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The ongoing Saga of the Toenail Ridge Shortline

Written May 30,1998
Uploaded May 31,1998

Smoking is a Health Hazard!

Chapter 8

Chapter 8 Every engine was assigned a regular crew. The fireman most commonly on the foot-board of No.9 was Ken Blunt. Ken had found his way to the valley from his native Pennsylvania by chasing gold rumors, but the only wealth he had found was as the result of hard toil shovelling coal into the roaring maw of the firebox. He and Woody spent most days of the week coaxing No.9 and its freight cars along the right-of-way of the Toenail Ridge Shortline, providing the neccessities of life to the little communities along the line.

Fireman was also a specialised job, but not an end in itself. Most firemen aspired to be engineers and served an apprenticeship at the end of the shovel while they learnt the intricacies of the job and the rules and regulations that made the railway operate. Ken longed for the day when he would be able to take control of the engine himself, but prospects for advancement on the Shortline weren't good as all of the motive power had steady crews and none of the engineers looked likely to retire in a hurry. But the job was hard and danger was waiting at every coupler or switch, and sudden vacancies had been know to occur with sometimes heart-breaking suddenness.

Trains were made up in the rail-yards at Rowell, usually by Tony in control of the little Porter. Goods were trans-shipped here from the wide world via Portland and transfered to the Toenail Ridge rolling stock. On occasion a visiting car would makes its way onto the line but usually the rolling-stock was restricted to the home name. A usual consist may comprise two or three box-cars, a refrigerated car or two and the caboose which was the home away from home for the brake-man Tiny. Occasionally the tanker would make the long haul to Selbyville behind No.9, laden with kerosene for domestic use and to fuel the crusher at the silver mine over in the next valley. Ballast was carried in low-sided gondolas, also cut lumber returned for on-shipping.

Even the decrepit old stock-car was occasionally given an outing, when one of the farmers decided to import fresh blood to his herd. The reefers existed solely for the cheese factory in Selbyville and the dairy farmers knew a good thing when they saw it so they strived to keep their herds at the peak of condition. Originally the cheese factory had been a cottage industry in the little hamlet of Fenster, but that community had declined to the point that it was now no more than a whistle-stop, and as demand for the product grew, the factory re-established in Selbyville where it added to the employment of the populace and lent its distinctive air to the other olfactory delights provided by the brewery and the tannery behind the blacksmith.

On a typical day, Woody would wheel No.9 out of the yards at Rowel with consist behind and gain speed through the curve that led away from town. Depending on the time of year the trackside could be a riot of wild-flower colors as the freight train rolled through the valley on its way to Toenail Ridge. The original head surveyor of the line may not have been able to hold onto his wife but he did have a fine grasp of track-laying fundamentals, and the train hardly slowed as it barrelled along the edge of what appeared to be an artificial stone wall, so sheer was the drop from the track to the valley bottom far below.

Depending on the time of day, the freight consist would pull into the passing loop at the Toenail Ridge depot to allow the morning passenger train from Selbyville to pass, although more often than not the freight train would wait on the main line while the passenger train entered the loop to pick up or drop passengers at the station.

This also gave the opportunity for rewatering, Ken clambering onto the tender top-deck and lowering the tank spout to replenish the water tank. This is an unsung skill, positioning a locomotive for re-watering. No.9 might have a train weighing hundreds of tons trying to push it forward under its own inertia and yet Woody could stop that locomotive every time so that the water-tank spout lined up with the tender hatch to a tolerance of a foot.

From the Toenail Ridge passing loop the track meandered around curves and through lush forest until it approached the Whibley truss bridge which spanned one of the back-waters of Lake Wallace. This bridge represented cost-cutting taken to extremes. The bridge had originally been pre-fabricated for a small railroad further north but the recession of '83 had seen this line evaporate. The management of the Toenail Ridge Shortline, in need of a span across the lake, approached the creditors of the bankrupt line and purchased the bridge in its pre-fabricated form, and sight unseen. Unfortunately the bridge specifications supplied to the surveyor were a little optimistic, with the result that the right-of-way had to be re-laid to suit the length of the bridge. Bridges are usually constructed to cross a particular gap, in this case the gap had to be modified to fit the bridge.

As has been documented elsewhere, the train didn't actually go to Selbyville originally, although this was the principal settlement in the valley, but rather terminated a mile or more out of town. Over the years Selbyville had crept towards the depot, one of the first examples of urban sprawl. Crews and maintenance men made their homes here, and extensive railway yards serviced and bedded the engines. Grant Alexander was the yard-master and it was to his charge that all of the motive power and rolling stock were delivered regularly for care and feeding.

- Ken lived quietly with his wife and two sons in Selbyville. He was a regular at Chuck Parker's saloon, a rarity at Reverend Jeremiah Little's prayer meetings. When Michael Cotton had received his comeuppance at the fist of Clay Shay, Ken had been there, but at the back of the crowd and purely present for the entertainment value. He had taken great delight in the discomforture of the store-keeper, as he and Cotton had crossed swords in the past and what Shay had done to the weasely merchant was what Ken had wanted to do himself for years. Besides, he and Clay were the best of friends and often shared an early morning chat over coffee. He was also fond of Bart, perhaps seeing in the young trouble-magnet an echo of his own youth.

The cause of the conflict between the two was Ken's fondness for a really good cigar. Cotton had a wooden Indian out the front of his General store but that didn't mean that he kept a good selection in supply. As many an astute retailer has discovered, most people couldn't tell the difference between quality and adequacy.

(Incidentally, nowhere is this statement more true than in the case of red wine.)

But Ken truely appreciated a good Havana, and his taste-buds and olfactory sense could almost tell when a particular leaf had been picked and dried. In those days Cuba was virtually just another part of the United States and the premium tobacco from that island was readily and cheaply available, but the market was dominated by the more disease-resistant strains from the Virginias.

Unfortunately, like a lot of products bred to be consistent, the Virginia tobacco strains had exchanged taste for reliability, and automation had led to the slow lowering of the standards of the cigar-maker's art. With the result that the conoisseur had often to badger a supplier to gain access to his choice of stogie.

And badger Ken had, but Cotton on occasion could be harder to shift than a dead mule, and on this subject he was steadfast. Not only did he say that he not stand the smell of cigars, he refused to tie up his capital in stocking any but the cheapest.

Ken was on a daily basis in Rowell and could most times buy what he needed from the tobacconist in that larger town, but there were times when he worked overnight and had no access to the big town's facilities. Then he could have strangled Cotton for the latter's attitude.

Michael Cotton (he was one of those people that you would never consider calling Mike) smoked tailor-made cigarets in an ivory holder. He bought the cheapest he could find and then kept them in an expensive tin.

Keeping up appearances.

One day, Ken, smarting from another swords-cross with Joe Dempsey at the Selbyville station, and craving a good smoke, had a brain-storm. He knew that Cotton would accept a cigaret offered from just about anyone, placing the free fag in his holder and lighting it with the farmer matches he kept in his waist-coat pocket. Ringling Brothers circus had recently toured through part of the state and hundreds of people had flocked to see the entertainment, many of them riding the Toenail Ridge Shortline to get to Rowel for the show. Ken had been seconded to the Portland and Eastern on switching duties while the circus train was in town and he had observed with interest a lot of the workings of the circus from the inside.

When the visit had finished and the circus train departed for new climes, a lot of the local folks desended on the site with buckets and shovels to souvenir some of the exotic manure that had been left by the inhabitants of the menagerie. They all knew that nothing would help the vegetables to grow more than a nice side-dressing of lion leftovers, elephant excreta, camel cast-offs and tiger-turds. Ken helped himself to a couple barrels full of deposits from the aged and lonely old elephant, thinking it would be ideal around his strawberries.

Then he looked at its consistency.

Elephants mostly eat hay, at least the ones in captivity do.

Hay that has been through the fifty feet of digestive tract of a large mammal interestingly still looks a lot like hay, its just had a few things removed and quite a few things added. And of course, a little color. And a little methane. But when its dry it looks like dark hay.

Or tobacco.

One of the little gadgets that has disappeared from daily life in the latter part of this century has been the cigaret-rolling machine. One upon a time this clever little mechanism would accept the input of loose tobacco and press it into a paper tube with the end result a smoke that looked like it had been purpose made to feature on a bill-board. And of course like all smokers, Ken had one. He used it when he couldn't get his cigars, or when working conditions didn't allow him the luxury to enjoy one. Anyway, when the elephant left-overs had dried, after spending three weeks spread out in the attic, Ken carefully chopped the second-hand hay into length, mixed it one-to-one with real tobacco, and made himself a can of cigarets with his roller. These he carefully sealed with a rubber band and secreted in the inside pocket of his work jacket.

A few days later he was walking home from the Selbyville yards, down the Main street, when he saw Michael Cotton standing outside the General Store passing the time of day with Jack Lazyacre, the town solicitor.

(Isn't it interesting that soliciting is a joint pass-time of both lawyers and prostitutes? May have something to do with earning your living with the contents of your briefs.)

Anyway, Ken made a detour to the store side of the street and casually inspected the new washing machine Cotton had on display in the window until the store-keeper and lawyer parted.

"Afternoon, Cotton!"said Ken. "Pretty day."

"Looks like rain, Mr. Blunt" said Cotton.

"Smoke?" asked Ken, reaching into his inside pocket and producing his banded tin.

"Mighty neighborly of you, Mr. Blunt "said the store-keeper "but I have just this minute received from Mr. Lazyacre a fine cheroot all the way from Cuba and I think I will indulge myself in that."

Oh, how painful is a wound when salt is rubbed into it by the handful. Cotton has a Cuban cigar, Ken has been frustrated in his attempt to inconvenience the merchant!

He stood with saliva building in his mouth as he watched Cotton snip the end of the cheroot, moisten its end and hold a match to it. He inhaled deeply as the first wiffs of smoke made their appearance, trying to vicariously share the exotic import. He roiled inside as he remembered that he couldn't buy the same cigar because this little weasel refused to stock them. He became so angry that he snatched a cigaret from his own tin and stuck it in his mouth, grabbing Cotton's match from him to light his smoke. The anger in him forced him to draw deep and long.

And then he realized what he had lit in his mouth.

It's often said that a man was so sick that he turned green, but few people have actually seen this occur. Cotton was one of those few privileged to see the actual display in front of him of a figure of speech. Ken spat the cigaret from his mouth far out into the street, spun on his heel and set off at a dead run for the back of the store and the woods behind to empty his stomach as fast as he could.

Leaving Cotton to stand open-mouthed and bemused at the reaction and retreat of Blunt.

It was probably a good lesson, if one was in need of a lesson, about the morality of practical jokes and vengeance. Ken was certainly an unwilling pupil although he did take the lesson to heart. He found himself so sick for days that the very thought of tobacco became anathema to him and he gave the habit away for good.

It's a shame that the miner who found Ken's cigaret in the middle of the road and finished it with relish never knew what gave him the runs for three weeks.

But he probably benefited from the weight loss in the end.

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