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the switchman

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They come through North Platte on their way to Wyoming. There they can take a Union-Pacific train right across the border. Newt’s sure of the route—“I ought to be, considering that I did this once already”—and they follow where he leads.

North Platte is a pleasant place. Very friendly, with people who smile and wave even if Graves feels he’s sticking out more than a little. The trains are the big business here, and it feels as if every other street is a crossing. Passenger trains constantly come in and out and, as a result, the whole town is bustling. No one looks at a group of lost travelers twice.

“This,” Jacob says, when they’re sitting down to eat in a local restaurant, “is ‘Little Chicago.’ Can’t credit half the stories I’ve heard, but they say that some guy named Hastings runs this town like Capone runs Chicago.”

“Maybe we can try not to meet him?” Queenie says hopefully.

“I don’t know,” Credence says with a shrug, “I doubt that there’s anyone who can hold a candle to Al Capone. And we handled him just fine.”

Graves sighs. “Someday that bravado is going to get you in trouble,” he warns.

Credence just gives him a devil-may-care smile. “That trouble is going to have trouble with me.”

He’s been on top of the world since that night in Nebraska. It makes Graves smile just to be in his orbit. Credence is shining so brilliantly now that Graves is fully under his spell. And he doesn’t mind.

The lunch is delicious. They all try bierocks, rectangular rolls filled with beef and cabbage and onions, well seasoned. “In my professional opinion, these are pretty fine,” Jacob says. “Not exactly my grandmother’s, though.”

“This is Nebraska, not New York,” Tina says, taking a large bite of hers. “Different place entirely.”

It really is that. Graves can’t seem to get over being in a place where the sky goes from horizon to horizon, where you can walk right out of town and be in the middle of nowhere. It’s extremely unusual for them—all of them but Newt.

They take a walk, wandering through the town with nowhere much to go. It’s a lovely blue-skied day, and no one is paying much attention as they come up to the train crossing at Willow Street. Tina, in particular, is walking and talking without the slightest bit of attention given to what’s around her.

Graves is conscious only of a man shouting, a very loud rumble, the scream of a whistle, and something moving fast along the tracks. Tina is ten steps ahead, turning around and walking backwards to talk, on the tracks—

He has just time to tackle her and Apparate before the train hurtles across the tracks.

They hit the gravel road hard when they land, both of them sliding across it until the pebbles rattle to a halt. Side by side, they sit up and watch the train roaring past. “Watch where you’re going,” Graves says, feeling distinctly out of breath.

“I will,” Tina says, with wide eyes.

It’s a minute or two before the train has finished its journey and the last car has flown out of sight. Immediately they’re swarmed by a variety of very concerned, loud people. Queenie is scolding Tina and Graves indiscriminately, Jacob is laughing, Credence has his head in his hands in exasperation, and Newt is checking Tina over with meticulous care, ignoring everyone else.

And then there’s the man that Graves doesn’t know. He’s a pleasant-looking man, older than Graves, with a railroad switchman’s uniform, leaning on a crutch to accommodate his missing leg. “What are you doing, being so irresponsible?” he asks sternly. “I’ve never had an accident at my crossing and I don’t intend to begin now!”

“My apologies. It won’t happen again,” Graves says contritely. He offers his hand in reconciliation. “Percival Graves.”

“Joseph Roddy,” the switchman says, shaking Graves’ hand. “What I’d like to know is just how you appeared right on the other side of the tracks.”

Graves exchanges glances all around. On the one hand, Obliviation is the smart thing here. On the other, Graves is morally opposed to the very idea of doing that. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” he says, wincing at how utterly trite that sounds.

“Try me,” Joseph says.

Jacob waves a hand. “They’re all wizards,” he says, casual as anything.

There’s a moment’s pause. Joseph looks them up and down, and then shrugs. “Fair enough,” he says. “Don’t look like you belong around here.”

“We sure don’t, sugar,” Queenie says. “How long you been working here?”

Joseph looks up and down the railroad tracks. “Oh, almost thirty years,” he says. “Lost a leg in an accident, so they made me a switchman so I could stay working.”

“How lovely,” Queenie says.

Jacob nods. “What a job.”

“Couldn’t ask for better,” Joseph says. “People around here call this Joe’s Crossing, what with my working here so long. I like to look after the children and pensioners. Got to cross Willow Street to get downtown or to the school, so I make sure they don’t do what you just done.” He gives a rather severe look at Tina and Graves.

“I always wanted to work on the railway,” Credence says wistfully.

“No better job,” Joseph says. He claps Credence on the back and, startled, Credence smiles. “The railroad’s always looking to hire bright young fellows like yourself.”

“Maybe I’ll look into it,” Credence says.

Newt clears his throat a little. “For now we have to catch our train,” he says.

“I won’t keep you,” Joseph says. “’sides, I’ve got to get back to work.”

He shakes hands all around and then marches briskly back to his post. Queenie waves one last time as they begin to make their way back to the passenger train station. “I like him,” Tina says as the tracks fade from sight.

“So do I,” Graves says. “Courageous, to stay around trains after an accident like that.”

“Sometimes I do believe that machines make the Muggle world a lot more dangerous than our world could ever be,” Newt says thoughtfully.

Jacob winces a little. “Canning factories are no joke.”

“Nor are trains,” Newt says.

“I still want to work on the railway,” Credence says.