The Nightwatchman

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Clem spends Christmas at work.

Submitted: October 27, 2015

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Submitted: October 27, 2015

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Finished with his paperwork for the evening Clem put the pen down and placed the sheets in their proper box.  The night watchman's job was full of things to do and every move he made had to be precisely documented so the foreman could see what had been done over night.  It was a lonely job as well, but the quiet was comforting to his soul.  And this night was particularly quiet.  Tomorrow was Christmas day, and the railroad's owner had given all non-essential crew the day off.  No freight would move on the Central Texas & Northwestern again until the 26th. Passengers on the other hand were still being whisked across the railroad, and the eerie silence was broken every now and then by the sound of the high varnish passing through town. But somebody still had to keep the engines that weren't being used warm over the break. Clem had been given the choice of working Christmas Eve and Christmas night on a local carrying carolers, friends, and family from town to town, or babysitting sleeping engines over the Holiday. Since he'd be making time and a half pay either way, he chose the quieter of the two choices and grabbed his book. He didn't have any family to visit anyway, so it worked out well. 
Turning from the paperwork, he strolled out of the Foreman's office and back into the main office space. As he passed the coal stove he put the kettle on to boil.  Something hot sounded good right about now.  Then he walked over to the break room door and shut it to keep the heat in. 
The offices and break room for the roundhouse were set along the left side of  the building in an addition that had been built decades ago.  Under it's lean-to roof the space held the Shop Foreman's office towards the front, an assistant's office near the middle and the break room towards the rear.  Clem had been given permission by the Shop Foreman's assistant, Mrs. Bracketshire to sit up in her office over the holiday while he guarded the motive power in the roundhouse.  She was such a nice old woman, always taking care of the guys, and she had earned the nickname Mom from some of the other men in the shop. But Clem couldn't bring himself to call her that.  He felt uncomfortable saying it, so she was just Mrs. Bracketshire. 
And Clem had taken her up on the offer.  He had made himself a nice little cozy spot near the window, so he could look out and watch the world go by.  Well, at least what was moving on a cold and  quiet night like this, and that wasn't much. A little while ago he had seen a fox scamper along the edge of the forest just beyond the yard limits. But with nothing else moving outside except the occasional train, Clem reached for a book on Mrs. Bracketshire's desk. Picking up the heavy, leather bound book, he opened it about halfway, and set himself to try and finish it. At eleven hundred and twenty two pages The Complete Works of Sherlock Holmes was no easy task.
The clock ticked away the minutes as Clem become more and more engrossed in the suspense that seemed to surround Sherlock and Watson. Then suddenly the stillness was broken by a sheer, high pitched whistle.  Clem jumped from his seat and glanced out the window, expecting to see a passenger train come barreling out of the darkness and crash through the nearest snow covered crossing. But then he realized it was only the tea kettle he'd put on the stove just before sitting down to read.  He quickly stood up from the desk and removed the kettle from the old pot bellied caboose stove near the door.  The cold from outside seemed to be seeping in through the window frames, so he shoveled another handful of coal onto the fire.  Then he reached above the stove and pulled an old metal cup off a nail, and blew the dust out of it.  Unsatisfied with it's cleanliness he poured a little hot water in the cup and wiped it clean with his dirty handkerchief. Then he filled the cup with hot water nearly to the brim and returned to the desk.  Opening the bottom draw he pulled out what looked like a double sided spoon with holes in it, and a bag full of tea leaves and sugar.  Placing the double sided spoon in the bag, he filled it with the tea and then dropped it into the hot water.  Swishing it around for a few minutes and adding sugar to taste, he then set the cup aside to steep.  He picked up the book again and flipped it open to the bookmark.  Ten minutes later he remembered the tea cup and reached for his tea.  “Mmm. Just perfect”, he sighed to himself, picked up the book again, leaned back in the chair and got lost in the story once more.
At midnight his imagination was interrupted by the gong of the clock tower a few blocks over in the town square.  Out of instinct, he glanced up at the clock on the wall to check the time and chuckled to himself when he noticed that the town square clock was two minutes behind the railroad's, again. “They're gonna have to reset it for a third time this year,” he thought to himself.  
Picking up his tea and sipping at it, he moved towards the door that lead into the four stall roundhouse. He opened the door and peered into the darkness.  Buried in the gloom somewhere were his charges for the evening.  He could hear small creaks and groans emanating from the inky black interior, and it sounded like there were 4 sleeping dragons hidden somewhere in the murk that lay beyond the door.  Each locomotive snorted and wheezed as it expanded from the heat in the firebox and contracted again in the cold night air that came seeping in through the roundhouse doors.  Steam locomotives seemed almost alive in ways.  They're sounds and movements were almost animate at times, and each one developed it's own personality over the years.  They could huff along and throw fits like children and generally operate badly when unhappy. And then just as suddenly they could change and charge down the tracks with ease and grace.  On some level they must have been alive, or so it seemed. He was no stranger to this philosophy, and at times believed it with the very depths of his heart.  Especially on nights like tonight.  It was a shame, but he was going to have to wake them up now.
Clem stepped into the dark void of the roundhouse, and reached to his right to turn on the interior lights.  With an audible click they flashed on, bathing the interior in a soft yellow glow.  He squinted for a moment as his pupils readjusted, before stepping towards the first engine.  A Rogers 4-6-0 built in 1887 for another railroad and numbered 7.  #7 came to this railroad in 1927 and had served faithfully for the last 5 years.  An oil burner, she was easy to keep stoked overnight.  Clem climbed to her cab and opened the firebox door.  Peering inside he could see a small fire burning in the middle of the box.  Glancing up at the water glass he noticed the water level had dropped.  The pressure was too low to turn the injectors on and add water so he would have to build up some steam.  He adjusted the oil stick to the right, adding more fuel to the fire and waited for the pressure gauge needle to move.  The growl of the fire turned into a roar at the increase in fuel, and he adjusted the blower in the smoke stack to get a better draft through the tubes. Smoke and steam rose slowly from the stack and billowed out of the chimmney above.  After about ten minutes the pressure needle began to slowly inch up, climbing higher and higher until it approached 210 pounds.  He reached over and spun the valve to turn on the water, and then slowly opened the steam valve. Water shot from the tender into the boiler of the locomotive and he watched the pressure gauge quiver for a moment before dropping at the addition of the cold liquid.  The water level began to rise in the sight glass and when it reached the top of the glass, the boiler was full. So Clem closed off the steam valve and shut off the water.  He kept the fire going for a few more minutes to build the pressure back up before stoking the fire.  Hopefully he wouldn't need to do this again for the rest of the night.  
He climbed down from #7 and headed over to the next track and engine #10.  A 70” drivered   4-4-0 built in 1902 for the Crystal River & Western. In need of heavier power, the CR&W sold the little engine off in 1922 to the Central Texas & Northwestern.  She normally handled the the local mixed freight through Ferris to Kaufman, but since the railroad was all but shut down, she was enjoying a nice break. A coal fired locomotive, #10 was harder to keep stoked overnight.  Clem opened the firebox door and peered inside.  A decent fire had been banked in the firebox some time ago and it didn't seem to be burning properly. He noted that the grates seemed to be clogged with heavy deposits of ash and there was a large amount of unburned coal in various places across the back of the box where the fire had been banked.  Lack of oxygen was the most likely cause and it would require the engine being taken out of the roundhouse to the ash pit to have the grates dumped.   A prospect that Clem was not looking forward to.  He glanced at the pressure gauge. She did have some pressure, but not enough to make it out to the pit and back.  She'd need some coaxing.  He picked up the coal scoop and began shoveling coal into the box towards the front near the flue sheet.  After he'd built a nice layer of coal across the floor of the box, he swung down from the cab and headed for the far side of the roundhouse.  Grabbing an old metal bucket he passed through a door leading outside into the cold and headed across the yard towards the fuel oil stand.  At the stand he grabbed a hose and quickly filled his bucket with fuel.  He marched back to the roundhouse and climbed aboard #10.  Pressing the pedal to open the firebox he quickly threw the contents of the bucket into the box and shut the door just as the fuel erupted into a ball of fire.  He then swung down from the locomotive and headed for a second trip to the fuel stand.
By the third trip she was beginning to build pressure.  He reached over and adjusted the blower to get a better draft before making another trip.  By the sixth trip he had a nice fire going in the firebox. He quickly peered in and found to his delight that the unburned coal he had just shoveled in had finally caught.  Adding water, he again adjusted the blower till he felt sure she was drafting perfectly, and watched as the needle inched ever higher on the gauge. 
Now for the part he dreaded the most. He'd have to take the engine out and to the ash pit to clear the grates and rebank the fire.  He hurried back to the office and threw on his heavy coat and mittens.  Climbing back into the cab of #10 he noticed that the needle was hovering near the 250 psi mark.  Another 10 psi and she'd blow her safety valve.  Quickly he added water to the boiler to bring the pressure down some and readjusted the blower valve so it wasn't drafting as well.  Hopefully that would slow her climb towards the 260 mark.  He climbed down, and rushed to the roundhouse doors. Pushing them open he noted two things.  The first was that it had begun to snow while he was putting on his coat, and the second was that the turntable was lined up for track 4.  He jogged to the turn table shack and quickly engaged the table until it spun and lined up with track 2, where #10 sat.  He then quickly made his way back to #10 and climbed aboard.  Noting that the gauge now sat directly on the 260 mark, he could could see the safety valve beginning to leak steam.  Another minute and it would burst open disrupting the sleep of those that lived nearby.  Luckily he was about to release some of that pressure.  He slipped the Johnson bar into reverse, opened the cylinder cocks, and pulled back slightly on the throttle.  In a cloud of steam, the locomotive eased slowly out of the roundhouse and onto the turntable. By the time he had her balanced on the table her pressure gauge had dropped by 20 pounds.  He quickly climbed down from the cab and walked to the turntable shack.  Engaging the table he swung over to and lined up with track 5.  Track 5 lead from the turntable directly into the yard and passed over the ash pit on the way.  He locked the table in place and climbed back into the cab.  With the cocks still open he released the brakes and eased the locomotive off the table and towards the pit.  
The steam from the cylinders and stack seemed to hang in the frigid air forever as the locomotive crept along.  The wind had picked up a bit and the smoke and steam swirled around the locomotive as she moved down track 5.   Clem eased up to the pit and came to stop.  He peered into the firebox again and noting the location of the coals he reached for the rake. He pushed the coals in the firebox towards the front until he had cleared the back half of the box of any burning coal.  He then reached over with his foot and pressed the grate pedal for the back half of the grates.  With a loud clanking the back grates cranked open and dumped their contents into the ash pan.  He shook the grates a few times to clear them of all the ash then let them close with a loud bang. Then he pulled the fire back towards the back of the firebox until the front grates were clear. Reaching over with his foot he then dumped the front grates.  They clanked loudly as he shook them to clear out the ash.  Clem then hopped down from the cab and began to clean the ash pan.  Once the pan had been cleaned he pushed the fire back out over the grates and built up some pressure before moving the engine back into the roundhouse.  Once inside again, he climbed from the cab and stepped outside for a moment to enjoy the quiet of the night.  The snow was coming down heavily now and already most of the tracks were covered in a thin layer of the stuff. He listened to the snow fall from the sky for a few minutes before reaching out and pulling the two big doors closed.  Then he climbed back into the cab of #10, and banked the fire for the night.  She now had plenty of water, plenty of coal, and plenty of pressure.  She wouldn't need attention again until tomorrow afternoon. 
Clem moved on to the next locomotive in line, #237, a stately looking 2-8-0 Consolidation. #237 was built new in 1907, for the Central Texas & Northwestern. One of the very few locomotives ordered new by the railroad, she was part of an order of 5 tacked onto the back end of a Santa Fe Railroad order. A couple of her sisters had been sold off over the years to smaller railroads, but 237  had managed to stick it out.  
And Clem was familiar with this locomotive as it was the one he generally pulled when running the Ennis to Cleburne transfer. She was cantankerous to fire due to a touchy oil valve. There was a nice sweet spot in the middle when running along the main, but to much towards off and the fire would choke. And to much towards full on would flood the firebox with fumes and could cause the box to dynamite. She was especially hard to stoke as she loved to dynamite when sitting still. Clem had managed to find a spot on the oil stick that she seemed to be happy with earlier, but approaching now, he could hear the fire choking a bit. He swung himself up in the cab and opened the firebox door. Inside the fire seemed to dance and burn dimly as it tried to stay lit. Clem reached over and tapped the oil stick up a hair and the fire quieted down and burned brightly in the back of the box. He glanced over the gauges and checked the engines condition. Plenty of water in the boiler he noticed, and even though the fire hadn't been burning to well, she seemed to be holding pressure nicely. Just a five pound drop since he was in the cab last. She was happy tonight. 
Another engine, ordered brand new by the railroad, sat on track four, #101. Built in 1902 #101 was a 2-6-0 and one of 2 in her class. She came from an order that had been added to a Southern Pacific build. Known as prarie mallets by the SP crews that ran them, she perfomed flawlessy on the line that ran from Ennis to Cleburne. She was a good runner and a favorite among the crews, even Clem. But he very rarely got to run her. Clem lifted himself up into the cab of the #101 and checked the fire in the firebox. It was burning brightly. The water level was a bit low, so he added some to the boiler and then shut it off. He climbed down out of the cab and grabbed a nearby rag. Wipping the grease and grime from his hands, he walked back across the roundhouse floor. At the door, he turned around and glanced back at his charges for the evening. Then he hung the rag on a nail next to the door and reached to his right to turn out the light. The interior of the roundhouse was thrown back into an inky darkness, and he stood there listening to the four sleeping dragons snore away. Then he walked back into the office and shut the door behind him.

 


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