by Marlane Gohl
It was 1850, and the railroad was spreading across the United States. It was hailed as a faster, much safer way to travel. Long trips with a horse and buggy were thought to soon be outdated. The America was a prototype steam engine. She was supposed to be faster, and able to haul more weight than any other. She was rumored to be able to clock more than eighty miles per hour while hauling sixty cars. People had anticipated her unveiling and maiden voyage for months.
A crowd of men, women, and children gathered on the platform dressed in their finest clothes. Women, mostly in their hooped dresses and petticoats, and men in their Sunday best. They all chatted with excitement as they stared down the track patiently waiting for this new miracle of ingenuity. Soon the whistle, the rattle of the track, and the chug of the engine could be heard by all. The America slowly pulled up to the platform in all of her glory. Her fresh new ebony paint job and brass fittings glistening under the sun. She let out a long puff of steam, and her brakes squealed as she slowly came to a halt. Casey, the engineer, waved his hand out the engine’s window like the grand marshal of a Thanksgiving Day parade passing through Time Square. The crowd cheered loudly. Some of the horses that were stationed nearby snorted, pranced, shook their heads, and stomped their hooves at the racket.
“Look at all those people Max!” Casey said to the fireman. “We need to show them what this girl is really capable of.”
“I’m not sure that is such a good idea, Casey. She isn’t even broken in yet.”
“She can take it, Max. She is built of the finest steel money can buy. She comes all the way from England. There’s nothin’ but fine craftsmen there,” he said, as he slapped her hull.
“I still think it is a very bad idea.”
The passengers quickly boarded the train, which consisted of several first and second-class passenger cars, a dining car, two sleeper cars, and a caboose. All of these were constructed from the finest wood. Even the windows had lacy silk draperies hanging from brass rods. The interior was deep mahogany. The floors were covered in a handwoven carpet with an intricate starburst pattern of blues, purples, and reds. The passengers gasped at the sheer beauty.
Some people were simply on a business trip, but most were headed for a new beginning. Sarah and her three children Marcus, Elle, and Samuel were on their way to join their father on the new frontier. She was a middle-aged woman with long red hair, pulled back and tied up in a bun. She always had a knowing smile on her face and a twinkle in her eyes. Only her laugh lines truly betrayed her age.
Marcus and Samuel were twins in looks only. Marcus was more outgoing and excited about this new adventure. Samuel was much more withdrawn. He spoke extraordinarily little and preferred the company of his books. They both had slight builds and blazing red hair with freckles all over their faces. Marcus was missing one front tooth. A casualty caused by playing tag and running full on into a tree. Then there was the precocious eight-year-old Elle with her blonde curly locks and infectious smile. She could make a new friend anywhere.
They quickly gathered their luggage and boarded the train. Marcus darted down the aisle full of excitement. “Look at all this,” he cried out. “Yes, Marcus. It’s very nice and very expensive, so please be careful and don’t break anything,” replied Sarah with a smile as she took her seat. Elle ran up to one of the windows in their booth and waved at all the people standing outside. A few even waved back.
The priest, Father Murphy, and the stone mason, James, shared a booth nearby, a few words of wisdom and a bottle of whiskey. They both smiled and waved at Marcus as he dashed from window to window.
“Ah, to be that young again. So full of joy and spunk,” James remarked with a grin. “Not a care in the world except what new adventure will find him next.”
Father Murphy was a fiftyish man with ever thinning hair and green eyes. James was a strapping middle-aged man with short, dark hair, and deep brown eyes. The Father found him particularly attractive. Perhaps under different circumstances, things would have happened. Madame Currey was in a first-class car with her purebred dalmatian, Echo. Echo whined and wiggled with anticipation at all the commotion. Soon the conductor bellowed out his signature call “All aboard!”
The last of the passengers got on the train, and she slowly headed on her voyage. Others stood on the platform waving heartfelt goodbyes while the conductor went from car to car greeting passengers and collecting tickets. Casey waved his hat out the window as they departed.
After getting their luggage settled in for the long haul, the passengers began to mill around. Marcus and Elle played with a ball while Samuel opened up a dog-eared paperback book for about the thousandth time. James pulled out his carving knife along with a piece of driftwood and began to whittle away at a new creation. Perhaps it would be a replica of Michelangelo’s “David,” or more likely than not, it would simply be a pile of woodchips on the floor. Father Murphy studied his Bible, periodically looking up from it at James with a smile.
Marcus and Elle traded in their ball for chatting excitedly about the adventures they were going to have when they got to their new home.
“I’m gonna go fishing in the river every day and help catch dinner. Then you can help mom clean and cook it, Elle.”
“Nope, because I will be fishing right beside you,” she replied with a grin as she punched him in the arm.
Marcus rubbed it pretending to be hurt. “Yeah, Elle, you hit like a girl.”
She punched him again, this time knocking him off his seat onto the floor. Sarah heard the commotion and quickly rebuked them. “Marcus, get up off the floor before you get your trousers dirty. Elle play with your doll or something and stop beating up your brother. What would your father say to you if he were here?” she asked.
“Do it again so I can see,” they replied. Sarah just silently shook her head.
Samuel glared over the top of his book, his frustration mounting. “The two of you are such babies. Why don’t you grow up?” he asked.
“Party pooper,” they replied in unison.
In the first-class car, Madame Curry and Echo were the only occupants. The Madame had done quite well for herself in the city. She had a large house with several beautifully decorated bedrooms for her guests. It was advertised as Curry’s B&B but had a vastly different reputation. When the mayor cracked down on prostitution, her brothel was one of the first to be shut down. Despite her apparent wealth, with her fancy jewels, and tailored clothes, she actually had very little money left and needed to start again. Most of her escorts had been arrested, and there were two that somehow ended up face down in the river with their throats slit. She felt sorry for those poor girls. They were considered the scum of society because of their profession, but no one deserves a demise like that. “They probably didn’t even get last rites,” she thought to herself while shaking her head. Now all she really had were two suitcases, a few toiletries, and her dog. She silently stared out the car window while mindlessly patting Echo. Starting over was a frightening prospect to her. She was now a much older woman, and although still considered handsome by some standards, her beauty had faded long ago.
Several hours later, the train arrived at its next stop. A few passengers departed, but several more got on. Namely the real estate mogul Charles Hampton, and his charge Tori Crum. They sat in the booth just behind Madam Curry. He was dressed in a tailored three-piece suit with top hat, while Tori was in a black, floor-length gown, her charcoal hair in a French braid, a stark contrast against her glowing alabaster skin. Her face was covered by the black lace veil that attached to her ebony silk bonnet. It had a few brightly colored flowers adorned with small feathers. It was more like a shroud used to cover her shame than an enhancement to her natural beauty. Her head hung low as she took her seat by the window. She gazed out of it silently, searching the horizon, her eyes glistening as the train pulled away from the station.
“Cheer up, girl,” Charles said as he patted her hand. “With that look on your face, people will think I don’t take care of you.”
She turned to him wordlessly and gave him a vacant stare, then resumed her vigil out the windowpane, tears now streaming down her cheeks.
Father Murphy moved from his seat and sat next to James. “How long have you been carving?” he asked.
“Not long. The knife belonged to my dad, and I just picked it up for something to do.”
“Where are you headed?” the priest asked.
“There aren’t many people around here that can afford to hire a mason with the lack of jobs and all. Even the wealthy folks are tightening their wallets these days. I was thinking Wisconsin, or maybe Ohio. Who knows. I will end up where I end up.” replied James.
“I am sorry for your troubles, my son. Perhaps you will have better fortune where ever you go. I will pray for you,” the priest said as he gently rested his hand on James’s shoulder. He took a deep breath. The scent of James’s manhood was intoxicating.
“I sure hope so,” replied James, as he took another swig of his whiskey, oblivious to the gentle caress.
“What about you? Why are you traveling?”
“I am on… vacation. I have always wanted to see the frontier before it was gone, and suddenly I got my chance. I couldn’t pass it up,” the priest replied with a smile as he patted James’s hand. James looked at him curiously and shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
“I hear people are being robbed and scalped by Indians and outlaws. You better watch yourself,” said James.
“Agreed,” said the priest as he patted his bible, “but I have the good lord on my side. He will guide and protect me.”
Tori became restless in her seat and quickly excused herself to the washroom. Shortly, god-awful retching echoed throughout the car. Madam Curry looked up from her book worriedly. Charles sat quietly adjusting and picking lint from his suit and seemed to be oblivious to the distress of his companion.
“Aren’t you going to check on her?” Madame Curry asked.
“It’s fine ma’am,” Charles replied. “She just has a sensitivity. The doctor says it will pass soon.” Madame Curry looked at him questioningly, shaking her head.
“Men.” She said quietly under her breath.
Tori returned to her seat and glared at Charles. “You did this.” she mouthed quietly, but clearly full of furry.
“Silence girl. Remember your place,” Charles replied. Madam Curry glanced angerly at Charles.
“Are you alright, dear?” She asked Tori. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
“I’ll be fine ma’am, just nausea. I’m a nervous traveler. Thank you,” she replied.
“Do you happen to know when the next stop is? I could use a walk in the fresh air.”
“I think it will be at least another two hours,” replied the Madam.
They rode in silence for some time. The Madam’s furry at how Mr. Hampton was treating his companion mounted. Occasionally she would glance up from her book and glare at him. Echo, who was oblivious to the tension around her wagged her tail happily while standing on her hind legs with her paws pressed against the window watching the world pass by. At the next stop, some of the passengers got off the train to stretch their legs while others departed, and it was refilled with coal. Madame Curry took Echo out to relieve herself when Samuel and Elle noticed them. Samuel, usually the disheartened one lit up at the sight of the dog. He and Elle trotted over and began to play with her. Echo jumped up and wagged her tail fiercely with delight. It was fun to run and play for a bit after having been cooped up for so long. Elle found an old piece of rope on the ground, tied knots on either end and began a game of tug of war. She and Samuel held on to one end while Echo tugged with all of her might on the other. Madam Curry stood there laughing heartily.
“She really seems to like the two of you,” she said. “I don’t think my dear Echo has had that much fun in a very long time.”
“It’s our pleasure ma’am,” Samuel said. “We haven’t had a dog since Lady died, and yours is so friendly.”
“I’m glad the two of you are having fun,” Madam Curry said with a smile.
“She sure is beautiful,” replied Elle. “We love her.”
Echo tossed her head back and forth ferociously trying to win her prize to no avail. Soon she gave one hearty yank, the rope broke, and all three landed on the ground covered in dirt. Samuel and Elle laughed hysterically. Echo darted to each of them and licked their faces.
Meanwhile, Tori and Charles went for a stroll. They browsed some of the local produce being sold at the station, but it was so rancid even the flies wouldn’t touch it. Tori covered her mouth with her hands as she felt her nausea return. She quickly darted around the side of the building and dislodged the remaining contents of her stomach with astounding force. When Madam Curry heard the commotion, she ran to Tori. She had nothing but sympathy for the girl but the only thing she could do was hand her a handkerchief to wipe her mouth with. However, she also noticed that Charles was out of earshot. Now was her chance to find out what was really going on.
“What has happened to you?” She asked. “Don’t sit there and tell me that everything is fine. I have been around a long time, and I can see when someone is clearly distressed.”
Tori took a deep breath and let out a sigh. “My father borrowed a great deal of money from Mr. Hampton to start his blacksmith business. He was doing okay at first, but some bad men came and burned the place to the ground. The law was no help to us at all. Oh, they claimed they would look for the men who did it, but we were poor people without influence. Basically, unless they get brought in for something else and spout out a spontaneous confession, nothing will happen. My father could no longer afford to make payments to Mr. Hampton, so I was taken instead as payment. He has used me as his personal concubine, and now I am pregnant. I can’t bring a baby into this hell. I won’t.”
“Oh, my poor child. You poor thing. What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. I want to run away, but Mr. Hampton is an immensely powerful man with lots of money and influence. He could find me anywhere. Not to mention what he would do to my family. He could easily have them killed if he hasn’t done that already. I have not seen or heard from them in a very long time. Every night I pray to whatever god is out there that they are okay.”
“I may be able to help you, but first I need to think of a plan. Give me some time, but you are going to have to trust me.”
“Thank you,” Tori said as she gave the madam a hug.
Just then the call was made to get back on the train. The children returned Echo to Madam Curry and rejoined their mother and Marcus who had been sleeping. Charles joined Tori and the Madam.
“What are you two fine ladies chatting about?” he asked as they mounted the steps to their car. Both women just glared at him in silence and disgust.
“Well, that’s the last of our stops,” said Casey. “Let’s stoke up the fire and let this girl really fly.”
“This really is a bad idea, Casey,” said Max.
“Don’t worry. It will be fine. Besides, when we prove how much work we can get out of her, we will probably get a raise, and we have put on a good show for the newspapers. We have to show that with these new engines, robberies will be outdated.”
“You’re the boss, Casey, but I don’t like it.”
Max grudgingly put more coal on the fire and stoked it hotter than ever before. Parts of her glowed red. The America picked up her pace and began her long journey to the other side of the country. Faster and faster, she rumbled on her iron rails, the countryside sweeping past. Trees began to wiz by and soon turned to open fields. The passengers gawked out their windows at the ever-expanding landscape. In the distance, snow-capped mountains could be seen against a powder blue sky. A flock of birds was headed south, and a doe narrowly missed being slaughtered by the train. The beauty of it was awe-inspiring. Night soon fell, and the passengers were bedding down, the rhythm of the rails lulling them to slumber.
Unknown to all, a nearby tree had uprooted and fallen across the track, knocking some of it out of alignment. In the early hours of the morning, The America hit the tree at full speed. She quickly derailed, several of her cars folding in on themselves with the sheer force and crushing each other. The wood cracked and split causing a debris field that spread across the terrain. Her boiler exploded producing a massive fireball, lighting up the horizon as if the very flames from hell had swept across the night sky. Quickly, the wooden cars ignited. They were ashes in a matter of seconds. The engine rolled several times taking several cars with it, scorching the ground and tearing up more track, and what was left of The America disintegrated. People screamed in terror and agony as they were burned alive. The flames swept across the landscape, and not a soul survived.
It is now the year 2018. More than one hundred and fifty years have passed since that fateful night. Near a lonely stretch of road, there is a set of tracks, twisted, scorched, and overgrown with weeds. Most people don’t even see them unless they look closely. Most of the time all is quiet, and people pass by undisturbed, but occasionally, on a still night, you can hear faintly in the breeze the laughter of children, the playful bark of a dog, and the mournful wail of a train.
While this story of The America is a complete work of fiction, It does have some roots in very real history. First, there was an engine that was intended to come to the United States from England that was called “The America” along with two other engines. One is “The Lion,” which ended up in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, and the other I do not know the name of. “The Lion” made it and it’s remains were reassembled and currently reside with the Smithsonian Institute. As for the other two engines, their fate is unknown. There is some speculation that “The America” made it here and exploded on its maiden voyage. This is somewhat substantiated, but not entirely confirmed by the fact that when “The Smithsonian” received the parts that were left of “The Lion,” there were simply some that did not fit.
If you are wondering why there is not very much description of what the engine looked like in the story, I chose to leave that up to the readers imagination for one simple reason: If I had tried to describe the artists depiction of what “The America” looked like, it would have brought the image of a hot water heater on wheels with a smokestack to mind. I was afraid that someone less familiar with trains than I am would have no idea what on earth it was.
The second thing that inspired this story is the folklore surrounding “Casey Jones.” I remember reading about him as a child, and when I was a bit older I saw him as a character in the cartoon “The Real Ghostbusters,” which reaffirmed my interest in him. I do not know very much about him. There are many versions of his story, but the ones that I have seen all seem the have three elements in common. One, he was a train engineer. Two, the last engine he was in control of was doomed. Three, he managed to save everyone on-board his train except himself.
The third and most tragic event that inspired my story is that of “The Titanic.” This story also fascinated me ever since I was a child. This ocean liner was thought to be unsinkable. I have no idea why anyone would think that an object made of metal can’t sink, but sometimes I guess people have trouble thinking for themselves. There were several issues that doomed this ship. Probably the biggest one is human arrogance. We will never be able to construct a structure of any kind that can beat Mother Nature. It may take her centuries, but eventually, she will prevail. “The Titanic” is a major reason that the safety precautions we have today are in place on ocean liners.
Also by Marlane Gohl
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