Saturday, October 20, 2007

Carolina Special ~ Part Two

Floyd looked at Dusty then turned back to see where the hound raced beside the train, but the beast was gone when he turned back.

Dusty fiddled with the gauges and said, “Oh, they only has a certain territory they range in. Ghosts, I guess you’d call them. But they’re liable to be more active tonight. You won’t see them this solid any other night of the year.”

“How come? What’s so special about tonight?”

Dusty gave Floyd a hard look and pointed at him then nodded toward the firebox. Floyd took the hint and started shoveling coal into the heart of the engine.

Dusty laughed. “It’s Halloween, son! Day of the Dead, Feast of All Souls, the night when the veil between the worlds is thinnest. Didn’t you pay no mind to the day when we set out?”

Floyd thought about this for a moment. He’d never been a superstitious man or given to fancies of ghosts and haunts, but he was now changing his mind.

“So, Dusty…do you remember her…I mean…do you remember when you saw them?”

“It was a long time ago, son. A long time ago. I was a much younger man. And like I said, it’s best to put it out of your mind. By the end of this journey to Knoxville you’ll know what I mean.”

Floyd tried to put his mind to the tasks at hand. He tried to think about the sound of the steam chuffing out of the engine and the color of the smoke coming out of the stack. But he just couldn’t get the beautiful woman of light out of his head. It never occurred to him that such a being existed.

The train chugged on through the night, gradually approaching Asheville. Floyd looked out into the night sky and the trail of white steam snaking behind them. When he looked out to the western mountains, those strange lights seemed brighter than the first time he saw them. There was something both beautiful and menacing about them. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but it was as if they were watching him and he felt the hair on the back of his neck stand.

His eyes gazed down the track and he saw there a trestle looming in the distance. The train reduced its speed since they were drawing close to the city. Soon they seemed to be inching towards the trestle and Floyd saw a dark emptiness there under the bridge. It was a gaping hole of space that sparkled with misery. Swinging from a hangman’s noose from the trestle was a woman’s corpse. Her garments were white and glowing and seemed to float around her as if moved by some phantom wind.

Floyd was frozen in horror. He wanted to look away but couldn’t seem to. As they came closer and closer, the corpse raised her head. Her eyes were bugged from hanging and the noose had cut into her neck. Dark blood dripped down the front of her garments.

Out of her swollen distended mouth she screamed, “My baby…where’s my baby?”

By now they came abreast of the trestle and dark, misshapen figures began to emerge from the tree roots that lay exposed on the banks. They were a miserable lot and moaned and howled with agony.

Floyd recoiled as the seemed to swarm the train as they went under the bridge.

“Dusty…we got to go faster!” He screamed as the shades of the night seemed intent on overtaking the train. He hadn’t felt this way since he was a young boy, hiding his face under the covers to escape the sounds of the night.

“Don’t look at them, boy! We can’t go any faster through here.”

Skeletal hands with broken fingers raised in supplication to Floyd who looked on horrified as they passed this cursed spot. The hung woman continued to scream and keen for her baby and the things coming out from the tree roots moaned. Their fleshless bones made a dreadful clattering as they banged against each other. Their fleshless skulls with their gaping eyes bored into Floyd.

Soon, it was over and they were through the overhanging trestle. Floyd glanced behind him and saw the spirits attempting to follow, their bony joints stopping them short at some invisible line. They hit that point and jerked backwards like vicious dogs on chains. Some of them collapsed with the force of that correction into piles of quivering bones that tried in vain to reform themselves.

Floyd threw up out of the side of the cab. Shakily he looked at Dusty. Dusty looked like nothing at all had happened the old fireman busied himself with his firebox and looked out to see the color of the steam.

Floyd wiped his mouth on his handkerchief. Then he grabbed Dusty by the shoulders, shaking him and said, “What in the hell was that?"

Floyd’s voice squeaked as it hadn’t since he was a teenager.

Dusty pushed him off and said, crossly, “I told ya not to look. That’s Suicide Bridge. It’s where the most unquiet spirits of suicides in these parts go when they die. Spooked ya, didn’t they?”

Dusty fished a bag of chewing tobacco out of the pocket of his overalls and stuck a good-sized plug in his cheek.

“Now, maybe you’ll listen, boy. Don’t look at them. Ignore them. Eventually, all of that will just be blurs on the edge of your vision. Just like other people see them.”

“Other people see them?”

“Well of course, son, didn’t you ever wonder about all the times you saw something out of the corner of your eye? Thought it was a bird or something, maybe? A piece of paper tumbling in the wind? That’s what they all think. Yessiree…that’s what they all think. Because the truth would be too terrible to believe. And folks believe what they want to believe, don’t they?”

Floyd’s experience with Suicide Bridge had shaken him considerably. He took Dusty’s advice to keep his eyes firmly focused in the cab of the engine. The night train rattled and clanked its way past Asheville with it’s payload of coal through the crisp autumn night. It winded its way along the banks of the French Broad River, sometimes on tracks laid into sheer cliffs blasted into the mountains. The water of the river glinted and danced in the bright moonlight below where the train ran on the shining tracks.

Floyd might have been sleepy from the quiet pacing had it not been for the hard work involved in keeping the fire stoked. While he was now calm, he assiduously avoided looking out into the surrounding night.

As they were perched on a particularly perilous rock face, he began to hear something. It was soft and he really thought he was imagining it. The rhythm of the train on the track seemed to keep time with the voices he thought he heard and it was easy to just believe that his mind was filling in the blanks of the timing of the train. At least, that was what he tried desperately to believe. But the voices got progressively louder and louder and he realized they were singing..

There was also the gradually louder sound of metal striking rock in a relentless beat. He finally could make out the words. He heard one clear distinct voice that would shout out the first line of the song and then a chorus of others that would answer. All the while, the endless sound of the hammers beat against the rocks.

I’m goin’ back to the Swannanoa Tunnel
That’s my home, baby, that’s my home…

Cap’n, Cap’n can’t you see?
Linin’ this track is killing po’ me!

Asheville Junction, Swannanoa Tunnel…
All caved in, baby, all caved in…

Cap’n, Cap’n can’t you see?
Linin’ this track is killing po’ me!

Hammer fallin’ from my shoulder…
All day long, baby, all day long…

Cap’n, Cap’n can’t you see?
Linin’ this track is killing po’ me!

Take this hammer, throw it in the river…
It rings right on, baby, it shines right on…

Ten thousand biscuits in my hand,
Gonna sop my way to th’ Promised Land…

Floyd felt himself slipping away. He was mesmerized by the sound of the work song. The verses went on and on and on. He was soon rocking to the rhythm of the voices that seemed to rise from the river itself. He felt himself somehow rising above his body, as if he were looking down on himself there in the cab of the engine. It was odd, but he couldn’t see Dusty there in the train cab with him and he wondered why he could see himself but not the old fireman. The pull of the song was irresistible. He felt if only he could jump off the train into the swirling black and silver waters of the French Broad, that all would be right somehow. He watched his body move to the door of the cab.

And he saw himself reach for the latch of the door. And he felt a surge of joy that he would soon be plummeting to the water below.

About that time, just before he was allowed the blessed freedom of jumping from the train, he was jolted back to reality by several hard slaps to his face. He opened his eyes and looked into Dusty’s lined and concerned face.

Dusty spat a stream of tobacco juice out of the cab.

“Sorry, boy, my fault. Shoulda told you to close your ears as well. Chain gang perished in the river down there when they were laying this track. They’s buried under these rails. Looks like they just invited you to join ‘em.”

Floyd felt oddly sad. He had really wanted to know how the song ended.

He couldn’t know that the song had no end.

Carolina Special ~ Conclusion


  1. Janet said...
    I enjoyed your story very much although in a somewhat eery way.

    I came upon it in the course of researching the Saluda Mountain train wreck in 1919 that took the life of my paternal grandfather when my father was less than two years old. My parents have been gone now for six years and I'm compiling the family history to leave for my children. I've been working on this pursuit since they passed away.

    Just yesterday, I received a copy of the newspaper article from the Hickory Daily News from January 7, 1919 about his death at 4:05 AM on the runaway Southern Railway train on Saluda Mountain. And today I read your story. I can't tell you how much it touched me. It gives life to the few pieces of paper I have that document him for me....his WWI signed draft registration card, the copy from the newspaper and now your story.

    Although I have no photographs of him your words wove a picture for me that will stay with me always.
    Rosie said...
    I'm so glad you enjoyed it, Janet. I'll have the conclusion up tomorrow.

    My grandfather worked on the Southern and his name was also Floyd and parts of that character is based on my grandfather. But as you know, the Saluda Mountain grade was legendary for runaways. They don't actually have records for the ones that almost wrecked. So...that was the basis of the fantasy element of the Saluda grade part of the story...that maybe there was some mystical force that intervened...thus the basis for a good train "hant" story.

    Thanks so much about sharing the story about your grandfather and the 1919 wreck.

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