That Incident at Connellsburg
by Ralph E. Shaffer
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
As Rick approached the light, he realized it was the wilderness forest service headquarters, an ancient, small, one-story building that was obviously closed. The light came from an outdoor bulb hanging in front of a bulletin board. Without much hope, he tried the front door. Locked!
Rick looked around for an outside phone booth. None was visible. He might, however, have cell phone service here because of the ranger station. To his surprise, his phone found service and he dialed the West Coast number that he had dialed so often. It was five minutes to seven. With luck, the editor would answer and his reputation would be saved.
“Editorial,” was the abrupt response. The conversation was short. The editor had detected a possible typo in the column Rick had sent out. Was it “now” or “not?” Depending on which word belonged in the line, the entire meaning of the sentence would change. Rick assured the editor that “now” was the right word, as written in the text. The conversation ended cordially and with a great deal of relief for Rick.
Before he could say “Goodbye,” his cell service failed and the call was dropped. The batteries were still good, however. No matter. He had made the emergency call he needed to make, but he wondered if fifty other editors had a similar concern. Probably not. Most of them just printed whatever came in, unlike this West Coast editor. All they were interested in was filling the space on tomorrow’s editorial page. And Rick was great at filling space.
What to do now? It would be at least forty-five minutes before the next east-bound bus passed the intersection. As he pondered his new dilemma he was suddenly aware that all the time he stood there on the phone in front of the ranger station that from a distance there was the sound of square dance music. He now saw more lights farther on and the movement of people in front of a large barn-like structure. Why not see what goes on in Connellsburg?
He crossed the roadbed of the long abandoned Delaware and Western rail line, which ran alongside the ranger station. Some day, he thought, a swift commuter train would replace the bus he rode daily. What an enjoyable ride that will be. Some day!
As he walked toward the barn, the music grew louder. Fiddles, a piano, some other instruments he couldn’t identify. He didn’t recognize the tune, but it was typical square dance music. Over the large doors at the front of the barn hung a banner: “WELCOME TO PIONEER DAYS!” Obviously this was a special celebration, and he could tell that there was a large crowd inside. The doors were open and several men and women sat at a table near the entrance, apparently selling tickets.
Desperate to make a call to Ilsa, Rick approached one of the men. “Do you have cell phone service here? My phone seems to have failed.”
The middle-aged man, dressed in the coveralls of a farmer, which was apparently the costume for the celebration since all the men were wearing them, looked puzzled.
“You mean do we have a telephone in the jail? Mister, we don’t have a jail and, if we did, that’s not the first place that would get a phone.”
Rick was a little puzzled himself. “You mean there are no phones in this town?”
“This ain’t Menlo Park, and Tom Edison hasn’t picked us as one of the lucky places to try out his invention.”
“No phones? Doesn’t the ranger station have one?”
“They have rangers in Texas, not in Connellsburg. The only station we have is a train station.” A pause. “You want to attend the celebration, stranger?”
Rick glanced at his watch. Forty minutes before the next bus, even if it were on time. He could be back at the intersection in five minutes if he walked briskly. Why not go in?
“Yeah. How much is a ticket?”
Rick pulled a dollar out of his wallet and started to hand it to the man.
“Sorry, mister. We don’t take paper money here. Silver’s the medium of exchange in Connellsburg.”
Good thing I didn’t offer him a credit card, thought Rick. He pulled out his coin purse, found two badly worn quarters, so eroded that most of the writing was gone from the coins, but the edges still had some notches. He handed the two coins to the man.
Before the man handed Rick a ticket, however, the coins were under scrutiny. A bespectacled, older man sitting beside the one who had talked with Rick was examining the coins, muttering something about the strange design, the lack of a readable date, and something else that Rick couldn’t understand.
In the end, both men put the coins to their mouths, bit down on them, nodded an approval to each other, and made some demeaning comments about Rick’s odd coins, but handed him a ticket and motioned for him to go in. Then, however, one of the men grabbed Rick’s arm and stopped him.
“What’s that box with a handle you’re carrying?” The man pointed at Rick’s briefcase.
“That’s my briefcase.”
Without asking permission, the man reached across the ticket table and drew the briefcase closer.
“Does it open?”
Assuming this was some sort of security check, Rick obliged by opening the case, exaggerating the motion of pulling back the locks. He lifted the lid, revealing a bundle of drafts for columns and other office stuff.
The man was uninterested in the contents. He admired the leather work, the metal handles and locks.
“Who made this?”
“It’s Samsonite,” Rick replied, assuming that would satisfy the man.
Rick was amazed that a man, even a farmer, had never heard of Samsonite. He tried to explain, but the sudden appearance of other farmers and their wives and children ended the conversation as the ticket sellers went back to their task. Rick walked past some farm equipment just inside the barn door and onto the dance floor, composed of hard dirt covered with straw.
And that’s when he saw her, the stunning, dark-haired girl in the immaculate white dress. They looked at each other simultaneously, startled, with a look of discovery. They quickly approached each other.
“I haven’t seen you before,” she said. “Who are you? The way you’re dressed, you surely don’t live around here. I daresay you’re not a farmer. Who are you?” she repeated.
“I’m Rick. I work in the big city west of here, but I live on the east side of the mountains.”
“Big city west of here? Pittsburgh? That’s a long way west of here. There’s nothing between here and Pittsburgh.”
How could she not know there is a big city less than thirty minutes down the road? But he glossed over that. She was so attractive that he didn’t want to discourage her by arguing.
“What do you do there?” she asked.
“I’m a newspaperman. I write a weekly column for papers all over the country,” he said, a little embarrassed because he was making his importance a lot bigger than it really was.
“A newspaper column?” she repeated in a voice that conveyed adoration. “You mean like Mark Twain and Josh Billings?”
“Well,” Rick admitted, “I’m not quite in that class, but, yes, like them.”
Wishing he hadn’t overstated his role as a columnist, Rick changed the subject. “You haven’t told me your name.”
“I’m Ilsa,” he thought he heard her say amid the din of the music, dancing and general noise in the barn.
They both smiled. “Wouldn’t you like a warm cider?” she asked.
He nodded, and she took his hand and led him to a table where they helped themselves to the cider.
“From the apples on my dad’s farm,” she said. “We have the best cider in the whole valley.”
“I’m surprised there are still farms here. I thought the Forest Service had turned all this region into a wilderness.”
“You’ve got it backwards. It was a wilderness before our families settled here. Now it’s civilized,” she said, laughing.
Rick liked her humor. He liked the way she looked. He was entranced. They sat down at a less noisy end of the dance floor and talked.
“My best friend is named Ilsa. Strange that I should run into an Ilsa here.’
“You misunderstood in the noise of the dancing. My name is Lisa, not Ilsa. But Ilsa is a pretty name, too,”
They talked for several minutes, then Rick remembered the bus he had to catch. “I have to catch the stage back at the intersection with the highway. Ilsa’s expecting me, and I’ll be an hour late as it is.”
“You could take the train east. It leaves in an hour and is certainly faster than a stage. It’s a freight. It’s carrying some of our apples tonight, but a local guy is the switchman. He’ll let you ride in the caboose with him.”
Rick seemed a bit confused. “The line’s abandoned. The rails were pulled up for scrap. You’re joshing me.”
“Come outside,” she said, taking his hand.
They went out a side door, which she closed to soften the noise from within, then they walked further away from the barn, beyond trees and shrubs that almost completely deadened the sounds from the dance. In the quiet of the evening, Rick could hear the faint throb of a steam engine at rest on the rails back toward the ranger station. Then a short blast of a whistle.
“That’s the 8:35,” Lisa informed him. “That’s the train you can take if you wait. We could take a walk, or stretch out on the hay over there,” pointing to a nearby mound of hay.
A train that doesn’t exist but he can hear it! An attractive girl he just met who wants to lie in the hay with him! The temptation was great but it was all so confusing. How would he explain his tardiness, or absence if he waited much longer, to Ilsa?
“I’d like very much to be with you a little longer, but I can’t tonight. Look, could we meet here again? Maybe Monday evening? I might even drive out here and we could go for a ride.”
“What kind of buggy do you have that you’d drive over that road from the east? Since the train came in, they don’t keep the road up like they used to.”
“I have an old Studebaker. It’s a classic. I restored it myself. Runs great.”
“Funny, we have a Studebaker, too. It’s Dad’s favorite wagon.”
“Mine’s not a wagon. It’s a sedan.”
Lisa looked a bit confused, but Rick changed the subject back to his need to catch the stage and his offer to come on Monday.
“I’ll walk with you to the intersection, as you call it. I want to see this stage that you’ll be taking. I really wish you’d stay. I don’t know where I’ll be on Monday, but you can drive out, as you say, and maybe we can get together. If not Monday evening, perhaps Tuesday or Wednesday night. I know I can’t come after Wednesday ’cause I’m going to visit an aunt for a few days. I leave on Thursday.”
They walked to the road and headed toward the Connellsburg intersection and the stage east. As they neared the ranger’s building, Rick realized it was really a railroad station. He now saw the rails in the roadbed as they crossed it, and in the distance stood a short freight train, the engine puffing as it waited patiently for departure. At the end of the train was the caboose Lisa had referred to.
“You could take the train,” she repeated in an urging voice.
“Not this time, Lisa. But I will one day.”
They walked on in silence, holding hands, reaching the highway only minutes before the stage was due.
“I’ll wait with you until it comes. I want to see what this stage looks like.”
The highway was strangely empty. The commute hours were over by now and only an occasional car would be on the road. None passed while they stood waiting, and talking.
“Lisa, I have to see you again. Please be here on Monday.”
“Rick, I can’t promise that. I want to see you too. That’s why I wish you’d stay longer tonight, because we might not meet again. But I’ll try to be here on Monday or, as I said, on Tuesday or Wednesday.”
Then the sound of the bus approaching caught their attention. Rick waved frantically with his briefcase. Lisa stepped into the street, the headlights illuminating her white dress. For a moment, it appeared that the bus would not stop, and Lisa stepped back. The squeal of braking was followed by the bus swerving to a stop just beyond them.
Rick and Lisa hurried to the door of the bus, which the driver had swung open. Rick turned toward her, she kissed him, then he quickly boarded the stage.
“I thought you were going to hit her,” Rick said to the driver.
“Hit who? I only saw you,” said the driver.
“The girl there, in the white dress.” Rick pointed through the open doorway... into the darkness. Lisa was gone.
* * *
Copyright © 2019 by Ralph E. Shaffer