Saturday, May 16, 2020

When the Arkansas was King

Editor's Note:  The D&RGW tracks along the Arkansas River in Colorado were embargoed in the 1990's.  No trains have run for many years.  The following manuscript was discovered sealed in a pottery jar near the old mainline.

I swore I would never tell this story to a soul.  I also swore that I would never return to Riverdale, but as I have grown old, I find myself thinking more and more about my past – at least the portion that I can remember.  And I do remember Riverdale.

When I was a boy, Riverdale was not even a place, just dirt roads in the mountains of Colorado, with a few ramshackle houses dotted here and there like raisins.  There were no commercial establishments, other than the Big Horse, a tavern and grill along the highway that serviced local ranchers, because almost no one else ever came through that place.  There were liquor laws, but no one enforced them, including the prohibition against minors.  My father did not care at all.  He spent his time drinking alone, and when drank he beat me with his belt.

He would sit silently in a chair at the small table in our house, drinking cheap whiskey, and at some point he would call my name.

“Ethan,” he would snarl.

Mother would cry, then run to the bedroom. I will always believe that she died from grief, though the doctor said it was pneumonia. 

Some beatings were worse than others.  Sometimes he made me bleed.  I have since learned that mistreated children often feel that they are the cause of the beatings, that they somehow deserve the punishment.  I never felt that way, not once.  I hated the old man, understood from my youngest years that he was a worthless drunk.

One night when he shouted my name, I ran from the house, headed toward the highway and ended up at the Big Horse.  I did not know anything about the place other than there were pick-ups in the parking lot and lights on inside.  Any place with people and lights might be a safe haven.

I ran through the open front door, and almost immediately all chatter ceased.  I stood staring through the smoke at the ranchers clustered around the bar, and they stared back.  I doubt if they had ever seen a child walk inside.

I say “child,” though I honestly do not remember how old I was.  I’m guessing ten to twelve, though I might have been younger.  My memories of those years are clouded; that portion of my soul is dead.  

An enormous man, at least six feet six inches tall, with a girth almost as huge as his height, walked toward me.  His untrimmed beard was completely white, his head completely bald and shiny like the cue ball on the single, unlevel pool table in the back.

“Son?” he said.

That was Frank Morrison who I later learned was the owner, bar-tender and chief story-teller.  He would laugh at any joke, which is why he was so well liked, I think, and I never once heard him disparage another man except to his face.  Frank would tell you if he did not like you, but not behind your back – only to your face.

I stood there, saying nothing.  Frank looked at me.  He sensed my fear.  He realized instinctively that something was chasing me, and though he was not certain what, I think he had a pretty good idea.  He walked forward, grabbed me by the shoulder and led me to the kitchen.  Slowly, the other men began chattering again, though this time softly. – in anticipation of something.

There was no one in the kitchen but Frank and me.

“Son?” he said again.  

I still said nothing.  I could not speak.

“You’re safe here,” he said, and I believed him.  To this day, I’ve never seen a kinder pair of eyes.

That was when my father burst through the front door, shouting, “Ethan!  Ethan!”

I could tell by the change in Frank’s expression that he now understood the situation perfectly.  “You stay right here,” he told me, and I did.

I don’t know exactly what happened after that.  I could hear raised voices in the bar, but several men were shouting, and I could not make out threads of any conversation.  The shouting grew louder.  Then louder still.  I heard my father shouting something about “my goddam son!” and then I heard Frank shouting something back.  This continued for another thirty seconds or so, then I very distinctly heard Frank say, in a quiet level tone that could not possibly have been misinterpreted, “Get the hell out.  Now.  Don’t ever come back.”

My father left then -- without a word -- just walked out the door.  He was scared of Frank, and he should have been.

The beatings stopped.  Around the house, my father glared at me, but thereafter he never raised a hand -- or his belt.  He and I lived in a sort of demilitarized zone.  He knew that if he touched me, I would run to Frank, and there was no telling what Frank might do.  To relieve his immense frustration,  I think he punched my mother once or twice.  I’m not sure.  She died soon enough, anyway.

Every afternoon I walked to the Big Horse, where Frank allowed me to wash dishes.  He paid me a small salary, not much, but to a boy my age, it seemed a fortune.

So I guess you could say that the Big Horse saved me, at least for a few years.  It was the sort of establishment that no longer exists – flat-roofed with white clapboard walls that had faded to light brown and a small neon sign on a metal pole beside the highway.  From a distance, it could have been a laundromat or a drive-in (two other establishments that have more or less disappeared).

The interior was as dark and dank as a cellar and smelled like one, too.  The tables were an odd collection of mismatched barrels, the chairs equally eclectic and mostly unlevel.  You could fall over in one of the chairs when sober; when not it was preferable either to stand hanging to the bar or else sit laughing on the unwaxed hardwood littered with peanut shells.  The motto of the Big Horse was, “You can’t fall off the floor.”

There were occasional fights in the evenings, which Frank generally broke up without much trouble, and besides, it is difficult to do serious damage when you are truly inebriated.  But one evening was different.  One evening some real damage was done.  

It was when my father walked inside again.  All chatter, all laughter, all noise of any sort immediately ceased, as though someone had turned off a record player.  I was in the kitchen and so did not immediately understand what had happened.  I opened the swinging doors and peered into the bar.  My father stood silently about three paces beyond the entrance.  Frank took one step forward from behind the bar.  Without a word, my father sprang toward me.  Instinctively, I withdrew back into the kitchen and grabbed the first thing I saw – a serrated bread knife lying on the counter.  As my father lunged forward through the swinging doors, I drove the knife at him.  It entered his neck just below the chin, and blood immediately gushed as when you lance a boil.  His expression told everything.

With the knife still plunged into his neck, I shoved him aside, ran across the bar and out the front door into the night, with Frank shouting after me.  I did not slow down.

The railroad tracks were across the highway, and I ran to them as though running from a landslide.  Behind me, voices were shouting.  I crossed one rail, then ran even faster down the tracks through the darkness, and slowly the voices began to fade.  I don’t know how far I ran, but the body can do amazing things when fueled by adrenaline.  

In time I came to a passing siding where a westbound train stood motionless.  There were no lights on in the caboose, and I heard no voices.  I walked slowly forward toward the engines and about halfway to the front found a box car with open doors and climbed in.  I tried to slide the doors shut, but they were either jammed or too heavy, so I sat down in the corner and closed my eyes, listening, waiting for what I assumed would be Frank, or the county sheriff or someone, some thing.

But no one came.  Nothing disturbed the sounds of the night – the breeze, the insects, the vehicles on the highway, the river, the Arkansas River.

I must have sat quietly for a very long time, and then I must have fallen asleep, because all I remember is being jolted awake when the train began to move.  The sun had not yet risen, but there was enough illumination to make out the silver water in the river and the highway beyond, and the hills and the mountains beyond the highway.

I had no plan, no money, nothing literally but the clothes on my back, nor did I have any idea where the train was headed other than west somewhere.  I just sat quietly, peering out the open door from an angle I believed would make me invisible to observers in the outside world.

And that’s what it was – a world outside.  I was wrapped inside a moving cocoon, and somehow I felt safe, as though someone, some thing, were protecting me – God perhaps, though I have never been religious and even now consider myself an atheist.  But something about that moving train, the sound of steel wheels on steel rails, the back-and-forth motion of the box car, was comforting to a boy not even close to being old enough to graduate from high school.

Outside the canyon of the Arkansas unrolled itself.  The sun rose to the east, painting the sandstone cliffs red, then yellow, then white.  The river was narrow but flowing rapidly, with crests swirling above the protruding rocks, then disappearing, then swirling again.  

The train would surge forward, then backward, then forward again, like the swirls of white water.  Before each surge, I heard cars banging in front of me.  If the engines speeded up, the first car behind would lurch forward, then the next, then the next, all the way to the end of the train.  If the engines slowed down, each car in turn would bang ahead into the car in front of it, again all the way to the end of the train.  I quickly learned to distinguished the speeding up bangs from the slowing down bangs, so that when I heard the noise coming my way, I could brace myself in the corner of the empty box car to reduce the shock – placing myself in one position for speeding up and another for slowing.  I was young, a boy -- limber and strong.  I am now an old man – stiff as a carp and weak.  If I were to ride a box car now, the jolts would break my back.  

As we rolled west, the train entered a patch of broken red and yellow rocks tilted at crazy angles, some vertical, as though someone had dug them from the ground and stood them on end, others appearing to be upside down, as though they had once been upright, and wind and rain had blown them over.  

Then the rocks turned dark, almost black, interjected here and there by something pink that had rounded into barren slopes.  Across the river, an occasional car passed on the highway.  Beyond the highway, the hills were capped with something, maybe lava, making me think there had once been a volcano nearby.

The sun rose quickly, heating the day, and I was soon glad that both doors of the box car were open.  I heard banging in front, realized the train was slowing down and braced myself in the corner.  This jolt was stronger, almost knocking me to the floor.  When I had steadied myself, I crept forward slightly, peered out one of the open doors and saw that there was now a second track beside us, with shiny bright rail, dark creosoted ties and oil-stained ballast.

The train continued to slow and in about a minute had stopped.  Then I panicked.  Thinking that some person or persons were surely chasing me, I jumped down from the box car and ran away from the tracks and the river toward a low ridge dotted here and there with small cedar trees.  The slope was steep, but as I said I was young, and I scrambled up without much trouble. 

At the top of the ridge, the ground sloped down again to a small depression, then turned back upward and rose to a high summit crowned by what looked to me like more lava.  I calculated that it would take at least 30 minutes to reach that summit.  Whoever was chasing would surely spot me as I climbed.  I thought about trying to hide in the depression below but soon realized that if someone located me down there, I would have nowhere to hide, nor would I even know that someone was watching me.  I told myself to stay on the high ground so, heart racing, I found a large cedar and crawled inside its trailing branches, which raked my skin like fingernails.  Many green stems detached and fell into the back of my shirt, itching like crazy, but I was in no position to do anything other than sit quietly on the ground, peer through the branches at the train below, try to ignore the itching, and wait for the person or persons chasing me.

But no one came.  Not a soul.  The train sat motionless for what seemed like hours, and I did not move.  Then in the distance to the west I heard a train whistle, very faint, then nothing.  Then another faint whistle, then another, and then I thought I heard the low rumble of motors, like a thousand cattle running in the same direction.  From my position inside the cedar tree, I could look down the tracks to the west to a far range of snow-covered mountains, taller than anything I had seen in my life, because I had never been west of Riverdale before.

In the distance I saw the headlight of an approaching train that came slowly down the tracks and passed the freight upon which I had been riding.  The crewmen of the stopped train had dismounted and now waved at the passing locomotives, which whistled in return.  Then the crewmen of the stopped train climbed back aboard.  In a few minutes that train whistled, then began to move, and I was left alone on the ridge. 

My concern was moving west – away from my father, Frank Morrison, the Big Horse and whatever fate awaited me back there.  It did not occur to me that I might not be in any trouble at all, that no one likes a man who beats his child, that no one liked my father, that no one had bothered to call the authorities, that if my father somehow survived, he would slink back to the house and never come after me, and that if he did not survive, Frank Morrison would likely bury him somewhere behind the tavern, and no one would ever say a word about it.

At that moment, I was scared that I would never find another train to ride, and that someone was coming after me.  So I climbed down from the ridge and began walking along the tracks.

The sun moved across the sky.  I had not eaten in almost 24 hours, but, as I said, adrenaline gives you unimagined energy, especially when you are so young.  I began to notice minutiae along the tracks.  Some of the cross-ties were new and shiny with creosote.  Others were old and rotted.  The worst had been marked with yellow stripes, which I later learned were indicators for replacement.  The steel rails were shiny on top but rusted on the sides and sat in metal footings attached to the ties by spikes, most of which were not driven all the way into the wood.  The only things holding the rails into the footings appeared to be the top edge of each spike, which slightly protruded over the rail footing.  Nothing, as nearly as I could tell, was holding the ties into the ground.  They just sat there with the rails on top and rocks poured on top of the dirt.  The whole arrangement looked wildly unstable, yet I knew that every day many heavy freight trains rolled across these rails without incident.

Sometime late in the afternoon I heard another train whistling from the east.  I moved away from the tracks and hid in a cedar copse.  The train came on slowly, headlight reflecting off the rails.  The engines roared past – five thundering – and then the box and tank cars rolled by, still slowly, but too fast for me grab hold.  Desperation hit me at the same moment as exhaustion.  I would never get on this train, and I would never escape whoever or whatever was chasing me.  Then an empty flat car appeared between two tank cars, only about two feet higher than the rails, low enough for me to attempt to mount.  A flat car provides no protection from the elements, nor from inquiring eyes, just an open wooden floor above front and rear axles.  If you try to jump on a moving flat car and miss, you will likely end up under the train, where the wheels will slice you like cheese.

I ran beside the flat car until I matched its speed.  Then I put my hands on the wooden floor, lifted myself off the ground and climbed aboard.  I don’t know how I managed that.  Again, it felt like someone, or some thing, was watching over me.  But the train was moving west and so was I.  That’s all I cared about.

* * *

And that’s the end of the story.  No one ever came after me.  Nothing ever happened to me.  I made myself a new life and without realizing it turned into an old man.  No wife.  No children.  I tried to live my new life by three rules:

1. Do no harm.

2. Leave no tracks.

3. Stay out of history’s way.

I think I succeeded, but others may feel differently.  I know I have some other good stories.  If I last long enough, I may tell them.

I will be seventy this November and don’t know how much time I have left.  Maybe a lot.  Maybe a little.  At this age, it’s difficult to plan.  

But I had to see Riverdale one last time, which is what occasioned this story.  I made the trip east, for I had settled along the Pacific Coast where I could look at the open waters, and when I arrived I discovered that the Big Horse had been torn down years ago, shortly after Frank Morrison died; that no one knew anything at all about my father; no one even remembered his name; the house where I lived was gone; not even the foundation was visible.  

And the railroad has been abandoned.  The roadbed is still visible, but the rails and ties have been pulled up and sold for scrap.  Trains no longer roll beside the Arkansas River.  Oh, the waters are still there, roaring and surging among the rocks, but everything else I knew is gone.  

I have read that mountains eventually erode back to ground level.  If so, the Arkansas may cease flowing someday.  But not in the near future.  Until then, long after we’re all gone, the Arkansas will still be King.  

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