The Train Chaser
P. Thomas Ainsworth is the name and selling Whipple Brushes is my game. You want short brushes, tall brushes, big brushes, small brushes, I’ll sell you any size Whipple Brush. And I’ll go anywhere in this here country to do it, even though my regular run is the big M- Minneapolis to the little B-Butte, Montana.
Things were going along pretty much normal in my brush selling game, until one day I saw that Indian and then my life got switched around quicker than a person chooses a Whipple Brush over any other kind of market. I still ain’t sure I really saw that Indian. It was one of those things where you’re between being asleep and awake and you’re not sure if it really happened or not.
I tell you, I remember that first night I saw the Indian like I had sold a case of Whipple brushes. I got on the train in Minneapolis like always and made the acquaintance of several of the folks in my compartment, ‘specially the ladies. I asked every one of them to have dinner with me at my hotel in Butte except for the bent old lady dressed in a black dress with a black lace shawl pulled around her shoulders. I was making polite conversation with her and she says to me, “I’m getting off in Fargo, North Dakota young man. I’m going to my son’s farm because I’m getting too old to live by myself in the city. Do you know how to milk a cow, sonny?”
She reached in her suitcase and pulled out a thick book. “Here’s the best book on milking cows you’d ever want to see. Look at these pictures of that fella milking cows. Isn’t he good?”
“Thank you kindly, granny, but I already know how to milk cows. I grew up on a farm you know, out east in Pennsylvania and I’ve been milking cows since I was knee high to a fence post.”
“Well, then sonny, you surely know how. Is this the best way to place your fingers?” She cupped her hand and made milking motions with her fingers. “Am I using my fingers right? I sure do want to be useful to Albert.”
“You’re just a bit off center. Here, let me show you,” I said. We spent the next few minutes practicing milking positions with our fingers. Then the old lady started nodding. It must have been all of that exercise. She closed those blue-veined eyelids of hers and went to sleep. I slid across to the gentleman in the seat opposite me. He was dressed in one of them tailored, dark suits that made him look a lot like Deacon Peabody from the Sunday meeting. His expression was tailored too.
“Howdy sir. P Thomas Ainsworth is the name and how are you this fine day?”
“I bet your pardon,” the deacon said.
“P. Thomas Ainsworth at your service, sir. Here’s my card. Yes sir, that’s right. I’m a Whipple Brush Man.”
“What is a Whipple Brush Man?”
“A man who sells Whipple Brushes. Whipple Brushes are the best brushes in this entire United States, and mark my words, someday we’ll conquer the world!”
I took a Whipple Brush from my case and slapped him on the back with it.
“Will you please watch yourself with that brush sir?” he said, rubbing his back.
“Oh certainly, certainly.” I brushed his shoulders. “There, is this better? A Whipple Brush is guaranteed to keep you spic and span for the finer moments of life. Use a genuine Whipple Wisk Brush for assorted lint, powder, dust, and anything else your best black broadcloth collects. I made the Wisk Brush myself in our factory in New York. I worked there since I was nine years old, so I know how to make a brush from straw one to the handle.”
“I use paint brushes a lot,” the Deacon said. “Do you have any of those?”
By the time I’d gone through my childhood at the Whipple factory, I had The Deacon convinced that I had indeed custom made every Whipple Brush. Next, I moved over to sit next to the Indian who was sitting next to The Deacon. I can say the Indian was sure dressed like an Indian. He wore buckskin leggings, a buckskin jacket and a red feather in his hat. I didn’t let the fact that he was an Indian stop me at all. No sir, not me. I just went up to him and said, “How.”
“How do you do? My name is Chief Soaring Eagle and I am a descendant of Chief Sitting Bull,” he said to me in schoolmarm English.
“What are you doing riding a train?” I asked him. “Aren’t you supposed to be dancing around a campfire and war whooping?”
“I’ve been to visit the president in Washington and I’m returning to my people to tell them of his words.”
“What did the President say?” I asked him.
“He said we must sell more land,” the chief said. With a bitter twist of his lips he added, “At least he asks us now. For many years the white man just took our land without payment.”
“The white man has always been mean to us Indians,” I told him. “Did you know that I was an Indian, or at least some parts of one? My daddy was a half breed and I grew up on a reservation in Oklahoma. And it was brutal, I tell you, brutal. All the white man wants to do is rob Indians and I think we should get together and do something about it. At least we can protest to somebody.”
The Chief stared at me, his face stony. “We protest, but our words bounce off the white man’s ears,” he said.
“Well, my daddy- the Great Spirit keep his soul- always said that you can’t get a fair deal from Washington, because there aren’t many Indians in the White House.”
We talked some more and pretty soon the Chief was asking me if I knew Black Feather and Red Bird and some of his other relatives. I guess I had him convinced of the Indian blood in me, and me being Scotch Irish!
Well, the afternoon raced away with all of the talking and such and pretty soon night slipped over the plains like a gunny sack over a plle of corn and the shadows played tag with the moonlight. I lifted up the curtain that was hanging over my window and I saw a full moon hanging in the sky like one of them Japanese lanterns. I was sitting there holding the curtain back, admiring the moon when the old lady in black tapped me on the shoulder. “Say young man, turn around and answer a question for me,” she demanded.
I turned around and there was the Indian Chief and The Deacon standing right alongside the old lady.
“I just want to know one thing, young man,” she said. “How did you manage to grow up in a factory in New York City, on a farm in Pennsylvania, and on an Indian reservation in Oklahoma all at the same time?”
Since I couldn’t come up with a good answer, I tried to change the subject. I grinned at the Deacon and the Indian Chief. “How about a game of five card stud?”
I pulled a bottle of whiskey out of my brush bag. “And a drink to go along with it?”
The Chief pushed me and the bottle away.
The Deacon looked doubtful. “I shouldn’t….”
“But you will,” I told him. “Just because you look like a deacon doesn’t mean you have to act like one.”
I got the two glasses out of my case that I always pack with the bottle and we tipped a few. The little old lady in black flounced off, so that left The Deacon and the Indian Chief and me to ourselves.
“I’ll play with you if you can keep a straight story long enough to play,” The Deacon said, watching me deal. “And don’t try to sneak in any new cards, either!”
“Deacon, when it comes to poker I’m as straight as an arrow. No offense meant,” I said to the Chief’s stony stare.
So we sat down in the row of seats, me by the window, the Chief across from me and The Deacon beside me. We played a few hands and I took more swigs from the bottle and pretty soon I was feeling pretty good about the world and our part in it. The Deacon was feeling so good he blew a straight and I got the pot, which was fine with me.
“I was thinking about a new painting,” he said, by way of explaining, but I knew better.
The Chief, he sort of sat there solemn-like, with his cards up in his hand like a sign post and his eyes fiery with war dances. I had to nudge him to make his move, and then he got me stuck. I had to try to bluff him or lose the game. I said I had a pair of aces in my hand and he called me. Since I only had a ten and a Jack, I knew I had to do something fast. I grabbed the whiskey bottle.
“Need another drink,” I muttered.
Sort of accidentally I swung the bottle and whiskey splashed all over the curtains in our compartment. It also splashed all over the Chief and a few drops even landed on The Deacon and me.
“Clumsy white man,” the Chief scowled. He reached over and took the edge of the curtain and mopped his face with it. He pulled on that curtain so hard it tore completely off the window and the night was in our railroad car quick as a star twinkling. There was the full moon just hanging there like a lamp and it looked so close I wanted to reach out and turn it off.
“Hey, look at that moon,” I said. “Sure is pretty, ain’t it Chief?”
The Chief scowled at me. “Don’t try to get me to take my eyes off my poker hand,” he said. “Come on, show me your two aces. I got my eyes wiped now and I can play real good.”
“Sure Chief, but first take a gander at that moon. It looks like a yellow glass ball out there.”
I pointed, meaning to show him some of the moon markings, and by Golly, I gulped and almost swallowed my uppers. Would you believe that there right alongside the window, close as a telephone pole was an Indian? Right away quick I looked for the Chief. Had he jumped out the window? But no, he was still sitting there, holding his cards in his hand. I looked back out the window to see if the other Indian was still there.
Maybe my eyes were still playing poker. You know, being so far away from Minneapolis and all and drinking whiskey and playing crooked poker. But no, he was still there all right. He bent over the neck of his horse and the horse’s mane flew so high in the wind that it slapped him in the face.
And what a face that Indian had on him. He had paint on him like a rainbow- red and green and yellow bands across his face and some on his chest and arms too. His skin was the shade of brown like coffee with milk in it and it glistened in the moonlight like he had rubbed his body with oil. This Indian bent real low on his horses’ neck and he didn’t look to the right where the prairie was or the left where I sat gawking out the train window. He just looked straight ahead and kept urging on his horse. I saw him digging the horse in the ribs with his knees and pulling on his mane. And all the time behind him hung that moon like a big, yellow face, staring at us.
“Hey Chief, is that guy anybody you know?” I asked him.
The Chief looked out the window and grunted. ‘He’s a Sioux.”
“Well, what’s he doing out there,” I asked him.
“I have to paint him. The Deacon said. “Even if he isn’t real, I have to paint him.”
“Hey Chief, you saw him too. Tell old stuffed shirt here that there’s an Indian on a horse outside the train window.” I leaned across The Deacon and pointed. “See, there he is. The horse’s hooves are stirring up puffs of dust from running so fast. And look at that! That Indian is making his horse go so fast he’s pulling up even with the engine. Listen Deacon, can’t you hear him? He’s war whooping! Listen to him! It sounds like he’s going to attack the train. And look at that horse, why don’t you! He’s running so fast the sweat is just pouring off his body. Looks to me like that fool Indian is trying to beat the train!”
The Chief glared at me. “You saw him, white man. You saw him the way the Indian used to be, wilding and free and running with the wind. I hope something in your life will disappear just like the Indian’s way of life disappeared when the iron horse came to the plains.”
“What the devil are you talking about?” I blustered.
I sounded tougher than I really felt. I was really trying to cover up how scared I was. Watching that Indian and his horse trying to beat the train made me think of some real old movies I’d seen when I was knee high. They looked solid, but if you peeked real close the figures in the film seemed to have a kind of shimmering around them and a wavering like they was—well, like they was ghosts.
Suddenly, just like the engineer decided he had to win, the locomotive picked up speed and the train pulled away from the Indian. I watched him, urging his horse to go faster and somehow he increased his speed enough to keep even with the train and look at me through the window. He had a calm, determined, honest look in his eyes that made my soul shrivel and made me wonder why I couldn’t be an honest man.
Then he and his horse faded into the blue night shadows behind us. I pulled my handkerchief out of my pocket and mopped my dripping face. “Whew, I thought for a minute that Indian was going to beat the train. Where the devil did he come from anyway? And what in hells bells was he doing out here racing a train?
“My people couldn’t stop the iron horse from traveling across the plains,” said the Chief. “They just kept coming like iron buffalo until they covered the plains and the land was no longer ours. The land belonged to the rails gleaming the in sunlight and moonlight. Maybe now since my people have gone to the happy hunting grounds, they have faster horses. Maybe now, they can beat the iron horse. Maybe they think if they win the race with the trains there is still a chance to force the white man to leave their hunting grounds.”
“That’s a bunch of soft bristles and you know it, Chief!” I scoffed. “There ain’t no Indian here or in the happy hunting grounds that can outrace a train with a horse. That just ain’t gonna happen.”
“Maybe not, but did you notice the muscles of the horse straining an bunching and pulling with the effort he was making?” The Deacon asked. “Did you notice the determination and intensity of the Indian that made him race harder as the train went faster?”
For a second I didn’t know what to say, so I picked up one of my Whipple brushes and looked at it.
“I’m going to paint him,” The Deacon said. “I’m going to paint that Indian chasing the train.”
The Deacon whipped out a pad of paper and some charcoal pencils and started to draw lines on the paper.
The Chief nodded solemnly and laid his cards on his lap. “The game is over,” he said, rising slowly and stalking out of the car.
The Deacon didn’t even glance at me, but just kept drawing. I figured he was through playing poker, too. I peeked over his shoulder and watched the Indian on the horse take shape. “You draw that horse real enough so he looks like he’s going to start running any minute. You’re a pretty good drawer, Deacon.”
“Thank you,” he said, filling in the yellow moon behind the horse and rider. “I like to think I am.”
Then sudden as lightning I had this lightning flash idea. It was such a good idea it was better than winning any old poker hand. “Hey, Deacon, how’s about doing lots of those drawings and let me sell them for you. I could be your salesman, you know. People are always crazy to buy Indian stuff and I’ll bet these things would sell like peanuts at a circus. There is something about that Indian now that I look at the picture close. There’s something in his face that no white man can steal away from him.”
“I hoped it would show,” the Deacon said. “If I’ve managed to capture that, then I’ve done a good painting.”
“So what if the Indian is a ghost,” I said. “The fact that he and his horse are ghosts will make a good selling point. How many people have pictures of a ghost hanging over their fireplace?”
The Deacon spent the rest of the night and the next morning while we were on the train drawing that Indian and his horse. By the time I got off in Butte that evening, I had about 25 pictures to sell and the Deacon promised to draw as many as I need. I looked for the Chief as I got off the train, ‘cause I wanted to tell him it was nice meeting a real Indian Chief. I didn’t see him nowhere. So the little old lady with the black lace shawl and The Deacon was the only two of my friends I got to tell goodbye. I put my pictures under one arm and got off the train.
Let me tell you, I made so much money selling those pictures in Butte and back and forth on my run that I finally gave up my Whipple Brush spiel and just sold pictures. I sold all of that batch, and when I got back to Minneapolis, I got in touch with the Deacon and he drew me some more. We kept doing things this way until I got comfortable enough off to buy a ranch in North Dakota near where the little old lady in black lived. I got to be such a substantial citizen that I even married a rancher’s daughter who is almost as rich as me. All of this because of an Indian on a pony racing a train.
You know what? I even see that Indian and his pony sometimes now when I’m traveling through the Dakotas and Montana on the local train. And now when he looks at me, my conscience makes me blink.