Weather has a way of triggering memories. Balmy spring days are the best, but a chill January day will serve. The tale below was cued by a 7 above morning:
The young telegraph operator measured the quarter mile between his hotel and the Northern Pacific Railway with short steps in the dark. The leather soles of his oxfords whispered chhht, chhht, chhht as they scuffed the packed coal slack sidewalk. A pale yellow window pane marked the railway station. The village’s net of street lights ended at the hotel.
A layer of darkness six feet deep separated coal slack and the top of Gary’s head. More murk lay between the telegrapher and Alkaid, a star 216 light years from the sidewalk.
As darkness deepened, the telegrapher’s pace quickened. The tune he whistled strained to escape his lips. A dry rustle in the weeds flanking his path shot a chill down his spine. An unseen feral cat had made the noise, but the image appearing in the whistler’s head was of a bashed and bloodied tramp, a clot of humanity drifted loose from the hobo camp beneath the loading chutes of the nearby stockyard.
Mothers and first-grade teachers had nurtured the terror in minds of small town little ones. Bums were dangerous creatures who robbed, raped and slashed victims with the cruel knives hidden in their shoes.
Ghosts of those reprobates lived in a boy’s head for years.
The chhht, chhht, chhht of the telegrapher’s shoes quickened from shuffle to a scamper. Suddenly, a series of sharp yips drowned the rhythm of the key pounder’s shoes. Neither hobo, gandy dancer nor wildcat, the yowling came from the spot where the tracks passed a grain elevator. The telegrapher bolted in the direction of the crying animal. Two teenage boys, more fleet of foot, passed him on his breathless progress to the elevator.
Less than 100 yards from this prairie skyscraper, he overtook a gray-haired elderly woman. The woman carried a steaming pewter tea kettle. The dog, his tongue stuck to a frozen rail, was freed in seconds after the arrival of the old woman and her hot water. One of the high schoolers snatched up the pup and tucked him under his coat. The little dog cried and cooed in response to his salvation.
Across town, a ranch hand, the last incarnation of the 1880s saddle tramp, unlocked the trunk of an 18-year-old Chevy, threw up the trunk lid and pulled out a Miles City saddle. He fished a pair of goat-skinned gloves from a hip pocket and tried to pull one on. The stiff glove was bent at the knuckles and flattened at the finger ends.
The cowboy stuffed the gloves under his coat to be thawed under his armpits. The icy leather robbed his upper body of vitally needed heat. He walked around the car, stomping his feet in an attempt to generate warmth.
When he retrieved the gloves from his armpits, they were wet. One froze to the star wrench. He dried the other hand on the sheepskin lining of his coat. When he used it to pick up the wrench, a buzzing vibration stung his hand as if he had grasped a live wire.
He threw the wrench to the ground and spewed a string of Saxon crudities and a throat full of blasphemy. He called on the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, Jesus, Joseph and Mary and Jehovah himself - probably all in vain. He kicked the flat rim of the flat tire and received a jarring pain in his great toe. Then a wondrous idea thawed his soul. He resolved to walk to the bar just off the lobby of the hotel, have a beer or four and let the malt settle and decide whether to hang himself.
He did not hang himself. After due consideration, he quit the farm, enrolled in college and spent 30 years teaching school.
Having taught school after studying for the gallows myself, I am not sure he made the right choice. Nor am I certain of several of the details in the pup-stuck-to-the-rail tale. Did the dog’s distress draw a crowd of three or 30? Thirty would be a bunch in a hamlet as small as my hometown, especially at a late hour in below-zero weather.
On the other hand, making weird noises in the dark can draw a crowd. Questions, questions. Whatever happened to the dog? I am not certain that I saw the pup again. I think it was gray. Or maybe brown. Unless it was a cocker spaniel. A cocker would have been strawberry blond. Maybe the lady with the tea kettle took him home.
Maybe he belonged to her in the first place. Give me a break. The whole thing happened 50 years ago. The dog is probably dead by now.