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 turned fifteen.
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 treasures.
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 smart.
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 there trembling.
“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 arrowheads.”
“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 couplers.”
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.