Aspirations of an Author by John A. Miller, Jr. by John A. Miller, Jr. - Read Online

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Summary

Southern Pacific Railroad Detective Pima Gallagher is asked by the Santa Fe Railroad to help track down who might be smuggling whiskey to the huge Navajo Reservation. When he suddenly disappears, Pima’s stepdaughter, fifteen-year-old Scout Walker, convinces her mother, Ellen, to travel with her to Winslow, Arizona to find Pima and help him in his search.

At the same time, Scout decides to begin writing her memoirs with assistance from an English author they meet in Winslow, a waitress at the local Harvey House Restaurant is found murdered, Pima spends some time in the painted desert as the unhappy guest of a mysterious person, and a deserting soldier and an itinerant peddler become prime smuggling suspects.

Everything comes to an end with a gun battle in the as-yet-unprotected Petrified Forest.

Published: John A. Miller, Jr. on
ISBN: 9781466123496
List price: $4.99
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Fact or Fiction

With a loud hiss of escaping air the locomotive released its brakes. Jets of steam spurted downward against the rails as the pistons began their push and pull motion, forcing the huge driving wheels to rotate and propel the black monster forward while dragging a string of reluctant baggage and passenger cars rumbling and clattering behind. The tempo of the chugging sounds emanating from the engine increased, and soon the entire train had cleared the Prescott depot platform on its journey northward toward Ash Fork and the junction with the Santa Fe main line.

The young girl sat alone by the window staring at the scenery although she observed little of it. Her mind was occupied with how she was going to rescue her father, who was being held by a gang of killer outlaws for ransom. The tracks passed through an area of spectacular russet boulders and then emerged into a broad expanse of level grassland, but the girl was only vaguely aware something was outside the windows and that she probably should be admiring the scenery in case she never got this way again.

For some time the girl pondered, but nothing seemed to come to mind. She knew she would have to utilize her considerable tracking skills in order to find the outlaws’ lair, known to be a hidden cave somewhere in the wall of a nearby canyon. The difficult part would be sneaking up on them; they certainly had not kept their hideout undetected for so long without maintaining a careful guard.

Eventually she became aware of a change in the train’s motion. The engine had slowed and was now negotiating some very tight curves. She also noticed they were occasionally elevated above the surrounding terrain and sometimes even the tree tops, probably on iron or wooden trestles. The hills were more wooded and the trees were taller than they had been in the town of Prescott although even there the vegetation was much more impressive than farther south near Phoenix. Around the territorial capital everything was desert, and the only trees were mesquites and palo verdes interspersed with occasional giant cacti.

The locomotive lunged forward toward still another trestle while several cows, warned off the tracks by the shrieking steam whistle, galloped away into the trees. What they thought about this frightful human invention was anybody’s guess, but the girl decided they probably were not happy about it. Now the train began to climb, leaving the ground far below. A curve ahead in the middle of the trestle allowed the passengers to see a complicated wooden structure rising perilously high above the canyon floor—the far end abutted a steep hillside where the tracks disappeared through a cutting.

Was it her imagination or was the car in which she was riding swaying from side to side? She rode trains often—lurching and swaying motions were not unusual, especially around curves—but this swaying seemed unusually intense. It was almost as if the entire trestle was rocking. As they began to round the curve she could see the locomotive far ahead, moving at a snail’s pace relative to the speed they had maintained earlier across the grassy plain.

Something she was watching made no sense. The trestle seemed to be coming apart like a collapsing pile of kindling. For what seemed an eternity, the locomotive appeared to float in mid-air, and then its nose tilted downward. A huge cloud of dust and debris swept upward to engulf the falling structure and the plummeting mass of iron and steel. An enormous blast of steam merged with a deafening explosion as the boiler burst against a huge pile of rocks. The tender and several cars followed the engine over the sheared-off end of the trestle to meet their doom in the chaos below. Shock numbed the girl’s mind—in those few seconds before she was to die, she worried not about her own demise but what was to happen to her father when nobody came to rescue him from his predicament. The car in which she was riding was barely moving now—the front end dropped with a loud crash as the wheels plunged into space and then all motion ceased.

Was this death? It certainly wasn’t anything like what the priests were always describing. No, she had merely been incredibly lucky. Her car had stopped, teetering on the edge of disaster but not taking the plunge into the fiery abyss below.

Something she had seen as she approached her doom had registered in her mind and now she remembered what it was. The engine’s firebox had ignited the wooden trestle, and unless the passengers were able to flee out the back of the stranded cars the still-standing portion of the structure would collapse and take them to an untimely end.

Bravely, the girl stood and grabbed the arm of a woman sitting across from her, a woman who appeared to be too stunned to do anything but stare straight ahead. She dragged the woman to her feet and then, assuming her most authoritative voice, the girl told the others in the car to follow her as she led the way through the connecting door into the car behind. As they passed through each of the two following cars, she informed the passengers, some of whom were still seated in apparent shock, of their predicament. Soon a stream of people followed her to the rear of the train where she led them out the door and onto the trestle.

She picked her way—still gripping the hand of the woman she had first dragged from her seat—stepping carefully from tie to tie and trying not to look downward into the fearsome chasm below. Glancing back over her shoulder, she could see flames licking up the wooden framework toward the precariously balanced car that, until a few short moments ago, had been her temporary home. Shouting at the people behind her to hurry, she walked more rapidly and reached the end of the trestle moments before the distant end collapsed into the raging inferno, tilting the tracks and allowing the three remaining cars to plunge into oblivion.

The flames continued to roar along the open structure while people screamed and ran toward safe ground. When one of the hurrying passengers tripped and flew over the side, dragging with him a woman whose arm he was holding, the girl closed her eyes tightly to avoid seeing them hit the rocks below. When she reopened her eyes she realized a little boy—who had been gripping the woman’s hand—was still standing on the trestle, staring over the side at the shattered remains of his parents. Without stopping, a woman following close behind picked up the child, clutched him to her breast, and hastened forward toward safety.

It was all over. As portions of the trestle continued to collapse into the advancing flames, the girl counted the small group gathered about her on the tracks. Twenty-two people had survived the disaster—because she had not entered any of the forward cars during the journey she had no way of knowing how many lives had been lost. However, she knew nobody could have remained alive after plummeting into that fiery hell below.

What had caused a hitherto sound trestle to collapse at this very moment? Somehow she knew it had something to do with her being on the train. Something had occurred at the base of the structure to tear it apart, probably the explosion of a series of dynamite charges planted by the very outlaws who were out to stop her rescue attempt. These men were not only dangerous; they were ruthless. She would have to appoint somebody else to lead the forlorn group of passengers on their long walk back to Prescott while she continued forward on foot to track the evil ones to their lair.

** ** **

From where she sat on the edge of the bed, the woman looked up at her daughter from reading the several closely written pages. The girl occupied the room’s only chair at a table by the window. She had borrowed a pen and bottle of ink from the hotel desk clerk and had spent most of the afternoon writing furiously. As was usual when she wrote, her face was smudged black with ink.

I’m impressed by your writing, but this never really happened, the woman said.

Well, I based it on the train wreck we were in on the way up here.

That was hardly a train wreck. We merely had a wheel of the locomotive go off the track when it hit a split rail.

Yes, but it could have been a disaster considering how high up we were on that trestle. Besides, you told me I could embell…—whatever that big word is.

Embellish. Yes, I suppose that does make the story more interesting. Still, don’t get too carried away. You want some truth in the story if you’re writing about your own adventures.

Oh, there’ll be plenty of truth. I just want to dress up the boring parts.

But don’t you think this is a bit excessive?

Oh, Ma, you’re taking all the fun out of it.

It wouldn’t matter if you were writing a purely fictional account, but if you want anybody to believe the true parts of your story, you’ll have to be more accurate with all of it. If you embellish too much, you must expect that people won’t believe any of it, mostly because they won’t know what’s true and what isn’t.

The girl pondered this for a moment. Yes, I can see where that would be a problem. I suppose I couldn’t just mark parts of the story with ‘True’ and ‘Untrue’, could I?

No, I don’t think that would work.

I guess maybe embellishing isn’t such a good idea then, is it?

Not if you’re writing non-fiction. It’s your choice. A good, exciting story can be very interesting, whereas non-fiction can sometimes be boring. Do you really care whether people believe your story or not?

I don’t know. I guess I’ll have to think more about it. At any rate, do you like what I wrote?

Yes, I think it’s rather good, but then I’m biased. I’m your mother and think my daughter is just wonderful.

Thanks, Ma. I appreciate the kind words even if I don’t always deserve them.

Where did you ever learn to write like this? I remember reading your diary from when you went to Bisbee, but it wasn’t anywhere near this good.

I finally showed some of what I was doing to my new teacher, and he gave me a lot of help. Do you think I learned anything?

I think you learned a lot in a very short time. If you don’t make it as a detective, I know you’ll be able to survive as a writer—of fiction, of course.

The girl laughed, then gathered the sheaf of papers from her mother and returned to the table to continue her work.

The Beginning

Several months earlier on the Navajo Reservation in northern Arizona Territory, an old man with rheumy eyes stood in front of his hogan staring eastward at the rapidly darkening sky. He was disturbed by reports his daughter’s son had been discovered drunk on the white man’s whiskey, and he was waiting patiently for the young man to present himself and give an explanation. As the last rays of the setting sun reflected from the golden cliffs of the mesa that dominated the eastern horizon, a soft footfall from his right indicated he was no longer alone.

You are late, the old man said quietly in Navajo.

I know. I’m sorry, grandfather, the young man replied in the same language.

The old man continued to stare silently eastward while the young man stood at his side, showing his impatience by shuffling his feet in the dirt. Slowly the shadows crept upward on the mesa wall until the golden glow disappeared. Now the thick clouds hovering above the mesa top reflected orange fire back toward the two watchers and the thin covering of snow that carpeted the gritty soil. The orange tint faded toward gray and then was gone; the only color remaining was the deepening blue of the sky between the clouds. A few pinpricks of light appeared in the firmament as it gradually faded to black. Still the old man was silent, and the young one waited.

Suddenly, the grandfather turned on his heel, pushed aside the sheepskin that covered the doorway, and entered the hogan. The grandson followed and stood in front of the old man, who had dropped to a sitting position on a blanket.

A low fire flickered inside a circle of rocks in the center of the single circular room, the smoke curling upward through a hole in the roof. The old man stared into the flames for a few moments before saying, Hosteen Begay tells me he found you drunk two nights ago. Is that true?

What business is it of Hosteen Begay whether or not I was drunk?

Besides being against the white man’s law, which is not always easy to follow or understand but which is still the law, drinking the white man’s whiskey is not the way of our people. Hosteen Begay tells me he found you passed out in a ditch. Perhaps you were too drunk to notice that he roused you and helped you home so you would not freeze to death.

Tell Hosteen Begay I thank him for his concern. However, I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself.

It does not seem so to me. You will bring shame upon our people if you keep up these actions. Perhaps a ceremony…

I do not want a worthless Navajo chant sung to me. I am a modern person in tune with the white man’s ways. You are old-fashioned and will never become part of this new world if you maintain the old attitudes. The young man, his eyes flashing with anger, turned and pushed his way past the sheepskin door into the cold night while his grandfather sat staring sadly into the flickering flames.

** ** **

A few dozen miles to the south two young women surveyed a comfortable and attractively furnished dining room, verifying that all the tables were set properly and all was ready for the passengers of the approaching train. The soon-to-arrive westbound was running nearly an hour late, and the girls knew their patrons would be especially hungry.

Well, Molly, I think everything’s in order, said the girl with mouse-brown hair, tied at the back of her head with a simple white ribbon.

Yes, Rachel, even Mr. Harvey wouldn’t be able to find fault with this setup, giggled Molly, who sported a similar hairstyle although in an auburn shade. Both girls were clad in long black skirts with white blouses and aprons and black bowties at the collars.

No, I think you’re right, but I hope he isn’t on the train tonight. He’s a nice man but he can be very strict, especially when something isn’t done the way he wants it.

I’ve never met him.

I know. I’ve only seen him once, myself, and that was more than two years ago. He’s been here several times since, but somehow I was always either off duty or working in another room.

What are you two girls chattering about? a stern voice interjected, causing both young ladies to turn around in surprise. You know you’re not supposed to be holding conversations while a train is in.

Oh, Mrs. Bradshaw, we didn’t mean any harm. We’re all finished setting the tables, and Rachel was telling me about Mr. Harvey. Besides, the train isn’t here yet.

Well, you talk about Mr. Harvey on your own time. Right now you get yourselves to the kitchen and make sure everything is ready there. The train crew will want to get going as soon as possible tonight, seeing as how they’re running late. Molly and Rachel scurried out of the room while the older woman stared at their departing backs and muttered, Sometimes I don’t know where Mr. Harvey finds them, but I wish he’d be more careful. Then she walked around the room, inspecting each table and making minor adjustments to the place settings.

The distant sound of a train whistle followed by a jarring clang from a nearby gong caught her attention, and she strode regally from the room. Molly and Rachel, along with several other waitresses, entered with trays of appetizers and began distributing them around the tables. The train was now less than a mile away, and the hungry passengers, their orders telegraphed in earlier, would find their food waiting when they disembarked. The Harvey House restaurant in Winslow, Arizona, was ready to serve another meal.

** ** **

Several hundred miles farther south a slender girl of indeterminate age—somewhere between thirteen and seventeen—sat at a small table with a pen in her hand, a piece of paper lying on the table in front of her, and an open ink bottle to her right. A kerosene lamp illuminated the work surface although perhaps the word work was not a precise description of her activities. At any rate it was not productive work, judging from the fact that most of the words on the paper were scratched through. There appeared to be more ink on the girl’s face and hands than there was on the paper.

Damn! the girl exclaimed aloud, apparently to herself because she was alone in the room. I thought this would be so easy. Why can’t the words just flow from my pen like they do for some writers?

Because nobody was available to provide an answer to this question, the girl inserted the penholder into her mouth and reread her creation for the twentieth time. Still no inspiration came. Finally, giving up on her task for the moment, she rose and laid the pen on the paper, smudging it even worse than it had been. She ran her fingers through her short, blond hair, not realizing that in the process she had managed to add a few black streaks to it from the ink that blotched her hands. Then she turned to a door that led outside.

A faint glow still lingered in the western sky although it was nearly an hour after sunset. The pinpoint lamps of stars were lighting up for their nightly show, and a nearly full moon had stuck its nose above the mountain peaks to the east. The girl paused and gazed all around, obviously appreciating the beauty of the evening sky and the unusually warm, mid-winter breeze. After several moments of inhaling the fresh air, she resumed her walk toward a small stable that stood at one edge of the large yard. The aroma and a gentle whinny indicated the presence of at least one horse.

Evenin’, Scout, said a familiar voice from behind her as the girl brushed the flanks of the small pinto that occupied a portion of the stable. I thought you were goin’ to work on your book.

Without slowing her strokes the girl replied, Oh, Pima, I didn’t realize how hard it was going to be. I really have been trying, but I had to come out for some fresh air.

How much did you write so far?

Not much. I can’t seem to get started. Everything I write seems so boring.

You’ll get it, eventually. I ain’t much of a writer, but startin’ out is always the toughest for me, too. Once I get goin’, things seem to flow much better.

Maybe nobody will want to read my story.

Oh, I don’t know. You’ve led a pretty interestin’ life, so far. In fact, if it had been any more interestin’, both your ma and me would have all gray hairs by now instead of just a few.

Pima, you and Ma are too young to have gray hair. What are you now, thirty-five?

Yep, but don’t remind your ma of that. I don’t know any woman who likes to be reminded she’s gettin’ older.

I don’t mind.

But you’re just a girl. Wait ‘til you’re a couple years older.

I am fourteen; actually more than fourteen and a half.

Somehow I don’t think that makes you an old lady, yet.

Nights like this I feel like I am.

Little gal, sometimes we all feel that way. Now come on; you finish brushin’ Apache and then we’ll go inside and take a look at your story.

** ** **

Did you see that big, fat man? Molly asked Rachel as they walked toward the staff dormitory. Fred Harvey made sure his staff, mostly composed of single, young women, had adequate living accommodations in a heavily controlled and protected environment.

Yes, he was the most enormous man I think I’ve ever seen. I was too busy to watch. Did he eat a lot?

He sat at one of my tables. I think he tried nearly everything on the menu.

I can imagine. You’d have to eat a lot all the time to be that fat. I suppose he went on with the train to California.

No, I saw him walking toward the center of town after dinner. I know he didn’t get back on the train because that was after it left.

Hm. I wonder what a man like that would want here in Winslow. There really isn’t a lot for a visitor to do. Of course, he could have relatives here.

He had a funny accent when he spoke. It sounded like he might be from England.

Did you ever hear any English people speak? Maybe he’s from Boston or someplace around there.

No, it’s definitely not a Boston accent. I think it’s English because he pronounced a lot of his words just like one of my neighbors did back in Philadelphia. That man was from England, too.

Old Lady Bradshaw was on the warpath tonight, Rachel said.

Yes, wasn’t she, though? I think what that woman needs is a good man to set her straight. Both young women giggled. Of course, I don’t think I’ve ever met a man who was that desperate for a wife.

Hey, maybe we can interest her in that fat man.

Well, he would certainly be a lot of man—probably more than she could handle, Rachel laughed. Brrr. It’s really cold tonight. Shivering and pulling their coats more tightly around them, both waitresses hurried into the dormitory as tiny snowflakes began to drift from the night sky.

** ** **

Howdy, Henry. How are you feelin’ tonight? Pima Gallagher, detective for the Southern Pacific Railroad Company in the bustling town of Tucson, Arizona, addressed the sheriff of Pima County, who walked slowly across the yard toward Pima and his stepdaughter while steadying himself with a sturdy cane. The sheriff was still recovering from a serious gunshot wound he had suffered a few weeks earlier.

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