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I first met
old Pete when I was thirteen. I remember the date
quite clearly as it was the summer of '06. Pa was
out of work that year due to the mill workers'
strike. Ma had sent
me and my younger brother Tad to stay with Aunt
Tess up in Oureka so she could rent out
our room to boarders. I always liked going up to
her house; it was so grand compared to
our rickety place down in Silver Creek.
Aunt Tess was quite a lady - all prim and proper.
She always wore a starched white collar
and kept her hair all piled up in coils on top of
her head. I always wanted to slip a frog down
into the coils as she napped out on the veranda,
but thankfully, I always chickened out
before actually doing it. She was always real nice
to Tad and me but she had some pretty
strict rules we had to obey. Worst of all, she
insisted that we wash up all over before setting
down to dinner. It was kind of tough but, all in
all, we managed to survive.
Tad and I used to sneak down to the railroad yard
and talk to the men as they switched the
cars. Aunt Tess would have had a conniption fit if
she thought we were even close to the
tracks. She didn't like trains; she called them
evil smoke-belching monsters. Tad and I both
thought they were wonderful machines and dreamed of
working as brakemen when we
One day, one of the men showed us an Indian
arrowhead he had found near the area they
called the "Corkscrew." We had only ridden the
train along that dizzying stretch of track on
the way between Silver Creek and Oureka, never
having a chance to explore anything
outside the confines of the swaying coach. I
remembered how the track had twisted and
turned as the train clawed its way over Wolf Pass.
Before long Tad and I had concocted a
plan on how we would go looking for our own
It was a bright Saturday morning when, carting a
picnic lunch big enough to feed Teddy's
Roughriders, we headed down to the creek to spend
all day fishing. At least that's what we
had told Aunt Tess. Secretly, we headed to the yard
and climbed into an empty boxcar near
the end of the morning train. We figured the crew
would stop to double the hill at the
Corkscrew and we would just step down at our
leisure. I guess we didn't think about how we
would get back home. At the time, it really didn't
seem to matter.
All went according to plan on the way out of town.
Sure enough, the train creaked to a stop
at the foot of the Corkscrew grade. We waited until
the first section started up the hill and
alighted without a hitch. Soon we were exploring
the cuts and fills along the high line,
always keeping a sharp eye out for those magical
arrowheads. Before long, we saw the
engine coming back down to pick up the rest of the
cars. We waved to the crew as they
passed and congratulated ourselves for being so
By mid-morning we were beginning to lose interest.
We hadn't found anything at all! We
stopped to rest under a spindly wood trestle where
the track crossed the gulch. As we
headed into the cool darkness, we discovered that
we weren't alone. There in the shadows
was Pickhandle Pete, looking like a cutthroat
bandit waiting to spring on us. Gray hair and
a long beard framed his wrinkled leather face. His
clothes were tattered and dirty. Behind
him was the ugliest burro I had ever seen. His
smelly old hound dog lay curled at his feet,
and only opened one eye to stare at us as we stood
"Howdy fellows," he said, putting us somewhat at
ease. "Out exploring, are you? Looking
for Spanish gold? Or are you just a couple of
low-down claim jumpers?"
"No, no!" we exclaimed, hoping to escape with our
lives. "We're just looking for
"Well," he said, "That's different. I guess you
might as well stop and sit for a spell." He
motioned us to come on into his little hiding
place. I noticed that he was missing a finger on
his right hand as he waved to us. He caught me
staring at his hand and said, "Just a little
accident. Pay it no never-mind. Happened one day
when I was switching cars on the
railroad, back when all they had were link-and-pin
Soon he was spinning yarns about the good ol' days.
He told us about coming west after
the war, where incidentally, he lost a finger to a
sharpshooter during the battle of Vicksburg.
And about the time he wrestled a grizzly bear while
trapping up in the mountains - it bit off
his finger. Or of being a prospector in the
Klondike, where he found the biggest nugget on
record - and it was so cold he lost a finger to
frostbite. But the best story of all was the time
he single-handedly faced down the fearsome Barton
gang of train robbers - shot three of the
four before the last one shot the gun from his
hand, along with his finger!
We shared our lunch with him and spent the rest of
the day listening to his never ending
tales of glory. All was fine until we heard the
evening train squealing downgrade toward
home. Tad and I looked at each other in horror as
the train passed overhead, slowing but
not stopping. How would we get back home? Aunt Tess
would kill us for sure!
It was just after sundown when Tad and I alighted
from the burro on the outskirts of town.
"You young'ns better git a movin'," he said to us.
"I once had an Aunt so mean she cut off
my finger with a butcher knife, just for bein' late
for dinner." We said good-bye and hurried
for the house. That was the first time I saw
Pickhandle Pete, but definitely not the last. But
then again ... that's another story.
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