Monday, May 7, 2012

Runaway Train

Dorence Atwater, friend of Clara Barton and husband of Moetia Salmon
A few years ago when I was researching the life of Dorence Atwater for an article I wrote for America's Civil War Magazine, I became intrigued by the nature of Dorence's relationship with Clara Barton. I've written about Atwater in this blog before because, after being appointed American consul in Tahiti in 1871, he met and married Moetia Salmon. A decade before he arrived in Tahiti, while just a teenager, he had associated with Clara Barton in marking the graves of 13,000 dead Union soldiers at the notorious Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia where Dorence himself had been imprisoned and almost died.

Thus began a lifelong friendship between Clara and the young man over 20 years her junior, but in reading between the lines of their letters, I thought I detected hints of feelings rather stronger than friendship. Realizing I would probably never be able to unearth enough documentary evidence to prove this theory of mine, I decided to try writing the story of Clara and Dorence as a novel - as if I didn't already have enough other writing projects in the works. I wrote a chapter or two but soon abandoned the attempt precisely because I had other fish to fry. And I still do. But I sometimes hanker to return to telling the story of the love affair that history may have forgotten.

Here is a scene from the opening chapter:

Trains. How many has she ridden in her lifetime? More than hundreds. She almost lost her life on a train, she and Dorr together, outside Jacksonville, Illinois on one of their grueling cross-country lecture tours.

She’d been nodding off to sleep over her notes as the train rattled across the prairie. Opposite her, he sat upright on the horsehair bench, staring out of the dim carriage window. Night had fallen so there was nothing to see but the ghost of his own reflection. At times like these when he pulled away into silence, Clara always wondered if he was thinking of his lost life before the war with his mother and father still alive, and perhaps of some girl he’d known before he enlisted, some sweet 15 year old with tightly braided hair and down on her upper lip. Though he’d never mentioned such a girl, in Clara’s mind she was a full-blooded, firm-fleshed presence, impossible to ignore.   

Through half-closed eyes, Clara watched Dorr’s face. His long chin rested on his fist. Strands of his fine brown hair had strayed down over his forehead. Such soft hair. Clara allowed herself to imagine leaning forward and brushing the lock aside with one finger and how that silkiness would feel against her skin.

The train slowed to a crawl. Clara cupped her hand against the window, trying to see out. In the faint illumination cast by the gaslight from the train windows, all she could see were the stones of the rail bed and the ragged edge of a sorghum field.

It was at that moment that the train bucked and heaved, throwing her back from the window and sending the foot warmers skittering across the floor. The lights flared and then died with a pop. The carriage lurched violently to the left, and, with an almost human groan, slowly began to topple. Clara felt herself sliding, and she reached out wildly, reaching for Dorr, reaching for an anchor. Her flailing hands struck cloth, skin, metal but they all slid away from under her fingers. Weightless and blinded, she hung in space till, with a jarring that seemed to rearrange her bones, she landed chin first on Dorr’s shoulder. She tasted blood in her mouth and felt Dorr’s leg across her thighs, and then his hands were holding her face in the darkness, feeling for damage, feeling for life. As she felt the warmth of her own breath against his palm, she heard him say “Thank god” and then his hands were in her hair and she felt the roughness of his unshaven face against hers.

Somewhere there was screaming. Clara struggled to take a breath and in panic beat against the imprisoning tent of her upturned skirt. She felt Dorr throw back the heavy fabric and she could breathe again, and her heart pounded with relief. Then there were voices calling, and she saw a wavering of light high above them through the shattered carriage window open to the night. She fought free of Dorr’s hands and called up to where faces peered down.

            “We’re alive. I’m a nurse. Let me help.”

She reached up her hands, and the rescuers heaved her up through the sharded glass onto the roof of the train. Only when she was down on the trackside in the teeth of an icy wind did Clara start to feel the angry burn on the back of her legs where the carriage stove had fallen and seared itself onto her flesh.

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