The Fifth Day:
Sunday, February 26th, 1911
10:30am, Cannae, WA
It was deflated group of passengers, and a mightily relieved crew, who trundled slowly back onto the familiar passing track and back into Cannae later on that evening. After our narrow escape the remainder of the ride back up the line to the town was uneventful.
Spirits were low and there were many vociferous comments about personal injury and suing the company, though these dwindled as it became common knowledge how close and escape we’d had and that we owed our very lives to the skills and actions of the engine crew.
That night, as I slept, the old nightmares returned for the first time in a year and I awoke several times during the night sweating and scared. I hadn’t dreamt about Mie or the horror of San Francisco for so long, I’d forgotten the intensity they held.
I got up slowly and stiffly, my couchette was beginning to smell unpleasant, and I had no clean clothes left in my valise. I attempted to shave, but the water was tepid and I broke my final razor blade on the wet strop.
Rough of skin, bleary of eye and without breakfast because of my late waking, I all but fell out of my couchette doorway into the passageway and I heard singing. I wandered down the abandoned couchette car, all of the doors opened in an attempt to air the stuffy, sweaty little spaces.
I staggered down the passageway and into the mail car. Sitting on one of the sacks was Ada Lemman, wrapped in a thick coat and a number of sweaters.
“Mrs Lemman?” I asked. She continued to stare into the space a few inches in front of her feet.
“Mrs Lemman? Iasked again, whispering this time as I lowered myself down onto the sack next to her. “Ada?”
She looked at me, her trance broken. Her eyes were red and puffy from crying, her cheeks were tear stained. Her pale face glowed in the flat grey light that leaked in through the thin high windows of the car, and her thin mouth was a red slash against the pale.
“Mr ... Parker.” She stated, as if waking from a powerful dream.
“Yes, that’s right.” I said softly. She seemed so delicate. “What are you doing in here, Ada?”
She looked around, a quick search for something. Then settled back to staring at her feet.
“I was looking for him, so that everyone wouldn’t think I was insane.”
“Who?” I asked, genuinely perpelexed.
“Yes, I think it hides in here.”
“About ten years old?” I asked.
“She looked at me, her eyes widening, and a hint of colour rose in her cheeks. “You’ve seen him?” She asked
“I think so. I saw something two days ago in this carriage. A figure near the doorway, but it was very indistinct.” I paused. “What did you see, Ada?”
“A child. A Chinese boy, I think, all blank faced and almond-eyed. About ten years old, standing outside the door.”
“Did he do anything, this boy? Or say anything?” I asked softly.
“No. I don’t think so. He was peering in through the window, but I don’t think he spoke. I told Edgar and he told me that he would take me to a specialist, and that I would get better. He didn’t believe me. And Henry White, he didn’t believe me either. I spoke to Sarah McMurdo and she said I should sleep. No one believes me, they think I’m hysterical, but I’m not. I’m not.” The tears had started again, stealthily, silently seeping from her eyes and sliding down her pale cheeks.
“You’re not, Ada.” I touched her arm, and looked her square in the eyes. “I have seen the same thing you have, and I’m becoming convinced that something is wrong here, something is unusual here. This storm is keeping us here, it seems. Our descent attempt last night felt like an escape from some kind of prison, and one that was thwarted, I might add.”
Ada looked at me like I was speaking intelligible language for the first time, like a mother looks at her child after its first words.
“We’re not safe.” She said very clearly, and very distinctly.
“Why Ada? You said this during the meeting yesterday, before Brawn shouted you down. Why aren’t we safe here? What do you know?”
She spoke, slowly and deliberately, making sure that not one iota of the information she imparted was misunderstood.
“I was a history scholar at Harvard before I was married. I speak five languages, I have studied mathematics, chemistry and physics at Harvard, Oxford and the Sorbonne. Since being married to Edgar, I have been studying meteorology, significantly the study of snow and ice. He thinks it a harmless distraction for me. Typical.
“I may have the body of a weak woman, and I may be afflicted by feminine nervousness, but I have the mind of a scholar and I probably know more about the trouble we are in than any of the men in that room.
“Do you know the story of the battle of Cannae, during the second Punic War?”
“I think so. Was that the battle where the entire Roman Army was wiped out by Hannibal and his elephants?”
“That’s the one. At Cannae the Roman Empire was brought to its knees. It thought that its armies would always keep the city safe from attack, that they were undefeatable. We recognise this mentality now: we call it hubris. Now at this Cannae another undefeatable empire is being brought down to earth. This line is too high, and too complex to be truly safe. I fear we are the ones to learn the lesson first hand.”
I was shocked. The way Edgar Lemman talked about his wife utterly betrayed her true person. Here was a frighteningly intelligent woman, well read, well educated, and at least the intellectual equal of every man in Cannae.
And yet she was admitting to seeing the same impossible vision that I had, she was admitting to the same feelings of unease that I did, she was querying the decisions being made by those railroaders who we had trusted with our safety.
“Ada, why are we in danger here?” I asked, but I was pretty certain of the answer.
“Because the snowpack above the passing tracks is unstable, it’s too heavy, and there is not enough tree cover to support it. It will fall in an avalanche at any moment. I can’t say when it will fall, but it will come down and, if you look at the slope, the trains are directly in the likely avalanche path.” She was most firm in her convictions.
“Soberling and Pettit believe all avalanches are diverted by the creek to the East.” I referred to the sunken waterway that ran about a quarter mile away. “They say no avalanche has ever hit the town.”
“They’re right so long as the avalanche comes from behind the town, down from the old switchback tracks. The slope that worries me is the one just above us, to the West of the town. It has the same amount of snow on it, and the tree cover is very poor – the trunks are barely above the surface as it is and most of them are burnt.”
She saw me stifle a melancholy sigh.
“You are thinking the same way?”
“I had my suspicions. Seeing all those burnt trees made me think there wasn’t enough anchorage for the snow. Charcoal does not have the strength of wood.” I know from experience, it was the burning wooden columns of our house that killed my parents.
“What did we see, Mr. Parker?” asked Ada. “In here, what did we see?”
“I do not know,” I said truthfully. “but Miss Weathers may know something.”
I patted Ada’s knee in a gesture I hoped was reassuring more than patronising. Together we left the mail car and headed towards the singing.
We entered the observation car to find a church service in full swing. Ida Starret was playing the piano with gusto and sixty-odd passengers and railroaders were crammed into the wooden box singing hymns.
I delivered Ada Lemman to her husband after agreeing to meet up later, and took my leave of the observation car. I lost my faith after San Francisco, and was not feeling ready to find it again anytime I was up this damned mountain.
I slunk out onto the Observation car’s portico, the voices from the car behind me wafting past: “The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want ...”
I walked out into the snows and followed the path through the deep snow drifts out onto the main line.
There were a handful of children playing in the snows, throwing snowballs at each other and chasing around. I saw the McMurdo children, all four horsing about in the snows. There was also Thelma Davis, looking as cute as a button in a tailor-made coat with a fur-trimmed hood and a pair of matching boots. Her father, George, was standing a short distance away watching her proudly, his arms folded. The kid was cute, for sure, but also spoiled.
I was about to walk towards him, to have a chat and pass the time of day, when something caught my eye. Coming out of the tunnel, a quarter of a mile away through the waning storm, was a small group of men.
“This does not look good.” said a booming drawl from my left. I turned, and saw it was Big Jerry Wickham, our train engineer.
“How so?” I asked
“Them’s engineers, without an Engine.” He said, flatly and factually.
I tagged along behind Wickham as he trotted along the main line towards the arriving crew.
“Aw shit,” swore the giant engineer, “it’s the Polar Bear.”
Wickham strode briskly over to the incoming crew, his giant strides causing me to hustle to keep up.
“What happened, Hugh?” asked Wickham.
Percere, his face ruddy and windblown, looked exhausted. He waved away his equally exhausted team, who thankfully trudged into the welcoming white canyon path that led into the town and rest.
“Ain’t good Jerry.” explained the tired Engineer, “Hit a slide just this side of the Frasier defile, spent most’ve the night attacking it. Ran low on fuel, so the Super orders us back to Summit to re-coal and change teams. Hit a huge slide just outside shed 2.3, must’ve been half a mile wide and around 30ft deep and full’ve trees and stumps and snags. Would have been at least two days of clearing and we didn’t have the fuel, so the Super’s told us to shut the Double down and hike up here to hopefully act as relief to another crew.
“What does that mean?” I asked, concerned.
“Two things I guess. One, we’ve had to abandon a double rotary and let it die – which means that two rotaries ain’t going to be of any use to clear a line for at least a day after the storm clears. Second, ain’t nobody getting off this mountain to the East. Too many slides.” He shook his head gravely.
“Have you ever seen anything like this before, Mr Percere?” I asked tentatively
“Never. This storm is something awful, I ain’t never seen anything like this.” He looked at Jerry Wickham. “You Jerry?”
“I’ve seen nothing like this ever.” The giant muttered.
“We’ve got other problems too.” said Percere. “The shovellers are demanding higher wages: 50c a day for heaven’s sake!”
“Longcoy told me they were already getting that.” I queried.
“Longcoy is full of shit”, grumbled Wickham. “Them shovellers is on 15c a day before bed and board.”
“Super knows he’s been working ‘em hard, but he ain’t got authority to pay ‘em any more.”
“Let me guess, Brawn?”
“Yup, stubborn old goat. Never deals with strikers. Been his rule for years.” Said Wickham
“One benefit, is that he ain’t getting off the mountain unless he pays the shovellers. May get something done this time, I guess.” chuckled Percere.
We were walking through the white canyons that made up the streets of Cannae, our voices muffled by the surrounding snows.
“Doubtful.” muttered Wickham, “the Switchmen are still striking, an’ that’s been a year now.”
“Switchmen?” I asked, intrigued.
“Switchmen are the guys who work around in the switch yard, snapping points and coupling trains up. They’ve got a bloody dangerous job and they’re out there in all conditions, getting mangled for little pay. So last ... when Jerry?”
“November, I reckon.”
“So last November the Switchmen ask for a six-cent per hour raise. The railroad and the union have some talks, no-one wants to compromise, so the union calls out its members. Brawn and his cronies in management decide that they’re going to fight the workers saying that they supported them through the recession of 1907 by keeping them employed.”
Wickham snorted at this. “Fact is through that recession the company cut their freight charges to attract extra business meaning that the lines were as busy as ever, so they didn’t actually lose any money at all. It’s all just an excuse.”
“Jerry’s right. All the railroaders know this, but the thing is it’s hard to be on strike when there is no chance of any change. The railroad refuses to pay any more money and the longer the strike goes on, the more strike breakers and scab labour becomes available. From a working man’s perspective, being called out by the Union ain’t the greatest. So the railroad has, ever since, been running without Union workers, which is probably why we’re going to run out of coal in the next day or so. This railroad’s hanging on by its fingernails.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “did you just say we were running out of coal?”
“Yeah. Working without Union labour means that unionised businesses, such as the coal mines, tend to treat non-unionised businesses as a low priority. Railroad’s been struggling for a consistent coal supply for a while now.”
“Bailets said something about not having a huge amount of coal up here.” I wondered, “And the depot in Summit was less than half full.”
“Oh yes,” said Percere grimly, “We’re pretty much out of coal in Summit, and running low in Cannae. If this storm doesn’t break in the next two days, we’re all going to get very cold up here.”
10:30 am, Cannae, WA
Moller had sought me out in the lobby of the hotel where I had been unsuccessfully trying to arrange a sandwich from the notoriously prickly Bailets. He led me out of the warmth of the Hotel’s scruffy lobby and into the cold and the wind of the town.
“One of the engineers told me a terrible story about our favourite hotelier.” He said conspiratorially as he whisked me through the canyon passageways. “It seems every Thanksgiving he buys a turkey, usually a good twenty-seven pounder, and offers it as a prize in a Thanksgiving raffle. Now seeing that we’re four thousand feet up a mountain and most of the population of this town is male and unmarried, there is precious little interest in a bird so big, but Bailets hounds everyone who comes in to drink to buy a ticket until they eventually buy one.
“When he’s raised $15 dollars, he then performs the draw and gleefully delivers the enormous carcass to the lucky winner, who typically didn’t want to be lumbered with such a beast.
“So Bailets then offers the unfortunate victim a deal: he’ll buy the Turkey back for seven dollars fifty. Now this deal is rarely refused, so Bailets runs the scam again and again. The general consensus is that the turkey pays for itself several times over.”
The story didn’t surprise me. I’d been noticing that the soup had been getting noticeably thinner over the past day or so and any extra service you may want from the hotel was becoming harder to come by.
“Anyway,” said Moller, continuing, “after a few years of this sort of blatant extortion a plan is hatched amongst the men to get their own back on Mr. Bailets. One night, two or three men start faking a fight in the saloon of the hotel. They knock over a couple of chairs and generally horse about until Bailets steps in to break it up.
“While he’s breaking up the fight, an accomplice nabs the turkey from the reception desk and hustles down to the depot steps, hands it over to the nine-fifteen heading to Scenic and it’s never seen again. Bailets hits the roof, calls in the Sheriff, demands the return of his Turkey. The Sheriff, who works for the railroad anyway, tells our favourite landlord to get knotted. Next day a wanted poster, complete with a drawing of the turkey, appears offering a one hundred dollar reward, and Bailets hits the roof again.”
The pair of us grinned at each other.
“Well, it couldn’t happen to a nicer chap, could it?” Moller said.
We’d crossed the main line and walked towards the trains, now buried up to their doors in hard-packed drifting snow.
“What are you pulling me back here for anyway, Moller?” I asked
“You need to see this, there are plans afoot.” He said, with a raised eyebrow, and then ushered me onto the Observation car.
Inside the car there was barely room to breathe. It seemed as though every passenger had somehow crammed themselves into the space. In the middle of the space were four or five men, who were calling out to the crowd around them.
“Gentlemen. Gentlemen.” shouted Solomon Cohen, who was in his shirtsleeves, and clearly trying to get some form of order. Eventually he removed a shoe and banged it on some unseen table until the crowd was silenced.
“Gentlemen, we are in a desperate situation. I have heard today that a double rotary was abandoned on the main line to the east, having become trapped in a slide. What this means is that there is now no chance of escape to the east and, therefore no chance of resupply from Frasier.
“This second point is important because I have also found out from the Superintendent’s assistant that our coal and food supplies here at Cannae are running low.”
There was much consternation at this, many of the women present looked desperate again. I leant in close to Moller, and whispered in his ear. “That Longcoy’s an idiot. Now he’s got a rebellion from the snow shovellers and from the passengers.” Moller nodded his agreement.
Cohen raised up his hand for quiet. The muttering ceased.
“As some of you may have noticed a number of snow shovellers have started hiking down the tracks to Scenic, abandoning their posts here on the mountain.”
“One of them wished me good luck, the cheeky bastard!” barked a voice from the back of the car.
“Traitors” squeaked another.
“Enough!” bellowed the unmistakeable growl of Brawn, who I couldn’t even see was in the room. Silence fell.
“Thankyou, sir.” acknowledged Cohen. “Now this means that we find ourselves in a sticky situation, and I believe, as do others, that we face a clear choice here: We either need to walk out of here and hike the ten miles down the tracks to Scenic, or we stay put and trust in the Pacific NorthWestern Railroad company to get us down the mountain quickly and safely.
“I propose a vote by those here in this carriage as to which course of action we should take. A vote will be signified by a show of hands by those Gentlemen present.” I caught a sight of Libby Latsch, who rolled her eyes theatrically and moved to the back of the car.
Cohen continued: “However before we vote on a course of action, I feel that we need to be as well informed as we can be. Therefore I have arranged two people to explain the positives and negatives of each side of the argument. In support of walking out is Marco Bruni, one of this train’s engineers and a twenty year veteran of the Cascade division. Against walking out is, in the absence of the Superintendant who is again unable to attend, I have General James Brawn, the retired chief engineer and CEO of the Pacific NorthWestern railroad.”
Cohen glanced about the car for agreement and, finding it, continued: “Therefore I call upon Marco Bruni to put the case for walking out of town.”
Cohen stood to one side of the tiny space that surrounded the speaker, and into the gap stepped the short Bruni, his stocky build and Engineers clothes made him standout amongst this gentrified company as if he had been illuminated by a spotlight.
“Mornin’ Gents an’ Ladies.” Bruni muttered in a thick accent, a bit overawed by his situation. “I must apologise for the inability of my Superintendent to being here today. He ‘as currently hiked down to ‘Orseshoe Tunnel to check on the progress of the telegraph crews who are trying to re-rig the lines.
“Point is that if you are able to walk, you stand a chance of following in ‘is, and the shovellers’, footsteps. The grade down ‘ere from Cannae is a gentle downslope, and it is possible to follow the telegraph poles run alongside the track which help mark the way.
“The line hugs the mountainside and don’t really turn until it reaches Windy Point, which is about four miles from here. There you ‘ave a choice, to try an’ make your way down the foot track to Scenic, which is only about half a mile in a straight line, but is a descent of about two thousand feet. In these conditions the only way down that slope is to slide on your backside.
“Otherwise, you would turn around Windy Point and carry on following the telegraph poles down past the coaling station at Krist to the trestle bridge at Martin Creek.
“’Ere again you have a choice. You can try and take the short foot trail down the slope, which is no more than a quarter mile, but it is very steep and zig-zags amongst the trees. Or you can hike across the trestle into the tunnel, which is a bit more daunting...”
Brawn snorted derision at this point. “More’n a bit.” He growled, sotto voce.
Bruni paused for a moment and recollected his thoughts. He swallowed and continued: “The tunnel at Trailhead, Horseshoe Tunnel, is only a half mile long but it goes deep inside the mountain. There’s no light and no ventilation and you’ll be in there for an hour I reckon. It’s also entered and exited by crossing two trestles: the first is a hundred and sixty feet high, the second a hundred and forty feet. There’s also no safety rail. Therefore I’d recommend trying to find the footpath at Martin Creek, and I don’t doubt that those already hiking off the mountain have taken that route so, hopefully, she’d be easy to find. Once on the lower line it’s only three miles to Scenic.”
He stopped and looked up at the sombre faces around him. Cohen saw his cue and popped back into the circle.
“Any questions for Mr. Bruni?” he asked of the congregation.
“How far is the hike in total? asked Henry White.
“’Bout ten mile by tracks.” Answered Bruni.
“Aren’t there any other routes to the lower slopes,” said John McNeny, “like footpaths or trapper trails? If we could get down to the level of the river it would be but a short jaunt to Scenic.”
Bruni shrugged hopelessly. “I’m ‘n Engineer. I don’t know about any of the trails around here. You’d best ask the trappers round ‘ere. As far as I know, the only way down to t’ river is to fall there.”
There was a black-tinged chuckle that rolled around the room.
“How long would it take us?” asked another voice unseen in the crowd.
“D’pends,” said Bruni, “how good’s yer boots, how fit y’ar, how many y’ar.” He stopped, but Cohen encouraged him on with a hand gesture. “I rec’n it’ll take twenty people a day to get to Scenic, dep’dn on conditions.”
A murmur went round the car. Moller leaned in to me. “And what about those who can’t walk out?” he muttered. I nodded, Vail, Brawn and John Grey were all unable to manage the ten minute walk to the hotel. Vail was so sick his nurse had prevented anyone from seeing him for two days. And then there were the children. Some of the stouter boys, such as Milton Horn and Frank Ritter could probably walk out, but sweet Thelma Davis stood no chance and the youngest McMurdo, the toddler who reminded Moller of his own infant son would have to be carried the entire way, a heavy burden on the walkers.
Cohen looked around the assembled group, searching for further questions. Seeing none, he took control again.
“Very well, thank you, Mr. Bruni, for your expertise. I now introduce Mr ... sorry General James J Brawn to explain the case for staying put.”
Brawn, seated in his chair on the edge of the circle, stayed exactly where he was, but his voice carried far amongst the crowded room.
“Staying put is the only, and I do mean only, course of action available to us at this point in time. This storm is most unusual, most unusual, and it is unfortunate that this train is trapped up here at altitude. Standard operating procedure would not have let this train beyond Frasier, but at the time the weather had not yet closed in, so here we are.
“Now that we are here in the high mountains, we must stay put because to travel onward in the current conditions would be foolhardy in the extreme.
“You’ve just heard from Engineer Bruni” I noticed that he didn’t bless Bruni with the epithet ‘Mr.’ “who has explained the details of the route out there, but I fear he has glossed over some of the more bitter truths.
“For example those of you who have been travelling to the Hotel for your food and drink must have been aware of the sheer depth of the drifts around here. Thirty feet? Forty feet? I can tell you there may be much worse out there on the mountain.
“Even where the lines have been cleared by the rotaries yesterday, the slides that have been coming down have been burying the line, in places, up to twenty feet deep. The slides that trapped the double rotary on the Frasier side of the tunnel yesterday were both more than thirty feet deep over the lines, and over a half mile wide.
“What does that mean? It means that, in poor visibility, the slides will bury or break every telegraph pole in their path, removing the convenient markers to follow that Engineer Bruni mentioned. Also the snow will be deep, soft and fresh, making travel through the drifts difficult and arduous. The crew of the double rotary that walked, I should say staggered, into town this morning took nine hours to walk four miles. They walked the entire night to cover not even half the distance the Engineer Bruni advocates.
“Then there is the risk of further avalanches. Yesterday this train was nearly hurled from the mountain by a slide that, because of the skill and awareness of the Pacific NorthWestern’s Engine crew, was avoided by inches. The slopes of Windy Mountain, in particular the section down to Windy Point, are notorious for avalanches. We’ve built, in the past ten years, nearly four miles of snowsheds on that stretch: Numbers 3.1, 3.2, 3.3, 4.0 and 4.1. We don’t spend money lightly; those sheds have been built for a reason.
“Here in Cannae, these passing tracks have never been affected by an avalanche in the entire time this line has been open. Even in the nightmare winter of 1901, when the line was closed for a month, no avalanche fell across the passing tracks. Where this train is now parked is the safest place for a train on the entire mountain. Safer than the tunnel, where asphyxiation waits; safer than on Windy Mountain, where many avalanches roam free.
“And finally I must appeal to your human nature. There are many on this train who cannot make such a walk down the mountain. I am confined to a wheeled chair and am only able to walk a few steps at a time. Mr Vail lies gravely ill in couchette 105, bedridden and sick. Mr Grey has a broken leg cannot even manage the steps off the train without great assistance.
“And what of the children? Young Miss Davis would not be able to walk through thirty foot drifts, neither could McMurdos Minor and Minimus. Are you going to leave them behind?
“In summation: I have run this railroad for fifty years, I built this line thirty years ago, I have the utmost faith in the staff and engineers of the Pacific NorthWestern. I believe that this train is parked in the safest place on the mountain, I believe that Superintendent Soberling is, as we speak, arranging a mule train of supplies to come up the mountain from Scenic and relieve our food and coal problem. I believe that we can, and should, wait out this fiendish storm together as we have done, so far.”
Brawn’s powerful voice reverberated from the back walls, and the room stayed quiet for a moment as the power of his speech sunk into the congregation. It was Cohen who recovered first.
“Th..Thank you General Brawn.” He moved to the middle of the circle and addressed the passengers. “Are there any questions?”
Silence filled the observation car.
“Very well,” said Cohen, “I suggest we take a vote on the matter. Those in favour of walking down the mountain?”
A smattering of hands were raised, mostly by the younger members of the passengers I noticed. I was also intrigued to see Ada Lemman’s hand raised, though her husband Edgar, who stood alongside her, did not look as convinced. His hands were in the pockets of his coat.
“Okay, said Cohen, and those against walking out?” A forest of hands was raised, and the muttering started.
“OK,” said Cohen struggling to maintain control of the situation in the car as the hubbub rose. “I declare the motion rejected.”
The meeting broke up under its own momentum. As the observation car thinned out, I followed Moller out into the snows and we trudged back through the snow to the main line.
“Why did you abstain?” asked Moller as we watched the passengers mill about the relatively clear area of track.
“I don’t know.” I said. It was true, I didn’t. “I feel there is more to this whole thing than meets the eye.”
A distant rumble met our ears and we both looked down the tracks towards Windy Point: another slide heading for the canyon.
From behind us, a voice: “In the Alps they used to say that noise was the roaring of the dragons that lived at the tops of the high peaks. Then as the first mountaineers conquered the peaks they were said to be slaying the dragons of the mountains, but that didn’t stop the roaring.”
We turned to see Ada Lemman and Nellie Weathers standing behind us.
“We’re going to die here.” said Ada flatly.
“Really?” asked Moller.
Ada and Nellie walked past Moller and I and headed down the tracks. The pair of us followed.
“How are we going to die Ada?” repeated Moller, sounding a little desperate.
Ada paused for a second and looked around. “Notice how it’s not snowing any more.” She said, and let Moller and I work out the rest for ourselves.
She was right, we hadn’t seen a snowflake all day. Instead the precipitation had changed to a steady, if light, rain.
“Ada’s a meteorologist.” I explained to Moller, “Let me guess Ada? Rain makes the snow pack ... wetter?”
Ada nodded. “and the wetter the snow ...” she prompted.
“The heavier the snow.” finished Nellie Weathers.
“And the heavier the snow ... the more likely it’ll fall?” concluded Moller.
“Yes.” nodded Ada. “The slope above the trains has been an avalanche waiting to happen the whole time we’ve been here. With this rain, it now becomes a certainty. I don’t care what all the experts say, that slope will fall and, if this rain keeps up, it’ll fall sooner rather than later.”
“You’re sure?” asked Moller of Ada while looking at me for confirmation.
“Yes.” She said firmly.
“I believe her.” I said just as firmly.
We’d walked a fair way out down the line and had cleared the passing tracks. The line was now a single track in width, and seemed desperately narrow. The flat rail bed that the tracks ran upon was barely ten foot in width. To the right of us was a vertical wall that rose maybe ten to twelve feet and then the steep mountain slope continued to soar away above us.
To the left, the slope descended at such an angle it seemed vertical from the safety of the middle of the tracks. We climbed steeply up a snow slide that covered the entrance to the first snowshed. The snowshed itself was a rudimentary structure that provided a sloping roof out from the mountainside that ran across the tracks and was supported by wooden uprights. As we approached I noticed a small brass sign nailed in the middle of the first crossbeam. Blackened by smoke it read: 3.0.
“I guess this must be Snowshed 3.0.” I said to no-one in particular.
“First Snowshed of Track section 3.” interpreted Moller, “The line is broken up into sections which are each supported by a single maintenance crew. Section 3 is supported by crews from Cannae, Section 4 from the small camp at Krist.”
We all stopped and looked at my friend. He immediately got defensive. “What? I’ve spent my time learning about the railroad. There’s not a great deal else to do around here.”
“I’m more impressed by the fact that it’s blocked almost to the roof.” said Ada Lemman. “This slide must have come down after we headed back last night. This whole snowpack is so unstable.”
It was an impressive slide. As Ada had noted it virtually reached the top of the entrance to the snowshed, but the majority of the avalanche had slid clean over the roof of the shed and plummeted into the canyon below, all that blocked the entrance to the shed was some ten feet of loose material.
Moller and I cleared out the narrow footpath that had been cut through the drift by the departing snow shovellers and all four of us scrambled into the snowshed.
We all stood in the gloomy enclosure for a moment, listening to water drip and trickle. Ada gazed around the space with a grim look of wonder on her face.
I figured I knew what she was thinking. “A lot of water on the move.” I said.
“Meltwater.” nodded Ada.
“That’s good, right?” asked Nellie Weathers. “I mean, that means the snow’s melting, right?”
“The snow’s melting alright,” said Ada, “but that’s not good news.” She walked over to one of the vertical joists of the snowshed where a bulge of snow clung to the wood like a snail on a wall. Calmly Ada tapped the top of the bulge with her finger and the clump of snow fell to the floor with a splat.
“The water seeps through the snowpack,” explained Ada “breaking down the structure of the snow crystals, weakening the bonds between them and then, when it reaches the base of the snow, it acts like a lubricant, loosening the grip the snow has on the surface underneath.”
Moller shook his head. “I had a bad feeling about this three days ago.”
“What do you think then Ada? Walk out?” asked Nellie.
“No. I think it is too dangerous, but then again, so is staying. Besides, there is something else going on here.” said Ada.
“Something else?” asked Nellie and Moller together.
“Everyone we’ve spoken to up here,” I said, “the workers and people who live here, not the passengers, they all say that this storm is like nothing they’ve ever seen. They’ve known the line be closed before, but never for so long or quite so desperate. I mean look.” I gestured towards the massive drift blocking the entrance of the damp snowshed. “How long is that going to take to clear? A day? And this is one of many slides on the line. There must be four or five days of work to come to get this line cleared, which would mean the Cascade Division will have been shut down for what, two weeks?”
“Near enough,” agreed Moller.
“Nellie, you know the business a bit. Has the line ever been shut that long before?”
“I think two weeks has been the longest, but there didn’t have any rotaries or snowsheds at that point of time.” she said grimly.
“So we’ve got an unusual storm,” said Moller, “perhaps we’re just unlucky?”
“Okay,” I agreed, “then what about the close escapes we’ve had? The evening after we leave Summit, the Beanery is flattened and those two poor souls killed. The moment we’re able to leave Cannae we nearly get caught in a massive slide, and finally we’re now all waiting for a final giant slide to come down and, according to Ada, kill us all.”
“And the boy.” said Ada, quietly.
“What boy?” asked Nellie.
“There’s a boy hanging around on the train.” I explained “Ada and I’ve both seen him. But we’ve never seen him at dinner, or with his parents, or with the other children. Or in the train funnily enough.”
“What sort of boy?” asked Moller, intrigued.
“He’s a Chinese boy.” said Ada definitely.
Nellie looked from Ada to myself and back to Ada again.
“Bruni saw a boy.” said Moller as he leaned against a post.
“When?” I asked, astounded.
“Right before the snowslide, during the escape attempt yesterday evening. He said the kid was just standing there, waiting, as if he was waiting for just the right moment to trigger the slide.” Moller continued.
I needed confirmation. “Bruni, saw the boy right before the slide?”
“Saw a boy. Standing on the snow by the side of the line, looking at the train.”
It was Nellie’s turn to look perplexed. “Standing on the snow?” she said.
“That’s what he said.” agreed Moller.
Nellie, seemingly deep in thought, wandered over to the blocked entrance to the snow shed and began to scramble out. After a moment of struggling up the slope, she turned back to face us and smiled.
“How could he have stood on top of the snow?” she asked triumphantly. Sure enough, she was slowly sinking into the deep drift with the snow already approaching the top of her knee length boots.
“A fair, if cheeky point, but seriously, how much could a ten year old weigh over me? Two stone? Three? He’d still sink in the drift.”
“I wonder,” I wondered aloud, “if anyone saw a boy at Summit?”
Twenty minutes later we were hiking back up the line with a plan in mind. Quietly we were each going to ask Bruni, Percere, Wickham and anyone else we came across whether or not they had seen the Chinese boy at any point over the past few days.
We did not know whether or not our investigations would lead to anything, or even if there was a mystery to investigate, but at the very least there was a puzzle and we had plenty of spare time in which to solve it.
After five minutes of hiking we met the Superintendant heading down the way we had come.
“Afternoon Superintendant.” I greeted him
“Afternoon Mr. Parker, Mr. Moller, Ladies. Out for a brief walk?” asked Soberling. He looked desperately tired, his thick sweater and heavy waterproof slicker seemed to be dragging him into the ground.
“Indeed, and you Sir? Where are you off to, checking the telegraph wires again?”
“Sadly not. I must hike to Scenic to sort out a mule train to get some supplies up to Cannae and with the telegraph completely out of action and unlikely to be repaired any time soon, I have to do things the old fashioned way.” He sort of shrugged.
“Best of luck to you.” I said on behalf of all of us.
“Thankyou.” said Soberling. We all shook his hand, and then he turned and hiked off down the slopes.
We continued our walk back along the tracks, chatting generally, until we came back to the train where there appeared to be some commotion.
“What’s going on?” I asked Henry White when we reached him.
“The Superintendant’s just headed down the tracks so we’re going to follow him.” Huffed the portly lawyer.
“McNeny, Rogers and myself. Rogers is just handing over his luggage now.”
I looked beyond Mr. White to see Rogers handing his neatly packed bags over to Porter Anderson and was dictating forwarding instructions for when the train eventually made it down off the mountain, as if it were a normal day in a normal station. We stepped to one side as the three men started their walk.
“Wish us luck!” said a cheery McNeny as they strode off down the tracks and were soon lost to sight amid the drizzle.
Many passengers waved them off hopefully, but were laughing at the three as they hiked away.
12.00pm, En Route to Krist station, WA
Trudging through the snow in the pale light and drizzle, Superintendant Soberling felt tired. He’d been on the go for five days fighting this storm and the last time he had slept was about one in the morning the night before. Then he’d spent the night in Percere’s trapped rotary, warmed by the machine’s dying fire, having told the crew to hike to Cannae to rest.
After a few hours sleep, he had left the cold sno-fighting machine and hiked to Cannae. As soon as he arrived in Cannae, he was called to Brawn’s couchette for his regular update meeting, telling his manager about the current status of the line and his efforts to free Train 25.
Soberling didn’t especially like Brawn, but then he didn’t know anyone who did. The man was obstinate, pushy, demanding, rude and bullying. However he was also one hell of a railroad pioneer. He was also the boss, and the man demanded to be kept completely up to date on the situation. So he’d dropped in to Brawn’s couchette every time he was in Cannae and told the old man about the loss of the beanery, the failure of Rotary X31, the breaking of Rotary X32, the stranding of the double rotary outside of Frasier, the stranding of Percere’s double rotary, the many slides along the whole stretch, the food situation at Summit, Frasier, Krist and Cannae, the coal situation on all the trains, the money demands of the snow shovellers, the demands of the passengers and, in all cases, what he was doing about them.
To be fair to the old man, he’d only objected to Soberling’s plans to pay the snow shovellers 25c per day instead of their 15c, but he was probably right to turn them down. Without the rotaries there was little the shovellers could do on their own and them leaving the mountain enabled Soberling to save a few bucks from his operating budget and maybe use that to cajole his engine crews into further efforts.
Soberling pulled his slicker a little bit closer around him and stomped onwards, stamping down the snow under each footstep to make sure there was a firm base for his feet and, at the same time, taking out some of his frustration on the hated white stuff.
It was true that he was heading down to Scenic to arrange some form of mule train in order to get supplies up to Cannae, but he also had another agenda. He needed to see if it was possible to get the passengers down the mountain on foot. So far, with the wind clawing at his clothes and the rain stinging his eyes, he was not entirely hopeful.
His numb fingers checked the buttons on his slicker, and he pressed on – a lonely black figure bent against a wall of wailing white.
A mile behind the Superintendant, Rogers, McNeny and White were floundering in the deep snow, following the Superintendant’s flattened footpath. They’d been joined by Big Jerry Wickham and Marco Bruni who had scurried after the men in an attempt to persuade them back to the train. After a short arguement they realised that three men were determined to try to walk down the mountain, and so the two trainmen reluctantly agreed to guide them the four miles to Windy Point.
The snow, wet with rain and extremely heavy, attached itself to the men’s woollen coats and trousers, swiftly soaking them. They pulled their scarves up over their lower faces, but their eyes streamed and their noses ran.
After a while they reached the snowslide at snowshed 3.1 and, after they had slithered and slid their way inside, they hiked to the far end and looked out at the storm.
“I’m not sure about this Henry.” said McNeny. “Somehow my cozy couchette is seeming much more appealing about now.”
They were looking out at a hillside sparsely covered in Douglas Fir and liberally covered in thick white snow. The wind was howling, and the rain was being blown horizontally into the opening of the snowshed. Ahead the tracks were just about identifiable, the Superintendant’s passage marked by a trodden slot in the snow.
“I think we should press on.” stated Rogers. “We’ve made reasonable progress and I think we should at least try to reach the next snow shed, don’t you?”
“How far is the next shed?” asked White.
“’bout a mile.” said Bruni.
“Next shed?” asked Rogers, looking for approval.
The five men all nodded, then they pulled their coats a bit closer about them and began their hike out into the snow.
And then the going got really hard.
1:00pm, Boulder Lake, WA
It was snowing again on the high shoulder of the mountain, and the lonely figure paused for a second in his trudge to the lakeside. He raised his hooded head to the sky, in the slit of skin between the hood and the thick bandanna that covered his lower face a pair of pale grey eyes scanned the leaden clouds with a practiced gaze.
Satisfied, he looked back at the soggy, cold, white ground into which his feet were planted. He paused for a second, and pulled the webbing that ran over his shoulders with a heavily gloved hand. His thick coat shifted slightly on his heavy frame; on his back a number of metallic snares clinked amidst the dozen bobcat carcasses that hung from his shoulders. The wind strengthened briefly and plucked at his clothes.
The man took a heavy breath and then returned to his trudge through the snow, clinking as he went. Above him the western face of the great mountain glowered at him.
Presently he came to the bare shore of the lake, identified by its wide, flat, featureless plain of snow amidst the crumpled and folded landscape of the high plateau. The man didn’t walk out onto the lake, he was too wily for that. Instead he followed the gentle sweep and sway of the shoreline around to the incongruous square blockhouse that stood alongside the earth dam at the blunt face of the lake.
Here the man stopped, leaning against one of the handful of trees that huddled at this end of the lake, the only flora visible on this wild, bare, snowy plateau.
The man took a swig from a canteen, and then returned to his walk. He strode around the edge of the blockhouse and crossed the top of the dam, enjoying the flat terrain. Around him the snow fell in a leisurely drift down to the floor, the wind taking a brief hiatus.
As he approached the far side of the dam, the man began to look out for a familiar landmark, a metal pole that marked the beginning of the footpath down into the shallow valley that had been blocked by the dam. Reaching the pole, the man turned and, careful now, he descended into the shelter of the valley.
The valley was more of a broad shallow depression, and it only took a couple of minutes to reach the bottom, where the bluff, brutal concrete blockhouse of the power station sat in defiance of its surroundings. The man regarded it for a moment, disliking its arrogance, then walked on down the valley following the power lines and their wooden pylons as they marched down towards the town and its tunnel far below.
He walked out of the end of the shallow valley and onto a flat portion on land atop a broad ridge that shot out from the mountainside like a finger pointing towards the lower peaks and the fertile river valleys beyond them. The view was poor today, he could only see to the end of the ridge. He stood atop the flat earth, man-made of course, and looked down the switchback tracks at Cannae below.
The town sat at the outside edge of its half bowl, gathered around the flat grade of the railway line and, from here on the mountain’s shoulder, the town appeared tiny and vulnerable.
The trapper, Carruthers, paused for a second. The lines were white, without their silver lines showing. That was unusual, but not unknown. What was new to him was the long, low snowy lump at the very edge of the plateau, desperately close to the steep wooded slope into the valley below. A train, parked and waiting. That was unusual.
Carruthers stood for a second, and then looked at the fragile, snow-laden slope down which he now had to travel. He shrugged again, and adjusted his webbing. Thirty years he’d spent in this mountain wilderness and he’d thought he’d seen everything. It was time for him to leave the wilderness he knew so well and return to the unfamiliar world of men.
Picking his footsteps carefully, he began the tricky descent to the town.
2:00pm, Cannae, WA
I’d spent a fruitless hour or so asking people whether or not they’d seen a small child, possibly a boy, possibly Chinese. My enquiries had been met with either confusion (Bailets and most of the townsfolk), enthusiasm (the children), puzzlement (most of the train men), or worry (the passengers).
I caught up with Moller who was leaning against the pillar of a small, snowy veranda outside of the Fogg Brothers Tavern.
“Have you really been in there?” I asked Moller incredulously, the place looked like a wild-west saloon. Moller smiled at me.
“Yup, full of interesting people this place,” said Moller, jerking a nonchalant thumb towards the building’s heavy doors. “lots of trappers and mountain men.”
“Any of them seen a Chinese boy?”
“Oh yes. Lots of times. They call him ‘the Dragon Child’.”
“Are you being serious?”
“Yes. And get this: there’s been rumours of a tribe of Chinese workers living somewhere up the mountain since the railway was built.”
“No, but here’s a thing: they’ve only ever seen a ten year old boy. Weird huh? I mean if there is a whole lost tribe roaming around the mountainside, how come no-one’s seen any strong, young men? Instead all they see if a child?”
“Do you believe them?”
“I don’t know. Look at it this way. You’ve seen a small boy, so’s Ada, and Bruni and Wickham, and half a dozen mountain trappers and loggers, and the only snow shoveller left in Cannae. And over quite a time period too: The guy who owns this place used to be a hunter in the high mountains, and he recalls seeing the kid over twenty years ago.”
“Bailets’ been here seventeen years, but he’d never heard anything. How come these guys know all about it, but our friendly hotel owner knows nothing?” I asked.
“Do you think Bailets is the kinda guy to admit to there being Chinese up here? Think he’s the kind to offer foreigners a warm welcome?” Moller countered.
“So, what the hell does all that mean?” I asked. Moller shrugged. “Maybe Ada’s found something?” I offered, but Moller seemed far away. ”Moller?”
“Er... Could that be the boy?” asked Moller, not at all sure what he was seeing. He pointed over my shoulder.
I turned and there, standing atop a huge snow drift, was a ten year old Chinese child, dressed in a brightly coloured tunic and thin red trousers. The child was looking at the old switchback track behind the town. I followed his gaze and watched in awe as, with a sound that had become all to familiar to us in the past couple of days, an avalanche thundered down the slope before rolling into Haskell creek and passing harmlessly down the cliff edge to the river below.
The child cocked his head to one side, smiled briefly, and then dropped down into the footpath channel and disappeared.
Moller and I paused for just a moment, and then gave chase.
We dove into the channel and immediately ran to the right. There was the briefest flash of blue around the next corner and we both hared after it. Another two quick turns and we came to a junction.
“You go left!” I said to Moller and we dove down our respective channels, running as fast as we could.
I saw a flash of blue and charged after it into a long straight channel. There, not ten foot in front of me was the fleeing child.
“Stop,” I shouted, breathless with the altitude and extertion “Ting Zi!”
The child slowed for a moment and then turned abruptly left, ran into the face of a snowbank, and disappeared.
I ran to the spot expecting to find a narrow side channel, but there wasn’t one. The snowbank was unmarked, smooth and blue.
“Moller!” I bellowed, breathing hard after my run. I took a few exhausted steps and looked at the snowbank. It was unmarked. I was in one of the less used footpaths that ran around the back of the main buildings of Cannae linking the tradesmens’ entrances of the Fogg Brothers Tavern and Bailets Hotel to the Depot on the railway line. This was the last footpath in the town, beyond it there was only a hundred feet of snow before the awesome grey cliffs of the mountain began again.
Moller found me.
“Did you catch him?” he asked, puffing.
“No, he went in there.” I replied waving my hand vaguely, still trying to catch my breath.
“In the snow?” Moller was incredulous.
“Yup. Turned right in front of my eyes and shot into that bank.”
“But that’s impossible.”
“Told you there was something strange going on.”
“So what do we do now?” asked Moller.
“We get some shovels and ask some locals what’s over in this part of the plateau.” I responded, gazing at the snowdrift. Whatever was going on up here, the answer was going to be found under there.
3:00pm, En Route to Krist Station, WA
Rogers, McNeny, White, Bruni and Wickham caught up with Soberling when they discovered the superintendant had stopped to talk to some telegraph linesmen who were working at lashing together the telegraph wires to reconnect Cannae with the other towns on the mountain.
Making a collective decision to continue their hike down with the more experienced Soberling, the five men lolled around while Soberling talked timescales and wiring with the two haggard linesmen. All the time the soggy sleet was whipped around them by the never-ending winds.
“I now know why they call this place Windy Mountain.” grumbled Henry White to no-one in particular.
“How far have we gone?” asked McNeny of Wickham.
“Not sure.” growled the giant. “We’re probably a mile or so from the Windy Point turn, I reckon. Why don’t you check that telegraph pole for its marker number?” He indicated a tree stump that John Rogers was sitting on.
“This isn’t a telegraph pole.” laughed Rogers, but his chuckle quickly died when he saw Wickham’s face. “But they’re twenty foot tall!” he protested.
McNeny dug away at the soft cloying snow at the base of the stump and, after exposing a foot or so, came across one of the bent metal cross arms that supported the telegraph cables.
All five men stared at the pole solemnly.
“This is some storm.” muttered Bruni, then went back to stamping to maintain circulation in his feet.
Soberling rose from his crouched position and pointed at the two engineers.
“You two,” he shouted, “come here.”
Wickham and Bruni wandered over. Soberling lowered his voice so that the passenger’s wouldn’t hear.
“What are you two doing here?” he asked angrily. “Why aren’t you with your train?”
“Pettit’s idea.” Said Jerry Wickham, “He reckoned that Train 25 ain’t goin’ anywhere for at least another two days, so figured, seein’ that them passengers was gonna walk anyway, that we lead ‘em an also get an idea of the state of the line. See if we can get all the passengers down on foot.” Beside the giant, Bruni nodded urgently.
Soberling nodded for a moment. “Bill Pettit’s a smart man. Probably smarter than me, I reckon. I’ve been trying to figure out how to deal with a whole train, Bill’s got the right idea and been trying to figure out what to do with the cargo.” He thought for a minute, and puffed out his cheeks.
“What do you two reckon then? Can we walk the passengers out?”
Bruni looked at the sky for a moment, the steady rain was becoming sleet again. He shook his head.
“No sir,” said the smaller engineer. “Some of the fitter folks for sure, but the General, in his wheelchair, not a chance. An’ there’s others like him too, just as immobile.”
Soberling nodded, then walked over to the three passengers, Wickham and Bruni followed behind.
“The telegraph isn’t going to be up again today.” he declared, “So I’m still aiming to walk to Scenic today, though it’s going to take a few hours. Seeing as you guys have made it this far you are welcome to come along with me, but if you fall behind I am not waiting for you. As far as I am concerned you began this journey at your own risk. The moment you left the train you absolved the Pacific NorthWestern Railroad company of any responsibility for your welfare. Do you agree?”
He had to shout to make himself heard over the whipping of the wind, but his message got through loud and clear. White, Rogers and McNeny looked at each other for a minute, and then nodded their agreement.
A much larger group now, they hiked off into the storm with Big Jerry Wickham leading the way through the drifts, his massive legs carving a path through the sopping snow.
As they struggled onwards, the wind tore at their clothes, searching for any crack in a coat, or any gap in a scarf. If it found a hole it would rush in with tremendous force, carrying cold wet rain and an instant chill to whatever warm flesh it could find.
Still they struggled on. McNeny at one point stumbled, toppling out of Wickham’s path. He instantly sank to his shoulders in the soft snow of the drift and it required all of his companions to recover him.
They walked like the condemned. No conversation was possible. All they could do was just concentrated on placing foot in front of foot, focussing all their attention on the trampled path in front of them, willing their tired, cold, soaking limbs to keep moving; the hope of shelter was all that made them walk onwards, because to stop now was to die of exposure, and they all knew that.
After half an hour of walking, slipping, sliding and crawling they reached a stalled Rotary, X31, that was hunkered down into the snows of the mighty drift that had stalled it. About it was ramped drifting snow. The cockpit of the centre engine had its light on, and Soberling shinned up the ladder and threw open the door with practised ease. The others followed and all found themselves jammed into the tiny steel cockpit with the six man Rotary crew.
The biggest shock was the warmth. The Rotary crew had kept their firebox going, even though they were unable to raise steam, and they had enough coal to keep themselves warm and alive, even if they were going hungry.
“What happened?” asked Soberling.
“Chewed up a tree stump and probably a rock as we put her in,” said one of the Rotary engineers, “something went bang and we lost all drive. Can’t see what’s busted, but we’re going nowhere. Sorry boss.”
“Not to worry,” sympathised Soberling, “you’ve done your best. This storm’s beaten us all.” It was the first time the Superintendant had admitted defeat.
The tired group of walkers slumped in the delicious warmth of the cabin for ten or fifteen minutes or so: Soberling discussing strategy with his employees; White, McNeny and Rogers discussing what to do next.
Soberling declared that they needed to move on. It was now nearly four in the afternoon by White’s pocket watch, the light was fading and they still hadn’t reached Windy Point. Soberling stated that he was only trying to reach the tiny coaling station at Krist this evening with the potential of reaching Scenic early next morning.
Reluctantly the walkers tugged on their damp mittens, and refastened their sodden coats. They replaced their hats and re-arranged their scarves. They nodded their goodbyes to the stranded Rotary crew, and went outside into the storm once more.
They quickly settled down into the monotony of the walk, the silent trudging through the howling winds and driving rain. The indefatigable Wickham was ploughing ahead, sometimes his arms raised to shoulder height to use his entire body to bully the snows aside and let the puny humans through.
They walked for what seemed like hours; time seemed to move differently amongst the snows. White, his round face ruddy with effort, had taken to counting steps to mark their progress. He found he needed to stop every one hundred paces and pant at the storm, as if having to rip the oxygen out of the protesting air.
Step, step, step. Keep looking down, maintain your footing, for to stray from the path could mean you are lost. Looking up was to look into the wind, which meant your eyes instantly streamed, and your exposed skin charred with wind burn.
Without warning an avalanche exploded out of the rain from the mountain to their right, a ball of animalistic white fury. In an instant, the white mass bore down on Wickham, ten foot in front of Soberling, and plucked the giant from the flat railway grade, swallowing him in billowing white snow and flinging him from the side of the mountain.
It was over in an instant. There was no chance of a warning, no possibility of a shout. Instead there was a sloping wall in front of them, topped by unsettled snowballs that still rolled and rattled down the mountainside. Bruni yelled his anger at the storm, screamed bloody murder at the sky for the loss of his friend. The three passengers stood silent, numb with shock and cold. Soberling stood, motionless, with his head bowed.
They grieved for a minute, no more. They didn’t have the time to waste on the dead. With Soberling leading they attacked the new slide, hacking a path up and over the white killer, and then they resumed their stumbling walk down the railway grade.
The light was fading fast when they reached the Windy Point snowshed. Here the line took a sharp right-hand turn round the southern shoulder of the great mountain and headed north towards Krist.
They stood just inside the wooden slatted wall that marked the edge of the railbed as it rounded the turn. Below them, visible between gusts of sleet and snow, were the bright lights of the small hotel at Scenic, built around the natural hot springs that flowed from the base of the mountain. The slope between them was desperately steep, dropping one and a half thousand feet in a little over a mile, but the hotel with its promise of heat and food and light and safety beckoned to them.
Soberling stopped at the wooden wall that marked the edge of the slope.
“Those lights down there are Scenic in the bottom of the valley. There’s a hotel, food water and everything else you’d expect. I’ve got to carry on down the line to the coaling station, which is about a mile away. There’s food, shelter and heat there too. It’s a walk, but much less exposed than what we’ve done as the line dives into the treeline from here on in. You’ve done the worst of the trip.
“However at Scenic you’ll be safe. You’ll be off the mountain, at Krist there’s still the danger of snowslides and of being trapped should the snow come back. Here’s where you decide what you want to do. Many people have glissaded down this slope safely before, using the slide as a shortcut to Scenic. It’s the fastest way off the mountain, but it’s not without risks. Anything can be out there in the snow. Or the alternative is to carry on walking with me and we’ll be in Scenic early tomorrow morning.” Lecture over, Soberling stood back and let the men look at the slope beyond the fence.
After all four had taken a look, it was White who turned on their behalf and shouted at the Superintendant.
“We’ll take our chances, Mr. Soberling.” He smiled and stuck out a gloved hand. “Thankyou for everything you’ve done.”
Soberling nodded, and shook the proferred hand. “You’re welcome, Mr. White. I wish you the best.”
The group all shook hands with the Superintendant then watched as the brave man in the black coat trudged out of the snowshed and off into the dark tunnel of the railway line.
All four men watched until the light of the Superintendant’s lantern was lost in the dark, then they turned their attention to the slope. They scrambled onto the edge of the wooden fence and perched there, pulling the bottoms of their overcoats through their legs. They looked again at the slope; mercifully thin of trees.
Silently all four prepared themselves. They looked each other over. They nodded their agreement. And then, on some unknown signal, they jumped.
The first impact was a crash into the soft, wet snow. Then a struggle to remain upright. Feet thrashing to keep them pointing the right way. Snow flew at them. They bounced. They tumbled. They rolled. They crashed into each other.
In a mini avalanche of snow and rock, the four men flew down the mountainside, desperately trying to maintain some form of control.
The descent took mere seconds, but seemed to last hours.
Finally the slope lessened, and McNeny slithered to a stop with his head against Rogers’ stomach. A second later Bruni’s stubby body thundered into his, knocking the wind from him. White slithered slowly past the trio, rotating gracefully as he slowed.
The three of them lay there for a moment, their bodies absorbing the bruises and bangs and bumps they’d received on the way down the mountain. White stirred first, and then struggled to his feet. He helped Bruni and McNeny to their feet and then bent down to assist Rogers, but stopped.
Rogers’ head was bent hard to one side; his eyes open, glassy and not reacting to the drizzle that was collecting on them. His left arm was bent uncomfortably under him, his right temple dented and bloody.
White stopped and bowed his head, Bruni did the same. It took McNeny a moment to understand that his friend was dead, looking left and right for confirmation. Then he knew, then he understood. He knelt by Rogers’ body and took the dead man’s hand in his own, his jaw quivering.
After a moment, he was hauled to his feet by his companions and they staggered the final quarter mile to the hotel.
The hotel entrance consisted of two large double doors made of a cherry-red hardwood. They opened stiffly into a wide, warm reception area full of startled guests and over-eager newspaper reporters. A liveried attendant steered the weary men into a quiet lounge room and closed the door behind them. A porter appeared from a side door, took their sodden coats and asked them if they would like some refreshments. It was surreal, just moments before they had been flying down the mountainside and now were being asked if they would like tea and sandwiches. Automatically they said yes. Then they all sat for a moment and gathered their thoughts.
Bruni disappeared to arrange collection of Rogers’ body. McNeny collapsed into a chair and stared into the fire, his thoughts with his dead friend lying sodden out in the snow.
White sat with him for a moment, then clapped him supportively on the forearm, and walked to the telegraph room of the hotel.
He grabbed one of the familiar flimsy yellow sheets and a pencil and began to compose his message, taking pride in fitting a neat capital letter in each box. He took but a moment to complete the message and then he folded it neatly and handed it to the telegrapher.
He hoped it would reach Cannae, maybe the linesmen had fixed the telegraph line by now, or maybe it would be completed tomorrow, but either way he’d done all he could. He’d sent the warning.
“Three safe at Scenic. Don’t come.” was all it said.
It never arrived.
4:00pm Cannae, WA
The telegraph line announced it was re-connected by lighting a single dull yellow bulb in the telegraph equipment hut near the depot in Cannae.
The on duty officer, a short young man called William Avery, but known to everybody as Tennessee, noted the light just as he heard an all too familiar rumble. He looked out of the window into the clear evening and saw another avalanche slumping down the old switchback track.
Tennessee was new to the mountains in winter. His nickname came from his birthplace, and though he had heard a number of avalanches during his time at Cannae, this was the first one that he had seen, and the spectacle frightened him. The billowing clouds of fine snow reminded him of the funnels of the paddle steamers on the Mississippi river near his home, but up here those gentle looking clouds scoured the mountainside of trees and bushes. Cleaning the mountainside like a man scours his skin.
Avery had been a railroad telegrapher for a long time, despite only being twenty-eight years old. He had worked on railroads for over ten years as a telegrapher, he knew what information was needed where and when. Seeing the switchback track suffering a second avalanche in a day he took it upon himself to send a message to the Chief Dispatcher who was based at Scenic. In the absence of the Superintendent, the Chief Dispatcher, a man called Turner, was the most senior man on the mountain and was empowered to make the decisions.
So before he tackled the stack of bureaucratic messages Longcoy had delivered, Avery sent a short, simple message:
“2xAvalanche Switchback track, Wellington. 25 exposed to similar slope E of town.”
With the message sent he stood to, keeping the line open and free from traffic, awaiting a response. Five minutes later Turner sent a telegram back to the concerned telegrapher. It read:
“Conductor Pettit: Use every precaution necessary for the safety of passengers and if necessary back trains into tunnel.”
Avery stuck his head through the small hatch to the anteroom and shouted for his assistant.
“Sherlock, get in here and send these messages, I’ve got to go to the train.”
He handed over the telegraph key to his eager assistant and headed out into the storm.
In the observation car he found Pettit and I discussing the weather and handed over the message. Avery handed over the message but refused to meet Pettit’s gaze. Pettit read the grubby yellow slip, and gave a rueful chuckle.
“Tell Mr. Turner that Train 25 is iced in position with packed drifts to the windows. We are low on food and water, we don’t have enough coal to de-ice the train, let alone to produce enough steam to move, so I am dedicating all my resources to maintain heat on the train. Send it urgent, sign it Pettit.” His voice was surprisingly hard. Avery swallowed and left the observation car as quickly as possible.
“Conductor?” I asked, concerned. The man had been the jolliest and most positive force since the whole situation arose and to see him like this was heart-breaking and worrying at the same time.
Conscious of his role in the drama, Pettit beckoned me outside and we stood, huddled, on the porch of the observation car.
“Might you, sir, have a cigar I may obtain from you?” he asked in a stilted way. I opened my silver cigarillo case and offered him my last one. .
“Not to worry.” he said, with just a little smile.
“No. I am not a smoker. You are. You need more than I.” He gazed at the floor, his face crestfallen.
“The message was not good news I take it?” I asked
“Avery’s an ass, going over my head like that. Just made a bad situation worse.”
“The message was setting up a scapegoat, Mr Parker. Telling me I must use all precautions necessary.” he shook his head. “If I don’t move the trains and there is a slide, I am damned. If I do move the trains, and there isn’t a slide, and I use all our coal in moving, then I am just as damned. The railroad wants a name to attach to any blame. I guess I’m it.” he shrugged within his giant coat, a barely perceptible movement of his shoulders.
“I’m sorry Conductor.” I said. I meant it. The man had done everything he could for us and our train.
“That’s what they pay me for.” he said, and smiled a rueful smile. “Helluva storm.” he looked at the pale grey sky.
“Let me guess,” I said, “never seen anything like it?”
“That’s the truth, Mr. Parker”.
“On a change of subject, Conductor, but have you ever seen a Chinese boy during your travels on the mountain?” I asked
“The Dragon Child?” he chuckled. “No, Mr Parker, I can’t say I have. What with him being a legend and all.”
“Lots of people seem to think they have seen him.”
“Lots of people spend a great deal of their time drinking hooch in Fogg Brothers. Lord alone knows what’s in half the stuff they sell over there.” He tailed off as he looked at my face. “You’ve seen him?”
“I think so.”
“Over near the tavern, on the path to the back of the hotel.”
“By the cemetery, then.”
“The Chinese cemetery, all those poor souls who died building this line, the tunnel, the towns and so on, they all ended up buried over there.”
“Did you see the workers up here?”
“No, but I heard the stories. Poor shelter, bad explosives. I guess hundreds died.” he sighed, “Not a good day.”
“No.” I said, and headed off to find Moller and a shovel.
4:30pm Cannae, WA
Ada Lemman had been relaxing in her couchette, dozing gently, when she was awoken by a sharp pain in her arm.
She looked over to see her husband, Edgar, looking down at her with concern. She glanced to her right and saw Libby Latsch removing a delicate silver syringe from her elbow.
“Don’t worry, dear,” said Latsch, with a comforting smile, “this will make you feel much better.”
‘But I’m not ill?’ thought Ada. She looked up at Edgar as the power of the injection took hold. A warm, cosy feeling flooded up from her arm and swiftly filled her entire body. She felt relaxed immediately, more cosy than she’d felt in the past four days, more loved than she’d felt in her life before. She didn’t really understand who was in her couchette any more, she didn’t care. She was sinking into the softest pillows she’d ever had. She smiled.
“How long does the effect last?” asked a concerned Edgar.
“She’ll be feeling it for the rest of the evening,” assured Miss Latsch, “and she’ll sleep soundly all night. This is good stuff, believe me.”
“Ada hates laudanum, hates all it stands for. Claims it makes you stupid.” sighed Edgar, as he watched his wife’s face relax into a peaceful mask for the first time on the entire trip.
“I’ve been using it for five years Edgar, does that mean you think I’m stupid?” asked Latsch. Lemman immediately backed down.
“Of course not, Libby. I just wish we could get her to a doctor and to a place where she can receive proper care.”
“Well, until you can get her to the asylum, this’ll do the trick.” said the glamorous woman as he packed up her opium case, and headed out of the couchette.
Lemman followed and grabbed her arm in the corridor.
“In here,” said Edgar, dragging the tall woman towards his adjoining couchette.
Inside Edgar’s couchette, Libby sat on the bed like a chastened child. Lemman checked that they hadn’t been seen by anyone, and then closed the door.
“Edgar…?” asked Libby.
“We have a problem.”
“With our case. We have a problem.”
“What sort of problem?”
“Your husband’s lawyer is on the train.”
“You met him?”
“You could say that. He cornered me last night, said he’d been watching us for a while.”
“Watching us?” Libby’s curiosity suddenly dissolved into shock. “Oh no. The Bath?”
“Yes, he has evidence of you as a serial adulterer.”
Libby sighed loudly. “Can you fix it?” she asked.
“I don’t think so.”
“So what does he want, to deal I mean?”
“The mine, your ‘Sea Clasp’ business and half of the family assets.”
“Will he win?”
“I don’t know, but our case hinged on your being the wronged party. Now, it’ll appear you conduct affairs on a regular basis. I’m not sure how we can counter this.”
“Can’t you reason with him?”
“I think he’s beyond reasoning. He’s got us over a barrel.”
“Can I talk to him?”
“No, for a start I must counsel against you meeting with the opposition without me being present. And secondly, he was one of the walkers who left this morning.” Edgar looked at the floor, wretchedly.
“Have you got any whiskey in here?” asked Libby, her voice flat.
“Er, yeah. Sure.” Said Edgar, pulling a bottle from a drawer and pouring Libby a glass on the washstand.
“Thanks.” She said, throwing the drink back and grimacing. “Edgar, can you fix this? Honestly?”
“As I said Libby, I just don’t know. We’ve been seen in a compromising position for the both of us. For you, it looks like you play around regularly. For me, I’ve betrayed my profession’s ethics, and that never looks good in front of the judge.”
“So we’re screwed?” She looked at Edgar for a second, and saw the stricken look on his face. “Well, we might get lucky and Mr. White may not make it down the mountain safely.” She shook her head and motioned for more whiskey.
“Libby, you can’t go around saying that.” Cautioned Edgar as he poured.
“Why not, it seems like people can say what they like about me and I just have to accept it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean it is just Mr. White’s word against mine, but because he’s a lawyer, and a man, I become a slut and stand to lose everything. That doesn’t seem right. That one person’s opinion can ruin another’s life.”
Edgar Lemman brightened.
“Libby, you’ve got it.”
“What?” said Libby, drinking.
“We change the opinion. You have to sack me as your lawyer and I’ll arrange a replacement.”
“Okay.” Said Libby, warily.
“Then we have to continue with our … er, relationship. Develop it into a full blown affair.” Libby’s eyebrows rose quizzically. “Then the opinion will be changed.”
Libby looked puzzled.
“From the judge’s perspective right now, I’ve betrayed my profession and you’re a hussy. But if we develop our relationship and can convince the judge that we are lovers and devoted to each other, then it looks a lot better than where we are now.”
Libby’s face brightened a bit. “How would we explain my fling with Edmund?”
“Saul’s brother? The evidence is weak there, but it can be used to say that you were unhappy in your marriage. I am unhappy in mine, so, with the right lawyer, we can spin it as two lonely souls finding happiness.”
Libby smiled brightly. She chugged her drink and threw her arms around Lemman’s neck, gazing into his eyes.
“You know, I always had a good feeling about you?” She smiled. “I always thought you were someone who can get things done.”
“I am glad to be of service, ma’am.”
6:00pm Cannae, WA
It was dark and the temperature was falling rapidly when Moller and I finally returned to the mystery snowbank. It had taken us ages to find a set of shovels in Cannae, and the suspicion was that the iterant snow shovellers had wandered off the job taking the tools of their trades with them.
Having finally located some shovels we wandered back through the deep snow channels and set to work attacking the snowbank. The snow was wet and slushy, which made it heavy to move, but easy to cut into.
“So what’s meant to be under here?” asked Moller as he hefted a shovel full of snow onto a small pile on the other side of the passageway.
“Pettit thinks there’s a Chinese cemetery over here.”
“A cemetery? I thought Brawn said that no-one died up here.”
“Brawn lied.” I said as I carved another shovel of snow from the face. “No white people died up here, but plenty of Chinese did.”
“Pettit doesn’t know, but he’s the only one who’s admitted there were Chinese even up here. There’s a company line being spun here, and Pettit’s the only one who’s off message.” Even then only slightly, I thought.
“How come? Pettit seems the most loyal of men.”
“They’re setting him up as a scapegoat. Telegram came through this afternoon.”
“Aw man. Everything’s coming apart.” Moller just looked annoyed.
“Everyone knows there’s a disaster coming, Joseph. It’s just a question of how bad, and how soon...” I grumbled
“There’s plans for another walk out if you’re interested? Going tomorrow morning.”
“Is that Cohen again?”
“Yeah, he’s going regardless of conditions or people or advice. He’s getting a lot more interest this time.”
“Did the other group make it?”
“Unknown, but they were with the Superintendant, so I imagine they’re okay.”
“I’m not so sure. We’re relatively sheltered here at Cannae, but that walk down to Snowshed 3.1 was difficult enough and that’s a relatively well trodden path.”
“I overheard that Davis fellow, you know the father of little Thelma, talking to an engineer who said he had no chance of making it with the little ‘un.”
“There’s no way to get everybody off this mountain. Mr. Vail’s too sick to move, Mr. Grey is on crutches and Brawn’s in a wheelchair.”
“You sound like you’re staying?”
“You sound like you’re leaving?”
“I’m seriously thinking about it. I’ve no real ties to anyone on board and I have a really bad feeling about this.”
I chuckled. “You’ve had a bad feeling since we got here.”
“It’s worse now. I feel like we’re ..., we’re coming to the end of all of this.” He threw another lump of snow onto the growing pile.
I stopped my labours for a moment.
“I feel the same.” I said.
“You’d leave?” I asked.
“Yes.” Said Moller immediately. “I mean no. I don’t know.”
“What if leaving was the only sure way to save yourself?”
“Well, then it would be no question, I’d leave. But walking out of here in this weather doesn’t seem like a sure thing to me.”
“I’d also feel guilty about leaving those behind. I’m not that kind of man, at least I’m not that kind of man any more.”
I thought for a moment. “Because of your son? Of what happened in Chicago?”
“Yes. I don’t think I can leave anyone anymore.”
“I think we’ve answered my question.” I said quietly.
“Yes,” replied Moller, equally quietly. “I think we have.”
The pair of us fell into silence and continued digging away at the soggy snow under the flickering lighting of our storm lanterns.
We dug until our backs were sore and our arms were heavy. We stopped when we’d dug a passage through the snowbank that travelled at least ten feet from the footpath. Silently, the pair of us agreed that this was the point at which we’d dig down to the surface of the land beneath the snow.
It took us another five or so minutes of scraping to reach to shale and loam that made up the floor of the plateau on which we stood. We may have only opened a patch of ground perhaps two foot square, but one edge of the space was clearly disturbed. The gravel sat lower than the surrounding land as though it had slumped into a pit.
Mindful of what we believed we were searching for, we scrabbled at the freezing gravel with our gloved hands, scooping it aside and pushing it behind us with our feet. We dug and dug, each handful of gravel removed with a sense of dread at what we might find.
I’d never dug into a grave before. It felt wrong, it felt disrespectful, it felt as though we were defiling the souls of whatever people had been buried here, but I was driven on by a sense of purpose, a need to find out what was really happening here. As if it could actually sense our decent intentions, the storm had quietened considerably, and our lanterns were able to provide a steady light for the first time in days.
After several minutes of digging, and with a pit of about a foot deep in front of us, Moller discovered something. He dragged from the centre of the pit, from the small loose stones that filled the bottom of our tiny crater, a sheet of red cloth. We heaved on the weathered fabric, pulling it from the pit, and with it came some other objects.
The pair of us put the cloth down and examined it with our lanterns. It was a standard Pacific NorthWestern blanket, mildewed and rotten, it was still a muted scarlet colour and carried the company’s woven logo.
I looked at Moller, and he at me. Together, and with a knot of fear at what we might find, we unravelled the blanket and uncovered its contents.
We found, amidst the numerous small rocks and clods of earth, a number of small bones. Then we discovered a long bone, a good foot in length. Moller held it up to me.
“A shin bone?” he asked. I did not know the answer.
We unravelled some more bones, which seemed to the untutored eye to be human, but we had no way of knowing for sure. The final lump needed to be untangled.
With care and dread, Moller and I unwrapped the object. The foul cloth clung to it, stubborn and obstinate. It snagged and rustled, and then suddenly popped open revealing a lengthy plait of black hair.
“God!” exhaled Moller, as he lurched backwards in shock. I took a deep breath.
I unwound the blanket a bit more and revealed a polished, spotless human skull. The plait of hair hovered over the skull, held in place by thirty years of position, but not by any tissue that remained.
The skull was quite large, and the hair did not cover the full head, instead it floated over the back of the skull before extending into its lengthy plait.
“What is it?” breathed Moller in his horror.
I knew. I knew because of a previous life. I knew because of a previous disaster. I knew because of a previous love.
“It’s a Manchu Queue.” I said quietly. “This is the skull of a Chinese man.” I looked at Moller. We’d found the cemetery that didn’t exist.
A shuffle from behind.
We turned, surprised, and stopped in shock.
A small Chinese child stood before us, but it was not the boy we’d been searching for. Instead it was a clearly a girl. Her dark brown eyes looked at us not with suspicion or anger, but with love and understanding. She smiled, a smile that looked familiar to me. I suddenly thought I recognised the child, but that would have been impossible.
“Mie?” I asked of our apparition.
The little girl’s smile grew wider.
And she disappeared.
8:00pm, Cannae, WA
I hadn’t been able to say anything further to Moller after the vision in the snows. I couldn’t, I didn’t know what to say.
I knelt there for a bit in the snows, absorbing what I’d seen. Could it really have been Mie? Of course not. How did she disappear like that? She was a real as Moller was, the same Moller who was hauling me to my feet and screaming in my face. I don’t know what he was saying, I didn’t hear him.
It couldn’t have been Mie. It couldn’t. For a start Mie was not ten years old, for another thing Mie had been dead five years and, if that was not enough, she died a thousand miles south in San Francisco.
I shook my head and allowed myself to be pulled to my feet, and then frogmarched to the dingy interior of the Fogg Brothers tavern. There I was pushed unceremoniously into a worn leather chair and told to stay put.
Numbly, I pulled off my gloves and stared at the scarred wooden table top. The light was poor, snow slithered through gaps in the wooden walls, and the furnace-like pot bellied stove groaned and squeaked to itself in the middle of the room.
I stayed in that position, staring at the table top, not thinking about anything in particular. The shock slowly diminishing.
A glass containing a translucent amber liquid clattered onto the table top and into my view, the liquid slopped and slid to a stop under my vision.
“Whisky.” said Moller, matter of factly. “Good for brain lock. Drink it.” He insisted. “Go ahead. It’s good for you. Then you can tell me how in God’s Name you know a spectoral Chinese ten-year-old half way up a fucking mountain.”
That broke my reverie. I looked at Moller. He smiled, and slunk back into his chair with his own glass.
I picked up the whisky he’d bought me and swung it around in its glass. I then tipped my head back and swallowed it in one. It was harsh, crude stuff with a burnt taste and a smell of paraffin.
Moller waved at the barman for another round.
“What is it? What do you know?” he asked urgently, leaning forward in his chair. “You know something because what you and I saw just now wasn’t exactly ...”
“I was in San Francisco, five years ago.” I interrupted. “April 17th.”
There was silence for a moment.
“Oh God, I’m sorry.” said Moller. “Oh my dear Parker.” He sat back in his chair and waited until I was ready.
“I grew up in San Francisco.” I began “No, change that, I grew up with San Francisco. When I was born it was already the tenth largest city in the country. We had fine hotels and theatres, we had enough ships coming in and out of the docks that we needed a dedicated harbourmaster just to manage the trade through the port. Then the gold rush came and soon there were hundreds of ships were moored in the bay that had no crews, the men having all run to the mountains to seek their fortune. So the city appropriated many of the ships and had them run aground, stuck into the banks like darts into a board, and we built walkways and promenades between their decks and hulls and voila! Instant accommodation for taverns, and traders, and shopkeepers and hotels.
“The City suffered from many fires when it was young and so it introduced building codes years before any other city in America. This meant the streets were paved with raised stone sidewalks. Our buildings at least built on brick foundations and a great many of the houses were entirely brick built. San Francisco was the very pinnacle of technology and social development.
“The Buildings Code slowed the city’s growth for a few years, but not by much, and the developers soon figured out that the building inspectors were poorly trained and easy to fool, so buildings went up that looked as if they met the building code, but were little more than mud huts with wooden frames. It was these buildings that killed so many.
“It wasn’t paradise, I can tell you. The town had its rough side as well as its rich side. If you were a young man walking in the wrong part of town at the wrong time could easily find yourself coshed on the head and when you woke up you’ll be on a sailing barque heading out through the Golden Gate destined for who knows where.
“Then the Comstock Lode was discovered and the Comstock kings moved in to San Francisco, building huge houses, encouraging bars and fine restaurants and theatres to be built amongst the hills surrounding the bay. Giant hotels were built, covered in marble and studded with courtyards. There was a tavern on every corner, hundreds of photography studios, omnibuses and hackney coaches to help you get around.
“There were new ferries to help you get across the bay to Berkley and Oakland and the Ferry building was where you bought your tickets was modelled on Seville Cathedral, for heaven’s sake. It had a two hundred foot clocktower.
“There were cable cars, rattley machines attached to a cable fitted in the street, that you’d take for a cent to help you climb those hills, their cables clanging and singing beneath the street’s surface.
“We had giant open spaces like Union Square, home to many public rallies. My father told me he went to several rallies in support of the Union during the Civil War. These weren’t pleasure parks, these were working spaces.
“The pleasure parks were mostly privately owned, and built in the gardens of many of the big houses, or on the lands owned by the big hotels. You paid a penny and spent the afternoon walking amongst the rich plants of the gardens with a pretty girl or two, hunting out those quiet little areas where you wouldn’t be disturbed.
“And then there was Chinatown, or Tangrenbu, where the exotic East met the brash new West. San Francisco was full of the Chinese, and the San Franciscans didn’t like it. They were aloof, haughty, separate and stoically indifferent to change from us, the all powerful white me who had civilised a continent.
“They originally came, as did many others, for the gold. The story went that the first Chinese to set foot in California arrived in 1848 and went straight to the gold fields. Impressed with what they found they sent word back to China that there were inestimable riches in the slopes of Jinshan – Gold Mountain – and in an instant hundreds of families were arriving in scores of exotic ships. They came mostly from the southern coastal ports between Shanghai and Hainan Island and were primarily fishermen.
“They came to San Francisco in droves and occupied an area of the city a local newspaper termed Chinatown. They worked, only for gold never for paper money, everywhere they could. They were the primary workforce in the San Francisco laundry business, they were expert cobblers and tailors, though often their idea of a cut of clothing was a great deal different to that of the average well-heeled merchant.
The majority of the men wore their hair in the Manchu queue, where their hair is grown into a long plait from the back of their head, and the front is shorn with a razor, to show allegiance to the Celestial Throne, far far away.
“They were a solid workforce, used to hardships. They often were found sleeping in the fields they worked in on the farms that surrounded the city. They picked fruit in the orange groves, trod grapes, and harvested corn. They were heavily employed in building the transcontinental railroad, climbing raw mountainsides to blast tunnel and cut cuttings.
“My father ran a very successful fruit business, importing oranges and lemons and limes and grapes from the surrounding farms into the city and then distributing the fruit to the grocers and shopkeepers.
“We lived in a pretty white house in Pacific Heights. It had two rounded turrets with a wide verandah strung between the two. It was a big house, sitting proud in its garden, a couple of cypress trees in the yard. It was cool in the summer and warm in the winter, but it was large and took much looking after.
“I had two siblings (though I was the only one to reach adulthood) and after delivering her third child, my sister Rebecca, my mother became gravely ill. My father cast about for some help and, against advice of his friends and colleagues, employed Mie as a serving girl, cook, cleaner, nursemaid and nurse. He said many times, especially years later after she had proven to be a loyal and hardworking member of staff, that Mie was a person, the same as you and I, and she had her own beliefs, her own hopes, her own fears, and though her thoughts hopes and fear may always be different to ours, but we can still get along.
“He never had a qualm in employing a Chinese, even when those around us were saying terrible things about them; that they were not human, that their manners were repugnant to Americans, all sorts of terrible stuff.
“I was eleven when Mie started working for us, she was fifteen. If I fell out of a tree in the yard, or my soapbox suffered a malfunction, it was Mie who would tend to my wounds, Mother was just too ill most of the time.
“I was a pugnacious kid, always getting into scraps and fights, something my Mother despaired of, and my Father quietly encouraged. He said to me that a man that fights for something means he believes in it, and that would never be a bad thing.
“So I fought and scrapped my way through school, and I fought and scrapped for Mie too. When the local kids, including a friend of mine called Samuel Roslin, started to insult and attack Mie as she walked from our house at the end of her day’s work, I stepped in; first with the words, then with the pushing, and then with the fighting.
“One time, it must have been late in ninety-four, I caught some type of sickness and was ill in bed for over a month. Mie brought me soup that was based on her grandmother’s recipe, and then rice crackers, and beansprouts and noodles and other delicious Chinese dishes. She’d sit with me for hours at a time, whenever I was awake she seemed to be there.
“She read to me, in her badly broken English, and also in her flowing, beautiful Chinese. I don’t suppose you’ve ever heard it spoken?”
Moller shook his head.
“I didn’t think so. Well it’s a beautiful language, more like a song than speech. It rises and falls, speeds up and slows down. It’s like every sentence becomes a poem. And she read to me from these books, battered leather covers, thin yellow pages, covered in tiny painted symbols created from a few strokes of a brush – not a scratchy pen like we would use, but a brush. Each line of the character ends in a swipe, not a blunt end.
“As I recovered I worked with her on her English, she began to teach me the basics of Chinese. We spent most of that summer teaching and learning.
“My father was proud of my work, and he admired Mie for her efforts. I taught her swear words to hurl back at the taunters and the bullies and the racists which she delivered with some considerable venom in her own accent. I watched her once and the bullies were shocked into silence. It was most amusing, I can tell you.
“I can’t say exactly when I fell in love with her. We were together for such a long time, but it never felt like a master and servant relationship. We supported each other, looked after each other and looked out for each other, each in our own ways.
“We started playing hookey from work and study respectively. We walked in the parks at first until the abuse got too much for us. People would come up to me in the street and slap me in the face and tell me to wake up, or to respect myself or some such. As though I were fraternising beneath myself, all because the ‘moral majority’ believed that the Chinese were barely literate animals only just above the negroes. It was pathetic.
“So Mie took me to Chinatown, and introduced me to her world. It was a thriving, busy place with industry at every corner: laundrys and cobblers, noodle bars and fish restaurants, opium dealers and cigar hawkers: all in an area of thirty square blocks.
“I met Mie’s mother and her grandmother in her small room in the corner of a cheap tenement block. She was the family’s only source of income. I wondered then where the menfolk were. I asked once, but Mie said they had died and never told me any more.
“We spent as much time together as we could. We would find darkened corners in the pleasure parks, or we’d walk amongst the traders of the shipboard waterfront. We’d visit the theatres and the cafes. I introduced Mie to the opera and she loved it. She even tried to sing arias herself but her voice, though high and clear, was never quite up to it.
“She was breathtakingly beautiful, with dark eyes and long dark straight hair. Her skin was fair and so pure and smooth and white. Her cheekbones were high, but not too pronounced, her jaw was narrow, her mouth pointed, her lips full and with a slight pout.
“Father was not impressed when he found out about us. It wasn’t so much about Mie’s nationality, though I believe that it disappointed him that I wasn’t seeing an Irish girl, it was more about me falling for the help. He told me to break it off, he told Mie that she was forbidden to see me socially. He didn’t, to his credit, dismiss her from our service.
“We developed techniques to keep our love from my parents. We were good together, we were cunning together. We had secret messages, even more secret once I’d learned to read Celestial Script.
“Father couldn’t stop us. I loved her, and she loved me. At one point Father gave her five strokes with the birch as a punishment when he found out about one of our secret liasons. He never punished me, just expressed his disappointment.
“One time he sent me to the orange groves of Los Angeles to stay with my sister. I went dutifully, but found Los Angeles a dreary place. I explored Chinatown, and attended a number of speeches by Homer Lea advocating support for the Chinese Revolution. I was there in September 1904 when Imperial assassins attempted to kill Sun Sat-Yen in a Los Angeles coffee house. I was privy to Dr. Lea and Sat-Yen’s conversations about the revolution. Maybe in another world, I went with them to China (as many did) and took part in the struggle. I thought about it, but then my Father called me home and I was reunited with Mie. The mood in the San Francisco had changed over the time we’d been together; there’d been riots against the Chinese, laws, and finally the exclusion act, but it still wasn’t acceptable for us to be together.
“That morning, the morning of the earthquake, I was up at 5am and at our warehouse buying fruit from the farmers, checking our warehouse for its supplies, giving the dray boys their instructions. This was typical for me as my father ran down his interest in the business.
“The house on California street had gained an annexe in which I lived, made from the same redwood and next to a small stable. At night, Mie would leave the house and re-enter via the stable to spend the night.”
I closed my eyes, and sighed as I gathered my thoughts. I took a swallow from the newly arrived whisky, and swilled the drink around the grubby glass a few times.
Moller, bless him, was sitting patiently in his chair. His face was a mask of concern and interest. His arms were propped on the arms of the chair and bridged in front of him, glass suspended from his fingers. He smiled slightly, encouragingly, but said nothing.
I swallowed the rest of the whisky, and sat back in my chair.
“Did you know that the Chinese developed the first ever earthquake detector?” Moller shook his head “Some time in the middle of the Han Dynasty the Emperor’s astronomer royal, a man called Zhang Heng, created this fantastically complicated device called the hou fêng di dong yi, which translates as the Earthquake Weathercock.
“It was a bell jar that sported on the lip of its upper surface where eight dragons, positioned equidistantly around the vessel at the major points of the compass. Each dragon had in its mouth a jade ball, held gingerly by the points of the dragon’s teeth. Immediately beneath each dragon’s mouth was a carved toad, its mouth wide open, waiting for a ball to drop. Inside the jar was a sensitive mechanism, no-one knows quite what, and when the shockwaves from an earthquake met the jar it would dislodge the ball from the dragon’s jaws facing the location of the earthquake and it would fall into the toad’s mouth. Thus the Emperor would not only know that an earthquake had occurred in his kingdom, he would also know in what direction to send help.
“In the Spring of 1906, there were ninety-six seismographs in the world, and all of them recorded the events of 17th April. There have been scientists, and newspaper men, and politicians, and generals, and priests, all of whom have their own descriptions of what happened. I can only tell you my tale.
“I was by our fruit warehouse on Washington Street, looking down the hill towards the Golden Gate. I was chatting to the neighbourhood policeman when, all of a sudden, came this deep, and very terrible, rumbling sound. Suddenly there was ... were immense waves of water and stone rolling down the street towards us, like breakers on a shore.
“The wave hit us and flung us and the street and the buildings into the air as one. Then, with equal violence we fell downward. I remember crashing into the pavement as the ground fell still, and I remember digging my nails into the cobbles in an attempt to hold on to the very skin of the world.
I lay, on the heaving pavement and watched as our three storey warehouse landed, cracked and broken in front of me. An instant later the building sloughed off its brick skin and threw its masonry into the street.
“I breathed at that moment, I remember that most clearly. It confirmed to me that I was alive.
“Around us was the roar of masonry falling, and the rush of water erupting from the cracked and broken street. The next wave hit, flinging the ground beneath us up again and then again the sickening lurch downward. It was as if we were at a rodeo, and the very earth was a bronco.
“The building opposite creaked loudly and toppled into the street, hurling bricks and steels and joists and all sorts of rubble. Myself and my Policeman friend had to scramble to the middle of the street to avoid being crushed
“We watched as the Farrelly building opposite dropped its cornices and its brickwork simply peeled apart, exposing joists and crates and, God help us, people as it thundered to the ground. Behind us other buildings were shedding their windows, dropping their bricks and collapsing into the street.
“Another wave, and another. We clung to the ground with our hands and our feet, hanging on for grim death while the very solid and rock beneath us roiled and shook.
“A Brick building just down the street simply collapsed, dissolving into the ground like a sugar cube into hot tea, another snapped at street level and dropped to the floor. Clock towers, bell towers, frontispieces, cornices, window frames, all toppled and fell.
“A wooden building, near the Farrelly, seemed to shake, as a woman shakes her dress at a ball, its planks flexing and moving organically. It settled, slumped and off centre, with a crunch of glass and twisted somehow splintering doorframes and joists. Amazingly from this building ran three people, and then came the fire.
“That’s how the great fires of San Francisco began: not from one source, not from one great explosion, but from hundreds of broken gas pipes, and thousands of sparks.
“I lay there with my policeman friend, as the shuddering stopped and the earth settled. There was a silence but it lasted only a second. Then came a cacophony the like of which I had never heard before, the squeal of wooden buildings straining to remain upright, the rumble of brick ones falling; the tinkle of glass and the grumble of timber; the hiss of gas flares and the quiet gentle crackle of the fires beginning and the screams and moans of the injured and the dying.
“The dust from all the collapsing buildings moved and swirled and billowed around us. It turned the pale spring dawn back to a dull night, and tracked into our lungs and caused you to cough and splutter. Everything tasted of brick and dust and rock. Within hours it would all taste of ash.
“From beginning to end, the earthquake lasted just 48 seconds, and yet it flattened the city. A city of brick and stone, one of the most advanced and populous cities on the continent.
“I got up and looked at the devastation around me. At least a third of the buildings I could see had collapsed, and many more looked as though they would come down at any moment. Numerous small fires had broken out amongst the wreckage. I walked closer to the remains of our warehouse and examined the rubble. There was nothing to save of the building itself, and its content was smashed beyond measure. I thanked God at that point that we hadn’t started work for the day or I, and the four other workers our company employed, would have been taking in crates of produce. If the earthquake had hit half an hour later and I very much doubt I would be speaking to you today.
“I had a decision to make. I could head down towards the sea and try to find Mie and her family in the congested streets of Chinatown. Or I could head up Nob Hill and walk the mile to my family home.
“I wrapped a hankerchief around my face to keep out the choking dust, and helped the policeman to his feet. He began to help others in the street and raised a small band that began moving gingerly towards the collapsed building in order to help survivors. I began to walk uphill from the wreckage of the warehouse, along a thoroughfare called Washington Street, but was now unrecognisible as such.
“I walked up the middle of the street between the cable car rails, trusting that an uncontrolled trolley was not to come plummeting from the fog and smoke and dust that surrounded me. Through the gloom one could see the fires beginning to take hold of the wooden buildings, fanned by the steady on-shore breeze.
“I walked briskly up Washington and down Franklin to my house on the corner, and stopped in horror. The chimney, like so many chimneys on so many buildings throughout the city, had come down through the building, cutting it in half. The chimney on my annexe, which ran up the back wall of the house had also fallen, quartering the structure.
“Without a thought for my own safety, I ran to the front door (lopsided and with its lintle splintered) and fought my way inside. Beams and joists were tangled like spillikins, fine furniture lay scuffed and broken, clothes lay scattere, and in the middle a bed I recognised as my mother’s bisected by the slumped bricks of the annexe chimney. I could not see her body, but I knew she must be there, she hadn’t left that bed for five years.
“I never found my father’s body, and he never returned to me. I assume that he died in the house, but I never was sure. I was never able to search for him after the fire as our house was dynamited as part of the firebreak that was cleared across the city.
“I sat for a moment on the rubble that had fallen from the small church opposite and cried for a moment. Great ragged breaths heaved in and out of my lungs, sobs of remorse and guilt and shock and loss. Tears eked their way out from my eyes and slithered down my face.
“When I was done, I struggled to my feet and headed for Mie’s tenement. As I jogged down the middle of California street, the wreckage and rubble still astounded me. Here and there buildings appeared undamaged, but the majority were listing, crocked, riddled with cracks, missing cornices and mouldings. I glanced down Jones Street to see the vista across the city and came to a stunned halt. The city itself had collapsed. Where there had been crisp white buildings on a sharp grid of streets there were now slovenly humps of masonry as if the almighty Himself has come down and smudged all the buildings from the Earth.
“Of all the wreckage, of all the rubble, the most haunting were the skeletons, where the new steel buildings had remained standing, but lost all of their walls. The Fairmont hotel was listing, with gaping holes in its masonry and liveried porters, cooks, waiters and butlers were pulling injured guests from the ruin.
“I headed down the hill and turned into Chinatown and there, covered in dust, clothed in her typical black shirt and pantaloons, was Mie. Beautiful, delicate, wonderful Mie.
“I called her name and we ran to each other. I hugged her close and held her so tightly I felt I would crush her. All the grief and horror I had been feeling was lifted from me. My love was alive!
“See asked after my family, and all I could do was shake my head mournfully. She all but collapsed at this point, her knees gave out and she became a dead weight in my arms. I lowered with her to the pavement, and held her until the sobs subsided.
“I can’t say how long we stayed there, holding each other, but after a while the strong sense of burning pricked my nostrils. I got up from the floor, and walked out to the centre of the street.
“In the distance, at the bottom of the hill, huge billowing clouds of smoke rose from the fires that had spread throughout the city. It rose into the skies and attempted to choke out the sun. It stretched across the whole of the lower city but, most ominously of all, we could see no flames, just the smoke.
“Mie started to pull me towards Chinatown, towards the fearsome clouds of smoke. She wanted to see if her family were all right, she wanted to help her grandmother out of the tenement block, and ...”
I stopped for a moment. All the shame and guilt I had harboured for so long welled up. A tear fell from my eyes and I wiped its sticky trail away angrily.
“I didn’t go.” I said. “I didn’t go.”
I took a deep breath and swallowed to better control my emotions.
“I loved her, and I didn’t go. And I’ve blamed myself for it ever since.
“I can still see her as our hands parted. I pleaded with her not to head back into Chinatown, into the heart of the maelstrom, but she was always so headstrong, and always so loyal. And I didn’t go. I was scared, I was a coward, but most of all, and this is the worst of it, I didn’t care about her mother and her grandmother. I simply didn’t. They were, to me, just Chinese.
“How awful is that? I wanted Mie, but not her culture, or her past, or her family, or her origins. I wanted her, but not her baggage. When it came down to it, when it came right down to it, I was no better than the people who taunted her in the street, or invoked the Exclusion Act, or the bylaw that no man should wear a ponytail, or that no bamboo staff should be more than a foot long or any of the other cruel and unusual acts that were visited on these kind, warm people.”
I sat for a moment, and reflected.
“I truly loved her, and in losing her I realised that. But it was at the moment that I thought I could lose her, that the inbuilt prejudices of our society held me back, just like my father’s demands, and our social standing held us back as a couple. I thought I was stronger than that, but I wasn’t, and I never saw her again.
“Sure after the fires had been defeated I toured the camps looking for her. I posted a few billstickers, but I was the only one looking for a Chinese, and I had no photo. I never saw a single Celestial in the camps and the temporary towns, they were all banished somewhere else, but I never found where.
“So when the scandals had died down and the insurance paid out, for I was one of the lucky ones and my father’s insurance company paid in full for the business and the house, I closed the book on my early life, moved to Seattle and began again doing the only thing I know I am good at: selling fruit.
“When I close my eyes, no matter what the reason, I still see that last image of her. Her long hair flowing in time with her long clothes, her eyes wet with tears, her face otherwise impassive. She is elegant and forever beautiful.
Moller sat opposite me, looking kindly and wise. He nodded understanding, and took a sip of his whiskey.
“I understand,” he said. “I cannot relate to your experiences, but now I understand.”
I sat for a moment, somberly remembering. I took a sip of the whiskey. I knew the solution was near, but I couldn’t quite see it. The child Moller and I saw atop the snowdrift, the one who disappeared, the one that looked like Mie, what was that child’s connection with this cold and frigid place? Why did Mie, aged ten, appear to me at a Chinese cemetery?
Moller was thinking the same:
“This child we saw half an hour ago, are you saying that was Mie? The same Mie from San Francisco?”
“I think so, yes.” I answered. “But as a child.”
“Why do you think she is here then?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I’m the only person on the train who sees the Chinese as people?”
“That’s perhaps a little harsh?” protested Moller.
Something was pricking the back of my mind. “Maybe so, but how many Chinese do you know, Moller?”
“One, perhaps two.” he said, beginning to catch on.
“None.” he admitted.
“On the train what would you say the average population is?”
“White Anglos, I’d say. Andrews is black and Watson is Indian, but otherwise everyone else is white.”
“Even amongst the shovellers, they’re Italian, Swedes and Polish by the most part.”
“I’m willing to wager that I’m the only person in this town who has ever had any direct relations with any Chinese person.” I looked at him. “What do you think?”
Moller sipped his drink thoughtfully. “Okay, that’s a fair assumption to make. But here’s a question? Why is a ghost of your late girlfriend appearing whenever there’s an avalanche?”
“She didn’t. Not for us.”
“I don’t understand.”
I did, realisation was flooding through me. “She appeared to us when we were trying to find her, and then she appeared to us when we’d just dug up a Chinese corpse. Both times there was no avalanche. Then there was the mail car, and Ada as well. She was trying to attract attention when we saw her.”
“And the other times?”
“They’re keeping us here.”
“Why? And who’s keeping us here?”
“I don’t know.” I admitted. “But something is. No-one’s ever seen a storm like this before, or had so many avalanches in such a small area.”
“So what now?” asked Moller.
“We need to re-bury the remains we’ve found, and then report back to Pettit or someone.”
“Pettit? Why him?”
“I don’t know, someone in authority.”
“Pettit already knows there are Chinese buried over here, he pointed that out to you an hour ago.” said Moller
“Fair point, but we have to tell someone.”
“About what? You’re convincing me that something weird is going on, but it’s not enough to convince anyone else. Do you think anyone else on that train is going to believe your story of Chinese children running around a mountain?”
“Nellie might, she seems to know where the bodies are buried around here, so to speak. Knows a lot about stuff the company would rather keep quiet.”
“Nellie would be good to talk to, Ada too.” agreed Moller. “Perhaps we should go and find them.”
I agreed, and we ordered two more whiskeys to fortify ourselves for the unpleasant job of re-burying the remains we had found.
9:30pm, Cannae, WA
On the trains the mood was grim. Moller and I walked down the familiar passageways, seeing familiar faces in their familiar places. Everywhere we looked we saw what we had all become during our time in the mountains. Cultivated, cultured people had become filthy, desperate people, camped out in nests of clothing and bags. The day cars had people sleeping on the floors, on the benches, even the overhead luggage nets were a couple of the children. A few days mired in this cold wilderness had reduced us all to the lowest, poorest members of society. We had become beggars in our own steel street.
Moller and I manoeuvred through the crowded day cars, and then through the narrow, now cluttered, passageways. Couchette doors were now permanently opened, their occupants exposed and welcoming company.
We shuffled along heading for the observation car, but happened past Ada Lemman’s couchette. Our weak friend was in bed, slumped low amid the grimy bedding and soft pillows. She looked as if she was dissolving into the lumpy mattress, her skin was waxy and pale and her eyes, eyes that not two days ago blazed with passion and fire, were glossy and withdrawn.
Her pale hand was held by the wizened Sarah-Jane Covington, who looked at us as we stopped outside. The old lady’s face was worried.
“What’s wrong?” asked Moller as he moved into the tiny space to get a better look at poor Ada.
“She had a rough night last night so that wonderful husband of hers listened to that idiot preening hussy Latsch and gave her a dose of laudanum.”
“She’s been drugged?” I couldn’t believe it. There was nothing wrong with the woman, she was just nervous.
“That explains a lot.” said Moller, lifting up Ada’s eyelids and looking intently at the glazed eyeball that stared back at him.
“How long?” I asked Mrs Covington.
“Late afternoon.” she replied, patting the limp hand she held. “I’ve been with her ever since. I didn’t want her to wake up alone. Laudanum can do terrible things to a person.”
“Speaking from experience, Mrs. C?” asked Moller in a cheeky voice.
“Oh Mr. Moller.” she admonished. Moller was quite the charmer. “How does she seem to you?”
“I’m not a Doctor,” replied Moller, “but she seems comfortable enough.”
“Are you okay to look after her for a little while, Mrs Covington?” I asked.
“Of course I am, I was planning to spend the night with her, just in case.” came the spirited reply.
“Good. Mr. Moller, if you will?” I asked of Moller, and bless him if he didn’t immediately stop what he was doing and followed me out into the corridor.
“Where are we going?” he asked, but I think he already knew the reply.
“To find Mr. Lemman.” I responded.
Together we strode with purpose toward the observation car.
The car was relatively packed. Groups of passengers and Railroad staff sat around talking or getting extremely drunk. In the corner a borrowed phonograph was playing a jolly little ditty, but nobody seemed to be enjoying the music.
Solomon Cohen spotted our entry and bounced up in front on Moller and I.
“Gentlemen, long time no see.”
“Mr. Cohen.” we greeted the difficult little man.
“We’re getting together another group to hike out of here in the morning. Are you interested in joining us?” he asked eagerly.
“Maybe Mr. Cohen, maybe.” was all I said to him.
We moved into the room and spotted Libby Latsch, dressed in a pair of expensive red boots and a dress whose neckline was a wisp away from scandalous, sitting on the lap of Edgar Lemman. Both were extremely drunk.
“Mr. Lemman, did you allow Miss Latsch to administer laudanum to your wife?” I said by way of a hello.
Lemman looked at me unsteadily. “Parker?” he slurred.
“You know it’s me, Mr. Lemman”
“Why don’t you go and sort your own problems out Mr. Parker?” said Latsch. “I quietened the little woman down, she was getting a bit much ... you know.”
“No, I don’t Miss Latsch, and I am also not aware that you are a qualified doctor.”
“Parker, you leave her alone.” rumbled a drunken Lemman, who seemed to be making like he wanted to stand, but had forgotten he had Miss Latsch on his knee.
“Why Edgar? Why should I? Have you seen your wife today? Is she the bright, intelligent, woman you married? Because she sure as hell isn’t the woman I had a deeply intelligent conversation with two days ago.”
“It is soothing her nerves, it keeps her calm.” protested Edgar
“It’s lobotomised her!”
“My wife is a very troubled woman.”
“Is she hell! She’s bored. Bored of you, bored of her dull life as a wife, sitting at home telling the cooks what to cook, and the maids what to clean.”
“She has her needlework, and her painting.” he protested.
“Oh wake up Edgar. She was at Harvard, she speaks four languages, she’s studied the sciences. She’s cleverer than you, or me, or Mr. Moller here, and you think she would be happy painting in an empty house all day?”
“Oh, clever little thing then.” said Miss Latsch, looking intently at the top of Edgar’s head, and playing with his hair lasciviously.
The slap, when it came, was all the more surprising seeing as it came from Moller. My friend stepped forward and struck Miss Latsch’s pristine face with the back of his hand. She looked at him, her hand raised to her reddening face, and her eyes ablaze with fury.
“How dare you,” she hissed as she got to her feet, swaying slightly.
“Indeed.” huffed Edgar, drunkenly swinging the whisky bottle he’d been holding in his free hand and breaking it over the side of Moller’s head. Moller dropped to the floor like a felled tree, blood welling out around his ear. Lemman looked shocked.
I shoved the pathetic man aside and knelt by my friend.
“Ow.” moaned Moller. He had a great deal of blood leaking from the wound to his head. I grabbed a table doily to staunch the flow and helped him to his feet.
“Let him bleed.” growled Latsch, taking the broken bottle from Edgar’s hand and stroking his face. I left them to their adultery and hauled Moller out of the observation car and back to his couchette.
“You should see the other guy?” groaned Moller as I rolled him into his bed.
“You’re an idiot.” I chastised. “Noble and honourable to be sure, but an idiot nonetheless. Hold that there will you, I’ll get you a bandage.” I pressed his hand on the wad of sodden cotton that was once a table doily. Blood was already patterning the pillow on which his head lay.
I moved down the passageway a bit and opened Mr. Vail’s couchette door, looking for his nurse. Vail’s couchette was dark and cold. The man himself lay in the same bed he had been in for the entire trip, but this time he didn’t move. A sheet was drawn over his face. In the dark, he looked peaceful.
I bowed my head, and backed quietly out of the tiny room.
I snapped the door to Vail’s couchette closed and looked up to see Nellie Sharp, standing in the passageway, looking at me.
“He died this morning.” she said matter of factly.
“I didn’t know.”
“No, you wouldn’t have. You’ve been digging up graves instead.”
“Ah.” I had no idea what to say
“Are you going to explain, or shall I just report you now?”
“Wait, Nellie.” she moved to walk away, but I grabbed her arm. “Wait!”
“Moller’s been hurt. Have you seen Vail’s nurse anywhere?”
“Joseph’s hurt? How?”
“I’ll explain. I’ll explain everything, but please, the Nurse?”
“She’s in with Brawn. This way.”
I followed Nellie down the enclosed passageway and into the doorway of Brawn’s couchette. The Nurse was helping the old man into his bed for the night. She settled Brawn for a moment, tucked the dirty covers around him and then joined us in the corridor.
“Mr Moller’s been hurt. I need some bandages, do you have some?” I informed her.
“I’ll get my bag.” she said and trotted off.
“Couchette 109.” I called after her as she disappeared around the corner into the next carriage.
“What happened to Moller?” asked a sleepy looking Brawn.
“Edgar Lemman hit him with a bottle.”
“Lemman? I thought Moller more of a man than that.” chuckled the old man.
“Caught him by surprise. Right after I confronted Lemman about his relationship with Miss Latsch.”
“Moller’s an idiot. Had he not twigged that Lemman was carrying on with Miss Latsch?”
“I hadn’t, so does that make me an idiot too?”
“You!” snorted Brawn. “You’re just an apple salesman.”
“Just an apple salesman?” I asked, incensed.
“In the big scheme of things, it’s not that great a vocation, is it Mr. Parker?”
“It pays, it makes money. I thought that’d appeal to you? If that’s not enough I employ five people and own three buildings directly, many more indirectly with my suppliers. It isn’t a railroad, but it’s more than enough.”
“You enjoy it. Well done.” was that smugness in his tone.
“You are an arrogant old man.” I said, shaking my head. I left the couchette before he could say any more.
I closed Brawn’s door and faced Nellie Sharp again.
“What was that about?” she asked
“You know your father’s suspicions?”
The Nurse returned, squeezed past us and disappeared into Moller’s couchette. Nellie and I followed her and huddled around the doorway, watching her work on our friend’s head.
“This is a mess.” exclaimed the Nurse.
“Thanks for the good news.” grimaced Moller.
“Lemman did this?” asked Nellie incredulously “Why?”
“’Cause I challenged him about what he did to Ada.”
“What did he do to Ada?”
“You don’t know?”
“He had the wonderful Miss Latsch inject her with laudanum. ‘To keep her quiet’”
“Nice huh? Then when Moller and I find the chivalrous Mr. Lemman, he’s having a very close drink with the same Miss Latsch.”
“That Bitch.” This from the nurse, followed by a yelp from Moller as she tightened his bandage.
“What did she do to you?” I asked her.
“She used to be a Nurse, before she invented her hair grip things. She stuck her nose in on Mr. Vail and kept second and double guessing me. I may be junior, but I know how to look after someone and I had special instructions from the Doctor in Weehawken.”
“Are you suggesting the Miss Latsch hurt Mr. Vail?” I asked.
“She’s a believer in the cure-all properties of laudanum. Depression, take laudanum; a cold, take laundanum; a broken leg, take laudanum. I reckon she convinced Mr. Vail that laudanum could solve his illness. I suspect it didn’t help.”
“Oh Lord.” muttered Nellie.
The nurse moved away to reveal Moller looking resplendent in a crown of brown bandages. I had to stifle a laugh.
“You may laugh,” said Moller lying back onto his pillows, “but may I remind you that I took this mighty blow to the head as a direct result of your badgering of Edgar Lemman.”
Nellie pushed into the room, and planted a delicate kiss on Moller’s cheek.
“My poor lamb.” she cooed sarcastically. Moller glanced over at me, and winked.
The Nurse left and I thanked her for her help. Nellie sat on the small table in the corner of Moller’s couchette and looked from him to me and then back again.
“What?” asked Moller eventually.
“I’m wondering when either of you were going tell me how come you dug up a grave this afternoon?”
“Oh” said I.
“How did you find out?” asked Moller.
“The trapper, Carruthers, said you borrowed a shovel from him. He then got curious and overheard you talking in the tavern later.”
“Oh.” said Moller
“We saw the boy.” I said.
“Yes. He was watching the slide that came down the old switchback track yesterday morning.” said Moller. “I saw him too.”
“Okay...” said Nellie. “I still don’t quite understand how does that end up with you two desecrating a grave.”
“We chased him. The boy. He ran off and we gave chase.” I couldn’t believe how foolish I sounded. I followed him and he disappeared into a snowbank.”
Nellie Weathers looked from Moller to me and then back to Moller again, waiting
“You’re telling me that you saw a child disappear into a snowbank? Have you heard yourselves?”
“Nellie, something strange is going on here. Something unnatural, something not of this world and I think it has gotten something to do with the Chinese who built this line alongside your father.” I said passionately.
Nellie squeezed into the couchette and closed the door. She looked at me with big brown eyes that were wet and liquid.
“I think you’d better begin at the beginning.” she said quietly. So we did.
We told her about the Dragon Child, we told her about what we saw outside Fogg Brothers, what we saw in the footpath, the digging and our grisly discovery.
“There were Chinese people on this mountain, and they died here, Nellie. And I think us being here is bringing the whole sorry chapter back to life again. For what reason? I don’t know yet.” I concluded.
“Do you subscribe to this too?” asked Nellie of Moller, who nodded.
“I saw the child, I chased her, and I watched her disappear in front of my eyes. We’re in the middle of a storm that’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard of before and nothing we or the railroad does seems to lessen our situation at all.
“Taking all this spiritualism to one side for a moment I have three questions about this whole thing: One, why are we all seeing a ghost of his late girlfriend? Two, why is she like ten, when he knew her from the age of fifteen? Three, why doesn’t she apparently want her beloved to escape this mountainside?” His face looked pained.
Nellie chewed her lip in thought. “You met her family?” she asked after a moment.
“Yes, her mother and grandmother.” I answered.
“No father, no brothers?”
“I was told he had died, she never did elaborate. I never asked about any brothers.” I paused for a second, thinking Nellie had a point, but I couldn’t quite see what it was. “What are you thinking?”
“If you remember, my Father said that the Chinese used to work on the line in their own little teams or cabals. They carried their own shelter, cooked their own food, and made their own tea.” She was chewing her lip solidly now, not quite believing what she was saying.
“Go on...” I prompted.
“He said that while the menfolk performed the hard work, their families constructed the shelters, prepared the food and their children would then run urns of tea and soup out to the work gangs.” She looked up at me, and the penny dropped.
“She was here.” I said quietly.
“She was here. And her father and any siblings died up here.” I was in shock. Moller was looking at the pair of us open-mouthed, his head rising from the pillow.
“That’s why she appeared to you Parker, she wants you to expose what happened up here.” he said. I nodded.
“You’re right Moller. And Miss Weathers’ here to fill in the details of the work undertaken....” I trailed off.
“And Ada Lemman’s here to tell us that the weather’s unnatural.” added Nellie.
“But why, what’s the point of all this?” I asked aloud. “Listen to us, we’re talking nonsense. There’s no such things as ghosts, or communication from beyond the grave.”
“Spiritualism is a powerful thing,” said Nellie Weathers, “You mock it at your peril, Mr. Parker. Many a séance has pacified a wandering spirit and put them to rest.”
I looked at her, as another piece of the puzzle fell into place. I stared long enough to make her uncomfortable. “What?” she asked.
“She’s not alone.” I said. “They’re all still here. All of the dead.”
“Why?” asked Moller, no dispute this time over the subject of our talk.
“Because they buried them wrapped in a red blanket.” I said softly.
“Looks like the company buried them in the company blankets. What’s special about the blanket?”
“In Chinese culture you bury the dead in a wooden coffin, with three humps, and grieve for seven days. Then, on the eighth day, you mark your house with a red square, so the soul of your lost one can find its way home, and stay with you forever.”
“What like haunt you?”
“No, the soul is at peace after the grieving period. It will simply stay with you as a kind of benevolent spirit, watching over you and your family.”
“But burying them in red is not good.”
“No, if you bury the body in a red covering the soul becomes trapped between the real world and the netherworld, blocked from passing over by the red shroud. Unable to go anywhere, the soul becomes a ghost, haunting the burial place.”
“Do you think that has something to do with it? You really think we’re dealing with vengeful Chinese spirits here?” Nellie this time.
“Yes Nellie, I think we are.”
Nellie shook her head. “And there I was thinking you were a rational man!”
“What has been happening here is too strange, too terrible for words. We’re in a treacherous situation, an unusual situation, a situation even hardened mountain men and railroaders have never seen before and have been utterly defeated by. We have small Chinese figures popping up at opportune moments, usually linked to some sort of avalanche or slide or death (or near miss), and I think they are connected, and yes, the only way I can connect them is with something ... unnatural.”
“But why us? Why now? If these spirits have been trapped here since the construction of the railroad, why are they suddenly killing people today?”
“That I don’t know, but I suspect that we may find the answer in the town and construction records.”
“Tomorrow?” asked Moller
“Tomorrow.” agreed Nellie.
“What do we do about Ada?” I asked
“How bad is she?” asked Nellie
“She’s bad,” said Moller. “but I’m not sure what we can do. I mean we can’t undo the injection, for a start.” He listlessly looked out if the window.
“I think we have to prevent Edgar and that Latsch creature getting anywhere near her for a day or so, let the effects of the drug wear off.” said Nellie.
“I don’t think we’ve got that long.” said Moller with a fear in his voice.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Take a look.” he said wearily, waving a tired arm at the window.
Nellie and I crowded next to the bed, but were unable to see out of the fogged up, obscured window. We left the couchette and walked to the end of the car, opening the wooden door and stood on the buried portico and looked out of one of the channels that had been our entrances and exits for the past five days. Nellie and I looked out on the snowy town, and the towering mountain above us. We looked to our left, the direction Moller had been looking and what we saw took our freezing breaths away.
The slope, the one the rolled steeply away above our parked and buried train, the one that four days ago when we arrived had its unmarked snowbank liberally studded with trees, was now covered in an unmarked blanket of smooth white snow.
At the top, where the slope ended at the mountain’s shoulder, the winds had deposited a mighty cornice of snow that overhung the slope like a hammer.
And beneath the hammer was a crack, black and ominous, that ran across the top of the slope like an underline.
Moller was right, there wasn’t much time.