The volcano burst. Boulders glowing orange as pumpkins, white-hot ash and baby dragons spewed into the sky. Boulders tumbled and ash fell, but the dragons spread their wings and soared, red leaves against blue sky. Tsadi - the volcano’s dragon king - roared after them, mouth agape. He would tolerate no young dragons on his mountain. He champed left and right as he flew. Soon, only one baby remained.
The baby twisted and rolled, dodging teeth longer than swords. He saw snowy peaks ahead with deep shadows between them. He dove straight into the deepest shadow of all, a canyon with a river at its bottom. Proud Tsadi swooped up and shot scarlet flames into the sky. His wings were too wide. He could not follow.
The baby landed with a thump and a moan among the tents of railroad men, track-layers and diggers. The men threw off their blankets, poured from their tents into frosty air and stared in wonder. The baby sobbed as golden dragon tears fell from his golden eyes. This was a marvel and, being men from China, they turned to the wisest man among them. “Mencius,” they called, “what shall we do?”
Mencius pulled the thin hairs of his beard and stared at the quivering dragon. “This is a great gift! People of California don’t know dragons. We do. We must protect this orphan.”
One man called, “Mencius, how are we to feed it?”
“I am the camp cook. I will order food for a thousand.”
“But we are only five hundred!”
Mencius nodded. “Exactly! Then we five hundred must do the work of a thousand to hide the difference.”
And they did.
They slipped him bits of bread at breakfast. They fed him stew at lunchtime. They patted him and spoke with him, but they could not do the most important thing of all: teach him to sing. Only a mother dragon could do that. Then – chuff, chuff, squeal, hiss – an engine rolled to a halt on gleaming rails. The baby dragon rushed to its panting, black flank and stared up. He felt red fire burning in the engine’s heart.
Suddenly, its brass whistle cleared its throat with steam and howled a mighty howl!
Baby dragon blinked, pointed his muzzle to the sun and answered with all his heart.
“I name you Steam Whistle!” pronounced Mencius.
All the men cheered and Steam Whistle uttered another throaty moan.
A clever man called out, “What can this dragon do?” He knew that young dragons need a great task. Otherwise, they become a great burden.
An engine’s whistle hooted down the canyon. Steam Whistle answered. Mencius grinned.
Trains have climbed the Sierras for one hundred and fifty years. Within their lighted cars, mothers cuddle babies and fathers snore in peace. None give a thought to the wild mountains, for above them flies a guardian. They might sometimes see a monstrous wing’s shadow, or they might hear, however strange in these modern days, Steam Whistle’s rolling cry.
Dedicated to Martin Doolan
Robert Walton is a retired teacher and a life-long rock-climber and mountaineer. His writing about climbing has been published in the Sierra Club's "Ascent”. His novel "Dawn Drums” won the 2014 New Mexico Book Awards Tony Hillerman Prize for best fiction. Most recently, his story “Lulu Garlic, Contraband” was broadcast on NPR. He and his wife Phyllis live in King City, California. See more at his Chaos Gate website.
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