Twelfth Winter

The  Excerpt

A soot-darkened, gloved hand closed around the wooden handle of the cord overhead and pulled expertly on the line. The steam locomotive’s whistle responded with a scream that echoed through the surrounding hillsides — two long calls, a short blast, and a long wail that hung on the crisp autumn air. Twenty minutes passed. Through the open door to the locomotive’s running board, the small country station of Blakesville closed rapidly as the train approached its scheduled stop. The engineer pushed the throttle lever forward to slow the locomotive. Across the cab, the fireman reached for a second line and set the bell to a rhythmic ringing. The movement of the pistons slowed as the large driver wheels slackened their speed. Concentrating on the approaching station area, Jay pulled gently on the brake lever as he guided his train into position to line up the cars on the wooden platform. Brakes squealed against the wheels. Surplus steam pressure hissed as it was released from the piston chambers. The train rolled to a gentle stop as the bell echoed its last and fell silent. The engineer pulled one last short toot to signal the brakes were set. “Scott,” the engineer spoke to his fireman, “Keep an eye on things for a while. I’m going back ta talk ta the boy. We’ll take a few extra minutes here.” “I got it, Jay,” the younger man responded. “I need ta draw some water inta the boiler and rake down the fire anyway.”

The engineer crossed the cab to descend to the station platform while his fireman walked to the tender to open the water valve. Jay Miller was in his late thirties. A full beard, neatly trimmed, framed a friendly face. Eyes that sparkled with kindness, reflected, too, pride and confidence of a man at ease with his life’s work. Ignoring the few passengers that were boarding or leaving the train, he strode directly to the first car, the mixed coach and baggage, climbed the front steps to the open platform, and entered the baggage compartment.

The brown and white pony snorted nervously at the intrusion and pawed at the straw. Stroking the pony’s muzzle to reassure him, the boy looked to the door as Jay gently pushed it shut. A slight smile tugged at the corners of his mouth, but was not reflected in his eyes. Long blond hair hung to his shoulders, brushing the collar of his buckskin shirt. Crystalline blue eyes glistened with a sadness born of recent tragedy in his young life. Michael hung his arm across his pony’s neck and leaned his body against the sturdy shoulder as the engineer stopped before him and gently stroked the bristly muzzle.

“Where are we?” the boy asked.

“We’ve stopped at Blakesville. We’ll be goin on soon. But I thought we should talk some first.” 

Michael stroked the strong neck with his free hand as his pony swung his head and nudged him. The man walked to a nearby stack of crated produce and leaned against the boxes.

“Michael,” the man began, “It’s a very difficult thing you have ta do now, startin over. We don’t know each other except for what Scot’s told you about me and written me about you. I know some of what’s happened. When ya feel like it ya can tell me more of yerself.”

“I’d like that,” The boy smiled. This time his eyes smiled too.

“But again, so’s folks don’t come down hard on ya, we’ll use the first an last names, Michael Freeman. When needed we’ll put initials “P.C.” fer Prairie Cub.”

“That’ll be okay.”

The man smiled beneath his beard as he stood.

 “Guess it’s time ta get this train on the move. Folks’ll get impatient.”

He put his hands on the boy’s shoulders. “You go ahead an change now an get yer trunk packed up. I’ll check back at the next stop.” He squeezed gently to reassure the boy that everything would be okay. “Ya take care, too,” he added as he patted the pony on the neck.

“She is called Of-The-Wind,” the boy volunteered. Jay reached an apple from a produce crate. “Here, Of- The-Wind. It’s been a long trip and ya deserve somethin’ special.”

The pony took the apple from the outstretched hand and crunched it gingerly as the engineer reached for the door knob and left the boy and his pony to themselves. While Of-The-Wind finished the apple and pawed the straw impatiently, Michael removed his shirt and laid it across the top of the trunk to fold it neatly for storage. As he knelt in the straw and lifted the lid to lay it within, two sharp blasts of the engine’s whistle cut the air. The car eased into motion as the shirt was laid reverently in the chest and a change of clothes was withdrawn. He fingered the cotton fabric of the shirt and thought again of Keith Summers, the storekeeper who had given it to him. Laying it across his knees, he picked up the bundle from where it lay beside the chest and the buckskin wrapped bow and quiver of arrows and thought of his people and especially of his parents, Thunder Eagle and Prairie Flower. His mind was flooded with memories of Grandfather and Granny-Woman, of life and death, of joy and tragedy and sorrow. Oh how his heart ached. A tear slipped down his cheek. Laying the precious bundle in the bottom of the chest and the wrapped bow on the floor in front, he stood and slipped his arms into the shirt sleeves. Brushing aside the tear, he walked to the door and watched the colorful foliage of the West Virginia mountain country flash its autumn beauty as the train rushed on. Again the whistle echoed through the hills. A dirt road flashed by. The boy turned back to finish changing and to pack and close the travel chest. He chose to keep his moccasins. They were more comfortable than the boots he left in the trunk. And they reminded him of the life he left behind. The morning run of engine Number twenty-one continued to wind its way through the Appalachian mountain country. The consist of a coach and mixed baggage, painted yellow with green trim, bore the name Virginia and Truckee. Having departed earlier from the transfer point of Arlee, West Virginia, it was on its regularly scheduled return trip to the branch terminus at Snow Shoe. The rhythmic chugging of the locomotive echoed through the brilliantly colorful tree scape as the light cloud of wood smoke trailed behind, drifting off in a slight breeze.

Inside the engine cab, Jay Miller only partially concentrated on the track ahead. His mind was occupied with thoughts of the boy. He sifted again through the information his young friend, Scot Robinson, had written concerning Michael’s previous life on the western plains as the son of a Sioux warrior. Tragic events had caused his father to send
him back to the world of his white heritage. Now it was up to the engineer to help this boy to start over. He knew he could do it. He had liked the boy from the first letter in which Scot had spoken of him.

 From the moment he laid eyes on him earlier that morning as he transferred trains at Arlee, his heart went out to him and he promised himself that Michael would have the best he could provide. Automatically he reached up
for the cord and the whistle cut in on his thoughts as he noticed ahead, the station and the nameplate for Kingston. For the moment concern for Michael was set aside as Jay concentrated on bringing the train into Kingston station. Again, as the train waited for passengers to board or disembark, the engineer walked back to the baggage room. A baggage wagon was drawn up to the side and the large door was rolled open. As Jay ascended the platform steps and entered the car, he found the boy standing near the large door watching the activity. He had changed into a pair of suspendered trousers and a brown cotton shirt.

“Michael,” the boy looked toward the voice. “Come here a minute.” The boy crossed to the door which the engineer still held ajar.

 “How’d ya like ta ride up front with me?” “You mean it?!” “Certainly!”

“Okay!! Scot told me you taught him how ta run a locomotive.” “I taught him how ta run this locomotive.” He led the way out onto the platform, then started down the steps. 

“And I’ll teach you how ta, too.” “Yes, Sir!” he exclaimed in excited anticipation.

The boy dropped to the wooden station platform and followed behind the engineer. They headed for the steps to the engine’s cab. As the two passed the locomotive’s tender, the
boy ran his hand along the metal of its sidewall and explored the feel of the large painted letters with his fingertips. Jay grabbed the handrail and pulled himself up to the engine cab. Michael followed close behind. Introductions were made as the boy met Scott O’Donnell, the fireman. Collar length brown hair cascaded in natural curl from beneath a leather, visored cap. The fireman was of lighter build than the husky engineer and not quite as tall. His blue overalls were tinged with soot and dust. He greeted the boy with a firm handshake. Michael liked him right off. O’Donnell turned to check the gauges as Jay took his seat on the right side of the cab.

“Come sit here, Michael,” the engineer invited. He helped the boy climb up to sit on the front edge of the engineer’s box. Gauges hissed. Steam rumbled in the boiler. Smoke drifted from the large diamond stack. Outside, the large baggage door was rolled shut and the conductor called,

“All aboard!” Jay replied with two sharp blasts of the whistle while Scott set the bell to a rhythmic ringing.

“See this lever?” Jay indicated the throttle. “Grab hold and I’ll work it with ya.”

Michael wrapped his left hand around the handle as the engineer enclosed the small hand in his own. He released the brake while he eased back on the throttle. Steam surged into the piston chambers and pushed on the drive rods. The large wheels began to turn. Wheels rumbled against the steel rails as the train eased into forward motion. It picked up speed as the noise of its movement picked up volume. The bell stopped. The throttle clicked into its position set. All relaxed and watched the track and the train’s progress through the open doors to the locomotive’s running boards. A cool breeze warmed by the heat from the boiler and mixed with cinders from the stack, flowed refreshing through the door openings. On their way once more, the next stop was Snow Shoe. As the train continued on its run and Scott threw on wood, raked the fire, and checked the gauges, Jay began to explain some of the workings of the engine. Michael tried to understand what he could, but it was all so unfamiliar. Rounding a curve along a hillside, the train slowed to a crawl.

Suddenly a figure appeared alongside the track and climbed aboard as the engine picked up speed again. The youth who had boarded was introduced as Jamie Rhodes. He walked the tracks from Snow Shoe to this point each day to inspect their condition. Michael had been looking at some of the gauges with Scott. He moved out of the way and leaned against the engineer’s box. Jamie leaned against the cab opening to the tender behind the fireman’s box.

“How’s it look this mornin?” Jay asked.

“It’s definitely time for a day of maintenance. Rails are showin their wear and some rotten ties should be replaced.”

“The bridge?” “Chamber’s Crossing looks good,” Jamie reported. Just then the train rumbled across a tall wooden trestle which spanned a cut about eighty yards across. The floor of the little valley lay some fifty feet down where a mountain creek cascaded down the mountainside. Michael gripped the hand rail tightly as he peered over the edge of the footplate between the engine and its tender.

“Was that Chamber’s Crossing?” “That was it,” Scott confirmed.

As the four talked among themselves it became obvious to Michael that each had already known of his coming. Except for the engineer, the others knew only that he was a friend of Scot Robinson’s and had suffered some tragedy which included the loss of his family. He would be staying on for a while under the care of Jay Miller. Again the engineer slowed the train as Jamie Rhodes moved to the steps.

“We’re approaching the switch fer Snow Shoe station,” Jay explained.

The track walker dropped to the ground as the train continued at a crawl, and ran ahead to throw the switch. The train eased off the main to the station track as Jay blew the whistle and Scot set the bell to ringing. Proceeding through two more switches, already set, it pulled in on the back side of the station building. Jay spotted the coach near the end of the platform and paused while he watched from the cab window for a trainman to uncouple the coach. The signal was given for all clear and the engine with its remaining car moved on out of the station through another series of switches. 

Jay explained, “We still have one more stop ta make at Day’s End, about four miles down the track. It’s the end of this line. Then we’ll back up and pull in on the station side ta finish unloadin.”