Saturday, December 31, 2016

MYTHS OF THE WEIRD WEST: Ghost Train No. 19


Stories of ghost trains abound in the weird west. Spiraling into canyons, plunging off bridges, their spectral engineers wail their whistles as they blast though this world and into the next. Charles Skinner’s Myths & Legends of Our Own Land tells of one such, The Phantom Train of Marshall Pass, on dark winter’s night in the wilds of Colorado.

But, like mending the Salt Witch’s pointy hat a few posts ago, I’m gonna take this particular tale and lay a few more miles of track underneath.

   For months, Nelson Edwards had been driving No. 19 through a stretch in the Marshall Pass without incident. He sat each run at his wall of levers and gauges, small windows at each elbow, peering ahead to make sure the way was clear, then behind to know the same.
   The passengers were always calm and stately, his route was clear of bandits and even now, in the deep of winter, the weather was brisk and fresh. This evening particularly so, with the softest shake of snow from tattered silk clouds across the bruised blue sky.
   The stewards were kind and smart, serving the coffee and sandwiches and paying every compliment. The porters were brisk and smart, hauling up the luggage and squaring away the berths. The brakemen were soldiers, hands at the ready, the fireman a strong, solid back, slaving hard at the coal tanks. His conductor oversaw it all, striding the cars with his chain and whistle and assuring the world was as it should be. Coffee and tea, fresh sheets and safe travels, while shovel after shovel of coal went into that roiling inferno and they rode straight and true into the Colorado night.
   It was strange then, that such a feeling of apprehension should overtake Edwards as he propped an elbow on the open window to relieve some heat from the pulsing furnace. He wiped his brow with a bandanna and tucked it away, then poked his head outside. Nothing ahead or behind. He closed his eyes against the fat flakes of snow pattering his cheeks and told himself he was tired.
   But there was no shaking it. The train held fast, the cars rocked their slow rhythm, but something had changed. Some shift in the air, a tingling along his spine.
   Then the conductor burst in, visibly shaken.
   “Pull her wide open! There's a train climbing behind us!"
   A great whistle sounded then, the droning wail of hot breath down a long, metal pipe.
   “There it is!” the conductor cried.
   Edwards stuck his head out the window, a hand clapped to his hat. Indeed, bearing down upon them was a huge locomotive, bigger than anything Edwards had ever seen. It was a darker black against the night, visible only around the front where its huge firebox glowed from the vents. A storm of sooty smoke poured from its stack, gusts of embers coughed forth as though from the rim of some deep volcano.
   Edwards cranked the throttle and braced a hand on the window sill as they tore around a curve. A snowbank sat tufted across their way, crashing in a blast of powder to either side.
   He called to the fireman, who doubled, then tripled his throws, heaving pile after pile into the tanks. Despite the heat, the cab began to grow chill and the conductor drew his coat around himself.
   “What the devil is he up to?” he asked, his breath casting drifts of vapor.
   Edwards had no idea. Never in his life had he known such a thing. Trains crossing their signals certainly, but in engines driven by sane men. No one ever looked to run his fellows off the road!
   The conductor fought off another shiver and turned back. The alarm of the passengers had reached his ears as they no doubt heard the terrible cry of the unknown train. They would have their faces pressed to the windows, anxious about what was to be done.
   They rocketed into a tunnel then and Edwards steeled himself for the crash to come. There in the darkness beneath a mountain, they would twisted and bloody for all time.
   Suddenly, the world flashed past the windows once more and the engineer let out a breath. It was almost as though ice crystals floated within it, the cab had become so cold. Edwards pulled his collar closed and chanced another look outside. They were along the lip of a canyon now, dark as a cauldron. Snow whipped furiously and the moon was gone.
   Behind them, the black train was ever closer, a figure now visible hanging from the cab. His head was a bare skull, wrapped in a teardrop of blue flame. Other figures stood atop the engine, flinging shovels of orange cinders over their shoulders. Their laughter was a glassy cackle, cutting through even another shrill cry of that hellish whistle.
   The sound rattled through every car in the train, shattering cups and cracking the windows. The passengers cupped their ears or fainted dead in their seats. Edwards gritted his teeth, holding the throttle wide open. Surely the demon train would soon overtake them, dashing No. 19 off the tracks into the canyon below.
   Then the fiendish machine was indeed upon them. Cries of horror rose up from the passengers as the engine appeared within their own cars, the maniacal engineer leering from his cab. His fearsome stokers breathed spectral flames from their gaping mouths. Their shovels cast coals onto backs and laps, which melted away the instant they touched.
   Edwards turned at the noise, sweat pouring from his brow despite the freezing cold. Then the evil engine burst forth, the flaming blue skull laughing past Edwards' face as it roared past. The engineer screamed, his face a blown mask of sheer and uncomprehending horror.
   Outside his window, the shimmering locomotive veered toward the canyon, rumbling down the side with a blast of shattered cars and spurting coals. Edwards shot his head out to follow, seeing only a dim pulse at the far bottom as it detonated on the rocks below.
   He’d have dismissed it all as madness on the instant, if not for one thing. As he slammed the window shut, he gave a startled cry. For there, streaked on the frost as though by a skeletal finger, were the words:
   "A frate train was recked as yu saw. If yu ever run on this road again YU will be recked."
   Edwards took heed. Upon arrival in Denver the next morning, he found suitable employment on another line far, far from Marshall Pass.

If you'd like to grab a free e-copy of Skinner's entire book, click HERE.

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