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Sometimes, you’ve got no choice in life but to jump off the cliff. I’d jumped and landed on a crumbling ledge, clutching a root to keep from falling.
That’s why I stood sandwiched between Betty Paxton and Ethel Bender in the drafty commissioner’s meeting room at the Grand County courthouse. I raised my right hand and swore away my next four years.
The whiny strains of country music jangled from the radio in the treasurer’s office, one door down. Clete Rasmussen, commissioner since the days of Moses, continued addressing us in his booming, if pained, voice. “I will not advocate nor become a member of any political party or organization that advocates the overthrow of the government of the United States or of this state by force or violence. So help me God.”
My mumbled “I do” mixed with that of Betty and Ethel.
Betty’s spiked hair was probably cutting edge when she first sported the do twenty years ago. Now it reminded me of Bart Simpson. She tossed off a smile. “Good to have you aboard.”
With her scowl and thin lips that looked like someone drew them with a pencil, blue-haired Ethel let out a sigh like a deflating tire.
Betty and Ethel exited the room, leaving me and Clete alone.
This was my first, and hopefully only, pledge to protect and serve the good people of Hodgekiss, Nebraska, and the four widely spread communities that populate the sprawling ranch country of Grand County, where cattle outnumber people by more than fifty to one.
I adjusted the stiff brown shirt I’d washed several times to soften and smoothed my hands down my hips, knowing the twill uniform pants didn’t flatter my figure. Who cares?
Clete clapped his hands. “That about does it.”
The bruising purple of evening showed outside the two-foot-high windows that ran along the top of the meeting room. A clear night like this wouldn’t temper January’s knife-cold. It’s the kind of night the cows huddle in the corner of the pasture, pressed close together to share warmth.
I didn’t need to worry about cows anymore. Later tonight, with wool socks keeping my toes toasty, flannel pajama pants, and long-sleeve T-shirt, I’d snuggle under a down comforter. Alone.
Clete cleared his throat, a sound like thunder in a box canyon. He lifted a cardboard carton from the hulking desk in the corner. “Here’s the sheriff stuff. Ted dropped it off this afternoon.”
For Ted—the previous sheriff and my husband of eight years and ex-husband of nine months—giving up the tools of the office would have been a knife in his heart. Too bad.
Clete rested the box in my open arms. “There’s the inventory sheet you need to fill out and sign, along with the phone and, uh…”
“The gun.” I finished for him. Taking that gun off his hip must have felt to Ted like disrobing in public. In truth, I probably hated that exchange more than he did. Guns and I didn’t have a love relationship.
“In for a penny, in for a pound,” Dad always said, so I’d better open my heart to the .40 caliber Smith and Wesson. Tomorrow.
The phone in the box let out a chirp so familiar to me, yet one I hadn’t heard in nine months. It took a moment to convince myself it wasn’t Ted’s phone, but the sheriff’s phone. And I was the sheriff.
I set the box on the conference table and pulled the phone out, punching it on. “Sheriff’s phone.” I winced. That’s how I used to answer it when I was Ted’s wife and he was sheriff.
“Sarah?” I recognized the voice of my best friend and sister-in-law.
She let out a breath of relief. “You didn’t answer your phone, so I took a chance you’d already got this one. I didn’t want to talk to Ted.”
I glanced at Clete, who eyed me with irritation. Or indigestion. With Clete, it was hard to tell. Sarah wasn’t likely to call me to chat, so I stepped into the hall. “What’s up?”
She huffed into the phone. “Damn, it’s freakin’ freezing! Why did you have to be born in January?”
Oh no. My stomach sank. “Tell me it’s not.”
She gave an irritated sigh. “It is. Louise planned a surprise party at your parents’ house. We’re pulling up now.”
My brother Robert hollered in the background, “Surprise!”
I hated that my older sister Louise was using my birthday as an excuse to get a goodly portion of the eight Fox kids together. I groaned. “Dad and Louise are the only ones who like these things.”
Sarah groaned along with me. “I feel ya. Looks like your dad is late. His pickup isn’t here, but according to Louise, he was supposed to be back an hour ago.”
You couldn’t count on the railroad. Dad had worked for BNSF for close to forty years. We were all used to his unpredictable schedule. “Thanks for the heads up.”
“Consider it my birthday present to you. Now get your butt over here. Don’t leave me alone with these crazy people.”
I laughed. “You had a choice whether to join this family and I warned you.”
“We love them, though.” Her voice quavered as if she ran. “Just hurry, because, you know, sometimes love isn’t enough.”
I pocketed the phone and went back to the commissioner’s room. Some kind of Cinderella midnight magic happened at the Grand County courthouse at the stroke of five. By the time I got off the phone, every sign of life had vanished. Even my breathing seemed to echo in the now-empty building. I didn’t spare more than a single thought for hundred-year-old ghosts before grabbing my new brown sheriff’s coat, complete with patch featuring a windmill in a pasture.
I hesitated and gave myself a big mental push to settle my gun into my holster. Like a puppy with his first collar. Eventually I’d get used to it.
I clattered down the wide steps that led to the back door of the courthouse, not wanting to head home to a house filled with well-meaning but boisterous family. My breath retreated down my throat at the first intake of the frigid night air. The cold made me cough, and my nose hair stuck together. I retrieved Thinsulate ski gloves from my pocket one split second before my fingers froze and shattered.
I climbed into the cruiser and jammed the keys in the ignition to fire her up. The key turned, and headlights blasted, the radio blared, wipers lashed across the windshield, and I yelped. With a flash of adrenaline, I slapped at switches, frantic to turn off the chaos, and in the confusion hit the toggles near my right elbow, and the siren screamed and light bar sprang to life.
Smack, whap, punch. The noise and lights died and I spent a second slowing my heart rate. Eight brothers and sisters meant I was no novice with practical jokes, but I hadn’t expected this petty mischief from Ted. In the official cop car.
Wincing in anticipation of some other prank, I slipped the gear shift into drive. The Charger’s heat blasted on before my headlights brushed the street. I caught a whiff of Irish Spring overlaid with a musky, man scent. Ted. He was all over this car. Tomorrow I’d buy one of those pine tree deodorizers.
The phone rang again. I considered not answering it, assuming if Sarah thought to call me on the sheriff’s number, other brothers or sisters would figure it out, too. But it was the official number, and I’d best get used to responding.
This time, though, I was ready with a firm “Grand County sheriff.”
“Kate?” The familiar voice sounded surprised. “Oh. Didn’t know you’d already been sworn in.”
“How’re you doing, Marybeth?” I knew the dispatcher in Ogallala from my years as the sheriff’s wife. With way more prairie than people and several counties boasting the sheriff as the only law enforcement officer, all 911 calls routed to Ogallala, a town of not quite five thousand souls. Marybeth had been dispatching down there for a long time.
Marybeth’s serious voice struck me. “Highway 2, mile marker 146. BNSF tracks. Possible death. Ambulance called.”
A call. Not traffic, not a kitten in a tree. Something big. Something bad.
What had I sworn in for? My mouth dry, I said, “On my way.”
Marybeth hung up and left me with a terrible thought.
Possible death. Just east of town a few miles. Dad was coming from the east. He was late. An icy chill that had nothing to do with the winter ran over my skin.
I calculated the accident happened seven miles east of Hodgekiss, just past where County Road 67 crossed above the tracks. A half moon cast dull light across the frozen prairie, the blue illuminating like the fake night of TV shows. The pulsing from the light bar atop the cruiser reflected off the hood and the surrounding black highway.
Please be okay, Dad. Please be okay. The litany looped through my brain as I raced toward the scene. The overpass caught the strobe of my roof lights. County Road 67 rises in an arc across the tracks and forms a right angle with the highway. A train was stopped under the underpass with about twenty cars on the western side and maybe a mile of train to the east. Even though this train headed east and Dad worked the westbound, I couldn’t let up on the worry. Maybe the two trains hit head-on, or Dad’s train derailed, stranding the eastbound. All I could see in the dark was one train stopped on the tracks.
I neared the overpass and slowed enough to steer the cruiser off the road, across the weeds, and down an embankment to the graveled railroad right of way. I strained to see ahead, along the double track, searching for the train engine.
The red and blue flashes throbbed against my brain. Please be okay.
Even though I kept the gas pedal down and I bounced along the rough access with the speedometer registering thirty-five to forty, it felt like slow motion. I clenched my teeth against the thought of two engines head to head, their steel mangled, Dad’s body crushed in the cab on the westbound. I flew past a few more cars and drew in a relieved breath. The high beam of the eastbound’s headlight shone on empty track.
A figure huddled close to the engine. His head ducked into his shoulders and his arms wrapped around himself. The orange safety jacket reflected the headlights of the cruiser, and the man lifted his head as I pulled up.
Bobby Jenkins. He’d graduated from Grand County Consolidated High School the same year as my youngest brother Jeremy. I knew Bobby was a conductor, like Dad.
BNSF crews consist of an engineer, who drives the train, and a conductor, who is responsible for the physical train. It’s the conductor who sets hand brakes and throws switches, and the engineer who stops and goes and manages the speed. There was always talk of downsizing to a one-man crew, but conductors and engineers know two people are as important for keeping each other awake as they are for running the train safely.
I reached for the flashlight. This steel monster must carry eight D batteries and could serve as a club if needed. I dubbed it Big Dick and flipped it on, relieved it shone brightly since I wouldn’t put it past Ted to remove the batteries.
I grabbed a ski cap Ted kept in the cruiser, slid my hands into my gloves and climbed out. I angled Big Dick toward the ground so the beam wouldn’t blind Bobby. Even in the dim glow I saw dark splotches on his skin. I brought the light up, still avoiding a full-on blaze into his face. My first shocked thought was right. Blood smeared his face and drops covered his jacket as if he’d been in a macabre rain storm. He rocked back and forth emitting a high-pitched wail.
This was going to be bad.
Three engines rumbled as they idled, their pop-off valves psshting into the night.
I approached slowly. “Bobby. What happened?”
His lips trembled and he shook his head from side to side.
He wasn’t making me feel any better. I stepped closer to him. I peered into his face and compelled him to make eye contact. “What’s the problem?”
He looked at me with an unfocused gaze. Squeezing his lids shut and shaking his head, he shivered and his teeth started to chatter. The train idled behind us, so it had been thrown into emergency, which stopped it. Bobby must have done that. He’d been alert enough to report his engineer’s injury, but whatever rational mind he’d had then had busted out of the barn now.
I touched his orange-clad arm, trying to bring him around. “Why are you out here in the cold?”
Blood splattered from his face down. “Are you hurt? Where’s your engineer?”
Okay. This was getting me nowhere. Bobby didn’t seem to be too badly injured, and I needed to get him out of the cold so I could find the engineer, who might be in worse shape. I pulled Bobby by the arm and led him to the cruiser. I opened the back door. “Why don’t you sit here and warm up?”
Like limp linguini he allowed me to guide him into the back seat and shut the door. I ducked into the driver’s-side door, started the engine, and slapped the heat control on high. “You okay?”
He definitely was not okay. But the ambulance would be here soon.
Ogallala dispatch autodialed all the members of the volunteer Hodgekiss fire and rescue squad. The unit would take off the second enough crew members showed up to man the team. Sometimes, if there was a high school ball game or play or some other meeting in town, enough trained personnel might be around to reach the fire hall within minutes. If there was a wedding and most of the members had been drinking or an away game and too many people out of town, or haying season when the majority were out in remote fields on tractors, it could take much longer or they may not be able to help at all.
I prayed suppertime on a Thursday night meant enough people could be mustered in a hurry and were zooming our way. I coughed at the cold in my lungs and turned back to the train. The constant low roar of the three engines and the blue and red lights from my cruiser kept me jumpy.
Bobby smeared in blood and the engineer nowhere in sight. Possible death.
I ran toward the train, Big Dick’s beam bobbing in front of me. The orange of the BNSF logo throbbed in the flashing lights from my cruiser. “Hello. Anyone here? Engineer?” My voice rang sharp in the frigid air, shrill against the bellowing engines. I hadn’t expected an answer, and silence is what I got.
Big Dick in one hand, I gripped the metal handrail running up the side of the cab. My boots rang on the cold steel steps. Dad racked up forty years on the BNSF, and yet I’d never been in a train engine. Trains had run up and down the tracks, whistles blowing every few hours my whole life. My eyes had scanned over a train engine a million times but had never really seen it. The engine was so much bigger than it seemed while I waited with impatience in my car at the flashing crossing arms.
Even as they idled, the chugging engines felt powerful, like thoroughbreds at the starting gate. They vibrated and the air compressors hissed.
The steps were steep, and my footsteps clunked on the meshed metal. I reached to the grab irons and pulled myself to the next step and one more. The stairs led to a narrow platform centered in the nose of the hulking steel engine. The door to the cab where the engineer and conductor rode opened off the platform.
I hoisted myself to the platform of the engine. The cab door hung open. Bobby would have exited there, probably hurtling himself from the cab out of the engine. He’d been desperate to leave. My gloved hands braced on either side of the opening to hold me back, as if in solidarity with my thudding heart. The only thing that convinced me to continue was the knowledge that this was my job.
I left the platform at the nose of the train and entered a narrow passage. Three steps led up to the engineer’s seat on the right of the cab, and the conductor’s, Bobby’s, seat on the left. “Hey, are you there?” I called, breathless with the climb.
I’d expected the cab to feel warmer than the outside, but there was no change in temperature. I had to purposefully place my foot on the first step. “Hello.”
The smell hit me. So much like Stranahan’s Meat Processing kill floor. My raised foot missed the next step.
With Dad’s long tenure and Grand County’s population of only five thousand, the odds of me knowing the engineer were pretty good. I braced for something terrible.
The blue and red light pulsing through the windows and the constant rumble of the engines made me wonder whether the tremors I felt were from the train’s vibrations or my fear.
I made it up the last step and swung the flashlight to the engineer’s side. The high-powered beam slashed across the night, adding a smaller version of the train’s headlight, and it seemed wrong, somehow. The realization hit me. The flashlight’s beam didn’t reflect back to me. There was no windshield.
Shattered glass would account for the blood on Bobby. What force could explode the thick safety glass used for train windshields?
I pointed Big Dick behind me. The back glass on the right side was also shattered.
One more shuffling step brought me directly behind the engineer’s chair. My light swung from the empty windshield downward and I swept the beam over the cab. Tiny glass shrapnel covered every surface. A pile of something filled the engineer’s seat. It obviously wasn’t a person. A lump of dark fabric with points of reflective material catching the light like stars in the night sky.
I stared at the jumble and tried to make sense of it.
No. Oh God. No. Ice dropped to the bottom of my gut, and I gasped.
I squeezed my eyes closed and fell backward a step. My vision showed me one thing but my brain wouldn’t acknowledge it. I opened my eyes and tried to focus Big Dick’s beam. The light vibrated on the steam rising in the subzero night as my hand shook. I understood why Bobby couldn’t talk. I couldn’t stop staring. The awful image burned into my brain.
I lurched backward and scrambled down the steps, stumbling and catching myself as I hurtled through the door, probably like Bobby had.
I’m not Bobby. I’m the sheriff.
I gripped the grab irons, and suddenly I was blinded by a spotlight. The oncoming train’s whistle blasted, the sound snatching my soul from my chest. The train, likely the one Dad rode, roared around the curve directly in front of me. It couldn’t be moving more than twenty miles an hour as the headlight swung away from my face to point down the track.
The hulking train caused a gust of diesel fumes and the squeal of steel on steel, the couplers clacking and chirping as each car thundered past me. I gasped for air, feeling the passing train suck my breath with it. It trumpeted like a herd of elephants and I gripped the grab bars. After an endless time, the train retreated, the tshk-tshk-tshk of the wheels on the last car disappearing with the blinking red lights at the rear of the train, leaving the heaving and rumbling engines of the train on which I stood. The train with what was left of the engineer in the cab.
I leaned over the rail and puked.
Copyright © 2017 by Shannon Baker