The Fourth Day:
Saturday February 25th, 1911
4:30am, Summit, WA
No-one saw it start, no-one saw what triggered it. Maybe it was just time, perhaps the weight finally got too much for the slope to hold on to it, perhaps the trees were unable to hold it back any more.
No matter what started it, the first sign was a crack in the surface of the slope high on the mountain. The crack slithered swiftly across the face of the slope and then, with terrible finality, the snow’s final, tenuous hold on the rocks of the mountain sundered.
And it fell.
A thousand feet below slumbered the hamlet of Summit; in the Beanery slept John Bjernson and Harry Elerker, tucked up in the hammocks that they had slung in front of their range. Swaddled in blankets and both wearing hats to save them from the cold, their heads sunk deep into soft duck feather pillows.
Around them the beanery was still, the oil lamps extinguished, the pot-bellied stove was full of a dying fire, its smoky window emitting a dull orange glow. The benches and tables slumber beneath the men. The only sound is a gentle snore and the whir of the wind outside.
The men did not hear the increasing rumble of the approaching avalanche and their sleep was not disturbed when the back wall of the crude hut exploded and the snow rushed in.
9:00am, Cannae, WA
I woke late to the sound of a howling wind. Moller was right, the storm had returned, and seemed worse than ever.
I opened the heavy red curtains and looked out on to a very different scene from the one Moller and I had enjoyed before we went to bed last night. Sleet and snow were being whirled and whipped about in swirling gusty winds that fizzed against the window glass.
I sighed, and pulled my last clean britches from my travelling case. I’d used my last clean shirt the previous day and reluctantly pulled on one from before I climbed aboard the train. I pulled a small paper bag from within my valise and stuffed two shirts into it, intending to ask the Hotel if they could wash it for me at breakfast.
Once again I completed dressing, opened the door and walked out to the observation car to be led across to the hotel in groups by the porters. Henry White greeted me, as I entered.
“Morning Parker.” he grunted “Looks like we’re back in the same hole as before, eh?”
“It seems that way Henry.” I agreed
“I swear I’m turning into a goddam Brit; spending every day obsessing about the weather.” He harrumphed good-naturedly. I had to suppress a smile.
“Morning Parker,” greeted Moller, “Ready for a hearty breakfast in the armpit of the world?”
“Moller you have the amazing talent to be both cheery and miserable at the same time.” I remarked. “Quite a feat.”
“Indeed!” smiled White. Moller grinned.
“I sat up late last night, staring out at the mountain, and the snow, and the rocks, and everything and I came to a conclusion: This is probably the most miserable place I have ever seen.”
“Why?” asked Henry White.
“I miss... colour.” said Moller. White and I both looked at him. “Inside the train,” he elaborated, “everything is either brown, red or white. Outside everything is white or grey. I miss blue and green and black, I haven’t seen any for days.” He sighed melodramatically. “Am I odd?” he asked finally.
“No Moller,” I said grinning, “I just think you’re homesick.”
“Gentlemen.” greeted Nellie Weathers as she entered the car accompanied by Libby Latsch.
“Ladies!” we all returned, full of false bonhomie.
“Another day, another town.” said Miss. Latsch, presumably as some sort of greeting.
“What do you think of my hair?” asked Miss Weathers. Her brown curly hair was piled up at the back of her head and clipped into place some how. A pair of ringlets hung down either side of her face, framing it perfectly. I hadn’t noticed her eyes before, how dark brown and liquid they were. She was, surprisingly, quite pretty.
“Very nice,” said Moller unconvincingly.
“Libby introduced me to some of her patented hair fasteners.” Said Nellie
“The Seattle Sea-Clasp” interjected Latsch, proudly.
“I think they are most effective, what do you think?”
“Most effective.” said Moller, “Is this your own invention, Miss Latsch?”
“Yes,” she said, “I came up with the clasp mechanism when struggling with my own hair. Women like Nellie and myself need to have a bigger clasp and a stronger spring in order to hold up our hair in the latest styles. The Sea-Clasp is also discrete and smaller than the average clasp. They have proven to be very popular.”
“Are you in business with your husband then?” This from Mr. White, his eyebrows arched curiously.
“No Sir, I have started and run the business entirely on my own.”
“That’s impressive.” said Moller.
“It is not the easiest.” agreed Miss Latsch, “But the world is changing, slowly and surely, but it is changing. Women are getting more respect and it is possible for women to be more than seamstresses or mothers nowadays.”
She smiled hungrily at me and I felt uneasy. I didn’t trust the woman.
At that moment the indefatigueable Pettit appeared in the doorway and led us across to the hotel.
Outside we were able to see, despite the storm’s best efforts, a bit more of the terrain around us.
“That’s one hell of a mountain.” said Henry White. He was right, you had to crank your head right back in order to see the top of it. It was roughly triangular peak of grey stone and, through the whipping snow and sleet, it appeared to be glowering down at us: a stone Gulliver gazing down upon us Lilliputians.
We walked across the main line and got a better view of the town. There was a large bunkhouse and a number of small shanty cottages that huddled along the edge of a small frozen watercourse that led from a waterfall at the back of the town.
A set of mighty electrical cables marched up the course of the waterfall and disappeared over the shoulder of the peak towards some unseen power station. Trickling down from the same shoulder above the tunnel were the zig-zag path of the old switchback tracks that used to be the only way over the mountain by train still visible, despite the snow.
Near the depot were a few other structures, there was a coal chute, a sand house and a shed for the non-functioning Electric locomotives. Further down the way was a wooden snowshed covering the main line that snaked away into the gloom. The snowshed stood at the bottom of a vast steep slope that disappeared up the mountain for at least a mile. This slope wrapped around the western edge of the bowl and towered over the passing tracks where the train, suddenly feeling impossibly tiny, sat. The slope was studded with the thin trunks of thousands of trees, all black and without leaves or branches, poking up from the white snowfield like cloves from a ham.
“Mr. Pettit?” I asked
“Yes?” said the genial conductor.
“Are those trees on that slope burnt?”
“Big forest fire rolled through here last summer, nearly took the whole town. At the last minute, the wind changed and all was saved. The Almighty was looking after the Pacific NorthWestern that day, I can tell you. All them trunks is charcoal now.”
I nodded my understanding, and fell back in step with Moller. We exchanged glances. I was beginning to come around to my paranoid friend’s way of thinking: that was a lot of snow hanging on the charcoal trunks of dead trees.
10:30 am, Cannae, WA
It was mid-morning when Superintendent Soberling told us about the snowslide at Summit.
I was relaxing in the observation car of the train enjoying game of cards with White, Moller, Miss Latsch and Miss Weathers, when Soberling stepped through the door, flanked by Pettit and Anderson.
The room went quiet immediately, and a quiver of expectation ran through the assembly.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” he began, “I have the gravest of news which, as I happened to be in town when I found out, I felt I should share it with you.
“Last night there was an avalanche at Summit station, which destroyed the Beanery and killed the two men inside.”
A wave of murmuring swept through the room, and the mood instantly changed. Ada Lemman moaned audibly and Sarah-Jane Covington comforted her. In front of me, Brawn showed no reaction at all.
“I should like to point out that Summit is, as a rule, more prone to avalanches than here at Cannae and that this is the first avalanche to hit one of our mountain stations in seven years, as well as being the first recorded avalanche to claim a life from one of those towns.
“It vindicates our decision to move you and your train here to Cannae where we have never suffered an avalanche that has reached the tracks. I am happy that, as we are unable to get you off the mountain, you are now in the safest place on the line.
“As you may have noticed the storm has returned and is more ferocious than ever. My crews are out there working to clear the line, but it is taking much longer than we expected yesterday and I must revise my estimation as to when we may be able to get you off the mountain. I am now hoping to get you underway by Monday afternoon.”
More groans and mutterings. Ada Lemman gently sobbed into a hankerchief, Sarah-Jane Covington comforted her.
“I must again apologise on behalf of the Pacific NorthWestern railroad for the extended delay in getting you to your destinations. Now, if you have any questions ...?”
“You say this is the safest place on the mountain, how can you justify that decision?” Edgar Lemman, ever the lawyer.
Soberling glanced at Pettit. “In the history of the Pacific NorthWestern there have been no recorded avalanches over the passing tracks, which is where your train now sits. That is thirty years of evidence in the company archives. I have worked this line for all of my life and I have no knowledge of any slides at this end of the bowl. There have been a couple on the opposite side of the bowl, down the old switchback route, which is why the town is built on this side of Haskell Creek as that deflects any slides onto the tracks in front of the tunnel. Mr Pettit has worked the same line as long as I have and he agrees with me. If you would like the opinion of someone who doesn’t work for the railway, I would suggest you talk to Mr. Bailets, the proprietor of this establishment, who has been in Cannae for fifteen years now and he will support our decision.
“Nothing is ever absolute, but I strongly believe that your train is in the safest point on the mountain.” Once again, Soberling delivered exactly the right amount of response, in the right tone of voice.
“If you are clearing the line, why can’t we sit behind the snow clearing crews and inch our way down to Scenic?” asked John McNeny.
“Because it is not safe, Sir. My primary concern is to keep you, and my crews, safe. My secondary concern is to get the line cleared and open. In the past three days my crews have cleared eleven major snow slides between here and horseshoe tunnel – that’s only eight miles of track. My telegraph crews have worked solidly for five days replacing mile after mile of telegraph cable so that we can find out where the slides are.
“My concern is that if you were to follow a clearing crew down, you will be hit by an avalanche, and there would be loss of life. Therefore I would prefer you to stay on the safest part of the line, and then move only when the entire line is clear.”
“What about going back to Frasier? I hear that route is much more clear.” I couldn’t see the speaker.
“Heresay, I’m afraid. Fact is that we’ve cleared just about as many slides on the run down to Frasier as we have down to Scenic. As I have said, I am happy that you are now in the safest point on the mountain, so we can now concentrate on attacking the blockages and get you down as soon as possible.”
“Surely, Superintendent, the safest place for all of us is in the tunnel, or one of the snowsheds?” It was Ada Lemman, speaking in her weak, thin voice.
“Not true Madam. Firstly there is the problem that we need to move rotaries around the mountain. Should one get bogged down, or trapped by a slide behind it, we need to get another Rotary over there to free the first machine, and to move trains around the mountain, we need the main line clear and only the mainline is covered by snowsheds and goes through the tunnel.
“Secondly everything thing that keeps us alive, and allows us to fight the snows and the slides, runs on coal, and the coal won’t last for ever. If I have a chance to get one train up the mountain, it will be a coal train. If I have two chances I will get a coal train and a food train. Only if I get a chance to move a third train will I consider getting the Express off the mountain. In order to move trains up and down the line, I need it to be clear. That’s the way it is...
“Third thing; I have forgotten how many times the snowsheds have collapsed over the past four or five years we have had them. Plans are afoot to replace the wooden structures with concrete ones, but that doesn’t help us now.
“Fourth, and final thing; Even if we were able to station this train on the main line, the tunnel would still stand empty due to the fact that we cannot run a locomotive within the tunnel due to the ventilation issue. My Engineers would die of suffocation, so no locomotive, which would also mean no heat in the carriages as the heat comes directly from the loco.”
Mrs. Lemman stood shakily and glared at the Superintendent, a tear rolled down her face.
“I don’t believe you.” She said, her thin voice quaking with anger. “I don’t believe there is a single safe place on this mountain, except under it away from the snows. I think you are making another compromise, and you are gambling with our lives.”
“Madam, I assure you...” began Soberling, as Sarah-Jane Covington and Sarah McMurdo tried to coax a tearful Mrs. Lemman back to her seat.
“No Sir, I think you are wrong.” She said as forcefully as she could muster, brushing her husband’s hand from her shoulder.
“Sit down, Woman!” roared Brawn silencing the room.
“I’ve known this man for thirty years man and boy.” He growled, continuing, “He has not become the Superintendent of this, the most complex and challenging division of the railroad, without developing a keen knowledge and understanding of the mountains. I would take his word any day over the dangerous, ill-informed clap-trap you are peddling. Now, take your place and let the man speak.” Brawn’s sonerous, booming voice reverberated through the room, echoing after he’d finished.
Ada Lemman sat down, her pale face devoid of all colour, her wet eyes showing immense fear and powerful anger. Brawn, even in his chair, towered over her through sheer force of personality.
An awkward silence descended for a moment, and then further questions of increasing banality bombarded the Superintendant.
Half an hour later, Soberling had gone and Brawn had headed back to his couchette, but the dark mood had not lifted from the observation car. Some of the women were sobbing, others were comforting each other, Ada Lemman was pretty much catatonic. Many of the men were affected too; they stood in morose huddles staring out of the window, or sitting in small clustered groups around the lounge area.
I was standing with Moller and Nellie Weathers near the entrance door of the carriage. Moller, sensitive soul that he was, was clearly upset by the news that the amiable cooks had been killed.
“I said to you last night that I had a bad feeling about this, and it pains me that I appear to have been proven right.” He said.
“I know.” I said. I felt sorry for Bjerenson and Elerker, but I’d seen so much death in my thirty six years, I’d become numb to its effects. Some people have described me as cold. I ignore them. They don’t know me.
“They’re not the first to die on this line, and they won’t be the last.” said Nellie Weathers, quietly.
Moller and I both looked at her.
“What is it that you know about this railroad Miss Weathers? You have a hatred of Brawn, so you’ve clearly met him before, but what else do you know?”
She drew us to one side, and we gathered around a table conspiratorially.
“I grew up alongside railroad constructions, my father was the chief engineer. His name was Franklin Weathers, and he was the chief engineer on this line thirty years ago.”
She paused, and Moller and I absorbed what she’d said.
“Your father was the engineer of this line?” asked Moller, “and Brawn was the foreman?”
“Financier, which made him the boss and chief decision maker.”
Nellie nodded, her unclipped curls bouncing in sympathy.
“Frequently. My father hated him. He surveyed these mountains, which took a number of years in itself, and eventually found this insane route through which only a bully like Brawn would think of building. It was a complete ego trip, in many respects, as if Brawn, fed up with people he could bully, decided he’d bully the mountains into submission.
“The way Brawn tells it, it was two years of noble work and everyone left happy. The way my father told it, it was two years of suffering and death to build a crazy railway to suit the ego of a maniac.”
Now, this was interesting. I’d grown up in the age of the railroad, when towns actively petitioned companies to build lines whether they’d be profitable or not, bribing companies with lump sums of cash if the rails would pass through their valley and not the next one over. I saw the railway station become the centre of the town, the hub of everything that was shiny and modern and new. My father once told me that when he was a boy he dreamt of being in the Pony Express; when I was a boy I dreamt of riding the rails as a railroad Engineer.
All this time I’d been brought up on the power and majesty of the railroad, I believed the romantic tales of the engineers and brakemen, and trainmen and conductors; I was entranced by the complexity of the organisation, the beauty and power of the gleaming locomotives, the stories of derring do by the constructors of the line. To me the railways were engineering marvels, financial powerhouses, the iron stitches that pulled together our great nation. I’d never thought of them as driven by ego or personality.
“General James J Brawn was originally a steamship clerk.” continued Nellie, “He spent his formative years working in St. Louis, arranging cargo onto one ship, and off another. He did well and graduated to effectively running a small shipping line up and down the Mississippi. Ten years on and the Civil War comes calling and Jimmy Brawn finds himself working in the logistic corps of the Southern Army. There he spends a fruitless couple of years shipping armaments from the armouries of the Deep South to the battlefront until the South collapsed and the slaughter was over. When it was, Brawn found himself to be a General, without ever firing a shot.
“However he’s learnt a few more things; like where the skeletons are buried, and how to get your own way, and a bit about organisation. Three years later and he’s the owner of four small rail lines in the west. He sells a couple to the Burlington and Trans-Continental in the South and consolidates his holdings in the North. He persuades investors to cough up money and links Chicago to Denver, and Denver to St. Louis until he has a hefty web across the mid-west running nicely North to South, but he has mounting debts and no route over the mountains.
“So he sells up, but maintains control over the bit he really enjoyed, the construction of new lines and opening up of new territories. He may have a board of directors to report to, but none of his schemes are denied and most of them prove to be very successful.
“Brawn meets my father and they strike up a solid working relationship: my father surveyed and worked out the routes, Brawn arranged the workforce and got them built. My father would travel with the advance unit, staking posts every six feet to mark the centre of the line. Brawn’s teams of workmen would then cut in and build out either side of the posts to produce the flat railway grade.
“Several miles down the track would be Brawn’s work crews, digging the flat grade form the rock, building a platform where there was none. It was hard grimy work, and when Brawn gets permission to build the Cascade line, the work got much worse.
“Now what Brawn told you a couple of days ago was pretty much right. The route was a nightmare to find, and when it was found, it was only just passable to a locomotive and carriages, and even then it required the insane switchbacks you can see at the back of town.
“The bit he neglected to tell from his romantic vision of railroad construction was what happened to the men, in particular the Chinese.”
“Chinese?” I asked. “What Chinese?”
“That’s part of it. Brawn likes to tell the story that two thousand Swedes built the line in two years with no loss of life. My father told me that the reality was quite different.
“Firstly, he told me that there may well have been some Swedish workers on the line, but no more than a few hundred. The majority of the workforce were Celestials.”
“Celestials?” asked Moller
“Natives of the Celestial Empire.” I responded automatically. Moller looked blank. “Chinese.”
“Chinese working on the railroads was nothing new. You said you’d come from San Francisco Mr. Parker, so you should have been more than familiar with the Chinese community.” continued Nellie.
“Yes,” I answered awkwardly, “The Chinese were employed in building the Transcontinental Railroad in 1850, specifically the stretch through the Rockies.” I explained to Moller. He nodded.
Nellie continued. “Brawn employed the Chinese as they were cheap, plentiful and they didn’t take much looking after. They worked hard, in the most dangerous conditions, with the minimum of safety demands. The only thorn in Brawn’s side was that the Chinese would only accept payment in gold because they did not trust our paper money.”
“This isn’t anything new, Nellie.” I pointed out. “The Chinese have been exploited since the 1850s. They were told to get their hair cut, something that was against their beliefs. They were restricted to certain districts in cities and then there was the Chinese Exclusion Act which prevented the importation of coolie labour and also stopped those Chinese already here from bringing over their families.”
“True,” she continued, “but Brawn insisted on working around the clock all through the year, even here in the high mountains. He claims to have built towns for the workers, but look around you. How much accommodation do you think is available in Cannae today?”
“I heard the population here was about a hundred people, peaks during the winter to two hundred odd.” said Moller.
“Exactly, but that is today, and the accommodation is adequate, but when the line was being built there were a couple of thousand of people up here.” Said Nellie, eyes blazing, “Brawn didn’t provide any shelter for the majority of his workforce – the Chinese. He built no bunkhouses, no sheds, no tents, nothing. Somewhere on this mountain over two thousand Chinese lived in for two winters, and no-one knows how many died as a direct result.”
Moller and I sat back in our chairs as one.
“Oh God,” breathed Moller as the full horror of what Miss Weathers was saying
We sat for a moment, each lost in our own thoughts.
“He makes out he is so high and mighty, but the way that he got there was to exploit everyone he has ever met.” said Nellie.
“What you are saying, what your father has told you, goes against everything I know about the Man and his railroad.” said Moller, “How sure are you about this?”
Before Nellie could answer, Henry White stepped in.
“Forgive me for eavesdropping.” he apologised, “I know that Brawn has never backed down in a strike, he’d sack people rather than give into terms. I know he would build lines into towns to accept the connection fees and then close the lines a year or so later when they weren’t profitable. Employing immigrant workers and then working them to death is a bit more of a leap, but I wouldn’t say it was utterly out of character for the man.”
Nellie nodded. “My father walked off the job three times over the treatment of the workers, but each time he was dragged back by Brawn with promises and money and threats. When he died, the line had been opened and heralded as a marvel, and became profitable and well used, but Father always used to say that it wasn’t worth the price.
“I don’t think that he ever forgave himself for not standing up to Brawn and his foremen over the men, I think it broke his spirit. Though he lived for another ten or so years, he never again worked on the railroads after this line. I can only remember him as sitting in his favourite rocking chair on the porch and telling me his stories. It was Mother who recorded all his memories of building the rails, Mother who used to whisper to me the unromantic truth behind the stories he told. She tried to get his memoires published after his death, but they were blocked by the Railroad. No one knows, or no one cares; and those who would care, don’t know. His secret has been kept.”
“Is that why you came on this trip?” I asked, “So you could have it out with Brawn?”
Nellie smiled ruefully.
“No, nothing of the sort.” She said, shaking her head and looking at her feet. “This line is the quickest and most direct way back to Seattle from North Dakota where I’d been researching my Wild West article. I didn’t even know the sonovabitch was on the train.”
12:30pm, Cannae, WA
I was chewing on a lacklustre sandwich in the lounge of the hotel a few hours later when the owner, a Mr Bailets wandered by.
“How’s the sandwich?” he asked, his small ruddy features crumpled into an approximation of a smile. He was not the best Hotelier in the world.
“Fine, thankyou.” I said. It wasn’t, but I wasn’t in the mood to complain.
“I was wondering if you had any laundering service available, Mr. Bailets? I’ve completely run out of clean clothes.” I tailed off as Bailets held up a greasy hand.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Parker, but I just can’t spare the water.”
That struck me as odd. “The water?”
“Yes, all our fresh water comes from a tank at the back of the hotel, and I have to make sure we have enough for cooking as a priority.” He stared back as me as I flickered my gaze to the door for a second. “I know what you’re thinking – all that snow outside and no fresh water? Let me tell you, all that snow’s water all right, but it’s frozen water. I’d have to melt it, which uses heat, which needs coal and, in case you haven’t noticed we don’t have vast quantities of that at the moment. Most of our water comes from Haskell Creek, a’ that’s frozen solid too, so before you think I’m a cantankerous old soak who’s being difficult, I ain’t – there’s only so much you can do up here.”
He smiled for a moment, as if recovering his manners. When he next spoke, his voice was again polite and mannered.
“Helluva storm, ain’t it?” he said.
“I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of storms, living up here.”
“True,” said Bailets, as he collected a couple of empty glasses from a nearby table, “but I’ve never seen so much snow come down all at once. And I’ve been here 17 years.” He wandered off towards the kitchens.
A blast of cold air hit me as Superintendent Soberling entered the hotel, followed by his meek assistant Longcoy.
“Afternoon Superintendent.” I greeted him.
“Afternoon, Sir.” He greeted me warmly, but was clearly distracted.
“How goes the battle?” I asked with a grin, trying to raise the mood a bit.
“Not well, I’m afraid. I feel you will be here for a few more days yet.” He turned to Longcoy, “See if you can find Percere and his crew. If they’re not in here, they’ll be down at Fogg Brothers’.” The boy nodded and headed back through the doors.
Soberling settled down in the chair opposite me, and sighed loudly.
“Sorry, Mr... er?”
“My father was a member of the Union Navy and always told me to take a rest whenever possible. Do you mind if I take five minutes here, Mr. Parker?”
“Not at all, you’ve been very busy.” I smiled.
Soberling chuckled slightly, a soft clucking sound.
“So, how goes it really?” I asked.
“Yes, I’d rather know what I’m in for.”
“We thought we’d have a chance of getting you off today, really, but that break in the storm was just a feint.
“About midnight the wind rose again, which is the worst thing for us as wind can deposit snow onto cleared tracks faster than if it just falls, which means that I have to keep the rotaries out there just to keep on top of things, which just increases the risk of slides.”
Soberling looked at me. “How much do you know of the science of snow, Mr. Parker?”
“All I know that it is cold, and wet, and you don’t want to be ever buried in it, but outside of that, I know nothing.”
“Snow comes primarily in two forms: there’s the hard packed, wind blown dry snow, and then there is the soft, wet, fluffy snow. Now the wind picks up the wet fluffy snow and packs it into hard drifts, drifts that are so solid we have to chisel our way through with a rotary, which can take hours.
“The softer, wetter snow can be just as hard as it compacts really easily, and more importantly because it weighs a great deal.”
“So the more wet snow that is deposited on the slopes, the heavier the weight?”
“That’s right, and the steeper the slope, the greater the weight hanging onto whatever keeps it up there.”
“I’m sorry”, I said, confused.
“Snow gathers on the slopes at the start of winter, fills into the crevices and effectively grips the mountainside. Then, depending on the weather, the snow builds up in layers: hard, soft, compact, and so on. Now the problems come if we have a hard packed layer, then a fall of wet, heavy snow. The new heavy fall sits atop a smooth surface without any trees or rocks or grass to bind on to.
“And is that the situation we’re facing at the moment?” I asked.
“Pretty much. The temperature has risen 10 degrees since midnight, and it’s still snowing. Over the past three days we’ve had high winds compacting the snow, then the wind drops, the temperature rises and the snow just keeps falling. Falling snow and rising temperatures are the perfect recipe for avalanches.
“We’ve got slides everywhere, the creeks and streams are rising with meltwater and I cannot see an end to this storm for the next couple of days. I’ve got rotaries taking five hours to clear a hundred metres of slide, plows that are struggling even to move around the Cannae yard, the telegraph line is up for about half an hour at a time.
“But I do have to say this, Mr. Parker, that no matter how bad the conditions are out on the mountain, I believe that we now have your train in the safest place here in town, and I’d appreciate it if you could keep this conversation to yourself.”
As if on cue Longcoy came back in through the hotel doors with Hugh Percere, the Polar Bear, in tow. Soberling sprang up out of his chair with the energy of a five year old.
“Hugh, ready to head out again?” he asked his chief rotary engineer.
“X35 is just coaled up and we’re ready, Mr. Soberling. Just need to know where to go.”
“OK, I need you on the beanery slide at Summit. X36 is attacking the same slide from the east, so hopefully you should clear it in a couple of hours.”
He turned back to me.
“If we can clear this slide we may be able take you off the mountain and back to Frasier this evening.”
I nodded my thanks as Soberling swept up the hulking Percere and the simpering Longcoy and headed out the side door.
I was alone for all of ten seconds before John McNeny came through the main door with Edgar Lemman.
“Have you seen the Superintendent, or that fool of an assistant?” blustered McNeny.
“He’s just left.” I said, “What’s going on?”
“Ada’s had a funny turn, and I’m worried about her.” said Edgar Lemman, who looked stressed
“I’m sorry to hear that Edgar, what’s happened?”
“She’s refusing to listen to reason and has become utterly hysterical. Nothing anyone can say is calming her down. She’s with the women folk now.”
“She’s saying that he’s told her that they are not safe, or some such nonsense.” Grumbled and unsympathetic McNeny.
“Oh I don’t know, like he said the woman’s gone quite mad.”
Unfortunately for him, Longcoy chose that very moment to walk back in through the side door, and Lemman immediately collared him.
“You, Longcoy. Where is the Superintendent?”
“He’s gone down the mountain sir.” Said the meek young man.
“Blast.” wailed Lemman. McNeny stepped up to the attack.
“You are the superintendent’s secretary, are you not?” he barked at the quaking young man.
“Yes, Sir.” Stammered Longcoy.
“Good. We, and by we I mean the passengers that your company have failed yet to move off this mountain, demand a meeting with the Superintendent at nine p.m. this evening in the observation car of the Cascade Express. Have you got that?”
“Now this is not for discussion, we will be expecting the Superintendent at nine p.m. sharp, and will be expecting you to deliver him. Understood?”
“Yes Sir.” quaked Longcoy.
I watched as Longcoy stumbled back out the way he had come, blown back out into the storm by the aggression of McNeny and Lemman.
Moller was right, now I had a bad feeling about the situation, but I wasn’t concerned about the weather.
5pm Cannae, WA
A furious looking Libby Latsch smashed open the door of the telegraph hut and stamped angrily out into the snow.
She stormed a couple of steps out into the snows, and then let loose a short scream of frustration. She turned to the left, back towards the hut. She stopped. She turned around again, and let out another frustrated squeak.
She delved into the pockets of her bulky overcoat and pulled out a cigarette, her holder and a windproof lighter. With hands shaking with fury, she assembled her tools and lit the cigarette.
She took a long draw, feeling the smoke flow down into her lungs, calming her. She exhaled slowly.
“The bastard.” she muttered under her breath. She took another long drag, and then shook her head slowly. “Utter, utter bastard.” she repeated.
She stared at the sky for a moment, feeling the fat, sluggish flakes on her skin. She took another drag and blew smoke at the clouds. Slowly, she closed her eyes, and sighed.
She took a final drag of her cigarette, and then threw the butt into the snow. Then she went hunting for Edgar Lemman.
Edgar Lemman was sitting in a stiff, sticky, stained armchair in the scuffed lounge of the Fogg Brothers’ Inn having a lonely drink. The bar was a dingy, smoky, scruffy affair with chipped glassware and a hardened clientele. Latsch swept into the adjoining chair and stole Lemman’s half-drunk whiskey from his un-protesting hand. Edgar rolled his eyes.
“Libby?” he asked with professional feeling, “Something I can help you with?”
“Bastard’s responded to my telegram.” she said with considerable venom before chucking back Lemman’s whiskey in one.
Edgar looked around and signalled to barman for another round of drinks.
“I take it what he said was not what you wanted to hear?” He said to his client soothingly.
“He said he’s having the company as part of the settlement, and there was nothing I could do about it.” She spat. “Said he was under the advice of his lawyer.”
“But Elizabeth, we’ve been over this before. He’s just baiting you before court. He’s trying to get a reaction from you.”
“Oh. What did you do?”
“Replied, what did you think I did?”
Lemman sighed inwardly. “What did you say, Libby? Did you say anything that could be detrimental to our case.”
“Told him he’d get my company over my dead body.”
Lemman sat back in his chair and puffed. “Oh, Libby, I wish you hadn’t have done that.”
The barman banged down their drinks on the small rosewood table between them. Libby Latsch picked hers up and swilled the smoky dark liquid around in the glass. Lemman took a sip of the other.
“Goddamn bastard. It’s my idea, my company, my work. Why the hell does he think he should get it all?”
“Perhaps,” said Lemman slyly, “you shouldn’t have had an affair with his brother?”
Libby Latsch looked out at Lemman from under her eyebrows. Her look was thunderous.
“Edgar, perhaps I should remind you who is the client and who is the lawyer?”
Lemman held her gaze for a minute, and then smiled broadly.
“Perhaps, then, I should remind you, Libby, who it was who uncovered your husband’s impending bankruptcy and his involvement in the Westinghall Arms stock scandal.” He raised his glass to Libby in triumph.
Libby raised her glass and the pair of them chinked glasses together. She blinked her big blue eyes and gazed back at him appreciatively.
“You forget,” said Lemman smugly, “we’re going to win this case, but you must remember not to antagonise the opposition. You will get your longed for revenge, but you must be patient.”
“It’s not in my nature.”
“No, it’s not. But for a hundred thousand dollars, perhaps you should try?” he smiled warmly at the attractive woman, and then took a swig of his drink.
“You’re right, Edgar. Right again.” She shook her head ruefully and pursed her generous lips into a lascivious pout. “How did you get so smart, in such a hick town?”
“Libby,” chuckled Lemman, “you really haven’t gotten the hang of charm yet, have you?”
“Something else that’s not in my nature.” She grunted, taking another swallow of whiskey.
“Is a hot bath in your nature?”
Miss Latsch’s eyebrows shot up, and she looked at Lemman inquisitively.
“Go on.” She said warily.
“One of the rooms in the hotel has become free and it has a bath. I took the liberty of reserving it for you. Someone should be running the hot water for you now.”
Libby’s mind was a whir. A hot bath! After two days on the train in the same set of petticoats, a bath would be most welcome. She viewed Lemman with different eyes: here was a man who could get things done. He made things happen. So much better than her useless Eric, who’s only real attribute was his money. It certainly wasn’t his brain, or his performance in the bedroom. Perhaps Lemman could give her what she was looking for? A hot bath. It’s as if he’d read her mind.
She swallowed the rest of her whiskey and put the glass back on the table with a bang. The thick liquid boiled its way down her throat as she stood, and then leant over the low table until her face was a handful of inches from Edgar’s round features. She looked into his eyes, making sure that they flickered down to her chest, and that they noticed that her blouse was not fully fastened, and that the top of her bodice was just visible. Just a hint. Just enough.
“So, Mr. Lemman,” she said, her voice husky with whiskey. “Are you going to show me to this room, or shall I find it myself?” She smiled as she held his gaze.
Edgar Lemman left the rest of his whiskey in the greasy glass on the rosewood table.
9pm Cannae, WA
Ahead of the arranged meeting with the Superintendent a man called Solomon Cohen, a Jewish hay and feed merchant from Weehawken, was trying to organise some form of agenda for the anticipated discussion. I was sitting with Moller and Nellie Sharp, our cosy little gang, in a corner of the observation car watching the chaotic proceedings.
Outside, in the howling wind and working by sputtering lanterns, a group of bedraggled shovellers were chiselling the train free of its icy bounds as the locomotive crew raised steam in preparation for a swift exit from the mountain. I believed that I was the only passenger who was aware of the possibility of an escape from the mountain as I had spent an informative afternoon with the engine crew, who I helped coal their tender and learnt about their lives in the cab.
Cohen proved to be an industrious sort, and had organised a kind of town meeting in the limited confines of the observation car, and was currently fielding points and questions for the Superintendant.
“Gentlemen and ladies, please.” Cohen shouted and the volume of chatter diminished. “I have the following points to raise with the superintendant when he arrives: A further appeal to be moved back into the tunnel, with an understanding that if not possible for a permanent move, a night time housing in the tunnel will be asked for; Insistence that the Railroad doubles their efforts to get us off the mountain and on with our journeys ...”
“Tell him I plan to sue if we are not off the mountain by 5pm, Sunday” interrupted Henry White.
“Tell him I am suing for loss of earnings!” shouted someone else.
It occurred to me that Brawn was not in attendance, in fact I hadn’t seen the Empire Builder all day.
“Either of you seen Brawn? I asked my compatriots at the table. Both shook their heads. Cohen droned on a bit more about something else he was going to talk about, so I changed the subject.
“Miss Weathers, have you seen Mrs Lemman?”
“Yes I have, the poor dear. She’s really not of the right mind. She’s been saying that we are not safe, that the trains are in danger, that she doesn’t believe the trainmen, that she’s read something about the snows. She even said that she’s been warned by a ghost! The poor woman is quite hysterical.”
“A ghost?” I asked, thinking back to my own curious vision in the mail car.
“So she says. Appeared in the mail car apparently.”
“The mail car?” I asked
“What would a ghost want in the mail car?” wondered Moller aloud.
“And this ghost spoke to her?”
“I don’t know,” responded Nellie, “you’d have to ask her. But I wouldn’t recommend speaking to her tonight. Poor thing is not herself at all.”
The doors to the observation car opened and Conductor Pettit bounced in.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, can I have your attention please?” He clapped his hands loudly.
Almost instantly, the noise abated and the attention of the room swivelled round to focus on the rotund Conductor.
“I’m pleased to say that the line to Scenic is open and we’re about to depart. We are steamed, dug out and ready to go, so please make sure you have all your possessions with you and we will be on our way in the next ten minutes or so.”
The excitement in the car rose as the conductor left. I was puzzled, this was the exact opposite to what the Superintendant told me this morning.
I looked at my table companions and both looked excited, but Moller showed something more. In his eyes I saw fear.
9:35pm Cannae, WA
Edgar Lemman was sitting on an uncomfortable stool in his couchette. Though the bench was hard, the wall against he rested cold, his clothes dirty and his wife was suffering some form of breakdown in her own couchette next door, Edgar was smiling the smile of the smugly satisfied.
He’d not only all but closed out his legal case, despite his clients best efforts, but he had also negotiated a bit of raise and had an extremely enjoyable afternoon into the bargain. Considering that he hadn’t even touched Ada in six months it felt good to be close to a woman again. Ethically dodgy, but good nonetheless.
He turned a page in the cheap book he was reading and reached out for a cup of whiskey he had on the washstand. There was a knock at the door.
“Come in.” stated Edgar, puzzled. He became even more confused when the door opened and Henry White squeezed in to the tiny space.
“Mr. Lemman.” Announced the portly lawyer.
Edgar put down his book and took a slurp of his whiskey.
“Can I help you, Mr. er..” he asked
“White, Henry White of White and Porterhouse, out of Porchester, Virginia. Delighted to make your acquaintance.” He stuck out a hand and Edgar shook it limply.
“I believe that we have an appointment in a couple of days.” Said Edgar weakly.
“Yes, but I don’t think either of us are going to make that are we? What with the current conditions and all.” Smiled White
“Okay,” said Lemman, regaining his composure somewhat, “perhaps we can sort this out here. Though from my client’s point of view, little has changed.”
“Interesting you should say that, Mr. Lemman, because I believe your client’s position has changed. As has yours.”
“Yes really. It is interesting when you find out your opponent is on the same train as you, gives you a chance to observe them in a social situation, get an idea about what makes them tick, allows you to find out the measure of the man. And you, Mr. Lemman, are a pretty sorry excuse for a man.” White leant as nonchalantly as possible against the door of the couchette, and examined his fingernails.
Lemman was puzzled. What was this man on about? Why the mock philosophy? Was he really his opponent in the courtroom, or was this some kind of trick?
“The deal is simple. My client gets half of the family assets and the Amstell Silver Mine on account that it was her money that purchased it in the first place and that it has never made an operating profit in four years. In addition it was your client that wronged my client first, and we have evidence to prove that.”
“And you are completely correct in all of that, Mr. Lemman,” said White, picking idly at a hangnail. “Though we do feel that the mitigating circumstances regarding your client’s infidelity with my client’s brother make for a particularly cruel act of revenge. However we do acknowledge that the core of your case is valid, with the exception of the Amstell mine. That may yet turn a profit, and we believe that the asset should remain the property of my client, through we agree to reimburse your client for her initial stake. Sounds fair, don’t you agree?”
“Yes it does, but this is nothing new, Mr. White. Your office sent my office a letter detailing your position many months ago. I believe you received my response?”
“Yes I did, which is why we now find ourselves at trial. However, Mr. Lemman, I think we can still save our clients from the expense of proceedings by perhaps discussing a deal right now.”
“Okay, let me hear your offer.” Said Lemman, warily.
“Oh the offer’s the same, Mr. Lemman, though we now want all of your client’s ‘Seattle Sea Clasp’ company as part of the settlement.”
“What?” said Lemman incredulously. “That’s not a reasonable demand. My client will, no, no judge will ever award such a demand. I’ll see you in court, Mr. White.” He began reaching for his book.
“Ah, you see, Mr. Lemman. Circumstances have changed. Some more, shall we say, evidence has come to light.” Lemman looked at him quizzically. “Evidence of a nice hot bath.” He looked Lemman squarely in the eye.
Lemman flinched. He knows!
“Mr. Lemman, your judgement is morally and ethically reprehensible. Your client is a serial adulterer who seems to use her femininity to seduce men to get what she wants. Will make a nice little tale to tell in court, don’t you think?”
Lemman looked at White in shock, his mouth opening and closing like a goldfish.
“Get your client to take the deal.” Said White, placing a folded letter down on top of Lemman’s book, and tapping it with a finger. “It’d be better for both of you.”
With that the large man left the couchette, leaving Lemman to stare at the folded letter.
10:00pm En Route to Scenic
Pettit was a good as his word, and within ten minutes we were heading slowly down the grade and into the first of the wooden snowsheds. In front of us was a rotary, running about a quarter of a mile ahead of our locomotive. The rotary was there just to ensure that all the snows were cleared from the line and also to act as an early warning should any problems arise.
In the cab of the locomotive were Engineers Wickham and Bruni who were struggling to see the white lights attached to the back of the rotary that was somewhere in the gloom in front of them. The wind tore at the cab, pulling at their clothes and caps, and flinging flurries of thin snow through the gaps in the screen that wrapped around the cab.
The fire at their feet was closed behind the firebox door, there was no need to shovel during the long steady descent along the southern flank of Windy Mountain. Instead Wickham was peering through the narrow front window of the cab, a mighty paw resting on the reverser lever. On the other side of the cab Bruni was staring through his own narrow window, but was dividing his attention between the track in front and looking up at the mountain and the snows above.
The wind gusted fiercely and rocked the locomotive beneath their feet. Wickham and Bruni looked at each other.
“Are you thinking this isn’t a good idea?” yelled Wickham over the roar of the wind.
“Dumbest one I’ve been involved in!” agreed his fireman, peering through his tiny window.
The train rocked again, and the wind howled its outrage, the snow and spinthrift fizzed against the glass and more snow fluttered through the gaps in the weathershield.
Wickham squinted through the frosted glass. The bright white lantern affixed to the back of the rotary kept disappearing from view, wiped from sight by furious squalls of snow.
“I can’t see shit from here.” He bellowed, “You any better?”
Bruni wiped at his narrow window furiously for a moment and then peered intently into the gloom.
“Nothing. I’ll go out there and call back.”
Wickham nodded his agreement. What Bruni was intending to do was highly dangerous in conditions such as this, but if it meant they could avoid running into the rotary in front of them, then Wickham was all for it.
“Make sure you clip on.” He instructed as Bruni struggled into his thick woollen overcoat and pulled his bearskin hat tightly over his head.
The smaller man nodded that he was ready, and Wickham stood to one side to allow Bruni to crack the forward opening door.
Fighting against the ferocious wind, Bruni gave the door a strong wrench and stepped out into the gale.
The wind instantly plucked at him, trying to pull him off the icy fender of the bright red loco. He turned and clipped a stout leather safety strop to the locomotive’s grab rail with a brass carabiner. Happy he was secure, he shuffled along the narrow fender of the swaying loco until he was half way along the length of the boiler alongside the bell. He looked back to see Wickham peering at him from the lit cab. Beyond that oasis of light the rest of the train dissolved into the storm.
The loco entered the low sloping roof of the snowshed: A wooden structure two hundred feet long that had been built two seasons before on a slope that was especially prone to slides. The smoke from the chimney billowed around him for a moment then drifted clear, helped by the open side of the shed and Bruni’s position at the front of the loco. Bruni was roughly level with the chimney, so he was in clearer air, but he checked nonetheless. He was one of those who found poor Tonio in the tunnel and didn’t fancy the same fate. His eyes were stinging enough from the unladen rotary in front.
In the snowshed the wind and snow were much reduced and the view of the rotary ahead was clear. Bruni relaxed for a moment and checked that his safety line was secure. Happy, he tightened some of the fastening buckles on his overcoat and then turned his attention back to the rotary as the two locos left the protection of the snowshed and returned into the teeth of the storm.
He squinted into the swirling snow, the cold wind causing his eyes to stream and his exposed skin to chap. He could just about make out the rotary’s white light, a lure to their escape, dancing about impossibly far ahead.
He peered harder, scrunching his eyes up against the howling wind and shielding them with his gloved hand. He changed his grip on the handrail as his muscles cramped, and leant forward, resting his body weight on the wind. A few feet from his head, the train’s warning bell clanged its resonant warning.
Something was upright to the left of the tracks ahead.
Bruni had ridden this line many times over the past five years he’d been working on the cascade division. He know that downslope of the rails on this stretch was a slope so steep you couldn’t stand upon it.
He wondered if the mystery object was a branch or tree-trunk, which could mean that a tree had come down form the sparse slopes above.
He raised a warning had to Wickham in the cab, and immediately could feel the loco slow slighty as the cautious Engineer gently applied the brakes.
Through the swirls and strakes of the storm, the object began to resolve itself. It was small, about the size of a switch control, but it had a bulkier features. He raised his hand again in warning, slightly and again the loco slowed, running now about walking pace.
A violent blast of wind obscured Bruni’s view of the mystery object for a moment. He wiped his eyes with the back of his thick gauntlet and blinked into the lee of the boiler. When he glanced up, the object was alongside him.
It was a child, his features blanked by swirling snow, only his dark eyes were clearly visible. He was looking up at the startled Engineer, but was otherwise utterly expressionless. He didn’t move. He didn’t speak or signal. He stood atop a deep drift on an impossible slope and looked at the engineer.
Bruni stared for an instant, then he heard something, or thought he did. And immediately started back down the fender towards the cab. He was waving his hands backwards at Wickham.
“Go back!” he screamed into the storm.
In the cab Wickham saw his colleague freeze for an instant, peering off to the right of the loco into the snows, and then he started back to the cab at some speed, waving his free arm frantically in a pushing motion.
Wickham understood an instant later and slammed his hand down on the brake lever. Instantly valves opened and steam pressure gushed out into the night. Sand poured from the grip bucket and the wheels instantly locked, grinding over the rails to a halt.
I was sitting in my couchette with Nellie Sharp and we found ourselves thrown violently against the couchette wall, my body pinning hers against the hard white clapboard.
Moller was reading a book in the observation car when the brakes were applied. He was flung to the floor and received a glancing blow from a robust wooden chair that flew past him along with several other passengers.
And then we all heard the rumbling.
It tore out of the dark from the left of the stopped train, billowing clouds of white snow flung hundreds of feet into the air as the avalanche charged down the slope and tore across the tracks not a thirty foot from the front of the train.
Snowballs as big as a person’s head thundered against the side of the loco and its tender, the draft of air from the near miss tore the weather shield from the cab, and the wind instantly snapped and shrieked at the two engineers.
Horrified, Wickham engaged the reversing engine and Bruni, still wrapped in his weather gear, began shovelling coal like a man possessed. The pressure gauge began to rise, the pistons heaved against the wheels and slowly the engine began to move backward up the grade.
The train inched slowly, oh so slowly, back towards the snowshed and safety.
Wickham hung out of the cab and stared back the way we had come, straining for a view of the shelter. From above came a fearsome crack, exploding above the noise of the storm, then another ominous rumble
“We’ve got to move.” Wickham screamed and joined Bruni in his frantic shovelling, the firebox door was jammed open and its greedy fire was fed by shovelful after shovelful of high grade Minnesotan coal. They tore at the coal pile, thrusting fuel into the ferocious fire. The pressure in the boiler rose higher and the train began to move backwards quicker.
Bruni paused for a second to tear off his hat, and glanced out of the open door to the right of the cab. A slide was charging across the lines behind them, and as it widened out its reach across the unstable slope, it appeared to be chasing the train and its terrified crew back up the slope.
“Fuck!” screamed Bruni and shovelled faster than he had before.
Black smoke was streaming from the loco’s short chimney as it huffed like a strongman, pushing the immense weight of the attached train up the hill to safety. Wickham stole a glance backwards: the snowshed was much closer now, the rear five cars were under cover and safe. He left Bruni shovelling and stood again with his hand on the brake and pressure relief valves.
The noise from the slide roared at them, a look over his shoulder revealed angry white clouds of snow, punctuated with rocks and bits of smashed trees clawing at the front of his loco. Snow, ice, rocks and other detritus banged and rattled off the cab, the occasional big thump actually shaking the massive loco.
He looked forward from the cab again, down the long cylinder of the boiler, straight into the boiling, roiling mass of snow that was straining to flip the locomotive down the hill and kill them all. A wooden strut passed into his vision and he realised that he was in the snowshed. They were safe.
He hit the brake and waited while the slide spent its fury on the wooden roof, drumming upon it like a military band. As the train slid to a gentle stop, snow and trees and rocks slid across the line until it reached the roof of the shed, blocking the exit.
The loco stopped and the rumble of the avalanche died away, and all that was left was the anguished howl of the storm.
Wickham realised that he was breathing heavily. Bruni collapsed into a corner of the cab, and kicked the firebox door shut with an exhausted boot. Wickham went to move and had to slowly pry his fingers from the brake lever. Once free he stumbled to the tender, and slumped into the coal pile.
Bruni was fumbling with something in the depths of his overcoat. He held up a broken leather strop: it was his safety line.
“Must’ve broke it when I came back into the cab.” He muttered, his eyes wide with adrenalin.
Wickham nodded, mute with shock.
It was clear the storm wasn’t going to allow an escape anytime soon.