Old Tom Cotton’s Boy

Old Tom Cotton’s Boy

By Joseph D. Stirling

Barracuda Slim turned the creased and crumpled envelope over in his hands. He admired the penmanship scribbled and fading across the front. To: Arthur Thomas, 128 Fairgrove Avenue, Santa Fe, New Mexico. That old letter had been wedged in Barracuda Slim’s pocket for seven months now; undelivered. Barracuda Slim made a promise though; swore to it, even as Old Tom Cotton wheezed out his last breath in the asking.

The trouble was, when Barracuda Slim found himself in Santa Fe, New Mexico, standing beneath that sun baked Fairgrove Avenue street sign; he found nothing else but an empty road. Foundations of houses, as bare as a newborn, like the homes got up and walked away. There was a dead cat in the road, staring at him with hollow sockets, and nothing nice to say. All this he found, but no kid that once was Tom Cotton’s boy.

Barracuda Slim looked up as a can of warm beer was passed to him. He took it with a nod as Church Bell Chris spit into the fire just to hear it sizzle. Barracuda and Church Bell met up in a jungle outside of Houston, Texas. They tore up the iron on an old diesel in the back of a freight car to find some better weather. Damned if it weren’t still hot as all hell here in Utah too.

“You pull that letter out every night, Slim ‘Cuda.” Church Bell was getting frisky, had that flat-beer glaze in his eyes. “So, c’mon with it then. Can’t pull that paper and not make with the tellin’!”

D’Dan-Dan stuttered in agreement as he spooned another mouthful of beans past his lips. You guessed it, got his name on account of being called David Dan Daniels since birth. Bet his parents were a riot.

“Hear, hear! Give us the story.” Green George chided from where he lay. He was all huffed up on his favorite brand of green permanent marker. Most likely seeing stars and fudgecicles dancing in the sky right now.

Barracuda Slim slurped a healthy bit of warm beer and stood, teetering just enough to find a balance.

“It was plum, smack, right in the middle of a Carolina winter…” Barracuda Slim spread his arms, like he was orchestrating one of them fancy orchestras full of shiny wood and bright brass and silver.

“T-thought he d-d-died in Kentucky?” D’Dan-Dan must have thought himself a smart man with a question like that.

“You tellin’ this tale? You see, I was there! This ain’t no re-tellin’ of a tale. No, sir! This here is the actual tale as it actually happened as told by the real life actual Barracuda Slim. So listen close now.” Barracuda Slim cleared his throat. He sucked more foamy beer from the hot can and looked over the three free souls that gathered in the jungle outside of the Salt Lake City railyard. “It was plum, smack, right in the middle of a Carolina winter…” He spread his arms like he made to hug the lot of them gathered.

*     *     *     *     *

A small blaze lit up the night beneath the bridge of an unused service road. Whatever service might have been utilizing the thing had packed up and stopped coming around. The bridge was still sound though, sound as ever with heavy wooden beams. And it was so dark outside the light from that fire, dark enough to sparkle all the stars overhead like tiny birthday candles. Steam puffed from the mouths and noses of the folks what called this here jungle home for the time they stayed.

It was the most normal of late Decembers as one could find in North Carolina. The weather was cold sure, right down chilly at mid-forty degrees, but there were plenty places colder still. Three shadows danced in the firelight under that old bridge that was so sturdy and forgotten. Three men that carried everything they owned, and owned all they carried.

“I tell you what, but hot damn is it damn cold tonight!” Barley slid closer to the fire, tossing another chunk of wood in and poking the coals like it was the thing to do.

Barracuda Slim watched over three washed out cans filled with water and coffee grounds. A cold night deserved a hot drink just as much as any cold man did, and Slim was something of an artist at making cowboy coffee. Better than most any you’d meet. He had him a big secret about the craft, not the kind that needed telling though, defeats the purpose of a secret in the telling. He glanced at Tom Cotton huddled up in an old wool army blanket. That poor fellow was still pale as the moon. He had a terrible cough, the sort that took no soothing from the likes of hard candy or cough drops. They were all set to hop a rail early in the morning and ride off to warmer climates.

Warm weather is the thing for the morning train though; tonight around this fire was a time for telling tales. What better place for tale tellin’ than gathered around a fire with the brisk air holding a sky full of stars? No better time if you ask me; hell, no better time if you ask anyone sitting around a fire at night.

Barley wiggled even closer to the small blaze, and if he were tinder he might have gone up like a torch himself. “Okay gents, now listen to this,” he began with a washed over glaze of memory in his eyes. “I was truckin’ see, truckin’ like it was the thing to do on my way to New Orleans to catch one of them music days of that there Mardi Gras. ‘Cept, it weren’t no time for that kind of party, but I didn’t get the word about it not being the right time of year, so you see, I was going anyway! Now don’t get me wrong, I didn’t care much for New Orleans, it was those sweet-sweet trumpets and all the rest of them horns I was going for. I was goin’ because I had to! I got the brass in my blood, like a fire. Like this fire right here!” He stirred the wood with his stick tossing sparks into the air.

Tom Cotton nodded solemnly; he understood that kind of calling. Barracuda rocked slowly with the rhythm of the tale, Barley had a way of speaking that felt like music.

“So you see, I was truckin’ along on this beautiful diesel. I could feel it chugging along, pulsing like a heartbeat! It drummed across the open plains, it screamed through fields. You know the thing I’m talkin’ about, I know y’all got that feeling on them old smoke belchers! So then was the most horrible thing!” Barley got real quiet, he just couldn’t make a sound for a time as he stared into that fire. “You see, I watched this car sputter down and stall out on the tracks ahead of us. I had me this perfect view of that tragedy from the top of a box car. There I was mindin’ my own and feelin’ that warm sun and all the wind rushin’ around me like angels. And then the train couldn’t slow in time. I felt that drumming and pulsing and that heartbeat! Oh, that heartbeat! It stopped see? It stopped the minute that old locomotive tin-foiled that car.”

There was a pristine silence around the fire then, the kind of quiet you have when talking about the dead. It was church silence.

“But then, and you can’t believe this next part! Then like the holiest holy ghost that was ever holy, that fella in the car was still standin’! Alive as can be! Sucking air like he just learned how! I told you can’t believe it, he had not one single scratch anywhere on his whole body! I tell you it’s the truest truth to ever cross these here lips of mine! He was in that car when it shredded under the weight of that old smoke belchin’ powerhouse, and boom! Like a special kind of magic that old tragedy was a miracle! He was in that car and then he was standin’ alongside that train watchin’. Now that’s some magic of the great Almighty I tell you!”

Barracuda leapt to the air hooting and clapping as Barley wiped his eyes. Barracuda was all laughter and praise, as any man should be hearing about a natural miracle. Tom Cotton made the smallest sound of a cheer before his body was wracked with fits of coughing. His body shook and if he could any more pale than his poor skin already was, it did. He pulled his handkerchief away from his mouth and looked into the spatters of blood. Even though Tom Cotton’s lungs threatened a gasping end of things, he still wore his smile proudly; it was after all a good tale.

*     *     *     *     *

Church Bell Chris leaned towards Barracuda with that same glint of beer glaze in his eyes. His face held a deep smile behind the lines of age and the grime of the road.

“Now we’re getting up to the good part! Barley’s a right decent fellow, but this next part is my favorite.”

D’Dan Dan rocked forward too, waving away Green George’s offering of a marker. He had his whole attention stamped and approved at the tellin’ by Slim. Barracuda Slim slid back to the ground, taking his place by the fire and tending to the pot of water that was well on its way to becoming coffee.

Looking across the flickering light at Church Bell, Barracuda tilted his head to the side with a crooked smile. “Now this here is the good part, but we can’t get to no good part if you make with the breakin’ of the tempo. Barley had it right about rhythm, just like the pulse of them thundering diesels, a story has that beat too. So listen up!” Barracuda poured a generous amount of coffee grounds into the pot, “So we jumped that train in the morning and was barreling along towards Kentucky with the beat of that old engine –clackity clack across the tracks!”

*     *     *     *     *

The three lay in the sun on top of a canvas covered car full of salt. The sun was bright above them, but the wind that blew over the top of the car was anything but warm. They had worked the salt enough to give them a little cover but it did little. Barracuda shrunk into his jacket like a turtle to a shell, as did Barley, both men had given their blankets to Tom Cotton.

The weather wasn’t by any means of the word getting better, riding the rails as long as they had they knew there were certain ways to take to get where you needed to be. Sure the rail lines ran in all directions across the States, but that didn’t mean you could just ride straight through. There was a way about it. Some cities were just plain old dangerous for folks like Barracuda, Tom Cotton, and Barley. So it came to it that sometimes to go west, a body had to go north for a while first, such as this time.

Through the rushing wind and the thrumming train, Barley got to singing. He crooned into the blue sky all full of sun and framed with wispy streaks of cloud. “This train is bound for glory, this train! This train is bound for glory, this train! This train is bound for glory, none gonna ride but the righteous and the holy, this train is bound for glory, this train…”

Tom Cotton worked his feet to the music of the train and the singing of his fellows, and if his health wasn’t all gummed up, he would have shot up and danced right there in that salt car. Barracuda whistled along, it was lost completely to the clink and rattle of the train, but he knew it was there and that was the thing that made it perfect.

It was late in the afternoon when the train slowed on approach to the yard, another freight yard in another city. A man travels enough each one becomes a strange melded blur of the same place, no matter how different. Barley was shouting his goodbyes and good travels, then he was gone over the side of the car. Barracuda helped Tom Cotton get his feet and they lit out of that car too.

When they made their way into the jungle it was no surprise to find Barley not there, He was always a fellow that moved from train to train on a whim with no care where it was headed. Barracuda and Tom Cotton settled in by a fire, this was perhaps the most crowded they had ever seen a jungle, nearly a dozen free souls all hooting, and laughing, and tellin’ the tale. It was quick work finding out what trains were coming through and which trains were leaving, by mid-morning they would be rolling west towards Kentucky.

Tom Cotton was working in a fever with a pen and paper, and even found him a crisp envelope so white and fresh. He took to that paper with fervent delight, and the precision of one of them car building robots you hear about. He was near two full pages when he folded that paper up like a professional paper folder, like those fellas that make birds and fish, and tucked it square into that perfect envelope.

*     *     *     *     *

“What about that Old Scratch, Slim ‘Cuda? I know I heard you had to refute that Devil and all his wiles.” Green George had left his markers forgotten at his side and was focused on Barracuda and the tale he told. George’s eyes followed Slim’s every move, he was captive in the story and no amount of huffing chemicals was going to draw him away.

“Heck, George! You tellin’ this tale? How ‘bout you let me finish explaining how Old Tom Cotton gived me this here letter in first place? You can’t go tellin’ no tale by skippin’ ahead to parts that ain’t even happened yet! Now listen close!” Barracuda Slim cleared his throat and held the rumpled old envelope before him, the dingy paper almost had the look of gold in the light of the fire.

“Now,” began Barracuda Slim, “you can’t imagine how poetical and proper Tom Cotton was when we finally arrived in Kentucky.”

*     *     *     *     *

He had all this calm pouring from him as he looked across the fire at Barracuda Slim. Tom Cotton had a hand inside his coat and wore the smile of an angel; not one of them arch-angels that was all wrath and fit to fight with burning swords, but one of them curly haired angels with the white robes and harps with all the kindest words hanging from their lips.

“Barracuda, I need to ask somethin’ that might change your life. I wouldn’t ask it of no man ‘cept those that I trust.” He took that smooth white envelope from his coat and turned it over and over in his hands. “This here is a letter, and it’s so important you couldn’t believe it. I had me a talk last night with this man all in golden light, he told me I was goin’ home and that I had nothing to worry for. He gave me an address–”

Tom Cotton held the fine white envelope out to Slim, the look in his clear eyes spoke of nothing less than gratitude and friendship. Barracuda reached for it, but Tom held it back a moment.

“Please don’t take this here letter without hearin’ what I ask and promisin’ me the mightiest of promises.”

Barracuda looked long and hard at the envelope before meeting Tom’s eyes with a slow nod. “I don’t ‘spect this to be no light thing,” he finally said as he let the envelope slid into his fingers.

“Slim, I need for you to understand that I was never a good man, never a good man till I ran the iron with you. You changed the way I looked at everything around me, the same way you made everyone you met see the light behind the sun, the glory in the morning dew. I can’t thank you enough for what you did for me just by being my friend.” Tom Cotton coughed shortly, staining his lips a deep crimson. “This here letter is to my son. I done wrong by him and his ma by not bein’ there. I skipped out from a great fear that I would fail them. The funny thing is, by doin’ what I did I only made that failure become the truth, and that ain’t no good thing. What I’m asking you Slim, is can you take this letter to my boy? He needs to know the heart of my misdeeds even if he only hates me for it. Please, Slim, I need to hear you say it.”

Slim wiped the wetness of his eyes with a dirty sleeve and sniffled, wiping his nose after. He looked up from the smooth white envelope, so crisp and clean, and for the first time noticed how pale Tom had become. Poor old Tom Cotton had become pale and white as his namesake, white as that perfect envelope. His clear eyes had never been so serious and desperate as he looked at Barracuda.

“I promise you this Tom Cotton. I will find your boy and I will hand him letter directly. On our friendship I swear it.”

Tom Cotton’s whole body slumped and sagged at the sound of Slim’s words. It was like he held this great and terrible weight that just suddenly lifted from him and gave him comfort. He choked out a few final words that were lost amid the coughing before he shuddered one final time and lay still. Yes Sir, the last thing that moved on Old Tom Cotton was the blood that rolled down his cold cheek on that clear night in Kentucky.

*     *     *     *     *

Barracuda Slim sat, moving as slow as ketchup from the bottle. He took a good moment looking into that fire all glowing and shedding its heat. He briefly looked up and gave a short nod to another free man that had joined them, seating himself between D’Dan Dan and Church Bell Chris. This new fellow sat quietly and watched only Slim; he made no notice of acknowledging the others gathered at that fire.

Barracuda folded and tucked the envelope back into his coat and took a long final pull from the warm can of beer at his side. He crushed the empty can and tossed it away with a foamy belch before rolling a cigarette from the dirty pouch of tobacco he dug from his pocket. He lit and took a few puffs from the smoke, everyone waiting for him to speak again, but none dare break that revered silence being held for Tom Cotton.

“I made certain that Tom Cotton had the most respectful of last rites. I done spoke the words myself and spent the whole day digging him the most proper of a grave. Even made sure he had a rightful holy cross to mark where he lay till the good Lord sees fit to lift him to the highest of graces and admit that man into the gates of Heaven. Heck, we all know that’s where a man has to go that passes with such a clean soul.” Barracuda blew a stream of smoke into the fire.

Church Bell turned to the new comer, “Who might you be friend?”

The man never broke his gaze from Barracuda as he answered in a cold way, the same chill in the air around them. “Me? Why I’m just passin’ through. They call me Long Road. Say fella, why don’t you finish this here tale, you got my interest piqued. And I tell ya, I’m just dying to hear the rest of it.”

Slim buttoned his coat tight and forced a smile that looked every bit as genuine as the real thing, but he knew there was something strange at work. This stranger, the very man that claimed he was called Long Road, had all the same feeling as another body he came across…

“Well, you see, I knew from the address on the envelope that I had to go to New Mexico. So that’s the very place I went. Suffering through all the heat and the journey from Kentucky, I ran to that place non-stop. You see, I was just beginning a quest. Not a quest like that old King Arthur to find some great relic. I already had me a powerful artifact, what’s more magical and sacred than a dead man’s last words to his son? So I went to New Mexico.”

*     *     *     *     *

A long pull of the steam whistle rang through the air and the long string of boxcars slowed. Slim peeked through the door at the sand and dry trees, the brown grass and weeds, as they rushed by. There was no one around as the train drew closer to the rail yard.

He tossed his pack and jumped. He hit the ground and rolled, jumping up with a broad, gap toothed grin. After a quick pat down, Barracuda Slim found he had no serious injury. Time for some walking, this was all new territory. Today was going to take him into the city. He grabbed his pack and dug out an old baseball cap, pulling it on over his greased hair.

He’d been to the Santa Fe before and knew just where to find the jungle, his first stop. Though this time he had a much different purpose for the visit, this time it was a matter of honor. He dug into his shirt and took out the crumpled, stained envelope.

It was a promise that brought him here. Old Tom Cotton made him swear to bring the letter to his son. And then the old man up and died. So here’s Barracuda Slim, riding the iron into Santa Fe to find Tom Cotton’s boy.

Barracuda made his way under the afternoon sun. There was a stand of trees, just as beaten by the weather and time as Barracuda Slim was, and down in the trees with the storm run-off trench sat a jungle. Not the jungle with tigers and deadly frogs, the jungle where the other free men, the other iron riders, gathered. A place of safety, unless there was a disagreement, and a place of shelter.

Barracuda Slim shouted down into the trees as he entered, hooting in the manner of madmen, or maybe just in imitation of an owl. He heard a whistle and an aggressive strum of a guitar in response. He hopped on down, pretending to ride a horse, with his hands taking hold of imaginary reins.

He came into the place and found three others sitting around a small fire ringed in stones and busted bricks. He knew the guitar and bushy beard of Coal-Mine Elvis, and the thick glasses and eight fingers of Harry the Eight. The other fellow was just some other fellow.

Barracuda Slim sat down with his pack in his lap.

“I got a treat today, for all that gathers. Found me some fresh dug out onions when my ride stopped. Dug ‘em up fresh myself.” Slim took three large yellow onions from his bag, still dusty from the ground. “And a taste of the Dr.’s finest mint hootch.” The bottle of Dr. McGillicuddy’s Mint Schnapps gave way to a round of applause.

Harry the Eight stood with a grand bow and took a can of corn from his pack. “I do believe I smell soup cooking!”

Coal-Mine Elvis began strumming and picking the strings of his guitar. He sang, “I got nothin’ but some deviled ham and big ol’ box crackers.”

Now if you were to believe the tales, Cole-Mine had that guitar hand delivered to him by the King himself, just before his final constitutional. But then again, a tale is a tale no matter how short or tall.

The other fellow rolled a cigarette and set the bag of tobacco and small pack of dirty papers on the ground. “I got ‘em, so smoke if you want. That’s all I got till I get something else.”

“What’s the name fellow? Barracuda Slim don’t pass no bottle to no man with no name.” Slim took a pull and passed the hootch to Harry the Eight.

“Dirty Jim, Dirty Jim.” He tipped his hat.

Barracuda smiled and motioned to send the bottle over. The four men told their tales while the soup cooked up in an old metal coffee can. The onions were cut with a dull pocket knife, but the job got done. The sun was close to down and the stars where all but up when Barracuda Slim took out the envelope.

“Sad news from Kentucky. Old Tom Cotton ain’t no more. He died right in front of me, but asked me to take a letter to his boy before he went. That’s why I come, to find me Tom Cotton’s boy and fill my promise.”

“I knew Tom Cotton. He told the best tales,” Dirty Jim held his hat over his heart.

The others placed hands on their chests too. Barracuda Slim raised his bottle and sipped. He passed the final swallow around and they all drank the bottle gone in memory of Old Tom Cotton. Barracuda Slim curled up beneath an old wool army blanket with his bag as a pillow and fell asleep to Coal-Mine Elvis’s guitar.

In the morning, Barracuda was alone. The others left to catch whatever train they had to catch. Barracuda stretched and gathered his things. He wandered into town and found a bus stop. Not to catch the bus, but to check the map of bus routes with all it’s street names. Fairgrove Avenue was about six miles away.

When Barracuda got there, he just stood and stared. Sure the sign was right, dusty and bleached by sunlight. Fairgrove Avenue. The street went nowhere. If there were houses, they left a long time ago. Sand and weed choked foundations was all it had left to offer.

A dead cat lay in the middle of the road. Hit by a car sometime back. Plenty of time for rot to take away all the parts that said ‘hey, I’m a dead cat.’ Long enough that even the flies left it alone. Barracuda just looked right back at that road-kill.

“Whatcha lookin’ at?”

He took the envelope out again and opened it.

*     *     *     *     *

Barracuda Slim flicked his cigarette butt into the fire.

“That is a great and holy thing to have, Slim ‘Cuda. Nothing more powerful than carrying that much honesty, that’s fer sure.” Church Bell nodded solemnly.

A train whistle blared out in the night and Slim stood, stretching out his back and legs. “Now, that address in New Mexico didn’t get me nowhere; it was all just empty lots that never had a chance to made into whole homes. So I was searching. What I found led me deep into the Midwest, you see I spoke with one of them Postal Workers and got me a forwarding address. So I hopped a rail and was on the move just like that.”

Slim knelt and folded his blanket, tying it to his pack as the folks gathered waited for more of the tale. They were all so fixated on what was being told about Old Tom Cotton’s boy that not one of them could see that Slim was packing up to leave.

“Now here’s what you can’t believe. I tell you this part is the most incredible and made me realize just how important it was that I carry this letter to this boy that was Tom Cotton’s son. You see, that Old Scratch appeared on that very train in that very car right in front this very Barracuda Slim! He was all slick hair and fancy duds, and smooth perfume to cover the stink of all his sulfur and brimstone…”

*     *     *     *     *

Few things had a better sound than the clack-clack-clack of the steel wheels rolling down the tracks. The heavy smell of old iron and diesel fumes kicking dust around. The drifting scent of tar from the railroad ties that held all those miles of rail lines. Barracuda Slim enjoyed every last sight, smell, and sound of those long as you can see trails of box cars and flat-beds. Even now he watched one trundling its way out of the rail-yard, and he meant to hop that train to wherever it was heading.

He hitched up his stained jeans and tucked his ball-cap into his belt. Barracuda Slim gave one last cautionary glance to make sure no one was watching, then jumped from his cover in the bushes and broke into a run. He hauled as much ass as his skinny legs could muster, and sure as the sky is blue, he took hold of a ladder rung and pulled himself onto that train.

He hung there for a moment, feeling the increasing rush of air blow through his hair and across his skin as the train accelerated. This was what a man could call freedom. Open air, travel on a whim, and no political crap to get in the way and muck it up. He traversed along the side of the box car, Barracuda Slim knew it was empty, and weaseled himself through the partially open door. He dropped the pack he carried and stretched, a sigh of contentment ringing through the empty car.

It was at that very moment, as the muscles in his back said “yeah, that’s the spot,” that Barracuda Slim felt that he was not alone. Arms still raised, he turned to look. At the far end of the box car, sitting like he was some kind of fancy dandy in a suit far nicer than an iron rider ought to wear, was a man. Though not as much a man as one would think is proper. Sure his hair was slick and shiny, pulled back; and yes, he smelled like some kind of fine perfume like you’d find in the complimentary basket of a motel. But the glossy black horns on his forehead and the smooth hooves where there should have been feet, they said something else entirely about this fellow.

“Barracuda Slim, is it?” The man asked, though he sure spoke like he knew the answer. His voice was cool, and sounded friendly. “A nice ride you have here, and the price of admission fits the pocket book.”

“You know me? How do you know Barracuda Slim? Never have seen you in any jungle that I can say.” Barracuda lowered his arms and dug out a dented pack of smokes. It was quick work to strike a match and light the half smoked butt he dug out. “You smoke?”

“Do I smoke? I invented it! Do you know that before I sprouted the first tobacco plant you Humans were fighting over tea leaves! Ha! And now look at it, tobacco just about paid for the founding of this whole country. True story.” The fellow in the neat suit stood and accepted the pack. “Thanks.”

As the man that wasn’t a man in his dandy suit put the cigarette to his lips, it lit on its own as he inhaled.

“Magic tricks. Well that’s about the bees knees there. You know me, so what do I call you?”

“I’ve been called a lot of things. Son of Perdition was always my favorite, but you can call me Luse. To be fair, I’m sure you and your fellows call me Old Scratch, and I do like the sentiment.”

Barracuda Slim knew that name, sure as he knew the Lord and Savior, Jerusalem Slim. The name he and his fellows gave Jesus Christ, and Barracuda’s own namesake. He couldn’t help but draw a hasty cross over his chest.

“Please, I mean no harm here. I just want to help you out. You’ve been carrying that letter for over a month now. I know how serious you take the matter of a promise and I can tell you where to go, lead you right to Tom Cotton’s son. I only ever wanted to help. Look what I did to help the Romans! Shame they couldn’t take better care of their city. True story.”

Barracuda Slim gathered up his pack and dropped the butt to the floor, crushing it out beneath his smooth soled boots. It was no surprise that he edged his way towards the door of the boxcar. There was probably not one person that would take kindly to sharing a train with the Devil, even if he was too cheap to buy a ticket to ride.

“This looks like my stop, Barracuda Slim asks for nothing from no kind of Morning Star. I trust in the guidance of my departed friend, Tom Cotton, to show me how to find his boy.” Barracuda Slim glanced at the door then turned back.

“You can keep the car, I was just leaving. If you should ever need anything, anything at all, you just call on me. I only ever wanted to help, you Humans have no idea how much I love you. True story.”

The box car washed over with shadow and a mingling of sulfur touched the smell of the Devil’s cologne. By the time Barracuda Slim could see again, he found himself alone. The only proof that he hadn’t just imagined the whole long and short was the two scorched hoof prints burned into the wooden floor. Barracuda Slim took to the rational thing that anyone would choose.

He climbed out and found himself a different car, farther back. Much farther back. Turned out to be a nicer ride by any form of standardizing. Barracuda Slim stretched himself out on a covered bed of soft soil. To him it was like one of them pricey posture-whats-it mattresses you see on the television in late night infomercials. Open air, wind blowing just right, this was freedom beneath God’s grand blue sky.

*     *     *     *     *

“Sure as I’m standing here, I tell you that old Devil tried to take this letter from me. He offered me anything I wanted just to get his red hands on this paper. No Sir, I told him! I gave my word and not even that red fellow with his black horns and black hooves was goin’ to make me give this up and break my promise.”

Long Road leaned forward, the firelight casting an orange glow over his face and shining deep into his hollow eyes. “So you still have it then? You must carry such a prized and noble thing in a safe place. I don’t suppose you might let me see such a beautiful thing?”

Barracuda laughed and threw his head back. He had himself a right good chuckle as he lifted his pack. Slim turned on that fellow and looked Long Road right in his eyes.

“You’d have to find me dead to get a hold on this letter.”

The gentle chug of a diesel was drawing nearer, another long whistle blew through the night, and Slim made his move. He kicked the fire sending hot wood and cinder into the Strangers face as he turned and ran for the train. Slim knew this train was bound for the north, heading clear into Canada. Now, Barracuda was a man who had followed the rails for such a time that he knew the train would be getting a good head of speed going by the time he got to it. He knew that it might be tough for him to jump that iron, but it’d be harder still for Long Road to catch it up.

Slim dared not look behind him, he just had that notion that somewhere back there, that thing that was just as much a creature of Hell as Old Scratch himself, was racing along to tear that letter from Old Tom Cotton away from him. Barracuda knew in that moment that this tiny envelope that held so much truth, held the powerful words of a dead man to his only son, was something more important than he ever thought possible.

As the train came into view, speeding along and puffing hard as that old smoke belcher could, Barracuda pushed himself more than he ever had. It took all that he was to reach out and grab that ladder; it took more than he was to yank himself up to that step and hold on with arms and legs that wiggled like wet spaghetti noodles. But there was a strength that seemed to fill him up, fill him like a holy light, and perhaps that just what it was.

He glanced over his shoulder and saw that strange fellow, that Long Road that came out of the night to sit at the fire he shared with Church Bell, and D’Dan Dan, and Green George, that dark man who only wanted Tom Cotton’s letter, fall behind. Barracuda knew now that that Long Road was to be his hunter and now Slim was a protector of this here letter till he died or till he found Old Tom Cotton’s boy.

END

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