This piece is a quite different from some of the others I've written. Not as dark as "Extreme Sanction," nor as tragic as "What's a Hero, Really?" this is an Alternate Universe story. Inspired by an actual story from history, I wanted to explore what a true hero is: a normal man placed in extraordinary circumstances that choose to react in an extraordinary way. For something lighter, try "Love in the Library" or "Raven's Wedding." Anyway, this one is a little rough, so buckle your seatbelts. Thanks for reading.
"Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?"
"I do." – Lamont Cranston
April 30, 1900 - Memphis, TN
The thunder boomed, the lightning flashed, and the rain poured down in sheets. Garfield turned to Rachel, his wife of four months and smiled. He looked around and, seeing nobody looking their way, leaned in and stole a kiss.
Rachel's eyes went wide and she pulled away after his lips made contact.
"Garfield! Stop that! Someone's going to see," she hissed.
"Nobody's looking," he replied with a toothy grin.
She blushed. "But still . . ."
The young couple stood at the Railroad Station in Memphis, Tennessee, a wooden building close in by the tracks. It was new, and still smelled of sawdust and varnish. The tile shingles on the roof were a bright red, topping the whitewashed building with its green shutters and trim, although the pretty new building looked gray, soaked as it was with the pouring rain. For rain it had, for five or six weeks, off and on.
Garfield was a young man, still in his late teens, but he'd been fortunate. Through hard work and perseverance, he's gained one of the most coveted jobs for young men: he was a fireman.
No, he didn't put out fires. His job was much more exciting than that. He was responsible for delivering the fuel to the boiler of a locomotive. He worked with one of the most famous engineers on the Illinois Central Railroad: Victor Stone.
Victor was a legend in his own time. He commanded a reputation known across multiple lines and rail companies. Victor Stone was never late. Ever. He ran his engines very fast and took chances, but in his entire career he'd never hurt anyone. In fact, one time, when a group of children had crossed the tracks ahead of the train, reversing the throttle and braking hadn't been enough. All of the children got safely away except one little girl who had frozen as the sight of the approaching locomotive. Vic had left his fireman leaning on the brake lever and climbed all the way forward to the cowcatcher and snatched the girl up onto the locomotive, safely away from the crushing power of the train. That was just the kind of man Vic was.
After that incident, Victor had a special whistle made that he mounted on each of the locomotives under his care. It was a series of six pipes bundled together like reeds. The shortest was half the length of the longest, and all six pipes sounding together gave forth a loud, weird, unearthly moan. Very quickly everyone on the line came to know by the sound of his "calliope whistle" that the man at the throttle was Victor Stone, and they best be clear of the tracks.
Only the best fireman would be allowed to stoke for Victor Stone, and Garfield had won that job by dint of hard labor and masterful skill with a shovel. (Okay, and some pretty ugly fights in the back of some rail stations. But that was all in the past.)
"Aw, C'mon Rachel, today is special. Today we get to take out the Cannonball Express."
"I know," she replied.
Garfield had been talking about it all week.
Rachel's face was flat and her attitude apparently disinterested. She spoke. But as she did her eyes twinkled.
"The Cannonball Express," said Rachel, "is a brand new engine, the first of its kind. It has a larger boiler, more dampers, and a bigger firebox than any other locomotive of its class."
"Did I tell ya that her drivers are over six feet tall, and she's got six of them?"
"Yes, you did. And that 'she' set all kinds of records in her trials."
"Oh," he said, momentarily deflated.
Rachel relented, "I'm very excited for you," she said, smiling a tiny smile. "Have a good day today, and I'll see you when you get back tomorrow."
Then she looked around. At this early hour, the station was almost empty. To his utter shock, she leaned forward and kissed him tenderly, but very, very quickly.
"Now here," she said, "Take your lunch, and don't be late meeting Victor. If he has to wait on you . . . "
"Hey," he said, "I know I'm not the most on-time guy in the world, but Vic's never had to wait on me."
And he hadn't. Garfield wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he wasn't stupid. And in the new century, locomotive operators were the rock stars. Sure, Victor was the big deal, but anyone who worked with him shared fame, and there was a line of strong, healthy young men just waiting to take Garfield's place if he screwed up, and he knew it.
Quick as a mongoose, he leaned forward, stole another kiss, and grabbed his lunch hamper. Turning toward the tracks he grinned back over his shoulder at her, turned and stepped out into the rain, dashing to where the Cannonball Express waited. And waited. And waited. Victor and Garfield had been on time, but there had been a mechanical problem with another train on the line just ahead of them. It had taken over an hour and a half to clear the track, and the Cannonball Express would be leaving the station 95 minutes behind schedule. Garfield dashed past the Station Conductor who was looking at his watch with a worried expression on his face.
From the cabin of the giant locomotive, a dark face emerged wearing the iconic striped hat of an Engineer.
"What's the problem?" he called.
"I'd hoped to get you out earlier. News from up the line is that rain hasn't let up."
Victor grinned. "That's no problem. My baby here is just like her sisters: she runs better in damp weather."
"You best hope so," said the Station Conductor. "The Company doesn't like it when we're late. It tears up the schedule all up and down the line."
"No problem," said the large man as he patted a pressure gauge, "my baby can make up the time."
And with that, Victor and Garfield mounted to the cabin, orders in hand. They were to deliver the freight, in particular the Western Mail car to Canton, Mississippi. The Fire Lighters had done their jobs well. The Cannonball Express, a giant locomotive with her six huge driver wheels larger than a man is tall, had steam up and was ready to roll.
Victor began to close the drive valves to build pressure behind the pistons to make the drivers roll.
"All aboard!" shouted the Station Conductor.
The signalman, down the tracks, showed a green light. Victor squeezed the deadman and eased the throttle forward. There was a squeal and a groan as the powerful pistons shoved forward, their cylinders filling with searing steam. The drivers began to turn, and the Cannonball Express took up the slack along her cars, and then moved out of the station.
Victor pulled the steam whistle cord, and his calliope whistle gave out that weird, ululating moan that told everybody for miles around that Victor Stone was at the throttle, and folk had better get out of the way.
"Stoke!" cried Victor.
Garfield grabbed his shovel with calloused hands, and his ropy but wiry muscles bent to the task. With great skill and accuracy, Garfield popped the searingly hot firebox door open with the blade of his shovel, and then made short work of topping off the coal already burning in the belly of the great steel beast. Quickly, so as to waste as little heat as possible, he racked his shovel and grabbed the fire rake, evenly spreading the new coal across the upper layer of the fire. With the end of the fire rake he shoved the door closed with a clang, crying "Stoked!" He turned to look at Victor.
The Engineer stood by, looking at the big, expensive watch issued to him by the Company.
"Not bad, kid. Not bad at all. Not your best time, but not bad."
"So – lessons then?"
Victor closed his eyes and sighed. It was no secret that Garfield wanted to be an Engineer. But then, who didn't? The thing was, Garfield just didn't have the aptitude for it. He could study all he wanted, but . . .
But Victor wasn't gonna be the one to look into those eager, green puppy dog eyes and tell him he wasn't gonna make it. And if sheer guts and enthusiasm could make an engineer, Garfield had a chance. And if he didn't succeed, it wouldn't be because Vic had been unwilling to help. So once again they dived into the intricacies, not of merely running the engine, but the hows and whys of design. And, on the flat, straight parts, sometimes even the math.
The first leg of their journey was a straight run over light and shaky rails from Memphis to Grenada Mississippi. Victor leaned heavily on his calliope whistle and they flew across the landscape at speeds up to seventy miles an hour! By the time they rolled into Grenada, where they were forced to stop to replenish the locomotive's water, they had made up 55 minutes of the pre-dawn delay, and were only 45 minutes behind schedule.
Victor checked his watch again, grinning.
"With any luck at all," Garfield said, "we'll make up the rest of it."
By the time they rolled into Durant Mississippi, they had just about made up the entire delay.
"Nothing," thought Garfield, "Could go wrong on a run like this."
But farther down the track, at the small town of Vaughn, Mississippi, there was a problem. There were three separate trains at the Vaughn station: Old Number 83, which had been delayed at Vaughn for mechanical problems was on one siding, Number 72, an extra long freight train that was ten cars longer than the east side passing track, leaving part of it on the main line, and, worst of all, the north bound passenger train, Number 26. Because Number 72 was on the main line blocking their way, Number 26 was unable to clear the track. Vaughn station would need to pull 72 all the way back onto the track, detatch the excess cars, and move 72 out of the way. Then they would need to run 83 BACK onto the track, hook up the excess cars from 72 and pull them back off of the track onto the south siding. This would clear the track for Number 26 to head north, but it was far too late for that. The Cannonball Express was already barreling south, tearing straight down the main line.
Victor, on a mail run and with explicit orders to be on time, was aware of none of this, and he and the Cannonball Express were making speed records as they passed each point. This was a time before cell phones, wireless internet, or even radio. Only the telegraph lines along the tracks could send word faster than the speeding train. But everyone thought that Garfield and Victor were an hour and a half behind. There was no reason to contact them, even if they could. Reno Hill was the last high point right before Vaughn. There would be downhill run toward Vaughn station, a gentle curve, and then back onto the straightaway. Vic started slowing the Cannonball Express, because the curve was rated for twenty miles an hour. The surveyors had been very conservative. Vic normally took it at about fifty, and it was Victor who saw the disaster approaching.
"Oh dear Lord, that's Number 26 on the main line!"
Victor spun the relief valves, venting steam pressure so that when the collision came the boiler wouldn't explode, then jammed his air brakes to "emergency stop" and reversed his throttle. Garfield stared at the lay of the tracks as the heavy engine immediately began to slow.
"There are over three hundred people on Number 26," said Victor. "We're going to turn her to matchsticks!"
"We're not gonna make it," Garfield thought, "but . . ."
And then something happened inside of Garfield's brain. His mind moved like lighting. He stared down the hill at the lay of the track, then at the enormous boiler in front of him with its oversized firebox and extra dampers. Instinctively he could tell that there was no way Victor would be able to stop the train in time to save lives. But still . . .
"Garfield, jump! If you jump, you'll at least have a chance."
"Oh God," thought Garfield. "Vic doesn't see it. Should I tell him?"
Garfield looked over a Victor. He didn't just have a wife. He had two small children, children who needed their father.
"No," he thought, "I can't ask that of another man."
Garfield's next thought flashed to Rachel. She'd be sad, but she was the strongest person he'd ever known. She'd be all right.
"And she's one person," he thought, "There are three hundred ahead of us."
Victor leaned on the throttle, reversing the engine in a desperate effort to slow and stop the massive locomotive but it was just too heavy and they were going too fast.
"Jump, Garfield! There's nothing left you can do here."
Garfield licked his lips and glanced down the track again. He could see everything so clearly, and Vic hadn't seen it. It was all so obvious. The speed, the mass of the train, the heat of the firebox, the amount of water in the boiler – it all added up. He could make it work. He looked at his friend and thought of Vic's two children.
"I'm not jumping without you," he said. "I won't leave you behind here. We go together. Now."
"All right. Left side. The grass is a little taller," said the older man.
"Wait!" shouted Garfield. "If . . . if I don't make it, swear you'll take care of Rachel."
"It's not going to be that bad. Just protect your head and neck, and roll when you hit," Victor replied.
Garfield looked Victor in the eye. "Swear it to me! Swear to me on your parent's graves! Swear that you'll take care of Rachel or I'm not coming!"
Victor looked into the younger man's eyes and saw a grim determination there had never seen before. He nodded slowly. Then the two men carefully climbed out onto the side of the slowing locomotive.
Shouting over the sound of the wind, Victor said, "On three: one – two – three!"
Garfield leaned forward and hopped. Victor, seeing the movement, jumped from the train. With a jerk of his left hand, the younger man swung himself back onto the running board like a monkey and turned back to watch as his friend rolled to a stop in the tall grass.
Victor hit the ground hard. He felt his left arm both snap and dislocate as it took the brunt of the impact. To his shock, he wasn't knocked out.
"Garfield?" he said as he staggered to his feet cradling his injured arm. "Garfield?"
Victor cast his eyes about, eventually looking down the track. He looked up just in time to see his friend wave at him from the running board and re-enter the cab of the speeding locomotive.
Garfield glanced down the track again. He had only moments to pull this off, or it would all be for nothing. Now he would find out if all his study with Victor paid off.
First, he closed the relief valves so that the boiler would resume building pressure. He turned the necessary valves to put the engine back into gear. He felt the Cannonball Express lurch forward as he released the air brakes. Then, he grabbed his shovel. With the grace and skill of a master of his trade, he popped open the door with the blade of his shovel and stoked like there was no tomorrow. His sturdy muscles flexed and bent beneath his coveralls as he shoved the top-quality anthracite coal into the belly of the firebox. When it was as full as he could make it, he raised his shovel, glancing at it for a moment. Then the flung it from the cabin. He would not need it again. Quickly, he grasped the fire rake and smoothed the burning coal evenly, distributing the hot fuel for maximum efficiency. Slamming the door shut, he then cast the fire rake from the cabin as well. It cart-wheeled to the ground, sticking point down. Smoke rose briefly as the red-hot poker scorched the grass.
Garfield wiped his palms on the legs of his coveralls. It wouldn't be long now. He examined the complex panel of gauges, wheels, and valves in front of him. He reached up and pulled the cotton cord that led to Victor's calliope whistle, and it let out its haunting moan. He reached out and toggled four levers, opening not two, not four, but all eight of the Cannonball Express' dampers, channeling air to the fire at what was approaching seventy five miles an hour.
The Cannonball Express roared like an angry dragon, fire bursting from her chimney in a vast column of orange and red. Sparks flew for yards. She jerked again on the rails, speeding ever faster.
Garfield looked down at the throttle and noticed Victor's engineer's hat lying abandoned on the floor. He picked it up and placed it on his head. It was a little loose, but it wasn't like anyone else was going to see it. Then, he stepped over to the throttle. Grabbing whistle cord in his left hand, he squeezed the deadman, and levered the throttle forward. The Cannonball Express began to accelerate down towards the bottom of Reno hill, and her destiny.
From near the top of Reno Hill Victor heard the whistle moan and saw the flare of the overheating firebox.
"What in the Sam Hill is he . . . ?"
And then he saw it. You've seen it already, haven't you, dear reader?
"Oh no. Oh God no. That was MY responsibility. NO! NO! NO!"
Victor scrambled toward the bottom of the hill, but there was nothing he could do.
At the bottom of Reno Hill people were scattering like nine pins. The brakeman of Number 72 had already evacuated and he and the Conductor stared up the hill at the oncoming leviathan. Steam poured from her sides as emergency valves opened as the boiler over-pressured. Faster and faster Garfield drove the steel engine, her pistons flailing and her drivers a steel-colored blur. He jerked on the whistle rope again. The Cannonball Express let out her eerie moan.
"C'mon, baby," Garfield coaxed the Cannonball Express as he leaned into the throttle, pouring on all the steam her boiler could generate. "You can do it!"
The Cannonball Express struck the gentle, Twenty-Mile-An-Hour curve right before Vaughn Station at something over ninety miles an hour. With a bang and a roar, her great driver wheels shoved her off of the rails, and for a short moment, the Cannonball Express knew what it was like to fly. Garfield grinned as the train left the rails. He seemed to float in the air like an eagle as the train jumped the tracks.
What happened in the cabin next does not bear repeating.
Victor had refused to leave the scene of the crash until his friend had been extracted from the twisted remains of the cabin of the Cannonball Express. They'd found him there, at the Engineer's station. His right hand had still been on the throttle, locking down the deadman, the throttle all the way open. His left hand was clenched into a fist, holding onto the pull-rope for the calliope whistle. They cut the rope, leaving the fragment he held in his hand.
The massive weight and unbelievable speed of the Cannonball Express had not only caused the engine to leave the rails, she'd dragged almost her entire load behind her, completely missing the passenger train, the other two locomotives, and Vaughn station.
Total casualties: one.
It was still raining in Memphis three days later when the mourners gathered in the churchyard. Numbly, Rachel looked about her. Her mind hadn't been working clearly since Vic had brought her the news. Garfield had deliberately left her. He'd stayed in the cabin of the Cannonball Express until she'd left the rails. By then it had been far, far too late to jump.
She stood next to the mahogany coffin, still confused. A very polite representative from the Engineer's Union had arrived shortly after the wreck, offering to pay all of Garfield's funeral expenses. Why, she didn't understand, but even numb with grief, Rachel was no fool. She'd said, "yes," of course.
The chapel in the funeral home was small. Garfield had been returned to the small town of his birth for burial, and that was reflected in the size of the funeral home. Rachel looked again at the oblong box holding her husband's remains.
A deep voice spoke from behind her, "I'm so very, very sorry."
It was Victor, who had entered almost silently, his leather shoes nearly noiseless on the wooden parquet floor.
The young woman turned, her face grey with grief.
"Why," she asked, "didn't he jump with you? I don't understand. Why didn't he jump."
"It was the deadman," he replied.
"A few years ago, an engineer died at the throttle, back in New York. The train plowed into the station, causing a lot of damage, and killing a lot of people. Since then, a gadget called the Deadman automatically tries to stop the engine whenever there's no Engineer to drive it. He couldn't be sure the Cannonball Express would be going fast enough to derail before it hit Number 72 if he let the Deadman engage. For his plan to work, someone had to stay at the throttle 'till the bitter end. It was my fault. I'm sorry."
"I'm sorry," he said, yet again.
Rachel, her eyes bloodshot and face swollen with unshed tears turned to face Victor, "Your fault? What are you talking about?"
"I was the Engineer," he began. "I was in charge and it should have been me at the throttle. I just didn't see it. I would have had to do the math, even in my head. It just didn't occur to me to deliberately wreck the train. Garfield didn't have to do the math. He took one look at the track, the hill, and the curve, and just knew. What I don't get is why he didn't tell me."
Rachel's voice was hoarse; her throat tight. She turned to looked pointedly out the doorway to the foyer. There, dressed in their Sunday best, Victor's two daughters and his son could be seen quietly playing under their mother's watchful eye.
"Oh," he said.
"Yes," she answered. She stopped, swallowed hard, and then continued. "He was all about the children. He wanted to be a father more than anything else. He would have seen the kids losing their father as the worst case."
Victor blinked several times, rapidly, swallowed hard, and responded, "I see."
"I'm not sure," Rachel continued, "What we're going to do now. I mean, the Fireman's Union and the Engineer's Union have both insisted on paying out death benefits. And the three thousand dollars will support us for quite a while, but it won't last forever, and I'm not exactly fit to be a school teacher."
"No," said Victor, "You'll be moving in with . . . wait. We?"
Rachel sighed, and cast her eyes down at the wooden floor. She gently laid her hand on her own abdomen.
"I," she hesitated, "I hadn't told anybody. I had just become sure. We'd had so many false alarms. I was going to tell him that morning. But he was in such a hurry, and then the Conductor turned up."
"Well," said Victor, "I promised him I'd take care of you."
She drew herself up. "I pay my own way."
"You're going to be a parent, Rachel. I can tell you already: it's a hard job. Don't make it harder than it has to be. We have a spare room, and we can raise all our children together. As a family. It's what Garfield wanted. Don't let blind pride stand in the way of a better life for your children."
Rachel closed her eyes and paused for a moment.
"I'll think about it," she replied. "There's time yet."
She turned and nodded to the funeral director, who stood unobtrusively in the corner. He approached the coffin and opened it.
The young man inside wore his best and only suit. It was a little too small for him. On his head was Victor's over-sized Engineer's hat and his left fist still gripped the line to Victor's calliope whistle. The service was brief but dignified. The room was full. At first Rachel was surprise. They didn't have any family, and didn't have nearly that many friends, but then she realized what was happening.
The passengers and family from Number 72 had shown up. They'd come all the way to Garfield's small home town by the hundreds. The Fireman's Union had shown up. Not just the representative who'd brought her her death benefits. All of them. The Engineer's Union. And others, many, many others.
As they went to the graveside Rachel saw the marker for the first time.
"In Memory of Garfield Mark Logan – Engineer."
She turned to Victor, surprised.
"He stood to the job," Victor said, quietly, "To the very end. That makes him one of us. Or maybe something better."
- 30 -
Railroad fans or readers of popular culture will recognize that I have (broadly) adopted the legend of Casey Jones, Engineer. Unlike Garfield, Casey Jones was driving a passenger train, and rather than derail it to prevent it from hitting the freight train he had run up on, Jones stayed in the cabin riding the brake as his train ran into the back of the parked freight train in front of him. Like Garfield, Jones saved hundreds of lives at the cost of his own. The official history, written by Illinois Central Railroad investigators, blames Jones for the collision, but companies do that, especially when the driver dies in the accident. Ask any pilot. If the pilot dies, the cause of the crash is "pilot error." Jone's fireman, Sim Webb, told a different story, and that is what has passed into legend. Personally, I'm more prone to believe the surviving crew, rather than a company that was almost certainly covering its own butt.