The Santa Fe
by Terry Dartnall
e found her in a siding off the main line in a shed chipped & flaking,
surrounded by the rusted busted parts of yesterday. God knows how that
metaphor crossed the sea from Old America to here, the grime of yesteryear
in its eye & the great dream alive in the power and beauty of her. She was
a Santa Fe 5000 class, a 2-10-4, 300 tons she weighed, her tender weighed
200 more. She'd hauled 90 cars across 4 states back then, a hundred years
"Let's fire her up," said Jack.
"You're mad," I said. "Her boiler's gone."
"We'll fire her up and see."
Jack climbed onto the water tank, kicked off the rust and dust where the old
roof had fallen in, and found the filler plate.
"The lever's jammed. Gimme the axe."
I passed it up. Jack swung and missed, his head thrown back, his old boots
slipping on the smooth, riveted surface.
"Take care," I said. "You're not so young."
"I'm spry! I'm spry!"
He swung again and hit the lever with a loud metallic blow that echoed round
the shed. Crows erupted from the rafters overhead and squawked out into the
He struck again. This time the lever moved. He knelt and finished it by
"There's water here!"
He rotated the axe in his hands and lowered its shaft into the hole. He
withdrew it and peered at it in the dim light.
"The boiler's full! We'll stoke her up!"
"She's old, Jack. It's too dangerous."
"I'm old and dangerous as well!"
I meant to leave but I looked back and saw that slumbering beast waiting to
be unleashed by mad old Jack as if I viewed leviathan through the inverted
telescope of time. Had they returned, those ancient beasts, to reassert
their mastery after our brief sojourn in the stars?
"OK," I said. "We'll fire her up."
"The tender's full. Get me some kindling."
I blinked into the daylight world outside and felt restored by the power of
that machine. I saw old things anew, the grass a brighter green, the sky a
blue I had not seen before and at my feet small flowers I could not name had
preternatural power in the great bower, the wild blossoming confusion of the
world. Returning with an offering of sticks and twigs Jack said my eyes
were full of stars, the sentimental fool.
"What now?" I said.
"Build up the fire and pressure. Ease this lever and I think she'll go."
"Or blow," I said.
"There's a pressure gauge. We'll keep an eye on it."
Jack knelt and blew on the kindling. It burst into flame and illuminated
his face, red & ruddy & unshaven in the intermittent light.
And gradually the pressure grew. Jack pulled a cable. An unearthly wailing
filled the air.
"That'll wake 'em up," said Jack.
"They've gone," I said. "We're all alone."
Jack eased the lever & the huge wheels turned. It was as if God woke from
slumbering. Feeling the steel and roaring like a bull she left the shed,
quickening slowly til she sped on tracks laid long ago and rusting now,
roaring her song across the empty countryside. And Jack, old Jack, cried
out, "Watch out for us! Watch out for us!"
America, my long lost land
your poets & and your young men are no more
Ginsberg has gone & all his band
the waves of Logres lapping at your shore
the English witches warned you
but you would not understand.
I do not know how long we rode that mystic beast, but seasons changed.
Springtime, opal and lime, the bright light of summertime, and we roared on
through autumn's warmth. Then winter came and though he hollered loud and
long I saw the flame, both his and mine, had died and Jack was old and tired
and hollow-eyed, and I applied my worn hand to the brakes.
"Why, damn you, I'm not stopping here!"
"Oh yes you are. We've lived too long and seen too much and come too far,
and now we'll rest."
"Mad poets roar, their senses gone, on the long journey to the end of time!
I am alive! I have my song... "
"Which you've sung very loudly, Jack. Once voices filled the air. Now the
silence closes in. Let's go in peace."
Jack sat on the steps of the tender for a long time after that, swinging his
legs listlessly like a child. In the evening he walked over and joined me
by the fire. I handed him some tea. We watched the Santa Fe fading away
from us in the gathering gloom. I turned to say something to him but he had
When I looked back I couldn't see the Santa Fe any more.
I wondered if it would still be there in the morning.
Dr. Terry Dartnall teaches Artificial Intelligence at Griffith University,
Brisbane, Australia. His fiction has appeared in Literary Potpourri, The
Pittsburgh Quarterly, Oceans of the Mind, Ideomancer, Agog, Aphelion, Planet, Neverary, Worlds of Wonder and elsewhere. He is a 2003 Antipodean
Science Fiction Award winner and a 2004 Glimmer Train finalist.
Back to the Top
story copyright by author 2005 all rights reserved