CROSSROADS #9 The Fireball Express

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Westerns  |  House: Fantasy Realm

Ruthless train robbing killers Hack Sawyer and Stan Kerns seek a means to a quick fortune through blood and lead. What cost would you be willing to pay for the life you want? Kerns and Sawyer discover their cost as they try to outrun the law but can't outrun their just rewards... at Crossroads.

Welcome to Texas, the mid-1880s, and a tiny incidental desert hamlet named Crossroads. It's a little known, seldom spoken of frontier town, snugly nestled beneath majestic mountains along the southwestern border between Texas and Mexico, and morally poised between virtue and corruption. It's a mundane community barely on the maps of this vast region, a unique shade of gray in this harsh black and white world. It's a tiny society unto itself where the sublime sometimes means the surreal. It is a place where wandering souls come for a variety of reasons. For some it's to seek a better life away from the increasingly modernized mayhem of progress. For some it's a place to hang their hat before moving on to their destiny. Still for others it's a sanctuary from the past, a last chance of sorts to start anew.

So welcome, my friend.  Welcome to a town where last chances meet new beginnings.  Welcome to a town on the edge of the American spirit, where the unimaginable is cultivated from the seeds of the human condition. Welcome to a town where the past and the present roll the dice with the future hanging in the balance.

Welcome... to Crossroads.

II=====II=====II=====II====== II=====II=======II======II

CROSSROADS

“The Fireball Express”

by LW Thunder

II=====II=====II * PROLOGUE * II=====II=====III

‘The actions men do shall deliver their rewards’.

No one knows who first uttered this little saying, but it does hold up throughout the course of man. With each decision we make in our lives there are consequences…ramifications… effects which affect us and those around us. This a story of such consequences brought about directly from the actions of men who seek to gain fortune by any means possible. Their quest for wealth is seen by them as a means to an end…an end that will be quite a departure for life in the Old West.

Such are the costs of decisions made when you arrive… at Crossroads,

II=====II=====II * CHAPTER ONE * II=====II=====II

On this gray rainy day, the Texas & Pacific train known as The Marybelle rolls steadily south-easterly on its tracks from Amarillo to Abilene. It rumbles from the panhandle thru the middle Texas prairies carrying a very valuable payload, the US Army’s 16th Infantry’s monthly wages shipment to Fort McKavett. That precious monthly cargo is being handled by Federal Marshal Gene Cranston along with two Wells Fargo detectives for added protection. They are gathered in the second to last luxury railcar of this magnificent iron horse. The three men await their arrival in Abilene where the wage shipment will be handed over to Col. Galusha Pennypacker to be brought back to the barracks of Fort McKavett and dispersed to the waiting troops.

Marshal Cranston sits in a red leather, high back chair behind a large oak desk, his feet resting comfortably on the desk’s top, a Winchester rifle across his legs at the ready. The other two men, Detectives Roy Nolan and Lou West were apart from each other at opposite windows keeping lookout.

A knock is heard on the door and Det. Nolan cautiously moves to answer it.

“Who is it?” he asks loudly.

“Conductor” says the disembodied voice, “I need to punch your ticket.”

Nolan glances back to Cranston who gives him a nod. Nolan opens the door to reveal a man in his thirties in his conductor’s coat and hat. The conductor steps inside and looks at all three men.

“I just need to see your tickets in order to punch them” he says, “please.”

Cranston reaches into his vest’s breast pocket and pulls out his ticket. He hands it to Det. West who bring it and his own ticket to the conductor. The conductor punches out each ticket and hands them back to Det. West. Det. Nolan then hands him his ticket and it is similarly authenticated via hole punch.

“Thank you, gentlemen,” says the conductor as he back out thru the door, watching all three men and shuts the door.

Nolan looks at West and laughs.

“I thought all the conductors were old coots” he says.

West chuckles in reply.

“How long ‘fore we hit Abilene anyways?” asks Nolan.

“Should be there in a couple of hours now” says Marshal Cranston cranking on the level of his Winchester rifle. “Only one stop between us and Abilene now and that’s the watering station near Agua Salvaje.”

“Good. I’ll be glad to be off this detail, makes me nervous” says Nolan peering thru a window.

“C’mon Roy” says West, “it don’t get any easier than this. A first-class ticket in a luxury car, meals paid for and not to mention a hundred dollars for your time. I’ll take this detail any day.”

Marshal Cranston grins and looks over at Nolan.

Another knock is heard at the door. Again, Nolan cautiously moves to the door and looks thru the peephole.

“It’s that conductor again” says Nolan agitatedly.

“Well, see what he wants now” says Cranston dismissively as he continues to polish the barrel of his rifle.

Nolan opens the door and the conductor steps in.

“Yes?” asks Nolan.

“I’m sorry but one of your tickets is incorrect.” the man asserts. “Can I see all your tickets again, please?”

Clearly aggravated by this the men dig out their tickets once again and hand them to the conductor.

“Well, you see…here’s the problem, right here” he says.

The three men now standing together with the conductor and looking down at the ticket in his hand.

“It’s a simple mistake,” he says “It’s showing that – “

BLAM!

BLAM!

Two pistol shots ring out as a man steps thru the door unseen by the quartet and fires upon the group. Detectives Nolan and West are hit instantly in their backs and crumble to the floor. Marshal Cranston raises his rifle and tries to shoot around the conductor at the assailant.

BLAM!

Cranston stands there looking at the conductor with a look of horror on his face. There in the conductors right hand was a smoking Colt .45 pistol which has just put an ounce of lead into the Marshal’s chest. Cranston falls backwards onto the desk in a sitting position and tries to raise the rifle again.

BLAM!

A second shot to his head ends his struggle and he slumps onto his back on the desk.

“What took you so damned long?” says the conductor peeling off his hat and coat.

The second man smiles.

“No need to rush these things y’know” he says with a wink.

Standing there are two men of wicked means; Hack Sawyer and his partner Stan Kerns. They are desperadoes, train robbers and ne’er-do-wells of the highest order. Kerns played the role of the conductor as the real train worker lies bereft of life alongside the tracks about three miles back. The pair locate the locked strongbox. Sawyer busts off the lock with the butt of his pistol. Inside is the money intended for the soldiers at Fort McKavett. The duo load the money into a pair of saddlebags.

“Alright let’s get outta here” says Kerns.

“We go thru the next car and then wait outside the caboose and get off the train when it stops at the water station” says Sawyer.

“Let’s go!” says Kerns slapping a saddlebag over his left shoulder.

They head for the door when a shot rings out.

BLAM!

The bullet lodges in the doorjamb just missing Sawyer’s head. He spins and fires his gun almost instinctively, the bullet striking the fallen West in his left shoulder. The impact jars the gun from his right hand and as he struggles to regain control of it Sawyer brings a heavy boot down on his wrist, pinning West’s hand to the floor. Sawyer points his gun directly at the detective’s anguished face.

“That wasn’t very smart, lawdog” he says then he squeezes the trigger.

BLAM!

“Let’s go!” shouts Kerns waving his pistol in a come-hither motion.

Sawyer shuts the door but not before taking a last look at their handiwork lying on the floor in pools of blood.

II=====II=====II * CHAPTER TWO * II=====II=====II

BLAM!

BLAM!

BLAM!

A pistol’s report rings out once again this time from inside the last railcar of the Mary Belle.

“Okay let’s get to the back of the train” says Sawyer.

Kerns, looks at the carnage before him and shakes his head.

“Let’s go!” says Sawyer, making his way through the heinous scene to the back door.

Inside the car lie the dead bodies of the Hamilton family; John aged 41, his wife Sara Anne age 33 and their son Thaddeus age 16. They are the latest victims, having been in the wrong place at the wrong time, enjoying a family vacation aboard this rolling casket. The two killers have just added another bloody chapter to their hideous story of murder and mayhem across the Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma territories. These passengers of The Marybelle have been introduced to Hell face-to-face. The Hamilton’s were but the last to have their life stolen away in this cruel travesty. Stan Kerns stands in the car’s doorway, looking back at the deadly handiwork of Sawyer when he’s interrupted by his compatriot…

“STAN! I said let’s go!” says Sawyer, stuffing a worn leather saddlebag with money removed from the now-deceased John Hamilton’s billfold.” They’ll be a-comin’ soon enough.”

Stan Kerns snaps back to reality and opens his saddlebags and helps removing pearl necklace and rings from the still warm body of Mrs. Hamilton. He finds her purse still clutched in her left hand.

“The kid, Hack?” he says as he checks the bag’s contents.

Sawyer stuffs a few bloody dollars into his bag and shoots a stark glare to his longtime partner.

“Why ya do the kid that way?” asks Kerns sternly as he reloaded his revolver. “There’s no call for – “

“The runt tried to grab my gun and – “

“He didn’t try fer yer gun, hell, he was bawlin’ his eyes out! I swear yer kin ta Ol Scratch himself with yer likin’ fer  killin’!” says Kerns throwing the saddlebag back over his shoulder.

Sawyer just stares at his partner. A slight grin creases his lips.

“You getting’ soft on me, Kernsie?” he says with sarcasm.

Kerns just shakes his head.

Sawyer hits Kerns’ shoulder with the barrel of his gun.

“C’mon, we gotta vamoose!” he says.

The pair exit the car thru the rear door and then enter the caboose car. Inside they find Mary Everett, a car maid responsible for cleaning cars as they empty of passengers. The bandits make eye contact with her and she quickly figures out the situation. She throws her frail and trembling hands in the air. Kerns rushes past her to the back of the car. Sawyer follows close behind. Kerns opens the back door and steps outside. Sawyer holds open the door and begins to back out. He looks back at the woman. She is terrified look as her hands remain in the air. He shrugs his shoulders and points his pistol at her. She screams and shakes her head frantically.

BLAM!

Sawyer pauses for just a second as the woman falls to the floor.

“No witnesses” he says under his breath.

He finds Kerns outside on the bottom step of the train’s exit stairs. He quickly joins him on the step above him.

“Where’d Jack put our horses?” asks Kerns.

Kerns refers to Mr. Jack Grayden, known desperado and killer, wanted throughout the territory for the murder of a pastor in Wichita. Kansas. He is their partner in this life of lead and blood they’ve taken to.

“Said he’d leave’em behind the water refill station jus’  this side o’Agua Salvaje which should be just up around the bend. Said he’d meet us in Contrition”, says Sawyer. “You ready?”

“Hell yeah, let’s go already” says Kerns with a grin.

The train begins to slow down as it rolls into the water refill station. Once it stops the pair jump off the train and scurry to some thick brush about a hundred yards from the station. They hold up there until the train begins to pull away.

“They didn’t find the bodies?” Kern asks of his partner.

“Nah, they stop long enough to fill up and then they’re gone. No need to go thru the passenger cars. They won’t find’em until they’re almost to Abilene.”

Twenty minutes later the train rolls from the watering station. The pair of killers make their way to the water tank. Behind the tank is a rundown shack and an outhouse. There was thick brush surrounding both, enough to hide the two paint horses tied to a large dead cottonwood tree branch. They mount the quiet steeds and begin heading southwest and into the blazing hell known as the San Toranado Desert.

II=====II=====II * CHAPTER THREE * II=====II=====II

The midday sun bakes the hot sands of the San Toranado Desert as the assassins slowly walk their ponies through the unbearable heat. This desert is known spell death for those not prepared for it and it’s unforgiving intense burning sands. For Kerns and Sawyer preparation was of primary concern and the duo have enough water and food to make the deadly sojourn across the desert to the Reynosa Mountains and then to the Rio Grande. Beyond the mighty river lies Mexico and freedom from any Texas law. Kerns shields his eyes from the blazing sun looking into the horizon ahead of them.

“Any idea where we are, Hack?” he asks pulling the cap off his canteen.

“We’re in the damned San Toranado,” he replies, “a day’s ride through this and we’re at the foothills of the Reynosas. Then we find our way over the pass and we’re in Mexico, amigo.”

Kerns takes a long swig from his canteen but his eyes are focused into the distance.

“What the hell is that?” he asks.

The pair pull up their horses to observe something dark on the horizon.

Sawyer squints hard at the distance.

“Don’t know” he says. “could be a mirage or – “

Sawyer stops mid-sentence, his begin widening.

“Holy – !”, he says in a hushed tone.

“What is it, Hack?” says Kerns looking quizzically at his partner.

“Ride!”, yells Sawyer turning his pony’s face and heading due east. “Sirocco! Hyah!”

Kerns reacts immediately and follows Sawyer across the sand. Riding neck and neck now, Kerns yells to his colleague.

“Where we goin’?!” he asks.

“Find cover! Trees, rocks, anything!” yells Sawyer.

The pair ride hard for the next few minutes and come upon a rock outcropping like stone fingers reaching straight out of the sand. As they pull up to the rocks the skies darken and the wind picks up. Sawyer and Kerns dismount quickly and huddle up against the rocks, trying to hold onto the reins of their steeds. The horses are spooked and the sand starts to fly, feeling like a thousand little bee stings against the outlaws’ exposed skin. The sky gets almost black as the duster’s fury comes on hard. The horse rear up in the storm and Kerns’ horse breaks free of his grasp. It disappears in the dark swirling clouds bearing down on them.

The severity of the storms seems to increase in its intensity and power. Swayer’s horse rears up pulling the outlaw onto the ground with such force that Sawyer was nearly knocked out by the impact. When he gathered his wits, his horse was gone into the black whirling abyss. He got back to the rocks and hunkered down to ride out the rest of the storm with Kerns. Death seemed a certain outcome when the spiraling sand lessened to the point where the outlaws could pull down their bandanas from their faces. It seemed as though their prayers were answered.

Once again lady luck was on their side as Hell had come and gone… and they survived it.

II=====II=====II * CHAPTER FOUR * II=====II=====II

“You okay?” asks Kerns staggering to his feet. He looks up to see Sawyer slapping the sand from his clothes.

“The dad-blamed horses are gone! There goes our money!” he says with disgustedly. “That’s just great.”

“Here” says Kerns handing his partner his canteen.

“Well, we can’t be too far from Contrition. Hopefully, it’s still a watering hole. Let’s go” says Sawyer.

“Contrition” says Kerns in uncertainty. “Never heard o’ the place. They got a saloon?”

“Last I heard they had a thriving bar crowd” replies Sawyer. “It’s a great place to hole up in fer a spell.”

“Sounds like a great place”, says Kerns.

“I heard Rudabaugh himself laid up there with the Clantons awhile back on the lam”, says Sawyer. “ An’ I hear the law won’t even go there and there’s none in the town itself. You got a better idea?”

Sawyer eyes Kerns hard. Kern shakes his head. Sawyer nods in reply.

“We’ll get plenty of rest, that’s fer sure” Sawyer chuckles.

“It ain’t the company of a pillow I’m lookin’ for” says Kerns in disappointment.

Sawyer ruffles up Kerns’ hair with his hand.

“Oh, did I mention I’ve heard stories about their soiled doves?” says Sawyer with a sly grin.

“Now yer talkin’ my language” says Kerns as he picks up his step with a renewed vigor.

The pair begin walking into the San Toranado Desert as the fierce noonday sun beats down upon them.

II=====II=====II * CHAPTER FIVE * II=====II=====II

It’s nearly sundown when the men reach the outskirts of the town. There was a weatherworn wooden sign posted at the road entering the town. “Contrition” was the sole word on the leaning signpost. It appeared almost abandoned as all seemed very quiet, almost too quiet.

“This place looks like a ghost town, Hack”, says Kerns. ”You sure you got the right place?”

“How the hell should I know, I ain’t never been here before, remember?” says the outlaw in frustration at the question. He squints as he looks up and down, scouring the scene for signs of life. In the town’s main courtyard stands a tall scrub pine tree.

“Look” says Sawyer pointing in the direction of the tree.

“My god” says Kerns, eye wide and jaw slacked.

There, dangling from the lowest branch, is a man who has been hung.

“Wonder what the poor bastard did ta get the rope” says Kerns as his partner rides up the the feet of the hanged man.

“The damned fool got himself caught” says Sawyer with agitation.

“Wha..?” he says looking at his colleague.

Sawyer grabs ahold of one of the dead man’s boot heels and holds it out for Kerns to get a better look. On the man’s boots at the letters “JG”.

“It’s flamin’ Jack!” says Sawyer with disgust.

The realization hits Kerns full force and the outlaw hangs his head in sorrow.

“We gotta cut ’im down from there” says Kerns with a sense of urgency in his voice.

“That won’t help ‘im now, Kernsie” says Sawyer sarcastically. “C’mon, let’s see if we can get some horses ‘round here.”

The pair begin walking down the avenue again. A few moments pass and then they notice a lamp is lit down the boulevard and they begin making their way towards it. They arrive at the dimly lit building. The sign at the door says “Train Office”. It’s door was open and in the outlaws walk in with guns drawn.

“They got a train thru here?” says a very drunken Kerns.

Sawyer furrows his brow as he examines the room inside. There is a lit coal oil lantern resting quietly upon the desk behind the iron gridwork providing separation between the ticket buyer and the ticket seller. Sawyer hits the desk bell on the window counter.

DING!

DING!

DING!

There is silence. Sawyer impatiently hits the bell again.

DING!

DING!

DING!

“Maybe there’s nobody manning it tonight”, says Kerns looking around the room.

The softly lit room was bare of any chairs or benches. It was raw wooden slat construction with no windows except the one on the front door. The ticket booth area was separated by a half-wall topped with rod iron bars, an effort to keep out the type of individuals who’ve just entered. At the far end of the ticket booth was a walkway which seemingly led out the back of the office and onto the waiting platform.

“I don’t like this” says Sawyer, his eyes darting around the room. “Let’s – “

Suddenly the sound of shoes shuffling on the wooden floor is heard coming from the room just off the inside back of the booth.

CLICK!

Sawyer draws the hammer back on his pistol at his side, bracing for the worst.

“Yes?” came a meek but gruff voice from the room just beyond. Suddenly a man walks out from the room and up to the ticket booth window.

The man appeared to be in his 60s. His round face was very inviting. He wore a set of specs sloped down to the end of his cherub nose. He was dressed in the typical train conductor style gar complete with hat. He was of slender build and his blue eyes still seem to shine. He steps to the window and smiles.

“Can I help you gents?” he asks politely peering over his wire-rimmed glasses.

“You got a train comin’ thru here?” asks Sawyer.

“Sure do”, he says with pride. “Would you gents like tickets?”

“Where’s it goin’?” asks Kerns still looking around the room.

“It don’t matter where it’s goin’, we’re gonna be on it”, Sawyer interjects forcefully. “When’s it arrive?”

“Actually, it should be…” says the man taking out a silver pocket watch from his vest pocket and staring thru his glasses down at it, “..about fifteen minutes.”

“Is it on time?” asks Kerns.

“Always is” says the man as he turns his back to the pair. He opens a drawer in the desk and some papers get shuffled.

“Ah, here you fellas are” he says standing upright once more. “Now that’ll be – “

The man is stopped mid-sentence by the barrel of Sawyer’s Colt being thrust thru the irons bars at his face. The man gives a slight look of surprise but quickly contains himself.

“Free” says Sawyer in a low almost hushed tone.

The ticket attendant scowls.

“Now there’s no need for that, Mr. Sawyer” he says in a reserved fashion. “Here’s your ticket and Mr. Kerns’ ticket as well.”

The man slides the pair of tickets thru the opening in the booth counter. Sawyer stares at the little man as he grabs the tickets from the sill.

“You know me?”, asks Sawyer keeping his eyes on the attendant.

The chuckles slightly as he answers “Why certainly, everyone knows Hack Sawyer. Oh, and you too, Mr. Kerns.”

“How do y- “, Kerns begins to ask but is cut off by his partner.

“Looks like our reputations precede us, Kernsie” says Swayer still eyeballing the man as he handed Kerns his ticket.

“Indeed” says the man, “it’s an honor to have you both here.”

“An honor..? Well hell, s’about time we got a little appreciation, right Kernsie?” says Sawyer.

“I guess so” says Kerns with suspicion in his voice as he eyeballs the man as well.

“Can I get you gentlemen something to drink?” asks the man with a smile.

“You got some whisky?” asks Sawyer.

“Most certainly.” The man replies then looks past Sawyer at Kerns. “And you, Mr. Kerns?”

“Huh? Oh, whisky’s fine” answers the killer.

“It’s in the back. I’ll be back directly”, says the man. He then disappears into the back room.

“I don’t like this, Hack” whispers Kerns, “He’s probably goin’ ta get the law!”

Sawyer ponders Kerns scenario and makes his way back outside. He walks down the alleyway along the ticket office to the platform in the rear. He readies his six gun and walks up onto the platform and peers in thru a window which looks into the backroom. There he sees the man tapping away on the telegraph machine. Anger and urgency now take ahold of the outlaw and he smashes the window alarming the thicket attendant who wheels around. Quickly Sawyer is thru the window and standing in the room face-to-face with the startled man.

“What the hell you doin’?”, yells Sawyer aiming his pistol at him.

“Oh my!” exclaims the man.” It’s not what you think!”

“No? then what the hell are you doin’ hammerin’ away on that ‘graph for then?” asks Sawyer walking closer to the man and now pointing the gun at his head.

“I was just notifying the train to make sure it stops here. We don’t get many train passengers here so if I don’t telegraph the Express they won’t stop!” says the man. “That’s the truth!”

Sawyer thinks hard then uncocks the hammer on his Colt. Suddenly Kerns is coming thru the window, his pistol at the ready.

“What the hell..?!” he asks.

“Says he was just lettin’ the train know it’s got passengers to pick up here otherwise it’ll roll right on thru” says Sawyer.

Kerns points his gun at the man now.

“You believe him?!” he asks.

Sawyer looks from Kerns to the man.

“No” says Sawyer.

BLAM! 

Sawyer stands over the prone man, his Colt now smoking in his hand.

“No, I don’t” he says finishing his thought aloud.

“Now what do we do?” asks Kerns nervously.

“Well, I guess we’ll see what happens. If the train rumbles thru then we know we’ve gotta get outta here before the law arrives.”

“And if it stops?” says Kerns holstering his pistol.

Sawyer looks down at the dead man at his feet.

“Then we get on it” he says matter-of-factly.

II=====II=====II * CHAPTER SIX * II=====II=====II

Hack Sawyer stands on the train platform and looks up the tracks.

“All set, Hack” says Kerns stepping out the backdoor onto the platform beside his partner.

“Where’d ya put ’im?” Sawyer asks.

“He’s right under our feet” says Kerns with a dark grin.

Sawyer gives him a puzzled look.

“I put under him the platform, ain’t no one gonna find ’im under there”, clarifies Kerns.

Sawyers nods his approval.

“Good thing cuz I think I hear it comin’”, says Sawyer.

“How we gonna play this?” asks Kerns.

“We get on just like any other passenger”, Sawyer replies, “and we’ll blend right in. We’ll get off at the next stop, probably Abilene or El Paso, don’t matter cuz we’ll be outta here ‘fore the law finds us.”

“Yeah” says Kerns in agreement, “I like that idea.”

A few moments later a light appears in the distance. It gets closer and closer until the hiss of the steam engine can be heard. It’s big black engine car rolls to a stop amidst the whistling billows of steam.

“Looks like he was tellin’ the truth after all” says Sawyer looking at Kerns. Kerns shakes his head with a slight grin.

“Don’t matter much now, does it?” he adds.

Down from the train and out from the fog steps a tall man dressed as a railway attendant waving a glowing  lantern. He turns back to the duo and sees them. He takes a few long lanky strides and reaches them.

“Mr. Sawyer?” the man asks in a deep baritone voice. The man’s bellowing voice catches the outlaws off guard and they both chuckle.

“Yeah. That’s me,” says Sawyer. “How’d you guess?”

The attendant smiles a telling smirk before answering.

“Mr. Forneus telegraphed us and said both you and Mr. Kerns were here and ready to ride” he says. “My name is Orias. Please board the train.”

 

The outlaws look at each other and simultaneously shrug their shoulders.

“Do you have any luggage?” asks Orias.

“Yeah”, says Sawyer, “they’re on our hips.”

Orias smiles and nods. He motions with his hand towards the train and the two men climb aboard.

II=====II=====II * CHAPTER SEVEN * II=====II=====II

Kerns and Sawyer take up temporary residence in the first passenger car which is empty of any other riders. The car is in remarkable splendor with plush leather high-back booth seating. The pair were feeling pretty lucky as they relaxed themselves in the car. Sawyer locates two bottles of whiskey in the car’s cabinets and hands one to his partner.

“Guess we had a change of luck, eh Kernsie?” says Sawyer,

“I’d say so” he replies with a laugh.

The pair imbibe the liquor over the next thirty minutes or so but despite their vast consumption they’ve managed to stay sober.

“Must be watered down dammit” says Sawyer.

“Yeah not much kick to it, is there?” Kerns chuckles.

“Well why don’t we see what the rest of this here iron horse has to offer, eh?” says Sawyer as he gets up from his comfortable booth seat, Kerns’ follows suit. He smashes the glass bottle on the car floor before exiting to the next car with his Sawyer. Once inside the next car they discover that it’s empty and make their way thru the car and out the door. This scene repeats itself over the next several passenger cars until they enter a car and there’s a man standing in the aisle. The man appears agitated and has a revolver at the ready in his right hand. The pair enter cautiously and the man, upon seeing the duo, wheels around and aims it at the outlaws.

“Whoa, who, whoa friend” says Sawyer as both he and Kerns throw up their hands. “We ain’t lookin’ fer any trouble, no sir”

The squints hard at the men as if studying them. He waves his pistol slowly as if trying to place them in his memory.

“You know him?” asks Kerns in a whisper.

“You got a name amigo?” Sawyer asks. “I’m Hack Sawyer and this here is my partner, Kerns.”

“The man continues to look at them with a perplexed expression on his grizzled visage.

“Mister?” asks Kerns. “You alright?”

The man removes his gaze from the pair and looks out thru a window. The pair slowly begin to make their way further into the car, hoping to get by the stranger. The man wears a brown canvas duster with a red shirt and brown pants. Strapped to his hip and tied down to his right thigh is his holster minus the Peacemaker in his hand.

They sneak by the preoccupied man and are almost home-free to the exit when a gravelly but unsteady voice breaks the eerie silence.

“McNair” he says.

The erstwhile escapees stop dead in their tracks so as not to rile up this mysterious heeled stranger.

“What?” asks Kerns.

“McNair. My name is McNair” he says never taking his eyes from the window. “Clive McNair”

Sawyer’s face displays a look of disbelief. Kerns sees this and whispers to him again.

“You know ‘im?”

“I know of a Clive McNair” he whispers back, keeping his eyes on the man. “Word was he was killed over in El Paso over a card game gone bad. Just a day or so ago”

“Well, this can’t be him cuz he’s alive an’ kickin’” says Kerns.

Sawyer takes a small step closer to the man before speaking to him.

“Yer not Clive McNair outta El Paso?” he asks incredulously.

The man continues looking out the window.

“I’ve been in El Paso” he says.

“Well, we’ve all been to El Paso, friend” says Sawyer.

There’s a long pause before the man speaks again.

“I was in El Paso two days ago” he says coldly.

The pair of outlaws look at each other as if wondering if this man was right in the head.

“You uh, you say you were there a couple days ago?” asks Sawyer.

“Yeah” he says.

“What were ya doin’ there? I mean, I hear them ladies up there are – “ Sawyer is interrupted by the man who suddenly snaps his head and looks towards the pair.

“I was doin’ alright” he says. Sawyer grins in apparent relief.

Suddenly the car door flings open and in walks the conductor.

“Sorry to intrude gentlemen” he says averting their eyes as he passes by Kerns and Sawyer. “Just passing thru.”

As the conductor attempts to pass by McNair, the man suddenly grabs him by the arm with a firm grip.

“How long until we’re there?” he asks.

The conductor pulls a stopwatch from his vest pocket and glances at it.

“Oh, I’d say you’ve got …hmmm…about an hour” he says with a smile.

McNair releases his hold and the conductor makes the rest of his way thru the car and out the other door, heading towards the front of the train.

Kerns and Sawyer now make the short distance to the exit door as the stranger named McNair speaks again.

“You know where we’re headin’?” he says as he returns his gaze out the window.

Sawyer replies in a short, quick reply.

“Well, if you got on in El Paso then we must be headin’ to Abilene. Nice chattin’ with ya, McNair.”

And with that the pair of killers exit the car and hurriedly enter the next car.

II=====II=====II * CHAPTER EIGHT * II=====II=====II

“I don’t get it, Hack”, says a puzzled Kerns.

“Get what?” asks his partner.

“The big ol’ fancy train and there ain’t anybody hardly on it” , he answers, “Don’t that seem a little off?”

“Yeah, well…maybe we jus’ hit it right” says Sawyer.

“There ain’t seen anybody on it ‘cept the conductor and that crazy fella back there three or four cars. It ain’t natural.” Insists Kerns.

The pair make their way thru another car and exit it. As they enter the following car they hear laughing coming from inside. They pause momentarily to assess the source of the laughter. There about halfway thru the car was a man and woman in mirthful play as the woman was sitting on the man’s lap. She was dressed in a dancehall girl’s get-up, lots of frills and feathers. The man was dressed very dapper in a grey three-piece suit complete with bowler hat. He had long bushy muttonchop sideburns and a pencil-thin moustache. At the man’s left hand was a walking cane with a silver raven’s head adorning it as a handle. The frolicking pair carried on until she noticed the duo entering.

“Well, hello there” says the woman invitingly, getting up from the man’s lap.

The man sat up straight and turned towards the advancing pair.

“Accueillir!” says the man in a thick French accent. “Qui sont vous?”

The pair of outlaws give each other a puzzled look then look at the couple.

“Oh, pardon moi” says the man. “Welcome. Who might you be?”

“M’name’s Sawyer and this here is Kerns” says Hack eyeballing the silver tipped cane. The man notices that and lifts the cane up for Sawyer to get a closer look.

“You like, monsieur?” asks the Frenchman. “It was given to me by a silver smith in Dodge City.”

His female companion laughs out loud at his words.

“’Given to you’?” she asks sarcastically.

“Well..”, the Frenchmen says modestly to his companion, “let’s just say I…acquired it from him, oui mon ami?”

The pair then laugh together.

“And you folks are…?” asks Kerns.

The couple look at each other and then seem to make themselves proper for introduction.

“Forgive my manners. I am Louis Corbeau. I am called Louie by my friends”, says the Frenchman.

“And Frenchy to others” she says with a telling grin. Corbeau gives her a momentary stern look.

“And this lovely flower is my… partenaire… how you say…’partner’, Dovey Behan.”

Both Kerns and Sawyer politely tip their hats to the lady.

“Charmed madam” says Sawyer. “Where are you folks headin’?”

Again, the couple look at each other and laugh.

“Why we’re goin’ the same place you both are” says the woman with a demure smile.

“Oh, yer goin’ ta Abilene too?” says Kerns says with a smile of his own, “Fancy that.”

The couple glance at each other once again.

“Oh my, aren’t you cute” she says to Kerns who blushes a hair, “Is that where Mr. Funesto says you’re going?”

“Who’s Mr. Foon…?” asks Sawyer.

“Funesto. Mr. Funesto. He owns this train, silly! He lives in the last car, has it all to himself, he does. He’s a rich man to own something like this…right?”

“Yes ma’am, rich indeed” says Sawyer looking at his partner.

“Well anyways we’re going to – “ she says before she’s cut off sharply by Corbeau.

“Yes well, we don’t want to interrupt you gentlemen. If you’ll excuse us we’re going to see if we can find some spirits on this trains. Bon voyage!”

The couple makes their way to the front of the car and exits leaving the outlaws alone once more.

“Well, weren’t they nice folks?” says Kerns as he starts walking towards the back door of the car. His progress is halted by Sawyer who grabs him forcefully by the arm.

“What the hell?” says Kerns shaking loose from Sawyer’s grasp.

“Do you know who that was?” he asks his partner with a sense of urgency in his voice.

“Yeah Louie and Dovey – “, he begins to answer but is interrupted.

“That was “Frenchy” Corbeau!” says Sawyer with alarm in his manner.

“Yeah that’s right…so?” says Kerns with a confused look.

“No, no, no! ‘Frenchy’ Corbeau! The Frenchman who killed Charlie Jakes by runnin’ him thru with some kinda sword up in Wichita!”

“Y’mean the guy who also gutted Dee Spenser in Oklahoma City last month?” asks Kerns.

“One and the same,” adds Sawyer. “That cane o’ his? That’s got a long blade hidden in it. He says he ‘acquired’ it from a smithy but the way I heard it he killed the guy who made cuz he tried to make him pay more than what he was told.”

“Sounds like the smithy deserved it, if ya ask me” says Kerns.

“What the hell is he doin’ here?” says under his breathe.

“They’re on their way to Ab-“

“They ain’t goin’ ta Abilene, Kernsie,” says Sawyer as if in deep thought.

“Okay, then where do you think they’re goin?”

“I don’t know but by rights he shouldn’t be goin anywheres ‘cept ‘neath a stone” says Sawyer.

“What?!” says Kerns.

“That fella we jus’ seen…” he replies, “is a dead man.”

II=====II=====II * CHAPTER NINE * II=====II=====II

“How can that be?” says Kerns incredulously.

“I’m tellin’ ya Kernsie I saw him get cut down by that lawdog marshal up there in Dodge! Frenchy tried to gut him and the lawdog plum shot ’im down right there in the Long Branch!”

“Well…” says Kerns trying to rationalize the situation, “well he must’ve survived it! I hear tell that sawbones up there in Dodge can work miracles.”

“Naw… he was dead as Lincoln, I saw ‘im, I tell ya, Kernsie!”

“okay then what about the girl with him? You think she’d be flirtin’ with a dead man?”

“She’s dead too” he says inexpressively, “Dovey Behan was a soiled dove who Frenchy favored. She took a shot at the marshal after he’d killed Frenchy but she missed ‘im and the marshal…well…he didn’t miss her.”

“He - he shot… a woman?” asks Kerns in disbelief.

“He fired at where the shot came from instinctively. She caught lead and died on the floor next to Frenchy so you see, somethin’ ain’t right. Ya got McNair, whose death I heard rumors of but yet here he is and now these two? Somethin’ don’t add up, Kernsie.”

“You’re jus’ mistaken about them two, that’s all” says Kerns trying his best to convince himself. “That’s gotta be it.”

“An’ what about this Funesto fella?” he asks nobody in particular, “He owns this train? Who owns their own train, Kernsie?”

“Somebody with a lotta money in the bank” says Kerns with a chuckle.

“Or a safe” adds Sawyer.

“What?”

“Listen, if this Funesto fella is a rich as they say, then I figger he’s gotta have a lot of cash onboard, right? Probably in a safe somewhere.”

“How do get it?” asks Kerns.

“She said he lives in the last car. There’s only thirteen cars on this line, can’t be too many cars left to go thru” says Sawyer, the wheels already turning in his mind. “Let’s go talk to Mr. Funesto.”

II=====II=====II * CHAPTER TEN * II=====II=====II

The pair of outlaws finally arrive at cabin car number thirteen. They both check the chambers of their guns before proceeding into the car. Inside is a true picture of opulence. The elaborately decorated car is fashioned with red velvet wallpaper with 24 carat gold trimming. There are several large paintings of men in various period garb such as a Roman tunic and a British soldier’s uniform. There are several bookcases filled top to bottom with books. Near the back of the car is a large oak desk and beyond that a working fireplace already roaring ablaze. Between the desk and the fireplace is a high back leather swivel chair which is facing the fire.

The two men ready their six-guns as they slowly approach the desk.

“Can I help you gentlemen?” says a disembodied voice.

Silently Sawyer motions to Kerns and then points to the high-back chair. The pair advance a step closer then the voice speaks again.

“Come now gentlemen”, it says calmly as the chair slowly swivels back around revealing Mr. Funesto, “Surely we have some business to discuss?”

The confrontation catches the killers off-guard but their guns still in their hands.

“Please…put them away. “says Funesto with a polite wave of his hand, “they are not necessary.”

“We want some answers, mister” says Kerns who is standing slightly behind Sawyer to his left.

“Certainly. Ask away” says Funesto with an inviting smile.

The duo look at each other then back at Funesto.

“First, what are Dovey Behan and Frenchy Corbeau doin’ on this train?”

“Why they’re here for the trip, the same as both of you” says Funesto with an unnatural calmness in his voice.

“They’re dead” says Sawyer waving his gun at Funesto to accentuate the point.

“You must be mistaken” he says, “As you could see they’re most definitely enjoying themselves.”

“No! They’re dead! I saw them die in Dodge City a month ago!” says Sawyer emphatically.

“Were you there at their funerals?” asks Funesto.

“Well…no, I wasn’t. I left town the next day” says Sawyer.

“Well then I’m sure you didn’t see the doctor patch both of them up” says Funesto with a grin. “That’s what happened you know after all that’s where they boarded this train…in Dodge City. They seemed perfectly fine then.”

Sawyer begins to sweat as his mind tries to reconcile Funesto’s account of what happened.

“He could be right, Hack, you didn’t see ‘em get buried right?” asks his partner in a hushed tone.

Sawyer blinks hard twice then turns his attention back to Funesto.

“Wh-what about McNair?” asks Sawyer.

“What about him?” repeats Funesto.

“What’s a killer like that doin’ on this train?” he asks impatiently.

“He’s a lot like you both. He’s riding this train same as you are”, says Funesto, “to reach his destination.”

Sawyer rubs his gun across his sweaty forehead in angry confusion.

“Anything else, Mr. Sawyer?” asks Funesto as he folds his hands, his elbows firmly on the desk now.

“The money” whispers Kerns to his friend.

The sentence seems to snap Sawyer back to reality as he quickly composes himself.

“This train’s yers?“ he asks.

Funesto grins a very satisfied smile at this acknowledgement.

“It is…one of my proudest accomplishments actually” he says with pride in his voice.

“Must’ve cost you a few pesos” says Sawyer.

“Money is nothing after all, it’s the root of all evil”, he says with a smile, “as they say”

CLICK!

Sawyer pulls the hammer back on his Colt and smiles as well.

“Glad to hear you say that Funesto” he says holding his revolver, it’s bore pointed upwards.

Kerns quickly follows his partner’s lead and draws back the hammer on his pistol as well.

“Like I said before. There isn’t any need for violence” he assures the outlaws. He get up from his chair and turns toward the fireplace. He pushes a button on the bottom of the framed painting hanging above the mantle. The painting swings open on hinges revealing a hidden safe. He begins rotating the safe’s combination lock.

“So, you want money? Okay. How much” asks Funesto as the safe’s door swings open, “A thousand? Ten thousand?”

Funesto now turns around to face the outlaws for his answer.

“All of it” says Sawyer.

BLAM!

Kerns quickly joins his partner in shooting Funesto.

BLAM!

BLAM!  BLAM!

BLAM!  BLAM!

Funesto is forced backwards by the bullets’ impacts. Funesto amazingly is still on his feet. Now both men empty their guns into the man’s chest.

BLAM!  BLAM!

BLAM!  BLAM!

BLAM!  BLAM!

The man falls backwards into the high back swivel chair, his head slumped down upon his chest.

“An’ that’s fer Jack, ya bastard“ says Sawyer staring down at the dead man.

The outlaws stand there for a moment, their guns still smoking and almost admiring their vicious handiwork. They then holster their guns.

“Looks like we’re gonna be rich after all, Kernsie” laughs Sawyer.

“Hell yeah”, adds Kerns.

“Unh…well now…” says a familiar voice. “That was… awkward.”

The outlaws look up to see Mr. Funesto slowly pulling himself into an upright sitting position in the swivel chair. They can’t believe their eyes as Funesto dusts himself off and looks none the worse for wear.

“Was that really necessary?” he says with obvious annoyance in his tone.

The pair fumble to reload their guns.

“Don’t bother,” says Funesto in disappointment. “Same result.”

“H-how?” stammers the shocked Sawyer.

“You gun-toting backwater bandits are always the same,” says Funesto to himself. “Shoot first, beg later. Should’ve just strung you up like your friend in the square.”

“Jack?” asks Kerns with a growing anger in his tone. “You hung Jack?”

Funesto gets to his feet and tugs down on the ends his vest.

“I didn’t do the actual hanging, you see,” says Funesto running a hand thru his tussled hair to straighten it out. “I just didn’t… stop it.”

Funesto dusts off his suit’s shoulders while the outlaws stare in anger and horror at him.

“Mister, why ain’t you dead?” asks Kerns, eyes wide with confusion.

“What are you, some kinda ghost or angel?” says Sawyer in an angry panicked voice.

Funesto’s face now wears and expression of disappointment.

“An angel?!” he says loudly. “Really?”

He begins laughing at the pair.

“Oh, that’s rich!” he says shaking his head. ”No, you boys have me all wrong. Where do you think you are? This is old number Six-Sixty-Six. The Fireball Express. I don’t know what you think is going to happen but we’ve got just one more stop to make and I’ll be damned if I’ll let a couple of second-rate Jesse Jameses ruin this trip!”

“One more stop?” asks Sawyer. “Abilene?”

Mr. Funesto laughs aloud.

Suddenly the front door to the car opens up and in steps a conductor.

Sawyer squints hard at the little man.

“I know you…” he says in a low voice. “I know you!”

The outlaws’ eyes widen with the realization that it’s the ticket attendant that they killed back in Contrition. The conductor gives the pair a warm and knowing smile and speaks.

“Next stop…Tartarus… Gehenna… and the Lake of Fire…”, he says with a grin and a twinkle in his eye, “Next stop…Hell."

The villainous duo now come to the full understanding of their situation.

“But we’re not dead!” exclaims Kerns.

Mr. Funesto now speaks.

“Ah but you did” he says with glee in his voice, “out in that violent sandstorm. It killed both you and your horses.”

“No! The horses ran off! We got to cover and survived!” yells Sawyer.

Funesto gives a slight shake of his head and points to the windows in the car.

“See for yourselves” he says.

The pair rush to the window and the horror they see is reflected in their faces. As the train rolls slowly by, there lying half-covered by sand in the desert are Kerns, Sawyer and their ponies, all dead.

“Your-your name’s not Funesto, is it?” asks Sawyer already aware of the question’s answer.

“Oh, what’s in a name?” says Funesto. “I’ve had so many of them over the years; Funesto, Beelzebub, Mephistopheles, Lucifer…”

“God help us, he’s the Devil!” says Kerns with tears now welling up in his eyes. Thru his tears he sees Funesto’s face gradually becoming crimson in its hue.

“Ah, that’s so rudimentary…but yes” says Funesto. “And God? Heh, heh, well… he gave up on you boys a loooong time ago.”

Funesto laughs, the conductor smiles while the outlaws crumble to their knees and cry.

The train slowly rolls into the long black night amidst the wails of the damned.

II=====II=====II * EPILOGUE * II=====II=====II

What price are you willing to pay to get what you desire? For Hack Sawyer and Stan Kerns it was the highest price…their very souls. No good comes from heinous deeds and eventually the perpetrators of evil must come face to face with their consequences. We all will face that critical moment when the decision you make will forever affect your life…or afterlife.

We can only hope to make the right choice when we reach that moral fork in our path…at Crossroads.

II=====II=====II * THE END * II=====II=====II


Submitted: May 19, 2021

© Copyright 2021 LW Thunder. All rights reserved.

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