Here’s the first chapter that will get you started on an epic journey aboard the Dragon Train!
I don’t remember the Eastbound Dragon Train ever stopping in Hilltop. Grownups around here say it never happened in their lifetimes. Maybe Grandma Kesterson might have seen it but she was nearly a hundred years old and could barely recall what she did five minutes ago.
But that didn’t matter when I walked out of the barn. I had just finished milking all but the last two cows in our herd like a thousand times before. I carried a bucket of warm milk steaming in the cold morning air.
That’s when the sound of the dragon’s deep breathing reached my ears. I looked across the long stretch from our farm on the ridge toward Hilltop. The Dragon Train was climbing to the top of Long Hill just before passing through town. Nothing new about that.
But this morning those dragon puffs were loud, sounding like Grandma hacking and coughing while she smoked a hand-rolled cigarette. That got my attention. I watched as the train appeared outside of town.
The train was barely moving. The dragon dipped low plowing dirt and gravel as it strained to flap its big wings.
Usually the train picked up speed when the dragon screeched as if relieved the hard work was done. Heading on down from dinky Hilltop to the big city of Portville, it was an easy coast from the hills. But this faded old blue dragon could hardly manage a wheezy cough as the train lost speed.
When I saw the Dragon Train slowing, I completely forgot what I was doing and dashed for the train station in the center of Hilltop. I ran across our yard, passed our little wooden house and towards the stone fence that marked the border between us and our neighbors.
Wait a minute! As I climbed over the fence, something occurred to me. I looked back at the barn door. The milk bucket that I just had in my hand was now turned over on the ground.
Dad’ll give me what-for when he finds a big puddle of fresh milk on the cold ground between the barn and our shack.
No time for that! As I turned to head down the hill, I instinctively slapped my left hip checking to make sure I had my leather pouch with a skinning knife, an ancient leather cord slingshot, and smooth river rocks. None!
I turned back to the barn. I had to make time to get the pouch because I might have to sling a rock between the dragon’s eyes if he got out of line. Yeah, right, whatever. Still, I felt better prepared with my farmer boy weapons.
I tore along the hill’s narrow pathways and cut through barren gardens, pretty sure our neighbors wouldn’t mind since it was time for spring planting. And if they did mind, oh well.
A Dragon Train stopping! Here! My only chance to see a real dragon up close. Not from way up on the valley’s ridge when they flash by in a few moments looking more like a flying squirrel pulling a train of wooden toy cars.
Reaching the creek, I let gravity speed my flying feet as I leaped across the water and landed a foot short of the opposite bank. Oh, man, the cold water went right through my worn-out boots. The icy bite hurt, but I didn’t care.
At the bottom of the hill, I ran across the village square, around the broken-down train station and bounded up the creaking steps. I looked up the tracks.
Sure enough, the Dragon Train limped along. The large blue beast flew a few feet above the tracks as it weaved back and forth straining to pull the train another hundred yards to the loading platform.
I knew it! The train was going to stop in Hilltop.
If it didn’t stop, the great beast would die before reaching our poor train station. Delivering mail was the only thing our station was good for long before I was born.
The beat-up leather mailbags were left off and picked up from giant hooks that stood by the station. The trains barely slowed as one bag from the train caught on the incoming hook and, on the other side of the train car, the outgoing bag was unhooked and carried off as the train sped for Portville.
Just as the blue beast’s ribs heaved to draw in fresh cold air, the dragon collapsed on the tracks. Its wings spanning wider than the size of any home in Hilltop, settled down like old quilts tossed on a bed.
By the size of him, my little river rocks wouldn’t do. I needed a rock the size of our old bull’s head to bring this beast down. Oh, well.
“Is he dead?” I asked the postman who watched this drama from the edge of the loading platform.
“Naw, Jaiden, not yet. Lookit its nostrils. Still openin’ and closin’ trying to draw breath, though I don’t think it’ll be long for this world…”
I watched the dragon not more than five feet away. The ragged edges of its nostrils came together as the monster sucked in barrels of air and then blew out a stench smelling like rotten eggs.
“Phew! That’s gross!” I said. “Smells worse than a struck match or my old dog’s farts.”
“That’s the sulfur in their blood system that used to allow them to spew fire, though this beast couldn’t light a hanky with what little air it has left.” The old postman shook his head. “A waste of a perfectly good dragon!” he said and turned to go back into the station.
With the large wooden train cars drawn to a halt behind the fallen beast, a conductor in a wrinkled red coat, black cap and pants jumped to the ground out of the lead car and ran to the postman.
“You have to send an emergency message—”
“What’ya think I’m doing right now?” the postman said. “Going to mend my socks? Of course, I’m fixin’ to scratch a message and send my old pigeon hen to Portville right now. Last time I sent a message was a year ago when the Eastbound flew past here with a wheel ‘bout ready to fall off the caboose’s axles!”
“Oh,” the conductor said, a bit flustered. “That’s fine. Uh, thank you.”
The postman grumbled and disappeared into the station house.
The conductor walked over to the suffering dragon and kicked it in the ribs. “You dad-blamed old fool cow! Couldn’t even pull us down the hills to the city. Now we’ll have to cut you loose and let you rot right here in the middle of Hilltop.” He groaned and shrugged his shoulders.
Turning to the gathering crowd, he announced, “When we saw this blamed dragon struggling, I knew we should’ve thrown it off the cliff back a ways and let her carcass feed the wild animals of the forest! ‘Course we wouldn’t have even made it this far without a dragon to pull the train. Sorry stinkin’ beast!”
He unbuckled the harness that attached the dragon to the shafts connected to the lead car. I caught sight of the train pilot pacing back and forth in his tiny cab. He flung his dragon whip back and forth like he was killing a snake. Maybe he was aggravated he couldn’t flog the blue giant to pull the train just far enough to coast to Portville, fifty long miles away.
I couldn’t imagine fifty miles when the farthest I ever been was seven miles away from town during hunting season.
This is the only time I ever got this near to a train-towing dragon, and now all I get is watching this poor old wreck breathe its last. Somehow, it didn’t seem right.
I jumped off the platform and circled the great beast’s head which was about the size of the kitchen in our house. The dragon’s breath smelled even worse and burned my throat.
Massive eyes, as big as a ten-gallon bucket, opened slightly and looked in my direction, though it seemed like it didn’t really see me. After a few moments, the eyes widened and a liveliness sparkled as the dragon must have realized a human was looking into its depths.
The dragon sucked in more air than I thought possible for an animal so near death. Then I heard something I never expected.
Are you the dragonherder come to lead me to my rest in the Caverns of Heaven? Or do I deserve no more than the Firepits of Hell?
Was that the dragon’s wheezing voice? Dragons don’t talk! But if this one did, it wouldn’t sound like a woman. Would it?
Will I join my father and the mother who tended my egg along with those of my brothers and sisters? What about my siblings who may be dead? And my darling babies who have never flown? Will I at last curl around my loved ones and rest eternally?
“Uh…” was all I could mumble. What was I supposed to say? A talking dragon? And what in the world was it talking about? Like it was some kind of human facing death and longing for rest in Heaven, as if it had a soul?
Grownups in the crowd, started talking all at once.
“What was that? Did you hear something?”
“No… well, I heard wheezing and a whispering like someone talking—a woman, I think.”
“What did the voice say and where did it come from?”
“Is it a ghost?” Someone asked. And so, the questions flew around the crowd.
I looked at the dragon and wondered what a dragon would say if it could talk. And if it could, would it talk about Heaven of all places? How could a dumb beast, only fit for towing trains across the mountains and prairies of Nulland, expect to rest in some kind of dragon heaven—or any kind of heaven for that matter?
But the creature couldn’t have spoken.
Dragons don’t talk!
The crowd murmured in a way that was more threatening than the stories about a weyr of Dragons back in the old days. Back then, my father told me, dragons had not been broken of their wild ways. Now, they were used for transportation and war machines.
“Somebody’s messing around with us like we’re dumb country bumpkins,” a voice spat.
Old Joal, one of farmers who lived just a hill away from us took a long hard look at the dragon. “Maybe that dragon is possessed or something,” he said.
“Yeah,” said his wife beside him. “Joal, you could be right. The least that beast has done is scare a lot of us folks making them weird noises.”
“Who cares if it is dying,” the village baker said. “We need to finish it off and—”
I could tell by the way the conductor peered into the crowd’s faces, that he feared violence from the crowd. He turned to face the postman. “It’s bad enough we have a broken-down dead dragon on our hands and now we’ve got a riot brewing?” he muttered, as if expecting the postman, to control the crowd.
“Don’t go lookin’ at me to solve your problems. All your bunch does is whip through our little village, grab our mail and leave off a few goods we can’t find in our sad excuse for a store. As it is, the store owner has to ride a wagon for five hard days on rocky roads to get to Portville for essentials twice a year.”
“Aw, quit your complaining. It’s not our fault your village is so little it’s not even worth a stop once a month—”
“This problem is your’uns, not mine or any of these forsaken souls here. Clean up your own dead dragon mess.” The postman glared at the fidgeting conductor, spit on the ground near the trainman’s black polished shoes, and headed through the crowd to his cramped post office.
Over his shoulder, the postman snarled, “I’ll go send your gall-darned message while you cool your heels back in your comfy office on the train.”
“It’s about time,” the conductor said. “Tell ’em that blamed Number 4 has given up the ghost and they need to send a crew to collect the body.” He turned on his heel and began a fast walk back to the train.
I got a little scared as the crowd shifted on their feet. Would they jump the conductor before he made his way to the lead train car? His eyes still looked fearful though he put on a tough face as he grimaced and snarled at me as if all this was my fault. The conductor ignored the restless townspeople and rushed toward the train to wait for the rescue operation from Portville.
Yeah, pick on the young guy in the crowd with your dirty looks, I thought. When he reached the lead car, he quickly closed the door and I heard the lock clank.
Hilltop was small and I often heard people complain about being stuck here for the rest of their lives. There was no one else who had a higher position in the town than the postman. In a way, he was sticking up for us against the stuffed shirt conductor in his red coat and the whole Dragon Train business.
He trotted back to his dusty little post office and didn’t quite close the door all the way. The people milled around for a few minutes, grumbling among themselves and spitting until they slowly began leaving the station to return to their boring chores.
I’m sure, like me, they came to the station, fascinated and curious. But now I could tell by people’s expressions that the dying dragon and the grouchy conductor squeezed the excitement from the hearts of all who came.
As some of the village people were departing, my father tramped down the hill. I scooted around behind the crowd, staying out of his line of sight. Chatting with Old Joal, he got the gist of what had happened. Within a couple of minutes, there I was, exposed, no crowd to hide behind.
I froze as he walked toward me. I could feel his anger like a hot stove in a cold room.
“What are you doing, Jaiden? There’s two more cows to be milked and goats to feed before you can even think about supper. Get on home!”
I almost talked back to him, but stopped myself just short of outright disobedience. “Oh, okay, but can’t I stay just a little longer? This poor dragon still breathes.”
My father gave the blue monster a hard look, its breathing now much slower and weaker. “What’s the point? You want to adopt it and have it eat us out of house and home so you can have an oversized pet? For someone fifteen years old you can be so stupid! Let it die. It’s the railroad’s problem, not ours.”
“Don’t ‘But Dad’ me,” he roared. “I’ve spoken, now you get up the hill and finish your work.”
I knew better than to say anymore or even give him my “you-can’t-make-me” look. With a quick glance back at the dragon—it’s eyes now shut and breathing much slower—I followed my father back to the ridge to our small grazing fields and broken-down barn.
I picked up the overturned bucket, wiped the cold mud off, and headed for the trough to wash it before milking the two remaining cows of our tiny herd. I couldn’t help but look back down to the center of town.
In the aging night, the black form of the dying dragon was hardly visible on the tracks. Soon there would be only darkness in the heart of Hilltop and silence as the great lungs of the beast breathed their last.
What happens next? Will the dragon survive the night? Will Jaiden go back to his boring life as a hard-working farm boy? Get the book and find out! Details coming soon…