The fire threw cinders into Nate Kemp’s eyes. If he hadn’t been wearing his helmet, it would have blinded him.
Sparks flashed against the dark, glass plate that hung down from the thin, metal cap over his head and disappeared. He wore a heavy, leather apron and thick gloves reaching past the elbow. His upper arms, even under his cotton shirt, were covered in pale scars from past burns.
Nate sneered at the fire through smoky stains left on the glass by the burned-out cinders. Through the shadow, he could almost see faces in the flames sneering back at him.
Despite all the burns over the years, the sound of the fire was worse than the pain. It was like a crowd of thousands all screaming out at him. The sound got under his skin and into his head. Sometimes, even when he wasn’t near the fire, he could still hear the screaming.
Nate banged his shovel against the firebox wall.
The fire wailed back at him from its box.
Nate struck it again.
“Easy there,” Jones, the engineer, warned.
Nate turned to face him. Jones was tall and slim with blond hair streaked black with soot. They had worked together for three years on the mail train running freight of all kinds west of the Mississippi toward the Texas Trail and back. The thousand injuries Jones had made through the years suddenly flooded into Nate’s mind. The times Jones had laughed when Nate struck his head on the cab roof. Jones smacking mouth at his lunch with horrible huge bites that anyone would have known were too big for a civilized man. His thin smile sometimes seemed to mock Nate as he spoke.
Nate shifted his shovel in his hands. He could see himself burying it in Jones’s head in one, swift stroke, like an axe. It would come down, crack the skull, let blood spurt and pour. All Nate had to do was kick the body under the wheels of the train. Nobody would be able to tell what he’d done from the mangled mess.
Jones pulled up his goggles and blinked his blue eyes. “You all right?”
You will be, something told Nate, when you end his life.
Nate shook his head to chase away the bad thoughts. He’d worked fifteen years without Stoker’s Madness, and he wasn’t about to let it get to him today.
Nate kicked the foot-release at the base of the firebox wall. Two half-circle heavy iron doors fell into place with a clang audible even over the grunting rhythm of the train’s pistons. He couldn’t hear the wail of the fire anymore. Silence settled in his head. The chuch-chuch-chuch rhythm of wheels ground on him.
“That’s better,” Nate muttered.
“You all right?” Jones asked again.
“Just need a minute.”
“Right.” Jones put his goggles back over his eyes and laid his own gloved hands over the lever for the throttle. “It’s been a long day.”
Nate grunted in agreement and let out a long sigh. He set down his shovel in the corner of the train cab. His hands felt almost weightless without it.
Nate stretched his arms above his head, interlocked his fingers and pushed against the sky. The sore muscles tensed for a moment, and then he let them go. Twin sweet waves rolled down his arms as he brought them back to his side.
“I’m going to get some air.”
Jones nodded without a word.
Nate stepped over the low safety rail at the back of the cab and clambered up the wall of the small tender car that rode behind them. It was mostly empty; the coal already shoveled into the hungry belly of the fire that never lost its appetite on the day-long journey.
The small train cab he shared with Jones was one of iron and heat, barely enough room to move back and forth as he scooped up appropriate amounts of coal and fed the firebox. Jones had his gauges and levers to guide the locomotive, but it was Nate’s weary back that actually drove it.
On top of the tender car, the world opened up around Nate. He stripped off his helmet, and the world burst into bright color. The life and beauty of the countryside came alive. Through the dark glass, everything seemed gray and brown, like one of the newfangled photographs everyone was clambering to make.