Summer at Stewart Creek
A screaming whistle, approaching quickly from some distant place, shocked Brett out of a peaceful slumber. At first he didn’t know where he was or what was happening. He looked at the sleeping form beside him, then to the window nearby. It was dark outside. There was that noise again. The other boy turned in his sleep. The dim features of his face looked familiar. Then Brett remembered.
He crawled out of bed carefully so as not to disturb Jason. Stepping slowly, he moved to the window as the southbound freight rumbled past. Subconsciously he counted the cars as they clicked over the rail joints, sixteen in all. It was quiet again. Brett sat by the window awhile, then crept back to bed.
About an hour passed. Activity began at the yards and the noise of engines chugging about and of squealing metal drifted in the window. Brett lay awake listening. A growing sense of excitement churned inside. Today he would see his father. Until yesterday, the trip had been so dull and uneventful. But the time Brett had spent with Jason and the new friendship he had found had turned his stay in Arlee into an adventure of sorts, or maybe the beginning of a whole summer of adventure.
“You awake?” Jason spoke quietly.
“Yea. Saw the freight go by at four. What’s happening now?”
“The yard crews are gettin’ the engines fired. They’re puttin’ on coal and puttin’ in water. There’ll be a lot o’ action ’round here for the next several hours.”
“How much can we see?” Brett inquired.
“I hafta help with chores ’til breakfast is cleaned up. Then we can go over to the station and watch.”
The boys dressed, made up the bed, and went on down to the kitchen.
“Morn’n, Ma. Is Pa out back?”
“He’s splittin’ wood.”
“Can I help?” asked Brett.
“Sure. Gatta fill the wood box and the water reservoir.”
In the wood yard Hank Johnston was splitting cord wood. He was a tall sturdy man with long dark hair matted with sweat. The ax was buried in the chopping block as Mr. Johnston stopped working to meet Brett.
“Pa, this is Brett Tompkins. His pa runs Stewart Creek Company. This is my pa.”
“Pleased to meet you, sir.”
“Same here, Brett. Jason’s ma tells me you two have become good friends. We’re glad to have ya stayin’ with us. Why don’t you boys hurry up with the firewood and I’ll take care of the water. That way you can have early breakfast and have some extra time together ‘fore Brett’s train leaves.”
“Thanks, Mr. Johnston. Come on. Show me where it goes.”
The wood box was quickly filled. After breakfast Brett thanked the Johnstons for letting him stay with them. With his hat in his hand, he and Jason gathered his bags and went across to the station. There was lots of activity as the various trains came in. Jamming his hat on top of his head, Brett left his belongings on a bench while he watched.
The train from Summit came in. While the engine was in the yard taking on fuel and water and being turned around, Tom Jennings and his crew changed over the freight cars and spotted the train at the station. The engine returned from the yard and the Summit train moved into the pass track. Since Arlee was the center of transfer for the various branches, all morning trains had to meet to exchange passengers and freight cars. The train came in from Snow Shoe, dropped an empty baggage car, unloaded, had its engine turned, then moved onto the pass track with the train for Summit. Number twenty-eight moved the car to the yard.
At eight sharp the southbound coach from Pine Bluff and the northbound from Truckee arrived, one on either side of the station. Activity on the station platform was in general confusion as passengers got off or on and baggage and mail were exchanged. At 8:10, both trains pulled out of the station and activity slowed down as new arrivals were met and left or simply went on their own to take care of the private purposes for which each had come to Arlee.
The train for Summit moved into the station, took on passengers, baggage, and mail, then left for the run back to Summit.
It was time to say good-bye. Number Twenty-One pulled out of the pass track into the station area. Brett picked up his bags.
“Wait,“ said Jason. “I want you ta meet someone. Come with me. Leave your things a minute.”
“Where’re we going?”
“To the engine.” He hurried ahead. “Hi, Jay!”
The man in the cab waved. “How ya doin’, Jason. Haven’t seen ya lately.” Soot marked the man’s bearded face and clothes.
“Jay, I want ya to meet a real important friend o’ mine.” They stood under the engine’s cab window. “This is Brett Tompkins.”
“I shoulda knowd,” the engineer interrupted. “His pa told me this mornin’ I was pickin’ him up.”
“You know my dad?”
“Sure do. I work this branch regular and also work the Scott for the loggin’ line. Better hurry on. I’m a minute late ta leavin’.“
“See ya tomorrow,” Jason called as they went back for Brett’s things.
“So long, Jason. Be good till then.” He pulled the whistle cord two long blasts while the fireman set the bell to ringing.
“I’m gonna miss ya, Brett.” They stood by the coach steps.
“Me, too. It’s been a really great stay. I feel as though I’ve known you for all my life. I sure hope I’ll see you again.”
“Sure do,“ said Jason. “I’ll send a letter with Jay sometime.”
Brett returned. “I’ll 1et you know what it’s 1ike out there. Maybe my dad will let you visit if it’s okay with your folks.”
“All aboard!“ called the conductor. Brett dashed for the steps and the conductor helped him up as the wheels began to turn. The black smoke boiled from the stack as the pistons slowly churned. He was on his way again, on the final leg of his journey.
“Bye, Brett!” The wheels rumbled.
“Bye, Jason!” He shouted over the noise.
The boy watched from the car’s platform as the station, his friend, then the town of Arlee slipped away behind. A sudden feeling of loneliness and great sadness swept over Brett as he turned to enter the coach. He’d never felt so close to a friend before and he missed Jason so much that it hurt. Yet he hadn’t even known him one full day.
At the station, Jason stood on the platform staring down the empty track watching the last wisp of smoke drift away on the morning breeze. He felt strangely empty inside. Wiping aside quiet tears, he turned away and started back toward home. Breakfast dishes would be waiting.