March 21st, 1911, Cannae, WA
With a splat, Albert Morrison found himself sprawled in the soggy, wet snow to the left of the path.
Cursing, the young labourer struggled out to his feet, his arm sliding between the tangle of logs and wood that lay under the melting snow. Once back on his feet, he bashed the snow from his woollen half coat and reclaimed his hat from where it had gotten snagged on the rough wood.
As he reached down to the pick up his hat, he spotted something in the dark void beneath the toppled logs. Absently bashing his hat against his trousers, Albert peered into the void.
There, resting atop one of the fallen tree trunks, was a hand.
Morrison was startled, but not shocked. He’d been on the mountain for the three weeks since the storm had broken, and much of that time he’d been digging for bodies amongst the shattered carriages, piled logs, twisted metal and deep snow that had spilled off mountain. Finding another body was not unexpected – there were still a dozen or so people unaccounted for – but it was a surprise to find this one so close to the track they had used to walk into the ravine each day. They had been all but walking over this poor soul for days.
Albert stepped back and replaced his hat upon his head. He looked back up the slope towards his foreman, and whistled loudly.
“Mr. Devon!” he shouted, waving. Forty foot above him was foreman Charlie Devon, the man in charge of the recovery effort on the mountain. Devon looked at Morrison to see what the disturbance was about.
“Found another one” bellowed Morrison, his voice echoing slightly in the confines of the canyon. Devon nodded and headed delicately down the narrow path to reach his man.
It took several hours to rig up the two ratchet winches and lever the three logs that pinned the body to the mountain. Once clear and safe, the work crew scrabbled into the space and began excavating. The snow, soft and melting in the weak spring sunshine, was easily scooped aside and eventually the body was revealed as that of a portly man with a ruddy face, pockmarked by the start of decay. He was dressed in a grey suit and red waistcoat and had the primary tool of his trade, a silver pocketwatch, still tucked into his waistcoat pocket.
“Looks like the conductor.” said Devon to no-one in particular, as he cautiously stepped into the log pile and awkwardly made his way down to squat alongside the corpse. The rest of the workmen paused in their grisy task and stood respectfully, their hats in their hands and clutched to their chests; this corpse was one of their own.
Devon knelt by the body ignoring the faint whiff of decay. The snow that was packed around the body had preserved it well as it melted, but now nature was beginning to work.
Devon pushed open the man’s jaws which, stiff but not seized, opened to reveal a wad of dirty snow. With a practiced movement, Devon peered into the man’s nostrils and then looked up at a young assistant who was standing on the security of the pathway.
“Suffocated.” he pronounced and, as the assistant wrote that down into a stiffened leather book, Devon worked his way through the corpse’s pockets, passing out the man’s possessions via the chain of workmen and into a sack by the Assistant’s feet. As they did so, Devon called out what he had found.
“Diary, Lighter, looks like a timetable, telegram, telegram, looks like another telegram, some form of notebook, silver pen, pencil, wedding ring, pocket watch, wrist watch ... ah.” Devon paused as he released the wrist watch and looked at its back. He sighed deeply.
“’To William Pettit’” he read “’in acknowledgement of twenty-five year services to the Pacific NorthWestern.’” He looked up. “That’s it. This is Conductor Pettit.” He sat back on his haunches for a moment, and in this small area of the mountain, silence was observed.
Satisfied, Devon clambered out of the void and let the workmen get back to the task of freeing Pettit’s body. He stopped by the Assistant.
“Make sure the nametag is securely applied this time,” he warned, “Pettit’s one of ours and if his body’s not identified, his widow gets nothing.” The assistant nodded nervously. Devon acknowledged the young man and strode back up the path towards the railbed.
Halfway up the steep, switchbacked path, Devon stopped and looked out over the ravine. He sighed, and looked down at the gravel beneath his feet.
He gazed back at the view down the ravine, with the snow retreating slowly from the valleys and returning to its summer home on the mountain tops. The sun was out and the valleys below him were studded with spots of green as life returned to their frozen slopes.
“I’m sorry William.” he said softly. He’d known William Pettit for ten years, worked closely with him for five as an assistant conductor. He’d admired the man’s dedication to the company and to his passengers. Pettit deserved better than to lie on a mountainside for nearly a month.
Devon looked up at the edge for the railbed above him, knowing that beyond the edge lay the tiny hamlet of Cannae. Some of the injured from the disaster were still recouperating in the town, and he’d heard the stories they had been telling.
In front of him, two hundred men were slowly but surely ratcheting a giant locomotive up the steep side of the ravine.