The WRECK of the Zephyr
The fantastic story of a man who built a ghost railroad to nowhere
WALTON’S ISLAND loomed bleakly soon after the take-off. Fringed with foaming breakers, it was one of those amputated fingers of land that lie inhospitably off the Maine coast. Walton, up front in the open two-seater airplane, nodded his helmeted head at its cliffs.
“It’s accessible only from the air,” he had told me at the landing field. “Until I bought it a year ago, no one had ever managed to set foot on it. There’s no place to land a boat, and the cliffs can’t be climbed.”
“You ought to have privacy," I had commented.
Walton had smiled strangely.
His smile had contained some hidden meaning, I was sure. As the plane followed its lengthening shadow over the water, I wondered what he was up to on this mysterious island of his.
When a multimillionaire buys an island, newspapers are bound to make something of it. But, so far, they had been able to make very little of Walton’s island. To date his activities there had been shrouded in mystery.
There had been plenty of rumors, of course. It was known that Walton had bought a tremendous amount of machinery, and it was generally thought that he intended to mine or quarry the island. I for one, wasn’t so sure.
I knew Walton too well to think that anything could drag him away from his hobbies. During the last few years he had devoted his time to nothing els«.;. He had gone in for everything from stamp collecting to jewel collecting, and finally, at an age when most men want both feet on the ground, he had taken up flying. Though he had been flying only a year, he piloted the plane like a veteran. I felt perfectly safe in his hands as he settled down toward the island which had aroused so much curiosity.
Its top was an irregular oval about six miles long and two or three wide. A heavy growth of scrub and brush served as a protective wall about its edge. That was why I failed to see the railroad track until we were almost over it.
It ran around the island, forming a loop. There was a siding on the landward side and a whole yard to seaward. Also there was a roundhouse, and, not far distant, a shedded passenger depot.
Shades of Casey Jones! What was a railroad, roundhouse and all, doing on an island six miles long and less than three wide? If Walton were really mining it. he would need some kind of railroad, but nothing so elaborate as this. Puzzled, I pondered over the cryptic invitation that had brought me here.
“It would pay you to visit my island,” Walton had written. “I have something that would be of special interest to you.”
Now, my special interest is railroadingmodel railroading, that is. The basement of my home contains a miniature system that is my pride and joy. The time was when I would have been considered a case Of arrested mental development, but now that modelrailroad fans number in the thousands, even my wife looks with an indulgent eye upon the nuisance in the basement.
Walton, however, had always looked askance at my hobby — it was one he had passed up.
“Even the best of your models are imperfect,” he had argued. “Their scale is too small; you lose too much detail.”
So I hadn’t expected to find anything on his island that would interest a model-railroad fan. But now, as I peered downward, my eyes were opened wide.
For the railroad on the island had suddenly become alive. A yard engine dropped a gondola onto a siding, and a Hudson type freight locomotive began to drag out of the yards with at least eighteen cars and a caboose.
THERE was a strangeness about those engines, something that I couldn’t put my finger on. Intently watching the freight locomotive pull into the first curve, I tried to discover what was wrong. Then an abrupt bank of the plane swept the freight from my gaze, and brought into full vision the shedded passenger depot. I held my breath.
A silvery streak issued from the sheds. Accelerating rapidly, it raced over the rai's,
moving in the direction opposite that taken by the freight. Even from the air, its polished snout was unmistakable---! knew my eyes didn't deceive me. Here, on top of this island of mystery, was an exact replica of the famous streamlined passenger train known as the Burlington Zephyr!
Walton looked back, grinned with boyish delight. Apparently satisfied with the look that must have been on my face, he banked the plane again and brought the freight locomotive back into view. It was then that I saw what was wrong.
No smoke rost' from the locomotive’s stack, and no steam escaped from its outlets. An eerie feeling of nightmare unreality left me numb as I watched. It was a dead engine down there a dead engine pulling eighteen cars 'and a caboose!
For a long, incredible second, I had a feeling that it was no real island beneath, only an artificial, papier-mâché island. For the railroad track that encircled it was not a real one; it was a miniature track, and the trains upon it were miniature trains!
I had spotted the third rail at the edge of the ties, discovered the third-rail collectors on the locomotive and the Zephyr. At the same time 1 understixxi why no fuel oil exhaust came from the Zephyr’s Diesel. The Zephyr had no Diesel, as the locomotive had no steam. These were electric trains, scale models!
Yes, full sealefull-scale miniature trains!
A contradiction? Not at all ! Though Walton's railroad was full scale, life-sized, it was intrinsically a miniature railroad. Instead of patterning miniature trains after real ones, he had modelled real trains after miniature ones!
Dazedly I watched the freight and the Zephyr round the opposite ends of the island. Though the freight had had a head start of many minutes, both trains reached the landward side at the same time. Entering the straight, section
of the right of way, they raced down the single track to what seemed an inevitable crash.
But suddenly the locomotive swerved into a siding which in my excitement I had not noticed, slowed as it dragged its cars after it. The Zephyr did not lose speed as it streaked down the glistening rails, and it had cleared half the distance between the two trains when its polished snout seemed to burrow into the ground. A second later it emerged. Alert now, I knew the answer. Walton had built a tunnel for his railroad ! '*
1 held my breath as the tail end of the freight moved leisurely off the right of way. Its caboose had barely cleared when the Zephyr, racing at a speed of at least one hundred miles an hour, grazed by. Grinning. Walton cast a glance over his shoulder, then brought the plane around.
There was an eerie quiet as, motor idling, we settled down toward the landing field. 1 couldn’t shake off a feeling of unreality, couldn’t ignore the presence of a vague, enveloping fear. What it was I feared. I didn’t know, but that fear remained with me even after Walton had landed the plane and taxied to his hangar.
Nor did it leave me when my feet were firmly planted on the ground. It seemed that I stood in some faraway, makebelieve world. Numbly 1 watched the full-scale model Zephyr return to its sheds and halt. On the other side of the island, the freight was slowly backing from its siding. Turning to Walton, I asked:
“These trains of yoursare they operated by crews?” Walton’s eyes gleamed with pride.
“There are no crews aboard my trains. The entire system is controlled by an automatic switchboard. We are the only human beings on the island.”
I simply stared. I had already realized that Walton’s sole purpose in buying this island was to erect the incredible railroad that ran around it. But I was stunned by the fact that he lived here alone, playing with his gigantic toy. I said:
“The newspapers—how have you managed to keep this a secret?”
“I suppose the truth is so fantastic that it has never occurred to them. I had no trouble convincing the reporters that I was engaged in some wildcat mining enterprise. As the parts for my models were made in a dozen different factories, even the manufacturers didn’t know what they were for.”
“But the laborers and mechanics who put them together and laid the track?”
“All were imported from Europe and packed off again as soon as the job was done. To them, I was just another screwball.”
I took a deep breath, shook my head.
“It’s plain,” Walton observed, “that you think I’m a little mad. But, like yourself. I’m merely a model-railroad fan. It’s my latest hobby. In the past my only objection to it was the smallness of the models. I’ve overcome that objection. My models are full scale. I’ve simply carried the idea to its logical conclusion.”
I felt that he had done more than that; he had reduced it to absurdity.
Not that I’m intolerant of hobbies. I’m in no position to throw stones. As a matter of fact. I had more than once defended Walton’s hobbies from the criticisms of his son, Roger.
“Your dad’s rich enough to afford them,” I had argued. “If they give him any amusement, why try to deprive him of them?”
Roger, a perfectly proper young man who felt deeply the responsibility of his father’s wealth, had writhed in exasperation.
“But it’s all so ridiculous! Dad’s getting himself talked about. You know he has no business flying an airplane. Why, he might be killed. I tell you, he’s in his dotage.”
I had walked away. I had never liked Roger, and I thought too much of his father to black his eye. And I knew it would be a waste of time to try to make such a smug, unimaginative youth understand the real value and purpose of his father’s hobbies.
To me, the explanation was simple. Walton had tired of accumulating wealth long before the death of his wife, and her passing had left him without any interest in life. His newly embraced hobbies had filled the void, given him something to do.
As for his being in his dotage, a love of hobbies cast no reflection on his mental capacity. “Nay, if you come to that, sir, have not the wisest men of all ages, not excepting Solomon himself—have they not had their hobbyhorses?”
I couldn’t help looking with suspicion at Walton as he pulled off his helmet and flung it into the cockpit. His white bushy hair exploded outward, contrasted strangely with the ruddy healthiness of his childlike countenance. His eyes glistened with enthusiasm. Here was a small boy eager to show off his new toy.
“Give me a hand,” he said, moving to one of the plane’s wings. “We’ll push this crate into its shed.”
“All right,” I told him. “But you’d better have your crankcase gaskets checked. Your ship’s losing oil.”
Walton vigorously shook his head.
“She’s tighter'n a drum. She can’t leak.”
“But she does,” I insisted, and pointed to a little puddle of oil on the flying field.
Walton’s brow furrowed as he regarded the puddle, then he shrugged.
“It must have leaked out of my car. I parked it there yesterday.”
“Car?” I demanded. “A car on this island?”
Walton grinned, pointed.
Within the gloomy interior of the hangar was a small open roadster. No longer surprised at anything, I helped Walton trundle the plane in beside it.
“How did you ever get an automobile onto the island?” 1 asked, stowing my bag in the luggage compartment.
“The same way I got all the other equipment here. I had a crane knocked down and flown here a few pieces at a time. Then the crane was set up on the edge of a cliff. Its long boom reached out over the water and lifted the stuff • from the freighters below.”
“This railroad of yours must have cost you a pretty penny. There are real railroads that could be bought for less.”
Driving the roadster away from the hangar. Walton smilingly nodded.
“That’s what Roger said when he visited the island last month. But, you see. a real railroad wouldn’t give me what I want.”
I THOUGHT I did see, as I looked across the island at the tunnel. It had the bizarre, unreal aspect of a papiermâché tunnel, and I guessed that Walton had taken pains to get that effect. He had built a make-believe world in which he could escape from all the drab reality of his purposeless existence.
“My layout isn’t complete yet,” he told me. “Next month the workmen will come back and lay another track. I’m also adding another locomotive, a 4-8-2 Canadian Pacific.”
I recognized the insatiable ambition of the confirmed, incurable model-railroader, whose layout is never finished, always in the process of development. Suddenly 1 asked: “What does Roger think about your new plans?” Walton chuckled.
“He’s furious, of course. The expense will be terrific. But I’m going ahead. Only death can change my plans.” I started, shot a glance at Walton’s eyes. They stared straight ahead as he guided the roadster onto a narrow concrete road.
“My days are numbered,” he explained calmly. With his right hand he patted his chest. “This old ticker of mine is about run down. My doctors agree on that, and they can’t all be wrong. I’m just a proxy for a corpse.”
I was shocked, of course. Shocked for Walton’s sake and my own. I was thinking of the return flight from the island, a flight with a pilot whose heart might flutter out at any moment.
Í wondered if there was any way to send for a plane from the mainland. I had seen no short-wave aerial on the island.
“Is there a submarine cable to the mainland?” I asked. “No.” Walton answered, reading my mind. "But you needn’t worry; I’ll fly you back safely. I’m all right so long as I don’t receive a sudden shock.”
It was I who got a shock the next second. The clang of a warning bell froze my spine. The bell sounded directly ahead, was stationed at a railroad crossing. I heard the blast of a locomotive whistle above its clatter, and, turning, saw.
The freight train had rounded the island, and it bore down toward the crossing ahead. Walton stopped his car to let it go by.
From a distance that locomotive had looked realistic enough. Now, as it rumbled down the right of way. its electric motor humming, its dummy cylinders giving no chug, its appearance was nightmarish, macabre. Awed, I watched it speed over the crossing, its cab empty, moving like some ghostly thing.
It was a ghost, a shell. Its boiler was a hollow casting, and its tender contained neither fuel nor water. A garish, weird mockery of a locomotive, it lacked that warm human gusto of a real live steam engine, seemed a cold Frankenstein monster running relentlessly to kill.
When the caboose had rattled by and the warning bell had ceased to ring. Walton drove calmly across the track. Wordless, I rode rigidly. That freight train had convinced me beyond a shadow of a doubt. Only a madman . .
“You’re white as a sheet.” Walton said. “My son reacted much the same way—only he turned purple instead of white. Swore he’d have lunacy papers filed, but he didn’t, of course. That would cause a scandal, and you know Roger.”
Yes, I knew Roger, and for the first time in my life I sympathized with him. I rode silently beside Walton as he drove to the depot. Brightly painted, it looked as if it had been made of cardboard.
“The control mechanism is inside,” Walton said, parking his car. “I’ll show you that first.”
He slipped eagerly from under the wheel, and I followed. As we approached the depot entrance, my gaze wandered to the Zephyr, which st;x>d under its shed. A beautiful stainless-steel train of three articulated cars, it was amazingly like the original. It was when I turned away that my eye caught an almost imperceptible movement in the shadows.
I halted, stared. Walton regarded me impatiently. “What is it?” he asked.
I said: “Didn’t you tell me we are the only human beings on the island?”
“Then you are mistaken. 1 distinctly saw someone under the Zephyr’s shed.”
Y\ JALTON'S eyes widened, and he followed my gaze.
* ’ There was no movement in the shadows now. Shrugging, Walton caught my arm.
“Comeit was only a lengthening shadow.”
It was true that dusk was falling, but I was certain I had seen more than a shadow. I remembered the little puddle of oil back on the flying field, considered the possibility that a plane had landed someone in Walton’s absence. But I said nothing of this as I followed him into the depot.
Its interior was precisely like that of any small-town depot. There were rows of uninviting benches, a wicker cage for the ticket agent and a small counter restaurant in one end. This depot, the roundhouse and hangar were the only buildings I had seen on the island. Turning to Walton, I asked:
“Where do we sleep?”
Walton waved a hand at the benches.
“No, here is where we stay.” He nodded at the counter restaurant. “And there’s where we eat. You’ll find me an excellent chef.”
I eyed him steadily.
"Walton, you are mad.”
He shook his head.
"I don't think so. On the contrary, I believe I am perfectly sane. You would agree if you undershxxl my game.”
"Yes, game. I’m playing a little game with death. I know that my days are numbered. So 1 am six tiding them in this railroad depot, waiting for my last train. Every hour the Zephyr leaves the depot, and every hour I take it, catching only snatches of sleep between runs. I know that some time it will not bring me back; it will transport me into eternity itself. 1 like to imagine that death is like that, just a restful journey on an endless right of way.”
Here was a madman. 1 knew, but a madman with methrxl in his madness. Walton, I realized, had gone farther than merely making his hobby a mechanism of escape from the unpleasantness of life. He had made it a means of escape from the shadow of death itself.
He was smiling at my stare.
“Come,” he said. “I’ll show you the control board.” Dumbly I followed him into the wicker ticket office. The control mechanism was set up inside. Despite all that had happened, all that Walton had said. I became absorbed in the robot which operated his trains. It was by far the most advanced thing of its kind, and it could have held my attention for hours. But Walton impatiently drew me away.
“Ï want you to see the roundhouse before dark.” he explained. “The dynamo and storage batteries are there.” Reluctantly I followed him, casting a glance at the Zephyr as I left the depot. There was no movement under its shed. I had almost convinced myself that my eyes deceived me when we reached the roundhouse.
Again I would have lingered to drink in the beauty of the giant dynamo and the magnificent Diesel that powered it.
“My trains require a lot of current,” Walton commented. “My model Zephyr is every bit as fast as the original. Its top speed is one hundred and twenty miles an hour, and it can reach it from a standing start in eight hundred yards. You saw how fast it took the curves. Its centre of gravity is so low and its weight so light that it can take them wide open. But, come, I want to take you for a ride in it.”
THERE was nothing to do but follow him back across the yards. It was like walking over haunted ground. The yard engine moved with ghostly silence, a gigantic zombi doing the bidding of a robot in the darkness. A succession of clatters announced that the freight train would soon be under way.
"We’ll have to hurry.” Walton said. “The Zephyr will leave in a few minutes.”
UxAing across the yards, I saw that its interior lights had flashed on. Hastening my stride, I followed Walton as he skipped over the ties. He grinned as, almost winded, I climbed aboard.
• It was the thirty-foot baggage and mail compartment Continued on page 28
-Continued from page 7—Starts on page 5 -
which we entered. A post-office clerk would have felt himself at home there. Grasping my arm, Walton hurried me through it, led me into the engine room. I halted as I beheld its contents.
The entire power plant of the original Zephyr had been reproduced in faithful detail. The sleek 600-horsepower Diesel engine and its dynamo had been copied to scale.
“It’s hollow,” Walton pointed out, rapping on its metal side with his knuckles. “But, hurry, you can look over it later.”
Our ultimate destination was the control room ahead. Walton waved a hand at the complete set of instruments and control levers at the engineer’s seat.
“They’re all dummies too,” he said. “Except the speedometer, of course. You’ll be amazed at our speed.”
But I could no longer be amazed by anything. Absently I grasped the throttle lever, found it fixed in place. Its sharp edge scratched my hand as I turned away.
“I should have warned you about that.” Walton apologized. “That lever’s sharp as a knife. The casting was defective, and I’ve neglected to file it down.”
I had forgotten the scratch. I was looking at the chart overhead. It was a diagram of the railroad on Walton’s island. Like similar charts in use in all modern railroads. it contained dozens of little electric light bulbs that flashed on whenever a train passed over a particular section of track. By watching the chart, it was possible to tell where each piece of rolling stock was located. The movement of the yard engine and the progress of the freight, by this time almost at the end of the island, were clearly indicated.
“Doesn’t the freight carry lights?” I questioned. I had lowered my gaze, tried to spot it in the darkness.
“Of course,” Walton answered, but a puzzled look clouded his face as he, too, tailed to see the train. “I don’t know why they’re off,” he commented. “They’ve never failed before.”
A series of sharp clicks punctuated his sentence. I whirled.
“What was that?”
“The doors. They’ve automatically locked. We’U be under way any moment.”
A cold chill ran like a spider down my spine. The Zephyr’s windows were sealed —if anything happened to it, we’d be caught like rats in a trap. I turned on Walton and said:
“I’m not going to ride in this thing. Ojxm the doors and let me out !”
“It’s too late now.”
He was right. The Zephyr moved forward.
ITS acceleration was phenomenal. My nerves tingled as stainless steel wheels clicked with increasing frequency over rail joints, sent a muffled rumble from below. The familiar clang of a warning bell dinned faintly and receded as we raced across Walton’s road. The speedometer arrow had passed the hundred-mile mark when we took the first curve.
My breath came quickly as we took that curve, the ties a faded blur in the tunnel of the Zephyr’s headlight. The track was close to the cliff’s edge, and the drop was a sheer two hundred feet. I recited to myself the impressive statistics of the original Zephyr, capable of taking a twenty-degree curve at ninety miles an hour. This curve was much wider than that, yet . . .
Lifting my eyes to the chart, I watched the movement of the freight train at the other end of the island. We were travelling several times as fast, would reach the landward side simultaneously with it. Remembering how the Zephyr’s snout had narrowly missed the freight’s caboose, I turned to Walton and asked:
“Did it ever occur to you that by sending your trains in opposite directions on a single loop of track, with only a siding between them, you had created a peculiarly dangerous toy? Automatic switches aren’t infallible, you know. If that switch should fail, we’d crash head-on.” Glancing again at the chart, I made a rapid calculation. “We’d crash right in the middle of the tunnel !”
Walton’s eyes did not waver from the track ahead. Plainly he was enjoying every second of the ride, did not wish to be bothered.
“Of course, there’s danger. What would be the fun in just riding around a track? But don’t worry. The switch is foolproof; it can’t fail.”
“But the lights on the freight train failed,” I snapped. No longer trying to hide my anxiety, I shot a glance at the speedometer, saw that its arrow quivered at the 110-mile mark. The chart overhead indicated that we were nearing the straightaway at the end of the island. I glued my eyes on the lights that indicated the advance of the freight at the other end.
There were three bulbs between it and the switch. A fourth would tell whether it took the siding or continued down the right of way. My heart beating with the rhythmic clicking of the whirling wheels, I watched those bulbs.
The first bulb flashed.
I thought about the little puddle of oil on the landing field.
The second bulb flashed.
The moving figure beneath the Zephyr’s shed . . .
The third bulb flashed.
The strange failure of the freight train’s lights . . .
The fourth bulb flashed.
Invisible hands within me clutched my heart, my lungs, strangled back all power of speech. Impotent in a paralysis of terror, I turned numbly to Walton.
He, too, had seen that telltale light. His face, a white mask of fear, confirmed the evidence of my own eyes. The switch had failed—the freight was coming down the main-line ahead !
I lunged forward then, as Walton fell. His body was dead weight in my grasp, and I sensed the truth even before I lowered him to the floor. A quick touch of his wrist left no doubt. The shock had been fatal to Walton’s heart; it had stopped beating.
T ROSE from the dead body of my friend,
stared down at the steel rails that led to doom. I couldn’t see the freight train ahead, but I knew it was there, knew it came slowly but surely to meet the Zephyr in the tunnel.
There was no escape. The doors were locked, the heavy sealed windows unbreakable. A feeling of hideous helplessness enveloped me, robbed my sweatbathed body of strength. Groping, moving like one deadened with dope, I made my way through the engine room to the baggage-room door. My only chance was to reach that rear car, where the shock of the collision would be less.
And that chance vanished as the door refused to open, remained immovably locked. Trapped in the forward section of the car. I could not save myself from the telescoping impact of the locomotive ahead. Hardly conscious of my action, I groped forward again, clutched the dummy controls. My teeth clenched, I stood there, conscious only of the machine-gun staccato of wheels clicking off rail-lengths that measured off the split seconds to the end.
And then it came. The blow sent me reeling into a bottomless void. But a sound followed me into that void, the familiar sound of clicking wheels. The
Zephyr, I knew, still raced over the rails— the blow had come from within !
I fought my way back to consciousness, won the battle despite the succession of blows that rained upon me. Clutching blindly, I grasped a writhing figure, struggled desperately. I was fighting for my life—a life that could endure only a few seconds at most. Yet I fought as if those seconds were as many years.
And my fury told. Throwing all my weight forward in a desperate lunge, I sent the figure toppling backward. Alert, I tensed for the countercharge. It did not come. The figure was limp in my hands. Leaping warily backward, I saw why.
My assailant had been tripped by the dead body of Walton on the floor. His head had struck the sharp throttle lever, impaled itself, there. His eyes were glazed with death.
Then I, too, faced death. Through the Zephyr’s windshield, I saw the gaping mouth of the tunnel, heard the crack of the air as the train roared into it at a speed of one hundred and twenty miles an hour.
VXTE STOOD watching the removal of vv the wreckage, the officer from the coast guard and myself. He was a very sensible, matter-of-fact man, and it had been a tedious task making him understand just what Walton had done on this island. From time to time he shook his head.
“You should consider yourself the luckiest man in the world,” he said solemnly. “It’s a miracle they aren’t digging for you too.”
“Yes, it was just dumb luck.”
The coast guard officer licked the flap of a manila envelope and sealed it.
“My report will explain everything,” he said. “But you will be asked to appear at the inquest. A mere formality, of course.”
We shook hands, and the officer, still wagging his head, walked to the plane. I continued to watch the removal of the wreckage from the collapsed tunnel. Inwardly I congratulated myself. The coast guard man had not suspected that I had wrecked the Zephyr.
It had been a simple trick. I had studied the control mechanism, managed to close the siding switch and send the freight train down the right of way. Its locomotive had telescoped the Zephyr’s forward car. That car had contained the bodies of Walton and his murderer.
He had nearly done for me, too, that murderer. When the Zephyr had entered the tunnel, my own heart had stopped beating. But it had beat again as the Zephyr emerged.
I realized the truth. The track chart had lied. The switch had not failed—the freight was safely on the siding ! In a flash I understood the murderer’s plan.
It had been remarkably simple. The
murderer had extinguished the freight train’s lights, forcing Walton to rely entirely on the track chart. By crossing the chart’s wires, he had led W’alton to think the freight would crash head-on. He had well known that Walton’s heart could not survive the shock.
An examination of Walton’s body would show that he had died a natural death. The plan would have succeeded but for one thing.
My visit to the island had not been counted on. Realizing that I would discover the crossed wires, guess the truth, the murderer had hidden in the hollow Diesel, determined to commit a second murder to prevent exposure of the first.
Now he lay with his victim in the wreckage of the two trains.
I had wrecked them as they made their next circuit of the island. When the pilot of the plane chartered by the murderer returned to pick him up, I had summoned the coast guard authorities.
I had taken some risk concealing the truth. There was a chance someone might question my story that by dumb luck I had remained behind when the Zephyr made its fatal run.
But I felt that I owed that much to W’alton. He was a splendid fellow, a good friend, and it would have been a shame to let it be known that he had been murdered by his own son.