Old 237

Henderson came into the comforting creosote stink of the shack, beating the powdery snow off his coat.  “That load for the mill is the last one for tonight, right?”

“You betcha.”  Evans was already pouring coffee into Henderson’s mug from the disreputable percolator.

“Thank Christ.”  Turning from the coat hooks where his coat was already starting to steam, he took up the mug and ladled a half-dozen spoons of sugar into it.  “That weather’s getting set to strip paint.”

“Good old January.” Evans took a sip of his own coffee, and after a reflective pause asked, “ How well do you know Mort?”

“Mort?”  Henderson looked into his mug, considering.  “Pretty well, I suppose.  Why?”

“Well,… no offense to him or you, but he seems an odd duck.  Has he always been like that?”

Henderson sat in the herniated arm-chair that was the perquisite of the senior man in the shack, staring at the glow coming from the stove’s vents.  “Not always,” he said at length.  “Since… before the war, anyway.  About twenty years.”

Evans had joined the company after demob and had worked with Henderson regularly, enough to know when he could press him a little.  He said, “What happened to him?”

Another long silence, underlined by the hiss of wind-driven snow against the walls and punctuated by a couple of noisy sips as Henderson drained his mug.  Standing for a refill, he said, “I’m not the one telling this story, right?  You might have heard it, but you don’t remember where, because I don’t want anyone calling me Old Lady Henderson.”

“Fair enough,” replied Evans.

“You been around long enough to know something about the steam engines.  Totally different prospect from these diesels we’re looking after now.  Right?”

“Sure.  Diesels is topping off fluids and tightening bolts.  The old hogs needed….”  Evans trailed off, slightly embarrassed.

“Love.”  It wasn’t a word Henderson’s voice handled well, and it came out almost like a curse.  “Yeah.  Lots more attention, and you knew they wanted care, too.  All of them a little different, even if they came out of the same plant, back to back.”  He huffed on the mug.  “You ever hear about that really bad Baldwin Consolidation that Canadian Pacific had out in the mountains?”

Evans thought he might have heard something, possibly, but the details didn’t come to him and he shook his head.

“Probably not.  It was old timers telling the story back when I was a kid.  They bought a couple of them, but this one was mean.  None of the crews liked it.  No one was surprised when it dropped its brakes on Big Hill.  Went down a valley, killed half the crew.  CPR hauled it out, rebuilt it, and a while later its boiler blew dragging a freight up-grade.”

Evans opened his mouth to say something, but Henderson rode over him.  “Yeah, yeah, that was probably the hogger or the fireman not watching a gauge, but it was still the same damn engine.  And the CPR rebuilt the damn thing again, too.  You know what happened then?”

Negation from Evans.

Nothing.  Twenty-five years of nothing, but not a man climbed into that cab without saying a prayer and not one in a dozen that wouldn’t talk nice to the firebox first.  One guy, I heard, took a bottle of good whiskey with him every time he drew that Baldwin, used the whole thing to help start the fire.”

“Did Mort work for the CPR?” Evans suspected the answer even as he finished asking, because the dates didn’t line up.

“Naw.  I just wanted to give an example, a good clear example, of that sort of thing.  It was just about the time Babe Ruth joined the Braves; we got a bad engine.

“237 didn’t look like anything special, just a regular Alco shunter, from the Cooke plant.  Didn’t give a sense of how bad it was, at first.  I guess that should have been a clue, because it didn’t give anything.  Like a diesel, you know?  But it made you feel funny, because you didn’t expect that sort of nothing out of an engine like that.  It might be sweet, or it might be mean, but it was never just some dumb machine.

“So, for a couple of months, it just ran around the yard, or took five or ten-car joints out to the Hillston factories.

“Then it killed its first man.”  He said it flatly, with less emphasis than he’d earlier commented on the weather.  Evans, suddenly struck by a memory of an man in his platoon who hadn’t come out of Sicily quite right, who had never been the one to call a medic even when he was right beside an injured comrade.  He had spoken with the same dullness about killing, and Evans was jarred hearing the same tone in this place.  Henderson saw his reaction and nodded.

“Yeah, killed him.  Shit… what was his name?  Lamarche?  Lachance?  Frenchy of some kind.  Good fireman, knew his business.  So when he slipped off the back of the footplate, it was a big shock.  Right under the wheels.”  He paused, began fishing in his pockets for his pipe.  “Hell of a mess….

“But it wasn’t the sort of thing you’d blame on the iron.  Maybe there was some snow on the plate.  Maybe he was thinking about a skirt.  Something like that.  Because that’s how 237 was, and that’s why we didn’t figure it out for so long.

“We.  No.  It was Mort that figured it out.  He was a smart guy.  I mean, you don’t find a lot of dummies in a cab, but we’re smart about engines.”  He paused, reaching for a word.  “Specialized.  But Mort read stuff.  Always had a book with him, might be a novel, might be a magazine, might be a college text-book, and we ribbed him a little, but when we saw he wasn’t missing his gauges no one ragged him about it, much.

“Mort took a while to catch on, too.  After all, it wasn’t like the thing was a death-trap. After the first guy, we all had a little rumble even if it wasn’t the usual sort of trouble, but it was months before the next thing.  It was careful, and it was slow.

“So we’d had the thing in the yard about four years, and most of the time we were all worried about other stuff like the Dust Bowl and whether we should stop our commies from moving to Spain.  But there was one day, and I remember it because it was just after FDR announced we were staying out of the war, Mort came up to me and asked where we keep the yard logs.

“Then he went over to the admin building, and he was in there pretty much the whole day.  I damn near went in and told him off before it hit me—it was his day off.  I asked him about it when he came back down.  He blew me off, said he had to check some things first, but that’s when he twigged to what 237 was up to.

“Must have been a couple of days later, he and I were on a break, just right here like we are now, except they didn’t get this swell chair until just before the end of the war.  Mort got really quiet, and I asked him what was happening, and he sort of clammed up.  But I pushed him, and when he started it was like he was embarrassed but he was relieved, too.

“So he laid it out.  He’d been thinking about when Whitey Johannsen got half-cooked blowing down, back in the spring of the previous year.”  Evans suppressed a little shudder at that.  Whitey still came around the shack, now and again, when the weather was fine, a shuffling little old man beside the vigorous Henderson, one blank cue-ball eye in a half-face of shiny rugose flesh.

“That one stuck with him, so when Wassisname got his foot crushed, he sort of made a note of it, and then old Slim went and broke his neck falling off the standpipe and Mort got curious.  See, Slim wasn’t crew on 237 when he died, and most of us didn’t really notice it at the time, but it was 237 getting watered when it happened.

“So he went and checked up on the injury reports, and he was in luck because O’Toole might have been half-way alcoholic, but he loved writing crap down, so there were good, complete records.  O’Toole used to say he’d dock a day’s pay for any man that broke a thumbnail without a write-up.  Mort dove in, and once he got past all the thumbnails and bunions, he saw a couple of things.”

Henderson put up a hand, pointing one calloused, thick finger at the ceiling.  “First, about half the serious injuries in this yard had 237 tied up in them.   He said if he hadn’t been standing right there for Slim, he’d have missed that one, so maybe it was more than half.”

A second finger went up, the top joint absent.  “Second, if 237 was going to hurt someone, it was on a schedule.  Most days, there was no problem; it was just a big dumb lump of iron.  But some days, specific days, it put a hurt on someone.  Usually tried to kill them.  You religious, by the way?”

Evans was nonplussed by the apparent change of topic.  “No, not really.  I guess I fall somewhere between the ‘no atheists in foxholes’ jazz and those guys who went into the Nazi concentration camps and just gave up on God.  I’ll drop in at church Sunday morning if I’m not on shift, otherwise I’m not too bothered.”

“Yeah.”  Henderson waggled his pipe.  “I was about the same.  Reason I ask, I think if you had strong feelings one way or the other, I’d knock off right now. Mort, see, with all his reading, he’d read some goofy stuff.  Weird Tales for fun, some of that Lemuria junk that used to be popular.  When he saw the dates that 237 got mean on, those stories are what made the bell go off in his head.

“I don’t remember the dates, exactly, but it was… equinoxes, that kind of thing.  Eight times a year, big deals for witches and druids and creeps like that.  Yeah, May Day, too.  That’s when Whitey got it.

“I heard him out, and told him he was packed with squirrel bait.  Then he offered me a bet: two bucks that 237 did something before the end of the next week, he said, against my two bits.  Who wouldn’t take a bet like that?  I mean, I was betting against something happening, right?

“Couple of days later, a joint came loose.  Four cars full of kraft paper rolled down the yard, and smashed poor Dagnetti like a basket of eggs.”

“Didn’t he hear them coming?”  Runaways happened, and they weren’t loud, but Evans had a clear memory of the rumble of the wheels on the rails, somewhere between music and earthquake.  Henderson shook his head.

“Nope.  He was pretty deaf anyway, and he was working over a knuckle with a wire brush—not even his job, the poor bastard.  That one got us all looking at 237 funny, because when we went to check, the pin was up on its tender knuckle.  Those hitches don’t always catch, you know that, but once the pin drops, it’s set.

“O’Toole went ape, shouting that he was going to crucify whoever was responsible.  But then he went all quiet, because he knew as well as we did—Dagnetti was driving 237 that day, doing all the shunting.  Me and Mort were walking his cars for him, but Dagnetti had this… phobia, I guess, of runaways.  We watched him check all the knuckles down the train before he went over to work on that next car.  O’Toole knew he’d do it that way, too, even if we didn’t tell him.

“Mort wouldn’t take that two bits off me.  He did make me go with him, after Dagnetti’s funeral, to O’Toole’s office.  He laid the whole thing out again, and I was there to say he’d called it on Dagnetti a week before.

“O’Toole… he was religious.  A good Irish Catholic lad, and that probably helped, because those Catholics are brought up to believe all kinds of stuff, like those crackers they eat turn into actual meat on the way down.  You heard that?  Some guy telling you a hog’s killing men on special days likely goes down easier if you’re raised to think stuff like that is a good thing, right?  Also, O’Toole had head office on his neck; this isn’t exactly a safe job, but our yard was hurting a lot more guys than was right.  Head office didn’t really care about the guys, of course, but replacements need training, and they break stuff while they’re figuring everything out, and that ends up costing the company money.  That they care about, and that’s why O’Toole was taking some heat from them.

“Anyway, he and Mort got together on this thing.  They knew there was a problem, and what the problem was, so they just needed to figure out what to do about it.  I wasn’t really in on it after that one meeting, and Mort seemed sort of withdrawn, but those two met a lot and sometimes they got pretty loud, so they didn’t always see eye to eye on the solution.  Something that surprised me, though—every shift he was on, Mort was fireman on 237.  I guess he figured it was safe until the next date on his list, and he wanted to make sure he knew that engine.

“Comes the end of October, O’Toole put up his shift sheets, and because I was halfway in on the secret, I had a look for who was on 237.  You know who drew it?”  Evans shook his head.

“No one.  Simple, huh?  Mort and… crap, whoever it was that was driving, they ran 237 out to the northwest corner of the yard, dumped the grate, opened the safeties, and stuck ‘maintenance’ flags on it.  Just left it out there to cool down.  O’Toole got a little tank in from the reserve pool, and we were set.  We even got up a wall of empty box cars around that engine.  Those houses out past that side of the yard are new, so back in ‘thirty-nine there was no one but no one out that side of the yard after the October 28th.

“I asked Mort if that was the whole thing, just don’t let it get anyone.  He told me O’Toole went to his priest and got a rosary blessed, and he’d left it hanging on the throttle just before he jumped down.  O’Toole was trying to figure some way of getting the thing scrapped.  Hard trick, since they weren’t going to try to convince some company accountant that it was just too mean to live.

“I don’t think Mort or O’Toole had told anyone what was up, and I sure didn’t let on, but all the guys kept looking out towards that corner of the yard.  I half expected it to come sliding out of where they’d stuck it.  Someone even said he heard a bump from the northwest corner, like something running against a buffer.

“Well, damned if it wasn’t Hallowe’en night itself, and the graveyard crew had just come on, and there’s Mort still here in the shack.  He was just sitting by the stove, reading.  But when I came in, after an hour of shunting, and he asked me if there was anything up, I saw he hadn’t turned the page.

“I went back out to knock the wheels on a coal joint that was overnighting in the yard, and Mort sort of ambled along after me.  I wanted to yell at him to go the hell home, but I figured he might as well brood here where he could see what’s happening.

“Then there was this damn big bang.  We all looked over like a bunch of gophers, and then we’re all shouting and diving under cars because there was all this crap raining down.  I don’t have to tell you how that feels, right?  At least this stuff didn’t explode when it landed.  I was on my belly under this hopper, and something smacked down right in front of me, and there’s a smokebox door sticking up out of the mud and right in the middle of it in nice brass numbers: 237.

“I looked over where Mort was, and he was just picking himself up.  I shouted at him to see if he was OK, and he waved, then he took off running for the northwest corner.  I charged off after him, like a dummy.

“He was closer, but I was faster, so I almost caught him before he dodged around that last box car.  By the time I got there, he’s standing like a statue, staring, then he screamed and started running the other way, like he’s seen… crap, a pack of lions or something.  I didn’t see anything.

“Didn’t see anything.  Maybe some steam coming up… but that’s impossible.”  Henderson looked into the flickering vent of the stove, and Evans remembered that fatigue case in his unit again, who would also look into a fire like it was his own special sort of mirror.  “Anyway, he banged into me, and we went down together.  Damn near cracked both our skulls on a rail.

“I got right up, but Mort was just lying there all in a ball.  I stooped down by him, and Swede was just catching up—he was at the other end of the coalers—and we both give Mort a once-over.

“He was just lying there, all curled up, and we were trying to uncurl him to see if he’s hurt somehow.  We were both talking gentle, you know, like you do when someone’s hurt, and after a minute he shook all over like he was having a fit.  I told Swede to stick with him while I went for the litter.”

Henderson paused to apply another match to his pipe.  Evans leaned forward, anxious for him to go on.  His eye fell upon what was likely the very same stretcher, a canvas and wood contraption dark with stains best not pondered.

“But because I’m a dummy, I didn’t go straight back.  I had to go and have my own peek around the end of the boxcar.  You know what a hog looks like when its boiler lets go?”

Evans nodded.  He’d sat in the lee of a strafed engine, trading rations and cigarettes with some Brits, somewhere just east of the German border.  The cab had been intact apart from a few bullet holes, but ahead of that the thing was a plumber’s nightmare of tubes pointing in all directions.

“Yeah.”  A pause.  “That’s sort of what it looked like.  But not quite.  It… damn.  Every time I try to tell this, I don’t get it right.  If you just had a quick look, if you didn’t pay attention, it looked just like a boiler explosion, never mind that not one lump of coal had gone in the firebox for days.  But if you thought about it, and took a good long look, the shapes were wrong.  Some of it was crushed in.  Bent in funny ways.  You had to see it to really get it. And, Jesus, the stink of the thing! It wasn’t what you get when you pitch a bucket of water over coals… more like someone had doused a fire with load of pig shit and then threw the pig’s guts on top of the whole mess.  Anyway, being in sight of the thing gave me this chill and I just stood there, I guess trying to make sense of it, and trying to decide if I had seen a cloud of steam rising over the box cars, until Swede starts hollering at me to get the damn litter.

“We carried Mort to the shack, still all curled up, and Swede was calling the ambulance.  Mort sat up and grabbed me.  He was yelling right in my ear, and I couldn’t really make anything out of it.  Too loud to hear, and all I could think about was how bad my damn ear hurt, and I think if I knew what he’d said then I’d have a better notion of what happened to him.  Then he lay back down, and relaxed, and we saw his face for the first time.

“I’ll tell you, I thought he’d have a length of steel sticking out of his eye, something like that, but there was nothing wrong with him.  He just looked… unhappy is the only word for it, but the kind of unhappy you get from hearing your whole family died in a fire and your best friend set it.  He was up at the hospital a week, just out.  Company covered it, since me and O’Toole both swore it was connected to a boiler explosion.

“Mort came back a month later and he was pretty much like you know him now.  Distant.  Hard to get a straight answer from.  Never saw him pick up a book again, either.  Not one stitch, not even a band aid, but he was smashed as a man that night.  I never asked him about it, or maybe one time after he got back, and he never told me anything.

“See, I think the way he is now goes back to something he said the day they stuck 237 out in the corner.  It was sort of to himself, like he was thinking out loud, ‘I don’t know what to do if this doesn’t work.  I don’t know what to do it if does.’  And so he didn’t.”

Evans sat quietly, until it was clear Henderson thought he had wrapped up the story nicely enough.  “What happened to the engine?”

“Oh, that.  O’Toole did some tricks with his reports, made the company think it wasn’t worth repairing anytime anyone at head office thought of it at all.  It just sat out there, getting rained on and snowed on and rusting away.  Then the Japs hit Pearl, and damned if we didn’t have about eighty tons of scrap iron for the cause.”

Henderson blew something that tried to be a smoke ring.  “I suppose it would have been happier as a tank or a bunch of machine guns.  Sometimes I wonder if it only shot people on certain days.  You’d know more about that than me.”

Evans pondered, looking at the stove.  How many times had he or one of the other men cursed a jam or a hang-fire, or even a gouge from a can-opener?  He shook his head to dismiss a nascent effort to square dates of serious trouble with the times Henderson had mentioned, but not before the Christmas festivities of 1944 in that damn Belgian forest had crept up on him.  Lamely, he said, “So that’s what happened to Mort, huh?”

“Yep.”  Henderson began excavating his pipe.  “That’s it.”

For a time, both men sat quiet, each in his own thoughts, while the wind rattled at the door.

“Old 237” © 2015 Dirck de Lint