> Addie
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~ ~ Chapter 1 ~ ~

       On a humid afternoon in early April, a Baldwin four-four-oh diamond-stacker hauling an ornate private parlor car chuffed off the San Sebastian curve and squealed to a halt at the home signal fifty feet beyond the Squirrel Creek telegraph shack. This altered the rhythms Addie Carson had come to associate with life at the railhead across the county road from the Palmetto Canteen, where she cooked and baked and served table. Passenger trains — even unscheduled shorties like this one — just didn’t stop a mile away from the station. Now that one had, curiosity sent her to the front window, where she parted the curtains and searched for the cause. Nosiness became amusement when she saw the Baldwin sitting cowcatcher to cowcatcher with the potato train out of Hastings. They had met at the crossover and now formed a hissing, panting blockade for No. 208, which was waiting to push a string of empties into the sorting area on the other side of the main. Both conductors and the three engineers and their brakemen were converging on the shack, stomping through the shimmering heat, faces angry.
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       Addie shook her head and returned to freshen the coffee of Abner Gleason, who was squinting at the newspaper he’d spread out on the counter. “Wait long enough, and you see everything,” she said. “Two hogs are kissing out there on the high iron, smack in the middle of the afternoon sort. A real gathering of the clan.”
       Gleason, a leathery, dour man, was on call and waiting to report as fireman on the evening mail haul to Mayport. He looked up from the newspaper. “You funnin’ me?”
       She nodded toward the window. “Somebody’s got a lot of explaining to do, wouldn’t you say?”
       He turned on his stool, craning, taking in the confusion outside. “Well, I’m damned.”
        “The parlor car is pretty fancy. Whose is it?”
        “Burke’s. And that’s the new Baldwin we been expectin’. Which makes that mess even worse than it looks. Best I go see if I can lend a hand.”
        “Not so fast. You owe me fifteen cents.”
        “That’s pure robbery, Addie. You been chargin’ ten for pie and coffee.”
        “My costs keep going up. And by the way, that’s my newspaper, so leave it here.”
        “Highway robbery.” Gleason pulled some coins from his overalls and dropped fifteen coppers, one by one, into her upturned palm. He went out, muttering.
       She put the money in the till, then leafed through the paper and took some time to catch up on the St. Augustine doings. The war had been over for twenty-three years, but today’s Examiner reported not the tiniest hint that the so-called War Between the States continued to rage hereabouts. Still, it was common knowledge that two nights ago a tool salesman from Connecticut had been beaten near to death by a gang of grove workers from Moultrie soon after leaving a grog shop on St. George Street. Nothing in the paper about that. It was obvious that the town’s journalists were truckling to the rich Yankee vacationers who’d begun to fill the fancier tourist hotels and weren’t about to suggest in public print that all was not well. But in the parlors and backyards and churches, everybody remained madder than hornets, with the majority hotly loyal to the defeated Confederacy. Everybody but Addie, that is. In her mind, those who deliberately prolonged the hostility, no matter what their politics, were nothing more than ignorant, self-destructive mudsills.
       She stifled a yawn and was considering the ladies’ fashion advertisements when the door crashed open and a large, blond-bearded man in railroad overalls strode in, skewering her with the bluest eyes she had ever seen.
        “Where’s Sam Willis?”
       She shrugged. “How should I know?”
        “We need a telegraph operator right now. They say Willis can handle a key.”
        “Wouldn’t do you much good to find Sam at any rate. I threw him out an hour ago. He was drunk, and I didn’t want him around. Besides, Billy Anderson is on duty at the ops shack over there, isn’t he?”
        “Anderson’s had a stroke or something.”
        “Are you sure he isn’t drunk, too? He has a fondness for the grape as big as Sam’s.”
        “I don’t know what ails him. But we need an op, and right now.”
        “No need to yell at me, mister.”
       The blue eyes blinked. “Yell?”
        “You’re yelling at me.”
       The man’s exasperation took on sarcasm. “Well, pardon me, Your Highness. But Billy, or whoever he is, let a jam build here, and worse yet, there’s a seized brake on the potato haul and we need time to fix it so we can back it onto the pass siding and clear the jam. Meantime, we got to halt the south-hound express before it clears Amity Junction or that jam outside is going to be turned into kindling and umpteen express passengers stand to be turned into hash. If that isn’t cause for yelling, what the hell is?”
       Many things about herself perplexed and annoyed Addie Carson, but one of the most irritating was her capacity for the irrelevant. Here was this enormous man barking at her like a cavalry sergeant, yet within her own indignation was a spot of coolness that enabled her to wonder how a backwoods railroader could speak such tidy, Yankee-fied English in such a beautiful, booming bass voice. And how, for all his six-foot-something, he could be so broad-shouldered and barrel-chested without looking chunky.
       She willed her mind away from this nonsense. “You mean you can’t wire Amity?”
        “What the hell do you think I’ve been yelling about?”
        “Then why are we wasting time? Lead on.”
        “Lead on? Lead on where?”
        “I can handle a key.”
       The disbelief in his stare was insulting, and she felt the heat flood her face. “So is there a law against a woman knowing how to send and receive Morse?”
        “Well, no — ”
        “Then please spare me your noisy lectures, mister, and let’s get over to that ops shack.”

       Burke was convinced that if something had been built by a man, he could eventually understand it, use it, and fix it, whether it was a machine, such as a locomotive, or a concept, such as economics and the currents of profit and loss. Where he began to move out of his depth was in those abstractions Aunt Lydia called “matters of the heart.” Not that he was insensitive or lacked intuition, but he was often awkward in his relations with females. His mother, the only woman he’d spent years with, had been a puzzle, what with her frequent seesawing between gaiety and sorrow, and that mercurial nature of hers had eventually made him treat any woman as a mystery deserving respectful caution.
       Today’s situation epitomized all this.
       The telegraph gave him no difficulty. Since it was relatively new to the industry, he hadn’t yet learned its procedures, remaining satisfied simply to accept it as a device for communicating between distant points by way of a dot-dash code sent electromagnetically over copper wires. But a woman had changed that in an instant. Here in the presence of these ragtag, smelly Squirrel Creek nobodies, the apparatus was no longer a product of applied science; it had become the amulet of a mysterious, magic-working, backwoods beanery queen.
       Who was she? How had she learned to do this trick? How and why had someone so obviously different, so. . . special. . . materialized in this godforsaken, subtropical nowhere?
       As she settled into the ops desk swivel chair and began to fuss with the sending key, he studied her for clues.
       She looked to be about thirty, and it was obvious that life wasn’t easy for her, struggling as she was on the rim of a masculine world, but it was also clear that this truth in no way daunted her. She wasn’t tall, but she carried herself — shoulders back, chin high — so as to suggest a regality that somehow raised her above those around her and made her central to any setting. Her dark hair, shiny and thick and tied in a bun, and even her dress, an ankle-length thing of nondescript cloth protected by a clean white apron, contributed to this impression of height and command. Nor did she display any of the coarseness he’d found to be so prevalent among country women. On the contrary: She was comely and refined to a degree that would be acceptable in any society, and there was a something — What? Sweetness? Serenity? — that he’d never before seen in a woman’s face. Yet in all of this was a paradox, the intimation of sensuality barely contained, and it was mainly this quality that intrigued him. Despite her surface composure, he sensed an underlying volcanic passion that could, given the appropriate conditions, erupt spectacularly.
       She was staring across the room, where Billy Anderson lay on a worktable, flat on his back and motionless. “Somebody should see to poor Billy over there.”
        “Ain’t anything anybody can do for Billy, ma’am,” one of the conductors said. “He’s dead. Died ten minutes ago.”
       She received the news, considered it, then nodded, in the manner of one who has just been reminded that the sun rises in the east. “He’s been working on that for years.”
       Burke, suddenly annoyed with himself and breaking free of his erotic speculations, pointed to the wall clock. “Send the message. We’re running out of time.”
       She scanned the faces around her. “What’s the call?” No one spoke.
        “I need to know how to call the Amity signalman.” The men exchanged baffled glances.
        “Look in the desk drawers,” Burke said. “There should be a call card somewhere around. It’s regulations.”
       She gave him a level stare. “You look. I’ll try to send an open message while you look for the card.”
       Burke shook his head. “Amity won’t answer without the proper identity code. It’s a security measure, to be sure unauthorized people aren’t tapping onto the line.”
        “Well,” she said coolly, “I’m not going to sit here doing nothing. Look for the card while I try it.”
       The long fingers of her right hand seemed to cup the key and, with barely discernible movements, began to send. As the instrument clattered, she spoke the words: “Calling Amity signal. . . Wreck warning . . . repeat . . . wreck warning. Absolutely . . . necessary . . . you stop . . . southbound express. Jam . . . on main end. . . Sebastian curve.”
       They waited, and the only sound in the room was the rustling and slamming of Burke’s desk-drawer search. The set clicked briefly.
        “What’s he say?” one of the conductors demanded tensely.
       Addie shrugged. “He wants my identity. He won’t answer until he knows my signal is real company business.” There was a round of exasperated glances.
        “What the hell,” Burke blurted. “Here it is. He had it fixed to the writing leaf. The call for Amity is KN, and for Squirrel Creek it’s KK.”
       Her hand resumed its tiny oscillations, and the clicking was loud, insistent.
       They waited.
       Then came an answering clatter.
       Burke saw the woman’s face go pale. “What did he say?” She was struggling to keep her composure. “Amity says we’re too late. The express passed there two minutes ago.”
        “Oh, my God.”
       She gave him a quick look. “Did anybody think to send out a signalman?”
        “Hell yes,” Burke snapped. “But the San Sebastian curve is a long one — a mile and a half at least. He’ll never get out there far enough and in time to signal a healthy stop.”
       The woman pushed back from the wire desk and stood. She pointed to the flag box in a corner. “Grab a couple of those flags and come with me.”
        “Come where?”
        “My horse and buggy are in the shed behind the canteen. We’ll ride the county road north to the two-mile marker. From there we can cut across the pasture and start flagging where the high iron goes into the San Sebastian. It’s our only chance. Unless we get to where the curve starts before the express does, the express is going to keep going, blind, at a speed that’ll surely take it smack into that jam out there — no matter where your flagman starts waving, and even if the engineer explodes his hog.”
        “Let’s go.”

       She insisted on driving the rig, and Burke didn’t protest. She knew the horse, she knew the road, and, Burke told himself, if he didn’t keep her busy, she might go to pieces on him. But even as he had the thought, he recognized its silliness. This was one woman who wasn’t likely to go to pieces over anything — leastwise not when anybody was watching. His mind went aberrantly to his mother and her hand-wringing, weepy ways, and he found he couldn’t even imagine this — What’s her name — being anything nearly like that.
       The horse was good and the rig was stout, and they thundered along the dusty clay road like something out of Ben Hur. At the two-mile highway marker she hauled into a clattering, whinnying turn to the west, and the buggy bounced, wheels spinning, into the pasture.
       In the northern distance a train whistle sounded.
        “Is this the best your animal can do?”
       The woman answered with a hoot, a kind of wild rebel yell, and the horse went into a crazy gallop. The buggy heaved and rolled, and the trailing dust cloud was enormous. And she kept up her hooting until they reached the edge of the shallow cut, where the track ran through a rise of bayonet palms and scrub myrtles. She reined the rig to a skidding halt, then swung to the ground. The quick snorting and thumping of the approaching express sounded clearly across the terrain.
        “Come on. Help me unhitch Ben.”
        “What in hell are you doing?”
        “They won’t see our flags. Not in all these weeds.”
        “So we’ll roll the buggy onto the track.”
        “That crew won’t keep on going after their engine has smashed a buggy to bits.”
        “Especially if they derail.”
        “Derail? Since when will buggy splinters derail a main-line four-three-oh?”
        “I’ve seen them derail over less.”
        “One thing for sure: You’ll see a lot worse than a derail if you don’t help me with Ben.”
       She seized the bit and worked Ben into a quick turnaround so the rig’s rear faced the cut.
        “Come on, man, help me unhitch these traces!”
        “What the hell do you think I’m doing, lady?”
       When the horse was in the clear, they each lifted a shaft and gave a mighty shove, sending the buggy down the incline, bouncing and clattering, in a cascade of dust.
       Panting, speechless, they watched as the express boomed into the cut and began its squealing, spark-throwing struggle to stop. The speed was too great, of course, and in seconds the locomotive’s cowcatcher caught up the buggy and reduced it to a mist of splinters.
       The train finally ground to a halt in a cloud of steam and gray smoke, and, after a stunned immobility, the engine crew, conductor, and brakeman dropped to the ground and began running about in the murk, waving their arms, shouting, and cussing.
       Watching somberly, breathing heavily, Burke and the woman sank side by side into the grass in a kind of slow collapse. After a time they traded lingering stares and then, abruptly, broke into uncontrollable laughter.
       After the hysteria had run its course, he heard her say, “The railroad owes me a buggy.”
       He took a long breath, exhaling slowly, savoring this simple process as confirmation of calamity avoided and life renewed. “I’ll see that you get it at once.”
       She gave him a skeptical glance. “Will you, now. You have influence with the railroad?”
        “Pretty much. I own it.”
       He could see the surprise she was trying to hide. “So you’re Thaddeus Burke?”
        “People call me Burke. Plain Burke.”
        “I’m Adeline Carson. People call me Addie.” The surprise had turned to curiosity. “How come you’re in overalls? Millionaires wear frock coats and top hats and shiny shoes.”
        “I like locomotives. I like to drive them. I’d look almighty silly wearing a top hat in an engine cab.”
       She smiled faintly.
        “Well,” he said, rising to his feet, “I’d better get down there. Will you be all right?”
        “Sure. I’ll ride Ben back to the canteen.”
       He gave her an appreciative inspection. “You’re quite a woman, Addie Carson.”
        “Indeed I am, Plain Burke.”
       He laughed and went down to the train.

Copyright © 2001 and 2008 by Jack D. Hunter.  All rights reserved.  No part of this document may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.

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