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Perdition Found in a Railcar
I scrutinized the coach front to back. The brightly colored panels, the Tintoretto, the Greek statuettes of virile young men looking gay and carefree seemed out of place in this coach. An ancient sadness and unremitting heaviness filled this coach. It brooded, like a soldier who lost a buddy in a battle or a defeated and broken Greycoat facing the empty road home. I know all too well the sting of that loss and that barren road.
I expected to find a Samuel Morse doppelganger to spring from the door wearing headphones and holding a telegram, or a Henry Bessemer type with the model of the giant ladle that poured the pig iron, or a Cornelius Vanderbilt copy wallowing in piles of cash and stock certificates while armed guards stood watched as he counted his bullion.
But I didn't. Instead of opulence, all was gray and sullen.
I gazed upon a recluse in tattered gray clothing and shabby shoes, sitting at his desk with his back to me. The sides of his private rail car lined with mahogany benches, silk-paneled walls, and rows books in glass-fronted cases. He wasn't a fresh fish. I looked for side arms, knives, secret weapons. Saw none. He didn't even have a bodyguard or manservant. He was nothing more than an old man.
"I want the secret of longevity," I said to him.
He turned and glared at me with black eyes and knotted brow.
"Young man, you're disturbing my reading of Leaves of Grass. Whitman himself gave it to me. If you insist on interrupting further, give voice to what you want or leave me." He twirled the end of his mustache.
The train rolled over an at-grade crossing with a gentle lurch, and the engineer blew signals to the threshers and horse-drawn wagons. The green and gold fields of corn and wheat, kissed by the life-giving sun, peeped through the ashen drapes and shied from the interior of the coach much as a good horse shies from a snake. This coach made my heart sad and my spirit low. I should have left and not sought the impossible. But I would not be dismissed with mere words.
"I want the secret of longevity," I repeated.
"Drink and sin in moderation, beyond that, I have no secret. I am a man just like you. No more. No less." He turned back to his untidy desk and lifted a book. I do not take kindly to being ignored. This time, I confronted him with my knowledge of his rumored past.
"They say you fought in the War of Independence. They say you stood with Robert E. Lee at Appomattox. They say you were bewitched in Salem. They say you sailed on the Golden Hind with Drake. They even whisper that you consorted with Romans and Greeks. I spoke to those who bore witness to your travels," I said. He sighed, put on his spectacles, opened his book, and declaimed like a preacher on Sunday morning.
"I say to mankind, be not curious about God. For I, who am curious about each, am not curious about God - I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least." [note 1] He paused, rested the book on his belly, continued in his own words "Those are the words of Walt Whitman and good counsel for you, young man. Do not be curious about matters that concern other men and Almighty God. Be curious about everything else but not what you cannot obtain." He waved the back of his hand in a manner that again said I should take my leave. Scorned and rebuffed a second time with a quote and a half-prayer.
My hand closed on the grip of my revolver. I am unused to being dismissed as a child by a man, pretending to be a sage wise like Solomon and virtuous like Abraham. He set the book on the desk. I could see his lips moving silently as he continued to read.
In my world, a man stands up to another man's challenge. That is the way of life from Eden to the present. I raised my revolver, cocked it and set its sights on his body. Could any man flaunt life as this man flaunted it? Was he truly as unafraid of death as his actions argued? I needed to know.
"Rest assured, old man, I will leave this coach knowing your secret."
"And you shall be all the poorer for knowing what you call my secret. Longevity is unattainable and undesirable." He closed the book and set his glasses on the desk next to the book. He faced me, arms folded and unafraid. His dark eyes drilled into my mine. A good trick if you want to get the drop on a man. I used it many a time, but it doesn't work without a gun.
"Do you have a child that you treasure beyond all riches, beyond life itself?" he asked. His eyes scanned the book, not me.
"It's not me we're talking about. You got something I want," I said. His face sagged, and his eyes grew sad. He cocked his head to one side and nodded to the right, a strange gesture that betrayed the truth behind his rumored Levantine origin.
"Could you live without sorrow or remorse? How many times can you stand at the grave of your fellow soldiers or the coffin where your beloved wife's rested, or a cherished child's inert form? How many times could you watch them grow old and die while you do not?"
"To live forever, I'd do without love or hate." A clanging of rail cars being pulled faster interrupted my words. The engineer increased his speed for the long straight. I braced as the private car lurched forward. It played follow the leader. I wasn't a coach or freight car. I was done following leaders. If I lived forever, I could become the leader that all men lurch behind. The man seemed to know my thoughts before I put voice to them.
"Foolish young man, no one lives forever but the Almighty. The universe was born in a single instant of fire and will die in the coldness of time. Angels were born, and they will die when time itself ceases. One life is all we get. One life is enough for all of Creation. Do not be irascible with the Almighty. Go away. Skedaddle."
Again, he waved me away with the back of his hand and reached for a cup of tea. My arm stiffened, and my trigger finger tightened. He put both palms up. I relaxed and uncocked the gun.
He filled his cup and poured a second. I scowled at tea. He raised both eyebrows and poured a shot of whiskey into each cup. He held up a plate of biscuits and smiled a charming smile like that smile would solve the world's problems or satisfy any demand. Arrogant old man, I thought. I am no one's fool. I am no one's puppet. You do not pull my strings. I swung the gun and knocked the teacups across the coach, shattering them. The dark corners of the coach swallowed the bits, hid the stain.
"I didn't come here for tea and biscuits. I didn't come to hear no four-flushing, flannel-mouth lie from a sissified dandy. I came here to learn your secret," I yelled. I have a deep voice that sets people to look up and listen when I speak. I've commanded legions on the battlefield. But here, in this railcar, my voice didn't resonate against the metal and wooden walls. This railcar acted like I didn't yell but that I whispered. I looked around at the interior for some drapery or carpet that could dampen my voice. My boots rested on polished wood and the windows had wooden shutters. He noticed my reaction.
"Let me ask you a question, young man. Did you feel uncomfortable when you entered this coach? Did you just note that same sensation right now? Aren't you currently uneasy and you can't explain why?"
He spoke the truth. This was the last car in the train before the caboose. I boarded the first car and traveled to this, the last car. None of the others filled me with dread and made me want to leave. I didn't answer. My voice didn't want to acknowledge the truth of his words. I simply nodded in agreement. He opened a case, took a cigar and lit it. It smelled like a dried cow flop and smoked even worse. It offended the air. He coughed and spat on the floor.
"Nature is talking to you, sir. It doesn't like me, and I suggest you listen to it and not question me anymore. I exist as I am and nature leaves me alone. That doesn't please either of us but if leaving me alone is sufficient for the whole of creation, sufficient for the light of day and the dark of night, sufficient for the sun in the sky, the lilies of the field, and animals grazing in clover, it should be sufficient for you. Go away. Light a shuck. Leave." He flourished the cigar with his fingers and raised his eyebrows up and down.
I was equally as determined to know the truth.
"Is that your game? You light a cheap cee-gar, and I leave because you say so? Lincoln might have freed the slaves by simple decree, but that won't save you." Once again I raised the gun and pointed the barrel right at his heart. His face showed no emotion. His eyes remained cold, passionless and dark. The barrel of my gun usually gets men on their knees. He acted like the gun didn't exist.
"Leave before you regret ever setting foot in this coach," he said, anger in his eyes. He leaned his elbows on the table and blew smoke at me.
The train whistle blew a warning about an upcoming at-grade crossing, one short and three longs. I used the last long whistle to shoot him square in the middle of his chest. The mournful wail of a different teller bell, summoning the faithful to pay their respects. His body slammed back against the chair. His cigar rolled along the table and down to the floor. His blood poured through his shirt and vest.
I take the measure of a man in the way he handles his death. I locked my eyes on his eyes long enough to see the lights go out and the spark of life leave his body. I saw his muscles shake in pain. Dying isn't pretty, but he took it well. I've seen heroes turn to cowards and foul themselves as their life's work played before their eyes. At death's door, this man remained an enigma. His death was special to me, another failure in a long line of failure. Through my fault, my fault, my terrible fault.
Hatred, palpable and intense filled the coach, making it creak and tighten. The light streaming through the windows dimmed and flickered. My breathing grew hard. I'm no green recruit to the fortunes of war and killing. I've shot many men in battle and seen their bodies ripped open and their organs spilled out. But this coach turned cold, and I felt like Death stood beside me, seeking a soul and reaching its hand out in that last ever gesture.
First time in my life I ever looked behind me, fearful that I'd see the devil standing at my back or that demons might be waiting to possess me. Nothing was there but shadows.
I used his handkerchief to wipe the blood from his pocket watch. Put it in my pocket. I searched his body for billfold or money belt. He wore no rings, no stickpins, no diamond studs. His clothes were as plain and threadbare as they come. If rumors be true, there had to be gold or silver coins in a lockbox. I could even parlay a letter of credit to my benefit. No man lives without money on hand, but I found nothing. Even in death, this bastard denied me a reward. My anger blinded me.
I turned to his body and grabbed his lapels. I wanted to rend his body like Caiaphas rending his garment. I wanted to strip the flesh from his body and bury it in quicklime for cheating me. I wanted to burn his bones so even the coyotes could not feed. He no longer bled. I shuddered.
The train shuddered with me, putting me off balance. Again, cold filled the room. Not winter. Not the perpetual Arctic glaciers of Canada, but cold unto the depths of sorrow and despair.
I felt the man's chest expand and heard a monstrous gasping for air as his lungs filled once again and his heart beat anew, pumping life-giving blood through his body. His hands grabbed my wrists, and his eyes raged with the blackness of Hell. I screamed like a child encountering a snake and tried to shake free. Those delicate hands gripped my wrists like chains of steel on a slave boat.
"Bastard, you have no idea how much it hurts to die," he said, not letting go of my arms. I struggled to break his grip. I did not succeed. I stared, confronting the impossible.
"What are you?"
"You foolish man. You say that you want to live forever and when confronted by the real deal, the dead reincarnated, you pull away like a scared pony." He pushed me towards a straight back chair and sat me down.
"Are you a devil come from Hell?"
"Hardly, you wanted to know the secret of my longevity?" His voice boomed and unlike mine, echoed in the car. I looked into those black eyes and saw not the fires of eternal damnation but the blind stare that Justice herself used to weigh crime and measure out punishment. These were the eyes of a man cursed and banished from his home, a man forsaken by God and the land. A man shunned by every rock and pebble, even the dust of the world.
"You wanted to know my secret. It's true. I cannot die. It's not a blessing. It's a curse, a curse from the lips of God Almighty to my ears and all creation. Didn't they tell you my story on so many Sundays while you sat in front of the preacher man? Now it's too late. Now that you killed me, you must pay the price."
"No. Stop. Please. I'll go away. I won't ever speak to you again. I promise on my mother's grave, on my honor as a thief. I'll tell no one," I said.
But it was too late.
I once knew it all. I once knew everything, but I didn't need to know this.
Such naked truth is always too heavy to bear, too harrowing to contemplate, misery made flesh before the eyes of those meant to remain ignorant, unwanted knowledge of a legend recorded by old men, of the lessons of life never learned, of parables never understood.
This man, the damned of the Almighty, accused by his kin's blood, was cursed. This fratricidal man who thought he could challenge the Almighty and didn't learn the lesson of the fall of angels.
I have lived too many years and seen too many dead not to understand. Cain, brother of Abel, killer of kin and damned of the Almighty, released my hands. I wept as Jesus wept, but I was no Lazarus. I would not rise again. My tears poured onto the hard wooden floor of the coach only to languish in despair.
"Cain," I addressed him by name, "From the depths I cry to you, have mercy on me a poor sinner."
"I have no mercy to give as none was given me," his voice roared like a captured lion.
Dark clouds appeared around the train as it rolled through the countryside. If any farmer in the fields or on the roads at the crossings had seen the train, they would have thought that the coal-fired boiler was smoky and malfunctioning. Cain stepped away to reveal another presence in the room. I looked upon the robed and shrouded figure in terror and silence. Death Incarnate stood before me. Judgment Day come to this railcar. Come to take me.
But Cain mocked me.
"Ask Death for mercy as your life flashes, fool," he laughed. "Ask him for time to get your pathetic affairs in order. See what he says," Cain sneered. Death turned to Cain and scolded.
"You overstep your bounds. There is no justice in torment. It is proportionate that mortal men experience the agonies of death. There is no gain in mockery," Death said. Cain growled, defiant. I could only watch the interplay between Death and the truly damned.
"You have no power over me. My Father disowned me, cursed me and made sure the world curses me, remember," Cain answered, almost snarling. Death's demeanor softened and grew compassionate.
"I am the final comfort for all those who die."
"Did you forget that body refuses to die, my organs refuse to cooperate. Can you comfort me or are you like all the rest of them, hateful, spiteful, and filled with scorn?"
For a moment no one spoke.
"I can be your comfort, your confessor, your paterfamilias if you will have me," Death said.
"Do not mock me."
"It is not in my nature to mock the living or the dead."
Death paused, waiting. Anger and hate left Cain's face.
"Dinner, the day after tomorrow, in this coach. Can you do that?" Cain asked.
"I can and will. On that day I will call you 'my son,'" Death answered. My Day of Judgment paled compared to the vision that Death Incarnate would submit to a mortal's demand, would offer mercy tempered with compassion. I caught my breath. This truly was extraordinary.
Death turned his visage to me, and I felt the memories of my life welling up in my mind. I didn't have to ask. He reached a skeletal hand toward me as much in friendship as in guidance. Cold spread through my body.
"I know your thoughts and deeds, human."
"Must I die?"
"These events are your creation. No one on earth can take responsibility but you. You fired a bullet with murderous intent and killed a man. That act, your act, wrote your name in the Book of Fate. There is but one path for you. I say to you, be not afraid and do not judge yourself too harshly. I am only taking you to the palace you built for yourself."
In that moment, I died.
At the next town, the conductor arranged for my burial. My gun and jewelry paid for my coffin. A few simple words were spoken by a preacher over a pauper's grave, marked by a wooden cross. That was all that remained in the world for people to remember me. No headstone, no pipes, no muffled drums, or rifle salute. No bunches of roses to soften the thudding clods of dirt as the lone gravedigger filled my grave.
The grave is cold, and Death's judgment is our own. That might have been my epitaph. However, compassion shown returns.
Cain appeared a week later and ordered a slate marker inscribed with the epitaph: Perdition, Found in a Railcar. He added the year, 1876. Not much of a legacy for a bank robber who once rode with Quantrill and the Bushwhackers, who once commanded the largest plantation in Missouri, but still, a legacy.
3300 words more or less
FUTURES YET UNKNOWN
Ten Stories by Dave Fragments
*An Alien serial murderer and a furry detective with fleas.
*Murder on a world with altered humans.
*Disturbing apocalyptic visions *Monstrous dystopian societies.
*A man on trial for betraying the human race to robots.
*Devils, demons and ghosts.
*Survivors of a plague war.
*Cyborgs trying to be human.
*Six friends in a strange sinkhole.
*The truth about a world drowning in rain, without sun, without hope.
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