Fiction

Anniversary

another sort of

JOHN RHODES STURDY April 1 1951
Fiction

Anniversary

another sort of

JOHN RHODES STURDY April 1 1951

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Anniversary

Fiction

another sort of

JOHN RHODES STURDY

THE intermittent clack-clack of the telegraph key and the muffled roar of a hot fire in the stove at the back of the room were the only sounds in the station office. It was warm in here, but outside the deserted platform looked wet and cold and lonely. A few snowflakes drifted across the face of the window through which Morton was gazing, and a white light over the exterior of the door made them gleam as they fell.

The operator bug said: “The troop train’s out of Hazelton.”

Morton dug into his thick clothing and produced a watch. It was 11.10 p.m. or 23.10 railroad time.

Behind him a telephone rang, and then Phipps, the station agent, said: “It’s for you, Mr. Morton.”

He walked to the wall phone and he knew it would be Martha before he took hold of the receiver.

“Any hope, Bill?” she asked.

She meant, when are you going to get home, and he said: “The troop train’s past Hazelton. That means she’ll be here in about 10 minutes. Give me half an hour or so. How’s the party going?”

He could hear jumbled sounds behind her voice and someone singing. “Fine. The guests are loving it. But when we have a wedding anniversary party, I like to have my husband around. You were only here for the beginning.” “I’ll be back,” he said.

She laughed. “I’m just teasing, Bill. Come home when the job is done. How about the Vice-President? Isn’t he going through to the east tonight?”

“He’ll be fast asleep. He’s on No. 12. Don’t worry, the army may keep me away from a party, but not a—” He realized that Phipps was standing nearby and added: “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

When he hung up, the station agent had poured him a cup of coffee from a big pot on the stove, and he took it with a nod and a “thanks.”

“Wet night, Mr. Morton,” Phipps said. “There’s a lot of snow west of us.” He hesitated. “I guess you don’t mind if I offer congratulations on your anniversary.”

“I don’t mind, Jimmy, I like it. And thanks.”

PHIPPS, who had been with the railroad for 32 years, liked the rugged, grey-haired man who was sipping the hot coffee. Here in the high country, rimmed in by the

great mountains, railroading was a tough and dangerous business, and it made things just a little easier if you had a divisional superintendent like Bill Morton.

Phipps turned to look over the operator’s shoulder at the window. “Well, she ought to be pulling in pretty soon now. Kinda shakes you, don’t it., to see the troopers rolling again?”

Yes, thought Morton, it shakes you.

They heard westbound Extra 3555 whistle for Suicide Creek—the sound distant and lonely in the dark night— and Morton pulled up the heavy collar of his overcoat and with Phipps behind him opened the door and walked out on the wet platform.

To the left, across the tracks, he could see the lights of the town, and he knew that somewhere among them were the lights of his own home. There were only a few people at the party he had been obliged to leave; close friends like Harry White, the bank manager, and his wife, Louise, and Aline and Ralph Hedges . . .

The wet, gleaming tracks alongside the platform began to hum, and with startling abruptness the huge headlight of Extra 3555 stabbed at the darkness down the right of way and bathed the station in its gleam. The giant, mountaintype locomotive, black and glistening, shot past Morton as the engineer leaned from the window of his high cab and waved a greeting, and now the train was braking to a stop. Clouds of half-frozen steam swept over the platform in a thick fog, and for a moment Morton turned his head away.

The curtained windows of the cars gave out no light, and the long train looked dark and dismal as it stood before the station. From somewhere a conductor appeared out of the fog of steam, rubbing his cold hands and nodding in greeting to Morton.

“Everything’s in order,” the conductor said. “We’ve got a lot of tired boys aboard. They’re all bedded down for the night.” He looked at Phipps. “What’s the word on No. 12?”

Phipps said: “No change in orders. You’ll make the meet at Mileage 42. He’ll be there ahead of you and take the passing track. lake some coffee?”

“Sure would. Nice to see you, Mr. Morton.”

Morton nodded as the two men entered the station. He walked to the head-end and

Continued on page 50

Anniversary

Continued from page 19

shouted a greeting up to Harrison, the veteran hogger who was driving the extra.

“Got a lot of valuable cargo tonight, Mr. Morton,” the engineer called down.

Morton waved at him and started back along the line of darkened cars. Valuable human cargo in that silent, sleeping train—going West. Only a few years ago, he remembered, trains like this one had roared through the night eastbound, and he had worked to keep them rolling, one after another, faster and faster, until the steel rails wore thin.

And now it was happening again— darkened sleeping cars and new uniforms hanging in berths where boys slept—-boys like his son, Frank, who had taken a train out of here one day and had not come back from the last war. It did not seem so long ago. Now, as he walked close to the cars and heard the escaping steam, it seemed frighteningly like only yesterday.

HE WAS deep in his thoughts when he saw the quick gleam of a cigarette and came across a lone figure sitting on the steps of an open vestibule. He was a soldier in uniform and he was huddled up against the cold.

“Hello,” Morton said.

A face appeared out of the collar of a greatcoat. It was an astonishingly young face, with red cheeks and eyes that the platform lights suggested were bright blue.

“Oh—hi!”

“Can’t sleep?”

“No.” The boy stood up. His voice was mid-western and inclined to drawl. “Say, dad, are you with the railway by any chance?”

Dad! Morton felt the end of his nose twitch suddenly.

“Yes, I am,” he acknowledged. “Well, listen, dad, maybe you can tell me for sure. A train left the Coast yesterday for the East. We should be passing it pretty soon, eh?”

“Yes, in the next hour or so.” Hope seemed to rise in the very young voice. “And maybe we’ll be stopped beside each other for a while?” Morton looked at the blue eyes. “No,” he said. “He’ll meet you in a passing track at Mileage 42, west of here. You won’t be stopping.”

* The boy swore softly and flung away his cigarette.

“Boy,” he said bitterly, “I don’t mind being in the army, but it sure can mess up a guy’s business. Honey’s on that train.”

“Honey?”

“My girl,” the soldier said. “Coming East with her folks. Coming to see me after all these months, and have I been waiting! So what do you think? It’s all set, all hunkadoo, the big reunion, and then the army says, Buster, we’re shipping you in a draft for Fort Lewis, Washington.” He eyed Morton. “Couldn’t you get the engineer to spring a leak in the steambox, or something?”

Morton asked: “Did you wire—

Honey?”

The boy nodded. “I did. But maybe too late. Anyway, her folks wouldn’t let her stay out there alone. Even though we’re going to be married. We would have been married now, if this flap hadn’t happened.”

Fort Lewis, Washington, Morton was thinking; Tacoma, McChord Field, the jumping-off spot.

“Well, anyway,” the soldier said, “thanks for the information. I suppose I can wave when the other train goes past. Then I can write and tell her I

waved. That would be something, maybe. Or what do you think—do you think it would make her feel bad?” There was a note of desperation in his voice.

“1 can’t say. I don’t know Honey.”

“You should,” the boy declared. He fished for another cigarette. “Maybe I’m talking too much, and anyway it’s not the railroad’s fault. But it’s kind of tough. I just wanted to say hello and so-long for now—” He smiled boyishly, and the smile made Morton wince. “Of course, I’ll probably see her again pretty soon, but this was such a swell chance.”

I’ll see you soon, Morton was thinking. Perhaps his son Frank had said that to a girl, somewhere. He himself had once said it to Martha, long before this youngster was born.

“Come over to the station,” Morton said. “There’s some hot coffee there.”

The soldier followed him to the station door and when they entered the conductor frowned a little.

Morton leaned against the edge of the operator’s table and thoughtfully watched the boy; listened as he talked to the conductor about the train and the meals aboard, and Morton was thinking: Go easy. He’s just one of hundreds of other kids aboard that train; he’s not unique, nothing special. You don’t even know his name.

He heard the boy tell the conductor: “I was hoping I’d see my girl. She’s on her way east. My buddies and I figured out the timetable and we thought I might have a chance at some station around here, but I guess it wasn’t in the cards—”

HE didn’t remind Morton of Frank.

This boy was short and pinkcheeked, and Frank had been tall and lanky, with sharp features. And yet— I can give this kid a memory, Morton thought. A memory of someone he loves. I can give him a brief pleasure to remember and hold close to him, wherever he goes and whatever happens to him. That’s what a soldier needs.

Suddenly, with the decisiveness of a railroader, Morton had made up his mind. Looking once more at the boy, thinking of the troop train rushing to another war, he knew what he was going to do.

“What’s the report on No. 12?” he asked the operator.

“He’s out of Rockcliff.”

Morton dug for his watch, then studied a timetable spread out in front of the operator. The boy was still talking to the train conductor and Phipps.

“We could stop him at Boulder,” Morton said, half to himself.

“There’s no operator at Boulder,” Phipps said. He looked surprised.

Morton glanced at his watch again. “I could make it on a speeder,” he said.

He was aware that Phipps and the conductor glanced quickly at each other and that the operator raised his head.

“But,” said Phipps uncertainly, “Boulder is west of Mileage 42, the original meet. If you pull No. 12 at Boulder, he’ll have a 15 minute wait before the troop train goes through.” “Yes,” said Morton, “that’s how I figure it. He’s got leeway to make up the time east of here. It won’t interfere with the schedule.”

“Yes, I know, Mr. Morton, but—” Morton knew what he meant by “but.” The “but” was riding, probably asleep, in the private business car

attached to the tail end of east bound No. 12. His name was Watson Carruthers, and he was vice-president of the road.

The soldier had finished his coffee.

He said: “Well, thanks for the coffee, fellows. Guess I’d better be getting aboard.”

“Wait a minute,” Morton said. He knew now, inside him, that he couldn’t let the boy go. He went to the telephone and asked the operator for a number. A busy signal answered him.

“Phone my wife, will you?” he asked Phipps. “Tell her I’ll be a little longer.”

He followed the soldier on to the wet platform.

“Ever go A.W.O.L.?” he asked.

The boy looked at him. “Not seriously,” he said.

“I don’t mean seriously. I mean for a short time. Like taking a ride with me on a speeder, west of here. To meet the eastbound passenger train.”

The blue eyes widened. “Is that what all that talk was about? You don’t really mean it?”

“You’ll have about 15 minutes to find your Honey. Do you think you can do it in that time?”

The boy was almost treading on Morton’s heels as they walked past the locomotive and crossed over tracks to a small shed. Morton opened the doors and brought out a machine that looked like a hand-car without the ■ pump handles.

He started the gasoline motor and ! switched the car on to the main line under the gleam of Extra 3555’s headlight.

“Hop on,” he told the soldier.

The boy hesitated. “I like this idea fine, Dad,” he said uncertainly. “But there’s just one little item I’d like to check on. How do I get back?”

Morton smiled. “Your train will ¡ have orders to stop at a place called Boulder, just long enough for you to get aboard.”

The soldier took a seat on the opposite side of the speeder from Morton, behind the motorcycle-type windshield.

MORTON put the speeder in gear. j The little motor increased its putt-putt and they started to move down the track, away from the glare of the troop train. The speeder’s small headlight shone on wet tracks and snow-covered ties, eating them up ; faster and faster as Morton opened the throttle.

They swung around a bend, and behind them the troop train’s locomotive and the station and the lights of the town vanished. The roadbed became lonely and wet and cold, twisting and turning on a single track through the canyons.

Why am I doing it? Morton suddenly thought. Why am I rushing like a madman through a dark night, on a half-freezing speeder, to stop a train ahead of schedule? Why didn’t I let them meet as arranged at Mileage 42, and let the board go clear, and hurry home to the warm house and join what’s left of the party?

He felt the boy’s shoulder against his. The speeder swerved and ran for a high-level bridge. A deep, unseen gorge opened underneath them, echoing the clanking wheels in the darkness, and Morton was conscious that the pressure of the shoulder increased.

“Hold on,” he shouted.

“I’m glued on!” the boy shouted.

He was doing this, he knew, because

MIKE PEARSON’S STORY

by BLAIR FRASER

' f Frank; because the kid beside him might not come back.

When they swept by the passing track at Mileage 42, Morton’s fingers were numb from the cold and his eyes were hurting him. The boy had lapsed into silence; a dark, huddled figure on the wooden seat, his face buried in the collar of his greatcoat.

The throttle of the speeder was open wide now and the little car was hurtling over the wet rails. A signal shone through the night ahead, and it was yellow, and Morton suddenly bit into his lower lip.

No. 12 was in the second block now and he knew she would be coming fast. He had counted on ample time to reach Boulder ahead of her, but he was playing with seconds now. It frightened him, more than he would let himself admit. If No. 12 passed Boulder they would have to ditch the speeder to get out of the way; ditch it somewhere in this wilderness of bush and snow, and he knew they might not get it back on the tracks. The trains would meet at Mileage 42, as originally scheduled, and the troop special would come ahead on a clear board. And if the engineer failed to see them and left them stranded, what would happen to the soldier?

Morton felt his stomach turn cold. On a sentimental spur of the moment •—remembering things past— he had endangered the record of a boy who was probably not more than a few weeks in the army.

The speeder swept around the last turn and its headlight picked up a small dark station house ahead. Switch tracks fanned out to the left of the main line across from the deserted way station, and they were clear of cars.

Morton braked to a stop a few feet from the little platform and shouted to the soldier: “Help me get this thing off the tracks!” Even as they wrestled with the speeder, slipping in the wet snow and working with half-frozen hands, they heard No. 12 whistle.

The speeder was off the tracks at last, and Morton ran for the door of the vacant station house. His fingers fumbled when he tried to pick a key from those on a ring he took from his coat pocket. It seemed minutes to him before he could turn the lock and open the door.

“She’s getting awful close!” he heard the soldier gasp.

Morton knew the interior of the station house. In the dark he stumbled and groped until he found the light switch. The sudden blaze blinded him for a second, but he reached the electric connection to the semaphore on the station roof and then pulled the signal lever to the stop position.

He brushed past the soldier and ran out on to the platform. Even as he looked up and saw the semaphore arm horizontal and its lamp showing red, he heard the rails start to hum.

“You cut things pretty fine, Dad,” the soldier said, and his voice was shaking.

A great, blinding headlight cut down on them, and the roar of the train filled Morton’s ears. He stepped back from a cloud of white steam as the locomotive flashed past, and he said a little prayer to himself when he heard the brakes taking hold and the long train jolt reluctantly to a screeching stop.

He saw the business car on the tail end, and he could picture the vicepresident cracking his head against the wall of his bedroom and coming out of a deep sleep to start pressing buttons and sounding buzzers, demanding to know why the train had come to an emergency stop. How could you tell a vice-president that an army recruit wanted to see his girl?

THE waving lantern of the rear-end brakeman caught Morton’s eye, and then he saw another light moving back from the front of the train, diffused and weird-looking through the fog of steam.

He watched the conductor approach, and the man’s face looked strained and pale.

“What—” the conductor began, and then recognized him. “Mr. Morton!” Morton nodded. “It’s all right, Wilson. A change in orders. You were out of Rockcliff before I could reach you. Extra 3555 will meet you here instead of Mileage 42, so take the passing track.”

The white face relaxed a little. “My God, Mr. Morton, when I heard those brakes seize I thought sure it was trouble. And I suppose you know who’s riding with us tonight?”

“Yes, I know,” Morton said.

The conductor turned away to relay the orders, and Morton looked around for the soldier. The boy had disappeared. Fifteen minutes, Morton thought; 15 minutes in which to find a girl called Honey and say, I love you, and good-by.

Fie walked along the train. At an open door a sleepy-eyed porter stood staring toward the head-end. Morton boarded the car without the man noticing him.

He heard the commotion even before he entered the body of the sleeper.

As he made his way between the berths he heard people jabbering to one another. “Which way did he go?”

. . . “Who is this Honey he was calling?”—“I’ll say he was drunk—or insane.”—“Sure, I saw him— he was in uniform, and he had a crazy look in his eyes.”—“I bet they stopped the train because of him. Probably going to throw him off.”

Morton dodged the heads and made his way to the next car.

He saw the soldier ahead of him as he turned an angle into the passageway of a compartment-bedroom car. The boy was moving methodically from one door to the next and in front of each one he was calling “Honey!” Perhaps at the start it had been a whisper, but now, with the end of the train only two cars away, the voice had become desperate and almost panic-stricken. The soldier was literally shouting the name, and Morton winced at the sound of it, and wondered if it could be heard in the business car behind.

He started forward, and then a door opened almost in front of the soldier’s face.

“Honey !”

It was suddenly a triumphant yell. It stopped Morton abruptly in his tracks and he caught a glimpse of the boy’s face; the cheeks red and radiant and the mouth open in a look of wonder and indescribable delight.

The soldier disappeared quickly into the compartment and the door slammed shut. Morton leaned against the wall of the passageway and fished, first for his watch, and then for a cigarette. While he lit the cigarette he kept the watch cupped in his hand.

He was almost knocked aside by a young sleeping-car conductor who tried to push his way past.

“Did you see a soldier go through here?” The voice was urgent.

“Yes,” said Morton.

“Which way?”

“It’s all right.”

“It’s not all right. He’s wakened half the train.”

“He had to,” Morton said quietly. “And it’s all right. He’s with me, and I’m the superintendent on this division.”

He listened while the sleeping-car conductor told him his troubles. MorContinued on page 58

ANNIVERSARY

Continued from page 52

ton still had the watch in his hand, and suddenly he said: “Keep quiet for a second,” and his ears caught the far distant sound of a train whistle.

He put away the watch and the young conductor looked at him strangely, wondering perhaps at the expression in his eyes.

Morton walked along the passageway and knocked softly on the door of a compartment. When it opened he said: “Your train is coming in.”

The boy’s cheeks had lost some of their glow. They were turning pale now, and the grin he gave Morton was forced.

“Okay,” he said. “This is Bill Morton, Honey. He’s the one who arranged it all.”

The girl looked like a child in a long dressing gown, her hair loose over her shoulders. She was a pretty girl, and she squeezed Morton’s hand and started to say something when the whistle sounded again. Then her lips trembled.

Morton waited for the soldier at the end of the car. He gave a little nod and together they crossed the main line track and stood on the station platform. The curtain on the compartment window was up and the girl’s white face was pressed to the window and she was waving.

The soldier waved back. He was still waving when the troop special roared into the station and blotted out the other train.

The conductor was hanging from an open door, motioning to them.

“Get aboard there,” Morton told the soldier.

The boy turned and looked at him. “Good-by, Dad,” he said thickly. “Thank you.”

It seemed only seconds before the troop train was under way again and the soldier had disappeared.

Slowly he recrossed the tracks and climbed aboard the passenger train. A young man in a dressing gown was waiting for him—the vice-president’s private secretary—and Morton suddenly felt tired.

“Mr. Morton,” the young man said, “is everything all right on the line?”

“Yes,” Morton said.

The secretary scratched his tousled hair. “I didn’t know what to do about the V.P. He always wants to be called when anything happens. But he had a very hard day, and he took a sleeping pill. He’s dead to the world right now. You don’t think there’s any reason to wake him?”

Morton stared at the secretary. “Wake him!” he echoed. “Good Lord, no!”

THERE was a light in the living room when Morton reached home. The hour was two o’clock in the morning and the light was the only one burning in the houses on the street. When he walked into the room he saw a couple of sandwich plates on the table and a few empty glasses, and Martha was in a chair by the fireplace, asleep.

Still in his overcoat he knelt beside her chair and gently wakened her.

“I’m a little late,” he said. “But -happy returns.”

When he had kissed her, he told her what had happened. He noticed that her eyes were brighter than usual when he finished.

“He called me Dad,” Morton said. “Part of the time I had a feeling it was happening all over again. That troop train and the boy. Like a—”

“A different kind of anniversary,” Martha said. Her fingers were very tight around his, when suddenly she took his hand.