The bursitis or arthritis, or whatever kind of “-itis” it was gnawed at Charlie’s shoulder in the usual way. He laid his hammer down on the eighteen-inch piece of narrow gauge rail he used for an anvil, reached around with his left hand and rubbed the aching joint hard. Nearly twenty-five years since he’d hurt it, and how could that thing still give him trouble?
That was his one and only stay ever in a hospital – the Memorial Hospital in Weatherford. He’d been there two days recuperating while Ada and Genevieve came over from Fort Worth and stayed at the Baker Hotel to be close by. Genevieve brought Cecilia with her, and that little rascal running around the hospital was about the only thing that made those two days bearable.
He remembered lying up in that iron bed so many years ago, with the window open and the dry fall breeze coming in. The girls ’d gone over to the hotel for lunch and to rest awhile, and in the quiet he’d laid there and played the wreck over and over in his mind. He’d brushed with death, he knew that. A close call like that leaves a taste in your mouth that won’t go away, a what if, what if, what if?
That engine barreling down on him. In all his years on the railroad he’d never seen one from that angle. It was a living thing then, with a toothy steel grin and eyes so black, no telling what it was thinkin’, except it was comin’ after him. Spitting sparks and breathing black smoke, wheezing and groaning, the devil himself couldn’a been scarier. Ohhhh! He moaned and rolled onto his side to ease his shoulder a little. He’d never look at No. 902 the same again.
He always checked the tracks during the first week of the month. One of his section gangs on the Fort Worth to Abilene line wasn’t much good, in his opinion, and being Roadmaster, his opinion meant quite a bit. He was thinking about that, and about whether or not he’d be able to get the point across to his foreman, on his way to Abilene yesterday. The sun was bright, but not too hot, and he’d probably slipped off into daydreaming. Fact was, there shouldn’ta been anything on the tracks except him. Arthur’d felt real bad about that.
Ada hadn’t left Fort Worth without stopping down at the station to pitch a fit at the dispatcher, who happened to be Arthur, for leaving that troop train off his schedule. She was a pistol! Genevieve told him the whole thing in hushed whispers while Ada walked little Cecilia up and down the hall.
“You almost killed my husband! You did!” One hand on her hip, she jabbed the air in front of him with her forefinger.
“Ma’am, it was a mistake,” stammered Arthur.
“A mistake! How can a dispatcher make a mistake like that? That’s your whole job, man!
“I know, Miz Stockman, I’m sorry. I—”
The stationmaster had saved Arthur, pulling Ada aside and telling her how seriously the T & P took such an act of negligence. “He may have another chance Mrs. Stockman. I say, he may. He’ll be working under very close supervision for now.”
“Well, I should think so,” was her only response.
Ada expected too much of people. Arthur was one of the best dispatchers working, but everything had been so crazy with the war on that it wasn’t surprising he could make a mistake. Why, he’d ridden over to Weatherford that morning to apologize in person. Charlie could respect a man like that. Everything had happened so fast, the last thing on his mind was laying blame. He was just happy to be alive.
It was close, and he was sure it would never be that close again until it was the real thing. That old motorcar’s engine was so loud, he still didn’t know how he happened to look up and see the train in time. Head on around the curve. It couldn’t’ve been a worse situation, with that locomotive pulling half a million tons at seventy-five miles an hour – he was probably doing forty himself. There was nothing but kindling left of the motorcar.
He closed his eyes to sleep, and the soft voices of the nurses chatting drifted in through the open door of his room. It had been tolerably warm on the open motorcar under that autumn sun. He was almost sure his eyes had closed. It had happened all at once, though now it played itself out slowly. What if he hadn’t opened his eyes just as the engine appeared in the curve? What if he’d froze like he’d heard of others doin’ instead of letting the engineer’s blast throw him to action? What if his valise had been a few inches farther from his grasp when he reached for it?
The engineer was still yanking that whistle when Charlie jumped from the car. He hit the ground rolling, knowing he was hurt, and looked up in time to see the long pilot on 902 run under the motorcar at such a speed the motorcar was tossed thirty feet in the air. The image of that familiar equipment upside down against the bright blue sky stuck in his mind like a photograph. He heard it crash on the other side of the screeching, slowing train. “Pretty funny lookin’”, he remembered thinking. He wasn’t thinking straight.
Then the ticking-capped engineer they called Mugwamp was bending over him, “You okay, Mr. Stockman? You okay?” Fear strained his voice.
“I’m okay,” Charlie gasped, “Hurt my shoulder, though. Reckon I could use a hand.”
The peach-faced boys in green fatigues out of Fort Walters lifted him as gently as little Cecilia handled her dolls. “We got you,” “Don’t you worry none,” “You’re gonna be fine,” “You’re in the hands o’ the fifty-second now!” Their voices were deep and confident as a choir’s. They made a bed of their duffels and some blankets on the train and put him on it. That was when he first saw Roy and Martha Theobolt’s boy, Eddie.
Eddie nervously twirled his cap round and round in his two hands until he caught Charlie’s eye, then he grinned wide.
“Hey, Mr. Stockman.”
“Howdy, Eddie. What you doin’ on this train, boy?”
“I’m gonna pop me some Krauts, Mr. Stockman!” He knelt beside Charlie’s makeshift bed, “I’m headed for New York Cityand then I’m shipping out to Europe.”
Charlie remembered the dead German pilot Ada’s brother Dan wrote about when he was over there in the Great War. The German’s plane had crashed near their camp and he was all mangled up. Dan painted quite a picture in his letter. Charlie hadn’t thought there was much glory in it, even then.
“I reckon you’ll do a fine job for us over there, Eddie,” he said.
“I’m gonna do my share. You can count on that!” barked the boy.
Charlie chuckled, “Yessir, I reckon you will!” The laugh caught in his throat, making him cough, which hurt pretty bad.
“You just lay quiet, now, Mr. Stockman. We’ll get to town in no time.”
“Thank ya, son. I ain’t seen your folks in awhile. They gettin’ along alright?”
“Yessir,” Eddie’s eyes softened, “Mama ain’t too happy about me joining up.”
“No, that don’t surprise me none.”
“She don’t understand how it is with a fella. What a fella’s got to do to hold his head up.”
“I reckon she understands a far sight more than you know, boy.”
“Maybe so, but she kept sayin’ she didn’t see why I was so anxious to go fight folks I don’t even know. Mr. Stockman, that don’t matter in a war.”
“Well, you write to her. That’ll make her happy.”
Martha Theobolt had got a letter from her son. She showed it to Charlie at the funeral. It was full of his excitement over being a soldier. The pride and camaraderie came through in every line. She showed him the letter from the army, too. “Killed in the line of duty” were the only words he remembered. Roy Theobolt said he was shot by a sniper.
The slam of the screen door broke his reverie, and he was back in his garage behind his house on Avenue G. The bit of metal he was fashioning to mend a rocker lay on the makeshift anvil in front of him. Ada hollered in her thin voice that the chicken was fried up and “come on to lunch before it gets cold”. He stuck his head out the garage door. “Be right there, honey.” She went back inside.
Charlie wiped at his face and rotated his aching shoulder. Eddie Theobolt would be younger right now than he was on the day that train nearly killed him. “You’re an old man, Charlie Stockman,” he said aloud. Of everyone they knew, he was the last to see that boy alive. That had been a comfort to Eddie’s folks. Somehow, it was a comfort to him, too.
© 1996 Melissa Kay Simonds