Saturday, October 06, 2007

He peered though his bifocals and fingered the photograph, turning it nervously in his hands. His now snow-white hair still started low on his forehead as it had on the young man in the photo.

He had a nervous tic involving his pipe he indulged in at such times. Times when he wanted to talk but wasn’t sure he should. He tapped the corncob pipe against the palm of his hand. Tap, tap, tap. It was as though he thought he could empty the world of cinders if he could only keep tapping that pipe.

“Yep, that were me. I never talked about that night. Never wanted to.” He said, his ice blue eyes watering slightly and bloodshot from the pipe smoke that still filled the room.

“It’s like the war, you know? Most fella’s don’t want to talk about the war, or if they do, they don’t talk about the real stories. The blood, the pain…what you went through.”

He rubbed his hand against the flannel of his shirt, wiping the pipe soot off and reached for his bag of Prince Albert.

“We saw a gang of things running those steam engines. Things we weren’t meant to see. Hideouts of criminals, moonshiners, rum runners….we saw it all. We saw people die and couldn’t stop…and that’s not counting the fools who got in the way of the trains.”

He gave all of his concentration to the filling of his pipe for a moment. He filled the bowl and tapped it down with a tobacco stained forefinger. He kept tapping it as he had tapped the ash out of the pipe moments before. He seemed to know exactly how firm to get the shredded tobacco but he kept tapping.

“But that night,” he said, “that night was the night I figured I’d stay back at the yard and fix trains ‘stead of running them.”

He was just 20 years old that fall evening in 1919 when the Carolina Special took off from the Spartanburg train station for a red-eye run to Knoxville. He was young and jaunty and wore his rail cap slightly askew. The fall leaves were ablaze in the sunset as he bent his young strong back to the task of shoveling coal into the firebox.

“Alrighty, then, Floyd…that’ll do her.” Said Dusty, the senior fireman he was working with. He shut the grate to the big firebox and tuned his ear to the sound of the engine chuffing.

Dusty poked his head out of the window and waved at the engineer to let him know the box was stoked.

They had a little time before they needed to start seriously stoking the fire for the tortuous climb up Saluda Mountain. Dusty fiddled with the oil gage a bit and checked the steam guage.

The old fireman sat back on the bench and cocked his head at Floyd.

“Well, it’s up Saluda mountain we go, son. It’s the trip down that’ll kill ya. Tell me boy, have you ever hear tell of the Brown Mountain lights?”

Floyd looked at the old fireman.

“Can’t say that I have, Dusty.” He said.

“You just might see them tonight when we climb up Saluda. Just look out there to the west and you might see them lights.”

“What are they?”

“Some say they are the wandering spirits of dead Injuns. Some say they are the spirits of runaway slaves lost in the mountains.”

Floyd grinned. “Sure it ain’t just some of those old boys firing up stills up there in the hills?”

Floyd looked up into the darkening sky. The light was mostly gone now, but the full moon cast an otherworldly light over the mountains. You could just see the rising peaks out to the west where the Smokies pierced the sky. The stars were dimmed slightly by the moonlight but you could just make out the Milky Way spiraling in the night sky. If not for the blazing heat of the firebox, you would be able to feel the chill of the autumn night.

“We won’t have much of a break now, son. Here comes Saluda Mountain…get yourself a’ shoveling!”

When they forged the rails up the Mountain, they took them straight up the Saluda. It was the most treacherous stretch of rail in the nation and had killed dozens during runaway train incidents. It was often said that if you didn’t drive the train on the Saluda, the train would drive you.

“Shovel, son, shovel!”

Floyd loaded the coal into the firebox, the heat supplying the steam needing for the long steep climb up the Saluda. Dusty adjusted the oil and steam flow valves on the boiler. The train began building speed and they started climbing the mountain. The engine went chuff, chuff, chuff as they used more and more steam to power the climb.

They made it up the mountain without incident then balanced the train on the peak while the air monkeys went to work on the brakes for the trip down the mountain. Dusty pointed out into the night sky.

“Do you see them?”

Floyd looked out to the place where the mountains met the night sky. Twinkling there in the mist were little twinkling lights that danced on the horizon. Below them the track disappeared into a solid wall of fog that seemed to glow in the darkness. It was like a veil... a doorway they would soon plunge the train right through like a knife into the darkness.

And Floyd thought he could see those little lights twinkling through the fog. Maybe it was his imagination, or maybe he really did see them. At any rate, it was the last moment of rationality Floyd would have that night.

Carolina Special ~ Part Two


  1. threecollie said...
    You leave me just itching to know what happens next. These are just great stories and if you put them in a book I would surely buy it.
    SusieQ said...
    And? The rest of the story?
    Mary said...
    Part 1 was a great read. I look forward to Part 2. A real cliff hanger.


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