Sunday, February 8, 2009

Model #1

There are children, raised well by the village, that are expected to return the favor as adults, elevating by action or reputation the quality of life in the place that formed them. "Peanuts" Mendosa was not one of those children. That he lived to adulthood at all was viewed as a miracle by those that knew him, and in Model, Colorado, pop. 32 in 1931, everybody knew him. He was blessed or cursed, depending on one's point of view, by an intense curiosity for all things mechanical. He was always tearing something apart to see it's workings. Unfortunately, his talent for reassembly was lacking, to understate it.
- Peanuts wore pin-striped grease-stiffened bib overalls and an engineer's cap like the men he idolized in the roundhouse in Pueblo. In the summer he wore no undershirt and the denim didn't cover the welts his Penitente grandfather's quirt raised whenever a tool disappeared, or a vital part was left out after one of Peanuts' forays into whatever machinery was available. Even simple workings broke when Peanuts touched them, but he knew what he loved, and tinkered anyway. Occasionally the trains would stop in Model to take on water, and Peanuts would stare entranced by the hulking, snorting locomotive, studying it's parts like a glutton at a Thanksgiving feast. His dream was to work in the AT&SF roundhouse, and despite the reputation he developed, according to the ironies of God and the railroad, he eventually did just that.
- To call Model a whistle-stop town would be giving it too much credit. The train seldom whistled or stopped, but chukka-chukked straight through, the engineer waving while the brakeman hooked the mail bag. But without the rail the town would not have existed. All of the houses were within thirty feet of the tracks, the only nice one belonging to the section foreman, George, who shared it with his wife and seven children, five beautiful daughters between two boys, Eldon the eldest (moved away and starting his own family) and Glen, the baby no longer a baby at ten.
-George shared thirty years with the railroad and with his wife, proud of both. He was a prim, formal, by-the-book father and manager who lived his life according to company procedures (most of the time), and a firm schedule according to the precisely wound Hamilton pocket watch that had cost him six months salary. In his time as foreman, there had never been an incident or accident on his forty-two mile section of track, and he intended to keep it that way. He was a company man and a family man in an era when the company WAS family, so he was aware of the tragedy in the fireman's life, and why the crewman's eyes would water when he watched Glen and Peanuts from the passing train, the boys trying to look manly by puffing their skinny chests and tucking a thumb into their coveralls, but waving frantically with their free hand, eyes dancing with excitement.
- The fireman had also had two boys. Polio disabled the second child, making him dependent on the doting attention of his protective older brother and the parents who cherished them. The fireman had bought the brothers a bicycle, and built a special rack across the rear wheel so the youngest could be lifted onto it to ride behind. They explored together for an entire summer, until one horrible day just before school was to start. The fireman's boys took a handcar off the spur near their home, strapped the bike and the frail child to the deck, and cranked their way to adventure. They had done this many times, without permission of course, aware of risk but careful to take their forays after the daily train (often with their father aboard) had passed and the tracks were presumed empty. The older boy was thrilled to see the glow in his brother's cheeks as they pumped the handles together, letting him believe he was giving an equal share. They had just left the spur when a contract freight heavily loaded with drilling pipe appeared in the distance. The boys struggled to stop the car and work it back to the switch. The engineer spotted them and locked the locomotive, steel screeching and sparks showering, the handcar barely moving, the boys eyes wide with terror, and the train still sliding toward them. The wheels on the locomotive were turning backwards, the handcar just yards from the switch when the engineer screamed at the boys to jump, and with the frail youth wrapped in his older brother's arms, they did. The cowcatcher was still moving just fast enough to flip the handcar off the track onto the pad where the boys had landed, launching the bicycle into the brush undamaged. The crew (less the fireman father who missed this train) rushed to pull the children from beneath the wreckage. The younger boy began to breathe when he was freed from the weight of both the handcar and his sibling, whose neck was crushed.
- In Trinidad, the newspaper mercifully covered the story with only a short obituary. But a crotchety judge, thinking well ahead of his time, suggested that the parents should be held liable for neglecting to monitor their children, and should reimburse the company for the loss of the handcar. The railroad president sent the judge a letter absolving the family of any debt, and suggested the judge would better serve the community by handling the family as he would wish to be treated should he befall a similar tragedy. It was a railroad town, elections were forthcoming, and no charges were filed. News of the terrible event raced through the company, and his coworkers did what they could for the fireman knowing his grief could easily be their own.
- So George understood and looked the other way if a huge chunk occasionally "fell" from the coal car a convenient distance from town where the Model boys were sure to locate it and be celebrated by their families for the find. He noticed that the trains stopped more often and the boys would come from the water tower looking guiltily happy with a sugar lump in their cheeks. And it was no surprise when the fireman told him of the pain his wife and son were enduring, staring at the unused bike leaning on their porch. George would not accept the bike as a gift, but insisted on paying what others would have considered an extravagant price, for which the fireman could only grasp his offered hand and walk away, biting his quivering lip.
- When George asked Glen if he might be interested in a bicycle, all he got for a response was a dropped jaw, so he asked again. This time, Glen squeaked out a "Yes, sir." and George laid out a set of chores and projects that Glen would have to take on to prove himself worthy of owning a bicycle. Minutes later, Peanuts received the news, and early the next morning was waiting on the porch to assist with Glen's new duties. Several weeks later the train stopped again, and the the grinning crew handed the bicycle down to George, who passed it without fanfare to Glen, and by proxy, Peanuts.
- The initial experience with Model's first bike was painful. Glen was sized wrong for the bike, and his sisters team of critics giggled and clucked with every crash. Nobody in town had ever ridden a bicycle, and nobody offered to help. Peanuts wasn't interested in trying to ride before the crowd, but suggested that perhaps there was something wrong with the bike itself, that maybe a few adjustments would help. Glen's pride and body were beaten at the end of the day, and the last thing he heard before falling asleep was his sister Maudie, "Well... Eldon would surely be riding it by now."
- The next morning, Glen met Peanuts on the porch at dawn, and they began raking the animal pens together. George walked out of the house, bit a chunk from his tobacco plug, and leaned against the corral fence. "You two are doing a good job," he said. "I appreciate it."
- George knew of Glen's discouragement with the bicycle. He had watched Glen struggle for the last year to grow his personality and independence in spite of the hovering and control that often stymies the youngest in large families. George watched a moment more, then added, "Come straight home from school today. There's a new gandydancer on the extra gang I want you to meet. From back East. Says he knows all about bicycles. 'Teach you easy as you please', he says. I know you'd figure it out on your own, but winter's coming." He winked, invited Peanuts to stay for breakfast, and strolled to the house. That afternoon, the newest member of George's crew taught Glen and Peanuts how to balance and work on a bicycle. That evening, he fixed Mendosa's Ford. That night, he met and impressed Glen's sister Vivian, to whom he would eventually be married.
- Glen and Peanuts rode the bike to school. They begged to run errands if the errand could involve the bike. They rode when the rains turned to snow, when the snow packed to glaze ice, and when the blizzards drifted over the phone lines by the road. People laughed at the sight of Peanuts riding on the rack with his legs crossed, a spoke wrench dangling from his pocket. They joked about the boys sleeping with the bike and being mechanically linked. They noticed when the boys rode without hands, and backwards, and sidesaddle, and airplaned prone. They told George that he had gotten his money's worth several times over. But it was also clear that the bike was suffering from extreme use and the effects of Peanut's maintenance. The tires were patched and cracking. Nothing was left of the seat and petals but strips of polished steel. The wheels were out of round, the steering had an intermittent shake, several spokes were bent or broken, and rust was creeping from every seam. But the boys kept riding, until a sunny day in February when the temperature feigned spring, and a plan was in place for a ride of fourteen miles to the high school in town. There they hoped to catch a ride home with Peanuts' "crazy" uncle in his truck. (There were two uncles, one was known as crazy, the other was actually insane, but more important to the boys, both owned trucks.) They had just started from school when they jumped a new frost heave, landed the bike heavily, and the frame broke with a crack like a gunshot, startling the teacher and dumping the boys in the gravel. They pushed the bike home, Peanuts trying to lift Glen's spirits by assuring him they could fix it; Glen knowing better. One by one, all the girls shook their heads and clucked their last rites at the dismal prospects for the crippled bicycle. Even George put his hand on his son's shoulder and said he was sorry. When Glen woke from a fitful night's sleep, he didn't remember at first that the bike had broken. He readied himself for school, routinely grabbed the handlebar at the gate, and jumped onto the saddle, urging it forward as he looked around for Peanuts, only to kalump twenty feet to a post at the base of the water tower. Embarrassed, he jumped off and abandoned the bike where it stopped, wanting to cry. He finished his chores, dragged himself to the Mendosa house, and accepted a ride with Peanuts and his crazy uncle.
- When they returned from school, the bicycle was gone. They searched half-heartedly for a while, then asked around. George said he hadn't seen it. The neighbors hadn't either. "Hobos," Ruth, the sister closest to Glen offered. "I bet the Hobos got it." It was true that more transients were riding the trains, but they had stolen nothing before.
- "Just as well." Glen moped.
- In the weeks that followed the disappearance of the bike, Peanuts found trouble. If Glen had been involved, he hadn't been implicated, and he was glad of it. The blade sprung out of a bowsaw Peanuts had tightened and it stuck in his grandfather's glove. The drain plug leaked after Peanuts changed the oil in the old thumper sawmill engine, almost burning it up. He "borrowed" the hay truck by strapping blocks on the pedals and building up the seat with feed sacks. When the steering wheel he was looking through wrenched itself from his grip, the feed sacks rolled and he fell under the dash catching the throttle, which caused the truck to lurch into the bar ditch with caliche deeper than the axles. He tried to extricate the truck (and himself) by putting the vehicle into gear unmanned, then stuffing hay under the turning wheels. After wasting four bales of pricey Timothy hay, it actually worked, the truck crawling from the hole barely missing a scrambling Peanuts, who scooted into the cab and almost got the truck stopped before it lugged across the road and directly into the deeper opposite ditch.
-With travel restrictions, an increased workload, and nursing soreness in his nether regions, Peanuts was "unavailable" and Glen hadn't seen him for days when the train made an unexpected stop. George was for some odd reason at home, not out on the line, and went out to meet the crew. He greeted an acquaintance; a mechanical lead heading the regional crew out of Pueblo. After they'd caught up, the man told George he'd like to speak with Glen, aware that he was standing just a few feet away. George nodded and spoke loud enough for even the engineer to hear over the gas escaping the locomotive. "Glen, I've known Frank here a long time and he's as good as they come. He says he's got business with you, so I want you to step up and talk to him man to man. I want you to listen to what he's got to say and be honest with how you answer, no matter what it is you've done." He winked over his shoulder. "I'll be right over there if you need me." Then he stepped aside, smirking.
- "Mister, I think I owe you an apology," the mechanic started while Glen approached. "An' I hope you can forgive me. A few weeks back I was out here troubleshootin' a pressure gage on this here same engine, an' I looked out an' saw your bicycle, just sittin' there all broken and used up. An' I took her. I didn't ask, I just took her. Before you say anything, let me explain. I tinker with stuff. That's what I do. Sometimes the want to get my hands on a machine outruns my common sense."
- Peanuts had appeared, and he nodded his full understanding.
- "That's how come I stole your bike. I spend my day jus' tryin' ta keep these old engines rollin' when most of 'em shoulda been scrap before you was born. The more you work on em, the more they matter to you, and the more you kinda take it personal when they break. I could tell from lookin' at her that someone had felt the same way about that old bike, and well, I had to get my hands on her."
-Glen just stared, so the man continued. "Well, I brought her back to you."
- The brakeman stepped off the caboose with a bike, Glen's bike, but different. All of the men were gleaming as they handed it over, watching as Glen examined the neat welds where the cracks had been. "You fixed it" he whispered as he ran his hands over the new tires, the chromed wheels, and the flat black frame painted just like the locomotive boilers. He curled his fingers around the new red rubber grips and polished the formed leather seat with his elbow. The steering and wheels had solid new bearings, and the chain glistened with fresh oil. Printed along the crossbar in fine gold script, was 'MODEL #1'.
- George asked Glen if there wasn't something he needed to say to his friend.
- "You fixed it," was all he could produce. "Thank you."
- "You bet. But it wasn't just me. There's a machine shop full of boys that worked on her, and a bunch that wanted to." Then, turning to the crew (except the fireman who had disappeared into the cab), "I guess we better quit lollygaggin' and make some time before some old section foreman reports us." He wrinkled his nose at George, and pulled himself onto the running board as the old locomotive hissed to life.
- In every way, the bike was better than new. It was all Glen could do to keep the newly liberated Peanuts from stripping it down to see how the miracle had been accomplished. By summer, they lived on two wheels again.
-If you ever raised boys, or were one, or are one, you understand that boys are hard wired to test limits. They try the people around them, make science of nature, and stress with emphasis any machinery they control. Glen and Peanuts spent their eleventh summer chasing horizons, and pushing the capabilities of the bicycle. Glen had grown five full inches since Model#1 had first appeared, and while his bibs stopped well above his ankles, the bike seat had to be raised in the frame, which now fit him perfectly. Vivian's boyfriend, the one who taught them to ride, came by many times that summer, to "check their progress" he said. He told the boys they were fine riders, and described bicycle races near Pittsburgh (or as he called it, The Big Smoke) that drew hundreds of entries, cyclists flying on winding roads through the hills. The boys were rapt listeners and vivid imaginers. Vivian would send them away and they would ride laps between the houses, Peanuts navigating around imaginary competitors, waving to the courting couple on the porch each time around. That race run and won, they searched for other challenges. They exhausted new creative ways to pose while riding. They mastered cargo lashing and bicycle camping. They proved that one could outrun a bully, but not a train, a car, a horse, or even the Mendosa's fat shepherd dog when riding two up.
- They wanted, of course, to go faster. But they were restricted by terrain. Model is flat. The only means to gain speed was to pedal harder, although they did tie a clothesline to Peanuts' crazy uncle's truck and let him pull them through the Trinity Church parking lot in Hoehne until the rope clipped a few iris heads and knocked over the grey statue of St. Francis, causing the priest to emerge from the rectory wagging his finger as they raced off, the crazier uncle cackling from the cab.
- Glen and Peanuts decided that what they needed, to research how fast the bicycle could go, was a hill. The hill everyone talked about was Raton Pass, the grade so long and difficult for the rail line that a helper engine was added near Trinidad. A steep gravel road was supposedly maintained across the cut all summer. Neither of the boys had ever been to Raton pass, but it sounded ideal. They began to brainstorm. There was the train through Trinidad they could probably board. They could disembark when it stopped to release the helper somewhere near the summit. Then, it would be a simple matter to aim the bike downhill, ride hard back to Trinidad and hustle home before they'd be missed at supper and in hot water. They began the gathering of details, maps, and secreted information that every mission requires.
- The plan solidified when the boys met the watermelon man. The Mendosa family had branches that worked nearby farms and they gathered every year at the watermelon festival in Rocky Ford, returning with stories of mountains of watermelon, roasted corn and pit barbecue, crowds drunk on melon wine, grand balls, brawls, and dancing in the streets. Glen just had to go, and when George received head-bobbing assurances from Peanuts (and his family) that they'd keep Glen out of trouble, he gave the boys a whole dollar in change and told them to have a good time. Because the crazy uncle's truck was already packed with colorful festival goers, Peanuts and Glen lifted themselves and the bicycle into the craziest uncle's pickup bed, and they bounced off to Rocky Ford, where the celebration lived up to it's billing. The boys gorged on free melon from ice filled stock tanks, following the local example of cutting out the seedless hearts and tossing the "waste" on the rind trailer. They watched a boxing match and a horse race. The parade started, with mainly farm tractors pulling decorated trailers with pretty girls seated on hay bales waving to the crowd. The boys rode their bike alongside, performing every trick they had practiced, and drew some appreciative whistles and applause when Peanuts rode standing on his head, a feat made easy by the smooth big-city pavement on Main street. The parade traveled three full blocks, to a little plaza with a bandstand where the crowd gathered and prizes were handed out by a little round faced man with mottled skin and a felt hat. The pretty girls waved some more when they accepted their ribbons, and the crowd all gawked, clapped, and smiled. Then the watermelon man waved Glen and Peanuts over. "We didn't get an entry form for these two, but they put on a real good show! Peanuts Mendosa and his friend from down in Model! What do you think, folks?" and the gathering celebrated them. Then he handed the boys their prize; a watermelon. The crowd laughed, looked at them expectantly, but when nothing happened, they dispersed to the next event. The boys were polite but disappointed, the heaviness in their stomachs suggesting much time would pass before the return of an interest in watermelon. The red ribbon parade girl whispered to them as she sashayed by, "Look inside the melon." Glen pulled out his penknife and split the rind. Sure enough, a new crisp bill was folded in wax paper concealed in the heart of the fruit. Glen noticed the watermelon man was still watching them, and went over to thank him. Peanuts was busy, trying to solve the hidden-melon-dollar mystery. The man smiled widely and said "You earned it. Maybe some day I'll stop off in Model, meet your families, see if they might do some business. I deliver in Trinidad every other Wednesday." Glen's eyebrows raised, and while Peanuts was discovering the tiny slit filled with wax and the remnants of an almost invisibly thin wire that pulled the dollar into the melon, Glen learned that it was possible to get a ride in an empty watermelon truck from the base of Raton Pass to Model, if a man had a dollar.
- On their return from Rocky Ford, the boys studied the AT&SF Fare and Fee Schedule. South bound freights passed through Model mid-morning, expected to arrive at Raton Pass just before noon. That left only six hours to complete their circuit and hustle back to the dinner table in Model. They blocked the calendar, and circled the three every-other-Wednesdays left before school started. Glen wrote a note to the watermelon man hoping to arrange a ride on the second date circled. Delivered by Mendosa mail, the return note took two days, and said the watermelon man would be "honored" to transport them, and the boys spent the next days training for their adventure, Glen building his twiggy biceps lifting river rocks, and Peanuts randomly wrenching on things, including the bicycle.
- As the day of their trip approached, both boys were wondering if they'd actually follow through with it, scared to suggest to the other they might not. But they continued planning to the last day, deciding they needed a surer way to catch the train, preferably at a place where the crew was more likely to actually stop, and where they could more easily sneak the bike onto a boxcar out of sight of traitorous sister-eyes. So they went to the crazier of the uncles and asked if they could ride with him to town on his way to work on Wednesday, and he 'yupped.'
- Then Peanuts, who had almost never spoken to his uncle, blurted out a question, "Tio? Have you ever been scared?, Of anything?" His uncle cocked his head, pinched his lips against his teeth, and put his hand on the boy's shoulder. "Yes," he said, "But the best things I remember in all my life were things that scared me before I did them." Then he gave them a look like he knew what they were up to. "Am I right? Yes?" he asked as he softly punched Peanuts on the shoulder. "Yes!" the boys agreed as they threw their fists at the air.
- The boys could not have picked a better every-other-Wednesday. The weather was spectacular, one of those sharp late summer Colorado mornings when you can see every tree on the Spanish Peaks forty miles away. Peanuts was trying hard to act nonchalant, putting a makeshift tool kit together from his Grandfather's collection, just in case. His mother breezed in, and said her "little man looks like he has a job to do today." She went into the kitchen to put two lunches together with beans, cheese and pork chile wrapped in tortillas, Glen's favorite. Peanuts grabbed the sacks from his mother and banged the old screen door as he ran out, only to find Glen leaning on the bike looking sheepish, his mother standing behind, hands on hips, a neatly creased lunch bag in each hand. The women laughed together in the street, and five pairs of suspicious eyes watched from the windows of Glen's house as the boys rode away on their 'secret' bicycle adventure, four meals, a canteen, and a tool kit corded to the rack behind Peanuts.
- They waited for only a few minutes at the turnoff for Peanuts' uncle, when they heard the truck door slam and watched the roostertail behind the roar heading their way. The boys laid the barbed wire gate to the side and the uncle drove through. He nodded, tossed the bike in the bed, untied one of the lunches and hopped back behind the wheel while the boys struggled to get the cedar post looped to close the gate. He looked angry for a second when the boys didn't get in, then rapped himself on the head and opened the passenger door from the inside because it hadn't had an outside handle for years.
- Peanut's uncle had already wolfed "his" lunch when they reached the main road by the tracks and turned... the wrong way. He didn't slow, even when the boys bounced on the seat and yelled, trying to get him to understand the importance of their getting on the train. "You said", he laughed, "that you wanted a ride to town when I went to work. Last week I worked in Trinidad. This week I work in La Junta. I'll drop you off there." The boys explained in a panic, both talking at the same time, that they would miss the train if they went to La Junta, and he just laughed harder. Finally he drawled, "OK, I'll get you on the dang train!", and he ruffed Peanuts' hair with his knuckles, still driving at an insane rate ourunning the huge dust cloud that chased them. The boys sat silent and still, believing their dream ride had probably ended before it really began.
- At Tyrone, halfway to La Junta, the train was already stopped and the crew was standing by the road, talking with local residents. Tyrone was no larger than Model, and there were no trees or brush near the tracks to hide them if they tried to sneak aboard. Once again, their plans in disarray, the boys were ready to give up. But the Uncle whipped his truck onto the pad next to the only cattle car with an open door. In full view of the watching train crew, he roughly threw the bicycle through the opening, and then, one after the other, tossed the boys in the same way. He turned to the staring brakeman, shot him a quick salute, and got back in his truck to blast north without even waving goodbye. The brakeman had oddly just nodded and returned to his business. When the train began to move, the brakeman checked the couplings between the cars, walking right past the closed side of their car without even a greeting.
- For the first time, Peanuts and Glen wished the train would move more quickly through Model. It was a strange feeling to rattle past their own homes, both mothers hanging wash, only Glen's sister Ruth watching and waving at the train. Glen stepped away from the door, thinking that the train crew would probably expose them to his father anyway, but at least he could deny Ruth that opportunity.
- As the train gathered momentum, the boys sat in the doorway and swung their legs off the deck. For a while they said nothing, just watching the terrain get less familiar. Just past Hoene, they saw in the distance the old two ton truck owned by the watermelon man, creeping south with the little dark round melons mounded higher than the sideboards. Glen puffed out his cheeks and bellowed in his best watermelon man voice, "Purty good Show! Whatcha think, Folks!" Then Peanuts elbowed Glen in the ribs, cocked his own head sideways, crossed his eyes, and drawled, "Ah'll get you awn the dang traaaiiin!" Glen smiled, giggled, and then feeling like a tightly wound spring was being released in his gut, let heavy laughter roar out of him. Peanuts was laughing so hard he couldn't get air. They began to slow down, feeling the sorenesss in the diaphragm that a good horselaugh always brings, when they heard someone behind them.
- "Shut the hell up!" a sandpaper voice scolded from the back of the car. Then there were a series of weak coughs as a pile of debris, boxes and straw in the corner began to move. The man that emerged was very thin. His skin had a yellow pall. His wrinkled boots were unlaced, and his elbows poked through ragged holes in his leather jacket. Eyes lined with oozy red tissue stared from a mop of long dull hair. The boys cringed at the sight of him, and that seemed to perturb him further.
- "How long do I have to put up with this caterwaulin'?" he croaked, rocking toward them. The boys were too scared to answer, so he asked again. "How far are you going?" Then louder, "How long do you expect to stay in my accomodation?"
- The train was entering ladder track for the Trinidad yard, and Glen was looking at the bike, wondering if he could pull it out the door before the apparition got to them. But Peanuts had other ideas. Pulling a little monkey wrench from his back pocket, he clenched it threateningly, and screamed "RATON PASS!"
-That seemed to stop and quiet the man. "Oh," said the scarecrow, his posture crumbling. "That's not far." and he slumped against the opposite wall, sliding to his seat on the floor, still staring at the surprised boys, the fire in his eyes gone to glaze. The train stopped, the man was silent, and Peanuts, still brandishing his wrench, looked questioningly at Glen, who just shrugged.
- The helper engine coupled to the train with a jolt, and jarred the man into a coughing fit, which enlivened him. He pulled a nasty cloth from his pocket and wiped his mouth. Glen noticed his flannel shirt had spatters of blood on the open collar. The train started moving, and the man started asking questions, like "Why would you be getting off at the pass?", "Does anyone know where you are?", and "How much did your daddy pay for that fine bicycle?'' He listened to their honest answers carefully, rolling his eyes into his head after each one like he was recording them in a notebook in the back of his brain. The boys watched the inspiring landscape change with the elevation, thrilled with the glory of what passed outside the door, still leery of what they shared inside it.
- When the summit was nearing, the man sucked in a volume of alpine air, hacked just once, and proceeded to tell the boys all the things that were wrong about their plan. First, he explained that the train went UNDER the highest part of the mountain rather than over it, through a long tunnel with the steeper grade on the New Mexico side. "If it's a joyride you want, THAT'd be a doozy", the man squeaked. Also, "The road here don't follow the tracks, if you didn't notice. Unless you be ridin' that bicycle on the irons, you gotta get over that hill!", and he pointed to a rock wall across the canyon, impassible. It hadn't registered to Glen or Peanuts, distracted by the scenery and the threatening conversation, that the good road along the tracks had disappeared quite some time ago. There were game trails, and an occasional access pad, but nothing that would take a bicycle home. They were crestfallen. "You can't even get a ride back!", the ghoul continued, enjoying their misery. "Train don't run 'til morning." He chuckled. "So what's it gonna be, babies? You gonna spend the night on the Pass? Gets pretty cold. Maybe you'll call your mamas and cry and they'll get you a place in Raton... or maybe you'll just stay here in the car with me", and he showed his grimy teeth.
- The train was nearly stopped and the boys were pulling the bike backwards toward the door when the hobo, still grinning, gathered his legs and rose toward them, grabbing the bike by the rear wheel. The boys dropped the bike and turned to run, but were blocked by the brakeman who was standing in the doorway, staring beyond them into the darkness of the car.
- "Hello, Cinderbox. Didn't know YOU was riding with us today. I heard you greased the tracks." - The Hobo grimaced. "No, Jack. We're all of us west bound, even you. But I aint pulled the pin yet."
- "Well I suppose that's good." the brakeman glared as he pulled the bike out and nodded the boys down. "And how long do we get to enjoy your company?"
- The Hobo squinted and scratched his chin. "These boys here is plannin' to ride that bike off the pass. I'm thinkin' that would be somethin'. If you got no further use of me," That caused the brakeman to smile, but the hobo went on, "I'll just gather my bindle." Glens eyes pleaded.
- "No, Cinderbox," the brakeman pulled something metallic from his pocket, "I think you'll ride on a bit." He slid the heavy door closed and slapped the padlock in place. They could see the shadow inside slink to the floor, and they heard a series of choking rattles. "He's sick." the brakeman explained as he went back to checking the couplings and rods. "Real sick."
- The brakeman completed his inspection, Glen puppydogging behind him. The helper engine had backed onto the drag line, and men were looking at a wheel, Peanuts bent over for a closer look just like one of the crew. The brakeman started to put the bicycle on the spare engine, but Glen protested, explaining their arrangement with the watermelon man.
- The brakeman stood silent for a moment, looking directly into Glen's eyes. Behind him, the dusty fireman was watching. "He's George's boy. From Model." The brakeman nodded, satisfied. "Here's the way," he said. "There's a trail takes off by the tunnel and goes over the hill to meet you up with the main road. It's a devil, though. You push your bike over, and you push your bike down the other side. Understand? Then you ride the main road into Stokerville and meet your friend. I hope he's better company than who you rode up with."
- The men shook the boys hands and wished them luck, then swung onto the train as it inched toward the tunnel at the head of the canyon. At the last moment, Peanuts stripped a lunch sack from the bike and slipped it through the slats of the locked cattle car. The boys pushed the bike nearly to the tunnel before the helper engine followed, the engineer tossing a two-fingered wave as he disappeared into the darkness, and they were alone.
- The engineer had been right. The trail out of the canyon was grueling. Built for the heavy equipment that bored the tunnel, it hadn't been used much since. Every time the boys thought they were near the top, a false summit appeared, and they had to bump the bike across more rocks, and around more switchbacks. Swapping between pushing on the handlebars and the rear rack, their thighs were aching and their spirits subdued when they ran out of hill.
- When their breathing slowed, the boys scanned the scenery so beautiful it didn't look real. The mountains around them stretched above treeline and had rivulets of ice still streaking their slopes. The aspen, spruce and fir forests flowed rolling green to the horizons, and closer, scrub oak and pine lined the old trail that wound down to where a tiny road crew worked setting rip-rap by the main highway, which itself led to a gathering of toy-like rusty roofed houses in the far distant haze of the rocky canyon.
- The boys ate their lunches and finished the last of the water in their canteen. Glen balled his hand at arms length and counted the number of fists between the sun and the horizon. He guessed they had taken at least a couple of hours to climb out of the canyon. Walking the downhill slope would take nearly as long. So, against the the brakeman's advice, they decided to do what they had come to do, and ride. They lashed the canteen and the tool bag extra tight. They pushed the bike to the edge of the drop into the canyon, and waited.
- There is a segment of time, different for everybody, when facing a possible life-changing experience, that we all wait. Some are blanked by fear, some feeling the need to double-check their preparation, and some concentrating on savoring the moment, capturing a snapshot in their mind of the time just before the event. Glen was savoring, but also hearing a voice in his head that said, "Don't wreck my bike!" Glen's wait was just a few seconds, and when it ended, the energy bursting from him, his muscles tensed for the final push, Peanuts stopped him. "Whoa. Look at the chain."
- The train ride and the long push had loosened the rear wheel, causing the chain to sag a full inch below where it normally rode. Peanuts opened the tool kit, proud that he had planned for a situation just such as this, took a screwdriver and wrench from the bag, and took every bit of slack out of the chain, cranking hard with his newly trained muscles to ensure the nut wouldn't slip. He slid the tools into his back pocket, remembered the story his grandfather told him about the man that lost his kidney, moved the screwdriver into his front pocket, and established himself back on the rack. Glen checked to see that Peanuts was ready, twisted one foot into the ground and one into a pedal, and pushed.
- The ride was bumpy, but controlled at first. They leaned around the first cutback, braking before the turn and pedaling through it, like Vivian's boyfriend had taught them. As they gathered speed, they braked more and pedaled less, until they were on the brakes full time, sliding around the curves, getting more wobbly every time they clipped a stone or slid into a rut. They were fast, impossibly fast, Glens face steely, his eyes locked on the road ahead, and Peanuts shifting his weight into the turns, occasionally testing the stutter of his voice as the road chattered. Several times they drifted toward huge boulders by the road, and twice they glided only inches from the precipice. Three mule deer startled when the boys hurtled by, one jumping right into the path the boys had just blasted across, Peanuts looking back laughing. The bike itself was magnificent, responding to Glen's touch like it was predicting each maneuver. The grade lessened, and the boys were yelping and yeehawing, sure that they had survived the worst the road had to offer.
- But when they reached a short flat and Glen tried again to pedal, the overtaut chain slipped from the sprocket and stalled next to the furiously spinning wheel. Glen felt the crank spin free and realized he had no brakes. The road tightened against the mountain into a twisting descent which hadn't been visible from the top. A sudden drop ended in the tightest horseshoe they had yet seen, bordered by a cliff with no bottom. They popped in and out of the little curves gathering momentum for the last dip before the impossibly sharp turn, and it became clear they could not possibly negotiate it. Peanuts was dragging his feet without effect, and Glen steered to the loose shoulder dirt to slow them, but it was no use. Peanuts pulled the screwdriver from his pocket and was about to jam his hand down next to the wheel to dislodge the chain, when Glen decided to lay the bike down to avoid going over the cliff. He torqued the handlebars and threw his weight against the rear wheel. The bike skidded on it's side for an instant then caught a pedal and flipped sideways, angling straight downslope and catapulting Peanuts through the air into the road. Glen last glimpsed his friend lying flat in the gravel, the yellow handle of the screwdriver visible near his chest.
The bike was upright, but shooting so steeply through the brush that Glen felt like he was falling, rather than riding. The bike burst out of the slashing branches into the open and hit hard on the edge of the ditch bordering the returned road, ripping one grip from his hand and sliding him off the seat onto the crossbar. He flew directly across the road onto a steep grassy descent littered with rocks which he picked through, the road visible again below. The rock he could not avoid launched the bike high into the air, where he seemed to float, aware for the the first time that his arm hurt, his eyes were tearing up, and a sharp pain was growing between his legs. He landed with the rear wheel on a another steep mound of clay, slamming the front end down and almost tossing him over the handlebars. The steering started to wobble, then developed a deep sway which he managed to control well enough to steer back onto the roadway, where he regained the seat and pedals. He became aware of voices in the distance, shouting and whistling their encouragement. He glided through a long sweeping turn onto the main road, which was not quite as steep, but smoother and just as fast. The road crew was urging him on when he shot past, and he doubted they would hear when he yelled "MY FRIEND! NO BRAKES!".
- A thousand feet past the road work there was a dip, and Glen saw that if he did not stop there, it would be a very long time before he could. The road was freshly graded, straight and smooth, and the bike was tracking it's length like a thoroughbred. He began scanning the sides of the road, looking for the softest place to bail into, when the bike decided for him. The loose chain bound on the rear wheel and locked up. Once again, Glen was sailing, this time with the bike cartwheeling after him. He tumbled once, flipped past the culvert in the dip, and stuck in a slimey bog next to the road. The bike jangled past, finally coming to rest with it's warped front wheel slowly spinning. Glen was sitting up in the mud, deciding which body part hurt most when a state vehicle pulled up and a tall man with fancy boots and a long face ambled out. He looked at Glen, pulled a flask out of his jacket pocket, and drew deeply. "Damn, son." he said. "I'd pay to see that again!"
- Before long, a heavy dump truck drew alongside with Peanuts, who, outside of some rashiness on his shoulder, seemed no worse for the experience. The rest of the crew, their work day done, gathered their tools and the bicycle, and sat on the rocks drinking like the sons of immigrant hard rock miners they were, raving at what they'd just seen. They talked about Peanuts like he was a ghost, shaking their heads at his having landed just a few feet from the deadly shelf, how the screwdriver was punched through the buckle of his coveralls, and how they found him semiconscious, struggling to breathe, the "wind punched clear out of him", which may have kept him from rolling around, possibly over the edge. "Honestly!" Peanuts told a hurting Glen, "I was about to try to jump that chain back onto the track and it felt like someone wrapped me up and jerked me straight off that bike."
- The watermelon man was worried when the boys were late. He was much more worried when he saw the war-torn shape they were in. When he delivered them to Model, he made sure the parents understood his limited role in the disaster, collected his dollar, and rumbled back to Rocky Ford. George heard about the ride, of course, but he chose not to discuss it with Glen, even though his wife thought they should. "He'll be responsible soon enough," he told her. "They made quite a memory, and I sure wish I could have been there." His wife grumbled, "I'm sure glad I wasn't."
- The bike was never the same. It saw some limited use after the cast was removed from Glen's arm, but Peanuts was never able to get the wheel entirely round or the frame "tweaked" enough to make them comfortable riding it. There were other bikes later in Model, but none like the legend that was the first, left as a rusting monument in the dilapidated tool barn long after the railroad people moved on.

2 comments:

Scribbit said...

Whew! I made it! That ought to win a prize for the entry that could be a novella--and with some of the beautifully crafted sentences you have in there it could be. Good story!

MoziEsmé said...

What an incredible story...