February 3, 2019

“Ghost Train” A Short Story by Stephen Brayton

“Ghost Train” A Short Story by Stephen Brayton

After the seven-hour drive from Connecticut, Rick and Bill were following Joe Spence’s directions to his camp on Chebuncook Pond: Nutting Road for five miles, then right onto a dirt road marked by a row of mailboxes beneath a stand of birches. Bumping along with the boat behind, they crossed the abandoned railroad line that Joe had noted. Even though he knew the railroad map of northern Maine, Rick had searched this one anyway, a Maine Central branch abandoned over a decade ago. They’d come across it at different locations on past trips. Here, its right-of-way through the woods remained clearly evident, no doubt from snowmobile and ATV use.

In another half-mile, the waters of Chebuncook Pond appeared through the trees. They passed two camps and pulled in at the third. Joe’s camp looked like a good basic setup with a tent platform, picnic table, fire pit, and one-holer outhouse off in the woods. Nice water frontage, with the boat launch in front of the parking spot.

On their previous annual Maine fishing trips, they’d always camped at the state park on Moosehead Lake. When Bill’s work colleague offered his camp, they jumped at the chance to try something new, away from the state park bustle. From the shore they counted a half-dozen cabins scattered around the pond. Joe had talked up the fishing on Chebuncook, and they planned to try their luck tomorrow.

The first night, they usually went into town for dinner. But they were farther away from town this time and running late anyway, so they decided to stick to camp and go in for breakfast instead. Cranking up the Coleman, they dined on a couple of cans of Dinty Moore beef stew and discussed the possibilities for the next day. After cleaning up and checking the pond view once more, before long they were ready for the sack.

Rick was drifting off when the sound of a train horn brought him back. There it was again, blowing for a grade crossing. Now he heard the rumble of diesel engines. He checked his watch: 10:05. Where was it? The nearest active rail line was the Canadian Pacific main, at least twenty miles away. He’d never heard a train in all their years up here.

“What in the hell . . ..”  Beside him, Bill groaned and rolled over in his sleeping bag. Bill couldn’t give a crap about a train.

The sound intensified as Rick stared out the tent into the nighttime woods. Not far off now, and no doubt where it was coming from, the old railroad bed they’d crossed on the way in. He could hear the occasional squeal of steel wheels against steel rails as the train moved along. Moving slowly. Unlikely as it seemed, there must still be rails hidden somewhere in those weeds. Maybe the branch had been revived as a short line or a tourist operation? He awaited the horn blast for their road crossing.

Gone. It was gone, the sound just cut, no fading away as the train moved past, no horn, nothing. His hearing? His mind? It was weirder than the train itself. He again recalled past years; for sure he would have heard this train from Moosehead. His online search had shown nothing about the line being back in use, but he’d check again in the morning.

**

Rick related his story as Bill drove into town the next morning. Bill dismissed it as “probably a big semi going by somewhere.” Figured with Bill. Rick gave the abandoned railbed a long look as they passed by.

“See anything?”

“Nada,” Rick answered. He waited with phone in hand; with one bar he Googled “Maine railroads map.” The search result came up just as he expected: no active rail line for at least twenty miles in any direction.

At the Pine Tree Diner, they sat at the counter bantering with the stocky cook at the grill. He was new since last year and full of questions for them: where were they from, were they up here for fishing, where were they camping? At that, Rick saw his opening.

“Got a question maybe you can answer. Last night, a little after ten, I heard a train passing pretty close by. I’m into trains, so it got me wondering. I didn’t think there were any tracks still in use around here. I saw that old right-of-way from the road going in, but that’s long gone. So I can’t figure where that train was.”

The cook looked at him funny. “Oh yeah, lots of people camping in the woods around here will tell you they heard that train. Some say there’s a story behind it, but since no one has actually seen a train, I think it’s all a bunch of bunk.”

“So what’s the story?” asked Rick.

“Well, it goes back to the early ‘60s when the railroad wanted to end the passenger train business on that line. All that was left by then was the mixed train to Farmington, one passenger car attached to the local freight. Up in Kentfield there was a woman named Mary Caron who rode that train three or four times a week down to Farmington to babysit her grandkids while her daughter worked a part-time job. From everything I’ve heard, you didn’t want to get on the wrong side of Mary Caron. She was ripped when the railroad asked the state for the OK to drop the service, and furious when the state approved it. She was on the very last train to Farmington, of course.

“But as it turned out, that wasn’t the end of it. A couple of weeks later she got herself arrested for sitting on the tracks in Kentfield, blocking the freight train from coming through. I remember as a kid seeing the picture in the paper. It was June, I think, and she was sitting on the rail in a big wide straw hat. I thought she was nutty.

“So there’s your story. Doesn’t make much sense, though, even if you believe in ghost trains, because the freight trains kept running on that line for another twenty years with no problems. The ghost train stories didn’t start until after they abandoned it altogether, about ten years ago.”

“The track pulled up?”

“Ripped it all out. So how can you have a train where there’s no track?”

Rick didn’t mention the strange sound sequence from last night. He’d keep that to himself, until he had a chance to hear it again.

“So what happened to Mary?”

“The judge gave her a good talking-to and put her on probation for a year, and that was that. Ol’ Mary never caused any more trouble. She left town a few years later. Must have been in her eighties by then. Probably went to live with her daughter, but I never heard say for sure.”

**

“Whoo-whee, we’ve got a real-life Maine ghost story to tell ’em back home,” Bill whooped on the way back.

“Sure, except I heard a train, not a ghost,” Rick retorted.

“OK, ghostbuster. If it involves a train, you’ll figure it out, I’m sure.”

“Absolutely,” said Rick. He was used to Bill’s ribbing about his railfan intensity . . . it went with the territory.

Back at camp, Rick put the mystery aside to enjoy the day ahead. They were on the water by 8:30, the trolling motor pushing them slowly across Chebuncook. Over the next couple of hours, they reeled in and tossed back four undersized smallmouth bass.

 They hit the water again after lunch, and by late afternoon had three decent-sized bass to cook up for dinner. Joe had been right on the money about fishing Chebuncook. As for last night’s mystery, the only sounds Rick heard were the sounds of the lake: the breeze, the lapping water, occasional ducks quacking, a crow.

Still, as he savored their catch at dinner, he entertained just one thought: Would the train come again tonight? Maybe the cook was wrong about the tracks being pulled up. Or, he had to admit, maybe he himself was wrong; maybe the sound wasn’t a train at all.

He lay awake in his sleeping bag, listening. Sure enough, right on time there was the horn blowing for the distant crossing, followed by the engine thrum. Louder, steadily louder before it abruptly went silent like a flipped switch, leaving Bill’s snoring the only sound. OK, no doubt now whether he’d heard correctly. Leaning his head back to look out the tent at the starry sky above, he knew where he’d be tomorrow night.

In the morning, his plan got another predictable response from Bill: “OK, good luck, ghostbuster. I’ll stick to camp.”

**

At 9:30 that night, he set out for the half-mile walk to the crossing. A light breeze soughed through the pine woods. At the crossing he turned right and walked a distance up the old railbed. He didn’t want to be spotted by anyone passing on the road. Occasionally, he paused to scuff the ground, hitting nothing but stones and weeds. When he came upon an old milepost, he stopped and waited.

He heard the diesel growl first, then the horn. A minute or so later he saw light playing off the woods, then the headlight pierced the darkness.

The train slowly approached, a passenger train with two F-unit engines and a string of old coaches. A passenger train in northern Maine? Oh, sure! In the headlight’s beam, Rick eyed the weedy roadbed ahead of the advancing train. No rails were in sight.

The train slowed as it approached. The beat-up F-units were faded green, streaked with yellow. Probably Maine Central, but no visible markings to confirm. No markings on the gray passenger coaches, either. Only one, near the middle, was lit. When the train groaned to a stop, that coach stood in front of him. The door opened and a uniformed conductor appeared. Gaunt, bespectacled, and up there in years, he dropped the steps and looked down at Rick.

“Well, we haven’t got all night,” he said in a thin reedy voice. “Come on aboard if you’re coming.”

Take the chance? Marcie would call him crazy—or worse—but Marcie was home in Connecticut. He needed to find the answer. The conductor extended his hand; he grabbed it and clambered aboard. He’d ride to the next stop, whatever it was, and call Bill to come pick him up.

Inside, the coach was bathed in an odd, bluish light from a source he couldn’t determine. It appeared to be about half-full. No one paid him any notice as he took a seat just inside the door. The locomotives accelerated, the train jerked, and they began to move. From underneath came the rumble of steel wheels on steel rails.

The sliding car door banged closed behind him. As the conductor passed by, Rick got his attention.

“When is the next stop and what’s the fare? I’ll be getting off there.”

The conductor smiled wanly. “Sorry sir. Once you’re on this train, there’s no getting off. And don’t worry, there’s no fare.”

The conductor moved on before Rick could find a response. What in the hell had he gotten himself into?

He rose halfway for a better look at his fellow passengers. They made an odd sight: everyone seated, erect, looking straight ahead, silent and perfectly still. Men and women, young and old. One head did stand out from the rest, a woman near the front wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat.

As he sat back down, the train suddenly went silent. No rumble of the rails, no locomotive sound. But the gentle rocking told him they were still moving.

Had they crossed the road yet? Nothing but blackness out the window. OK, he’d screwed up. How was he going to get off? At this speed, jumping should be easy. Rick rose, but found the door locked. He returned to his seat and closed his eyes to focus. He could see the headline now: “Police Search for Missing Connecticut Man.”

**

The county sheriff suspended the search for Rick after two weeks. They found his footprints soon enough, leading about a quarter mile up the railbed. The pattern indicated he’d stood for a time near an old milepost. But that was it. Search crews combing the surrounding woods came up empty.

 With so little evidence, the sheriff couldn’t speculate on what had happened to Rick. As the weeks passed, the story fell off the front page and soon disappeared entirely, revived only by the obligatory one-year anniversary update: “No New Leads in Man’s Disappearance.”

Among the local wags, however, the story remained an engaging topic of conversation. A few old-timers scoffed at all the speculation. From the moment they heard about the account his buddy gave to the authorities, they knew what had happened to Rick: he’d fallen victim to the ghost train that haunted the abandoned railroad line. The authorities, of course, gave zero credence to that theory.

***

Steve Brayton is a Boston-based financial communications consultant. Writing has been integral to his career in journalism and public relations. A former business reporter with the Boston Herald, he moved to public relations with The Gillette Co. before starting his own business. As a director of the Dedham Historical Society, Steve contributes regularly to its newsletter. “Ghost Train” is his first published fiction.

About theJack B. Rochester

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