Slow Train

Posted: September 30, 2013 in Uncategorized

Might I leave you folks with a bit of a cliffhanger tonight? Here’s the start of a either a short story or a novella called SLOW TRAIN:

 old_train_by_sertug-d57to79

SLOW TRAIN

 

Willa was searching for the slow train when Edward Castle saved her life. The sounds of the rail yard had lulled her into a false sense of security and she hadn’t been watching careful enough. At the moment she noticed the line of cars backing towards her—the coal car swelling in size quickly until it blocked out half the world—she also noticed it was too late to even jump. The first words of the prayer her momma had taught her came to her lips, but before a single word was out the hand grabbed her and yanked hard and fast. So fast, in fact, that she felt for a moment like she was on one of those carnival rides that came to town that you paid a penny for to make you feel like you were flying. That’s what it felt like when the hand grabbed Willa, snatched her and left her prayer sitting there: like she was flying. If she’d been wearing shoes, she would have left them right where her legs had been planted.

 

The coal car moved past her and she felt the wind of it. She had been studying on something—something or other had pulled her attention away and left her standing there witless for the train to run her down. What was it?

 

“Kid, you tryin’ to get yourself killed?”

 

Willa must have appeared silly to the man. She stood there looking up at him goggle-eyed, trying to catch the breath that had abruptly left her lungs when he’d saved her life.

 

“Well?” he asked. He stood there, tall, lanky and a bit rough-looking. He still held one hand pinched around her shoulder in an iron grip while the rest of him stood a good distance off.

 

“I—I—” she stammered.

 

“You—you what?”

 

“I—I’m Willa,” she stated.

 

“You were almost half a dozen measures for a coffin, is what you were.” The hand released her. The man stood back, put his hands through his suspenders and regarded her. “What you doin’ in the railyard anyways? No place for a child, tellin’ ya.”

 

“I was looking for the slow train,” Willa said. “You ain’t the railroad man, so don’t tell me I can’t be here.”

 

“How do you know I ain’t the railroad man? Maybe I just hired on.”

 

“If’n you was the railroad man,” Willa said, “you’d be wearing a railroad hat. But you ain’t got no hat, Mister.”

 

“Name’s Ed. Ed Castle. Nobody calls me Mister, little Missy. Now go on. Git.” He waved a long hand and Willa flinched for an instant but stood rooted.

 

“Why’d you save me, Mr. Castle? I’m none of your lookout.”

 

“Didn’t mean to,” he said. A hand rubbed one long jaw and Willa thought about the sandpaper her step-father used to strip the kitchen furniture. “It was a—it was just reflex, that’s all. And I don’t have to explain myself to a little will-o-wisp the likes of you, Little Miss Muffet. Now go on. Git, I say!”

 

He took a step her direction and the little girl spun and ran, the soles of her dirty feet black with railyard dirt. How a kid could run barefoot on such rocky ground was a wonder, but he’d seen kids run over worse. The small figure disappeared around an engine and was gone as if she’d never been there.

 

Edward Castle ran one hand through his unwashed, unruly hair, cursed and then laughed. “You ain’t got no hat, Mister,” he repeated.

 

2

 

He never knew exactly why he’d told the child his real name. That was a little slip-up there and the kind of thing that could find him clapped in irons again and headed back to The Walls in the back of Uncle Bud Russell’s old rattletrap panel truck. His first trip with the U.S. Marshal, the old man had been kind to him. If he were to get himself caught he didn’t doubt the old man would be likely be friendly to him again, but as kind as Uncle Bud had been that first—and hopefully last—trip, Edward couldn’t abide the man’s quiet religious fervor.

 

Six months ago Uncle Bud had told him: “Mr. Castle, I feel powerfully encumbered to speak to you about your ways, except that I fear you will not heed my words. Your life would do better, though, with some scripture in it.”

 

“Thank you kindly, Uncle Bud,” Edward had told him, “the boys told me you would preach to me a little. I am, however, inclined to pass on the advice.” Edward didn’t normally talk that way, but he had practiced what he would say for days in advance and so had adroitly stolen the old man’s thunder.

 

After that, Uncle Bud didn’t say a word the remainder of the trip along the double-rutted dirt road identified as Highway 75 from Hunstville, Texas, all the way to Corsicana where he was put up for the night in the local jail. Edward had made good his escape in the middle of the night when he outwitted the slow-minded jailer by means of faking a seizure. Since that time he had been on the lam. The kindness of the Bud Russells of the world notwithstanding—men who could afford their kindnesses, them being on the other side of the bars or holding the keys to his shackles—Edward Castle valued his freedom. Nothing could disturb him except the bark of a dog or the sound of a pistol being cocked. Thus far he had been both too intelligent and too fortunate to be caught. And he had given his name to those few who asked it as Walter Blythe. He’d practiced saying and spelling the name until he was perfect at it and would likely speak it under slow torture, even if his mind was half gone. But when the girl had given him her name so freely that afternoon, Edward Castle had forgotten all about the fictitious Walter Blythe. He had instead instantly obliged her the name that was displayed in post offices, Sheriff’s offices and police stations across the southwestern United States.

 

Edward had killed a man during an armed robbery in the sleepy little burgh of Hempstead, Texas, had been found guilty, was tried and sentenced to death by electrocution. But before his appointed date some slick Okie detective had put his modus operandi together with that of a similar armed robbery in Hannah, Oklahoma. Edward had admitted to the crime and was being taken north to stand trial when he’d made his break for freedom. Thereafter he’d become Walter Blythe, but for the one slip-up to the little girl.

 

“Why the hell did you have to save her?” he asked himself for the tenth time that evening. “Save her and then go and tell her your real name? Are you begging for the hot seat?”

 

When he talked aloud to himself like that the voice sounded in his own ears like the voice of his father, whom to his recollection had never spoken a kind word to him in all the twenty-seven years of Edward’s life.

 

“If I see you again, child,” he spoke to the absent sandy-haired little girl with the swatch of dirt across her cheek and with the blazing blue eyes, “you’d better run. ‘Cause Walter Blythe is going to be after you.”

 

Edward Castle lay with his head against the boards of an empty cattle car. When the train began moving the jolt didn’t even faze him. Instead he drifted off to sleep and dreamed of chasing little children over sharp rocks, across old trestles and on into the countryside.

 

When he awoke there was a yellow flower in his hand. Close by was the greasy hat of a railroad engineer.

 

3

 

She had dreams of rolling in the surf, of the smell of hot beach sand and the cry of the gulls. And when she dreamed it always came back again to the face. When the face came the dream was no longer a dream but had become what her mother would have called a ‘night terror’. Her throat became a whistling teakettle and her control over her body became no more than that of a sled going down a steep hillside.

Willa had run away from home three weeks earlier—not that any person with a measure of humanity could have called the tin-roofed shack on the twenty acres of her step-father’s little spread a ‘home.’ Her mother had died three years before. One night Willa slipped out the window when her stepfather had taken to snoring and had hoofed it off and away, shrouding herself in the darkest of nights.

 

She ran through the corn—corn she had herself planted—and didn’t stop until she was to Wilkerson’s fence where she tore her blouse slipping through, and was off again into the night. If she’d had any real notion of distance or time, Willa would have been surprised to know that she had run six miles without stopping. Then, amid a grove of strange, dark trees she dropped in her tracks. As her breath caught up with her again she swooned and dreamed.

 

That first time away from home, there beneath the strange trees, Willa had the seashore dream. She was rolling in the surf. Her mother and her aunt were there with her and she could feel the sand and dig her hands down into it and find sand dollars and other strange shells. One of the shells had a face of sorts, and when she peered at it closely the face became his face. The water and the cries of the gulls disappeared and all became black but for the dreadful face and the piercing eyes.

When she awoke the face was still there, somewhere on the edge of her vision.

 

She was eleven years old, her name was Willa Redmon, her mother was three years dead. Willa’s aunt—the wonderful aunt who had named her for her favorite book writer—was in far away New York City.

 

It was dark out this night. Dark-‘O-the-Moon, her mother had called it. She’d found her slow train by following after Mr. Ed Castle who was three cars up from her, sleeping the sleep of the just—those who saved silly little girls who couldn’t keep their wits about them.

 

She meant to repay the man somehow. “Do not allow yourself to be indebted to any person,” her mother had said. And sometimes she quoted scripture: “Fly from debt as the gazelle flies from the jaws of the lion.” It was Proverbs, probably. People who quoted the Bible always quoted Proverbs. One day Willa intended to find a Bible and read it, except for all the begats. And if nothing else made any sense, she hoped that Proverbs would.

 

But how to repay this debt to Mr. Castle? What was her life worth? Was there an amount in dollars? If so, it had to be at least a thousand—an incredible number. She could count that high, she hoped, and had even tried once or twice, be she invariably became bored with it and wondered what was the point, at about which time she normally stumbled in her counting from all the other wanderings in her mind. That was the trick, though. One had to teach their mind to do a thing and see if through to the end. That was a hard one, though. A thing deep and vast as an ocean across which you couldn’t see land on the other side.

 

“I know,” Willa told herself. “A hat! I’ll get Mr. Castle a hat!”

 

This decision made she waited several hours until the train stopped to take on water and then slipped down from the car and on back down the tracks toward the caboose.

 

The engineer was napping. She had seen it often and it was how she had managed so far. And another thing she knew: if she were caught before she made it to New York City and found her aunt, then the railroad men or the sheriff’s men would take her back home and to the twisted, sneering face that haunted Willa each night. So Willa was a ghost among the great iron machines, and the railroad men never heard so much as a peep out of her. The only evidence anyone ever saw of her quiet existence was her bare footprints amid the grime and the powder.

 

After liberating the hat—it had been a spare hat, hanging from a hook inside the narrow closet where the engineer kept his thermos and his lunch pail—she left the man snoring and disappeared back up the line of cars, counting the cars in the darkness as she ran.

 

Mr. Ed Castle was still asleep, snoring loudly. It was a wonder that the little town they’d stopped at to take on water didn’t wake up and come get them both. Mr. Ed Castle, she knew, was like herself: a person on the run. Maybe, just like herself, there were eyes chasing him into his dreams and back out of them again. She didn’t know the answer to that one, but the man who saved her had tried to act like a hard man. Willa knew hard men—after all, she knew her stepfather—and Mr. Ed Castle was no hard man, as much as he desired to appear to be.

 

She left the hat by his knee and turned to the narrow opening. She caught something then with her nose. What was it? A half-remembered thing.

 

Willa slid down from the doorway and stepped gingerly over the rocks until she came to the tall grass beyond. She followed her nose until she found the daffodils.

 

4

 

Peter Jergen kept two lists. One list was the government’s and one was his own. The government list was constantly changing as names were added and others were crossed off. The new government list came out weekly and he got the updates by telegraph, by telephone late at night, or by someone leaving it under the door where he was sleeping. The government list was known among the Secret Service as the Watch List, but it was essentially what was commonly known among postal clerks, lawmen and kids who bought pulp crime and detective magazines as the Most Wanted List. But Peter Jergen’s other list—his own, personal list—was a whole other story altogether.

 

Jergen lit a cigarette, squatted, and ran a finger around the edge of the boot print.

 

The West Dallas rail yard was all the smell of cold steel, burnt oil, and something else. An elusive odor. A bitter smell, somewhere between the wild fresh manure-smell of a large animal, say an elephant, and the odor of overly-fried chicken gizzards. After a moment his cigarette drove the other odor from his nose.

 

“Edward Sevier Castle,” he said. “It is good to meet you thus alone.” His hand moved away to point toward the next boot-step and found instead something different.

 

“Maybe not alone after all,” he whispered to himself. It was the bare footprint of a child impressed into a small patch of gray powder in next to a set of tracks.

 

“Traveling with company?” Peter Jergen asked the dawn.

 

“Like I said,” the railroad detective standing nearby said, “we haven’t seen a soul around here. That footprint could be anybody’s. If there’d been anybody, my boys would have seen him.”

 

Jergen ignored the man.

 

Jergen’s second list was not as long as ten. In fact the list only had three names at the moment. One of those three names was that of Edward Sevier Castle. The names were not merely those whom it was his job to catch: they were those he had chosen to hunt down and destroy. The list, therefore, was of the most personal nature. In fact, the actual list was not written, but instead existed only in a state as insubstantial as smoke within the narrow five and half-inch confine between Peter Jergen’s two ears.

 

“Shut the hell up,” Jergen told the railroad detective and stood up. He turned to face the man. “Get out of my sight.” The railroad man—he had already forgotten the man’s name—complied with his command by turning and walking off.

Jergen stood for a time studying Castle’s boot print. His eyes shifted to that of the child’s.

 

“I’m right behind you, Castle. You and your little friend.”

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