Western Wednesdays—OUTLAW TRAIN by Cameron Judd

Outlaws, fugitives, rustlers, bank robbers, and all other villainous, adventuring characters roll through the small towns of the Old West in nearly every Western. But it’s not every day you encounter a Middle Eastern carnival—a travelling show full of the strange and unusual as well as the mythic and legendary—come to town in old time Kentucky.  Cameron Judd challenges the rough and tumble cowboys of the Old West with just such an outfit, led by a showman whose true ends are veiled by the stagecraft he orchestrates in Outlaw Train, an awe-inspiring Western blended with exotic mystery.

And what Judd does so well in this prologue is to provide the calm before the storm, to portray the mundane details of a mundane meal at the local saloon, with patrons harping about nothing in particular, taking for granted these peaceful days of their lives. And then, enter Professor Percival Raintree and his outlaw train…

Happy Reading,
Allison Carroll
Dorchester Publishing

PROLOGUE

Bug Otis looked past Ben Keely toward an obese man who sat in the far corner sloppily eating from a bowl of potatoes, beef, carrots, and onions. “Dry stew,” the proprietor of the place called that particular dish, the specialty of this dank and dirty dining establishment in the backwoods of western Kentucky. Most days, including this one, it was the only dish served.

Bug, a very skinny man with leathery, furrowed skin and bulging eyes that accounted for his nickname, swiped a filthy sleeve across his mouth and sighed.

“Lordy, Lordy,” he said. “I’m just like my old daddy, I reckon.”

“How so, Bug?” Keely asked. “I remember your father well, and you ain’t like him at all. You’re your mother all over again.”

“Yeah, but my old daddy, he always said it made him hungry to watch a fat man eat. And I’m the same way.”

Keely looked back over his shoulder toward the man Otis was watching. He turned back again, amazed and repelled. “Bug, are you trying to tell me it makes you hungry to watch that big old boar back there slopping himself?”

Bug frowned. “Well … yeah. Don’t it you?”

“You’re a sick man, Bug. Sick in the mind. Loco, as the Mexicans say it.” Keely tapped a finger against his temple.

Bug looked annoyed. “We’re all different, I reckon, but that don’t mean I’m crazy. Hell, Ben, me and you been different since we was boys.”

Ben Keely took a bite of corn bread and didn’t reply. But Bug was right. Ben always had been different from not only Bug, but most of the folks he’d grown up among. Didn’t think like them, act like them, want to be part of them for longer than he had to. Which, he supposed, was part of what had driven him away from home so early. He’d gone west when he left Kentucky, because that was the direction a man went in the post–Civil War United States of America if he wanted to get to something new and better and bigger. Always west. Ben had crossed the Mississippi with no firm plan to ever make a return trip. And until the death of his father two weeks back, he’d not done so. Once free of Kentucky, he’d settled and stayed in the little town of Wiles, Kansas, hiring on as town marshal (nobody else had wanted the job, and he’d been willing to lie about his credentials) and trying to forget his past.

Not that he’d had a bad life growing up. Good parents, intelligent, his father a schoolmaster and devotee of history, his mother educated as well. They’d raised him and his sister, Bess, with a respect for learning, a tolerance for difference, and a belief that they could rise above their narrow little backwoods world. The world is big, Ben’s father used to tell his children. Don’t let anybody keep you small in a world this big.

Ben had left home at age seventeen, hoping that big world his father talked about really was out there, and had wandered about for years looking for it. Sometimes he believed he’d found it, but most times had to admit that life as a town marshal in a little railroad stop Kansas town was not much bigger or better than the life he’d left behind in Kentucky. A more open landscape, certainly, a broader view and more distant horizon … but the world right at hand, the streets he trod while making his rounds, the saloons he dragged rowdy drunks from, and the simple little jailhouse where he kept his meager office and locked up his prisoners, these were as small and strangling as anything he’d left behind in Kentucky.

Ben was distressed when he pondered that he was living a mostly solitary life at a time when his youth was beginning to pass away. Before he knew it, he’d be halfway through his thirties, still unmarried, still tied down to an unproductive and unpromising job he’d intended to keep only for months, not years.

Ben refocused his attention on his food, trying not to hear the disgusting mashing and gulping noises made by the obese eater in the corner. For his part, Bug couldn’t resist staring hungrily at the hideous spectacle. Each round of observation brought him back to his own bowl of beef, potatoes, and onions with invigorated appetite.

Ben picked at his food and tried not to feel queasy.

Bug finished his victuals, wiped his forefinger around the bowl, and noisily sucked the finger clean. With that, Ben’s appetite died fully and he simply stared into the remnants of his food.

“You ain’t going to finish that?” Bug asked.

Ben shoved his bowl across the table. Bug’s eyes were all but bulging out of his skull. “You letting me have this?”

“Enjoy it, Bug. I’ve had my fill.”

At that moment the outer door opened, spilling murky sunlight into the dim interior of the log building from the drizzly, gray day outside. The muted backlighting allowed Ben a relatively clear view of the unusual man who entered.

He was clad in loose brown trousers that were tucked into high boots. Not the cattleman’s boots Ben saw so frequently in Kansas, but moccasin-styled boots that were strapped to the calves, nearly to his knees, canvas trouser legs plunging into them. His shirt was big and loose and made out of highly worked supple leather, styled like an old hunting shirt. The man’s face was smoothly shaven and had an olive tone that might have been Indian, Egyptian, or Mediterranean. Hard to judge in the light.

Oddest of all, the man wore a turban. Ben had seen pictures of turbans before in some of his father’s history and geography books that showed images from the Far East and the biblical lands, and he knew similar headgear had been worn by Indians in the region years earlier, and in times past by older slaves farther south. Ben did not know which kind of turban he was seeing here. Whatever it was, it was nothing he would have expected to encounter in rural Kentucky.

Bug noticed Ben’s distraction and turned to investigate. He gave a soft grunt. “Huh! Man’s got a rag tied around his head! And look there at his ears.”

Bug had noticed something Ben had missed. The edges of the stranger’s ears were discolored … blue. Tatooed, Ben decided. But the door closed, the light became as dim as before, and he couldn’t see clearly enough to verify it.

“Wonder who that is?” Bug said a little too loudly. Ben wished he hadn’t. He had an inexplicable bad feeling about the new arrival and didn’t want to draw his attention. Too late. The stranger heard Bug and looked in their direction.

But he didn’t approach. He found a table close to the door and sat down. Mutton Smith, who ran this establishment, came around and informed the stranger that the only item on the menu today was dry stew, but by gum, if you had dry stew available, what else could you want anyway? The man nodded to confirm his order. One more dry stew coming up.

At that moment, Bug stretched his legs and accidentally kicked over a closed crockery jar that sat under the table near Ben’s feet. It clunked and rolled. Ben bent to the side and quickly grabbed it, setting it on the tabletop.

“I be damned, Ben!” Bug exclaimed loudly, staring at the jar. “That’s the Harpe head jar, ain’t it! I didn’t know you had brung that with you!”

At Bug’s words, the man in the turban suddenly turned his full attention toward Ben and Bug’s table.

“Ain’t no call to tell the whole world about it, Bug,” Ben said, noticing and not liking the stare he was getting from the turbaned man. Something unnerving in it. “Keep your voice down, would you?”

Bug answered as loudly as before. “Hell, Ben, that there jar of bone ain’t no secret around here! Everybody knows that the Keely family has Harpe’s head! That’s been printed in newspapers before! I ain’t saying nothing everybody don’t already know.”

The man in the turban rose and walked toward their table. Ben tensed and put his hand on the jar, at which the man’s dark eyes were staring. It roused in Ben a strangely intense protectiveness toward his possession. This was a family heirloom, something his father had prized for its historical value and closely guarded all his life. The contents of the jar were unique and irreplaceable, and if they had no inherent monetary value, they were of value as a relic.

The turbaned man reached the table. Ben and Bug looked up at him, silent and unwelcoming. Bug studied the newcomer as if he were an oddity, a man with three heads or four eyes.

“Can I help you, mister?” Ben asked.

The man smiled broadly and thrust out his hand, which Ben for the moment ignored. “You may call me Raintree, sir. Professor Percival Raintree, collector and showman who travels these great United States. You, I’m guessing, are Mr. Keely?”

That took Ben aback. How could this odd stranger know him?

“Why do you think my name’s Keely, stranger?”

“Because of that crockery jar, sir. I heard your companion here refer to the Harpe’s head jar, and I have studied the lore sufficiently to know that the head of Big Harpe has for many years been a possession of the Keely family of this district of Kentucky. And given your age and the fact that it is no surprise that you would have come home because of the death of your father—my condolences, by the way—it was easy to surmise that you could hardly be anyone else than the remaining son of the Keely family, Mr. Ben Keely, late of this district and now, I’m told, a man of the law in Kansas. Kansas… a state I hope to visit soon, with my traveling show.”

Ben took a quick breath. “You’ve studied my family a good deal, it seems.”

“Only as a sideline to my main area of interest, sir: the lore of the criminals that have made themselves infamous in our great nation. My interest in your family relates solely to your family’s possession of that famous skull.” He paused and looked closely at the crockery jar. “May I, sir?”

“Sit down first. I don’t want you in a position to get this jar in hand and then run out the door with it.”

Raintree pulled over a chair and sat down, never taking his hungry eyes off the crockery jar. “Is the entire skull still in there?”

“It is, as best I know, though of course it is mere dust and fragments now,” Ben replied, wondering why he was even talking to this odd stranger. “It was dust and fragments before it went into the jar to begin with.”

Raintree spoke. “Amazing story, that of the Harpes. Amazing and terrible. No worse murderers have lived or died. And given the cruelty of his life, it is no surprise that Micajah Harpe’s own killer chose to behead him, and put that head on display in a tree as a symbol of justice and warning to other evil men.”

“Yep,” Bug said, entering the conversation. “And then when that head rotted down to the bone, a witch woman took it out of that tree and ground it up to do magic with, and put it in that there jar. But she never got around to using the bone. Just kept it.”

“And the Keely family later purchased it,” Raintree rejoined. “Setting a precedent for what I have come to Kentucky to do.”

“What do you mean?” Ben asked.

Raintree paused and seemed to be collecting his words. “Mr. Keely, I must believe it is fate that brought me to this … this fine establishment today. For it is to find the Keely family, and their famous jar of bone, that I came to Kentucky. How I would find you, I didn’t fully know, but now I have literally stumbled upon you, the man I seek, bearing the very relic I seek. Fate is at work. I want to buy that jar of bone from you, Benjamin Keely.”

The conversation was interrupted by the arrival of Raintree’s wooden trencher of dry stew. He accepted it in a distracted manner. He was taking a bite of the tough, chunky beef when a loud, resounding belch came from the corner where sat the fat diner who had inflamed Bug’s appetite. Raintree looked up, disgust on his face, and let a second bit of meat fall back into his trencher.

“I seem to be losing my appetite,” he said.

“If you don’t want that food, I’ll take it,” Bug said, but Raintree either ignored or didn’t hear him.

“The Harpe’s head jar ain’t for sale, Mr. Raintree,” Ben said. “It’s part of my inheritance. My parents weren’t rich folk by any stretch. They had little of money value to leave me and my sister, but they left us what they could, including an appreciation for heritage, for history. And that’s what that jar is to me: history. An ugly part of history, no question about it. But it was my father’s possession, and now it’s mine.”

“But there is a price for all things, sir. Surely there is one for a mere jar of bone.” He sighed and looked thoughtful. “A shame that mere dust is all that remains. Imagine how grand a relic it could have been had there been a way to preserve the head whole! And it could have been done. I know a man who could have turned that head into a trophy that would last for many, many years.”

Ben found the line of conversation strange and off-putting. “Mr. Raintree, I have nothing to sell you. And that’s more than a ‘mere jar of bone.’ That’s the bone of one of the wickedest devils ever to wear human flesh. And it’s something I inherited from a father I’ll never see again. Now please, eat your food and leave me alone.”

Raintree’s eyes flared, a sudden anger that made him look dangerous. Ben inadvertently drew back. The atmosphere crackled with tension, but then suddenly the fat man in the corner belched again, a massive eructation, and Ben had to chuckle. The tension was broken.

Raintree took a bite, seemed to find it acceptable, and ate in silence for two minutes, staring at the jar. He swallowed another bite, pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, and dabbed at the corner of his mouth. “Mr. Keely, sir, you seemed to indicate a moment ago that, if I would sit, you might let me hold that jar.”

Ben shook his head. Raintree was openly disappointed.

“C’mon, Ben,” Bug said. “He seems a good feller. Let him hold it. You’ve let other folks hold it before. You even let me look inside at the bones once, remember?”

Raintree’s face lit with hope.

“We were boys then, Bug. I opened that jar on the sneak, without Pa knowing, ’cause you wouldn’t leave me alone about it.” Ben paused. “You ain’t changed much by growing up, Bug. Still a pest and bother.”

“Let him see it, Ben,” Bug urged.

Ben’s temper got the best of him, but he kept his voice low and steady. “No, Bug. I don’t trust him. He’s a stranger and he’s dressed like a wise man on the way to see baby Jesus. A little too odd to suit me. No offense, Mr. Raintree. Just speaking the truth. If you want to ask favors of folks, you might want to present yourself in a way that ain’t so … so different.”

“I promise you, sir, I will not attempt to flee this place with that jar. I merely want to make you an offer, a cash offer, for its purchase. I wish to add this relic to my collection … a collection I show as a traveling display for the entertainment and education of the people of our great nation, and for my own living. As for my ‘different’ manner and look … I am a showman. It is my profession, my livelihood. It is to my advantage to be ‘different.’ Difference is memorable. It catches the eye and rouses the interest.”

“Back to the point: the jar of bone dust ain’t for sale.”

“Be reasonable, sir.”

“This jar is my inheritance from my father, odd as it may be. I came all the way from Kansas to bid my farewells to him at his graveside, and now I’m taking this one last piece of his life back to Kansas with me.”

Something in Raintree’s face changed, darkened. He made a little snarling motion with his lip and concentrated on his eating, talking no further to Ben Keely.

Bug was still talkative. “Mister, if you’re wanting to show Big Harpe’s skull dust in a jar, hell, you could just throw some old cow bone in a jar of your own and tell folks that’s what it is! They’d never know.”

Raintree lifted one brow. “I admit that there have been times I have lowered myself to, er, slight deceptions for the sake of showmanship, but I am loath to fake a relic if the real thing is available and at hand, as is this one.”

Ben had no interest in this argument. He stood. “Good day, gentlemen.” He tucked the Harpe Head jar under his right arm and left unceremoniously, having paid Mutton Smith for his meal in advance.

“If it was me, I’d have sold it to you,” Bug said to Raintree.

“Oh, Mr. Keely may sell it to me yet. He and I have not finished our negotiations,” Raintree returned. “I believe our next conversation will put him in a much more accommodating frame of mind.”

“I don’t know. He’s a stubborn one, always has been.”

Raintree smiled. “And with the stubborn, sometimes the solution is to adjust the mode of persuasion. And I can be a persuasive man.”

“Well, don’t take too long. He’s planning to head back toward Kansas later today. Riding out on the afternoon train.”

Raintree rose, pulled money from his pocket and left it beside his plate, and was gone.

Bug pulled Raintree’s plate toward him and ate the remnants of his food. He slyly sneaked the money Raintree had left and slid it under the edge of his own bowl, putting Raintree’s now fully emptied trencher back where it had been.

As Bug rose, he looked back toward the rear, where the crude kitchen was, and hollered back at Mutton Smith, “That feller with the cloth ’round his head, he left without paying you!  ’Ja hear me, Mutton?”

Then Bug vacated the place as quickly as he could.

The fat diner in the corner did not betray Bug’s trickery. He had fallen sound asleep and was snoring loudly, oblivious of all.

* * *

Ben Keely all but forgot about the odd encounter in Mutton Smith’s place before he’d ridden three miles. Just killing time now until it was time to go to the train station. The Harpe’s Head crockery jar was safely ensconced in a bulging saddlebag and Keely’s mind was drifting, pondering the situation in which he found himself these days.

Odd, he pondered, how a family as close as his own had been had managed to become estranged. It was sad, but he couldn’t see how things could have gone much differently. His parents had been so devoted to each other and to the life of the mind that they shared, a life utterly different than the great majority of lives lived around them, that they’d paid only limited attention to their children. Ben and Bess Keely had grown up guided and shaped mostly by their own inclinations and natures, going their individual ways. Ben’s path had been a westward journey and a quest for independence; Bess’s path had not led her away from Kentucky geographically, but she’d gained a reputation. She was a young woman who tended to draw attention, and there had been many whispers about her, crude and impolite rumors, things Ben did not want to believe, and tried to dismiss. When he’d left home and headed west, he’d simply chosen to try to forget about such things.

Then had come the recent news from Bess of the death of their father. Their mother had passed on years earlier, so Ben and Bess were now orphans, albeit grown ones. Ben had pondered the possibility of ignoring the message and not returning to Kentucky. His father was already dead and buried, after all, his mother was long gone, and there was nothing much to be gained by a homecoming.

But for the sake of improving his relationship with his sister and in hope of finding at least some tangible token of his past to take back to Kansas with him, he had come home. The matter of his sister had not worked out as hoped. They were more estranged even than they had been before. But he had gained the token: this jar of crumbled, dusty bone that had been the skull of Micajah “Big” Harpe, the murderer who had been beheaded at the close of the previous century.

Ben wondered why that jar of bone mattered so much to him. Of all things a man could cling to as a memory of his father, could he have made a stranger choice?

He dismissed the question and told himself the choice made perfect sense. His father had been such a devotee of history and antiquities that he had considered the Harpe’s Head jar a treasure of great significance. He’d more than once noted that a man rarely is privileged to hold history in his own hands, and should treasure that chance when it comes. Even if the piece of history being held is one most would as soon forget.

Of course, there were those odd types, such as that turbaned fellow in Mutton Smith’s place, who seemed to have an interest in such things that was vaguely different. Unhealthful. Ben disliked the notion of putting his father’s prized relic on public display for the price of admission to some traveling chamber of mysteries. In a legitimate and scholarly museum, maybe. A cheap crime carnival, no.

Ben halted his horse, dismounted, and went to the side of the road to relieve himself. He was heading back to mount up again when he heard movement in the woods nearby, and the faint but unmistakable click of a firearm hammer being thumbed back. A shotgun, if Ben had to guess.

Turning, Ben spoke to the woods behind him. “Bess, is that you out there?”

No answer.

“Bess, has it really gotten that ill between us? Has it actually come to this?”

Still no reply.

“Bess, is it you? Bess?”

“Is that who I am?” a voice returned.

“Good God!” Ben whispered.

He knew when he heard the voice what was about to happen.

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One Response to Western Wednesdays—OUTLAW TRAIN by Cameron Judd

  1. RALPH ENGLE says:

    now i’m really intrigued.what really happened next?

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