• Tove Foss Ford

A Postcard from Mordania - The Shadows Years

Updated: May 27, 2020

Railroad Men

“There, I told you, Inchworm,” Hemmett said boastfully as he and Borsen pushed through the bushes around The Shadows Halt. They took a quick look in the office window.

The small building was empty. The boys grinned at each other and then advanced on their quarry – a two man hand car that a railroad work crew had left at the halt the day before.

“We can drive this up and down?” Borsen asked delightedly as Hemmett lifted him onto the platform with ease, climbing right up after him.

“That’s right! We pump these handles and it goes right along. I watched them for a couple of hours from the roof during my shift,” Hemmett replied proudly. It was the first summer he had taken a regular guard shift during his school break from the Military Academy. He carried out this adult duty with all the pride a fifteen-year-old could muster, continually surveying the countryside with binoculars and telescopes. The peaceful surroundings had been made far more interesting with the arrival of the hand car and its occupants, who caught a train south after leaving the hand car on the siding.

“Why did they leave it?” Borsen queried, tugging downward on the handle that drove the car. He could move it slightly. He was still tiny, not much bigger than a nine-year-old, though he thought he might be thirteen.

“I guess another crew will be coming in on the northbound train to take it in a day or two,” Hemmett answered. “It looked like it took a little muscle to get it going, but then it builds up speed and you just keep the pump moving.”

He grasped the handle on his side of the pump mechanism and pushed down, almost lifting Borsen off his feet. The car began moving northward along the siding. It took a few moments for them to figure out how to make it reverse direction – then they pumped it up and down the siding a few times.

“I wish we could take it out along the track,” Borsen said excitedly. “This is fun.”

“It can move right along,” Hemmett remarked. “The men who brought it here got it up to a good clip.”

“Is a train due through here today?” Borsen looked longingly at the main track.

“Not until day after tomorrow, the regular service from the south.”

“I know how to throw the switch. I’ve watched the railroad men do it lots of times,” Borsen said slowly. “We could really get it going fast.”

Hemmett pondered.

“Inchworm, if Menders ever saw us, he’d lock us in the strongroom for the rest of our lives,” he replied, feeling a giddy excitement rising in his chest. The idea of gliding up the railroad line was tantalizing.

“He’s busy up at Spaltz’s Farm, helping with the bookkeeping,” Borsen tempted.

“Kaymar would see us. You know he would. I’d rather face Menders.”

Borsen sighed.

“So, we’ll just go back and forth like little old ladies.”

They made three more circuits of the siding, getting accustomed to the mechanism, growing confident in their handling of the vehicle.

“We could go to Erdstrom,” Borsen said suddenly. “I bet we could get this going fast enough to be there in no time.”

“That’d be a tale to tell,” Hemmett laughed. Images of amazing everyone with the story made a wild impulse rise in his chest.

“Jump down there and throw the switch!” he said excitedly. “We’ll go fast – they’re about to switch out watches on the roof, it’s just the time to head up the line for a spin.”

Borsen did as he was bid, expertly pulling the levers to allow the handcar out onto the main railway line. Hemmett pumped the handle and it was done.

Borsen threw the switch back to its original position and grasped Hemmett’s hand for a boost back onto the handcar. He took his place at one handle and they began pumping, gaining speed rapidly, heading north.

The handcar moved along on oiled wheels and once they had it up to speed, the pumping was easy, a matter of keeping the momentum. They laughed about how they must look, bowing alternately to each other, Borsen having to reach high to hold the handle at the highest point of its arc. Hemmett had to bow low from his height of nearly seven feet when his handle dipped to its nadir.

Hemmett began singing a humorous military cadence of his own devising – quite vulgar and suggestive. Borsen chimed in immediately, very familiar with all his friend’s rollicking rhymes. It helped them keep time as they bowed their way beyond the borders of The Shadows and into the wooded area north of the estate. Soon they glided across the bridge by the waterfall where a mountain stream tumbled toward the river west of the track.

“I remember when Menders took Katrin up to that little fair that sets up north of here every year. She’d never seen the waterfall or been up this way then, she was just a little girl. She talked about that waterfall for days. We tried to build one out at the stream in the woods, but it would always wash away,” Hemmett reminisced.

“Too bad she couldn’t come with us today,” Borsen grinned, elated by their escapade and the idea of coming back with the tale of going to Erdstrom on this funny little car.

“I don’t want my hide tacked up on the barn wall to dry and that is what Menders would do to me,” Hemmett haw-hawed. Borsen laughed with him.

They sailed past a small village, catching the attention of some children who ran alongside. A man who was hanging a mailbag up for the next train blinked as he saw them – then started to shout.

“Oy! You young rascals! What the hells are you doing with that handcar!”

Hemmett saluted formally while Borsen giggled himself silly. They went along, pumping evenly, until the hand car rounded a bend and the village was out of sight.

Another half hour led to them running out of things to say and songs to sing. Hemmett’s hands were beginning to ache and he thought about stopping for a while. Borsen had become very quiet, though he pumped his handle manfully.

“We could take a breather, Inchworm,” Hemmett suggested.

“How close do you think we are?” Borsen asked.

“We’re still a ways from it,” Hemmett answered. “Let’s have a break. No point in getting worn out so we can’t enjoy it when we get there.”

Borsen nodded and Hemmett slowed their pace until the hand car coasted to a stop. Only then did Borsen release the handle. He rapidly put his hands in his pockets and looked around, smiling as if he was enjoying the view.

Hemmett was glad for a breather. He was extremely strong and his two years in the Military Academy had seen him develop the body of a man, strongly muscled and powerful. Still, the steady pumping had begun to take a toll. Good to let the muscles rest.

“Want to get down and walk around, stretch your legs?” he asked Borsen.

“No, I think I’ll just sit for a while,” Borsen replied. He sank down on the floorboards of the handcar, letting his legs dangle over the side. They didn’t quite touch the ground.

Hemmett sauntered along the railroad bed, looking around at the rolling, wooded landscape, feeling his energy returning. He was so fit that he seldom stayed weary for long. He took several deep breaths and turned back toward the handcar.

His spine jolted as he caught Borsen off guard. His friend was deathly pale, studying the palms of his hands. Hemmett looked quickly – they were deep red and blistering. Borsen looked up and Hemmett saw he was perspiring, his forehead beaded with sweat.

“Inchworm! Why didn’t you tell me your hands were blistering?” he gasped, rushing back to the hand car. Automatically he slapped at his jacket pocket, then remembered he wasn’t in uniform, where he always had an extra pair of clean gloves. Dirty gloves were worth quite a few demerits.

“I didn’t quite realize,” Borsen said softly. “I was excited and then my hands were numb. How much further, do you think?”

The little fellow tried to smile and Hemmett felt his heart twist in his chest.

Stupid! he screamed inside his head. Fool!

It was easy to forget how small and fragile Borsen was. He was brave – and bold. He never complained, even when he was tired. He pushed his tiny body to its limits all the time. He exercised with Menders’ Men, worked as long and hard as Menders and was always ready for an adventure. He knocked himself out working on a garden he had back in the woods.

But the reality of it was that Borsen was as small as a child due to malnutrition, and was frail. And Hemmett, being an ass, had gotten him very far from home on a fool’s errand. Erdstrom was fifty miles from The Shadows. It took no time to get there on a train – but this little hand car wasn’t a train!

“Gods, Borsen, I’m sorry,” Hemmett groaned, pulling out his clean handkerchiefs and using them to wrap Borsen’s injured hands. He didn’t even have water to wet the impromptu bandages. Fool!

“I’m the one who had the big idea, don’t start thumping yourself around,” Borsen said abruptly. “Let me rest another minute and then we’d better start back home.”

“I’ll pump, you just sit tight,” Hemmett replied, climbing aboard and going through the maneuvers to reverse the direction of the handcar. He half expected Borsen to refuse and try to pump too, but the younger boy stayed seated on the floorboards, closing his eyes.

It was harder going back – much harder. Only then did Hemmett remember that the rails were gradually going downhill when they were moving north. The Shadows was much higher than the city of Erdstrom, so it had been a downhill glide all the way. Now he was pumping against an incline. It was no lark. After fifteen minutes, his arms and shoulders were burning with effort.

After twenty minutes, Borsen stood and put his hands on the other pump handle. He kept pace with Hemmett, his face showing the strain of pumping against the slight uphill grade. It looked like nothing – until you were trying to make this hand car scale it.

Hemmett was nearly ready to give up when they drew up near the village where the children had run alongside them while the man with the mailbag scolded – a mailbag!

Hemmett’s heart began to pound with fear. There was no scheduled train for two days, but a special could come through at any time. Sometimes when the postmasters in places got wind of a special coming along, they would put out a mailbag to be snagged as the train roared past. He hadn’t thought of specials when they started out, all cocksure.

He hadn’t thought about the fact that there was only one rail line. If a special came along at top speed, that meant the hand car didn’t have a chance. He could jump clear with Borsen, yes. They would live – but that hand car was big enough to make a speeding train derail. A derailment could kill everyone on a train – and specials usually traveled at top speed.

Hemmett began pumping faster. Borsen paled at the pain in his hands, but used every bit of grit he had to keep pace. Even though it was a summer day, when the sun hardly set at all, the shadows were growing longer. It was late in the evening and the return trip was going at half the pace of the journey away from The Shadows.

Hemmett said nothing about the possibility of a special to Borsen, who was breathing heavily and sweating profusely as he gripped the handle. The grade was definitely rising now. Hemmett’s arm and shoulder muscles were screaming, but he picked up the pace a little more.

Borsen couldn’t keep pace. He gasped and dropped the handle, then crouched on the floorboards. Hemmett saw that his bandages were red with blood.

“Stay there,” he panted. “I can manage.”

How, he didn’t know. All he could do was to keep pumping the handle up and down, drawing on every moment of exercise and conditioning he’d done, forcing his muscles beyond their limit. He didn’t dare stop, the image of the man hanging out a mailbag hours earlier strong in his mind’s eye.

Hemmett felt the blisters rising on his own hands, despite their being hardened by hours of using the Military Academy’s obstacle course, where ropes and splintery wooden barriers figured prominently. He closed his mind to the pain and exhaustion and kept pushing the handle up and down.

Borsen rose after some minutes and took hold of the handle again. Hemmett could have wept with relief as his friend’s efforts eased his muscles slightly. Borsen breathed in strict rhythm with his motions, a trick Kaymar had taught him. Hemmett listened to the measured intake and release of breath and matched it. It helped.

The panic and chaos cleared from his mind and he focused only on raising and lowering the pump handle, banishing all thought of specials and derailments from his mind, ignoring the pain as his blisters burst and the handle grew wet under his palms.

There was relief again as the grade grew level near The Shadows. Hemmett was able to quicken their pace slightly. Borsen somehow kept up, his eyes closed as he put everything he could into keeping up with Hemmett. Their breath began to come more easily.

The Shadows Halt was in sight. So was Menders, standing on the platform, and Kaymar, standing by the switch.

“Oh gods,” Hemmett moaned under his breath. Borsen said nothing.

“I’ll finish,” Hemmett offered, but Borsen shook his head, clinging to the handle, pumping away. Hemmett had no idea how he was doing it. He’d long since lost any sense of his own arms and hands and he was much stronger than Borsen.

Menders stared at them every second, which was bad enough. What was worse was the way Kaymar glared as they pumped the hand car off the main line and onto the siding.

Hemmett felt an enormous burden fall from his shoulders once the hand car was out of the way of any possible train speeding along. They stopped. He slowly opened his clenched hands. He forced himself to stand upright, an agony after having been bent over for so long.

Borsen released the handle and did the same. His face was bone white with exhaustion.

“Come on, Inchworm,” Hemmett said gently, stepping down from the handcar like an old, old man, then turning his back to Borsen. “I’ll give you a ride home.”

Normally Borsen would protest, but he simply clung to Hemmett’s back like a monkey, his head down on Hemmett’s shoulder. Menders jumped down from the platform and looked at one of Borsen’s hands, then stared at Hemmett.

“I’m taking him home,” Hemmett said wearily. “You can kill me later.”

Menders closed his eyes and then shook his head, chuckling ever so slightly, though he still looked angry. Then, to the surprise of both boys, he kissed each of them on the forehead.

“Get on home,” he said, turning away toward Kaymar.

Hemmett began trudging down the road toward The Shadows. Sweat was running down his back and he felt as if each foot weighed fifty pounds.

He looked back, wishing Menders and Kaymar would come and take Borsen from him – but he knew they wouldn’t. He didn’t see them for a moment – then he did.

“I’ll be… damn them!”

Borsen looked up over Hemmett’s shoulder. He swore, expertly, hearkening back to his days as a City Thrun child.

Menders and Kaymar were piloting the handcar back and forth on the siding, arguing companionably and laughing. They looked like schoolboys – like the two who had gone on a much longer journey today and somehow came home again.

Suddenly Hemmett laughed.

“Inchworm, we’re alive, a special didn’t come along and flatten us or crash because it hit that hand car and we’re not going to be killed by Menders. Let’s have a cadence to get home by.”

He began marching, his long legs eating up the road toward home, bellowing one of his absurd cadences about being the best marching man in Mordania.

On his back, exhausted, sweaty and bleeding, Borsen joined in.

They went into the house, to relieved scolding from Eiren and Hemmett’s parents, gentle swabbing of their wounds and teasing from Doctor Franz, commiseration and sympathy from Katrin, hot dinners and hot water bottles that eased their stomachs and their aching muscles. Early bedtime was welcome, though pain kept Hemmett wakeful.

The long twilight was purpling the sky when his bedroom door opened silently and Menders stepped in, two bottles and a spoon in hand.

“How are you feeling, son?” he asked gently, sitting on the edge of the bed.

“Sore. Stupid,” Hemmett replied.

Menders shook his head.

“Borsen told me it was his idea,” he replied.

Hemmett wasn’t going to accept that.

“I’m older and more experienced. I knew in my mind that Erdstrom is fifty miles away, even if it seemed like it would be nothing. It was foolish and risky. I didn’t remember that Borsen isn’t my size and strong – and Menders, he was a trooper. He kept going even though he dropped a couple of times. I never told him I was afraid a special would come along. I saw a man hanging out a mailbag up at a village north of here…”

“I thought of that too. It sounds like you’ve already learned everything I would have talked to you about, so we’ll spare ourselves. Don’t be too self critical – we’ve all done something ridiculous at one time or another during our youth,” Menders said wryly. “Here, have a dose of ramplane – you’ll never sleep otherwise. I brought some of the liniment Doctor Franz turns his nose up at too, so once you swallow the ramplane, turn over and we’ll get you feeling better.”

Hemmett gulped down the pain-relieving medicine and turned so Menders could rub the liniment into his screaming shoulders and arms.

“Will Borsen be all right?” he asked, feeling the ramplane working.

“He’ll be fine. Sound asleep,” Menders replied.

“Did you and Kaymar have fun playing with the handcar?” This question was slurred. He was falling asleep.

“We did. Had quite an argument over whether to try to make it to Rondstein or not,” Menders replied.

Hemmett smiled and let sleep wash over him.

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