Chapter 22: War & Peace!!
Written October 21, 1999
Uploaded June 5th, 2000
Visits of relatives.
Winning the lottery.
Not winning the lottery.
Some of them can cause an upward lift of the eyebrows, a slightly surprised "hmmph!" and then they fade into the miasma of forgotten memories.
Some of them can blow you backwards so far that it takes a week to catch your breath and utter in stunned tones "SHIT!!"
Grant Alexander was about his usual duties one Thursday morning, as supervisor in the engine maintenance yards of the Toenail Ridge Shortline in Selbyville, Or. He had liased with JD, the ganger foreman, and Dempsey, the station master, to make sure nothing would upset the smooth operations of the Shortline that day, and had settled himself at his roll-top desk to catch up with the endless paper work inflicted on him by the Directors in far-off Portland.
Invoices for supplies and replacement parts, cartnotes from delivery firms, receipts from local suppliers, waybills from Rowell's lumber yard, (the paperless office still being a lifetime in the future...) Alexander mumbled under his green eyeshade and bent to with a will to knock a dent in the accumulated backlog gathered under the green glass shade of the brass bankers lamp.
The sun beamed in through the dirty window catching moats floating in the air, a trapped fly buzzed its displeasure as it endlessly beat against the glass pane, the heavy tick of the office clock on the wall sliced the morning and life into seconds and the pile of paper work slowly diminished on the To-do side and transfered to the Completed pile as Grant laboured on.
Towards mid-morning he rose and picked up the battered coffee pot and poured himself a mug of the treacle that had been stewing on the pot-belly top since early morning. With mug in hand he stepped outside to catch some fresh air and survey the area of his duties and charge.
The Toenail Ridge yards have oft been mentioned in these chronicles but never described in detail.
One reason for this lack is that a working rail yard is a dynamic place, with little remaining unchanged or unmoved for long. True, at the back and sides of some of the structures piles of discarded this-and-that had lain undisturbed since the previous century, but even these accumulations from time to time were ransacked for the odd part or piece to complete a job or patch a fault.
A worthy blacksmith, a good machine shop and experience can turn anything into anything if the need called. If a pile of sow's ears had been located in the dusty corner of an old storage shed the wife of every worker in the shops would have received a silk purse for Christmas.
But the main reason for the existence of the shops and yard was to keep the money makers of the Shortline in operation.
It was to here that the locomotives were brought routinely for service and fuel, where the rolling stock was dead-headed for repairs, even where -as neccessity arose- new equipment was placed on the roster of the Toenail Ridge Shortline, built up from what was available or easily purchased to supplement the existing equipment.
In years gone by the Yard had converted an 0-4-0 saddle tank Porter from Philadelphia into a 2-4-0 coal burning tender loco which often hauled the combine from Rowel to Selbyville if trade did not dictate the full compliment of varnish.
From the workshops had emerged wooden reefers to carry the output of the Fenster Cheese Factory, even a snowplow had been built although it had resided unsullied and deteriorating on a spur for years, as the one thing that the valley of the Toenail Ridge did not receive in the way of weather was snow. Water yes, in copious, daily and drowning quantities, but frozen never. (Although following a tree blight one year the plow was readied to clear the tracks of fallen leaves which were so thick they reached the waist of a grown man but before the extra could take to its duties a wind from the SouthWest arose and cleared the impediment to travel in a matter of minutes. The plow was restored to its usual place of abode and had sat unused and un-noticed ever since.)
So as Alexander surveyed his yards he subconsiously noted what rolling stock was where, who was engaged on what job, who was leaning on the doorframe of the machine shop setting light to a hand rolled cigarette (it sure wouldn't be Ken Blunt, though!), what noises of toil and endeavor came from the cavernous interior of the machine shop and engine house.
The yards had a permanent clamorous roar, metal on metal, heavy machinery moving heavy parts. Nothing associated with steam engines was small and delicate, nothing light or fragile, and it all took strength and power to inflict the will of the tradesman on the target of his trade.
He sipped the black thick brew in his mug (which for want of a better word we will dignify with the epithet 'coffee'....) and surveyed his realm.
Nothing out of order, all right with the world.
Alexander was a man more at peace with his place in the world than most men could dream of.
He loved every aspect of his job with the exception of the desk work, and he had a deep and abiding love for steam machinery and all of its accoutrements.
If offered the riches of the foreign kings he would not have forsaken his position and his life in the Valley of the Toenail Ridge.
He lived contented with his wife and his livestock on a small-holding just out of town and enjoyed the respect of the men who worked under him. He could envision no future away from what he knew and loved.
With a last sip of his mug, he flicked the dregs away (where sadly they caused the premature coil shuffling-off of an innocent beetle who found himself expiring from acute caffiene overdose as the dregs covered his carapace...) and turned and re-entered his office to resume his paper-work.
Now it's been pretty well documented that nothing travels as fast as bad news so within a couple of days the Directors of the Toenail Ridge Shortline, ensconsed in their walnut panelled offices in far-off Portland, had received and digested the venomous and vehement letter penned by the senior engineer on the line.
These self-same directors were well known for their parsimonious attitudes when it came to parting with any money at all, be it for construction, maintenance, wages or charity, so Tony's demand that #9 be condemned was dismissed out of hand.
However, they had to concede that perhaps he had a point and nothing would be worse for business than a tragedy, it could put the revenue raising out of action for days, never mind having to employ and train new crew, and certainly not to mention the cost of flowers for any funerals......
The directors put their heads together and decided that since the repair of Toenail Ridge Shortline equipment was Alexander's job, it had to be Alexander's fault that the old loco had continuous derailments.
And if a man couldn't do his job right then there was no room for him in their employ.
New Jersey Jack Lazyzcre had been a sleeping partner in the Shortline for a good few years, drawing his Director's fees but not participating in the day-to-day administration of the business.
However, since he was the director on the spot it was to him that the Portland connection sent the telegram advising of their decision, and of course putting him in the position of having to convey the bad news to the yard manager.
Now for quite a time Grant and Jack had been on pretty friendly terms, ever since the episode with the young English stranger, in fact, so Lazyacre was a mite upset to read that his friend in the Selbyville yard was due for the chop.
He donned his Homburg and headed out the door of his office to get some information when who should he literally run into but Tony.
"What in seventeen hells have you been telling Portland?" roared Lazyacre. "I got orders to fire the best man in this valley and damn me if your ass isn't gonna roll first if I find out that this is your doing!"
Never a meek man, Tony at first bristled at this verbal onslaught from the attorney, but quickly common sense opened one eye and whispered in his ear that this man was not a good person to have his mind set against you, seeing as how he owned most of the town and held the mortgages on the rest.
So he filled in Jack as to why he'd been so upset and yessir I shouldn't have written that letter but durnnit I was scared and angry and I sure didn't mean nuthin' by it against Alexander and.............
Lazyacre spun on his heel, re-entered his office and grabbed a Western Union form from his desk. He quickly penned a short missive to the Portland head office, pointing out that the whole thing was a mis-understanding, Tony had made an error, and if the Directors chose to not reverse their decision then he, New Jersey Jack Lazyacre Esq. attorney at law, would have to do some serious soul searching re various gambling debts he was owed, and various pieces of paper relating to particular land deals that had happened to come into his possession, and even certain details about the parentage of one certain child of one certain daughter of the Governor of the State of Oregon.
Of course, if those self-same directors could see the folly of firing the yard foreman and approving monies to replace the pony truck on that loco #9, then he, New Jersey Jack Lazyacre would undertake to forget that the incident had ever taken place.
"Tony, you useless bag of bones! Get over to the Western Union office with this form right now and get it sent off and then get up to the yard and grovel to Alexander and if you're real lucky he won't knock your damn-fool head off!"
Now the funny thing to this whole little episode is that the main character in it, to whit, Grant Alexander, yard foreman, never for one minute even knew that his peaceful life in the Valley of the Toenail Ridge was ever under threat.
Tony came and did some crawling and boot-licking and the two of them retired to Chuck Parker's Saloon for a quaff or two, and when he got back to his desk Grant found a wire from Portland telling him to order in a new pony truck for that durned #9, and while he was at it to give the rest of the equipment a coat of paint and a spruce-up.
First thing he did on receipt of that was to check the calendar but it wasn't close to Christmas, however, gift horses resent having their mouths inspected so he did as was ordered and in the end Tony didn't die as the result of a derailment after all but went on to meet his destined fate at the hands of a Seattle hooker and her German Shepherd the way that the gods had intended all along.
It was a hell of a surprise to him, of course, but that's another story.
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