It was the day before summer vacation at the Long Branch Schoolhouse. The beginning of summer in 1932 proved a hot day for baseball, even under the shade of the large oak trees that shielded the school yard. But in spite of the discomfort, Harlan, an eighth grader with the height and shoulders of a grown man, plowed into the ball with the scarred Louisville Slugger.
The ball flew high center, over Willard Dees’ head, and over the train tracks, just before the 12:10 train parted the school yard from the wheat field across the tracks. No one ever discovered why, but that day the locomotive with its roaring engine and line of rusted rail cars loaded high with lumps of black coal shining in the midday sun flew by the school yard faster than usual.
The ball was still in flight as Mr. Neil the school master of the one-room school rang the cast iron bell, just ahead of the train’s whistle; calling the forty-nine kids back inside. The boys and girls, who ranged in age from the first to the eighth grade, ran purposely towards the school steps, anticipating an early dismissal on this last day of school. All were settled in their seats as Albert looked at the empty seat next to him wondering worriedly where his best friend Willard was. “Willard is still outside,” Albert said loudly, as he hurried out of his seat and ran to the large south window with most of the others following him.
“You kids get back from the window,” said Mr. Neal, as he pushed his way towards the front of the group.
“There – over there,” yelled out one of the kids closest to the window. “You see; it’s Willard laying across the tracks, on the edge of the field.” The name Willard repeatedly echoed from the high ceilings of the old one room wooden building as the crowd of kids, barely led by the aging school master, squeezed hurriedly through the double doors and across the school yard towards the now barren tracks.
JD Walker was the first to cross the tracks and reach the field where Willard lay silent. “There’s blood all over, and his leg is missing,” yelled the fifteen-year-old eighth grader.
“The train wasn’t supposed to be going that fast,” said Albert as he stood trembling next to Willard, tears gently falling onto the still body of his friend.
Mr. Neil parted the kids that surrounded Willard and made his way to the dreadful sight. He unbuckled his belt and, in one swooping motion, jerked the belt free from his pant loops and nervously cinched the belt around Willard’s bloody thigh. The younger children and girls were pushed back by a wall of older boys who urged them to cover their eyes and move back to the school house.
The old schoolmaster pressed his finger against Willard’s neck and thought he felt a weak pulse. Then he held Willard’s mangled stump above the ground and looked sadly at the pool of blood and the once rosy-cheeked face that now seemed to be the color of chalk. His thoughts drifted:
I’ve seen this before: the ground stained with blood, young men that once stood tall and proud – in rows like autumn fields of corn – laying still and scattered about. Faces with no color left in them, eyes that stared into nowhere. … This can’t be happening; on a battle field yes – but not a school yard.
“Mr. Neil, Mr. Neil,” yelled out JD. “I’ll run down the road to the Renfro’s farm house and use their telephone to call for help.
“You call Doc Shaffer first; then call P.Q. Grey, the police chief; ask him to round up Willard’s folks,” said Mr. Neil in an unusually calm voice. “You younger kids go back into the school house.”
“I gotta stay here with Willard,” said Albert.
“Sure, Albert … you can stay.”
“JD Walker is the fastest boy on two legs around these parts,” said Albert, as he dropped to his knees next to Willard, with tears still falling from his face onto the blood soaked ground. “He’ll get to a phone fast and ol’ Doc Shaffer will save Willard.”
Harlan spoke up then. “I found his leg laying in the ditch Mr. Neil; you want me to bring it here?”
“Yes, bring it here.”
Harlan carried the leg by holding onto the old worn out leather shoe that was tied with a piece of bailing twine in the place of a shoe lace, and he laid it gently next to Willard.
As Albert looked at Willard’s shoe, he thought how poor Willard’s family was. All the families in that area were poor, but not like Willard’s family.
Doc Shaffer pulled into the school yard and parked near the tracks. Stepping out of the 1931 Ford Victoria, he reached back into the automobile and pulled out a black leather bag. He walked slowly, slightly dragging his left leg that had been injured in the last war, and when he arrived at the scene, Albert and Harlan helped Doc Shaffer get down onto his good knee. With stethoscope laid on Willard’s chest, the Doc looked up to Mr. Neil, then to Albert, and slowly shook his head.
“He has lost too much blood, and the shock was too much for the poor lad. … There is nothing I can do; I’m sorry.”
“You gotta do something!” cried Albert. “He’s my best friend.”
“I’m sorry boy,” said Doc Shaffer as he struggled to stand.
Albert wiped his tears with his forearms and turned his head towards an old rust colored truck that had pulled alongside Doc Shaffer’s car. Willard’s mom threw open the truck’s door and ran frantically towards the tracks. Harlan ran to meet her, and helped the heavy set woman over the tracks. “My poor boy!” screamed Mrs. Dees as she fell to the ground next to her dead son, where she sat for several minutes rocking on her knees as she held her son’s hand and prayed to the Lord for her boy to wake up.
Mr. Dees never said a word. He just picked up his lifeless son in his arms and carried him towards the truck. He laid him carefully in the bed of the truck as the police chief pulled into the school yard. Mrs. Dees picked up Willard’s leg, held it close to her body and walked slowly towards the truck with Albert and Harlan at her side. Mr. Dees helped his wife into the back of the truck where she sat holding Willard’s dead body in her arms as they drove off down the dusty red cinder road.
Mr. Neil followed them and passed by PQ Grey, the chief of police, who was then standing in the middle of the school yard. “Mr. Neil,” PQ said, “we need to talk so I can fill out my police report.”
Mr. Neil gave no notice to what PQ Grey had said, but just kept on walking.
“Did you hear me,” asked the chief? “I have an investigation to conduct,” he added in his self-righteous manner.
“Then you should have been here a little sooner,” said Mr. Neil.
“I had some other police matters to tend to on the way here,” said PQ Grey.
“What the hell could be more important than a young boy getting killed,” snarled Mr. Neil, as he stopped and turned to face the unlikable PQ Grey.
“Well … you see, I was on my way here when — ”
“Right now I have some kids to talk with and send on their way home – minus one class mate. You can come back later, or you can take a nap under one of those oak trees. I just imagine you are no stranger to taking afternoon naps.”
Mr. Neil gathered the forty-eight kids into the school house – wondering what words he could say that would make a difference. The old soldier’s eyes were fixed on the empty seat and into a nether land of years gone by.
“We all loved Willard, and we are all sad. … There are no words I can say to change what has happened. You need to go home and talk to your parents – and stay off the railroad tracks,” said Mr. Neil as he looked down at the floor and shook his head slowly side to side.
Albert left the school yard alone for the first time in years. Willard had always been at his side walking to and from school. He walked down the cinder road the short distance to the railroad tracks, but instead of continuing on the road, he stopped at the crossing. He and Willard always walked the tracks part way home. Albert deliberately turned, ignoring Mr. Neil’s warning, and headed east, down the tracks. A half mile down the tracks, as he came near the woods where the hobos camped, a voice called out.
“We heard what happened to your friend,” said one of the men standing near the camp fire. Albert just nodded his head to acknowledge the man while continuing his slow pace down the track, stepping on each rail tie as he headed past the campsite towards home. All that was left of his best friend were memories and his blood stains on Albert’s pants.
“They should pay for killing that boy,” said a one-armed man that was picking up lumps of coal from alongside the tracks.
“The train shouldn’t have been going that fast,” said Albert, as he stopped and faced the man.
“The railroad does what it wants to do. But there are ways to get’em back. Won’t help your poor dead friend, but they should pay anyway,” said the one-armed man.
“My name’s Albert,” the fourteen year old boy said in response. “I live across the field,” he added, pointing toward a farm house across a forty acre field to the south.
“I know who you are. … My name’s Silas; I know your Pa. You go on home now, and tell your folks what happened.”
“I will,” said Albert.
“Come back tomorrow if you want, and we’ll talk some,” said Silas.
“Alright,” said Albert, as he turned to continue his way home, wondering if the man had lost his arm because of the railroad as well. ■
Copyright © 2016 by Joe Corso
All rights reserved.