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The Dead Man's Switch

The last train travels fast

By Terrye TurpinPublished 10 months ago 10 min read
The Dead Man's Switch
Photo by Larry Costales on Unsplash

He opened his eyes to a world gone red. Somewhere nearby a woman sobbed, her keening cries almost drowned out by the chug and clack of a locomotive. The man, forty-two-year-old Roy Ellis, sat up and wiped the blood from his face. Gingerly, he probed the wound on his scalp. A painful lump swelled at his right temple.

Gripping the edge of the seat above him, he pulled himself up, boot heels scraping against the wooden floor. Once he stood, he found a battered and sweat stained cowboy hat on the seat. He straightened it as best he could and put it on before peering out the rail car window at the barren landscape flashing past. Clumps of green sage dotted the pale tan sand. The blue-gray outline of a mountain range spread across the horizon. He was on a train, that much was clear, but what was happening? How did he get here? If he was a passenger, he must have a ticket. He reached into his coat pocket.

Instead of the folded paper of a rail ticket, his fingers brushed something cold and hard. He lifted the object—a gold star with the words Deputy Sheriff engraved on the front. His hand flew to the empty holster at his hip. The acrid sulfur stink of gunpowder hung in the air, blending with the black coal smoke from the locomotive. The open door at the end of the carriage banged against the frame. Roy clutched the back of the seat and waited for a wave of dizziness to pass before he stumbled toward the opening. He dropped the badge into his coat.

The first dead man was behind the last seat. He wore a soldier’s khaki uniform. Watery blue eyes stared with a slack, empty gaze. A black-rimmed hole was centered on the young man’s forehead. A red trail of blood, slender as a crimson ribbon, leaked from the corpse’s nose. Roy rolled the body on its side, searching for a weapon. Nothing. He released it to flop against the floor.

The next unit, a passenger car, held a second victim. This one wore the navy blue of a railroad worker and lay sprawled across the aisle. The sobbing woman sat in the last seat on the right. A bruise bloomed on her cheek. She clutched a cloth to her face and when she noticed Roy, her sobs quieted to gasps, as though she couldn’t draw her breath. Across the aisle from her, a man in a black suit and a dandy bowler hat held one arm wrapped around a small boy. The man’s feet rested on a canvas duffle, half-shoved under the seat.

“What happened here?” Roy held onto the seat back to brace himself against the swaying train. He gestured to the body behind him.

“What the hell? That’s a poor joke.” The child squirmed in the man’s lap and reached toward the woman. The man hugged him close and whispered, “Now there.”

Roy gestured to his wound. “I came to just now. Can’t remember jack shit. Someone hit me a good one.”

The man squinted at Roy, then relaxed. “Train robbers. They blew the safe, then jumped off.”

“How’d they get on?” Roy glanced out the window at the desert flowing past.

“Stopped the train outside Tucson. Train started rolling after the explosion. Then this happened.” The man lifted his right hand to reveal a pistol and gestured with it to the body on the floor. The suit coat fell open and Roy saw a ragged, bloody hole in the man’s white shirt.

“You’re injured.” Roy stepped forward, but the man waved him away.

“It’s nothing.” He dropped the pistol to his side. “You see anyone up there? They were gonna check on the engineer, see what’s going on.”

Roy shook his head. “You stay here. I’ll go.” Later, he’d have to deal with the black-suited man.

He made his way to the front of the train, across the gangway and through the car he’d woken up in, and out to the entrance to the tender, where the water and coal were stored. A narrow corridor led through the storage area. Roy had to turn sideways to fit his bulk through the space.

A body blocked the cab. The dead man lay face down, a puddle of blood pooled around his body. A black Stetson rested on his head, hiding his features. His outstretched hand lay across the stock of a shotgun. Roy stepped over the corpse to gaze through the shattered glass on the cab door window. A second body lay face up in front of the firebox. His closed eyes made Roy think he was asleep, but a dark red rose of a wound covered the man’s chest. Behind him, the dull orange glow of dying coals lit the cab.

A third man, the engineer, slumped over the controls. His hand clutched the lever that, when released, would cut the throttle and slow the train. Not just a lever—Roy remembered the name they called it—the Dead Man’s Switch. So called because you had to be alive to press down the lever. It was a failsafe. In case of an accident, the engineer just had to let go.

“Hey!” Roy called through the window. He tried the door, but it wouldn’t budge. Stretching as far as his arm would fit, he fumbled for the latch. The small window did not allow him to reach far enough downward. They had wedged something against the lock, through the door’s inner handle. His fingertips brushed against wood and he recognized the familiar shape of an ax handle.

The train rocked through a curve, and the engineer’s body shifted. His head turned toward Roy, as though about to reply. There would be no answer from this man—the lower part of his jaw hung loose, bits of white teeth and bloody gore dotted the front of his uniform shirt. Dead, but still his hand kept its grip on the switch.

“Jesus!” Roy backed away from the door. His boot heel caught on the forgotten corpse behind him, and he fell, hard.

He kicked at the dead man, imagining the cold hands grasping at his ankles. Roy sucked in a breath as his sight went dark. A sharp stab of pain pierced his temple. When he could see again, he stood up. Things were coming back to him now. This was the train from Tucson to Tucumcari. He’d got on… he couldn’t recall boarding. It floated in his mind like the memory of a dream, wrapped around the stink of sulfur and burning coal. Roy bent and picked up the hat from the body, uncovering his face.

“Jacob.” Roy dropped the hat. He knew this man. His hand sought the gold star he’d found earlier. Was this another deputy? Had they worked together? He shivered and thought of the old wives’ tale—someone just walked across his grave.

“What did you find?”

The voice behind him startled Roy, and he spun to face the intruder. The man in the black suit leaned against the opening to the tender. One hand gripped his bloody side, the other held the pistol, pointed down. The tan canvas satchel was slung across one shoulder, the words US Army stenciled on the side.

“We need to stop the train.” Roy nodded to the cab. “Engineer and fireman are dead. The engineer is stuck on the throttle.”

Sweat dotted the man’s forehead and upper lip and his face was pale as curdled milk. “Won’t it run out of fuel? We can just wait.”

Roy shook his head, thinking of the firebox, almost empty of coal, and the dead man driving the train. Despite the lack of fuel, the train rushed on. Would probably keep traveling until it ran out of rail, crashed, or entered the gates of hell. “There’s a curve, right before we reach El Paso. We’ll never make it past if we don’t slow down. Train will jump off the rails and crash.”

“Break down that door!”

“And how would you do that? Can’t shoot it—it’s solid steel. You’d end up shooting us both before you did enough damage to get the door open.”

“There must be something we could use. An ax or a shovel?”

Roy touched his temple. He figured he’d already been acquainted with the ax, and the coal shovel was locked inside with the dead. They’d join them soon, once the train reached that curve. Hell, they might already be dead. Except he thought then of the woman and her child. There were at least two people left worth saving.

“We can uncouple the passenger car.” Roy pushed past the man. He followed behind, protesting.

“How do you know that will work? It’s too dangerous.”

“You go across. I’ll stand on this side and you stand on the other. Together, we’ll pull the release. I’ll jump once it’s loose. Car will slow when the engine isn’t pulling it.”

They reached the car where the woman and child waited. “Ma’am. We’re going to let this car loose from the train. It should slow down and stop, but you need to hold tight and stay put until it does.” The woman stared blankly at him. She clasped her boy to her side. “Do you understand?” When she nodded, Roy added in a soft voice, “I’m sorry for all this.”

Outside the car, the wind from the train’s passing whipped Roy’s hat from his head. It disappeared under the wheels of the locomotive. Across from him, the black-suited man still held onto the gun and the tan duffle.

“You’ll get a better grip if you put that away.” Roy gestured to the gun. “And leave that sack inside.”

The man slipped the gun into the holster at his side. He shook his head, though, at leaving the bag. “I’ll keep this right here.” He set the sack at his feet.

Roy wrapped his hands around the lever that would release the pin holding the car’s connector. “Grab hold from your side and pull.” When the man bent and grasped the bar, Roy asked, “Would you die for that money, Bill?”

The man, Bill, jumped up and bared his teeth. “So. You remember?”

“All of it.”

Bill stumbled back and drew his pistol. “I’d die with it if I stay on this train. But that ain’t going to happen. You pull that lever.”

“And if I don’t?”

Bill nodded toward the train car behind him. “You’d let them die too?” He turned the gun on Roy.

For an answer, Roy bent and pulled on the bar. It lifted an inch, then two. Coal smoke stung his eyes and blurred his sight. Rust flaked off and tore his bare hands. The metal squealed as they hoisted the bar. Roy dropped his hands. “I can’t do it by myself. You need to pull from that side, too.”

A minute passed while the train chugged forward. How close were they to the curve? Finally, Bill dropped the gun and grabbed hold of the bar. Together, they heaved it upward. The pin rose. Just as it popped loose, Roy grabbed the Army duffle and yanked it across the gap.

“Hey!” Bill snatched at open air. His mouth round with shock, he stumbled to his feet. The space between the cars widened as the train pulled away. “Toss that back over!” He drew his gun and fired, but the hammer clicked on an empty chamber. Bill leaped toward Roy.

If he had made the jump as soon as Roy grabbed the money, he might have made it. Instead, he missed the platform at the end of the car by a foot. The steel wheels made quick work of him. Without time for even a gasp, they sucked him under.

Roy heaved the sack from his car and into the slowing carriage. It was too late for him to make the jump, but he’d not go to hell with the money on his conscience. They’d planned the robbery together—him, Bill, and Jacob. No one would suspect a deputy sheriff, so Roy had figured he’d at least get away with his share of the Army’s payroll. The train had stopped for the wagon they’d abandoned on the tracks. After that, his memory grew hazy again. It didn’t matter. He’d been responsible for all the death on the train, even if he hadn’t pulled the trigger himself.

The locomotive thundered down the rails, intent on its destination. The last train he’d ride. Back in his seat, Roy pulled the gold star from his pocket and pinned it to his coat.

HorrorShort StoryMystery

About the Creator

Terrye Turpin

Terrye writes stories set in Texas and other strange places. She enjoys exploring antique, junk, and thrift stores for inspiration and bargains. Find her books on Amazon: Terrye Turpin

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  • Terrye Turpin (Author)10 months ago

    Thank you Heather! There is actually a true story that inspired me. The Fairbank Train Robbery in February 1900 was planned by two deputy sheriffs.

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