The small train limped slowly along the snow-covered tracks. It was not a strong engine pulling the six passenger cars and caboose. To cut expenses there was no berthing car and no commissary or diner area. It was primarily a third rate, lower class transportation means meant only for the poor working class, those who would bring their own food to eat and sleep on the seats of the passenger cars, wrapped in old mildewed blankets, exhausted and sunk into a mass much like wet, heavy sacks of bad potatoes. It was the least expensive passenger coach that could make the 750 mile slog from El Paso, Texas, up and through the mountain passes to its final destination in Rifle, Colorado.
Along the climbing, route through the passes in Colorado, the tiny train rounded the powdery bases of the immense white, snow-swaddled mountains. The tiny engine carriage smokestack coughed and hacked up thick black plumes of smoldering coal residue, the furnace constantly gasping for air, as the fire powered the steam engine and it ascended arduously through the peaks and snowy passes. In the engine car, the fireman worked double- time shoveling coal into the fire box. It was all he could do to feed the fire, to heat enough steam, to keep up the train’s present sluggish pace.
Inside the second passenger, carriage was a small frail girl. She rode all by herself, alone and insignificant, sitting on the hard wooden passenger bench. The girl had a one-way ticket to Colorado, all paid for with money scratched together, and donated by numerous neighbors of the girl’s parents. She had no other money.
The girl was very thin, weak, and colorless by constitution, with the bleached hair, and powder white skin of a child born with albinism. She wore dark tinted shades. Her mother always insisted that she wear dark glasses at all times. Her mother was ashamed by the unsettling appearance of her daughter’s eyes and demeaned her constantly out of spite of the mother’s disappointment in the child that she had born.
The girl sat in the seat slumped over in weakness. She wore a threadbare red dress; it was not her dress, and it was three sizes too big for the tiny gaunt girl. She had a basket of half-dozen green apples and half of a baguette bread to last her the whole trip. She did not have a suitcase.
She was cold, she was famished, and she was frightened. She was wiry, protruding shinbones. She was sharp elbows that poked through ivory skin, she was frail arms, and she was tiny hands, cold and blue digits with fingernails all chewed away long ago with the anxiety that hung over her like a dark cloud. The missing fingernails showed semicircles of dried blood at the tips of her small, alabaster fingers.
Surrounded in an old, itchy, woolen Army blanket she had a runny nose, no handkerchief, and the girl shivered, wrapped inside the damp blanket with her trapped sniffles. She sat arched-over, covered like a corpse in a burlap sack with her arms wrapped around her torso inside. She was forever seeking any amount of warmth she could trap inside the blanket with her. She exhaled tiny breaths of steam into the cold air, inside the poorly heated passenger car.
The frigid subzero wilderness outside the car windows turned a travelers’ humid lungful’s of air and his infectious, rattling, phlegmatic coughs into a perished sheet expired human moisture that froze thinly in a sheet on the inside of the windows. Next to the windows, deathly fatigued travelers could not lay and rest their cheeks against the icy windows to support their head. People lay where they could and the closed their eyes. Their body vibrated with the train, and people too tired to stay awake or to sleep constantly dipped between the two states.
The stink of the little girl’s damp malodorous blanket permeated her hair and dress. Smelling of mildew made her ashamed; it made her feel like an indigent, which she now indeed was. She was travelling to her grandmother’s home in Colorado to live there. That would be her home from now on.
The trembling lass dozed in her bundle, as she slept fitfully, whimpering in a nightmare about that tragic night her parents perished. The family’s house went up in flames like those that a tinderbox soaked in kerosene would, exploding into orange and yellow hot rage that terrifying night. She lay asleep in the house with them at midnight as the dark smoke suffused the house. The breath of death rolled in a miasma across the ceiling, flowed thickly out, and curved upwards spewing out at the wooden house’s burning eaves. The smoke actually claimed the lives of her parents as they slept, it was that which mercifully took them in their sleep before the inferno which was to come sometime later.
Their sleepy guttural coughing and gasping as her parents suffocated to death in the back end of the house was what awakened the girl in the front-end of the house. Their last living sounds woke the girl before the smoke suffocated her too.
The girl smelled the thick smoke in the air but was not able to see to walk out of the house. Her world was nothing but blackness. She had to crawl along the floor searching for an exit with her tiny hands. She stayed crawling on the floor—that was the only reason she survived, as she was below most of the smoke. She heard the firefighters crashing and splintering open the wooden front door with an axe. She used her last breaths and she screamed for help. They heard the frail child and were able to carry her out with a few minor burns and with moderate smoke inhalation sickness. It was a miracle they got her out alive at all.
As soon as the small girl was safely outside, the wooden house immediately burst into an inferno. It was impossible to put out the fire with the 1906 steam-powered pump car. The blaze was a glowing rage of yellow, orange, and red—lashing tongues of iridescent fire, which licked up all sides of the house.
Crying in her nightmare still the girl writhed on the bench in the passenger car, she was flailing about as she thought of the heat she felt that terrible night outside the house. That searing blaze of the living animal that was the fire; it stung and bit with hotness. That was the antithesis of how she felt as she gasped into wakefulness with a panicked breath.
In the train now, she felt completely numb, freezing, and cut by jagged frigidity. And she then was fully awake and realized that she truly had nothing left in the world. She wept inside her moldy wrap as the train struggled and painfully bled up black smoke on the final upward incline to her stop in Rifle, Colorado; the girl suddenly felt so small, inconsequential, and perhaps unwanted as she timorously sat guessing what her new life would be like at her grandmother’s house. Would she have any friends her age, were there other children out in that desolate cold remote country? She never had even met her grandmother. She knew nothing about her except that her grandmother was the only individual she had left in the world that was kinfolk, so to speak.
Before the small girl had ever boarded the train to her new home, the police in El Paso had managed to find the address of the grandmother, but could only send her a telegram in her remote location. They had collected the money for her one-way train ticket and arranged the passage for the young girl. There was nothing more than this that anyone could do to help the child. So the Police put her on the train on the fateful trip to live in her grandmother’s custody in a log cabin in Colorado.
But, the grandmother and the girl’s mother had not spoken to one another for decades. They had not communicated since the death of the grandmother’s husband over 25 years ago. The daughter did not even inform the grandmother when the small girl was born 10 years earlier. So the grandmother never saw her granddaughter—indeed, she did not know that she even had a granddaughter. The telegram message was the first information sent to the grandmother explaining that she even had a grandchild.
All that the small girl knew from her mother’s point of view was that her grandmother was a widow of many years that she lived alone in a cabin in Colorado. He mother told the young girl that her grandmother was poor, and that she was emotionally bankrupt, and spitefully unpleasant. Lastly, the mother told the small girl that her grandmother never “could afford to come and visit the young girl,” Moreover; she had expressed no interest that she had a grandchild when the mother called her to announce the birth (this last part being a blatant lie).
Immediately before the girl left Texas, the police sent the grandmother the telegram that stated,
Bill and Joan SMITH HOUSE fire STOP Both deceased STOP Parents only child survived FIRE STOP POLICE WILL BE SENDING your granddaughter into your custody by Colorado state law STOP Girl will be traveling alone STOP Will arrive Tuesday December 20th 9 am at Rifle Station colorado STOP Name of girl Sally 10 years old STOP Sally is albino child stop white skin white hair STOP Granddaughter will be wearing red dress tinted glasses STOP Please arrive half hour early to assist granddaughter STOP Please be advised Sally is in need of special care STOP Girl is blind by birth end
The grandmother had not yet replied to the telegram, assumedly due to the haste that Sally left for the train ride. However, Sally just knew her grandmother did not want her at all. She was certain.
Sally was not aware that the train was at last moving along the last length of track towards her final destination in Rifle, Colorado. As the train pulled around the last bend, heading for the station, the conductor spoke up, and called out, “End of the line. Rifle, Colorado.” Sally sat up quickly in anticipation.
The train slowly pulled into the station, moving sluggishly. The train calmed its rattling. Suddenly the metal breaks grabbed, and there was a spray of sparks and the screeching of metal on metal. The wheels on the tracks stopped but the train continued slowly forward as the wheels skidded another 30 yards on the iced rails.
And after the train slowed to a near standstill, the passenger cars buckled at the couplings. Sally felt the car jerk forward and then it jerked back. Then the train became still. The train engine, weary, hissed a long, sigh of steam in relief. It then coughed a small final black plume of smoke.
Sally sat and waited with folded hands. She was very rigid and nervous about not knowing her Grandmother. She could not find her way to the platform being blind, and no one exiting the train car even seemed to see the girl, sitting alone with dark glasses, alone on the bench. Passengers cleared the car completely. Then the conductor left the car to go into the station and eat. Not a single person asked Sally if she needed help.
So she just sat on that bench, alone in the passenger car, waiting for her grandmother to find her. Sally sat wondering if her grandmother would be kind or be cruel.
Sally waited for a very long time on that bench. Only the engine car had any men about, and they were using tools and busy working on it, oblivious to Sally being on the train. The girl sighed in despair and worry. She sat wondering if her grandmother might not come at all because she was used to living alone in peace. Then Sally felt a pang of distress, “Will grandmother even want me when she finds out that I am blind?” She ruminated “I cannot work for her; she may have no need for me.” After an hour, the conductor came back and told her the train was leaving, and with her one-way ticket, she could not ride any longer.
He helped Sally into the station where she sat alone on a bench with her blanket and basket. She ate her last apple. She waited 2 hours there. It was past 1 p.m. and her grandmother, she thought, was not coming for her. Sally started to sob grievously. She had no place else to go and she believed her grandmother did not want her. She jerked out aloud between sobs, “Grandmother probably decided to put me in an orphan asylum.” No one around consoled the miserable young girl. She was desperately forlorn and very afraid. “Grandmother ignored the telegram, she tore it up!” Sally concluded.
But none of this was the case at all. For the grandmother never received the telegram. And this was understandable, as the telegram messenger did not deliver it. And of course, Sally’s grandmother was oblivious to everything.
Sally’s grandmother had died well over five years ago.