Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Phantom Train, Chapter One, Part Two

Begin with the beginning.

"That's a long story, actually. Could I…"

"…get a drink?" Traynor volunteered.

"You bet. Bourbon."


"No, thanks."

Traynor walked across his office to the bar. By now — unreason or no unreason — he was already hooked on the old miner's tale. Despite all the deserved contempt Traynor felt for mindless irrationality and superstition, he loved a good mystery.

It was rather that because of his allegiance to reason he enjoyed and collected such tales. He just loved to see them debunked — or even better — to do it himself. Be it the Bermuda Triangle, the ghost ship Carroll A. Deering, Mothman, the Oak Island treasure, or the Beale Ciphers — whenever such a mystery was solved, it constituted a victory of man's reasoning mind over dull superstition and blind credulity.

All of them had been billed as the world's greatest mysteries. But most ships lost in the Bermuda Triangle had been done in by storms — if they had not been rustbuckets to begin with. Everything beyond that had been fabricated by sensationalist mystery authors preying on gullible readers. Or so it seemed. The Carroll A. Deering, found aground on Diamond Shoals off Cape Hatteras, without a trace of her crew, had become the ultimate ghost ship mystery, only rivaled by the Mary Celeste.

However, while the Celeste had apparently been rashly abandoned after being struck by a waterspout or a seaquake, the Deering had probably been taken over by rumrunners. They had supposedly deserted the schooner to get their bootleg ashore in a boat, which had been swamped with all hands. Mothman, dread monster, terror of West Virginia, was nothing else but a common barn owl. In all probability, the Beale Cipher and Oak Island treasures were just hoaxes grown out of some Masonic allegory.

Solving such an allegedly supernatural mystery gave Traynor the same feeling he experienced standing atop a new skyscraper or on board a ship, train, or aircraft: the triumph of man, bringing order and meaning into a desolate wilderness. He had investigated some such mysteries in his spare time, solving quite a few of them. Yet, this one mystery promised to become the most challenging and fascinating yet.

To somebody who loved the products of the mind, like buildings, ships, and trains, a phantom train was infinitely more interesting than a mundane "human" ghost. Plus, he would even be paid for investigating this mystery. True, he had come across an alleged phantom riverboat on a recent assignment — but this time, he would be paid for nothing else but refuting the supernatural. He had completed many difficult assignments on his job. This one was going to be fun.

"You don't mind if I settle for a ginger ale?" Traynor asked McGinnis, handing him his drink.

"Leaves more whiskey for me… Well, it was about the year 1885 when Apache Indians attacked a train, consisting of the now notorious locomotive Plato and several passenger cars, near what was then called Jenkinsville. It was one of the last Indian attacks in our country. It sure ranks among the most atrocious attacks, too. Those savages massacred all the passengers and crew of the train — more than a hundred men, women, and children. And they burned the train. Those who had been shot dead turned out to be the lucky ones versus those who were burned alive.

"For years, locals kept claiming they saw the fiery shine of the blazing train traveling down the line. Well, when they saw those lights for the first time, they had seen nothing yet. In the morning, the mangled bodies of bums, tramps, and hobos would be found on the track — even though it was known that no train had been scheduled the night before, nor had any train passed through the neighboring stations.

"Jenkinsville came to be known as Jinxville. Finally, in a fatalistic move, local authorities officially changed the name when the ghastly, ghostly rumors wouldn't die. Maybe they hoped to attract some tourists this way, but they were ahead of their time. Few tourists visited that part of the country in those days — so it would be for Roswell, New Mexico, to become the crank capital of the United States half a century later."

"If my memory serves, the 'Roswell Incident' was quite a nonevent when it happened. In next to no time, the Air Force was able to prove that a research balloon had crashed. Only some thirty years later, sensationalist swindlers began to churn out books expanding and perpetuating the UFO myth."

McGinnis winked. "You seem to know the history of the Southwest quite well, Kevin. Hope that will help you solve this one riddle. Anyway, things quieted down over time. From time to time, some folks would claim they saw the phantom train, but they were known drunkards and village idiots. Some time or other, the occasional tourist, hunter, or lawman would go missing. Every time, locals would take the cue to jump-start the old legend. They'd say the phantom train got them, particularly if no body could be found, or if a maimed corpse was found in the general vicinity of some railroad track.

"Mind if I help myself to another… Appreciate it! What was I saying? Oh, yeah: In my humble opinion it's little wonder if in such a vast area of rugged country a couple of folks go missing over the decades. Some may have absconded for greener pastures. Predators must have gotten some others. If some mangled body or other is found below a rotting railroad trestle, does that prove the existence of a phantom train? All over the country, kids and drunkards get themselves killed by trespassing on abandoned infrastructure, don't they?

"That's at least what I thought before this horrible business started over in earnest! But who knows? The mine is all that keeps the town alive — has done that job pretty well for decades. I've been in it for half its existence. Now everybody — honest, sober folks — is seeing the phantom train. My buddies are lost or dead. Laborers are deserting us, and the town's going down the drain. I'm too damn old to start over at some other mine. Can already hear them snicker: Lost his mine — mind you, the most valuable copper mine in Arizona — to a ghost. No, sir, I won't stand that!"

Read on…

Or buy the full story.

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