Blood on the tracks
Harry Farnsworth loved the engine sheds. Especially at night when red glow of the fires and the steam and heat from the boilers changed the hulking locomotives from cold iron and steel into living, breathing beasts and the boilers turned the sheds in to the warmest place in Derbyshire. The smell, the noise, the comradery all made the decision to come out of retirement to drive the engines again an easy one. Even if it meant driving limestone and coal down a branch line rather than steaming up and down the main lines with hundreds of passengers. All in all, Harry thought to himself, it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good and the wars in Europe hadn’t done him any harm. Driving troops in France during the First World War, then brought out of retirement to drive again in 1941, they’d probably made him the man he was. And two years on he still liked the man he was. Tall, wiry, a full head of white hair, and smartly dressed in clean trousers, a tweed jacket, clean shirt and tie, waistcoat and solid work boots.
Eric, his regular fireman, was already on the plate and building the fire under the boiler when Harry climbed up on to the plate.
Eric grunted a reply and carried on with his job. The two men had worked together long enough to not need to speak. Everything that had needed to be said had been said years before. Both quick to anger, and even quicker to forgive, they’d had their fist fights and equally forgiven each other again over countless pints. Always underpinned with admiration and acceptance that the other man was the best in the company at what he did.
Harry took a clean piece of rag out of his jacket pocket and carefully wiped down the brass handles and faces of the dials. Then he walked around the engine and tender, speaking to all of the engineers before checking with his brake man, Charlie, who would ride in the last carriage. Climbing back aboard, he waited for another nod and grunt from Eric before slowly reversing the engine out of the shed and coupling up his load for the night.
‘Limestone to Uttoxeter, back with coal.’ Ernie Foxton, the yard foreman shouted up to him. ‘You should have a clean run, you’re the first out tonight and all of the afternoon traffic has cleared the branch. It’s foggy in the valley though, so watch for signals.’
Harry threw a mock salute. He had little respect for men like Foxton. Young enough to fight, but hiding in reserved occupations. He made one last check of the valves, waited for Eric to nod, then pulled out of the yard and accelerated to a steady speed.
Seven miles down the line they came to their first signal box. The next five miles of the line followed the river valley. This stretch was Harry’s favourite stretch of line on a warm summer day. The river glinting in the sun, cows and sheep in the fields and often children waving from the riverside. On these autumn nights, though, it always seemed colder in the valley bottom and on foggy nights like this one it was impossible to see more than a few yards in front of the engine.
‘I don’t like this fog, Eric.’
The signal was for them, as they expected, and when they passed the box George Hart, the signalman, waved and smiled.
‘Look at him. Sat there in his warm dry box. He should be fighting.’ Harry said, as he threw his second mock salute of the night. The he added, for Eric, ‘We’ll have a brew when we’ve cleared the valley.’ Eric nodded and went back to shovelling coal while Harry strained to see ahead. Suddenly he shouted and pulled on the brakes.
‘Red light, there’s something on the track!’
The locomotive, with all of the weight behind it, took nearly a quarter of a mile to stop. There was nothing obvious in front of them. Harry sent Charlie back up the line to tell the signalman that they’d had a near miss, while Eric and Harry searched the line for anything that could have given off the red light. They found nothing, although as Eric said.
‘Can’t see toffee in this dark and fog anyhow.’
After an hour, with all four men searching and nothing obvious being found, they remounted the engine and finished their work for the night with no more incidents.
‘Farnsworth, can I have a word please?’ Harry stopped short as Ernie called across the sheds to him. ‘Now please.’ Harry turned and walked in to his office.
‘Yes?’ he asked.
‘I’m going to have to send you home, Farnsworth, just until the doctor’s checked you out.’
‘After that scare yesterday. We need to know your eyes are up to it.’
‘My eyes? Better than yours have ever been you little…’
‘Don’t make this worse, Farnsworth. Go home. The doctor will be with you as soon as he’s finished his evening surgery. All being well you’re back on the job tomorrow night.’
Harry formed a fist, then thought better of it and stretched his hand out again. Without saying anything he walked out of the sheds and back home. The company doctor arrived ten minutes later.
‘Evening Harry. What’s this about then, last time I checked you had the best eyes on the line?’
‘Still do, doctor, but because of that no one else saw what I saw.’
‘Tell me the story.’
As the doctor examined him Harry explained what had happened the night before.
‘Could it have been a bicycle light, or a car, that moved on?’
‘Not with the blackout, no. It was a rail light on low and it wasn’t moving. We should have run in to the back of a stationery train. But it wasn’t there. Maybe I am just too old for this.’
‘Well, I’m giving you a clean bill of health. And there’s nothing wrong with your eyesight. So if you saw something, it was probably there.’
That night Harry did not sleep, so at dawn he walked to the site of the incident and from there down the line to where he thought the light had been. He first walked the line and then searched the undergrowth alongside it. After an hour he thought to himself, there’s nothing here. Maybe I am ready for the knacker’s yard. As he turned to walk back up the line he saw the sunlight glint off something red at the side of the tracks. He bent to pick it up. It was broken red glass. He looked again and found more and finally he found the crushed remains of a metal lamp attached to a broken stick. I knew I saw something. Here it is he thought.
Harry walked to the signal box and asked George Hart to send a message up the line to the depot. An hour later Ernie Foxton dropped off a slow moving engine as it passed. Harry took him and showed him the damaged light. Ernie looked at it, then turned to Harry.
‘I think we need to leave that where it is and call the police, Harry, that looks like it was set to stop you and I can’t think of any good reason why anyone would want to do that. I’ll go to the signal box and call for the police. You wait here.’
Harry found a rock to sit on and watched Ernie walk up the line. He waited for an hour before he started to get worried, but when neither the Ernie nor the police arrived he decided he needed to go after them. He took off his tie and left it tied to a fence post as a marker, and set off up the tracks. As he neared the junction box he saw George walking towards him in front of the box. His hair was a mess, his tie askew and he looked like he had a tear in the knee of his trousers.
‘What are you doing on the line, Farnsworth?’ George shouted.
‘Have you seen Foxton?’ Harry replied. ‘He came to use the telephone in your box.’
‘No, I’ve not seen him’.
By this time the men had almost met. Harry looked again at George and could see that he had marks on his face like he’d just been in a fight.
‘You ok Hart?’
‘Just go away, Farnsworth, there’s a good lad.’
‘You don’t talk to me like that!’
Harry was about to give George a mouthful of abuse when he saw a hand waving in the signal box window.
‘Who’s that in your box?’ He asked. George didn’t even look before he answered
‘No one. Your eyes must be paying tricks again.’
Harry didn’t hesitate, he thumped George square on the jaw, knocking him to the floor. While George was on the ground Harry ran up to the signal box, where he found Ernie gagged and partly tied to a chair and looking almost as bad as George did. Harry pulled the gag out of his mouth.
‘Quick, raise the alarm.’ He said.
Harry sounded the alarm signal then pulled all of the signals to stop just in case. When he looked out of the window he could see that George was coming back towards them, and he had a pistol in his hand. Harry locked the box door and pulled the chair with Ernie still in it and himself behind the cast iron stove. As the first bullet hit the stove he prayed for the first time since 1917. His prayer was answered as there was no second bullet, just the sound of George cursing his jammed gun, in German. The two men looked at each other, then Harry stood up, picked up a crow bar kept for prising apart frozen points, unlocked the door and calmly hit the retreating George across the back of the head, causing him to fall down the signal box stairs. When he landed his left leg pointed in the wrong direction from the knee, and he was ranting in German to himself. Harry picked up the gun, put it in his pocket, then untied Ernie.
The Police arrived and took George away to Derby in an ambulance. Over two days he was interrogated by them, then the army, and finally someone from Military Intelligence. He refused to give up his secrets. The intelligence officer eventually came to interview Harry.
‘Evans, Intelligence.’ He said by way of introduction. ‘Jolly good show with that Nazi, old man. Wonder if I can ask you a few questions?’
Harry looked him up and down. He was almost as tall as Harry was, with a blue pinstripe suit, beige raincoat, trilby hat and a rolled umbrella.
‘Come in. There’s tea in the pot.’ He said, ‘Evans was it?’
‘Evans? Oh, yes that’s it. Evans.’
Harry explained in some detail what had happened. Evans asked him some searching questions on his background, service and eventually about his view on why anyone would want to stop the train.
‘I don’t know, Evans. There could be any reason. But the obvious one is to cause an accident.’
‘Interesting thought, old man. You know anything about troop movements?
‘Not since I drove trains across France in 1918. Why?’
‘I’m going to tell you a secret, Farnsworth. More than my job’s worth if you pass this on. More than your life’s worth too. Be a troop train through in two days. Will follow the train you were driving. Non-stop from Buxton, full of new recruits. Our man Foxton was supposed to be making sure the line was safe. Looks like you spotted something he didn’t.’
‘So if someone stopped a freight on the line, then ploughed a troop train straight in to it we’d lose a lot of men as well as engines and possibly use of the line?’ Harry asked.
‘That’s the thinking.
‘So stopping me was a trial run?’
‘We think so. We think Hart, if that’s his name, wanted to check out whether he could stop your train and keep the line open for the troop train to hit you. Works once, it’ll work again. He just forgot that everyone would investigate why you stopped.’
‘So I’m in the clear?’
‘More than that, old man, a hero.’
Harry walked back in to the yard that night, head held high and acknowledging the shouts and waves of his colleagues. He was heading for his usual engine when Ernie shouted him over. Harry’s heart fell, but he kept the smile on his face.
‘Change of duties tonight, Farnsworth.’
Harry didn’t like the sound of that.
‘We need a new signal man. Clean and warm. Fancy it?’
‘No, sir. If I wanted clean and warm I’d go back in to retirement.’
‘Thought so. So I’ve put you forward to drive troop trains from now on. We need our best men on that job. Hop a ride up to Buxton, you can drive from there to London overnight. Take Eric.’
‘Thank you Sir.’ He said. Harry smiled as he walked across the yard.
Picture (Keighly and Worth Valley Steam Railway) (c) Chris Johnson 2013
Words (c) Chris Johnson 2016
A very satisfying read Chris. (nice picture too )