A Gift To My Faithful 3 of 6

Happy Holidays everyone! I’ve said it a million times and I’ll say it a million more. I never became a professional writer for the money. It’s damn near impossible to make a living in the internet age as a novelist or journalist. I do it because I love it. Plain and simple. That being said, I’m going to give you all six stories between now and Christmas absolutely free. All of these appear in my short story collection “Six From Five Seven”. You can purchase a copy if you feel froggy, but I refuse to beg. I’m not starting up a clothing line either. No rules, just write. Enjoy!

MIDNIGHT TRAIN TO TUCSON

(Originally appeared in the A Book Without A Name anthology published by B. L. Blankenship)

The steam engine pierced the desert darkness like a ghost through the fragile veil of the witching hour. Although hundreds of eyes beheld her passage, none of them possessed the mental capacity to comprehend the journey she’d undertaken. Human life was a rarity on the outskirts of the towns spotting the parched, fractured countryside, yet life thrived in abundance. Life whose only purpose was to feed upon the still beating hearts of others.

In truth, a nightly war ravaged between the various creeping, crawling creatures, always inevitably interrupted by the slow light of sunrise. Mankind took no notice of such simple conflicts and continued about its business. After all, who genuinely cared about the goings on of creatures no taller than a typical pair of boots? Even more so, what did it matter to those aboard the immense giant steam bullet traversing the nightmarish oblivion?

A substantial portion of the three thousand or so residents of Yuma County Arizona chose the safety of comfortable beds over an unpredictable midnight trek through the black. No one blamed them. They knew damn well that one false step outside their doors could leave them flat on their backs, sore assed, with only a winking curtain of starlight to applaud their unfortunate topple. Left vulnerable, who could predict what fate awaited? A deadly snake bite to the face? Perhaps a debilitating scorpion sting to the heart? Neither were uncommon misfortunes to anyone foolish enough to exit their slumber vaults without the proper protection or lighting. The safest gamble was to just stay in bed altogether.

Taking all of this into account, why would anyone feel that steel walls and coal powered speed would adequately protect from the lonesome desert? One could only imagine the desperate reasons they were so inclined to travel in the dark of night. New employment awaited them at their destination, or an ailing relative telegrammed to their attention. Maybe one or more of them held the gumption to stare whatever death awaited down the tracks directly in the face without a flinch. Four strangers in various seats throughout the passenger car knew only of their own business and nothing of each other’s dealings. Of course, there was always that one curious fellow who felt like it was their own personal quest to inquire the intentions of everyone around them. On this night, that person’s name was Jonathan Rigby.

Jonathan, like every other Protestant preacher who’d migrated to the southern United States always felt the need to recruit more members into his flock, even if that flock only consisted of four additional unknowns on a midnight train chugging steadily towards Tucson. At least, that’s where he was headed. He couldn’t imagine why anyone who’d boarded in Yuma would be getting off any quicker than that. Even the ones who’d journeyed all the way from Los Angeles exited the train in Yuma so they could spend the night in comfort at one of the many hotels before continuing to the end of the line in Tucson. No, these were indubitably riders who felt the need to quietly slip out of the westernmost town in Arizona under the cover of darkness for one sinister reason or another.

The Reverend Jonathan Rigby felt as though it was indeed his mission to discover the strangers’ need to do so. In his decades experience of being a messenger of God, the man discovered that those left wanting were always easiest to convert. There were as many Bibles in the prison trashcans as there were in church seats, and that just meant both the good and the bad of humanity didn’t need to bother with carrying one on their person. A copy of the good book would always be waiting for the saint or the sinner no matter where they traveled next in life. Still, Jonathan carried his own just in case. He felt the message so much easier to comprehend when penned in blood spilled by his own two hands.

The three other inhabitants of the passenger car were sitting spread out, as shady strangers are known to do when the given space allowed. To be quite honest, Jonathan knew he had a challenge ahead of him breaking into the tangible silence. He’d soon find a way to crack that egg, he was certain! Much remained hidden between the potential friends or foes who sat mere feet away, avoiding eye contact at all costs.

Jonathan gazed upon them with a judging eye, looking for a likely soul to be his own. Not so much the man sitting the furthest away from everyone else, but perhaps the other midway up the car sporting the hat and attire typical of someone who worked cattle or toiled on an Arizona dirt farm. A cowboy, one might say, although the term was overused and misinterpreted in the bigger towns like Yuma. A standard stereotypical word for a rough and tumble person, sporting a trademark stem of hay from his mouth and a belt full of guns. Not to mention that this fellow was a black man. Uncaring as to what the new government commanded; Rigby still didn’t trust them. Judging from first impressions, clothing, mannerisms, and whatnot, he decided to approach the only woman in the group first.

Shaking his head to remove any nonsensical thoughts, he put on his best Sunday morning game face. He was beginning to perspire slightly even though he’d endured this conversation repeatedly among the members of his own church family, but this female was no mere lady of the high desert plains. Her perfume immediately filled the train car and penetrated his nostrils with a pleasant, stinging sensation the moment she got on board. Honestly, smelling anything at all, whether foul or fragrant, was much better than the pungent mix of scents on board a typical train car.

It smelled not of usual tobacco, unwashed ranch hand, or axle grease from the wheels below the floorboards. It emanated the scent of clean, but it was too easy to see the newness of this car had worn its welcome several times over. More than likely a hand me down from one of the more established railroads back east and purchased cheap by whomever was wealthy enough to own the four passengers’ tickets. The possibilities were endless. Rigby would find it much easier to interpret the woman and cowboy than the manners of rail cars.

It was obvious this lady was well taken care of. More than likely someone’s favorite back out west and paid well for her “services.” Jonathan placed his moist hand atop her exposed shoulder and spoke, breaking the ice-like chill of tensions among them all. Most of them, anyway.

“Well,” Jonathan began. “Since we’re going to be stuck here over the next several hours, I think it would be a great idea if we all got to know each other a little better. Don’t you?”

Jonathan moved his hand atop the bare skin of the lady’s shoulder, leaving an uncomfortable, slimy film in its wake. The sad part of it all was that the preacher knew it. Still, no one had dared halt his advances before, and he didn’t expect this big city whore to react any differently.

Jonathan continued.

“What’s your name, young lady?” he asked.

The woman glared daggers at the holy man below smokey, shadowed eye makeup but didn’t move a muscle to stop his intrusion. She’d spent much of her life in physically uncomfortable situations, and the queasy feelings which had once plagued her stomach died a horrible death several men ago. In all fairness to the situation, at least the preacher wasn’t trying to violate her with a crucifix. The life of a prostitute was journey worthy of a thousand pages, far more interesting than the gospels the advancing preacher clung to. Her father died while building this very railroad. The payback of another well-deserved body would only make up for a tiny, pained portion of growing up as an orphan.

“Heather,” the lady replied calmly. “Heather Osgood.”

Jonathan smiled at the young woman’s response and tightened his grip upon her shoulder. Again, his advances went unhindered as though the lady truly wanted it, or she dared not refuse his forwardness. Either way, the preacher could tell when a woman was either well trained or beaten into submission. A tingle of life flinched ever so slightly behind his trousers as a sign revealing the truth of her behavior mattered little. Over the decades, he’d been both the man who ordered the whip and the hand who bestowed the whipping. He recalled enjoying both.

“Well, Heather Osgood, what brings you in the direction of the fine town of Tucson on this most unusual night?”

“And just what’s so unusual about it?” Heather cracked.

“I’m sorry?” Jonathan asked. “Do you not find it strange that a train traveling between two major towns is carrying only four passengers whose business surely could’ve waited until morning’s light? If you ask me, those types of people are more than likely running from something big in their lives or hiding from someone sinister. Or righteous, even. Depends on which side of the fence you’re on, doesn’t it? Point of view is everything when it comes to the Lord’s work. It undeniably depends on who’s doing the asking.”

Heather cocked her head upward and glared into the eyes of the standing man who appeared to have a tinge of mischief on his mind. Call it what you want, the Lord’s work, the devil’s play, but they all paid the same once the task was done and the man retired to a horizontal position. She’d fucked greasier preachers than this but at least they had the decency to be honest about it. The man currently wringing his sweaty digits upon her shoulder was trying his best to be deceptive.

“Well, preacher man,” Heather said “It’s a damn good thing that none of us are doing the asking! If you absolutely must know, I’ve been offered a new job in the mining town of Goldfield and, from what I hear, those lads are willing to pay top dollar for the ride of a lifetime. It just so happens that I’m that very ride they’ve been looking for, and I plan to make more than my fair share of their hard-earned dollars during this lifetime. To put it in simpler terms, Father, I’m going to make my cash doing a ton of honest screwing rather than playing middleman between another man’s wife and the collection plate.”

Jonathan cocked his hand back out of instinct and prepared to strike the insolent woman directly across her insulting mouth. That was right about the time another one of the passenger car’s inhabitants spoke up, so to speak. The click of a Colt Army revolver sliced through the silence like a sharpened blade through weak flesh.

“Now, now, mister,” the cowboy began. “If there’s going to be any scuffling on this here train it’s going to be between two of the menfolk. Leave the lady out of it or start praying to that God you put so much faith into. From your manners, it’s been a minute or two since y’all have been honest with one another. Don’t make me speed up the conversation.”

With that, the gentleman clicked the weapon’s hammer back into place and shoved it hard into its awaiting leather holster. He glared one last time at the preacher just to make sure the message was well received, then hid his tired eyes back behind the brim of his weathered hat. Jonathan removed his hand from the lady’s shoulder and continued his advancement through the car. This goddamned ranch worker wasn’t about to point a loaded gun in his direction and get away with it without a scolding, or an inquiry for that matter! It was at that moment when a recently familiar hand touched his own.

“Don’t,” Heather pleaded. “I think you’ve done enough damage for one night. Don’t poke the bear. Especially one with an itchy trigger finger. Also, don’t poke the lioness either. The bear isn’t the only one who’s armed on this here train.”

The preacher looked the foolish woman up and down for any signs of a gun but knew it to be a falsity. Obviously, some trick she’d used on drunken ranchers on more than one occasion who didn’t want to pay for their poke. For a moment, it appeared as though Jonathan Rigby was going to heed the prostitute’s advice and return to his seat for an extended nap, but the young lady bore witness to the moment in which his pride overtook him. On down the rows of seats advanced Jonathan, slapping each headrest with the back of his hand as he did so. Certainly, announcing his presence in such a way was unnecessary since the cowboy had never truly removed his slivered eyelid from the potential target. He beat the preacher to the punch.

“Bill Reeves,” he said. “My name is Bill Reeves.”

“I didn’t ask…” Jonathan interrupted.

“No, but you were gonna!” shouted the cowboy. “That’s why I just went ahead and offered it up to you before you could say anything, preacher man. My name is Bill Reeves, and I was run out of my cowboy job in Yuma. They claim I was more interested in the boys than the cows but that’s only because they didn’t have the nuts to say they didn’t want a black man working their beef! What in the hell does it matter what color hands handle your steaks when it’s just going to be thrown in the fire anyway? I’m a free man and got just as much right to do anything I want in this here country same as anyone else.”

Jonathan paused his stroll through the passenger car. His mind was at a sudden impasse. He was unsure of which direction to travel when it came to Bill Reeves. What did he mean by ‘more into the boys’? Did the cowboy mean men in general or was he accused of something fouler? Children, perhaps? It was difficult enough in the year 1880 to be a black man in the southwest portion of the United States, let alone a black man who preferred having his way with kids. Either way, Bill left a gash in any potential conversation large enough for the Reverend Rigby to dive right through! He chose a third route instead.

“Are you sure you’re a free man?”

“Of course, I’m a free man, preacher!” Reeves responded. “I think enough American men spilled blood onto the ground in the name of my freedom to prove that. The war is over, mister. The only fighting going on is inside the minds of pissed off white men like you who don’t want to see a darker man succeed out here in the west! You can put that shit to bed right now because I ain’t having none of it. Neither is my Matilda here.”

Matilda was obviously the name bestowed upon Bill Reeve’s Colt revolver because he pulled and stroked her reverently as he spoke her name. Obviously proud of his shiny possession, he lovingly brushed his lips ever so slightly against her barrel before slipping her back into the holster. Jonathan Rigby couldn’t help himself.

“So, Mr. Reeves, I was having a little bit of trouble interpreting your introduction and couldn’t tell whether you were someone we real men folk consider to be a little ‘unusual,’ or if you were just sick in the head by taking it to the young ones. By the looks of it, placing your lips atop long, cylindrical objects is something not at all foreign to your list of pleasures. Next time you do so, do us all a favor and pull the trigger.”

“Mister,” Bill hollered again. “I’d just about had enough of your nonsense long before it ever reached me personally. If I were you, I’d take my self-righteous ass back to my seat before it gets a second hole blown into it. Me kissing my gun said nothing other than me kissing my gun.”

“To be quite honest,” Heather whispered. “It did look like you were enjoying that gesture a little too much. I mean, I should know. I put my lips on things for a living. Granted some of them have a wee bit of a crook to them but they’re all round, nonetheless. Just, if you’re gonna spend your life putting things in your mouth, make sure you’re getting paid for it.”

Heather giggled behind her hand and waited to see who’d retort first. Certainly, the preacher wanted to keep the fight in motion, just so he could somehow turn the finale into a type of sermon. The cowboy? He was running off pure emotion already. The fact he was not only a black face in a white man’s world was nothing in comparison to the alternative fact he had a thing for being intimate with other men, or little children, or both! The jury, headed by the preacher Jonathan Rigby, was still out on that fact. There was the potential of a rope waiting for this man back in the town of Yuma, and it had little to do with the color of his skin. He, like Heather, was in the process of running from something. The preacher had been right about that all along. Probably because runners can smell their own. It was time to find out exactly why Jonathan Rigby was taking the midnight train as well.

“And what about you, Mister Preacher Man?” Heather switched targets. “What puts you on this midnight train to nowhere rather than in your sleepy time clothes with a warm glass of the Lord’s milk? Which dirt farmer’s wife are you sparing the rod tonight so you can grace us with your presence? The inquiring minds of this working girl and that little boy fondling cowboy over there want to know.”

Heather noticed Bill Reeves stutter in near protest at her comment, but curiosity stayed his hand for fear he wouldn’t hear Jonathan’s explanation. Whatever the reason, they both knew it would most definitely be some well concocted lie. This man claimed to speak to God for a living without any type of tangible proof but could make an entire congregation of sheep believe it by shouting loudly toward the rafters and holding his ‘good book’ aloft in damn near weapon-like fashion. The mighty sword constructed of mere paper. Whatever it took to keep them all in line and under his control.

“I received a telegram,” Rigby said with honesty. “A simple piece of paper smeared with dots and lines stating that my services were needed far from home. Who would I be, a man in the service of God, if I refused such a calling? Truth and proof that the Lord most definitely works in mysterious ways.”

“Wait a second,” the cowboy asked. “You think some dots and lines on a piece of paper are proof that God works in mysterious ways? Sure, it’s neat. It’s even borderline scientific witchcraft in my book, but I don’t think it’s impressive enough to prove the existence of God.”

Jonathan was immediately taken aback by the comment. He despised it when people questioned his faith in the maker so early in their meeting. Did he not carry himself as a proper man of the king on high? What was it that would cause a person to do so? Not that it occurred all too often, but it always rubbed him the wrong way once brought to his attention. Insulting to think strangers didn’t notice his attire and drop to their knees with entitled respect! Yes, the telegraph should’ve been enough to prove the existence of God since a preacher was an actual telegraph tool for speaking to The Man himself!

“I know this is proof of the Lord’s power because I know not who initiated the contact. He just spoke to me, and I answered. That reasoning should be more than enough explanation for the likes of you two heathens. I’m beginning to feel sorry for even attempting to save your poor souls before this train and you reached the ends of your lines. What hath God wrought to me but a hooker, a rapist, and an obviously drunken mute who has yet to say a thing in the defense of either of you? A smart gentleman, our silent, fellow passenger, who knows nothing of the sin alive and well in this very vehicle.”

Heather, who still strategically hid her mouth behind her tiny hand to the best of her abilities, was now biting her finger for everything it was worth. Often accused of having bad teeth before revealing all was well, this was how she chose to stifle her laughter at the absurdity of the idiots she encountered in her chosen profession. She only hoped the teeth didn’t break flesh, as a dripping spring of crimson would be difficult to hide from the other two patrons. She didn’t care about the third passenger of the train car since he’d never bothered to join in on the festivities of their banter, or even awaken long enough to acknowledge their presences. Maybe it was for the better. One last person to gang up on her – if the tables ever managed to turn. Heather’s tongue always made sure she won any competition, whether that be in a sexual or argumentative nature.

“Aw, go ahead and blow it out your arse, preacher,” Heather stabbed, a hint of her home-grown Irish accent begging to seep into her speak. “You know damn well there has to be some widow or someone else’s husband out of town on a cattle drive, and you’re taking this steam powered iron dick through the nothing to get a piece of it while your Lord isn’t looking. I personally don’t blame you, Padre. We’ve all got to get in where we fit in from time to time.”

“Amen to that!” Bill exclaimed from the opposite end of the car.

Jonathan jerked at the comment as though a bolt of lightning had somehow materialized in the clear, desert sky and penetrated the rail car to land atop his scripture filled head. It wasn’t so much the never-ending insults from the sex dealer, but the fact that a suspected pedophile would add icing to his cake of despair by speaking the word “Amen” in his presence. It was an insult to all he held holy and to the God he served as well.

“How dare you offer blessing with such speech as that spoken in between the hallowed walls of my own church using a tongue that is most definitely in the service of Satan himself? If I were half the man I once was, I would strike you down and cut that tongue from your sinful mouth or even pull it from its source with my bare hands!”

Bill Reeves could finally see that he’d gotten the better of the old coot because the preacher seemed to be perspiring during what was definitely a chilly night in the desert. There was only so much insulation offered by the weak walls of the worn yet scrubbed down train car constructed by the lowest bidder. If his insults, wrapped in truth, weren’t somehow enough to take the old man to the floor clutching his chest, then finishing him off with his trusty revolver wouldn’t be out of the question. Who would say or do anything to the contrary? The prostitute surely didn’t care since the preacher had been attacking her all night as well. The sleeping gentleman with the top hat and black cloak? That stranger hadn’t so much as batted an eye in either of their directions since the train started moving. Still, if he were hell bent on joining in on the side of the preacher, there were enough bullets in Matilda to take those intentions to the grave.

“Look, old man,” Bill said. “I’m not too fond of the two of you, either. I’ve never been much for saloon hookers…”

“You’d probably like me a lot better if I were a young lad, though, wouldn’t you?” interrupted Heather.

Bill just cleared his throat in ignorance and continued.

“…and I’m not much for spending a lot of time in the presence of God…”

“Probably because you’ve been so naughty with the boys and he’s the judging type, isn’t he?” she added.

Bill clenched his teeth hard against Heather’s stabs. He tried his best to work through his intended message.

“What I’m trying to say is, you and I really aren’t all that different other than the color of our skin. You got your little telegram and hopped a train. Whether you’re running from something or running to something is yet to be determined and, to be quite honest, none of my goddamn business. I got my little telegram and did the same thing. You needed to do some preaching, so you got called up. I didn’t have a job and needed to make money, and I got called up. I don’t even know who sent the damn thing because it didn’t say. Desperate times call for…”

“Yeah, yeah, son, I get it!” Jonathan interrupted him. “We’re all pink in the inside. Save your speech because I’ve heard it all before. There’s nothing you colored folk have shown me to make me believe you wouldn’t splatter my brain all over this passenger car if the correct moment arose and there weren’t any witnesses around. Well, let me tell you something, good sir. I haven’t done a damn thing wrong other than try to offer you the gift of eternal salvation. In the end, I wasn’t your master, so you’ve got no right to even come at me with your misguided aggressions. Seems to me, sir, that the only thing we have in common is a telegram from a mystery sender!”

It was at that very moment when Heather shot her hand into the air to get the attention of the two quarreling men. The coincidences had taken a turn for the strange and unusual and it wasn’t sitting quite right with her. Sure, it was one thing for Bill the cowboy to be on a Goldfield bound midnight train not knowing his summoner’s identity, but for the preacher to be responding as well to similar situations and details? A little piece of paper safely tucked away in her own leather satchel from a mysterious benefactor prompted her to speak.

“I’ve got one too,” Heather whispered.

“Got what?” Jonathan inquired, perturbed by her mannerless interruption.

“I’ve got one, too. A telegram from no one. It offered me the position as head mistress at the Goldfield saloon but never even bothered to say who it was from. It didn’t bother me at first because I wasn’t about to give up the chance to be the main girl in a boomtown establishment! Those men have all kinds of crazy money, and it just burns a hole in their pocket. Well, they might as well spend it on this burning hole instead! I’ve been kicked around and spit on all these years holding out for an opportunity like this and I was willing to take the chance. Everything seemed to be coming up roses until you two got on this here train car with two scraps of paper likewise. I’ve seen a lot of gambling through my years and what are the odds that three people are in the same place at the same time under similar circumstances? I’ll damn sure tell you what they are! I wouldn’t dare put my money on that square even if I were playing with someone else’s fortune! I think we’ve either been duped, or we’re in trouble.”

Bill Reaves laughed heartily at the young girl’s prophecy and eyed the preacher for his own response. In trouble? Not if he had anything to do with it. Not only did he have Matilda, but her twin was tucked safely inside of his right boot for backup. Although uncomfortable on his ankle from time to time while walking, it was nice to know there was some other form of protection if his main girl failed him. He nodded at Jonathan for approval of his comedic outburst.

“No, I believe she’s absolutely right,” Rigby shifted the mood. “What are the odds, indeed? I’ve lectured the crutch of ‘the Lord works in mysterious ways’ all my adult life, but this scenario has gotten me a little on edge, quite frankly. We should wake our sleeping friend there to see where he fits into all of this. Agreed?”

Temporarily, the three of them were suddenly friendly, united with a common goal. Their silent guest had not so much as snored or shifted since they boarded the passenger car in Yuma. Neither of them witnessed his arrival which led them to believe he’d begun his journey in Los Angeles. Any identifying features were hidden from them due to a strategically placed top hat which hadn’t been moved by either bump nor breezes. No, the mystery guest just sat there, slumbering, clutching a polished wooden walking cane as though it were his last, most valuable worldly possession.

Heather and Bill nodded to the preacher with silent agreement. Not only was he the closest to the stranger, but he was also already standing from his earlier advancements. It only made sense, given his God given authority and all, for Jonathan to be the one in charge of the waking. Rolling his eyes, obviously annoyed by the cowardice displayed by his fellow passengers, the preacher tapped the sleeping man on his shoulder to roust and interrogate him. Fear began to gather in the form of sweat pools inside his polish-stained shoes.

“Kind sir,” Jonathan offered. “I hate to interrupt what I can only assume is a rather pleasant nap, but your fellow passengers and I seem to have stumbled upon a rather disheartening predicament. I wonder if you would be so kind as to reveal your final destination and reasoning. We all seem to…”

“I’m…I’m a vampire,” stuttered the stranger with the hint of an accent altogether unknown by the other three passengers. He was obviously still half asleep when he did so. “We have no choice but to travel at night. Sunlight death and all. Big steaming poof of nothing. I don’t make the rules, I just have to live by them.”

With that, the stranger shifted to his other shoulder and drifted back to sleep as though the inquiry never took place.

“Did he just say ‘vampire’?” asked Heather.

“What in the high-noon Hell is a vampire?” added the cowboy.

Jonathan imagined the man was merely having a bit of fun with the lot but wanted to be careful, nonetheless. Although the protestant religion he preached at his Yuma desert church was far from the beliefs of Catholicism, he’d heard the stories of the creatures from across the sea known as vampires. According to legend – and a few other preachers he’d met over the years who may or may not have partaken of their fair share of drink on the nights in question – these beings disguised as mortal men roamed the European countryside under cover of darkness, drinking the blood of their unsuspecting victims. Also, from rumor, some who fell victim to the vampire’s charm and bite wouldn’t even die. They would resurrect into vampires themselves! Of course, it was all drunken gibberish, but Rigby backed up a few shaky steps just in case.

The cowboy Bill Reeves was obviously oblivious to the potential danger, but Heather seemed to be well-traveled enough – or to have entertained those well-traveled enough – to recognize the word once uttered. The preacher nodded to the lady, and her eyes widened perceptively. This was different from the adversarial banter that had preceded the evening. She nodded back at Jonathan in agreement.

The first thought in the preacher’s mind was that she’d banged her fair share of holy men in her time to hear similar stories of blood and rampage from across the ocean. She also spoke with a strong Irish accent when under pressure, so it may have been that she wasn’t born in a country who dismissed such silly notions out of hand. It was time to find out. Jonathan reached her section and slinked silently into the seat next to her.

“You seem to know about as much as I do when it comes to what our sleeping stranger claims,” the preacher explained. “How is it you know of such things?”

Heather gave the preacher her best ‘are you fucking serious’ glare and sank back down to his level. Now face to face, they began whispering to the best of their abilities in hopes the mysterious stranger in the top hat wouldn’t overhear their discussion. Even though she felt severe hatred for the holy man, she thought Jonathan Rigby smelled nice for a lying rat servant of the Lord. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d held back her gag reflexes to make a dollar. Now wasn’t the time to discuss potential business in the passenger car. There were witnesses present, after all. Although, the cowboy may just have been kinky enough to want a good peek for a small fee. Money made the world go around!

“I’m from Ireland, you coot!” Heather whispered a tad too loudly for Jonathan’s taste. “We don’t run our ancient civilizations out of our lands and kill them or herd them into nasty bits of nowhere like you do here in this country. No, we encourage them and listen to what they have to give! As it stands, I’ve had quite a few of them offer me up bits of information about vampires while I’ve been in the business of offering myself!”

Jonathan Rigby hung on her every word as though she were preaching a story straight from the Bible itself. Even though he was sure it was nothing more than what he initially believed, drunken priests having their way with whores and losing all control of their tongues, he didn’t want to take any unnecessary chances when it came to a man the three of them knew nothing about. For someone who’d been saving that joke for all the hours of this train trip, he didn’t appear to be smiling when he brought forth his sudden secret. The preacher moved his hand in a circular motion as a signal for the girl to continue with her story.

“Right,” Heather noticed. “Anyway, it’s just like he said. They can’t go out in the daylight because the sun will kill them…”

Heather and Jonathan looked up as the newest guest to their conversation nestled upon his knees into the seat ahead of them. Bill listened attentively to every unusual word leaving the young woman’s mouth. He was completely awestruck.

Bill Reaves had heard his fair share of horror stories and Indigenous legends around the campfire working the beef herds outside of Yuma. Older cowboys spun tales of scorned women becoming what they referred to as ‘Skinwalkers’ and taking revenge on naughty husbands and such. The Native Americans had a lot of mumbo jumbo stories among them, but Bill dared not believe too much. You had to be strong where he came from. The last thing he needed was to be scared to death in the face of an unknow adversary, especially one created by the yarns of a saloon salesgirl. Still, he listened on as she rambled.

“…and they sneak into the ladies’ windows at night and bite their necks with pointy teeth, draining the poor girls of their blood and turning them pale white. As white as new sheets on an unsoiled bed, they do! They can even turn into bats, and you can’t see their reflect…”

Heather froze mid-sentence as the train screeched to a sudden halt. From what she could tell peering through the chilled desert darkness, they had indeed arrived at what could only be interpreted as an abandoned version of Goldfield, Arizona. At least, she thought it looked to be abandoned. There were no lanterns burning in any of the windows nor any drunken miners stumbling out the saloon doors. Goldfield was not the town she’d imagined from the telegram. What were the odds that every single resident engaged in slumber at this hour?

Rumors throughout Yuma had painted Goldfield to be a booming metropolis on the outskirts of Phoenix which grew by leaps and bounds daily. Tales also revealed that no one was allowed inside without an invitation from the town council. The population had boomed so much so quickly, the railroad strategically built a station with a quickness. The lady, who never believed much of the speak which occurred between rounds from her former place of employment, blew it off as nonsense until a telegram similar to that of the preacher and the cowboy appeared beneath her bedroom door. She shuddered to think of what awaited her beyond the protection of the train.

Just then, the three of them were jolted forward from the train’s sudden backing. Bill Reeves quickly ran to the rear of the passenger car to verify the change in direction, glancing back at the other two with a nod of assurance. The trio of nervous passengers were jolted yet again as the car came to a dead stop atop what was obviously a sidetrack at the Goldfield station. Moonlight from overhead reflected on the surface of pooled water along the ground with a slight hint of what could only be interpreted as rust. Jonathan, Bill, and Heather all seemed to have the same idea at the same time.

They ran frantically to all four of the train’s exit doors, but it was of no use. Nearly tripping on one another in the process, the cowboy, the preacher, and the prostitute switched sides, trying each door in hopes the other occupants were wrong. They weren’t.

“There has to be some type of explanation for all this,” Jonathan said. “Truly the railroad company will have someone come along in a few moments and let us out. God knows…”

“What?” shouted Heather, still attempting to get one of the exit doors to open. “What exactly does God know at this point? We’re being led down a sidetrack in an abandoned town in the middle of the night with the doors locked tight from the outside! And let’s not forget, we’re caught in here with one who claims to be a damned vampire too! He’s obviously a really sleepy vampire but he says he’s a goddamn vampire nonetheless!”

“And this is where the nonsense comes in,” Jonathan said. “Vampires are supposed to sleep during the day, not in the dead of night! If he were truly a vampire, this would be his damned feeding time! On top of that, he claimed it so nonchalantly. He’s obviously pickled beyond rational thought.”

Bill, who decided to stay quiet for much of the recent, frantic reckoning, slapped the back of the closest seat with a loud pop, bringing the other two passengers to his attention. The vampire, or so he claimed to be, still didn’t flinch, and continued to sleep quietly. He’d officially had enough of whatever shenanigans were taking place and planned to do everything within his power to bring it to an end. Staring daggers into the obviously nervous holy man and whore, he drew a deep cleansing breath. He needed to say something, and he needed to be taken seriously once he did so.

“Look, you two,” Bill began. “Other than the fact you both get paid to fuck people, whether that be literal or through the camouflage of the Bible, I know absolutely nothing about either of you. What I do know is that both of you have done nothing but raise Hell ever since you got onto this train! Now, we’re going to stay calm and find a way out of this situation by working together whether the two of you like it or not. You can beat the shit out of each other once we get these train doors open but, until then, you’re going to play nice so we can get through this. Most importantly, and I can’t stress this enough, there is no such thing as what that man over there claims to be. I don’t care if you heard it all from some Irish immigrants or some drunken priests on a bar stool. Whatever it is that both of you claim one of these ‘vampire’ characters to be is not asleep over there on that bench!”

Bill pointed in the direction of the mystery passenger to dramatically end the conversation, but he soon realized it was all for naught. His aggressive air fingering revealed absolutely no one on the receiving end, addling his already frustrated brain. He glared at his fellow passengers in confusion who, in turn, offered similar dumbfounded looks right back. Their concentration was broken as the deafening clink of their passenger car’s coupling released the remaining portion of the train. Slowly, it drifted off onto the main line once again and headed through the darkness into the direction of Tucson. It’s puffing smokestack and front mounted lantern disappeared into the black leaving three terrorized passengers and one invisible potential creature of the night in a literal purgatory. They were left behind purposely.

Silence descended upon the passenger car as their heartbeats and slight movements amplified to near deafening volume. Even the brush of their flesh against clothing was enough to make them want to cover their own ears. Back-to-back-to-back, the three unfortunate travelers peered desperately in all directions simultaneously for the return of the fourth who’d magically found a way to exit the vehicle, unheard and undiscovered.

The windows of the train car quickly began fogging over from the intensified, heated breath of the panicking passengers, causing them to feel more confined than they were. Heather suddenly reached out an open hand to Jonathan who immediately performed the same action on Bill. Regardless of their background or feelings for one another up to this point, they all found common cause in the face of any horror which could be lurking beyond the facades of the nearby buildings silhouetting the night sky of Goldfield. If standing guard this way until the morning light was the only solution to their current predicament, then so be it. The stillness of their surroundings made each shift of their movements intensify as though earthquakes shook the very ground on which they stood. That was when Bill felt the frigid hand upon his shoulder.

The vampire’s fangs pierced the man’s neck before his cowboy reflexes could kick in. Then, suddenly releasing him in a display of dominance, he held him at arm’s length as a spray of arterial red filled the air. A smile distorted the blood-spattered face of the once sleeping passenger, who in all fairness had tried to warn them all. He pulled Bill back into his clutches with force and drank of his escaping sustenance once more.

Heather and Jonathan headed in the opposite direction of the vampire’s feast knowing there was absolutely nothing they could do for their fallen companion. Assisting Bill Reeves was something that never crossed either of their minds as they huddled together in the farthest reaches of the passenger car, trying to meld with the seats and walls in an attempt at invisibility. They’d tried their best to warn the cowboy, who had dismissed their fear as childish fairy tales. Now, his insults and skepticism had come back to bite him. They couldn’t help but wonder who was next.

Although their profession of choice was at opposite ends of the sin spectrum, Jonathan and Heather had common ground at this exact moment; they wanted to live. They doubled up shoulder to shoulder in hopes their combined strength would be enough to budge one of the jammed doors. It was to no avail. Then, a flash of brilliance washed over the young girl which momentarily brightened the aura of her surroundings. She’d damn near forgotten that a working girl never traveled without protection!

Jamming her fist deep inside her leather satchel, she retrieved a single shot Derringer pistol. Up until this point in her life, she’d never even come close to an opportunity for using it. Most men in her life who’d come and gone with the ebb and flow of business always seemed to treat her well. She believed it was the quality of the service. Most women who got beaten by their customers normally got that way for refusing to do something the patron requested. This never seemed to happen in Heather’s sanctuary. The customer was always right. Pain typically subsided. Wounds eventually healed. Surfaces could always be cleaned. Money was everything.

Jonathan Rigby hit the ground with the realization of what was destined to commence next. He peeked into the direction of the night creature, still feeding hungrily on poor Bill as though the man contained an endless supply of blood. It was at that moment when the vampire threw the cowboy’s lifeless body to the ground. Bill’s shell crumpled in an inhuman fashion, crossed arms atop his head like a misfortunate scarecrow of the field. The vampire gathered whatever blood remained outside his mouth with a single swipe of his hand and slapped it to the floor carelessly. This was the signal Heather waited for.

Knowing she had a fifty percent chance of being the blood thirsty creature’s next victim, Heather aimed the Derringer at its pale forehead. She paused momentarily to recall whether or not the damned thing was even loaded but redacted her thought and aimed true once more. If wrong, then she was already as good as dead; Collapsed on the floor like poor Bill Reeves midway across the car. But, if she was right, then there was still a way out of this situation. She took aim one last time and prayed to the true powers-that-be.

Heather was temporarily deafened as the miniature explosion’s shockwave reverberated off the walls and windows of the now blood-filled passenger car. Instantly, Jonathan Rigby sprung to his feet in shock and fell once more. A puddle started to spread beneath the preacher’s dying body as his life essence drained from the bullet’s entrance wound. His weakening eyes found the assailant still pointing the empty weapon at him threateningly as though it were capable of launching another round.

“Why, child?” the preacher gasped.

The young girl knew the only way she’d be exiting this situation alive was to bargain with the unknown stranger. The preacher, being one of the only known enemies in vampire lore, could potentially hurt or even destroy the entity who stood before her, and that holy abomination was no longer an obstacle for the fourth passenger who still hadn’t revealed so much as a name, only a cause. Heather motioned for the vampire’s attention with a wave of her gun in the preacher’s direction.

Surely the night demon had fed on the strongest of them all first thing out the gate when he possessed the element of surprise. Bill was quite the burly fellow and may have given the creature a run for his money in the way of pugilism. His weapons, although hilarious in their intentions, could do little damage. The preacher, on the other hand, was a different story altogether. According to the sayings of her ancestors and fellow villagers back in her home country, a man of God was one of the only things who could put an end to its plight of evil. Vampires feared crosses and Bibles alike, and Jonathan Rigby was armed to the teeth with both. The question of whether he knew how to use them properly was beyond her knowledge. Still, if she was going to make a trade with this blood sucker for her life, then she needed a bargaining chip.

“And there you go, sir,” Heather said. “Now you won’t be having to worry about that preacher man and his holy mumbo jumbo doing a number on you. I went ahead and took him out nice and proper. One more morsel for you that won’t be fighting back.”

The creature disguised as a mere man laughed slightly behind his hand, but the edges of his smile refused to be hidden. Heather was taken aback by their habitual similarities. He, too, attempted to hide his more pleasurable of emotions from an uncaring world and appeared to be amused by the carnage playing out before his eyes.. He gazed upon the frightened girl longingly before tapping out an unusual rhythm on the train car wall.

“What hath God wrought?” he said.

Tapping once more the same rhythm upon the passenger car walls, he removed his blood-soaked top hat with a bowing gesture.

“Come again?” begged Heather.

The vampire stepped further into the direction of the saloon maiden. His eyes reflected the moonlight now amplified by the passenger car’s cleared portals. With much less warm breath being shared among its inhabitants, the mining town of Goldfield was much more visible. The overhead illumination brought shadows to life in the once thought abandoned encampment. Heather soon answered her own question revealing the townsfolk to be sheltering in fear of what lay beyond the moonlight, or the cause of the shadows themselves.

“Those were the first words sent over the telegraph lines by Samuel Morse on May 24th, 1844. I was there and looked no different than what I do at this very moment. Those four words signaled the beginning of a changing world and always made me ponder the answer to the question.”

Heather tried to move but realized all too late that she was paralyzed by the strange man’s stare. Lost once and for all in his age’s old eyes, she felt strangely relaxed and unafraid for whatever came next. She awaited the vampires touch whether it be gentle, rough, or fatal. It was as though her very life depended on each word escaping his deadly mouth. His accent, although never before uttered into the ears of this victim, soothed her physical being and managed to tickle a particular spot which begged for more attention. As far as Heather was concerned, he could have it. He could have it all.

“And just exactly how do you answer such a question?” asked Heather.

“That’s the easy part, my dear,” continued the vampire. “Over time, the answer revealed itself to me and has played out a couple of times tonight in this particular train car. The blood of a hundred humans have been spilled onto the desert sand by my own will because of this answer. What hath God wrought? That’s the simplest section of humanity’s mystery, love. God hath wrought me.”

The girl smirked in confusion at the creature’s riddle but didn’t care if she ever comprehended his whimsical speak. She wasn’t quite sure if her body had given in to the unseen forces or if he was truly trying to take over her every instinct. Did it matter in the end? Her choices were obvious: to be slaughtered and thrown to the floor like the cowboy Bill Reeves; or to be embraced in the loving arms of death by the vampire’s pierce. If she chose the latter, at least she’d have one last go of pleasure before sinking into nothingness. One last touch, one last dollar, or one last breath. Life was all about finality. In her mind, God hath wrought the answer to her predicament.

She dropped the Derringer to the floor with a discarded thud as though it, being in an unloaded state, still had something to do with the conflict at hand. However, the impacting sound of polished steel upon the wooden floor was altered by the ever-growing pool of blood beneath her feet. Her host swirled his hand, beckoning her closer to his position. He didn’t have to move a single muscle to accomplish his bidding. The union was inevitable regardless of the outcome. There was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. She had no choice but to accept his invitation. The tiny flower from between her legs made damn sure of that and pointed her in the direction of what it desired most. She reached her destination without any recollection of ever using her feet.

Gliding into the vampire’s arms, he lowered his head in a show of consequence. He began speaking softly into his new victim’s ear, bringing forth feelings of ecstasy and a taste of things to come. Each move of his lips sent sensations reeling throughout Heather’s body unlike anything she’d ever felt before. She couldn’t help but think she’d experienced every pleasure or pain known to humankind up until the moment she accepted his intense embrace. A trickle of moisture traveled downward from her inner thigh as she gasped in orgasmic shock. She prayed more were to follow. His words continued and she clung to them like childhood promises.

“To be quite honest, love, you didn’t have to kill the preacher. Like so many others of the Protestant faith before him, his intentions are hollow. He clings to false words in an overly translated book which died centuries ago. He may as well have been reading Jules Verne instead of Bible verses. He had no power here against my kind, nor will they ever. People think my existence is a myth. I’m very real when compared to the delusions of my God-fearing food!”

Heather sank deeper into his arms as more drips of pleasure fell from her essence, mixing coveted fluids with the ever-growing river of blood from a rotting cowboy and holy pervert. Not once had the cause of such invigorating mayhem caressed or invaded her sensitive folds of flesh with his own touch. The words now traveling from the base of her neck into her awaiting ears was more than enough to quench the girl’s desires. She wanted more.

“I’ve been watching you, Heather Osgood, same as I watched the other two go about their daily, disgusting lives. The cowboy? His tales told upon this night were so close to actual honesty, yet he couldn’t quite bring himself to reveal his sins. A child deserves not such torments as those forced upon them by the likes of grown men, and I could taste their stained innocence with every drop of his Hellish blood which crossed my lips mere moments ago. I have no use for such abominations in my world.”

The vampire worked his tongue against the skin of Heather’s neck, probing and assessing the strength of her pulsing veins and arteries. She hoped it would be painless, or did she? The girl wasn’t entirely sure at this moment, still enthralled by the man’s hypnotic voice. Pleasure dominated her senses as she quivered upon weakened knees. That was when she felt the slight scrape of a sharpened fang upon her skin.

“The man of God was the easiest one of all to trap,” the vampire revealed. “His path never strayed much between his church and the half empty beds of the husbands who’d been called away to labor. He would stand and preach his gospel to these same men upon their return knowing damn good and well he’d been exploring their women’s vacancies whenever they left town. Often he would dine in their homes, placing that same filthy mouth upon their crockery that he used to please the wives who washed them afterward. Don’t get me wrong, lass. God is very real in the old parts of the world, but Arizona isn’t one of those places. How dare he hide behind such a wholesome name?”

The stranger’s dagger-like fangs dug slowly, ever deeper into the young girl’s neck never seeming to find a desirable depth. Heather faded further into euphoric bliss with every passing second. She grew impatient with the slow passion of the vampire’s kiss and forced her neck even deeper into death’s awaiting mouth. To help seal the deal, she intertwined her own fingers into her host’s mane and shoved him even harder into her flesh. The blood poured pints down the feaster’s throat until he could imbibe no more.

The vampire halted Heather’s advancements on the brink of death and pressed for an answer to his coming ultimatum. She knew this moment would eventually arrive and all pain of life would cease. It was the moment she awaited upon the realization that death was the only way out of her situation. The type of death in question was the portion of the conundrum entirely up to her. Could she dine upon the flesh and blood of her fellow species, luring them to their doom aboard the master’s judgement train, or become the very dirt her kind walked upon? The man who held both her fate and her body within the grip of his own intentions didn’t even need to ask. She answered the question that never came.

“Yes,” she whispered.

This time, she refused to hide her smile.

With that, the rush of the vampire’s venom invaded her mind with answers to questions still lingering in the lone passenger car. It was as though she’d been living every moment of this man’s life by his side since the dawn of his own time in a land far way. She gripped his waiting hand and led him into places previously unknown to the being who already knew most everything about her.

In accordance with a railroad agreement, the very train car in which she stood was dropped off, emptied of its inhabitants, and cleaned for a return trip to its westernmost destination on a weekly basis. The land dispute which caused the line to relocate to Goldfield was nothing more than vampiric trickery in the hands of her new master and partner. It was an unbreakable ‘Golden Rule’ on behalf of the rail barons. Whoever had the gold, made the rules. An immortal lifetime of wealth gathering allowed him to make a hell of a lot of rules. The vampire’s kingdom was vast.

He had indeed been eyeing her every move for weeks, as well as the other two occupants of the passenger coach. Disgusted by the actions of the others, Heather could sense his hatred toward them as she viewed the vampire’s surveillance like stage presentations from a late-night saloon performance. After that, the truly strange encounters took shape.

As though she were living outside of her body, Heather witnessed her own life play out before the vampire’s eyes. She sensed his empathy for her choices and noticed sparkles beneath shadowed eyes that were unfamiliar to their wearer. This man’s longing from a darkened corner table never ceased with each disappearance and reappearance into the main hall of the saloon in which she worked. She was suddenly drawn back into reality by the direction of his soft yet commanding voice.

“Welcome to our world, my lady,” he said. “Here, we shall come and go as we please. Whether that be from place to place or from time to time is entirely up to you. The rules of the undead vary much from the confining limits of humanity. A century ago, this was empty desert. A century from now? Ours still as it is on this very day.”

Heather opened her eyes to an unfamiliar world, but she knew deep down it wouldn’t take her long to figure it out. That’s how her life had been for as far back as she could remember. Thrown into unforgiving situations, struggling to breath, until ultimate proficiency was achieved. She was certain there would be much to learn in the coming times. The excitement of it all drowned her spirit like a shot of whiskey on a winter’s night.

Through the now completely clear windows of the train car came a roar of a thousand wings on the night wind. The darkness rose as their tiny bodies blotted out the moon. They circled the train instinctively as though they’d been instructed by their master’s will. The children of the night swarmed their surroundings, awaiting the signal of the door to open and their feast upon the vampire’s leftovers to begin.

Heather paused.

A weakened hand grasped at her ankle as she attempted to join the chilled air of the desert night. Jonathan Rigby, still clinging to life from the gunshot wound inflicted upon him, searched around frantically for familiar eyes. He met none.

What he witnessed instead were the fading portals into the underworld now nestled onto the face of the woman who sealed his fate for all eternity. She kicked his grip free of its grasp, smiling at the torture bound for his frail body once the horde of small mouths were allowed entrance to their awaiting meal. Barely audible words escaped his dying head in a final effort for salvation and survival.

“Please, my child,” Jonathan pleaded. “Please hand me my Bible.”

So much talk of saviors and salvation on this evening and not a single soul who embarked upon the fateful journey, more so the preacher than anyone, guessed the exact details of the being in which he claimed to know. Would the target of his lifelong prayers arise to prevent the foul fate awaiting him? The mistress, now reborn in darkness, knew the true answer.

“Mister,” Heather replied. “I met God tonight. He doesn’t care about what goes on inside this here train. What hath he wrought; you asked? He hath wrought the end.”

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