River of Steel

Brother, have you seen starlight on the rails? Have you heard the thunder of the fast express? — Thomas Wolfe

Not all those who wander are lost. — J.R.R. Tolkien

Chapter One

The country east of Roseville is a gentle plain of grassland and houses, tilting steadily upwards toward the Sierra Nevada. It’s a gradual climb that an automobile wouldn’t notice, but the eastbound freight labored at it, all six power units throwing thick black smoke into the afternoon sky.

In their boxcar Lynden and The Duke stood like sailors on a rolling deck — hands clasped at their backs, feet wide apart, faces thrust forward into the wind. Their car was like an oven from a day’s worth of sun, so they pushed back both doors to catch a cooling breeze. On either side the great brown landscape peeled by. The open doors framed the passing scenery like a movie screen, four rigid lines around vast spreading images of the world.

Lynden remembered his first time on a train — fifteen years earlier, when he was only eleven. It was summer and dry, and the hot metal side of the boxcar stung his hand. Inside, the car smelled of grain and warm wood.

He remembered the pasture behind his house in Auburn, Washington, and the railroad tracks, and the trains he often saw there. He’d learned to read the names on the cars and he’d said their numbers aloud.

Occasionally the trains stopped. He’d see men riding in the cars. Sometimes they’d talk to him. When the trains pulled away, they’d wave and he’d shout back, his chest tight when they were gone.

His father was gone. “He’s not dead. Just gone,” his mother had said, until he stopped asking. Lynden remembered them fighting, remembered hiding out in the darkest corner of the chicken coop until it was over. Then his dad left, and the fighting ceased and they were alone.

The train he would never forget stopped behind his house the summer after sixth grade. His favorite tramp was on it, one he had talked to many times. He’d told the man how much he missed his father. The man listened and seemed to understand. Then on that day, as his train started to move, the tramp reached down from his boxcar and pulled Lynden in.

He could remember exactly what he felt at that instant; surprise, fear, excitement — hope. Maybe the tramp was taking him to find his dad.

The tramp was just taking him.

From nowhere the smell of sweet tobacco came to Lynden’s nostrils. That scent, mingled with sweat, grime, saliva, was so primitive, so pungent it clung in his memory even now. The tramp rolled his own cigarettes — his fingers reeking of that pungent smell as they fondled him, probed him, held him if he tried to pull away. But he didn’t try, not really. For the three weeks they were together he did not resist. For the fifteen years since, he’d been tormented by the reason why.

After three weeks the tramp abandoned him — just like his dad.

He did not know the man’s name. “The Tramp” was how he thought of him, and he thought of him constantly — of punishing him for what he had done. What he hadn’t seriously considered, until a day ago, was actually doing something about it.

Only yesterday he’d been offered a promotion that would have made the business section of the Mercury News. “Data Dynamics, pegged as one of 1983’s fastest growing tech firms, today named Lynden Hoover, age twenty-six, head of product development. Hoover becomes one of the youngest Silicon Valley programmers to hold such a post, and possibly the highest paid.”

There was no possibly about it.

There was also no story.

Instead of saying yes, he’d said goodbye.

His coworkers, who did not know him well or understand him at all, were sure it was the added pressure that nudged him over the edge, either that or a ploy for more money. For Lynden, though, it had never been about the money. Circuits were like barricades, equations like battlements. When he brought them together with code, they created a fortress, a realm that was entirely his own — one he could control. He did not feel that he actually belonged there, or anywhere, but he understood every inch of that world, just as prisoners know every inch of their cells.

Would taking the promotion, and everything that came with it, trap him inside that fortress forever? Something told him it might. Managing feelings as if they were data had worked for him most of his life, saved him actually. Since computers didn’t dream, and only remembered the past when asked to, they seemed the perfect model. But unlike data, feelings festered, and the festering increased as he got older.

Big problems you run away from, he thought, and knew from experience — he’d been doing it most of his life. But from small ones you just walk. So he walked off the job, grabbed his backpacking gear from his apartment, and stuck out his thumb.

It was pure coincidence that the first ride he hitched ended in Roseville, a town with one of the biggest railroad yards in California. But setting out to catch a freight was a decision he'd been wrestling with for fifteen years. His man might still be out there. Lynden pictured The Tramp standing over him. After all this time he wasn’t sure he trusted the image, but the emotions it stirred remained clear and raw — always ready to ambush him when he least expected it, or when they would do the most harm. Dread, longing, shame, panic; some he couldn’t name, or didn’t have the courage to. Why hadn’t they ever left him? Fifteen years, and he still didn’t know.

Now he was on a train again, the first he’d ridden since he was a boy. He’d jumped aboard as it was rolling out of the Roseville yard — an awkward and clumsy catch with the heavy pack strapped to his back. Somehow he got on, scrambling into what he thought was an empty boxcar. It was only when he was safely inside, catching his breath and shucking off his pack, that he realized he wasn’t alone. From the darkest corner of the car he saw a silver glint on a long steel blade, and the shadowy shape of the man holding it.

“I’ve seen prettier catches,” the stranger stepped into the light.

Lynden flashed on the last time he’d been with a man in a boxcar. The fear, the excitement, the shame — all of it switched on in an instant. But there was no cunning in this voice, no threat. Only wariness.

“What do you figure that backpack of yours weighs?” The hobo was a compact old man, a foot shorter than Lynden and well north of sixty years old — the rugged features of a life lived outdoors imprinted deeply on his face. He wasn’t brandishing the knife, just making sure Lynden could see all of its twelve-inch length.

“Forty pounds, forty-five maybe.” In the hobo’s other hand Lynden saw a battered leather valise. “How about that bag of yours?”

“Ten pounds,” the hobo considered. “Hell, eight pounds. And there’s times I got nothin but my wits and my walkin stick. Seein all your gear, I don’t guess you’ll be wantin mine.” He opened his bag and placed the hunting knife inside. “This here’s my boxcar, but you’re welcome to share it, long as you behave. They call me The Duke.”

“Hoover’s my name. Lynden Hoover. Where’s this train heading, do you know?”

“Wherever the hell she takes us.” The old man stepped to the open door. “If she swings north up here, then it’s Dunsmuir and on to Oregon. If she holds straight east, then it’s over the hump to Reno and Sparks. You goin somewheres in particular?”

“No. Just like you said, wherever the hell she takes us.”

* * *

In the fifteen years since he’d been hauled onto that freight, everything in Lynden’s life had changed completely. Yet, out the door in front of him now, a familiar watery image of a shadow train shimmered dimly beside them. He remembered that from before, and it was just the same. Silver wheels honed and polished on the anvil of the rails, air filled with their raw, steel scent. He knew the smells — diesel and rust— and a roar like the ocean in a shell. His feet vibrated with the strain of a hundred thousand tons and the surging of the air lines and the flexing of the springs. Doors banged, metal slapped, dust flew. This was the train that threaded through his dreams, The Tramp’s train. It pulled him, relentless as gravity, but onward.

Their freight headed east at the switch, then climbed a ridge rising gradually above the valley floor till a wide, sweeping land stretched out to the south below. A row of palm trees undulated over the rolling hills. Not far from the tracks, billboards blared at the heedless freeway traffic speeding by. Horses grazed in dry pastures. The unreal blue of swimming pools glittered like cold gems scattered across the warm, brown plain. As the track twisted Lynden could see the full length of the train. This damn thing’s more than a mile long.

Fifteen years long.

Within an hour they were deep into the Sierra Nevada. Pines and huge cedars crowded close against the tracks, cars moved at a walker’s pace. The Duke had stepped back from doors. Lynden remained in the evening’s waning light and watched the rough-cut landscape softened into pastels.

Night, and still he watched. High in the mountains a harsh wind bit his face and eyes. The sudden cold and dark enlivened him. Moonlight illuminated the great rock faces rolling by, close enough to touch. Tunnels and snow sheds. Patches of snow like icing on the ground. They were crossing a trestle over a deep canyon. The snow in the bottom, a hundred feet below, glowed as if lit from within. He imagined himself stepping off the edge of the car and falling towards it — the thrilling release, the wind in his face and his hair, the gentle grasp as he sank in.

The last sheer face of Donner Summit rose, menacing and ghostly, before them. The rock’s cold white fingers reached into the obsidian sky. A snow shed opened, and one after another the cars were sucked in, like the mountain inhaling.

Magnifying the train’s roar, the snow shed grew darker, eclipsing light and shadow when it became a tunnel. Lynden clutched the edge of the door as unseeable things swished by. He touched his palm to his nose. His eyes searched the car, at the noise from the other door, and to where The Duke was sitting. Blackness. His head inched outside toward the front of the train, a hot wind coursed roughly over his face — the smell of diesel and damp and mold. His eyes watered from the wind and blowing grit. Nothing to be seen.

He closed his eyes and rubbed them hard. He could see — but no more than familiar swimming colors.

Lynden floated, weightless, sailing through a shapeless void, unable to sense the train’s direction except when it lurched. As he had watched the foothills in the daylight, and the forests of the mountains at dusk, he settled back and watched the utter darkness.

The train emerged beneath brilliant moonlight, and stars painful as a million small suns.

“Tunnels been known to eat greenhorns like you.” The Duke was standing beside him, moon glow playing across his face. “Me and some boys rode through the Moffat tunnel with this young fella one summer and damned if we didn’t lose him. While we were inside, the fool got up to relieve himself — relieved himself right out the door.”

The train’s character shifted as it plunged down the eastern slope. After hours of plodding, pleasant and harmless, it was gathering speed, uncoiling into a rolling threat. Lynden’s feet picked up the tension and power as a thousand brake shoes engaged spinning steel. The air filled with the hot metallic smell of friction.

The boxcar began pitching wildly from side to side, its wheels at odds with the rails.

“You scared, kid?”

“Yes!” Scared, but loving it.

The rapid waters of the Truckee River threw darts of silver light back at the sky, and a hot wind came whistling through the boxcar doors. They were flying down the mountain, rushing and swinging, hurtling toward the great flat desert below.

Whether it lasted minutes or hours Lynden wasn’t sure, but finally the train began to slow onto the flats, its frantic spell broken.

In the distance, like a magnet, the pulsing glare of Reno drew them steadily closer.

About the Author

Ed Davis

Ed Davis has been writing for forty years. Kirkus Reviews recently called his novella, In All Things, '". . . powerful, beautifully written, well-observed and effective." His most recent novel The Last Professional is now available.