Riding the Rails – Amelia C. Adams

Mercy Davis pulled her cap low on her head and peeked out from behind the large tree where she’d been hiding, checking on the positions of the three railroad workers who had been sitting on the edge of the platform. The train whistle had just sounded, and she knew that her next ride, her ticket to freedom, was about to come around the bend. Ticket to freedom? She tried not to laugh aloud at her thought—she didn’t have a ticket. If she did, she wouldn’t be in this predicament. The men had moved down the length of the platform, and the tracks lay between her and them. When the train pulled in, if she could find an unlocked door on her side, she could slip in without being seen. The train itself would make the perfect cover. This station was tiny—little more than a place for the trains to take on more water and perhaps a bit of coal, maybe for passengers to visit family not lucky enough to live in a more civilized town. Mercy had heard the men talking about the next stop, a larger place called Creede. She didn’t care much about town names unless they were talking about Denver. That was her destination, and once she was there, all her troubles would be over. Sure, she’d still have to find work, but in a town that size, it should be easy. So much easier than it had been out in California, where everyone was scrambling to get by however they could. The train eased into the station, letting out a puff of smoke and a moan that sounded like an old woman trying to get up from her rocking chair at the end of a long day. Mercy waited until she heard the baggage car door open on the far side, and then she began trying the latches on her side.

She didn’t dare go too far down the length of the train or she might be spotted by the engineer, but she wasn’t having any luck with the twelve or fifteen cars nearest her. She’d have to take her chances with going around and sneaking on the first open car she saw. She turned up the collar of her coat, putting her weight down as slowly as she could as she came around the caboose. The men’s backs were to her as they grabbed a few trunks from the car and set them on the platform, and she edged forward, praying that the oncoming dusk would hide her from their wary eyes. One car near the end had an open door—well, partially open, but that was good enough. She grasped the handle and hopped up inside just as the man nearest her turned around. She edged into the shadows, closed her eyes, and held her breath, wondering if he’d seen her. No one shouted or reached in to drag her out. Instead, the door was closed and locked, and she exhaled. She’d made it.

She could begin the next leg of her journey. Oh, no. Oh, please, no. As she took her first deep breath and the stench hit her nose, her eyes flew open, and she looked around. There had to be a dozen cows in that car. She counted—yes, there were twelve cows sharing the space, and all the smells that went along with it. Why hadn’t she noticed this was a stock car? Why hadn’t she seen the ventilation slats in the walls? Because the door was open and had covered them up, that’s why. But she still should have been wiser. The smell was overpowering, and the door was locked. She was trapped.

She weighed her options. She could pound on the door and see if anyone could hear her. The train wasn’t moving yet, so there might still be someone on the platform. If they heard her, though, they’d toss her off the train, and chances were good that she’d spend a night or two in jail. Then what would happen to her? A poorhouse of some kind? She had no idea, and she didn’t think she could stomach trying to figure it out. She’d been through so much already—she was exhausted, and she just wanted this to be over. Her other alternative was to stay exactly where she was and tough it out. She didn’t know how far away this Creede place was, so she had no way of guessing how long she’d be in this wretched car. But the manure piles seemed to be on that side, at least for now, and the cows were each on a tether, meaning that they were staying put and weren’t likely to bring their manure-dropping selves closer to her. “Oh, Mother, what should I do?” she whispered, reaching into her pocket and clutching the small locket she kept tucked away in there.

She wasn’t sure her mother could even hear her and she was positive she’d receive no answer, but it felt good to say her name aloud. It kept her from feeling quite so alone. There was a hay bale in the corner that looked somewhat clean and undisturbed, and Mercy sat down on it. From there, she could rest her forehead against the door and breathe fresh air through the slats. It wasn’t a first-class seat on the passenger car, but it was a lot more comfortable than she’d anticipated, and she took that as her answer. She’d stay where she was, and she’d keep praying for the best. Denver. She just had to get to Denver. Then everything would be all right. *** The sound of a whistle caught Heston Granger’s attention, and he hopped up from his place on the bench outside the station.

It was hard work loading and unloading baggage and the hundreds of pounds of supplies from the multiple trains that came through Creede. Mr. Medina, the stationmaster, didn’t begrudge the men a few minutes of rest when they could snatch them, but when the whistle blew, they were expected to be in place, looking sharp and ready to work. This being the last train of the night, he would soon be on his way home to a hot dinner and a comfortable bed, both of which he needed badly. This time around, there weren’t many passengers who were fixing to stay. Most were riding through to Denver, and that suited Heston fine because it meant he was only pulling a few trunks from the baggage car. However, there was also a stock car, and according to the conductor, it held one dozen cows deliverable to a Mr. E. Yoder. “I’m sorry—you did say Yoder, correct?” Mr.

Medina asked. “That’s right. Says so here.” The conductor flipped his clipboard around and showed it to Mr. Medina, who squinted at it in the lantern light. “I’m not aware of a Yoder family living in this area. Are you, Heston?” Mr. Medina turned and included Heston in the conversation. “No, sir. Do you have an address for this man?” Heston asked.

“’Fraid not. Just says E. Yoder, Creede, Colorado.” Mr. Medina looked up and down the platform. “I don’t see anyone here to claim the animals, and I have no way of knowing where they should go. What are we expected to do with a dozen cows?” “I don’t know, sir. I only know that I’m supposed to drop twelve heifers at this stop, and I’m not authorized to take them one mile more. Besides which, we need to get them unloaded within the next few minutes or we’ll disrupt the entire train schedule. I’ve got places to be in the morning, and I need time to get there.

” Mr. Medina put his hands on his hips. “I’m not a stockyard, sir. This is a train station.” “But you do have stock that comes through here, don’t you? Where do you put it?” “It’s usually brought by at least a few cattle drivers who know how to create perimeters and keep things under control!” Mr. Medina wiped his hand down his face. “Heston, do you have any ideas?” Heston grabbed hold of the door and pulled it open, studying the cows inside. In the darkness, he could just make out that they all wore halters and had lead ropes, so that was something. “It’s not the best, but we could tie them up along there for now,” he said, nodding to a long, rickety fence that separated the train station from the overgrown piece of land beyond. “They’d have something to graze on overnight, at least.

” Mr. Medina seemed to think about it, then nodded. “All right, that’s what we’ll do. But if this Mr. Yoder doesn’t come to claim his animals within a reasonable amount of time, I’m considering them collateral damage, and I’ll sell them. Unless the previous owner wants to collect them, of course.” The conductor nodded. “I’ll copy down what information I have for you.” While Mr. Medina and the conductor handled the paperwork, Heston carried the loading ramp into place and secured it, then climbed into the stock car to begin the task of bringing the cows down to the ground.

When he stepped inside, he thought he saw something move out of the corner of his eye. He didn’t think much of it—he was surrounded by cows, after all, and things were bound to move. But when he untied the first animal and turned to lead her off the car, he stopped, brought up short by a shadowy figure huddled in the corner. It certainly didn’t look like a cow. He’d been trained to keep his eyes out for stowaways, and protocol demanded that he call out for backup. Before he could draw in a breath, though, the person whispered, “Please. I can explain. Just . don’t turn me in.” Heston paused, his thoughts churning.

He’d worked at the station for a couple of years now, and Mr. Medina called him his right-hand man. It meant a lot to him that he was so trusted. If he let this stowaway go, he risked losing Mr. Medina’s confidence in him, which also meant losing his reputation, and he’d be hard put to find another job in Creede. But there was a note of desperation in the stowaway’s voice, even though it was little more than a whisper, and Heston couldn’t turn his back on someone in need. “Wait until I’m off the train,” he said, his voice low. “Hide in that small grove of trees behind the station. I’ll meet you there in a little while with something to eat. If you’re not there, I’ll have the marshal and his deputies after you within minutes.

” The figure nodded, and Heston gripped the cow’s lead rope a little tighter. What was he doing? Throwing his job away on behalf of a freeloader, that’s what. He knew he’d regret it—he already did regret it. He led the cow down the ramp, over to the fence, and tied her up, then returned for the next one. It looked like the passengers had all debarked and had collected their luggage—Barney had taken care of all the trunks while Heston was dealing with the cows. He’d buy a drink for Barney the next day as a thank you. He didn’t see the stowaway anywhere, which could be either good or bad. “Heston, when you’re done with the cows, would you please give these men a ride into town?” Mr. Medina asked, motioning to a couple of gentlemen in dark suits who stood near the ticket booth. “Of course.

I’d be glad to,” Heston responded automatically. How was he supposed to deal with the stowaway and give these men a ride? Was he even sure the stowaway was waiting for him in the trees? The fellow might have taken off as soon as his feet hit the ground. Once all the cows were tied along the fence, Heston excused himself for a moment, saying that he needed to wash up. After a quick detour into the storage shed, he slipped off into the trees. “Hello?” he called out in a whisper, feeling like an idiot. He was likely there alone, talking to himself, having been conned by someone who thought nothing of telling a sad tale to get out of trouble. “Over here.” He startled. He hadn’t expected anyone to answer him. He took a few steps, then crouched to go the remaining distance.

“I’m glad you’re here,” he said to the figure he could see in the moonlight. “Thank you for keeping your promise.” The stowaway shrugged. “Listen,” Heston went on. “I have to leave for a little while, but I’ll be back as soon as I can. And I’m sorry to do this to you, but I can’t take a chance that you’ll run off.” He reached out and caught the fellow’s wrist, clapping a handcuff around it. Within seconds, the stowaway sat with his back up against a small tree, his hands shackled behind him. “What . what .

” he spluttered. “I really am sorry, but I’ll be right back and then we can talk.” Heston came to his feet. “If it makes you feel any better, the marshal gave us those handcuffs and authorized us to use them in cases like this, so I’m not breaking the law by chaining you to that tree.” “It makes me feel so much better.” “I’m sorry. That was a dumb thing for me to say. I really will be right back.” Heston crept out of the trees, then walked back to the train station to collect his passengers. “I know an excellent place where you can spend the night,” he told them.

“Let’s be on our way.”

.

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