Author note: These first couple of chapters aren't too long and I'm pretty comfortable with my current edits, so I'll just fire off the next one. I'm up ahead writing in Chapter Five tonight. Part of getting my chemo treatment earlier today was a shot of steroids to help with the side effects, which itself has the effect of keeping me awake. So I can write or take a sleeping pill. Welcome to my world.
Roy Gibson, Conductor of the Stanton Line of the Colorado Canyon and Las Vegas Railroad, stepped off the short yellow caboose which served as his home on the job. The sun had finally come over the ocher-shadowed hills and cliffs rising above Moab on the eastern side of the canyon. They’d be departing within the hour.
His first duty of the day, as it had been for thirty-two years, was to inspect the train. Half a century ago, he had started out as the cook. When the Great Depression came, he was made to take on the positions of porter and brakeman as well. Then it was assistant conductor, which didn’t change anything but his title. The train’s original conductor retired before the war and Gibson was offered the job. He was married by then and hired his wife, Denise, to be the cook and porter. It was the best fifty years of his life, but they were all ready to retire.
The train didn’t have a choice; it had a tough haul all its life. In the early days it was a company train and most of the passengers were miners. But the mines went bust and faster lines were built going around the canyon. During the Great Depression it became the red-eye to Rio Colorado—the great port of the Gadsden Territory on the Sea of Cortez. The tickets were cheap because it took a week to get there. But when you’re looking for a job, cheap is good—and you could always find a job in Rio.
After the second world war the train became popular with tourists. Twenty years ago had been the heyday. The company had renovated the train and it became a real classy thing to do. Folks came for the journey and the wonder, not as a means to get someplace. They finally discovered what Gibson had known all his life…this was an awesome place made accessible to the masses by a tame line of steel.
Eventually, the company had four coal-fired locomotives running between Moab and Las Vegas. As time wore on, the ecology-minded folks of the National Park Service became concerned with the railway and moved to make an acquisition, breaking an uneasy truce that had been stewing for years. The company created a public spectacle by accusing the government of stealing their profits. The case ended up in the Supreme Court. It was a unanimous decision. The government had financed the construction of the railway—they owned the tracks. The company lost and the reputation of the railroad took a beating.
The Park Service treated the railroad more like a novelty than a serious business. They quickly retired two of the locomotives…leaving just the Brown and Stanton Lines. Ticket sales were sluggish because they didn’t promote it—in fear of creating demand. They dropped the Brown Line after the announcement to replace the two trains with a new-technology, natural gas locomotive and modern coaches; a plan that quickly gained public support and excitement.
The Stanton Line had grown shorter over the years and it never sold out lately—not even this, the last time. Half the passengers were employees of the railroad or their relatives; celebrating the last run and attending the party at Bright Angel Lodge. The rest were a smattering of humble folks getting in on the adventure before the new trains made it three times more expensive. They were arriving to the platform at the usual dwindled pace.
The only thing resembling fanfare was a small group of quasi-rainbow-child protestors standing near the locomotive. “WeFeRs” they called themselves—for the Western Free Rivers movement. Earlier, they had sung a few “going away” songs and half-heartedly waved their signs, ‘WFR FOREVER, We love FReedom!, WEST FREE FOREVER.’ They’d probably been drinking or toking, but they appeared harmless. At the moment they were just hanging out. The engineer was leaning out his window and Gibson could hear him chatting with them, his friendly brogue partly muffled by the hiss of the locomotive.
Today Gibson wore the light-grey cotton vest and blue-striped pants, his favorite uniform for summer. He had a short round black hat with the same color grey and blue in a band around it, adorned by the line’s yellow emblem above the bill. He carried a spiraled-oak cane though he didn’t need it to walk—it was useful at times. He was a barrel-chested man standing six foot four with the chocolate sheen of his Bermudan ancestors. He could intimidate people if he needed to, but he didn’t like it. His friendly nature is what protected him...the cane was backup.
He began, as always, by reversing around the back of the train and starting up the far side, checking the brake lines and couplers as he went. As he approached the tender, he could hear the fireman heaving shovelfuls of coal into the firebox. Harry Ferguson, the engineer, was on the far side of the cab still chatting with the protestors.
“Might as well get this over with…” Gibson mumbled to himself as he rounded the front end of the locomotive.
The young woman who was talking cut herself off when she saw Gibson’s imposing bulk approaching. They didn’t need to, but they all took a step back to make room for him to pass. “Mornin’, Gibson.” Harry called out, breaking the silence.
Gibson stopped below the cab. “Good morning, Mr. Ferguson. Everything check out?”
“Pressure’s a wee high with Dan going for a shovelin’ record here, but we’ll be fine.” Harry looked out to the clear blue sky, “It’s been raining for a week, and it clears this morning? That’s a good sign if you ask me.”
“We’ll see, Harry. We’ll see.” Gibson was never comfortable until the train was rolling. He patted the side of the cab then turned and tipped his hat to the protestors. They stood silently staring as he turned again to continue his inspection.
“Don’t worry about him, he’s okay…” Harry’s voice blended into the background again as Gibson walked. On this side of the train, he checked that stairs were clear of debris and that doors and gates were secured open to ease the passage of luggage. Passing by the dining car, second after the tender, he stopped long enough to see Denise amid a mountain of food and supplies that she was organizing into various cupboards and iceboxes.
Kaya, the Gibson’s granddaughter and the only other onboard employee, would be in the sleeper coach packing linens. There was a small cabin for the cook in one corner of the dining car. Since Denise slept with Roy in the caboose, she let Kaya sleep in the cook’s cabin. The engineer and fireman usually had a small room provided for them at each of the overnight stops.
Beyond the dining car was a regular riding coach followed by an open viewing car that had cloth awnings for shade and metal benches running back-to-back down the center. The rear of the train was brought up by a single sleeper car, another open viewing car, and Roy’s little caboose—painted a deep yellow because the rest of the cars were yellow.
Satisfied with the inspection, Gibson returned to the middle of the train and pulled a silver whistle from below his vest. Blowing sharply twice, he then shouted “All aboard!! First call for the last run!”
The protestors grabbed their signs and their packs, waved to the engineer and headed for the train. Gibson’s grip on his cane tightened in reflex. “Howdy, folks. May I help you?” he called out as they approached him.
“I suppose you can,” the taller of the two men said as he held out his hand. They had tickets.
Gibson hesitated before replying, sizing them up. “You can’t bring the signs aboard.”
“Oh—okay.” said the young man, looking confused since the nearest trash bin was too small. His friends were scanning the platform area—their abhorrence to littering left them in a quandary.
Gibson pointed, “There’s a trash bin behind the old depot building.” They set off on their mission, lingering behind the depot a few minutes longer than they needed to. When they returned, Gibson asked them pointedly, “Are we going to have a problem?”
The other young man with long brown curly hair and a goatee answered him in a mock Aussie accent, “No worries, mate. We won! We’re here to celebrate. That’s it. We swear.” He held two fingers up in a peace sign and nodded to his friends who murmured affirmations of his comment and also gave peace signs.
Gibson believed them. They weren’t going to be a problem, maybe just an inconvenience. “Welcome aboard, folks.” Each of the four of them, appearing to be two couples, came aboard with a stuffed rucksack on their back, a sleeping roll and blanket bundled tightly below it. None of them had reserved a bunk; self sufficient, camping sites were easy to find at all the stops.
Author note: Shameless admission—the names of the engineer and fireman are an homage to the world of the Hogwart's Express: "Harry" Ferguson and "Dan" (For Harry Potter and Daniel Radcliffe, the actor who plays him.)...and, of course, the engineer Scotty on the Enterprise was Scottish. Yeah, yeah...pretty lame, eh? But don't get too attached to the characters, they don't have any significant role in the story (at least that I've thought of yet). Shameless admission #2—I can't say it in the text, but my mental image for Gibson is a cross between James Earl Jones and Al Roker. There's a reason he is Gibson (to be revealed later), though Roy was randomly chosen. His wife, were she "Denise Gibson" would have the name of a girl I had a crush on in high school—but Denise's last name isn't Gibson—that also comes later. Kaya, I chose from a list of Hopi names...it means 'wise child.' Denise, Kaya and the Wefers will feature in the story but I haven't written much of their parts yet.