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The Explosion


THE PLACER HERALD

Auburn, Placer County, California


DEATH ON THE RAILS!


The moment it jumped the tracks, Jupiter’s fate was sealed along with any person standing within a half-mile of the locomotive.


Scott studied the front-page drawing of twisted metal and splintered wood once calling itself a Pullman Palace. The paper’s artist chose the sleeper car which had careened down the steep embankment for his subject matter. A predictable choice, considering it had been one of the few cars not catching fire. Even Will Jenkins’ questionable editing skills could comprehend the simple fact that graphic renditions of ash piles didn’t sell newspapers.

Scott sipped the hotel’s stale coffee and read on.


The crippling derailment compromised the iron horse’s boiler, allowing the pent-up anger of escaping steam to widen a rupture, promoting an explosion which launched the cylinder skyward, taking with it hundreds of pieces of levers, bolts, rods and plates. Those souls standing closest to the locomotive at the time of the blast were blessed by instantaneously disintegrating from the pressure wave. A bit further down the line, unfortunate passengers stumbling outside the wreckage found themselves caught in a rain of iron shrapnel returning to earth.


Scott raised an eyebrow. The reporter’s vocabulary also reflected knowledge of how to capture the public’s morbid curiosity.


Enough.


The publication didn’t promote a morning appetite and landed with a toss on the table’s checkered cloth as a waiter approached.


“Pour you another cup, sir?”


“This will be fine, thank you.”


Before moving on to the next breakfast patron, the server nodded toward Scott’s abandoned paper. “Helluva mess there. Poor bastards.”


With a dipped chin and crossed arms, Scott closed his eyes. A helluva mess, indeed.


********


The bone-jarring boom planted one undeniable fact into Scott’s head. It’s the damn boiler. With the gut response of survival, he reached out with both hands, grabbed the berth’s thick-padded mattress and fell backwards, covering the three business partners the best he could.


Seconds later, pounding thumps of a giant’s fist violently slammed down on the sleeper’s floor-now-roof.


“God ALMIGHTY!” Seth’s hand grasped the bedding to help hold it in place, his voice struggling to be heard.


“THE BOILER BLEW!” Scott had witnessed artillery blasts and the devastation they wreaked on objects and humans in their path. Picturing the evolving scene outside the confines of the inverted Pullman, he knew it would differ little from what he’d seen in the past. Some would call it fate, others would congratulate their good luck, but at this moment, Scott thanked the Lord above for sparing them a visit to hell.


The car’s heavy metal undercarriage continued to deflect the falling pieces of Jupiter as they lessened and eventually ceased. A stronger presence of smoke now spoke of the urgency in seeking a bolt-hole.


“We need to get out of here.” Pushing against the flopping weight of feather bedding, Scott cleared a path back to the compartment's broken window while Seth gathered Kinsey in his arms. The little cousin, only dressed in her night attire, would need to be carried once outside. With her clothes and shoes amongst the room’s jumble, they didn’t have time to find needles in a haystack.


Scott lowered himself through the window, found firm footing and held up his arms to snatch up Kinsey as she clumsily followed. Holding her close, his calming reassurance introduced a stern directive. “I’ve got you. You’re safe. Now, close your eyes and, by God, don’t you open them until I tell you to. Understood?” Scott didn’t wait for a response but started moving, glancing over his shoulder to confirm Seth had maneuvered his way out and jogged close behind.


Retracing their earlier steps proved more difficult. As the recipe of lamp oil, furniture, tapestries and carpeting fueled sparks into flames, rapidly spreading fires turned the Pullmans into pyres. Having fed on the cars’ interiors, the monster began clawing out windows and along the roof lines with choking smoke and waves of heat. The allure of following the rails as a safe guide to the end of the line began to rapidly deteriorate into a trap.


Crossing over the tracks amidst the wreckage was a risk, but one that needed to be taken if they were to reach higher ground and fresher air. Scott made a decision and shouted out, praying Seth had kept up. “We need to get above this and upwind.” A slap to his upper arm from Westcott answered.


The only good card Jupiter dealt its passengers was derailing in the Sierra Nevada’s traversable foothill woodlands and not the treacherous mountain terrain. Reaching the other side of the wreck presented the uphill climb Scott had hoped for.


“Give her to me.” Seth scooped up Kinsey and flung the young lady over his shoulder like a sack of grain. “Better.”


Scott agreed. Not the most graceful of carries, but one which would give both men the balance needed to maneuver around spotty outcrops of rocks as they ascended with the fires behind them lighting the way.


With each exhausting step on rubbery legs, the stifling smoke and heat gradually gave way to cooler air with a hint of pine. Reaching a level section of tree-studded ground, Scott turned and extended his arm, grasping Seth’s hand for a final pull upward.


Carefully lowering Kinsey to sit down, Westcott removed his jacket and wrapped it around her shoulders before collapsing himself. Between coughs to clear smoke-filled lungs, Seth expressed his gratitude for heavenly assistance. “Sweet Jesus, Mary and Joseph.”


Scott stood bent over with his hands resting on thighs while letting deep breaths clear the dizziness from denied oxygen. “All three are certainly needed right now.” A glance at his little cousin spied her still following his instructions of keeping her eyes shut tight, allowing only tears to escape down her cheeks. Hunkering down, he placed his hands on either side of her face and tilted it upwards. “Kinsey Rose, open your eyes.” With her gaze meeting his allowed Scott a soft smile. “You did just fine.”


Fires raged. Screams lessened. From their perch, the business partners along with others scattered on the hillside watched and listened to the scene unfolding below. Patience would be needed to wait out the blast furnace heat. Trying to rescue those travelers not finding an escape from the chaos would be a death sentence.


Scott wiped away his own tears and blamed it on the smoke.


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