When the three of them finally made it to the tender, Tommy started to feel discomfort spread throughout his body. First, it felt like a hot piece of lead was burying into his stomach. Then, weakness radiated in every joint in Tommy’s body and he had to fight the wind to stay on the train. He did his best to swallow the clot of fear lodged in his throat. He knew he didn’t have much time, but he didn’t know if it was the Pit River Bridge or the diabolical disease that would kill him first.
As they traveled on the outside of the tender, Tommy concentrated on the Conductor who was just one pace in front of him. He gripped the railing with his hand, and was ready with the other in case the Conductor fainted again, but the man seemed to have found a reserve of strength and resolve. He simply bowed his head and pushed across the massive tender as they edged closer to the engine. Once they got to the door to the cab, the Conductor pulled out his keys. Tommy glanced backwards to make sure Sam made it across. Even with his arm out of place, he was fighting the wind with great strength.
“You said something earlier which stayed with me,” the Conductor began as he shouted over the wind. His voice was hoarse and weary, but still determined.
“Yeah?” Tommy asked as his head started to swim. It felt like an elephant was standing on his chest. The Conductor got the door open, and the three of them slipped inside the Engine. Immediately, the room became full.
“Hey! Why are you two here?” A gruff voice barked at them as soon as they closed the door. The fireman, with his soot covered hands and blackened face, glared at them. His hand was wrapped around his shovel and the firebox behind him was still open. The coal inside was engulfed in flames which bathed the cabin in a warm, red glow.
“We’ve come to take over,” the Conductor mustered.
“I was told to keep this speed and to not abandon my post by the Chief. I won’t budge unless he tells me to,” the man declared.
“The Chief Engineer is dead,” the Conductor said. A steady, rhythmic silence enveloped the four of them. A sticky heat settled on Tommy’s skin. The sound of the massive boiler and the steam building up inside was the only sound to punctuate Tommy’s and the fireman’s surprise.
“That doesn’t matter,” Tommy said firmly as he found his voice. “What matters is that you were a part of the same crime that he committed. You’re under arrest,” he said with as much police authority he could bring to bear.
“I didn’t do nothing,” he said immediately.
“And how do we know that, eh?” Sam chimed in.
“I swear on my life! The Chief just told me that plans were changing—that life was going to be different for all of us. He didn’t say how and I didn’t ask,” he said vehemently.
“We believe you,” Tommy said. Instant relief flooded the man’s face. “But, the authorities in San Francisco might not. My suggestion—go and write everything you remember about your conversation with the Chief Engineer. Every detail. Every word. All of it. That way you can explain all of this to them before they put you in irons,” Tommy said with enthusiasm.
“Alright! I’ll do anything! But, who will operate the train?”
“We will,” the Conductor said confidently. Tommy looked at him and saw only determination.
“That’s right. Now, off you go. Good bye,” Tommy said. With head bowed and without hesitation, the fireman departed. Once the door closed behind him, the silence resumed. Tommy turned to the Conductor.
“Yes. We are about fifteen minutes away from the Pit River Bridge which crosses a deep chasm. If we can build up enough pressure in the boiler and reach top speed, I think it is deep enough to accomplish what needs to be done,” he said gravely. Tommy looked up at him expecting uncertainty, but found none.
“What are you saying?”
“I think I can pick up enough momentum to get us at top speed in the middle of the bridge. I will throw the brake and cause the back of the train to derail. The weight of the back will drag us off the tracks, too. If we also close the regulator and turn off the safety valve, pressure will build inside the boiler until it is insurmountable.”
“And once we hit the bottom, it will explode.” Tommy said numbly though he couldn’t believe the words coming from his lips.
“Precisely. With enough force and gusto to render the rest of the cars aflame. By the time San Francisco figures out we didn’t make it back on time, all of this,” the Conductor looked around as he took in The Daylight, “will be gone.”
A solemn, full silence fell between them. Tommy was in disbelief. He looked at Sam whose eyes swam were cast at the ground. Was there any other way?
“Are you alright with this?” Tommy asked Sam. Sam looked up.
“It needs to be done,” he said hollowly. Tommy looked back to the Conductor.
“What do we do?”
The Conductor turned and looked into the firebox.
“We have to gain speed and pressure. First thing we do is get as much coal into the box as quickly as possible. We can’t chance a slow burn. We have to get it hot. You and I will load the coal in, and Sam will keep the flames fanned,” he said. Tommy nodded as he picked up the shovel the fireman left behind.
“Ready?” He shouted over the din. The Conductor nodded as be produced a second shovel that was tucked in a corner. Tommy could see the pain swimming in his eyes, but watched as the man nodded with assurance.
“Let’s get cracking,” he said with a wild grin. Together, the two of them turned to the open door and started shoveling coal.