In which our hero seeks new employment and finds something much better.
When he first laid eyes on the thing, Dodger worried he was at the wrong place. He was almost convinced he was still in his bed at the inn, asleep, because he had never seen anything so fantastic in all of his waking life. And even then he wasn’t sure he could dream up something like this. Pulling the worn piece of parchment from his jacket, Dodger unfolded it with care, then read the advertisement again, just to be sure he was indeed at the right place.
Wanted: Professional gunman to manage the security and safety of private rail. Experience with steam locomotives a plus, but not necessary. Must fill position immediately. Salary negotiable. Only serious candidates need apply.
The remaining portion was a list of various addresses and times one could meet with the author of the ad, one of which was right here, right now. Dodger glanced back up to the beast of a machine stretched before him and whistled low. He didn’t know what to expect when he decided to answer the flyer, but something like this wasn’t even among his wildest imaginings. The advertisement said “private rail,” when it should have said … well … Dodger didn’t suppose there were words enough to encompass how fantastic the train really was.
The chassis was a shining beacon of brass and copper fixtures, under which he could see hints that the beast was fitted with a more sensible layer of steel and iron. The engine bore the shape and size of the traditional steam locomotive—including cowcatcher, smokestack, water scoop and all. Behind this sat a collection of six smaller bogies and a caboose; a few looked like sleeper and cargo cars, but Dodger couldn’t discern the purpose of the others from the outside. The caboose was just as odd looking, bearing the likeness of an old-fashioned buggy rather than a railcar. Each bogie matched in copper brightness, with a single word scrawled across the line, from engine to caboose, one letter per car, in a sprawling, fancy script.
There were eight cars total, which made some sense considering the name of the line. Eight shining cars that stretched across the dry dirt, right where it said it would be on the advertisement. But the oddest thing about the train, the strangest thing that Dodger saw—for now at least—was a single, simple fact: there were no rails beneath her. As far as Dodger knew, there wasn’t a set of rails within one hundred miles of the small town of Blackpoint, which was one of the reasons he chose this place as a home so many years ago. And considering that he had lived in or around Blackpoint for the last five years of his miserable life, he supposed he would have seen someone build such a monstrosity not but a mile outside of town. A single question immediately rose in Dodger’s mind as he drew closer to the strange thing.
How did it get here if it had no tracks?
No sooner had he gotten within spitting distance of the train, someone asked, in a gruff voice, “Who are you?”
Dodger searched about, seeking the source of the voice. “Hello?”
“What do you want?” the man asked. “Please be quick about it. I don’t have all day.” The voice had a tin can quality to it, as if the speaker were talking to Dodger through the end of a long, metal tunnel. It also bore a British accent, a rarity among the wilds of the west. Brits were generally jovial folks, but also tended to be too trusting of their American cousins, thus easy pickings for any passing grifter. No wonder the man felt he needed protection.
“I … I …” Dodger began, but felt silly talking to a man he couldn’t see. Shielding his eyes against the glare of copper and brass sparkling in the early morning sun, he did his best to find the speaker among the closed and shuttered windows. “If you don’t mind me asking, where are you?”
“I’m down here.”
Dodger bent double to peer into the underpinning of the train. But it was no good. All he got was an eyeful of skirting. If the man was really under there, then it was no small wonder that he sounded like he was speaking through metal.
“No, you fool!” the man scolded from somewhere higher up. A pause suggested the speaker was gathering his temper. “I meant down here, as in down the line.”
Dodger grunted, feeling as much a fool as the man’s tone implied. It had been a few years since he used such lingo; he had all but forgotten the terms. When he stood straight again, Dodger spotted a small metal bloom, about the width of his spread hand, hanging from the scaffolding of the second car. This bloom was affixed to a row of copper tubing that ran the length of the train, as far as the eye could see.
“Well?” the tin voice asked from the flowered horn.
At least that explained the disembodied voice. Dodger stepped back to eye the body of the train, still unsure where the speaker was really located. “Where would down the line be? Exactly?”
A tired sigh rattled across the tube and swirled forth from the horn. “Do you need something specific, young man? Or are you just like the others? Here to waste my time with annoying questions and nothing more?”
Now this was annoying. To advertise a position then treat a potential applicant like nothing more than an aggravation? This wouldn’t do. Dodger resisted the urge to holler in anger up at the metal bloom, instead keeping his ire in check. No need to waste his energy on the likes of this man. “No, sir. Unlike some, I’m not in the habit of wasting the time of others.” As it seemed clear that the speaker was able to somehow see him, Dodger held up the flyer and explained, “I was here about the advertisement. Your need for professional security? But I can see you have no problem keeping people out. Sorry to trouble you.” With his piece said, he tipped a forefinger to his hat and turned to leave.
All at once, the voice drastically changed. Gone was the tired echo. Gone was the air of annoyance. Instead, there came an anxious plea from the tube. “Please! Don’t go!”
This stopped Dodger in his tracks, and there he vacillated between the desire to find out more about this extraordinary train and the overwhelming need to get the hell out of here. When he first saw the ad hanging in Decker’s Saloon, his gut roiled with this same worry and excitement. His work at the Bolton farm was six months gone, and while Decker let him mind the bar to pay for his room, there was little other employment available in the surrounding community to feed his evaporating coffers. Fate pointed farther west, into mining territory or the many cattle ranches, both careers that would surely lack the mild comfort and succor provided by his previous elderly employer. Then the ad appeared, and while he didn’t relish the idea of working a line again, lest someone recognize him after all these years, the job sure did seem tailor made for a man of his peculiar mix of talents.
But now that he was here, all manner of red flags and warning shots rose up to meet his instincts. There was a twisting deep within his belly, which assured him this was indeed a very bad idea. Dodger put one foot in front of the other, with every intention of leaving the disembodied insults and bout of dreadful intuition behind him, when there again came the plea.
“Please,” the tinny voice begged. “I’m sorry if I seem on edge, but I have been under a great deal of pressure. I didn’t mean any insult. If you truly are here about the advertisement, then allow me to welcome you. Or, at the very least, let me offer you some lunch to make up for my nasty attitude.”
Dodger’s empty stomach growled at the offer of food. Lean times made for a lean man, and, as Dodger knew well enough, hunger could drive a person to do all sorts of crazy things. Like ignoring gut instinct in favor of gut appetite.
And there was that unanswered question to consider as well. What good was a train without tracks? Dodger supposed if there were one person in the whole of the world who could sate his inquisitive nature, it would be the owner of the very voice begging him to stay.
The disembodied voice didn’t wait for a response, instead reading Dodger’s lack of further regression as a good sign. “Excellent! Good sir, if you will do me the honor of boarding the third car down, I shall meet you there.” After this request, the metal flower folded in on itself until all that was left was the nub of a tin bud.
Dodger, for the sake of his curiosity and the promise of his first decent meal since Mrs. Bolton passed away, did as asked. Following the cars down the line, he located the third one. Each car was interconnected by a closed umbilical section, but also had an auxiliary door on the side that included foldaway stairs. After a deep breath to steady his nerves, he clutched the advertisement in one hand and his hat in the other as he climbed the unfolded steps aboard.
Having spent years working cargo lines and driving cattle cars, Dodger had never seen the likes of this level of luxury aboard a locomotive. He had heard that some folks, usually the rail barons themselves, owned private sleeper cars and decorated them as they saw fit. But this … this was something else. The car was filled with fine art and couches and chairs and tables. This wasn’t just someone’s sleeper. It was as if he had stepped into someone’s parlor rather than a moving vehicle.
“Please make yourself at home,” said a different, cheery voice. Yet again, the voice was backed by a metallic echo. “The master will be with you momentarily.”
Whipping about to address what he assumed would be another speaking flower, Dodger instead came face to face with a bronze statue resting just inside an alcove by the doorway. The metallic humanoid stood about six feet, just a few inches under Dodger’s height, and was as well dressed as any dandy on whom Dodger had ever laid eyes. The light gray suit of a butler hung in perfect fit to the metal framework, and from one wide, gleaming hand, there dangled a towel. In the other rested a feather duster. The face was exquisite in detail, with all appropriate features in place including a bristly wire mustache—neatly trimmed, of course. The whole thing was eerily lifelike. Then it did something that took it one step beyond the shores of eerie and plunged it head first into the waters of downright alarming.
The thing it did was simple.