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The ongoing Saga of the Toenail Ridge Shortline

Written May 1,1998
Uploaded May 26,1998

Work is the Curse of the Drinking Classes

Chapter 6

It takes a certain kind of a mind to run a saloon. Especially in a little town where booze is considered by many to be the work of the Devil himself. Especially when the preacher rails against you and your livelihood every Sunday morning. Especially when half of your clientele are rough men from the back woods who haven't seen civilization in three months, and the other half are farmers and merchants who are only one generation removed from carrying a six-gun on their hips. Especially when some of the mothers of the kids that go to school with your kids used to ply their wares in your own premises. It even used to be called the Ware-house. Spelling wasn't a strong point with some business-men. It takes a combination of a philosopher, a psychologist, a boxing manager, a marraige consultant, an entertainer, a judge.

Chuck Parker wasn't too many of these things, but he did know his booze, having devoted a large part of his adult life to its ingestion. He knew what he liked and if it was good enough for him it was good enough for everyone else. He had also worked as a police-man in the toughest part of the toughest city outside of the Wild West so was emminently qualified to referee the occasional physical coming-togethers which happen in establishments such as his. He was capable of listening with an apparently attentive ear to the complaints of frustrated husbands or failing merchants, without once offering anything in the way of constructive or useful advice. He was, in short, the consumate drinks pourer.

Round about 1910 motorised transport began to make a tentative appearance in the valley, usually to the derisive comments of onlookers about their ability to supplant a good horse and cart. While on a stock-procuring trip to Seattle, Chuck Parker saw a motorised bicycle that caught and held his attention as if he had been mesmerised. He immediately returned to his liquor supplier, cancelled the order for Kentucky whiskey, instead ordered 60 cents a quart Red Eye and then returned with his extra capital and purchased the motorised two-wheel steed.

Then as now it takes a certain kind of man and mind to appreciate a motorcycle, and Chuck was the quintessential motorcyclist. Having been raised in the cold dank Yorkshire moors he had an affinity for wet underwear and numb extremities as well as a permanently dripping red nose, and never felt more at home than when caught outdoors in one of the valley's daily or more frequent rain squalls. It was as if evolution had prepared for innumerable generations to reach this pinnacle of motorcycling fitness in Chuck Parker. And he was not going to let this opportunity pass.

Riding a motorcycle in the early years of this century could be a deeply enlightening experience. The roads were dirt and mud and rut, the tires were narrow and hard and prone to air-loss without so much as a by-your-leave. The other denizens of the road were prone to deposit slippery impediments to progress in the middle of the carraige-way, and rear and bolt at the approach of the fumes-wreathed vehicle. Fuel was available only at stores in cans and was of often questionable quality, so that the rider of the iron steed became in rapid order either a skilled diagnostician and repairer of his mount, or an angry, frustrated and extremely vocal, unwilling pedestrian. Nevertheless, Parker adapted to the life of a velocipede pilot with an ability and eagerness he had never before experienced.

A motorcycle is not the most convenient vehicle when it comes to transporting goods but dedicated riders have been know to fit whole families and furniture on one machine, so with little further thought, Parker and his consignment of alcohol lit out from Seattle to return home to the valley. This journey was no mean feat, as the roads were rudimentary at best, used only by local horse-drawn traffic. All longer distance traffic went by the railroad, from Seattle to Portland, Portland to Rowell Flat, Rowell Flat to Selbyville finally via The Toenail Ridge Shortline. As has been reported earlier, the Shortline was the only way past the basalt cliff that gave the area its name, with the exception of the now heavily over-grown switck-back track that originally allowed the first settlers access to the valley. After two weeks of stop & go motoring, Chuck Parker found himself on his now worn and dirty machine at the foot of the Toenail Ridge cliff itself.

It is often stated that when faced with insurmountable odds, that a wise man will decide that discretion is the better part of valor, although the people who often state this obviously don't have the intestinal fortitude and sheer bloody-mindedness of a Yorkshire saloon-keeper. Having said that, it's obvious now that Parker was going to deliver his motorcycle to his town under its own power or suffer considerable physical and psychological insults trying.

Because the Pacific Northwest has more than its fair share of rain, The Toenail Ridge Shortline was in constant need of track and right-of-way maintenance, with men continually employed re-aligning track, re-ballasting, replacing rotted or split ties, or just clearing invasive greenery. It happened that on this particular day, a track gang was busy halfway up the Ridge escarpment tamping fresh ballast under a small wash-out. The gang of gandy-dancers was in the charge of JD, a stoic and strong man who originally hailed from the Colorado territory. He had journeyed to the valley, not in search of gold or silver, but in quest of soil, being an avid gardener. He had an interest in a nursery in Rowell, developing roses for the local climate, and financed his passion with blisters on the track work of the Shortline. He had a reputation among his fellow workers and the towns-folk of never turning down a request for a dime or a bed or a meal, one of those really rare creatures, a true gentle man. He had been known to offer the shirt off his back to a stranger in need.

Now one thing the boss of a track-gang doesn't really need at any time is a member of the crew distracting the rest from their duties. A job has to be done and it's up to the gang boss to see it through in a reasonable time at reasonable cost. This particular day, JD had a problem, and this problem was called Rick. Rick hailed from Tennessee originally and had fled to the Northwest after escaping from a road-gang in Louisiana. He had drifted into the valley only a few weeks back and had signed on to the track gang to earn enough money to drift on to his next stop in life. Rick had demonstrated quickly that he had a fine eye and an artist's touch, and never had to pay for a beer in the saloon while he could draw a caricature of another drinker.

On this particular day, Rick had found a limestine outcrop, adjacent to the sheer granite walls of the cutting that the original track-laying crew had hewn along the cliff that bore the name of the Toenail Ridge. Limestone is a form of calcium, and when scraped along another, harder surface, it leaves a white deposit as clear and distinct as a school-mistress' chalk-stick. So, in a manner evocative of what in another half-century would be called grafitti, he began to decorate the granite walls of the cutting with sketches of his fellows, of JD and his white, bushy beard, of the scenery, of rolling stock of the Toenail Ridge Shortline.

Now it's one thing for a man being paid by the hour to slacken his pace, but when it leads to the rest of the gang downing tools to admire his work, it's time for the foreman to step in and exert his authority. JD was not a man given to strong language, prefering to use the voice of reason and arbitration, but there are times when even the meekest man will feel the roar of lions in his blood, and JD had just about had his fill of Rick and his cartoons today. Accordingly, he called on skills he had heard the preacher Jeremiah Little use, and in a voice that dripped fire & brimstone, he informed Rick that his days on the work-gang were numbered and that if he didn't get his lazy butt in gear and do some work that he,JD, would call down seven kinds of demons to light a fire under him!

Just about now, Chuck Parker had managed to get his motorcycle with its load of booze up the worst and steepest part of the Toenail Ridge and was mostly able to follow the old over-grown track that used to service the valley. Cresting another rise he could see that the track here ran over rock and was therfore less over-grown and more defined, and observing that it ran straight and true for a while, Parker gave the machine its head, exhilerating in the way it leapt ahead. He put his head down and wrapped his knees into the frame, and totally managed to miss the turn that the original track took to the left. The track he was on was one which the track-layers had used to gain access to the top of the granite cutting, and right over the next rise it dead-ended where the builders had tipped fill over the side to re-inforce the track-bed. The cutting was at this point about twenty feet wide, just enough to allow for passage of the train on the curve.

Thirty feet below the top of the cutting, JD had reached the point in his berating of Rick where he had threatened gnashing of teeth. Rick, a superstitious man, was beginning to quake at some of the images that his imagination was conjuring up for him, under the influence of JD's tirade. Thirty feet above the track, at the top of the cutting, Chuck Parker had the sudden realization that he had made a huge mistake in missing the track turnoff. Looming before his speeding machine was twenty feet of nothing with thirty feet of nothing right underneath it. With his stomach in his tonsils and his heart in his boots he instinctively leaned back as his front wheel hit a slight bump and the publican and his motorised bicycle and his load of rot-gut whisky launched over the cutting in a scream of fear and a scream of engine and a haze of burnt oil and a shower of pebbles and rocks.

Just as Rick thirty feet below gazed heavenward in dread of JD's threats.

It isn't often in his life that a grown man has to be taken by the hand and led to a stream and stripped of his soiled clothes and cleaned like a baby. While speechless. And shaking like a spinster's vibrator. The horrors in Rick's head are only know to him, but the outward reaction to the apparition of Chuck Parker and his leap left an indelible impression on all of the men working in the track-gang that day. JD found himself elevated to god-hood in the respect shown to him by his crew, his assignments were finished in record time and exemplary fashion, hats were tipped as he passed men in the street. Rick left the valley very soon afterwards and word was heard months later that he had joined an order of monks in the Arizona desert.

Against all the odds, Chuck Parker survived. His motorcycle actually completed the leap across the cutting, it even landed upright and straight. Its lack of suspension meant that every bottle of whisky was shattered, and gallons of booze soaked the rider to the pelt. He and his bike were still travelling at a good turn of speed, of course, and he would probably have even managed to get it back under control if it hadn't been for the tree.

Years later, when motorised transport was taken for granted, it was still a subject of debate why the saloon-keeper insisted on walking everywhere, even when the offer of transport had been made. Especially with his pronounced limp from his broken hip. This and the tufted hair on his head and face were the only remnants of his adventure. The hair was the result of a little lack of thought. When soaked to the skin with cheap booze and lying next to the bent & mangled remains of a motorised bicycle, contemplating the fact that one is still alive even with a painful and badly bent hip, is probably not the best time to produce and pack and then attempt to light your pipe.

Then again, if it hadn't been for the signal fire, he'd probably still be there.

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Chapter 7 in the saga of the Toenail Ridge Shortline!