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Folk Hero

1874: A Man's Past Catching Up to His Future

By Emily NakanishiPublished 2 years ago 8 min read
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Folk Hero
Photo by Michel Stockman on Unsplash

It wasn’t that the journey made William uncomfortable on trains – it wasn’t the packed carriages or the rickety bump-de-bump of the locomotive across the tracks. It was a myriad of factors, the driving force behind which this day was the pale complexion of his wife. Anna hadn’t looked well since the birth of little Joseph, had seemed drawn and tired, prone to mysterious outbursts of sudden rage and then hours-long onsets of crying.

That’s why it seemed best to William – to the both of them, really – to pack up their meager belongings and move back east, back to Anna’s family in the city. While William certainly wasn’t looking forward to the blow to his pride at having to work under his father-in-law, Anna needed the support of her mother and sisters, and William had no blood relatives left to speak of.

A pang shot through him as he reminded himself that he had no found family anymore, either.

“You look pained,” Anna said quietly, a delicate, pale hand touching his arm. As William turned away from the window, he saw the way that her eyes were bloodshot and red, her thin frame beneath her cotton dress. Again, he knew that it had been a mistake to take her to the Midwest – she had always been sickly, after all, and William felt as though he had failed her. All the long stretches of time away from her, trying to gather up the wealth that she deserved, while she had gone through her difficult pregnancy alone… It was a miracle that he hadn’t lost her, and Joseph too.

He mustered up a smile, leaning to kiss her on the forehead. The skin beneath his lips was clammy. He might still lose her yet, he knew.

“I don’t like trains,” he said, which wasn’t a lie. It was a new thing for them, though she didn’t really know it, that he told the truth. He wanted desperately to be a better man than he was, for his little family, but there were some truths that he still withheld.

Anna looked at him strangely. “You didn’t seem bothered the last time.”

“It’s a recent discomfort.” William turned his attention to the baby in Anna’s arms, small and sleeping, wrapped in a blanket that she had worked to quilt while he had been gone. William gently thumbed the blanket away from Joseph’s little face, admiring the soft breaths the baby took.

“The train lulls him,” Anna said quietly, looking down at him as well. “It would me, too, but he’ll be hungry soon, I think.”

Darkness enveloped them, lit only by the lamps of the passenger car, as they passed through a tunnel. There was a sudden lurch of the train that would have thrown Anna and Joseph forward had William’s arm not shot out to hold them in place. Then, there was a great metallic groaning, as the train careened to the side, off of the tracks. William pressed Anna to him, Joseph between them, bracing himself against the window, as the train slid down the sloping embankment to settle in the ditch below.

Above the shocked and confused noises of the passengers, he could hear the sound of galloping hooves, and a feeling of dread overtook him.

“What is it? What’s happened?” Anna asked fearfully as the baby between them began to cry. Carefully she shifted so that he wasn’t pressed so tightly, and William resisted the sudden urge to hide them both in his chest again. He couldn’t see them, just their bare outlines. “Have we… have we crashed?”

“Rope across the tracks,” William answered. “I think it’s a robbery,” he added quietly, so that only she could hear, in an effort not to alarm the other passengers. “Take your rings off, hide them in your dress.”

There were strange, ghastly shadows in Anna’s face, cast by the lamplight, as she pressed Joseph into his arms and removed her rings, dropping them down the neckline of her dress. William had a thought to his father’s pocketwatch in his pocket, but knew that he’d have to give something up in order to appease them, and dishonorable men wouldn’t hesitate to search Anna.

The heavy clunk of boots sounded in the car before theirs. William quietly handed Joseph back to Anna, who did her best to shush him, voice wavering, as the door opened to reveal a man with a gun. Across his face was a white cloth, the only thing that showed being blue eyes that sparkled in the lamp light – eyes that William would recognize anywhere.

He was both, in that moment, relieved and terrified. He knew then that no one would be unnecessarily hurt, so long as no one tried to do anything that the outlaw deemed stupid. He also knew that no woman on the train, including his beloved wife, would be subject to any injustices. The only one in any real danger of dying that day was William himself.

“Anna,” he said quietly, barely above a whisper. “I love you more than life itself.”

“I know,” she said, and he knew that she did. “And I love you. But William, we’re going to be alright.” Anna said it with conviction, clutching their son to her chest, and William knew that she would be, at least. His beautiful wife had always been so much stronger in spirit, even though her health made her physical countenance weak and occasionally helpless.

“Ladies, gentlemen,” the outlaw said, voice smooth and confident. “There’s no need to panic. All you have to do is take out your valuables and hand them over without a fuss, and no one has to get hurt.” He pulled a white cloth from his pocket with one hand, shaking it out into a bag, and Anna pressed herself close to William.

A second man stepped through the door – security, to make sure the passengers wouldn’t overwhelm the first, William knew. He was taller, with blue eyes like the first outlaw. They hadn’t yet recognized William in the dim lighting, but it was only a matter of time, as the pair made their way down the rows, collecting jewelry and money.

His heart seemed to sink lower into his stomach with every heavy step that they took, until finally the boots came close enough that William could feel his own hands shaking. He didn’t dare look up until the white bag was in front of him. Then, slowly, he raised his eyes to meet the outlaw’s, hands clutching Anna and his son to him in a desperate grasp.

Recognition sparked in the outlaw’s eyes. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he said lowly. “Come on, then.”

He made an impatient motion with the gun. William leaned in to give his wife a kiss on the cheek, to rub his thumb gently across Joseph’s tiny forehead, because there was a very real chance that he wouldn’t be seeing them again.

“William!” Anna cried out urgently as William stood carefully, edging out from between the benches of the train with a gun pressed to his back.

“Don’t worry,” the outlaw said. “As long as ol’ Bill here behaves himself, he’ll be fine.” He passed the bag off to the second outlaw, who took it without a word and with a knowing stare at William.

William was ushered into the next car, a baggage car with no passengers. The moment that the door closed behind them, the gun was pulled away. Finally, he could turn, just in time to see the outlaw pulling the white cloth away from the lower part of his face, dragging it down to drape it around his neck.

“We thought you were dead, Bill,” he said, gaze thunderous. “Came to the house when you didn’t show up, thought the Pinkertons had taken you both in.”

“I’m sorry,” William said quickly, and he meant it. “The birth was hard, Anna can’t... We’re heading back east, back to her family, so they can help with the baby.” When the outlaw simply stared at him, he continued on, quietly. “The doctor said she’ll never be able to have another. He’s my only son – I wanted to be a better father, a better man.”

The outlaw nodded, slowly, anger fading away from his face. “And you didn’t think we’d understand? Didn’t think I’d understand? Hell, Bill, I’da bought you the damn tickets.”

William’s fingers twitched, and he brought them up to his neck, rubbing at the back of it. “I didn’t know what to do,” he admitted lowly. “Anna’s not well, all I could think about was getting her somewhere that she feels safe. With me gone so much, she got so lonely… I nearly lost her, Jamie.”

Jamie nodded again, quiet for a long moment. Then, he reached out a gloved hand, clapping it on William’s shoulder. “But you didn’t. You’ve still got her, and you’re gonna take damn good care of her.” Then, he smiled, as devilishly handsome as ever with that simple act. “And now you’ve got a son. What’s his name?”

“Joseph,” William said, relief washing over him. “Joseph James.”

Blue eyes twinkled at him. “James? Named after someone you know?”

William let a ghost of a smile cross his face. “You were my brother, Jamie, in everything but blood. Seemed only fitting.”

“Bill, I’m still your brother,” Jamie said. He patted his breast pocket briefly, reaching inside his coat. There, in his hand, was a stack of greenbacks, American dollars. He slid the gun into its holster, as though he’d just now remembered its existence from where it’d been hanging loosely at his side. “There was two thousand in the safe,” he said, and held about a fifth of the stack out. “For you to start fresh.”

“I can’t take it,” William said. The money was tempting, though, and William didn’t have more than ten dollars in his pocket – when they finally got to the East, they’d be completely dependent on Anna’s parents until William made enough to get them out on their own again.

“Consider it congratulations,” Jamie said, reaching to fold the money into William’s breast pocket. “A retirement.”

“Thank you,” William said, and let the money sit. He didn’t know how he’d explain it to Anna, but he supposed one last lie was just a drop in the bucket compared to the many he’d told over the few years they’d been together.

Jamie winked, and pulled the gun from its holster. “Let’s get you back, then, safe and sound. Your wife'll be worrying.”

William nodded, putting his hands up once more and turning. He felt the gun press against his back – this time it was for show, he knew, and he’d be back safely with his wife once more.

A shot rang out, pain lancing through his lower back and abdomen. William lowered his hands slowly, looking down to where blood began to spread across the white of his shirt, blossoming out like a morbid rose. William crumpled as his knees gave out, but strong hands caught him, helping him lay out on the floor of the baggage car.

“Sorry, Bill,” Jamie said, and he sounded truly remorseful. “But I can’t have people thinking they just get to walk away. You know too damn much, brother. We’ll take care of Anna, alright? We’ll send her money, say it’s from an old friend of yours. I’ll leave your retirement for her to find.” He patted where the money sat in William’s pocket as William struggled to breathe, darkness coloring his vision quickly. Too quickly.

He heard the door to the baggage car close. Then, William heard nothing more.

Short Story
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About the Creator

Emily Nakanishi

Tired and chronically ill, but with a deep, profound love of writing.

I write what I would want to read. LGBTQ+, mysteries, essays, short stories, random musings, things that make sense and things that don't. Conversation welcome!

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