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…
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.
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