The Dead Man’s Switch

The last train travels fast

Terrye Turpin
9 min readAug 19, 2022


Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

He opened his eyes to a world gone red. Somewhere nearby a woman sobbed, her keening cries almost drowned out by the chug and clack of a locomotive. The man, forty-two-year-old Roy Ellis, sat up and wiped the blood from his face. Gingerly, he probed the wound on his scalp. A painful lump swelled at his right temple.

Gripping the edge of the seat above him, he pulled himself up, boot heels scraping against the wooden floor. Once he stood, he found a battered and sweat stained cowboy hat on the seat. He straightened it as best he could and put it on before peering out the rail car window at the barren landscape flashing past. Clumps of green sage dotted the pale tan sand. The blue-gray outline of a mountain range spread across the horizon. He was on a train, that much was clear, but what was happening? How did he get here? If he was a passenger, he must have a ticket. He reached into his coat pocket.

Instead of the folded paper of a rail ticket, his fingers brushed something cold and hard. He lifted the object — a gold star with the words Deputy Sheriff engraved on the front. His hand flew to the empty holster at his hip. The acrid sulfur stink of gunpowder hung in the air, blending with the black coal smoke from the locomotive. The open door at the end of the carriage banged against the frame. Roy clutched the back of the seat and waited for a wave of dizziness to pass before he stumbled toward the opening. He dropped the badge into his coat.

The first dead man was behind the last seat. He wore a soldier’s khaki uniform. Watery blue eyes stared with a slack, empty gaze. A black-rimmed hole was centered on the young man’s forehead. A red trail of blood, slender as a crimson ribbon, leaked from the corpse’s nose. Roy rolled the body on its side, searching for a weapon. Nothing. He released it to flop against the floor.

The next unit, a passenger car, held a second victim. This one wore the navy blue of a railroad worker and lay sprawled across the aisle. The sobbing woman sat in the last seat on the right. A bruise bloomed on her cheek. She clutched a cloth to her face and when she noticed Roy, her sobs quieted to gasps, as though she couldn’t draw her breath. Across the aisle from her, a man in a black suit and a dandy bowler hat held one…