He arrived late afternoon, trudging up from the railbed over cracked ice and snow, his Enfield banging against a metal canteen frozen solid. Khaki ammunition pouches were harnessed neatly through his epaulets. Right then, long before he started in about the ghost train, we knew he was trouble. Dead of winter and supposedly he’d been in Siberia as long as us, but he was still wearing puttees and a canvas cap. He came to attention when I stepped out of the wagon and I had to wave him down.
“Relax, I’m no ranker,” I said. I noticed that he was wearing his Colt in a polished holster tied down to his thigh, and I suddenly missed Birney all the more.
“Private First Class Woodell.” His jaw was clenched to keep his teeth from chattering. “My orders -”
“Never mind that. Did you bring any newspapers?”
But he was staring at our camp, and didn’t answer. I thought we’d done a good job: two rattletrap wooden boxcars with the bogeys pulled, bermed up a good four feet for insulation. Jackson had showed us how to chink them airtight with river clay. He’d also built a half-closed firepit outside, by fitting together unmortared rock – someone had to stand sentry, since the partisans were all around, and it was bitter cold. A pile of broken crates and beef tins was accumulating to one side, and because the ground was too frozen to dig latrine pits, we generally just crouched behind them.
Maybe Woodell was expecting campaign tents and a parade square.
Our corporal had emerged from the other boxcar and was greedily flipping through the few tattered papers Woodell dug from his pack. He was wrapped in a torn wool cloak, a muskrat hat low over his ears.
“December 1919?” He shoved back the folded broadsheets and glared at Woodell with red, sunken eyes. “That’s two months ago!”
“I’m sorry, sir. I brought them for, ah, not for reading but for, well, you know how the toilets are . . .” His voice trailed away.
“Toilets? Toilets? Think I saw one the last time I was in Khabarovsk.” He relented. “Look, private, you’re freezing. Bring your kit inside.”
With a woodstove at either end, the ventilation louvers generally iced over, and Sutter smoking all the time, the fug inside the boxcar was blindingly thick. Not to mention none of us had had a bath since we arrived, three months back. It was hard to tell in the dim light but I’m sure Woodell went green.
“I’m sorry to see you,” said Sutter, from a heap of blankets on the floorboards where he’d been dozing. Like me, he hadn’t tried to shave since the last time we went into Lenyarsk, and his face was black with grime and gun oil. “Replacing Birney must mean they’re planning to leave us out here indefinitely.”
You could see Woodell trying to take it all in. “Didn’t they telegraph?” he said finally.
The corporal coughed, a long awful hacking, then spat, missing the Standard Oil can we used as both spittoon and pisspot. “Bolsheviks cut the wires all the time. Doesn’t matter. Listen, when are we going home? You must have heard rumors, at least.”
The American Expeditionary Forces had landed at Vladivostock six months ago, and nine thousand men were guarding the Trans-Siberian Railroad halfway to Blagovchensk. The French and the British took over after that, and the Japanese, who had seventy thousand soldiers on the ground and more coming, seemed to be everywhere. The only anti-Red forces you never saw were the Russians themselves, who were all back at Vladi or Harbin drinking and holding balls and stealing our supplies.
Woodell shrugged helplessly. “In the spring, maybe. No one knows.”
Sutter sighed and sank back into his gloom.
The corporal rummaged through the corner of the boxcar where we usually threw clothing, fire tinder, cartridge boxes and other such trash when we didn’t want to go outside. After a minute he grunted and turned to hand Woodell a pair of heavy felted boots, knee-high and crusted with dark mud.
“Here,” he said. “You’ll lose both feet in those puttees.” Seeing Woodell’s hesitation, he shrugged and dropped them on the floor. “Your choice. But the Bolo wearing them, he didn’t die from frostbite.”
“You removed them from a dead soldier?” Woodell suddenly realized what had matted the boots brown, and now you could see him blanch.
“Same raid we lost Birney,” said Sutter.
“You better take them,” I said, trying to be kind. “You have the third watch tonight.”
Over supper – rice and hardtack – the corporal explained our duties.
“You probably saw the trestle just down the line,” he said, pausing to cough. “Double-span, wooden box trusses on concrete pillars. Solid enough for the railroad, but fragile when you start thinking about explosives and mortars. You notice what’s on the other side?”
Woodell looked at him. “Trees,” he said. “Like everywhere else.”
“Right. Taiga starts there, goes on forever. Where the partisans hide. Colonel went by on an inspection tour last summer, decided we need to protect the bridge, and when the orders finally trickled down, our squad got the assignment. Since we arrived, we’ve had, oh, dozens of skirmishes.”
“Mostly they’re trying to steal food,” said Sutter.
“They ignore the bridge, naturally. All they’d have to do is pull a few spikes and the next locomotive through would derail into the river and take the whole trestle with it. Instead they raid Lenyarsk now and then – that’s the village a few versts upline.”
The wagon’s sliding door screeched open, bitterly cold air gusted in, and Jackson tumbled an armful of split larchwood onto the floor near the stove. I shoved the door shut as Jackson placed the ax on pegs and dropped his sheepskin greatcoat.
“Woodell,” I said by way of introduction, pointing. Jackson grunted.
Sutter rolled another cigarillo, using a scrap of Woodell’s newspaper and a mix of dry birch leaves and fieldgrass, cut with just enough tobacco to feel civilized. His tin was near empty.
“What were you doing in Vladi?” I asked, since Woodell was looking forlorn.
He shrugged. “Guarding the docks. Acres and acres of materiel, all rusting away- farm equipment, heavy guns, bales of uniforms, railroad ties – anything you can imagine.”
Sutter started to speak, then just glared bitterly around the wagon. Despite fires in both stoves, frost was starting to rime boltheads along the boxcar’s planked walls. Jackson had arranged his filthy greatcoat as an insulating seatpad; later he’d sleep inside it.
The corporal wound his pocket watch. “You’re up at midnight,” he said to Woodell. “You see something moving, go ahead and shoot it. Mostly likely be a wolf.”
But it wasn’t wolves he reported in the morning, clasping a steaming cup of black tea with shivering hands. The fresh snow dusting his field coat wouldn’t melt, even inside the wagon. “A train, but it was completely dark. No lights anywhere, no sound coming from the engine! And all the cars were gleaming white, almost glowing.”
Jackson looked at him sharply. The corporal continued to fuss with his tea.
“When?” said Sutter skeptically.
“Late. The moon had set.” He must have caught the glance the corporal sent my way, because he began to protest. “I know what I saw! A train run by spirits is what it looked like.”
“A ghost train.” The corporal sighed. “Look, I won’t hold it against you – any chance you were maybe dozing?”
Woodell appeared wounded. “Of course not.”
“The rails are two hundred yards away,” persisted the corporal. “You stare into the fire too long, look up, you see lights bouncing around.”
“I told you, it was dark, except for the weird glow.” Woodell drank and grimaced. “I know what I saw,” he said again, and no one spoke until Sutter pulled down the Browning and complained he was out of cleaning oil again.
Two trains passed later in the morning, chuffing slowly under a leaden winter overcast. The first was a common sight: a high-stacked 0-4-0 Ovechka pulling two wooden sleepers and eight boxcars, all jammed with Russians fleeing the civil war. Smoke drifted along from the funnel almost faster than the train was moving. Gaunt faces peered out; no one waved.
“A lot more crowded than the one I came up on,” said Woodell. I was pacing him through the sightlines and fire markers we’d established in broken field between our camp and the treeline, and we stopped to watch the refugees pass.
“Those are the lucky ones,” I said. “Or rich. Many walk.”
“This far? In the winter?” Woodell was wearing the felt boots, uncomfortably. He pointed at the milepost beside the track. “Verst 7156. We’re thousands of miles from Omsk.”
I shrugged. “A few make it.”
When the second train appeared Sutter called out the corporal, and we stood watching while a gusting wind drove particles of ice into our numb faces. The entire consist was armored: dull 3/8-inch plate riveted over the engine, the tender, and three long wagons. Machine-gun barrels poked through reinforced slits, and we could glimpse an occasional white face behind the turret portholes. The last car was a flatbed carrying a long, heavy artillery cannon, probably dismounted from one of the Pacific battlecruisers. The armorplate had been painted in an outsize zebra camouflage pattern – for intimidation, not secrecy, since the train loomed over the bleak landscape like a nightmare.
“One of Semenov’s,” said the corporal to Woodell, who frowned in surprise.
“The bandit? But that train is so well equipped!”
“He’s allied with the Whites,” said the corporal, watching as the behemoth rumbled slowly west.
“He’s a bloodthirsty terror,” said Woodell. “I’ve heard stories -”
“And they’re all true.” Sutter’s voice had a familiar bitterness. “But the enemy of our enemy . . .”
When the train disappeared, Sutter and the corporal went back to the second of our wagons to inventory food and ammunition. Jackson was out prowling the forest, hoping to scare up a marmot or hare the peasants might have missed. I finished Woodell’s tour and showed him the thicket where Birney had died. Bullet scars were still visible in the birch trunks.
“We’re only here to stay alive,” I tried to explain, after some moments listening to the wind whistle through the copse. “Nothing else matters.”
Woodell just nodded, slowly. I noticed he’d mounted the bayonet on his Enfield.
He saw the ghost train again two nights later, headed downline this time. Same story: hardly any noise, the cars glowing eerily white, no lights, no markings. No one had much to say, nor again a week after that.
“Why don’t you take an earlier watch,” decided the corporal wearily.
“No!” Woodell was unexpectedly vehement. “I’ll carry my weight,” he said more quietly. “Anyway, it’s too cold to sleep before dawn.”
But that night none of us got any rest, because a partisan band attacked an hour after Jackson had banked the stoves.
The first warning was Sutter’s yell from outside, where he’d been standing sentry by the firepit. A moment later two explosions barely recognizable as gunfire crashed and Jackson, who’d been about to open the door, dropped back to the floor, below the level of the berm. Bullets thudded into the wagon’s side.
The corporal, up front, hammered ice from the ventilation ports with the ax butt, while Jackson hastily snapped a box magazine into the Browning. The BAR was enormous, nearly four feet long, and Jackson swung it around awkwardly in the crowded wagon, barely missing my head but getting the weapon into position alongside the corporal.
“Close your ears,” I told Woodell, just before Jackson started firing. He kept it on semi-automatic, picking his targets, and each shot was deafening.
More yells came from outside, distant, then Sutter screamed.
“He’s hit,” I said, and the corporal paused only a moment before nodding abruptly. I grabbed Woodell’s shoulder. “We’re going out for him.”
But in the few seconds it took to arrange ourselves by the door and then shove it open, the attackers disappeared, and we emerged in jittering terror to find Sutter alone, moaning by the firepit and both hands clasped around his thigh.
The engagement could not have lasted more than a minute or two, beginning to end. Sutter was swearing steadily, fully conscious, and we helped him back into the wagon. Jackson remained forward, the BAR ready, while the corporal slit open Sutter’s pant leg and longjohns with his bayonet. Blood was oozing from a short gash above his knee, slowly and in small volume. After a moment even Sutter grunted, almost chuckling.
“Well, it still hurts,” he said defensively. The corporal just shook his head and tossed him a bandage roll.
“What were they firing?” asked Woodell. “Muskets?”
Sutter snorted and the corporal shrugged. “Maybe. Bolo whose boots you’re wearing, he was using a black-powder elephant gun. Probably from India, best we could figure. Good thing he missed when he fired off his one round.”
“I can’t take this much longer,” said Sutter. “They have got to get us home. We’ve been out here longer than a man can tolerate -”
He was interrupted by a sound almost more unexpected than the Bolshevik attack: Jackson speaking.
“Train,” he said, his voice a harsh rasp. He was glaring out the ventilation port.
The corporal reacted first, standing and screeching open the door again. Heedless of the numbing cold we stared toward the tracks. The gibbous moon cast long shadows on the drifting snow, the forest a dark band and the railbed clearly visible above the river bank. Nearly a quarter-mile away, the train was shadowed and partly obscured by its steady movement upline. Just as Woodell had described, the half-dozen cars gleamed with an unearthly frozen glow, but not a single light shone anywhere. We watched in silence as it crossed the trestle, rounded the bend and disappeared into a blowing haze of snow.
“We’re going into Lenyarsk,” the corporal said to me and Woodell next morning. “Sutter shouldn’t walk on that leg. He’ll stay here with Jackson.”
We were eating breakfast, some porridge I’d concocted with potato flakes and bits of crumbled tack, and the corporal had just come back inside, waiting until the door was shut again to remove his mittens and button up his pants.
“The snow stopped, the sky looks clear. Should take advantage of the weather when we get it.”
“Why?” said Woodell. “I mean, why go into the village?”
A moment passed.
“Sometimes we can trade for provisions,” I said. “Squirrel meat. Fish from the river, if someone’s hacked a hole through the ice. Cabbage.”
“Vodka,” said Sutter, and the corporal shot him a glance. “Medicinal, of course.”
We left at nine o’clock, the sun edging sullenly above the horizon, barely denting the gloom of the taiga. The corporal set a good pace despite his cough, and the cold knifing down our throats discouraged talking. Woodell had scavenged a thick woolen cloth from the rubbish in our ammunition wagon and fashioned a cape, which he tied down with twine, and he’d found a tattered fur hat to replace his army issue. We’d left our rifles behind, Woodell grudgingly, but we each had a few extra magazines for the Colts.
The village was a dark collection of wooden huts and cabins facing each other across a broad lane that ended at the church, with its single, forlorn onion dome, once bright green but now weatherbeaten and drab. Fence posts and unbarked rails poked through the snow; thin trails of firesmoke drifted from the short chimneys. A dog barked once when we tramped up, and a pair of unsprung wooden wagons stood by one shed, its half-open door revealing the swaybacked horse team inside.
Several hundred yards opposite the church, the street ended at the railbed, where a water tank stood amid jumbled piles of sawn firewood. A low building with a stretch of planked walk served as the village’s station, and we headed there because the dissolute railwayman kept a public samovar.
“What are all the crates?” Woodell was eyeing the tarped heaps and boxes stacked along the station’s wall, thinly iced over. A row of birchbark kegs meandered off the boardwalk.
“Lenyarsk’s a transit point,” said the corporal. “Merchandise and supplies are dropped off here, the peddlers and peasants pick it up. Trains don’t run on a schedule – you probably noticed.”
Inside a massive tiled stove took up the entire rear wall, in Siberian fashion, and the long room was unbreathably hot and stuffy. A ragtag assembly of peasants in patched clothing slouched along a rough table, a few holding tea glasses. Slush melted off boots and coats into black puddles of grime on the floorboards.
Woodell hesitated under the gaze of every man in the room. “You’re new,” I said. “They’re just curious.”
The corporal had some Russian, and he entered a loud negotiation, gesturing widely, drawing the peasants’ attention. After a minute he disappeared through a doorway hung with a tattered blanket, nodding to me and Woodell, and as we waited I had a glass from the samovar. Soon another man reappeared through the doorway to hand us a clutch of eggs in a square of fibrous cloth, and he was followed by another with two loaves of dark, heavy bread. Everything was frozen – one egg slipped out and just bounced on the floor, hard as a rock.
The corporal returned after ten minutes.
“Done,” he said to my glance of inquiry. “No liquor, though.”
“Just as well.”
I gave my glass to the corporal, and he tapped the samovar, but we didn’t stay long. The peasants watched us sullenly, not talking, and Woodell was increasingly uncomfortable.
“Mean-looking bunch,” he said when we were outside, pulling our hats and collars tight against the bitter wind before starting back.
The corporal nodded. “Life is hard out here,” he said. “The war doesn’t help.”
“While you were out back,” I said to him.
“Two of them bundled up and left.”
We looked at each other for a long moment.
“Right,” said the corporal.
I’ll say this for him, Woodell was quick. “You’re worried they were Bolsheviks,” he said, and his hand drifted down to his holstered pistol.
“Sympathizers, maybe,” I said. “Doesn’t matter, nobody has any secrets for long.”
“Time to go,” said the corporal.
Although only early afternoon the sun was already setting, disappearing into a streaked gray overcast while the temperature dropped and snow froze onto the ground. My eyes were tearing from the wind coming off the river, and we wrapped wool cloths high around our faces.
The path followed the river more than the railbed, which cut straight through bogs and thickets and floodplain, built several feet up from the ground but not good for walking. We moved as quickly as we could over the frozen ruts and drifting snow, hearing an occasional burble from the river where some upthrust of current thinned the ice. Inside the forest the wind died thankfully away, reappearing only fitfully as we moved through more open stretches.
Around 3:00 – dusk fading to darkness, because of the latitude and the cloud cover – we were only a quarter mile from the camp, where the path came close to the tracks, and with no forewarning a rifle shot cracked and the corporal abruptly crumpled. He looked up at me, surprised, and I had time only to shove Woodell down next to him before a volley rose and something snapped at my arm, whipping me around and off my feet.
We were lucky, perhaps, to fall into a low depression, a drainage ditch worn by runoff from the gravel trackbed during warmer months. Shots zinged and whistled overhead, but none were close enough to crack the air the way they do a few inches from your ear.
“He’s dead,” Woodell whispered, but I knew that. There was little blood and it was already edged with frost on his khaki coat.
I worked my arm, decided the wound was light, and anyway I could still handle the Colt with the other. I held the pistol up, fired several rounds at random, then forced myself to peer around a bit of snow-covered rubble. All I could see were a few muzzle flashes, then the partisans stopped firing and silence fell again.
“They’re in the trees.” I was reloading, fumbling the magazine with a hand frozen outside its glove. “Fifty yards off.” Behind the tracks to our rear the riverbank dropped sharply away, so they wouldn’t be circling around.
Woodell had taken the corporal’s handgun and now joined me at the edge of the ditch, pushing his fur hat back to decrease the target and staring into the darkening forest.
“It’s too cold,” he said. “They only have to wait.”
“They endure it.” I didn’t look at him. “So can we.”
But he was right, of course. After thirty minutes the seductive embrace of the cold had begun to close over us. My feet had long since lost feeling, along with my face and thumbs. I pushed my head too far forward and a bullet cracked past.
“We have to run,” I said. “Five minutes gets us to camp.”
Woodell knew we’d never make it, but he just nodded and checked his Colt. I laid one hand on his shoulder, and we crouched, taking a moment to stamp some life back into our feet.
It took a moment, and then I heard the high, humming rill from the tracks. I almost laughed, and we dropped back to our knees, staring upline, unable to see further than a hundred yards in the murky gloom.
The train appeared as if from nowhere: empty darkness, and then it was looming over us, trundling past in clanking majesty. Not a single light was illuminated, but the blocky freight cars glowed with a pale luminescence.
“The spirit train,” said Woodell unnecessarily, but I was shouting, then firing off all the cartridges in my pistol. The train slowed, just enough, and we ran awkwardly alongside, then grabbed at the head-high bars cornering two boxcars, Woodell in front of the coupling and myself behind. For one terrifying moment my feet dragged in the tamped gravel, my frozen hands were slipping and I almost fell into the wheels, but Woodell was already on the linkage and he held my arm until I could pull myself up. A few shots from the Bolos followed us, one even chipping the ice near my head, but we were out of effective range in a few moments.
We went back for the corporal the next morning, glad to find his body still there even though it had been stripped of every single article – clothing, equipment, the eggs we’d bought. Jackson cut two saplings and tied a travois, and he and Woodell hauled it out. A long gash from the bullet that struck my forearm had put me on the casualty list with Sutter.
The night before, huddled in front of the stove almost red-hot with too much wood and the draft full open, I had noticed Woodell watching my face. Jackson and Sutter were snoring, and he kept his voice low.
“I understand now,” he said. “The wagons are all metal.”
I nodded. “The armorplate frosts over at night, unlike the wooden cars on most other trains.”
“But it’s not a troop train – just freight. What would have to be so thoroughly protected?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Weapons. Munitions. Supplies. Transferred at Lenyarsk, right? All those crates . . . all going to Semenov, I assume.”
“Mostly.” I was gently massaging the frostnipped sections on my feet, wincing at the pain. “Some to Baron Sternberg.”
Woodell grimaced. “An even worse murderer, if that’s possible.” He waited, but I just shrugged, and his voice became angry. “Both of them supplied by Uncle Sam.”
“The corporal thought it was politics,” I said, sighing. “The Japanese are intent on owning Siberia. They’d be happy to buy off Semenov and the Baron themselves – this way we retain some influence.”
Just before I fell asleep I tried once more. “You remember what I said the first day?” Woodell glanced over. “We’re here to stay alive, and that’s all. Armistice Day in Europe came and went three months ago. I just want to survive and muster out.” But I don’t know that he understood.
Mike Cooper is the pseudonym of a former jack-of-all-trades. Under a different name his work has received wide recognition, including a Shamus Award, a Thriller nomination, and inclusion in BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES. His novel CLAWBACK, published by Viking, will be followed by a sequel in 2013. Mike lives outside Boston with his family. More at www.mikecooper.com.