The Omaha Zephyr
The long, low blast of the train whistle echoed along the empty tracks. Bryce’s eyes flew open and he caught his paper as it began to fall from his hands. He hadn’t meant to doze, and now heavy grey mist hung over the deserted platform. From Main Street the rattle of carriages and the clomp of horse’s hooves on cobbles came muffled through the mist, as from a distance.
Bryce pulled his bulky carpet bag close. His employer at the mortuary had warned him about the misfortunes awaiting inattentive travelers. He patted the pockets of his duster and breathed a sigh of relief. Ticket and pocket watch still safe.
The clock in the station house tower tolled but dense fog obscured its face. He pulled out his worn timepiece and flicked it open. The second hand was not moving, just quivering in place. He sighed at the unreliability of the old mechanisms, wishing for the latest model, like the modern man he was.
No matter. The train must be due soon. Bryce pulled his carpet bag closer. It held the newest apparatus his employer was marketing, a bell contraption to mount above a grave, allowing a person accidentally buried alive to signal his unfortunate state. It was called a ‘dead ringer’. As his employer’s most level-headed and no-nonsense young man, Bryce was entrusted with its safe delivery.
The train’s mournful keening whistle came winding out of the fog again, closer now. The platform lay empty, other travelers driven inside by the wet gloom. Bryce stood. and ran his finger inside his tight collar. This would be his first sales trip alone, and he was determined to do well.
The tracks thrummed under the power of the approaching engine. He folded his paper and slid it into a pocket. When he looked up, indistinct through the fog he saw the stationhouse crowd begin drifting out, their footsteps on the cobbles muffled.
Shaking the platform, the train pulled into the station. It squealed to a stop amidst a billowing cloud of steam. At the far end of the platform, a conductor’s lantern shone, a greenish orb fading to pale tendrils in the curling fog. An echoing voice called out, “All aboard. All aboard for Omaha.”
Bryce lugged his carpet bag into the first open carriage and shuffled down the aisle. Gaslights turned low shone on gleaming wood-paneled walls and rich velvet cushions. The car was chill after the warmth of the July air.
It was difficult to see in the low light but most of the seats seemed occupied. He caught glimpses of college boys in tweed jackets, a bustled matron and her companion peering over their lorgnettes, and a bevy of young secretaries, their hair cut short in the fashionable bob of the previous decade. In the low light their hair shone with a translucent glint.
He edged down the aisle to a seat opposite a middle-aged gentleman in an embroidered waistcoat and bushy, silvery sideburns. The dead-ringer gadget jingled faintly as Bryce hoisted the carpet bag into the overhead rack.
As he sat down, he offered his hand to his seatmate and introduced himself. Bryce found himself gripping a bony hand that burned like ice.
“Mortimer Dilworth.” He narrowed his black eyes and peered over his pince-nez. “You are on the wrong train, boy.”
“We’re going to Omaha, right?”
“Yes, but …” Mortimer Dilworth stopped suddenly, choking on his words. He coughed and tried again. “You ought to get off now and wait for the next train.”
“My employer is in a hurry for me to get there.” Bryce settled back in his seat. He had no intention of leaving the train on the advice of an old codger that wanted a table to himself.
The train jolted and began a slow movement forward. It gathered steam as it left the station behind.
“It’s not too late,” Mortimer said. “You could jump.”
Bryce frowned and turned to peer out the smoky window. The mist outside clung to the window as the train picked up speed to the clacking of the wheels on iron rails.
Soon the conductor came through calling, “Tickets! Tickets, please.”
His uniform was clean and neat, down to his black, narrow-brimmed cap and shiny brass-buttoned vest, but his skin was bloodless pale. He studied Bryce’s ticket, and his face wrinkled into a frown. “Says here you’re going to Omaha. You’ll have to change trains in Creston.”
Bryce sat up straight. “Isn’t this the Zephyr? Next stop Omaha?”
The conductor’s frown deepened. “Yes, yes it is.”’
“Then why do I have to change trains?”
A shadow passed over the conductor’s face. “No reason, no reason at all.” He punched Bryce’s ticket, and held it out to him. For a brief moment, Bryce saw a skull through the conductor’s face, its white teeth shining in a wide grin. Then the vision passed.
Bryce shivered. Just an illusion, he told himself, a trick of the light. He shuddered and turned away, putting his ticket in the stub holder. This was nonsense; he was a modern man. Then he stopped — the ticket wasn’t punched.
Mortimer cleared his throat. “There are rules young man. Things we can’t talk about. But you’ve got to get off this train. And you haven’t got much time left to do it.”
Mortimer’s voice chilled him like the death knell of a distant church. “Enough!” He slapped his newspaper onto the table for emphasis. He stood stiffly and briskly rubbed his arms. He’d find the conductor and get this straightened out.
The train swayed to the rhythm of iron wheels on rails. Bryce lurched down the aisle, bracing himself on the velvet seat backs, against the weight of silent, staring passengers. He crossed the rattling carriage way, where the fog swirled, obscuring the countryside.
The next car was just as opulent and cold as his. A family, mother, father and three girls played cards in one booth. The girls wore the frilly white dresses with puffed sleeves that Bryce’s sister had worn ten years earlier. The smallest child turned to look at him, her gaze a hollow-eyed stare.
He hurried past into the dining car. A young attendant looked up as Bryce entered. The gaslights on the wall shone through the youth’s translucent face, as if he were as insubstantial as gauze.
Bryce shut his eyes, refusing to believe the evidence they sent him. He was a modern, sensible man! Yet when he opened his eyes again, the ghostly attendant remained.
“Hello sir. You’re early. I’m still organizing the dinner orders.” The youth paused. “Not that they will be served.” He took up his polishing cloth and came around to the front of the bar. He was floating, his feet six inches off the floor.
Bryce backed away, swallowing hard. No. The world was hard and solid fact. People did not float.
“We don’t hardly ever get anyone new here.” The youth laughed. “‘Bout the same crowd each ride.” He trailed off and went back to polishing the spotless rail. “Been that way ten years now.”
Bryce’s stomach clenched. This fellow would have still been in short pants ten years ago. He wanted to run, but he forced himself to walk back toward his own seat. A businessman with a pocket watch chain stretched across a bulging belly tipped his hat to Bryce. The man’s balding head was crushed, blood oozing from the cracked skull.
Bryce gasped. He closed his eyes and ran blindly. He crossed the carriage way back to his own carriage and took a deep breath. There had to be a rational explanation. He stumbled toward his seat, passing an old man leaning into the wall, eyes closed, snoring lightly. A much younger woman, a daughter perhaps, dozed beside her companion. A bonneted woman shook her knitting needles at Bryce. Another businessman narrowed his eyes and glared. His partner snapped his paper open and hid behind it, but not before Bryce saw the hollow eyes, silvery hair, and translucent face.
Apparitions. All of them.
Bryce felt the cold seeping into his bones. The train picked up speed. Heavy rain dropped through the mist and splattered against the window. He slid into his seat and tried to think.
Mortimer Dilworth clicked his tongue in disapproval. “Young man, you are not listening. Read your paper if you want to know why we are here.”
Bryce doubted reading could be of any help, but Mortimer seemed the only one trying to give him answers. He opened his newspaper.
“Back page, boy,” Mortimer snapped. “You haven’t got time to read the whole thing.”
Bryce turned to the back page and, with growing alarm, began reading.
“Ceremony commemorating the wreck of 82” was the headline. Bryce scanned the columns of print. Ten years ago to the day, the Zephyr to Omaha had derailed when the bridge over the Missouri River washed out in torrential rain. The engine, all five passenger cars, the dining car, baggage car, and caboose had plowed at high speed into a wall of water in the dark storm. Everyone on board perished that night.
At that moment a flurry of rain smashed against the window. Lightning sparked in the distance, glowing through the dense cloud cover.
Bryce paled. He dug out his ticket. It was real. It had today’s date, But somehow he’d gotten on a train hurtling through the night to the same fate it had met ten years ago.
“Now you see!” Mortimer said. “Rules don’t let us talk about it directly, seeing as it hasn’t happened for another ten minutes.”
Ten minutes! Bryce reached for the emergency cord and jerked hard.
“How do I get off?” Bryce pleaded.
Mortimer shrugged and spread his hands helplessly.
Trembling, Bryce dropped the cord, scrambled out of his seat, and ran forward. He had no idea what would happen to him if he were on this train when it went into the river. But it couldn’t be good.
He reached the engine room and stopped. A huge phantom stoker, black with coal dust, lit red in the flames, shoveled coal from a hopper into the raging inferno in the firebox. A ghostly engineer stood to the side, his hands on the throttle.
Bryce reached for the engineer’s arm, but felt only an icy chill. “Stop the train and let me off,” he shouted over the roaring of the engine.
“Can’t do that.” The engineer pushed the throttle to increase speed. “There’s no station between here and Omaha.”
”But we’re not going to get there, are we?” Bryce screamed.
The engineer frowned and eased off the throttle. His eyes darkened. Then he shook himself and smiled a crooked smile. “We got a good head of steam and straight track ahead. We’ll hit the Union-Pacific bridge full speed and climb the hill without losing a tick.”
“But the bridge is out,” Bryce shouted.
The engineer’s eyes glowed. He bore down on the throttle and grinned. His chipped teeth shone yellow in the gaslight. “This is the good part, boy. Brace yourself.”
Bryce reeled back. He raced back through the train, past his seat, through the dining car, to the caboose. He would jump.
He swung open the door at the back of the caboose. Murky vapors swirled in the wake of the rushing train. Steep cliffs dropped from either side of the track.
“We’re going too fast,” a voice sounded in his ear.
He whirled to see Mortimer floating at the rail beside him.
“It would be suicide.” Mortimer took out his pocket watch. “I’d say you have five minutes, boy.”
“Five minutes?” Bryce’s heart pounded in his throat. “What can I do ?”
“Think, boy. Think. There’s rules. Can’t have any broken rules.”
Bryce stared at him. What rules? He was on the wrong train, plain and simple, no matter what his ticket said.
His ticket. Bryce slammed back through the cars to his seat. Mortimer floated along behind. Bryce snatched his ticket from the clip and stared at it. July 2nd marked the date that it was good.
“That’s it,” Bryce rasped hoarsely. “I’m a fare dodger. I’m not supposed to be here.”
Suddenly the conductor was beside him. “What’s all this?”
“My ticket is no good,” Bryce waved itat him. “It’s for the wrong day. I’m breaking the rules.”
The conductor narrowed his eyes. “Looks fine to me. July 2nd. No problem. You sit down and relax, young fella. Won’t be long now.”
“No, no.” Bryce jabbed his finger toward the offending ticket. “It’s the wrong year. Look.”
The conductor squinted at the ticket. “By Jove, you’re right. You don’t belong here.”
“Two minutes,” Mortimer intoned.
“Yes.” Bryce nodded vigorously. “Just stop the train. I’ll get right off.”
The conductor’s hands stretched out towards him like claws . “Emergency cord’s broken. I’ll have to throw you off.”
Bryce grabbed his carpet bag and held it like a shield in front of him. As he moved it, the dead ringer rang out sharply, piercingly. Mortimer and the conductor covered their ears at the ghastly sound. The train’s emergency whistle shrieked like a banshee’s wail, and the brakes squealed in ear-splitting alarm as the train slammed to a stop. Bryce clambered down onto the rocky grade.
The conductor leaned out the door and shook a bony finger at Bryce. “Don’t you try hitching a ride ever again.”
The train eased forward and then picked up speed with a burst of power.
As the train disappeared into the fog and pelting rain, Bryce glimpsed Mortimer leaning out a window, giving him a thumbs up. He started to smile and give him a thumbs up in return, but froze as he heard the squeal of screeching brakes and the thundering roar of flood waters. And then, the crash of splintering timber and twisting metal mingled with the screams of 402 people as they plunged into the dark waters of the Missouri River.
Bryce dropped to his knees. He covered his ears to block the hellish noises that went on and on. All those people– the conductor, Mortimer, the strange youth, the engineer, the young family — all of them, crashing into the river, over and over, year after year – it tore at him. Tears burned his eyes and streamed down his face, mingling with the rain.
Finally silence and night wrapped itself around him. The wind blew the fog and rain away in long, curling tendrils. Overhead, the stars shone down on gleaming tracks.
Bryce picked up his carpet bag. It was going to be a long walk to Omaha. But standing there in the silent dark on the railroad tracks, he decided he was not such a modern man after all. And next year, well, he’d come back. He’d ride the Omaha Zephyr again. And somehow, he’d stop the cycle of doom. He owed it to Mortimer.
“The Omaha Zephyr” © Terri Karsten. First published here in Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores, October 28, 2021
Terri Karsten retired from teaching high school English to pursue her lifelong goal of writing. Writing both fiction and non-fiction, she has publication credits in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias, including Highlights for Children, The Winona Daily News and An Encyclopedia of Women’s History, as well as two historical fiction novels. Her science fiction and fantasy credits include short stories included in Under A Brass Moon, 13 Haunting Tales, and Joining Forces.
illustration by Fran Eisemann; stock used from public domain