Saturday, 7 April 2018

The Specter at Serpent’s Cut

The Specter at Serpent’s Cut
By Frank L. Packard
Author of The Blood of Kings”Spitzer,” Etc.
From The Popular Magazine October 1911, No. 6, Vol. 21.
Digitized for Stillwoods.Blogspot.Ca by Doug Frizzle April 2018.
Our research has so far not attached this story to any of Frank Packard’s books /drf.

The “spook doctor” drops into Big Cloud and adds one more topic for the expatiation of the talkative railroad man, Matthew Agamemnon. He is still a talker, but the occult is taboo. There’s a reason.

SUMMED up short, the Hill Division is a vicious piece of track; also, it is a classic in its profound contempt for the stereotyped equations and formulas of engineering. And it is that way for the very simple reason that it could not be any other way. The mountains objected, and objected strenuously, to the process of manhandling. They were there first, the mountains, that was all, and their surrender was a bitter matter.
So, from Big Cloud, the divisional point, at the eastern fringe of the Rockies, to where the foothills of the Sierras on the western side merge with the more open, rolling country, the right of way performs gyrations that would not shame an acrobatic star. It sweeps through the rifts in the range like a freed bird from the open door of its cage, clings to cañon edges where a hissing stream bubbles and boils eighteen hundred feet below, burrows its way into the heart of things in long tunnels and short ones, circles a projecting spur in a dizzy whirl, and shoots from the higher to the lower levels in grades whose percentages the passenger department does not deem it policy to specify in its advertising literature, but before which the men in the cabs and the cabooses shut their teeth and try hard to remember the prayers they learned at their mothers’ knees.
Some parts of it are worse than others naturally; but no part of it, to the last inch of its mileage, is pretty—leaving out the scenery, which is grand.
And what with cuts and fills and borings and trestles and bridges, in an effort to unsnarl a few knots in the tangle, the company has been tinkering with it pretty well ever since the last spike was sent home and the small army of consulting scientists, with a flourish of trumpets, bowed gracefully to the managing director of the Transcontinental —and withdrew to seek other worlds to conquer. However—
This is Terhune’s story; and it goes back to the time when “Royal” Carleton was superintendent and Tommy Regan, big-hearted as he was gruff, was master mechanic. Terhune was an engineer. His full name was Matthew Agamem­non Terhune—the only excuse for which seems to have been that his parents were possessed of a sense of euphony, or one of them, maybe, a first-grammar education in Greek.
Anyway, Terhune was dutifully appreciative—he signed in full.
Clarihue, the turner, swore at him at first for usurping more than the allotted space ruled off on the grease-smeared pages of the book in the roundhouse that recorded the goings and comings of the engine crews; but eventually he became wise enough to content himself with a snort of disgust amplified by a spurt of black-strap juice pitward. Terhune, given an opportunity, would argue that, or any other matter under the sun, with a calm and dispassionate flow of words that had Tennyson’s brook for continuity beaten seven ways for Sunday.
“Matthew Aggie-mem-gong Terhune!” choked Clarihue. “The fathead wind bag!”
Regan put it a little differently.
“Talk!” said the master mechanic. “Talk! The man’s a debating society, that’s what he is. He’ll talk when he’s dead. I don’t know what kind of springs he’s got on his tongue. I wish I did. I’d equip the motive power department with them. What?”
The division, however, being generally in a hurry, called him plain “Matt.”
With the exception of Clarihue, perhaps, no one ever got mad at Terhune. If it is true that obesity is a sign of good nature, Terhune is simply a case in point. He exuded it from every pore of his fat, dumpy body; and he dispensed it alike on the just and on the unjust.
Certainly, the man was more or less of a consummate ass; but any inclination to kick him on that score vanished with one glance at his great babyish moon face, with its two little, round blue eyes that stared out from under a straggling collection of sandy hairs, which fringed, much after the fashion of a monk’s tonsure, an otherwise bald and shiny head. After that glance it was all off. There was no getting mad at Matt.
Professionally, Terhune was all right as far as he went. Nothing startling, nothing out of the way—not even a regular run. Regan used him as a sort of ever-ready substitute for anything that might turn up. And, as far as Matthew Agamemnon Terhune was concerned, it appeared to be all one to him. Switch­ing, yard work, local freight, double heading, anything—he took it as it came, complacently, good-naturedly. So that it did not bar him from talking, he was happy.
He could talk in a cab; and there, perforce, he had an audience. The fireman had his choice between being the target for Matt’s views and theories on an astounding range of subjects—or jumping! From the Alaskan Boundary Question to the Fresh Air Movement Matt was posted—and, if not profoundly posted, his ideas, at least, had the merit of being original.
Now all of the above is, on the face of it, extraneous to the fact that, during a winter of pretty heavy running, the Serpent’s Cut had netted an appalling number of disasters, even for that bedeviled piece of construction that never under any circumstances was known to behave itself for better than a month at a stretch; but, extraneous as it may appear, it had, for all that, a very direct bearing on Matthew Agamemnon and his propensity for argument and talk.
However, in any event, the driven-to-desperation directors down East, when they got the cold figures that totaled up the claims and represented the amount of rolling stock reposing on the scrap heap from six months’ running in the Serpent’s Cut, voted, though they bit their lips when they did it, some sweeping and extensive alterations on that particular stretch of track. And when the plans came out in the spring, they called for a new bridge across the Muskrat River at the foot of the grade, and a rock cut from the mouth of Number One Tunnel to straighten the bridge approach.
It was a big piece of work—about the biggest the company had ever undertaken; everybody realized that. So, once the improvements were decided upon, they went at it with a rush; and the lower slopes and stretches of the mountains were just beginning to shed their winter coats, when a brigade of engineers, bridgemen, foremen, Polacks, Swedes, Russians, and what not moved into construction camp on the banks of the Muskrat.
Then the bridge material and the thousand and one other odds and ends of supplies began to pour into the Big Cloud yards—it was all out from the East then—and there followed, in the natural order of things, a daily-work special to the camp. Regan gave it to Terhune, of course; and gave him, besides, the various engines as they came out of the shops to break in after their overhauling. Also he gave him as fireman young Charlie Spence, brother, by the way, of the chief dispatcher.
Take it all around, it was an incongruous-looking outfit that Matt pulled out of the yards those days. Generally a big ten-wheeler, spick and span, glistening in fresh paint, with Terhune obliterating the cab window and bounc­ing up and down on his seat like a cheerful rubber ball; and little Spence, who had never run anything but “spare” be­fore, expanding his chest in the gangway fit to bust the buttons off his un­dershirt; while trailing behind, slewing, rattling, bumping, came a hybrid conglomeration of gondolas, reversible gravel dumps, flats groaning under blocked and shored-up steel bridge girders; maybe a box car here and there, by way of picturesqueness; and, to wind things up, on the tail end, a caboose that was out of the ark, and not much bigger than a baby carriage. That was Work Special 117 west, 118 east.
So, west to the Muskrat in the morning, lugging back the empties at night, became, for the time being, Terhune’s run—and it suited him as no job had ever suited him before. Except for the trip to the water tank and turntable at Beaver Tail, two miles west of the camp, he had the day pretty much to himself; and there were new men on the work, men he did not know. Or, perhaps, to put the matter in a truer perspective, men who did not know Matthew Agamemnon Terhune—for the engineer corps, like the material, came out from the East.
Matt buttonholed Ferguson, the chief, on the first morning, and opened on him with the Newfoundland Fisheries Dispute.
Ferguson, who was a receptive Scot, lifted his scraggy eyebrows and rose to the bait—Terhune’s introduction invariably carried a glimmer of sense; but, being busy at the moment, he invited Terhune to dinner to hear the rest of it; where incidentally he introduced his staff, which consisted of a couple of sea­soned assistants and another couple of embryonic engineers, whose names, plus a small edition of the alphabet recently forged on by a fond and trusting Alma Mater, were Podger and Clark.
It wasn’t an expensive invitation from the viewpoint of the exchequer of the engineers’ mess—Terhune was too busy to eat—and for about a week Matt had a standing invitation; but after that, whether some one tipped the Scotchman off, or the combined galaxy of mathematical talent got the answer for themselves, Terhune’s midday repast consisted of what he fished out of his own dinner pail.
Terhune might have been a little puzzled at this change of front; but certainly he was not abashed. Nothing, so far, in all of Matthew Agamemnon Terhune’s forty-three years of life had ever abashed him. Furthermore, if the construction engineers’ mess renounced him as an organization, certain units of it did not; for, while the canny Scotchman and his two assistants politely and unostentatiously avoided Matthew, the guileless and demure Podger and Clark continued to hang, and to all appearances to hang breathlessly, upon the words that fell from the engineer’s lips.
Things went on this way for some two weeks; and then suddenly, coincident with the advent to Big Cloud of one Senorita Vera Cabello, the Alaskan Boundary Question, the Fresh Air Movement, the Newfoundland Fisheries Dispute, and all other subjects of character, scope, and vital import similar, were blown away, as fluff is blown before a gale of wind, in the face of a new and weightier matter for research and discussion. That is, it was new, and therefore weightier to Terhune.
Regan, with ungracious bluntness, called her a “spook doctor”—but the master mechanic was always blunt. Miss Cabello—pardon, Senorita Vera Cabello, in her advertisements in the Big Cloud Weekly World’s Era, announced herself as a “seeress renowned on two hemispheres,” and followed with a modest compilation of her qualifica­tions and attainments.
She was the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter—of course. Under the great teacher Yagagama, she had studied the mystic laws of crystal gazing in the far Orient. At her command were, not one, but two familiars of the dread other world, with whom she was in constant communion for the benefit of those who consulted her; and further, by special arrangement and appointment —for which there was an extra fee— she would, for a brief space, recall the ethereal forms of any dear departed on request—always provided that the “rapport,” whatever that meant, was propitious and favorable, a risk to which the client subscribed in his accompanied-by-the-fee application for the seance.
The Senorita Cabello was clever— whatever else might be said of her, let that be understood. She gave a free public performance in the fire hall on the night of her arrival. Terhune attended this—and was impressed. There was a black cabinet on the stage and black hangings and misty, white shapes moving about, potent tributes to the senorita’s powers. Terhune bulked large in a front chair, his moon face puckered, his little, round eyes like pin points, as he stared into the Egyptian blackness in front of him.
For a wonder he didn’t say much that night; but the next night he presented himself at the senorita’s apartments, which she had meanwhile opened over Dinkelman’s clothing emporium on Main Street.
There wasn’t any silly business about it as far as the engineer was concerned; that is, there wasn’t any glamour of feminine charms exerting any undue influence upon him—the senorita was neither comely nor in the flower of her youth. Brought down to a simple equation, the idea of the occult and its mysteries caught Matthew Agamemnon hard; and the latter part of the senorita’s advertisement caught him harder.
Terhune had never forgiven his twin brother Sime for the inopportune and fatal attack of heart failure, some five years previous, with which the defunct had so arbitrarily terminated, at its most crucial moment, the argument upon which they had been engaged at the time. He most earnestly desired to converse with Sime.
The senorita agreed. It took her a few seconds to get the line clear and warm up to her work; but, inside of three minutes by the watch, she was writhing around on the floor like a serpent stung by bees, choking and squeal­ing and foaming at the mouth.
Terhune had seen a cat in a fit once; and there was one thing about him that was common to every engineer on the Hill Division—which was to act promptly in an emergency. There was a pitcher of water on the table. Terhune seized it, and heaved the contents violently into her face.
The stiffening limbs relaxed with amazing mobility, and the Senorita Vera Cabello sat up with surprising suddenness. What she said is not recorded, because Terhune didn’t quite get the rights of it himself; but when he left, he carried with him a sort of hazy realization that he had only himself to blame for sidetracking the “rapport” with Sime—and just at the psychological instant when it was about to be consummated, too.
Therefore, he tried it again the following evening. This time he sternly refrained from even a thought of the water pitcher—which incidentally had been removed—but Sime, perhaps because he had got close enough to witness the proceedings of the night before, seemed a little diffident about taking a chance on getting mixed up with the turmoil and strife of things terrestrial. Sime did not appear; but Mat­thew was still optimistic.
Blow much of the engineer’s last pay check, in a very brief interval of time, became the property of Senorita Vera Cabello is a personal matter, and Terhune’s own business. Terhune never said. If Sime was stubborn, so was Matthew Agamemnon. Being twins, it was natural; but let that go.
And the senorita was clever. Pend­ing connections with Sime, she fascinated Matthew by initiating him into the first degree of the mysteries of the Beyond—and hinted at much more. She spoke in a far-away voice of dwellers within the first and second and third spheres, wise counselors and mentors to mankind; of apparitions, wraiths, and specters, who appeared to mortals when something of dire moment was impending. But—the world was blind and gross and crass—few, very few, could see or understand. It was necessary to be attuned, to be sensitive.
“Zar are many t’ings in heaven an’ earth—” she quoted; and sold Matthew Agamemnon a little literature on the subject.
At first, Terhune, like a man feeling his way on a new run, and wary of getting his signals mixed, confined his reflections on this now all-engrossing matter to young Spence, his fireman.
Spence listened incredulously.
“I dunno what you mean,” said he, “ ‘bout visitations from the other world an’ appuritshuns an’ wreaths an’ that sort; but if it’s ghosts you’re drivin’ at, I don’t take no stock in ’em. Never saw one; did you?”
This was the challenge direct. Terhune blinked his little eyes fast, and proceeded to get his hand, or, rather, his tongue, in on Spence—and scored cleanly. Spence, on the evening run back that night, took to dodging, between shovelfuls, the shadows of the telegraph poles as they flitted across the gangway; and, as Work Special 118 pulled into the Big Cloud yards, he confessed to a “creepy, cricidy feelin’ up an’ down his spine.”
With this victory as a credential of proficiency, Terhune opened fire the following day on the construction camp. And on that day, and for some ensuing ones, he bombarded it pitilessly. He caught Ferguson on the narrow ledge of an excavation where the chief couldn’t get away. He cornered the assistants more than once. He labored patiently with excitable Russians, staring Swedes, and half-witted Polacks, whose knowledge of English was summed up in the few choice and polite phrases with which they were accustomed to be addressed by their lords and masters, the road bosses and foremen. He talked to everybody; and no man, except perhaps Sime, who was dead, could pace Matthew Agamemnon on talk.
But of all his audience, Podger and Clark alone were solicitious and sympathetic. At the start, like Spence, they asked him if he had ever seen a ghost himself. Matthew regretted that he had not; but, in lieu of personal testimony, offered an imposing array of authentic statistics, which he now had at his fingers’ ends, of people who had.
Clark was unquestionably impressed. So was Podger. But their conversion was a lower and more stubborn matter than Spence’s. They yielded a point here and there from time to time, as men whose convictions are reluctantly overridden; but it was several days before they made a full and unconditional surrender.
However, if it took longer than it did with Spence, once converted, having been trained in a mathematical school of hard fact, their conversion was not the passive conversion of the fireman. Instead, it was practical, and—but the red is against us, and we’ll have to slow up till we get the track.
To-day, now that Ferguson has built his bridge and gouged his cut through the mountain walls, you can see the mouth of Number One Tunnel staring at you like a little black eye up the grade all the way from the bridge; but you couldn’t then, for the right of way swept out of the tunnel into a long half-mile curve close up against the bare gray rock of the mountainside following the river bend; and, still curving at the bottom, where it crossed the Muskrat, hit the old wooden trestle on the tangent.
This didn’t leave much room for a siding anywhere; but, what with Terhune and his dump carts and the work in general, a siding there had to be from the first, so they tapped the main line as far up as they could squeeze in, paralleled it down to the trestle, and left the last two rails bent up and sticking out over the water, with the river for a bumper.
About the only rights Terhune and his Work Special had were this same Muskrat siding and the three-mile stretch from there to Blazer, the first station east of the camp; the latter be­cause, once Matt had pulled out, he was in the clear, with nothing on earth to reach him till the operator at Blazer could wave a tissue in his face.
So, also, because there was quiet in the Serpent’s Cut and a lull in the traffic for an hour or so around six o’clock, Terhune was scheduled to leave the Muskrat at six-fifteen each night and run to Blazer for orders. After that, if he wasn’t laid out more than two or three times by the wayside, he would eventually make the Big Cloud yards by eight or eight-thirty—in time to keep a one-sided appointment with his tantalizingly elusive relation, and imbibe mystic lore from the senorita, after her customary earnest, if unproductive, fit was at an end.
Matthew Agamemnon Terhune had become a busy man, take it all round; for the more he listened to the senorita on subjects touching the dread familiars across the Styx, the firmer became his belief and the stronger grew his desire to enlighten the unenlightened—so the harder he talked.
And possibly there is a moral here. Certainly no one ever had a less fertile soil for the sowing of seed than was the field wherein Matthew Agamemnon labored; and yet, to-day, the first canon in the creed of the Hill Division, bar no man among them, not even the pick-swinging Russians and Swedes and Polacks, is ghosts.
It simply goes to show what sincerity and unbounded perseverance will do; for, on the Friday night when Terhune pulled out from the Muskrat siding, a week after Senorita Vera Cabello’s arrival at Big Cloud, the only disciples he had were young Spence, his fireman, and those two learned bachelors of science, Clark and Podger.
In the first flush of spring the days are still short, and it had already shut down pretty black when Terhune, on the dot of six-fifteen, moved up the siding and cautiously negotiated the mainline switch for the bumping, groaning, rattling string that trailed behind him.
You can come down the stretch from the tunnel to the trestle at a fairly stiff clip, for the arc of the curve is wide; but going up is quite another matter, with a trifle better than a four-per-cent grade to climb. Terhune had a heavier load than usual that night; and his pace was little faster than a man’s walk as he crawled up for the tunnel’s mouth, his engine entering her protest in long, hoarse, growling barks from her exhaust, and coughing a hemorrhage of sparks and red-hot cinders from her stack.
There wasn’t much of the right of way in sight, for the beam of the electric headlight, with the curve of the track, just cut the left-hand rail a few yards ahead, and then shot away like a truant child to play among the trees and foliage of the Muskrat Valley that was opening up below. The effect of this might have been pretty, but it did not appeal to Terhune—he had seen it before; and, besides, he had other things on his mind. So, by the time they were well up to the tunnel, having got snugly and comfortably settled on his seat, he cast, after a professional glance at his gauges, an introspective eye across the cab at Spence,
“There’s none so blind,” said he, with originality, “as them as won’t see. There’s hundreds and hundreds of cases with evidence enough to back ‘em up that no one with any sense could turn down. Now take that drummer ghost somewheres over in Scotland that always plays his drum as a warning when one of the family’s going to die. No one disputes that, do they? Well, then, how about that?”
“I think they’re horrid things,” said young Spence uncomfortably.
“I don’t say they’re not,” admitted Terhune, wagging his head sapiently. “I don’t say they’re not, but— What’s that!” The words burst from his lips in a dull, frozen gasp of terror, followed on the instant by a wild, incoherent yell from the fireman.
With a lurch as it struck the straight, and the roar of the deep-toned exhaust swelling into a thousand thunders that reverberated hollow and cavernous from the vaulted roof, the big ten-wheeled mogul had shoved her nose into the round, inky black mouth of the tunnel; and the headlight, wavering back to its duty, was throwing its beam far into the opening. And there, where the shaft of light focused ahead upon the rails, was a sight that made Terhune’s blood run cold.
Full in the right of way, facing the train, one hand upheld, as though in warning, the light shimmering through his ghostly body onto the rail beyond, stood the white, shadowy specter figure of a man.
Great clammy beads of perspiration sprang to Terhune’s forehead, his fat, florid cheeks paled to ivory, and the fringe of hair around his head seemed to rise up until it stood out straight and stiff; then, working like a madman, he jammed in the throttle, applied the “air,” shot the reversing lever over the full segment into the last notch, whipped the throttle wide open again, released the “air,” and, for all the world like huge pinwheels, the sparks flying from the tires, the drivers began to race backward.
No train before or since on the Hill Division ever came to as abrupt a stop as did Work Special 118 east on that night. The jerk threw Spence halfway up the coal on the tender; and Terhune spit blood from loosened teeth for a week afterward. With any initial speed, the flats and the gravel dumps and the box cars would have telescoped them­selves to splinters. As it was, they came together with a rattle and bang and crunch and grind of battered buffers that would have put a park of artillery in the toy pistol class.
Then the mogul began to bite into the rails, and the train began to back out of the tunnel and down the grade; but, ahead of it, leading the way, the coupler shivered like a bit of pastry from the terrific snap-the-whip wrench it had received, sailed the ancient caboose. And swaying, writhing, squeaking, squealing, followed the rest of the Work Special, with Terhune, all flabby fat now, hang­ing from the cab window, his whistle, from pure nervousness, going like a chattering magpie, and his teeth, after one last sight of the apparition as they swung clear of the tunnel, going like a pair of castanets.
The train crew in the caboose, by the time they got their scattered senses together from the shock that had bowled them like ninepins over the stove and left them wrestling with the stovepipe, found themselves halfway back to the trestle, with the speed of their crazy conveyance increasing at every foot. They let out a concerted yell, and jumped.
Down below, at the din infernal, lights were flashing all around the camp. Some one rushed to the switch, and threw it for the siding. The caboose, for all its age, took it like a young colt, whisked the length of it, shot off the up-canted end rails, and, describing a neat parabola in the air, plumped, in a clean dive, into the bosom of the Muskrat. And it was only the fierce swing and jolt of the engine as it took the switch, and the wild yell of the man beside it as he swung the main line open again, that momentarily restored Terhune’s wits sufficiently to check the train and save the rest of his outfit from the same fate.
As he came to a stop, men clustered around him; but for the first time in his life Matthew Agamemnon’s tongue clove to the roof of his mouth, and he was dumb. He could only hang weakly in the gangway as the volley of questions came at him thick and fast.
Then suddenly, from the tunnel’s mouth, came the long, shrill siren scream of a 1600 class mountain racer, then the pur of steel, the dull rumble of beating trucks growing louder and louder; and, bursting like a cannon’s tongue flame from the curve, the glare of a headlight shot streaming into the night. A roar, a whirl, a row of lights flashing like diamonds from a solid string of brass-vestibuled Pullmans swept by, took the trestle with a tattoo that echoed far up and down the valley, and was gone. And behind her, the questions silenced, men with blanched, awed faces saw Matthew Agamemnon Terhune, with a hysterical sob, collapse limply on the floor of his cab.

Just a series of illogical, disconnected happenings? Perhaps. It depends on the way you look at it. Queer things happen in life. If it had not been for the mechanical bent that enabled Podger and Clark to tinker so effectually with bits of wire and gauze sheeting, and Matthew Agamemnon’s propensity for talk that inspired them to do so, and the advent of Senorita Vera Cabello, who inspired Matthew Agamemnon, the be-Pullmaned Convention Special with clear rights to Glacier Junction, twenty miles west of the Muskrat, which would, none the less, have hit Blazer on the tick of her schedule, with no reason on earth for holding her up, since she had time and to spare to get past the siding before Terhune pulled out, and which would just as surely have had a breakdown a mile west of Blazer, delaying her fifteen minutes, a delay that, in the face of her rights through, her crew were concerned only in making up, would—but what’s the use!
Chance, or luck, or something more than that, if you’d rather, whatever you like to call it; that was all that stood between three hundred conventionites, to say nothing of two train and engine crews, and a shambles quick and absolute, that night.
However, that as it may be, it was a week before Matthew Agamemnon climbed into a cab again; and in the meantime, at the polite solicitation of the town marshal incident to a few unpaid bills, the senorita had departed from Big Cloud. This, from the standpoint of the psychologist, was a misfortune. His visits perforce ended. There was no telling whether the Specter of Serpent’s Cut, as they came to call it, had enhanced or shattered Terhune’s belief in her and, concretely, in the occult. Not that Matthew Agamemnon was silenced; far from it. He talked harder than ever, as far as that goes, only he talked exclusively on such subjects as the Alaskan Boundary Question, the Fresh Air Movement, and the Newfoundland Fisheries Dispute.


NOW twist your wrist
And bow your back,
And learn to turn
The good flapjack.
Give it a flip
When rich and brown,
Catch it kerslap!
When it comes down.

Give it a coat
Of sorghum thick,
Or bacon grease
Will do the trick;
Or even plain—
Not near half bad,
If a day’s tramp
Or hunt you've had.

Flapjack, you helped
The trail to clear
Through all the wilds
Of the frontier.
Well your humble
Part you played,
For by your strength
The West was made.
Robert V. Carr.

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