The Engine Woman's Light

The Engine Woman's Light

by Laurel Anne Hill

ISBN: 9781937818470

Publisher Sand Hill Review Press

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Sample Chapter


Journal of Before, Year 1878

1. Flight and Wilderness Walking

Zetta stared aghast at the caramel-colored foundling in the wicker basket beside her. The baby wore a ragged blue-and-white gown. This was the christening gown, the one she'd sewn, had buttoned on sons, grandsons and great-grandsons. What the tarnation was her precious creation — a family heirloom — doing on some foolish couple's mistake?

The train to the workhouse and asylum for the poor curved around a bend. Zetta swayed in her seat and grasped the back of an empty one. The baby, not even two months old, slept without stirring. Diego, her oldest grandson must have given the gown to that charity for unwanted children who got sent away. How could he have done such a thoughtless thing?

Tears trickled down Zetta's cheeks. Her bony hands — age spots like spattered paint on her pale skin — clasped each other in the folds of her skirt. Shameful red blotches hid underneath the blue fabric. Leper. Unclean. The grimy window to her left displayed the setting sun. The baby gown she'd sewn and tatted as a young woman was worth nothing to her family. She never should have volunteered to care for a foundling on the ride to South California. Should have left the sedated thing wrapped in that old blanket. Ignorance would have been better than truth.

An old man across the aisle babbled nonsense. Zetta fumbled for a soft cotton rag and blew her nose. The baby's strumpet of a mother should have arranged an abortion. Local midwives would always unblock the menses of women in need. Neither the infant nor the gown would be here, then. A twinge of guilt hit Zetta. Diego's thoughtlessness wasn't the child's fault.

Zetta reached into her satchel, pulled out a Bible, then opened the book to a dog-eared page. For though I should walk in the midst of the shadow of death.

Her husband, Javier, had died five years ago, yet he'd visited her during the past several months. She wrapped herself in his old brown-and-gray serape. The valley he must have walked to return to her held both mystery and shadows. Such uncomfortable looks she'd received from her family while carrying on conversations with him. Her son's reaction to the red blotches on her thighs and chest had proven even more disconcerting. Thou art with me. The psalm brought solace.

She smiled at the infant, so perfectly formed and cute. Did a kind spirit watch over it? Perhaps an asylum attendant would take the little one home. No, the workers probably had trouble supporting their own children. North California paid the South California asylum only a set amount of money for each child, according to the agreement between their governments. This poor baby wouldn't even receive a smallpox vaccination, let alone love and schooling. It might even be sold to the Mendoza family — the descendants of the ruthless Gold War bandidos. Brownskinned foundlings often were.

How fortunate Zetta's great-grandsons were, loved and safe within the walls of the Navarro family farm house. She touched her thigh. Leprosy. Her great-grandchildren would be even safer in her absence.

Zetta yawned. Today had been a long day, what with all the goodbyes. Too bad Diego hadn't been there. His job kept him traveling. She fingered the coarse wool of Javier's serape. Her eyelids closed.

* * *

Zetta awakened in dim light. The passenger car clicked against rails. A silvery glow shimmered above the foundling in the basket. Zetta blinked and the glow took form — Javier's face. This time, he still had all his curly, black hair — like in the early years of their marriage. She smelled his aroma of beer, sweeter than the scent of hot chocolate with cinnamon.

"I know I've not visited for a week," Javier said, his voice bitter. "Just listen and do what I ask. Our oldest grandson didn't exactly give the blue-and-white gown away to strangers. Diego's concealed a terrible truth from his wife and the rest of his living kin."

What was Javier talking about? What possible horrid secret might Diego —

"He's this baby's padre," Javier said.

Diego? The foundling's father? Zetta recoiled with a gasp, as though kicked in the chest and stomach by a plow mule. At this very moment, her great-grandsons were safe at home, dressed in nightshirts and listening to bedtime stories. Yet here was a reject, also her own flesh and blood, entrusted to her by some miracle of God. She stared in horror at the ghost, then at the infant. How could Diego have committed such wretched and irresponsible acts?

Something pressed against Zetta's shoulder. She jerked with surprise. A young nurse in an ankle-length dress and pinafore withdrew her hand and eyed Zetta with concern. The woman didn't appear shocked. Javier's apparition wasn't for her eyes to see.

Zetta knew she'd better smile. Not do anything to arouse suspicion or appear ill. The baby would be given to someone else to watch.

"I just had a bit of heartburn," Zetta said. "I'm fine now."

"If you need a stomach infusion," the nurse said, "the intern in the end car's got special teas." She patted Zetta's arm and turned her attention toward a beckoning passenger.

"Be more careful." Javier whistled with relief. "Right now, no one else knows you've been given charge of our great-granddaughter. Talk to me only with thoughts. I'll hear."

A great-granddaughter! Zetta had prayed for a girl child for three generations. Could this really be true?

"It's true," Javier said. "Now, better get down to business. At Thistlewood Station, you and our great-granddaughter are breaking out of here."

Thistlewood — not a town Zetta had ever heard of before. The place must have stood in the middle of nowhere. Well, the sooner they escaped, the better. Her great-granddaughter was not going to end up in any asylum.

"The other stations are patrolled." Javier chuckled. "Thistlewood's quiet as a grave. Claimed to be haunted. Nobody living hangs around there for long. There's a settlement ten miles or so away."

Zetta glanced around. A nurse from the forward car had drugged the baby on sleeping powder, then brought it to her. She'd used a key before and after passing through the double set of doors. All doors were kept locked while running, and most when not. Was escape even possible?

"Only one car between this one and the brakeman's caboose," Javier said. "Just one empty car and two sets of doors to an easy exit. Now I need a place to hide, but still be near you. Some people get agitated when ectoplasm hangs around in the air," he chuckled.

I know a good hiding place. Zetta opened her tapestry valise and lifted it into her lap. The owl face of a small copper candle lamp peered up from a nest of remnants. Beside the lamp rested her brass alarm clock. She pointed. Javier floated inside the timepiece. She wound the clock. How comforting, its new and ghostly sound. The time was five minutes before nine.

"There'll be a boarding and water stop soon," Javier said, accompanied by a tick-tock rhythm. "Thistlewood's on the schedule for one-forty. The last stop before South California."

Zetta sat straight up, a plan bubbling within her brain. Seventeen or eighteen passengers, most of them asleep, were in the car. Several more ought to board in a few miles. There was one lavatory in the car, at the front. What would the odds be of a passenger using the restroom between one and one-thirty at night and remembering to bolt the door? The clock ticked louder. Javier voiced his approval.

The engine decelerated and whistled a long night-piercing blast. The train rolled into a brightly-lit rural station. Locks released on the boarding gate of the car, producing little mechanical squeals. A deep voice called out instructions to board.

A ruddy-faced bald man, fat as a well-fed leech and close to sixty, staggered through the forward door. He spewed out more profanity than a saloon full of Mendozas. Who was this rude ungentleman? The sour reek of booze turned Zetta's stomach even seven rows of seats away. The attendant near the drunk scrunched up her face.

"He's all yours," a feminine voice shouted from the platform. "His name's Graham Locke."

"Go shit a pile," the drunkard yelled. "I'm not Mr. Locke."

"Sew that sot's mouth shut," a woman shrieked from across the aisle, her wrinkled cheeks as shriveled as two dried prunes forgotten in a pantry.

"Go sit on a cucumber," Mr. Locke — who wasn't Mr. Locke — said.

Mr. Locke tipped his derby hat, a pair of goggles covering the hatband, and belched. Odd. Goggles were a British South California style of apparel. The train hadn't reached the north-south border.

The nurse turned toward a flat metal telegraph pad mounted by the restroom and tapped a message. Minutes later, a lanky young man, dressed in a dark shirt, vest and trousers, emerged through the rear doorway, black satchel in hand. The intern? An older man with a brakeman's cap on his head followed. They both looked irritated and didn't reset the lock behind them.

The drunkard hollered a new round of obscenities. The nurse tried to usher him toward a seat. He pushed her aside. The brakeman ducked behind him and shoved the backs of his legs. The drunk wobbled like a lopsided toy top and crashed forward on his knees. The intern dove on top of him, syringe in hand. The nurse poured something onto a large handkerchief and joined the fray. By the time the departure whistle sounded, Mr. Locke had lost. His mountain of flesh slumped on the front set of seats. His left foot, wedged in an ankle-high work boot, protruded into the aisle.

"That'll keep him about three hours." The intern picked the syringe off the floor. He brushed an unruly clump of hair away from his eyes and ambled behind the brakeman toward the rear of the train. The two men likely shared the caboose.

What time is it? Zetta thought to Javier.

"Nine forty-five," Javier's spirit said from the clock.

"Pardon me, please," Zetta said to the passing nurse. "Could I move to a different car before that man starts another ruckus?"

"The next car," the nurse said, "is only for the — well, you know — the recruits to build new tracks. We'll try to keep the bloke quiet."

"Can't you get help?" Zetta needed to learn if railroad police or constables were aboard.

"The intern, brakeman and I will manage." The nurse fidgeted with her smock, as though fishing for appropriate words. "Don't you be concerned, now."

The nurse brought a lumpy pillow and a folded blanket discolored with a stain. She punched her knuckles against the pillow to fluff it. Zetta thanked her and leaned against the window. One doctor and no officers rode this train — a short staff. And the only other passenger car in use carried Chinese laborers, probably headed to build tracks to that new South California oil field she'd heard about. No wonder the nurse had asked Zetta to mind the child. Things might work out well, indeed.

Zetta retrieved a water jar and a flat burlap package from her valise. She unfolded the cloth and tore off a morsel of tortilla. Savoring the flavor of corn, she glanced at the brass clock.

"Head for the lavatory at twelve-forty," Javier said.

She smiled in agreement, glanced toward her great-granddaughter, then let the swaying train and muted ticks bring sleep.

* * *

Such dim illumination in the railcar. Did Juan, her youngest son, sit across the aisle? No, Zetta had just dreamed about his escape to Mexico. Nothing more.

She reached into her valise and felt the edges of the sealed envelope she'd addressed yesterday to Raúl, her middle son. The envelope contained the postcard Juan had sent her many years before, to let her know he and his friend, Billy, had reached their destination alive. Three words comprised the message — God Bless Mexico. Raúl had asked for the memento. She had meant to mail the card upon arrival at the asylum. The two boys had been very different, but close.

"Eleven fifty-five," Javier said from inside the alarm clock. "And don't fret. The young doc's in charge of a postal box in the caboose."

Zetta changed the sleeping baby's diaper, then organized her own belongings. The moon wasn't full tonight. A clear sky, though. With closed eyes, she practiced locating each object within the bag. Her lips formed silent words as she touched the envelope containing the postcard. God bless Mexico.

Her family would learn she'd left the train and worry about her safety. She should write a message on the back of the envelope going to Raúl. At the front of the car, Mr. Graham Locke, or whoever he was, snored more obnoxiously than a bear bloated on Sunday bacon. She grinned and printed a few cryptic sentences, designed for the eyes of her errant grandson, Diego.

A man behind Zetta cried out a muffled name. She flinched and turned. The man, eyes closed, thrashed his arm. She checked her clock. Twelve thirty-eight. Several other passengers stirred. What if they needed to use the lavatory? Zetta floundered into the aisle, her back stiff. She slipped past the fat bear, lunged for the lavatory, then yanked open the door. Once inside the necessary, she pushed a metal bolt to secure the door behind her.

The baby — she should have brought the child with her. Panic had affected her reasoning. It was too late then to go back and grab the basket. She needed to calm down and get her job done.

The lavatory smelled of urine, had less light than the main car and was barely wide enough to accommodate the wooden commode. A makeshift seat sat over the hole. Zetta had counted on some sort of seat being installed for the benefit of the infirm. Shadows obscured the track below.

She rolled up the sleeves of her cotton blouse and wiggled the seat, which was loose. When the bolts didn't snap, she sat and relieved herself, careful to avoid touching the splinters on the commode's topside.

The nurse might grow suspicious of a passenger staying in here for more than a few minutes in the middle of the night. She finished and stood, then wrenched the seat with all her might. The flabby skin on her thin upper arms jiggled. The seat bolts held. Her plan to create a diversion in the bathroom wasn't going to work.

"Are you all right?" the sugary voice of the nurse said from the other side of the lavatory door.

A sharp rap followed. Everything was going wrong. She needed that woman the way she needed a broken foot.

"I won't be much longer," Zetta said.

Zetta grunted with disgusting authenticity to mask the sounds of her real business. After a few minutes, she yanked the seat again. Her arms ached. One bolt pulled free. A dozen yanks later, the other bolt yielded. She replaced the seat and rinsed her hands in the metal wash bowl, her muscles afire with pain. So long, she'd taken. What if the nurse had guessed her plan and was waiting? Perhaps the woman had looked in the valise and found the envelope. How foolish to write a suspicious note that the wrong eyes might see. Right then, the nurse could even be giving the baby to another passenger. Zetta never should have left the child.

Zetta unlocked the door and cracked it open. The coach was quiet, and the nurse stood halfway down the aisle. Two elderly women sat in line to use the lavatory, the one in front frail, sunken-cheeked, and holding a cane. Nothing bad had happened, after all.

"I'd be very careful to lock the door, if I were you," Zetta said. Her escape plan would work best if the next woman in line locked the door. She pointed toward the rotund drunkard. "He's due to wake up any minute now."

Zetta walked toward Mr. Locke, steadying herself with the backs of seats. She studied the position of his left leg and counted to three. With full force she kicked him in the shin and repeated the assault. One of his bleary bloodshot eyes opened. Swaying, she proceeded toward her seat, pretending to be oblivious to her deed.

A series of piercing cries emanated from the lavatory. The nurse raced down the aisle in that direction. Soon the nurse and the elderly woman exchanged frantic words. The poor lady trapped inside could not reach the door to release the lock. A splinter had stabbed her posterior, which then got stuck down the toilet hole. Her cries turned to howls, then to desperate sobbing. The nurse raced for the telegraph box. The intern and brakeman charged into the car. Graham Locke staggered to center stage, derby hat pulled down over his eyes and arms flailing.

"Get her off the pot," Mr. Locke bellowed. "I got to piss."

The drunk unbuttoned his trousers, then let go. An old woman yelled at him. He puked in the aisle.

With this stunning performance in full progress, Zetta slung the longer strap of her valise over her shoulder and carried the infant in the basket to the rear of the car. The connecting doors slid open as though freshly buttered. She passed through the vestibule into the shadowy emptiness of the next unit and finally into the caboose and pharmacy.

Excerpted from "The Engine Woman's Light" by Laurel Anne Hill. Copyright © 2013 by Laurel Anne Hill. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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