We’re thrilled to present to you today a story from the new Crime Factory anthology The First Shift: 27 tales of revulsion, heartbreak, and violence.
They were two days into the trip when the train shuddered and the hiss of steam, fighting the brakes applied, caused his bowels to revolt. Through the window, Tip caught a glimpse of a hooded figure standing beside the tracks with a torch. He fought the urge to throw up on his own feet. The Pinkerton across the seat from him chuckled, casually thumbing the cylinder of his Colt and easing back the hammer.
Beside him, Charlie Holland squinted at the night through the glass. “What’s going on?” he asked. Tip dreaded hearing the answer.
The Pinkerton winked at them. “Looks like an unscheduled stop.”
Tip sat up and pressed his face to the cool window and spied more torches among the trees. Beside him, Charlie said, “Sonsabitches.”
The Pinkerton nodded. “Reckon they gonna wanna talk to you two.
The train came to a full stop and Tip heard loud voices saying his and Charlie’s names, but not talking to them. He fought the futile urge to try slipping his manacles and duck beneath his chair. Instead he sent up a silent prayer for quickness, if not justice. Charlie attacked his bonds with admirable verve as he levelled a steady stream of curses under his breath. “Motherfuckers. Sonsa-chink-whore-bitches. Cock-suckin-Lincoln-lovin-rot-ass-mongrels.”
The Pinkerton stood and showed Tip his palm. Stay. As if he could run. The detective meant to see them killed no doubt, only not here and now, which made him their only refuge at the moment. Tip looked over his shoulder at him moving to the front of the car and taking a position beside the door. Tip noticed he’d removed a second pistol, tiny. You could conceal it in an eye patch, he thought.
The approaching mob was announced by murmuring from passengers in the other cars and the fierce vibration of violence in the air growing stronger by the second. Charlie began to pull on his chains and Tip’s arms were jerked to his right side. Charlie had slipped one boot between his wrists and was attempting to force the cuffs over his hands. “Shit.” He wiggled his thumbs trying to make them touch the far sides of his palms. “Don’t just sit there, Tip, c’mon, gimme support.”
Tip squeezed his eyes shut instead. He listened for the still, small voice of God his mother had told him of, but it was in the storm this time. There was a dull thud against the door, followed by the sharp crack of splintering wood, and three men in potato sack hoods rushed in. The first one called out to them, “On your feet.” Charlie paid no heed and pushed with renewed strength. The irons were moving and taking several layers of skin with them.
“Get up,” the second hooded man said, “The devil await ye.”
A hand reached out and roughly pulled Tip to his feet and another struck him on the mouth and he fell back into his seat. Charlie lay on his back on the floor, absorbing kicks to his ribs, still pushing with his foot between his hands, up in the air.
From behind, the Pinkerton appeared and put the barrel of his Colt under the chin of the first hood and the lady stinger in the ear of the third man. “The devil gonna have to wait a spell.”
The second hooded man stopped reaching for Tip and looked at the Pinkerton. His muffled voice appealed to reason. “We got no strife with you. We only want justice.”
“You’ll have it. Just gonna have to wait a bit.”
“Bullshit,” said the voice beneath the first hood, “These boys kilt Bob Manuse plus another posse.”
“And they’ll hang for it. In Rawlins,” said the detective calmly.
“Not good enough. Rawlins awful far from here,” said the third man.
“I’m employed by the Union Pacific to bring these men to Rawlins,” said the Pinkerton, “That’s where they’re going. You wanna see them swing, you can buy a ticket like everybody else.”
Behind them, a fourth hooded man entered the rail car. “What’s the hold up?”
The first man addressed him, “Union Pacific.”
The fourth man, clearly the leader said, “Mister, we got no strife with the railroad. Nobody else needs be hurt today.” He held up his palms to show that he was unarmed as he approached. “But we will be having justice from thee.” The Pinkerton dug the barrels of his guns into the flesh beneath the hoods, causing the first and third man to strain their necks for relief. The fourth man moved cautiously around the huddle of men till he was facing the detective. He bent forward to remove his mask.
What he revealed himself to be was middle-aged, about thirty, and balding. He was in need of a shave, but not unkempt. His features looked soft and healthy, but there was granite behind his eyes. “Sir, my name is Felix Vincent Warden, and I am kin to Robert Manuse by marriage.” Here he paused and looked directly at Charlie struggling on the floor and then into the returned gaze of Tip. “I intend to see these die men tonight, I’m sure you understand. Ain’t no cause for they to be responsible for no other deaths, but if you don’t stand down, we will do what we have to.”
The detective sighed and said, “Mr. Warden, I will shoot the very first one of you to put a hand on my prisoners and then I’ll shoot one more of you for good measure.” He nodded his farewell in a gentlemanly manner and added, “Kindly step the fuck off the train.”
Charlie groaned with the effort of straining against his cuffs. His wrists were scraped raw and bleeding, but he’d moved the right side almost over the thumb knuckle, which gave with a crack and a cry from Charlie. His hand slipped through, and he leapt to his feet and lunged at the second man in a hood, who calmly took a single step back and shot Charlie in the belly.
Charlie dropped to Tip’s feet. Tip winced and dry-heaved between his knees. The detective, cat-quick, shot the second hooded man up in the fatty part of his arm, with the tiny weapon, causing the man to drop his own gun. The little pop from the toy gun hardly seemed real, but the blood that bubbled out of the flesh wound was convincing.
Charlie lay curled on the floor, cursing and gargling blood, while the man who shot him sat in an empty seat and grabbed at the hole in his arm. “Would one of you shoot that son of a bitch!” he said.
The Pinkerton re-cocked the lady stinger, and the hooded men flinched and turned their heads slightly to Felix Warden who had taken on a purplish color. “Now listen here, you fancy son of a bitch –” he said. The Pinkerton fired a shot, from the Colt this time, through the ceiling right beside the first hooded man’s ear. The man descended to the floor clutching at his head through the hood and the Pinkerton levelled the Colt into the second man’s face.
Below them, the first man had pulled the hood off of his head and was screaming, “Shot my fuckin ear out! Shot my fuckin ear dead! Can’t fuckin hear anything!” His eyes were wide and he was looking from hood to hood for recognition that he was indeed saying something. Receiving none, he scrambled to his feet and ran out the door.
From outside the train there was a commotion of voices calling for Warden to tell them what was happening. From the next car more men could be heard approaching the door. The Pinkerton told Felix Warden, “Tell them to stand down or I’ll shoot the first one through the door.”
Warden commanded in a level voice, “Stay back. Do not come in. Everything’s under control.”
“That’s good, Felix, now –”
Warden continued, his voice raised, “But you boys hear any more guns, you come in shooting!”
Tip knelt beside Charlie on the floor. He tore the hem from his companion’s clothing and tried to staunch the flow of blood with Charlie’s own shirt. His partner looked up at him with hatred in his eyes. “Why didn’t you help me, you fuckin coward?”
Tip gagged on the smells of blood and vomit mixing and filling the car. “Shh, Charlie, don’t talk, now.”
Charlie tried to spit at him, but only drooled bloody saliva down his chin. “Chickenshit backshooter,” he managed. “Never shoulda hooked up with such a yellow-ass-mutt. Fuckin left you to die’s what I shoulda done.”
The detective looked at Warden, disappointed as if with a child. He started to speak, “Felix, I believe we can work something out.” Felix Vincent Warden waited for his offer. The Pinkerton looked first at Tip wiping a string of drool from his chin and Charlie bleeding and bubbling shit all over the car floor. “I’ll give you one of em.”
Supported between two men, Charlie Holland was led off the train into a circle of other hoods and train passengers come out to watch, gathered around a telegraph pole. Two men were struggling with fashioning a noose and Charlie slumped on the ground waiting for them to finish. Felix Warden called out for haste, “Git him up before he bleeds to death.”
The Pinkerton poked Tip in the ribs with his Colt. Tip stood from his seat and walked to the front of the car, watching the mob through the windows, feeling a mix of gratitude and shame that Charlie was dying and not himself. His captor and savoir led him all the way to the engine where the driver regarded them warily before turning his attention again to the lynching. The Pinkerton spoke, “What are you waiting for, get this heap moving.”
The engineer didn’t look at him. “Can’t. Rails blocked.” The detective put his head out and inspected the track for himself.
“So get your men out there to clear it.”
“Pinch it. Let ‘em watch.” He turned to look at Tip. “Shoulda let ‘em take both.”
“Ain’t your concern. Just get us moving along, pronto.”
“Case you hadn’t noticed, half my passengers are out there to watch. I ain’t leaving without them. Why don’t you just go back to your seat, you don’t wanna see it for yourself?”
The Pinkerton motioned for Tip to step off the train and he did. Tip fell to his knees when he landed, and the detective put a hand under his arm to help him to his feet. “If you don’t want to die with your friend tonight, you’d best help me clear this track. Soon as he’s stretched, they’re gonna want you.”
They worked together, clearing away the barricade the mob had hastily placed across the track. They’d lit a fire in front to make it more visible and simultaneously obscure the shoddy obstacle they’d erected. The blaze was reduced to a few smouldering, mostly smoking, patches of timber. It was primarily still-green tree branches and even the trunks of a half dozen saplings lying in a pile.
“Amateurs,” said the Pinkerton.
A loud cry rang out when Charlie was lifted to his feet and assisted atop a patiently waiting ass. Charlie began to vocalize his final thoughts. They mostly consisted of objects and animals those gathered round were advised to fornicate with and how he wished he’d killed more of them. He claimed further that Robert Manuse had died like a coward, begging for his life and even sucking on Charlie’s cock for mercy before he’d shot him.
It wasn’t true. They’d been holed up in a cave for a week, hiding out from a botched train job, when the posse had found them. Tip had been taking a shit across the way when the popping sounds of gunfire had sent him scrambling down the hill, goodbye forever to the gang.
He’d been a road agent before joining up with up with the McKinny-Jan gang that’d failed to stop a train outside Rawlins. He’d been party to bushwhacking and rustling and cheating at cards, but it was an attempted robbery that had brought this end. He and Charlie had busted up the tracks ten miles outside town, but a UP lineman discovered the damaged rails and had the train stopped before it got anywhere near them.
Union Pacific had a posse formed and out before nightfall with an inflated bounty placed on them, and the gang had disappeared up into the mountains. A week after, he’d heard the shooting and began his pilgrimage east without even stopping to wipe his ass. Weeks later, he’d chanced upon Charlie again at a saloon they both knew in Kansas City and heard confirmation from him the tale of the shootout he’d read about in newspapers. A railroad detective and a citizen were killed in the ambush, and Jensen and Collins shot dead from their own company. McKinny and Jan had escaped far as he knew.
Charlie claimed pure dumb luck had saved him that day and that fate had brought them back together that night. He bought Tip a round and a whore and later claimed innocence and bewilderment when they’d found the Pinkerton waiting for them in the bath house.
Upon arrest, the detective had advised quiet if they wanted to survive the trip back to Rawlins, but apparently word had got out they’d been apprehended. Telegraph messages outran any horse, carriage or train. Newspapers were probably printing stories of their capture already. Fuckin Charlie’d testify to that much.
His hands bound behind him and the noose placed around his neck, Charlie was made to sit atop the miserable looking ass who could not then be coaxed to move. Two men pulled on the stubborn animal’s reigns and a third pushed from behind while Charlie abused them with words.
Finally the reluctant ass took three steps and then stopped, leaving Charlie, stretched taut, holding onto the animal’s hind quarters with his heels and wriggling his head in the rope, until one of the men brushed his feet off. Charlie swung low, his feet missing the ground by inches. He made a wide arc and as he swung back, he kicked his heels in a rhythm that added to his momentum. He was finally able to grab the telegraph pole with his heels and holding himself still, wriggled his head with savage determination until one of the mob knocked his feet loose and Charlie commenced to swinging again. With each swing, the knot slipped a hair. At the zenith of the fourth swing, he fell through the noose and landed on his back. The rope, which had torn both of his ears away from his head, swung empty, garnished with his right extremity and a long strand of hair. The left fell in the dirt. Charlie lay on the ground, heaving wet, broken breaths.
The Pinkerton shook his head. “Amateurs.”
They had cleared away the barrier and stood with the engineer who chuckled at the spectacle. Tip couldn’t take his eyes off his partner who was left lying in the dust, in shock and too raw and scraped about the neck to cry out, while the mob hurried to fashion a better noose.
Felix Vincent Warden motivated his mob to “make a good one this time.” And after a spell, the second version was fitted and cinched tight on Charlie’s ragged throat. He slumped, barely upright, atop the mule who’d been cajoled back to the spot beneath the crossbeam of the telegraph pole. Again when the animal was slapped it refused to budge and the same three men set about seducing it away from its spot, but to no avail. Of a sudden, a fourth man stepped forward and shot the dumb animal behind its ear. The mule fell to the earth and Charlie Holland dropped with it, but stopped short of the ground.
Again, he kicked with both his feet and again he managed to get a swing going, but Felix Harden called for a stop to that and two men grabbed his kicking feet and tugged without syncopation until there was a pop. Charlie stopped squirming, went slack and vacated what remained in his bowels.
The gathered crowd became nearly as still as Charlie, whose only motion now was prompted by a dry and dusty wind carrying the smell of him back toward Tip. The Pinkerton urged the engineer to prepare to leave and as the onlookers began filing silently back aboard the train, he and Tip stood up front with the driver watching Charlie tilt and sway.
Tip realized that the detective had been wrong. Charlie’s messy exit had left the mob uninterested in his blood and they pulled away without further incident. Several of the hooded men even set about clearing away brush still remaining on the track and others gallantly assisted ladies back to their seats. As he retook his own seat in the otherwise empty car, Tip stared out the window, but the light inside obscured the night and he was left with his own reflection to study.
They were still six hours from Rawlins and maybe six days to execution. The Pinkerton seemed to read his thoughts and offered, “You never know, sometimes a judge gets sick or lost making the trip and another one’s gotta be called in. Could take weeks.”
Tip considered that as the train pulled away. He glanced back for a final look at Charlie and the detective snorted. “You don’t owe that cocksucker nothing. Gave you up five minutes after we caught him in the hills outside Rawlins. Said he knew you had an uncle in Kentucky, figured you’d be headed that way.” Tip took the information stoically. It made sense. The Pinkerton watched the subtle changes in Tip’s expression and nodded in agreement. “Fuck him. He deserved it.”
Jedidiah Ayres’ short fiction has been published widely both online and in print. He is the co-editor of the anthologies Noir At The Bar (with Scott Phillips) and D*CKED: Dark Fiction Inspired By Dick Cheney (with Greg Bardsley and Kieran Shea). He also blogs regularly at Hardboiled Wonderland and Ransom Notes. Ayres resides with his family in St. Louis, Missouri.
The First Shift includes new fiction by Dennis Tafoya, Andrew Nette, Jedidiah Ayres, Roger Smith, Josh Coverse, Charlie Stella, Greg Bardsley, Hilary Davidson, Kieran Shea, Nate Flexer, Cameron Ashley, Patti Abbot, Chad Eagleton, Ken Bruen, Jimmy Callaway, Dave Zeltserman, Steve Weddle, Craig McDonald, Keith Rawson, Leigh Redhead, Anonymous-9, Jonathan Woods, Liam Jose, Dave White, Chris F. Holm, Frank Bill, Adrian McKinty, and Scott Wolven. The First Shift is published by New Pulp Press is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and your independent bookseller.