Summer of Two Worlds
The sun had not yet risen as the distant whistle pierced the morning air with its shrill cry. Approaching from the westward tracks, the light of the engine’s headlamp glowed dimly in the mountain fog. The churning of the steam in the pistons grew audible as the train neared the station platform, already alive with activity of waiting passengers and baggage wagons with loads to be transferred.
The sign at the end of the platform read “Truckee, West Virginia.” This was the southern end of the Virginia and Truckee Railroad line which ran north through the West Virginia mountains to its terminus at Pine Bluff on the Virginia River, a distance of about one hundred and twenty miles. Here at Truckee, railroad traffic transferred to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad for travel eastbound or westbound.
The morning coach was arriving from the west. Steam blasted from the cylinders and air rushed into the brake lines as metal squealed against metal and the train slowed to a stop. The clunking sound of car couplings knocking together was followed by a brief quiet as the train came to a final stop.
During this brief pause in activity punctuated with the rumblings of steam in the engine’s belly and the hissing of escaping pressure, trainmen climbed down to place stools on the station platform at the bottom of each of the cars’ steps. Then controlled chaos broke loose as passengers clambered down or up depending on where they were headed, and baggage wagons were rolled into place to receive or send out various packages and shipments and personal goods.
A middle-aged traveler, very much annoyed by the harangues of his wife and the prattling of a half dozen offspring ranging from fourteen to four, descended the steps in tight-lipped silence. An older couple, comfortably married, followed, arm-in-arm, with weary smiles and enthusiasm in the sparkle of their eyes. They took time to see and appreciate the movement about them.
On the platform, children asked questions, or whined, or argued, or explored, or slept in their mothers’ arms. Adults talked or pushed their way through the crowd. Some were blind to the happenings around them. Some took in everything with the awe of youth or a first trip away from home. There were city folk and country folk, folk from the east and folk from the west, folk used to civilization and folk just off the frontier.
Amidst the commotion the small figure of the boy descended the steps. He was lost in a confusion of people and motion which had never before been forced upon him in the short dozen or less years of his life. In appearance, he was a clash of civilizations. Long blond hair hung across his shoulders. Dressed in buckskin from his fringed shirt to his moccasins, and dark-skinned from continuous exposure to the sun, he appeared to be an Indian child, but his features were those of a white.
The boy looked again at the paper in his hand. He stood for a while in confusion as he gazed about to get his bearings. Then, folding it up, he tucked the paper back into his waistband. The boy carried a parfleche, a beaded bundle which contained his personal possessions. He also had a long package, wrapped neatly in buckskin and tied with rawhide strings.
Crossing the wooden platform, pushing his way through the crowd, he reached the train on the northbound track. He mounted the steps, entered the coach, and found an empty seat by a window. Placing his parfleche on the bench and leaning his long package against the side wall, he sat near the window and stared out at the crowd. Tears welled up in his eyes and slid unchecked down his cheeks as he watched the activity so unlike that which he had lived all his life. He cried quietly to himself. The boy was not aware of the figure that paused in the aisle by his seat.
“Michael?” The voice and the name were nothing to him and he ignored them.
“Prairie Cub?” His name startled him and he looked to see who spoke it.
The conductor in his dark blue uniform and gold name-plated hat, stood there. He seemed friendly. He even smiled.
“I’m Dan Seegers.” He pushed the back of the next seat forward to reverse it, then sat down facing the boy. Folding his hands under his chin he explained, “Your friend Scot wrote that you were coming. Perhaps he told you of Jay Miller up at Snow Shoe.” The boy nodded an acknowledgement. “Jay and I work together for the railroad. We and some of our friends have been taking turns watching for you.” Dan stopped.
The boy gazed out the window again. They sat there in their own silence amidst the constant noise around them.
“Why?” the boy cried softly. Pleading eyes the color of a clear spring sky met those of the man. “Why am I here? My whole life is like it never happened. It is so far back and so long ago, I feel like it was a dream.”
“Michael, I cannot help you with your hurt. I only know of you from what Scot wrote in his letter . . .”
“I am Prairie Cub, son of Thunder Eagle!” the boy cried.
The noise around them paused as people stopped to stare, then moved on. Again the noise.
“You are Prairie Cub and you are Michael. You have always known that. Now you are in Michael’s world, though we will know you as both.”
“I want to go back!”
“There’s nothing to go back to.” Dan could feel the heat of tears rising up in his own eyes and brushed them aside as inconspicuously as he could.
“I know that! Why did it have to happen?!” Tears flowed freely. He looked at the parfleche and ran trembling fingers across its beaded design. “This is my grandmother’s gift before the last buffalo hunt.” Tears puddled on his shirt and the body shook with the sobbing.
Dan, too, cried. He tried to hide it. But his emotions were touched too deeply. He took out a kerchief to check his tears. The boy calmed some and wiped his eyes with his shirt sleeve. Dan placed a consoling hand on his wrist.
“Trust me. We will do all we can for you.” He dabbed his eyes as he stood, very conscious of their redness and wanting to get away to himself. “Stay where you are. I’ll be back later.”
The boy watched him through the door to the open platform. The aisle emptied as the last of the passengers took their seats. Michael reached forward and reversed the seat in front of him. He did not wish for anyone else to sit there.
The engine’s whistle cut the air with two sharp blasts. Pressure rushed through the brake lines under the floorboards. Brake shoes clattered loose and couplings rattled tight as the train began to ease into forward motion.
The boy leaned back against the seat. He closed his eyes. His mind drifted back to his life on the plains.