[Pages from the uncorrected proof of Step Zero. To purchase the limited illustrated hardbound edition of this novel go to The Stu Store at Squareup.com. To purchase the non-illustrated ebook, go to those places where ebooks are sold. To start from the beginning, simply search this website for other installments. Thanks, y'all.]
Peter Saum, Jr.
Monday, March 9th, 2076: 10:05 p.m.
On The Sunset Limited
East of The Salton Sea, California
Found an empty seat just a few rows back from Artie, Georgia, Michael, and Mags. They don’t know I’m here. Hell, they never know I’m here. But I need to be here tonight.
I don’t know what’s going to happen but I just had this funny feeling while cruising around the Solar System today. Like that time Artie almost got killed three years ago. So I’m here. I can’t do much, except shine Light and send Love, but that ain’t no spiritual chicken feed.
Pretty girl in front of me. Hair blowing in the wind from the desert air coming in through the train car window. Window’s only down an inch or so, but it’s moving her auburn hair like a dance of red strings. Quite beautiful. Pretty night, too.
Then I see the first bullet enter the car. Comes through the girl’s window, right in front of face. Glass shards soon behind. Like in slow motion. I can see in slow motion when I want to, or when things go down. Things are going down.
Red-headed girl looks all right. Face looks OK. She’s on the floor. Got a pistol in her hand.
Then I float to over where my family is.
Georgia “G” Swann
Monday, March 9th, 2076: 10:07 p.m.
On The Sunset Limited
East of The Salton Sea, California
As soon as I hear glass shatter, I have my .357 out of my bag. I look over at Artie. He’s still grabbing for his gun. Mags’ already gone to at the other side of the car, yelling orders.
“Kill the lights,” she screams. Someone flicks a switch. Most but not all of the lights go out.
“Everyone without weapons, hug the floor on the right side of the train,” she yells. “Everyone with, over here on the left.”
Quick motions in the dark of the unarmed crawling right and the armed heading left. I’m behind Mags. She turns to speak to me.
“You any good with that?” asks Mags.
“Pope shit in the woods?” I say.
“Yes, he does,” say Mags with a smile.
“What do you see?” I ask.
“Nothing. Nothing at all. Might have just been some assholes fucking with us. Might be robbers though. We’ll know in a few minutes.”
“We’ll know?” I ask.
“If the train comes to a halt,” Mags says. “Means they got through the locomotive door or put something on the tracks. Have to be something big to stop this train though. These new locomotives have hellish counter measures to combat robbers. Top secret stuff. You don’t want to know.”
I squat beside her in the dark and wait for the train to stop. One minute. Two minutes. Still moving. I feel Artie’s hand on my waist, just letting me know he’s there. Still nothing. Train’s still flying along. I hardly breath.
Then, silhouetted against the light desert sand, I see horses and then men on horses and then more horses and more men. Couple dozen at least.
“You see them?” says Mags.
“I do,” I say. “What do you think?”
“Nothing. I don’t think they mean to rob the train. Just trying to put the fear of God into us. Showing us who’s boss, and it’s not you, assholes,” say Mags, more to herself as anyone else.
“Glad you’re here,” I say.
She turns to me and smiles.
“I’m glad you all are safe,” she says, looking at Artie and I.
“No gun?” she yells across the isle to Michael.
Michael shakes his head in the dim light.
“Want one?” say Mags.
“Thanks. Not right now,” says Michael.
“If I need you, you in?” Mags asks Michael.
“He’s in,” say Artie. “Just not until it’s time. It’s not time yet.”
“Oh,” say Mags. “You’re right. It’s not time. Pray it doesn’t become time.”
“GGATI, help us,” I say.
And for the first time, in days, I think about my family in Cheyenne.
Peter Saum, Jr.
Monday, March 9th, 2076: 10:30 p.m.
On The Sunset Limited
East of The Salton Sea, California
Artie’s OK. Everybody else too, but one.
“What happened?” asks Melissa.
“You got shot,” I say. “You’re dead now.” “Really?” she says, brushing the white hair out of her face, or rather her white angel ghost hair. She’s new to this.
“Damn, I was going to visit my grandkids in San Bernardino,” she says.
“You still can,” I say. “They just won’t be able to see you. You can still send Love to them. The Love Of The Ancestors. Still watch over them too, or you can come back as a human right away or go to the Great Big Sea. You have lots of choices.”
“Am I an angel?” asks Melissa.
“An angel and a ghost. An angel ghost. It’s hard to explain,” I say.
“Is there a God? A Goddess?” she asks.
“Close your eyes, Melissa.”
She does. Then she glows. Literally glows with the Light. Her first angel ghost time with the Light of God Goddess All There Is.
I hold her hands and wait for her to decide.
I love this part.
Arthur “Artie” Saum
Tuesday, March 10th, 2076: 6:45 a.m.
On The Sunset Limited
Just south of San Bernardino, California
“Who was she?” I say through a yawn.
“Melissa Bartlett. 63 years old. From El Paso. On her way to visit family in San Bernerdino, judging from her papers and such,” says Mags.
“Family know she’s dead?” asks Georgia.
“Don’t know their number.” say Mags. “We checked her phone, but there are no last names with the caller IDs. My guess is someone will be at the station to pick her up, and we’ll tell them then.”
“Jesus,” says Michael.
“Yeah,” says Mags.
The train starts to slow. Dawn breaks over the mountains to the east.
“Did I sleep through Palm Springs?” I ask Georgia.
“Like a baby,” she says.
“I miss anything?”
“We stopped for fifteen minutes, picked up a half dozen passengers, and we were on our way,” say G. “The conductor whispered ‘Palm Springs” over the intercom. Sweet of him to not want to wake everyone up, even though most of us were up, due to the shooting. Except you.”
She’s not mad. Just teasing.
I give a crooked grin. I was tired, plus with Mags with us, I figured we were fine.
“I’m up now,” I say.
Georgia kisses me. Not a big kiss, but not a little one either. Damn good regular kiss.
“Check that out,” say Michael, pointing out the window.
“Wow,” I say.
For miles, all I see are concrete pads for houses. No wood, no pipes, no roofs, no homes. Just a sea of rectangular pads of concrete, with some rusted old gasoline cars mixed in. I’ve seen this before, out at Continental Ranch, a suburb of homes outside of Tucson, but not like this. I don’t get too sentimental about pre-War days. From what I can gather from old-timers, and some books and newspapers, Americans were a selfish, spoiled people, afraid of their own shadows and with little resilience to endure the ups and downs of living. But seeing all these pads, I’m reminded that families lived here, thousands of people loved and worked here, and did the best they could. Families and friends. And my family and friends are the most important thing to me, next to my sobriety. Be honest with yourself, Artie. I know if I ever lose my sobriety, I’ll lose my family and friends, or rather they’ll lose me.
“Something, eh?” Michael say.
Mags sees what we are seeing.
“Worse as you get to closer to Los Angeles. Much worse,” she says.
“We have to change trains in San Bernardino,” says Georgia, but we all know this. “You staying on the train, Mags and heading into L.A.?” she asks the Marshal.
“Nope. Maybe on the way back I’ll come through Los Angeles, but I’m getting on the Southwest Chief for a few hours, then I’ll transfer to the San Joaquin Train in Barstow, and head straight to Oakland.”
Georgia gets up from her seat, crosses the isle and hugs Mags tight.
“Ah, I’m guessing you folks are taking that route as well,” says Mags.
G smiles and nods and hugs Mags again.
Arthur “Artie” Saum
Tuesday, March 10th, 2076: 8:40 a.m.
Santa Fe Depot
San Bernardino, California
“We have a two hour layover here,” Georgia says to me, looking at her schedule. “Let’s get something to eat.”
We exit the car to the platform. I’m traveling light with only my backpack, and a smaller bag that carries my ukelele and my gun. G has a small backpack and a mandolin case. Michael’s the one who decided to bring his Martin, but he’s not over-loaded. Most people carry instruments when they travel. At least everyone under the age of 50. Like the old priests who carry Bibles, we carry guitars, fiddles, mandolins, ukeleles, flutes, and skin drums. If it sings, we bring.
At the far end of the platform, I see Mags talking with a family. Mom, Dad, and a teenage girl. The father starts to cry. Mother and daughter hug the man. Ms. Bartlett must have been his mother.
This depot’s huge. Kind of Spanish Revival meets Moorish something. Beautiful. Four round tile domes top the lobby building with red roofs extending a hundred yards on either side. Wonderful to see the old architecture preserved. Amazing it escaped the scavengers. And there’s our next train on the far side of the tracks. Now that metal crosswalk that arches over the tracks isn’t Spanish Revivial. That Post-War Federalist Steel architecture. Not that pretty but it works.
There sure are a lot of people at this depot. Must be a few hundred. Families of three and four. Couples arm in arm. Dusty old men and women. Marshals and government workers. Blacks, Whites, Asians, Hispanics, Natives. And if my eyes don’t fail me, some men from El Grupo who are trying to look respectable. They aren’t wearing any colors but I know the smell.
Shit. Robbie Rod is here.
“What?” says Georgia, sensing my change of mood.
“A guy I used to run with in El Grupo is over there,” I say.
“Where?” she asks.
I point with my eyes.
“Tall drink of water. Black hair. Blue jean jacket.”
Michael walks up.
“Let’s get something to eat. I’m starved,” he says.
“In a minute,” I say.
I look over to Michael, than back at Robbie. He knows.
“Guy from back in the day?” asks Michael
“Want to say hello?” he asks
“What do you think?” “Fuck ‘em,” says Michael. “Let’s eat.”
We head toward the lobby, G’s hand in my arm. Michael walks behind us. He glances over his shoulder at Robbie. Glad Michael came.
“This is the best burrito I’ve ever eaten,” says Georgia with a mouth full of food.
“You always say that when you’re hungry,” I say.
“But it is,” say G. “Tortilla is fresh, salsa’s divine and the beans are amazing” she says.
“It is pretty good,” says Michael. “Have a bite of mine.”
“No, Thanks. I’m not that hungry. Cup of coffee is just fine.”
I’m looking down at my hands. I then raise my eyes and look at my two best friends. They both give me this ‘what the fuck’ look, like two pissed off cats.
“Sorry,” I say over the table. “I’m just spooked by Robbie Rod.”
“Nothing will happen here,” says Georgia. “Too many Feds, and shit, honey, that was three years ago.”
“I doubt Bunny’s forgotten,” I say.
They both nod and then go back to eating their breakfast.
“I’ll buy you a burrito for the train,” says Georgia “I know you’re not hungry now but you will be and you get even moodier when you’re hungry.”
She winks at me. I reach across the table and squeeze her hand.
“I’m going to go over to that bench and have a quick clove smoke, and pray a quick prayer. Y’all watch my gear?”
“Sure,” say Michael.
Near the end of the outside dining area grows a young tree. Don’t know what it is. Don’t know my California trees. Could be a eucalyptus. I light a clove cigarette. I close my eyes. I speak a quiet prayer, so only I can hear.
“God of the Sky, Goddess of the Earth. Hear my prayers,” I quietly speak. “I need you both to guide me through these scary lands. I need you both to help me stay sober, stay sane, stay on the right path. I need you both to help me love and protect my friends. I need you both to shine light on me and mine. I am small. You both are big. But I have some of both you God and you Goddess in me and some of All There Is. May my GGATI harmonize with you GGATI. Without you all, I am lost. With you all, I am whole.”
“Hey, Artie,” say a voice behind me. I turn.
“Hey, Robbie,” I say, “How are you?” I am scared but not that scared. The prayer has helped and I don’t sense any danger.
“I’m OK,” says Robbie. “Did I interrupt anything?”
“You kind of did,” I say. Now I sense something. OK, Robbie, please don’t fuck with me now.
“You got a minute?” he asks.
“Sure. But just a minute,” I look over toward Georgia and Michael. They both see Robbie. Michael gets up from his seat. I raise my hand to him to stay. Michael sits back down.
“I have to catch the train to Barstow,” I say.
“I’m getting on that train too. Been in Los Angeles for about a year. Staying close to my family there. Heading to Wyoming now to look for work.”
“Good luck with that,” I say.
“Yeah,” he says, looking away from my eyes. “Anyway, It’s been around what? Three years since I saw you in Santa Rosa?”
“Something like that.”
“Well,” Robbie continues, “I may be an idiot and my sponsor will probably think I’ve lost my mind, but I need to make amends to you, Artie. When you got shot up in Sells, when we were transporting that Brigham to Tucson. Well, I told a lie about you to Bunny. I told him that you were working with the Feds, that you couldn’t be trusted. I was pissed off that you were sleeping with that girl. I wanted her too but she wanted you, not me, so I figured if I told Bunny you were a Fed, he’d kill you and she would be with me.”
“I didn’t know it was you,” I say, “But I figured somebody thought I was a snitch. Or maybe Bunny just needed to shoot at someone. So it was you?”
“Yeah, it was me,” says Robbie, “I was smoking more Tea than even you back then,” he laughs and then stops the laugh.
“Anyway,” Robbie says, “I’ve been going to Mormon Tea Anonymous in Los Angeles. It’s a 12-Step program for those of us trying to not use Brigham, to be and stay clean and sober. Going to A.A. too. And I wouldn’t blame you for shooting me right now, but I was the one who tried to get you killed, and I’m sorry about that, and if I could go back and change it, I would but I can’t. But I can commit to you that I’ll do my best not to lie for my own selfish gains again, and definitely not lie so someone gets shot or killed. I’m really sorry, Artie. Really, I am.”
I just stare at him for a second and don’t say anything. Is he playing me? I look hard into his eyes. I don’t think so.
“So if I get this straight, you just happened to be in San Bernardino at this train station on your way to Wyoming, and you see me, a guy you tried to get killed, and you figured that since our paths crossed, you’d come up to me and apologize?”
“Try and make amends. Make things right. Not apologize,” he says
“Right. Make amends,” I say.
He is for real.
“Well, Robbie Rod, I’ve got some news for you,” I say, trying to look mean but I can’t pull it off. A big smile breaks across my face.
“Robbie, My name is Artie and I’m an addict and an alcoholic. I’ve got two years clean and sober last month.”
Robbie’s mouth drops open.
Peter Saum, Jr.
Tuesday, March 10th, 2076: High Noon
On The Southwest Chief
North of San Bernardino, California
Back on the train. I loved trains when I was alive. Didn’t ride them much at all back then. We had planes and gasoline cars and all of that, but my studio was just a couple blocks away from a crossing and I would hear whistles blow as I recorded in my studio. Two long whistles, a short and a long. Dad taught me that. Sometimes, I’d leave the whistle in on the intro of a piece of space music. Gave it extra atmosphere. Wish I had ridden the train more. I don’t exactly ride anywhere now.
Really enjoyed that little miracle on the platform. A Ninth Step amends completely out of the blue. Seems Artie accepted it well, but I can tell my grandson doesn’t fully trust Robbie. If I overheard right, Robbie’s got six months clean and sober. A good amount of time but not really. Depends on the man or woman in recovery. Some people have a psychic change right away, others it takes years. I guess we’ll find out more as it is revealed, as they say in A.A. and in M.T.A. But Artie and Michael are smiling and Robbie looks relieved. The three of them are thick as thieves. Hmmm. Not my best analogy.
Georgia and Mags do look worried. They have good reason I guess. I’m hoping they have no reason to distrust Robbie. But I don’t know. I can’t read minds. I can read the faces of my descendants like Artie pretty well, but that’s only because he’s blood. I’m just as mystified as I ever was regarding human behavior.
One very big advantage to being on my side of things is I can travel anywhere, anytime, in an instant. And I have traveled quite a bit over the past 40 plus years and seen much.
A folksinger once sang, ‘You’ve never seen everything.’ I’ve come close to seeing everything and much of what I’ve seen is ugly. But now, I just go where my people are, and a few of their friends. I no longer need to explore horrors.
I have seen Barstow, California, our next stop on this train. Stopped there just last year on my way to the ancient Bristlecones Pines in the White Mountains.
Barstow’s not a pretty place.
I’ll stay close.
Deputy U.S. Marshal Magdalena “Mags” Gutierrez
Tuesday, March 10th, 2076: 5:05 p.m.
New West Train Station
“Hijo de perra,” I say.
“What the matter, Mags?” asks Georgia.
I mouth ‘just a minute’ to Georgia.
“The Bakersfield Princess is late,” I say to my boss, Kirk Bledsoe, on my Sat-phone. “Seems there was a freight derailment near Boron.”
“What’s that, Chief?” I ask. “The Princess isn’t going to be here in Barstow until tomorrow morning at the earliest? Fuck. Sorry, Chief. Sir, have you ever been to Barstow?”
“No, I haven’t,” says Chief Bledsoe on the phone.
“Well, civilization has barely made it back here,” I say. “There are no craftspeople, if you know what I mean. I am a little worried. I need a room for the night. Can I put in on the Fed card?
“No problem, Mags,” says Kirk.
“Great. I’ll need two rooms.”
“Why?” he asks.
“I’ll tell you later. Trust me. It’s OK.”
“Just don’t break the government’s piggie bank, all right?” says Chief Bledsoe.
“I won’t,” I say, “I’ll call you when the train leaves for Bakersfield tomorrow. I can’t thank you enough.”
“Just tell me what’s going on tomorrow,“ he says.
“I will,” I say. “Hasta.”
I close my Sat-phone.
“What did he say?” ask Georgia.
“Two rooms. One for you and me, the other for the boys.”
“Great,” say Georgia, and give me a hug.
Georgia may be the huggiest person I’ve ever met. I don’t mind.
Artie, Michael and Robbie stand under an awning outside the rundown station. Georgia and I walk up.
“So?” says Artie.
“Train to Bakerfield’s not going to be here until tomorrow,” I say. “But no worries. I’ll get rooms for all of us at the Jasper Hotel. Let’s go get checked in, and then we can find something to eat.”
“Sounds like a plan,” say Michael. Robbie is quiet.
We all pile into a taxi, not a Flex-car but an old electric jalopy, and head up the hill toward Hotel Alley.
“The Jasper, please,” I say to the driver.
“You got a hundred dollars?” asks the cabbie.
“A hundred for just up the hill?” I ask.
“Mags, we can’t spend that kind of money,” says Georgia.
“It’s OK,” I say to Georgia. “I got it.”
GGATI save us.
And off we go.
Seems like washing isn’t something they do much here in Barstow. Then again, water is expensive here. Everything expensive here. And it smells, a mix of body odor, rotting plants and something else. I shouldn’t be so judgmental. It’s just a railroad switching town. What do I expect? A craft fair, with organic gardens?
After a couple minutes, we arrive at the Jasper.
“Here’s a hundred. Keep the change.”
“There is no change,” says the cabbie.
“My point exactly,” I say.
“Bitch,” says the cabbie.
“What did you call her?” says Artie to the cabbie.
“It’s OK, Artie. Let it go.”
We grab our bags and the boys get the instrument cases out of the trunk. We walk over to the lobby. Oh Goddess.
The Jasper is what’s left of an old motel lodge from fifty years ago, when people used to drive on The Interstate. Doesn’t seem like the maintenance man has been around much. All the wooden doors to the rooms are gone, replaced by chain-link grates across each doorway. No wood at all that I can see. Lots of wood got burned during the 41 nights. Some glass windows are intact but not many. Welded bars over most of the windows.
“I’ll go in and get our rooms,” I say.
They all look a little scared. I’m scared too. Artie, Michael and Georgia are tough cookies, not scared of much, but this has them on full alert.
I walk up to the hotel desk. A short bearded man with snot coming out his nose greets me.
“Evening. What can I do you, ma’am?” he says.
“I need two rooms for the night.”
“How many people?” he asks.
“Five. Three men, two women, all adults. Do you take The Federal Plastic?”
“Only plastic I take. You a railroader?”
“Marshal,” I say pulling my badge from my front pocket. I don’t wear the badge, nor any kind of uniform. Some people like to shoot cops for fun, you know.
“Well, Marshal Gutierrez, welcome to the Jasper Hotel. Staying one night?”
He grabs my Fed card and punches the numbers into a Sat-phone, then takes a pic of me with his phone. This is going to cost.
“Card’s good. So are you. Can’t be too careful. You could be impersonating an officer of the law.” he says, still punching in numbers. “Total for two rooms for one night will be $1200 even.”
“Even,” I say. “That’s nice,” shaking my head.
“I’ll need your thumbprint, Marshal.”
I push my thumb on the face of his phone.
“Thank you. Need to tell you a few rules and things,” says the clerk. “First, sorry about the lack of solid doors but those grates keep out everyone from rats to drunks. I try and keep a quiet place here and most people go to bed pretty early, don’t you know. You can bring alcohol into your room but no drugs, no Brigham, but I don’t guess that’ll be a problem for you, Ma’am.”
He smiles. Two teeth is all he has for a smile. One for meat. One for soup.
“Also, there is a pretty good restaurant, just up the hill. Johnny’s Cafe,” he continues. “Not bad. Not great. And I can call a taxi for you anytime, to take you back to the train station. Oh, over on that little hill, there are a few chairs in a circle, around a small fire pit. We have wood if you want to a fire. $100 a bunch. Some travelers go over there to play music, other’s have prayer meetings, other’s just hang out. Got a nice little view of the town and it’s away from the hotel so the music doesn’t bother the other guests. So help yourself to that.”
“You expect to be full tonight?” I ask.
“I do. I suppose you were trying to get to Bakersfield too?”
“Yeppers, it’s going to be hopping here tonight,” he says, licking his lips. He hands me two metal keys for grates to our rooms.
“And don’t forget to bring back your keys in the morning. If you forget, it’s an extra $300 on your card. And check out is at 11 sharp.”
“Thanks, and have a good night,” I say. Might as well be nice, even in this hell hole.
“You too, Marshal,” says the clerk and then he looks at my tits. Great.
The five of us go check out the rooms. Beds seems OK. Scratchy sheets but at least they’re clean. I don’t want to think about what those stains are on the floor. None of us leave anything in the room. This is just a bed.
“Y’all hungry? I’m buying.” I say.
“You don’t have to, Marshal,” says Robbie.
“I know, but I want to,” I say. “There’s a cafe just up the hill. Hope they serve strong coffee. I’m getting a caffeine headache.”
Tuesday, March 10th, 2076: 7:30 p.m.
“That wasn’t terrible food,” I say.
“Tell that to my stomach,” says Artie.
“The coffee was OK,” says G.
“And I liked the oatmeal cookies,” says Robbie.
“The cookies were good,” says Mags.
“Yeah, the cookies were pretty tasty,” I say to Artie.
“Brother,” Artie says, shaking his head. “That was my worst meal in years. You know I’m not picky but I just hate Synth Meat.”
Changing the subject, I ask, “So you want to look for a meeting or just stay close to home tonight? I vote for staying here. I’d like to maybe just play some tunes and hit the hay.”
“The desk clerk says there is a circle of chairs on that little rise behind the hotel,” Mag says. “Says people use it for playing all the time. Fire pit too, but you have to buy the wood.”
“Cool, but I’ll pass on the wood.” I say.
“I’m just going to stay here with Mags,” say Georgia. “Why don’t you boys just go over there and play. We’ll watch our gear.”
“Great,” I say. “Well, grab your uke, Artie. Robbie, you play?”
Robbie pulls from his bag what looks like a penny whistle.
“Fantastic,” I say. “You know any Celtic jigs?”
“My name might be Rodriguez but my grandmother was Scottish. Rest her soul.”
I put my arm around Robbie’s shoulder.
“Brother, you’ve just made my night,” I say.
Georgia “G” Swann
Wednesday, March 11th, 2076: 2:11 a.m..
Artie sleeps next to me. Mags is in the other bed. Michael and Robbie sleep next door.
It was quiet until just a minute ago. Now I hear crying. I rise from the bed, pull on my jeans, put on my blouse and slip on my boots. I walk to the metal grate door, unlock it and tippy toe outside. I’m curious.
It’s coming from the second floor across from what used to be the parking lot. It’s a woman’s voice, and a man’s.
“I don’t want to go to Bakersfield. I hate it there. I hate those people,” the woman’s voice says through tears.
“I know honey, but I have a job there,” says a masculine voice. “I have to go. There was nothing for us in San Bernardino.”
“My mother was there,” she says. “Momma was there.”
“Mary, your mother’s grave is there, but she’s not there anymore.”
I hear no more talking. Just crying.
I got back to my room and back to bed. I cuddle next to Artie. I pull him into my body.
“Goddess, protect us as we travel.” I whisper. “I know in my prayers and meditations to you the answer has always been ‘Go with Artie to see his grandmother.’ but I’m frightened now. We are far away from home. And I don’t expect you, GGATI, to come down and save us from all harm. I know my job is to align the Goddess in me with the Goddess you are, but I’m still scared. Please help me be in the moment so I can be of use to you and to all people. And to Artie and his friends. Goddess, I don’t spook easy, but I’m spooked now.
I kiss Artie’s shoulder. I’m so sleepy.
Then I hear three shots ring out. Bang, bang, pause, then bang again. They sound close.
Arthur “Artie” Saum
Wednesday, March 11th, 2076: 1:44 p.m..
On The Bakersfield Princess
West of Boron, California
“Damn, I wish Mags was here,” I say.
“Me too,’ Georgia says.
Michael and Robbie nod in agreement.
“So there’s no Marshal in Barstow?” asks Robbie.
“There is but he’s up here somewhere near the derailment. Mags is detaining the woman until he gets back,” I say.
“Poor bastard,” says Michael. “So you heard them talking before she killed him.”
“I did,” says Georgia. “She was crying about having to go live in Bakersfield. Guess she didn’t want to live there.”
Robbie laughs. None of the rest of us do. Robbie cuts off his chuckle. It’s really not that funny. Maybe a little.
“Would you look at that?” I say, looking out the window as we pass. “Never seen train cars on fire before.”
Most of the freight cars have burned down to the metal but these three still blaze with blue, green and orange flames. Must be some chemicals or something.
“We’ll be slowing our rate of speed for a few miles, folks,” says the conductor. “Just have to get past this derailment.”
I don’t think this was just a derailment, but what do I know.
Soon we’re past and picking up steam.
Hours later, I can see the Sierra Nevadas in the distance. Still some snow on their peaks. Starting to get a bit nippy in the car. I take my fleece jacket out of my backpack and put it on.
Georgia sleepily gazes out the train window. None of us got much sleep last night.
“Hope we see Mags soon,” says G. “But who knows,”
“She has your Sat-phone number, G,” I whisper. “I told her we’d call her once we get to the Bay Area, if not sooner.”
“Good.” she says. “I miss her.”
“Me too,” I say. “We should be in Bakersfield around sunset, Fresno by midnight.”
“I’ll get us rooms in Fresno,” says my sweetie. “I’ll pay this time.”
I squeeze her hand. Having a Richie Rich as a girlfriend does have its advantages, though I rarely take advantage of her. And we work at keeping it a secret, given the obvious consequences.
We hold hands and continue to look at the snow capped mountains in the distance.
Soon, we’re climbing toward Tehachapi. Beautiful country. Foothills of the Sierras to the north, rolling hills like out of an old movie to the south, and windmills for as far as you can see. Thousands of them, white and shiny, a hundred or more feet tall, fins turning in the breeze. Makes me happy to see.
We stop in Tehachapi to load up on some coal, or so the conductor says. Wonder if I have reception on Georgia’s Sat-phone. Two bars. Hot damn.
“Michael,” I say, nudging him awake. “We’re in Tehachapi. G and Robbie went to get some ice tea. You want anything?”
“I’m good,” he says.
“And I’m going to call Craig, Bill and Pete on G’s Sat,” I say to him. “Want to talk with Craig when I get him?”
“No,” says Michael. “Just give him my love. Plus it costs a fortune to talk on Sats.”
“I know,” I say, “but G’s OK with sharing her coin.”
“Thanks, but I’m fine,” he says.
“All right,” I say.
I open the Sat-phone and dial.
“Pete, it’s Artie.”
“Artie, little brother, where are you now?” asks my boss.
“Tehachapi, just a little east of Bakersfield.”
“Ah, you’re coming up on The Loop?”
“What’s that?” I ask.
“The Loop. The Tehachapi Loop. Where the tracks go in a complete circle to make it up the grade,” says Pete. “or in your case down the grade.”
“I didn’t know you rode the train out here?” I ask Pete.
“Haven’t,” says Pete. “My grandmother told me about it. She says it’s quite a thing. Stay awake for it.”
“OK. Anyway, Georgia and I are fine. We picked up a couple road dogs on the way. Marshal Mags Gutierrez from Tucson was with us a while, and I meet an old friend in San Bernardino.”
“Good old friend or bad old friend?” he asks.
“Bad then, good now.” I say. “And guess who decided to come with us.”
“Michael Dollaride did,” Pete says.
“How in the hell did you know?”
“I know Michael’s boss at the pottery shop. Seems Michael burned a month of vacation to come with you all.”
“I figured that,” I said. “It’s so great to have him with us.”
“Craig came in to buy some strings, yesterday,” says Pete. “Asked if I had heard from you.”
“Would you call him for me and give him the update on us?” I ask.
“You bet,” he says.
“And I’m sorry Pete for leaving you for so long,” I say. “I know there’s a lot of repairs at the shop.”
“I don’t care about that. Well, I care a little about that,” Pete says. Long pause. “Artie. Listen to me. Going to see your grandmother before she dies is a wonderful thing.” “We don’t know that she’s dying,” I say.
“Artie, I love you, but you know if she’s not dying, she’s damn close.
I say nothing.
“I’ll call Craig,” he says, “Don’t worry about the shop.”
“You are a saint, Pete,” I say.
“No, I’m not,” says through a laugh. “I’m just a bad man trying to be good.”
“Phone’s breaking up. Pete, I love you.”
“I love you too, little brother. Give my love to Georgia and to M...”
The phone dies.
I close G’s Sat. I hate fucking phones.
Pedro “Pig” Ortiz
Wednesday, March 11th, 2076: 5:30 p.m..
At The Tehachapi Loop
“We could blow up the tracks,” Big Jim says, “Like they did in Boron.”
I pull out my revolver and stick it in Big Jim’s face.
“Or not,” he says.
“Now listen to me good,” I say still holding my gun in his face, “If you are thinking about thinking about anything, stop and think ‘I need to talk with Pig first’, before you do any fucking thing, like think. Got it?”
“Sure, Pig. I just thought....”
I click back the hammer of the Smith and Wesson with my thumb.
“If you blow up the tracks,” I say to him, “No other trains come through, and then a bunch of railroaders and Feds come up here to fix the tracks. Now, what might that mean, Jim?”
His face knots up in thought.
“That we have to leave?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say, “And what else?”
“Then we can’t sneak on trains and do our business,” Big Jims says. “And we have to go someplace else where the train runs slow, so we can rob and steal and kill and such.”
“Yes,” I say, “And such.”
I lower my pistol and hoister it.
“Jesus, Pig, I didn’t mean anything.”
I glare at him and he stops talking.
My Sat-phone rings. I open the phone and look at the screen. My brother Bunny.
“Pig, here,” I say.
“Goddamn hope so,” says Bunny.
“What’s up, Bro?” I ask.
“I need you to kill someone for me.” says Bunny. “They’re on the Bakersfield train heading west. Should be there soon. I’m sending you a pic now.”
I see the picture on my screen.
“Fast or slow,” I say.
“I don’t give a shit,” says Bunny. “Just dead. Then send me a pic of their dead face.”
“I’m on it.” I say. “I’ll do it myself. Sounds like fun.”
“Thanks, brother,” says Bunny.
“Hasta,” I say.
Peter Saum, Jr.
Wednesday, March 11th, 2076: 5:40 p.m.
At The Tehachapi Loop
I didn’t see the picture on Pig’s phone. Could be someone else, other than my people. Not that it matters that much, since I can’t stop anything. But I’m going to send a shit-load of Light and Love, and hope for the best.
Sun’s just dropped below that ridge. May be dark before the train comes through. I don’t know.
I can’t do anything!
Georgia “G” Swann
Wednesday, March 11th, 2076: 6:15 p.m.
On The Bakersfield Princess
At The Tehachapi Loop
Even in the fading light, this valley is beautiful. And I love all of these rail tunnels. Then, I see the tracks in front of us curve hard to the left and go behind a hill with a Jesus Cross on top of it. The track reappears below us and then we head through another tunnel that goes under the tracks. We are hardly moving at all, the train traveling at a man’s walking pace. The wheels squeal loudly, sounding almost like birds. The train curves left and left and more left, leaning hard to one side. Wow. This must me the loop Artie told me about.
I touch Artie’s shoulder as I lean forward to get a better view out the window. He has the window seat. I smile at Michael in the row behinds us. He smiles back. First time I’ve seen him smile in days, in weeks. Robbie’s mouth hangs open in wonder as he looks over Michael’s body to see out the window. This is pretty cool.
Then I see something out of the corner of my eye. Motion. Metal. A hand. Michael sees the look in my eyes and turn toward where I’m looking. He sees the man too, the gun, the hand.
Robbie’s mouth closes. He jumps into the aisle, running toward the man with the gun. I grab for the LadySmith inside my small bag. My hand wraps around its grip. I start to pull my gun out of my bag when I hear a loud pop, then another. My ears ring from the shots. Then another bang, and then screams. Then I have this burning in my leg. I look down. I don’t see anything but, Goddess, it hurts.
I turn toward the man with the gun but I don’t see him. Don’t see Robbie either. Don’t see Michael.
Then I get tunnel vision. I look at Artie. I see his face, looking toward the back of the train. Then the circle of his face gets real small. Then smaller. Then black.