Down the Line

By Shalane L Weidow

I should have refused to help Travis when he offered to host a historical walking tour of the town during the spring festival. Though I had to hand it to him, he knew how to drum up a crowd and we scheduled a full week of one-hour walks.

We were finishing up the last of these in the late afternoon of one particularly overcast day. The weatherman that morning had promised the clouds would lift by noon, but when are they ever right? As we neared the old train station that was our last stop, the sky suddenly opened up on us with a loud crack of thunder. Within seconds, large drops of water were falling.

We were forced into the station's roundhouse, sidestepping puddles formed by holes in the tin roof overhead. "Are you sure we're all right in here?" a buxom blonde Travis had been eyeing all morning asked.

He grinned at her as though he'd won the lottery, "Yes, this bit of railway hasn't been used in years." He pointed towards her feet, "See? The rails are crusted with rust. No worries."

Not quite convinced, I looked up at the domed ceiling above us and checked for any sign of lightning. "You might want to stay away from the rails. They can conduct electricity. If we get any lightning strikes, the rails would attract the current." She gave me a startled look and Travis rolled his eyes.

I peered towards the back of the dome and saw the controller's office. I pointed toward it, "Let's see if it's any dryer in there." Our small group wandered across the expansive roundhouse, trying to dodge the rails. I watched them, wondering if I should tell them they didn't have to be that careful. Instead, a small smile crept to my lips and kept my mouth shut. No sense confusing the cattle.

From my vantage point near the window of the controller's office, I began my lecture, pointing out the different cars and their uses. I talked about the history of the railway and it's importance in helping create our town. I could tell most of them weren't interested in the history lecture, the cold had finally settled in and they were shivering. Desperate, knowing there would be whining if I didn't keep their attention, I made a last ditch effort and told a little white lie. "But the most interesting part of this rail yard is the stories revolving around the death of the line supervisor."

I had eleven pairs of eyes on me immediately. Travis just looked confused, distracted from his conversation with the blonde for a moment. "What are you talking about?" he mouthed.

I grinned at him and continued, indicating a set of sleeper cars with rusted sides being christened by the falling rain. "This was one of the busiest lines in the state and being the controller of the roundhouse was an important job. It required excellent juggling abilities and a good sense of timing. It also was one of the best paying positions in the whole crew."

I shoved my hands in my pockets, getting into the flow of my story now. "The controller at the time was a man named Richard Barlow. A fair man, but God help you if someone got hurt on the job. He had the best work record of any man on the line and a person getting hurt because of foolishness wasn't tolerated.

About three years into his reign, the company hired a new man to help work in the roundhouse. A big barrel of a man named Paul Donnelly. Paul was known to be one of the best drinkers in town. He had a mean streak a mile wide and never hesitated to show it. And he wanted Richard's job bad. Rumor had it that he had a wife over in Denton who had cheated on him and he'd killed the man she'd been with. Beat her up pretty bad too, but she was still around."

I walked to the door of the office, peering into the thickening darkness. A couple flashlights clicked on behind me. "Paul knew there was a certain chain of command he had to go through to get a shot at Richard's job. And Richard knew Paul was willing to do just about anything to get there. Richard kept a close eye on everything Paul did. He'd have him do a job over three or four times just to make sure nothing was wrong before he'd let him move on to something else.

Seeing that no one else was getting this sort of treatment, Paul starting taking exception to being called to the carpet all the time. Unfortunately, Paul was also good at his job and everyone knew it. Then, a few months into the job, Paul saw his first opportunity. The line supervisor was readying a track to help turn a huge engine. Paul was on the other side, checking rails and connectors. Looking up, he noticed the engine coming into the roundhouse. He called out over the noise for the line supervisor to 'come look at something."

The whole group was holding it's breath and the steady sound of the rain on the roof gave the building a heartbeat all it's own. "Nodding, the supervisor came across the tracks, Paul pointed to something and the line super told him it was okay. The super skipped across the tracks before the engine came too close, but Paul called out again. The super stopped and motioned that he couldn't hear what Paul had said. The engine's whistled sounded, right behind the supervisor, startling him. He moved to get off the tracks, but had somehow gotten his boot caught between the connector rails. The sound of the whistle covered the dying man's screams as he was run over."

I could almost hear the group's breathing now. The cold forgotten, they shivered now for the loss of a poor line supervisor who had never existed. Travis grinned at me from the back of the crowd and shook his head slowly as though he didn't believe what he was hearing.

"There was an investigation of course, but Paul was found not guilty. Death by misadventure is the term, I believe." There were a couple nods of affirmation from the group. "After a month the excitement had died down and Paul replaced the line supervisor. A couple of the men grumbled over his promotion, but agreed that the line worked like a well-oiled machine under his hand. A ruthless worker on his own, he pushed the men hard. Richard watched him carefully, knowing his days were numbered as well.

Rumors started that Richard was drinking on the job. The number of accidents went up and Richard's pristine work record was slowly taking on tarnish. The company men had a review of the line workers. They found most of the men terrified of Paul's iron hand and worried over the state of their trusted roundhouse controller. Finally, they knew something needed to be done. The company men called Richard in for a meeting that ended in Richard being told to retire at the end of the month. He agreed and signed the papers for the generous pension the company offered. Then he came into the roundhouse office and got blind drunk at his desk."

I pulled out the squeaky chair from behind the desk and sat down. Putting my arm carefully on top of the dusty surface, I lay my forehead on it and tried not to sneeze. "He passed out after a few hours and the light outside faded into darkness. The men started to clear out, going home to their families and a warm meal. All but Paul.

Knowing he wouldn't have any better opportunity, he told a few of the line men he was going to talk to Richard. Fearful, the men left before they could be implicated in anything. Paul strode to the door of the office and pushed his way in."

I saw a couple of heads swing toward the door of the office as I peeked out from under my arm. "He sneered at the top of Richard's balding head and grabbed a long pry-bar from the corner. This wouldn't be too hard."

The blonde gasped and moved closer to Travis, whose face broke into a broad smile. He settled an arm around her shoulders carefully.

"Suddenly a cold breeze blew through the room and Paul paused for a second, the pry-bar settled on his shoulder. Turning slowly, he looked out the office window into the rail yard. A faint figure stood in a cloud of light in the middle of the roundhouse. And it was walking toward Richard's office. Paul swore and returned the pry-bar to its corner.

It seemed someone hadn't left yet. Paul waited patiently, looking for the entire world like he was waiting for Richard to wake up. The was a soft rap on the office door and Paul called for the person to come in. Nothing, the door remained closed and the rap came again. More insistent this time. Paul called out again, telling the person to come in if they were coming in. But no one did and the door remained closed. There was a final rap on the door and Paul, angry now, crossed to the door and yanked it open.

Standing there in the gathering gloom was the dead line supervisor. His face was ghastly, half of it torn away from his ride on the tracks under the cowcatcher. There was a gurgling noise from the depths of his throat and a huge hand reached out to grab the front of Paul's shirt. Paul screamed, flailing at the dead man, trying to dislodge the hand. The line supervisor dragged Paul out of the office and down to the yard. To the rail line he'd died on. There, he pushed Paul down on the tracks and began smashing his face into the rails. Again and again the rails rang with a hollow clang as Paul's head hit.

In the office, Richard slowly awakened from his drunken stupor to the noise in the rail yard. Paul's screams were becoming softer now, but the blows kept coming. A regular rhythm was pounded out on the rails. Richard made his way to the window of the office and tried to make sense of what he was seeing. Suddenly the line supervisor stopped. Paul's body sagged onto the ground in a pool of already congealing blood. The supervisor turned and looked back at Richard, lifted a hand and walked out of the far end of the roundhouse. Shaken and shaking, Richard turned and dropped the half-empty bottle of whiskey into the garbage can.

Strangely, the investigation into Paul's death was quick and quiet. Apparently, he'd had too many enemies to pinpoint anyone. Richard retired quietly at the end of the month and never took another drink for the rest of his life." I smiled around at my audience and listened closely for a second. The rain had stopped and it looked as though we might get some of that sun after all. I stood and cleared my throat.

"Well, we'd better be getting back I think. It's quite a walk back to the hotel."

The group managed to get out of the roundhouse without trampling each other, though it was easy to tell I'd really shaken them. Travis clapped me on the back as we left, "Good job, Wade. Christ, you almost had me going there." I grinned at him.

All at once there was a twang on the rails next to us. Tracing them back into the roundhouse, Travis and I could barely make out the vague shape of a man standing near the center. Bending down, he struck the rails again, giving out a hollow boom. Travis and I looked at each other and lit out after the group, urging them back to the hotel as quickly as possible.

The End

Copyright © 2002 by Shalane L Weidow




Visit Aphelion's Lettercolumn and voice your opinion of this story.

Return to the Aphelion main page.