Welcome back to the Official Homepage of writer/artist Lawrence R. Dagstine. Stay tuned here in the future for lots of wonderful free fiction, essays and excerpts, and most of all, digital releases you can download at cheap prices. Get your Kindles, Nooks, and other eReaders ready. Below is an installment from Part 8 of a work in progress, entitled: “Vampires in America.” Historically rich, definitely weird, and what will be an unforgettable adventure in its entirety.
VAMPIRES IN AMERICA
Part 8. Fiction Excerpt.
Bruce turned it into a hard day, bullying and ragging the other vampires. He made Tom his special target. Tom took the abuse without any attempt at fighting back.
In Fort Wayne a new locomotive came on, and so did a new crew. The conductor was a nervous man, small and dumpy, constantly checking his watch. The engineer, a homely, lanky young man, stood outside the train trading jokes with the fireman.
There were also several new passengers: a bearded preacher, a printer from Peoria, and a fearsome-looking riverboat man named Joe Tide, a burly fellow in a red shirt and yarn suspenders.
Tower wandered out from the lunchroom and came back to the boxcar, where J.C. was sitting in the open door. He offered her half his sandwich. She refused him without a word, jumping down and running off to join Samantha at the outdoor pump.
“So when are you going to tell them?” Samantha asked.
“Tell them what?” J.C. said.
“That you’re a female.”
“When I feel like it. If I feel like it.”
“I’m sure most of them know. The way they stare at you.”
“Let them think what they want,” J.C. said.
Finally the engineer and the fireman climbed up into the locomotive and the train started. Some time after ten in the evening the train began to slow down. The vampires awoke and opened the door to peer out into the dark countryside. “What is it, Miss Simpson?”
“There ain’t no town here, Miss Simpson. Look.”
The train came to a full stop. When J.C. and Langley leaned way out the door, they could see lanterns bobbing far down the track. A man on horseback and a horse-drawn wagon came into view. Two bearded men got down from the wagon, and the engineer went out to meet them. The vampires whispered amongst themselves: Were they outlaws? Was it a robbery? Even worse, were they vampire hunters?
The two men walked back to their wagon and returned carrying a pine box about four feet long. The baggage car door was opened and the box put aboard. Then the horseman and the wagon rode off.
As the engineer climbed back up into the cab, J.C. suddenly jumped out of the boxcar and dashed toward the baggage car.
“J.C.!” Emily shouted after her. “Get back in here!”
“I want to sleep by myself once. I’m not hurting anybody, Miss Simpson.” Grabbing the corner of the door, J.C. scrambled up into the car.
The train shuddered, slipped forward, shuddered again. Emily took a deep breath and leaned against the slats of the boxcar. She would talk to the vampire again in the morning.
* * *
J.C. was alone in the dark baggage car. It was a little frightening, even for a vampire. She groped her way through the car and found an old blanket that she folded up to use as a pillow. She slid several trunks around until she made herself a nest.
As she slipped closer to sleep, her mind began to move back to the afternoon with the actors, their gestures, their bright costumes, their bits of song. She had been crazy to get up and sing with Drew. She didn’t want to have anything to do with actors or dancers, with their fake tears and their motioning protests of love. She was moving west, where there were no theaters or dance halls, no orchestras or ballets, away from her mother’s crying, away from the arguing voices. The high-hatted men standing in the half-closed door, not letting her mother close that door, not letting J.C. sleep. J.C. was going away, into some wilderness, where there was stillness.
She woke with a start. There was a sound in the baggage car, the sound of something moving. J.C. lay very still. It wasn’t a rat; no, it was something heavier.
She heard it again. This time J.C. moved quickly and silently among the trunks. She knelt beside the pine box that the bearded man brought aboard. She put her ear to the box. She heard breathing.
J.C. sat silent for a moment. There was something alive inside. Perhaps another vampire? An animal? It made her angry. It was terrible to nail up an animal like that; there weren’t even any air holes.
She knocked softly on the box. The sound of breathing stopped. J.C. knocked again; there was only stillness, the click of the rails beneath her.
J.C. felt along the dirty floor of the car, patting the bags and trunks till her fingertips found the handle of a hoe. Using the sharp edge as a wedge, J.C. pried under one of the boards. Finally she pulled the board free and stared into the eyes of a man curled tight inside the box.
“Who are you?” he hissed at her.
J.C. moved back, grabbing the hoe and displaying her fangs. “Who are you?”
The man began to work his way out of the box, squirming painfully. He was black. “Yo’ one creepy little man. What side you workin’ fo’?”
J.C. held up the hoe in a swinging position. “I’m not working for any side.”
The man stretched, grimacing as he felt the lower part of his back. He was almost six feet tall, in overalls, no shoes. He scrutinized J.C. “You’re just a young vamp, ain’t ya?”
“Anything wrong with that?”
“No. Just that you should look what you’re doing with that hoe. You’re likely to bang somebody back of the head.” J.C. lowered the hoe a bit. “What’s your name, vamp?”
“J.C. What’s yours?”
“My name’s Nester.”
“Where you coming from, Nester?”
“Now, why would you want to know that?”
“No reason,” J.C. said. “Where you going, then?”
Nester sat down on one of the trunks. “Same direction as you, I guess. I’m going north, to Canada.”
“Nope,” J.C. said, putting down the hoe. “You’re going west. To Danville.”
Nester frowned. “West? Well, there’s a reason, I know there is. They’ll put me on another train. I been on so many trains, you wouldn’t believe it.” He went to the door and peered out into the night. “They wouldn’t be trickin’ me. Ain’t no way to be runnin’ an underground railroad, though, you gotta say it.”
“So you’re not a vampire yourself?” J.C. asked.
“Heck no. I’m human as human gets. Why?”
“Vampires sometimes sleep in coffins. It’s something I heard once. Don’t know if it’s true or not.”
Nester looked back at J.C. “I heard the same thing. But what are you doin’ in here?”
“I got tired of the others,” J.C. said.
“What others is that? Oh, wait—”
“We’re all orphans. Really nasty vampires made us like this. You know, turned us. So they’re giving the young a second chance. They’re placing us out on farms with human families. They think it’ll make us better citizens. But they’re all no-good vampires, and I couldn’t stand ’em anymore.”
“I can see that,” Nester said. He arched his back, feeling with his hand. “Oww, I got a crick back here. Anybody in charge of you orphans?”
“There’s a lady in charge of us.”
“Is she human?”
“Unfortunately.” J.C. rolled her eyes.
Nester laughed. “Don’t sound like you like that lady.”
“She’s a little churchy, but she’s all right. Just that I don’t know that I should trust her. She says she’s gonna find us homes. And she doesn’t know, really.”
“If she says she will, she will,” Nester said firmly.
“Oh, come on, you don’t know any more than she does!”
“You believe in her, that’s all I’m sayin’. That’s the only chance you’ve got, young man.”
The car swayed. Nester stumbled and then regained his balance. “If we can’t believe in people, we all stuck. You take me now, J.C. I made the break to freedom. But to make it all the way, I need other folks, all kinds, black ones and white ones. Green ones if I got to. Folks I never laid eyes on in my life.”
“Hmm,” J.C. said skeptically.
“Only thing I can do is trust, young man, and not be prejudice back. I been hidin’ in barns, bumpin’ along in wagons with all kinds of octoroons, mulattoes, not knowin’ which way we was headed. If I can get in a box and have ’em nail me up like I was dead, well, that’s puttin’ yourself in people’s hands.” J.C. looked sour. “You ain’t gonna give up, are you?”
“Did I say I was giving up?”
“You’re gonna find a home, same as me.”
“Mmm,” J.C. said.
Nester draped himself across a pair of trunks. “It’s nice to jus’ stretch out for a little while.”
They both fell silent, the only sound the clicking of the wheels. An hour could have passed, or even two. J.C. was almost asleep when she realized that the time between clicks was growing. The train was slowing down. She sat upright and looked around wildly. It was still night. Nester sat, alert.
“What is it, Nester?”
“I dunno, but I figure I better be cozyin’ down in my box again. I’m trustin’ you, son, to hammer me back in real good.”
“Sure,” J.C. said, her voice a little frightened.
Nester folded himself back into the box, tucked his head in just as the brakes screamed. J.C. picked up the loose board with trembling hands.
Nester grinned at her. “It’s okay, son. You come up to Canada sometime and I’ll take you for a ride on a moose.”
J.C. fitted the board in place. With the back of the hoe she quickly hammered down the nails. The train had stopped. She went to the door and looked out. There was a group of men on horseback, lanterns at their sides. One of the men rode down the track, the horse picking its way gingerly. In the lantern light J.C. saw a badge on the horseman’s chest.
She jumped down, shut the baggage car door behind her, and walked slowly toward the vampire car. She was greeted with jeers. “Too dark for ya, J.C.?” and “Kinda skeery?” She plopped down on her blanket and said nothing.
The sheriff climbed into the passenger car. Another of his men poked his head into the vampire car. He was lean and young, with a big smile. “They tol’ me there was a load of vampire orphans back here and damn if it isn’t true. ‘Scuse my language, miss.”
Emily had pulled her duster around her in her most haughty manner. “May I ask why you’re disturbing us?”
“Oh, we’re just looking through the train, miss. The sheriff’s received a complaint. Sorry for waking you up like this.”
The sheriff jumped down from the passenger car, and he and an older deputy walked to the baggage car. J.C. watched them, holding herself back. The sheriff stood aside and let his man pull open the baggage car door. The young deputy noticed J.C. staring back toward the baggage car, and he looked back, too. There was the sound of breaking wood and then a shout.
J.C. leaped out of the boxcar and ran. The young deputy stepped in front of the door, his hands held out in warning, but the vampires slipped by him on every side. Finally he gave up and went loping to the baggage car.
The train’s passengers—human and vampire—gathered in a semi-circle in front of the baggage car. In the doorway, held by a deputy, was a gaunt black man with a stubble of white beard. The younger deputy held a crowbar. Pieces of the shattered pine box lay on the floor behind them. The sheriff bent down to hand the lanterns to one of the passengers, then jumped to the ground. “Well, that’s it for tonight,” he said. “You can all go back to bed.”
“You can’t take him!” J.C. said.
“What’s that, young feller?”
“Young man’s right,” said Joe Tide, the burly riverboat man, pulling his yarn suspenders. “It’s a free state.”
“That’s right, it’s a free state,” J.C. said. “Isn’t it, Miss Simpson?”
Emily could only stare at the face of the sheriff.
The sheriff answered. “There’s a law, I’m afraid, young man. It’s called the Fugitive Slave Act. Any runaway slave that’s caught, free state or not, goes back to his owner.”
The two deputies were trying to get themselves and Nester down from the baggage car without letting go of his arms, and it was about as awkward as a potato-sack race. They finally all tumbled out, one of the deputies landing on his knees. J.C. went up to Nester, put her hands on his arms above the deputies’ hands.
The first gray streaks of dawn had appeared on the eastern horizon. A couple of heads still peered from the windows of the train, but most of the passengers who’d come out to take a look began to drift back toward the passenger car. Frank Tower and Joe Tide and a few others held their ground.
“Let the man go, Sheriff, what’s it to you?” Tower said.
“The slave people payin’ you off, Sheriff?” It was the fireman. The engineer tugged on the fireman’s arm, but that wasn’t about to stop the young man. “What’d they give you?”
The sheriff’s face reddened. “You listen to me, you railroad people. There are laws here, and they apply to everybody. You, too, Sam,” he said to the engineer. “We’ve been keepin’ our eyes on you. You run your train through my town, you’re goin’ to abide by those laws. This here slave is goin’ back.”
J.C. pressed against Nester, staring at the crowd. No one moved. Didn’t any of them see? These were the same people who had cried at Uncle Tom’s Cabin, who had applauded when the slaves were freed. How could they not understand?
J.C. spun and kicked one of the deputies in the shins. “Run, Nester, run,” she shouted. She pivoted smartly and hit the second deputy in the belly with her fist. The man bellowed, then let go with a sweeping uppercut, catching J.C. under the right eye. Suddenly she was down on her back in the dirt.
Tower threw himself at the deputy, the force of his rush tumbling the two of them to the ground. The sheriff tried to move to help, but Joe Tide stepped up and wrapped his massive arms around the sheriff’s middle, lifting him like a bag of flour, squeezing agonizing groans out of him. The young deputy pulled his pistol, and, as he did so, the fireman crouched down to pick up the crowbar. Nester stood stock-still, uncertain whether to run or join the fight.
The engineer grabbed Nester by the arm. “You’re coming with me.” He reached over and slapped his young fireman on the shoulder. “Billy, put that thing down and let’s get the steam up. We’re movin’ this train out of here.”
The fireman let the crowbar drop, and the three of them raced toward the front of the train.
The young deputy was frantic. He ducked and darted, gun in hand, afraid to shoot into the tumbling, twisting fighters, and finally, in frustration, fired a shot in the air. Instead of stopping anyone from fighting, the shot seemed to galvanize the bearded preacher, who picked up the crowbar and started running at the deputy. The young man dropped his gun and ran down the track with the preacher in hot pursuit.
Emily tried to herd the vampires back toward the boxcar, holding the crying J.C. by one arm. Tower and the other deputy were on their feet now, their hands at each other’s throats. “You really don’t want to make me angry,” Tower said.
“Oh, yeah? Why’s that?”
“Because I could just tear your head off if I wanted to.”
The train whistle pierced the air. The engineer leaned out, waved for people to get on board. The other passengers and the vampires started running for the train. Tower had his deputy down on the ground again, and Joe Tide, the sheriff grasping in his arms, staggered toward them. With a great shout, the boatman dumped the sheriff on the deputy and then secured the pile by throwing himself on top of them. He shouted to Tower, “Go on, get on the train, I got ’em!” Sprawled across the two lawmen, the boatman held them fast.
“Wish I’d thought of that,” Tower said.
The train made a jolt forward. Down the tracks, the preacher dropped the crowbar and came running. There was a sprint now for the slow-moving train, Tower in the lead, the preacher behind. Heads at every window of the train urged the runners onward. Joe Tide staggered up and started running, too.
Emily and the vampires pulled Tower and then the preacher up into the boxcar. Joe Tide, slower on his thick boatman’s legs, seemed to be losing ground, with the sheriff and his deputies only paces behind. The vampires leaned out of the car, exhorting the boatman forward. Gasping, he summoned up one last burst, caught Tower’s hand, and struggled up.
The train picked up speed. The young deputy kept gaining; he was running alongside. When he tried to climb aboard, a kick from the preacher sent him sprawling. The train, under full steam now, sounded its whistle in triumph.
* * *
Inside the boxcar bedlam reigned. The vampires piled on Tower and Nester and Joe Tide and the preacher, shouting over one another for attention. Only J.C. sat by herself on a bench, sobbing softly. It was Emily who first noticed.
“J.C., are you all right? That man didn’t hit you hard, did he?”
J.C. looked up and tried to stifle her sobs, but couldn’t entirely. Emily’s mirror lay across her legs. J.C. picked it up and stared into it. There was no reflection. “I don’t even know what a puffy eye looks like!” she said.
“You can’t be worrying about how it looks, J.C.,” Tower said. “You handled yourself like a real man out there.”
“But I’m not a man!” J.C. sobbed. “I’m a female! A female monster!”
“A what?” Tower said. Bruce laughed.
“Oh, J.C.!” Emily said. The vampires all stared at J.C., but she refused to look back at any of them, instead gazing in the mirror and wishing that a reflection of her could have gazed back.
“Now doesn’t that just beat everything, Pledges,” Langley said. “J.C.’s a bloody faker.” Emily quickly hushed them both, and the only sound then was the rocking of the car.
It was Nester who finally spoke, glaring at Langley and Bruce. “You think that’s funny? If she says she’s a female, she’s a female. This here vampire got me out of the hands of that jailer, so you all leave off gawkin’ at my friend.”
“Come now,” Emily said. “Let’s settle down. You all need some rest.” The vampires slowly went to their blankets, casting sidelong glances at J.C.
When the train came to a halt again, the prairie was ablaze with a fierce morning sun. There was not a building in sight. A number of exhausted passengers stumbled out into the sunlight. The engineer and Tower and Nester walked a distance from the train. They stood talking quietly. The passengers lined up along the car, speculating on the conversation among the three.
Dr. Walcott said, “That engineer’s just loco. His job is gone once the railroad hears about this, you can bet on that.”
“He’s a brave young man, if you ask me,” said one of the other passengers.
Nester turned and shook hands with Tower and the engineer, then raised his hand toward the train. J.C. raised her hand in return. Joe Tide and finally, reluctantly, Dr. Walcott did the same.
Then, as naturally as a man would slip into a pool of water, Nester bent down over the side of a ridge and vanished.
* * *
Ten miles east of Danville, a dozen armed horsemen and a couple of wagons were gathered around the water tank. As the train eased to a stop, a strong-looking man with a mane of wavy white hair hitched up his belt and walked toward the locomotive. He wore a sheriff’s badge.
The engineer and the fireman climbed down from their cab, eyeing the horsemen. The sheriff took off his hat and scratched at his wavy white hair. “Hello, Sam,” he said. “We heard there was a little trouble.”
“What kind of trouble?” the engineer said.
“What we got over the telegraph was that there was a slave on the train, and when the sheriff from the county over there tried to take him off, some of you boys got in his way.” The sheriff narrowed his eyes. “Tell me, Sam, you had a slave on this train?”
“And he’s not on the train now?”
“And do you know where he got off?”
“Mighty puzzling.” The sheriff turned slowly and faced the passengers crowded together on the steps of the train. “Any of you know where that slave might have got off?”
No one spoke. Wind rustled the trees down by the stream.
“It’s a mystery, I tell yuh.” The sheriff rubbed his nose. “Sam, I’m afraid you’ll have to be comin’ with us. If any of the others here were involved, well, that’s none of my business. They didn’t put it on the telegraph, but I’m going to tell you something, Sam, you can just bless your stars that you got arrested in the right county.”
“What about us, Sheriff?” shouted one of the passengers.
“Folks, I hate to slow down your trip this way, but we’re arrestin’ your engineer. Anybody that wants to ride into town with us and make other connections is welcome. Otherwise, sit tight, and they’ll have another crew out here this afternoon.”
Emily decided it was best that she and the vampires would stay with the train. The other passengers were leery about being stranded out in the country. All of them except for Frank Tower, Joe Tide, and the preacher elected to take the wagons into Danville.
There was a great flurry of activity as baggage was lugged onto the two wagons. Joe Tide was fuming, ready to fight this bunch of lawmen, too, but the engineer calmed him down. They’d gotten a man free, that was the point, and, anyway, if there was going to be a trial, he had a better chance in Danville than a lot of places.
The vampires looked on in awe as the horses and wagons rumbled off. The engineer waved back, grinning, then pointed across a field, where a quail was flying low, heading for safety.
* * *
When the horses and wagons disappeared from view, Bruce spat, then kicked at the ground. Tower broke the silence. “I’ve never seen such a sad bunch of faces. If you ask me, you should be proud of yourselves. There’s a man free somewhere north of here, and maybe he wouldn’t be if it weren’t for you. You should be proud of this train.”
“So? So what if we are?” Bruce said.
“So maybe you’d like to have your picture taken,” Tower said. “It’ll be my going-away present to all of you.”
The words stuck in Emily’s heart. She stared at Tower. He smiled back. “Emily, I want you in the picture, too.”
The vampires’ spirits rose instantly. They lined up in front of the boxcar, squeezed in when Tower told them to squeeze in. Eventually they were all as gravely still as anyone could ever want, holding until Tower told them that was it, and then they let out a whoop.
They crowded around the mercury bath, badgering him with questions. When the plate was mercurated and washed, Tower let the vampires decide on a case. After a fierce debate, they chose one that had a harp embossed on the outside and purple silk lining inside. Tower handed the finished daguerreotype to Emily.
They all pressed around. Didn’t J.C.’s shiner finally show up good now, Langley said. And wasn’t Langley’s grin weird, like a skunk eating sand, Pledges said. After they had tossed all the barbs they could think of, they went running off into the woods.
Emily stayed behind. Tower was busy repacking his equipment. Emily stood fingering the harp-embossed case. As she watched him snapping down the legs of his tripod, she felt enormously drawn to him. There was so little time, she thought, and she was letting it slip away.
Suddenly he turned back to her. “You know what I would like, Miss Simpson? I’d like to take a walk with you, before the new crew shows up. Just you. No vampires. How does that sound?”
There was no mistaking her look. Her face was shining. “It sounds wonderful, Mr. Tower.”
As Tower leaned his tripod against the passenger car, there was a shout. “Miss Simpson! Look what I brought you!” Samantha ran across the clearing, waving a nosegay she had made out of mullein, stock, and cornhusk twisted with grass. Pledges was a minute behind her, walking carefully with his hands full.
“Look here, Miss Simpson!” Pledges held up a handful of acorns. “There are lots more.” Pledges suddenly eyed the two of them. “Where are you going?”
“Mr. Tower and I were going for a walk.”
“What for?” Pledges said.
“We thought we’d look for some of those acorns.”
Samantha wrinkled up her nose. “By yourselves?”
“But how can you find the acorns if we’re not along?” Pledges pleaded.
“I don’t think we could,” Tower said, smiling. He took Samantha’s hand, then put his arm around Emily’s waist. “So I think you two should come with us.”
End of Part 8.