Side Trail Story
The Railroader's Wife
Phil Truman


Side Trail Story

It was well past midnight when Henry turned down 2nd Street. He’d just stepped off the train from Springfield, having returned from a week’s visit with Grant and Mag. Minnie elected not to go, saying she had too many things to do around the house. Henry didn’t press the matter. Truth was he’d rather looked forward to the time alone.

The night had only a sliver moon, but the gaslight shine just off Commercial Street gave him some glimmer along his path, and the sky was starlight clear. It didn’t really matter. He’d walked home from the train yards so many times over the years, he could do it blindfolded. Knew exactly where the flagstone path to his front door came to meet the street, and he turned up it. Twenty-three steps along, he turned right for another three paces before raising his right foot to place it on the first rock step leading up to the door. At the third step he reached out to grasp the knob, but his fingertips touched clapboard. Puzzled he sat his grip down and felt around for the door with both hands, finding only a blank wall. He stepped back thinking he hadn’t been paying attention and had turned down the wrong path to the house, perhaps that of old widow Hendershot whose place stood thirty yards north. He retraced his steps to the street, squinting into the starlit night, first to his right then left. No, he could see the bulk of Missus Hendershot’s house with the black mound of her large rose of Sharon bush in the front yard. He turned to look toward the house to his left again, could see the outlined hump of the root cellar twenty paces off his own front door, or at least, where it should’ve been.

“What the hell?” he asked the night, and started quickly back toward the dark hulk of his house. Searching the clapboard wall again, first at the top of the steps, then to either side, he found only the framed outline of a window, closed to the chill of the early spring night. During the search, his frustration built and his anger surged. Finally, he started beating on the clapboard with his fists.

“Minnie! What in the hell have you done with the house!” he yelled.

That exclamation awaken Missus Hendershot’s dog and started it barking, which set off the Wylie’s dog across the street, starting a chain-reaction of woofing up and down 2nd Street.

A light came on in Missus Hendershot’s bedroom. Across the street Amos Wylie, the grain buyer at the elevator, sat up in bed and squinted out his front window. He’d been expecting this, but not in the middle of the night. He sighed, and said to his wife, Ada, who by then had sat up beside him, “Looks like Henry’s home.”

***

Henry, a railroad man for thirty years, had suffered Minnie as his wife almost that long. They’d met when he was eighteen, she a month shy of seventeen. At the time, Henry already had three years under his belt with the Frisco Railroad.

He’d started out on a road crew, laying and straightening rails, building and tamping beds, and doing whatever else needed doing along the line. The domain of the Frisco stretched from Kansas City to the north, St. Louis to the east, Mobile to the south, and the panhandle town of Floydada, Texas to the west. Henry had traveled to all those places more than once in his job.

He’d hired on as a boy in Springfield, Missouri in 1884. Had tried a year earlier, but they said he was too young, so he came back at fifteen and they took him. That fourteenth year and the year before had been tough ones for young Henry, as he was by all rights an orphan. His momma had died when he was ten, and his daddy, a Union war veteran with consumption, had gone up to an old soldiers’ home in Sedalia.

“You’re gonna have to take care of your own self now, boy,” his daddy said to him before stepping onto the northbound train. “Grant will give you a place to live.” It was the last time Henry ever saw his father alive. The only other family he had was his half-brother, Grant, twelve years Henry’s senior and a blacksmith.

So thirteen-year-old Henry did take care of himself, bucksawing cordwood in the winter, working as a farmhand during the growing and harvesting months. He helped around the blacksmith shop, too, and lived with Grant in the humble quarters out back. But the railroad was expanding, and the adventure of it called out to the teenager, so they hired him at fifteen. He didn’t have to lie much about his age. He could easily pass for eighteen or so; rough big hands, wide shoulders, already standing at a lanky six feet with a body as hard as Grant’s anvil.

Henry and Minnie first came across one another in Quanah, Texas. His crew had gone out there to repair a stretch of road some cattle cars had jumped and torn up. Minnie served tables at Juanita’s Redeye Café where the railroad men went to take their meals.

Minerva Maybelle McKnight was a pretty little gal; everyone said so. Kind of tall and skinny, she had ample red hair which she kept piled on top of her head, a pale coppery complexion, and the fierce green eyes of a highlander. The patrons at Jaunita’s and those around town called her Minnie, sometimes Minnie Belle.

“What do you want?” she asked Henry a second time, trying to get his breakfast order. But he only looked at her slack-jawed until the men around him started snickering and one jabbed him out of his trance.

“I’m, uh, I’m, uh…eggs,” he said.

“How?” she asked.

Um…c-cooked,” he answered.

She sighed, a little annoyed. Minnie got a lot of this from young men. Still, it made her smile. “Scrambled,” she said, writing on her pad.

Henry nodded.

From that day in March until the crew packed things up in May, Henry ate every meal he could at Juanita’s Redeye Café. Those first few suppers he lingered past closing time to ask Minnie if he could walk her to her boardinghouse over on Lord Street. But she flatly refused. “I don’t need you walking me home,” she said the first time, sounding aggravated.

Flustered, Henry tried to recover. “Wull, I didn’t mean nothing by it. It’s gettin’ dark, I’s just concerned about your safety.”

“No need to be,” came her curt reply. “My boardinghouse isn’t far. Besides, my sister Mag comes by to walk with me.”

“She’s the school teacher,” she added as if that would further explain why she didn’t need Henry’s escort.

On his second try, Minnie still said no, but Henry didn’t think she was quite as brusque as the first time. On his third try she’d smiled at him, so he was encouraged to ask again, which he did the next evening while she was wiping down a table and filling a galvanized tub with dirty supper dishes. She threw her towel over her shoulder and pushed a loose strand of auburn hair behind an ear, fixing Henry with those claymore-keen green eyes for several long seconds. It unnerved him a little; he shifted his gaze away from hers and onto that strand of hair loosely tucked behind her right ear. He felt sweat popping out on his forehead.

“Oh, all right,” she said finally, which snapped Henry’s eyes back in line with hers and made his mouth open. “I’ve got to finish up here, though,” she continued. She picked up the tub and started toward the kitchen.

All Henry could think to say was, “What about your sister?”

Minnie stopped, turned to look at Henry again. With a slight smile she said, “I told her not to come tonight.”

Henry got to know a lot about Minnie that evening, and all those following until his crew’s May departure. He learned she was an orphan, too, her and her sister. When she was five, their father, a Reb soldier, had brought his family out to Texas from Missouri. Their ma had died from a tick bite on the trip out, and then their pa—who had survived the Battle of Champion Hill and the Siege of Vicksburg—was killed a year later when a stray bullet, fired by a celebratory drunken cowboy, struck him in the head. She and her sister, Mag, four years older than Minnie, were taken in by some church ladies for the next few years until Mag got appointed school marm.

It was not hard for Henry to see that Minnie’s short life had made her a resilient, self-reliant, and strong-willed young woman. He, of course, fell spike maul over tie tongs in love with her, but more for her red hair, slender body, and green eyes than anything else. However, he did consider the other traits as good in a woman, considering the life she would have going forward as his wife.

Henry proposed to Minnie the night before he and his crew headed back to Springfield. Anyway, he meant it as such. But, of course, she turned him down.

“I reckon we could find you a boarding house up in Springfield, leastwise until we got married,” he said

“What makes you think I want to leave Quanah? And don’t say to marry you, because I certainly have no wish to do that.”

Henry got a little flummoxed. He thought she liked him. “But I thought…” he stammered.

“Well, you thought wrong. Besides, I can’t leave Mag, she’s a spinster.”

“A spinster?” Henry stood, throwing his arms in the air in anger and frustration, seeking a counter. “Why, hell’s fire, she ain’t but twenty-one.”

“Yes,” Minnie said. “That’s true. But her prospects aren’t good. She’s, well, homely. And I’ll thank you not to swear around me.”

“Sorry,” Henry said. He ran fingers through his hair and walked in little circles trying to reason things out. “So you’re wantin’ to stay here and become a spinster, too, just like your sister’s done?”

“Not necessarily,” she answered.

Henry stopped pacing and looked at her, crestfallen. Other young fellas, mostly cowhands, who’d come into Juanita’s to flirt with Minnie hadn’t skipped his notice. “Well, I reckon it’s just me, then. I kinda thought you’s sweet on me, but guess I’s wrong.”

He put his hat on, and turned from her. “Well, goodbye, Minnie,” he said.

“Wait.” she reached out and put her hand at the crook of Henry’s arm. “I…I do like you, Henry…in fact, quite a lot. It’s just…”

Henry waited for Minnie to finish her explanation, but her green eyes filled, and she looked away. “Oh, shoot!” she said, wiping her eyes and sniffing.

Henry became confused and a little uncomfortable. “Whad I say?” he asked.

“It’s nothing you’ve said,” she replied. She wiped her nose and sniffed again. “It’s…Oh, hell, I’m scared.”

“Scared?” Henry asked. “Of what? Of me?”

“No, not you…well, a little, I guess. But Mag and I have got things pretty steady here. After our daddy died, we promised we’d never leave each other’s side. I’ve never been away from her my whole life. Moving off to some place like Missouri without her terrifies me. I can’t break my promise to her.”

Henry sat back down scratching the back of his neck. Suddenly, his eyes widened in a thought. “Hey, remember I told you about my brother Grant?”

Minnie daubed her eyes some more. “Yes, what’s he got to do with anything?”

“Well, for one thing he’s kinda ugly, too, and he ain’t never married. Maybe we could bring Mag with us, and introduce the two of ’em.”

Minnie sighed. “Oh, for Pete’s sake,” she said. “That’s the most ridiculous thing I ever heard.” Then she sat in silence, considering Henry’s proposal.


Part II

After a year in Springfield, Minnie did agree to marry Henry, but only because Mag and Grant decided to get hitched first. Nine months and six days after Minnie’s and Henry’s wedding, she gave birth to baby Virgil. A year after that came little Lloyd. Velma followed him in three years, and then Lavelle four years after her.

In the first winter of the new century the yard foreman in Afton, Indian Territory, slipped on an ice-covered tie and fell under the wheels of a backing caboose. The man had been a friend of Henry’s.

“Heard Jake Pagosa died yesterday,” Henry said at the supper table.

Minnie smacked the back of Lloyd’s head, who sat next to her. “Quit playing with your food and eat,” she snapped. Watching the boy reproachfully, she asked Henry, “Who’s Jake Pagosa?”

“Friend of mine. Believe you met him back in Texas. He’s been the yard foreman in Afton for eight years.”

Minnie shook her head and took up a bite from her own plate. “That was too long ago. I just don’t remember him. What happened?”

Henry glanced around the table at the children, all looking up at him expectantly, except the toddler, Lavelle. “Well, it was an accident.” His look told Minnie he’d give her the details later.

That evening in bed Minnie said to Henry, “Maybe you should see about that foreman’s job in Afton.”

“Good God, Minnie. Jake ain’t even cold in the ground yet.”

“Well, I mean no disrespect. It’s just…it could be an opportunity. You haven’t had many of those.”

Henry did not ask about the position his deceased friend had vacated, but his superintendent recommended him for it anyway, and in the spring of 1901, he was given the promotion and instructed to move to Afton, I.T.

Mostly a farming community with a small rail switching yard, the town’s most prominent structure was the grain elevator from which the train cars would haul out the stored wheat and corn.

Afton didn’t offer a lot in the way of houses. The only thing Henry could find was a small three-room shack with a stock shed and an earthen root cellar sitting on two acres of land. It had a pump right outside the main door, but no other plumbing inside. Nor did it have electricity. It’d belonged to an old couple who’d been killed by lightning one spring morning while planting their garden. The house sat empty for a couple years. It would require some fixing up, but Henry felt he could mostly do that before he brought Minnie and the children out. At six hundred dollars for the house and land, Henry thought the asking price was high, but he didn’t have a lot of options. The only other was a doctor’s house for which the man wanted three thousand dollars. He thought the railroad would help him get a mortgage for the six hundred.

“It’s small,” Minnie said when Henry first showed her the place.

“Yes, but I figure we can add a room,” Henry said.

“There’s no kitchen,” she added.

“No,” Henry agreed. He held his hat and followed Minnie as she wandered about the house, looking.

She stood at the open main door looking out. “Why would anybody build a root cellar right outside their front door?” she asked.

Henry remained silent, having no answer to that question. But Minnie didn’t expect one. She turned from the door and walked back into the main room, stopping at the potbellied stove to run a finger across its top.

“Well,” she said. “I suppose it will have to do. But we’ll need to make some changes.”

That had been ten years past, and Henry had made a couple changes. He’d built Minnie a closet after five years of listening to her complain about needing one, and he’d had electricity put in. That cost him dearly. Most things Henry could do himself, but the electricals were beyond his knowledge and skills, plus it kind of scared him. He’d once seen a man, messing with some electricals at the yards, knocked ten feet and out cold, his coat smoking. After Minnie convinced Henry it needed doing, she hired it done. That cost him much more than he expected, and it required a second mortgage.

There were other things Minnie wanted, but Henry was a frugal man. After the electrical installation, he’d firmly put his foot down, telling his wife in no uncertain terms that nothing else would be done to the house until they had the money in hand to pay for it. There would be no further bank loans.

In the summer their daughter turned eighteen, Lloyd had gone off to France to fight the Hun, and Virgil had gone to The Chicago School of Art with flat feet. Velma had received a brochure in the mail from The Tulsa Institute of Secretarial Sciences inviting her to attend the one-year session starting in the fall. Minnie reasoned that would be a good avenue for her daughter to pursue seeing as how she had her Aunt Mag’s carriage and appearance, and most likely would have to support herself through most, if not all, of her adult life.

The topic of getting an automobile had come up, too. More and more of them were getting fashionable around town, and Minnie thought it would be a good idea to have one. Every now and then, Dugan O’Leary down at the livery brought in used motor cars to sell, and he currently had a dark green Maxwell Minnie particularly liked. Young Lavelle, then thirteen, highly supported his mother’s idea, as he was eager to learn to drive such a machine.

Henry was dead set against it. “Ain’t nowhere in this town you can’t walk to. Besides, we got a mule and a wagon. Those damn motor carriages are just a noisy waste of money,” he said.

Minnie let it lie until Velma’s school came up later that summer. She decided one night at supper to broach the idea once again. “You know, with Velma going off to school in Tulsa we could use an automobile to take her up there and bring her home.”

“I think that’s a dandy idea,” young Lavelle offered.

Henry shot a hot warning glare at the boy and forked half a boiled new potato, popping it into his mouth. “There’s two trains a day, one going to Tulsa and one coming back. She can ride those. An automobile? By God, Minnie, you’d put us all in the poor house.”

“Yeah,” Lavelle said enthusiastically. “And I could drive us there.”

Henry reached out and cuffed the boy soundly, sending him off his chair and rolling across the floor. No more was said at that supper table about purchasing or driving an automobile.

***

“I’m sick of looking out the front window and seeing that root cellar hump,” Minnie said.

They sat in the front room on a Sunday afternoon; Minnie in the rocker crocheting, Henry in his chair reading his weekly copy of the Kansas City Star. He didn’t lower the paper or acknowledge her comment, as he knew what was probably coming. It wasn’t the first time she’d brought up the subject.

“Don’t understand,” Minnie continued into the silence, “why anyone would build a house where the front door didn’t face the street.”

“Maybe there weren’t a street at the time,” Henry offered, immediately regretting he’d spoken.

“And why on earth would they have the root cellar right outside the front door?”

A headline about a Union Pacific train wreck out around Laramie had caught Henry’s eye. Beneath the headline was a photograph of three men standing amid the wreckage and a dozen dead cows. “Reckon it was handy,” he answered absently, his focus by then mostly on the train wreck story.

“Well, I don’t like it, never have. Believe the front of a house should face the street,” Minnie replied.

Henry sighed and turned to page eight to look for the column headed “Wreck” where the train story continued. “Mebbe so,” he said, thinking that would mollify his wife into believing he cared about what she spoke.

Sensing an opening, Minnie continued. “I’ve spoken to Ned Hamerstein down at the lumber yard. He has the means to fix this problem.”

“Um-hmm,” Henry said.

“Henry, are you listening to me?”

“Um-hmm.”

“Well, I’ve been thinking we could hire him to do it.”

Henry lowered his paper in a wadding crush. “Hire who to do what?” he asked, looking anxiously at his wife.

“Ned Hamerstein, down at the lumber yard.” She kept her gaze on the crochet work in her hands. “To fix the problem with the house.”

“Ned Hamerstein? I wouldn’t hire Ned Hamerstein to pour water out of a boot. The man talks more than he knows, and he over-charges for everything he sells down there. And what house problem are you talking about? I told you I’d put on a kitchen and an indoor privy next fall.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about.” She put down her handiwork and looked at him, exasperation in her voice. “You weren’t listening. We need to turn the house before we can add on a kitchen and privy.”

“Turn the house?” Henry almost shouted, his voice vibrating with astonishment, and a dollop of anger. “What in the Sam Hill are you cooking up now, woman? That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard of.”

Minnie fired back. “It’s not crazy, it’s—”

“No! There won’t be no house turning! This is the last I want to hear about it!” Henry snapped his paper up in front of his face again.

That had been early February, Henry had planned his trip to Grant’s for late April.

“You sure you don’t want to come along?” Henry asked the week before his scheduled departure.

“Too much to do here,” Minnie answered. “There’s the rest of the garden to put in, and I’ve got that quilting doings down at the church. Besides, I can’t leave Lavelle here alone.”

“That boy’ll be awright. Shoot, I’s out on my own when I’s half his age.”

“No, I don’t want to go.” Minnie busied herself peeling potatoes, and Henry didn’t totally object.

Henry’s train pulled out at 7:15 in the morning, right on time. At 7:30 Minnie sent Lavelle to the lumber yard to tell Ned Hamerstein the coast was clear. At 8:15 Ned and his outfit arrived in Minnie’s front yard: two flatbed wagons each pulled by a team of mules, six hydraulic jacks, twelve sets of ropes and pulleys, three six-inch by thirty foot oil rig pipes, and Harley Banks and Edgar Two Shoes, his work crew.

Ned put Harley and Edgar to rigging the oil field pipes into a tripod, peaked above the top of the house. Ned himself crawled under the house to set the jacks at the four corners and beneath the main floor joists. He assembled the ropes and pulleys at calculated points on the frame of the house, and jacked the jacks. Harnessing the mules to more of the ropes, the crew and the mules lifted the square frame structure and rotated it ninety degrees, then lowered it back on its foundation blocks. The whole operation, including the crew’s lunch break, took less than ten hours to complete. Ned returned the next day with Edgar to finish securing the house to its new setting, and built a front porch outside the door which now faced the east toward 2nd Street.

***

Amos and Ada Wylie didn’t go back to sleep that early spring morning when Henry returned home to find his house turned. They couldn’t, even if they’d wanted to; the ruckus from the loud quarrel across the street would pretty much wake the dead, and neither Amos nor Ada wanted to miss it.

Missus Hendershot had put on her robe and come out onto her front porch to shush her dog’s frenetic barking, not so much to keep the animal from disturbing the peace, as to keep it quiet so she could better hear the goings on next door.

Henry’s fury that night reached summits he’d never known in his twenty-five years’ marriage to the woman. He yelled such vehement and hurtful things to her that she broke down in sobs, but not before she sent back salvos of her own.

As the first sliver of daylight creased the morning horizon, Minnie had turned to her new closet and pulled out her valise. “I will not stay here and take this kind of abuse,” she wept. “I’m leaving!”

“Get dressed, Lavelle,” she said to the gangly boy standing at the bedroom door, himself having long since gotten up to see what all the yelling was about.

“Leaving!” Henry shouted. “Just where the hell you gonna go?”

“To Mag and Grant’s,” she answered.

“Ha! I’m sure they’ll welcome you and your damned extravagance. Well, good riddance!”

With that, Henry announced, “I’m going to go stay at the lodge.” He grabbed his own still unpacked bag, and stormed out the new front door and onto the dawn damp grass where a walkway should’ve been. Missus Hendershot from her front porch, and Amos and Ada Wiley from their bedroom window, watched Henry stride angrily out to Second Street and turn toward downtown. There was a code amongst his Masonic brethren which said any brother could seek shelter at the lodge in times of hardship or strife, and that included those of a domestic nature.

***

Henry sat on the swing hanging at one end of the porch, his front porch. By then, on that crisp fall morning, it was no longer a new porch. Ned Hamerstein and Edgar Two Shoes had built the porch decades past.

The day after their fight twenty-eight years ago, he’d come back to the house, and stood out on the street looking at it. It looked a little sad to him that warm spring evening, all empty and dark and closed up. He’d cooled off by then, and deep regret at the things he’d said started to seep in where his temper had departed. He had to admit the place did look better facing the street, and he liked the porch, had always wanted one. The idea of sitting there of an evening appealed to him; maybe he’d put up a porch swing.

He thought the next morning he’d stop in at Hamerstein’s Lumber Yard and see about getting a load of lumber. He thought he could add on that kitchen Minnie wanted, with a door opening onto the now side yard there where the root cellar was. And he’d have to see about moving that pump inside, into the new kitchen. As long as he was at it he’d build on a water closet, too, and maybe ask Wylie across the street if he could take a look at his indoor Crapper, which he’d seen Amos put in a couple years back. ‘Course, he’d have get a price on one of them from Hamerstein, and hire Ned and his boys to do the plumbing and put in a septic tank. Lord, that old German would charge him a king’s ransom for all that, but he figured Lawson down at the bank would go him another loan.

He’d get all that done, and then he’d go fetch Minnie and the boy back. He’d tell her he was sorry, that he’d been a damn fool, that he just couldn’t live without her. If that didn’t placate her, he’d tell her about a surprise he had waiting for her back home. On the train ride back, he might even talk to her about that automobile she had her eye on.

But this bright autumn morning, thirty years later, Henry didn’t remember any of that. Fact was, he didn’t remember much of anything – the years of work and grind, the joy and laughter and heartbreak and other fights and ballads that accumulate over fifty-plus years of marriage. All his memory held at the moment was the visage of that pretty green-eyed girl down in Texas.

Lavelle’s oldest boy, Donald, himself now grown, had come out onto the porch to bring his grandfather some coffee. Henry looked up, folding his hands around the warm mug. Confusion clouded his face, then brightened with recognition. It was a misplaced recognition, though. He thought the young man was his long-departed friend Jake Pagosa.

Henry took a sip of the coffee. “You know, Jake,” he started, then paused for a long moment as he looked into his future. “I met me a green-eyed red-haired gal down in Quanah, Texas who’s just about the prettiest thing I ever seen. Smart, too, and feisty. Now that I got this house fixed up, believe I’m gonna go bring her up out of that dusty ol’ Texas town. Believe she’d like to live here.”

Donald’s brow furrowed in sadness. He didn’t have the heart to tell his Pops he wasn’t Jake, to remind his grandfather that Grandma Minnie had died six months ago. Wouldn’t matter anyway, he decided. Might as well let the old man live where he sat. “Believe that’d be a fine thing, Henry,” Donald said.

“Yessir,” Henry responded, nodded, setting the swing into motion and taking another sip of coffee. He looked out at the red brick walkway leading from the porch steps to the street, and a sparkle of anticipation passed across his eyes.



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