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City Of Portland

Steven A. Murphy

By Steve MurphyPublished 6 months ago 8 min read

“Oh my head!” he muttered. A jolt had shaken him awake. And that grating, metal-on-metal, like a blown tire thumping away on a bare steel rim.

The dull headache and dry mouth unfortunately were nothing new. He touched fingertips to temples, rubbed gently and cracked open his eyelids. Only to slam them shut. Was that a lantern being shoved in his face? Cummings again? The dastardly night watchman?

The scent of coffee tickled his nose. Forcing his eyes open, he slowly got his bearings. He was lying prone on a bench. Not of bare wood or stone, but padded, covered in rough fabric. He sucked in a deep breath and with effort forced himself up to a seated posture. The rumbling, metallic sound was louder now, no longer muffled by the blanket of sleep.

He turned to the window and gazed into an infinity of cornflower blue. Sliding across the upholstery to get the full view, he looked out on a vast expanse of desert.

“Where is this? What … ?”

He was aboard a train, crossing a bridge, a trestle. Leaning close against the glass, he could see green river below. Turning from the window, he surveyed the situation. He was alone in a compartment. Another bench, a twin to the one where he’d been sleeping, sat opposite.

He hadn’t a clue why or how he got here. Coffee! The smell lingered. Should he go for a cup? Might that un-fog his faculties? Aid him in deducing who or what put him here?

As he pondered, the railway conductor appeared in the doorway of the compartment.

“Ticket sir,” the conductor said. He wore the navy blue Union Pacific uniform, City of Portland stitched into the band of his pillbox hat.


“Your ticket, sir,” the conductor said impatiently, “Now that you’re awake, I need to see it. I need to punch it.”

He showed the man the metal paper punch he held in a weathered hand.

“Let me see,” he said, patting his clothes, “I had it here somewhere …” stalling, hoping this would suffice and the conductor would move on. But the conductor didn’t move. The man then checked his jacket pocket and to his surprise, found a ticket. He presented it.

“Thank you, sir,” the conductor punched the ticket, it, and handed it back. “Have a pleasant journey,” he said, then moved on to other passengers.

The man’s eyes followed the conductor, then moved to inspect the ticket he held between his fingers.

Pocatello? How could it be? He’d been in Pendleton last night; he was certain of it.

Deciding coffee was definitely in order, he stood, but was forced to reach for the seat back to steady himself. His head was swimming. This was no ordinary hangover.

Drugged, he thought. Then he remembered. The girl; they’d been drinking. She asked him to buy a bottle and come upstairs. A red dress, following her, watching the seams of her stockings, her stiletto heels. The walls of her room – pale gold, the bedspread mustard yellow. She poured whiskey into two tumblers and they drank. Then … nothing … just this ferocious headache, and this train.

A panic came over him – My wallet! He felt his pockets, and with a sigh of relief, felt it there in the breast pocket. He flipped it open, fearing the money would be missing. Relief flooded through him; miracle of miracles, the cash was all there. He’d cashed a hundred dollar poker chip in Pendleton. When was that? Saturday? What day was this? How long had he been on this train? Who sent him on his way to Pocatello?

Pocatello! It hit him full force; why hadn’t he thought? Well, he’d been out cold for who knew how long?

“Jenkins,” he whispered, “had to be.” If his suspicions were true, it meant trouble.

Needing the caffeine to fire up his critical thought processes, he made his way to the dining car and the coffee urn.

He took his cup of joe to a small table and watched eddies of sand swirl through the sage brush of the desolate high desert. Running back over what little he knew, he began to devise a course of action. He had to get off this train before it reached the Pocatello station. It was either jump off or face Jenkins and his goon, Morrison, and in all probability, death. Morrison was a paid assassin. No one was a faster draw. Not north of Salt Lake City or west of Denver, and this train had to be both.

“Next stop, Boise.”

He looked away from the desert to see it was the conductor making the announcement as he moved through the dining car.

Boise! Yes! He had connections there. Maggie; she might take him in. Just for a night, then he could high-tail it for the mountains.

The train rumbled right on through Boise, though. He witnessed the confused faces of those who stood waiting on the platform as they barreled right through. Some staggered back from the edge of the platform as turbulence buffeted them, ruffling hair, blowing up skirts, and sending hats flying.

Wondering why the train hadn’t stopped, the man went in search of answers. He found the conductor assaulted by a crush of other bewildered passengers.

“But my ticket was to Boise!” One distraught elderly woman nearly in tears, screamed; “My son! I saw him there, waiting!”

“Sorry, ma’am, nothing I can do, out of my hands,” the conductor answered, stone-faced. “Perhaps you could arrange to be picked up in Mountain Home? I believe that’s our next stop.”

Variations of this lame excuse was handed out to all, including our man who’d awakened on this train, clueless as to who had put him there, and what fate awaited if he could not get off.

Back in the compartment where he’d slept, he sipped a second cup and wondered how Jenkins could be in league with that girl in Pendleton? Could that lowlife Ben Dawson be behind it? Was this revenge for taking his money at the poker table? Dawson had always been an easy mark, but a notoriously sore loser. So, yes, possibly Dawson put Jenkins onto him. But he couldn’t know for sure. His only certainty? He wouldn’t be getting off in Boise.

Looking out at the sage brush, tumble weeds, and distant purple hills, gauging the light, he judged the time to be near twelve noon. It couldn’t take more than 30 minutes to reach Mountain Home; jump off there, find a phone and call Maggie. If she couldn’t come, he’d stick out his thumb and hitchhike.

On rolled the City of Portland, across the southern Idaho landscape, rumbling on through Mountain Home, Glenns Ferry, Gooding, and Shoshone. All were scheduled stops, and every one passed by.

He began to doubt his earlier theories. Surely this can’t all be Jenkins’ doing? No, there had to be larger forces at work. Jenkins might hold some sway in the gambling halls and brothels of places like Pendleton, Wallace, and Pocatello – all railroad towns – but over the trains, over the Union Pacific and the City of Portland? No, there must be more to this, but what?

They crossed broad expanses of lava rock outcroppings, passed by small homesteads and flocks of grazing sheep. After thundering through the Minidoka station, came the Snake River and the bridge at Heyburn. Next scheduled stop: Pocatello.

As the tracks snaked along the river, he considered going in search of an exit; maybe he could survive jumping off into the sagebrush along the tracks. A Western movie he’d seen months before with Randolph Scott about a gang of train robbers, the Reno brothers, crossed his mind; could this be an elaborate plot to hijack the City Of Portland? Was there a strongbox full of loot in the baggage car? He discarded the idea – too fantastic – no logic to it. But, then, what logic was there to this surreal train ride?

Soon the mountains surrounding Pocatello came into view. He sat quietly, surprised to find a peacefulness settle upon him. He could hear the fear in the quiet murmurs of the other passengers, even some sobs, but what could be done? As he saw it, the best course now was simply sit back and enjoy this ride, wherever it led.

The elderly woman whose son had beedn there to meet her in Boise had long since passed through hysterics into near catatonic despondence. A mother and child sat huddled in an adjacent compartment. He could see the mother’s lips moving, and knew that she was doing her best to reassure the boy that everything was going to be okay. The man was not so sure. Still, he didn’t move. What was there now but the waiting? Pocatello was coming into view; he could see streets, automobiles, businesses and homes. Would Jenkins be waiting, is this where it all ends?

He could see the station come into view as the City of Portland steamed into the railroad town, the Eastern Idaho hub of the Union Pacific. Standing, he leaned in tight against the compartment’s window. Straining, he spied the station platform, less thousand feet now and closing fast. The whistle blew, but the speeding train didn’t brake.

Then, suddenly, there he was, standing among the other shocked onlookers—those waiting to greet their loved ones, or holding tickets for Cheyenne and points East—Jenkins. Jenkins, in a gray fedora, wearing a dark suit coat, and tie. Morrison, the hired gun, at his side. For a moment, as the train barreled past, he locked eyes with Jenkins, saw the anger rising red upon the man’s face. Watched Jenkins elbow Morrison and point to the speeding train. The last thing he witnessed was Morrison’s raised fist, threatening only air. Then Pocatello, like all the other stops along the road of this runaway train, was behind them.

As the sun set behind the purple hills, the man settled back, let go a sigh and wondered where and when this wild ride might end. Into the night, the City of Portland rolled on.


Short Story

About the Creator

Steve Murphy

He/Him. A writer & actor living in the Arizona desert. Born in Idaho, have also lived in California, Maui, & Seattle. Married to a creative art quilter and blessed with the company of two Airedale Terriers.

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