Ol’ No. 37

📅 Published on December 3, 2020

“Ol’ No. 37”

Written by Nick Carlson
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available

ESTIMATED READING TIME — 25 minutes

Rating: 10.00/10. From 2 votes.
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The smoke in the air stung their eyes, but all eight men were fixated on the hulking figure at the head of the table. He seemed unaffected by the cigars’ haze, peering angrily through it at his subjects. All nine men held each other with a healthy dose of disdain, but true fear was only reserved for the big man, James H. Bianchi, better known among his fellow railroad tycoons as “Steelhead Jim.”

The tension in the air was thicker than the acrid fog. The lack of windows hadn’t helped either; the trapped negative energy circled the table like hungry sharks. No one knew how long the negotiations – or lack thereof – had lasted; but Steelhead Jim apparently did, for he had whipped out his pocket watch, given it an ugly glare, and snapped it shut again.

“I’m disappointed, gentlemen.” His voice was deep and ragged with years of wear and tear. “Disappointed that the hour’s past nine and I haven’t heard a single proposal worth a damn from any of you. Unacceptable.”

The men rippled with a collective fidget. One, a blonde German with the physique of a beanpole, raised a trembling hand. “Sir, please, I must reiterate my offer…I can push it down to five months with the proper clearance…”

“Silence, Mr. Ebner,” Steelhead Jim rumbled, raising a palm. “I invited you all at my expense with very clear conditions. Because I thought you all were the best of the best.” He addressed the rest of the moguls. “You knew what this was when you bit into it, and now you all have spit it out. Disgraceful.”

He stood, his white knuckles on the tabletop. “Frankly, gentlemen, I’d rather deal with my wife at home than the rest of you any longer. Unless one of you bursts forth with divine providence in the next fifteen seconds, then consider this meeting adjourned.”

For dramatics, he pulled out his pocket watch again. Each passing tick was an eternity that came and went too fast. The moguls looked down, away, at each other. Fingers twiddled. Shiny shoes tapped. Hopeful glances shot towards Steelhead Jim, then faltered and died.

Five…four…three…two…

At the far end of the table, a man stood. Steelhead Jim instantly swiveled to confront him. “And who might you be?” he inquired.

The mogul spoke up. “Simon von Thracker, sir.”

“Mr. von Thracker. I’m surprised, I thought you were a mute,” Steelhead Jim scoffed. “Well, after two hours of silence I hope you have something useful to say.”

Simon straightened, forcing himself to look the tycoon in the eye. “I’ve given it much thought, and I believe I can carry out your project.”

The other moguls snapped towards him, shock and disgust on their faces. Steelhead Jim’s eyes narrowed. “You’re certain. The line from Atlanta to Chattanooga, in, starting tomorrow, three months?”

“Yes, sir.”

Steelhead Jim leaned over the table, furthering his resemblance to a silverback gorilla. “And you’re not just saying that out of some knee-jerk response to pressure, correct? You are aware of the costs? The calculations? The labor? The contractual bullshit?”

Simon von Thracker shrugged. “Why else would I be silent for two hours, sir?”

Steelhead Jim’s brow furrowed even more. The silence in the room was almost drowning. The two men remained locked in a silent standoff, daring the other to make a move.

Then, the tycoon clapped his hands together and stared at the other seven moguls. “Gentlemen. This is now a private meeting, and the rest of you are intruding. Goodnight.”

In a daze, the seven moguls rose from their seats and shuffled listlessly out the door like prisoners on their way to death row. The door clapped shut by itself behind them.

Steelhead Jim lumbered his way to Simon von Thracker and shook his hand. “Welcome aboard, Mr. von Thracker. It will be a pleasure doing business with you.”

Oh God, what have I done?! Simon thought. “It is my honor, sir,” said his mouth.

“Go get some sleep!” Steelhead Jim barked, heading for the door himself. “We will initiate the first steps at dawn. Tomorrow’s the first day of the rest of your life! When all’s said and done, you will emerge from it, immortal!”

“I’m looking forward to it, sir,” said Simon, praying the tycoon hadn’t heard the weakness in his voice. Apparently he hadn’t, for his last words were cut off by the sound of the door closing. Splendid, he thought, urging his feet to move forward. He had no idea what the “rest of his life” would entail, but he was certain about one thing: “immortality” never came without a price.

* * * * * *

That had been three months ago.

Just like Simon von Thracker had expected, the journey thus far had been a flurry of mountains and valleys, pressures and stress, steps forward and steps backward. He had pushed paperwork, negotiated with suppliers, overseen construction sites, hired and fired a small state’s worth of workers. Hands had been shaken. Ink had been penned. Spikes had been hammered. His whole being was one of esoteric technical jargon, the smell of oil and dirt and pungent iron, and an underlying tension that seemed to tear his bones apart, joint by joint. Simon had initialized the construction of railroads before, but never one so ambitious, nor compressed in such an unforgiving timeframe.

Some days he felt on top of the world, observing shiny new train tracks literally spread forth before him. But most days were spent indoors, sweating and fussing over some new development or setback. He could almost feel his arteries scarring, his hair fizzling into the gray of senility. He sucked on cigars like a mother’s teat. Even the greasy, processed food he had to adjust to on the job lost its flavor after several weeks. Everything ended up tasting like ash and sores.

His only consolation was coming home to his wife, Emma, whenever he could manage it. But even that was beginning to lose its allure. One night he staggered through the front door, the inside air like a freshly ironed sheet around his cold, dirty body. Emma sat at the table, two steaming plates laid out at their respective chairs. Barely coherent from hunger and exhaustion, he sat down and gave his wife a brief consoling glance before looking down at his meal. Whatever warmth he had felt walking in all but dissipated.

“What do we have here?” he grunted, jabbing at his meager serving of boiled potatoes and cabbage.

“It’s all I could whip up today. I’m sorry honey,” Emma explained. “Money’s been tight…”

“Couldn’t manage a decent cut of meat, at the very least?” he said.

Emma pursed her lips. “I did buy one, but I couldn’t use it. The butcher shop got condemned. Health violations, apparently.”

He eyed her with an accusing shrewdness. “Well, did you save the receipt?”

Emma was silent. Simon set his fork down with a jarring clatter. “Typical, just typical. Do you know how I spent my day today? I was elbow-deep in rats, Emma. Dead ones. One of my warehouses had been accumulating hundreds of the damn things, and the suppliers we commissioned wouldn’t even go inside until we had cleared them all out. ‘We’ as in ‘me.’” He twitched his head, soot dislodging from his hair. “So forgive me for wanting nothing more than to come home to some decent food.”

Her gaze hardened. “We’re all trying our best here, Simon. I’m sorry you had to go through that today…but it’ll all be over soon. And once you get paid, we can have steak every night until we’re sick of it. We’ve been through so much over all these years…just hold out another few weeks, please, honey.”

Simon looked away. The transition from indignation to shame racked him with regret. He slumped in his chair. “I’m sorry, dear.”

“It’s fine,” she affirmed.

Still, after dinner Simon found himself downing a glass or two of Kentucky bourbon to fill the remaining emptiness in his belly. And as they both settled in bed, there was one more appetite he felt the need to slake.

“Simon, no, please, not tonight,” Emma mumbled.

“Why not?” he whispered, running an arm over her chest. “It’s been ages…”

“You stink,” she protested. “You stink of mud and cigars and drink. If you’d washed up tonight then maybe, but no. I’m not having it.”

“It’s too late for that,” Simon retorted. His fingertips stroked down her arm. “Please, for the love of all that is good, do not deny me this too.”

She gave a deep sigh. “Alright…alright…just for tonight…” He crawled over to kiss her. She could taste his odor in his mouth.

Later, amid his mounting lust, he sensed there was no love to his love-making. There was primal despair, the urge to satisfy an itch in his soul. Each frenzied thrust was one blow dealt to the troubles plaguing him. His wife below him scarcely reciprocated his motions. He didn’t care. It only further fueled his illusions.

After he had finished he fell into a heavy, uneasy slumber. Emma merely laid beside him, not feeling at all remotely pleasured. She, by contrast, didn’t sleep a wink.

* * * * * *

In the final two weeks of the railroad’s construction, Simon von Thracker found himself at a precipice. He knew the day would come when he would have to combat Steelhead Jim’s most inexplicable addendum for the railway plans. Rather than a straight shot from Atlanta to Chattanooga, the line was to bear slightly northwest and cross over one of the state of Georgia’s most iconic natural wonders: Cloudland Canyon.

“It’s the scenic route!” Steelhead Jim had proclaimed in those first few days. “After the long ride up, our passengers will be treated to the sight of God’s handiwork in forest and rock! They’ll stare in awe and think, ‘Wow, whose amazing idea was it to gift this majesty to us?’ And they’ll say, ‘Why, it was Steelhead Jim!’ But then I’ll say, ‘Please, ladies, gentlemen…it was my idea, but it wouldn’t have been possible without Mr. Simon von Thracker!’ We’ll be legends, I tell you! Legends!”

Now, staring down the rift in the Earth, Simon could only reflect on how pretty those words had sounded at the time. The mixed conifer and deciduous trees gave way to a steep, rocky slope that plunged a thousand feet into a pit of broken shale. The other side of the canyon loomed what seemed like a stone’s throw away…tantalizing, beautiful, and treacherous.

It was November, and the change of the seasons had begun to take its toll. Simon had already lost over a third of his workers to septicemia, exposure, or simply desertion from lack of morale. Only the hardiest and most honest men were left over, and while their effort alone could have made a full team, each passing day only served to sap ever more at their spirits.

There was hesitation, and rightfully so. All the workers, from the seasoned pros to the greenies, recognized the inherent danger in such conditions. They demanded perfection, and perfection demanded time that they were quickly running short on.

“Sir,” a stiff-backed Chinese man addressed Simon. “We have a problem.”

Simon froze halfway to lighting his fifth cigar of the day. The blood in his veins already seemed to preemptively boil. “What.”

“The steel, sir,” the worker reported. “We are short. Not enough to safely span the gorge.”

A pulse ticked in Simon’s temple. He took a laden breath, resisting the urge to descend into a coughing fit. “What about that?” He motioned to a large pile of metal trusses that sat unattended off the side of the tracks.

The worker gave them a curt glance. “Pig iron, sir. Tainted. Shipment was delivered to us in error. I can request for new steel within ten days.”

“Ten days?” The words were acid on Simon’s tongue. “We don’t have ten days…we are to hammer in the final nail in two weeks.”

The worker shrugged. “I can push to eight days, if we’re lucky.”

“No,” Simon growled. “We don’t have a day to spare. Use the pig iron.”

The worker gave a wince. “Sir, it is most inadvisable to -”

“Listen to me.” Simon brandished an ashen, shaky finger at the man. “My word around here is gospel. You came directly to me, and I gave you an answer. Now go enact it.”

The worker grimaced, then dashed over to a gathering group of his comrades and relayed orders in Chinese. The others immediately rose up with unmistakable protest. They argued for a moment more, but all stopped at Simon’s wrathful expression. Grumbling, they set about readying the pig iron trusses.

Simon strode away from the tents, the fumes, and the constant clanging to find a private place to smoke. Alone, with only himself to contend with, his malaises seeped back in. His nose ran. A noxious tickle flared in the back of his throat. He went to wipe his face, only to inhale ash and smear his skin with dirt. Drawing his cigar served to drown out the ugliness, for only a moment. It tasted sweet. Like serenity.

“Sir.”

Simon spasmed, dusting himself with white ash. The nerve of him to come back to me again. Brushing off his shirt he stood and glared at the worker. “Did I not tell you my word is gospel?”

The worker cocked an eyebrow. “No, sir, that may have been Mingyu. I am Quan.”

Simon scowled. They all looked the same to him. “What is it now then?”

Quan stood to attention. “Sir, even with the pig iron we just fall short. We must commission a new shipment of trusses.”

“No,” Simon hissed, springing to his feet and pacing. “No, no, no, no…this needs to be in two weeks…I made that promise, I cannot renege on that.” He shot a furious glance at Quan. “You have no idea what’s at stake…what’ll happen to me if I fall short…I cannot fail.”

Quan was unimpressed. “We must wait for new steel.”

“How dare you contradict me!” Simon hurled the nub of his cigar at Quan’s chest. “The only reason you and your ilk are out here with work at all is because of me! Unless you’d all like to take a trip out West to the South Pacific line? Because I can find another starving horde of your people who’ll do the same work for half your rates.”

Quan faltered, broken down by Simon’s outburst. “…what do you suggest then.”

Simon dug his fingertips into the sides of his head, pacing again, breathing raggedly through his teeth. “Thirty miles down the line is a lumber mill,” he finally muttered. “We’ll supplement the missing trusses with wooden beams. But we have to be quick if we want to finish on schedule…”

“Wooden beams?” Quan interjected. “Sir, I cannot -”

“You can, and you will!” Simon roared. He doubled over, hacking and coughing wetly. When he straightened up again his lips were moist with spit. “Now if you value what little dignity you have left here, you’ll send an order out for that lumber!”

Quan’s eyes turned to angry slits. But his mouth tightened and he turned away briskly to return to the work site.

Readying another cigar, Simon strolled over to the cliffside, staring down at the autumn explosion below. Anger wasn’t just unpleasant for him anymore; it was downright painful. His throat ached like embers and his skull seemed to close in on his brain with each episode. He forced his red, tired eyes to drink in the scenery. Steelhead Jim had been right, it all was beautiful, like an ocean of frozen fire…

“I must speak to you.”

Rage seized him again and Simon whipped around to bellow at the worker – but his voice died at the sight of him. The stranger was dressed in khaki hides, his long black hair in a ponytail, capped by a hat adorned with what looked like a rattlesnake’s skull. The man’s red face was long and sported immaculately sharp cheekbones. Simon could only stare. Cherokee? Chickasaw?

“Who are you?” Simon demanded. “This is a private work site. Do you have clearance?”

“Who I am matters not.” The Indian’s voice was mournful and slow. “What matters here and now, is you.”

Simon blinked. A fitting retort would not come to him. “What…what does that mean?”

“My people have watched white man’s progress cut through our lands,” said the Indian. “We have held our peace for generations. Until now. I am left with no choice. I am telling you, to stop this endeavor.”

“You…” Simon sputtered. “You…are telling me…to stop. You. Telling me. To stop.” He almost laughed in spite of himself. His tone was unusually calm. “And what makes you think you can tell me what I can and cannot do?”

The Indian’s eyes were watery. “This land is evil. My ancestors met their demise at the bottom of this ravine. Their blood soured the ground, and tainted the spirits who creep about it. I have seen what is to come…if you go forward, all you will find is death, destitution, and hatred. Stop now. Turn back.”

The urge to laugh welled up in Simon’s guts like a balloon, pushing against his throat. He turned away, his arms jerking with some manic energy. “Right,” he said, turning back to the Indian. “I’ll just throw away millions of dollars’ worth of investments and labor, thousands of man-hours, and sever this great nation’s connectivity, because of some Injun superstition.”

“Listen to your soul…you are one step away from damnation,” the Indian said somberly. “Turn back. You are lying to yourself. You are afraid,”

“‘Afraid?!’” The familiar anger rushed back into Simon’s body like light filling a room. “I fear nothing! Least of all whatever bullshit you crap out! By my will alone I have toppled forests and moved mountains! By my will alone I have brought cities together! God has been behind me, guiding my hand, fueling my talents! What do you have! Winds and rocks and pagan creatures?!”

The Indian shook his head. “This train is not the mindless rampaging monster here.”

“Get out!” Simon screamed, thrusting his hand out. “Leave my presence, filth! And,” he added, turning to the onlookers, “if this Injun sets foot on these premises once more, he is to be shot on sight! Understood?!”

The Indian’s gaze flitted with its first emotion, something like pity. “How wrongly this path has been forged.” He then tipped his hat and turned away into the forest, melting among the foliage like a stone sinking in water.

“Meddling bastard!” Simon cursed at the forest. “Nothing will stop this train! Neither your gods nor your grovelling!” He stared wildly into the trees for a moment more, then addressed the crowd. “Let’s go! We’ve got a lot of ground to cover if we want to be ready for that lumber! Anyone who isn’t moving their ass will get it shipped out West! Do I make myself clear?”

The laborers immediately scattered, converging at the end of the track near the summit of Cloudland Canyon. Simon staggered to his empty tent, stripping off his shirt and collapsing onto the cot. His head fried with residual fury, and he curled up, hacking up what felt like magma from his lungs. He pulled out another cigar and his matchbox, but his hands trembled and both clattered to the ground. Fuck me, he thought, covering his eyes with his forearm. I don’t need to go outside…they’ll work…if they know what’s good for them…by my will alone it shall be done…by my will…by my will…

He lulled himself to sleep with the promise of immortality. He was so close to the end. So close to the rest of his life.

* * * * * *

Thanks to the last-minute shipment and a newfound vigor, they ended up finishing two days ahead of schedule.

According to the November 16th, 1886 edition of The Chattanooga Press, the commemorative golden spike was hammered down to “a flowing fountain of cheers and beers.” Simon von Thracker was not there to witness the ceremony himself; he had headed back to Atlanta to finalize the closing details with Steelhead Jim. Simon asked when he was going to receive his pay, but the tycoon had packed up and dismissed him, insisting that he show up in three days for the train’s maiden voyage. Simon had grimaced but remained silent. Slogging through bureaucratic quagmire was a part and parcel of the job.

With the railroad long behind him, Simon returned home to his wife once more. He lacked the energy to protest about his less-than-impressive dinner again. Catching a glance of himself in the mirror, he was unrecognizable. The bags under his eyes had upgraded to potato sacks. His hair was patchy and the dull gray of a rainstorm. Flecks of black soot were lodged in his pores; no amount of soap or scrubbing could dislodge it. His voice was a bloody, croaking imitation of itself. Emma noticed it all when he sat down at the table.

“You look like Hell,” she commented. “None of your work has ever made you look like Hell before.”

“This was Hell. And now I’m in Heaven.” He jabbed at the unappetizing potatoes. “Well…still climbing Purgatory, at any rate.”

He coughed again, spraying his moist breath over the tabletop. Emma stared at him with repressed disgust. “Was it all worth it, then? The glory? The money? How much is Jim Bianchi paying you anyway?”

“I don’t know. I believe I’ll be receiving it at the ceremony Tuesday.”

“You ‘believe?’” said Emma.

“I know it,” Simon reiterated. “It’ll happen tomorrow, and our lives will only climb from here.”

Emma shook her head. “I never trusted that man. Even I know he has a bad reputation among the people you work with.”

Simon’s brow prickled with irritation. “I finished two days ahead of schedule. I clawed my way through piles of bullshit to get him what he wants. He’ll pay me. I know he will. So don’t cast this unnecessary doubt.”

“Look at yourself!” Emma gestured desperately towards him. “Look what he and his vanity project have done to you. A hundred and thirty miles in three months, over a canyon? I’m surprised you finished it at all to be honest!”

“You’re ‘surprised?!’” Simon rasped, standing up. “Are you doubting my talents too?!”

“No, I was just saying that I wouldn’t expect anyone to pull that off perfectly!”

“You’re implying something!” He slammed his fist on the table, causing the platters to rattle. “That I didn’t do it perfectly?! How do you think they all did it in those days without steel?! Everything was made out of wood! It’s good timber, I know it!”

At this an inkling of confusion rose in her face. Simon immediately simmered down, but green panic curdled under his skin. He excused himself and retreated to their bedroom, slipping fully-clothed into a semi-conscious state on the mattress. He was miles away from any train or machinery…yet it all clanged and steamed in his head as he watched, paralyzed, black wraiths oozing from the walls and creeping up to him, dancing their spindly fingers across his body, whispering hateful proclamations.

He never knew that Emma hadn’t come up to bed with him.

* * * * * *

It was sunny and dewy the morning of the train’s first departure. The morning light reflected off the grass and seemed to bore hot needles through Simon von Thracker’s eyes. He averted his gaze, picking his way blindly through the throngs of people. The crowd here was much different than what he’d seen over the last three months: monochromatic, dressed in lavish attire, noisy with pomp and luxurious accents. The air was thick with wealth. Even in his best suit, Simon felt inadequate.

He finally found an open space with no people, but the sight before him instead filled him with fresh horror. Like an ancient Biblical serpent, the train towered above him and stretched for what seemed like miles down the tracks. The cow catcher resembled a maw full of fangs. The smokestack was billowing acrid, woody fumes. Its obsidian surface glistened with oil and condensation.

Mesmerized, Simon nearly shouted when a meaty hand clapped on his shoulder. “Mr. von Thracker! There you are!” Steelhead Jim’s voice exploded. “Isn’t she a beaut? 2-6-0 Mogul, had it specially shipped from Des Moine for this day!” He ran a hand across its piston. “Yes sir, this train has a long history, a long history indeed. Ol’ No. 37, she’s called!”

“This must mean a good deal to you, then,” Simon remarked, still not turning to address him.

“Most certainly!” Steelhead Jim’s voice lowered a tenth of a degree. “I’m gonna be straight with you, Mr. von Thracker…I had my doubts. I knew this was a monumental undertaking. So much track in so little time…I knew it was crazy. But Steelhead Jim gets what he wants, one way or another.”

You sure did, Simon thought ominously.

“How’d ya do it then?” Steelhead Jim demanded. “What was your secret? How’d you motivate those men and lay that track in such admirable time?” Simon looked at him, the urge to spill the truth not unlike the urge to vomit. But the tycoon only laughed. “Actually, don’t tell me. Legends don’t reveal their secrets. Maybe I’ll get you figured myself.”

The secret ingredients are pig iron and wood, a nasty voice in Simon’s head sneered. Shut up, Simon told the voice.

Steelhead Jim surveyed the crowd around them. “Look at these folks. America’s finest, all come here to ride in our train, on our track…they are the ones who make our dreams come true. Which, uh…which brings me to the other matter I wanted to discuss with you.”

The tycoon ran a hand through his silver hair, looking uncertain for the first time Simon had seen. “I haven’t been entirely forward with you, Mr. von Thracker. The reason I put such taxing conditions on this railway is…my finances haven’t been exactly fruitful as of late…I needed a Hail Mary, and you have delivered, so no worries on that. But all these folks,” he said, gesturing to the crowd, “they’ve all agreed to invest in the line once the maiden voyage is complete. One smooth, clean trip, there and back. And only then, once they return, if they’re satisfied, they’ll pay me. And that’s when I’ll pay you.”

A chill of panic hammered through Simon’s body. “So…if they make it – rather, when they come back, I get paid?”

Steelhead Jim wrung his hands. “That’s just about the thick and thin of it.”

“And if they don’t come back?” Simon asked, fighting the rising tone in his voice.

The tycoon gave him a befuddled look. “Why wouldn’t they?”

Simon paused, then forced his shoulders into a shrug. “Always gotta consider the worst that could happen with these things.”

“I believe in you, Mr. von Thracker.” Steelhead Jim pulled out his pocket watch. “Good grief, I gotta give my speech!” The man lumbered to a podium next to the train, rapping it with a gavel, drawing the attention of the crowd. “Ladies and gentlemen, esteemed patrons of culture, it is my most sincere pleasure to welcome you to the inaugural…”

It all devolved into a meaningless buzz to Simon, who staggered away, separating himself from the sounds and smells. The sunlight continued to bore through his eyes. Everything became tuneless and grating. “It’ll hold, it’s good timber, the pig iron’s good enough, it’ll hold,” he told himself. But the piercing bellow of the train jarred him. A cheer rose up, filled with the promise of intrigue and potential.

It’ll hold it’s good timber the iron’s good enough it’s good timber the iron’s good enough it’ll hold it’ll hold…

As he distanced himself from the station, Simon decided a night to himself would clear his head. He checked into a hotel in town and used the last of his money to buy himself the first decent meal he’d had in a long time. Best to enjoy life’s pleasures when you can, he told himself. His steak au poivre was filling, but there was still a hole in his gut. “It’ll hold,” he said out loud over his dinner.

A fellow patron turned in his chair and looked at him. “Did you just talk to that steak?” he asked.

Simon only glared and resumed eating.

* * * * * *

The next morning, broadsheets seemed to overflow in the streets…fluttering in the wind, plastered onto windows, glued to the hands of enraptured townspeople.

TRAIN CRASH: BRIDGE OVER CLOUDLAND CANYON COLLAPSES; 120 DEAD ON MAIDEN VOYAGE.”

Simon von Thracker lingered in the shadow of the hotel’s doorway, watching the horrible news pass him by or stare in judgmental silence. The world seemed to fold in on him, its color seeping away, his heart darkening with it. In a trance, he reached into his coat pocket for a cigar, but his shaking fingers scrabbled only cloth.

No…no…no…

His frenetic pulse triggered his lungs, and he bent over, coughing with a force that seemed to shred his throat. He could feel flecks of blood spray from his mouth onto the ground. People stopped and stared. He fell against the side of the building, stammering incoherently. They knew who he was, what he’d done, what sins he’d incurred…

But as he looked up through teary eyes, their faces read only concern. “Are you alright?” an elderly woman asked. “Do you need a doctor?” another said.

“It was supposed to hold,” Simon wheezed. “It was good timber…it…”

Their expressions remained cloudy. Simon pounded his chest, expelling one more cough out of him. “Never mind. You wouldn’t understand…no one will, it was supposed to hold…”

Still wheezing, he pushed through the crowd and shambled down the road, sticking to the shadows, avoiding the sun. “Killer,” he murmured. “Killer…no, it was good timber, the pig iron should have held…killer…you were set up…killer…”

Home was miles off. He had arrived at the station via horse-drawn wagon. He wanted to go home…but not yet. The indescribable torrent of blackness settling within him was something to be walked off. Yes. A simple walk to clear his head. He hoped no one would recognize him…by this time tomorrow, the papers would be blaring his name, branding acts of cheapness and treachery, betrayal and greed…

* * * * * *

By sunset, Simon von Thracker had found a dingy inn that took him in out of pity. There was a spare bed in the attic: a simple rug that reeked of gin and piss. He tossed and turned on it, his best suit chafing against the splintery wood. His hair caught in the thatched rug, inducing pulling pains with each move of his head. Nightfall brought harsh coldness to the attic, and he huddled up, shivering and blasting his hands with hot breaths. He knew his trembling only had partially to do with the weather.

He could hear it all again. Steelhead Jim’s triumphant voice. The elephantine blow of Ol’ No. 37’s horn. The steamy chug of pistons. The crumbling wood…the torquing beams…the groaning roar of tumbling metal and the screams of doomed passengers…

The horn continued to blare. It still sounded distant. Simon pressed his hands to his ears, begging for sleep to seize him from wakeful reality.

The horn persisted. It was gaining.

The attic’s foundation began to shake. Dust dislodged from the ceiling and rained down upon Simon. Some got in his eyes and he sat up, blinking it out. The horn grew louder, joined by a low, grinding, metallic whine, which rose in pitch, stampeding straight for his room…Simon jumped away from the rug and tried to scramble away…

Out of the far wall came an apparition. It was a demonic ghost of a train, its cowcatcher mangled and bristling with branches, its headlamp blazing hellish red. Oil and ash smeared its sides like blood, and as it barreled by, he saw the rusty inscription underneath its empty cab door.

No. 37.

The engine screamed past, carrying along with it a procession of passenger cars, and Simon shrieked at the sight. Smoke and fire poured from the broken windows, and leaning out as if trying to get away from it were the charred corpses of Ol’ No. 37’s passengers, reaching and moaning with despair. Jaws and hands hung on by threads.  Open flames ignited in exposed cavities, rendering them into flickering orange beacons. Their scalded faces, tattered clothes, and scorched hair rendered them androgynous…all identical in hatred, united with wailing voices, proclaiming one thing over and over again.

“GIVE US VON THRACKER! GIVE US VON THRACKER!”

Tears poured down Simon’s cheeks as he gaped. The passenger cars continued to tear their way through, burning eyes locked on him…then, as horrifically as it had appeared, Ol’ No. 37 vanished into nothingness, leaving behind the odor of woodsmoke and a piercing trill in Simon’s ears.

He broke down entirely, sobbing over his rug, clawing at his hair and the flesh on his face. He felt ensnared among them, corrupted with their suffering. The cold night came rushing back in, and he stayed awake through its entirety.

* * * * * *

By the time the sun rose, Simon von Thracker was little more than a zombie, lurching the fifteen miles back home with his ragged clothes and scabbed, pallid skin. He felt empty, a hollow shell with nothing but some dull, dismal entity inhabiting him. He could still hear their voices, the relentless chugging of Ol’ No. 37. Every distant train horn was like a sudden shout in his ear. He was certain half of them weren’t even real.

As he approached his house, his legs wobbled with the fog of sleeplessness. Just a little further, he goaded himself. Then I can sleep in my own bed…at least for a little while longer…

He opened the front door and merely lingered in the doorway at what he saw. Sitting at the table was his wife Emma, an expression of pained, resolute finality on her face. And across from her, garbed in full ceremonial attire, was the Indian from Cloudland Canyon.

“You,” Simon gasped, closing the door behind him. “How did you find us?”

“Simon,” said Emma, her voice sharp and hurt. “I…I don’t even have words. I knew it. I just knew something horrible would happen. I’m mortified, Simon. Utterly mortified.”

“Join the club, you bitch,” Simon hissed. “You think I’m taking this well?”

The Indian spoke up. “You saw it. The beast showed up to you in the night.”

“Beast?’ No…no no no,” Simon said, shaking his head. “They were no ‘beasts.’ They were dead. All dead. They were pathetic and sad and evil…”

“They are one and the same,” the Indian drawled. “Their spirits have been dirtied by the hateful demons that stalk the gorge. They are being used. And now that they’ve been unleashed, they will never stop. They will wreak havoc through this good Earth. All because of you.”

“Shut up!” Simon cried, threatening to break down again. “You brought this insanity to our world! You and your sacrilegious workings unleashed the beast! Not I!”

The Indian stood and glared at him. “Our people have lived in fear of those demons for centuries. I tried to warn you. You sent me away and threatened to shoot me.”

“Shut up,” Simon repeated, banging his forehead on the doorframe. “Just shut up…God…why, why why why…” The tears seemed to burn his face as they fell again. There was only dead silence behind him. Their knowing stares were like eagle’s talons through his back.

Simon finally pulled away, his nostrils caked with salty moisture. “They…wanted to take me. How…how do I stop them?”

“They will take you, in time,” the Indian confirmed. “And I fear even when they do, they will continue to plague the living.”

“Then what do I do!” Simon snapped.

The Indian walked up to him, his face determined and set. “There is only one way to deal with the beast. You must take on the powers to bind it in its place.”

“I can take on powers to stop them?” Simon said, suddenly lightheaded. “How?”

With warrior’s speed the Indian procured a length of ropes and clapped Simon’s wrists together, binding them. Simon struggled and pulled away, but the Indian’s grasp was like a bear trap. “There is no debate. You will come with me.” He led Simon out the door into the blinding sunshine.

He was too weak to fight back further. He could only wheel around to take one last look at his wife. “Emma,” he proclaimed, “I, I love you.”

Her face was unreadable. Then everything was blocked out by a bag pulled over his head. “You will wear this,” the Indian said. “Your name is a scourge now. I cannot have you found out before we do what needs to be done.”

* * * * * *

It was four hours of blind, short-breathed stumbling before the Indian finally removed the sack. Simon von Thracker drew in a lungful of air, shivering from the cold. He realized with an onset of dread where they were.

“We follow the track,” the Indian said. “It is the best route to the canyon.”

Simon hadn’t the energy to protest. They began walking.

Still bound at the wrist, Simon staggered along, tripping over railroad ties and cursing with each blister that formed in his feet. Time squeezed into one pounding moment, one defined by sluggish passing trees, the crawling sun, and the chafing of skin. Simon never heard Ol’ No. 37 during the first day, but the discomfort and foreboding he experienced instead were a new kind of horror. Each of his questions was met with stony silence from the Indian. Simon forced himself to consider his good luck…if he had stayed in town he’d have been cuffed and stoned in the town square, the brunt of the people’s scorn…

Nighttime brought no sleep for either of them. They started a fire in the middle of the tracks, and for those abyssal hours they remained motionless in their little orb of light. Still, the train didn’t sound off.

The moment the sky lightened, the Indian set out again, and Simon went along with him.

They arrived at Cloudland Canyon at sunset on the second day. Simon was delirious with exhaustion, but he shuddered at the sight of the twisted, broken bridge before him. The railroad seemed to bend downward like a waterfall of wood, steel, and iron. Smoke still trailed up from the gorge.

The Indian drew a knife and cut the ropes off Simon’s wrists. “We climb down now. Quickly. Before the moon rises.”

They eased out onto the broken track. A cold wind blasted at Simon, threatening to send him toppling down with the train. The scenery around him was beautiful, expansive. Simon had thought one day he’d travel along the track to see the canyon from this exclusive view. Of course, back then he thought he’d be on the train.

The image jolted him back to life, and he looked down the thousand-foot drop to see the ruins of Ol’ No. 37, crumpled and broken below him like a dead snake. Even from such a dizzying height he could smell the stink of burnt flesh and melted iron.

“Down,” the Indian commanded, dropping onto the warped trusses and descending them like a ladder. Simon followed suit, much shakier than his guide. He closed his eyes, feeling with his hands and feet, slowly climbing down the trusses like a child trying to get to the ground from a tree. He muttered breathless, babbling prayers. He felt incredibly stupid doing so. He had never prayed before.

After twenty minutes Simon stepped onto the rocky, uneven ground. Trees and rock walls rose around him, entrapping him in a bowl. The train’s corpse looked much larger from the lower angle, like an entire military bunker ravaged by a bomb. He couldn’t see any human bodies. He didn’t want to.

In the last light of the sun, Simon saw the Indian reach into his sleeve and show a small clay vial. “Imbibe,” he said.

Simon took it, nearly dropping it on account of his shaking hands. “This will give me the power to stop the train…or…the beast?”

The Indian only stared.

Simon looked around, feigning a contemplation of his options. There were none. They were alone. Almost against his will, Simon’s fingers uncorked the vial and his arm delivered it to his mouth, sucking it down his throat. The taste was foul and noxious, like blood mixed with soap. He choked and swallowed, letting the mystery liquid branch out from his stomach into his limbs.

Horrible exploding agony suddenly flared in his veins and he collapsed onto the rocks, his extremities spasming, spittle frothing at his lips. “What is this!” he gasped. “What have you done to me!”

The Indian shook his head. “What I told you.”

Fluid filled up Simon’s stomach and shot up his esophagus; he gave a sputter and a geyser of blood shot out his mouth, showering his face. “My God! What…what is this! You’re murdering me!” He hacked up a gnarly chunk of what could have been viscera. “Liar! Lying bastard!”

“The beast will not stop, even with your death,” the Indian said sadly. “When it takes you, it will find others, and debilitate them too. So I will ensure they never move beyond yourself.”

Simon’s neck whipped over to the vial in his stony fingers. He struggled to unflex them. Like glass breaking, his fingers snapped open, and in the last vestige of daylight he saw the carving on the side of the vial. A rattlesnake, baring its fangs.

“Snake…venom?” he rasped. “You…you poisoned me…you are…killing…me!…”

“I am not killing you,” the Indian asserted. “I am cursing you! Cursed you are to this land, to wander these wilds as a walking shade, stuck between life and death! The beast will smell you. It will chase you. But it will not take you. And as long as this dance persists, it will never break out and devastate the living.”

Ol’ No. 37’s horn sounded off in the distance. Simon writhed on the jagged ground, pinpricks of blood sweating from his pores. His vision was fading faster than the light. He could feel his physical form fading away like melting ice. He was swept up in a whirlwind, his blackened soul expelled from his mortal shell, invisible to the Indian, prey to the ravenous train.

Freed from the pain of death, the shade fled into the forest. Ol’ No. 37 was right behind him, its horn blaring, its phantom passengers clamoring for Simon von Thracker.

The train will never catch him. To this day, it has never even come close. The shade continues to run. The devilish horn still cries in the night.

And as long as that eternal chase continues, Ol’ No. 37’s horn will never silence.

Rating: 10.00/10. From 2 votes.
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available


Written by Nick Carlson
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

🔔 More stories from author: Nick Carlson


Publisher's Notes: N/A

Author's Notes: N/A

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