Fortuitous Train

By Pete Tucker

December 1921

Part One

No one ever said that these were deluxe accommodations. Quentin Jones had no such expectation. Sleeping with cattle was a hell of a lot warmer than it was in some rickety old empty boxcar. He was just doing what he had to do to stay warm, notwithstanding the cross-currents of bovine flatulence. As far as Quentin knew, the Conductor was clueless that he was  even on the train.

Such an arrangement would not have been possible without help from his buddy, Ike, who worked for Pennsylvania Railroad. Ike had no particular title, except for, perhaps Gopher Boy. Odd little jobs that needed no real expertise were limitless on this train. Ike was the go-to man for the lot of them. The fact that his pal, Quentin, was a passenger in the cattle car was strictly between the two of them, no one else.

Quentin was going on a hunch today. Prosperous looking places, such as those on the regular route that this train took, just might offer a chance of employment. There were farms along this route that were big, better kept than most and were growing some fine-looking crops. Why not look for work around here?

What was the harm in trying? Quentin was growing weary of hearing “No, no work”.

He was aware that he couldn’t be making a great impression. After all, he’d spent last night sleeping next to cattle. He had to wear the bovine stink, but that might be a credential with these farmers.

He did own a comb with intermittent gaps in the teeth, but it was his. Quentin’s worldly possessions were pitifully scant. The cattle car surely wasn’t conducive to decent hygiene, but he had to keep after finding work, greasy hair and all.

He would occasionally ponder. How did he get to this lowly point in his life? A year ago, he was a Private in the U.S. Army, shipped to Europe to fight in a horrific war. Before the Great War ended, Quentin saw action in one major battle. He was shipped back home again in short order and discharged.

But, now? Now he was one of the hobos that people talked about. It had become Quentin’s reality before he even knew it! He was “poor as a church mouse”, as folks would say. Flat broke, no job.

Peering through the slats in the cattle car, he determined that the train had arrived at the sweet spot that he liked. Quentin only knew that it was in Jersey, about twenty minutes after the train crossed over the Delaware. The last sign where the train stopped read Annandale. That was one clue as to where he was. Quentin surely had no map.

Ike had been very adamant with his instruction to Quentin about jumping from the cattle car. There was a technique to it that assured the jumper would hit the ground , but leave the door locked. In fact, Quentin had practiced it with Ike looking on. This was important. If the train was moving and that door was found to be unlocked, Ike might just as well look for another job.

The moment came. Quentin jumped. He hit the ground hard, but deftly rolled out of his descent with just a bruise. He was standing up momentarily. He retrieved a blanket that bundled but few possessions. When traveling like this, Quentin refused to carry his bundle with a stick over his shoulder. The hobo image didn’t mix well with looking for work.

Now then. Where was he? He was suddenly without the perspective provided by the elevation of the cattle car’s floor. He could decipher but one unhelpful clue. He was in someone’s hayfield. Clover, to be exact, judging by a few remaining, though frosted buds.

A new-looking McCormick cycle bar mower rested at the edge of the field. Quentin saw that as a good sign. What farmer had new equipment?

He scanned the field. It was bordered, all four edges, by trees. Wagon tracks seemed to indicate a spot of ingress/egress to the field. Quentin already knew that as the point to walk toward if the farmstead was to be visited. He’d been at this routine before. Quentin started walking.

This field was bigger than he thought. A dump-rake rested at his intended corner of the field. That, too, hadn’t had much of a chance to rust. At the corner, he walked through a break in the trees that he hoped would reveal the farmstead. No such luck. The trees, as though a stage curtain, opened only to another field, this one more spacious than the one prior.

Quentin surveyed the scene. The sun shone on yet another pretty field. He deciphered, based on the spot where wagon tracks had worn their path onward, that this farm wasn’t being worked by horses. There wasn’t a hoof print to be found. Steel wheels rendered a perfectly smooth, uniform path. Again, Quentin found himself at curtain call. This time his breath was taken away.

He could view two houses in the distance, one an altogether stately stone structure. A substantial stream flowed near to it. A few hundred feet separated a second smaller house, also of stone, but of a quite different style. Two sizable barns stood a stone’s throw from the houses. Quentin was utterly stricken by the idyllic scene that this farmstead added to the landscape.

Here goes nothing, Quentin thought to himself. So as to not portend his status, he stashed his his bundle behind an Elm trunk. The aura that this place portrayed intimidated him a bit. These were bound to be proper folks. How might they take to this slovenly vagabond traipsing through their farm? He reminded himself to put across to people that he was just looking for work. He combed his fingers through his hair as he walked toward the barns. He could now hear two men talking.

Part Two – Gentlemen Farmers

Alfred said to Sam, “Let’s get it in place first, then level it.”

The two men, as far as Quentin could see, were trying to lift a beam in one of the barns . It was easily heavier than they should be trying to lift. Indeed they were struggling. As gingerly as possible, they put the beam down to re-think what they were attempting to do. Engaged in that conversation, they hadn’t yet seen the stranger who was now at the open barn door.

Sam replied to Alfred, “I lend credence to the men who built this monster. If we re-peg it just as it was, I bet it’ll be perfectly level.”

Quentin took advantage of the verbal pause.

“Could you gents use an extra pair of hands”, he inquired of the two men.

They both wheeled around, a little startled. Alfred gave Quentin a long stare, figuring this guy was just another train jumper. With the railroad track passing through his farm, they were fairly common. With two teenage daughters in his farmhouse, Alfred had little patience with them being on his farm. He’d never met a hobo worth his salt, anyway.

Alfred sneered a little.

“I don’t remember having run an ad for help, but at least your timing is good. Get yourself to the end of this beam and heave when we do”, Alfred barked.

“Yes sir”, Quentin acquiesced and hustled to where he needed to be.

Alfred explained to Quentin the intended target for the beam.

“You understand?”

“Yes sir”, Quentin replied.

“Good”, Alfred countered. “On the count of three.”

One extra pair of hands was just what the doctor ordered. The beam was perched exactly where it had to be. The three men momentarily admired their success which would have been awkward without introductions.

“I’m Alfred McCutcheon”, he said, extending his hand. “This is my brother, Sam.”

Quentin and the men shook hands. With that, Alfred noted to himself that at least this guy had a stout handshake.

“Most unexpected visitors here are from off the train”, Alfred said. “Is that your case?”

“It’s the only way I could make it here to your lovely farm, l’m afraid.”

“And what’s your business here, Quentin Jones?”

Alfred wanted to cut right to the chase here. No Mr. Nice Guy even though this fellow had just lent him a hand. As a general rule, Alfred saw to it that the train bums didn’t linger.

There was, however, something about Quentin that  compelled Alfred  to inquire. While Quentin was stretched out lifting the beam, Alfred noticed two chains hanging from his neck. Alfred questioned as to what they were.

“Oh”, Quentin obliged, “They’re just my dog tags.”

“Navy?” Alfred inquired.

“Army”, Quentin volleyed.

“You been in France?”

“Yes sir”

“Where?” Alfred fired back.

“Reims”, Quentin said.

A pronounced change in demeanor washed over Alfred McCutcheon. He reached out and again shook Quentin’s hand.

“Soldier”, he said, “I owe you an apology. Here I am thinking you’re some ordinary hobo off the train. Turns out, you helped get the Armistice signed.

With that, three men smiled broadly.

“You know what, soldier…. I’m sorry, You’re too damned young. You must be a Private. I have to tell you something else, too. You,hands down, stink. You’ll have dinner with us this evening only if you go upstairs and take a bath. I’ll have my wife prepare it for you.”

Quentin mused for a moment about how his fortunes had just changed inside of a few hours.

“I can’t ask you to do all of that”, he replied to Alfred.

“Nonsense”, Alfred countered. “It would be the least we could do. Besides, I’ve never compared notes with someone who was there.”

“Someone who was where?”, Quentin replied.

“Reims”, Alfred answered.

The three men adjourned the work in the barn and headed toward the big house. Quentin could hardly believe that he was going to spend the evening in the grand house that had wowed him from a distance when he first set foot on this farm.

Apparently Alfred’s brother Sam would be accompanying them for dinner. They all ascended the stairs to a lovely wrap-around porch. For the moment they halted there, allowing Alfred to step inside, such that he could advise his family of an unexpected dinner guest. Quentin and Sam seized those minutes to take in the view from the porch.

Quentin remarked to Sam words to the effect that someone long ago had a very discerning eye when they chose this spot to build. Sam certainly agreed.

Quentin commented on a huge bell that was mounted there on the porch.

Sam acknowledged. “Yeah, the workers can hear that over whatever racket they might be making in the fields. That bell means only one thing”, Sam smiled. “Dinner time!”

“They gave that bell to Alfred, they did, the Pennsylvania Railroad”, Sam said.

“Whoa”, said Quentin. “They must like him.”

“Well, he worked for them for a lot of years”, Sam noted.

Quentin wryly smiled. What quizzical cross-currents in life! Thankfully his hosts weren’t aware of the wholly disparate association with Pennsylvania Railroad between him and Alfred. Oh well. He’d let that one slide.

“I wonder what year this house was built.”

Quentin figured to learn as much as he could when he could.

“It was well before the revolution, I know that”, Sam said.

“1730,” Alfred announced, re-joining the conversation, “if you’re talking about when the house was built.”

“Wow. That’s more than a little bit of history” Quentin added.

Alfred ushered them into the house. Introductions, of course, were first. There was Mrs. McCutcheon, Susie, who couldn’t have been sweeter or more cordial. Quentin immediately felt at home with her. Susie was one classy lady.

Then Sally entered the room, the younger of the two McCutcheon daughters. Quentin guessed her to be in the 17 year old neighborhood. She seemed to be a chip off the old block, pleasant, but a little guarded. That was of no surprise to Quentin. After all, a quite grungy, dirty stranger had just entered her domain. That had to be a little taxing to her comfort zone.

Quentin was thus reminded of how he must look, bedraggled and not bathed in three days. One fact was in his favor. Dirty and greasy only mattered  so much. He was naturally a good-looking guy. He endeavored to apologize to Susie for his unkempt appearance.

“You’re gonna clean up just fine”, a third female voice joined the conversation. Quentin turned to countenance a stunning young lady with a most welcoming smile as she entered the room.

“Quentin, this is Sarah, our other daughter”, Susie noted.

“Whew, what a fine family,” Quentin enthused. “I’ll have to keep my S’s straight! Pleased to meet you,Sarah”.

That comment prompted a chuckle from all of them. Sarah was the elder daughter, so Quentin guessed her to be 19 or 20. Either way, he figured, she was one fine-looking filly.

“I was prepping bath water for you upstairs, at Dad’s instruction. It’s ready to go if you wish to have at it, it’ll still be hot,” Sarah beckoned with a beguiling smile that was already growing on Quentin.

“Sarah, place one of my clean work shirts out for Quentin. It should probably fit.”

“Already have, Daddy.”

“I should tell you folks, I’m not at all accustomed to such service. I don’t even know how to thank you”, Quentin effused.

“I’ll work with you on that”, Sarah teased Quentin.

He thought it to be a bit of a flirtatious reply. Quentin just smiled broadly. They all did.

Sarah said, “Now go to the top of the stairs and make a right. Your bath is in there”

Quentin headed upstairs, quite taken by his new circumstance. .. from a cattle car a few hours ago to being doted over by a gorgeous damsel in a beautiful house. It seemed as though they were about the same age. Who knew? Life’s cross-currents, Quentin mused to himself.

 Part Three – Dinner with the Family

“Do you folks eat this well every day?”

Quentin was quite impressed with the meal, especially given the fact that the McCutcheon ladies had no idea that they were having a guest today.

“Well, you look like you need a little meat on those bones, Quentin , Alfred noted. Lest you waste away to nothing, have some more.”

Their dinner conversation was robust; all were engaged. Quentin learned that Alfred was a gunnery officer on a small ship during the war. He’d done plenty of mine sweeping work in French ports. He’d sailed recon. He’d seen his share of sister ships descend to the briny deep.

“Where did you train?”, Quentin asked him.

“At the Naval Academy.” Alfred replied.

“Good Night! You are one accomplished gentleman, Mr. McCutcheon.”

“Hey, you know what? You. Me. We were all over there doing our job. No heroes. But tell me. You were at Reims, the battle that drew the whole bloody conflagration to a close. That must have been one nasty battle”, Alfred said.

“You know, Alfred”. … as Quentin spoke he found himself staring dead straight into Sarah’s eyes. He choked a little with emotion as the occasion’s levity drained from her face, but surely their eyes were locked.

“They’re all nasty, Alfred. More than I hope you will ever know. From the break of dawn you slop in the foul trench like so many shoats waiting for their own slaughter. Then there’s a hail of bullets so thick that you pray one of them will take you out of the Hell you find yourself in.

In the muck and mire you can only hope your rifle still fires. If it doesn’t and the fighting gets hand to hand, you at least have your rifle butt and your bayonet to bludgeon the guy coming at you.

The firing stops long enough for you to see five of your ten buddies, stone-dead, mired in some grotesque contortion with their blood having painted some haughty spire in the ghastly muck.”

Quentin caught himself long enough to realize that everyone at the table had stopped eating, spellbound by what he was saying. He saw tears welling in Sarah’s eyes, the moment that jarred him out of his hideous description.

“I’m sorry folks. Sometimes the memory of it moves me to another world. I forget that it’s not exactly a good dinner time topic.”

“That’s OK, Quentin”, Susie McCutcheon assured him. “We’re just glad you’re here and away from that world.”

Quentin had just risen several notches in Alfred’s book. This fellow was no hobo. He was a distinguished Brother in Arms who had endured things that no sailor ever had to. It was sad, Alfred thought, that he was hopping the freight train to find some lousy wage job.

Quentin, by the Grace of God, held his emotions in check… barely; his struggle to do so obvious to all at the table. One surely would recognize how profoundly he’d been affected by war.

Notable, too, was that Quentin had been locked in a seemingly impassioned stare with Sarah. That wasn’t lost on Alfred, her father. Alfred was sensitive enough to steer the conversation off of the war.

Dinner closed with a dessert that wowed them all, some sort of apple crisp that would make any sweet tooth buckle at the knees. In diligent conversation about the dessert , it was revealed that Sarah had made it. That wasn’t lost on Quentin!

The question of Quentin’s return to home inevitably arose.

Already near dusk, Alfred implored Quentin to stay the night.

“Didn’t you say you were over across the Delaware ? You don’t want to make that trip in the night, especially when we have a guest house a few hundred feet yonder. C’mon, go back home in the light of day.

“Besides, I never ascertained why you set foot on the farm in the first place.  Surely it wasn’t to help us lift that beam. We’ll stoke a fire and have a chat.”

Alfred was right, Quentin realized. He’d never said anything to him about work. Quentin emphatically voiced his appreciation for all offers that were coming his way. It was overwhelming. Dinner, sleep over, fireside chat… beautiful daughter. No, that was just Quentin’s afterthought.

By the time they retired to the den, Sarah already had a roaring fire stoked. Quentin picked up on that in short order. What a variety of dynamics were unfolding this evening in the McCutcheon household!

Eventually the whole family gathered at the hearth. Quentin opted not to broach the subject of employment straight away. There would be time for that. Conversation was fluent. Alfred suggested a nip of port to any who would imbibe. Susie arose with Sarah to accommodate that suggestion.

Sarah re- entered the room with a tray of port sippers. She placed the tray on a side table, offered first to Daddy, then she handled one and gave to Quentin.

Quentin smiled as he caught her eye. “Thank you, my lady. A sweeter draft from a fairer hand was never quaffed.”

“I hope I didn’t bungle my Whittier too badly”, Quentin smiled.

All McCutcheons were taken by the literacy of their train-jumper guest.

Every one in the room would not forget this moment. It was as though Quentin had found himself a family. Dinner adjourned.

Quentin shook hands with Alfred, expressing gratitude for having met each other today. They bade each other good night. Quentin gave Sally a peck on the cheek and a wish for sweet dreams.

Part Four –  A Rapturous Moment

Sarah and her Mom both walked Quentin up to the guest house. Their short stroll was infused with laughter over many conversations they’d just had at dinner. Presently they were showing Quentin the interior of the cottage. He was taken with its uniqueness.

“Sarah’s grandfather built this,” Mrs. McCutcheon explained. “He was an accomplished stone mason.”

“I’ll say”, Quentin agreed. “That tells me you folks have been in these parts for a while.”

“Alfred’s family, nearly fifty years,” she confirmed.

The ladies made short work of showing Quentin where everything was that he might need.

“Well, I am so obliged”, he assured them. “You both have to be quite tired.”

Mom and daughter didn’t argue with that one. They all rendered a cordial good night and the ladies were on their way back down to the big house.

Quentin did some quick thinking. He allowed a minute to go by, then re-opened the cottage door. He called out Sarah’s name. She answered from a distance. The

“Sarah, I hate to push my luck here, but I would ask a favor.”

“Surely”, she enthused.

“Down by the big barn there’s an Elm tree”.

“ Know right where it is”, Sarah confirmed.

Quentin explained that behind the tree there was a bundle of his possessions. Would she be so kind as to bring it into the big house in case it rained overnight?

“I’ll be happy to”, Sarah replied.

“Thank you”, Quentin voiced into the night.

To his surprise , in a few minutes there was a knock at the cottage door.

“Who’s there?”

“It’s me, Sarah.”

Quentin recognized this as opportunity to have a little fun.

“Sarah who?” Quentin said.

“You know damned well who.”

“I haven’t heard the password”, Quentin teased.

“Quentin Jones, if you have any idea what’s good for you, you’ll let me in right now!”

“Just what is it you say that’s good for me?” At this point Quentin was laughing. He flung open the door.

With no further dalliance, the two engaged in an embrace that seemed magical to them both. In minutes the lip-lock de-coupled. Quentin inquired, “And where, pray tell, did you learn to kiss like that?”

Sarah assumed a warm but serious tenor.

“Truth be told, nowhere. You’ll just have to believe me.”

Quentin stared at her mesmerizing smile for for a moment.

“You know what”, he replied, “I believe you, but you’re damned good at it for a beginner.

“I was motivated”, she smiled.

With that another protracted kiss was theirs.

“Sarah, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for you to walk this bundle up here.”

“And how were we going to kiss good night?”

“Excellent point!”, Quentin smiled.

“Tell me your not going home tomorrow”, Sarah said with a near tear in her eye.

“Truth be told” said Quentin, I don’t have a home. Don’t worry. We have lots to talk about. I’ll see you in the morning. Are you up at dawn?”

“ Easy.”

“Atta girl.”

Part 5 – Work Begins   

The first thing Quentin learned the next morning was that Alfred was up before dawn. As he walked down to the big house, Quentin spied him at work digging a row of fence post holes along side one of the barns. Quentin bade him Good Morning and inquired as to his project.

“Well, shame on me, Quentin. For as many years as I’ve been here, I never had a decent barnyard around these structures. I now have the posts and the boards. All I have to do now is build it.”

“Sounds like you’re gearing up for some livestock,” Quentin guessed.

“Well, there’s a farmer down the road who will pay me some rent for the one barn and a little pasture. He has a slew of sheep.

“Ya know,”  Alfred continued , “I still haven’t asked you what prompted your visit here yesterday.”

“Well,” Quentin replied, “I was actually looking for work.”

“Hmm. I wasn’t looking for help on this fence. If I was, I’m afraid I wouldn’t be paying much.”

“But Alfred, you just put a roof over my head last night. I already owe you some post holes. Fair is fair.”

“ You might have a point”, Alfred acknowledged. “Maybe we could work something out. For today, I’ve scored the dirt in ten spots to dig post holes. Here’s the stick to measure three feet deep if you wish to show me what you can do with a shale bar”, Alfred suggested.

Quentin grabbed the bar without hesitation, suggesting that there was no time like the present. Alfred liked that.

Quentin thought Alfred looked a little peaked for this early in the morning, so he was happy to relieve him of this rigorous work. Alfred stuck around just to do a little shoveling.

“Are the ladies up and about just yet”, Quentin asked of Alfred.

Uncharacteristic of yesterday, Alfred seemed a bit labored at delivering his reply. The two conversed further. It was a bit subtle, but Quentin deciphered intermittent slur in Alfred’s speech.  Not really having much of a benchmark, Quentin at least thought there to be a perceptible difference in the way that Alfred’s speech sounded from yesterday.

“Alfred, are you feeling all right this morning?,” Quentin inquired.

“Funny you should askt,” Alfred strained. “I’m shorta dizzy. My left arm here duzznt wanna coooperate.”

Quentin put his hand on Alfred’s shoulder and took the shovel from his hand. He’d had medic training in the Army. He didn’t like what he saw.

“Alfred,” he said. “Look at me. I’m dead serious. I want you to come sit on this stump. Rest here ‘til I get back. I’m just going down to the house. Would you do that for me? Just stay here?”

“Yes, but whadr ya doom?”

“I’m going to say Good Morning to the ladies of the house . Wait here just a minute, OK?”

“Ukay” Alfred muttered, a bit winded.

Quentin high-tailed it down to he house and was poised to rap at the  kitchen door when Sarah was just turning the handle to come outside.

“Why, Good Morning, Sunshine”, Sarah enthused before she had the door open.

Her signature smile quickly disappeared upon seeing Quentin’s serious demeanor.

“Good Morning, Sarah. I have immediate business here. Is there a doctor locally?”

“What’s the matter?”

“I hope I’m wrong, but I think your Dad might be having a stroke”, Quentin posited.

Sarah gasped, as well as her Mom who heard the exchange from the kitchen.

“Where is he? How do you know this? Mrs. McCutcheon asked.

“He’s up by the larger barn, resting, but we need to get him down here to the house and in bed. I just have a little medical training, but this is what I suspect.

“Do you have a blanket or two? And…about a doctor?”

Sarah replied, “Well there’s Dr.Gleason down at Skunktown.”

“Where?” Quentin was momentarily incredulous, but knew that Sarah wouldn’t be joking right now. “Can he be reached by telephone?”

“Yes, We’ve called him at his home before,” Sarah’s Mom said.

“Does he have a roadster? Can he get here?”, Quentin grilled.

“Yes, He just purchased a Brisco, Model B”, Sarah confirmed.

Quentin dished out orders as though a field commander.

“Mrs. McCutcheon, could you find a couple of blankets to bring up to your husband. A little water to drink, too?”

“Sarah, is Sally up yet? If not, could you see that she dresses and comes up to the barn? THEN, don’t stop trying until you’ve reached Dr…. What’s his name, Gleason and he’s on his way up here. Tell him what I suspect and he’ll know there’s no time to waste.

Mrs. McCutcheon had her coat on. She and Quentin hastened to see Alfred. Sarah was already talking with the telephone operator to get a connection with the Doctor.

Alfred was still perched on the stump when Quentin and Susie McCutcheon arrived. She hugged Alfred. He was glad to see them. They draped a blanket over him. Fortunately, it was not a very cold day.

Alfred seemed to vaguely understand that he was to sling each of his arms over the shoulders of Quentin and his wife. They would slowly walk him down to the house. Sally arrived to be of any needed assistance. All four of them shortly made it to the kitchen door. Fortunately Alfred was of moderate weight.

Sarah indicated that Dr.Gleason was on his way. It might take him a half hour to get there from Skunktown. In the meantime, all hands endeavored to put Alfred to bed and make him as comfortable as possible.

Doc Gleason was in the bedroom with Alfred and Mrs. McCutcheon for about an hour while Quentin, Sarah and Sally waited in the parlor. Doc and the Mrs. finally emerged and joined the others in the parlor. They had a lengthy conversation. First, Alfred was going to be OK. He speculated that it was a relatively mild stroke. Their questions were profuse.

The Doctor was very complimentary.

“Someone was very ‘heads up’ here,’ the Doctor said.

“ By the time I got here, the most important things were already done. Recognizing what was happening was key. Getting him to stop work and into bed was equally as important.”

Sarah’s hand clenched Quentin’s, rather openly. They all smiled. Quentin was overwhelmed by thoughts that he was having. By some stroke of kind luck, was he sitting there with the lady who he would marry ? Was he surrounded by “Family” ? What a wonderful feeling, since he really had none.

The Doctor was clear about the challenges that lay ahead for Alfred, that he had just experienced a life-changing event, that he would need help.

With that, Sarah lifted Quentin’s hand and placed it on her lap. It seemed a non-verbal way of saying,” And you will be the help!”  They briefly smiled at each other.

Dr. Gleason had done all that he could do. They all thanked him. By noon he was on his way. The ladies discussed what was on their docket for the rest of the day. Mrs. McCutcheon, assuming her newfound reality, indicated that she’d be sticking close to Alfred.

Both of the girls had things to do, as well. To Quentin, it was clear as a bell what was on his list.

“Well”, he announced, “ I have post holes to dig!”