THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY
Jefferson Crowe sat alone at the very rear of the passenger car. The train barreled down the track, moving as if pursued by uncompromising agents of hell. As if Satan himself were giving chase. He thought it appropriate, as the place he was leaving was as close to hell as one could get while still on Earth’s firmament.
Vicksburg had been a glimpse into the realm of the damned. A burning charnel house of death and devastation. He could still smell the stench of rotting flesh, of watered down human excrement in the streets. He remembered the hot, cloying feeling of inescapable suffocation as he hunkered down in one of the tunnels dug beneath the earth. The Yankee soldiers had called Vicksburg “Prairie Dog Village” because of the way the inhabitants burrowed into the ground. The only sanctuary from the constant thundering rain of burning munitions lobbed from across the Mississippi.
Jefferson ruminated on the notion that the memory could ever be erased from his mind. The things he saw, the things he witnessed, that would ride in the back of his soul until the day he died. He knew that. It was the question of whether he would ever be able to move past what had happened and live the life that Jefferson Crowe had left behind when he had enlisted two years earlier. The Jefferson that embarked on that journey was not the Jefferson who returned. For starters he was remarkably thinner and the bags under his eyes drooped low, held down by the gravity of the horror he had endured as a soldier in the Confederate army.
The journey back was turning out to be a different sort of torture. If war was hell, then for Jefferson Crowe the return was a gloomy purgatory; a constant, unending tedium and a dissociative detachment from the world around him. He watched as the scenery rolled by out the window of the passenger car. The world outside seemed a squalid, desaturated haze of grey, a dry and empty waste that mirrored the fugue that lingered in Jefferson’s chest.
Jefferson found his fingers picking away at the beds of his fingernails, a throbbing encumbrance of anxiety pulsing through his veins and driving his fingers to peel and tear at his cuticles, an idle distraction from the worry poking at the back of his mind like a woodpecker’s beak on the bark of a tree. He thought of home, the vague remembrance of the place he left years ago, and closed his eyes. He could not picture it. He could not recall the place he once lived. All he could see in his mind was black. The crushing absence of image that he had willed himself to conjure rather than recall the horror of the battlefield. At times when he let his mind wander, a specter of a vision would threaten to creep into his dreamscape; the image of dead friends, laying with spilled guts and crying eyes on a smoky field in some backwater plain that nobody cared about now that the guns had stopped firing. He willed himself to fight back the ghosts of war, shoving them down into some hole in himself that he buried with the insistence that that part of his life was over forever.
He was no longer a soldier. No longer a man of war. No longer the deliverer of souls to the blessed eternal or the damned unending. He was Jefferson Crowe, son of Randall Crowe, respected lawyer and the most honest man God had deemed fit to place on the firmament and now, so too, a man of peace. Jefferson opened his eyes and flexed his fingers, the cuticles bleeding and raw. He pulled a handkerchief from his jacket pocket and wiped away the crimson stains. Then his hand instinctively went to the gun that he wore belted across his hip. It was a Remington-Beals model 1858, a .44 caliber that he had pulled from the hand of a dead Colonel before the siege of Vicksburg. He had conducted thunderous symphonies of violence with that revolver. He thought of how if he were an earnest man he would have thrown the damn thing in a river or melted it down or sold it to whoever had the money to pay. Instead, after Vicksburg, where he and a number of his battalion had escaped across the river and survived long enough to see the writing on the wall and burn their uniforms before going their separate ways, he had belted it tight across his waist and made sure he had enough ammunition to play a familiar tune if he found himself in trouble in unfamiliar country.
His father would make him sell it when he returned home. He was sure of it. Randall Crowe was never a violent man. He didn’t have it in him. He believed in the best in people. A great quality for a man who practices law but a poor quality for soldiering. He had not been happy when Jefferson marched off, rifle in hand. He didn’t understand it. Said it was a pointless waste of a promising life. Randall fervently believed that Jefferson would die on some battlefield and the world would be denied whatever contribution he may otherwise have to offer. Jefferson hadn’t died. Some part of him had, certainly, as war kills something inside everyone though some are not cognizant of the loss. Jefferson was very much aware of his loss. He had always been a confident man, a man of purpose and resolve. It was the reason he had enlisted, after all. He felt that he could not in good conscience remain passive while others, people that he knew well, were fighting and dying as he lived in comfort. Randall had said that was fool’s logic. Jefferson now knew his father had been right.
Jefferson had gone to war and war had taken something crucial from him and left him to figure out whatever was left. He knew he would return home and learn to practice the law like his father. He knew that was his path now. What he did not know was whether he could succeed. He did not share his father’s faith in people, and whatever assurance he had in the world prior to taking up arms was long buried. He had faith in only one thing and that was himself. He knew he could fight. He knew if it came down to it he could kill a man with his bare hands. He knew from experience that this was true. He had crushed the windpipe of a Union soldier in his bare hands after the man tried to bayonet him in a foolish charge. He had watched as the man’s face turned from red to purple and the whites of his eyes turned red and the light of life fled from his pupils. He knew he could draw a bead on a target with rifle or pistol and put a ball where he aimed. He knew he was a killer. By instinct or conditioning he had become a killer.
And he hated himself for it.
The train rolled on and Jefferson was slowly become acutely aware of the passage of time. It felt like an eternity since he had boarded the train but in reality, upon checking his pocket watch, it had been a mere two hours. Time seemed to lurch forward at a snail’s pace when the only companionship he had was the voice in the back of his head reading a continuous list of his doubts and fears. He had charged headfirst into enemy fire without a second of hesitation but now he found himself afraid of what he would find when he returned home. What would his father have to say now that the war was over? Jefferson wanted nothing more than to return to the life his father had wanted for him. He hoped that was still possible.
Time, slow moving as it was, slammed to a halt as he heard the violent screech of the train’s big wheels as the conductor applied the brakes. They were nowhere near their destination. Something had gone awry. The soldier’s instinct inside Jefferson stirred like a bear awakening from a tired slumber. His ears perked up and his eyes narrowed. The passengers around him began to murmur and stir but he remained silent and still. One hand moved slowly to the gun slung low at his hip. There was danger in the air and Jefferson Crowe could taste it.
Jefferson’s passenger car was the last of three. Two lay ahead of him, attached to the locomotive at the head. Peering out the window he saw figures climbing onto the coach at the front end of the train.
Outlaws. Bandits. Trouble.
Jefferson stirred to his feet and excused himself as he brushed by some fellow passengers as he made his way to the rear of the car. He drew the revolver from the holster at his hip and thumbed back the hammer, the audible click as it latched into place trampled by the sound of muttering passengers. A lady in a floral bonnet gave him a quizzical look but he shook his head and pressed a finger to his lips as he pressed his back against the wood beside the rear exit of the coach.
Then he waited.
Robert “Blood Bone” Bradshaw was the sort of outlaw that gave territory marshals nightmares. A violent psychotic with tendencies that measured high in cruelty. He was largely notable for leaving a trail of bodies in his wake and for escaping from custody on numerous occasions, usually leaving the corpses of mutilated lawmen behind as a grim reminder that attempting to capture him was more than simply a bad idea.
Bradshaw had utilized the chaos spread by the American Civil War to turn himself into something of a frontier legend. Sure enough, there were folks who thought that he was nothing but a myth. Conjured up to scare off carpetbaggers from up north who had come to settle in the South now that the conflict was over and there was opportunity abound. But he was real enough and he was the man who led the cadre of outlaws in their late afternoon raid on the train which was presently ferrying Jefferson Crowe home from his extended sojourn.
Bradshaw and two men advanced upon the lead car. The engineer of the locomotive made some meager attempt to thwart the blaggards but was met with a shot to the gut from a loaded rifle. He staggered backward and crumbled upon the floor, his hand rollicking back into the broiler, the flesh popping and peeling in the fire.
Jefferson Crowe heard the shot and readied himself. He knew how men like this operated. He could anticipate what would happen next.
Then it happened.
The rear door of the passenger car slammed open with surprising force and a grungy looking individual with a burlap rag wrapped about the lower half of his face to obscure his face.
“Everybody put yer hands in the fuckin’ air!” he shouted in muffled, mumbled furor.
Without giving the rest of the passenger car a chance to do as instructed, Jefferson discharged the Remington revolver putting a round through the back of the man’s skull. Blood and bone and brain erupted from the shattered front of his face as the man staggered forward and slammed to the floor. A frightened shout shrieked from the mouth of a startled old woman opposite the rear of the car. Jefferson gestured that she cease her hysterics with a frantic wave of his hand and thumbed back the hammer on the revolver yet again.
“What is going on?” a gentleman in a hat much too large for his head inquired.
“A whole mess of trouble,” Jefferson replied. “Best to sit down and keep quiet.”
Jefferson closed the rear door with the heel of his boot and stepped over the felled outlaw. He had anticipated that the outlaws would send a contingent to the rear of the train to cut off escape from the last car. His time as a soldier, low as he may have been in the pecking order, had given him some insight into the realm of strategic violence.
“Blood Bone” Bradshaw was also well versed in the ways of violence and stratagem. He had also served for a time in the army, albeit on the Union side. His tenure as a soldier had come to an end after assaulting an officer and he had been court martialed and been set to stand before a firing squad but managed to bugger off into the night before his scheduled execution. He had enjoyed far more success as an outlaw. This was partially because despite his more violent tendencies he also possessed a keen mind and could read a situation to his advantage with alarming regularity.
It was for this reason that the sound of a gunshot from the rear of the train alerted him to an onset of danger. He alerted one of his compatriots to make his way to the back of the train to investigate. Bradshaw knew there was a slim chance the gunfire was a result of his man getting jumpy. The one he called Cooter who he had advised to take the rear of the train was the squirrely sort and also had a real tendency to fall to outbursts of random violence to establish control of a situation. That understood, it was highly unlikely that such an outburst would have come so soon after boarding the train. None of the gang were so foolish as to cause an immediate ruckus.
The man Bradshaw sent to investigate, a fellow from Louisiana by the name of Patrick, was not sure what he would find when he entered the last car on the train. Likely as not it would be Cooter terrorizing some poor sap that had been too dumb to reach for the sky when he came busting through the back door waving that pistol of his around. He certainly did not expect to see the entirety of the car seated with their hands in the air while Cooter lie prostrate on the floor in a puddle of his own blood.
“Cooter?” he inquired, not necessarily expecting a reply.
The folks in the car did not stir as the man called Patrick stepped forward raising his revolver. He was perplexed as to why the passengers kept their hands up while Cooter lay dead on the floor. Where Bradshaw had a sharp and deductive mind that served well to keep him alive in unfamiliar circumstances, Patrick could best be described as a dullard. A blunt instrument better suited to be pointed in the direction of an identified problem and unleashed, not necessarily the best choice in situations that require critical thinking.
Were he of a keener mind he might have noticed Jefferson sitting in the first row of seats near the door where Patrick entered. So distracted by Cooter’s dead body was he that he didn’t notice the slight peppering of blood on Jefferson’s otherwise pristine suit jacket. It was only when Jefferson stood, raising his own revolver that Patrick cottoned to what was happening. Patrick turned to face the man, bringing his pistol to bear. Jefferson lunged and the Patrick squeezed the trigger. The shot rang rang out and echoed in the car. The passengers screamed on instinct. Patrick grabbed ahold of Jefferson’s hand and tried to wrench the Remington from his grasp. The outlaw lurched forward and bit down on Jefferson’s wrist. The revolver clattered to the floor at their feet. Patrick whirred with his own pistol and brought it up, ready to fire.
It was then that one of the passengers decided it was their opportunity to be a hero. He charged at the outlaw and twisted his arm as the man pulled the trigger. The sound was deafening and Patrick let out a shout of frustration as he slammed a knee into his attacker’s gut and shoved him backward. The outlaw fired another shot, taking the man in the chest. A split second later there was another shot, this time from Jefferson’s revolver, regained and aimed directly at Patrick’s spine. The ruffian staggered forward, not yet felled, and attempted to turn his own weapon on his would-be killer. Jefferson however was quick to react and deadly with his aim, thumbing back the hammer and firing twice in rapid succession, putting two fresh wounds in the man’s chest and dropping him to the floor.
The passengers all crowded around Jefferson as he reached into a pouch on his belt containing a spare cylinder of freshly loaded rounds for the revolver. He reckoned that he would need more than two more shots. He replaced the cylinder and locked a new one in its place. He locked it into position and thumbed back the hammer.
In the lead car, as his compatriot was relieving the passengers of their valuables, “Blood Bone” Bradshaw heard the rapid exchange of gunfire and knew now that there was trouble at the rear of the train. He had scouted this train well and knew it would be filled with soft folk and didn’t figure on encountering much, if any, resistance. There were no lawmen traveling on the train. With three cars he knew he could manage the situation with a skeleton crew of men, so whatever had gone down at the back of the train was an anomaly he could not figure.
“Somethin’s not right,” he grumbled, more to himself than to his man, who was so distracted by the active collection of loot that he did not hear the statement uttered.
Bradshaw pulled the twin Colt Walker pistols he had slung at his hips and thumbed back the hammers. Simply flashing them from beneath the trim of his mud-coated duster had been enough to keep the passengers in the lead car in line but he knew that if there was going to be gunplay he didn’t want to play a game of quick draw, he wanted them handy for when the lead started flying.
He edged out of the lead car into the second, where a contingent of passengers sat confused and scared. Bradshaw had to chuckle to himself that not a single one of them had the good sense to make a run for it. Fear makes those unaccustomed to the feeling into pure dumb animals, weak and quivering like cows. He made his way past the cowering passengers into the rear car. There he found more of the same, scared and helpless victims, closing their eyes and keeping their hands raised until the storm cleared. Of course he also found the dead bodies of Patrick and Cooter.
“What’n the fuck happened here?” he bellowed, his voice a growl like that of an agitated mountain lion.
One of the passengers found the courage to speak. “There was a man,” he explained. “A man with a gun.”
“And where is he now?”
“He left,” the man said.
Bradshaw fired off a shot between the man’s eyes. The whole crowd screamed in terror.
“Fat fuckin’ bunch of help you were,” he said.
The sound of gunfire drew his attention.
The lead car.
He turned and dashed toward the front of the train, guns up ready to unleash a fiery storm of bullets that would make the confines of the passenger car like a maelstrom of death called up from the very depths of hell.
He reached the lead car and was met with a bullet smashing and splintering the wood beside his head and his frightened companion holding the gun.
“Jesus christ,” Bradshaw yelled. “What the fuck’re you shootin’ at?”
Another shot rang out and the jumpy outlaw slammed backward and hit the floor. Bradshaw whirled and fired off two shots, the blur of movement as his man’s killer leapt from the walkway connecting the two cars and hit the ground below. Bradshaw gave chase, firing as he went. Jefferson, scrambling like a madman, climbed underneath the belly of the train. The violent outlaw, not willing to be outmaneuvered, clambered up the front of the passenger car partition and dove off on the other side, rolling onto his side and firing blindly with the Walkers. His quarry was nowhere to be found beneath the train. Confused, he rolled to his knees and scanned the underbelly of the train, desperately searching for the man who had so rudely disrupted what should have been a quick and easy haul.
He was so then surprised when the man leapt from the very top of the passenger car and came down on top of him like a cougar striking at his prey. He smashed the hardwood handle of the Remington revolver against the outlaw’s nose and heard the sharp, wet crack of splintering cartilage as the criminal fell onto his back in front of him, losing grip on his revolvers and dropping them into the dirt.
A crowd had gathered, peering out the windows of the train, some venturing out of the cozy confines of the passenger cars onto the partition and watching as Jefferson stood over the man with a gun in his hand.
“Who the hell are you?”
“Just a man trying to get home,” Jefferson replied.
“Suppose not,” Bradshaw muttered.
“You stand up nice and slow,” Jefferson said. “I done enough killing today. Did more than enough before today, too. Don’t see any point in doing more, so don’t give me a reason.”
Bradshaw spit into the dirt.
“You got any idea who I am, boy?” Bradshaw asked. “Who it is I run with? What I do?”
“Don’t much care,” Jefferson said, gesturing for the man to stand with the barrel of his Remington. “On your feet.”
Bradshaw staggered upright, bent over at the waste and clutching his broken nose. The tips of his fingers swayed low, inching toward the pistols sitting within a moment’s reach in the dirt.
“Don’t even think about it,” Jefferson cautioned.
“I ain’t what you think I am son,” Bradshaw said.
With lightning speed he reached down, not for the gun but for a handful of sand, which he flung at Jefferson, blinding him and catching him off guard. Jefferson fired, the bullet going high into the sky. Bradshaw tackled Jefferson with all the force of a speeding locomotive and slammed his head against the ground. The outlaw started pounding on the man’s face, retribution for the broken nose, looking to return the favor in kind.
A desperate Jefferson Crowe reached out and grabbed hold of a nearby rock and slammed it against Bradshaw’s skull, sending him stumbling to the ground, blood seeping from the wound at his temple and caked onto the front of his face like a mask.
“You fuckin’ shitkicker,” he said as he staggered back to his feet.
Jefferson was still on his hands and knees, struggling to regain his composure. Bradshaw saw an opportunity as he caught sight once more of his revolvers. He reached down and grabbed one, thumbing back the hammer and walking slowly toward Jefferson.
“Ain’t no one man going to take down the Bloody Bones gang,” Bradshaw spat, mixing saliva and blood on the dusty ground. “Ain’t no man dumb enough to try.”
He aimed the gun at the back of Jefferson’s head and pulled the trigger. There was a sharp gasp from the onlookers as the air filled with the echo of a dull click.
Jefferson looked up at the stunned outlaw who was then equally amazed to be staring down the barrel of a cocked Remington.
Jefferson pulled the trigger and the round tore through Bradshaw’s face like a finger poking through wet tissue. The outlaw fell forward in death and a spreading pool of blood mixed with the dirt as Jefferson pulled himself to his feet.
“You talk too much,” he said, holstering his revolver and turning to look at the stunned faces of the crowd who simply erupted into applause as Jefferson stepped over the body of the dead outlaw and made his way to the front of the train.