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The Old 710
A thick plume of black smoke lay heavily along the top of the locomotive as it labored up the grade. It strained, moving more slowly just short of the culmination of the six-mile climb than it would move at any other point of the trip until it reached its destination. Any observer, if he glanced only casually, might think he was looking at a painting. Very much a still life.
The day was bright, but the air cool at this elevation. In the engine, the breeze coming off the mountain and through the half-open window was crisp and clear. At the low speed, the sound of the wheels grinding against the rails was louder than usual.
Normally, about this time of the trip, nineteen cars back in the caboose, the 710’s brakeman, Roger “Plain Ol’” Smith, would cough and then wipe one sinewy black hand across his lower face and mouth. Then he would glance down at his open palm to gauge the level of smoke that had made its way into the caboose. If his palm was still mostly pink, he would know the coal dust wasn’t too bad yet.
Plain Ol’ normally kept the windows open in the caboose, especially on this run, but only slightly. At least the breeze kept the air moving. It also allowed any smoke that dropped beneath the inversion layer coming off the mountain to enter the caboose, but the smoke was more dissipated back here than it was up front. And the moving air made it harder for the residue to settle on the benches along the side or on Plain Ol’s mouth or in his lungs.
But none of that mattered on this trip because Plain Ol’ wasn’t in the caboose. Hung up in traffic, he arrived at the yard almost ten minutes after the 710 pulled out.
There had been easier trips. Trips during which the fireman’s muscular shoulders didn’t ache so soon from having to load so much coal into the fire box. Trips during which Locomotive 710 had pulled its usual load of stock cars or passenger cars, filled with mostly air and then either cattle or sheep or a few humans, all of which are mostly water.
But the load today was iron ore, spread over eighteen open-top dump cars.
And so the locomotive was pulling hard.
And so it slowed as it neared the apex of the grade.
As Adirondo Jones arrived at the train yard that morning, it was busy as usual.
Men walked or ran here or there over the dust and cinder covered yard. Others crouched next to various cars and engines, their tool bags on the ground next to them. On a side track in a great shed made of corrugated tin, a crew worked steadily to spray paint over graffiti. On the next track over, another crew was adding logos to several new or refurbished or repainted cars.
Jones, the senior engineer in the whole company, crossed through the commotion and mounted the stairs that led up to the yard master’s office. He had to get his ticket—the official authorization to pull the load—and he might as well see whether Weems had any last-minute instructions.
Inside the yard master’s office, the man himself, Bob Weems, sat behind his desk. An overcoat hung on a coat tree in the corner near his desk. He wore a dark grey, official looking three-piece suit. After all, he was the face of the company in this yard.
He puffed on a cheap cigar as he considered the next train out. Of necessity, he’d paired the load, eighteen open-top dump cars filled with iron ore, with the only remaining old coal locomotive.
It was important that every train left on time, and Weems was nothing if not efficient on behalf of the company. But maybe that pairing had been a mistake. Maybe this one time he should delay the load. He wondered whether the old engine could even pull the train out of the yard.
Adirondo Jones came in at the end of that thought.
Jones’ mostly bald head was covered with a faded, frayed blue and white striped engineer’s cap whose better days had ended long ago. A fringe of gray hair curled slightly up over the base of the hat. His blue eyes carried the light of a grin, which he wore beneath a pitted, hawk-like nose. The grin displayed the unnaturally even, slightly off-white teeth of a false plate. He wore coveralls that matched his cap.
The old man paused to close the door, which complained on its hinges, then looked at Weems. “Here to get my ticket, Bob.”
The office was small at about 20 feet wide by 15 feet deep. The pine-wood paneling on the walls and ceiling made it look ever smaller.
The place was barely furnished. Weems’ desk was centered in front of a double-hung window on the wall opposite the door. The bottom was raised a few inches to release the smoke from his cigars. There was also a guest chair to one side of the desk.
A five-drawer wooden filing cabinet filled one corner. Two other chairs, both covered with a fine layer of dust, waited next to a far wall until they were needed, which they never were.
The only other items in the room were a coal burning potbellied stove that provided heat in the winter and a huge map that hung next to a clock on the wall alongside the door. The map showed all the Adirondack Rail Lines routes. It was graced with several map pens that someone had stuck into various cities along the routes long ago. Nobody remembered why.
Although the office was chilly, the stove was cold. Weems, a frugal man on behalf of the company, saw no reason to fire it up until December 1st, come what may.
“Very well,” Weems said, still second-guessing his decision to make the odd pairing. But he opened the shallow lap drawer and shuffled through a short stack of tickets. He selected one and dropped the others back into the drawer.
The grin was still on Adirondo’s face. Many in the yard had never seen him without it. “Quite a thing, isn’t it? Me and ol’ 710 having to pick up the slack for a diesel?”
Weems absentmindedly nodded, then leaned forward and slid the ticket across the desk.
Jones picked it up and looked at it, then said, “Anything else?”
“Actually, one thing. I’ve been thinking about it. I wonder whether that old locomotive can even pull the train out of the yard. Much as I hate to miss a schedule, I could always alter the—”
Adirondo’s eyebrows arched. The grin remained. “What? You’re kiddin’ me, right?”
Adirondo Jones was a stubborn man. He’d been fortunate in his career with the Adirondack Line. His mother had named him after the company, and like his father before him, he’d never wanted to do anything but drive the trains.
Like everyone, he worked in the yard at first, mostly roustabouting. He cleaned cars, hooked them up, moved them out. His first job on a moving train was as the fireman for Locomotive 710. Later he worked as the brakeman for a time too, though he didn’t care for that much. He preferred to see where he was going, not where he’d already been.
Eventually, when he finished his training and was promoted to the driver’s seat, he was first in his class. When they gave him his choice of engines, he looked at the president of the company like he had two heads. “Old 710 will suit me just fine, sir,” he said, and with the exception of one brief stint, he’d been there ever since.
During that one stint, he’d ridden as the assistant engineer on one of the few new diesel jobs they had at the time. The operations were basically the same, but computerized. He didn’t like it. Coal smoke was like perfume to him. Diesel smoke was a stench. The old coal engine moved smoothly once it got going, but the diesel jerked and bucked the whole way, at least to hear him tell it.
As the company bought more and more of the diesels and slowly cycled the coal-burners into the junk pile, they offered him a different locomotive several times.
He always turned them down.
Now, at 74 years of age, he’d been with the company for sixty years almost to the day. And except for the brief time he worked in the yard, and the much briefer time he spent on that one round trip on the diesel, he’d spent the entire time with the same locomotive: 710.
Weems put a half-sneer on his face. “No, I’m not kidding, Andy. But I thought you’d respond that way, so here’s another idea: you want to maybe drop the caboose? That’d just take a second, right? And it would lighten the load quite a bit.”
Jones grinned again. “Nah, that’s all right. Besides, I’m pullin’ ore dumps, right? Chances are good I’ll need the brakeman on the downhills. And the caboose weighs practically nothing next to one of those things.”
“Well, that’s true. Still and all, I’d feel better if you’d think about it.”
The grin finally disappeared and Jones cocked his head, his eyes round at the notion that the man would even wonder about the strength of the old engine. “Due respect, Bob, old 710 will pull anything you put behind it. Think about it. You assigned me this load because the diesel that was supposed to pull it’s off the line for repair.”
“Well, yes. Not actually repair, per se. Just preventive maintenance.”
Adirondo nodded absently. “You know how many times 710 wasn’t able to pull an assigned load? Zero. Not one time did anyone else have to step up because the 710 couldn’t handle it. I swear, I don’t know what all the fuss is about over these new engines anyway.”
The yard master glanced at the clock on the wall between the map and the door. The train was scheduled to pull out in eight minutes. Still, he couldn’t help himself. “Well,” he mumbled, “they’re more economical for one thing.”
“More economical? Maybe right up top if you don’t look below the surface. But how much coal they gotta burn to make diesel in the first place, you ever think of that? And how much money’s the company losing while the diesels are in the shop puttin’ on their makeup?”
The yard master flicked his gaze at the clock again and sighed. “You’re probably right, Andy. But if you’re gonna take this load, you’d probably better—”
“Oh, I’m takin’ the load. I’m definitely takin’ the load. But on that other deal, there’s nothin’ like an ol’ coal engine, not this side of Heaven and not the other side of the 710. Anyway, guys your age’ll get your way soon enough. The 710’s the last one we got, isn’t it?”
Weems nodded but managed to keep his sneer to himself. “Last one.”
“Well, my 75th’s comin’ up. I reckon me and it’ll probably go out together. Seems fittin’, doesn’t it?”
Weems looked at him for a moment, then stood from his desk chair. “Well, you have to leave soon, so—” He glanced at the clock again. “Precisely seven minutes, to be exact, if you’ll have any chance of being on time. Remember, there’s that grade over at—”
Jones grinned again. “No disrespect, Bob, but I was pullin’ that grade in the ol’ 710 when you were still starchin’ your diapers with the brown stuff.” He laughed. “It won’t be a problem. That’s what I been tellin’ you. You might need to give one’a them diesels the kid-glove pretty-girl treatment now and then, but you’d be hard pressed to hook up anything to the 710 that it can’t handle. Or me either for that matter.”
His grin expanded. He reached across the desk with his right hand and clapped the yard master on the left shoulder.
Weems was unconvinced. “Yes, yes. Well, I suppose you’d better—”
But Adirondo was already turning away. He raised one hand. “No time for more talk now, Bob. I got a load to deliver.” He gripped the door knob, then looked over his shoulder and grinned again. “On time.”
The 710 strained a bit at first at all the weight, but once the train started moving, the locomotive settled into the same rhythmic clacking as always. It was music to Adironondo’s ears. The first seventy miles of the trip was uneventful. On level track, the load of iron-ore dumps moved as easily as a load of air.
It was a memorable trip for Adirondo for more reasons than one. The 710 had never pulled a load this heavy. Not that it couldn’t. The old locomotive might need a little extra attention when it started up the grade, but it would pull it fine.
What made the trip nostalgic was the absence of his regular fireman.
The barrel-chested, steel-muscled Big Ben Molowski had been on the 710 almost as long as Adirondo had. And when the load was assigned, Ben was still assigned too.
Then, just like that, four days before the run, he took ill. He made time to telephone Adirondo to let him know he was sick. Between coughing spells, he said, “I might have to sit this one out, Andy. Could you call the company for me, let ‘em know you might need another fireman for a run or two?” Then he forced a laugh. But it was different. It wasn’t quite as big, quite as booming as before. It wasn’t quite as much Ben. “I won’t hold it against you.”
That last bit was something the old friends often said to each other when they had to ask a favor. I won’t hold it against you. Somehow they both found it a mixture of humor and irony.
Into the phone, he said, “Aw, we’ve got four days, Ben. You’ll be there.” Of course he would be there. They’d made every run together for the past 28 years. Still, Adirondo felt a sense of unease. He’d never known Ben to take so much as a sick day.
Ben’s voice grew quiet. He coughed again, a lengthy spell. Then a smack came through the receiver of the phone, and Adirondo could see his friend wiping his big, thick lips with his palm to clear whatever was there. Ben said, “No. I think you’d better call ‘em this time, Andy. Really.”
A chill crept up Adirondo’s spine, but he kept the grin on his face to keep his tone light. “Sure, Ben, I’ll call ‘em. But I’ll explain to whoever they assign that he’ll probably be out of a job at the last minute when you come walkin’ up.”
“Yeah,” Ben said, then broke into another fit of coughing. “Yeah, it’s better if you warn the kid.” He paused for another fit of coughing, then said quietly, “Listen, thanks Andy. For everything. All the years. You know.”
“I’ll be seein’ you, Ben.”
“No doubt about that. ‘Bye old friend.” And he hung up.
True to his word, Adirondo called the yard master and informed him of Ben’s request.
Weems said, “Doesn’t surprise me. That stuff’s been growing on him for awhile now, hasn’t it?”
“Well, just so you know, Ben will be fine. He’ll probably make the run, so let whoever you assign know that.”
In a condescending tone, Weems said, “Sure, Andy. I’ll let him know.” Then he switched back to all business. “Anyway, the kid I have in mind is a big red-headed Irishman. Wants to be an engineer someday, just like you. He’ll do the job. You’ll see.”
As very seldom happened, the grin dropped off Adirondo’s face like it had weights tied to it. His voice grew gruff. “No I won’t.” Then he hung up before he could say more.
But he did see.
All of that happened on a Wednesday. The load was scheduled to pull out on Sunday morning.
But Big Ben Molowski wouldn’t go with it. He didn’t see any part of Thursday.
Due to a requirement of his family’s religious affiliation, Big Ben’s funeral was rushed. He was laid in the grave facing east on Friday, just before sunset.
Adirondo Jones remained graveside long after even the family members had departed.
The men who would pile dirt on his friend’s casket lounged nearby under a towering Norwegian Pine, shovels at the ready. None of the shovels had the square head Adirondo was used to seeing in his friend’s hands.
The shovels had leaned against the trunk of the tree during the service, and for close to an hour afterward. Then a few minutes ago, one at a time, the men had picked up the shovels. They kept their distance out of respect, but picking up the shovels sent a silent message that they were anxious.
Adirondo noticed. Well, not anxious exactly. Just a little impatient, and he couldn’t bring himself to have a bad thought about them. Probably they just wanted to finish the day and get home to their families and supper.
He glanced at them, then back to the grave. He fished in his right coat pocket for a moment, then pulled out a lump of Number 9 coal. He held it in his hand for a moment, imagining he could hear Ben’s laughter, see his big eyes crinkling at the corners as he laughed, feel his friend clapping him on the shoulder.
Finally he dropped it into the grave. It landed in the center of the casket atop the little pile of dirt that had built up as the widow, then the sons and daughter, then the others had dropped there. That was fitting, he thought.
He glanced again at the men under the Norwegian Pine and nodded, then turned and walked away.
For the first seventy miles of the trip, Jim Lawson, the broad-shouldered bright-eyed young fireman, spent much of his time in the cab. Even in the crisp, chilly breeze coming through the window, he was dressed only in a green t-shirt that seemed to barely stretch across his chest and shoulders, and jeans and a pair of scuffed black boots. He didn’t wear a hat or cap, and Adirondo wasn’t entirely sure he could find one that would tame the thick shock of red hair.
At first, Adirondo was put off that the kid wasn’t wearing coveralls to protect his clothing. Ben had always worn blue and white striped coveralls over his clothing. In fact, on warmer days he wore them with nothing but underwear beneath them. But regardless of what else he was wearing or not wearing, always the coveralls were there.
But the kid returned to feed coal into the fire box without being told, sometimes cutting away in the middle of a sentence with “Hold that thought” to do his job. And the power of the engine never waned. It was as if the kid had an internal clock.
And really, having him around was fine with Jones. He missed his old friend, but having Lawson in the cab made him feel young again.
Besides, the kid didn’t give him much time for nostalgia. Lawson continually eyed the controls, asked questions and laid out his dreams. “Y’know, one of these days, I’ll be running this baby,” Lawson said, his gaze raking over the controls for the hundredth time.
Adirondo had said the same thing many times back in the day. He could only hope his engineers were as unbothered by the attention as he was now. He grinned. “I hope so, Jim. But it won’t be the 710. I suspect they’ll retire her about the same time they retire me.”
Lawson’s eyes grew wide. “Retire her? But she’s the last of her kind, isn’t she? They wouldn’t do that, would they? Not really. Not when they know how badly I want to handle those controls.”
A flash of jealousy raked through Adirondo, but he managed to hide it. He looked at the control panel, casually laid his hand on it. “Nah, it’s all about the company, Kid. Somehow they got the wrong-headed notion that diesels are better.”
He looked up at Lawson. “We get back, probably you ought to scout around for the right match. All the diesels are the same from what I can tell, but find yourself an engineer you can get along with. One who doesn’t mind teaching you all the new stuff.”
The boy nodded absentmindedly, his eyes still on the controls. But his heart was still obviously locked on his dream. “Won’t be the same.”
“No,” Adirondo said. “No, nothing ever is.”
Adirondo swiveled his chair to face the control panel and gestured through the windshield. “Grade’s coming up. You probably better—”
But when he looked around, the kid was already gone.
Adirondo grinned. Lawson would be good for the 710. Too bad the company was going to ditch her.
At 22, Jim Lawson would have a long career ahead. But he wished it could be like it used to be. He wished he could spend his life at the controls of a real locomotive, one that moved on coal and sweat and the hard work of men instead of magic. Specifically the old 710.
Even starting up the grade, she didn’t sound old at all. She moved along at a good clip, and it wasn’t like the engineer had increased his speed to give her a running start. Lawson had been right there in the cab with him.
He considered a few times asking Mr. Jones whether he was going to increase her speed, but he’d held his tongue. The man was old, on the verge of retirement, but not so old that he’d forgotten how to drive the train. In fact, he wore it like a glove. He manipulated the controls as naturally as another man might reach up to run his fingers through his rumpled hair early in the morning or cover his mouth with a cupped hand when he coughed.
It wasn’t quite that the old 710 was a part of Mr. Jones. At least Mr. Jones didn’t seem to think so. It was more that they were both a single unit and a team, like a good marriage. That described it perfectly. Mr. Jones and the engine were part of each other. Together they performed tasks that would have been impossible for either of them to perform separately. Tasks that would have been less likely with a different partner.
Was Mr. Jones the same way with his wife?
But it must be that way.
The man hadn’t said anything about his marriage, but he wore a simple gold band on his left hand.
That was Lawson’s next step, after he was made an engineer. After that part of his life settled into more of a routine, he’d take a wife. He didn’t have anyone in mind at the moment, but he would take great care in finding one who was as eager as he to create a team and pull together with him in harness.
That had to be the secret to a successful life.
A new sensation pulled him from his reverie.
The train didn’t feel sluggish, exactly, but a little different. Probably from laboring up the grade so long. They must be nearing the summit. From there it would be an easy ride. Down the other side of the mountain, around one sweeping curve to the south, and into the booming town of LaForge at its mediocre three-track yard.
With Lawson out of the cab and the train pulling the grade as best it could, there was little for Adirondo to do but wait. And think.
Retirement. It was coming. He had time to make another run or two, but that isn’t how the yard master had scheduled things. If not for a slip-up in scheduling, he wouldn’t even be on this run. And chances are, after this run the old 710 would be parked off on a side track somewhere awaiting transportation to the highest bidding junkyard. If there wasn’t a vulture already waiting for it when they got back.
The thought was depressing.
It was all right that he was growing older. It was a pleasure, in fact. He’d grown older right alongside the love of his life until she succumbed to stomach cancer two years ago.
Really, he had only one complaint. Marilyn was two years younger than he, so it wasn’t quite fair that she’d gone first. But all other things being equal, he’d had a great life. In fact, his lovely wife had even managed to keep him on schedule at the last.
They knew for almost a year that she had the cancer, and they had adjusted. She was fine when he was away. She always seemed fine when he left, and fine when he got back. As a result, their life together remained relatively normal.
His trips were overnight at the longest. And due to scheduling and his seniority, he always had a few days to a week or so between runs.
While he was home, Marilyn listened raptly to his stories of the trips and the odd things he’d seen. Those things usually happened on the new Interstate highways alongside which the tracks often ran. And they only served to cement his certainty that he had made the right choice, riding the rails instead of the highways.
In turn, he listened equally as raptly to her stories of the household problems she’d handled in his absence, and of the community events in which she’d taken part.
Through the stories, each conveyed one version or the other of normalcy. It practically enabled each of them to live two lives, his or her own and the other’s.
Then he came home from a trip to find that she was significantly less than she had been. She was physically smaller, and maybe a little less alert mentally. For the first time since he’d known her, she seemed frail.
But emotionally she was the same old Marilyn, always on an even keel. She smiled the same gentle smile and showed the same interest in his stories. She continued to dote on him, and he on her. Though from that day forward, she opted out of telling any stories of her own.
That break was slated to be longer than normal by almost a week. He would be home for eleven days before the next load was scheduled to leave the yard. It was the longest break he’d had in almost a year.
Marilyn’s life force rapidly dwindled.
On the morning of the fourth day of the break, he was getting dressed while gazing out through the French doors beyond the foot of the bed. As he buttoned his shirt—he always turned away from her to zip his trousers or button his shirt—he glanced over his shoulder. “Give me ten minutes and I’ll be back with a steaming bowl of oatmeal topped with butter and those molasses you like so much. Doesn’t that sound good?” Oatmeal and a half-slice of toast had become their regular breakfast a couple of months earlier.
He waited for her usual response. Every day she would smile and say, “That would be nice, Dear. You’re so good to me.”
But today the response didn’t come. Probably she hadn’t heard him. She might even have lapsed into sleep again. Sometimes she did that.
He glanced down at his buttons to make sure he hadn’t missed any, then turned around.
She wasn’t asleep. She was looking at him with those crystal blue eyes. Her white hair practically glowed in the early morning light slanting through the window. It seemed almost a halo.
He grinned and said, “Sweetheart? I’m off to make the oatmeal. Back in a few minutes.”
She continued to look straight at him.
The look was so intense it seemed a physical presence. But a presence without the usual smile. For a moment, he was frightened.
Then, quietly, she said, “Not today, Andy.” Her left hand moved weakly as she patted the blanket beside her hip. “Come sit for a moment, would you?”
A tremor ran through him, but he kept the grin on his face as he approached the bed. “Now Marilyn,” he said, “you know we’re too old for any of that.”
She didn’t nod. She didn’t smile. She only looked at him.
His grin faded, and he sat as gently as he could and took her hand.
She squeezed his hand slightly. “It’s time, Andy.”
“Time for what?” He tried to renew his grin. “Oh dear god, you aren’t pregnant are you? After all this time?”
He expected a laugh, but she only looked at him. “I’m so sorry to leave you early. But you’ll be fine. Remember what we went over.”
What they “went over” was different than what they “talked about.” What they “talked about” were things that emanated from their stories. But what they “went over” was information about arrangements, whom to contact and in what order, and where all the important papers were.
He only nodded. He moved his other hand across his lap to cup her hand between both of his. One tear traced its way down his cheeks, the left first, then the right.
Softly, he said, “Baby, I won’t know what to do.”
“Oh, sure you will,” she said, and a slight smile curled one corner of her mouth. “You’re the strongest man I know, Adirondo Jones. And you have Ben. And you have the 710. You just keep doing what you do, that’s all.”
What an incredibly remarkable woman she was. Even now, she was making it all about him.
He nodded again, more tears releasing and coursing down his cheeks. He managed to breathe out, “I will. I will.” He paused to gather himself, and his voice dropped to a whisper. “Wait for me when you get there, all right?” His voice broke, and he said, “I love you so very much.”
Again she tried to smile. She had yet to shed a tear, but one crept out of her right eye and traced its way toward her pillow. “I love you too, Sweetheart. And you know I’ll wait.” She took a ragged breath. “But there’s no rush, Andy.” She took another. “Remember that.” And she took one more. “No... no rush.”
And just like that, her hand went slack. She seemed to settle deeper into the pillow.
Adirondo looked at her for a long moment, committing her beautiful face to memory, then bent and kissed her lightly on the forehead.
He released her hand gently, then stood. He looked down at her a final time, then turned and left the room to begin ticking items off the list of what they’d gone over.
Four days later he committed her body to the left half of their plot. Two days after that, he was at the controls of Old 710 as it pulled out of the yard on schedule. As she would have wanted. As she had planned.
“Remember that,” she’d said almost two years ago. “No rush.”
And she was right. There wasn’t any rush.
But now old Ben Molowski was gone.
And Adirondo would be retired in what, two weeks? Three?
And this would be the final load the old 710 would haul.
Through the windshield, the summit was growing nearer. Still the old locomotive was pulling fine. A little slow maybe, but strongly enough to clear the summit with power to spare. God he was proud of the old engine.
It wasn’t fitting that she should end up in a junkyard somewhere, reduced to scrap metal. Why hadn’t they contracted with someone to save her? Surely the company office could find a better use for her. The Smithsonian probably even had space. After all, she was the last of her kind in the company, and maybe in the whole country.
But none of that mattered. None of it would enhance the dollar signs at the company’s bottom line.
Well, life was about more than dollar signs. It was about pride. Above all, maybe, it was about dignity.
He played the rest of the route through his mind. He’d never hauled such a heavy load before, but he’d made this trip dozens of times, if not hundreds.
After the summit, the grade was steep. The train would pick up speed without the need for a coal tender. The last half-mile was almost flat. Normally that’s where he’d slow the train a bit to more easily make the left-handed curve onto the bridge.
But not today.
He twisted around in his seat to call for Lawson.
But the kid was standing there, having just come forward. A broad grin spread across his face as he glanced past the engineer at the speed indicator. “Wow, is this a pulling old girl, or what?”
The train was moving along at 6 miles per hour.
Lawson said, “‘Course, she won’t go any faster from here to the top, but that’s okay, right?”
Adirondo nodded. “That’s exactly right. Hey, you got one’a them cell phone things?”
A slight frown crossed the young man’s face. “Sure.” He pulled a miniature computer from his left hip pocket. “Everybody’s got a—”
“Yeah, I know. Listen, do you trust me?”
“What? Oh. Yes sir. Of course. I’d do anything to—”
Adirondo leaned to one side to open the door. As a gust of wind rushed in and then abated, he gestured toward the gap with his chin. “All right, listen. I want to go over something with you.”
“When I tell you, I want you to jump. I’m going on alone from here. Me and the 710 are gonna make history.”
“Oh, but sir! Oh! You can’t—”
“Just do it, son. Please.”
Lawson looked at him. “The brakeman, sir. He’s—”
But Adirondo shook his head. “Didn’t make the trip. Me and Plain Ol’ have a thing we do. I walk the train before we leave, and the first thing I do is slap the side of the caboose. He pokes his head out the window and gives me a toothy smile with a thumbs up. Only he wasn’t there this morning.”
Again, Lawson just looked at him. The old man’s voice seemed to be coming from a great distance. But after a long moment, something in the engineer’s steady eyes—determination, maybe, or maybe a demand for respect—caused Lawson to nod.
Adirondo said, “Good. Now after you jump, call the yard. Tell ‘em what happened and tell ‘em I’m sorry about the load. I should be able to do this without harming the bridge, it bein’ slung off to the south like it is. And another train is scheduled along this same route about two hours from now.”
Lawson said nothing.
Adirondo said, “Son? You got it?”
Again, unable to think of anything to say, at first Lawson only nodded. Finally he said, “Yes sir.”
“All right. Beyond that, I have only one request. If it’s possible, see to it that I’m laid out next to my Marilyn. Weems knows where.” And Adirondo turned away to the controls again.
Barely able to breathe, Lawson quietly said, “Sir—Andy—are you sure?”
They’d almost topped out. Adirondo glanced at the speed indicator. Three miles per hour.
He turned to look at the kid and flashed his grin, then stuck out his right hand. “It’s been a pleasure, Mr. Lawson.”
As they shook, Lawson said, “Yes sir. A great deal more than you know.”
Adirondo gestured toward the open door again. “All right now, ready?” He paused. “Jump!”
And Lawson did.
He stumbled for several yards. But he brushed past low-hanging branches near the rails and managed to keep his feet. The air was bracing, the heavy scent of pine mixing with the heat reflecting off the cinder bed and the slight smell of coal smoke. Finally he steadied himself and watched as the rear of the locomotive, then the left half of the rear, and eventually only the left-rear corner receded into the distance of the flat at the summit.
The open-top iron-ore-filled dump cars thrummed and thrummed and thrummed rhythmically as they passed. As the fifth dump car passed, the thrumming increased.
He looked to where he’d last seen the locomotive. In its place, the second iron-ore car was just tilting down the far side of the summit.
The thrumming increased as the train picked up speed. The clacking grew more frequent, the sounds closer and closer together.
He began walking toward the far side of the summit.
Would the old man actually pull it off?
The cars continued to flash past him. The eleventh car, if he hadn’t lost count. The twelfth. The thirteenth. The fourteenth and fifteenth and sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth, caboose.
Lawson reached a point where he could see the downgrade. Far below, it flattened out. Beyond that, the rails curled away sharply to the south.
The clacking and thrumming was almost a continuous sound now, and receding rapidly.
The locomotive, which looked like a scale model at this distance, seemed to be leaning into the race. It seemed an eager, living thing that wanted to rush into eternity in a flash of glory.
The angle on the lower part of the grade was so different, the slope suddenly so gradual, the locomotive seemed to level off there.
He would change his mind. Surely he would change his mind. There would be the squeal of the brakes, the scraping of iron on iron as the train began to slow. Maybe he could slow it enough to make the curve. But without the brakeman—
But the squealing never came.
The clacking and thrumming condensed into a single sound, that of a large, angry bee.
The second car, the third, the fourth angled onto the gentler slope. Still the train gained speed. The plume of black smoke billowed so strongly from the stack that it raised high into the air before curling back and flattening over the locomotive and the first several cars.
The fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth leveled onto the gentler slope and drove the locomotive onward. The ninth, tenth, eleventh and then the others flashed away in a blurred streak as the engine gained speed.
The rails were there. Where they turned to the south they glimmered in the sun like a landing strip for planes but laid at an odd angle.
When the locomotive was almost to the curve, the sudden, plaintive cry of the whistle penetrated the thrumming buzz. Lawson imagined the engineer’s fist clutched around the whistle cord, pulling it hard. A great plume of steam rose, then fell, stretching lengthwise over the width of black smoke blowing back from the engine and—
The locomotive, complete with its layered plumes of black smoke and white steam, fired straight off the end of the slope.
It seemed to hang there for the longest time. It and the first, second and third dump cars arched gracefully as if they expected to reach the other side.
Then the engine was gone. Then the first few cars, the next several, and the next. Then the caboose.
In the final stop-action mental image, the brownish red caboose and the little railed back porch seemed to float like a dream on the air. And it vanished.
And all the sound went with it other than the smallest echo of the train whistle. But then, that might only be in his mind. It was as if the man had ridden the train straight to heaven, where he pulled into an immaculate train yard on golden rails. He would put that silly, broad grin on his face and step down out of the cab to greet his bride.
Lawson could almost see him, raising one hand in salutation to the eternal Yard Master. His wife would take his arm, and together, they would stroll across the—
There was a violent cacophony of metal on metal on metal, very distant, like a memory of a terrible memory.
Lawson tensed himself and waited, but there was no explosion.
Still, he remained rooted in place. Waiting. Waiting for something appropriate to end the saga of Adirondo Jones.
The rails lay there passively, shining in the sun, descending the grade, almost flattening out for some distance before the turn. From there they ran on, twisting hard away to the south, still glistening as if in welcome.
And a thick plume of dust rose beyond the place where the rails turned away south. It climbed and climbed and climbed, then began to waft in the wind, laying over to the north-northeast.
That was it, then. Adirondo Jones’ final signal.
Jim Lawson shook his head. He watched for another moment, then turned away.
As he walked east along the rails, he took out his cell phone and dialed a number.
* * * * * * *