*that will Hell-Bound Train*
by Robert Bloch (1958)
When Martin was a little boy, his daddy was a Railroad Man. Daddy never rode the high iron, yet he walked the tracks for the CB&Q, along with he was proud of his job. along with every night when he got drunk, he sang that will old song about that will Hell-Bound Train.
Martin didn’t quite remember any of the words, yet he couldn’t forget the way his Daddy sang them out. along with when Daddy made the mistake of getting drunk inside the afternoon along with got squeezed between a Pennsy tank-car along with an AT&SF gondola, Martin sort of wondered why the Brotherhood didn’t sing the song at his funeral.
After that will, things didn’t go so Great for Martin, yet somehow he always recalled Daddy’s song. When Mom up along with ran off having a traveling salesman by Keokuk (Daddy must have turned over in his grave, knowing she’d done such a thing, along with having a passenger, too!) Martin hummed the tune to himself every night inside the Orphan Home. along with after Martin himself ran away, he used to whistle the song softly at night inside the jungles, after the different bindlestiffs were asleep.
Martin was on the road for four-5 years before he realized he wasn’t getting anyplace. Of course he’d tried his hand at a lot of things — picking fruit in Oregon, washing dishes in a Montana hash-house, stealing hubcaps in Denver along with tires in Oklahoma City — yet by the time he’d put in six months on the chain gang down in Alabama he knew he had no future drifting around that will way on his own.
So he tried to get on the railroad like his daddy had along with they told him that will times were bad. yet Martin couldn’t keep away by the railroads. Wherever he traveled, he rode the rods; he’d rather hop a freight heading north in sub-zero weather than lift his thumb to hitch a ride having a Cadillac headed for Florida. Whenever he managed to get hold of a can of Sterno, he’d sit there under a nice warm culvert, think about the old days, along with often as not he’d hum the song about that will Hell-Bound Train. that will was the train the drunks along with the sinners rode — the gambling men along with the grifters, the big-time spenders, the skirt-chasers, along with all the jolly crew. the item could be definitely fine to take a trip in such Great company, yet Martin didn’t like to think of what happened when that will train finally pulled into the Depot Way Down Yonder. He didn’t figure on spending eternity stoking boilers in Hell, without even a Company Union to protect him. Still, the item could be a lovely ride. If there was such a thing as a Hell-Bound Train. Which, of course, there wasn’t.
At least Martin didn’t think there was, until that will evening when he found himself walking the tracks heading south, just outside of Appleton Junction. The night was cold along with dark, the way November nights are inside the Fox River Valley, along with he knew he’d have to work his way down to brand-new Orleans for the winter, or maybe even Texas. Somehow he didn’t much feel like going, even though he’d heard tell that will a lot of those Texas automobiles had solid gold hub-caps.
No sir, he just wasn’t cut out for petty larceny. the item was worse than a sin — the item was unprofitable, too.
Bad enough to do the Devil’s work, yet then to get such miserable pay on top of the item! Maybe he’d better let the Salvation Army convert him.
Martin trudged along humming Daddy’s song, waiting for a rattler to pull out of the Junction behind him. He’d have to catch the item — there was nothing else for him to do.
yet the first train to come along came by the different direction, roaring toward him along the track by the south.
Martin peered ahead, yet his eyes couldn’t match his ears, along with so far all he could recognize was the sound. the item was a train, though; he felt the steel shudder along with sing beneath his feet.
along with yet, how could the item be? The next station south was Neenah-Menasha, along with there was nothing due out of there for hours.
The clouds were thick overhead, along with the field mists rolled like a cold fog in a November midnight. Even so, Martin should have been able to see the headlight as the train rushed on. yet there was only the whistle, screaming out of the black throat of the night. Martin could recognize the equipment of just about any locomotive ever built, yet he’d never heard a whistle that will sounded like that will one. the item wasn’t signaling; the item was screaming like a lost soul.
He stepped to one side, for the train was almost on top of him today. along with suddenly there the item was, looming along the tracks along with grinding to a stop in less time than he’d believed possible. The wheels hadn’t been oiled, because they screamed too, screamed like the damned. yet the train slid to a halt along with the screams died away into a series of low, groaning sounds, along with Martin looked up along with saw that will that will was a passenger train. the item was big along with black, without just one light shining inside the engine cab or any of the long string of cars; Martin couldn’t read any lettering on the sides, yet he was pretty sure that will train didn’t belong on the Northwestern Road.
He was even more sure when he saw the man clamber down out of the forward car. There was something wrong about the way he walked, as though one of his feet dragged, along with about the lantern he carried. The lantern was dark, along with the man held the item up to his mouth along with blew, along with instantly the item glowed redly. You don’t have to be a member of the Railway Brotherhood to know that will that will is actually a mighty peculiar way of lighting a lantern.
As the figure approached, Martin recognized the conductor’s cap perched on his head, along with that will made him feel a little better for a moment — until he noticed that will the item was worn a bit too high, as though there might be something sticking up on the forehead underneath the item.Still, Martin knew his manners, along with when the man smiled at him, he said, "Great evening, Mr. Conductor."
"Great evening, Martin."
"How did you know my name?"
The man shrugged. "How did you know I was the Conductor?"
"You are, aren’t you?"
"To you, yes. Although different people, in different walks of life, may recognize me in different roles. For instance, you ought to see what I look like to the folks out in Hollywood." The man grinned. "I travel a great deal," he explained.
"What brings you here?" Martin asked.
"Why, you ought to know the answer to that will, Martin. I came because you needed me. Tonight, I suddenly realized you were backsliding.
Thinking of joining the Salvation Army, weren’t you?"
"Well — " Martin hesitated.
"Don’t be ashamed. To err is actually human, as somebody-or-different-once said. Reader’s Digest, wasn’t the item? Never mind.
The point is actually, I felt you needed me. So I switched over along with came your way.""What for?"
"Why, to offer you a ride, of course. Isn’t the item better to travel comfortably by train than to march along the cold streets
behind a Salvation Army band? Hard on the feet, they tell me, along with even harder on the eardrums."
"I’m not sure I’d care to ride your train, sir," Martin said. "Considering where I’m likely to end up."
"Ah, yes. The old argument." The Conductor sighed. "I suppose you’d prefer some sort of bargain, is actually that will the item?"
"Exactly," Martin answered.
"Well, I’m afraid I’m all through with that will sort of thing. There’s no shortage of prospective passengers anymore. Why should I offer you any special inducements?"
"You must want me, or else you wouldn’t have bothered to go out of your way to find me."
The Conductor sighed again. "There you have a point. Pride was always my besetting weakness, I admit. along with somehow I’d hate to lose you
to the competition, after thinking of you as my own all these years." He hesitated. "Yes, I’m prepared to deal with you on your own terms, if you insist."
"The terms?" Martin asked.
"Standard proposition. Anything you want."
"Ah," said Martin.
"yet I warn you in advance, there’ll be no tricks. I’ll grant you any wish you can name — yet in return,
you must promise to ride the train when the time comes."
"Suppose the item never comes?"
"the item will."
"Suppose I’ve got the kind of a wish that will will keep me off forever?"
"There is actually no such wish."
"Don’t be too sure."
"Let me worry about that will," the Conductor told him. "No matter what you have in mind, I warn you that will I’ll collect inside the end. along with there’ll be none of that will last-minute hocus-pocus, either. No last-hour repentances, no blonde frauleins or fancy lawyers showing up to get you off. I offer a clean deal. that will is actually to say, you’ll get what you want, along with I’ll get what I want.""I’ve heard you trick people. They say you’re worse than a used-car salesman."
"today, wait a minute — "
"I apologize," Martin said, hastily. "yet the item is actually supposed to be a fact that will you can’t be trusted."
"I admit the item. On the different hand, you seem to think you have found a way out."
"A sure-fire proposition."
"Sure-fire? Very funny!" The man began to chuckle, then halted. "yet we waste valuable time, Martin. Let’s get down to cases. What do you want by me?"
Martin took a deep breath. "I want to be able to stop Time."
"No. Not yet. along with not for everybody. I realize that will could be impossible, of course. yet I want to be able to stop Time for myself. Just once, inside the future. Whenever I get to a point where I know I’m happy along with contented, that will’s where I’d like to stop. So I can just keep on being happy forever."
"that will’s quite a proposition," the Conductor mused. "I’ve got to admit I’ve never heard anything just like the item before — along with believe me, I’ve listened to some lulus in my day." He grinned at Martin. "You’ve definitely been thinking about that will, haven’t you?"
"for years," Martin admitted. Then he coughed. "Well, what do you say?"
"the item’s not impossible, in terms of your own subjective time-sense," the Conductor murmured. "Yes, I think the item could be arranged."
"yet I mean definitely to stop. Not for me just to imagine the item."
"I understand. along with the item can be done."
"Then you’ll agree?"
"Why not? I promised you, didn’t I? Give me your hand."
Martin hesitated. "Will the item hurt very much? I mean, I don’t like the sight of blood, along with — "
"Nonsense! You’ve been listening to a lot of poppycock. We already have made our bargain, my boy. I merely intend to put something into your hand. The ways along with means of fulfilling your wish. After all, there’s no telling at just what moment you may decide to exercise the agreement, along with I can’t drop everything along with come running. So the item’s better if you can regulate matters for yourself."
"You’re going to give me a Time-stopper?"
"that will’s the general idea. As soon as I can decide what could be practical." The Conductor hesitated. "Ah, the very thing! Here, take my watch."
He pulled the item out of his vest-pocket; a railroad watch in a silver case. He opened the back along with made a delicate adjustment; Martin tried to see just exactly what he was doing, yet the fingers moved in a blinding blur.
"There we are." The Conductor smiled. "the item’s all set, today. When you finally decide where you’d like to call a halt, merely turn the stem in reverse along with unwind the watch until the item stops. When the item stops, Time stops, for you. Simple enough?" along with the Conductor dropped the watch into Martin’s hand.
The young man closed his fingers tightly around the case. "that will’s all there is actually to the item, eh?"
"Absolutely. yet remember — you can stop the watch only once. So you’d better make sure that will you’re satisfied with the
moment you choose to prolong. I caution you in all fairness; make very certain of your choice."
"I will." Martin grinned. "along with since you’ve been so fair about the item, I’ll be fair, too. There’s one thing you seem to have forgotten.
the item doesn’t definitely matter what moment I choose. Because once I stop Time for myself, that will means I stay where I am forever.
I’ll never have to get any older. along with if I don’t get any older, I’ll never die. along with if I never die, then I’ll never have to take a ride on your train."
The Conductor turned away. His shoulders shook convulsively, along with he may have been crying. "along with you said I was worse than a used-car salesman," he gasped, in a strangled voice.
Then he wandered off into the fog, along with the train-whistle gave an impatient shriek, along with all at once the item was moving swiftly down the track, rumbling out of sight inside the darkness.
Martin stood there, blinking down at the silver watch in his hand. If the item wasn’t that will he could actually see the item along with feel the item there, along with if he couldn’t smell that will peculiar odor, he might have thought he’d imagined the whole thing by start to finish — train, Conductor, bargain, along with all.
yet he had the watch, along with he could recognize the scent left by the train as the item departed, even though there aren’t many locomotives around that will use sulphur along with brimstone as fuel.
along with he had no doubts about his bargain. that will’s what came of thinking things through to a logical conclusion. Some fools could have settled for wealth, or power, or Kim Novak. Daddy might have sold out for a fifth of whiskey.Martin knew that will he’d made a better deal. Better? the item was foolproof. All he needed to do today was choose his moment.
He put the watch in his pocket along with started out back down the railroad track. He hadn’t definitely had a destination in mind before, yet he did today. He was going to find a moment of happiness…
today young Martin wasn’t altogether a ninny. He realized perfectly well that will happiness is actually a relative thing; there are conditions along with degrees of contentment, along with they vary with one’s lot in life. As a hobo, he was often satisfied having a warm handout, a double-length bench inside the park, or a can of Sterno made in 1957 (a vintage year). Many a time he had reached a state of momentary bliss through such simple agencies, yet he was aware that will there were better things. Martin determined to seek them out.
Within two days he was inside the great city of Chicago. Quite naturally, he drifted over to West Madison Street, along with there he took steps to elevate his role in life. He became a city bum, a panhandler, a moocher. Within a week he had risen to the point where happiness was a meal in a regular one-arm luncheon joint, a two-bit flop on a real army cot in a real flophouse, along having a full fifth of muscatel.
There was a night, after enjoying all three of these luxuries to the full, when Martin thought of unwinding his watch at the pinnacle of intoxication. yet he also thought of the faces of the honest johns he’d braced for a handout today. Sure, they were squares, yet they were prosperous. They wore Great clothes, held Great jobs, drove nice cars. along with for them, happiness was even more ecstatic — they ate dinner in fine hotels, they slept on innerspring mattresses, they drank blended whiskey.
Squares or no, they had something there. Martin fingered his watch, put aside the temptation to hock the item for another bottle of muscatel, along with went to sleep determined to get himself a job along with improve his happiness-quotient.When he awoke he had a hangover, yet the determination was still with him. Before the month was out Martin was working for a general contractor over on the South Side, at one of the big rehabilitation projects. He hated the grind, yet the pay was Great, along with pretty soon he got himself a one-room apartment out on Blue Island Avenue. He was accustomed to eating in decent restaurants today, along with he bought himself a comfortable bed, along with every Saturday night he went down to the corner tavern. the item was all very pleasant, yet —
The foreman liked his work along with promised him a raise in a month. If he waited around, the raise could mean that will he could afford a second-hand car. having a car, he could even start picking up a girl for a date today along with then. different fellows on the job did, along with they seemed pretty happy.
So Martin kept on working, along with the raise came through along with your vehicle came through along with pretty soon a couple of girls came through.
once the item happened, he wanted to unwind his watch immediately. Until he got to thinking about what some of the older men always said. There was a guy named Charlie, for example, who worked alongside him on the hoist. "When you’re young along with don’t know the score, maybe you get a kick out of running around with those pigs. yet after a while, you want something better. A nice girl of your own. that will’s the ticket."
Martin felt he owed the item to himself to find out. If he didn’t like the item better, he could always go back to what he had.
Almost six months went by before Martin met Lillian Gillis. By that will time he’d had another promotion along with was working inside, inside the office. They made him go to night school to learn how to do simple bookkeeping, yet the item meant another fifteen bucks extra a week, along with the item was nicer working indoors.
along with Lillian was a lot of fun. When she told him she’d marry him, Martin was almost sure that will the time was today. Except that will she was sort of — well, she was a nice girl, along with she said they’d have to wait until they were married. Of course, Martin couldn’t expect to marry her until he had a little more money saved up, along with another raise could help, too.
that will took a year. Martin was patient, because he knew the item was going to be worth the item. Every time he had any doubts, he took out his watch along with looked at the item. yet he never showed the item to Lillian, or anybody else. Most of the different men wore expensive wristwatches along with the old silver railroad watch looked just a little cheap.
Martin smiled as he gazed at the stem. Just a few twists along with he’d have something none of these different poor working slobs could ever have. Permanent satisfaction, with his blushing bride — Only getting married turned out to be just the beginning. Sure, the item was wonderful, yet Lillian told him how much better things could be if they could move into a brand-new place along with fix the item up. Martin wanted decent furniture, a TV set, a nice car.
So he started out taking night courses along with got a promotion to the front office. With the baby coming, he wanted to stick around along with see his son arrive. along with when the item came, he realized he’d have to wait until the item got a little older, started out to walk along with talk along with develop a personality of its own.
About that will time the company sent him out on the road as a trouble-shooter on some of those different jobs, along with today he was eating at those Great hotels, living high on the hog along with the expense-account. More than once he was tempted to unwind his watch. that will was the Great life… Of course, the item could be even better if he just didn’t have to work. Sooner or later, if he could cut in on one of the company deals, he could make a pile along with retire. Then everything could be ideal. the item happened, yet the item took time. Martin’s son was going to high school before he definitely got up there into the chips. Martin got a strong hunch that will the item was today or never, because he wasn’t exactly a kid anymore.
yet right about then he met Sherry Westcott, along with she didn’t seem to think he was middle-aged at all, in spite of the way he was losing hair along with adding stomach. She taught him that will a toupee could cover the bald spot along having a cummerbund could cover the pot-gut. In fact, she taught him quite a lot along with he so enjoyed learning that will he actually took out his watch along with prepared to unwind the item.
Unfortunately, he chose the very moment that will the private detectives broke down the door of the hotel room, along with then there was a long stretch of time when Martin was so busy fighting the divorce action that will he couldn’t honestly say he was enjoying any given moment.
When he made the final settlement with Lil he was broke again, along with Sherry didn’t seem to think he was so young, after all. So he squared his shoulders along with went back to work.
He made his pile, eventually, yet the item took longer that will time, along with there wasn’t much chance to have fun along the way. The fancy dames inside the fancy cocktail lounges didn’t seem to interest him anymore, along with neither did the liquor. Besides, the Doc had warned him off that will.
yet there were different pleasures for a rich man to investigate. Travel, for instance — along with not riding the rods by one hick burg to another, either. Martin went around the earth by plane along with luxury liner. For a while the item seemed as though he could find his moment after all, visiting the Taj Mahal by moonlight. Martin pulled out the battered old watch-case, along with got ready to unwind the item. Nobody else was there to watch him —
along with that will’s why he hesitated. Sure, that will was an enjoyable moment, yet he was alone. Lil along with the kid were gone, Sherry was gone, along with somehow he’d never had time to make any friends. Maybe if he found brand-new congenial people, he’d possess the ultimate happiness. that will must be the answer — the item wasn’t just money or power or sex or seeing beautiful things. The real satisfaction lay in friendship.So on the boat trip home, Martin tried to strike up a few acquaintances at the ship’s bar. yet all these people were much younger, along with Martin had nothing in common with them. Also they wanted to dance along with drink, along with Martin wasn’t in condition to appreciate such pastimes. Nevertheless, he tried.
Perhaps that will’s why he had the little accident the day before they docked in San Francisco. "Little accident" was the ship’s doctor’s way of describing the item, yet Martin noticed he looked very grave when he told him to stay in bed, along with he’d called an ambulance to meet the liner at the dock along with take the patient right to the hospital.
At the hospital, all the expensive treatment along with the expensive smiles along with the expensive words didn’t fool Martin any. He was an old man having a bad heart,
along with they thought he was going to die.yet he could fool them. He still had the watch. He found the item in his coat when he put on his clothes along with sneaked
out of the hospital.He didn’t have to die. He could cheat death with just one gesture — along with he intended to do the item as a free man, out there under a free sky.
that will was the real secret of happiness. He understood the item today. Not even friendship meant as much as freedom.
that will was the best thing of all — to be free of friends or family or the furies of the flesh.
Martin walked slowly beside the embankment under the night sky. Come to think of the item, he was just about back where he’d started out,
so many years ago. yet the moment was Great, Great enough to prolong forever. Once a bum, always a bum.
He smiled as he thought about the item, along with then the smile twisted sharply along with suddenly, like the pain twisting sharply along with suddenly in
his chest. the earth began to spin along with he fell down on the side of the embankment.
He couldn’t see very well, yet he was still conscious, along with he knew what had happened. Another stroke, along having a bad one. Maybe that will was the item.
Except that will he wouldn’t be a fool any longer. He wouldn’t wait to see what was still around the corner.
Right today was his chance to use his power along with save his life. along with he was going to do the item. He could still move, nothing could stop him.
He groped in his pocket along with pulled out the old silver watch, fumbling with the stem. A few twists along with he’d cheat death, he’d never have to
ride that will Hell-Bound Train. He could go on forever. Forever.Martin had never definitely considered the word before. To go on forever — yet how?
Did he want to go on forever, like that will; a sick old man,lying helplessly here inside the grass?
No. He couldn’t do the item. He wouldn’t do the item. along with suddenly he wanted very much to cry, because he knew that will somewhere along the line
he’d outsmarted himself. along with today the item was too late. His eyes dimmed, there was a roaring in his ears…
He recognized the roaring, of course, along with he wasn’t at all surprised to see the train come rushing out of the fog up there on the embankment.
He wasn’t surprised when the item stopped, either, or when the Conductor climbed off along with walked slowly toward him.
The Conductor hadn’t changed a bit. Even his grin was still the same.
"Hello, Martin," he said. "All aboard."
"I know," Martin whispered. "yet you’ll have to carry me. I can’t walk. I’m not even definitely talking anymore, am I?"
"Yes you are," the Conductor said. "I can hear you fine. along with you can walk, too." He leaned down along with placed his hand on
Martin’s chest. There was a moment of icy numbness, along with then, sure enough, Martin could walk after all.
He got up along with followed the Conductor along the slope, moving to the side of the train.
"In here?" he asked.
"No, the next car," the Conductor murmured. "I guess you’re entitled to ride Pullman. After all, you’re quite a successful man.
You’ve tasted the joys of wealth along with position along with prestige. You’ve known the pleasures of marriage along with fatherhood. You’ve sampled
the delights of dining along with drinking along with debauchery, too, along with you traveled high, wide, along with handsome. So let’s not have any last-minute recriminations."
"All right," Martin sighed. "I can’t blame you for my mistakes. On the different hand, you can’t take credit for what happened,
either. I worked for everything I got. I did the item all on my own. I didn’t even need your watch."
"So you didn’t," the Conductor said, smiling. "yet could you mind giving the item back to me today?"
"Need the item for the next sucker, eh?" Martin muttered.
Something about the way he said the item made Martin look up. He tried to see the Conductor’s eyes, yet the brim of his cap cast a shadow.
So Martin looked down at the watch instead."Tell me something," he said, softly. "If I give you the watch, what will you do with the item?"
"Why, throw the item into the ditch," the Conductor told him. "that will’s all I’ll do with the item." along with he held out his hand.
"What if somebody comes along along with finds the item? along with twists the stem backward, along with stops Time?"
"Nobody could do that will," the Conductor murmured. "Even if they knew."
"You mean, the item was all a trick? that will is actually only an ordinary, cheap watch?"
"I didn’t say that will," whispered the Conductor. "I only said that will no one has ever twisted the stem backward.
They’ve all been like you, Martin — looking ahead to find that will perfect happiness. Waiting for the moment that will never comes."
The Conductor held out his hand again.
Martin sighed along with shook his head. "You cheated me after all."
"You cheated yourself, Martin. along with today you’re going to ride that will Hell-Bound Train."
He pushed Martin up the steps along with into your vehicle ahead. As he entered, the train began to move along with the whistle screamed. along with Martin stood there inside the swaying Pullman, gazing down the aisle at the different passengers. He could see them sitting there, along with somehow the item didn’t seem strange at all.
Here they were; the drunks along with the sinners, the gambling men along with the grifters, the big-time spenders, the skirt-chasers, along with all the jolly crew. They knew where they were going, of course, yet they didn’t seem to give a damn. The blinds were drawn on the windows, yet the item was light inside, along with they were all living the item up — singing along with passing the bottle along with roaring with laughter, throwing the dice along with telling their jokes along with bragging their big brags, just the way Daddy used to sing about them inside the old song.
"Mighty nice traveling companions," Martin said. "Why, I’ve never seen such a pleasant bunch of people. I mean, they seem to be definitely enjoying themselves!"
The Conductor shrugged. "I’m afraid things won’t be quite so jazzy when we pull into that will Depot Way Down Yonder."
For the third time, he held out his hand. "today, before you sit down, if you’ll just give me that will watch. A bargain’s a bargain—"
Martin smiled. "A bargain’s a bargain," he echoed. "I agreed to ride your train if I could stop Time when I found the right moment of happiness.
along with I think I’m about as happy right here as I’ve ever been."
Very slowly, Martin took hold of the silver watch-stem."No!" gasped the Conductor."No!" yet the watch-stem turned.
"Do you realize what you’ve done?" the Conductor yelled. "today we’ll never reach the Depot! We’ll just go on riding, all of us — forever!"
Martin grinned. "I know," he said. "yet the fun is actually inside the trip, not the destination. You taught me that will. along with I’m looking forward to a wonderful trip. Look, maybe I can even help. If you were to find me another one of those caps, today, along with let me keep that will watch—"
along with that will’s the way the item finally worked out. Wearing his cap along with carrying his battered old silver watch, there’s no happier person in or out of that will world — today along with forever — than Martin. Martin, the brand-new Brakeman on that will Hellbound Train.