The thought of breakfast had kept her moving the last five miles.
“Jesus, Stove, you been walking all night?”
“Howdy, Pete. You been stealin’ coffee again?” She sticks out her hand.
“Only when I find some,” he says. He half-stands and shakes her hand before returning to his squat. “Where’d you get the fire helmet?”
She squats silently beside the smoky fire and waits until Pete hands over his cup. She wraps her fingers around it and drains it off, even though it burns going down. “Any of you other fellers givin’ it away for free?” she asks.
“Every chance I get,” says a low voice. “Course, it’s only beans.”
“Thanks, Rocky,” she says. She hands Pete back his coffee cup and accepts Rocky’s steaming half-eaten plate of beans. It’s hard to heat them with nothing but a knife, but she does okay.
When she looks up, she sees a strange set of eyes staring at her. “What you got?” she asks, holding out the plate.
The stranger just stands there, arms limp at his sides.
“Stove,” Pete says, “this here feller ain’t give no name. Feller, this here’s our new fire chief.”
“Mornin,” says Stove, touching the brim of her helmet. The stranger just stares at her. Rocky shrugs.
Stove hands Rocky his plate back. “Train’s late,” she says. “Thanks for the beans.”
“Spare that helmet?” Rocky says. “Keep the rain off my neck.”
She’s staring up the tracks. “Train time,” she says. “Cover me?”
Rocky smiles broadly, showing off his three teeth. He rises, lifting a sack of lumps. “You kiddin’?” he says. They walk together along the tracks.
Stove nods back at the stranger following twenty feet behind. “What about him?” she says.
“Forget him,” Rocky says. “He tries to get on board, brakeman’ll be watching him not you.”
They reach the spot.
“Well,” Rocky says.
Stove takes off her helmet and holds it out. “Yep,” she says. “Till next time.”
Rocky takes the helmet, grins again, and bounds off across the tracks and out into the field. Stove takes a few steps toward the trees and spares a moment to enjoy the flash of sun on the lake. The stranger stops in his tracks, keeping his distance, but staring at her.
The engine rumbles by. She flexes her knees. This is the part she loves.
With his backwards helmet saluting the sun, Rocky takes out his pipes and begins to play. Stove can never believe how loud they are over the sound of the train. She’s glad she’s never heard them from close up.
The brakeman leans out and waves at Rocky, who bows. Stove throws herself upward and wraps her hands around the slats of an empty cattle car, then cross-steps to the open door and steps inside. Grit and cinders whip across her face and through her hair, and she feels happier than if she were standing in a warm spring rain.