Ryan and Walker stood in the doorway of the railcar as the train chugged through a crossing in Homerville, Georgia. The town, like many along the engine’s path, was scarce of people, born explicitly from railroads, and succumbing to the highways.
“Used to be, they’d hire a couple men to sit on back of a caboose and spray these weeds by hand,” said Walker, swatting at his thin swatch of white hair that blew in the breeze. “Now it’s all done by computer. They got to make something as complicated as a rocket ship just to spew weedkiller.”
Ryan assumed it was still done that way when he took the job for the summer, embarrassed now that he had thought something so provincial still existed. When he broke up with his girlfriend, telling her he was leaving the city for a visceral experience, she’d laughed in his face. “You think you’re going to find yourself by spraying poison across the South all summer?” Her contempt was indicative of why they weren’t going to work as a couple. He stuffed the few items he kept in her apartment in his backpack—a toothbrush and a recent copy of The Sun—and left.
Ryan glanced at Walker, who teetered on the ledge of the rail car, his long overalls tattered around his shoes, and wondered what drove other men to this job. “How long have you been doing this?” he asked.
“Longer than I’d like to remember,” Walker said. He rubbed the white stubble that crept over his sun-worn cheeks.
Ryan considered what it would be like to do this job for forty years. “Have any kids?” he asked.
“Nah. Never had the time,” said Walker. “Spent too much of it on this thing.” He kicked at the floor of the car with his boot. “What did you say you’re studying in school?”
“Physics.” Ryan leaned against the doorway and rolled his sleeves up past his elbows. The train passed through the crossing, alarm bells clanging behind them.
“Like inertia and friction?”
“I guess science and technology are about the only jobs there are anymore.” Walker jabbered on, “Robots are running everything. And those phones. People can’t live without their phones.”
Ryan crossed his arms, still steadying himself against the doorframe. “What did you call them yesterday? New-fangled?”
Walker coughed out a weak laugh. “Maybe I’m just an old codger. But the driver’s got a CB in the engine and I reckon that’s all I need.”
They stood at the doorway of the sleeper car looking at the rows of houses crawling past. Walker ran his thumbs underneath the straps of his overalls. “Before we start spraying again,” he said, “we ought to get some fresh air. Let’s go out back.”
When the sprayers were off, Walker and Ryan could stand on the back platform of the weed control tank. The train was just four cars—an engine, a sleeper car, a supply car, and the weed control tank. The engine was moving slowly enough that Walker easily hopped off, followed by Ryan. Once the other cars passed, Ryan stepped back to let Walker on the back platform first, then grabbed the rail and swung up.
The Homerville town limits trailed behind them. A warehouse with rusted metal siding vanished from view as they rounded a bend. The train picked up a little speed and the landscape gave way to rows of pine trees.
“Now take it from me, Ryan, don’t mess with the girls in our sleepover towns. I know it gets lonely out here, but that’ll bring you nothing good.”
Ryan flinched at the thought of what kind of girl he might find in a sleepover town. “Don’t worry,” he said.
Walker squinted at the horizon. “What the hell is that?”
A small brown form in the far corner of the field was moving toward them. It grew larger, turning from a speck against the green to something gaining shape and speed. Once it cut across the field, he could make out a man on a horse.
“Lord have mercy,” Walker whispered, eyes bulging. He stepped back and lost his footing, stumbling sideways.
Ryan grabbed his arm and held him steady. “It’s just a man on a horse,” he said, though he heard an edge of uncertainty rise in his own voice. The rider was moving at a considerable pace and was already halfway across the field, ripping through the wax beans and heading straight for them. “Why would he trample his crops like that?” Ryan asked.
“That’s no farmer!” Walker’s face was drained of all color, and he scrambled backward. He looked down at the ground running by, like he was considering jumping, but instead turned and grabbed the ladder that led to the top of the tank.
“Walker, what the hell?”
The rider was out of the field now and racing alongside the tracks, a decent distance behind the train. He leaned over his horse, his denim-clad legs and cowboy boots pinned against the horse’s side. A red bandana flapped around his neck as he approached the train with unnerving speed.
“Let’s go!” Walker shouted from the top of the ladder, but lost his grip and fell, banging back down on the platform. “Damnit!” He grabbed his ankle.
The rider was close enough now that Ryan made eye contact. The man’s dark, angular eyes were so penetrating that Ryan touched his chest, as if he could feel the stare enter him, and he wanted to draw it back out.
Walker stumbled up. “Let’s go!” he shouted, making his way up the ladder once again.
Ryan grabbed the ladder with clammy palms. The wheels roared and clacked beneath him, drowning out the shovel of the horse hooves. Ryan swiveled his gaze between the swiftly approaching rider and the manic Walker, and took his chances with the old man, clambering up after him.
“Get to the engineer!” Walker said. “He needs to speed up!”
“Why? What’s happening?” Ryan demanded.
Walker stood shaking and mute, so Ryan led the way, leaping from the weed tank to the supply car, then stopping before the sleeper car, which had a curved roof and a rail on each side. Walker hobbled up behind him on his bad ankle. “Go! Go! Go!” he shouted.
The rider galloped beside the train. Ryan leapt onto the sleeper car and landed with a whacking thud. Walker barely made the jump and crumpled behind him, sliding near the edge. Ryan pulled Walker back toward the center and noticed the rider had disappeared.
They climbed down the front of the sleeper car and rushed to the engine’s rear door. Through the scummy window of the back door they could see the engineer, Burt, standing at the helm. A dashboard of buttons was spread before him.
“Burt!” called Walker.
Ryan flung the door open, still unsure what the urgency was, though he felt it nonetheless. “Burt!”
As the engineer turned, Ryan saw a red bandana around his neck. Ryan jumped back, bumping into Walker, and slammed the door to the engine before either of them stepped inside.
Through the window, they saw the engineer turn, revealing a man with angular cheekbones and black eyes.
Ryan’s stomach lurched. “It’s the rider!” he shouted. The vibration of the engine thrummed through him. He jerked around and shoved Walker inside the sleeper car door, clanging it shut behind them. “Who is that guy?” asked Ryan through heaving breaths. His mind scrambled to make sense of it. “Why is he in there? And where’s Burt?”
Walker threw himself on the couch, flung his arm over his head, and moaned.
“How did he get there so fast?” Ryan asked. “Why is he on the train?” His mind raced with questions, but one thing seemed clear—the train had been hijacked by the cowboy, and Ryan wanted to disembark. He began rummaging through his things, looking for his backpack. He could still get back to Homerville if he got off now.
“Seriously, Walker. What’s going on? I’m freaking out.”
Walker ran his hand through his withering hair. “He’s come for me.”
“You know him?” Ryan’s voice broke with disbelief. He found the backpack and emptied it.
“I met him once, a long time ago,” Walker said. His voice fell and his hung his head. “I’m sorry, Ryan.”
The train picked up speed. Outside the pines trees whipped by. Ryan wondered how fast was too fast to jump without getting hurt. Walker’s shoulders sagged, and his skin took on a slippery translucence. This shift cast a heavy gloom through the car.
“What does he want?” Ryan asked.
Walker dropped his head in his hands. “He’s going to kill me.” He looked up at Ryan. “Then you’ll be stuck here.”
“Why will I be stuck?” Ryan flinched at his own question. “I mean, he’s not going to kill you. I’ll make sure of it.”
Walker shrugged. “That’s how it works.”
“How what works?”
“I don’t know.” Walker said. He looked up, his eyes watery. “I really don’t know!”
The train surged and the landscape flew by. A pit formed in Ryan’s stomach. He went to the cabinet in the corner and pulled out the cans of chili they had stockpiled, the plastic tub of peanut butter, and the bread. He was packing his bag to get him to the next town twenty miles back in case he needed to jump. They kept meager rations because they stopped every night in a different town for supper. In the last town there were only two functional stores. There was a gas station that sold styrofoam coolers and lottery tickets, and there was the Chikn’n’Go, where they ate. They’d had fried chicken, green beans, and fries served on paper plates. Afterward, rather than going back to the sleeper car, they bought two twenty-ounce beers each and sat in an empty parking lot and drank until the sky turned black. The beer and the fried chicken left a rotting feeling in Ryan’s gut, but right now he’d take that churning stomach over the rushing sleeper car and Walker’s morose attitude.
“You think we can take that guy?” Ryan asked, slinging his backpack over his shoulder. “I know he’s fast, but if the two of us jump him we should be able to hold him down and regain control of the train.”
Walker sized Ryan up, from his feet to head. “What’s your pack for?”
“In case we need to jump.”
Walker snorted a defeatist laugh.
“This guy is unnaturally fast,” said Ryan, “If we can’t overtake him, and if we can’t get control of the train, at least we can jump. We’ll need to go back to Homerville. There’s no cell service out here. I just checked.”
“You can’t jump,” was all he said. He sat slack on the couch, his hands dangling between his knees.
“Are you going to help me or not?”
Walker pressed his hands into his knees and stood up. He straightened his back and nodded as if he was trying to convince himself. “Yes, I want to help you.”
Walker appeared weaker than he had at the start of the day. He suddenly looked tired and ashen. His body creaked with movement, and he dragged his twisted ankle roughly when he walked.
“We need to move fast,” Ryan said. “As soon as we open this door, I’m going to barge in and jump him. When he’s fighting me, see if you can get his arms.” Ryan pulled out a thin coil of nylon rope from the toolbox. “Here.” He handed it to Walker, then rummaged through the other tools. He handed a screwdriver to Walker, and put the another one in his back pocket. Walker held the rope in one slack hand and the screwdriver in the other.
“Come on, man! Get yourself together. It’s two on one. We’ve got this!” It was a bullshit pep talk that he didn’t completely believe himself. They should have had a decent chance since it was two against one, but the rider had managed to dismount his horse, enter the engine, completely remove the engineer (where was Burt?), and take control of the speeding vessel, all while the two of them fumbled around on the top of the train.
Ryan patted Walker on the arm. “You okay?”
Walker’s face warmed a little. “Yeah, I’m good. We’re good. I’m ready.”
Ryan took in a deep breath. The smell of mildew from their bunk beds wafted through the cabin. He placed his trembling fingers on the door pull. In one swift movement, he yanked the door open, leapt over the threshold, and threw the engine door open. The rider stood at the motherboard but did not turn around. Ryan wasted no time and leapt onto his back, hoping to drag him to the floor.
It felt like landing on a lump of steel. There was no give. Ryan practically slid off him, and in a flash the rider turned and threw Ryan to the ground, pinning him on the floor. He leaned over him, his strange face and fire-black eyes devoid of expression. The cowboy had one hand around Ryan’s throat and was straddling his body, which rendered Ryan unable to do more than wiggle on the ground.
When Ryan yelled Walker’s name it came out raspy and choked. The intensifying pressure on his windpipe made it difficult to breathe. The train roared down the tracks, the sound growing to a din. He was on the floor, just a few sheets of steel between him and the wheels beneath. The great engine reverberated. Ryan strained to move his hands, trying to reach the screwdriver in his back pocket. Walker! he cried, but only a scratching sound came out.
Walker stood behind the rider, holding the screwdriver up like a knife, but rather than deploying it immediately, he just stood there, shaking with the movement of the train.
Ryan wanted to shout at him, just do it! But even if he could have, he wouldn’t have wanted to alert the rider. In fact, he didn’t even want to think it in his mind, didn’t even want to look at Walker. He had the eerie sense that the rider could read his thoughts, or might have an eye in the back of his head, might already know Walker stood there, might even have some counter force working to prevent Walker from stabbing him in the back.
Waiting for Walker to act, Ryan was fading. It started with the look in the rider’s eyes—sharp and obsidian. Red laser-like beams radiated from them, and Ryan felt the sensation of speed deep inside him, like pressure on his chest. He quaked and took rapid, shallow breaths. He wanted to look back at Walker with an urgent plea to stab the man, but couldn’t draw his gaze away. The periphery of his vision fuzzed. The penetrating beams from the rider’s eyes morphed into the surreal image of telegraph wires, as if Ryan could receive messages from the foreign man into his heart.
Ryan floated up from his body and saw himself struggling beneath the rider. Fear lifted from him like vapor, creating space for the formation of other thoughts. Through the front window the tracks wound into the horizon. A hundred and fifty years ago, they laid the first ever telegraph lines alongside these tracks. It had been a modern miracle. When they sent the first message, from one place down the line to the next, worlds collided and time traveled—the wonder of such a transmission. The vision of himself being strangled by the rider began to blur and darken. The sound of the train dulled to a quiet hum.
Suddenly the pressure released, and his vision cleared. Walker was yanking the screwdriver back. It was covered in blood, which Walker was splattered with. He had finally stabbed the man. The rider rolled off to the side. The violent stabbing should have been enough to do the rider in, so it was incomprehensible that he was struggling to stand. Ryan had a sinking feeling they would not be able to kill this man.
Walker leaned down and grabbed Ryan, yanking him up, as Ryan regained his footing and swooned. Walker pushed Ryan toward the door.
Fresh air slapped him in the face when he got to the platform between the cars. The starkness of daylight clarified images before him—trees whipping by in a dark smear, and a house at the back edge of a field careening away from them. Maybe someone in that house could help, Ryan thought. But the train was going faster than before.
“If you jump you’ll die,” said Walker. “Here.” He held up Ryan’s backpack, which had fallen off in the struggle with the rider. Ryan slipped it on.
Through the engine door window, the injured cowboy hunched over on his knees, struggling to stand.
“We need to call for help. That man’s a beast,” Ryan said. He stretched his back straight and filled his lungs with fortifying air. “How long before the next town? Thirty minutes? We’ll be in cell range then. We just need to trap him in the engine until then.”
“He’s strong,” Walker said.
“We need something to secure the door.”
“There’s a crowbar in the supply car. We can run it through the handle and this grip to create a barrier.” Walker motioned to the oblong steel handhold on the back of the engine.
Ryan glanced down at Walker’s injured ankle. The incident with the screwdriver had utterly drained the old man. “I’ll get the crowbar,” Ryan said. “For now, let’s use the screwdriver.”
Ryan shoved Walker’s bloody screwdriver into the pull on the door, sticking the end through an eyehole in the jamb. The rider’s blood covered his palm. He looked at it briefly, horrified, then wiped it on his pants, smearing blood on his pant leg. “Hold the screwdriver in place until I get back,” he said.
He hoisted himself up the ladder and snaked across the rounded roof. His throat still felt constricted, as if he could feel the rider’s hands against it, pressing in. Speeding pine trees whipped by in fine, long rows. He climbed down the back and stepped onto the supply car’s runner board. It was thin, but he edged along, fingers gripping vertical ridges that ran the length of it, until he reach the door, which he shoved hard. Mercifully, it opened a few inches, just enough to wedge his body inside.
The musty steel box was mostly empty, with a number of stacked pallets and a metal bin in the far corner. Wind droned through the car as he searched the bin and found the crowbar.
As a green streak of world raced beyond the open door, he moved to the edge and looked out. If he jumped, he’d break his legs for sure. But if he protected his head, maybe he would live, drag himself twenty or so miles, and get help for Walker. He thought of the old man earlier, sitting on the bunk in their sleeper car, shoulders sagged, growing frailer by the minute, and remembered that he’d just saved Ryan’s life.
Overhead, a there was a great thunk. Ryan froze with his hand gripped around the crowbar. Someone was moving above him. Two bloody hands stretched over the upper lip of the doorframe. Ryan raised the crowbar over his shoulder, arms trembling, as the car jerked down the tracks.
“Ryan!” Walker called from the roof.
Ryan inched forward, waving the crowbar over his shoulder. The train started into a long curve, and he lost his footing for a second, but he caught himself and stood back straight. From over the top of the car, the coarse mop of Walker’s hair whipped in the wind. Ryan let out a long sigh.
“What are you doing?” Ryan asked.
“Help me!” Walker turned around and dropped his legs over the doorway, hanging from the roof at his waist. Ryan braced his shoulder against the threshold and reached for Walker’s legs.
“Swing your legs! Swing in!”
Ryan pulled his legs inward as Walker let go and landed inside the car, dropping to the floor with a groan.
“Why aren’t you guarding the engine?” Ryan asked, his pitch nearing hysteria.
Walker looked a mess. His hair was wild and he still had blood splatter all over him. He looked paler than ever. “He got out. He started banging on the door and I knew I couldn’t take him myself. I just ran.” His watery eyes looked tired. “I started up here to get you. When I was up top, he broke through the engine door and went into the sleeper car.
“The sleeper car?”
“He was all bloody. It looked like he had a good wound on his back.”
“The first aid’s in the sleeper car. Maybe that’s what he was going for,” said Ryan.
The rider must have been badly injured if he was running for first aid instead of trying to kill Walker, as Walker had claimed he was there to do.
“You really don’t think we can jump?” asked Ryan.
“Not a chance you’ll survive.” His voice was slack, resigned.
Ryan looked around. Maybe they could stay safe enough there until they crossed into the next town. “How long before the next town?”
“I’m not sure. Seems like at this speed we should have already bowled through Valdosta.”
“Wouldn’t we have noticed if we tore through Valdosta?”
“We should have. I don’t know.”
Walker stumbled back, sliding down the wall of the car and crumpled onto himself. Ryan dug his cell phone from his backpack to check for coverage. Three percent of the battery remained. A deep heaviness settled in his gut. He turned off his phone and stuck it in his pocket, hoping to preserve the little battery he had left until they came into range.
“You okay, Walker?”
Walker’s shoulders hung limp from his frame. “Worn out,” he said.
Ryan crouched down next to him and put his hand on his arm. He was burning hot. “We’ll be safe soon. As soon as we get to the next town.”
Walker smiled very slightly. It was dark in the car so Ryan couldn’t be sure, but that smile seemed a mix of hopeful and satisfied, and those two things do not go together. Ryan wondered where the rider was.
An hour passed with no visible signs of a town. Without a doubt they should have seen Valdosta by then. Was it possible they had missed it during the fight with the rider? He checked his phone every five minutes. The battery drifted from three percent, to two percent, then one. His heart raced every time he pressed the power button, desperate for the phone to show it was in range. But the final time, right before the battery gave out, there was still no cell reception.
Ryan squeezed the phone in his hand so hard he wondered if he could crack it. This invention was supposed to make the world safe, but when he needed it most, the battery died on him. This train, programmed now to go faster than was reasonable, still wasn’t fast enough to get them to a town before his cell phone battery died. Now they were alone, isolated, with no connection to the outside world. They passed through miles of forest, worlds, he imagined, concocted of deer, opossums, hawks, all revolving in their own circles, living life from birth to death with no knowledge of the freight on the speeding vessel, the devastation of a dead phone battery, and a train with a motherboard that had a mind of its own.
The rider had not disturbed them, and Ryan wondered if he had bled out and died. The train kept on at its enormous speed. The central switchboard should have recognized the train had taken on a life of its on and sent out some sort of rescue for them. But maybe they’d need to wait until it was out of fuel so it would slow on its own, propelled forward only by inertia, until friction wore it down. A terrifying and insane thought entered his mind. What if it never ran out of fuel? He peered again at the ground speeding past and wondered about jumping. He couldn’t stomach the idea of going back to the engine and risking the chance of having to face the cowboy again. This was the only safe spot on the train.
Night came, and then morning. Walker had slept throughout the night, but Ryan only dozed, waking with a jerk every fifteen minutes from the fog of a nightmare. In the morning, Ryan made peanut butter sandwiches, using his finger as a knife. He handed one to Walker, but Walker wouldn’t take it. He was sweating.
“You’re sick,” Ryan said.
“You need some water at least.”
Walker took the water and fell back asleep. Ryan stood at the door and watched the sky for the signs of rescue, but there was nothing. Surely they must have passed through a town in the night, but if they had, they had not slowed at the crossings. This is crazy, Ryan thought. He felt the unbundling of his sanity. His mind turned to static as he tried to reason the events of yesterday away. A slow grip of fear clutched at him. What if he was on this train the rest of his life?
Another night came and Ryan burst into full-blown hysteria. Walker wasted away in the corner of the car, and the train kept its relentless pace. He was dumbfounded by its speed and persistence. Should he go back to the sleeper car to fight the rider? Or try to force his way into the engine room again? But then what? He had not forgotten the eerie specter of telegraph wires casting out from the rider’s eyes. Ryan couldn’t bring himself to risk that again, the way they planted into his soul.
“Walker?” Ryan shook his arm.
Walker’s eyes fluttered open.
“We’re going to have to jump.”
“You’ll kill yourself.” He could barely croak the words.
“We’re going to die on this train, so we might as well jump.”
Walker shook his head. “Wait, just until morning.” He could barely get the words out.
Walker spoke in a near whisper, which was hard to hear with the wind knocking through the car. “A little more time.”
Walker could be dead by morning. Maybe he didn’t want to die alone. He considered whether he could push Walker from the train. Was that akin to murder? Though he would certainly die here without him. The wind rushing through the car and the rattle of the tracks was such a constant to him now—a foggy cloud through his thoughts. He looked out the doorway. The moon had risen to a high angle in the sky, and he could see it easily over the trees.
The night was cloudless. Ryan figured they were in the delta, somewhere vast and unpopulated. The moonlight flowed into the interior of the car and lit up Walker like a near-ghost collapsed against the steel wall. His skin, translucent, revealed a secret about the old man’s bones. They were hollow, nearly not bones at all. His frame was a puff of smoke, his hair a memory of white.
“Ryan,” Walker croaked, though it was loud enough to hear over the rack of the train
“You ever pray?”
Ryan shrugged. “Not really. Not since I was a kid.”
“Think you can remember?” The shape of the old man’s ribs protruded under his thin shirt.
“I could try.”
“Pray for me then.”
“Let’s jump,” Ryan said.
Walker shook his head.
He’d be dead in a matter of hours, maybe even minutes. A beat of terror struck in Ryan’s chest. If Walker died, then what? Would the rider return? Ryan feared Walker was somehow a decaying buffer between himself and the rider. He looked at the world speeding by and estimated an eighty percent chance of death if he jumped. The idea of being alone in the boxcar with the corpse of Walker and the unknown whereabouts of the rider was unbearable, but he just couldn’t leave the old man alone in his final hour.
Ryan crouched next to Walker, who was now lying on the floor with his hands resting on his chest. Walker stared with glazed eyes at the ceiling. His breath was shallow and inconsistent. He expelled a sputtering last breath, and his eyes shut. Ryan put his hand on Walker’s chest and couldn’t feel him breathing. Oh my god, what do I do?
Walker lay still, pale in the moonlight. Wind racked the car and a coldness set in. Ryan coughed out a short cry. He looked at poor Walker and had the distinct feeling of the old man’s absence from his body.
A micro movement beat beneath Walker’s eyelids. His eyes re-opened, fire-black and sharp. Ryan stumbled up. A bolt of fear struck him. He knew those eyes, and they were not Walker’s. He couldn’t bear those black eyes needling him again. He took one broad stride toward the door, and leapt.
Somewhere between the moment when his feet sprang from the supply car and when his body hit the ground below, breaking one leg in three places, a hip, an arm, several ribs, cracking his skull, before he landed ten yards from the tracks and ten miles from the next town, in the seconds there, he saw that the moon was larger than it should be, and he tried to remember that prayer for Walker, but there was no time.
Photo by Denis Chick on Unsplash