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.
The gray man wandered about the coach, talking to the other passengers. He settled in near two heavy men, passed them a bottle, and set out a deck of cards. The man in buckskin, Coulter, watched for a few minutes, then settled himself in to sleep.
The gray man won the first hand.
Later, the gray man got off at a tiny village which lay beneath the smoke of recent pogroms. Eighteen people got on the train. The gray man was the only one to get off.
The conductor said, “Where?” He didn’t need to ask why.
The leader was bearded and old, stick thin, and stooped. He said, “Anywhere.”
The conductor didn’t bother to tell them that they would not like where they were going. They were Jews. They already knew what life held in store for them.
# # #
In a green, soft land, by a lovely bay where seabirds swirled, they loaded men and women with pinched and hungry Irish faces.
# # #
In a shattered town in Czechoslovakia, they loaded displaced Germans, who were running from mobs that were celebrating the end of the war by killing the relatives of their oppressors.
# # #
In Tasmania, they loaded Aborigines who had been hunted like wallabies.
# # #
When Coulter awoke next, the gray man was back. He had come aboard during the night. Coulter stood by the window, watching the striped horses and the massive gray, long nosed — whatever they were — and the tall, powerful, naked black men with long bladed spears who were hunting them.
“Damnedest Injuns I ever saw.”
The gray man chuckled.
“Damnedest buffalo, too.”
“Come on, Coulter,” the gray man said, “playing the fool won’t do. You may not know what they are, but you know they aren’t be beasts and men of your own home.”
“It’s been a long time since I saw home,” Coulter said. “Where are we now?”
“We are on the railroad of Cecil Rhodes’ dream. Cairo to Capetown on a single railway. Three and a half feet between the rails, with an SAR Garratt 400 up front; one boiler, two bogies, the best articulated there ever was, even though your country never used it.”
“Is it real?”
Coulter was not offended. He watched the herds in their migration for a while, then said, “Whatever it is, it’s making me homesick for buffalo. It looks wild and free.”
The gray man smiled and said, “It is wild. But nothing’s free.”
# # #
They stopped in a village at a tiny station which said Jerusalem on its signboard, in a green and pleasant land. The engine was in Midland Railway livery. The coach was upholstered in horsehair and illuminated by gaslight.
A single woman got on board, dressed in long gingham gown, with lace at the cuffs and an infant in her arms. A rake in top hat, wearing a Reynard smirk, descended to on the platform.
The conductor said, “Where and why?”
She said, “London,” and gestured at the child to answer the second question.
The conductor said, “All right, but you won’t like where you are going.”
She smiled at the conductor and said, “I’ll make do.” And he believed that she might. last post tomorrow
The engine purred into the station, all glittering bright and new in the midst of an urban nightmare. Sixteen driving wheels the color of bronze, in four articulated sets. Smooth and slick and painted like a rainbow with a single coach following. Every driver was powered by a flux engine activated by the thorium pile that ran along behind.
Two persons were holding hands in the shadows, sheltered by fallen beams and girders. The wind that swept the platform was harsh and cold, and smelled of decay.
In the side of the pristine coach, a door appeared, with soft light and inviting upholstery beyond. The two rushed forward, darting glances behind them. The conductor stepped aside as they entered.
He looked at them carefully, but he could not tell which was man and which was woman, or even what either had been when they started out. Not that it mattered; there was affectionate touching as they stood together, and a clear mutual regard.
The conductor asked, “Where and why?”
One of the pair spoke up and said, “Anywhere, anytime, as long as it is earlier. Life is not worth living here.”
The conductor said, “All right, but you won’t like where you are going.”
They were jostled aside by a young man who leaped to the platform and looked around. He was skinny, with buzz cut hair and wearing a black Westercon tee-shirt. The skin that showed was heavily tattooed. His face was a study in apprehension and wonder, but he looked ready for anything. He would need to be.
Just before the door closed, another figure, all in gray, slipped aboard and hurriedly took a seat beside a figure in buckskin. There was a whine from the pile and a hiss as the door slid shut. The train began to move, through the darkness and the smoke.
# # #
Morning dawned on the taiga. The rails curved between the pines. The Russian P36, 2-4-2 laid a smoke trail across the sky, and tore needles off the trees to send them spiraling down into the snow as it passed. The sky was dark with storm, and flurries of sleet rattled against the windows.
In the dim light of morning, the train broke out into a miles long clearing that flanked an icy river. Ahead was a village, onion domed, brightly painted. The brakes sent a shiver through the coach that caused the gray man to slump against his companion and awaken. The man in buckskin had been staring out the window. He said, “It looks like the Madison.”
“I know that! I’ve seen a thousand rivers since I last saw the Madison. I would hate to leave them behind, but I would love to ride my own rivers again.” He scowled at his seat mate. “How many times have I seen you, and I still don’t know your name.”
“You don’t need to know,” said the gray man.
“I always need to know. That’s what got me into this.”
The train screamed into a station and stood panting impatiently. Three young men, bundled into anonymity, came aboard, and two more left the coach. The conductor said, “Where and why?”
The youngest newcomer said, “Anywhere, anytime, as long as it isn’t Russia. Life is cold and short here.”
The conductor said, “All right, but you won’t like where you are going.” more tomorrow
However, this time it won’t be for long. A new piece of short fiction called Coulter and the Gray Man will come to serial in about a week and a half.
In case you come onto this at a later date, after this was posted I decided to move Coulter and the Gray Man up a week.
When the pot is broken on the hearth
and the fire is out;
and the cold, north dragon wind
is riding on the clouds.
When there’s howling in the smokehole
and snuffling at the door;
when that beast is storm and darkness,
and endless, biting cold.
Then the gods of wind and air
demand their portion.
He stood under the fury of her countenance; not brave, not bowing, not defiant, not cringing. Numb.
She looked long upon him, and then was gone.
The wind still howled. The snow still swirled, but less fiercely because he had reached the edge of the valley and the beginning of the forest. He even knew where he was, or thought he did. If his strength held out, he could reach his hartwa in an hour.
And once there, he and his wife and child would die together, for there was nothing left in him.
He started forward, stumbled and fell. Something lay beneath the snow, frozen hard, and it had tripped him up. He moved past it, still intent on his goal, but there was just one spark left — hope perhaps, or maybe only curiosity. He brushed aside a bit of snow and found coarse hair. He dug deeper, faster, and exposed the carcass of a deer, wolf-killed, much mangled and partially eaten. On a day in spring, he would not have touched it. Now he ran his hands over the frozen body and tears came to his eyes.
# # #
When he had dragged the frozen carcass home, built a fire and made a stew to feed them all, Pellan settled in under the furs with his wife and child. The chill took a long time to leave him. Sleep tried to claim him, but he fought back because he wanted to stay awake long enough to savor this feeling of safety and repletion. These moments didn’t come often between first snow and final melt.
Gods, he thought — real or not, we need them. Poor men especially need them when the Lord and his soldiers, and his tax collectors and the priests, all stand with their hands out. When the crops fail, and the cow dies, and the woman is sick. When there is no food in the larder and only a whistle of wind where the chimney fire belongs, men need to believe that someone still cares.
And some men, pushed even harder than that, need gods to blame and gods to hate. When they are forced back up against death, left with no hope — when it would be easier to give up than to live — that’s when a certain kind of man needs his gods more than ever. He needs to curse them, to revile them, to scream at them when the night and hunger and cold and storm come all at once. He needs to hate them for what they are doing to him, whether he believes in them or not — to hate them so badly that he will walk barefoot through hell before he will let them see him fall.
Sometimes that hatred is all that keeps a man alive. So, thank you, Gods. But don’t get cocky. This mood won’t last long.
Pellan trudged on, heading back toward his home by the feel of the wind. The sun had gone down and the darkness was complete. The few leathers of bitter melon Pellan had eaten near noon were long gone from his body. He was moving on nerve and anger, but the anger was fading in the storm.
He wished the priest was with him, so he could have someone to lash out at. If not the priest, he thought, then let some god appear, so he would have someone to curse.
The snow burned his face; the wind tore at his clothing and all but overturned his hearing. Then there was light, faint light, small in the distance. As he headed toward it, thinking of fire and warmth and food, it resolved into the figure of a man, strong, heavy, wide in the shoulders, dressed for battle with a sword drawn.
God or illusion? Does anyone ever really know?
Pellan spoke his name, “Simicababar,” and the figure nodded. Then he said, “How is it that you are here?”
“You called me and I came.”
“But it is said that you cannot leave your pocket universe, that the Changer locked you there forever.”
“I am here for you, because you called me. I stood through siege of war, unwavering, to protect my brother’s wife. That endurance is what you sought.”
“Can you give me strength to reach my own wife?”
“I can give you nothing. I can only show you what you lack.” And he was gone.
The storm, the cold and the darkness remained. Pellan began walking again, into the storm, toward his hartwa, and his wife and child. He wondered if they were still alive.
Encaritremanta appeared before him next, but he didn’t even acknowledge her presence. He had no need of a beautiful woman, scarcely clothed, to inflame his desire. He had a woman; plain faced, skeletal from hunger, holding his child to her breast. She was the one he wanted to reach. He growled, “Step aside, you glorious bitch, and let me go on to the one I love.”
Next Elmirandel stood by to watch him, but Pellan trudged past without even looking up.
There were other gods in the storm that night, less known to him, faint and half perceived. They surrounded him as he trudged onward. He could see them from time to time out of the corner of his eye. They meant nothing to him, except that he sometimes turned to curse them. Hunger walked with him; death walked by his left hand. He knew that this time he might not defeat them, but he knew that he would never stop trying.
The last goddess was the oldest of them all. She was there before Man was born. The Weathermistress in a green cloak, open to show her breasts, remained unaffected as she stood in the middle of the storm of her own creation. She was not cruel, although many call her that. She was not kind. She poured out the sweet honey of life with one hand and the icy stream of death with the other. She could be beseeched, but she never listened. She was neither kind nor cruel, but she was capricious.
Pellan stopped still before her. Here was the goddess he feared, for she had all power and no mercy. She looked him through with calm eyes. Her names were life and death. Whichever name she answered to tonight, was not his to command. He looked deeply into her eyes of ice and said, “I will not beg.” Final post tomorrow.