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Train Tracks to Nowhere
The cheery sunlight glinted off the headstones marking the entrance to the cemetery. A pretty young woman of twenty-three retrieved her handbag from the carriage floor, and the door opened. A man held out his hand to help her down. The lady watched the driver flick the reins and set off down the dirt road. Penny Watson entered the cemetery holding a flower, the man trailing behind her. She strolled leisurely down the winding gravel path, admiring the quiet and beauty; remembering an April day five years ago, not nearly as pleasant, when she and her family boarded the train that changed her life.
Shivering at the memory, Penny lifted her long, black skirt to climb the stone steps leading to the graves. Passing marker after marker, she swept back in her memories to April 30, 1900, the night when she and her family had boarded the train.
That cold night, difficult to navigate, brought unease to the move to Mississippi from Tennessee, and the gusts of wind pushing her along the train station platform had only intensified.
“Mother, hurry up! We’re late!” Eighteen-year-old Penny had turned to face her struggling mother and brother.
“The wind’s too strong!” her brother shouted, helping his mother.
Penny pressed on until she saw the conductor by the train steps.
Once all three had arrived, a cabin boy took their luggage, placing it above their seats. He rubbed his hands, complaining, “What’s in that suitcase, lady, rocks?”
The engineer appeared and waved him away, chuckling, and shook the new arrivals’ hands.
“We almost left.” The clean-shaven young man showed the threesome to their seats.
“Glad we didn’t, though. My name’s Casey Jones. I’m the train engineer tonight.”
“T-tonight?” Mrs. Watson looked confused.
“Yes ma’am,” Casey replied. “You see, the reg’lar engineer took sick, and I agreed to fill in for ‘im.”
Robert Watson, a strong man of twenty-two, glanced at his frail mother and sister.
Penny’s pretty face creased with concern, and she stared intently out the window, trying to collect her thoughts. Almost immediately the train lurched forward, and she focused on the blurring dark shadows of trees whirring by.
“Penny, dear, I think I’ll lie down for a spell,” Mrs. Watson sighed, pressing a hand to her forehead. “My head aches with each jolt of the train.”
“Yes, mother.” Several hours passed before any interruption.
Penny turned her head, startled, to see a black man beside her.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I must have been daydreaming. Yes?”
“Mizz, we be arrivin’ at Goodman Station afore long. Just wanted t’let you know. Your ticket, please?”
“Oh, yes, my ticket. Here it is…” Penny rummaged through her handbag, and presented it to Sim.
He examined and returned it, smiling, and headed to the back employee cabin.
Mrs. Watson awoke with a sudden bump of the train.
“What -- are we there yet?”
“Not yet mother. We are nearing Goodman Station.” Penny soothed her back into stillness. Her eyes darting from resting passengers to her brother’s peaceful face, Penny eased out of her seat to the front – the engine room.
She creaked open the door, startling conductor Casey Jones.
He looked back; the train swerved momentarily.
“What are you doin’ up here? Y’almost made me crash.” He spoke without a hint of anger, just good humor. Penny admired his self-control.
Without answering his question, she ran gentle hands over familiar levers and gears.
“What are you doing?” Casey deliberately drew out each word, grinning mischievously.
“Oh,” Penny stammered. “Well, my father was a conductor before he died in an accident. I haven’t been on a train since.”
“I’m sorry. I love trains too, always have. That’s why I accepted this job when Tuck got sick – that’s the reg’lar engineer, see.”
“Oh. Excuse me for interrupting, sir, but shouldn’t you slow the train down? You are going awfully fast.”
Casey winked. “No, I think the speed’s just fine, Miss Watson. Thank you for your concern.” Turning back to his controls, Casey switched several levers and glanced out the window.
Turning to leave, Penny shot, “Just remember that the lives of all the passengers are in your hands tonight, Mr. Jones.” The door swung behind her, and the engineer was alone in the cabin.
Emerging from the cabin, still flustered from her exchange, Penny bumped into Sim.
He took her by the arm. “Woah there, let me escort you back to your seat. You ain’t s’posta be in Mister Jones’ cabin. We’re nearin’ Goodman Station, so you’d better be asettin’ down.”
Sim hurried Penny down the aisle back to her seat, and left her there with her now awake family.
“Where were you, Penny?” Robert searched his sister’s guarded face.
“I was just in the restroom,” Penny shrugged off the question, and looked away.
His eyes sparkled. “The bathroom’s the otha way – dontcha think I woulda noticed that?”
The shrill scream of the whistle cut the building conflict.
Penny could just make out a signalman standing outside her window motioning swiftly – and the train came to a stop.
“All aboard!” Sim’s clear, mellow voice sent a crowd of waiting figures in the darkness outside toward the entrance. Immediately, a flood of people appeared, searching for empty seats.
One man at the very back looked around for a moment, and then timidly approached the Watsons.
He asked, “Excuse me ma’am, would you mind if I took this extra seat?” The man gestured to the empty seat next to Penny, and she shrunk back.
She had never liked men; the loud way they moved and spoke, the pride with which they addressed women. Ever since leaving Tennessee for Mississippi, Penny had dreaded the approaching search for a husband that her mother spoke of.
Robert, her older brother and best friend, could sense the fear as she shrank back at the man’s gesture.
He pleaded with a look, “C’mon, Penny, don’t judge him too quickly.”
Penny managed a little smile, but looked down as her mother replied to the stranger, “Oh, please do, sir.”
The young man thanked her and stowed his bags under the seat before sitting down.
“Craig Steeley.” He shook Robert’s hand.
“Robert Watson. My mother, Emily, and my younger sister, Penny.”
Mrs. Watson smiled, but Penny simply gazed past the windowpane, trying to look uninterested.
“So, Miss Watson, have you enjoyed your train ride so far?”
Penny shyly turned and replied, “I, I suppose so, Mr. Steeley. What is your destination this evening?”
The stranger checked the time. “Oh, Northbrook. My aunt lives there. And, if I may correct you, it is actually two o’clock a.m.”
“Really?” Penny was shocked, and reached for Craig’s pocket-watch to check the time. She immediately blushed and pulled away, surprised at her own forwardness.
“I’m so sorry…” she breathed, embarrassed beyond words.
“Oh, it’s quite all right. We aren’t living in the 1800s anymore, Miss Watson. Here, take a look.” He showed the clock hands to her, and smiled reassuringly.
“Oh, and another thing, you may call me Craig if I may call you Penny.”
Penny nodded, laughing quietly, shaking her smooth auburn tresses.
Craig ventured, “You really do look lovely when you laugh. And don’t think I mean to be flattering – it’s only the truth.”
The two talked and laughed, becoming completely comfortable with each other.
“Have you felt the train accelerating?” Craig asked, observing the speed of the train.
“Yes, I have. As a matter of fact, I recall talking to the conductor about the speed not too long ago.”
Both remained quiet for a while, listening to the click-clack of the train tracks, and feeling the train’s speed.
“My word, now it’s slowing down.” Mr. Steeley met Penny’s worried eyes.
She asked, “Do go check on Mr. Jones, Craig.”
He hesitated momentarily, and then remarked, “I could never deny your beautiful blue eyes…they’re the most captivating I’ve ever beheld.”
Craig turned toward the front, but got no further. At a remote bump, the mighty locomotive crashed through something up ahead, and the cars swayed precariously.
“Craig!” Penny gasped, seeing him thrown to the ground and jerked under a seat.
Debris flew from the train’s path. No longer dark and hazy, the whole scene erupted in flames.
Immediately, she heard a sickening grating sound, and the train jerked violently off the tracks.
Panic. Her mother horror-stricken, eyes wide with fear; her brother braced against the wall, trying to help Craig, who was being thrown across the scuffed train floor.
Meanwhile, the train struggled along the grass until it finally tilted on its side, slamming passengers against the windows.
As Penny fell, five heavy suitcases slid off the ledge on which they had been stored, landing on her.
Craig crawled over and removed the baggage.
Suddenly feeling an arrow of pain shoot up her right wrist, Penny clutched it.
“I think I broke my wrist,” she managed. She crawled slowly across the glass pane to her mother, but fell onto her stomach, overcome by the pain shooting from her wrist.
Craig picked her up, and crawled towards the nearest exit. Penny saw Robert and several other men forcing open the doors directly above them.
Soon they burst through, and climbed out onto the charred grass.
Passengers poured out after them, gasping for breath as if they had been underground and not in a wrecked train.
Craig lowered Penny onto the ground and went to assist other passengers – among them, her mother, shaking with fear.
Penny held her now -throbbing wrist, cut and bruised. She shot a look behind her – and saw a living inferno.
Flames leapt and danced about destroyed freight cars, the sure cause of the accident. Smoke climbed higher and higher above the trees. The train tracks, about ten feet from where she was sitting, remained torn and misshapen, haunting reminders of the wreck.
Ms. Watson looked back at her mother, now leaning against the scarred underside. She remembered the terror of the crash, and the comfort in her mother’s serene, familiar face.
Ignoring her injury, Penny struggled over to her mother, and embraced her.
“I’m here for you, mother. We’ll be fine.”
Her mother broke down crying.
The years had passed and here she was now. Penny brushed away a tear, and was taken by the arm by her husband, Craig.
“Did you find it, Penny?” He searched her lowered face.
“Yes, darling, I did. Well, actually, I found them.” She gestured with a lace-gloved hand towards the headstones in front of her, adorned with bouquets.
The solemn carved letters read ‘JOSHUA WATSON - a loving father to Robert and Penny Watson, and devoted husband to Emily Harner Watson. He will be missed.’ and beside it, ‘CASEY JONES - dedicated engineer, loving husband, loyal son, and wonderful friend. Sacrificed his life to save all passengers, who are forever indebted to his act of courage.’
Penny placed her rose next to the dry garlands, and the pair continued down the lane, hand in hand.