by Pam Sears
Is it a ghost train? or something else...
|“And the last thing anyone heard was the eerie screech of a hootie-owl.” Jacob whispered theatrically.
Mark and Trayvon glanced at each other and then back to Jacob skeptically. They were on an over-night, parent-approved camping trip in the woods and were sitting around their small campfire, bored out of their minds, when Nick had suggested telling ghost stories. Jacob had offered the tale of the local Wendigo legend, a creature of the Native American tribes, but his telling hadn’t been at all scary as far as the other boys were concerned.
Jacob stared around expectantly but the other three boys just shook their heads in disgust.
“Sorry, Jay.” Nick snorted. “Heard this one too many times before and, besides, my four-year-old sister could tell it scarier than that.”
“Huh!” Jacob came as near to pouting as any self-respecting 12-year old boy could, or would, in front of his friends.
“Fine. Get her out here to tell ghost stories, then.” And he folded his arms over his chest, crossed his legs and leaned back against his log, staring into the flickering firelight.
The boys began ribbing each other, each protesting they couldn’t be scared by any silly old ghost stories. Everyone knew they weren’t true. Ghosts were just people’s imaginations. After all, who’d want to hang around here after they died? This went on for several minutes before Jacob spoke again. This time his gaze remained focused on their campfire and his tone was quiet.
“I know another story. One about a railroad Gatekeeper who died a few miles from here and how you can still see his ghost on a dark night.”
“What? Why would a Gatekeeper be way out here?” Mark scoffed. His blond hair had leaves and dirt in it from where he’d tripped over a twig on their hike out here. He was the group klutz but a likeable guy whose mom made the best donuts so they put up with him.
He shook his head and looked at Trayvon who was rolling his dark eyes in response. “Yeah, Jay. Sorry, but you can’t have the ghost of a Gatekeeper where there’s no railroad, let alone tracks. That’s reaching.”
Nick looked a little curious. “Actually, my dad said the train that runs through town now had a different route about a hundred years ago, back when they first started having problems with traffic crossing over train tracks and Gatekeepers were needed to keep people from getting killed. I don’t know exactly where these tracks ran but I’ve heard there was a bad accident and they had to move the tracks closer to town where they are now. “
Jacob nodded sagely even as Mark and Trayvon frowned, wanting to disbelieve because of how bad the last ghost story was, but wanting to know more since Nick corroborated it.
“He’s right.” Jacob said and his voice sounded very solemn and grown up as he finally looked up to meet the gazes of the others. “I know where the tracks used to be if y’all want to see them. It’s not that far from here and I can tell you about it on the way.”
The other three considered a moment, glancing at each other before anyone spoke. It was Trayvon who answered for them.
“Fine, Jay. Let’s go see it.” He challenged. “And I hope this story is better than the Wendigo one.”
The firelight reflected off his dusky cheeks as he stood, reaching down to pull Mark to his feet, making sure he didn’t pitch himself into the fire as he stood.
Nick stood as well, eyes on Jacob who watched the three of them a long moment before slowly rising to his feet. He noted that Jacob seemed to be detached from the group, not really engaged in the moment even as he finally stood to lead the way to the tracks.
With a languid gesture Jacob turned away from their little camping area with its cooler of snacks pup tents. “Follow me. And stay close. It gets real dark in these woods and I don’t want anyone to get lost. And the Gatekeeper… well, his spirit is said to collect lost souls.”
The boys wanted to scoff but Jacob’s tone was calm. No drama, no theatrics. Just a simple statement of facts. Looking at each other uneasily the other three screwed up their courage and followed Jacob who hadn’t even waited to see if they followed or not. His flashlight bobbed ahead of them on the small wooded path and they hurried after.
“Wait up, Jay.” Trayvon insisted. “You said to stick together, you can’t just leave us behind if we’re supposed to stick together.”
There was no response. Jacob just kept walking. Trayvon kept a grip on Mark’s elbow, shining his flashlight on the ground right in front of them so Mark wouldn’t trip and take him down with him. It was too dark for getting separated. Nick brought up the rear, his flashlight bouncing all around the trees and path, trying to illuminate everything.
After a 10-minute walk Jacob slowed, then abruptly halted. His flashlight was aimed at the ground just a few feet ahead of them and something gleamed back dully. Brush had taken over most of the land again and the trees in the area had crept close to once more loom over the lesser vegetation. It all held an eerie quality that was made worse by the near silence. They could hear insects in the distance but not even a cricket was bold enough to chirp where they were.
“Rail tracks!” Mark whispered hoarsely, gripping Trayvon now instead of the other way around. Trayvon edged closer as Nick jostled his other shoulder, adding his flashlight to theirs. They could all see the dark metal, mostly buried by dirt and vegetation, that lay before them.
“What happened, Jay?” Nick whispered, playing his light up and down the visible track, trying to see how much was showing.
“It didn’t really get that busy out here, y’know.” Jacob began. “So, most of the Gatekeepers got bored and would ask for transfers. It was hard keeping one out here, but it was busy enough the Railroad company felt like they needed one.”
Slowly, Jacob began to drift toward the tracks. Using the beam of his flashlight he pointed to an overgrown area that, if you squinted hard enough, looked like it might have once been a road. Or a path.
“That there’s the crossing. The Gatekeeper’s shack was set back a ways from it. Over there.” His light pointed again, this time to a thick stand of trees.
The other boys followed his slow drift, sticking close as the eerie quiet began to work on their primal instincts to run. Jacob continued his tale in that new, almost flat tone of someone giving facts they’re well acquainted with rather than a highly embellished tale.
“There was one Gatekeeper, Roy Bingham, that the Railroad was able to keep here, but it was ‘cause he fell for one of the town’s girls, Millie Pearl. He was sweet on her and he didn’t want to leave in case someone else managed to woo her before he could.
“But there was a feller from the next town over, Gage Miller, that had seen her, too. And he was mighty interested in her even though she was more interested in Roy. Gage, he didn’t take no for an answer and sent her flowers and chocolates and such. Roy didn’t have the money Gage did but Roy treated Millie like a queen and she knew what she had in a man who’d work hard like Roy so she told Gage she loved Roy and was gonna marry him.”
By now, the other three boys were crowded close to Jacob’s back, fascinated by the story. Jacob moved closer to the tracks and the boys matched him, step for step.
“Gage didn’t much like getting turned down by Millie.” He continued. “His daddy was the mayor of that other town and he always got what he wanted. And he decided he wanted Millie. First, he tried to scare off Roy but Roy, he didn’t scare so easy.” Jacob gestured about. “After all, his job was the big middle of nowhere.
“Then Gage sent some bully boys to work Roy over but you don’t work for the Railroad without building some muscle and Roy wasn’t no pipsqueak. He sent Gage’s boys back all bruised up. He never said nothin’ to anyone ‘cause he wasn’t that sort but ol’ Gage was shore he was tellin’ all the town-folk and they was all laughin’ at him behind his back. He got to straight up hatin’ Roy.”
The other boys noticed that Jacob’s words and way of speaking were changing. He sounded like some of those folks in the old cowboy movies they liked watching at the theater, all folksy sounding. And a lot more grown-up than he should. They glanced at each other then Jacob uneasily. He didn’t seem to notice.
“Then, one night, Roy was workin’ the Crossin’ Gates an’ he heard what sounded like a train whistle. He knew no trains was scheduled ta come through but he went out ta’ check anyhow. He was carryin’ his big lantern, the one that Gatekeepers used ta warn folk not ta cross the tracks ‘cose of a train. He looked around but didn’ see no train light nor funnel smoke but heard what he was shor’ was a buggy and horse comin’ up th’ road.
“Wal’, his job was ta stop folk a’crossin’ agin the train an’, even though he didn’t see one, he got in front of th’ track and began a’wavin’ his lantern in a big ol’ arc. That whistle grew louder an’ that horse an’ buggy kept a’comin’. Roy was that worrit someone was about ta git themselves kilt and he waved that lantern as wide as he could. He even b’gan ta holler, warnin’ that driver ta slow down, ta stop fer the train.”
Somewhere, softly, what sounded like a train whistle sounded. The other boys all jumped slightly and glanced around. Jacob kept speaking.
“Normally, Roy could feel th’ train a rumblin’ through the rails. The harder the rumble, the closer th’ train. But this time he didn’t feel nothin’. Mebbe it was ‘code he was so worrit and focused on stoppin’ the driver that he didn’t fee the rumble, no one knows. Yet that whistle got louder. And louder.”
The whistle sounded again. Faint. Ghostly. Mournful. Definitely closer. And a light seemed to flash in the distant trees. Mark tugged on Jacob’s sleeve.
“You can stop, now, Jay. I don’t want to hear any more.” He quavered.
“Roy didn’ stop.” Jacob barely glanced back at them before looking at the tracks again. “And neither did that horse ‘n buggy. It come tearin’ out a’ th’ night and plowed in ta Roy, knockin’ him tail over teakettle. His lantern went a flyin’ and smashed in ta some dry grass, catchin’ fire right away and spreading ta th’ shack.
“But there really was a train. It’s light had gone out and that buggy what had plowed over Roy was plowed over by that train. Roy died that night watchin’ his home burn an’ someone else die from not listenin’ to his warnin’. He didn’t know it, but it was Gage comin’ to kill him his own-self. An’ he did, but he kilt himself, too.
“But Roy died believin’ he failed at his job and, ta this day, his ghost walks this post, tryin’ a’ warn folk that a train’s a comin’.”
That mournful, ghostly train whistle sounded again and another light flickered in the trees. Brighter than before. Nick backed up a few steps, gulping loudly.
“G-guh-guys? Wha-what’s that?” He pointed at the bobbing light. It flickered, looking for all the world like ghostly fire.
Softly, pleadingly, words floated out of the night to them.
“Stop. Turn back. Please, stop. The train is coming. Stop. Stop.” With the words the light began a slow, arching journey from side to side, flickering as it moved.
“Jay, this isn’t funny.” Nick croaked, backing up further.
Jacob turned and his eyes had a glassy look as he seemed to stare right through them. “T’aint funny. There’s th’ train comin’.” He murmured and a ghostly, warbling train whistle seemed to blow past them and fade into the night.
It was more than either Mark or Nick could stand. Turning tail, and with shouts of fear, they tore off into the night back toward camp. Neither one paused to see if the other two boys came with them.
Jacob turned his glassy gaze toward Trayvon and the two stared at each other long, silent moments. The sound of footsteps moving slowly through the underbrush reached them even as the lantern light grew stronger. Trayvon looked past Jacob to the light.
And grinned as his father stepped into the focus of their flashlights, game wardens badge gleaming back at them as he grinned.
“You boys are going to be in so much trouble with those two once they get done running.” Mr. Mark’s deep chuckle reached them.
Both boys burst into laughter.
“You did that just great, Dad. I was almost convinced there really was a ghost.” Trayvon gasped. “And Jay, I never thought you’d be able to pull it off. You laughed every time we practiced but you did awesome.”
Jacob shrugged and managed to speak around his laughter. “Guess the setting had to be just right. Someone at camp to catch Nick and Mark?” He looked at Mr. Marks.
“Your dad.” Mr. Marks nodded, still grinning. “Let’s get you boys back and everyone settled. And you two better hope those two don’t beat the sand out of you for that prank.”
“It’d be worth it.” Jacob assured and Trayvon nodded agreement.
As the three turned to head back to camp, joking about the prank they’d pulled off, a dim light bobbed unseen through the trees behind them. And in the distance came the faint sound of a train whistle.