Gray clouds loomed thick and low over the valley. An autumnal rain beat down without remorse, turning the picturesque Smoky Mountains in North Carolina into a beautiful scene worthy of the most epic tragedy. The darkened afternoon added a certain foreboding to the setting.
Locomotive 1702 chugged along the tracks, blowing thick, black, billowing puffs of steam into the evening sky. The old steam locomotive was pulled out of retirement a year ago, and still ran twice a day routinely taking passengers on a long ride through the Great Smoky Mountains.
Steam engines were not equipped with electricity throughout their cars, which is part of the reason they were replaced with modern day diesel engines; however, there was a certain charm to being at the mercy of the sun that drove hundreds per day to take a trip.
Conductor Barton Harper made his rounds through the passenger cars punching tickets, his flashlight bobbing along as he moved down the aisle.
Barton was a tall fellow whose snow white mustache curled up at the ends, so perfectly waxed into place that it dared not move no matter what. He had been in the locomotive industry for 50 years and was enjoying his final route before full retirement.
As Barton crossed into the final passenger car heading toward his office in the caboose, he noticed only one man, slumped against the window and passed out cold. As no reservations were made in this car on this trip, Barton approached gingerly. When he was close enough he kicked the man's foot gently and shone his Maglite into the passenger's face.
"Ticket!" his baritone voice reverberated through the otherwise empty car.
The man startled then groaned, his hand reaching up to clutch a spot at the side of a head full of thick, brown hair. Blue eyes opened, unfocused, blinking against the conductor's flashlight.
"Come on, Son, I need your ticket," Barton said, studying the face for signs of a concussion.
The man blinked his eyes open again, and to Barton's relief, noticed they were clearing. The man, struggling to sit up, grabbed the back of his head again and let out a cry of pain, falling back against the seat.
Instinctively, Barton reached out to help him get situated.
"What's your name, Son?"
"M-Michael," he responded shakily. "Michael Willis. Where am I?" he asked, looking up into Barton's face.
"You're on a train just south of Bryson City, North Carolina. And I need to see your ticket."
Michael furrowed his brow in confusion, automatically feeling his shirt pocket and then, using both hands, his jeans. "I-I don't have one," he responded. He shook his head as if to clear it.
"Why am I on a train? I never got on a train! I don't even have my wallet! What's going on?! WHERE AM I?!"
"Calm down, Son," Barton said, resting a hand firmly against Michael's shoulder. "Just take a deep breath." He clicked off his flashlight and pocketed his hole punch. "What's the last thing you remember?"
Michael looked up at Barton, trying to piece together his thoughts. After a few moments Barton watched as Michael mentally seemed to shake himself. He was relieved to see the young man's face focused, his jaw set.
"I-I was at a friend's party, I'd just given my number to a girl I'd been chatting up--did you say North Carolina?"
"You're on a train traveling leisurely through the Great Smoky Mountains in Western North Carolina," Barton replied, patiently.
Michael looked scared, and in that moment Barton couldn't tell if he was a young man of barely drinking age, or in his 30s. "I swear to you I don't know how I got here! The party was in Tennessee!"
"It's all right. We'll figure it--" Barton cut off, his gaze cutting to the passing scenery beyond the train car windows. Darkness enveloped the men as the train entered a tunnel. Michael caught the change immediately.
"What is it? What's wrong?"
Barton continued staring for a few more seconds, then pulled his two-way radio from its clip on his side.
"Carl, what's going on up there?"
After a few seconds, he tried reaching the railroad engineer again. "Carl, come in!"
When more silence filled the air he glanced down in the direction of Michael's face and replied, "We just entered into this tunnel without slowing down. About eight miles past this one there's another with a dangerously sharp turn waiting on the other side. Trains can't stop on a dime. We entered approximately thirty seconds ago; if we don't start slowing down in the next," he paused, calculating, 'hundred and eighty seconds,"
"We derail," Michael filled in.
"Stay here," Barton commanded, putting a firm hand on Michael's shoulder again when he felt him begin to stand.
"No offense, old man, but I'm faster, and probably stronger, than you. Let me help."
"You might have a head injury and should stay put," Barton replied.
"I feel fine, though maybe like I've been drugged--hungover, I guess. It doesn't matter; I'm helping you."
Barton swung his light up and studied Michael's face for a brief second before conceding. "Head straight toward the locomotive; hurry, but don't rush," he began, shoving his Maglite and two-way into Michael's hand. "There are 400 passengers on this train and the last thing you want is pandemonium.
"I'll be right behind you," Barton finished, gently guiding Michael toward the front of the car. He made his way to the caboose, where he had more flashlights and two-way radios in his office.
When Barton reached the door to the caboose, he pulled out his key ring and unlocked it, crossing to his desk. He felt around for the other hand-held then picked it up and turned it on. Tuning to the private channel where the engineer always had a radio tuned, he tried Carl one more time to no avail.
Barton reached up and grabbed two flashlights from the wall over his desk, took a deep breath, then headed toward the front of the train. He flicked one on as he crossed the footwalk then moved to the next car.
As Barton made his way through the aisle of passengers chatting idly, he swung his flashlight back and forth casually, though his shaking hand belied his façade. Fortunately, it looked just like an elderly man walking along a train chugging down bumpy tracks, and not a man knowing that in minutes, 403 lives could be lost.
When he reached the last door to the hopper, he realized that Michael had already stepped out onto the footwalk.
"There's no easy way around it, Son," he shouted as he approached the young man. "You're going to have to climb up that ladder, crawl across the coal car, and climb back down to get to the locomotive." He handed Michael his extra flashlight.
"Take this, in case you drop the first one.
"Don't try walking," he warned. "This isn't the movies; you won't get far."
Barton clapped Michael's back and bid him good luck.
"One more thing," Barton said before Michael climbed, "when we clear the tunnel, don't look down."
Barton watched the tiny beam of light as Michael climbed, then disappeared into, the hopper. The boy was athletic, so hoisting himself up to get out the other side wouldn't be a struggle. The route had also just started, so the coal level would still be high.
Barton estimated that even at a slow clip, Michael shouldn't be more than two minutes. More time than he'd like, but it wasn't the boy's fault.
Barton began ticking off the time in his head.
The train breached the tunnel and, a little sooner than expected, the two-way radio came to life. "Sir, I don't want to get into details," Michael stopped to retch, "but your engineer is not doing so well."
"Is he able to slow the train?"
"I don't think so." He retched again. "Now what?"
Barton began walking Michael through stopping the train, then steeled himself and turned back toward his passengers. He stepped through the door, turned down the volume on his two-way, and reached up for the transmitter that would allow him to talk to all passengers.
He calmly, but matter-of-factly informed the passengers of the situation, leaving out the heavy gravity. Emphasizing the importance of remaining seated and calm, Barton signed off and stepped back outside, turning up the volume on his two-way, to a frantic Michael.
"Where are you Old Man!"
"I'm here," Barton replied. "Informing the passengers."
Barton rubbed the bridge of his nose. "As long as we're not feeding coal, we're not going to speed up until we reach the decline. We have a couple more miles before that happens."
Barton walked Michael through the next step. When he felt the train beginning to slow, he breathed a sigh of relief. They weren't out of the woods just yet, but the chances of derailment had just been drastically reduced.
Barton depressed the button on the two-way. "Good job, Son. I need to prepare everyone for the next step. Stay put."
"I think I'd rather come back over," Michael answered, his voice tinny.
Barton stepped back into the passenger car and activated the PA system. "Ladies and gentlemen, we have, as you know, entered into a precarious situation. In the next few minutes, you're going to feel the train lurch and p-"
"Old Man! Tunnel!"
As Michael's words broke through the two-way radio in his hand, the passengers before him began screaming. "Please calm down," Barton snapped, both to the individuals before him, and into the PA system. "I need you all to listen to me!
"Moments after I step back out onto the footwalk, you're going to feel the train lurch and pull. This is normal for the next procedure."
"Are we going to die?!" a terrified woman asked.
"Brace yourselves," Barton responded before stepping back out.
"Okay, Son. Can you locate the throttle?"
"Yes but," Barton heard the young man retch again. "I'm... I'm stepping on the guy!"
"Focus, Son," Barton commanded.
"I got it, I got it."
"Open her all the way up, and hold on tight."
Barton gripped the railing and braced. With the train's brakes already engaged, having the throttle opened fully shouldn't force the train to slam to a stop, but one never knew if the friction would cause the wheels to derail.
Minutes later, the train came to a stop with a long, loud burst of steam. The locomotive and hopper had pushed through to the other side of the tunnel, but most of the passenger cars were still fully engulfed in pitch black.
"Good work, Son," Barton spoke into his two-way, "Come on back."
A few moments later, Michael hoisted himself up onto the footwalk from the starboard side of the train. "You ready?"
"Head straight to the caboose," Barton responded, handing Michael his key ring. "Combination is 57-32-28. You have three minutes before I need to contact Dispatch.
"Oh, and the retching noises? Overkill."
"Yeah well, it had to sound natural to anyone listening in. See you in Atlanta, Old Man!"
Both men entered the passenger car and as Michael walked toward the caboose, Barton picked up the CB. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is your Conductor..."
About the Creator
Coffee gets me started; my toddler keeps me haggard.
I've always had a passion for writing but fear has stopped me from sharing my work with anyone. Vocal is my push to step out of my comfort zone.