The Sixth Day:
Monday, February 27th 1911
7.00am, Cannae, WA
I didn’t sleep well that night.
It was not just the thought of what Nellie, Moller and I had seen in the snowfield above us, but also the all too familiar rumbles of avalanches coming down the mountain all around us. They all followed the same pattern. If you were close enough you would first hear a crump as the snow slumped and broke its hold on the mountainside. Then would come an unearthly rumble that would slowly increase in volume as the thousands of tons of snow rolled and rattled and fell down the mountain. After a moment the rumbling would subside slowly, petering out into an almost delicate tippet-tapping as the snow came to rest in its new location.
Just when you thought that was it for the night, that the mountain had fallen asleep, you would hear another crump and the cycle would begin again. It seemed that the mountain was a restless as its captives.
Bleary eyed and exhausted, with that ache in my jaw and the heavy head that comes from a poor night’s sleep, I rolled once again from my soiled and grimy bed and rummaged through my equally filthy clothing pile.
Smelling only slightly rancid, I left my couchette and walked to the observation car. As I walked down the passageway I noticed that the windows were completed obscured by snow. If you looked closely you could see the individual snowflakes crowded up against the glass as if eager to break in and wreak havoc. Our carriages were now almost completely buried.
I reached the portico of my couchette car and stopped for a while to help George Davis and Solomon Cohen dig out a safe passage to reconnect the train with the outside world. The snow was wet and slushy even this early in the morning, and we had to dig a great deal of it away to provide an exit. When we’d finished some half an hour later our passageway resembled a cutting through a hillside, with sides that sloped at an angle as opposed to the more right-angled passageways we’d gotten used to cutting and using over the past few days.
George Davis mentioned that he was thinking of making the walk when the next group left sometime that morning.
“With Thelma?” I asked
“Conditions are better, the snow’s melting, if the wind lets up, I reckon we’ve got a chance.” he said, but it was more hopeful than definite.
“I walked down to the first snowshed yesterday, and it wasn’t easy. That’s only half a mile maximum. I’m not sure you’ll get far with Thelma, it’s just too damn hard.”
Cohen nodded. “I’m not an expert,” he said, “but I think you should talk to one of the mountain trappers like Carruthers – I doubt there’s a more experienced man on the mountain.” I nodded my agreement.
Davis chewed his lip, and then nodded.
I carried on down the passageway and met up with Moller and Nellie in the observation car.
“Sleep well?” I asked, knowing full well what the answer would be. The grunts I received in response were to be expected.
Pettit eventually appeared at the entrance way with a battered looking shovel and swung open the door.
“Breakfast is served.” he said, his usual jollity absent.
Breakfast was an even more bland affair than usual. There were no eggs, no bacon and limited flapjacks. The bread was rationed and the only thing there seemed to be plenty of was oats and porridge.
Nellie, a bandaged Moller and I sat on our usual table, joined by Sarah-Jane Covington.
“How is Ada?” asked Nellie.
“When I left her last night, she showed no change.” grimaced the elderly lady “I notice she is not here this morning either.”
I looked around. Ada was indeed absent, though Edgar was present, sitting on the same table as Libby Latsch and Solomon Cohen.
“Look at that idiot.” muttered Moller. “Anyone in any doubt he was going to have his wife sectioned when he got her to Seattle?”
“Do you think so, Moller?”
“He seems remarkably untroubled by her not being here. I wouldn’t put it past him.”
“It seems a tad cynical.”
“Maybe I’m not in the best of moods.”
“I don’t think any of us are.” I agreed.
Moller changed the subject. “What’s the plan of action this morning then, Mr Parker?”
Mrs Covington looked confused.
“Are you kids planning to walk out of here?” she asked.
Nellie, Moller and I looked at each other, and none of us could read the others thoughts.
“I... I don’t know.” I stammered.
“Others are,”said Mrs Covington. “but I can’t. So I guess I’m here to see this thing through to the end.” She looked very frightened, and small,and alone.
Nellie stretched out and held her hand. “It will be alright Mrs. Covington.” She said soothingly.The old lady looked back at her blankly.
“I have to let you into a little secret. I have to tell someone.” She seemed really distressed for the first time since I’d known her. We all leant in a little closer to hear her confession. “I’m scared.” She said apologetically. “I’m so frightened about where we are, and how we find ourselves.” Her bottom lip quivered with shame and upset, and tears appeared in the corners of her eyes.
Nellie, Moller and I as a group attempted to comfort her, but nothing worked for a minute or so until Moller confessed that he was scared too.
We all sat back in our chairs at this moment as the realisation hit us. All the energy, all the hard work, all the digging and investigating, all the arguements, all the forced conversation, all of this was just masking the fact that we were all scared out of our wits.
“I’ve been strong for the sake of the children and poor Ada Lemman of course, but I needed to tell someone that I’m frightened too.” said Mrs. Covington in a small voice.
“I guess we’re all frightened, Mrs. Covington.” I said, feeling quiet and humbled for the first time since we’d been trapped. “and I guess we’re all guilty of hiding those feeling from each other at the moment. If it makes you feel better, you are not alone.”
We supped at our porridge in silence for a moment or two, thinking. It was interesting how different people handled the unusual and threatening situation in which we found ourselves. Mrs Covington said that she’d spent most of her alone time praying. Nellie spent her time writing up her journalism notes, Moller and I spent the days learning about the railroad and latterly investigating the strange goings on, Edgar Lemman spent his time getting drunk, as did Libby Latsch and a couple of other passengers. We all handled our incarceration in different ways.
It was Moller who first mentioned that we were now buried in the snow. It turned out that he was claustrophobic and woke up in the middle of the night to realise that the view of the mountain was now completely obscured by snow.
Sarah-Jane Covington, who admitted to being a little claustrophobic herself pointed out that at least we wouldn’t have to go so far to find clean snow to create water.
“What’s the problem with the water?” I asked, unaware there was one.
“We ran out of drinking water on the trains two days ago, Mr.Parker.” came the prim and proper reply. “We’ve been melting snow in the engine cabin to drink and been going without most ablutions.” He looked at me accusingly. “Were you not aware?”
I confessed that I was not. Every morning Moller and I had taken breakfast in the hotel and then spent as much of the day as possible away from the increasingly foetid conditions abord the train and in all that time I had to guiltily admit that I had not given those who were trapped on the train a moment’s thought. It also occurred to me that this was the first time I’d seen Mrs. Covington in the Bailets Hotel.
“Is the sanitation bad?” I asked, partly out of curiosity and partly out of guilt.
“Well I’m sure you have run out of clean clothes,” she said slightly huffily, “well the babies have run out of clean nappies, all the beddings are soiled, condensation means that much is also damp. The toilets are frozen solid and the fresh water has to be sourced away from the impromptu pits that have been dug as latrines.
I was shocked, and I could see from his face that Moller was the same.
“So I made a point of struggling over here for the first time to see if things were better. I am sort of pleased to see that the hotel is struggling also.”
We all agreed to that. It was clear that not only were we running low on coal and fresh water, but the food was running out as well. Something was going to have to give soon, either the storm, or the snow, or the food, or the coal or the water, and of all of those options only one would be of benefit to us.
It was Nellie’s turn to make conversation. “I saw three of the boys with an interesting experiment yesterday. They were burying a blanket at lunchtime one day and digging it up at the sametime the following day. They would then record the amount of snow that had fallen in that time. I asked them what they had discovered and they told me that the storm was still dropping an average of three feet of snow each day. Three feet! At this rate we won’t be out of here before Easter.”
It was another gloomy statistic to make the mood just a little more bleak.
After breakfast I wandered out into the steadily falling snow and found myself speaking to an amiable trapper called Carruthers. As was becoming typical, he hadn’t seen anything like this storm in thirty years on the mountain.
“Every trail is hidden.” He said. “The only possible route you can take is the railroad, and even that is looking treacherous.” He was a short, wiry man with ruddy, weatherbeaten skin and a thick hefty beard. He spoke in a surprisingly soft voice, but his most distinctive feature were his hands, which were like shovels. I asked him about the other trails.
He sucked on his teeth for a moment. “There are the old switchbacks, each of which is linked by the workmen’s trails. They all go up the back of the bowl near the waterfall. Then there the path to the reservoir and generator up at headwater creek, that’s in pretty much the same place. There’s a dozen or so trails going up to the tree line, but nothing beyond.
“Heading down there are numerous trails that zig-zag down the mountain, but in this snow it’s impossible to even see where they start and, if you’re not on a trail, it’s all too easy to walk off the edge of a cliff, or tumble down a scree slope.” Then he asked me a loaded question: “Are you thinking of walking out of here?”
Twice in under an hour I’d been asked this question. Now, without Moller or Nellie nearby, I could open up about my thoughts.
“I’m thinking of joining Cohen’s walk this morning. There is nothing much to keep me here and if Cohen reckons he can make it, I reckon I can.”
“I reckon you’ve got a chance, but I’d go soon. The storm has been getting worse in the afternoons, but at the moment the wind is low. I think now is your best chance.”
I thanked and headed back to the train.
Once on board I headed back to my couchette and sat on the bed for a moment. I was torn. I had little doubt in my ability to walk out of Cannae and fight my way down to Scenic and to safety, but this would mean leaving some of the people I had met on the train to their own fate. Was that my problem? I mean what could I do where the might of the Pacific NorthWestern had failed? I couldn’t dig the train out, I couldn’t reduce the snowbank, all I could do is sit and wait for whatever disaster would eventually befall us.
How did I feel about leaving those who could not leave? Brawn, Mr. Grey, Sarah McMurdo and her family, Mrs Covington, George Davis and his daughter - they did not have the option to walk out of here. If I were to leave I would be abandoning them, but then again when did I become responsible for their fate or their safety?
What of Moller and Nellie and Ada Lemman? I stopped for a moment. I was leaving my friends, leaving them to God knows what fate. How did I feel about that? I didn’t know. I’d gotten them involved in a mystery that only I believed in, got them to believe in my crazy ideas. Leaving them was a betrayal.
If I were responsible then I think there would be no question. I would be staying resolutely in place, like the captain of a sinking ship, much like Conductors Pettit and Anderson. So why was I having such trouble making the decision to leave? I didn’t owe this town anything, I didn’t owe the trapped passengers anything, I didn’t owe the Pacific NorthWestern anything.
Did I owe Moller, Nellie and Ada something? I wasn’t sure.
I thought for a moment, and then packed my valise.
10:40am, Cannae, WA
It was a small group that found itself standing in the middle of the main line in the sleet and the wind waiting to leave. With Solomon Cohen and myself were a banker called Eltinge I had barely spoken to during the time we had been trapped and Conductor Pettit, who was to act as our guide.
I had given Conductor Anderson my valise with forwarding instructions attached on a brown label especially printed for the purpose. I had on all of my warm clothing and made sure that I had two pairs of socks on inside my trusty winter boots. My face was swaddled in a thin woollen scarf and I had borrowed a winter hat from John Grey who wished me a cheery ‘good luck’, though his eyes were envious at my escaping.
As I stood in the snow waiting for our party to assemble itself I was again assailed by guilt at my escaping. I crushed my face further into the scarf as if willing its obscurity to be complete. I was dreading Moller appearing and then ask me questions to which I didn’t have a compelling answer.
I hated myself. In my heart I was thinking I should stay, but my head was saying to go, to run, to survive.
I was convinced that a disaster was due at any moment. At some point very soon the mountain would release a cataclysm that would kill a lot of people. Standing there in the middle of a the main line that was only identifiable as such by being flat; I was looking at the train, a long low hump of snow, punctuated by dark entrance holes. Opposite, across the main line and the ruaway track, was that huge slope of snow topped by its hammer of a cornice and underlined by its giant crack. It felt that the pieces of something truly terrible had been put into place. Moller had been right a few days agao when he first mentioned his bad feeling about our situation. Some great mechanism had been assembled, and it felt as though at any moment it would be put into action.
So I was going to run, I was going to take the safe route, I was going to escape. I was scared about the endgame to come. I was frightened for my own self, and any curiosity I had about how this was all going to end was tempered with a strong of self preservation.
I had stopped in on Ada Lemman as I left my couchette car. She looked desperately ill, sweat sheened her forehead and her gaze seemed foggy. I held her hand, and then told her what I was doing.
“I understand.” She said sloppily, as if her tongue were too big for her mouth.
“I’m sorry Ada.” I said. I gave her a small index card with my name and address in Seattle written upon it. “I believe Edgar may not have your best interests at heart.”I said haltingly, not knowing quite what I was saying.
“He cares,” she mumbled, “but he doesn’t understand.”
“He’s afflicted by preconceptions.”
“Yes, and I don’t think he’s ever understood who he had married.” A smile, weak but obvious.
“Take my details, Ada. When you get to Seattle, I will do what I can for you.”
“Mr. Parker. Do you really think I am going to ever reach Seattle?” So fatalistic, so matter of fact, I was shocked.
“Of course you are Ada. You’ll be out of here in a day or so. This storm can’t go on for ever.”
“You don’t believe that, or else you wouldn’t be leaving.”
She had me, an awkward question for which I didn’t have a decent answer. Waves of guilt crashed against my mental shore. Ada was a friend, wasn’t she? Did I have the right to abandon her in this state?
‘You abandoned your lover,’ said a voice in my head, ‘why not a friend?’ I shook at the thought.
I had kissed Ada’s clammy forehead, made my excuses, and left in a hurry. I was eager to get outside, away from the guilt. She grabbed my hand and murmured something I didn’t hear properly, something about restoring balance to the place. I didn’t listen, I just nodded. I had to leave.
Here I stood, stamping my feet to keep them warm and awake, watching as Libby Latsch gave a letter to Charles Eltinge, muttering something about ‘business’ as she did so. As she pulled away she shot a glance my way and there was poison in her glare. She shook Eltinge’s hand and wished him good luck, and then pointedly turned on her heel and went back to the relative shelter of the train.
Pettit was talking to the pathetic Longcoy, telling the boy to hand out the wood axes in the depot (now a hump of snow) and get the interior of the two day cars cut up for firewood. Once again I thought how right Moller was: this was the end.
Pettit finished with Longcoy, who shuffled back to the operations car that stood on its siding around the back of the depot. His place was surplanted by another passenger I had barely spoken to, a man called Matthews, some form of engineer I remember Moller telling me. Bridges I think. He handed over another letter which Pettit duly tucked into his greatcoat, nodding to Matthews as he did so.
Finally free of distractions, Pettit turned to us walkers and clapped his gloved hands together loudly, an odd slapping sound. He gestured towards the main line and, with no words being spoken, we walkers began our descent of the mountain.
We struggled forward through the drifts and the cloying wet snow, heading for the narrow flat area of white that marked the main line, it felt as though we were heading for a slot in the mountainside. I stumbled, and fell to my knees.
As I looked up I looked straight at Joseph Moller. His eyes were fixed on mine over a distance of some twenty feet or so, but the emotion of his disappointment and betrayal were clear and hit me like a physical blow. His face looked long and haggard, but his eyes burned fiercely.
Ashamed, I broke eye contact and quickly wrapped my scarf back around me. I got back on my feet and shambled after the others, but I could feel Moller’s disappointed gaze boring into the back of me like a sunray through a magnifying glass.
It took until we reached the first snowshed for that feeling to fade.
We struggled and slid our way inside Snowshed 3.1, which looked much as it had when Ada, Nellie, Moller and I had visited here not two days ago. It was a gloomy, dark, dank, dripping structure of stained wooden beams and a galleried wooden wall facing out across the valley.
In the snowshed were the two teenage schoolboys, Frank Ritter and Milton Horn, who had been entertaining the passengers with their French horn playing during the dark nights we’d been spending together.
Pettit explained where we were off to and the two boys eagerly agreed to join us, and so it was a much larger group that ended up leaving the Snowshed.
When you left Snowshed 3.1 you realised that you were now really out on the mountain. The wind screamed at us, throwing sleet and rain into our faces with unrestrained fury.
I thought of Moller, and choked slightly. I was running away from everything I had held dear for the past six days. I genuinely enjoyed Moller’s company. Together we’d been exploring, investigating, musing, thinking, planning and discussing. I wished he was here with me right now.
I hadn’t asked him, the idea of walking out hadn’t really come up in conversation, apart from with Mrs. Covington this morning.
Why hadn’t I asked Moller to come with me? Was I worred he would have talked me out of making the attempt? Or was I worried he’d say no, much as Mie had all those years before?
Mie. It all seemed to come back to Mie. Why? What was her connection to all of this?
As I trudged through the snows in our little group, I thought about Mie. Would she be proud of me, abandoning friends again? I doubted it.
And, in my shame, I cried.
12:00pm, Cannae, WA
Longcoy was behind a hefty mahogany desk staring blankly at a typewriter when Moller and Nellie entered the Operations Car. He angrily poked a couple of keys, and sighed quietly before acknowledging his visitors.
“What can I help you with?” asked Longcoy wearily.
“Do you have the employee records for the construction in this office?” asked Moller bluntly.
“No, they’d be held in our headquarters in Seattle.” answered Longcoy, confused and a little irritated. Passengers had been appearing in the operations car regularly over the past few days and it was nearly always to complain and moan about their situation. Longcoy had no idea what to tell them half the time, so he’d taken to inventing things to mollify them, a tactic that had begun to backfire in the past day or so when it became abundantly clear that the company was not going to get anyone off the mountain anytime soon.
“So you’ve got nothing about the contruction here?” asked Moller, a bit too aggressively for Longcoy’s taste.
“No we only have the engineers’ reports, so we know how everything was built should we need to fix it.”
“Can I have a look at them?”
“No, they’re confidential.” That’d stop him, thought Longcoy.
“I’m a shareholder, so they shouldn’t be for me.” countered Moller. “And if you let me have a look I’ll help you with that typewriter.”
Longcoy had to think for a bit. He’d only been in this job for six weeks and was only supposed to be shadowing Superintendent Soberling, not making decisions. However since the Superintendant had been racing around all over the mountain and the constant breaking of the telegraph cables, Longcoy had been making operational decisions that just had to be made. In many repsects he was the only representative of the Superintendant’s office on the mountain. However he had no idea how do deal with politics. He had only the basic knowledge of how the company was structured, and all he knew about shareholders was that they owned part of the company.
Also he had no idea how to use a typewriter.
Longcoy stood and walked to a hefty bookshelf that lined one side of the car, its books caged behind wire-fenced doors to prevent them falling out when the car was in motion. He wandered along the bookcase a bit and eventually opend one of the caged doors with a small brass key he had on the massive bunch attached to a chain at his waist.
“Sorry, Sir, I didn’t realise.” He said by way of an apology, “These are the reports and construction diaries. If you could replace them in order, I’d appreciate it.”
“Thankyou” said Moller. Longcoy slunk back to his desk and continued to peck at his typewriter. Moller hefted three volumes from the bookcase and set them down on the second desk in the car.
“Why don’t you get started on these while I educate out grumpy young man?” he said conspiratorily.
“Sure,” agreed Nellie. “what am I looking for?”
“Mentions of the Chinese workers, deaths, accidents that sort of thing I reckon.” Moller was fishing here, but it seemed logical given what he and Parker had been talking about. Nellie nodded and began to work, while Moller walked over behind the stressed Longcoy and began to explain to him the finer points of typerwriter operation.
1:00pm, Cannae, WA
They had dosed her again a couple of hours ago. ‘Here’s a nice tot of brandy to keep you warm’ they’d advised, and she’d believed them. The warm glow of the brandy in her stomach combined with the spreading heat of the opiate that flowed to her very fingertips.
Initially she felt loved and warm and comfortable. Time flowed past her, people seemed to be moving slowly, but the day seemed to be passing quickly. Her eyes felt leaden, and she slept.
The terrors never came at a rush, they only trickled insidiously into her consciousness. They picked at the edges. Pick Pick Pick. Trying to peel back reality and let her into a new world.
They never stopped picking, never gave up, always insistent. Pick Pick Pick.
Eventually she’d grow tired, weary, unable to continue the battle against them. She’d slump, and they would flood through the new gaps they cut and tore in her mind, and be upon her.
So many, so many of them. She could feel them, feel their sweat, feel their hurt. They were cutting, digging, clawing at the very earth, the pain of their existence shuddered through her. It was all vague at first, and then focus slowly came.
Hundreds, scraping at rock with shovels, biting at rock with picks, chewing at rock with explosives.
Focus: a terror. More vivid. A rattan basket, we are inside. A jerk and the world slides away beneath our feet. The basket swings free and rattles against the cliff wall. Our world is this basket. We’re going lower down the cliff. In the basket at our feet are some paper wrapped cylinders, they are sweating. A bump, a blaze of light, heat, pain.
Focus: Darkness, moodily lit by candles. Sweat. Our muscles hurt. We swing our pick at the rocks at our feet. It strikes, sparks sheer away into the enveloping dark. There is a wall of jagged rock in front of us. We swing again, a crack, the rock sunders. A crack, a roar, something falls in front of us. Then behind. Then an impact, another, and then a terrible crushing pain.
A tear trickled from her closed left eye.
Focus: Cold, shivering, misery. Sitting on an open plain in the moonlight. The wind whipping past. We are cold, so cold. A thin red blanket is pulled tight around our shoulders. We are tired, so tired. In front of us is a low mound of freshly turned earth. We are alone now. Alone but for the ghosts.
Ada’s eyes snapped open. She lay in her bed, sweating. The white panelled ceiling seemed closer.
She shuddered. Another terror assaulted her mind. She arched her back involuntarily, thrusting her chest to the closing ceiling. Her mouth strained open in a silent scream, her arms clawed out of her cot, scraping bottles of scent and jars of cream to the floor.
She relaxed. The terrors were everywhere. ‘Get out’ they muttered and murmured at the back of her mind. Their fear, and their pain, and their misery, and their deaths pricked at her consciousness.
She got up, tears rolling down her face, her eyes glassy and wide, pupils dark and full. Her bare feet crunched into the broken glass that lay on her floor, but she didn’t notice it.
She shuffled to the door, opened it and shuffled sightlessly down the corridor beyond, her bloody feet marking her passage on the floor. She saw no-one, heard no-one.
She shuffled to the portico, and into the cold. A cold she did not feel, she did not notice.
The terrors drove her onwards, out into the snows. No-one saw her, no-one missed her. Her husband raised a glass with his friends in the observation car, her friends were busy elsewhere.
The savage wind plucked at her fragile nightgown, the cold snow chilled and froze her feet, turning the skin a dark pink. Her body struggled to help her, but the terrors held her closer, blocking the warnings, driving her on.
She blundered through the snows and onto the main line, where the storm howled at her, but the winds mellowed about her. Her hair, unburdened by clips and cleats and grasps billowed about her face, her skin a deathly white, her thin mouth a violent red slash.
Cocooned in a bubble of less turbulent air, she shuffled onwards, her feet blue-black with cold, her legs stiff, her arms useless. She’d crossed the line and entered the maze of foot passageways beyond.
Her body was freezing, the joints seizing. The terrors continued to pull at her, moving her limbs like those of a puppet, but her strength was fading.
She shuffled past the depot, down the passageway that led deeper into the town. She moved in jerks now, limbs moving spastically, each step was a lurch and a balance. She’d gone beyond seeing now, her mind consumed by the terrors.
She stopped, and swayed unsteadily for a moment. Her eyes opened, and she tilted her head upwards into the fall of snow and rain. The mountain loomed abover her, brooding over her fragile form.
Stiffly she raised a hand to the sky, shuddered, and then fell into the snow.
The terrors left her at that point, and she was cold.
1:30pm, En Route to Scenic, WA
I don’t recall a great deal about the walk to Windy Point, spending most of the time as I did in thought and guilt.
I remember stopping at a stranded Rotary, whose crew had abandoned the machine sometime earlier. The firebox was cold and the tender virtually empty, so we were unable to take a respite from the numbing cold. Pettit was pleased with our progress, having taken less than an hour to cover the estimated four miles to the rotary. The wind was strong, and the drizzle irritating, but the snow that had been falling non-stop for the whole time we’d been on the mountain was no longer settling, which meant that the wind-packed snow layer was exposed,allowing for easier walking.
Leaving the abandoned Rotary caked in frost and part buried in snow, we soon settled back into our walking routine, heads bowed against the wind, putting one foot in front of the other, trying to follow the footsteps of the man preceeding you. The two teenagers, Horn and Ritter, proved to be more robust that anyone thought. I confess to expecting the two wealthy bording school boys to hold us back during the trip, but they both turned out to be uncomplaining members of the party. In fact the pair of them kept us amused with their witty bantering whenever we reach a snowshed and were able to hear each other.
My thoughts returned to Mie, my past, and my decision to walk off the mountain. I was miserable, and full of self-loathing. My self-pity was beginning to cloud my judgement. At one point I wandered away from the foot tracks and found myself looking straight down the side of the mountain to the creek far below.
After that little shock, I took to walking as close behind Cohen as possible, bumping into him every now and again, and I stumbled into him as we slid into the entrance to the Windy Point snowshed. The pair of us rolled into the dank shed and ended up in the damp gravel bed with me laying atop the shopkeeper.
“Thank you, Parker.” He said as I pulled him to his feet. He dusted himself off and stalked away from me.
Rolling my eyes, I walked to the outside edge of the snowshed at the very point of the turn. Pettit joined me, and the pair of us stared down the same terrifying slope that, unbeknownst to us, the Rogers party had looked down two days before. The tracks of their passage were just discernible, and they went left, right, here, there and everywhere.
“Now is the time when I should be telling you that you should keep the tail of your jacket pulled up through your legs and steer with your feet. Looking down there makes me think that all of that is a crock.”
“It certainly doesn’t look that pleasant a trip.” I conceded. Looking down that slope, I got a knot of fear in my gut. I welcomed it, it made a change from the guilt.
“Nothing ventured.” I said, and vaulted the wall of the balcony before Petit could stop me.
The deep snow just beyond the balcony swallowed me completely.My feet hit something solid and I was pitched forward into a roll. I crashed into something and then found myself flying through the air surrounded by snow. I coughed a breath, but there was no air around me, only the thin dust of cold wet snow.
I crashed into the ground again, and found myself pitching up again, twisting, rotating, turning who knows where. I tried to breathe again, inhaling water and snow. I gagged. In my horror I realised, I was in a small avalanche.
I crashed into the snow again, twisted. I landed on my shoulder and felt something give.A roll. Another twist. Snow was in my eyes, in my mouth, in my nose. Another tumble, something hit me in the face and I felt the blood start from my nose.
Another tumble, I felt my hand hit my face. I was sliding now, no longer bouncing. My body was being pressed from all sides by snow, like a terrific hand was pushing me down the mountain. The pressure mounted and I was twisted around on my head by the slide.
Then it stopped. My hand was jammed in front of my face, and I wiggled my fingers just to see if they still worked. Around me I felt my body become cocooned in deep snow, held and squeezed tight by the snow as it slid to a halt around me.
I was trapped, pinned. Snow was packed tight into my face, crammed into my eye sockets, preventing me from opening them. I had snow in my mouth, in my ears, pushed in tight. I had snow in my mouth, but my hand being in front of my mouth had prevented that from being packed full as well. I spat the snow from my mouth, and felt the blood from my damaged nose trickle over my cheekbone and into my hair.
I huffed a breath and felt the snow shift in closer, holding me closer. My sight was fading, blazing into white.
Mie appeared in the halo. She was as I remembered her when I saw her last, her face was haunted as she turned and ran towards the conflagration. A flash and it was earlier in our relationship, we are happy, kissing in one of the secluded nooks of the private parks in San Francisco. She giggled. Another flash and it was the day she started work in the house, so young and pretty, her hair tucked behind her ears, her ill-fitting servant’s costume. Another flash and it was before I knew her, and she was standing with her mother and grandmother looking at the city and I can feel their apprehension. A flash and a child Mie was waving goodbye to her mother and walking up a mountain with a large group of men. Another flash and she was running with a crucible of hot steel to the line-layers amongst the chipped rock and rude wooden houses.
I understood now.
Numbly I felt scrabbling hands attack my feet and body. The brightness fades and so did the image: ten-year old Mie working on the line at Cannae.
I was hauled out of my icy cocoon and laid on the snow. Someone slapped my face, knocking away a crust of snow. I coughed and spluttered.
I opened my eyes and looked into the concerned face of Conductor Pettit.
“Are you ok?” he asked
“Yeah, I think so.” I coughed.
Pettit sat back on his haunches, and sighed with relief. I became aware of the rest of our walking party were surrounding me. They’d charged down the mountain after me and had dug me out of the slide.
We lay there for a moment on the nose of the slide, then got up and walked the last half mile into Scenic and the welcoming warmth of the Hotel.
Once through the doors our group fragmented, mostly to avoid the large group of reporters who were camped out there. I stuck close to Pettit who, with admirable skill, swept through the crowd of hooting, yelping men with smart hats and scruffy notebooks (“no comment, no comment”) and shot out the back of the hotel like we were fired from a gun.
“When are you heading back?” I asked Pettit a little breathlessly.
“About an hour, maybe two. Why?”
“I want to join you.”
Pettit stopped. A telegram boy ran to him from the hotel and handed over a telegram slip. “Now, Sir,” he sighed “why would you want to do a thing like that?” he asked as he read the form.
“I shouldn’t have left. I have things I need to do up there.”
“There’s nothing up there but fifty people looking at being a part of a major disaster. What are you talking about?”
“I left something behind.”
“Then it will be delivered to you when we free the trains in the near future.”
“I think I can stop this.”
“What? Do you think you’re you God now?”
“No, but I think I understand what is going on up there.”
“Mr. Parker, I don’t really have time to argue with you. I will be leaving to hike up the line at three pm, if you are there and if you are happy to absolve me and the railroad of any responsibility, then I guess we’ll be hiking back together.”
“Why are you going back, Mr. Pettit?” He paused. “I mean, you’ve more than done your duty, you’ve been effectively on-shift for six days now, you’ve guided a group of passengers safely down, surely you should stand relieved.”
“My wife, and my family, would be dismayed if I abandoned my post.” he said so quietly it was hard to make his voice out over the hiss of the wind.
I was about to argue with him, but he turned on his heels abruptly and walked in the direction of the rail depot.
3.00 pm, Cannae, WA.
It had taken Moller only a few minutes to improve Longcoy’s typewriter knowledge, but significantly longer to find anything remotely useful in the hundreds of pages of documents he and Nellie were searching through.
He’d read descriptions of the make-up of the rock of the mountain, heard about the mechanism of frost shattering, read about the grading plans, the gravel machine, the power station foundations, the hydro-electric dam that was hidden somewhere above the town.
He’d read about ideal concrete compositions, how they designed the tunnel shuttering, how they handled the pouring of concrete in adverse weather conditions, where the explosives should be stored, what explosives to use and how much.
There were pages and pages of theodolite readings, all neatly listed by latitude and longitude, he’d seen bed depth recommendations, snowshed designs, trestle bridge designs, calculations for weight and load bearing, of incline and power requirements. He’d seen the justifications for the switchback design, and latterly for the tunnel expenditure. There were pages and pages of costings and expenditure plans.
Most telling of all was at the bottom of each and every sheet was a signed acknowledgement by the Pacific NorthWestern’s board representative. It was a large, flowing, powerful signature that was clearly legible: James J. Brawn.
Nellie Weathers seemed to be having the same amount of success in finding the information they were looking for, but she had, for the last half hour or so, been slumped back in an overstuffed chair and reading carefully a small volume that appeared to be little more than a notebook.
“I’ve got nothing here.” said Moller exasperatedly, pushing another book full of papers to one side. “How about you?” he prompted.
Nellie looked up from her book. “I may have something, but I’m not there yet.”
“What have you got there?”
“It’s a notebook, written by my father when he was building the line. He’s making comments on lots of things.”
“Does it mention the Chinese?”
“Oh yes, several times.”
“Don’t get too excited, I haven’t gotten to any of the grand constructions yet.” She licked a fingertip, and turned a page thoughtfully.
Moller got up and hefted his coat from the stand.
“I’m going for a walk.” he said to no-one in particular as he pulled on his coat. No-one moved, or even looked up. Moller grabbed his hat and then headed out the door.
Moller looked around. It was still snowing big soggy flakes that even the strong wind had trouble moving and throwing around. No surprise there.
Moller shook his head and wandered out onto the main line. The winds were lower today than they had been for a while, so the children had come out of the burrow that had been their home for the past week and we running around at play.
Moller saw Sarah McMurdo chatting to George Davis and ambled over to say hello. Ida was in full flow about something:
“I don’t know nothing about the weather, but I do know that water makes things slide. An’ there’s been an awful lot of water comin’ down recently.” said the widow
George Davis shook his head. “Look Mrs McMurdo, I’ve been a trainman these past ten years, and I’ve seen a lot of things, but everytime when I reckon I know better, the railroad’s been right and I’ve been wrong.” he sighed, “They say that mountainside’s safe, then it’s safe.”
Moller looked at the slope that hung above them.
“I dunno much about the weather, Mr. Davis, and I dunno much about the water Mrs. McMurdo, but living on this earth for thirty five years has taught me a great deal about gravity. That snow’s been up there a long time, and there’s no reason to think it’s going come down now.” Moller smiled and continued his walk, hiding the fact that the very same arguement could have a very different answer, and the one that he himself subscribed to.
In the distance he saw Sarah-Jane Covington, standing in the middle of the tracks. She was praying.
4:00pm, En Route to Cannae,WA
It was an easy grade out of Scenic, simple enough for the mule train the Superintendant had spent two days organising and that Pettit and I now found ourselves following up the mountain. I had always loathed mules, not necessarily the smell, or the look of the beasts or anything like that. Instead I disliked the genetics of the creature, forcing a horse to mate with a donkey to produce this infertile freak that just happened to be docile and useful to lug loads up mountains.
Pettit and I found ourselves at the rear of the train, enjoying, if that was the word, the walk over heavily trampled snow. The fifty mules and ten handlers made sure that the trail was well tramped down. Our party was led by Superintendant Soberling who was excited by the news that Pettit and I had made it down the mountain in a hour and a half. Apparently when Rogers and White and the others made the trip, it took them closer to five hours, a figure that meant that there was no chance of getting the mule train to Cannae in a day.
Now Soberling was more willing to try and so far, things were going well. We’d been hiking for about and hour and now found ourselves approaching the entrance of the short Horseshoe tunnel – the most disagreeable enclosure I have ever found myself in. Horseshoe was considerably shorter than the Summit tunnel, but coiled tightly around on itself, turning a hundred and eighty degrees in a little over half a mile. It was buried deep within the near vertical far wall of the Marshwater creek that tumbled down this part of the mountain. The tunnel was completely isolated from the rest of the line, reached only by two massive trestle bridges, one lower than the other, which meant that the Horseshoe tunnel also climbed steeply as it rose. It was dark, wide and damp in the tunnel. The rude bare rock walls were coated in thirty years of soot and cinders from hard working trains. If you pressed your hand to the wall it would sink to the wrist in the soft substance.
The light of the entrance was closer now, and the head of the mules was out into the waning daylight. We trudged on and I asked Pettit again why he was heading back up the mountain.
“You said something about your wife and kids?” I prompted as we moved into the light and onto the narrow trestle.
Pettit rolled his eyes “I’d dearly love to be back with my wife and kids, but I have responsibilities to those I left on the mountain. That’s my train, my responsibility. I am in charge of getting it from A to B on time and with all the passengers safe. I am entrusted with their care from station A to station B, and until they reach station B they are my responsibility.”
I stopped him. “I don’t believe you.” I said.
“It is my position, back with that train.” he said.
“Are you scared, Mr. Pettit?
“Yes. Of course I am. There isn’t a man on that mountain that isn’t terrified about what’s to come. There will be an avalanche, and those trains are trapped on the mountain, and we don’t have enough space in the town to house those folks. It’s only a matter of time, there’s going to be a disaster, and there’s nothing we can do.”
We continued walking, careful to make sure of placing our feet directly on each greasy crosstie.
“You believe it’s inevitable?”
“I think so, there is just too much snow up there.”
“So I must ask you again, Mr Pettit, why are you going back?”
He delved into his coat and pulled out a telegram slip. He passed it to me.
“I got this.”
I opened the telegram slip, noting the stamp at the top saying “Railroad Operations Priority”. The message was short: “Pettit to return to C. Urgent.” It was signed ‘J.J.Brawn.’
“Christ.” I muttered under my breath.
Pettit held out his hand, and I passed over the slip. He looked at me, and he looked impossibly tired.
We didn’t speak again until we reached Krist.
7.00pm, Cannae, WA.
It was dark by the time the mule train trudged into Cannae, but we were welcomed like returning heroes. Everyone of the mule’s pack contained food supplies, mostly tins, but also one mule had carried up a dozen fresh chickens, which were seized upon by Bailets who spirited them away promising a chicken feast for everyone.
There was much excitement amongst the passengers at Pettit and my return – we’d proven the trail was passable, and clearly not with as much difficulty as many feared.
“We’re free!” exulted George Davis, clapping me on the back. “The trail’s clear.” I swear the man was dancing a jig of joy around me as I struggled aboard the train. Leaving the dancing Davis behind I staggered down the narrow passageway and into my couchette. I could hear hopeful thoughts and happiness all around me, but all I wanted to do was sit and rest.
Exhausted, I slumped onto the untidy bed and, fully clothed, fell asleep instantly.
I woke up some time later to find Moller sitting at my feet reading a small blue notebook of some description.
“Uh... Moller?” I asked groggily. He didn’t look up.
“I heard you were back.” he said with a disaffected air.
“How long have I ...?”
“Been asleep? About an hour. Dinner will be served in thirty minutes or so. Chicken, makes a change from that usual slop that Bailets churns out, so thanks for bringing some back with you.” He didn’t look up from his book and smoothly turned a page.
I gathered my wits. “Moller ... I.”
“Don’t worry, Edmund. You came back, and that’s important. Although I should be mad at you for coming back when you had escaped.” he looked up. “You’re an idiot. What the hell are you doing back here?”
“I had to come back. I should have never left.” I said. “Something I don’t believe could happen is, and I think we hold the key to the whole thing.”
Moller nodded. “And there I was thinking you just went for a little stroll.” he sighed, and shut his book with a snap. “You convinced me of this” he waved his hand “whatever all this is. You convinced me of it, convinced me that it was happening. And then you left. I mean, what were you thinking? There you are, sure you understand the who, but not necessarily the why and yet you walk out. Why?”
“I was weak.” I shook my head, and the guilt washed over me again. “Weak like I was in San Francisco all those years ago, weak in front of my father, weak in front of my friends and weak in the face of disaster.” I sighed.
“That’s a lot of weakness. But this time, you came back.”
“Yeah, I guess I did.”
“That’s not weak, my friend.” said Moller, clapping me on the knee. “Get up. We’ve got a chicken dinner to eat.” He hopped off the bed and waved the small book he was holding at me.
“Besides, I’ve found the why.”
10:30pm, Cannae, WA.
The chicken dinner was memorably awful, dry and chewy with cold vegetables, but it made a great change from the casserole that Bailets usually served in an imaginative range of disguises: stroganoff, goulash, hotpot.
What was also most welcome was that Bailets broke open his spirits cabinet and we all partook in gin and rum and brandy to some excess. Indeed we were even allowed to take a couple of bottles across to the train when we returned and it was a very happy band who found themselves in the middle of the main line a little after ten that evening.
“Huh, look at that.” said Nellie.
“The storm, it’s stopped.”
She was almost right. It had stopped snowing, and the cold skies directly above us were completely clear, showing a merciless black sky studded with silver stars. But behind us, looming over the mountain peak were enormous clouds, reaching to the heavens and flattened at the top: thunderheads.
Moller shook his head sorrowfully, and trudged on.
We clambered back on to the trains a little tipsy, and I pressed Moller and Nellie again to reveal what they had found out, as they refused to talk about their findings over dinner.
“Not yet,” hissed an excited Nellie, “we’ve got to tell Ada as well.”
“Is she still bed ridden?”
“I believe so. I reckon they’ve drugged her again.” said Nellie soberly.
We reached Ada’s couchette and opened the door to look in on the empty bechamber.
“Hmm, “ thought Moller. “I didn’t see her at dinner, did any of you?” Nellie and I confirmed Moller’s thoughts.
I moved to the neighbouring couchette and tapped gently.
“Come in? said a tired voice.
“Mrs. Covington – have you been in to see Ada at all this evening?”
“I haven’t seen the poor lamb since her loving husband dosed her up again at lunchtime.”
“You haven’t heard anything?”
“I knocked,” the old lady said, “but when I got no reply, I thought she was asleep. What’s wrong?”
“She’s not there. Don’t worry yourself, Mrs. Covington, we’ll find her.”
I wished the grandmother good night and closed the door.
“Well,” said Moller firmly, “I guess we should find Edgar.” He walked off determinedly.
We found Edgar with his usual group of friends in the observation car where, surprisingly, the spirits were still high and the liquor still flowing. It took but a couple of minutes to ascertain that Edgar thought his wife was still in her couchette, but he was far to drunk to help look for her so the three of us began to search the train.
I checked the day cars while Nellie, tentatively knocked and checked on all the couchettes in the two Pullman cars. Moller, much to his annoyance, drew the mailcar and head headed off that way making noises about being allergic to dust.
Half an hour later we met up again in the cold climes of the mail car and confirmed that Ada was no longer on the train.
“We definitely didn’t see her at dinner.” said Moller, and we all agreed with him. We also all agreed that in her current state, notwithstanding the fact that she had been liberally dosed with opiates, she would not have gone to the Fogg Brothers tavern or the bar in the Hotel. So where had she gone?
“If she’d headed down the line, then the mule train I came in with would have found her. I said, and the others agreed.
“Is it possible she went into the tunnel?” asked Moller
“I don’t think so.” I said, remembering my experiences in the much shorter Horseshoe tunnel earlier that day.
“In that case she must have headed into the town, but where to?”
“The telegraph hut?” ventured Nellie
“That’s a possibility, perhaps to call for help or something?” I agreed.
“The depot?” said Moller, grasping at ideas. He discounted it himself with a soft ‘no.’ “The operations car?” he tried again. Nellie and I both agreed it was possible, though she pointed out that if Ada was heading for the operations car she never made it.
It was a gloomy thought, which I followed with another one: what if she had tried to walk down into the canyon?
We all sat in silence for a moment. Fact is none of us knew for certain where Ada as predicting what someone high on laudanum is liable to do is like predicting where lightning would strike next.
We all figured that the Telegraph hut and possibly the Operations car were likely places that a rational Ada may have headed for, so the three of us agreed we’d look along the route that linked those locations and if we failed to find her, inform Pettit and see what he recommended.
So once again we buttoned up our overcoats, gathered up our hats and gloves and heading back outside into the familiar snowy surrounds of Cannae.
The thunderheads were definitely closer to the mountain as we tramped across to the main line. Huge rippled walls of cloud faced us and, as we looked, they were lit from inside like Chinese lanterns by lightning. The storm was returning, and harder than ever.
None of us said anything. We looked at the clouds with a sense of resignment, a sense of fate.
Moller broke our contemplation, heading for the Depot passageway. Just before I entered the deep channel of snow that was the footpath I looked in vain for the measurement stick I saw when we arrived in Cannae. Back then it said seventeen feet of snow, now the snow reached the building’s roof and the stick was invisible.
We plodded down the silvery white channel, lit only by our trusty oil lantern and the bright white light of the moon. We rounded the back of the depot and waited a moment while Moller, ever the action man, struggled up the building’s step and pulled on its door. Locked.
He rejoined us and we shuffled onwards towards the telegraph hut. As we made the gentle fork about fifty feet beyond the depot, I happened to glance down the little used pathway that Moller and I had spent Sunday afternoon expanding. There was a snowy mound in the middle of the footway, and I knew instantly that this was Ada.
With a shout I headed down the fork. I dragged my body as quickly as possible through the soft snow that had fallen on the floor of the little used pathway and reached the mound. Joined by Moller I began shovelling the snow away from the surface of the mound. It only took a moment, the snow was barely inches deep. We uncovered a nightdress, spotted with small blue flowers. We all recognised it as Ada’s.
Nellie reeled away from the scene as Moller and I sat back on our haunches. We took a deep breath and slowly and as gently as we could we uncovered the rest of the body of our friend. She was a white as the snow around her, her eyes were closed, and her mouth relaxed. She looked peaceful, almost asleep, but also totally devoid of any colour.
I closed my eyes and, in the unusual silence of that moment, I could hear Moller reciting a short prayer. When he had finished, I stood.
“We’d better tell Pettit, and we’ll get some men.”
Moller nodded, Nellie didn’t understand.
“You can’t just leave her here.” she said, as a single tear rolled down her cheek.
“We can’t move her, and we need to inform someone in charge.”
Moller helped Nellie to her feet from the snowbank where she had slumped. “He’s right, Nellie.” he said softly, “We need to get some help for her, to treat her right.”
Nellie accepted Moller’s arm around her shoulder, and nodded her understanding. Moller led her away.
I stood for a moment, alone with my thoughts. I thought of that drunken idiot Edgar living it up with the whore Latsch, I thought of their pathetic attempts at pacifying Ada through drugs. I thought of Ada’s desperation and misery at her sad, lonely little life. Anger and sorrow competed within me. I looked down at the freezing slush beneath my feet and let sorrow take control.
I took a deep breath and knelt down by Ada’s lifeless body. “I’m sorry.” I said to her. To this day I do not know what I was apologising for.
As I stood I noticed something in Ada left hand, clenched between her frozen, bone white fingers. I pulled at the object and, to my surprise, it slid free easily. It was a piece of soggy paper on which was drawn a familiar round symbol and a single word: ‘Equilibrium’.
The final piece of the jigsaw fell into place.
11:50pm, Cannae, WA
It was nearly midnight after we’d informed Pettit of our grisly discovery and broken the news to Edgar. Lemman, for all his odious qualities, seemed shocked and extremely upset. He was led to his couchette by the porters and carefully put to bed.
Once all the histrionics had died down, the Smart Set (as Mrs Covington liked to call them) settled back at their tables in the observation car and continued to play rounds of cards, drinking cognac and whiskey like it was going out of fashion.
I’d stayed away from this group of thirty somethings who seemed to have too much money and not enough sense, but not Brawn. He was to be found in the middle of it all, laughing and playing and winning and gloating. It was he who seemed to be supplying most of the alcohol this evening, as though he had divined that today was indeed the last day on the mountain for all of us.
I sat with Moller and Nellie Weathers and finally they told me what they had found out. The only problem was that I had figured out something far more important. I let my friends speak first.
“This book,” said Nellie, putting down the slim notebook I had seen Moller with earlier, “was written by my father when he was involved with building the line.”
“I thought he was a surveyor?” I asked.
“He was, but he was then retained by the railroad, most notably by Mr. Brawn, to ensure that the line followed his plans successfully, so he was here for the entire time the line was being built.
“As I mentioned a few days ago, my father didn’t like the way the Chinese workmen were treated and this notebook seems to be a collection of observations hidden in amongst much drier progress information.
“He makes an entry everyday. Sometimes these are really short, literally just the position he is in that day on the mountain, the work being done, and the distance covered. Other times the entries are much longer; they still start the same way with the location, the work description and the amount of progress being made, but then he describes the working conditions or a particular event he’d witnessed and so on.
“On this page he notes that in winter the rock was so hard that the blasting powder merely blew back out of the holes on ignition. On this page he mentions the sleeping arrangements in the camps. Here he discusses the nature of the streams that run down the mountain and so on. If you read the whole thing you get a full picture of what life was like up here, however if you just dip into it here and there you would think it was just a standard corporate write up.”
Nellie sat back, leaving the book on the table between us.
“He mentions the Chinese?” I asked, somewhat stupidly.
Moller nodded. “Oh yes. He tells us everything.”
I sat for a minute, staring at the back of the book.
“Have either of you ever heard of the concept of Yin-Yang?” Both of my companions shook their heads. “Yin-Yang are complementary opposites in a greater whole. Man and Woman is one example, Dark and Light another. When thinking of Dark and Light is is easy to apply those concepts to Good and Evil. Yin, dark, is not necessarily evil; Yang, light, is not necessarily good. Instead these are two sides of a myriad of balances acting throughout the world. Yin and Yang always seek to return to a state of balance, a state of harmony. If a stone is thrown into a pond, the ripples will eventually dissapate. If one were to think of the peak of the ripple as fully Yin, and the depth of the trough as fully Yang, the two forces eventually cancel each other out, returning the surface of the pool to a flat calm. As Ada’s note said: ‘Equilibrium’. Ada had figured it out in the midst of an opium dream.
“I feel the mountain has a surfeit of Yin, and it has been seeking to redress the balance for years.” I looked at my friends.
“So why now?” asked Moller, though I suspect he knew the answer.
“Brawn.” answered Nellie before I could. “Brawn employed them, paid them and delivered their food to them, but did nothing more. He didn’t shelter them, he didn’t clothe them, he charged them for their food and water, he ensured that they did the most dangerous jobs, or the hardest jobs. They were the ones breaking the mountain by hand, the Irish and Swedes finished the grade after them. They built the tunnel, flattened the Cannae and Summit sites. They were the ones who died up here, were buried up here and then left up here to be forgotten. It all comes back to Brawn.”
“It’s his first time over the mountains since the line was built.” said Moller. “He’s never been up here. Never needed to, he says.”
“So it their first chance to reclaim that balance. If Brawn were to perish, the balance would be restored? Is that how this works?” asked Nellie.
“I don’t know how this works.” I admitted, but I felt that she was correct. “We’re all trapped here until the end anyway, I say we confront him with what we’ve found and see what happens.”
“For good or ill?” asked Moller. I looked at him for a moment. What right had I to do this? To force an issue that no-one actually understood. What further peril would I put the other innocents on this train in with this course of action?
“I don’t know, Joseph.” I said, “But you said you felt we were all here until the end regardless. I’m guessing this is the end.” Beside me, Nellie nodded.
Together we walked to the Observation car in silence.
Brawn was seated in his leather clad wheelchair downing Drambuie with the ‘Smart Set’ that Mrs Covington so dispised. They sat in a wide arc, Brawn at the focus of course, at one end of the Observation car and for the hour that Moller and Nellie told me their discoveries, the group had gotten louder and more rambunctious as they continued to drink and be merry. A shaky looking Edgar Lemman had re-joined them and seemed to be trying to catch up with the drinking, knocking back whiskey after whiskey.
I needed a minute after Moller and Nellie had finished. I was furious, more angry than I had been in years.
All the frustration I felt about my life. All my losses, all of my fights, all of my life ultimately led back to this. To this goddamn mountain; To this pissant little town in the snows; To the hundreds of empty graves in the cemetery; To the construction of this railroad line; To the hubris of building a line that wasn’t needed; To the demands of one man. One old, aggressive bully, who was still lording it as though he was something great.
He wasn’t. He was the death of us all.
I stood slowly and stalked over to the boisterous gathering in the corner of the car, and nodded a hello to everyone. I then stood, and waited.
Slowly, everyone’s voices dropped and they looked at me expectantly. To this day I do not know why they did so, I’d never had that much presence before. Maybe it was my expression, maybe it was the smile I had fixed, maybe it was just my arrival and waiting. I don’t know.
Eventually the chatter dwindled, even the raucous Brawn turned to look at me.
“Mr. Parker?” he growled indignantly.
“Mr. Brawn. How much money has this railroad made? Since it has been open, I mean.” I smiled.
“Mr. Parker, it is not seemly to talk about the money one makes. I thought you were a gentleman?”
“Indeed I am, Sir. I was just curious because it cannot be very efficient to have the railroad shut like this, for this length of time?”
There was a small murmur amongst the ‘set’, wondering where this was going.
“We will be losing money, of course.” admitted Brawn, “but it is better to get everyone off the mountain safely than to risk lives in the face of profit.”
I had to laugh at this. “Mr. Brawn, I think your railroad has been defeated by this storm, it has nothing do with profit. I myself have seen three of your impressive rotaries stalled by the weather, but I would agree with you that it would be better not to lose more lives to this mountain.”
Another murmur. “If you are referring, “said Brawn, “to the two poor souls at Summit who died a few days ago, slides happen and unfortunately men will die. That is the cost of running a railroad through such mountains.”
“How many men die each year on your railroad, Mr. Brawn?”
“Many. Railroading is a dangerous business, Mr. Parker.”
“And do you compensate those families who lose a father or son to the railroad?”
“But, it’s not much is it Mr. Brawn?”
“I don’t think I like your questioning, Sir.”
“It’s not much is it?” I continued, ignoring him. “I mean Mrs McMurdo, the poor widow wrung half to death by her children all trapped up here, Her late husband was a trainman for the Pacific North-Western.”
“And the payout was $500 dollars, was it not?”
“It was, and I should add that we are not obliged to pay any compensation for loss.”
“$500 dollars doesn’t go very far when you’re widowed with five children.”
“Is this some sort of inquisition, Mr. Parker?” I shrugged, and he continued. “Because I feel like I am being accused of something.”
Edgar Lemman was glaring at me, his eyes foggy with alcohol, but ablaze with grief. “Are you a lawyer now, Mr. Parker?” he accused.
“As opposed to what, Mr. Lemman?”
“Seems you think you are the leader of our little group, telling us what we should or shouldn’t be doing, filling my wife’s mind with all sorts of nonsense, pandering to her ridiculous ideas. You’re poison, in my opinion.”
There was a louder murmur around the table.
“Mr. Lemman, I am truly sorry for your loss. I may only have known your wife for a little while, but I found her a tender and gentle soul. The world is poorer for her passing.”
Lemman’s demeanour softened slightly, but the anger still blazed in his eyes. Brawn patted the portly man’s arm.
“Rest easy, Edgar. I may be old, but I can still fight my own battles.” he turned his attention to me, “Your point, Mr. Parker, then perhaps you would let us get back to our drinks?” he smiled warmly at his surrounding acolytes.
“How many Chinese did you employ to build this railway line, Mr. Brawn?”
“I prefer General, Sir,” his voice was a chilly as the snows that entombed us, “I’ve earned it.”
“I don’t believe you did, but if your ego is so fragile, very well. General, how many Chinese did you employ on the contruction of this line?”
“This line was built by Swedes and Irish, finest labourers we could find.”
“No sir, you didn’t, you employed two thousand Chinese working all day and all night.”
“I’m sorry, but you are most wrong Mr. Parker, and I am also tired of your relentless questioning. Good Night.” He turned his back on me, and poured himself another Drambuie.
“Two thousand workers, working in shifts: seven hundred a shift. You employed Chinese because they were better. The Chinese laid better bedding for the rails, their placement of sleepers was both faster and more accurate, they laid rails faster and more accurately than anyone else. Who can blame you, they were the best available and nothing but the best for the Pacific North-Western, right?”
Brawn turned slowly back to face me, and his eyes locked firmly onto mine. “It is illegal to employ Chinese workers, thanks to the exclusion act. I did not employ any Chinese.”
“Of course you didn’t. I must have been mistaken. I saw the records your man Longcoy has in the Operations Car and I find it most impressive that you were able to build this, what did you call it? This ‘astonishing railway’. You were able to build this in three years with only five hundred Irish navvies? That’s truly impressive.
Brawn continued to stare at me, but the atmosphere in the room had changed slightly. There was a shift in the mood of those watching.
“So, seeing as we’re such a small, close knit group now after our six days on this mountain, why don’t we dispense with some of the corporate bullshit. What do you say, General?”
Brawn’s eyes didn’t move from mine. His jaw was clenched beneath his coarse white beard. I heard two footsteps behind me, and turned to see Conductor Pettit. The jovial man had a look of determination on his face. He looked at those in front of him, and then glanced around the car at the twenty or so people crammed into the space.
“You’ve gotten to know me well over the past few days.” said the conductor in his deep voice. “and I’ve gotten to know you all. It’s my job to know and understand my passengers, it helps me look after them properly, which is what the Pacific North-Western employs me to do. I am nothing but honest and positive with you all, and I hope you appreciate that. I hope that means that you trust what I say, and what I do.”
There was a ripple of consent, and a few heads bobbed in agreement with the conductor’s word.
“I walked off the mountain this morning after being told that I was being set up as the scapegoat for whatever happens up here. Ultimately it was my decision to attempt the crossing, a decision I still stand by given the information I had at the time. Ultimately it was my decision to move here to Cannae, and I stand by that one too. But underlying all of my decisions was my responsibility to the Railroad to keep the trains moving, and to keep the freight flowing. I have always been instructed to do whatever is possible to stick to the railroad timetable, and that I do regret, because it has coloured my judgement, and has led to us being trapped up here.
“That’s the truth of the matter, and I must apologise for it. I’m sorry for what has happened until now, and I am sorry for the privations that are still to come. This afternoon I could have stayed in Scenic, safe and warm, but I knew that my place was with you, the people I have gotten trapped up here. That’s the truth also.
“But hear this: I’ve worked for this railroad for over thirty years now – man and boy. I was helping run supply trucks up and down this track when it was under construction. I saw what happened up here and there is another truth. This man speaks it.” he pointed at me. “There were Chinese on this mountain, thousands of them. Whole families were here. Men, laying rails and hammering spikes; women cooking, cleaning and ferrying; children carrying rock, or inserting explosives into tiny boreholes. I know not where Mr. Parker is going with his argument, but I do know this: There were Chinese here, and they built this line. If General Brawn denies this, then he is lying.”
In the silence, the noble conductor stepped back again, avoiding the furious stare of his ultimate employer.
Brawn pursed his lips, and sighed melodramatically. “You are obviously right, Mr. Parker.” he said sarcastically, “I am a very bad man. I broke the law and employed some coolies to build me a railroad. Then again I am also a railroad magnate, so I’m sure if you had another root around in the operations car you could probably find some paperwork relating to my scurrilous land grabs, or the fraudulent claims for excess mileage just to screw another few pennies from Uncle Sam. I mean, I am a Railroad Pioneer, aren’t we all such money-grabbing, cut-throat, heartless, capitalist bastards?” He raised a chuckle and some wry smiles from the men folk.
“Perhaps I should explain where I am coming from, General?”
“Please do, Mr. Parker, as I, and I am sure many others, are tiring of you quite rapidly.”
I addressed the assembly directly.
“I am from San Francisco. I grew up there, and growing up there meant that we employed Chinese servants as opposed to negroes. As such I have a decent understanding of Chinese culture in America. Miss Weathers, over there, her father was a Mr. Sharp, the primary surveyor and constructor on this line and she has in her possession a notebook written by her father describing the actual goings on as this line was built. Ada Lemman, God rest her soul, was a meteorologist – a weather scientist – and she explained to Mr Moller, Miss Weathers and myself why this storm is such a huge threat to all our lives. Together we have been working out what exactly what is going on here and we have come to a set of conclusions that many will find outlandish, unbelievable, ungodly even, but one that we all believe to be true. And if we are right, then General Brawn has placed us all in mortal danger.”
Uproar. Immediately three of the women folk burst into tears, Libby Latsch, while not exactly crying, looked angry and sick at the same time. Menfolk, including an extremely drunk Edgar Lemman cried outrage, and accused me of being a scaremonger, of terrorising the vulnerable women.
I stood patiently and waited for the outburst to calm down, letting the insults wash off me, and eventually the last one echoed away. Silence returned to the cabin. I was calm, unnaturally calm. I felt completely in control of my world at that point in time. I believed wholeheartedly in what I was about to say, and I also knew that it was right. What would happen after that, I could only guess at.
“Two thousand Chinese workers were employed to build this line, a thousand died on it. We have not been able to find out all of the details, but these were not through disease like on the Panama canal or accidents such as the Transcontinental. These were worse, these deaths were through neglect.
“Mr. Sharp, Miss Weathers’s father, tells us a bit about the workers on the line.” I lifted Nellie’s blue notebook, and read: “They were mostly fishermen back in China, but by the time they are building this line they are railroad veterans having built the Transcontinental, and the High Sierra, and the Montecute and Chicago and thousands of miles across hundreds of other lines all over the West.”
I turned to another marked page.
“The Chinese organise themselves into small teams of ten or twelve like a family. Each group has a small tea urn that is kept topped up, warm and ready by one of the men’s family members. They drink their weak green tea regularly throughout the day and evening. They eat dried fish and oysters that we buy in bulk in Seattle for them. They soften the food over their steaming tea cups and chew it relentlessly for hours.”
I turned to another marked page.
“The Chinese have only been supplied with the rudest of tents for shelter, but they have ingeniously taken these waterproofed cloths and incorporated them into the roofs of portable wooden shacks that the family members, typically the wives and children, would assemble at each new work site while the menfolk continued building the line. Their shacks are made of slatted Douglas Fir, cut like a log cabin so that the slats lock together in moments. The slats are also light in weight and are easily strapped to an adult’s back for transportation.
I looked up at this point. “Notice that they had to build their own their own shelter; Anglo railroad workers had bunkhouses and beanerys and bars built for them by the Railroad. The Chinese had to make do. The Chinese also came up the mountain with their families, and their wives and children helped maintain their living standards.”
I returned to the book and turned to another marked page. The atmosphere was electric in the room.
“I have noticed,” I read, “that the Anglo Navvies are frequently sicker than the much more numerous Chinese workers. This may be, according to the foremen I have spoken to, due to the Chinese insistence of drinking hot tea instead of stream water from the mountainside as the Anglo Navvies are prone to do. I also believe that the Chinese custom of having a hot water wash and a change of clothes at the end of each shift may help keep disease levels low. Though a smallpox outbreak a few weeks ago affected both contingents of workers, the Chinese seemed to shrug the infection off quicker than the Anglos.”
I looked up from the book and addressed the assembly directly once more.
“I should point out to you now that the Chinese were being paid less than the equivalent Anglo and, though they were not charged board and lodging as the Navvies were, they did have to support family members in order to survive, so the money went less far. And they had to buy their food and supplies from the Railroad lest we forget.”
“Standard practice,” said Brawn loudly, “all Railroads work the same way. It’s not as if General Stores just appear in the middle of the wilderness overnight.”
“I agree, General. But the lack of sensible shelter seems like neglect.”
“We gave them tents, enough for all of them, and we didn’t charge them for the priviledge.”
“Tents? Sheets of canvas against a mountain that regularly sees thirty feet of snow? That gesture seems less than generous, General.”
“You’ve said yourself, they built their own shelters, looked after their own.”
“That’s true, but the other workers, the significant minority of workers, did not have to build their own shelter from the elements. The Railroad built it for them. Shelter that even turned you a profit, made the Railroad even more money. So why didn’t you extend the same courtesy to the Chinese workers?”
The General was silent. When he eventually spoke, his voice was flat and even and measured.
“The Chinese are not welcome in this country, they do not try to fit in with the rest of the populace, they do not try to adapt themselves to our ways. Instead they wall themselves up in their little groupings or ‘Chinatowns’, open shops that serve themselves but no one else, run schools that teach only Chinese, run laundries that only clean Chinese clothes. They are exclusionists in our own country, and we don’t want them here.”
“But you employed them to build your railroad.”
“Indeed, because we wanted cheap, reliable labour, but we didn’t want them to stay and set up home. Just come here, earn some Gold and go back to Canton. Do you know that they, en masse, refused to pledge allegiance to the flag? Instead they insist on remaining loyal to the Celestial throne and their emperor which is three thousand miles away. And yet we welcome them to America, we pay them for their work and we let them set up homes. Why? Why should we put up with that?
“They poured into this country, taking much of the Gold from the mines, from hands of hard-working American miners and then, when they had been ejected from the Gold Fields they would set up Laundries and build railroads cheaper than anyone else, which stole more jobs from Americans. They would then send for their families back home and even more of them would turn up, and steal even more jobs, take over more of our cities, dig up more of our gold.
“The Chinese Exclusion Act, now finally made permanent by the grace of God, is one of the greatest pieces of legislation ever to be passed by Congress.
“And yet you used them to build your Railroad.” I repeated
“Yes I did, because economics will always trump politics, and politics should always trump emotions.”
“And what about humanity?” barked Nellie from behind me.
“The Chinese aren’t worthy of any. They are barely human. They are illiterate, ill educated monkeys with disgusting habits and poor hygiene. They are little more than apes, same as with the Negroes we’re all supposed to love right now. There are, amongst the human race, different levels of humanity. Some, such as ourselves, are destined to be the ruling caste – we have developed sciences and technologies and businesses to make our lot a more comfortable one. Beneath us are the serving castes – those chambermaids, nursemaids and butlers who are educated enough and presentable enough to inhabit our households. And beneath them are the working castes, those who place is in the fields or in the mines, breaking rocks and tilling soil, led by the higher castes to the correct places to to dig and sow. These lower groups are the pack animals of the human race, they are the workers that support the higher classes. The Chinese are the very lowest of the workers, and I treated them accordingly. We paid them a living wage in return for their labour. That’s more than we ever did for the slaves. My humanity is intact, and my conscience is clear. Next, Miss Weathers, you will be asking me to give coin to the mules and packhorses!”
There was silence in the car, the atmosphere was tense and close. No-one else in the room appeared to have anything to say. Outside the wind moaned eerily, and a crash of thunder rattled through the car.
“I know a few people who may have an arguement with that.” I said in a low voice. I was trying to contain my anger and, to my shame, failing.
“Who?” sneered Brawn, “Some liberal San Francisco friends? If your city hadn’t been so badly built we might’ve had enough records of the all the damn Chinese who were already here illegally and could’ve gotten them all out again. One little fire and all the records are destroyed.”
“I can assure you sir, having lived through the earthquake myself, it was not some little fire. When the army have to dynamite half your city to stop the flames from spreading, it is not a little fire.”
“It still smacks of being sloppy in my eyes. How come such fires have never happened in Washington, or Philadelphia or Boston?”
“How many Chinese died in the avalanche, Mr Brawn?” I asked, desperate to change the subject
“The one at Cannae? I don’t know, we didn’t keep records.”
“But you buried the bodies?”
“Yes, it seemed only right.”
“This avalanche fell right through the middle of the Chinese worker’s encampment, am I right?”
“I believe so. I wasn’t on the mountain at the time.”
“According to Surveyor Weather’s diary, you were. In fact the burial in the mass grave was your idea.”
“Is there now something wrong in giving a decent Christian burial?”
“Not at all, but these people weren’t Christian. They were Chinese. The Chinese have elaborate burial rituals, which I know you have since found out about, but at the time you were unaware. So you buried each corpse wrapped in the company blanket you gave to them when they began work on the road – a red blanket.”
Silence from the old man, which I took to mean agreement, so I continued.
“The Chinese believe that should you bury their corpse in a red blanket, their soul is unable to find its way back to its family and will remain trapped at its burial place, lost and alone.”
“Poppycock.” mumbled the General.
“Not really though, is it? Because you found out about the rest of the Chinese burial practices about two years after the avalanche, and arranged to ship the remains from their cemetery here at Cannae back to China. I mean you were requested to do so by the Chinese government, am I right?”
Brawn said nothing.
“They paid you to exhume the bodies of their countrymen and return them to China for a proper burial, that’s correct isn’t it?”
“So what, we were doing them a favour and they were willing to pay for it, what is wrong with that?”
“It was a tad mercenary, Sir, considering that you only exhumed those bodies who family’s could pay for the repatriation?”
“And another thing,” I continued, “how were you able to identify the correct corpse?”
Brawn ignored me: “We repatriated those bodies we could and were asked to do. The rest we saw properly buried. Again, Mr. Parker, what is your problem with that?”
“The red blankets, Sir. The souls were never able to leave.”
I paused for a moment, the wind moaned most dramatically and distant thunder rumbled past our ears again.
“They’re still here.” I said, dramatically in a half-whisper. “The Chinese. Their ghosts are still here. And they’ve been waiting for you, Mr. Brawn.”
Instantly there was again uproar. One man even grabbed me by my lapels and made as if to hit me, until he was pulled away by a combination of Moller and Conductor Pettit.
Pettit preceeded to calm everyone back down and, once order had been restored, he turned to me with an angry look and an edge to his voice.
“You’d better have a damn good explanation for this, Mr. Parker.” he spat.
“There is too much going on here. The storm, worst anyone has ever seen. The rotaries, best snow clearing tools in the world, all removed from action one by one. The attempt to take the train down the line, we were nearly all swept off the mountain by an avalanche. The Summit beanery; destroyed by an avalanche. The first walking party, saw two dead, one by avalanche.”
“Avalanches are common here.” said Pettit.
“Then there’s the Chinese boy, seen all over the mountains.” interjected Moller
“The Dragon Child? That’s nothing but a myth.” scoffed Pettit.
“Tell that to Bruni, who saw him just before the avalanche that nearly took the train; Or Parker and myself who chased him to the cemetery; Or poor Ada Lemman who saw him in the baggage car, and I bet if you ask around a bit more a few others have seen him.
“This is nonsense,” said Brawn.
“The longest time the Cascade Division has been shut down is six weeks, is that right? But you’ve never had a passenger train trapped for so long before? Six days we’ve been up here, and we’re further away from being free now than at any other time yet.”
“So you’re saying that the ghosts of some long dead Chinese are keeping us trapped up here on the mountain?” Brawn was staring at me incredulously. “You’re mad!”
A huge rumble of thunder underlined his outburst.
“Am I General? Then why are we still here?”
“Because of the snow” roared back the bellicose old man.
“Even your train men think this storm is unusual. The worst they’ve ever seen and all that. Mr. Pettit, even you have said that you find this storm unnatural.”
“All storms are unnatural, they’re freaks of nature. When the winds, and the rain, and the snow and the clouds are combine in strange ways that’s when you get a storm. There’s no law of storms, they don’t come develop, or grow or gestate, they arrive in a flash from nothing and disappear just as quick. The conductor will tell you, he’s been a railman about as long as I have.”
There was another crash of thunder as Brawn finished his speech.
All eyes in the car loked at Pettit expectantly. The portly conductor looked uncomfortable, torn between his loyalty to the railroad and the strained relationship he now had to his employers. He looked at his feet for a second, then he looked up at the expectant crowd.
“This storm is mighty strange,” he conceded, “but that doesn’t mean I subscribe to Mr. Parker’s occult explanation. Usually these storms turn up for two days, dump a load of snow, and disappear. This one’s been here for over a week and has not stopped dropping snow. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Another crash of thunder rattled the train.
“And,” continued Pettit, “you never, and I do mean never, get thunder and lightning in a snow storm.”
He walked to the exit and disappeared outside for a moment. He reappeared, his hair dusted with snowflakes.
“Still snowing.” he confirmed. “It’s the darndest thing.”
“So I suppose the storm is my fault, Mr. Parker.” said Brawn angrily.
“No sir. I believe you are the reason we are still trapped here. I believe the ghosts of the Chinese you so Christianly buried, have been attempting to kill you and failing ever since you came up here.”
“You speak nonsense, Mr. Parker.” The old man bellowed, his face puce and ridged with veins.
“Do I? Is this not your goodbye tour of your railroad, Mr. Brawn? The last ride over the rails you built, because I seem to remember a newspaper report telling me about it.”
“So, Mr. Parker, what does that prove?”
“How many times have you ridden the Cascade Division rails since they were originally laid?”
“What?” asked an incredulous Brawn.
“Simple enough, how many times have you been through Cannae on this line since it was originally built?”
“I have never used the Cascade line, I have no need to.” Admitted the man
“No need to?”
“When touring operations it is easier to meet up with the southern division in Boise, then move on to Coastal division in Portland before finally reviewing Cascades Division at their base in Seattle. There is no need to run the line.”
“This is your first time up here since it was built?” I asked, seeking the confirmation I knew to be true.
“This is the first time they’ve been able to strike at you, Mr. Brawn. The ghosts.”
“You’re mad, Mr. Parker. There is no such thing as ghosts.”
“They’re patient. They’ve been waiting a long time, and they’ve missed their chances up until now.” I met and held the old man’s furious gaze. “The beanery slide covered the passing track upon which we waited in Summit, am I right?” I looked around, Pettit nodded his confirmation. And that slide happened just a couple of hours after we left. Then there is the slide we narrowly avoided during our escape attempt three days ago. Then the walkers were attacked by slides and so on.
“Slides happen, Mr Parker.” Growled Brawn.
“Yes, and we’ve seen plenty, but there have been so many close calls, and so many have already lost their lives. This must be the most fatal snowstorm in the railroad’s history.”
“So they’ve missed a few times, but they’ve had plenty more opportunities to kill me. Considering the efficiency they can build a railroad in, I’m surprised they ghostly buggers have been so inept in killing me off!”
There was a gasp from somewhere to the side of the carriage that instantly killed the conversation.
“What?” asked a voice.
“Someone’s at the window.” said another. The attention of the room swung outwards. I craned my neck to try and see what was going on.
Porter Anderson was close to the window. He wiped at it with a cloth. “It’s digging.” he said “Someone’s digging us out!”
I shot a glance at Moller, who frowned at me in puzzlement. Another voice piped up excitedly: “They’re digging us out!”
“Who’s digging us out?” asked Pettit, curious.
“In the middle of the night?” queried someone else.
“I don’t know.” cried Anderson.
“They’re over here too!” came a shout from the other side of the car.
Pettit met my eyes for a moment. He looked worried.
The sound of digging and scrabbling came now from all sides of the Observation car, and as the scratching and scrabbling became louder and more intense, the mood in the carriage began to change: hope and cheer giving way to dread and fear.
Close to the windows, the snows gave way and fell from the window, pulled from sight by a hundred clawing hands.
A gasp came from those near the window, a woman screamed. The crowd in the observation car moved back from the walls, crowding into the centre. I stole a glance at Brawn in his chair; his view obscured by the crowd, his jaw was set and his eyes steely.
Those dreadful clawing hands scratched scratched at the windws, the noise of their assault rising and rising. I glanced about the carriage, my breathing shallow with fear, the bodies of the crowd pressing up against me. Many more were screaming now in the carriage. The noise, that terrible noise, just got louder and louder. I pressed my hands to my ears.
Then there was a crash of lightning directly overhead. The carriage was lit brightly by the flash, all our faces turned pallid and sick in its silver glare.
And then a rumble, deeper and more threatening than any thunder. A rumble we’d heard from a distance many times over the past week in the mountain.
“Oh Christ,” exclaimed someone, “the mountain’s coming down!”
I remember feeling calm, oh so calm. This was the end we’d long been expecting. We’d been small cogs in a larger machine. As we’d worked and suffered, and investigated and confronted each other over the past few days, a metaphysical mechanism had assembled itself around us. Now, with the tumblers aligned, the diabolical trap could finally spring.
The mighty avalanche tore down the hill side above us at enormous speed, a square mile of thick, wet snow charged at our puny train, ladened with the charcoal stumps of a thousand burned trees.
It hit, and I remember this most distinctly, not with a crash, or a thud, but with a splat.
And then there was a mighty shove, the wall of the car in front of me splintered, tilted and I found myself flying backwards through the air. The ceiling rotated past me as I fell, just one of a number of people being shaken like rocks in a tin.
A crash, a shattering of something. A soft body thundered into my own and blew the air out from my lungs. Something cracked in my chest and I felt a searing pain in my breast.
The railcar was still moving around us, flying into the canyon below the passing tracks like a spear. I could see the end below me, snow spitting angrily at me through the splintered wall. I was free from the wall again. I remember most clearly seeing people revolving in space in front of me. I saw the terrified face of Nellie Weathers drift afore me. I reached out to her, useless hands clawing slowly at empty air.
With an almighty crash, the end of the car telescoped inwards violently, its wood and metal maw chewing up a hapless passenger, swallowing him from view.
I raced towards the jagged and shattered end, accelerating tremendously as inertia took control of me, but found myself hit by the side of the carriage and it skewed sideways and tore itself apart around me.
In space again, but surrounded by snow.
I crashed to the ground.
I was upside down.
Snow was packing around me, hugging me.
A tree flashed past.
I landed on my feet and felt my knee give way with a crunch.
Landed on my shoulder.
A brief glance of sky, and then snow filled my vision.
Sliding now, head downwards. I flailed my arms hopelessly.
Snow is all about me, it is above and it is below, it is soft and it is heavy, it flutters and yet holds me close.
I swam. I swam like Mie taught me to in the cold waters off the Golden Gate. I pierce the snow with clasped hands, and then sweep my arms apart and too my sides as strongly as I can. Just like that Californian summer, I can see Mie in the distance, and I know I will not catch her. She was always too fast for me.
I can feel the snow beginning to squeeze me now, the slide is ending. My journey is now complete.
My arms break free into air, and I find myself spat upon the top of the slide. I tumble and roll, and bounce and slide. Something flashes past me and caroms into the trees ahead.
Still slithering, snow piles against my uphill side. I gasp like a fish just landed in the bottom of a boat. Something solid and heavy hits me in the head and immediately I feel the hot blood flow.
I open my snow caked eyes, scrape them clear with my stiff hands. Above me I see the tops of many many trees and, above them, the cold grey clouds of the winter storm and the cliff we’d fallen.
I rolled painfully onto my chest and began to look back up the avalanche slope.
There was a sudden blaze of blue-white light as something exploded on the locomotive, which was on its side, part buried in snow, to my left, propped between three stout trees. The shattered remains of one (possibly both) day cars appear to be on top of it, but it was hard to tell. All that remained of the carriages was shattered, red painted wood.
I looked down to see that the object that had hit my head was an engineers’ coal shovel with a long wooden handle and broad, flat blade. I shuffled onto my one good leg and, using the shovel as a prop, began to make my slow, painful way up the hill.
The canyon was just as terrifying as it had been when Moller and I first saw it several lifetimes ago, but the sheer quantity of snow that the avalanche had shovelled into it presented me with a steep, but not impossible slope up to the lip of the cliff.
I struggled upwards, occasionally slipping and putting weight on my shattered leg, which caused me to cry out in pain.
One such slip elicided an answering cry in the darkness. I staggered in the direction of the cry. A flash of lightning illuminated the scene with blue white light. I saw, not ten feet in front of me, a man buried up to his neck in snow, with only his head and arm free.
I shuffled closer, and saw that it was Brawn.
He looked at me with loathing, blood was seeping from his mouth and dribbling it way through his grey beard. He scrabbled feebly at the packed snow which held him with his free arm. He gurgled something at me, and scrabbled again.
I looked about, already there were rescuers from the town with lanterns probing through the wreckage above us, but Brawn and I were a hundred feet or more from them, and our shouts couldn’t be heard above the storm.
I collapsed alongside him, firey shoots of pain flew through my body as I did so. I looked at him, and reached out to hold his hand. I was in no state to dig him out, that he could see.
I grasped his old, cold, calloused hand with mine and held it with all my strength. I looked into his eyes, and said I was sorry.
He nodded, his great head shaking. He gurgled something else, and more blood ran to his chin. I like to believe he was saying sorry also.
We lay there for a moment or two, until he died.
When he was gone, I beat my arms around me to get some warmth back into my shattered body and then slowly propped myself back upon my feet and shuffled painfully up the slope. I must have been going for half an hour when finally someone with a torch saw me and rushed to help.
“Anymore down there?” asked the shocked and bloodied face of my rescuer. I lied that I hadn’t seen anyone. The man nodded and helped me up past the shattered day cars and the battered locomotive, leaking hot water and steam into pit of boiling water below. I made the mistake of looking down into that dreadful pit to see the blanched and boiled body of little Thelma Watson drifting around and around.
I reached the flat ground of the passing tracks and was placed onto a pile of snow by my rescuer. A hefty red blanket was thrown around me by some other kind soul and I pulled it close.
I sat there for several minutes, cold and shaking, watching as rescuers were hauling battered human wreckage from the debris of the trains. It was Libby Latsch being helped up the mountainside, her face was pale and scratched, and she was holding one arm tenderly. Sarah McMurdo was seemingly fine, walking around looking for her children, her eldest child following her, mute with shock.
Two men walked past with the body of Mrs Covington. She’d be buried by the snow and asphyxiated, they said as they placed her next to me and covered her with a red blanket. They left one of her feet exposed to the cold. Numbly, I adjusted the blanket to cover her completely. It seemed the list I could do
Eventually someone appeared from the town, young Miss Bailets, and together with her telegrapher boyfriend, Mr. Avery, I was helped into the warmth and chaos of the hotel. I was placed in a chair, passed a brandy, and Miss Bailets saw to my damaged leg with newspaper, blankets and string. I sat there, gazing at the white painted ceiling and not listening to the young woman. All the noise in the building whirled and blurred and blended about me. My eyes moistened. Where were my friends? I thought. Where was Moller and Miss Weathers? Where was Conductor Petit?
From by my knee, Miss Bailets said something. I didn’t hear what, and focussed my blurry attention on her for a second. She looked up, and pulled two ends of a piece of string tightly. I felt an eruption of pain and fell in to a blissful darkness.