Ray Races the Ghost Train

Where rests the extinct Moorestown Locomotive Company – a weeded-over and corrupt brick campus of late 19th century design, inactive since its last use as a rubber stamp factory in the early 1960’s – locals say that if you go to Morgan’s Hill just over-looking the old grounds and now defunct railway leading from the factory’s production line, you can hear a faint brass bell coming from the ghost train; the MLC 109, a 2-10-0 class and the last steam locomotive produced by Moorestown Locomotive. Legend tells that the 109 was manufactured for an eccentric adventurer, named A.O. Welton, intent on shipping the locomotive along with observation and freight cars across the Atlantic and into the then un-railed lands of Rio de Uro and Morocco. However, when the adventurer encountered a sudden decrease in finances, he boarded 109 alone and attempted to steal the train. Without a fireman, the eccentric traveled not an inch. As his luck would have it, a deaf orphan boy who happened to watch the trains and the factory’s daily productions from Morgan’s Hill – and sometimes sneaked into the factory and into the locomotives themselves – jumped aboard the 109. With A.O. the eccentric as engineer, and the boy as fireman, they moved the train slowly down the tracks. As the two increased speed into town, the sheriff and his deputy parked their lone wagon across the crossing at Pine Street just on the edge of town. They pointed their shotguns at the locomotive, when suddenly, as the boy shoveled a horrendous amount of coal into the firebox, the eccentric let loose the Johnson Bar, opened the throttle with a crazy laugh and the 109 gained speed faster than expected. The 109 plowed into the sheriff’s wagon, just as the deputy gripped a hand rail and hung on. Shotgun rounds ricocheted off the locomotive as the sheriff fired in vain. The deputy was reported to be seen by the sheriff falling into the tender as the eccentric laughed crazily and the boy, already back-beaten and coal-covered, raised his singeing shovel toward him. For such an early hour of the day only one townsperson, Gladys Newberry, recalled actually hearing the eccentric laughing and the deputy screaming as if he were first clunked with a shovel then burned alive inside the firebox. Yet, another, John P. Wriggley claimed he saw the deputy, an out-of-towner who was just deputized some two weeks prior, helming the Johnson bar and checking the steam gauges. And as the 109 barreled out of town and past the Pogueman’s dairy farm, John Pogueman didn’t remember even seeing the train while his farmhand, Edgar, didn’t speak English well enough for anyone taking notes to legibly record.

The orphan boy happened to be found some weeks later, camped by an unfinished line among the Chic-choc Mountains of Quebec. He had survived on a diet of roasted rabbit, chickweed and bittercress for an unknown period of days. Any attempt to question him ended in shoulder shrugs and cold stares. He was returned to the Methodist orphanage in Moorestown only to be last seen jumping a boxcar a couple days later. The body of the eccentric adventurer, A.O. Welton, was many years later discovered slashed and beaten beside a barroom in the Fairmount neighborhood of Philadelphia. But when photographs of his corpse made it back to Moorestown, skepticism prevailed. The former president of MLC, through a port and ale soaked mustache decried, “Who’s he foolin’? That dead man’s a ringer!” The sheriff stared long at the photograph as well, the thoughtful and soft-spoken man only ever seeing Mr. Welton as he sped by in the 109 and crashed through the wagon. He couldn’t say for certain the dead man was the eccentric. The sheriff handed the photograph back to the man who brought it and concluded, “He could be he. The human body does strange transmogrifications following death. But I can’t be certain. That wretched smile though, similar.”

The brave, or scheming, deputy who boarded the 109 as it plowed through the sheriff’s only vehicle was never seen or documented again. As time progressed, no one, including the sheriff, could even remember his name.

Adding to the folklore was that the 109 was never recovered or seen again; some say it met a fiery end there in the Canadian mountains. Others claimed to have seen a photograph of it pulling boxcars of elephants in a native land over the ocean. It’s only existence now, say the current townspeople, is the faint ghostly wisps leaving the factory in the dull early morning hour on the anniversary of which it last ran. The ghost of the deputy is said to wander the grounds endlessly; searching for the 109 and its captors.

*

An early hour mist began to settle over Moorestown. The conservative town, once a regionally-renown location for the manufacturing of various bits for the industrial era, now sits as just another exit along the interstate between Chicago and Indianapolis. A town still yearning to relevant itself in America; a struggle that occurs for many mid-level towns and cities across the country. Moorestown has embraced the desire of its residents to stay for the terminable future with a sign-slogan that reads, Moorestown: You Are Home.

The bite in the air required Raymond Wallup to wear his leather riding jacket; a gift from his two daughters when they heard he had purchased a motorcycle. A curious purchase, as he was never the motorcycle type. His wife discouraged their gift, not wanting to encourage Ray, but nonetheless found it subtly amusing and slightly arousing to see him pull it on – the dull black leather replete with chrome buttons, collar and wrist straps, a middle zipper slightly off-center – and go about town a faux-roughneck motorcycle man. For some time following she regarded him, when he zipped up the jacket and straddled the machine, as her very own Marlon Brando; if he were forever stuck inside Johnny Strabler and never became grossly overweight, but only a slight heaviness due to age and maintained a constant buzzed grey head of hair covered by a faded ball cap rather than black oily strands bursting from an askew 8-panelSA.

In the early morning, Ray rides his motorcycle around Moorestown and the surrounding township. For income, he runs a semi from Indianapolis to Chicago to Lexington and back again to Indianapolis. Five days a week, twelve hours a day. Lately, since the purchase of the motorcycle, he pushes it out to the end of their subdivision-home driveway and starts the engine; hoping to not awaken his wife Cynthia. She does, inevitably, and shudders slightly while pulling the lapel of her robe closer to her chin.      “As if he didn’t spend enough time driving around,” she thinks. He tried to explain to her that he likes to ride the motorcycle in the morning because it helps him think.

“You think all day,” she told him. “You sit in a semi. What else is there to do?”

Ray knew that Cynthia didn’t understand his need to separate what he does for income and what he does for pleasure. Atop the motorcycle he could dream with a free abandon. There was no windshield or seatbelt to restrict him. In his sixty two years of life the time on the motorcycle, he supposes, may be his most peaceful.

On his rides, Ray dreams. Occasionally, he dreams a different life for himself. While not upset about his current outcome, he dreams back to how things could have happened. Maybe he could have kept up with his guitar playing when he was a teenager. He could have penned a heartland song and become a sort of folksy rock and roll performer. A poor man’s Springsteen. He would have been satisfied to never reach super-stardom, but resting his career on the one hit and spending his time traveling to mid-level town and city festivals, street fairs and car shows. That would have been a nice little life.

Instead, Raymond’s fame just extends throughout Moorestown. The legend of Raymond Wallup stems from a childhood incident; one he has never tried to explain — to himself or to anyone else. Because of it, the eyes of Moorestown that greet him with reverence also stare at him with reproach. They wonder what really happened that day and how a man was found beaten to death without a bruise. How three boys came home white as ghosts, and the little British kid and Raymond a long while after; both strangely silent as if withholding a secret. Raymond shrugs when ever asked about it, although the questions stopped some time ago, and says, “Must have been a ghost.”

Three of the boys Ray was with that day, all local legends for their own absurd incidents either involving a high school football field, barroom or police report, also claim that it must have been a ghost. But that they high-tailed it and split before the damage happened. When asked about it they all repeat the phrase, “Who knows what those two are capable of. We had nothin’ to do with any of it.” One of the three, while being questioned some years later by a local police officer about why he drunkenly drove his pickup into above-ground pool, said, “If you ask me I think the little British kid did it.”

The little British kid, curiously, moved away very soon after the incident. He used to write Ray letters, sent in registered envelopes and postmarked from Wales, which thanked him for the harrowing bit of adventure. Many years later, a mystery novel was published in England entitled, The Ghost Train Murders; a signed copy of which Ray received via courier service. No one in Moorestown ever related the two.

 

Ray takes a deep breath astride the motorcycle, exalting a sigh that is the summation of an unrequited dream. He guides the machine onto the highway bypass. He knows the state police do not clock the road this early in the morning, so he can open it up a little. Taste the air at eighty miles an hour, just before he starts to scare from the speed. He never crosses eighty, because he knows that a little hitch in the road or his grip and he’s a dead man. Being tossed from a speeding motorcycle is no way to die. It is the same thought that causes his wife to shudder and pull her robe in tight. When he accelerates the cycle to seventy, he looks to the right and sees the brick smokestack of the decrepit MLC building peaking above a tree-line. He sees this every time he rides the bypass, thinking somebody should do something with that old place. But today something is different. He sees the peak of the black roof of the factory. The cone tin top of the water silo and after he blinks he sees the unmistakable curl of white smoke exiting a locomotive’s chimney petticoat. He looks back to the bypass and sees only open road. He turns his head again and sees nothing. The mist is settling into fog now, as his halogen headlight makes a mess of it. Maybe it’s just the fog, he thinks. He turns his head again to the open road ahead and feeling compelled once more turns his head over his shoulder to see, again, a dense white curl of locomotive smoke. He slows, pulls to the shoulder, and turns his body to see the smoke rise and fade into the dark sky. Another curl of smoke emits heavily. As the motorcycle’s engine idles, he can hear a steady ting-ting, ting-ting of a brass bell.

While keeping an eye the way of the old factory he exits the bypass ahead of the train at Old Moorestown Road; the original main street for Moorestown, which had cropped up around the MLC until it’s abrupt closure and the town moved a few miles west around a small Jesuit college and automotive transmission factory.

Ray stops at the tracks of Old Moorestown Road. He looks right and down the rail line. Nothing. He looks left, just to be sure and right again, and again he sees nothing. The track is still. He eases off the clutch and gives the throttle a tug and as the motorcycle engine grumbles into the misty night air, a locomotive carbon arc headlamp explodes light down the rail line, and into Ray’s face. He startles and squints as his heart beats rapidly. The sudden torpedo of light causes him to skid off the road and into a thicket. A steam whistle cries into the darkness as the locomotive approaches him, billowing steam and smoke from low and high angles. It is gaining speed and chugging along as Ray stands, forgetting about his puttering motorcycle laying on its side, the rip in his jean pant leg from which a cross-hatch of blood flows and stares wide-eyed and frozen as a maniacal smiling man in the cabin waves him forward. Next to him a boy shovels coal at a hectic speed. The smiling man pulls the whistle cord with both hands. He hangs from it like a monkey on a vine and Ray hears him call, “Come along now! Join the adventure!” In an instant Ray picks up his motorcycle. He gives the throttle a couple of twists and turns the motorcycle onto the county road that runs parallel to the old rail line.

It is the anniversary of the 109; a date he used to celebrate by taking apart and cleaning the revolver he stores in a cigar box in his closet. He keeps the same five rounds in the cylinder of six from when he first encountered the revolver. He removes them during the cleaning and returns them after. He has never fired the gun, nor does he ever anticipate doing so. But as time has passed, as work and routine took over, it lost meaning. Lately, the only celebration he can muster is a silent toast before he drinks a cup of coffee.

As Ray gains speed, and races along with the train, a smile widens across his face. As the deputy hangs on to the back of the tender car, he nods his head toward Ray and gives him a wink.

 

“Come on, Percy, it won’t take that long to ride there.” An eight year old Raymond said to Percy Devonshire, the lone dissident in the quintet of boys attempting to ride their bicycles to the vacant rubber stamp factory. Percy was British, his father a newly appointed adjunct professor of Economics at Harold College in Moorestown, and as such always needed persuaded to do much of anything the Yankee boys had in mind.

“My mum will certainly not approve.” Percy quietly responded. The boys chuckled when he spoke.

“You’re mum won’t know!” Spoke up Timothy Schoolcraft.

“She’ll only know if you tell her,” followed Hank Hammertone.

“Don’t be such a wuss, red coat.” Roger Wriggley finished. The red coat nickname he so applied after learning it in a brief moment of attention during a history lesson.

“Stop calling him that Roger.” Ray said. “If your mom says anything tell her it was my idea. Now let’s go.”

The boys rallied behind Ray on their J.C. Higgins and Mercury bicycles, Percy on a Schwinn, and began the ride to the factory.

Percy’s detachment wasn’t due to the length of time it would take, but rather by the fear induced by the legend of the factory. The story of the ghost train spilled into a catch-all myth that the entire grounds were haunted by a burned-alive deputy. The spirit chases away boys as revenge for the orphan that struck him with a shovel and threw him in the firebox. Just a few years ago, it was said that a factory worker’s son was so frightened by the ghost that he ran the tracks clear on to Lafayette before he was found. It’s also believed that on the anniversary of the 109’s departure the train appears and the deputy’s ghost chases it down. This anniversary was to be the evening of Ray and the boys’ bicycle ride to the factory. Ray intended to lay a makeshift trap of batteries and straw-flags along the rail; so that if the 109 appeared it would crush the batteries, blow over the flags and prove the legend.

More than an attempt to prove a legend, the boys’ journey was a rite of passage. Children of Moorestown had been visiting the factory for years in an attempt to be frightened by the deputy ghost or the 109 vapor. Only to be ran away by angry managers and foremen.

For Ray, however, it was an attempt to prove himself as a man. At the beginning of the year, his father had passed away from pneumonia aboard a naval freighter. As an only child, he had to prove to his father’s spirit that he was fearless. Braving the legend of the 109 was the only way he knew how at the time. He knew he had to be strong for his mother’s sake, as well. “You’re the man of the house, now.” His father had told him before his departure to duty; the last time he was to see him. “Take care of your mother and do everything she asks of you.”

“I need you to be a strong little man,” his mother told him later when they received the news. He wasn’t sure how to become a man, but knew braving the spirit of the deputy would help.

Upon the boys’ arrival at the factory, they left their bicycles at the gated drive’s entrance and walked the quarter mile through overgrowth. They stopped and jumped around and in the frame of a rusted 2-4-2 locomotive, which decades ago, had been MLC’s welcome sign.

“Look at me,” Timothy said, as he helmed the cab; the floor filled with spent walnut shells. “I’m ol’ A.O. Welton. This is my train!” he cried. “You can’t catch me!”

“Yeah?” Roger goaded. “Well I’m the deputy, coming for revenge!” He jumped in the cab as they fought for control.

“I don’t want to be the deaf orphan.” Hank complained as he threw walnut shells at them.

“Stop horsing around,” Ray demanded. “We gotta keep moving. The old place is just through there. See the smokestack? And the water silo there?”

Always the leader, Ray walked out of the brush with Percy close behind. The other boys grabbed sticks and held them like sabers or rifles as they all came upon the gravel parking lot of the factory. The sight of the factory was the most satisfying moment of Ray’s life at the time. An affirmation that his steps to manhood were correct.

“There are lights on inside the factory, Raymond.” Percy said, a timbre of caution in his voice.

“They probably just left it on when they left the place.” Ray said assuredly. The other boys ran around Ray and Percy, like wild soldiers rushing a line. They jumped to look in windows and tried their hands at locked doors. Ray and Percy walked over to the tracks. They knelt down as Ray removed two zinc-carbon batteries and placed them on either rail.

“This way,” he said to Percy, “if the 109 shows it will crush them.” He then placed tissue paper taped to straws along the outside of the tracks. “If it is a ghost and it don’t crush the batteries, it will at least make a wind that will blow over these straws.”

Percy watched with judged concentration. “You’ve been planning this for some time, have you not, Raymond?”

He looked at his set-up. The cardboard encased batteries sat motionless on the rails, the tissue-straw flags moved in short, subtle waves. He said, “For a few months now, Percy.”

The boys stood in the parking lot and called over to Raymond.

“There ain’t no ghost here.”

“Let’s go home.”

“I don’t think there ever was any ghost anyhow.”

The boys then began throwing gravel and rocks at the factory. A few knocked holes through the lead windows.

Raymond stood up and yelled at them to cut it out.

“Aw don’t worry Ray, ain’t nothing here but a damned old empty factory.”

“Nobody’s gonna know.”

“Come on outta there you old stupid ghost.”

Inside the factory, a company manager retained to take remaining inventory over equipment and goods had drank himself into sleep well before the boys had arrived. Upon being startled by the sound of breaking windows he staggered from the floor of the foreman’s office and swung open an outside door.

“Jus’ what in the hells goin’ on out’n here?” He screamed in a mumbled voice. His suspenders hung low by his hips, and his white undershirt was sweat-soaked. He already looked like he lost a fight.The boys froze. They looked over to Raymond, who held an arm in front of Percy.

“Come here you lil’ shits!” He screamed. And at that the boys ran toward their bicycles in screams and howls. Percy followed. Raymond ran the opposite direction, only to stop and see Percy grabbed at the pant-waist by the lunging manager. Ray turned and ran toward him and kicked the manager in the back of the leg. He dropped Percy in a howl, turned and smacked Ray across the head. Percy lay on his back as he watched the manager smack Ray again across the face.

“Run Percy!” Ray yelled to him. “Get outta here!” As Percy scampered off, he turned to see Ray dragged by the arm into the factory.

As the boys jumped on their bicycles without looking back, Percy stopped and hid inside the cab of the 2-4-2 frame. He tried to discern through the foliage and hope that Raymond may still be alive.

“Sit down in that chair,” the manager commanded, as he wrapped his belt around the back of the chair and around Ray’s arms and torso.   “You think this is funny? Do ya? A man spends half his life toiling and bustin’ his ass just to have some basterd kids come in here and throw rocks through the windows? You think this is a game, kid?” The manager tossed a rock in his hand like a pitcher with a baseball.

“No sir,” Raymond muttered.

The manager threw the rock at him with some force. It struck Ray in the chest with a hollow thud.

“How does that feel, uh? You lil’ shit!” The manager went outside and came back with a handful of rocks and pebbles and began throwing them at Raymond with varying speed. Ray cried out as each one bounced off.

“You don’t like that much do ya? Doesn’t feel too good does it?”

Ray’s face was a mess of tears and snot. “Please sir, please stop. I didn’t throw any rocks. I just wanted to see the ghost.”

“Ghost?” The manager stopped. “What ghost?”

“The ghost of the 109. And the deputy.”

“What the hell you talkin’ ‘bout?”

Ray composed his sniffles. “The 109 sir, the last locomotive made by the MLC. Tonight, the 109 is supposed to return to make its final run again. Onboard is the crazy adventurer A.O. Welton and the deaf orphan boy. The deputy is said to wander around the factory until it appears. He seeks revenge for bein’ burned alive. It’s a legend.”

The manager laughed boisterously. Outside, Percy had ran to the side of the building, and stood on a pile of pallets as he peered through an open window.

“Ghosts? Ghosts? There ain’t no ghost ‘round here boy! You goddamn kids.” He trailed off. Raymond looked up to see Percy’s brow looking down. He made a face for him to go away. Ray straightened his posture and raised his nose.

“Only ghost ‘round here is me, kid. I’ma ghost. Come in, clock in, work, go home, drink, sleep, come in, clock in, work. I’ma ghost. Sorry, pal, you’re outta the job. Why’nt you stick around and clean up and count everything for us, too? I’m the ghost! Work every day for what?” The manager was sitting on the floor in front of Ray. He held a nearly empty bottle of Haig Gold Label whisky.

“Please sir, I didn’t mean any harm.”

“Cram it!” He stood and pulled down the last finger of whisky into his stomach. “Didn’t your father ever teach you right!” he screamed and smashed the bottle on the ground by their feet. “Didn’t he? My father taught me a lesson or two, that’s for sure. Taught me with this!” He hastily undid the belt around Ray’s chest and folded into a loop. “If I got outta line,” he brought the belt to a loud snap across Ray’s forearm. “That’s what your father shoulda done to you!” Again he snapped his forearm. The snap resonated through the empty factory. Ray could see Percy ducking his head, not wanting to see.

Ray looked the manager in the face, without flinching. “My father is dead, sir.”

The manager stopped. His eyes danced up and down. His back hunched over like an old baboon. He breathed heavy, as though each breath was a struggle. Ray could see in the manager’s eyes that he wasn’t done. That he wanted to beat him unconscious. He hoped the boys would tell an adult about him, but he knew they wouldn’t. And Percy couldn’t do much except get beat too. He knew his situation was hopeless, unless he could outrun the manager. He stood from the chair.

“I’m gonna leave now, sir.” He said

“Like hell.” The manager said. “You sit right back down and take what’s more you got comin’ to ya.”

“NO!” Percy yelled through the window.

The manager looked over. “The little one stayed behind for ya?” He turned to go outside and after Percy, when Ray jumped on his back and desperately stuck a thumb in the manager’s eyeball. He threw Ray to the ground. The manager held his eye with one hand and wildly swung the belt like a whip with the other. Percy ran in and yelled, “Leave him alone!”

“Percy, run!” Ray yelled.

The manager dropped the belt. From his side pocket he removed a silver .22 caliber revolver. He shot a bullet into the ceiling.

“You basterd shits just stay where you are. Goddammit. Stay put.”

The hunched manager breathed heavily and pointed the gun loosely at the boys. “Now I was gonna use this on me, but turns out you boys couldn’t leave well enough alone. Jus’ sit down where ya are.”

In that moment, as Percy huddled next to Ray, a soft bell chime resonated throughout the factory. It was steady and distant, but undoubtedly near the factory.

“What’s that?” The manager said. “What are you boys up to?”

“Nothing sir, just please put the gun down.”

“Shut up. What is that? Sounds like a bell.”

In the next moment a locomotive steam whistle blew loud and long. It blew so loud that in knocked down the manager and he dropped the revolver. It was if the steam whistle was on top of him. Ray and Percy closed their eyes and bent their heads. The steam whistle was unrelenting. Ray seized the moment to grab Percy and run out of the factory.

“Just run,” he yelled at Percy in the parking lot. Over the steam whistle’s cry he stopped and yelled, “I’ll catch up.”

Ray ran back inside the factory to find the manager crawling along the floor as if he were being held down and beaten. Ray picked up the revolver and looked at the manager again.

“It’s for your own good, sir.” He yelled and ran out with the gun.

The steam whistle stopped, as the manager yelled, “You sonofabitch! Bring me back my gun!” The steam whistle cried again, louder it seemed to Ray. He heard the manager wail in pain. To his left, as he ran from the factory, the 109 sat on the tracks. An iron-black and unscathed brand new locomotive. Bits of grey steam spurted out in small exasperations. The orphan jumped from the cab; he held a shovel against his shoulder. The deputy walked around from the back of the tender car and beat a truncheon against his hand. He gave a look toward Raymond and winked. They walked into the factory. The eccentric adventurer crackled out a wretched, absurd laugh and pulled down on the steam whistle cord to let out a long, tremendous howl.

As Ray turned and ran the distance to his bicycle, a smile broke across his face.

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