30 May Where the Dead Ride
“Where the Dead Ride”Written by Terrye Turpin 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 — 17 minutes
The stink of cigarettes and stale beer enveloped me as I pushed through the door of The Last Call. George Jones crooned from the jukebox and across the crowded room, Sherry Carter balanced a tray of drinks. She weaved between tables, her red hair like a flame under the cloud of tobacco smoke. We’d gone out twice since I moved back, and I hoped there might be something there. When Sherry turned back to the bar, I waved. She lifted her chin and smiled, dimples creasing the corners of her mouth. I blushed like a teenager.
“Donny! Donny Woodson, as I live and breathe!” The man calling me wore a faded ball cap with a Confederate flag on the front. His smile revealed the black gap of missing teeth. My memory clicked in and I recognized Guy Lewis. I hadn’t seen him since high school. The same age as me, Guy could have passed for fifty.
Guy waved me over. The man sitting beside him nodded. Another schoolmate, Wayne Hatch. I didn’t have to guess at his name—it was embroidered in yellow thread on the pocket of his oil-stained uniform shirt. Wayne had been somebody in high school—football player, homecoming king. After we graduated, I enrolled in community college in Atlanta, and Wayne enlisted and went to Iraq. Now here he was, working at Jiffy Lube. I had a moment of satisfaction seeing that, remembering how he’d let me hang around his little clique back then, like he was doing me a favor.
“Hey college boy, you come home to see how the other half lives?” Wayne flicked a line of ash from his cigarette and stuck out his hand.
“It’s not like that.” I shook his hand, wondering if he’d read my mind. “Maybe I got homesick, missed those boiled peanuts.”
“Well, hell, let me buy you a beer.” Wayne pulled me over to the bar. He motioned Guy over, and I took the stool between them. “What are you doing these days?” The two men grinned.
I shrugged. “Nothing much. Helping the old man in his welding shop. Hard to find work lately.”
The manufacturing plant where I’d worked for ten years folded, outdone by Chinese imports. My marriage went under at the same time as my job. My ex-wife kept the house, and I crawled back home to Jays Creek, Georgia. Just until I could get back on my feet. Mom had turned my old bedroom into a craft room. I slept on the sway-backed twin bed I’d had in high school, pushed against the wall next to my mother’s sewing machine.
One drink led to another three. The clock edged close to midnight when we wandered over to the beer-stained pool table.
“You always were a stand-up guy.” Wayne clinked his bottle against mine. “Whatever happened to that old Chevy you had?” He rubbed a cube of blue chalk across the tip of his pool cue.
“Sold it.” I leaned over the pool table and made my shot.
I hadn’t been a jock, like Guy and Wayne, and I wasn’t smart enough to blend in with the college prep kids. My most redeeming feature had been that I owned a car roomy enough to fit four passengers. In high school, I’d been the one tapped to drive them across the state line so Wayne could buy beer with a fake ID.
Wayne made the final shot right before the bar closed, hitting the eight-ball with a clack. It dropped into the corner pocket. “You working at your old man’s shop—he got a portable cutting torch?”
“Well, yeah. Most of our work is in the shop, though. Why?” I tilted my bottle and drank the last, lukewarm swallow.
“Let’s go for a drive.”
I hung my cue on the rack and we strolled outside. Before we reached Wayne’s truck, the neon sign above the bar flickered out, leaving the lot in darkness. I hesitated, torn between curiosity and a desire to go home and sleep off the buzz.
Guy waved me on. He opened the door of Wayne’s truck and fished a pint of Wild Turkey bourbon from under the seat. Guy twisted the cap and handed it over. What the hell. I took the bottle and choked down a drink, the whiskey jolting me awake one instant, then settling in my stomach like a warm coal.
Wayne gripped my arm and leaned close to my face. His bloodshot, watery eyes stared into mine. “I’m gonna show you something that will change your life.”
At that point I could have said no thanks, climbed into my car, and gone home to sleep in that twin bed, springs poking up into my back. Instead, I went along with them just like I’d done in high school. Like the past fifteen years hadn’t happened.
We piled into Wayne’s twenty-year-old Ford pickup, me in the middle with my leg pressed up against the shifter. The truck motor rumbled back to life and with a crunch of gravel, we were on the road. I figured we’d end up either at a still in the middle of the woods, or a trailer-home meth lab.
The truck swayed around curves, rocking on worn-out shocks. The hum of the motor, the road heat rising through the floorboards, coupled with the buzz from the whiskey, lulled me into a half-waking, half-dreaming state. I jolted awake when the truck stopped.
Guy elbowed me. “Time to rise and shine.”
“Where are we?” I rubbed my eyes and squinted at the rutted path lit by the Ford’s headlights. The front bumper rested before a rusted cattle gate. Guy hopped out. I shook my head, trying to bring the unfamiliar landscape into focus. Wayne flipped off the truck’s headlights as Guy unlocked a padlocked chain wound through the bars. We drove through and Guy closed the creaking gate behind us. Waist-high weeds hid the edges of the drive. The truck bounced down the track in the dark, lit only by the moon overhead.
At last, Wayne eased the truck to a stop in front of a sagging, wood frame house. Weeds sprung up between the missing boards of the porch.
“We walk from here.” Wayne stepped from the truck. He reached into a cooler in the truck bed and brought out three brown bottles, dripping from melted ice.
We hiked along a dirt path cut through tall Johnson grass that slashed at our jeans, toward a thick line of brush and trees. Wayne led the way down a single track barely visible in the moonlight. Guy fell in behind me, and the three of us stumbled through the woods. We emerged in a clearing, bisected by rusted train tracks, and overrun by weeds.
“Right here,” Wayne twisted the top from one of the beers he held. He flung the cap at the tracks, then handed me the bottle. Beer foamed over the top, the cold liquid spilling onto my hand.
“We found it a couple of months back…” Guy began, then stopped when Wayne frowned at him.
“Less you know, the better,” Wayne said.
I laughed, a nervous sound in the dark. “We aren’t about to get arrested for trespassing, are we?”
“Nah, that’s my aunt’s place back there,” Guy said.
“She lives out here all by herself?” I pointed my beer bottle toward the dark silhouette of the house.
“She ain’t around anymore.” Guy tossed an arm across my shoulders and led me into the middle of the track. “Check this out.” We stood between the rails. I scuffed a boot across bits of rotted wood. Guy bounced on his feet, humming.
“Showtime!” Wayne stiffened and turned toward us. A dim yellow light floated behind his head.
The ground trembled under my feet, as though something huge and monstrous approached. The light grew closer and brighter. The clatter of a locomotive sounded. Guy jumped from the track, laughing. I stumbled backward. My foot caught the edge of the rail and I fell to my knees. I looked up, blinded by the light from the train. A whistle sounded, impossibly loud. I scrambled to my feet as Wayne grabbed the collar of my shirt, yanking me to safety.
And then the locomotive was upon us. Steam billowed from the stack, the great black cow-catcher on the front sweeping down the gleaming rails. Hot air rushed past, mixed with the stink of burning coal and metal. I stared, frozen in place less than five feet from the train.
Wayne still gripped my collar as I bent into the rush of hot air from the locomotive. It couldn’t be real. Like someone standing at the edge of a cliff and longing to jump, I swayed toward the train. Wayne jerked me back. Trembling, I drained my beer and chucked the bottle at the last car, expecting it to pass through the train as though through a cloud.
Instead, the bottle exploded against the metal wheels, the clink of breaking glass all but overpowered by the thunder of the wheels. A face, pale and round with dead black holes for eyes, pressed against the window.
“Hot damn!” Guy whooped and chucked his bottle. It spun through the train and disappeared into the grass on the other side of the tracks. The train rolled along, the image of it flickering like a broken movie reel, and fading to nothing as it left the clearing.
I spun and punched Guy. He staggered back, clutching his jaw. “Why’d you do that?”
“Was that real? It could have killed me.”
Guy stooped and picked up a chunk of wet glass. “As real as it gets, bro. You feel it? Yeah, it could have punched your ticket.”
“Civil War ghost train.” Wayne scuffed a boot at the weeds choking the rusted rails. “It’s the Andersonville train, carrying gold to pay Confederate soldiers.”
“Guess no one told them the war ended.” Guy threw back his head and howled a Rebel yell, his voice warbling and rising.
“You’re talking about that old legend?” Everyone in Jay’s Creek knew the story. Somewhere near our little town, a Confederate train had crashed, leaving behind a rumor of lost gold. Hell, I’d searched for it myself as a kid, scouring fields filled with brambles and earning nothing but sunburn and poison ivy for my trouble.
“That train never made it past this valley. No one knows what happened to the gold. There’s some sort of doorway here. The train gets solid the closer we get to the full moon. When it passes that curve, it fades until you can’t see it anymore.” Wayne pointed down the track, where broken rails bent and rose to curve around a hill. “This here’s the only spot she’s real.”
My head spun. “How is that thing here?” I gestured toward the rusted tracks. “How did you find it?”
Wayne shook his head. “The only thing that matters is she’s real.” He grinned and slung his arm around me, pulling me close. Hot, beer-scented breath brushed my ear. “Because tomorrow night’s the full moon, and we’re gonna rob that train.”
It’s not love of money at the root of evil, it’s the lack of it that causes the hurt. I lied to my old man that morning, skipped work and told him I wasn’t feeling well, when the only thing wrong with me was too much alcohol the night before. Now here I was, waiting in a dark parking lot for two men who’d barely tolerated me in high school and were using me now like they’d used me back then.
I couldn’t get the night before out of my mind. According to the stories I found on the internet, the Andersonville train had been carrying Union prisoners when it derailed somewhere east of Jay’s Creek. The closest estimates on the websites put the missing gold at over a million dollars in current value. That much money would get me out of Mom’s sewing room.
I leaned against my car’s cooling hood. I was parked at the edge of the lot at The Last Call, far away from the blue and green glow of the neon lights. I placed the backpack with the portable cutting torch at my feet. Like Wayne had ordered—I wore black jeans and a solid black t-shirt. My coat, a long duster, reached to my ankles. I’d added a black knit cap snug around my ears.
While I waited, I dug an antacid from the roll stashed in my car’s glove box. The chalky peppermint taste did little to settle my stomach. I’d half hoped they wouldn’t show when the headlights from Wayne’s truck split the night. The moment it rolled to a stop, Guy threw open the truck door, leaned out, and called me over. He had a rifle cradled on his lap.
“That’s some massive firepower.” I paused, half in and half out of the truck. “Is that an AR?”
Guy laughed. “What? You think we were gonna rob a train with a pocket knife?
“Stash your gear and get in. We need to be moving,” Wayne shifted in his seat, revealing the handle of a black pistol stuck in a holster on his hip.
“Do I get a gun?” I asked.
“Only thing you need is that torch,” Wayne answered.
I stepped onto the running board and checked the gas levels on the oxy and acetylene tanks for the hundredth time. Before I pushed everything under the toolbox, I hesitated, then pulled the heavy pry bar out of the backpack and stashed it in the deep inner pocket of my coat. Satisfied, I shoved the pack next to a green plastic lantern case. Wayne and Guy both wore gray wool coats and pants. They looked straight out of a Civil War re-enactment.
Wayne steered the truck down moonlit roads. I tried to recognize our route, to remember the way we went this time. In the dark, most of those one-lane country roads looked the same.
When we got to the gate, Guy handed me the padlock key and nudged me to jump out. I fumbled with the lock until it released and the clasp fell open.
We bounced along the track from the night before and stopped at the abandoned house. The front door hung open on broken hinges. A stack of yellowing newspaper fluttered on the porch. Guy had said his aunt wasn’t around anymore. I didn’t think she’d be coming back.
We climbed out of the truck, Guy whistling “Dixie” until Wayne snapped at him, “Shut up. No sense telling the whole county where we are.”
I grabbed the backpack with the torch while Wayne lit the lantern. He rose, holding the light up and inspecting the flame.
“What if the train doesn’t stop?” Images flooded my head—Guy and Wayne sucked into the path of the locomotive and ground to meat under the metal wheels.
“If it doesn’t, no loss to you. We’ll be the ones taking the risk.” Guy grinned. “That train runs us over, then you just scurry on back to your mama’s.”
“Cut the shit and let’s go.” Wayne struck off along the narrow path to the tracks.
At the clearing, Wayne motioned me toward a stand of brush. “You wait here. Hunker down so they don’t see you until the train stops. Then come up behind us.”
I crouched there in the dark, hidden behind the glossy leaves of a mountain laurel. The full moon lit the space in cool white light. My backpack rested against my leg and I kept one hand on the strap, ready to rush out as soon as the train rolled to a stop. If it stopped. The image of that dead face I’d seen in the window the night before flashed through my mind.
Fifteen feet in front of me, Wayne and Guy waited beside the track. Guy with his rifle slung over his shoulder and Wayne gripping the lantern. In the circle of yellow light, the two of them looked gaunt and worn down, like they’d just stepped off a battlefield. Black smears of dirt and oil dotted their gray wool pants and coats. Beard stubble shadowed Wayne’s face and Guy’s brow was hidden under a crushed gray cap. Wayne wore the leather satchel slung over his shoulder.
Right at midnight, a train whistle sounded, low and mournful. I straightened and shrugged on the backpack. Wayne lifted the lantern and swung it back and forth as they stepped onto the track. Behind them, I held my breath as the train appeared. The locomotive’s headlight was a great yellow eye above the sweep of the cowcatcher. I looked away, afraid to watch.
A wrenching squeal sounded as the metal wheels ground against the rails and slowed, stopping less than a yard from Wayne and Guy. The train waited, smoke rising from its stack. I studied the dark windows on the train cars, hoping I wouldn’t spot a face peering out. Careful to stay outside the circle of light cast by Wayne’s lantern, I shuffled forward.
With a creak, the door to the cab car behind the engine swung open and a lone soldier stepped out. His bony wrists hung down past the frayed edges of his gray uniform shirt. The cuffs of his gray trousers were rolled up over his boots. Flaking mud covered both pants and boots. Faint blond hair dotted his pale cheeks. He looked no older than a teenager. Too young for the rifle slung across his chest.
The boy stared out into the distance. Wayne lowered the lantern and greeted him. “Permission to board? We’ve come from Atlanta with a message for your commanding officer.” He slid a hand inside his shirt and pulled out the corner of an envelope. The soldier nodded and motioned us aboard.
I stepped onto the train behind Wayne and Guy. The locomotive’s stack belched a cloud of white steam as the train shut down, crouched on the tracks like a large hungry animal, a predator for sure. Before I passed through the door to the car, I glanced behind us, toward the engine. The space where the engineer would ride was empty.
We trudged down the passenger car’s narrow aisle, following our escort. I pulled my coat aside to keep it from catching on the wooden seats. Flickering lanterns hung from posts near the car’s ceiling, casting feeble light across the soldiers slumped across the benches. A foul odor filled the space—the stink of piss, shit, and rotting meat.
More than half the soldiers were dressed in Union blue. Chains circled their ankles. In all the talk of missing gold, I’d never pictured what a prison train would be like. Almost all the men, Confederate and Union both, had blood-stained bandages wrapped about some part of their body. Their vacant stares met mine until I dropped my gaze to the scarred wooden boards under our feet.
We passed through that car and into the silent, open air. Gone were the usual night sounds—the chirp of crickets, the whistle and caw of night birds, the humph of bullfrogs. The soldier ushered us through another passenger car filled with prisoners and out again to the third car on the train.
The soldier halted at the entrance to the last car and told us to wait. When he came out, he nodded to us and held the door while we tromped through. Wayne swung his head around and grinned at me. “Show time,” he whispered.
“At ease, lieutenant.” The officer speaking rose from behind a small table. A rough, salt and pepper beard covered the bottom half of the man’s face. He braced his arms against the tabletop and pushed aside the map he’d been studying. His hands were red and chapped and scabs dotted the knuckles. Our escort took up a position with his back to the door we’d just walked through. He shifted his weight and leaned against the door frame, but kept both hands on the rifle.
I glanced around the cramped car. The officer’s desk was to our right. A folded berth hung closed against the wall above it. At the end of the space, there was a wash basin with a mirror above. On our left, partly hidden beside a storage closet, I spied the safe.
“You have a communication for me?” The officer held out his hand.
“We do indeed,” Wayne answered. He reached into his coat. Instead of a letter, he drew out his pistol and shot the officer, then spun and shot the young soldier too. The soldier left a thick trail of crimson as he slid down the wall. His rifle clattered to the floor. I stared at the stripe of blood, wondering how the dead could be killed again.
The officer collapsed into the chair, one arm flung out, palm up, as though pleading with us. Blood ran from the black hole in his chest. He wheezed a sucking breath and raised a hand to point at us. “You. Go to hell.” Wayne lifted the pistol and shot the man between the eyes. Bits of bone and brain splattered against the train car wall behind him. The dead officer fell forward, across the map spread out over the table.
I clasped my stomach and bent over, gasping. “No. No.”
“No time for that shit.” Guy nudged me with his rifle. “You got a job to do.”
My ears rang from the gunfire, but I got his message. Shaking, I knelt in front of the safe and hooked up the tanks to the torch. The metallic-sulfur stink of gunpowder hung in the air. I coughed. “Won’t someone come running after hearing those shots?”
“You worry about opening that safe.” Wayne stood over me, the pistol against his leg.
Guy stepped over the dead soldier and trotted out the door. I turned my back on Wayne and studied the safe, rapping the metal side with my knuckles. It was squat and black, with an ornate gilded plate on the front. Cast iron, most likely, just as my web research had mentioned. I lit the torch. The flame’s hiss sounded as though it were underwater. I knelt and touched the steady blue fire to the side of the safe and began to cut. My world narrowed to the job at hand. Sparks like fireworks sprang from the path of the cutting torch.
Cast iron doesn’t cut easily. I moved the torch in an arc, heating the metal until gradually a gap began to form where the flame scored the side. My hearing returned enough that over the noise of the torch, I heard the rapid pop of gunfire. I flinched with each shot, but I held the cutting flame steady. I couldn’t help but picture those soldiers chained to the benches in the cars ahead. The knowledge that they had been dead for over a century did little to justify the massacre.
Guy burst through the door as I made the last sweep with the torch. I switched off the gas.
“All clear?” Wayne nodded toward the door.
Guy sucked in a breath. “Hell yeah. I rained down on them like judgment day.” A line of red traced down his brow and across the side of his face. I hoped one of the soldiers had gotten in a blow or shot.
“What you waiting for?” Wayne motioned with the pistol. “Crack her open.”
“It’s too hot to touch.” I knelt beside the safe and held my hand over the side. The metal radiated heat. I reached for the pry bar in my coat pocket when a pistol shot rang out. Guy’s body hit the floor next to me. His dead eyes bulged from the pressure of the bullet that took out a good chunk of his brain. I looked up into the barrel of Wayne’s gun.
My fingers wrapped around the pry bar. I rose, swinging the heavy bar at Wayne. It made contact with his wrist as he pulled the trigger. I felt the crunch of bone through the bar. The bullet scored a hot trail across my upper arm. Wayne dropped the gun, and I kicked it spinning across the floor. It whirled to a stop next to the dead soldier’s thigh. I raised the bar again.
“Stay back! What the fuck, Wayne!”
He gripped his broken wrist, then lunged toward the gun. I swung the pry bar again, this time catching him on the back of his head. Wayne collapsed, moaning. He rolled over and swung his good arm at me. I brought the bar down on his knee. Wayne screamed. I scooped up the gun. For good measure, I grabbed Guy’s rifle and the dead soldier’s weapon, stashing them behind me. I held the gun on Wayne. He sat up, blood running from the wound on his head. Tears streamed down his face.
“You think this is it? You just gonna walk off this train with the gold?” Wayne spat on the floor. “Hell, I should have had Guy shoot you soon as he came back in. He wanted to. You know? There never was gonna be a three-way split.”
“And not a two-way either, huh?”
Wayne slumped against the wall, the soldier’s corpse on one side, Guy’s body sprawled on the other. Satisfied Wayne wasn’t going anywhere, I pocketed the gun and turned to the safe. I wedged the pry bar into the gap I’d cut in the side and threw my weight against it. The safe gave way with a squeal of metal and the portion I’d cut dropped off. The sides of the hole were still hot, so I knelt and used the pry bar to rake the contents out.
Bits of charred paper money fluttered from the safe. The heat from the torch had lit a fire inside the safe. A handful of coins followed, spilling from a burnt cloth sack. No gold. Ignoring the heat, I reached in and swept the bottom of the safe with my hand. Nothing. I clutched one of the coins, then threw it at Wayne.
“Here’s your great treasure!”
Wayne picked up the coin and studied it. “It’s not even real money. This here is a token.” He choked out a terrible laugh that ended in a scream.
I rose from the floor, intent on grabbing my gear and leaving the train, when I felt a shudder under my feet. The train was moving.
“Hey!” Wayne reached out a hand. “Don’t leave me.”
A gurgle issued from the dead officer, slumped over the map table. He rose, like a puppet pulled by strings, until he sat up once more in his chair. His wounds closed with sucking sounds. Transfixed, I didn’t notice the soldier until he clutched one of my legs.
“Argh!” I kicked at the corpse. Wayne dragged himself toward the door at the front of the car. The train picked up speed. Outside the car’s window, I spied dark trees moving past in slow motion. I swung the backpack, weighted with the metal gas cylinders, and hit the soldier. His jaw flapped sideways, broken, and he let me go.
I leapt for the door at the rear of the car. Horrible noises filled the train car. Wayne, screaming, and shuffling, scrabbling sounds. Just before I flung the door open and jumped from the moving locomotive, I glanced in the mirror above the wash basin. What I saw made me freeze for an instant. Guy, sitting up and reaching for Wayne.
I made my way back through the woods to where Wayne had parked his truck by the empty house. He’d left the keys in the ignition. I drove back to The Last Call and wiped my prints from the truck. I went home and lay awake on my twin bed.
After a few days, Wayne’s folks reported him missing, and there was a search for him and Guy. Nothing ever came of it. A month went by before I went back to the train, in time for the full moon. I waited through most of the night, but nothing ever came. They’d gotten what they needed from us, I figure, and moved on to wherever restless spirits go.
I took something from that train, though. The cloth sack of coins. Tokens – just like Wayne said. Turned out they were valuable after all. Not as much as gold, but still enough to put a down payment on the land where Guy’s aunt had lived. It went up for auction for unpaid taxes shortly after I sold the coins. I’ll tear down the house and build a new one for Sherry and me. Some nights, when the moon is full, I’ll venture down to the tracks and wait. I’ll wait to see if that locomotive passes by, and a familiar face with dead eyes stares from the window.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableCraig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A