Seth cleared the firelands in good time, although he had paused to forage for coal that had not yet been consumed by the constant fire. He found what he needed and moved on.
Most riders wouldn't go near the firelands; those few that knew their way through, or at least thought they did, only entered the inferno when they absolutely had to. But Seth wasn't like that; as he pulled out of the gray-black clouds he almost hated to leave. Once he left the billows of smoke behind he knew he was a target. In the firelands he was safe, safe from other men at any rate.
The old engine rattled along the rusty tracks, and for the first time in days Seth could step back from the hot boiler and feel, not the hot supercharged air of the firelands, but instead, the invigorating sting of cold winter winds. He pulled the bandanna off his mouth and breathed fresh air.
He set the throttle and bent his whip-hard body to the task of stoking the furnace with coal. He worked like a machine, turning from the coal hod to the roaring furnace that showed through the open door with load upon load of coal. When he had moved a few hundred pounds of coal, Seth tossed aside his shovel and went for a stroll.
He climbed over the glittering black mountain of coal stored in the hopper behind him, dropped down onto the flatbed that rode behind the engine, and climbed up onto the the first of the three shiny silver tank cars that trailed behind the locomotive like obedient mongrels. He climbed and jumped to the furthest point on the last car. He settled down there and rooted around in the breast pocket of his heavy workshirt for a cigar. He found the lumpy, foul-smelling tube made of trash tobacco that the raiders brought in sometimes from down south and he lit it with an old flint lighter that he had found in the station master's office of an old station in Tularosa, New Mexico, down in the Hotstates.
An elaborate design spelled out the name of the old line: ATCHESON, TOPEKA, AND THE SANTA PE. Seth treasured it because it was a long, delicate thread stretching back to the railroad men of ancient times. He blew out a line of blue smoke and watched while it drifted up and mixed with the heavier puffs his old iron maiden was throwing off.
Seth was about as close as you could get to contentment. He had few enemies, no burning hatreds, and a few good friends: Bonner, Starling, Dorca . . . He was tough and fast and he used his stark little M3 like a master. He owed no man allegiance, except maybe Bonner. The Outrider had saved Seth's ass more than once. . . . But Seth had done the same for Bonner. They figured it all evened out in the end, although sometimes they playfully teased one another:
"What about the time I pulled you out of the firelands? Man, you would have been dead meat if it hadn't been for me. ..."
Seth leaned back. Yeah, contentment was what you called it.
Hunger, the leader of a Stormer patrol, held up his gloved hand and slowed his band of machines and men to a crawl. Sonny, his second-in-command, coasted up next to him. He pushed up his goggles.
"So what's up?"
"Look," said Hunger, pointing over the tree line. About two miles off big puffs of smoke were appearing in the morning sky at regular intervals.
"What's the fuck dat?" said Sonny.
"I'll tell you what the fuck is that," said Hunger. "It's that fucking nigger with the wild steam box."
"Hey, far fucking out, let's take him."
"Okay," said Hunger affably. He slipped his brake and roared off, his band behind him whooping and screaming for blood.
Seth was still perched out on the end of the tank when the first bullets pinged and flattened themselves on the steel piece of rolling stock.
"Damn," he whispered, ducking down on the rear bumper. Then he realized he had left his little M3 hanging next to the throttle three cars ahead of him. That wasn't like him. Contentment breeds complacency, and that, Seth decided, was not such a good thing: it could get a man killed.
He only had his old Charter semi-automatic Explorer .22, a light gun with an eight-shot clipóSeth didn't hold much with sidearmsóbut he had no idea where the shots were coming from. He left the .22 in its holster and slipped under the tank truck. It was like coming in out of the rain. The bullets continued to ping and richochet around the topside of the tank, telling Seth that his attackers had no clear idea of where he was. But he was in a jam.
He hung beneath the rushing train, acutely aware of the blur of railroad ties just below his head. His steel-strong muscles were stretched to their utmost as he inched himself forward along the underbelly of the bulbous car.
"So where'd he go?" asked Sonny. "Shut up and keep firing," ordered Hunger. They would get him eventually.
Seth had reached the end of the car and he swung himself up into the noisy little space between the two tank trucks. He rubbed his raw hands that had been cut up on his long tough climb toward safety. He rested there a moment, then poked his head out from the little cover he had. The firing had stopped but he distinctly heard the sounds of a dozen bike engines bursting into life as their riders savagely kick-started them.
Quickly Seth figured out what happened. The riders had hidden themselves in the trees by the side of the track and peppered the train with shot as it passed. The train rolled on, though, beyond them, and now they were racing to catch up with their prey.
Seth made his move. He jumped up onto the top of the tank car and sprinted along the tiny catwalk, running like hell for the cover of the engine and his trusty M3. He jumped onto the first car, then tumbled over the tall coal pile and fell onto the foot plate, safe.
Hunger watched his run for cover.
"Look," he screamed, "that black fuck ain't dead yet." He fed his big engine some more gas and in a swirl of gravel sped out onto the track. It was bumpy going for the Stonners as they charged over the wooden railway ties.
"I'm gonna break my fuckin' forks," screamed one.
Hunger realized the danger and pulled the force back onto the side of the track.
Seth slipped the leather strap of the M3 onto his shoulder as if to anchor it there, then he leaned out of the cab just as he thought the Stonners had forsaken the bone-shaking ride on the track for the easier path of the verge that ran next to the rusty iron highway. He swung the M3 and spat a dozen steel-jacketed slugs into the knot of riders that trailed him like vultures following a dying man in the desert. Seth exposed himself to their fire for only a second or two but he managed to take down two Stormers. Their bikes shot up the side of the embankment and crashed in the underbrush.
A high-pitched chorus of automatic weapons' fire whined around the cab, and bits of spiky, splintered coal whipped around him. Again Seth swung out, and his accurate, deadly fire was rewarded with the scalp of another Stormer. He could see clearly the top of the man's skull shear away and spin into the air like a hairy top.
Hunger saw another of his men fall and cursed at the top of his lungs, his oaths lost in the roar of his bikers. He had lost three men already and he couldn't afford to lose any more. But he would be damned if he was going to let the tough black man with a
deadly trigger get away. ...
He slowed up a little and his force obediently slowed too, although Sonny looked disgusted.
"You breaking off boss?" screamed Sonny. "We can take that shit!" J "Strategy," bellowed Hunger, and he tapped the side of his skull with a blue-black fingernail: smarts, he was saying.
Hunger pulled back and jumped in behind the train, riding on the ties again. The hell with the forks, he thought; if he brought down Seth, then Leather would reward them. His men jumped the rails and followed him. In seconds the entire force was tucked in the lee of the train, riding behind the last car. The ride was bumpy, too bone-jarring to even think of firing, but they were sheltered from Seth's sweeping fire. Seth saw them vanish behind him and he knew they were blocked about a hundred yards behind him. He smiled. That was just where he wanted them. . . .
He leaned out of the cab and looked down the track. A half mile ahead he saw exactly the kind of rail terrain he wanted. The tracks ran into a narrow culvert. There the rails had been laid through solid rock. The sheer sides of the cut ran almost straight up; the gray rock stood at an incline that no bike could climb. Seth tugged up the throttle and picked up a little speed.
He entered the culvert and raced through it, the clatter of his engine echoing off the solid dead walls. It was a long piece of rock, maybe three hundred yards in length, and just as the lumbering train raced out of it and on into slightly more open country, Seth slammed on the brakes, locking them in place. The scream of iron on iron accused him stridently of abusing his iron mistress.
"Sorry, sugar," he whispered. The train was brought from speed to a halt in seconds, slid along the rails for a few yards, then stopped. Steam vented crazily from the stack and the thump-thump of the metal condenser echoed in the morning air.
"He stopped," screamed Hunger. "Now I'm going to drill that fucking niggah. ..."
The Stormers screamed along the track, heading toward the stationary train, sure that Seth had broken down or given up or something: either way, they figured they had won and that Seth was as good as dead.
Seth listened to the wail of his pursuers' bikes bouncing off the tall rock walls of the culvert. He couldn't see them but he could tell by the steadily increasing sound more or less where they were in relation to the train. When he judged that they had passed the midway in the cut, Seth slammed the throttle up to full power and threw his giant engine into reverse. At first, the wheels just slipped on the track, as if complaining about the rough treatment that they were receiving at Seth's hands.
Then, somehow, the big wheels caught and the train began moving backward. Slowly at first, then, in a matter of seconds, the massive weight of the contraption and the sudden surge of power that Seth had bestowed on it fused, making the whole train gain speed suddenly. Seth's eyes were glued to the pressure gauge. He watched as the needle slowly climbed and the train picked up speed.
"Come on, come on," he mumbled. At fifty yards he was moving again. The huge vessel was moving down the track, eating up the yards between it and the stunned raider force. After Seth had hit speed they realized the terrible beauty of his destructive plan. They were trapped.
"The crazy tuck is going to run us down," screamed Sonny.
The bulbous nose of the rearward car backed along the track toward them. The train filled the culvert from wall to wall. Suddenly the tough Stormers were caught in a frenzy of fear. They couldn't get around the train and they couldn't ride their bikes up the sheer walls of the cut. They had a good two-hundred-and-fifty-yard run to freedom if they were going to escape the inexorable weight of a terrible death. They were bunched together and tried to turn, but bikes got caught in other bikes, riders screamed and cursed, and all the while the massive bulk of the tank cars rolled toward them.
"Fuck! Fuck!" screamed Hunger.
Seth saved a piece of throttle for the last few yards separating his vast iron fist from the Stormers. Hot steam coursed into the cylinder, and like a muscle flexing, the train surged over the first of the fleeing Stormers. A rider glanced over his shoulder and saw a steel wall, as tall as a cliff behind him. The train showed no mercy, rolling over him, dragging the rider and his bike down as if the movement of the train was some kind of sucking tide. The heavy steel crushed him to a mash mixed in with the flattened pieces of the bike. Man and machine fused together, a fleshy metal mess on the rail bed.
The train slammed into a nest of riders and they screamed as merciless tons of cold steel rolled over them. They screamed until their throats and heads were crushed like unripe melons, popping on the rails with a flash of color and hair.
Hunger looked over his shoulder and saw that most of his force had vanished. The heavy chunking sound of the train on the track was coming closer, like a steel tidal wave building up behind him. The heavy rear buffer struck him mid-back and splintered his spine, pushing him down onto his bike. He could no longer control his machine or maintain his balance. The bike fell over and sprawled the Stormer across the rails. The massive steel wheels rolled over him, cutting through bone like wire cutters and slicing him into a half-dozen meaty chunks. Seth jumped onto the coal pile and looked down the track. The Stormers were gone, all of them felled by the weight of the train. He slowed the reverse motion of the huge vehicle, came to a stop, then slowly brought his steel demoness forward. The wheels rolled over the fallen, again making them into an unrecognizable fleshy mush.
As he reentered the cut he saw a Stormer halfway up, clinging to the rocky side like a cat chased up a tree. The train lumbered by him at about thirty miles an hour. Seth squatted down on the foot plate, folded over his gun, and spat a few hot slugs into the madly scrabbling man. He flattened against the rock face and then, as life left him, he let go and bounded down the hard surface, his body thudding onto the empty tank car passing beneath him. The tank boomed dully as the man hit. He was sprawled there, his back arched over the top. " Seth checked the track ahead of him, set the throttle, then strolled back to the middle car and kicked the dead man onto the open track. That done he lit another cigar and exhaled, content againóbut this time a little watchful.
Web Site Contents
(Unless Mentioned Otherwise) ©2012
By Atlan Formularies, Post Office Box 95, Alpena, Arkansas 72611-0095