Fiery sweat burned Tommy’s eyes as he threw another shovel full of coal into the firebox. Flames leapt out at him, but he ignored the pain that seared Harold’s arms. As soon as he was sure all of his scoop had gotten inside, he turned and flattened himself so the Conductor could drop his own shovelful inside. Sam coaxed the flame. The heat from the flames filled the cramped cabin and bathed them in an orange glow. Tommy found it harder and harder to breath through the smoke and the disease stealing his life.
“I think that should do it,” the Conductor conveyed as he closed the firebox door with the end of his shovel. He turned to Tommy with a faint grin on his face. His eyes were outlined with pain and exhaustion. His white shirt and vest were stained from the coal and with deep rivers of sweat. The Conductor went to the various nobs and switches as his hands and eyes traveled over each one. He adjusted the assorted instruments and took a step back.
“What now?” Tommy asked. His bones felt heavy and his muscles felt broken.
“Pressure is building. Now, the hard part.” Tommy could not imagine anything more difficult than the last ten minutes. “We have to close the regulator. I can’t shut off the safety valve from here because it’s designed to be tamper-proof. The only way is to climb up on top of the engine and force it closed.” Tommy did his best to hear over the sound of the roaring engine, but he was certain he’d heard the Conductor say that someone had to climb on top of the very engine that was presently hurtling down the tracks. The idea of getting that high off the ground made his already delicate stomach roll unpleasantly. He and Sam exchanged a nervous glance.
“You’re kidding, right?” Sam asked.
“I am not,” the Conductor said evenly. “All I need for you to do is stay here and make sure the pressure doesn’t get to the red line before we get to the Pit River Bridge,” he said as be pointed at an instrument measuring the pressure. Tommy watched as the small hand started its steady climb. “If you see it getting too high too soon, pull this switch.” At this, the Conductor pointed to a lever. “That controls the air intake on the bottom of the engine. Without air, the fire should be choked out a little and it will give us time. Understood?” Tommy nodded his head. Although easy, his job description made him feel anxious. “Alright. I’ll be back in a jiff.”
The Conductor turned and took a couple steps to the cabin door. Tommy started to turn his attention to the pressure gauge when he saw the Conductor stumble. Reflexively, Tommy reached out and caught him before he hit the metal floor.
“Woah, now. Easy,” he said as he eased the Conductor to a shelf that served as a bench.
“I feel woozy all of a sudden,” he said numbly. His face was pale. Tommy looked down at his hands which were still gripping the man’s arms. He removed his grip and saw a handful of open sores on the Conductor’s arms had broken open. “I’m fine. Just a little worn out from our digging,” he tried. “Just give me a second and I’ll be up to snuff enough to get up there,” he said weakly.
“No.” The words left Tommy’s lips before he could hold them back. The Conductor looked up at him as if to argue. “I’ll do it.” Tommy could hear Sam suck in a sharp breath. “Besides,” Tommy began as he looked at the host of instruments, dials, and gauges, “you know what all of this means. I’d just mess something up,” he provided. The Conductor hesitated, but then his head dipped in a resigned nod.
Tommy’s heart was already throttling his lungs.
“What do I need to do?” He asked through his terror.
“Take this,” the Conductor responded as he hefted a metal rod. “And thrust it into where the regulator opens and closes. You have to get to it before it leaks all the pressure. Otherwise, it will open and release all of what we’ve tried to accomplish,” he warned.
“Jam it before it opens. Simple enough,” Tommy said. His feet didn’t move, though. The Conductor, through half-closed eyes, looked at Tommy expectantly. “Alright. Off I go. I’ll be right back,” he said more to encourage himself than to the Conductor. Tommy opened the door to the cab and stepped outside. He followed the meager platform to his right until he was up against the edge.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Sam asked from behind him. Tommy could hear the concern in his voice. He turned to face him.
“I’m the only one who can do it, Sam.” The steam wrapped around them as it traveled its wayward journey. Sam exchanged a knowing look. “I’m sorry, Sam. I got us both into this mess. I chased after the past and dragged you into this. And now we’re going to…,” Tommy trailed off as a lump rose in his throat. He couldn’t bring himself to say that they were about to die.
“Hey,” Sam began. “What are friends for, eh? Besides, if this doesn’t kill us, then I’m going to kill you,” Sam said with a forced laugh. Tommy chanced a quick smile that faded just as soon as it formed.
“You better go check on him. I’ll see you when I’m done,” Tommy promised. Before Sam could respond, Tommy turned his back.
Tommy glanced around towards the front of the train and saw what he was hoping, and fearing, he would find. Three feet from the platform was a rung which would allow him to get on top of the cabin. To most, three feet was a piece of cake. To him, three feet seemed miles away—especially when the distance was also a dozen or more feet off the racing ground. Tommy knew all he had to do was turn so he had his back exposed to the landscape rushing past him, extend his leg out blindly, and hope he stretched far enough to get his foot on the barely wide enough rung. Then, he’d basically leap the rest of the distance while hanging onto…whatever he could.
“You got this,” he said as he tried to psyche himself up. His eyes, without wanting to, glanced down at the blurry tracks beneath him. His stomach lurched unexpectantly and Tommy had to fight to not throw up. He put his hand out on the cab to steady himself. Everything in him was screaming, telling him that he wasn’t the one supposed to do this—that it had to be someone else. Someone who wasn’t afraid of heights. Someone who wasn’t a boy trapped in a grown man’s body!
But, it was only him standing on the platform.
Before his mind could register what he was doing and convince him otherwise, Tommy swung his leg outward. The empty space between the rung and the platform stretched on for minutes as his leg arched through the vast, empty danger. Just as he felt all of his weight begin to drag him down, Tommy felt his toe catch on the rung. A bolt of shock and excitement coiled in his chest. He had half expected to be falling to the tracks, but he had enough of his foot on the rung to start shifting the rest of his body onto the small space.
Beads of sticky sweat were being wiped dry by the wind, but it did not stop the anxiety burning in his mind. He knew what he needed to do—position the rest of his body on the rung, but the idea didn’t make sense to his body. Only the fear of losing his grip and falling to his death made sense. Tommy took a deep, steadying breathe and allowed Harold’s body to take over as he extended the rest of his weight and leapt to the rung.
For a few, desperate seconds, Tommy stared into the jaws of his worst fear. There was nothing for him to grab onto. A spike of pure terror drove into his chest as he tried desperately to keep his weight even on the rung. His arms waved madly on either side of him as he sought a delicate balance. But, Tommy did not find one. He felt, completely powerless to stop it, his own momentum carry him backwards.
Tommy felt his leg slip. The train hurtled upward as he was pulled downward. His feet kicked against solid ground just as his hands wrapped around the last step. Tommy screamed as he clung to the rung by his fingertips. He watched his metal rod disappear beneath the train in a shower of sparks and fire.
Tommy was staring into the massive steel wheels. He watched in curious terror as the pistons churned madly in front of his eyes. He could feel the rush of wind from each cycle. He could taste the steel on his tongue—like the taste of blood. He tried to keep his feet off the ground, but his strength was failing. He could feel his grip weakening as his feet clipped the ground and kicked up dust. He felt his leg almost get ripped out of socket as it grazed against a rock. Tears rushed to his cheeks.
He was going to die. Tommy knew it.