The Phantom Freight

It was the early hours of morning when the telephone ran.  LeRoy was the first to be roused out of his sleep and before it had finished ringing twice he was there. "Hello," he said brusquely trying to get the sleep out of his voice.


"Sorry to wake you LeRoy, but we've had a report of a signal outage around milepost 541.  The conductor on the East man reported it when they cleared the canyon."


"OK, I'll head down that way as soon as I can get my stuff together."  As he hung up the receiver he noted to himself how he really wasn't surprised.  It had been raining steady for the last three days and each night he'd expected to get a call.  Over on the mainline above Crescent Lake a freight train had hit a slide two nights ago and put the engine and twenty cars over the bank.


After slipping on his trousers and shirt he climbed into his bib-overalls.  He picked up his keys from the table near the door and fastened the leather throng attached to his railroad watch to the front of the overalls.  After taking his rain gear off the hanger behind the wood stove he picked up the lunch bucket that Marcy had prepared the night before.  Quietly he walked back into the bedroom to bend over and give Marcy a goodbye kiss.  "There's trouble in the canyon so I may be late tonight, honey," he softly said as he turned and walked out the door.


As he stepped off the front porch of the railroad car sitting on the ground that had served as their home for over ten years he pulled his collar higher to keep the rain from running down the back of his neck.  His first stop was the depot to call Portland and talk with the dispatcher.  He couldn't go into the canyon on the motor car, or speeder as some people liked to call them, until he had a copy of the train order.  That would tell him when trains would be coming through the canyon and where he could expect them to be.


From the depot he walked to his tool house.  This is where he did his paper work at the desk near the pot-bellied coal burning stove.  It was also the place where he prepared the components of the acid and lead batteries which he built at the semaphore signals along the railroad.  The tool house was cold and damp as the fire had long since died-out but there was no time to build another since there was trouble to be fixed.


In the back of the tool house was the motor car and now he made a mental inventory of what tools he might need to correct the problem.  If it was a tree through the lines he would need his climbing gear to splice the wires?  Or perhaps it was just a broken bond wire which connects each section of track to complete the circuit.  Since the trouble was fifteen miles down the canyon he definitely didn't want to forget a tool that might be needed.  Quickly but deliberately he filled all of the available space on motor car with parts and tools.


It was still a couple of hours until sunrise when he pulled the doors to the tool house open and slowly shoved the motor car down the wooden ramp until it was sitting crossways on the middle of the main tracks.  Then he pulled the wooden lifting handles out from the back and lifted the entire rear of the little car upward until the small railroad wheels cleared the ground.  Carefully he stepped sideways and over the tracks until the motor car was aligned with the tracks.  Now he had to crank the engine to start it.  He adjusted the switches on the small deck inside the motor car and then stepped around to the front and cranked the engine.  After several attempts the little machine began to run.  Now he moved back into the seat and gently increased the gas as he pulled a lever to tighten the belt.  Slowly the motor car moved forward down the rails.  Within a mile he had left the town behind.  It was still dark and raining but he had traveled this path many times and as he passed familiar objects at the edge of the tracks he could see in his mind's eye what was beyond the illumination of the small headlight pointed down the tracks.


It was cold sitting on the motor car as the wind pulled the rain around the front and in on the sides.  He was thankful for the piece of canvas on the back of the motor car.  Sometimes he thought about using the pieces that had been provided for the sides but he knew the danger of not being able to quickly jump if an unexpected rock slide or fallen tree loomed ahead.


Now he was traveling about 25 miles an hour.  There was no gauge to tell him how fast he was going but rather he judged from experience.  The steady rhythm of the rail joints sounded, "Clickty, clickty, clickty" as the little machine traveled further into the canyon.


Soon he passed through several tunnels that were a quarter to half mile long.  In addition to seeing the entrance or portal as he entered he felt the temperature change.  At the edge of the tracks he saw the water and muck from where the walls always wept.  After the tunnels he passed the trail which used to go to where the old hermit used to live.  As he went by it reminded him of when the deputy sheriff had asked LeRoy to take him down to the hermit to serve a warrant.  As they walked up the trail in the afternoon they came upon a cocked and loaded rifle that was tied to a stump and pointed across the trail.  There was a string across the trail and connected to the trigger.  They'd disconnected the rifle and the deputy had taken it up and confronted the old hermit.  The hermit had said it was to kill a deer for food and after serving the warrant and some strong words the deputy had taken the rifle.  Several years later someone had found the old hermit dead and a short time later his cabin had burned.  They said it was spontaneous combustion with a wink.


As he approached the mile post where the trouble had been reported LeRoy slowed the motor car and took a strong flashlight and pointed it at the signal wires.  Soon he saw the trouble was a large limb had fallen across the wires.  They weren't broken but rather two of them were wrapped together.  He stopped the motor car on the tracks.  He took several sections of long poles and connected them together until he could reach the limb and the wires.  This would be easier than he expected.  From where he stood he could see one of the semaphore signals at the edge of the tracks.  When the wires were the cleared the signal cleared itself.  But all of a sudden a terrible thing happened.  The signal went red.  This meant either more trouble or a train was coming.  He had a copy of the train order and no train was expected for some time.  Quickly he moved back to the motor car and put the pieces of pole away.  As he got ready to get back on the motor car his heart skipped a beat for there in the distance was an engine's headlight coming down the tracks.  It wasn't moving very fast but was still coming forward toward him.


Quickly he shoved the motor car down the tracks until it was moving backward.  Then he quickly tightened the belt and the engine turned over.  This was like starting a car by pushing it.  He was trying to get moving but the engine by now was almost on top of him.  All he could see out the front windshield was engine.  He thought to himself how sad it would be after all these years of being so careful to be killed on the tracks by a train.


The brakeman had seen him and yelled to the engineer.  They had slammed on the brakes and the entire train was slowly sliding to a stop.  They were right upon LeRoy by this time.  As he was trying to run backwards and the engineer trying to stop the engine just barely hit the front of the motor car and broke the headlight on the motor car.


The engineer and brakeman crawled down from the engine and walked forward to where LeRoy was sitting.  "Are you OK?"  the engineer asked as he looked around the side of the motor car.


LeRoy was too shaken to speak or move for several seconds.  Finally he answered, "Yeah, I guess so.  Where'd you fellows come from?  I don't understand it. I was certain that there were no trains for several hours."


"Well, you know how they are.  Sometimes they get things mixed up.  I'm just glad you’re OK.  We're behind schedule so if you'll let us by we'll be on our way."


LeRoy was still in shock.  "Yeah Ok, sure.  By the way what's your names?  I haven't seen you down here before."


"I'm Phillips and this here brakeman's Jones.  Now we really have to be on our way."


LeRoy pushed his motor car a short distance to a place where he could pick up the back end and pulled it off the tracks.  Soon the train had passed and LeRoy sat in the seat trying to collect his thoughts.  He took out the train order and studied it carefully.  There was no train scheduled for this time.  He tried to pour a cup of coffee out of his thermos but his hands were shaking too much.  Finally he threw the coffee away and resolved to go on down the canyon to the section house at West Fork.  Maybe his nerves would be steadier by then.


LeRoy put the motor car back on the tracks and pushed it forward until it started.  Soon he was slowly moving down the tracks toward West Fork.


When he got to West Fork the workman were just starting their day.  He pulled up at the section house and pulled the motor car from the tracks.  As he stepped into the section house out of the rain the men were standing around a stove finishing up a cup of coffee.


"Coffee, LeRoy?" the foreman asked as he poured a hot cup.


"Yeah thanks.  Did any of you fellows see a west bound man come through in the last hour?" he asked.


"No.  I've been up most of the night and there hasn't been anything since before midnight.  Why?"


"Oh nothing really," LeRoy paused and then scratching his head continued, "You know an engineer named Phillips?"


The section foreman got a puzzled look on his face and after several seconds of silence said, "Not in recent times.  Last engineer I knew with that name was Joe Phillips but he was killed when they hit a slide and went in the creek up at milepost 541.  That was a long time ago.  Must have been 15 years.  Just before the war started I think.  Both he and the brakeman were killed.  As I recall the brakeman's name was Jones... Ralph Jones.  What made you ask about Phillips, LeRoy?"


"Oh nothing, someone mentioned Phillips and I wondered who he was,"  LeRoy mumbled, too embarrassed to tell what had happened and starting to wonder if his mind was playing tricks on him.  "I need to check something on the motor car.  I'll be right back," he said as he set the coffee cup down and stepped out in the early morning drizzle.  He walked over to the motor car and looked at the headlight.  He had to look close but there it was...a crack in the glass.  But didn't he almost get run over with the train?  Once again he took the train order out of his pocket and studied it.  It was clear.  No train expected for several more hours.


As he turned and headed back toward the section house the gang was coming out to get started.  Thankfully the subject of Phillips and Jones didn't come up again.  LeRoy never mentioned it again but he always wondered to himself about that phantom freight when he passed milepost 541 on the motor car.