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Calling the Train
    by Jeff Stehman

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Sam lay on the shore, his one remaining leg still in the green water. The gator's death roll had shattered an arm and ribs, smashed his face. An unexpected end to a desperate plan. He'd known he might be shot, execution style, in some dark alley. But dying out here? Like this?

The pain was fading. Everything was fading. The smell of the swamp, the hum of the insects; all so distant. Only the sound of a train whistle was clear.

The bastards he was after would remain untouchable, yet Sam felt calm, detached from the drama. Even from dying.

The train whistled again.

No, not a train. He opened his one good eye and tipped his head back. A black face, upside down and with salt-and-pepper hair, came into view.

"Ouch. Gator must've been huge." The old man stepped to Sam's side, raised a harmonica and sounded the mournful wail of a train. "That oughta do it," he said, crouching down.

"Do what?"

"Call the train for you."

Sam went through the motions of looking around, though he couldn't move much.

The old man chuckled. "Strange, I know. It'll be over soon."

"It should be over."

"Nope. Gotta wait for the train."

"What train?"

"The train come to fetch your soul."

Sam considered that. "Seems like an infernal way to get to heaven."

"Son, if heaven it be, they'd collected you already. Train's headed the other way."

"I've been baptized."

The old man chuckled again. "Takes more than preacher man pouring water on your head. You gotta believe, and you and I both came up short."

"You've judged me? I don't recall having a say."

"No judging. I just call the train."

"There's no tracks through this swamp."

"I've been doing this for more than a hundred years. Ain't no place this train don't go."

"A hundred years?"

"Since my dying day. I call the train, then help you pass the time till it shows. That last bit ain't necessary, but it seems the decent thing."

"Gator get you too?"

"Nope, an alley. Too much to drink on a cold, wet night. A man come and called the train for me. White feller, like yourself. Young, but a bone-weary look about him."

"And the train took you?"

"I didn't get on. The young man handed me this here harmonica and climbed aboard himself."

The drama came rushing back. "There's a way I could stay?" Maybe he could still make the bastards pay.

"The train's coming. Someone's gotta get aboard, and it ain't likely to be me."

"But I've got to stay. These men . . . how about a wager?"

The old man said nothing.

Sam said, "I used to blow a mean harp. I bet I can call that train better than you."

"Bet with what? Near as I can tell, you only got but one good leg, one good arm, and one good eye. I don't need any of those."

"I have information." Sam dug a slip of paper out of his breast pocket. "It's directions to a spot in the swamp. I'm told what's there will bring down some corrupt men."

"And that's valuable?"

"They killed the woman who gave it to me, and I was willing to risk my life for it. Now I'm willing to bet my soul."

"Well, none of that means much to me, but seems you got a fire inside all of a sudden. I'll give you a chance." The old man raised the harmonica and called the train, a long wail with a couple extra bursts of steam for punctuation. "Do better than that, I'll let you keep it." He took the paper from Sam's hand and replaced it with the harmonica. "Go ahead."

Sam smiled. He knew this would work. It had to.

He set the harmonica against his lips. He couldn't bring up his left hand. The harp wheezed as he drew breath in, and it wheezed when he blew out. He reset it on his lips and tried again.

A perfect wail sounded through the swamp. Now it was Sam's turn to chuckle. "How's that?"

The old man shook his head. "That, son, is the train."

"But . . ."

"Here." The man put the paper back in Sam's pocket and patted it. "Wouldn't want you to lose that." He took the harmonica.

The ground rumbled under Sam. "But I've gotta . . ."

"You gotta go. Information, powerful people; those things mean nothing now."

"The wager . . ." Sam could hear the screech of steel on steel.

"You lost. Too broke up to play. That was plain enough. But like I said, I like helping people pass the time until the train shows."

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