The Nevada Pestilence
by Stu Venable, Jr.
The stench, as I found purchase to gain footing upon the caboose’s railings, was unlike anything I had ever experienced. Having served with the 51st Ohio Infantry, I was not unfamiliar with the smell of rotting human flesh. This however seemed to me to be the smell of cooking human flesh, a scent with which I was far less familiar, having only caught the briefest whiff of it when an occasional wound need cauterization.
But my senses were met with the cannibalistic equivalent of some festive feast. Deep within my mind, the memories of my ancestors met the smell with revulsion and horror.
I tensed my jaw and looked more closely into the interior of the caboose. It was then that I noticed that the blankets and linens covering the corpses were smoldering, some vaguely yellowing and browning as if being gently and gradually burned from beneath.
Furthermore there was a haze of bluish smoke within the cabin of the car, hanging at approximately eye level. Now that I had a clearer view of the interior, I could see that this was no infirmary. This was a morgue. These corpses had not been carefully placed here as if they were once merely sick people, these corpses were dragged in and hastily piled atop one another.
It would be a gruesome task indeed to accurately determine the exact number, but by my estimation, there were no less than fifty corpses within. The bodies had tumbled and rolled to obstruct the narrow path that had once run down the length of the caboose.
Feeling no small amount of trepidation, I decided to scale the nearby ladder and cross the length of the caboose on the cabin’s roof. As I climbed down the railing on the forward end of the caboose, I peered into the door window of the last of the passenger cars.
Again I bore witness to aftermath of this strange lesion producing pestilence. There were again expired victims of the fever, perhaps twenty in all. Most sat in their seat, slumped forward or to the side. A few had fallen into the aisle that bisected the passenger car.
These corpses, much like the dozens I found in the caboose, appeared to be smoldering, their clothes producing delicate swirls of blue smoke.
Now I am not a man of great medical knowledge, having only once assisted a harried surgeon during a hasty amputation in the midst of the war, but I felt compelled to investigate further this disease and the black and red lesions it produced.
I forced open the door of the passenger car and was again met with the sickening, disquieting smell of burning flesh.
I stepped just inside the car and knelt down next to what I assumed to be a young woman, at least that was what I ascertained by the manner of her clothes, as here face was so disfigured by the lesions that she looked as if she had been completely burned.
I took a closer look at the lesions upon her face, and immediately noted the fact that there was no puss coming from these wounds, even though there were numerous cracks in her skin to allow such discharge. As I investigated the lesions more closely, I noticed the blackness appeared to be actual charring of the skin, rather than a necrotizing darkening sometimes seen in dead or dying flesh.
It was at this moment, when my face was closest to hers, that the young woman inhaled. Her dry, cracked eyelids parted, exposing her milky and horrifically blistered eyes. She tried to lift her arms, but then wailed in agony, as the black, peeling lesions on her arms cracked, exposing a mixture of blood and clear fluid, not unlike the liquid one finds in a blister.
“It’s burning me,” she rasped, “make it stop. Please. Water.” Her head and arms relaxed, as if these few words had exhausted her completely, leaving here with no will to either move or breath.
I fetched a drinking glass and a small, weighted pitcher with a small amount of water that was resting on a courtesy table near the cabin door. I filled the glass and rushed back, gently offering the glass to her unmoving lips. The water poured in ever so slightly and she sputtered and coughed.
Her coughing turned to convulsing as the water spilled from her mouth, making a hissing noise as it rand down her cheeks and her neck and face. Steam rose where the water touched her skin.
“No. Not drink,” she said through her rattling cough, “pour it on me. Pour it on my hands, they hurt worst of all.” I did so, pouring a portion of the water on one hand and then the other, the water vaporizing as it touched her skin. She breathed a small but sincere sigh of relief, but only for a moment, for there was not much water in the glass or the pitcher for that matter. Yet she clinged to the respite from her pain, however brief.
My investigative side got the better of me at that moment, having witnessed these strange medical anomalies, so that I ventured to touch her skin to feel just how feverish this poor girl was. I chose to touch her forehead, thinking that was the location most congruous with such a situation of a single man coming to the aid of a presumably single woman at her moment of need.
For some reason I still do not fathom, I was not at all concerned with contracting this illness from physical contact. Perhaps a part of me had noted that I had considerable contact with the sufferers of this illness back on my own train without contracting the disease and assumed I had some sort of immunity to it.
I think, however, it is more likely that my curiosity toward this situation and the strange symptoms of this bizarre illness overrode my normal drive to maintain my own well-being.
I withdrew my hand just a moment after my skin made contact with hers, as her skin was so hot to the touch that I found it difficult to comprehend how she could be alive, let alone intact, being at such a high temperature. I looked upon the skin of my hand as I heard the sizzles and pops of burning flesh and found that I had severely burned myself, so much so that my skin was blistering as I observed it.
It was nearing mid-day, so the air was dry and hot, not an uncommon occurrence in northern Nevada, but I noted with my other, unburned had that the air near the young woman was considerably hotter than the air temperature some distance away from her.
It was at this moment that I remember my current situation, that of being aboard a runaway train, where I would presumably fine no one alive or at least no one capable of helping me to stop this locomotive.
I stood and faced to the West, toward the engine that was pulling this long train of passenger cars and began my long walk through each car.
Filed under: Adventure Seed Fiction