It was an unremarkable morning, with clouds obscuring the sky in a dull grey blanket that blotted the rising sun’s light. The day dawned a whitewashed slate colour.
“We’re running a skeleton crew today, Captain,” a spritely officer in a starched and pressed uniform reported to an older man who was flipping through a sheaf of papers held together by a row of untidy staples.
“What?” the captain said, looking up at the train’s engineer sharply. “Today of all days!” he mumbled angrily, “VIP’s on board…short on crew…great. Just great.”
“Ready when you are!” a cheery voice intruded into the sombre atmosphere, ingratiating in its pitch. The person speaking was a wiry man with bloodshot eyes, thin limbs sticking out at angles from an emaciated torso that showed ribs and spine.
His name was Rudy, one of the two conductors on the train.
The irritated captain waved the men out of the engine room as he turned to a complicated dashboard and began fiddling with knobs and dials.
The train gave a jolt then lurched forward, picking up speed, its body shivering and vibrating as momentum swept it smoothly along the rails.
As the city landscape gave way to flat open plains and fields dotted with yellow barked acacia trees, the captain started to relax. This route from the capital to a small coastal city was short. They would arrive at their destination soon.
Lulled to sleep
The plains stretched in every direction for several kilometres, dulling the senses and inducing a drug-like drowsiness. Most of the occupants of the train, excluding crew, fell asleep, lulled by the gentle rocking of the locomotive.
Half-way through the journey, the flat land gave way to a landscape of rolling hills juxtaposed against sharp valleys with rivers flowing below.
In the engine room, the captain was filling a crossword puzzle, and the other crew were busy on their mobile phones, flipping through magazines and talking. As they crossed over a stretch of land, Rudy, who was gazing at the landscape, saw small black pinpricks in the distance.
The figures soon materialised into a band of men on horseback.
Rudy watched as they neared, thinking how glorious the life of a rancher must be, then shot to his feet as a shiver ran down his bony back.
“Captain!” Rudy was breathless from running, “We’re being attacked by cowboys!”
The captain’s head had whipped up too fast as Rudy burst into the engine room, and he pulled a muscle in his neck. Rubbing it furiously, he tried to make sense of the outburst, but Rudy’s wild excitement and his veiny bloodshot eyes betrayed him.
“I don’t have time for your games,” said the captain, holding his palm up in Rudy’s face, silencing him and waving him out. “High as a kite on your shift? I’ll be reporting this.”
The door slid shut and for a moment Rudy stood still, unsure of what to do. The crew had even less respect for him, so there was no use going to them.
Then as inspiration struck, Rudy made his way to the caboose at a run, thinking the highway men would probably board the back of the train. If he could just get there in time to disconnect the end carriage, they would be fine…
However, by the time he reached the passageway that led to the vacant caboose, he knew he was too late. The doors had been forced open from the outside, flooding the usually dark passageway with blinding golden sunlight.
As Rudy held up his arm to shade his eyes, his jaw dropped as he focused on what he was seeing. Two men astride powerful horses rode easily behind the train, each of them holding an extra pair of reins attached to a second horse.
He found himself face to face with the riders of the two extra horses. Two tall men, their faces obscured by bandanas yet alike in every way, built like solid mountains and brandishing identical guns, emerged from the second to last compartment where the VIP’s luggage was stored.
“Move,” one of them whispered, his voice carrying above the noise of the train and wind, “or die,” one of the men ordered him.
Rudy flattened himself against the passageway wall, watching transfixed as they stalked confidently passed him, tossing two small bags that were so full their zips were bursting, over to their companions before leaping dexterously, with a carefree daredevil attitude onto their mounts.
Exhaling, Rudy shook his head, feeling like he was in a scene of a movie, watching open mouthed as the four men slowed and turned sharply into the wild expanse of wooded hills, spurring their horses and disappearing in a cloud of light brown dust.
As he retreated back to report that they had been robbed by cowboys, he sighed with relief, remembering the cameras mounted in all the carriages. Otherwise, who would ever believe a story like his?