JACKSON -- As Engine No. 5 chugs past brown cornfields under a blue sky, engineer Bill (Red) Baran spots animals in the shadows on the track far ahead. We wonder if they might be wild turkeys.
"Dogs," the keen-eyed Baran says as the train closes the gap.
Two of the three dogs jump off the tracks when he blows the engine's high-lonesome whistle, a sound which can singe the down on the ears inside the cab. The third dog sprints off in the opposite direction but stays smack in the middle of the tracks.
"He's going to be tired by the time we get to Gordonville," jokes fireman Rick Cordes.
Speed isn't the point aboard the St. Louis Iron Mountain and Southern Railway. In fact, 15 mph is just about top speed for the engine, three passenger cars and caboose linked together in the Jackson-based excursion train.
In some spots where the rails are rough, Baran slows to 5 mph.
But nobody boards this train hoping to get somewhere fast. Some weekends, Jesse James and his gang stop the train for a leisurely robbery. On the dinner trains, passengers find themselves enmeshed in a murder mystery that unwinds as the journey proceeds.
On this trip, the Chocoholic Train, volunteers are passing out candy and cheesecake and hot chocolate. Nobody complains that it takes about 1 1/2 hours to cover the 20-mile round trip to Gordonville.
But the dog on the tracks finally realizes that this train will get there eventually. The dog takes a right turn to safety.
Aboard the engine, Cordes shovels coal to keep the boiler stoked to about 150 pounds of pressure per square inch. Inside the boiler, the temperature is 1,200 to 1,400 degrees. In the cab it's only slightly cooler.
Cordes also acts as Baran's second set of eyes on the left side of the train. Baran scans the track continuously and tugs the whistle cord at every grade crossing. The whistle code for a crossing is two long, a short and another long.
Baran and Cordes are brothers-in-law who drive down from their homes at Hillsboro, Ill., and Litchfield, Ill., every other weekend to operate the train.
Baran began hanging out in the yard at the New York Central Railroad when he was only 10 years old. "I fell in love," he says.
He has been an engineer on trains off and on for 30 years, he said, and runs a yard locomotive for the Monterey Coal Co. He became an engineer for the St. Louis Iron Mountain & Southern Railway seven years ago.
Cordes' first run occurred four years ago. His only previous railroad experience was in toy trains as a boy, specifically a Lionel electric train. "I played with that a long time and it's still in working order," he says.
Baran's biggest concern as the engineer is the main crossing the train must negotiate when leaving and entering Jackson. "People are prone to run the crossing," he says.
People don't realize how long it takes a train to stop, he says. "It takes the length of the train to stop at 10 mph."
The railway will switch from its steam engine to its diesel locomotive beginning this week. To keep a steam engine running through the winter, it would have to be housed indoors to keep the water from freezing.
Between the churning engine, the hissing steam and the whistle, the cab is a riot of noise. In the passenger cars, though, the ride is smooth and peaceful. Train songs like "Wabash Cannonball" and "I've Been Working on the Railroad" play over the sound system.
Conductor Ben Hanison entertains by pointing out sights and answering train questions. One woman wants to know why commercial trains seldom have cabooses anymore. Railroads found out they can operate without cabooses and save money, Hanison says.
But not the St. Louis Iron Mountain & Southern Railway. There's a birthday party in the caboose this day.
Jeffrey Hewes, who manages the railway, says the train has been averaging a healthy 300-400 riders per weekend through the warm-weather season. At that, the privately-owned excursion company never has made a profit in its 11 years of existence.
That doesn't concern Hewes or the Friends of Steam Railroading, the nonprofit organization that assists the railroad through its volunteers. "Our only purpose is to support a train in Jackson," he said.
The railway recently hired a marketing director who is placing radio and TV ads outside the region.
"I can see us competing with the big tourist railroads in the future," says Hewes.