Las Vegas was small, but it was home. Joe pedaled the ten-year-old bike, inherited from his older brother, down Grand Avenue. His use of the car was strictly limited, and unless he wanted to do grocery shopping as well, the bike would have to do. Off to the right were the mostly unused rail yards. Most of the tracks had long ago been pulled up. There were still regular freight trains moving through, hauling container cargo to and from the west coast, but the old days, when Las Vegas was a major rail terminus, with rich robber barons building their mansions in the area, were long gone.
Joe knew more about the town’s history, especially anything concerning the rail years, than anyone else his age. Dad seemed to approve, and was always ready to call him when a guest asked about the name of the motel, but every time Joe mentioned advertising a tour guide service, he was shot down.
“Stick to your business. We have enough to do just to keep this place running, without promising more than we can deliver.”
It was another of those things he never talked about with kids his own age.
He reached the intersection of Grand and Mills.
“Ho, Ray of the Sun!”
Sandeep looked up from his push mower, trimming the grassy strip that bordered the road. He was slight, short, and dark skinned—not at all like the appearance of his massive, barbarian, blonde-haired game avatar.
“Ah, Murray the Traveler.” He leaned against the mower. “I see you’re up and about.” His English was accented, almost British, and Joe hadn’t totally adapted to his rapid-paced delivery. Most of the words got through, but sometimes the meaning took an extra couple of seconds to be digested. “How come you’re the one roaming free, while I’m the one doing the inn keeping chores?”
Joe hopped off the bike. “Oh, I’m on the clock, still. One of our guests ran off with the key. I’ve got to go by Norton’s shop and get the lock re-keyed.” He nodded toward the sprawling Inn of the Valley, with at least twice as many guest rooms as the Railroad. “We’re not as big as you guys. I can’t talk Dad into changing to the plastic card keys. I’d love to just reprogram a room when a key walks off.”
Sandeep shook his head. “Be grateful for what you have. I’m forever making new keys when the old ones break or their magnetism gets old. I’d love a solid brass key.”
A figure in a white maid’s uniform appeared up by the rooms and called, “Sandeep, aren’t you done yet.”
“In a minute!”
“Bimbo calls.” Joe couldn’t help the grin. Sandeep’s older sister was named Bimbi and he’d made the mistake of bursting into laughter when they’d been introduced. She’d never forgiven him. Sheela, the fourteen-year-old younger sister, was pleasant, but Joe had gotten the message plainly enough. Mr. Patel did not approve of either of his daughters getting too friendly with the Anglo boy.
Sandeep leaned into his mower. “An innkeeper’s work is never done.”
“Believe it, Sunlight. Later.” And he pedaled off.
The Railroad Motel had an account with the locksmith. Joe dropped off the spare door lock and picked up a replacement with a set of keys. Probably the lock was the same one he’d traded in last month. He’d install the locks in the unit’s door himself when he got back. Many motels didn’t bother with changing the locks when a key went missing, but Abel Ferris insisted, for the protection of his guests. It would be far too easy for a crooked guest to keep the key, and then return days or weeks later to clean out the new guest’s possessions.
Joe wheeled across the way into the Municipal Park and parked his bike next to the ATSF 1129, an old Atkinson, Topeka, and Santa Fe steam locomotive that was the park’s main claim to fame. The scattered picnic tables were all unoccupied this time of day, but he preferred to snack at his private seat.
A quick check at the Phillips 66 station across the road satisfied him that the coast was clear. The State Police had their office just up the road and for many, this was their favorite car wash. The traffic cleared out and he was up and over the three-foot chain-link fence surrounding the engine. In seconds, he was inside the cab, sitting where the engineer had ridden, where he could watch the gauges on the backhead.
It was dark inside compared to the sunshine outside. Joe was confident no one could see him if he kept out of the direct light. He fished one of the mashed and mangled pastries from his pocket and tore open the plastic. He squeezed an inch of ‘Free Breakfast’ clear of the wrapper and took a bite.
The 1129 was perpetually aimed south, but today he really wanted to be pounding those six big drive-wheels north. The engine was frozen in time, since that day in 1953 when it had come down south from Belen, retiring after fifty some years of hard work.
Joe put his hand on the reverse lever, but it was long since frozen in place. The engine looked clean and well maintained, but that was superficial—fresh paint over rusted metal.
Deep in his heart, he wanted to be a tourist, not the innkeeper.
“Let’s be the friendliest place to stay.” Dad had said those words too many times to count. And Joe did his best.
Just today, he’d chatted with a family packing up their suitcases, stuffed animals, and ice chest. The father tried to describe the places where they were heading to his trio of little ones—Pikes Peak today, then Rocky Mountain National Park, and on to Yellowstone.
Joe felt as excited as the six-year-old. He offered to share driving if they took him along. Everyone laughed, but a part of him was serious. Day in and day out, he made friends-of-the-moment with people heading off to do the things he could only dream about.
Years ago, Dad had said that if they could just get ahead, someday they’d hire someone to handle the Railroad for two weeks and the family would take a real vacation. That day never came.
Oh, there’d been a few day-trips, but never very far. Someone had to be at the office, to take care of the guests. Family was free labor. No one could be spared.
Joe finished off the pastry and cleaned up a few candy wrappers that’d been left by other visitors to the 1129. A quick look around and he slipped out and deposited the trash in a picnic barrel.
Almost back to the motel, he turned into an open gateway next to the creek. To the left was a long deserted railroad building, an old office. But as he pulled to a stop in front of the big building on the right, he kicked the stand and took another look at his favorite of the old Las Vegas historical places.
The Roundhouse was the last of its kind. It was big—one large story in a C-shape. From this spot, he faced nearly three dozen tall doorways. It would have been great to have been here back in the peak of the rail years. He could just imagine thirty-four engines or railcars here, being driven up onto the 100-foot turntable at the center of the ‘C’ and being slotted into the stalls for service and repair.
Of course, the turntable and rails were long gone, sold for scrap. The round building wasn’t in use today, but very faintly on the end wall, he could see the faded remnants of a painted sign—someone had used it to store wool in the past. As far as he knew, no one used it for anything anymore.
But in its day! Dozens of engines, coming here for service, or even just to turn around on their way to places hundreds or thousands of miles away. Unlike the old steam locomotives, the modern diesel-electric engines didn’t even bother. They worked just as well in forward or reverse. The steam engines had to turn around, if for no other reason than to let the engineer see where he was going. The conversion to diesel had been the death of roundhouses.
There was a growl. Joe smiled and looked at the large brown mutt hiding in the shadows.
“Hey, Conductor! Here boy. I’ve got something for you.” He pulled out the remaining pastry and ripped off the plastic. The growling changed, but the big dog didn’t move any closer.
“One of these days, boy.” Joe set it down on the ground, licking the icing from his fingers, then got on the bicycle and rode slowly back out the gate. In his rear view mirror, he saw the stray approach the treat and devour it in a couple of quick bites.
He’d never get a dog of his own—too complicated at a motel—but Conductor was his newest stray. One day the big shaggy beast would trust him.
“Joe! There you are. Get in here.” His dad waved toward the door and went in, not waiting on him. Joe parked his bike, puzzled. What was up now?
Anita Ferris was coming out the door as he entered. Her face was tight with worry.
“What’s wrong, Mom?”
His dad was carrying a suitcase.
“It’s Pappa,” she said.
Dad opened the trunk of the car and put the suitcase in. “Joe, Granddad Gonzales has had a heart attack. He’s okay, but I need to drive Anita to Albuquerque. It’ll be several hours before I can get back. Can you handle the office okay? It’ll be your responsibility all evening.”
Joe nodded, trying to get his head around the news. Granddad Jose Gonzalez came by every summer. He flashed to the day, years ago, when they’d walked the whole length of the Las Vegas railyards and Granddad, who’d retired from Santa Fe Railroad, told him tales of his years traveling throughout the Southwest. He’d been an engineer, driving thousands of tons of metal along endless miles of rail, from Chicago to San Francisco and all places in between. The stories of mountains and oceans, grand cities and endless fields of grain—those stories had stayed with him.
“Yeah, Dad. But I could drive Mom, if you want.” Albuquerque was two hours west on Interstate 25, farther away than he’d ever been, but he ached to go.
Abel shook his head absently, his mind on other things. Joe knew it was useless as soon as he’d made the offer.
He nodded to his father, “You and Mom go ahead. Take care of Granddad. I’ve got everything here covered.”
After they were gone, Joe looked over the parking lot. There were only a couple of people staying over. He’d have to make good his promise. It was early afternoon, and he’d better be ready. In just a couple of hours, he’d be chained to the office, as the guests arrived for the night.
He checked the laundry, the supplies, and especially, the groceries. As he feared, Mom hadn’t done the shopping before the news came.
Trapped. He needed breakfast supplies for tomorrow, and he couldn’t go out and get them. There was a convenience store a few blocks down the road, but ... he couldn’t leave the place unattended.
Joe snarled at the phone. He snatched it up and dialed his sister’s number.
“Anna! Did you hear about Granddad?”
“Yeah, Dad called when he couldn’t find you. You think he’ll be okay?”
Joe didn’t know. “I hope so. Anyway, I’m stuck here at the desk. Mom didn’t get the groceries, the ones you didn’t get yesterday. I need them.”
She sighed. “I’m busy here. I have a life.”
“And I don’t? You want me to take down the ‘Free Breakfast’ sign? No way I’m gonna lie to the guests.”
There was silence on the line. In spite of what she said, she had been trained by Dad as well.
“I don’t have any cash.”
“Come by here first, there’s the change in the register.”
Joe could hear her breathing. For years, he’d heard her wishing to be gone from here. She’d been overjoyed to get out from under this roof, but she hadn’t gone far enough, not like Ben or Mary. But she couldn’t totally abandon the guests either.
“Okay! But it will be awhile. Don’t call me unless it’s an emergency.” Click.