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Waiting For The High Varnish

Short story By: Michael Sullivan
Historical fiction


Clem Wiggum and the crew of local freight, wait for a train.


Submitted:Jan 29, 2014    Reads: 25    Comments: 0    Likes: 0   


Clem stared at the horizon again. Still no sign of the twenty five or her black plume. Damn but that train was late. He'd got word back in Midlothian that it was safe to proceed up as far as North Soap and then to clear the main so the high varnish could pass through. They'd been waiting now for about 30 minutes, and damn but that train was late. He gnawed on his thoughts for another moment , contemplating whether or not to call the dispatcher from the line-side, but he eventually turned back to the book in his lap.

Clemont Wiggum was a tall lanky sort of a man, with a little patch a brown hair on his head, and a bit of muscle showing on each arm from wrestling with the controls of steam engines for a few years. In his mid thirties, he'd been railroading now for a just a little more than half his life. He'd signed on to the Central Texas & Northwestern at the age of 17 and had quickly worked his way up from brakeman to engineer. Turn over was high on this railroad considering the lack of pay, and seeing as how it was a local company. But Clem wasn't greedy, and he certainly wasn't ambitious. He was the relaxed type, and he was just glad to have a job and make some money. And the position of engineer had just kind of come to him by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They had a train waiting, they had two firemen waiting, but they didn't have an engineer. So they one with the most experience got promoted. And that just happened to be Clem. So now there he was, feet propped up on the backhead of his engine, reading his book like usual, waiting for the old 25 to blow by.

"What'cha readin' Clem?", a voice shot from the other side of the locomotive.

Harold Nichols was the fireman today, which meant he was responsible for making the steam that Clem used to move the train. And Harry was just about the complete opposite of Clem when it came to looks. Matter of fact, they resembled Laurel and Hardy when they were together. Harry was short and fat, with a big black beard. But what looked like fat was in fact muscle. Harry had also grown up on the railroad from a young age, and he was more used to shoveling coal than he was to burning oil. A newcomer to the railroad though, Harry had come from some big railroad back east where he had nearly been ensnared by a woman. He counted his lucky stars about being able to get out of it, but Clem always felt like Harry missed that girl.

Clem looked over at Harry before replying and said, "A book".

Harry sighed and paused a moment and then said, "You know, you're an asshole sometimes Clem."

"You knew that before you climbed up here on my tea kettle. It's not like we haven't worked together before now Harry."

"Sure I knowed it before I climbed up here, but I thought this would be an easy job. I just didn't know we'd be sitting here for so damn long. And this ain't no tea kettle, Clem. This here is a proper piece of fine machinery.", Harry remarked as he fondly rubbed the backhead of the boiler with a rag.

Clem looked on with a distasteful gleam and said, "You know, you talk about this machine as if it were a living, breathing animal."

"Well it kinda is," mumbled Harry. "It creaks and groans like a animal. And it snorts and kicks like a animal. And it breaths in and out like a animal, so in my mind, it is a animal."

"It's a damn tea kettle" Clem shot back.

"It ain't no damn tea kettle Clem, cause I ain't no damned woman cooking it! I'm a man, with a damned job and damned proud of it too. So you just bite your lip Clemont Wiggum."

Clem went back to his book.

But Harry didn't have anybody body else to talk to. So after a few minutes of listening to the steam hiss from the pop off valve, he tried again.

"So you gonna tell me what'cha reading Clem, or am I gonna have to come over there and look?"

Clem stayed silent.

Harry sighed again and got up. He leaned over to the other side of the engine and up under neath the book cover so he could read it.

"'The Complete Sheer-lock Hole-mess'." He said as he tried to pronounce the words. "Uh, Clem? Somebody done misspelled the word home on your book there. Home don't have no "L" in it."

Clem turned his book over and peered at the cover. "That's "Holmes" you maroon. It's supposed to be spelled like that because it's the guys last name."

"Wait, he spells his last name H-O-L-M-E-S? Why the hell would he do that?"

"He didn't do it, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did it."

"Who the hell is Sir Arthur whats-his-name?"

"He's a famous author from England."

"From England?! The hell you doing reading that red coat stuff?! Don't you know we fought them fools in the 'Merican Revolution and won? You don't have to read that stuff now."

"I like it," Clem replied.

"Well I don't. I think your a damn turncoat by reading that stuff if you ask me."

"That's ridiculous...."Clem began his reply as he scanned the horizon. But just then he spotted it. A faint black plume peeking over the horizon.

"Hand me that piece of paper you grabbed back in Midlothian, Harry."

Harry reached down in his pocket and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper.

"What's it say?" Harry asked impatiently.

"That we can go home."

"All the way to Cleburne?"

"All the way." Clem replied.

"Well, hot dog. I might get back in time to see my girl after all."

Clem pushed the engineers window open and leaned out to get a look at the back of the train. Thirty cars back the conductor was busy with his paperwork in the caboose, waiting for Clem to signal him that they were ready to go. Clem grabbed hold of the whistle rope and blew 5 long whistles to call back the rear brakeman. And he could just make him out running back from his post flagging the rear of the train. Then he saw the conductor step out on the rear platform of the caboose and look past him at the 25 now storming over the hill ahead of them.

Just then the head brakeman Roy came over the top of the tender. "We clear?"

"Just about, Roy. 25 is barreling down on us now and as soon as she comes by we'll be leaving. So get ready."

"Right-o." Said Roy and he jumped down from the cab and headed to the switch in front of the locomotive.

Clem leaned back out of the window and turned his attentions now back to the 25. She was almost on top of them and coming quick. A fast 4-6-2 pacific type locomotive was up front in the lead, and she had her nine car train rocking along as it barrled down on Clem and his train. The rods of that engine were a blur, and the roar grew louder and louder as she closed in on them. Smoke billowed from her stack and fire blew from her grates below the cab. In a flash she was on top of them and the noise was almost to much to bear. Then just as quick, she was past and flying into the distance. Clem watched as his conductor stepped back from the edge of the platform as he experienced the overwhelming' passage of 25. And then she disappeared over the hill behind them, leaving them once again to listen to their old locomotive hiss away in the sun.

"Damn she was movin'!" Harry cried "Must a been doing 80 per!".

"She was damn late." Clem said. He glanced forward to Roy and saw that he had the switch set for the main, so Clem grabbed hold of the whistle and blew to long bursts. Looking back again at the conductor, he saw him raise his fist up in the air and wave his arm up and down. The sign of the highball.

Clem leaned back in the cab, dropped the Johnson bar into the corner and blew two shorts on the whistle again. "Let's make some tea Harry.", he said to irritate Harry before he reached up for the throttle. Easing out on the throttle a bit, he released the brakes and the eight big wheels of the 2-8-0 consolidation locomotive began to slowly turn as 237 eased her thirty car freight train out of the siding at North Soap Creek. Clem fiddled with the throttle till he got the whole train up to a walking pace and then leaned back out the window to watch his train fall in behind the locomotive like little tin soldiers. After the caboose had cleared the switch, he watched Roy throw it back to close off the siding. Still at a walking pace, Roy caught up to the platform of the caboose and swung himself on board. Clem whistled twice again to acknowledge that he'd seen Roy safely on then reached up and eased out on the throttle again. The old 2-8-0 picked up speed and disappeared over the hill heading for home.





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