Iron Horse by Philip Barbara

An old man signals train drivers his horse racing picks as they pass his local tavern, and befriends a boy in need of a father figure; by Philip Barbara.

Louie DaRosa stood beside the railroad tracks near the crossing gates that had just descended, halting car traffic on Main Street. A freight train rumbled toward him. When the locomotive was close enough to see the engineer's face in the cab window, DaRosa raised his right arm above his head, showed three fingers, then lowered his arm and swiftly raised it again to show five fingers. He added his left index finger to make six before finally holding his right arm out parallel to the ground.

This sequence of signals took only seconds. He stepped back and the engineer gave two short blasts of the horn in reply. Satisfied, DaRosa turned away from the track and found Nicky sitting on his bicycle, one leg planted on the ground for balance, watching in bewilderment.

"Jersey Meadows Racetrack, fifth race, sixth horse, to place," DaRosa said by way of explanation. His voice always sounded as if it were filtered through waterlogged gravel. "That was Frank Barry up in the cab. He's a friend."

"Is he gonna win?"

"If his horse comes in second, he makes money."

"How much?"

"Maybe $300. I won't really know," DaRosa said. "We can ask him tomorrow if you want."


"Okay. You're out of school for the summer, right? Tomorrow you can come by and we'll give him different signals and he'll stop the train. You can ask him." He added, "You can stop the train."

"But I don't know the signals."

"We'll double-team 'em." DaRosa draped his arm around the boy's shoulder and guided him across a narrow street to the sidewalk outside the Trackside Tavern. DaRosa carefully lowered his 72-year-old frame into an aluminum lawn chair he kept outside the tavern while Nicky leaned on his bike's handlebars.

"Frank will again be coming down the line sometime tomorrow afternoon, so be here by noon," DaRosa said.

That evening, DaRosa sat on his front porch. He lifted a bottle of beer from a galvanized tin bucket he had filled with bottles and ice, and set it at his feet. The bright silver bucket was known to his neighbors as DaRosa's invitation to come over, have a beer or a soda and keep the widower company. He was listening to the Mets game on the radio, and a guest in the broadcast booth asked play-by-play man Lindsey Nelson the awkward question of whether Yogi would survive the '75 season as Mets manager. "Yogi sure will. But it's only late June," Nelson tactfully replied. DaRosa's thought of years-ago baseball games with his son Eddie, who now was grown up and living two thousand miles away. He thought of Nicky and the game they'd play tomorrow at the railroad tracks. He'd only known the boy a week, but already they had a kinship. The first time Nicky had stopped by the Trackside to play pinball, DaRosa noticed welts on his arms. He gently befriended the boy, and Nicky told him about his parents' breakup that winter, his move with his dad to Dumont, his dad's new girlfriend. "He comes home late. He's drunk. He's upset if I'm still up." DaRosa wondered if the boy would wait up tonight for his father to come home.

He took a sip of his beer. He hoped not.

DaRosa arrived at the Trackside shortly after eight, his usual time for breakfast with a few fellow retirees. Abe was already sitting in their favorite booth. DaRosa helped himself to a set-up on the bar of crullers and a cup of coffee, shimmied into the booth and began thumbing through The Racing Form as Abe read from the sports pages of The New York Daily News.

Within a half hour Otto and Gus arrived. After they ate, the four began playing poker with a deck that had TV comic Frank Fontaine's grin on the flip side. The stakes were generally small, a dime or a quarter. They wagered more, a half dollar, on side bets such as which one of them would yawn first or get a letter delivered to them at the tavern.

"Fifty cents says Otto's wife calls to tell him to pick up ketchup and sauerkraut on the way home," Abe said.

Otto picked up the bet. "She'll want mustard, not ketchup."

Life in his 70s, relaxing with friends, this was what DaRosa wanted: no surprises, no difficult decisions.

Just before noon, Nicky ran in waving a copy of The Daily News. He went straight to DaRosa.

"Whaddya got there kid?" DaRosa asked.

"There's a girl riding her bike around the world. She started in India, reached New York, and wham!" He slapped his hands violently. "She got hit by a cab. It's in the paper."

DaRosa took The News and thumbed the pages forward until Nicky, standing shoulder to shoulder with DaRosa, pointed to the headline. "There it is... She biked through Europe, took a plane to Kennedy and made it to Manhattan."

DaRosa read the story and told his buddies the details. "This 23-year-old student from Bombay is in a New York hospital. She's going to live."

"Gonna finish her trip, too. Nothing gonna stop her," Nicky said. The men nodded appreciatively.

DaRosa looked at his watch. "It's after noon. Time to wait for Frank's locomotive." They went out, and DaRosa sat in his chair reading The Racing Form while Nicky crouched on the curb, still thumbing through The News. The rail crossing and the Trackside were in the center of downtown, where shop-lined Main Street was cut in two by the tracks like an open book, laid flat, split by its spine. The summer sun was high above the hills, and DaRosa couldn't resist the urge to shut the paper and his eyes for a bit. The soft knocking of rubber car tires bouncing over the tracks and the pungent odor of creosote emanating from the wooden rail ties was a comfort to him.

Nicky kicked him awake with a tap on his foot. "I don't know the train," he said. "Or the signals."

"You think I could sleep through a train passing?"

Nicky shrugged. "How'd you get so good at playing the horses?"

DaRosa told Nicky about his first days in Dumont. "I arrived during the Depression, unemployed and nearly broke. Only job available was gatekeeper. I'd hand crank the gates down to warn pedestrians and cars of oncoming freight and commuter trains." Nicky's eyes showed he hung on every word. "It was terribly boring. To keep busy, I began scanning racetrack results in the newspaper and reading handicapper columns. I placed small bets with a local bookie and made a few dollars."

"How'd you get to know the engineers?"

A good question. "One night at the Trackside, I bought a round of drinks for the first time. 'Hey Louie, where'd you get the extra cash?' friends asked. 'Playing the ponies,' I said. That was the start of everything, about 1950. A few months later a local was stopped at the station and an engineer named Newton Sweet leaned out his cab and shouted, 'Louie, who do you like today, what race?' Word got around and everyone knew my name."

Nicky looked hard at DaRosa. "I didn't know you were famous."

"I'm not. I'm just a local guy with a knack. Had a good run, but in 1960 many railroad workers lost their jobs when the railroad shut down the commuter line and automated the gates for freight trains."

"That didn't stop your betting?" Nicky said.

DaRosa laughed. "No, not completely."

They heard the distant rumble of a locomotive, and when they saw its head beam appear at a bend up the line, they crossed the street to just aside of the tracks, where DaRosa had stood the day before. A bell sounded and the crossing gates began to descend.

"This may be Frank," DaRosa said. "Okay Superman, go ahead and stop the train." The locomotive thundered closer. The crossing's bell sounded, the red light flashed and the automatic gates descended across Main Street. "Go ahead, flag 'em down. Wave your hand, make 'em see you. He just might stop."

"What's the signal?" Nicky asked. "Quick... the signal?"

"Use this." DaRosa made a T with his hands by placing his left palm atop the upturned fingers of his right.

"That ain't going to work. That's the time-out signal in sports," Nicky shouted. He gave the signal anyway. The locomotive roared louder. When he realized the train was not slowing, he arched both arms as high as he could and swung them frantically like a metronome gone haywire. DaRosa also gave the same signal. The locomotive pounded nearer. Nicky tensed. The engineer's face in the cab became distinct, one DaRosa didn't recognize. Nicky raised his hands as high as he could and desperately jumped up and down in place. As the train roared past, the engineer replied with a brief toot of the engine's horn. Nicky pivoted with the engine as it went by. The wind kicked-up by the train swept over them.

"They toot for any kid waving at them. I looked like a jerk."

"Ahhhahaha." DaRosa laughed above the clacking rail cars. "Okay. It's okay. That wasn't Frank."

They watched as the caboose came and went and returned to the sidewalk. This time DaRosa slowly lowered his body to the curb and Nicky shimmied close to him.

"Your dad come home late last night?"

"After midnight. I stayed in my room." After a pause he said: "Sometimes I wish I could go live with my uncle."

"Where's that?"

"Valley Stream."

"On Long Island. Mmmmm," DaRosa said. A New York State road map was wedged in a basket on Nicky's bike.

DaRosa looked at the boy. "I wanted to bail out too when I was your age. Actually... even before your age. My dad wasn't home much, always out hustling work at a meat packing plant or the docks, if he worked at all. What he made he just pissed away with booze. We often had to move in the middle of the night because we couldn't pay the rent. I changed schools a lot."

"What happened?"

"Family just fell apart. As I got older I realized a good parent lives for his kid."

Nicky looked down at the gutter. "I want to get to know Manhattan. Maybe move there. See the world like this girl on the bike."

"Manhattan. Valley Stream. Hey, don't go nowhere. Not now at least. Things will work out. Until school begins just spend time around the Trackside."

Another engine sounded dimly in the distance. DaRosa went to the tracks and waited to get a look at the face in the cab. Satisfied that it was Frank, he had Nicky repeat the Trackside opera. Frank throttled down. The brakes squealed and the locomotive rolled to a stop, its momentum carrying it well down the line. DaRosa and Nicky shared a look of triumph.

"Go ahead. He saw you're with me," DaRosa said. "Ask how he did at Monmouth. Tell him today it's 'Egyptian Femme' to win in the eighth."

Nicky jumped on his bike and sped to the head of the train; the engineer stepped down from the cab to meet the boy.

DaRosa stood alone and watched. After he lost his job, he'd been horribly lonely. His wife worked, his son attended school. He was drawn back to the rail crossing, and whenever the morning was pleasant, he'd set his chair outside the tavern's door, a few feet from where he'd sat as gatekeeper. He went on making his hand signals and the trainmen placed their bets when they reached the Manhattan yard. It was like an elaborate game of charades they'd all spent years developing. When an engineer owed him some money, he used a signal to flag him down. Motorists halted at the gate would ask why the train was stopped, he'd tell them, "Equipment failure. Just a short stall." He remained an unofficial gatekeeper at the crossing, a relic of the old commuter line, much like the tidy brick gabled station that still stood, weathered and padlocked.

Nicky pedaled back and handed DaRosa a twenty. "Mr. Barry made $200. Beers are on him."

Inside the tavern, DaRosa broke the bill and gave some change to Nicky, who put quarters into a pinball machine. When the machine lit up, DeRosa enjoyed watching the boy's eyebrows bob and his smile rise or fall depending on the fate of the silver ball as it bumped across the face of the game.

The next day Nicky again rushed in with a copy of The News. The paper had begun soliciting donations for the bicycle girl's care. Nicky wanted to donate his bike.

"Mr. DaRosa, I need your help," he said. "I can't get my bike on a bus to New York, but it could fit in the cab of a locomotive. Can we do it again, stop a train?"

He looked down. "My dad won't drive me."

"I don't think so, kid. It's too dangerous. Riding with an engineer would be fun, but to be in New York alone? Nah. Nothing doing. Anyway, what are you going to do without your bicycle?"

"I'm getting too old to ride bikes."

"Now let's figure this one out, you and me... Let's ask for donations inside. We'll set a vase on the bar. Then we can wire the money to the girl in the name of the Trackside."

The boy persisted. "I'll deliver the money. I bet The News will take a picture of me giving her the bike. I know the bus home."

DaRosa frowned. "Let me think about it."

Smart kid for knowing The News would jump at a chance to photograph him handing his bike to the girl. Readers would see a boy with a bright face helping her put broken dreams back together. The picture wouldn't tell the whole story.

Then DaRosa thought it through. If any kid could go from point-to-point with a plan, it was Nicky. DeRosa could flag down an engineer and alert the guys at the 60th Street rail yard to watch out for the kid. The plan wasn't that complicated.

That evening, DaRosa sat on his porch listening to the steady murmur of evening sounds. A distant locomotive's drumming grew nearer. The engine hummed a thin resonant line that reached a crescendo when the train reached downtown. As it passed, its rumble began to fade. When the train was miles down the line, its sound echoed in the valley. To DaRosa, the distant echo was like a deep buried rhythm.

The following morning, a Thursday, DaRosa read in The News that the girl would be well enough to resume her bicycle journey. Her recovery made for a happy story, one of triumph after tragedy. DaRosa wasn't sure about his plan but he briefed his cronies about it. They all understood Nicky's bike would be one of many bicycles donated. The girl would choose one and the rest would go to charity. They were excited for Nicky and wanted him to take the trip. "Louie, help the kid," Otto said. "He wants to do more than I ever did at his age."

DaRosa was still uncertain. He had bet on horses named Skipper Nicky and Gallant Nicholas and lost a few dollars. This wager was bigger. He said nothing.

Then his friends broke the silence by theatrically laying down rapid-fire bets.

"Here's ten dollars that says the kid gets lost on the subway," said Otto. He tossed a bill on the table. Gus scoffed. "I bet 20 bucks the bike's taken from him within a half hour." Abe bet $10 the police would have to hunt for the kid. "Let's hope they find him," he said, and winked.

When Nicky arrived, he went straight to DaRosa. "Can I go?" And in the hesitation that followed the boy looked up at the old gatekeeper with brown eyes that were unblinking, burning, unrelenting in their appeal, telling the man he was his only chance, he was his compass.

"OK, put your money up," DaRosa told his cronies. "I'll take those bets." In a softer tone he said to Nicky, "Go get what you need. I'll give you $10 for the bus back."

Nicky returned within an hour with wrapped sandwiches in a brown bag and a collapsible umbrella. DaRosa met him outside. "From the rail yard, head straight along 57th Street, down Broadway to the hospital. If the sidewalk is crowded, walk your bike. You know the bus home."

"I'm shooting to catch a bus around six," Nicky said.

"Good." DaRosa handed Nicky a pad with phone numbers for the hospital, for The News, the Manhattan yard dispatcher, and the Trackside. He placed a roll of dimes in Nicky's hand. "Use these. The police will begin looking for you if you don't call us every two hours. If there's any problem, call. We'll work it out."

The boy reached into his knapsack for a photograph of himself that DaRosa had asked for to give to the police, just in case, and gave it to DaRosa.

And then DaRosa gently touched under Nicky's chin to lift it. "Hey kid," he said softly. "Is this legit? Is this a gimmick so you can run away?"

Nicky shook his head.

"Are you sure?"

Nicky nodded. "You don't have to worry."

DaRosa felt at ease. "Okay, just stick to the plan. There's a flower shop in the hospital lobby. Buy roses. They'll look good in the picture." He gave Nicky an envelope with the donations from the Trackside. "Stuff this in your front pants pocket. Don't take it out until you're face-to-face with her."

DaRosa felt confident he could flag an engineer down. He and Nicky both gave the signal to the first train, but it passed. At noon a second train ripped right by. Then an hour later a third came down the line, but the engineer just tooted a greeting. It was getting late for the kid to get to New York and back safely before dark.

"We'll give it until two," DaRosa said.

When he heard the next train, his heart began to race. If he and Nicky gave the signal together, the engineer might pass them by. If he gave the signal alone, the engineer might recognize him and stop. It was decision time. Should Nicky hop on board? Was he making a mistake? Like the girl from India off to see the world but got hit by a cab, Nicky could get hurt. He might not come back. Decades ago when he arrived in town he became content to go nowhere, like horses at a race track. But it would be wrong to keep the boy from going places.

"Let me do this alone," he said. The boy backed away. DaRosa looked down the tracks. When the face in the cab became distinct, he flashed the signal. The engine's rumble pitched lower to a whine and the train began to slow down.

DaRosa turned. Nicky had already jumped on his bike. The boy shouted "This is gonna be great!"

Nicky pedaled furiously along the tracks to the front of the train. The engineer stepped down from the cab and bent at the knees to look into Nicky's eyes. The boy spoke and gestured. The engineer stood and looked back at DaRosa, cupped his hands over his mouth and shouted, "It's okay. He can ride with me."

Nicky reached for the locomotive's grab irons and climbed up. The engineer handed up the bike and they both disappeared inside the cab. Black smoke shot from the locomotive's stack as the train crept forward. DaRosa watched until the caboose disappeared below the horizon.

In the Trackside, Abe asked: "Think he'll make it?"

"Yeah he'll make it."

"Will he be back?"

DaRosa arched his eyebrows and shrugged. "Beats me."


  1. Nice characterizations. Interesting setup. Believable dialogue.

  2. Loved the characters and detailed evocation of time and place. Very easy engaging writing, thank you,

  3. This reminded me of Stephen King - First Class characters and Set up. Definitely Worth a follow up. I'd Like to know what happened. Mike McC

  4. Takes the reader along with every step - likable characters and an appropriate ending. Bravo!

  5. Great scene-setting through evocative description and your clever ending leaves much to the reader's imagination. A really enjoyable read, Philip.