Williamstown Branch


In the afternoon a small wrecking train came up from Barre and straightened out the turntable. The four or five men who operated this train were not mad at anybody, because that was what they were paid for and it did not make them late for dinner to fix our turntable. In addition, they did not know one boy from another and did not care who had caused the damage.

We boys kept clear of Mr. Webb and everybody else connected with the Central Vermont Railway for some days after this incident. I thought maybe Mr. Webb would tell our parents and make life difficult for us, but evidently he didn’t.

My father looked at my brother and myself rather suspiciously one evening. “They had quite a lot of trouble with the turntable,” he observed. “Somebody must have been fooling with it, they think.” He paused. “If you were a little bigger I’d wonder if you boys weren’t mixed up in it.”

“They can’t do all the wrong things that get done,” said my mother gently.

I didn’t say anything, nor did my brother.

“People missed connections all the way to Montreal,” my father continued. He went on for a while with his dinner, and I could see, pretending all the while not to watch his expression, that his thoughts were drifting. He held his fork suspended for a moment. “Would you boys like to go to Montreal some day?” he asked.

I imagine we both gasped, as did my sister—his real favorite among us—who was not included in this suggestion.

“Montreal!” I said.

“Maybe,” replied my father. “But keep away from that turntable after this. Understand?”

We went exploring one lazy May day down along the tracks toward Barre. There were bare wooden trestles at one or two places, and if we wanted to be brave we would walk them, shuddering courageously at the depths below. I suppose people in authority thought the Williamstown Branch was to be a permanent institution, for once in a while they would send along a few gravel cars and fill in underneath some of these trestles. I wish I had the money they spent doing this; if any of them are still alive they may wish so, too.

Somehow the afternoon went by faster than we thought. It was a good afternoon, with the sun sinking at last behind the West Hill but leaving a good deal of light behind it for a half an hour and more. We started home as it went down, walking slowly along the track and pretending we were railway trains. We could still do this, even though the Central Vermont Railway no longer loved us.

We hadn’t got more than halfway home, still following the track, when we heard a whistle behind us. It could be nothing less than Mr. Webb bringing up the evening train, tooting and puffing as he came up the grade, with the fireman ringing the bell and having fun at every cowpath that crossed the rails.

We got off the track as Mr. Webb and his locomotive approached. There was plenty of time to do this, for Mr. Webb was not coming very fast. I suspect he was prolonging the sensation of being about to finish his day’s work and get something to eat. And anyhow, the ancient wood-burner he was operating couldn’t get up the grade at much more than seven miles an hour. The snorting and puffing it made as it climbed the steeper slopes made me want to get behind and push.

But Mr. Webb wasn’t worried. Mr. Webb, as in some sudden flash of insight we all realized, wasn’t even mad. Mr. Webb had had a good day, whatever that meant to him. He saw us as the train approached. We were in a sandbank from which we could not readily escape, though we had plenty of room to let the train go safely by.

Mr. Webb leaned far out of his cab window and relieved himself of more tobacco spit than I would have thought any man outside of a circus would have been capable of. Then he gazed at us fixedly, and I wondered if a sheriff or some other species of policeman wasn’t riding with him and getting ready to arrest us.

And then Mr. Webb winked. He winked a wink that began well up in his forehead and ended in a twitch along the left side of his nose.

We looked at each other, the three of us—or maybe that day it was four—and then let out a delighted and simultaneous whoop. Mr. Webb was our friend again; that was what that spitting and winking meant.

Just the same, when we came up to the station, where the brakeman and station agent had just finished unloading the baggage and express, I was a little shy as I walked slowly past the locomotive. The other boys, as I believe, disappeared altogether. At any rate, I was alone as I came up to where Mr. Webb was standing on the apron between the locomotive and the tender.

“Well, Robbie,” he said, and I stopped as though I’d been seized by the collar. “I’ve missed you lately. You haven’t been sick, have you?”

I said I hadn’t, and he grinned.

“You must watch for the train when you’re on the track,” Mr. Webb continued. “It ain’t a big engine but it would chew up a small boy if it hit him.” He motioned. “We’re going to turn her round, seeing there’s time to do it tonight. Would you like to climb up and help?” He waited, as if I would have to think this one over.

“You’re mighty spry,” said Mr. Webb. I was—I was already in the cab.

“Uh-huh,” I answered. I was breathing hard, not so much with the exertion of jumping into the cab beside Mr. Webb as with the excitement of being there.