Pulp and Dagger Webzine Presents

Government Agent, Abram Donlevy in

The Terror of the Rails!

An Extraordinary Odyssey of Action and Wonderment!

Andrew Dunphy

Chapter Two -  Be it Human or Devil

 MAJOR ABRAM DONLEVY STOOD IN THE DIMLY LIT drawing room of an unremarkable, slightly shabby red brick house.  He had been waiting for half and hour, though for who or why, he could not say.  Obviously the meeting was to be secret, or else he'd have met with his superiors in their offices on parliament hill.  So secret, in fact, was this meeting that the oil lamp burned at a dim glow, so that anyone glancing in the window from the street would not be able to see inside very clearly. 

He stared out the picture window, waiting.  Across the night shrouded city, he could see in the distance the peace tower, the Canadian parliament building, stabbing boldly into the sky, as if defying the immensity of the universe.  He fingered the felt rim of his top hat absently, contemplating that view.  As a government man, a secret agent, he spent much of his life insuring that that building carried on, that its day to day activities proceeded unmolested.  He protected it, in the hopes that it, in turn, would protect the people it was meant to represent. 

It didn't always work out that way, but that was his hope. 

He could not protect everyone, though.  In his last assignment he had spent months undercover to break up a Fenian terrorist cell.  In that time, he had grown to have a certain affection for some of the misguided would-be revolutionaries who really believed they acted in the name of a great cause.  Now most of them were dead.  He had hoped to resolve the matter without bloodshed, by leading them into a trap from which they could not escape.  But the men on his side had been eager -- too eager -- to meet force with force.  And now he had on his conscience the deaths of men he did not regard as evil, merely foolish and myopic. 

A door creaked open behind him and he pivoted efficiently on one foot, laying his hat down on the nearest side table.  A couple of men entered first, with the air of low level bureaucrats about them, then they were followed by a tall man with a beard that reached to his chest.  It took Bram a moment to place the face, then he realized it was Donald Smith, one of the chief architects of the national railroad that was, even now, making its slow, arduous way across the western provinces. 

He wondered why such a man would be meeting him here in this dark and decidedly covert little house.  Then another man entered, and Bram's eyes widened perceptibly. 

As the door to the drawing room closed, the final man looked at him and said, "Do you know who I am?"

Bram nodded.  "Of course, Prime Minister."

Sir John A. Macdonald, the first prime minister of the Dominion of Canada, nodded, satisfied, a bit of a mischievious twinkle in his eyes.  "Very good.  An' I know who you are, Major.  I've read the reports," he said, the lingering accent of his Scottish childhood still flavouring his words.  "Is there anything to drink here, MacQuarry?"

One of the other men made to look around, but Smith put a hand on his shoulder, stopping him.  Turning to Macdonald with a disapproving glare, Smith said, "Let's just get right to the point, Macdonald."

Bram said nothing, but it was an open secret that Sir John was a bit too fond of his spirits.

"All right, then," conceded the prime minister amiably.  "Business before pleasure.  I'm sorry to have to meet you in these out-of-the-way surroundings, Major, but I don't want this meeting plastered across tomorrow's papers.  In fact, I don't want anything about this meeting to reach the papers, if it can be avoided."

"Of course."

Macdonald eyed him critically for a moment, then nodded to himself, as though satisfying himself with that response.  "This fledgling nation of ours may be facing a grave crisis.  Someone -- or something -- is trying to sabotage the railroad.  I don't have to tell you what that might mean -- well, maybe I do.  I've largely staked my political career on the completion of an iron road from sea to sea.  If that fails, can Sir John A. Macdonald be far behind?"

"You think a political rival-?"

"Maybe.  Or maybe it is bigger than that.  We're a young, volatile country, Major.  The railroad was meant to hold us together, literally and figuratively.  British Columbia, for one, has only agreed to enter Confederation if we provide it with a rail service to the rest of the country.  If the rail fails, we could lose them, and perhaps the prairies as well.  I don't have to tell you that there are many interests, both inside and outside this country, who would benefit from the destruction of Canada.  American extremists, obsessed with their Manifest Destiny of ruling all of North America, Fenian agitators, westerners who object to Confederation, Francophones who don't want the English-speaking population to grow any larger, metis rebels.  It's a big list, sir."

Bram looked from Macdonald to Smith and back again, choosing his next words carefully.  "You said 'something'."

Macdonald grinned and glanced at Smith.  "Aye, he's a good listener."  His canny gaze turned back toward Bram.  "Well that's the Deuce of the matter.  Because as much as I'd like to believe it was as simple, as normal, as sabotage, the reports suggest something more.  Something...inhuman."  Macdonald looked around.  "MacQuarry, I think I will have that drink after all."  As the man identified as MacQuarry went to comply, Macdonald continued.  "At first it was just sabotage.  Lines that were laid down one night were found torn apart the next day.  I don't know if you know much about railroads, but they're damned heavy things.  It would've taken a lot of men and horses to do the kind of damage that was reported.  Except, the thing was...there were no tracks found.  Iron rods were found scattered or bent -- yes, bent! -- or gone entirely, and heavy wooden ties absconded with, but no sign of anyone coming or going.  Then deaths occurred.  Usually men isolated, or on late night watch.  Then sometimes two or three men.  Their guns empty, as if they'd put up a fight, but to no avail, their corpses twisted and mangled as though...well, I don't know.  There were survivors, too, but they told bizarre, incoherent stories of a gigantic monster with glowing eyes that appeared and disappeared almost at will.  Thank you," he said, taking the drink MacQuarry offered him and downing it in one gulp.

Silence claimed the dark room for a time, Bram unsure what to say.  Then finally: "What do you want me to do?"

"So far we've kept it from the papers," said Smith.  "And we aim to keep it out.  If the investors -- uh, I mean, if the public ever found out, it could mean the end of the entire enterprise."

Which according to Macdonald, Bram remembered, could spell the end of the prime minister's career, and possibly of Canada as well.  He allowed himself a small, private amusement, realizing that Smith presumably stood to lose a small fortune if the railroad went uncompleted.

"What we want from you, Major Donlevy," said Macdonald in a low, sepulchral voice, "is to go west and stop this damned beastie however you can.  Whether it be controlled by a human agency...or by the Devil himself."

* * *

Father Jean-Marc Forcier stood before the semi-circle of disciples, the Good Book between his thin, weathered hands.  As he preached the Holy Word, his eyes flickered occasionally from the yellowing paper of the Bible he had brought with him when he first came west, many years ago, to the faces of his congregation.  The faces were weathered and the flesh the colour of beaten copper, the bodies dressed in skins.  His was a congregation of Cree Indians.  He had come west, so long ago, to save them, to change their ways, their thinking, and in so doing, he had been changed himself.  He now spoke Cree as readily, and, indeed, more frequently, than he did his native French.

And his concerns were theirs.

Though he spoke of the bounties and benefits the white man's iron road would bring to the west, the supplies, the equipment, the schools and medicines, he was well aware that it might well destroy his flock and their way of life forever.  He felt powerless, as though his preaching was little more than a droplet of water on a parched land.

He closed his book, not sure himself even what verse he had been reciting.  But it didn't matter.  He was not sure they had been listening.

"And what of the Devil, Father?" asked a beautiful young woman at the back of the semi-circle.  Her name was Mary Manyrivers, and he knew that she came to his sermons as much out of simple, academic interest, as out of any true devotion.  He also knew, that when she spoke of "The Devil", she was not referring to any passage from the Bible.

She referred to something that came in the night.  The Indians had spoken of it before, in passing, as something they had glimpsed on occasion when their hunts took them too far from home on dark and windy nights.  But now Father Jean-Marc had heard rumours that the white man spoke of it too.  That its blasphemous wrath had wrought destruction up and down the railway line just to the south.

"If it's the Devil," continued Mary Manyrivers, glancing at her people knelt in prayer, "why does it seem to be doing God's work?"

* * *

Angus Willoughby kicked his heels harder into his horse's sweaty flanks as he raced recklessly through the dark of the prairie night.  The screams from the advance party clearing brush for the next day's work still seemed to echo in the crisp air.  He did not expect to get to the scene in time, of course.  The monster was known to strike quickly, then disappear.  But his bosses had left him in charge, and he had to make a good show of it.

Then he reined in his horse as dark figures fluttered past.  One.  Two.  Three.  Terrified and white-faced they raced by his snorting horse, arms flailing, jaws flapping soundlessly.  Well, at least there were no deaths this night, he thought.  Though he kind of wished there had been.  Better to have had the men killed by the monster than make it back to camp, telling their stories of terror and nightmare.

Suddenly his horse whinnied nervously.  Its back legs kicked out instinctively, as though itching to run.  He angrily yanked on the reins.  Damn the horse, he thought.  The monster was long gone by now.

Then the horse reared up, neighing hysterically, and Angus hit the dusty earth heavily, almost dislocating his arm.  He staggered dizzily to his feet, and hurled a curse at his horse's retreating backside as it raced back toward camp.

"Damnation!" screamed Angus.

Then he froze as he felt the shudder up his ankles, into his knees, rocking his hips, shaking the beans and stew still swirling about in his belly from his evening meal.  Stiffly, as if in a dream, he turned.

The stars were being eclipsed by something...something enormous.  Something bearing down upon him.  He screamed once more.

Angus Willoughby had been wrong.  There was a death this night.  His own.

Next episode: What Lies in the Field

Previous episode: The Monster of the Railroad

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The Terror of the Rails is copyright 2003, the author.