could’ve killed them any way it wanted. It was killing him right now.
The walls were hot, too hot to touch. He pulled away, tried to make himself small, but his shoulders touched the edge of the wall, and when he jumped away he slammed against the other. He’d thought about dying every day of his life, but he hadn’t imagined this. He squeezed his eyes shut and prayed Aggie would make it out safe.
Something clattered, and when he opened his eyes he saw a panel had fallen away, and an arm was sticking through. He took the hand, and Gabe dragged him through into a room filled with fire. Every surface was bouncing with bright yellow flames, and black smoke filled the room. They ran forward and found the door, pushing through.
It was a car like the bar car, but where the bar should be there was an organ, too large for the space it was in, its great pipes climbing through the top of the train. The keys pressed madly in that damned song. Still half-blind from the smoke and desperate for a full breath of air, Leith whirled around. The tables offered little and the chairs were nailed down, but beside the door they’d come in through was a fire axe. It was a cruel joke, which was why he didn’t hesitate to punch through the glass which shattered at his knuckles and buried its shards into his fists, and he pulled the axe through and slammed it into the organ. He hacked at the pipes and the keys until the song was a gnarled mash of bent notes, and then not at all. Work done, he dropped it, staggered back into a chair, and breathed ragged as he stared at his hands.
Gabe was coughing into his sleeve as he crossed the room to a drink cart. “Well, at least this one’s got some whiskey left.”
He poured two tumblers out and handed one off to Leith, sitting across from him. Leith shook his head.
“If it’s hell, we’re already here.” Gabe clinked his glass to Leith’s. “And honest I could use a drink.”
Leith took his in his bloody hands and knocked it back. Gabe did the same.
“Is this what it’s like for you?” Leith asked. “Finding ghosts and trying not to die.”
“Not always.” Gabe swirled his drink. “Sometimes it’s real easy. We’ll stay up and watch over things for a bit, and if a ghost shows up we do something about it. Sometimes we hunt a thing.”
“You don’t think about it killing you?”
“Lots of things could kill me. Lots of towns would have me killed for daring to walk next to Violetta.” He shrugged. “I’d rather die doing something grand than any of that.”
“And what if this doesn’t kill you?” Leith looked up at the ceiling, as though the train could hear them. “What if this is it? Forever. Us running room to room until we starve, and even then.”
“You’ve got a somber mind.”
“You’re a ghost hunter!” Leith laughed. “All I do is rob banks!”
Gabe looked at him from across his glass. “It’s a tough business, I imagine.”
“Oh, sure. Once Johnny Law catches up with us, it’s over. Sometimes I wonder if I’d like to die in a big shootout. Sometimes I think we’ll roll into town and a lone sheriff might shoot us on the spot because he saw our posters. You really hadn’t heard of us?”
Gabe shook his head.
“Shame.” Leith sighed and pushed his glass away.
“You don’t think about settling down? You got a woman who’ll stand beside you demanding money at gunpoint. You could find a town where they’ve never heard of you, raise some children.”
He shook his head. “Neither me nor Aggie have got the best template for a happy family, but I’d do all that in a heartbeat if she asked. But she wanted to rob a train. That’s the kind of woman I love.”
The organ plinked a few dead keys. Leith gave it a look, and it settled back into silence.
“I used to worry about fire,” Gabe said. “It never signaled anything good. Every time I smelled smoke as a child I knew something bad was coming.”
“You think it means something?”
He pointed to the door they hadn’t gone through. “I think there’s smoke coming out of that door.”
Leith turned and looked. The door looked red hot, and black tendrils of smoke poured through like ribbons. He stood slowly, picked up the axe from the floor, and reached for the handle. It didn’t burn at all.
“What’s it want from us anyway?” he asked. “What does it get from torturing folks like this?”
Gabe followed after him, gun ready. “There’s only one way to find out.”
The belt came down, and Aggie caught it in her hand. She pulled it as she came to her feet, and her father stumbled forward. He swung at her, and she stepped away. She was laughing. The belt was gripped tightly in her hand, and it hadn’t even left a mark.
“It’s not real,” she said, staring at her palm. It should’ve stung. It should’ve left a red welt, and she’d just caught it. “She was right, it’s just a game.”
“It’s my game!” he howled. “They’re my rules!”
She smiled at him. “I bet you could hurt me. You did hurt me, and Leith hurt you for me. It’s a kindness no one else ever did for me.”
He grabbed for her, and she walked away. It was so easy! She couldn’t move for fear, and then suddenly she’d realized.
“That’s all you ever wanted from me!” she shouted, to her father, to the train, to the world. “You wanted me to be afraid! Well I ain’t! Sure you could hurt me.” She spun around to face the corpse of her father. “I bet you could make me relive every horrible moment of that life, but then what? I’ve already lived through the worst. I’ve already survived! And now! And now I’m better! I’ve got Leith, who loves me. I’ve got a bed full of money every night. I don’t have you!”
He staggered at her, but he was falling apart. Her father fell to his knees, still reaching for her. His skin had gone clammy and grey, and the bullet holes had started to fester.
“I’m always there,” he groaned, his words coming out in a hollow wheeze. “You’ll see me in your dreams. I’m still hurting you.”
“No,” she said. “You’re not. You’re not even a ghost anymore, you’re just a shadow. You’re less than that. Some days I don’t even think about you at all.”
She marched over to the door and grabbed the handle. “And you!” she shouted to the train. “You want to give me something to be afraid of? Try something I didn’t already see killed! If you want to get rid of me, you’re going to have to show me some real horror.”
The handle beneath her palm had grown warmer and warmer. She opened the door, and black smoke billowed out. The body behind her groaned before falling to shambles, and she walked through, arms out. The air was hot and humid, and there was a smell like sweat and stink. She cupped her hands together and called Violetta’s name, but there wasn’t a response. Aggie waved her arms through the smoke, hoping to see its source. She could hear the fire blazing, but there wasn’t a thing to see. The floor beneath her was slick.
“Aggie!” she heard in the distance, recognizing Leith’s voice.
“I’m over here!” she called back. Her hands reached for a wall to follow, but the metal was hot, and she couldn’t get too close. “Leith!”
A scream cut the smoke like a knife, and she heard the scrambling of legs towards a door. She found her way over there, reaching out blindly, and ran into Leith and Gabe.
“Where’s Violetta?” Gabe asked.
The door swung back, and they all jumped. Violetta tilted forward, and they ran forward to keep her from falling to the floor. Her right sleeve was bloodied, her feet muddy. Gabe grabbed her and leaned her onto his shoulder. The smoke made it difficult to see what caused the bleeding, and she let out a breath that seemed to deflate her, and then sucked in a lungful of smoke that made her hack up her lungs. Aggie reached for Leith’s hand and was surprised to find them covered in blood and glass. He shook his head at her gaze.
“We’re still here,” he said. “We’re still stuck.”
“Aggie figured it out,” Violetta said, bloodied hand covering her mouth and nose. “It’s trying to make us afraid.”
“Where are we now?” Gabe asked. “Who’s nightmare is this?”
Aggie pointed a hand forward, where a fire flickered beneath a blanket of black smoke. Leith held onto her as she marched forward, the other two trailing behind them. The fire managed to shed light into the dark car, revealing the furnace it was housed in. It was rotund and blackened, the hinged doors for shoveling coal pulled back. Something moved within, and the stench that came off it was sickening. The floor, Aggie realized as they stepped closer to the light, was a dark, shining red, and it coated the walls around them as well. How much blood was shed for this train? For this idea? For a destiny?
“It’s the engine,” Gabe said. “It keeps it going.”
They peered within, into the black mass that moved. Aggie started back when she saw a hand rise up, oil black and slick, and then another, and the mass that moved had faces pressing to the surface and then drowning back, and the fire consumed them all, the people, the hundreds of people who were trapped here, afraid. They screamed wordlessly. The train horn whistled above them piercingly loud, loud enough that they staggered back, and Violetta fell to her knees.
“This is it!” she shouted. “The heart!”
Aggie and Leith couldn’t stop staring into the furnace, into the faces of the souls trapped there, into the fire that consumed everything. The smoke was everywhere, choking the oxygen from the room. Gabe grabbed the axe out of Leith’s hand.
“What’re you doing?” Aggie shouted.
“Ending this,” he said, and brought the axe down into the furnace.
The thing within the furnace screamed, and he slammed the axe down again. The fire began to spurt and die, and the smoke poured out more and more. They couldn’t breathe, not any of them, and they all fell to the ground as their lungs filled with black smoke, and the train rattled, gurgled, and all the light was choked from the room. The whole world turned black.
Aggie groaned as she woke. Her hands grasped at the hard dirt beneath her, and when she lifted her head up and opened her eyes, she saw the sky. The stars glittered overhead, the new moon a hole in the tapestry. Fresh air filled her lungs.
Leith was waking up beside her, and she dragged herself to his side. His hands were still bruised and bleeding, and she reached for them both. He lifted his head, looking at her with bleary eyes. He raised a hand to her face and kissed her. Laughing, she wrapped her arms around him and kissed him back. There was a freedom here she hadn’t felt before. She felt like she could breathe.
A coughing alerted them to the other two. Slowly they lifted themselves up and walked over to where Gabe and Violetta were laying. The two travelers came to their feet.
“Where the hell are we?” Leith asked.
Gabe pointed up the distance. They were beside train tracks, and maybe a mile away were the thin lights of the Calhoun train station.
“This is it,” Aggie said. “We’re free.”
“Is it–is it dead?” Leith looked down the train tracks.
“I don’t know.” Violetta was shaking slightly, and she hugged her jacket to her chest. “It’s gone anyway.”
“The other train’s gone,” Aggie said.
“So it’s over,” Leith said. “There’s nothing left.”
The travelers shook off the dust and grime. It all seemed like a bad dream. Nothing concrete had happened. But Aggie felt lighter for some reason, and she delicately entwined her hands with Leith’s.
They went their separate ways. Leith and Aggie retrieved their horses and rode back to the inn. The moon sunk lower and lower in the sky, and the green brush wafted in the slight wind. In the distance, there might’ve been a train horn sounding, or it might’ve been nothing at all.