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The train creaked as it wound its way along the fresh tracks to Austin, Texas. Belching smoke from a metal chimney that burned to the touch, it had left Santa Fe this morning, under the haze of an exceedingly hot summer. The countryside around the railway looked bare and unpopulated, making the train look like a metal snake invading the otherwise undisturbed New World. Rolling hills melted into forests of struggling green as the train passed through land long since bereft of rainfall and wildlife. The sun was beginning to head towards a beautiful horizon, closing the late afternoon with its deep orange hue; the train trundled on.
The train itself was old, a collection of rusted metal and wooden planks that looked like the wind could tear them off. One of the carriages however, was sturdier than the others, with large boards blocking the high windows, and big wooden doors; sturdy as if they weren’t meant to be opened. The carriage inside was dark due to a lack of sunlight, the main source of illumination a flickering oil lamp suspended above the contents of the room. Wooden boxes were piled high in one corner, leaving the other side was empty.
The carriage held only three people, two there out of choice, the other tied by the hands and feet, thrown into in a darkened corner. He was worn, dirty, and of an olive complexion, wearing clothes clearly made to fit another man, and his face was creased with age, although it looked more so to be by experience. The other two men sat in a uniform of sort; a sheriff and his lieutenant wearing their respective badges pinned to tattered jackets, once coloured but now faded. They both sat on buckets, playing cards and smoking, taking the occasional glance over at their prisoner. These two men were on government orders, delivering the convict to justice at Austin for crimes against the American people. They didn’t much care whether he’d done anything or not, they were all the same to them; criminals. The Sheriff and his man were younger than the criminal they were transporting with the lines on their faces from smoking rather than any inner turmoil.
The older man shuffled position from where he was sitting to place less strain on his right leg; an injury he had sustained when he first met these two men just outside Ciudad Juarez. They had caught him walking his dog near the border, and the colour of his skin warranted an immediate interrogation. He had tried to explain that he lived back in the town and merely enjoyed the quiet when he walked his dog. He had tried to explain that his name was John Hernan and that he had lived near the border for over 15 years with his wife Sara. He was told to stop lying, to tell them where he was really from, what he really did for a living, and now they told him, he was going to join the rest of ‘them’. He had known better than to show them his Visa; they didn’t work anymore, not since the election.
“Your leg hurtin’ Juan?” Sheriff Dwight said with a snigger at his own joke, “they’ll give it a look when we get there. Don’t you worry, it’ll be fixed real soon”. John just looked at him and wondered if Dwight really hated him, or just what he represented.
“Soon your kind aren’t gonna be able to get o’er here anymore Juan, soon you’ll all be locked out. That makin’ you sad?”
“The only sadness I feel is for you and your sad little friend”, John leant back against the wall as comfortably he could and awaited the inevitable beating he knew they would give him.
THWACK! He rocked back in pain as Dwight put his belt back on his tattered and stained trousers. “You talk smart Juan, but you’re still one of ‘em, and you ain’t gonna escape what’s coming for ya”. Dwight sat back and continued to play cards and chat to his lieutenant about the latest government shooting in the North; New York will be next they said. John rearranged himself so he could hear them talk a little better.
“They’re on the run Dingo, we’ve got ‘em now, last I heard we was in New York and only Manhattan has any of em’ left, can you believe the idiots didn’ ‘ave enough guns when we came for ‘em!”. Dingo sniggered with his boss at the thought of the fools who didn’t have the guns to defend themselves. John felt his heart sink as he faded in and out of the conversation, hearing Dwight tell his crony ‘we’ll be rich one day Dingo, he promised it!’, and ‘Dingo you just wait, at the end of this we’ll ‘ave all the women we could ever want, he said so!’. John though Dingo wasn’t very bright, something he held in common with his superior it seemed.
Sara would be wondering why I didn’t come home John thought, if she hadn’t already realised what had happened. It was most likely the latter, his neighbour had been taken just last month, something to do with his surname having an accent on the ‘a’. Yes, his wife had most certainly realised what had happened, and there was nothing for her to do now. She was a teacher before the election, as was he. They both taught languages in the local school where they had met. She was from New Orleans – of French descent, no problems there – while he grew up in Santa Fe with his Mexican parents. John’s dad had been a mechanic while his mum worked at the local library in between caring for her three kids. Where had they all gone? He wondered as he sat there, staring at the New World, smoking and playing cards in front of him.
The train continued on through the gathering dusk, leaving John to reflect on his present situation. Escape was out of the question, they had beaten him the moment they saw him alone; he was in no state to overpower his dim-witted overlords. He wondered what the rest of the world was doing while he was on this train. Does it all just carry on without ‘The Land of the Free’, or are they all working together to put an end to the brutal regime that has been put in place here. Probably the former John thought bitterly. Ever since the Americans had dropped that bomb somewhere in the Middle East – he wasn’t sure what the target had ever been – world relations had become somewhat strained. America was no longer a land people tried to get into, rather one to escape from, especially for someone like John Hernan. Dwight and his simplistic friend continued to play cards and talk about which women they wanted to see when they got to Austin, what guns they liked, and occasionally about the situation on the East Coast. Hernan was just about to drift off when he heard Dwight mention that they would be arriving by the morning. He waited tensely for the next bombardment of abuse to come his way from the centre of the ‘New America’.
Hernan awoke to the tinny sound of a wind-up radio Dwight had managed to set up the night before. The surprising sound of a Football game was being broadcast like nothing else was important; it must be a repeat he thought, no one plays Football much now. It was a game between the Cowboys and the Jaguars, with Dwight and Dingo supporting the Cowboys. They both cheered as Cowboys pulled into the lead with their third touchdown; Hernan even allowed himself to smile; John and his wife used to go to some of the games together. Dwight noticed Hernan listening keenly to the game and stalked over to his prisoner, “what do you know about Football then Juan” he said with a sneer on his face.
“My wife and I used to go watch some of the games, I support Dallas”, John answered honestly, looking at the floor, hoping Dwight would not take offence at his tone or simply the way he spoke. Dwight seemed satisfied with his answer and pursued further;
“did you see any of the winning streak last season?”. John looked up from the floor with a glimmer of hope in his eyes for the first time since he’d been captured at the border,
“Yeah I was at the game where they beat the Jets by six touchdowns, Wilson played the best I’ve ever seen”. Dwight and Dingo both looked over at Hernan with interest and began bombarding him with questions about the game; whether or not Covington’s diving tackle looked as painful as it had sounded on the radio, and if the Jets really had started a fight after the match had ended. Hernan answered cautiously at first but as Dwight and Dingo began to stop being so aggressive towards him, he started talking about the game and the season more comfortably. It was almost as if he wasn’t tied up in a damp corner of a train most likely winding its way towards his death.
It became clear that they were nearing their destination when the two captors stopped talking and started making their uniforms slightly more presentable, a difficult task considering the holes and patches covering their faded jackets. Hernan overhead Dwight saying they’d arrive just before midday, if all went to plan. The sun was now clearly making itself known within the carriage, with lines of light cutting through the cracks in the frame of the train, casting colour onto the two free men, while Hernan remained in darkness and damp. He thought it ironic how the Sun found its way onto the two men before him, while leaving him in the dark, a man who could be in his last day denied that feeling of warmth so easily given to those who thought nothing of it. The train slowed down dramatically just as Hernan was beginning to give up. Dwight jumped up from fixing a button badly, and pulled down the board that covered the window, looking out over fields of corn and sunflowers with the odd road connecting isolated farmhouses to the rest of civilisation. They had not arrived in Austin.
Dwight had awoken the previous day with a hangover from hell. The night before had been his 30th birthday and the other Sheriff’s had thrown him a party in the local bar. He vaguely remembered being taken to bed in the early hours by an equally drunk Dingo, who then fell asleep on Dwight’s worn out sofa. He was not in a good mood as he pulled on his uniform and began his morning patrol of the border. Dingo did not improve his mood as the morning had worn on with his constant chatter about the night before, and about the girl he was sure he would have taken back if it hadn’t been for his drunk lieutenant needing help home. The sun was hot and the worn down old sheriff’s car’s air con did not make the heat any more bearable. They were driving down wide empty roads near the border, with sand floating along the road beside them, whipped up by the cars’ wheels. The fields either side were bare of life aside from the odd bird of prey hovering above and the occasional bare tree. The heat kept the rest away.
Dwight had been about to throw Dingo out the car and drive home when he saw a man walking a dog in a field near the road. Pulling the car over, Dwight and Dingo got out and walked over to the man, who had stopped waiting for the officers to come over. The man had an olive complexion, heavily tanned by the sun, and must have been in his late 50’s.
“What are you doing out here on your own” Dwight enquired of the man when he was within earshot.
“I like the quiet” the man said, not making direct eye contact with either Dwight or Dingo.
“what’s your name”, Dwight walked a little closer to the man, and the dog – a Golden Labrador – walked over to him, wagging its tail expectantly, hoping for a stroke.
“John Hernan” the man said quietly, but Dwight only heard ‘Hernan’, and that had been enough for him. Ignoring the dog, Dwight took out the anger that had built up in him all morning and kicked Hernan as hard as he could. John fell to the ground in surprise and shock at the unexpected assault. Dwight then instructed Dingo to cuff him and put him in the car, before he walked off muttering “fucking Mexicans”.
The car pulled off with Hernan in the back and the terrier left sat on the side of the road, staring after the dust trail of the car.
The train grinded to a stop, and Dwight pulled open the doors to see what the issue was further up the train, seeing many others doing the same. Dingo ran out after him once he’d told Hernan to stay where he was, an amusing comment since he was tied up in a corner. For the first time in nearly 2 days, John was left alone. The first thing he thought about happened to be his dog, he hoped Ginger had found her way home. He heard Dwight and Dingo walking further up the carriages, most likely to the front to ask what was happening. The surroundings of the carriage were far better lit now because the door was open, letting light flood in, but still not shining on Hernan. He looked around, hoping to find something that might allow him to escape; he could run for one of the farmhouses he thought. Dingo had left a bag in the corner which looked like John’s only hope. He wriggled his way towards the bag, a difficult task given how he was tied up, but time seemed to be on his side because he could no longer hear Dwight or Dingo. He made his way towards the bag inch by inch, covering his clothes and face in the dirt and filth of the carriage floor, eventually reaching the bag and pulling it open with his teeth. As John expected, the bag contained a small knife, the kind most people carried these days. He took the knife out carefully with his teeth and then wriggled round so he could begin cutting his wrist restraints off with Dingo’s knife. Dwight and Dingo were still nowhere to be seen and John took hope in this and cut all the faster.
“What the fuck is going on” Dwight demanded of the train operator in the front carriage.
The man looked dirty and tired and explained to Dwight that a fallen tree on the track had stopped the train and that they were trying to clear it. Dwight and Dingo were satisfied by this answer and began walking back to their carriage when they saw a young woman sat on the grass all alone, waiting to get back on the train presumably.
“Get a look at her Dingo, she’s fit she is” Dwight said with a grin at Dingo.
The two men stared at the woman tanning herself in the sun, admiring her beauty and the fact she didn’t seem affected by the burning heat at all. They were so focused on her that it took a while for them to notice a figure running off into one of the fields, with a limp.
“Fuck! He’s getting away!” Dwight shouted, “get after him!”.
They both sprinted after Hernan, nearing him just as he was approaching one of the picturesque barns, still untouched by the conflict in the country. “Stop Hernan!” Dingo shouted at him, “Stop!”
Dwight stopped running as he neared Hernan, and pulled out his gun, which he pointed at Hernan’s back. “Stop or I will shoot you!”.
John slowed down to a walk but still did not turn around. “John, please don’t make me shoot”, Dwight sounded almost pleading. Hernan stopped walking, that was the first time he’d been called his real name. “I don’t want to die, please let me go, let me go home”,
John turned around and looked Dwight straight in the eyes. He was dirty, limping and wearing a ripped baggy t shirt with shorts too big for him. John felt like he was coming full circle, small and insignificant, like everyone had forgotten about him and he was a child again, begging to stay up just another hour more. “Just come back to the train and we’ll pretend this never happened Hernan”, the gun stayed pointed at Hernan, Dingo stood still next to his lieutenant with a pained expression on his face. “Have you ever killed a man before?” John asked Dwight, “I don’t think you have.”
With those last words John turned around and carried on walking towards the barn. Dwight’s unsteady hand remained pointed at his back, and with one last warning, ignored by John, Dwight pulled the trigger. The kick made Dwight stumble backwards, he had never fired a gun before. John fell to the ground with a thud, a golf ball sized hole in his back beginning to pour out blood. His last thought was how he should have turned around so he didn’t die, staring at the cold, dark earth. Dwight and Dingo stayed still in the sun, Dwight shaking with the realisation of what he had done.
“I was starting to like him” Dingo said with a shrug, walking off. Dwight stood motionless next to the body. He had never killed a man before.