Western Union

We pulled out of the station three minutes behind schedule – there would be two hundred miles ahead.

I pulled the throttle open a little too fast and applied sand to control the wheel slip. Once the drivers regained traction we were off and running, accelerating quickly to sixty miles an hour. I adjusted the cutoff to keep up a comfortable pace without using too much steam.

I called over to Angel. “When we get past the grade crossing I’m going to make up the lost time from that last stop. The rails are dry, and it’s good weather ahead, running fast should not be a problem.”

One year ago, Angel began firing for me. At first, I was skeptical about having a female in the cab of a AT&SF Northern Class 4-8-4 number 3751, but Angel proved to be very capable, knowledgeable and strong.

In the cab this time of year, it gets quite hot and Angel had opted to wear her bib-overalls, post-era steel-toed work boots and gloves with the long firehose fabric gauntlets – and nothing else.

Distracting yes, but I am a professional engineer and I could put her diversions out of my mind.

“I’m going to blow down the boiler before the grade crossing,” Angel yelled to me over the roar of the firebox noise in the cab. “That-away I can have a boiler full of dry steam ready to go for the next one hundred miles.” Angel was always ahead of me. “Once we get under way after the grade crossing, I have a Western Union wire for you that the agent gave me at the last stop.”

Then, clang, blam and whoosh! All hell broke loose when Angel hit the blowdown petcock. The rusty and muddy water from the blowdown changed consistency as the mud from the bottom of the boiler blew out onto the side of the roadbed.

“Who’s it from?” I hollered over the blowdown blast. I watched as Angel leaned out her side of the cab window to check the progress of the blowdown.

When steam and boiling water were the only things blowing out, Angel shut off the petcock and announced, “Your editor.”

Angel leaned back into the cab and faced me, coyly releasing one of the snaps from the top of her overall bib and giving me a view of her pert, shapely right breast.

“For you after we finish with this trick,” she said with a mischievous grin.

The grade crossing was approaching; I saw the whistle sign blow by and got on the whistle cord, Wa-Waaa-Wa-Wa-Wa, I blasted away. I could see the flashing red warning lights come on as the crossing gates lowered. Back on the whistle for five more blasts, the standard code for whistling before crossings. No vehicles appeared; we flew by without incident.

I checked the rear of the train and waited ’til I could detect the last car, the observation coach, as it passed clear of the crossing. The red lights went out and I reached up to tug on the throttle.

“Read the telegram to me and stop fooling around with my feelings,” I admonished Angel.

Angel rearranged herself back into the bib of her overalls. She stepped over the foot plate and from her outer breast pocket, withdrew a Western Union telegram.

I still retained the vision of her exposed breast as she unfolded a yellow, 8 x 6″ piece of paper and read aloud:

“I need the fourth chapter of Michael and Lark ASAP: STOP.”

“And the first chapter of the second book of Secrets: STOP.”

“Send me more poetry and the next short story: STOP.”

“Get your mind out of the gutter and stop fooling around with Angel: STOP.”

“You will never achieve your dream if you don’t hurry up: STOP.”

Angel folded the Western Union wire and tucked it into my overall pocket next to my trainman’s watch. She turned coquettishly and slammed the firebox doors open with a loud clang. Angel reached for a long poker and raked some of the clinkers from the fire bed, before closing the doors and going back to her position at the left side of the cab.

“I saw the way you looked at the lady standing on the platform at Lamy,” she yelled over. “The one with the fashionable short skirt and the young boy who wanted to see the engine. They were going to Los Angeles, the new frontier, the West.”

A vision of that young woman, and her shapely calves, appeared in my mind, fresh, like the vision of Angel’s breast; neither one will leave me in my lifetime.

“Claire has been gone for two years now,” Angel interrupted my thoughts. “It’s time for you to find someone, you have seniority, and the new diesel engines are coming to passenger service soon and they’ll relegate this old steam engine to freight service. You can apply for the new engines, they’ll take you and then you can offer a woman security and a pension in your old age. Plus, a woman can help you achieve your dreams.”

I thought of my writing and then of the woman on the platform, of her young son, clinging to her knee. I wanted to do that, to have a woman to hold.

I reached for the throttle and eased the steam on. Adjusting the cut-off, the engine produced a mighty growl, we accelerated smoothly and quickly up to track speed. I would run this section of the trip fast, eighty-five, ninety, for one hundred miles at a time.

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