It had been over fifty years since Joseph Foehammer last rode on a train. That he should feel such excitement over so trivial an event surprised him. It was a pleasant reminder of that childhood sense of wonder so easily forgotten beneath decades of adult sobriety. Yet his feelings of elan appeared subdued when compared against the unconstrained mania Nefertiti was demonstrating as she ran from one side of the aisle to the other.
Save for the past few weeks, Joseph mused, this vile creature has lived her entire miserable existence in the caverns deep below the streets of Clockhaven. How the emptiness of the Fells, punctuated by only the odd scattering of farmhouses, must seem overwhelming for one grown accustomed to chains and cages.
Joseph was pondering the likelihood of Nefertiti making the entire ride to Falun without killing somebody when the train unexpectedly began to slow.
“Why are we stopping?” Joseph caught the conductor’s arm as he was quickly making his way down the aisle.
“There was a red signal marker hanging on the last milepost we passed,” the red faced man replied, looking distracted and stressed out. “That means there’s a problem with the line between three and four miles ahead. We need to stop to assess the situation.”
“You have got to be kidding me!” a short and very rotund man in a pinstripe suit interrupted most rudely. “For how long?”
“Can’t rightly say til the damage has been assessed,” the railway employee addressed the portly man. “We can make most repairs ourselves so long as they are relatively minor. We carry about two dozen feet of rail and sufficient ties for such minor repairs. Regardless, it is likely to be several hours.”
“Several hours!” The fat man in the pinstripe suit hollered, his face turning a deeper shade of red. “That is not acceptable.”
“Unless you are offering to carry the train over whatever obstacle is ahead I suggest you sit back down sir,” said the conductor with a rising edge evident in his voice.
“Don’t use that tone with me!” the man bellowed. “I’ll have your job you impertinent jackass!”
“Sir!” exclaimed a severe looking woman wearing a plain brown dress and matching bonnet. “I implore you to watch your language!”
“I’ll speak any which way I damn well please, thank you very much!” The man glared at the lady who did not shy away from glaring back.
“People,” the conductor began. “Please try to stay calm. We will attempt to repair the rails, if possible, as quickly as we can.”
“I want my money back!” the pinstripe man whined.
The train sat unmoving upon the rails. A dozen or so passengers milled about outside, smoking and chatting to pass the time. A sinkhole had apparently swallowed the tracks two miles ahead of where the train came to rest. A small crew had taken a handcar to inspect the tracks and repair the damaged rails but would require several more hours to complete the job,
Joseph had wearied of the other passengers and stood apart observing a small copse of trees about a hundred and fifty yards in the distance beyond a muddy wagon trail.
“Father,” said Nefertiti, “I smell something divine hidden in those trees.” She took his hand and pulled him across the sodden grassland.
“You ain’t no highwaymen comes ta steal from old Robyn is ya?” said the woman who’d opened the cabin door in response to the knock. Nefertiti ignored the question and shouldered past the small woman in a direct route to the crock pot simmering on the stove.
“What is this?” she asked.
A look of perturbation flashed across Robyn’s face at Nefertiti’s brashness, but it was tempered by the pride she felt in the robed woman’s interest in her stew.
“That be my black worm stew.” Robyn replied. “I was jest tellin’ some folks last night how right some delectable it be but they run off without tryin’ none.” Robyn turned to Joseph. “Come in off the stoop, mister. I ain’t one to bite. Take ya’ a seat.” She pointed to a large plush chair covered with a crochet blanket. Joseph, feeling suddenly fatigued gratefully accepted the offer.
Nefertiti removed the lid from the pot and leaned in close taking several deep audible sniffs.
“Would ya care fer some?” the woman offered, her voice taking on a sing-song quality that Joseph felt to be instantly calming.
“Don’t mind if I do,” Nefertiti said, reaching for the ladle that had been left on the counter next to the stove. She dipped the ladle into the thick dark stew and slurped it down, barely chewing the black jelly-like lump of meat she’d spooned up with the broth. Nefertiti rolled her eyes. “So good!” she exclaimed dipping the ladle again.
“So nice ta see a girl with a healthy appetite rather than one who eats like a bird.” Robyn chuckled as she watched Nefertiti ravenously consuming ladlefuls of stew. “Though some birds have more of an appetite than ya might think.”
“So good!” Nefertiti repeated between mouthfuls.
“Be ya kin ta the folks that stopped by last night?” Robyn asked glancing at Joseph who appeared to be sinking into the armchair. “Cause ya looks jest like the boy that was with ‘em. Same green eyes on ya.”
Same green eyes! Joseph thought as he continued to sink into the chair. “What boy?” he asked, though his voice sounded husky and slurred.
“Party travelin’ the Fells from Babbagetown I would guess.” Robyn replied. “At least I assumed, they never said. Had a tall thin boy with ‘em with striking emerald eyes – same as yers.” said Robyn to Joseph, her voice lulling and calm.
“Father, you must try this!” Nefertiti gushed. But Joseph appeared to have fallen asleep in the big plush chair.
“There’d be more,” said Robyn sadly, “but alas I need me some bait ta catch more of the magnus sapidum pedicabor. There only be a short season fer ‘em and I be plum out.”
“What kind of bait?” Nefertiti asked.
“Well,” Robin smiled. “The fat ones be best – so he be not so ideal.” Robyn nodded over at Joseph who had begun to snore.
The speed with which Nefertiti crossed the room and pinned Robyn to the wall appeared to both shock and frighten the bird lady.
“Father is not bait!” Nefertiti hissed. Her tone and intensity were clear: there would be no negotiation over Joseph. “But if it’s a fat one you require I know just where to find it.”
The railway repairs had taken longer than they’d anticipated. After a several hour stopover that had run through most of the night, the train whistle blew its final warning. They could wait no longer for the missing passenger.
“Perhaps a walk back to New Babbage will teach that man some manners,” the lady in the brown dress and matching bonnet was overheard to say as the train began once more to chug its way north.
Nefertiti adjusted Joseph’s blankets then settled in the seat beside him cradling a large jar of worm stew in her lap.