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A small porcelain basin rattled on the dresser as thunder pounded outside. Water poured over the single pane of glass, making it impossible for Robert McClain to view Alton's wharf. He enjoyed closing each day with the sight of the busy port going to sleep. He drew down the shade, closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep despite the raging storm outside.
Inside the Pacific Railroad station in St. Louis, Missouri, a band played spirited music. A door opened and a gust of wind pelted the crowd with heavy rain. They ran for the passenger cars sitting on the cold, slick tracks.
Trying not to seem bothered by the swirling wind and rain, Edward McClain walked with calm, calculated steps. “Good morning mayor!”
With a quick nod and wave, the mayor ducked into the first passenger car followed by members of the city council. As the invitation only crowd filled the cars to capacity, Edward, with his wife and son in tow, decided upon which car to occupy, then made sure that he was not the first nor the last to enter.
Councilman Wariner greeted them. “Glad to see you could make the trip, Edward. And an even more pleasant opportunity to see you again Mrs. McClain.” Mary McClain nodded in reply.
“This certainly cannot be young Robert with you, is it?”
Robert only nodded, but at the prodding of his father's bony elbow he spoke, “Good morning Mr. Wariner.”
“Why, its only been a year since I saw you last. My how you're turning into quite the young man.”
“It's been two years, sir, but thank you for the compliment.” Robert just wanted to find a seat in the crowded car.
“Tell me, Robert. How's that son of mine doing up there at Shurtleff? He's not giving those professors any grief is he?”
“No sir. Thaddeus is doing quite well.”
“Glad to hear it.”
“He sent his regards and regretted not being able to make the trip.”
“He's a good lad. I'll make it up there soon to check in on the both of you.”
Robert spotted an empty seat and folded himself into it. He looked through the wet window and watched as the band finished their song. They packed their instruments under their arms and scurried aboard the car directly behind the McClains. Within minutes, the band picked back where they left off, but it was barely audible above the roar of rain hitting the metal roof of the passenger cars.
At the front of the train, the fireman stoked the flames as the engineer signaled the pending departure with a few quick tugs on the whistle. High pressure steam shot out from the engine, and the roar of mighty pistons filled the air. The massive wheels spun on wet tracks until they found their footing, and the train lurched forward. Edward McClain nearly spilled his glass of champagne.
“Is the governor still planning to meet us at Jefferson City, Mr. Wariner?”
“That is what I hear Edward.” Please, find a seat and enjoy the ride.
The rain-soaked cars picked up speed and followed the tracks away from the St. Louis depot. Robert peered through streams of water that formed snake-like patterns on the window. The countryside passed by, but it was impossible to see more than ten feet from the car. The car swayed with the curves of the track and the steady click and clack of the iron wheels had a hypnotizing affect. Just as Robert began to give into the temptation to sleep, the train slowed. He tried in vain to look through the glass, but no reason for the change was visible. He looked at his mother.
“Do you know why we're slowing down?”
Councilman Warnier was busy moving from guest to guest, but Mary McClain caught his attention. The councilman walked towards her and kneeled by her side.
“What can I do for you Mrs. McClain?”
“I was just wondering why we were slowing down.”
“Not to worry. The president of the railroad in on board and his original plan was to stop here to get a good look at the new bridge that crosses the Gasconade River. With this weather, I imagine he doesn't want to stop, but still wants to take a look.
Edward McClain shifted in his seat. “Well they better make it quick, the governor is waiting”
“No worries, Edward.”
The fresh timbers of the Gasconade trestle sounded a slight creaking under the weight of the engine. All conversation ceased as each passengers pressed against their windows to see the flowing river below. Without warning, the creaking timbers below the train snapped like kindling wood. Pieces of the trestle splashed into the muddy waters of the Gasconade. The passengers felt an unexpected jolt as the head of their train took a hapless dive towards the raging river. One by one, the train pulled each car down the muddy embankment. The screams and cries for help were muffled by the enormous calamity of crashing cars.
Robert McClain thrust himself up from his pillow, sweat dripping from his forehead, and tears running down his cheeks. He shifted his weight and dropped his feet to the cool, wooden floor. He sat on the edge of his bed with his face buried in his hands. Minutes passed before he could compose himself. There was no use trying to get back to sleep now.
His thin frame felt quite heavy as he lifted himself from the bed. The long mirror in the corner confirmed what he had been thinking.
“I sure look a sight. This is not going to be an easy day.”
The clothes he had set out the night before lay neatly on the dresser. He draped himself in them, but they gave him little comfort. The barely-worn Bible that had once belonged to his father lay square on the table next to the bed. Robert tucked it away in his travel bag then headed through the door, knowing this was the last time he would see the inside of that room. He turned down the hall and entered the stairwell toward the first floor. The familiar wooden creak of the stairs haunted him, and he wondered why they too hadn't given way under his feet over the last few years.
An aroma of fresh coffee filled the dining room. Robert draped his coat over an empty chair then took his usual seat at his usual table.
“Good morning, Mr. McClain.”
The familiar voice snapped Robert back into reality, a place he wasn't sure he wanted to be. “Good morning, Martha.”
The waitress placed an empty cup in front of him and filled it with the steaming brew. “Up a little early today, I see.”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
Martha patted him gently on the back then disappeared through the doorway that led into the kitchen. Robert's blank stare penetrated the familiar pattern on the wall. Silence filled the dining room until Martha returned with a plate of scrambled eggs and smoked bacon. She placed the meal on the table next to the cup of coffee.
“Sorry, there aren't any biscuits this morning. Somehow we managed to run short on flour. Perhaps tomorrow.”
Robert stopped staring at the wall. He looked at the waitresses familiar, brown dress and inviting smile. “I won't be here tomorrow, Martha. I am heading home today.”
“Oh that's right! My, how time flies. It seems like just a few days ago that you and your...well, it-”
“It’s okay, Martha. The wreck was three years ago. I suppose it is fine to mention them now.”
“They would be so proud of you, Robert McClain. I know when you started at Shurtleff, your father had his doubts, but if he could see the man you've become, I am certain he would be proud nonetheless.”
A small tear dribbled down Robert's cheek. “That's a comforting thought, Martha, but we'll never know for sure. Have you seen Thaddeus yet?”
“You're our first customer this morning, Robert. Mr. Wariner is probably still warming his pillow.”
“Strange. I don't think I ever beat Thaddeus to a meal.”
Robert reached into his breast pocket and retrieved a sealed, white envelope. “Give this to him when he comes down, would you? I'm not much for good-byes.”
She took the letter from his hand. “He'll be disappointed that you've gone without saying anything, but I'll give it to him. Who knows, you may run into each other again. The world really is a small place, and the railroad seems to be making it even smaller.”
“Please, don't remind me about the railroad, but thank you for delivering the letter.”
Robert finished his meal, slid his chair back then picked his coat from the chair. He placed the black frock around his broad shoulders. “Good-bye, Martha. You've been a good friend.” As he turned to the door, the sky outside lit up with a blinding flash, and the walls shook with the rumble of thunder.
“You sure you want to head out there?”
“Yes, it's time.”
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