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garden railway - chap16
The continuing Saga of the Toenail Ridge Shortline

Chapter 16: Where There's Smoke....

Written July 7,1998.

Goats Hill

Every town has to have one.
They are as inevitable as death and taxes.
They come into every life and interact with every person, sooner or later.

It's an interesting occupation, undertaking. Devoting your life to the service of the dead. Not for the seeker of approval. The satisfaction rating from your clients is nil. The return business is non-existant. Every customer is a one-off.

Undertakers seem by definition to be quiet, refined, retiring people with a penchant for dark clothes, frock coats and tall hats.
They speak in semi-hushed whispers, leaning towards the relatives of the dear-departed, perhaps in fear that raising the voice to normal levels will wake the corpse who will berate them for disturbing a well-earned lie-down.

Now consider the antithesis of all the foregoing.

Heironymus J. Whitehouse had spent a considerable portion of his early life as a Mississippi river-boat gambler. He had then toured as barker for the Buffalo Bill Cody Wild West Show, emulating the famous Bill in dress, hair and beard-style and mannerisms.
Though thirty years out of date, he prefered the fashions of the 1880's, brocaded long-coat, velvet vest, white breeches tucked into knee-high black riding boots.
His voice boomed in volume and timbre, permanently pitched to the back of a large crowd of rubes.
He laughed endlessly at his own jokes and utterances.
And he weighed 300 pounds.

Selbyville's undertaker.

Now unless an area is quite large, there really isn't enough shuffling off of the mortal coil amongst the local community to justify a full time go-between, so in a lot of smaller communities the undertaker also has to work at a different occupation to keep his own body and soul from parting company and therefore requiring his own services.

This is a bit like the old saying "Physician, heal thyself", but harder.

Whitehouse also delighted in the position of Justice of the Peace.
It was to him that the local residents came when they needed a paper witnessed, a birth registered (he already knew about the departures..), a wedding licence applied for, in fact anything that they didn't want to pay that fancy lawyer feller Lazyacre to do.
It still cost to consult Whitehouse but nowhere to the same degree. (Not that Lazyacre had one......)

So between keeping records for the state, marrying folks that were too close to the imminent state of parenthood to be hitched by the Reverend Jeremiah Little, witnessing, stamping and dispatching, Heironymus Whitehouse kept body and soul in close and well-fed proximity.

Now a close relationship has to of neccessity develop between an undertaker and a man of the cloth.
They are thrown together at times of bereavement, the one to administer to the spiritual needs of the family and to mutter the appropriate mantras over the dear departed, the other to see to the disposal of the empty shell, with the least amount of pain to the relicts as possible.

Jeremiah Little was the epitome of the funereal parson.
He was tall, gangly, he wore long dark clothing, he clutched his Good Book to his chest, he muttered at that special volume immediately below the comprehensible level that takes years of training and discipline to acquire, so that the poor bereaved at whom the homily was aimed assumed he or she was being offered words of solace and comfort, and so stood nodding and straining, but may just as likely have been subject to a recitiation of the good Reverend's shopping list.

However, Whitehouse took over.

He would enter the premises of the remains and kin with his silver topped ebony cane under his arm, pulling his leather gloves from his manicured hands, slap the male mourner on the back so hard in greeting that in at least one case a set of teeth minus their owner planted a kiss on the cheek of the corpse, enfold the female mourner to his huge chest in combined comforting hug and grope, pat the children on the head to the point of whiplash, all the while declaiming homilies on the foul weather, the stock prices, the gastric side-effects of lunch and what a shame that (insert name here) had passed away because only this very week (he/she) had promised to (pay back the money/buy the next round/ return the sundry borrowed item/lend $20).
He would descend on the corpse, pull back the sheet, produce measuring tape from vest pocket, measure length, breadth, thickness.
He would comment on neccessary clothing to be supplied, inquire without pause whether the best casket was required or did the family wish to just send poor (insert name here) to rest for Eternity in only the second-best one.
He would prod here and there determining if the state of the cadaver would require embalming or if he could save the expense due to its freshness, he would fold the arms so that he didn't have to break them later to get them inside the coffin.
In short, Death may come as a thief in the night but Heironymus Whitehouse came as a runaway train.

It happened that that winter a bitter bout of flu attacked the valley, resisting all efforts on the part of Dr. Bill Johnstone to combat it.

It laid the community low with half the poulation in their beds and the other half tending them.

For the first time in its history the Toenail Ridge Shortline cancelled trips due to lack of staff.

Fortunately, while many people ailed, this particular strain was not the virulent one that caused death by the thousands in the late teens, so while many were cold, few were frozen in a manner of speaking.

But one lonely itinerant, resident in the hotel, succumbed to the virus. He had lain in fever and ague for a number of days before Lois and the hotel staff had appreciated his absence, and when Richardo used his pass-key to enter the room, the poor fellow was on his last legs. (Well, actually, he wasn't, he was flat on his back, but that's the way the figure of speech goes.)

Needless to say, they got the good doctor in to see to the patient, but to no avail.

So it came that Whitehouse was summoned in his official capacity, to take care of the arrangements and see that the proprieties were observed. (Up to the limit of the contents of the stranger's wallet contents, of course. No point in going overboard on these things.)

Well, unfortunately, it turned out that when Sheriff Dillon went through the young fellow's belongings, one of the things he seemed to have possessed in large quantities during his brief life was absence of cash.

Now a finding like that doesn't put a smile on the normally rubicund and beaming countenance of the undertaker.
Man can't do a good job in his chosen profession if the recipient ain't in a position to reimburse a man for a good job!

Usually in these circumstances the sale of the chattels of the late individual will help recover some costs, but it seems that not only had this poor lad not given a true name when he registered at the hotel, he hadn't paid his account up to date either, so any chattels that may have put him snug in the ground went into Richardo's poker fund instead, to offset the room & board bill.

Sheriff Dillon sent telegrams via the Toenail Ridge Shortline wire to Rowel and even as far as Portland and Seattle, trying to ascertain the identity of their visitor, but all to no avail.

A lot of communities have a special place to bury indigents, it's called a Potter's Field.

Lots of folks think that it's called that after some reference in the Bible, to do with 30 pieces of silver and so forth, but the truth is, it got to be known by that name because the eventual residents were there because they didn't have a pot to do the neccessary in, or a window to pitch it out.
(In New York City the Potter's Field is known as the Hudson River.)

Well Heironymus Whitehouse was not about to put some no-payer in a proper coffin, certainly not if he was doing it at his and the good towns-folk's expense. And he certainly wasn't going to pay the grave-digger, drunken old Billie Carter, to dig a proper hole when nothing would come out of it.
And as far as cleaning, dressing, washing, shaving the remains, well, they could remain the way they were!

So there!


Whitehouse had a few words in the ear of the carpenter, old Dave Munzbuck.
Between them they approached Grant down the railyards regarding some old packing crates that had been weathering out the back of the sand-house, and they cut a deal.

One thing an undertaker never has to deal with is client complaints.
The relatives may not be happy, the kin may consider questions, but NEVER does the star of the show utter a word against his or her treatment.

It didn't take the carpenter too long to select the ideal crate and transport it to his workshop where he sealed it, sanded down the rougher planks, hinged a lid, and stained it in old coffee grounds and axle grease.
On delivery to Whitehouse's rear door, the undertaker installed it on the usual trestles, lined it with an old white sheet and added rope handles to the sides.
Then, calling on the assistance of his part-time helper, Clay Shay, the body of the young man was placed in its final receptacle.

Most of the local folks were still poorly from the flu by the time that the funeral for the itinerant came around, but in an era and area where entertainment was what you could produce yourself, a considerable number of locals managed to show up for the send-off.
Reverend Little hadn't exerted himself too much on this one, knowing that no funds would be ensuing for his living expenses or even for the odd bunch of flowers for that grieving widow Lee over in Fenster. He picked one of the generic send-off sermons out of his Common Book of Prayer for the Common Lot, inserted the appropriate details, (although in the case of the young stranger, that took considerably little time) and showed up on time at the little Selbyville church to conduct the internment.

Heironymus J. Whitehouse had arranged for Chilly John from the General Store to pick up the loaded crate from his premises, using the horse and cart more usually employed in the delivery of grocery staples and furniture.

CJ didn't mind the extra few dollars he occasionally earned acting as hearse hossler and he arrived in plenty of time to fulfill his task at the rear of the funeral parlour. Clay helped with loading the crate and CJ set off up the hill to the church of Little's.

Unfortunately, the one flaw in CJ's arrangement with Whitehouse and the cart was that the cart's owner, Michael Cotton, didn't know about it.

Normally, Cotton didn't spare a thought for his brother-in-law CJ from one end of the day to the other provided he was available if needed around the General Store. But by pure bad luck, this day Cotton happened to be chatting with Lazyacre out the front of his store again when he looked up and to his surprise saw his own cart and his own horse, driven by his own hired help, passing by laden with a crate of which he had no knowledge whatsover.

Well, it didn't take very long at all for Cotton to excuse himself from Lazyacre, jump into the street and hail his driver, demanding to know why, where, how come, who pays, who authorized, why is this so? with hands on hips and eyebrows furrowed. What's in the crate? Where is it going? On who's sayso?

Oh, dear.

Poor Chilly John.

As if life hadn't dealt him a pair of twos in a game of Jacks or better already, with his permanent shivering, and his stutter, and his mortal fear of his brother-in-law, now to be caught red-handed again! This time, fortunately, not in the company of a sheep (albeit it had been a particularly attractive one....), but caught all the same, by the same nasty task master, made to cower like a grade-schooler before the teacher when caught with finger up nostril.

So he did the only thing that is left as an option to a basically honest person when caught flagrantly in breach of all the rules.

He lied through his teeth.

"W-well, M-michael," he began, and went on to explain that he was engaged on a mission of the most humane kind, delivering much needed medication to combat the flu epidemic at the behest of Doc Johnstone and people were dying for want of this shipment and he, CJ, had been told that minutes were of the essence, and the sooner it arrived, the sooner the valley would bless the name of Michael Cotton who had so generously loaned his cart and horse for such an heroic and beneficient purpose.

Now there are few things in the whole wide world more likely to soothe the ruffled feathers of the righteously outraged individual with right on his side and morality in his heart than a major stroke of the self-esteem bone.
Consider it masturbation of the mind.
Perhaps not best done in polite company but you are always assured of an appreciative recipient.

Well, under the circumstances it took Michael Cotton less than a second to read the banner headlines in the next issue of the Toenail Ridge Examiner


before he gave his whole-hearted approval to CJ's quest and bade him God-speed on his errand of mercy!

In fact, he cried "I will accompany you, to dispense healing balm to the poorly and help the ailing rise from their beds of pain! Praise be the LORD!!!!"

And so saying, he clambered up onto the cart and seated himself beside Chilly John.

Meanwhile, up at Little's little church on the hill (He'd outgrown the old brick bank building and coerced Little's women to coerce their men to build him a nice little clapboard structure on the top of Goats Hill), the Reverend, Whitehouse, and the congregated congregation had congregated for the funeral.
The only absentee, apart from Lazyacre who didn't hold with churchified activities, and Cotton, who couldn't close his store, regardless of the fact that all potential customers were sitting in the church, was the guest of honour himself, one John Doe, wearing his wooden suit.

With some of the valley's more distinguished residents, this may not neccessarily have been an impediment to the commencement of the service, what with testimonials, tributes, Masonic salutes, rambling stories about what wonderful people they were and how much the valley will miss them, plenty of time could have elapsed before it came time for the deeply mourned and sadly missed to have been noticed missing from their send-off.

But the young man was a stranger in a strange land, unknown, not un-mourned, but mourned in a generic sort of way, so the audience to his final appearance sat in loudly whispered silence, waiting for something, anything, to happen.

Now about that time, the Toenail Ridge Shortline had been partly instrumental in importing to the valley a crate-ful of Gelignite (which is Dynamite's bigger brother), destined for the back hills and the eventual ownership on one Adolph Kampf, lead and silver miner.
The explosive was planned to be used to put Kampf mine on the map, to make an impact on the world in the way of mineral riches the likes of which has not been seen since....well, since the last time a mineral strike put a place on the map.

Unfortunately, the Gelignite was carefully stored in a crate that bore too much of a remarkable resemblance to the container of the late departed young flu victim and, when Chilly John, at a total loss as to how to handle the situation, drew his cart to a halt at the Selbyville station, on the weak pretext that his current load had to be shipped out on the afternoon freight to help the poor sufferers down the line, the freight-handlers, Jeff and Rick, overhearing this comment, grabbed the coffin-crate and slung it into the open door of the afternoon combine.

Usually documentation was required on all freight shipments that travelled the rails of the Toenail Ridge Shortline, but with the flu epidemic and all, some things had to go by the board, and since Jeff was assigned to ride the combine to Rowel that day, he didn't bother with the paperwork as he knew that the crate had to be dropped at Fenster.
In the meantime, Cotton got talking to Joe Dempsey, the station-master, about business in general, and CJ grabbed the opportunity to confide in Rick that maybe they had the wrong crate and could he have it back please until he could check please, please?

Now you really don't need to be led by a ring through your nose to see what's going to happen next, do you?

It just so happened that the night before Jeff had had to overnight in Rowel and had taken advantage of the chance away from his other-half to spend some time at one of the fine taverns that Rowel boasted.
This particular tavern was featuring on the night a very fine barrel of ale procured as a special purchase from the Selbyville brewery, and no finer body had Jeff ever sampled in a glass of beer.
Unfortunately, it happened that the body he was sampling was in part part of Tedium's parts, who had very recently met his demise in a brewery vat with the result that halfway to Fenster on board the combine, Jeff was attacked by a fit of the stomach cramps that had him rushing for the convenience in the corner of the car, and there he stayed while the train passed through Fenster, Toenail Ridge, the Whitbey bridge and Rowel, finally emerging, pale, shaken and pounds lighter in the Rowel interchange yards.

Where the crate, unmarked and un-consigned, managed through a number of errors perpetuated by inexperienced staff filling in for those away with the flu, eventually got forwarded to a small village in the far Southern Mexican state of Guadelaharikari, where to this day the contents of the crate are revered as a sacred icon and paraded publicly every year on St. Margaritas-ante-Porcos Day.

Whitehouse had had trouble getting his gravedigger to cooperate with the preparation of a suitable resting place for the young stranger, no money forth-coming and all, so it was with a considerable degree of relief that he was approached by Richardo Lamborgino in the church and had whispered in his ear that according to the wishes of the stranger, revealed in an unsigned note found in one of his saddle-bags, he wished his mortal remains to be consigned to the flames in a similar fashion to Tedium's from the brewery, that is, the new fashion of cremation.
Well, Whitehouse sure didn't complain about this, after all, the valley of the Toenail Ridge was one of those fortunate places where wood grew on trees, so providing a fire to dissipate the mortal remains was not a problem, shoot, any community could afford a match!

About then, CJ arrived, finally, with the crate from the Selbyville station.

With due pomp and ceremony it was transported into the church where Little said the right words, Littles' Women snuffled into their lace hankies, the men sat stoic, swallowing lumps in their throats, Whitehouse' natural boisterousness succumbed to the solemnity of the occasion and finally the cortege departed in due respect for the newly completed crematorium.

Adolph Kampf complained again and again to the Toenail Ridge management about the non-arrival of his shipment of mining explosives, but never gained any satisfaction from them, they repetitively claiming that all records of the transaction had regrettably disappeared in the suspected asteroid strike that levelled the Selbyville area on the day that that poor young stranger was cremated.

Chapter 17! The triumphant return of the Saga!
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