Written by Shannon Baker
I recently attended a conference in Denver and the hotel sat close to railroad tracks. Rooms were equipped with ear plugs and sound machines but I didn’t use them. I loved hearing the sound of the whistle blowing when I surfaced occasionally from sleep. It’s a familiar sound since I spent so many years living in rural Nebraska.
The next morning a few people grumbled about the disruption and it reminded me of Bill, a man who lived in the tiny Sandhills Nebraska town where I spent twenty years.
This town of three hundred people, in a county of about a thousand souls, that covers an area the size of Connecticut, was built in the 1880s around the railroad tracks. All along this vast stretch of emptiness, towns are distributed every ten miles or so. Because that’s how often steam-powered trains had to stop to replenish water.
Bill moved his family to town when he bought an interest in the local veterinary clinic. In a place where cattle outnumber people by more than 50 to 1, you can imagine having a new vet was pretty big doings. So even though Bill had a few eccentricities, such as voting democrat and loving Bob Dylan, folks accepted him fair enough.
The folks in the Sandhills embrace quirky. It’s a place settled by outlaws, since it’s so remote and rugged they could lose the law there. I remember old John Sibbitt telling me a story about his granddad. This man was known for being tough, maybe even a little scary. John related how his granddad took up a claim and started ranching, doing quite well. He wanted to expand his pastureland and made his neighbor, Wolfenberger, a generous offer. Wolfenberger wasn’t inclined to sell. “I don’t know exactly what happened,” John said. “But not long after that Wolfenberger up and disappeared. Grandad bought the land dirt cheap at auction. No one bid against him.”
In country that isolated and wild, there are still plenty of places to hide the body.
Bill and his wife bought an old ramshackle boarding house that fronted the railroad tracks, just across from Main Street and set about fixing it up. It took them over a year, jacking up the crumbling foundation, building a staircase because, for some reason, the only way to the second floor was a ladder propped against the back of the house.
When the last coat of shiny white paint dried on the repaired wood siding, the hardwood floors sparkled, new appliances graced their sunny kitchen, it seemed like the perfect home for Bill’s growing family.
There was but one burr under his saddle, and it was a nasty one. Those Burlington Northern-Santa Fe tracks that ran not fifty yards from his house. It wasn’t bad enough the engineers started blowing their whistles for the crossing up the way just as they hit Bill’s house. He might have been able to acclimate to that.
No. What frosted Bill’s tomatoes was that frequently, and it seemed to happen only at night, the west-bound trains would get a signal to wait. This required them to pull into a siding and wait for the track to clear in the railyard sixty miles away. The end of the siding was right across from Bill’s house. They had to put their engines, all three of them, into idle mode and sit it out until they got a signal to move. It could take hours.
Do you have any idea of the decibels of an idling train engine? Yeah, me either. I tried to look it up but it got too technical. I think we can all agree, it’s loud. Add to that the vibrations that shook the walls of his house and rattled that new floor. Not to mention the fumes. Holy cow, they could give Bodacious lung cancer. (For those of you not in the know, Bodacious is a legendary rodeo bull.) Bill had four kids who needed their sleep and clean air.
The trains could idle farther back, well away from town and Bill’s front yard. But, you see, the gas station/convenience store and the Hotel, where they could get hamburgers, beckoned bored railroaders on the roadside opposite Bill’s house.
Bill wrote letters of protest. He made countless phone calls. Still, the trains idled in front of his house. But now they thought of him as a thorn in their sides, they started blasting their horns longer. They shouted at each other and “accidently” shone their heavy-duty flashlights into his windows. The battle was joined.
One night, Bill had taken about as much as a man could be asked to take. The train had been idling just outside his front door for hours. So Bill pulled on his insulated Carhartts, grabbed his shotgun, and headed outside.
The poor engineer and conductor sat unaware inside their heated cab, probably deep in conversation about the first girl they ever kissed, or the mother-in-law that wouldn’t leave, or whatever two men talk about when they’re stuck on a train for hours with nowhere to go.
Bill clambered up the steps of the heaving, bellowing steel giant and burst into the cab. He cocked that ol’ shotgun, pointed at the engineer and said, in what I imagine was a Clint Eastwood voice, “Shut that damned engine off.”
I can only imagine the shocked look on that engineer’s face, his momentary paralysis, followed by a mad scramble to pull power.
I recall talk of a lawsuit but I never heard what came of that.
I love the tales of outlaws and rebels who made their own law in the Sandhills. It’s a more civilized place than when John Sibbitt’s grandad took what he wanted. But a spirit of the old west still rears up from time to time in the Nebraska Sandhills.
That’s what makes writing the Kate Fox series so much fun. In a county—very similar to the one where I lived—Kate is the only law enforcement officer. With no one looking over her shoulder, she’s got plenty of wiggle room.
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