Coulter and the Gray Man 3

Coulter approached the conductor, once the train was in motion again, and said, “I don’t understand.”

“What?”

“Anything.”

The conductor looked annoyed. He said, “What do you want from me.”

“I want to know why I’m here.”

“You had a need. We only go where someone has a great need. That’s all I can tell you. I let people on, I let them off, and I warn them of the future. That’s my whole job. I’m not here to explain.

The conductor went on, “You could tell me why you are here. What was your need, that was so great?”

“Need? I was stark naked, without a weapon, and I was being chased by about a thousand Blackfeet who wanted my scalp. All of a sudden, there was a station and a steam train with a single coach. Of course I didn’t know that was what it was. I had never seen one before. But you threw open the door and I jumped in about two steps in front of those braves. Don’t you remember?”

“Somewhat.” Then, for the first time, the conductor smiled a little. “I have opened that door for more people than you could count, but you were running faster than anyone I ever saw.”

Coulter looked around the coach. It was smaller now, older, ill-painted and groaning over the uneven rails. The gray man was on board again, drinking with some of the other passengers. HIs hand held a watch that had, moments before, resided in the pocket of his companion’s waistcoat. The gray man smiled and the watch disappeared. His companion never noticed.

“Gray man,” Coulter shouted, “riders get on and riders get off. I never see them again. But you come and go. Why?”

“This train is the best place there is,” the gray man replied. “I do sometimes get off, but I always come back. You could learn from me.”

Coulter turned back to ask, “What happens to the others, when they leave the train.”

The conductor shook his head. “I don’t know. It isn’t my business to know. They are mine as long as they stay, but when they leave, they go out of my protection, and out of my knowledge.”

“And if I leave?”

“You will know how your story ends. I will not.”

“And If I don’t leave?”

“Then your story will never be complete.”

Now the coach was swaying badly on the unballasted rails. The diamond stacked 4-4-0 American up front was boiling black smoke and a lonesome whistle echoed across the prairie. There was a station ahead, just a dismounted boxcar on crossed ties with a water tank and a flag to stop the train. Crouched in the grass were several hundred Blackfeet, mostly naked, and well armed.

“They’re still there,” Coulter said, “and they’re still pissed.”

“It is your choice.”

Coulter drew a deep breath, and then he whooped. All the other passengers jerked in surprise. He said, “Go to the windows, folks. This is going to be a show.”

He grinned at the conductor and shouted, “Open the door, Son, and give me room to run.”

The gray man just shook his head, and dealt the cards again.

finis

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