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Waiting for the 4:08

by Ronald Larsen

She had been christened Elizabeth Katherine Holt, but her daddy called her his Delta Princess, and the name stuck. Delta grew up to be the prettiest girl in Littlefield: raven hair, flawless white skin, twinkling blue eyes, lithe as a deer, with laughter that sounded to her wannabe suitors like tinkling bells.

At her cotillion, Delta caught the eye of a tall, handsome, flaxen-haired youth, Joshua Rollins Clark. They fell in love and would have married, except that the War Between the States — called the Civil War by some — broke out, and Joshua heeded the call to defend his beloved South.

On a sultry day in May 1861, Delta and Joshua clung tightly to each other and shared a long, lingering kiss, oblivious to the humanity milling about on the train station platform.

“Wait for me, darling! Please wait for me! I’ll be back to marry you as soon as our boys have whipped the damn Yankees. Won’t be long.”

The General Beauregard sounded three long blasts of its steam whistle, lurched and began to inch north, carrying its cargo of eager volunteers off to war.

“Oh yes, Joshua! I’ll be here on the platform waiting for you as soon as the war ends. I love you!”

“See you soon, my love.” With that, Joshua turned and jumped into the open door of the last railway car.

Delta watched as the train picked up speed and rounded the bend, tears streaming down her face. She stood with a lump in her throat, looking down the railway line long after the train could no longer be seen or heard. “Goodbye, Joshua,” she cried. “I’ll be here when you come back, no matter no long it takes. I will be!”

Three long years passed. Letters from Joshua arrived periodically, all pouring out his love for Delta. They included news of training, marching, boring encampments and battles whipping the Yankees, but they never alluded to the horrors of war. Each letter ended: “I’ll be home on the 4:08 at war’s end. I can’t wait to hold you once more. See you at the station, my darling.”

When Joshua’s letters stopped coming, Delta kept writing, kept hoping, kept praying, becoming more and more anxious, barely able to function as the war ground on for another interminable year.

Finally, in April 1865, word spread through Littlefield like a whirlwind: “The war is over. General Lee has surrendered.”

That day, something snapped in Delta’s mind. Upon hearing the news, her anxiety evaporated, and she stated very calmly, “Joshua will keep his promise to me, and I’ll keep my promise to him.”

That afternoon, Delta donned the soft yellow frock and bonnet she had worn the day Joshua had left, had a cup of tea at 3:30, left her home at 3:40, walked two blocks to the train station, sat on a bench on the platform and waited for the General Beauregard to chuff round the bend at 4:08. Late that evening, the old locomotive crept cautiously over the deteriorating tracks into the station, bringing a few weary soldiers home, but not Joshua.

Every day Delta donned a yellow frock and bonnet, had a cup of tea at 3:30, left her home at 3:40, walked two blocks to the train station, sat on a bench on the platform and waited for the General Beauregard to chuff round the bend at 4:08.

Sometimes the decrepit old train limped into town on time, but most days it arrived late, when it arrived at all. Every day, rain or shine, Delta was at the station, scanning the faces of arriving passengers, expecting to spot her love, blindly refusing to give up hope.

Months passed, then years. Her daddy died, leaving her the house and money. The war-torn rail line was rebuilt and the station was remodeled; the General Beauregard was replaced by a newer, modern diesel locomotive; the old weather-beaten, dingy passenger cars were replaced by newer rolling stock; and the town very slowly changed. Through it all, Delta kept her vigil, refusing to even consider that Joshua might not come home, refusing to acknowledge the passage of time.

As the years passed, Delta’s hair turned gray, her face became lined, her skin became wrinkled and covered with age spots, her hands started to become arthritic. She refused to see herself growing old even when she caught her reflection in a mirror or window, refused to give up hope, refused to surrender to despair.

One afternoon, Delta walked slowly to the station as usual. She tripped and fell as she approached her bench, but picked herself up and walked to the edge of the platform, where she stood looking north for the train. Finally, she noticed some commotion behind her. An old woman lay on the platform near the bench with a group of people gathered around. Curious, Delta moved closer.

The stationmaster felt for the woman’s pulse, looked up and shook his head. “I think she’s dead.”

“Poor ole thing. Been comin’ here ever’ day for years, a-waitin’ for a dead man to show up,” said an old woman.

Funny, Delta thought, I never noticed an old woman coming here every day.

A whistle sounded. Delta’s heart leaped as she recognized the sound. She looked up to see the General Beauregard chuffing around the bend pulling one passenger car. It was coming in at 4:08, right on time. The shadowy old engine faded in and out as it pulled up to the platform.

With a tired sigh and a blast of steam, the old engine stopped and a ghostly Confederate soldier — Joshua! — stepped onto the platform. He was wearing dirty, ragged gray trousers and a beat-up, faded gray slouch hat. An ugly-looking, bright red stain covered the breast of his gray jacket.

Elated, Delta ran to embrace him but stopped short, shocked at his appearance. “Joshua, what happened to you? Where have you been? I’ve been here every day waiting for you.”

“I’ve been coming here every day for years,” he replied, “but today is the first day you’ve been able to see me.”

“But why... How?”

“I took a Yankee bullet to my chest at Spotsylvania in ’64. Laid out on the battlefield all day. At first, I could hear the sounds of shooting and yelling and screaming; but I was hurt bad, and there was nothing I could do. Late in the afternoon, the shooting stopped, and some Yankee soldiers came by with a cart, picking up the wounded. They looked at me, but must have figured I was dead or so far gone it didn’t matter, so they left me lying there.

“After a while, the moon came out. I realized I was floating and looked down... And there I was on the ground with a big red stain on my jacket. I was really scared. I tried to get back in my body, but I couldn’t. Then I noticed a couple of other guys leaving their bodies and realized we were all dead.

“I don’t exactly know where I went after that. But the day Lee surrendered I found myself on the ghost train coming in to Littlefield at exactly 4:08. I promised you I would come, and I came back every day.”

“But... but, I see you... You’re here. How can you be dead?”

“I am. You can see me today because you’re dead too.” He pointed toward the group on the platform. “See that woman they’re covering up with a blanket? That’s you... or was you.”

“But I’m here,” she protested.

“Indeed you are. Only the body dies. We go on. And now we’re finally together again.”

Delta finally understood. “You came here every day as a ghost for me? That’s wonderful!”

“I came every day because you were here waiting for me.”

“Where were you all this time? On the train?”

“I’m not sure. Time doesn’t mean much to a ghost. Sometimes I found myself back on the battlefield; sometimes by the mass grave on the farm where the Yankees buried a bunch of us; sometimes marching with my brigade; sometimes just wandering; sometimes sitting under the big magnolia tree on my granddaddy’s farm. But every day, I found myself back on the ghost train, coming in to Littlefield. At exactly 4:08, the train would stop at the station, I would get out, walk over to you and tell you how much I love you. But you couldn’t see or hear me.”

He paused. “I think sometimes you might have felt me here.”

“I think I did. I really think I did.”

“Then the General would sound three blasts on its whistle, and I was back on the train headed south. It all got kind of hazy until I went back somewhere and started over the next day.”

The ghostly locomotive sounded three long blasts of its steam whistle. Joshua extended his hand. “Come with me, Delta.”

“Where to?”

“I don’t know exactly. I only know that the General Beauregard will take us wherever we need to go next. And wherever it is, we’ll go there together.”

Copyright © 2018 by Ronald Larsen

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