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The continuing Saga of the Toenail Ridge Shortline

Chapter 19: A State of War!

Written Oct 8, 1998,
Uploaded February 28,1999

The access track paralleling the right-of-way of the Toenail Ridge Shortline was generously described at best as being very rough.
Like all access tracks it existed to permit access, however, the gandydancers who worked on the railway accomplished most of their access to their sites of labor via handcar or in the cab and bed of the Model A Ford pickup that had been modified to run on rails for the convenience of the track foreman JD.
With the result that the access track wasn't generally used for access.
In fact it was so overgrown with brambles and blackberries and various other sundry examples of Mother Nature's infinite variety, especially of the prickle-bearing sort, that in most places it was simply a thicker part of the scenery.

In general area the valley of the Toenail Ridge was not very large, but area is a relative measurement.
A backyard may be a universe to an ant and to the trudging, scratched, weary, bemused and befuddled English visitor the walking distance from Fenster to Selbyville along the access track approached infinity.
He had been badly rattled when he had rounded a curve and saw before him the expanse of the Lake Wallace bridge.
No provision existed for the pedestrian, no safety rail protected the wayfarer from the plunging depths into the icy bay.
He had stepped carefully and cautiously from tie to tie, all the while aware of the depth below him visible between the rails.
And of course, when you have to look where you put your feet on every step, the old adage about heights "Don't look down!" hardly applies, does it?
This particular young English dandy had spent time in his youth, while on vacation from his very prim, proper, expensive, exclusive and snobbish private school (which by a delightful quirk of logic the upper-crust Englishman refers to as 'Public School') on various adventurous expeditions in the spirit of Baden-Powell, trecking through the Swiss Alps, trudging the Spanish Appenines, imbibing German beer on the top of the Tyrolean Alps, in general, finding out through hard and bitter experience that he had no head for heights whatsoever.
So the 500 feet of the bridge approached the upper limits of his nerves and the capacity of his underwear to absorb perspiration.
With stultifying slowness the end approach of the Selbyville abutment neared with each step. The only thing that could make this day worse for him was to meet a train coming the other way.
But even by the wildest stretch of the imagination no loving God would inflict that trial on the poor traveller.

Not by the wildest stretch of the imagination.

Just too hard to bear if that happened.

Too cruel.

Down by the station, early in the.....afternoon, Tony had the Porter all fired up and coupled to his mixed freight, ready for the run down to Rowell with the latest load of cheesey comestibles from the rebuilt Fenster Cheese factory.
It has been mentioned elsewhere that the Selbyville end of the bridge was only a matter of minutes out of the Selbyville yards, so that when the engineer pulled on the whistle cord to signal his departure, the mournful sound echoed across the yards and town and with the speed of sound crossed the intervening woods and struck the ears of the English hiker, instantly plunging him into even deeper despair!
By now he had progressed to the point that the bridge was no longer spanning water but had gained dry land, which slowly rose to meet the end abutment.
No longer faced with a jump into cold deep water, he gazed downward at the ground below.
By a quirk of the wind the clank of the Porter's loose side-rods and the hiss of its blowby reached him from somewhere ahead and he quickened his treacherous steps from one tie to the next, calling upon his last reserves of stamina and courage to hurry him to the safety of the end of the bridge.

And around the curve and onto the final approach to the bridge came the Porter, its headlight glimmering in the bright afternoon sun, its smokebox framed in steam and smoke, its whistle screaming as Tony saw the pedestrian on the right-of-way ahead.
With nowhere left to go the young traveller tightened his grip on his carpetbag and with a last glance at the approaching engine he leapt far to the side, aiming in the general direction of a large and soft-looking bush.

One of the endearing little folk heroes that has disappeared in the latter part of the century has been the hobo. The hobo was an itinerant worker or vagrant, a drifter who rode the rails free, if he wasn't caught first, and generally, lived the free life of a rover.
Often with a permanent limp or crooked shoulder from where he hadn't managed to escape the intimate attentions of the railroad policeman.
He could run like the wind to catch and board the passing freight, he had the balance of Houdini as he clung to the trusrods and queenposts beneath a reefer or gondola, he could leap to Olympic levels as he heaved himself through the partly open door of a freight car.
All the while clutching his belongings, his rolled blanket and his coffee pot.V America had its hoboes, Australia had its swagmen, Europe had its gypsies, and the valley of the Toenail Ridge had Norm.

Norm had been the uninvited guest of the Toenail Ridge Shortline for more years than most folks in the valley could remember. He shuffled endlessly from Rowell to Selbyville and back, sometimes spending months to cover the distance, at other times completing the journey twice in a day if he heard of a pie being baked and left to cool on the odd kitchen window sill, or a chicken being culled and left to hang behind a remote barn or hen-house.V He was not a thief, always leaving something in exchange for what he had taken, and like that little rodent of the desert high country, the pack-rat, he was just as capable of swapping jewels for junk as vice versa.V He had been known to leave an old, rusty track spike in place of a new flannel shirt purloined from a clothes line, and then leave the same unworn shirt in a chicken coop in place of the half-dozen eggs destined for his camp-fire.
So when he was roused from a light before-supper slumber by the sound of crashing vegetation and heavy thumps, he wasn't particularly surprised to see that his own personal guardian angel had supplied him with a new carpetbag full of outfittings, and a classy suit of clothes, just waiting to be removed from the body wearing them.
And of course he had to leave his own clothes in their place, as well as his bedroll and, just to make it an even trade, the eggshells from breakfast.

Around about midnight the cold rising from the ground under the thick bush roused the English stranger from his stupor. The dew had risen and he groped his coat around him to ward off the chill. Through the fuzz in his head his fingers told him that they weren't encountering fine English tweed but, with more pressing needs the cerebral neurons didn't immediately make the connection.
He staggered to his feet, wincing at the pinch in his (new?) boots, and swaying like a reed in the breeze attended to the pressing needs of his bladder.
Then, enjoying that small modicum of relief, he glanced around him in the gloom of the moonlight filtering through the branches and fronds above. His stomach told him that it was a long time since breakfast so he sought his carpetbag to retrieve the packet of Tooth's Fine Digestive Biscuits secreted within.
And found the bedroll and swag.
And the coffee can with the wire handle.
And the eggshells.
And nothing more.
The frantic search of the bedroll revealed a considerable lack of papers, wallet, money, passport, tickets, souvenirs, clothing.

Well, there is only so much that a bruised and battered body can take in one day, so with the dregs of absolute fatigue and shock washing through him, he lay down on the bedroll and surrendered his consciousness to the embrace of Morpheus.

In the morning, as the sun peeked through the saddle between Mt. Dolly and Mt. Pardon, the sleeper was roused by the rattle and clickety-clack of #9 under the control of Woody and Ken, making its way across the Lake Wallace trestle on the way to Rowel Flat with the morning mixed freight. He slowly clambered to his feet, being constantly reminded of the painful existence of every vertebral joint and extremity articulation in his skeleton as he rose to his full height.
His memory slowly supplied snatches and images as he tried to assess his situation, finally coming to the hard realization that he had undergone a metamorphisis, and now was in every way what in Great Britain would be called (with upraised lip in emulation of Elvis Presley, and downturned eye...) a tramp.

It is truly amazing how resilient can be the human spirit in adversity.

Having been insulted at every turn since boarding the train at Rowel, the young man had reached the depths of despair but now found himself with an air of acceptance and que-sera-ity (This is a Latin word meaning "Whatever will be, will be..."). With nothing more to lose he shouldered the bedroll, grasped the coffee can by its wire handle and, with a quizical backward glance at the eggshells, walked out from under the thick bush and returned to his perambulation of the trail alongside the track.

Norm was a sight resplendant to be seen in his new suit of clothes and with his pristine carpetbag in his hand, as he walked down the Main street of Selbyville and began kicking the door of Chuck Parker's saloon, seeking to gain early entry to its spirited interior.
Chuck, of course, was still at this time of day well ensconsed in the Land of Nod, snoring in his cabin way up the hills, not expecting to rouse from his slumbers and open his boozerteria for at least three more hours.
So, after the lack of response settled into the lightly tenanted interior of Norm's cerebellum, that worthy decided instead that if the liver couldn't be pampered at that time of day, at least the stomach could.
He ambled his way down the street to the Selbyville Hotel and made his way in grand style through the main doors and into the refined dining room, where he took a seat at a vacant white-linened and silver-serviced table and rapped for attention.

It had been a good number of years since the original hotel had burnt to the basement in mysterious circumstances and the stalwarts of that establishment had gone their separate ways. The new hotel had been purchased in Seattle and shipped in as a pre-fabricated kit by the new landlord, who was none other than New Jersey Jack Lazyacre, attorney-at-law, insurance representative, advocate, church treasurer and grand master of the local Masonic Lodge. (Yes, that little printing press had been busy again. He had in fact endowed himself on one occasion with the British honours of an earldom and the Order of the British Empire, but fortunately realised before he went public that being both an earl and an OBE made him an earlobe....)
Lazyacre had taken over the hotel licence and purchased the lot and building with the money forthcoming from his arrangement with the wife of the former publican, one Lois Lamborghino, who had made a considerable profit from the fire insurance policy written by Jack only days before her building conflagrated and her ne'er-do-well husband Richardo had renewed aquaintance with former gambling colleagues from Texas.
Under Jack's ownership and direction the hotel had become a place of refinement and culture, the parlour frequently resounding to the strains of a string quartet from Portland, or the merry discords of the new Jazz that was sweeping the Western world. (Although people of refinement didn't refer to the new style by that name...fancy calling a music form after a slang word for Intercourse...Well, really, it wouldn't happen in Boston, my dear....)

One of the reasons that the Selbyville Hotel was now a center of the finer things in life was because Jack kept a very firm hand on the reins.
So it was only a matter of minutes before the news of Norm's presence in the dining room was conveyed to him in his private suite and he was dressed and on his way downstairs to politely eject the itinerant.
Well, it came as a bit of a shock to him to find Norm established at his table in a fine suit of clothes and with money spread on the table-cloth.
Have we mentioned that New Jersey Jack Lazyzcre was an astute man?
He was also a highly suspicious one and so with no ado at all he swept back the chair opposite Norm, placed his posterior on it, leaned forward and with the friendly smile that a Mako shark gives an escaped guppy, he inquired "How did you come by your get-up, Norm?"

While it was true that frequently the lights were on in Norm's head but there was nobody home, occasionally the correct neurons would connect and the tenant would temporarilly re-inhabit.
Such occurred now.
Norm had a recollection of receiving the gift of the clothes and the other possessions from on high, but he was clear-headed enough at the moment to remember that what was a gift or a trade to him wasn't neccessarily seen that way by the rest of the inhabitants of the valley of the Toenail Ridge.
"Well, Mr. Lazyacre, sir..." he began. "I jist woke up this mornin' and there it all was, lyin' beside me." And every word he spoke was true, it was all just lying beside him, it just happened to be being worn by someone else at the time.
"Norm, tell you what we are gonna do," smiled Jack,"You and me are going into the kitchen back there and we are going to sit down to the best hot breakfast you've had in a year, and we are going to drink a whole pot of good coffee, and then we are going to enjoy a fine cigar, and you are going to talk to me."
"Or we can sit right here and while you order your breakfast I can send my man to go fetch Sheriff Dillon and he can buy you some breakfast over in his cells instead."

Now, being between a rock and a hard place ranks about even with a carload of feather pillows compared with sharing breakfast either with a lawyer or a lawman and Norm knew that his regenerative appendages had been securely gotten.
So, with a mumbled " Sobriety, sobriety...." or another phrase that began SOB, he shuffled to his feet, grasped his bag and head down, followed Lazyacre through the swing doors into the back room.

Joe Dempsey was out on the boardwalk in front of the Selbyville passenger station, sweeping dirt from one place to another, when he saw the hobo walk around the curve and tramp into the railyard.
He suspended his re-distributing of dust and leaned on the handle of the broom as the young man came closer and finally stepped up onto the station platform.
Even through chronically rum-softened eyes it didn't take much to see that the fellow standing there in Norm's clothes wasn't in fact Norm. Who it was he didn't know, but he did know who it wasn't. "Morning," he offered.
"Um,...." said the stranger, and then with that instant train of thought that occasionally flashes across the consciousness, he decided that perhaps now would be a good time to keep his mouth shut, so, adopting a simple grin, he pointed to his mouth and his ears and, turning up his palms he shrugged and raised his eyebrows.

In the modern age it is considered polite to assist a person who has a challenge to overcome, and it is certainly considered rude and boorish to make fun of a sufferer.
This enlightened attitude was, however, half a century away as Joe Dempsey realised that before him stood a deaf mute.
For some reason, some people think that a physical handicap also means a mental shortcoming, a person who is hard of hearing must also be a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic. So with a wry lop-sided grin, Joe mimed eating, raising his eyebrows as if questioning the stranger. Well, by now it had been considerable time since yesterday's breakfast and the stranger had been listening to his stomach complain volubly and persistently for the last five miles. So, with a happy nod of understanding he responded to Joe's beckoning hand and followed the station-master into the private quarters in the station.
He sat down at Joe's nod towards the table and the station-master poured him a cup of coffee from the old tin pot simmering on top of the pot-belly stove.

Some people have an affinity for good coffee, others seem to be bereft of any appreciation of the qualities of that delightful bean. Joe had not emptied or cleaned that coffeepot in living memory, rather just topping it up with grounds and water on a regular basis, and sipping the resultant sludge on and off all day.
Some of the molecules in that coffeepot had been brewed when Mason and Dixon were still arguing where they were going to put their line.
Hidden grounds in the lip under the spout were old enough to vote.
And a cupful of this washed past the young stranger's lips, instantly overloaded his tastebuds, sent his nasal olfactory nerves into emergency shutdown, opened his lacrimal ducts to permit tears to trickle through tight-squeezed eyelids and oozed stomachward, imparting a caffeine high on the way past that would keep him awake for nearly a week.
Meanwhile Joe had placed a loaf of bread on the table and added a block of Fenster matured cheese.
The cheese hadn't been mature when it was sold but strange things had been known to happen in the confines of the Dempsey pantry. This was perhaps proof of the basic tenet of the Evolutionary Theory that states that given enough time just about anything that can occur will.

Well, the young stranger fell to with a will (which given the age of the comestibles he would probably need to have drawn up very soon...). He crammed chunks of the bread and cheese into his mouth and washed it down with the black treacle from the coffee cup, then sat back with a sigh of repletion and contentment.
All the while Joe had been sitting on the other side of the table watching his hospitality being appreciated, and he had been thinking deeply, remembering the description that Rick Dresser had given of the English spy who was invading the valley. Now even a bright dog can be taught that 2+2=4 and Joe was beginning to have suspicions.
The hobo was pretty clean-shaven, clean around the neck, stood erect, had a good haircut, was short, everything that the usual inhabitant of the clothes was not.
And then the terrible thought struck!

Where was Norm?!

Had he been fiendishly murdered and his body thrown into Lake Wallace?

Was he a prisoner, bound in a cave or derelict cabin?

Was he the first prisoner-of-war or the first casualty?

Joe inched the coffeepot to the side of the table and when the young stranger leaned back and stretched, he allowed the pot to fall to the floor and noted with grim satisfaction the slight start that the supposed deaf mute gave at the clatter.
Showing no sign of his suspicions he grinned at the imposter and indicated that they should go outside to fetch mop and bucket to clean up the spilt coffee.
Joe indicated for the stranger to fetch the broom from the anteroom on the platform while he filled a bucket at the rain-water barrel.
As soon as the young man entered the anteroom, Joe slammed the door behind him and thrust the bolt home.
"Got you, you sneaking English spy!" he screamed in triumph, dancing up and down in his excitement, visions of medals and banquets and speeches of gratitude welling in his head. The gallant station-master saves the valley from the marauding hoards of invading Englishmen by his courage and wit!

Now it takes a pretty serious reason for a station-master to leave his post unattended when a train is due, and the Porter was only minutes away with the late morning combine if it was on time. But some things cannot be delayed, so Joe snapped the padlock on the office door, pulled on his jacket and set off at a fast walk for the Selbyville Main street a mile away.

Leaving the young stranger in his make-shift cell, with a gut full of strong cheese and stronger coffee on an otherwise empty stomach, with no ventilation, no sanitary facilities, no newspapers, nothing in the way of creature comforts except twenty-five years of stored and filed way-bills. And an old coal-scuttle.

Now, while all this had been going on, the majority of the denizens of the valley had been busy girding their loins for the conflict ahead.
Cabins had been fortified, businesses barricaded, cattle corralled, horses saddled and fed, rifles loaded and perched over doors, pistols withdrawn from cupboards where they had lain undisturbed since grandfather's day and primed with shot and powder.
Cotton in the General Store had a run on ammunition and had to send a telegraph order to Portland for a shipment of shells and powder, much to the bemusement of his supplier who had only just allowed supplies to run low at the cessation of the deer season.
Lazyacre's threat to Norm of the involvement of the sheriff was in fact hollow as Dillon was far out of Selbyville, attending to the placement of sniper positions and ammo dumps along the right-of-way of the Toenail Ridge Shortline.
But the threat had proved to be sufficient. Under the pressure of a skilled lawyer and a skilled cook, Norm had in short order revealed all he could recall about his acquisition of his accoutriments and attire.
By the time that the lawyer had solicited this information Norm's attention was wandering and his intellect was departing on another of its lengthy vacations. He didn't know if the young provider of his largesse was alive or dead and drifted into that usual mental state where he didn't care either.
And that left Jack with the unanswered question, where was the English spy now?

Joe knew where the spy was, but Joe wasn't in a position to tell Lazyacre just at the moment.
One of the more usual effects that a regular intake of rum has on the digestive system is the frequent and urgent need to evacuate the plumbing and Joe was overtaken by this specific need halfway into town from his station, so he had secreted himself in a thicket to pay due respect to the neccessary bodily functions.
Now, by pure bad luck, this selfsame thicket was where Mac the painter and Dora his new wife had elected to picnic for their mid-morning break, and being newlyweds they had partaken of more in the bushes than tea and cookies.
Fortunately the wind was in the right direction to protect him but Joe still found it to be physically impossible to remove himself from the thicket without in some way notifying the couple that they had had an unseen and somewhat flabbergasted audience to their conubial carryings-on.
So he resigned himself to having to just wait until their departure.
Wait in his crouched position, with his pants around his ankles, cramps threatening in his calves, ants discovering his more tender meaty parts usually kept well covered, and with the acute awareness that the breeze was slowly changing direction and dropping the odd hint of olfactory presence.
And the thicket was in early bloom and his nose had started to tickle with the first suggestions of hayfever.

Ever tried to stop a sneeze?

Ever tried to stop a sneeze while squatting, pants around ankles and knowing that supper last night was mostly beans?

And knowing that Mac was a big man and Joe's life would be measured in seconds if his presence was detected.

Joe was not a religious man, in fact he had been known to be abusive at the slightest hint that his presence would be appreciated at Reverend Little's prayer meetings, but there are certain times in a man's life when he feels the need to call on the help of a greater Presence and now was one of those times in the station-master's life.
With teeth gritted and tears forced from tight-clenched eyes, Dempsey called on the Diety to provide some way, any way, to allow him to escape from his vouyeristic predicament. Please God let it rain, let a bear come out of the woods, let a snake bite Mac on one of his currently extremely exposed parts, let a mouse trying to exit from its burrow express its annoyance at the blockage by imparting its little teeth to various parts of Dora's anatomy most closely in contact with the ground, let the ground open up and swallow the whole valley, anything!

It has been mentioned in the past that the laws of Chance seem occasionally to deviate from the mean standard in the valley of the Toenail Ridge. Co-incidences co-incide, flukes pop up with monotonous regularity, million to one chances come off nine times out of ten.
The only problem with depending on the intervention of Chance is that, by pure chance, just when you need it it will go on vacation out of state.
And so, as the sun climbed higher in the sky, and the insects discovered Joe, and the flies discovered Joe's deposits, Mac and Dora seemed to aspire to new heights and began anew in practicing the exchange of genes and furthering the perpetuation of the race, still blissfully unaware of their audience.

Chapter 20 continues the Saga!

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