Authors: Kenneth Oppel
Stillness then, and silence. He releases one hand from the branches and burrows it back to his body to clear space around his face. Then he thrusts his arm high, scooping wildly and breaking free. Packed snow melts inside his collar, slithering down his back and chest. He sees a flash of sky and fills his lungs hungrily. Slowly he hauls himself from the snow and into the arms of the tree.
Shivering, he beholds a landscape transformed. The snow must be piled twenty feet high amongst the trees, some of which have keeled over. Debris is scattered everywhere, branches, steel rails jutting up, wooden ties. He can't see beyond the woods to the track or the snow sheds. Overhead the sun shines. Birds resume a cheery chorus. Will thinks of the sketchbook in his snow-sodden jacket, the pencil lines smearing on the wet paper.
From the trees comes a sound Will has never heard before, a series of gruff animal hoots that taper off into a kind of mournful sigh.
“Will, are you all right?”
Twenty yards to his left his father clings to a tree.
“I'll come to you!” his father calls.
At the same moment they see it. A little higher up the slope, jutting from the snow, is the gold spike.
A rustling draws Will's attention. A snow-caked man clings to another nearby tree, a scarf tied around his face, revealing only his eyes.
“All right?” Will's dad calls up to him.
The man says nothing, just lifts a hand. His eyes, Will can tell, are on the gold spike.
This cry is muffled and comes from down the slope, where, not forty feet from Will's perch, the ground drops into the gorge and the rioting river. Will squints. On the very edge, clutching the branch of a spindly bent pine, his legs dangling over the edge, is Cornelius Van Horne.
“Hold tight, sir!” Will's father calls out. “I'm coming!” He looks at the man with the scarf. “Help me!”
The other man makes no reply and stays put.
From the trees comes another series of gruff hoots.
“What is that?” Will asks, but instinctively he knows.
“The branch won't hold long!” Van Horne calls out with amazing calm.
“Pa?” Will says, a terrible fear spreading through him like cold.
“Stay there, Will. It'll be fine.”
Will watches as his father carefully paddles down over the snow toward the rail baron, digging in with his hands and feet to slow himself. Off to the right a heaping drift mutters and creaks and spills itself into the gorge. Will feels the vibration through his body. Everything piled up along the edge could give at any moment.
“You'll be all right, sir,” Will's father says as he reaches the spindly pine and wraps his legs around the trunk.
He reaches out toward Van Horne. “I'm going to take your wrist, sir, and you take mine.”
The rail baron is a large man, and Will hears his father grunt as he takes his weight. Bracing himself against the trunk, James Everett pulls.
Will's heart is a small panicking animal against his ribs as he watches his father struggle on the precipice. Van Horne's other hand stretches out and seizes a sturdy branch, and he pulls now too. After a minute, with both men straining, the rail baron reaches the trunk and holds tight. They lean their heads against the bark, catching their breath.
Will exhales and hears a rustling behind him. He turns to see the man easing himself down the slope toward the gold spike. He looks at Will and holds a swollen finger to his mouth.
He plucks the golden spike from the snow.
“You and me,” he whispers to Will, “got an understanding, ain't we? You call out, I'll find you and your pa and slit your throats. Got that?”
Terrified, Will just stares at the man's obscured face, at the narrow band of skin around his chilly blue eyes.
I know you,
Will thinks, but he says nothing.
The man called Brogan turns and begins churning his way back up the slope. He brushes a broken branch, and the end twitches and then clutches his ankle.
With a grunt Brogan tries to kick himself free, but the branch flexes and grows longer. Like some mutant tree unfolding itself from the earth, a long arm stretches out and sprouts a bony shoulder and narrow head, matted with snow. Brogan gives a cry of horror as he's dragged back.
A skunky stench wafts across to Will as the sasquatch thrashes itself up from the snow. Will knows now why the Natives call them stick men, for their limbs are so thin yet powerful that they look like they're made from the indestructible ingredients of mountain forest.
Will can see that it's a young one, quite a bit smaller than him. Though its mouth is wide, teeth bared, Will isn't sure if the beast is attacking or merely clambering atop Brogan like someone trying not to drown. Brogan beats at the sasquatch. From a pocket he pulls a long knife and stabs the creature in the shoulder. It crumples, sending up a terrible shriek.
For a moment Will thinks a treetop has snapped and fallen, for something thin and very tall hits the snow beside Brogan. But it's no tree. It is seven feet of fury, jumping down from above to protect its child. Will's insides feel liquid with fear. The creature's arms are vast knotted branches, its clawed feet gnarled roots. The adult sasquatch reaches down and grabs Brogan by an arm and a leg and in one movement hurls him. The golden spike flies clear of his clothing and lands in the snow, not far from Will. Brogan himself sails through the air, skids across the snow with a squawk of terror, and disappears over the edge into the gorge.
Chest heaving, the sasquatch checks on its young, and then turns and looks straight at Will.
“Pa!” Will hollers.
“Stay still!” his father shouts. “Don't turn your back! I'm coming!”
Gripping the tree, Will stares at the sasquatch as it shakes the snow from its furred body.
“She just wants her child, Will,” his father is calling. “Show her you're no threat. Don't look in her eyes.”
Will feels a tremor and sees the snow sliding slowly past his tree like a river toward the precipice. Great rafts of it pour over into the abyss. An ominous creak emanates from his father's pine. It begins to tilt toward the gorge.
“It's giving way!” Will cries, seeing the snow's surface pucker all around.
“Swim!” Will's father cries out to Van Horne, and the two begin thrashing their way uphill toward Will. The snow slips and shoves against them. To Will it looks like they're scarcely moving, but they fight on against the tide.
When he turns back to the two sasquatch, they're skidding straight toward him on the current of snow. Will clambers round to the far side of the trunk. Sliding with the snow comes the gold spike, and as it passes, Will seizes it.
“We're coming, Will!” his father shouts behind him.
But the sasquatch are coming faster. He can't help itâhe looks into the creature's face and sees eyes as old as the mountains and as merciless.
“Move back, Will!” he hears his father cry, and then there's a sharp crack.
Will looks over his shoulder and sees Van Horne with a smoking pistol in his hand.
The mother sasquatch has collapsed in the snow, and her limp body is being carried by the current. The young one sets up a frenzied shrieking, its sharp mouth wide. It's coming right for Will.
A huge net unfurls from the air and drops over the small sasquatch. The creature knocks against the tree, struggling and yelping. Will leans far out of its reach.
“Don't shoot it!” calls a voice from the trees.
Mr. Dorian emerges on snowshoes, along with three other large men carrying thick measures of rope over their shoulders. The snow has finally stopped moving.
“We've got him, gentlemen. It's quite all right,” calls Mr. Dorian. “Take our ropes!”
Ropes are thrown out for all of them, and Will grabs hold. Mr. Van Horne and Will's father are pulled up alongside him.
“Will,” his father says. “You're all right?”
Will nods, unable to speak.
“Well, Dorian,” puffs Van Horne, “you didn't come just for my painting, did you?”
“I came for many reasons,” says Mr. Dorian. “To see the greatest railway in the world finishedâand to find a sasquatch for the greatest show on earth.”
“How long is the train exactly?”
“How many people is she carrying?”
“Will she arrive on schedule for her maiden voyage?”
The reporters' questions come in a barrage as Will and his father stand on the platform beside the massive locomotive. Despite the chill of the April day, Will can feel the heat from her mighty furnace.
“Well, gentlemen,” says Will's father, smiling easily at the reporters, “quite simply the Boundless is the longest train in the world. When we're finished coupling the last of her cars, she'll be pulling nine hundred and eighty-seven.”
“Is she strong enough?” cries out a reporter whose body is all angles.
Will's father looks astonished. “Is she strong enough? Gentlemen,
Will stares up too. The locomotive steams, her hot breath curling from the smokestacks atop the three-story boiler. He can feel the tremor of her expectant power through the station platform, through the very air. Massive and black, she's like something forged with lightning and thunder. A steel galleon on nine sets of towering wheels. Behind the boiler jut metal scaffolds where soot-blackened men stand ready to shovel coal into the furnace and set the Boundless in motion.
“She's the most powerful engine in the world,” Will's father tells the reporters. “She'd pull the moon out of orbit if we could get a tether on it. As for her length, if you care to walk from locomotive to caboose, it's more than seven miles. According to our manifest we have 6,495 souls aboard for the journey. And I think I'm all out of statistics, gentlemen!”
Applause and good-natured laughter erupt from the churning crowd. Will's never seen the station so utterly crammed. Half of Halifax has turned out for the send-off.
Will looks at his father enviously. He would've been tongue-tied, and yet his father answers with such ease, in full sentences, without faltering. Will has grown used to seeing his father in fine suits and in the company of other important gentlemen. But even now he still feels a bit bewildered at how different his father isâand how much all their lives have changed in the last three years.
At the back of the crowd, several photographers are busy taking photos, their cameras perched high atop tripods. Will hopes the reporters are done with themâbut it's not to be just yet.
“Mr. Everett, is it true that just before his death Mr. Van Horne handpicked you to expand his empire across the Pacific? Even though his board recommended someone with more experience?”
Will notices his father's nostrils narrow as he inhales.
“I'm very honored that Mr. Van Horne gave me such a position of trust,” he answers. “And it's my ardent goal to make sure his steamships sail across the Pacific just as grandly as his trains steam across our nation.”
“There's some talk that the Boundless is too big,” another reporter says.
Will's father laughs. “How can she be too big?”
“Too long for the turns, too heavy for the bridges, too tall for the tunnels.”
Will catches the flash of indignation in his father's expression. “Sir, when Cornelius Van Horne built this railway, his eye was always on the future. He was sketching designs for the Boundless long before the last spike. She is exactly the kind of train he imagined running on this track.”
Will remembers how Mr. Van Horne showed him his sketches in the company car and asked his opinion. Over the years the rail baron sat at their table often, and he always took time to talk to Will. There seemed nothing he wasn't interested in. Insects, battles, gambling, famous artistsÂ .Â .Â .
“How safe is the route?” yet another reporter demands. “We hear those muskeg bogs can eat a train whole.”
“Not this train.”
“The mountains, then,” the reporter persists. “Avalanches. Sasquatch.”
“I wouldn't recommend walking,” says Will's father, “but stay inside the Boundless, and you'll be absolutely fine. Now then, gentlemenâ”
“Are you superstitious about carrying his funeral car on the maiden voyage?”
Will looks at his father, wondering how he'll reply to this one. James Everett shakes his head.
“Not at all. It was Mr. Van Horne's wish that, upon his death, his body be carried across the nation on the railway he built.”
“And where will his body finally rest?”
“It will not rest. Like the man himself, it will remain in motion, crossing and recrossing the country forever.”
A murmur of amazement wafts through the crowd, and Will sees some people exchange nervous looks. This is the first he's heard of it too.