Along for the Ride
In which Dodger puts in an order for fried chapeau.
The cab was fairly ordinary, with the usual firebox in place at the middle, feeding the engine, and the standard array of instruments toward the right, including a few extra switches and toggles with which Dodger was unfamiliar. Amidst the pulleys and levers, there rested a ship’s wheel, promising the use of the train’s proposed navigational abilities. A padded swivel stool, upon which the driver sat, was bolted to the floor in front of the instruments. To the right of the helm a row of safety goggles hung from a series of hooks. Below these stood a wooden cupboard. A wide window was set above the helm, with a fine-mesh screen covering to keep out the debris—a luxury, considering most cabs relied on a half-open structure for keeping an eye on the tracks. Open portholes were cut from each side wall of the cab and from the door at the back. All of the windows were fitted with metal shutters on the inside, allowing them to seal off if need arose.
Everything seemed in place, and almost normal for a locomotive cab. If anything, it was on the large side, with the extra space put to good use. The driver had crammed a hammock into one corner of the cab, below which sat a footlocker and evidence of day-to-day living. There was even a sloppy hand-painted sign hung over the hammock that proudly declared: Ash, hash or cash! No free rides! It wasn’t unusual for the driver to claim some space of his cab for himself, so this was nothing out of the ordinary.
It was what Dodger failed to see that started a chain reaction of wonders.
“Where’s your fireman?” he asked.
“Don’t need one,” Ched answered.
“You pull double duty then?”
Dodger eyed the driver, then the professor, who stood at the back of the cab near the boilers. “Would either of you like to explain? Or shall it remain one of life’s great mysteries?”
The professor stepped to the left side of the cab and tapped the floor with a foot. “I equipped the Sleipnir with an automatic stoker. It loads coal from the cargo car behind us. The engine has to be primed for initial pressure, but once the boilers reach maximum output, a turn screw under the housing continually feeds coal to the firebox, which in turn keeps the boilers heated. Ched can control the output with that lever there. As long as the coal feeder remain stocked, the stoker will continue to stoke.”
“Really?” Dodger asked as he stared at the metal slats under the professor’s feet. “I’ve heard of such things, but never seen one. Well, I guess until now.”
“Of course at the moment it’s running on what’s left behind in the shafts because we’ve disengaged from the hopper, which gives us a limited run time. But I’m sure you know as much. I’d be glad to dismantle the panels later for your inspection, if you would like?”
“Perhaps. This is really fascinating. An auto-stoker. Never thought I’d live to see the day. Kind of a shame to put a man out of a perfectly good job like that, though. Not that I’m accusing or anything.”
“Shuitsh me jusht fine,” Ched said in a clipped manner.
“Yes well, you do benefit the most from it,” the professor said.
“Doesn’t that leave you up here alone?” Dodger asked.
“Like I shaid,” Ched said. “Shuitsh me fine.”
Ched let the matter drop at that, returning his attention to the instruments before Dodger could pursue the line of questioning any further. As the driver pulled levers and flipped switches, the professor motioned for Dodger’s attention. Dodger stepped closer to the older man and leaned in to hear what he had to say.
“Ched prefers to work alone,” the professor explained in a low voice. “In truth, I found it almost impossible to keep a fireman aboard. So the stoker was more necessity than luxury.”
“What kept the men away?” Dodger asked.
“Is it not obvious?” The professor wrinkled his nose, as if to prove the point.
Dodger had noticed the moment they entered the cab that the driver’s odd smell permeated the very atmosphere. It was a double dose of what Dodger had gotten before, but again he had grown used to such things long ago. The slaughter on a farm and the slaughter of combat only differed in the quarry. Otherwise, death smelled very much the same everywhere one went. It was more the overpowering scent of liquor that soured Dodger’s belly. He never liked the stuff, and sometimes just the smell of it brought back memories he didn’t care to entertain.
Still, the man’s odor was no worse than that of a sweaty soldier in full combat uniform, drinking rotgut under the heat of the midday sun.
Make that a dead sweaty soldier.
Dodger sniffed the air and whispered, “It’s not that bad.”
“Are you sure?” the professor asked.
“I’ve smelled worse.”
The professor’s mouth hung open in surprise. “You have?”
“Not by much, but sure.”
“Extraordinary,” the professor whispered, that smile returning to his lips and the gleam returning to his watery eyes. He crossed the cab to rejoin Ched near the helm, patting the driver on the shoulder as he ordered, “Ched! Get us along. We don’t have all day.”
“Yesh, shir,” the man answered and proceeded to pull the largest lever.
The train wheezed as it lurched forward, at first in slow spurts, then with ever smoother pace until it chuffed merrily along. Both Ched and the professor maintained their balance with well-practiced ease during these first few jolts. Dodger, however, stumbled a bit until he caught the edge of a cabinet. The other men eyed him with amusement, but said nothing.
“Sorry,” he apologized without knowing why. “It’s been a few years since I’ve been aboard a moving train.”
A moving train.
The echo of his own words sent a shot of comprehension to Dodger’s brain, lighting up his entire being with excitement. His next words were part question, part testimonial, part observation, part reassurance.
“Yes,” the professor said. “I do believe we are.”
Dodger all but leapt to the side porthole, where he proceeded to yank off his hat and shove his head out of the window into the passing breeze. They were moving. There was no doubt about that. They traveled along at a nice clip, picking up speed all the while. Dust and dirt and debris showered him as the train dashed along the wastelands that bordered the town of Blackpoint. Nevertheless, he pressed his shoulders against the narrow opening of the porthole, and craned his neck as far as he could, but it did no good. He couldn’t see the supposed self-laying tracks in action.
“Come out of there!” the professor shouted. “You’ll lose an eye like that!”
Dodger withdrew from the window, embarrassed but still curious.
The professor waved at the wall of goggles. “If you must hang your head out of the window like some excited animal, then please wear the provided safety gear.”
“Shaftey firsht,” Ched said, then chuckled.
“I only wanted a better look at the tracks,” Dodger said.
“Why didn’t you just say so,” the professor said. “Ask and ye shall receive. But first you must step outside of the yellow line, please.”
The professor gave the crank to his right a quick wind, which in turn controlled a small section of flooring marked off by a yellow box. As the man cranked, the section slid away, revealing a top view of the SMART system in action. Yes, they were moving, and yes, the tracks were laying and lifting themselves. As with the helm window, a fine mesh was stretched across the aperture, keeping out the debris kicked up by the movement. Mesmerized by the motion of the system, Dodger watched in silent awe. Every so often, he could hear the scrape of the mechanical stoker beneath him, feeding the boilers and freeing the driver to work without the bother of stuffing the firebox.
“Well?” the professor asked. “What do you think?”
“What do I think?” Dodger asked without looking up. He held his hat out to the pair of men across the cab, letting it dangle from his fingers as he looked up and said, “I think I’ll take it battered and deep fried with a side of horseradish, if you have any.”
“Told ya show,” Ched said from his place at the helm. “She never failsh to impresh.”
From his vest, the professor removed a timepiece, which he checked between chuckles. “Looks like my five minutes are up, Mr. Carpenter. Did I use them wisely?”
“I’ll say,” Dodger said.
“How far out do ya wanna take her?” Ched asked.
“What do you think, Mr. Carpenter?” the professor asked. “A few miles more?”
“Yes, please,” Dodger said. “If you don’t mind, I would like to see her navigate.”
“By all means! Ched, show him how our little lady turns.”
“Yesh, shir!” Ched shouted.
The driver spun the train’s steering wheel, and with his movements, there came a distinct sway in the body of the cab. Beneath them, the SMART system shifted diagonally, in time with the wheel’s demands, turning the cab back and forth as she raced across the open desert. To and fro and back again, the cab swayed and swerved. It didn’t take long for Dodger to realize that the cab wasn’t just turning in random patterns.
Ched had her doing wide figure eights right there in the barren dirt.
Again, Dodger fell speechless. A million questions leapt to mind, but try as he might, not a one would rise to his tongue. He was impressed, but even more, he was captivated. It had been many years since something—anything—left him silent with pleasant wonder. He had almost forgotten what it was like to admire something, or someone, for that matter. Both in his private and professional life Dodger had seen his share of bad dealings, as well as bad people. Perhaps too much for one lifetime. Some nights, when the ghosts of his memories clawed at his subconscious, refusing to allow him the peace of sleep, it seemed that he had seen too much for a few lifetimes. And on the worst of these nights, when the shrieks of those specters were at their loudest, the promise of his razor’s sharp release was the single thing left for him to admire.
But now this.
All at once he felt terrible for using an assumed name. He wondered if it were too late to back out of it, to confess his lie before he dug himself a deeper hole. He supposed not. It wouldn’t do to let your potential employer know you’ve lied to him before you even got the job. Besides, the man might start to ask questions, and the moniker was designed to keep questions to a minimum. Questions begged for answers. Answers Dodger was nowhere near prepared to give.
Whether he liked the man or not.
“That’s enough of that, I should think,” said the professor. He followed this with a soft belch. “Excuse me.” The poor man was a bit green around the gills.
“Thanks, Ched,” Dodger said. “I appreciate the demonstration.”
“Not a problem,” Ched said. “Of courshe, we don’t get the shame shpeed when hauling the whole line. All dat extra weight. Ya shee?”
“I see. What is her top speed?”
“Carrying the whole load, she can pitch about shixty milesh an hour. But if I get a man to shovel along shide the shtoker, we can get a lot more.”
“How much more?”
The man didn’t answer. He just smiled his rictus grin. “We aughta head back now. Feng will throw a fit if we’re late.”
“Oh yes, please get us back on time if you can, Ched. I don’t wish to invoke the ire of a man who prepares my meals.”
Dodger’s belly grumbled at the mention of food. In the excitement of everything, he had almost forgotten his promised lunch. He just hoped the professor hadn’t forgotten as well.
The train swung about, and Ched opened the controls wide, letting her run at top speed as they made their way back to the rest of the line. “Sho, how do you like my little lady now?”
Dodger grinned. “Again, I owe you both an apology. She’s amazing. I would love to see the whole of her in motion.”
“That can be arranged.” Ched gave Dodger another eerie grimace of a smile, which slipped into a scowl as something beyond Dodger’s shoulder grabbed the driver’s attention. He snatched a pair of goggles from the row behind them and pulled them on, then pushed past Dodger to look out of the porthole.
“Ched?” the professor asked.
“I hate to shay thish, but we have company.”
“Company?” Dodger asked.
“Oh no,” the professor whispered. “Please don’t tell me that.”
Staring into the distance through the porthole, Ched announced, “Looksh like shix of ‘em … no five … on horshback. Rifelsh and pishtolsh. Drawn and ready for actshion. Dere lookin’ for a fight, shir.”
When Ched moved away from the window, Dodger took his place, but couldn’t see the supposed five men on horseback bearing rifles and pistols. All he saw were a few dark blotches on the horizon, wavering in the heat of the early afternoon sun. “Damn, son. I’ve never seen someone so sharp eyed. You can see all that?”
Pulling levers and switches as fast as his thin arms could manage, Ched titled his head to the row of goggles. “Grab a pair and shee for yourshelf.”
The professor was already helping himself to a pair.
Dodger had seen other drivers and rail workers sport such eyewear when he was on his old line. The protection the goggles afforded was evident, but he never cared for the things, put off by the effect the thick lenses had on his vision. He always felt like he was viewing things through a layer of water when he wore a pair. But Ched’s recommendation intrigued him, so he pulled a set off a nearby hook, surprised by their weight once he had them in his hands. They seemed heavier than a pair of safety goggles had any right to be. Slipping the leather strap over his head, he grunted in frustration as the things settled into place over his eyes. The lenses were dark, blocking his vision entirely.
“These things are useless,” he said. “I don’t see anything.”
“Hang on a moment,” the professor said.
Someone laid a hand on his shoulder, turning him about. There was a pressure on his nose as this same person pressed on the goggles themselves. A click sounded, and with it, the slatted aperture that covered the lenses twisted open and the world came into sharp focus. Almost too sharp. Dodger could see every pore on the professor’s bulbous nose. With a few more adjustments, Dodger’s vision pulled back until it seemed normal enough.
“The knobs on the right control distance and detail,” the professor said, pointing to the knobs on his own goggles.
Dodger ran a hand over the right side of his pair, and found that a small cropping of knobs had risen where all was smooth before.
“The focus is automatic,” the professor said. “Though you can adjust for more detail with the smallest knob. The button on the left hand side improves night vision. Don't push it now unless you desire to blind yourself. The button on the nose will shut them down when you’re done with them. And please remember to shut them down when finished. I find the gears tend to stick if left in one position for too long.”
Dodger pressed the button, and with a snick, the aperture closed and the goggles returned to their dormant state. He pushed it again, and the things came to life. “Professor … these are amazing.”
“Thank you. I call them the Sight Perfecting, Enhancing and Clarification Spectacles, or SPECS. And I do encourage you to heap that well-deserved praise upon my person at a later date. If we have a later date. Ched, can we outrun them?”
“Even if we do, they’ll jusht follow our tracksh. We’d be leadin’ em shtraight back to the resht of the line.”
“Yes, and without the blower behind us, there is little we can do about that.”
“We might make it back a few minutesh before they catch up, but I can’t couple and haul ash that fasht. Shorry, Doc.”
“Then bring her about and head for them. They can’t have the Sleipnir! I won’t let them!”
“Hang on!” With a jolting swing, the driver gave the wheel a wild spin, turning the cab around to face the oncoming enemies. The car threatened to tip over as they spun in as tight a circle as the SMART system would allow, sending a cloud of dirt and dust into the air.
Once the fog of debris cleared, Dodger looked over the driver’s shoulder, out the helm window. He worried the mesh screen would consume his field of vision, but after some adjustment, the screen blurred away and the five men came into view. Just as Ched reported, the men were armed, driving their horses hard. They also bore a familiar appearance; a bandana covering each face was enough to suggest their intention.
“I don’t think they’re concerned about your whole train,” Dodger said. “I think you’re just a convenient target.”
“What makes you say that?” the professor asked.
“How many of those posters did you hang?”
“Maybe five or shix,” Ched said. “Jusht in a few tavernsh in the area. Doc shaid to shtay low key.”
“I thought as much,” Dodger said. “If those men were interested in your whole line, they would have ambushed you at the place you advertised you would be, rather than on the way.”
“You think?” the professor asked.
“It’s far easier to rob a stationary train than a moving one. My guess is that they’re just bandits after your money and cargo. They probably have mistaken you for a coach. Plain and simple.”
“That’s a relief!” the professor shouted, looking quite relieved as he did.
Dodger had never seen anyone happy about being robbed.
“Fat chansh,” Ched said with a snort.
“You feel differently?” Dodger asked.
“Differently? Carpenter, it ish my great pleashure to be the firsht to inform you that when you ride with the Doc, nothing ish ever plain and shimple.”
“Ched!” the professor cried. “Don’t be so rude.”
“He hash to learn shometime.”
“Yes, but no need to scare him off before he starts. How long do we have before engagement?”
“At thish rate? Maybe ten minutesh. Maybe lessh.”
“What do you recommend we do?”
The cabin fell quiet at his question. Dodger didn’t envy Ched’s position. The men were approaching fast, and Ched was faced with a rough choice: stop the train and face them down, or try to take them on while moving. Either way, a shootout against that many was bound for failure. The only other option was surrender.
“Well?” the professor asked.
It was then that Dodger realized the professor was speaking to him.