A Novel Excerpt


Dwight Hilson



Ol’ Buck Seventy-Five was late and the crowd couldn’t have cared less.

Tourists and townsfolk alike thronged within the shade of station eaves scalloped by crisp patriotic bunting and jostled around multiple charcoal grills sizzling with meat. Nearby, a candy-striped Dixieland jazz band—complete with straw boaters and fake black mustaches—strummed and sang as the tiny hands of children waved unsteady thunderheads of pink cotton candy just inches from their feet—a scene livelier than a county fair midway and all in celebration of the return of the Liberty & Excelsior Rail Road.

At first, few noticed Conor Stone, the “Youngest Railroad President in America,” striding, with ceremonial, gild-headed sledgehammer angled across his shoulder, toward the growing cloud of heavy brown coal smoke that rose from the engine house exhaust pipe just beyond the maroon antique coaches positioned on the track (the first coal smoke anyone had seen or smelled since financial difficulties forced a cessation of operations after the 1978 season, nearly two years earlier). But the sight of Governor Nate Mooney marching at his side was hard to ignore.

Ol’ Buck Seventy-Five took it from there.

The massive old steam locomotive—#175—backed slowly toward the station and let fly an impassioned, throaty wail, steam erupting like a geyser above the machine’s black iron. Cheers roared in approval.

Long-time chief conductor, Pop “Casey” Jones—dressed in an official navy suit with polished brass buttons, dangling watch fob, and patent-leather-brimmed conductor’s hat—hurried breathlessly to shoo children and camera-toting adults away from the approaching locomotive. His face red and smiling broadly, Pop Jones echoed the excitement around him. “What a day. What a day. Wasn’t sure it’d ever come; we’ll be highballing before you can shake a stick.”

“This railroad is proof,” the governor trumpeted, “that America is ready to march full steam ahead!”

After a spirited rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner performed by the Liberty High School band—and a short speech by Representative Bill Thrush—Conor Stone placed a shiny, gold-painted railroad spike into a track plate. “God bless the Liberty & Excelsior Rail Road,” he shouted to thunderous applause.

Mr. Stone slowly raised the sledgehammer, his wrists strained against the weight… Cameras clicked and flashed all around him… His arms lifted the tool high above his head…where he paused, for just a moment…before swinging down hard and fast.

Laughter exploded through the crowd.

He missed…


Part 1


Liberty wasn’t the town’s original name any more than the railroad’s was the Liberty & Excelsior Rail Road. They dumped Kings Shore after the Revolution, and beyond 20 miles nobody noticed. Why would they? Just a speck of a town tucked hard against the southern flank of the White Mountains, with Kings Lake to the west (they left its name unchanged—just in case, mind you) and the domed, ragged granite of Liberty Notch (a formidable, if isolated crag) a few miles to the east. Sure, the place is scenic, that is if you like high, windswept mountains, broad blue lakes, and the sight of tall white church steeples lined up like a giant picket fence between the spreading elms on both North and South Main Street. And, yes, of course, there’s a quaint downtown grid of three- and four-story brick and clapboard buildings all pleasantly squeezed between the docks on Kings Lake and Mill Bay, itself a sizable body of water where gabled cottages, a country inn, and the railroad depot reflect in the oft-still surface along with arthritic maple and spruce grasping at its shoreline.

It took me 18 years to escape Liberty.

I didn’t return for the scenery.

And I sure didn’t return because I knew my parents would stop their passive-aggressive blame game, or because Penny was now a single mother (a regretful one, I thought), her fatuous ex gone off to the Army, where, God knows, I wish he’d stayed; nor because I somehow knew Conor Stone would arrive in town to become the “Youngest Railroad President in America,” backed by forces too clever by half for even Liberty’s best to compete.

I certainly didn’t return because I knew—just knew—that this would be my shot at big-time journalism, to uncover malfeasance, favoritism, suppressed tragedy—to win awards, and in the process, maybe experience women, who, beforehand, I could hardly imagine, let alone talk to.

None of that crossed my mind—ever.

No, Liberty just wasn’t the kind of place I’d return willingly.

Hell, the only reason settlers slogged up there in the first place was because of all those damn trees; that, and of course, the fact there was plenty of water to mill them. Smarter folks stayed farther south. But those few farsighted visionaries who braved the tortuous path north soon snagged land, set up shop, and fostered an inbred stubbornness firmer than the granite crags visible out their back window. Content enough with isolation, it took railroad tracks, blasted into town around 1875, before Liberty became linked to the rest of the world—or at least Boston and Portland. And it wasn’t much of a railroad at that: a short spur branching west off the Boston & Maine junction in Edentown that crossed a seeping swamp, passed below the stern face of Liberty Notch, and rolled downgrade through endless birch, maple, and spruce and across frequent lake causeways before completing its ten-mile run into downtown Liberty proper; even if you knew where to look on a map, the rail line appeared as just a tiny slash arcing like a saber through the foothills south of the White Mountains.

This was the railroad my college acquaintance, Conor Stone, came north to manage, a tenure lasting not quite one year.

Personally, I didn’t give two shits about the railroad; I’d see railroad brochures jammed into some roadside pamphlet display slot, their pages covered with boastful color photos of tracks and trains and the railroad’s cheerful, barn-red Victorian train station with its three-story steeple, wide eaves, and pale, mustard-yellow gingerbread trim (pretty nice, right?) and I’d snicker. My preferred image was of that nasty, black-painted iron bumper welded onto the rails at track’s end to stop any out-of-control locomotive from blasting down Railroad Avenue, across Main Street, and into Kings Lake. At the time I found this more appropriately symbolic, but that was just me.

By the time I’d skipped town for college, the Liberty & Excelsior Rail Road (we’ll call her L&ERR for short) was a fairly big deal, at least to townsfolk hoping to sell crappy merchandise to its riders. She was, after all, a real railroad, one with standard gauge track (a standard set by old Abe Lincoln and hailed by “railfans” as his greatest accomplishment, no kidding), 70-pound rail, and a right-of-way rescued from abandonment by crippled Milt Ames—along with antique passenger coaches, a boxy, rumbling diesel locomotive, and the star attraction: Ol’ Buck Seventy-Five, a 1920s Baldwin steam locomotive, its moniker an affectionate expansion of its actual running number, “175.” The L&ERR ran some freight (occasional boxcars of handmade pine furniture or excelsior shipped out from the last mill remaining on the line), but the main business came from hauling near brain-dead tourists and their lovely kids, out and back, presumably to suck up all that quaint scenery (as well as some coal smoke), all for a supposedly affordable roundtrip fare. Fun for the entire family!

During my senior year at Boston University, I heard the railroad had closed up shop. Can’t say I gave it much thought, let alone that Conor Stone might move north to save her—and that I’d be the cause.

Conor was just an acquaintance at BU, a friend, but not much more, and when I’d last seen him, he was preparing to escape, out to the endless, lonesome west—on a motorcycle—to find enlightenment with his reefer-addled college roommate. A perfectly acceptable choice at the time: the economy sucked, Carter didn’t have a clue, and companies weren’t knocking themselves over to hire advertising majors like Conor (let alone would-be journalists like me). Perhaps if you could live in Sioux Falls or Topeka or East Nowhereville, you’d be in luck—but that wasn’t Conor. He figured he’d ride through the purple sage, over distant yellow mesas and into orange sunsets, camp under phosphorescent skies, and wait for the signal it was time to head home to Manhattan. It turned out that signal came before he ever left.

Some of us weren’t so lucky.

I loathed thoughts of returning to Liberty: the cruel and unusual winters of wind sharper than skate blades, summers of sweat stains and rashes, and, of course, gnats masquerading as vampires. My parents couldn’t be avoided, that was certain, nor could Penny, but would she try to avoid me? And her son—what was he like? Hopefully, not like his father. And how would I look at Penny’s grandfather, Ernest? Sure, he was the town’s first selectman, but after studying journalism I thought him not much more than a glorified gas station attendant. What about Art Shell and his wannabe-big-time smile and polyester sport coat, or even Milt Ames, the one guy who really tried to escape Liberty, brought back by horrendous luck; all of them examples of a destiny I considered repellant. Maybe I should’ve given Sioux Falls or Topeka or East Nowhereville a chance. Might’ve been worth a shot—but who knew?

No, I didn’t return to Liberty because I wanted to; I returned because the Liberty Independent wanted me back as their junior news reporter, pretty much the extracurricular job I had before college, although now full time and with a supposed “real” paycheck. So I loaded up my Pinto and headed north to Liberty.

Where else was I really going to go?