Pulp and Dagger Webzine Presents
Government Man, Abram Donlevy in
Chapter One - The Monster of the Railroad
Western Canada, circa 188_.
KARL LYSENK WORKED A WAD OF TOBACCO into his cheek and munched nervously. It was a filthy, disgusting habit, he mused to himself -- one that he never used to have in his native Ukraine. But he had picked it up from some Americans up from the south who worked the line with him.
He stared out at the dark night, and the flat, endless prairie. Over it all hung the inky black canopy of night, streaked by the milky white rivers of the starfields. To some, it was a truly breathtaking sight, but to Karl it was disconcerting, so unlike the land of his birth. They were all displaced people here. Himself, the Americans who taught him the dubious virtues of tobacco chewing, and many others. British and Irish, French and German. And Chinese, too. All working in this strange flat land, the western part of Canada, striving to build what some said might well be the impossible: a railroad that would bind Canada from sea to sea. Assuming they conquered all the obstacles God put in their way: from muskeg to mountains, not to mention the biting winter itself, which was only a few months off.
Nor was it just God who seemed interested in stopping them. The Devil hunted them as well.
Karl spat out the oily tobacco juice and held his rifle more securely, hoping it would bring him comfort. I did not.
At first he had just heard rumours. Stories of delays. Of missing equipment. And grimer tales told by other workers who had seen stretchers being carried away from the front of the line. At first he had thought not much of it. Men died making a railroad, he knew that. Someone cut too short a fuse for a stick of dynamite, and men died when it was lit. A man tripped while helping to carry the heavy rails, and he could be crushed by his own cargo. That's all it was. Or so he had let himself believe.
He spun, peering into the darkness. There was no moon, only sad starlight by which to see the empty field. "Who there?" he demanded in broken English. He was sure he had heard something, but he knew it might just have been his nerves.
He looked around him. There were four men sleeping by the fire some yards away. Four men asleep, one on watch, that was how it was explained to him when it was his turn to work the front. When he had been taken aside and told that the rumours were not just rumours.
There was something in the night. Something evil.
He wished they had not made such good progress in the day, laying out the wood ties for the iron tracks that would come later. They had made it far ahead of the rest of the workers and, by the time night fell, they knew it would be dangerous to try to make it back in the dark. He stared longingly toward the east, seeing the campfires from the main work crew only a mile or so away. But there was too great a danger that a horse might break an ankle in a prairie dog hole if they tried to make it back that single, slim mile in the dark. So they had camped for the night. And Karl had first watch.
Two men should watch, he told himself. Two men watch, three men sleep. That would be better. But the men giving the orders wanted as many men rested as possible for the day's work. They did not care about the workers. A tired worker slowed the line...a dead worker could be replaced.
Something growled in the night.
Karl choked on his tobacco and threw the butt of his rifle to his shoulder. "Who...who there?"
Something roared and he could hear the shouts from the men who had been asleep, wrenched cruely from their dreams of better times and better places.
Beneath his feet, the earth began to shiver. Karl's eyes grew wide, his mouth dropped open. How big was this thing? This thing that came and killed and then disappeared?
And then Karl saw, and knew how big it was. And Karl Lysenk screamed.
* * *
The middle of the St. Lawrence river, somewhere between Quebec and New York
Miles O'Leary sat securely at the front of the boat as his men rowed it slowly, quietly across the St. Lawrence River, only the dull smack of waves against the hull betraying them. Overhead, stars twinkled in the velvet black sky, winking at him knowingly. Aye, he thought to himself as he glanced up. We share a secret, don't we now?
He looked back at his men. And one man in particular.
"We're sailing into the history books, aren't we, Patrick?"
Patrick glanced at him, his eyes dark pools beneath his brows. "I guess so, Miles."
Miles pursed his lips, then gave a crooked grin. Patrick Callaghan had been a Godsend. Ruggedly handsome, but articulate, he added a touch of class to Miles' ragtag little band, perfect when the time came for recruiting. And he had clearly had experience in combat. That was unusual for someone who looked as though he was only in his thirties, while the rest of Miles' band was comprised of greying Civil War veterans. But he was a passionate Irish-American, devoted to the cause of Irish independence, and had shared Miles view that a blow could be struck for the cause in Canada. Yes, everyone thought the Fenian movement had largely dissipated in North America, but Miles O'Leary would prove them all wrong.
Even Patrick Callaghan.
"You know, Patrick, I met a fellow who says he knew you back in New York." Suddenly a pistol sprouted from the shadows beneath Miles' overcoat. "And he told the wildest tale of how you died of Scarlet Fever five years ago."
The man he knew as Patrick Callaghan didn't move, didn't flinch. Miles could almost admire his self-control. Other men in the boat began muttering, looking about them in confusion. Paddles had stopped rowing and the boat drifted slowly on the currents.
"Steady on, boys," snapped Miles, his gaze never wavering from "Patrick". "Tis no ghost we're dealing with, I reckon, but a Canadian government man, sent to spy on our little movement."
"Movement?" echoed "Patrick". "There hasn't been any serious Fenian activity in years. A band of thugs and misguided patriots is what you have, Miles. You don't seriously think your little raid will be anything more than an inconvenience to anyone, do you?"
"Shut up, you traitor," snarled the man at his side. "You just want to see us all dead."
"I want to keep you from getting killed, which is what'll happen if you keep going the way you are. Just surrender quietly, and I'm sure most of you will be allowed to go home."
"Your concern touches my heart," Miles said coldly. He raised his pistol and fired. "Patrick" twisted and fell over the boat into the water with a heavy splash, leaving the others to try and steady themselves as the boat lurched and listed momentarily. "And now I've touched yours." He said it with more confidence than he felt. It should've been an easy shot, and it looked as though he had hit him, but the man he knew as "Patrick" had twisted at the last moment... Miles peered over the side, but the water was as black as a witch's cauldron, impossible to see anything.
Suddenly lanterns flared on around them. Miles reared up.
"We're surrounded!" exclaimed one of his men. And they were. Three boats had managed to sneak up on them in the dark. For all he knew, the boats -- Canadian police, no doubt -- had been shadowing them ever since they left the American side of the river. "Patrick" had been leading them into a trap.
"You won't take us alive, you lap dogs of the British!" He started firing at the lights, determined to go down as a martyr to the cause. His men leaped up from their seats, firing blindly, wildly, into the night, the stench of cordite soiling the fresh, river air. From the surrounding boats came flashes of light like gentle fireflies -- but in reality, signaling a lethal retuurn volley of gunfire. A man snapped backwards beside Miles, clutching at his face as he fell into the black river.
Suddenly the water on the other side of the boat exploded and "Patrick" rose out like a flying fish, snagged Miles' overcoat, and they both fell back into the chilly water. "Patrick" screamed, "Stop firing! Stop!"
But both sides ignored his entreaty.
Miles hit the water hard, losing his gun to the murky depths. He splashed and flailed about blindly, unable to see his opponent, his overcoat thickening with water, weighing him down. Suddenly "Patrick" loomed up before him and the last thing he saw was a fist making a beeline for his jaw...
Minutes later, the unconscious Fenian raider and the man he had known as "Patrick Callaghan" were hauled from the water by police constables. As Miles O'Leary was carted below, a towel was brought for the man who had thwarted his plans. "Patrick" stared grimly as, with gaff poles, the corpses of those Miles O'Leary meant to lead into glory were dragged on board, still dripping.
The leader of the police force stood beside him, stiff backed. "A fine job, sir. We got them all, including the leader."
"No one had to die here," said the man in the blanket bitterly. "They were just a bunch of foolish old men who Miles O'Leary had fed on dreams of glory and honour. You should have held your fire. They would've seen the futility of it in a moment or two more."
The police commander looked at him coldly. "I'll thank you not to tell me how to do my job, sir."
"Why should I, when you seem to enjoy it so much?"
Before the discourse could turn uglier, a new voice interrupted. "Major Donlevy?"
The man who had spent the last several months responding to the name of Patrick Callaghan turned as a man approached. "Yes?"
"I'm sorry, sir," said a young officer, "but this telegram came to our H.Q. just before we set out tonight."
"Sorry?" asked Major Abram Donlevy as he took the proffered slip of paper. "Sorry for what?"
"No rest for the wicked, I'm afraid. There's some trouble out west. Seems you're wanted right away..."
Next episode: Be it Man or Devil
The Terror of the Rails is copyright 2003, the author.