Tommy could feel his fingers loosen. His arms and shoulders ached. He grunted and strained, but couldn’t find the strength to pull himself up.
If he let go, it would be all over.
“Harold! Take my hand!” The Conductor yelled from somewhere above Tommy. Tommy glanced upward and saw Thomas Rice leaning out of the cabin through a window. His face was pale and shadowed, but his eyes carried strength as his hand was extended down towards Tommy.
Tommy felt a burst of hope give his body strength as he pulled himself upward. The Conductor’s hand was just out of reach and Tommy would have to let go of the rung in order to get to him. Tommy didn’t have time to weigh his options as he let go of the step and reached upward. His hand was immediately clasped by his great-grandfather’s fierce grip.
“I got you!” He shouted. With a grunt, the Conductor pulled Officer Perkins upwards until Tommy was able to put his feet on the bottom rung. Once he knew he was secure, he grabbed onto the open window and used it to keep himself steady.
“Thanks!” Tommy yelled. The Conductor nodded as the fire died in the man’s eyes. Exhaustion settled into Thomas Rice’s cheeks.
“You don’t have much time!” The Conductor yelled. Tommy nodded. He glanced upward and saw a handhold. Renewed by his second chance, Tommy scampered upwards until he was on top of the engine—the massive boiler building up with pressure.
The view from on top was breathtaking. All around Tommy stretched the California landscape. He saw off in the distance the shimmering Pacific Ocean and to his right, the rugged, rolling landscape of California’s native land. Tommy didn’t linger, however, as he wiped condensation off his face. The vapor—a mixture of steam and smoke—poured out of the chimney in a mottled gray cloud. Tommy held out his hand in front of his eyes as his gaze sought out the regulator.
What Tommy was searching for was only five feet away. The regulator was a small dome on top of the boiler. He remembered reading about it when he was researching possible causes for train accident. Its purpose was to open when the pressure inside the boiler got too much—a safety mechanism that prevented the boiler from bursting. Even as he watched, Tommy saw a small metal flap slide open for a few seconds and then close again.
How was he going to keep it closed? Tommy had lost his metal rod. As he approached, he could see the heat coming off of the metal. There was no way he could use his hands to keep it shut.
The Daylight climbed a hill and before the train started its descent, Tommy’s heart dropped. Off in the distance Tommy saw what he dreaded the most.
Pit River Bridge was approaching.
They were running out of time. Fear clouded Tommy’s mind as solutions stretched out of his reach. He knew what would happen if he didn’t close this regulator. The boiler wouldn’t explode, and the train would arrive in San Francisco. The disease, already killing everyone on the train, would be unleashed upon San Francisco and only the one company with the antidote would be able to stop it—at a tremendous price.
Tommy fished through his pocket, hoping he hadn’t broken the syringe. Sure enough, he drew the heavy object out of his pocket and looked down at it in his palm. His eyes flew to the regulator, which opened again, letting out precious pressure. Tommy knew he’d have to time it perfectly and that ultimately, he only had one shot.
Tommy counted in his head as the regulator closed and opened again. The regulator started to slide closed, and Tommy jammed the syringe into the thin gap between the dome and the slide. The timing was perfect as the tip embedded into the thin gap and the slide held in place.
Tommy breathed a deep sigh of relief. He watched it a few more seconds to make sure, but it wasn’t budging. As if confirming, the boiler trembled underneath him as the pressure started to mount. Tommy glanced upward in the direction of the Pit River Bridge, but the hills were blocking his view. He knew, though, he didn’t have much time as he turned and headed back on the route he’d taken.
As he navigated his way back, a strange sensation overtook Tommy. He felt…relieved. He’d essentially sealed the fate of everyone on board, including his own, but the decision felt right. Despite the Chief Engineer’s villainous efforts, he’d be preventing the deaths of hundreds of thousands. In the end, the Rice name would be known for the derailing at the Pit River Bridge, but it would not be infamous for the massacre of thousands. Tommy was at peace about it, especially knowing he’d done what needed to be done to prevent an even worse legacy.
Tommy entered the cabin as he contemplated what was fast approaching. Sam was slumped against the wall. His face was pale and his eyes looked fatigued. The Conductor glanced over his shoulder.
“Pressure is reaching threshold,” he said weakly. “We’re close. I’m going to redline the boiler,” he said. “But, first, I want to slow the train down and let you off, Harold. Your role here is done. It’s time you took the cure and saved yourself,” he commanded.
“I destroyed it,” Tommy said bluntly. Sam looked up at him questioningly. The Conductor glanced backwards over his shoulder. His eyes were bloodshot and a frown folded his chin.
“Why on earth would you do that, good sir?” Tommy had thought about his choice on the way back to the cab. Why did he not use it on himself and save his life? Why had he made the sacrifice?
“Because this is where I belong. And I won’t leave you,” Tommy provided. The Conductor nodded slowly as he understood. Sam smiled weakly. “Do it,” Tommy stated firmly.
The Conductor pushed heavily upon the throttle and adjusted the gauges to let more water into the intake. Steam poured out of the stack as the Daylight started to pick up speed. The locomotive rattled with the sudden acceleration and the boiler groaned loudly. Tommy watched the pressure gauge climb into the red as the sound of the engine laboring under the pressure filled the cabin with a mighty groan.