J Dan Francis

Charlie Dixon’s Last Ride

It was the long, distant whistle announcing the Adirondack Flier as it approached High Rock Crossing that startled Charlie Dixon like he had woken from a bad dream. He was shaking and sweating, but strangely, as the train drew closer, he smiled and settled back. Nick Rodgers reached over with a comforting touch to his shoulder, patting him gently, speaking in assuring whispers; Charlie drifted back into his dreams and delirium.

Pete Harper picked up a stick and examined it; it looked to be just right. He used it to push a can of beans closer to the hot coals as flames from the campfire danced in the breeze, revealing the dirty stubble on his face. Pete worried maybe they had laid Charlie too close to the tracks. That the passing trains might agitate him in these last hours before he leaves this world for another. But it is where Charlie wanted to be, where he asked to be. It was not an unreasonable request, given the circumstances of his mortality. Like some who had a need to be near the ocean, Charlie had a need to hear the steel wheels of an iron horse clacking and clanking as it rolled down the tracks, and to listen to its lonely whistle blow one last time. This would be his final appeal, his last rite.

Nick lit a cigarette off a stick that he had pulled from the burning fire. He took a long drag, inhaling deeply as he stared restlessly at the flames.

“You think Charlie is long for this world?” Nick asked.

Pete was still pushing the can of beans around. The stick caught fire. He pulled it away and shook it till the flame went out. Smoke swirled and drifted up from the tip. He looked over at Charlie. Sweat was beading upon his forehead, and his breathing was labored. But he was sleeping, which was a relief to Pete. Pete looked back at the can of beans, studying it as he pushed it around some more.

“No…I don’t think Charlie is long for this world, kid…Looks like this might be Charlie’s last ride.”

“How do you know?”

“I just know.”

“But how?”

“You ask too many damn questions.”

“Aw…wadda you know?” Nick said.

Pete looked up at Nick, rocking back and forth, looking cold and troubled. Nick was worried about Charlie. He flicked his cigarette into the campfire and leaned over and put his hand on Charlie’s forehead. His fever was getting worse. Nick pulled the blanket up and tucked it under Charlie’s chin.

“Charlie can have my blanket,” Nick said.

“Cold night, you’re gonna need that blanket. Besides, Charlie will be gone before morning.”

“He’s burning up.”

“He don’t know it, kid…that extra blanket ain’t gonna buy him more time… ain’t nothin’ gonna buy Charlie time now. All we can do is make him comfortable; wait it out.”

“I can’t sleep anyway,” Nick said.

Nick got up and took the blanket from his bedroll. He laid it gently over Charlie. Charlie opened his eyes a little and gave Nick a faint smile, then fell back into unconsciousness. Nick sat down and pulled another cigarette from his shirt pocket. He tore the filter off and tossed it, then tapped the cigarette on the back of his hand. Nick flipped it between his lips and lit it with the same stick he had used before. He took a long drag and inhaled deep. Pete reached into his duffel and pulled out a bottle of Red Dog Whiskey. He unscrewed the cap and handed it off to Nick. Nick exhaled the smoke then took the bottle. He looked at it a moment, tipped it to his lips full up and took a big swig, he handed the bottle back to Pete. Pete took a long gulping swig, smacked his lips and winced; he took another quick swig, screwed the cap back on, and laid the bottle down by his side.

“I’m sorry, Pete,” Nick said.

“Yeah…me too.”

“It’s not fair…Charlie’s not even sixty yet.”

“God writes the rules, kid…and rule number one, life ain’t fair…It never is. This is the life we chose.”

“Not much of a life.”

“Depends how ya look at it.”

“I guess.”

The beans started to hiss. Pete picked up the stick and pushed the can away from the hot coals to let it cool a bit. Charlie began to stir in his sleep. He started talking out of his head like he was having a conversation with someone. Nick reached over to comfort him; Charlie stopped stirring as quickly as he started, and Nick pulled his hand away. He didn’t want to wake him. He turned back to the dwindling flames and flickering embers.

“I like this place,” Nick said, stretching his arms up high and yawning. “Where are we again?”

“Sacandaga River Valley, Adirondacks. In the morning, we’ll hike it over to North Hill, hop the eight-O-five down to Albany. Better chance of finding some work on the down-low in Albany.”

“What about Charlie?”

“What about Charlie?” Pete replied…“Charlie will be with his mother by then…Always talked about his mother…Saintly woman, Charlie called her. Probably her he was just talkin’ to. She’ll be there to greet him on the other side…Be like when he was a kid…Like old times.”

“Yeah, that’s all well and good, but we can’t just leave him here.”

“Can’t take him with us…Don’t worry none for Charlie’s sake, someone will find him. They’ll give him a decent burial. There’s a real nice cemetery above the town on Hilltop Road. I’ll pin a note to his shirt, tell them who he is, that he got no family but us. They’ll just think Charlie’s another bum who died in the woods by the tracks. They’ll make him a nice pine box to sleep in, take him to Hilltop, say a prayer over him, maybe sing a nice gospel song, then lay Charlie to rest.”

Nick took another drag on his cigarette; he flicked it into the fire, exhaling slowly. A sudden breeze carried the smoke away. Pete picked up the bottle of Red Dog, unscrewed the cap, and handed it to Nick. Nick held the bottle awhile as he watched the flames dying down, flickering and dancing above the glowing burning wood. He looked over at Charlie. Nick felt helpless to do anything more for him. He brought the bottle up, tilting it toward his dying friend as a last silent toast, and took a long swig. Nick handed the bottle back to Pete. Pete took the bottle, wiped the top, then, like Nick, he tilted the bottle toward Charlie and took a drink. Pete screwed the cap back on and laid the bottle down, and then threw a few more sticks on the campfire. The two men sat still and stared at the flames as the fire came back to life and danced, lighting up the night around them.

“Charlie ain’t no bum,” Nick said. “Make sure you put that in the note.”

J Dan Francis splits his time between Albany, NY, and the Adirondack Mountains, and is currently employed as a tractor trailer driver. His many jobs and a lifetime spent up north at his family’s cabin have provided him with countless stories to tell. Six of his poems were accepted for “Poem Village Month” and displayed in shop windows throughout Saranac Lake, NY, two years running. His work is published or forthcoming in Avalon Literary Review, Penmen Review, Projected Letters and SLAB.

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