And Hell Followed
A short horror story by Teresa Hart
It is preferable not to travel with a dead man- Henri Michaux
The year was 1916, and the town of Rhyolite steadily spiraled down the economic hole. Her townspeople sought opportunities far from her wasteland.
One man in particular looked forward to a new beginning in Ryan, California. The small mining town was beginning to flourish. Gold, among other various metals were rumored to be found in that mountain, and Albert Williams wanted his share.
He sat alone by the window, watching the sun-beaten town shrink in the distance. The train had finally departed Rhyolite station. Relief washed over him, and his daydreams of finding riches began.
Hours passed, and the sun settled west. The majority of the ride was quiet, despite Albert sharing the cart with a handful of passengers. It wasn’t until a flickering of lights and incessant murmurs pulling him away from his fantasies, that he realized the source of everyone’s speculations.
A strange man with an unfortunate face staggered towards them. The unsteady movement of the blaring locomotive further disoriented him. He swayed about, grabbing onto anything to help keep his bearings.
Albert hurried to his side, and guided the man to the empty seat across from him. After settling the dazed man down, he asked a nearby waiter for a glass of water. Albert reassured the poor man that he was in good hands, and kept a watchful eye over his state of health. Although he couldn’t help but note the stranger’s peculiar features.
His clammy skin appeared to be drenched in sweat. Darkened veins crept over his hands and face. That face. Large brown eyes with a slight milky hue were housed in deep sockets. His lips were hidden behind a horseshoe mustache. A faint scent of rotted meat drifted through Albert’s nostrils.
“Here you are, sir.” the waiter appeared with the glass.
He smiled and accepted the beverage. He turned his attention back to the man, and offered him the drink. The stranger reluctantly took it. Feeling the passenger’s eyes on them, Albert cleared his throat to break the awkward silence.
“If we’re gonna be travelin’ together, maybe we can learn a little bit about each other, friend. My name’s Albert Williams.”
The man gave no response.
“So,” he said, “You mind tellin’ me about yourself?”
He shook his head.
“No you don’t mind, or-”
His deep voice crackled, “No, I can’t.”
Albert gave him a puzzled look, “You can’t? Why not?”
The stranger glanced around the train wagon, then back to him, “I don’t know.”
Rubbing the back of his greasy scalp, he continued, “I don’t know who I am. Hell, I don’t even know how I got here.”
Albert’s eyes widened in concern, “You don’t recall boardin’ this train?”
He shook his head. A nearby traveler overheard the conversation, and promptly excused herself from the train wagon.
‘Do you have any memories at all?”
“Do you at least know where you’re headed?”
He could see the stranger’s stress build with each question.
“Okay, okay.” Albert lowered his tone, “I don’t mean to overwhelm you, friend. Just a little concerned is all.”
The stranger looked at him, eyes full of fear and asked, “Could you tell me where we’re headed?”
Albert said, “Sure. We’re headed to Ryan.”
“Ryan.” he repeated with a nod.
The name rang a distant bell.
“Excuse me.” a train conductor interrupted, “Please show me your tickets.”
Albert caught a glimpse of a woman watching them with a smug look.
“O’ course.” he replied, and produced a ticket.
The conductor then eyed the nameless man and commanded, “Show me your ticket, sir.”
Unsure of how to help his new friend, he sat in silence. The man stared at Albert, unmoving. The train conductor repeated himself in a more harsh tone. Lights flickered and the train’s stability wavered.
Clenching his jaw, he turned to their unwelcome guest and said, “I don’t got a ticket.”
“Then you will be escorted off of this train at the next stop. From there, the lawmen will figure out what to do with you.” he retorted.
Anger flashed across the stranger’s eyes.
Albert interjected, “Please, try to be understandin’. Y’see, this man’s got no recollection of who he is, or where he’s from. Can’t you let it slide?”
His expression remained cold as he replied, “No recollection? Seems like a pretty dull story from a pretty dull stowaway. We don’t tolerate such things. He’ll have to come with me-”
“Sir.” Albert pleaded, “At least let him stay out here with me. I can keep an eye on him for you.”
The train conductor studied Albert’s withered face and genuine eyes. He sighed and said, “Very well. We’ll be in Ryan soon. I can retrieve him then. Gentlemen.” and abruptly left.
Silence stood between them. The mysterious man watched the sun creep further into the horizon. His skin, a lifeless ashy gray, emitted a more noticeable stench. Albert hid his disgust.
He cleared his throat and said, “I’m sorry about that, friend. Maybe we can get this all cleared up once we reach town.”
No response was given.
Sensing everyone’s eyes still on him, the odd man grunted, “Look, I ain’t in a talkative mood right now. Just…” his eyes were drawn to a newspaper article near the entry doorway of the car, “Just leave me…” his voice trailed off.
Albert turned back to see what caught the stranger’s interest. A picture of eight corpses and a hanged man were placed on the front page.
“I see you got an interest in the bank robbery of 1909.” Albert said.
The silent man shifted his gaze from the picture of the massacre to Albert.
“You sure do have an unlucky face, friend. Are you familiar with the story of Gentle Jesse?”
The stranger continued to study the bleak image.
Fixated on his face, Albert muttered, “O’ course you can’t be him. He’s-” he cleared his throat and shifted uncomfortably in his seat, “Well, nevermind.”
He continued, “Y’know, I can’t understand why they’d name ‘im that. There ain’t nothin’ gentle about that man. Then again, maybe they’re goin’ for irony.”
Albert noted his stillness, then questioned him further, “Can you read?”
His acquaintance gave him a blank stare, then shook his head.
“There’s no shame in being illiterate. I was that way for a while. You just need a will to learn, and of course a teacher. A very patient teacher in my case.” Albert chuckled.
The man remained quiet.
Albert then said, “You know, a heavy story like this deserves a heavy drink, don’t you think?”
Those words brought a familiar sense of delight to the nameless man.
“A drink…” he mumbled, “A drink sounds nice.”
Albert smiled, then motioned for a waitress and ordered a couple of Last Words.
As they waited, Albert broke the silence, “Now let’s see, where to begin?”
“Rhyolite was a bust. I say we cut our losses and skip town, b’fore they have our hides.” Mullins urged.
Gentle Jesse shook his head, “No. We just need a little more money. Then we can leave. We can leave this mess behind us and start anew.”
Mullins let out a chuckle and replied, “Anew? Where exactly can we go where we will start anew?”
“Anywhere but here.” he argued.
“They got men lookin’ everywhere for us, Jesse. It’s only a matter of time.”
Jesse’s eyes locked with his. He could sense the fear seeping from Mullins.
Noon arrived. The busy streets cleared out when the train’s whistle sounded. Its massive body lumbered down the tracks at a steadily increasing speed. Secluded in a rail wagon were the two outlaws, surrounded by food supplies to be served to guests at a later time.
Eager to get the job done, Mullins turned to approach their clueless victims in the next train car. A hand clapped his shoulder and pulled him back.
“Not yet.” Jesse whispered.
Mullins replied with a hint of nervousness, “You sure ‘bout this? How long are we gonna havta wait?”
“Until we are a little ways off. No need to call the lawmen on us just yet.”
Mullins sighed. He watched Jesse peer out the window.
Hours rolled on by, and Gentle Jesse rose from his hidden spot. He slipped on his mask, and looked to his partner to follow suit. Mullins hesitated.
“Put on your mask.” Jesse commanded.
He reluctantly shook his head.
“Damnit Mullins, now’s not the time to be actin’ like chickenshit.” he growled, “For once, why don’t you try growin’ a pair? Be a man!”
The door swung open, revealing a curious train conductor investigating the source of the commotion. Jesse aimed his pistol at the luckless worker, and motioned him to step inside the cramped train car.
“Y-you’re Gentle Jesse.” the conductor stammered.
“And you’re a dead man...” he replied, pressing the barrel against the intruder's forehead, “If you squeal.”
“S-sir, please.” he begged, “P-p-please, you’re making a mistake. Your face is all over the Death Valley region. They’re waiting for you.”
Jesse narrowed his eyes at the train conductor. Waiting?
A brute force was introduced to the back of the outlaw’s head. Dazed, he lay helpless on the floor, watching the pitiful man flee the scene. Jesse felt his traitor hogtie him. He succumbed to sleep.
Time passed, and Jesse jolted up from his slumber. He glanced around to find his partner seated across from him, awaiting his return to consciousness.
“You…” Jesse looked at Mullins in disbelief, “You’re turnin’ me in for the bounty?” he asked in outrage.
“These lawmen speak my language.” he turned to him, grinding his fingers together and said, “Money.”
The outlaw struggled against the rope that bound his wrists.
“If that price was on my head, you’d do the same.” Mullins replied.
“No, I wouldn’t.” he argued, “I have a sense of loyalty. Devotion. I am trustworthy. What are you? A meek, spineless, cowhearted, sorry excuse for a-”
Mullins delivered another pistol whip. He stared down at the crumpled man before him.
The townspeople caught wind of the captured snake and awaited his arrival in Ryan. They tied a noose around his neck, and took turns beating him. After they had their fill, they dragged him down the dusty road. Mullins followed close behind.
They arrived at their destination in the middle of town; the gallows. The sun began to rise. A murder of crows flew across the horizon, greeting the outlaw with a grim good morning.
“For deceit, robbery, disturbing the peace, and the death of eight people in Rhyolite, the good citizens of Ryan have decided to take the law into their own hands, and sentence you to Death. As is customary, the offender is granted last words before execution. What say you?”
Jesse’s glare burned right through his partner. His voice croaked eerily.
“Mullinsss…” He called, letting out an exhausted laugh and said mockingly, “Mullinsssss... Don’t miss me too much. You’ll be seein’ me again veryyy soooon.”
Gentle Jesse laughed and laughed. His neck snapped at the sudden drop. The slight wind swayed his body to and fro. Crows cackled in delight as his last words echoed in the townspeople’s ears.
Albert lowered his glass, and watched his acquaintance’s reaction to the dark tale. His expression was hidden beneath the shadow of his hat. Lights trembled as the stench of decay overpowered the train wagon.
Albert’s heart raced. The train jostled the passengers, tearing across the tracks at an ungodly speed.
“We’re not slowing down!” a woman shrieked.
Another passenger clambered through the terrified crowd, determined to find the cause of the hysteria. Albert peered helplessly through the window at the swift approach of Ryan station. A small chuckle sounded from behind. The passenger returned from the driver’s cab with grisly news.
“The engineer’s dead!” he cried out, “I-I can’t get a hold of the controls!”
All aboard the train were thrown into a frenzy. The chuckle erupted into a maddening cackle. Albert turned to see the nameless man, now an animated corpse, howl with delight. His hideous image engraved itself into his memory, sending Albert into a state of shock.
“Y-y-youre…” Albert stammered, “Gentle-”
The locomotive flew off of the tracks and skidded into nearby buildings.
Albert grunted as he raised his bloodied head. How much time had passed, he had no way of knowing. Screams still filled the air. Peering around the demolished car, he concluded there were no survivors.
He sluggishly crawled out of the wreckage, and gasped at the sight of fire engulfing the town. Collapsing from exhaustion, Albert was able to see one last thing before the mercy of unconsciousness would take him. A familiar silhouette stood in the distance.
“Mullinssss…” he eerily spoke, “You’ll be seein’ me again veryyy soooon.”