The Engineer's Story

Scanned by Deidre Johnson for her 19th-Century Girls' Series website; please do not use on other sites without permission

from The Barberry Bush and Eight Other Stories about Girls for Girls (Roberts Brothers, 1893)
by Susan Coolidge

This is about it," said John Scott, the engineer, as the train slowly crested a long, gradual grade. " You 're a-top of the Rocky Mountains now, ma'am."

Emily Vaughn looked to left and to right, and was conscious of a feeling of disappointment. She had pictured the top of the Rocky Mountains as something quite different from this. Here were no frowning heights or sudden gulfs,— only a wide, rolling plateau, some distant peaks which did not look very high, and far ahead a glimpse of lower levels running down into plains. It seemed hardly worth while to have come so far for so little.

" Really! " she said. " But where are the mountains ? They don't look nearly as high as they did yesterday! "

"Naturally, ma'am," responded the engineer. " Things don't appear so high when you 're as high as they are. We 're a-top, you know."

" But there 's no look-off, no wonderful distance, as from the top of Mount Washington. I confess I am disappointed."

" It's kind of queer," said John Scott, with a dry chuckle, " how folks from the East keep alluding to that 'ere little hill as if it were the standard of measurement. We don't think so much of it this way. Why, ma'am, you're about three thousand feet higher at this minute than if you was at the top of that little shuck of a Mount Washington that they all think so much of."

Miss Vaughn smiled, but she experienced a shock nevertheless. The New England mind does not easily accustom itself to hearing its sacred mountain thus lightly spoken against.

"Have you ever seen Mount Washington? " she asked.

" Oh, bless you, yes! " replied John Scott, cheerfully. " I was raised over to Fryeburg, and grew up alongside of it. I thought it was a pretty big concern when I was a boy, but now—"' He closed the sentence with a short, . expressive laugh.

Miss Vaughn changed the subject. She was not offended. She had grown to like this rough, good-natured engineer in the course of the three days' journey, during which, favored as a relative of one of the directors of the road, she had several times been privileged to ride, as now, in the engineer's cab for a better view of the country.

"Have you been long on this road? "she asked.

" Pretty near ever since it opened. I run the third through train that come out from Chicago, and I have n't been off the line since, winter or summer, except for three months when I was laid up with a broken leg."

"This must look very differently in winter," said Miss Vaughn, noting the treeless distances, and the snows still glinting on the higher peaks to the left.

" You may believe it does! The first year, when the snow-sheds was n't built, it was terrible I was running that train that stuck in the snow seven days ', perhaps you 'll remember about it, — it was in all the papers. I sha' n't ever forget that, not if I live to be as old as my grandfather; and he did n't die till he was ninety odd."

" Tell me about it," said Miss Vaughn, persuasively, seating herself on the high side bench of the cab with that air of attention which is so enticing to the story-teller. Amusements are few and far between in the long monotony of the overland journey to California ; besides which, Miss Vaughn dearly loved a story.

" There aint much to tell," said John Scott, with something of the feeling which prompts the young vocalist to complain of hoarseness. " I aint any hand at telling things, either." Then, won by Miss Vaughn's appealing eyes, he continued: —

" We ran all fair and on time till we was about two hundred miles beyond Omaha.

Then the snow began. It did n't seem much at first. The women-folk in the train rather liked it. They all crowded to the windows to see, and the children hurrahed. Anything seemed a pleasant change after the sage-brush, I suppose. But as it went on falling, and the drifts grew deep, and the cars had to run slow, the older ones began to look serious, and I can tell you that we who had the charge of the train felt so.

"We was just between two of the feeding- stations, and we put on all the steam we could, hoping to push through to where provisions could be got at in case we had to stop. But it wa' n't no use. The snow kept coming. I never see it come so. The flakes looked as big as saucers, and the drifts piled so quick that, when we finally stuck, in about ten minutes no one could see out of the windows. The train would have been clear buried over if the brakemen and the porters had n't gone the whole length over the roofs every half-hour, and swept it off with brooms and shovels. We had a lot of shovels aboard, by good luck, or else nothing could have saved us from being banked up outright. But it was terrible hard work, I can tell you. There wa' n't no more laughing among the passengers by the time it come to that, and the children stopped hurrahing."

" Oh, the poor little things! What did they do ? Were there many on board ? Was there plenty for them to eat?"

" That was the worst of it. There was n't plenty for any one to eat. We had stuck just midway of the feeding-stations, and there was n't a great deal of anything on board besides what the passengers had in their lunch-baskets. One lady, she had a tin of condensed milk, and they mixed that up for the babies, —there was two of 'em,—and so they got on pretty well. But there was about five other children, not babies, but quite little; and I don't know what they would have done if it hadn't been for the young lady."

"The young lady! " said Miss Vaughn, looking up with some surprise; for with the words a curious tremble had come into the engineer's voice, and a dark flush into his bronzed face. " What young lady was that? "

It was a moment or two before John Scott answered the question.

" I don't know what she was called," he said slowly. " I never knew. She was the only one on the train, so we just called her the young lady. She was travelling alone, but her folks had asked the conductor to look after her. She was going out to some relative of hers, — her brother, I guess, who was sick down to Sacramento. That was how she come to be there."

"Were the children under her care?" " No, ma'am. She was all alone, as I told you; but she took them under her care from the very first. They had their fathers and mothers along, — three of them had, at least, and the other two had their mother and a nurse-girl, — but somehow no one but the young lady seemed to be able to do anything with them. The poor little things was half starved, you see, and there was n't anything to amuse 'em in the dark car. and one of them, who was sickly, fretted all day and 'most all night, and the mother didn't seem to have no faculty or no backbone to her, but whenever the young lady came round, that sick young one, and all the rest, would stop crying, and seem just as chipper as if it was summer-time out-doors, and the whole train full of candy.

" I don't see how she did it," he went on, meditatively, throwing a shovelful of coal in at the furnace door. " Some women is made that way, I suppose. As soon as we see how things were going, and how bad they was likely to be, that girl kind of set herself to help along. She had a mighty gentle way with her, too. You'd never have guessed that she was so plucky. Plucky! By George! I never saw anything like her pluck."

" Was she pretty ? " asked Miss Vaughn, urged by a truly feminine curiosity.

" Well, I don't know if you 'd 'a' called her so or not. We did n't think much how she looked after the first. She was a slender-built girl, and her face looked sort of kind and bright both to me. Her voice was as soft,— well, as soft as a voice can be; and it kind of sang when she felt happy. She looked you straight in the eyes when she spoke. I don't believe the worst man that ever lived could have told that girl a lie if it had been to save his life. Her hair was brown. She was different from girls in general, somehow."

" I think we may say that she was pretty," observed Miss Vaughn, with a little smile.

" I aint so sure of that. There 's plenty of ladies come over the road since that I suppose folks would say was better-looking than she was. But I never see any face quite like hers. It was still, like a lake, and you seemed to feel as if there was depths to it. And the farther you went down, the sweeter it got. She never made any rustling when she walked. She wasn't that kind."

Another pause, which Miss Vaughn was careful not to break.

"I don't know what them children would 'a' done without her," went on the engineer, as if talking to himself. Then, with sudden energy:

"I don't know what any of us would 'a' done without her. The only trouble was that she could n't be everywhere at once. There was a sick lady in the drawing-room at the end of one of the Pullmans. She had weak lungs, and was going out to California for her health. Well, the cold and the snow brought on a hemorrhage. That was the second day after we was blockaded. There was n't no doctor on board, and her husband he was mighty scared. He come through to the front car to find the conductor, looking as pale's a ghost. ' My wife's a-dying,' said he. 'Aint there no medical man on the train ? ' And when we said 'No,' he just gave a groan. 'Then she must die,' he said. ' Great heavens! why did I bring her on this fatal journey?'

" ' Perhaps the young lady 'll have some remedies,' suggested one of the porters; for we 'd all got into the way already of turning to the young lady whenever things were wrong.

" Well, I went for her, and you never see any one so level-headed as she seemed to be.

She knew just what to do, and she had the right medicine in her bag; and in less than an hour that poor lady was quite comfortable, and her husband the most relieved man that ever was. Then the young lady come along to where I was standing, — there was n't nothing for me to do, but I was waiting, for I did n't know but there might be. — and said she : ' Mr. Scott, I am growing anxious about the fuel. Do you think there is plenty to last ? Suppose we were to be kept here a week ? '

"Now, just think of it! not one of us dumb fools had thought of that. You see we was expecting to be relieved from hour to hour, for we had telegraphed both ways, and the snow had stopped by that time, and none of us had a.ny notion it was going to be the job it was to dig us out. Only the young lady had the sense to remember that it might take longer than we was calculating on.

" Says I, ' If we are kept here a week, there won't be a shovelful of coals left for any of the fires, let alone the engine.'

"'Then don't you think,' says she, in her soft voice, ' that it would be a wise plan to get all the passengers together in one car, and keep a good fire up there, and let the other stoves go out ? It's no matter if we are a little crowded,' says she.

" Well, of course it was the only thing to do, as we see at once when it was put into our heads. We took the car the sick lady was in, so's she 'd not have to be disturbed, and we made up beds for the children, and somehow all the passengers managed to pack in, train hands and all. It was a tight squeeze, but that did n't matter so much, because the weather was so awfully cold.

" That was the way I come to see so much of the young lady. I had n't anything to keep me about the engine, so I kind of detailed myself off to wait on her. She was busy all day long doing things for the rest. It's queer how people's characters come out at such times. We got to know all about each. other. People stopped sir-ing and ma'am-ing and being polite, and just showed for what they were worth. The selfish ones, and the shirks and the cowards, and the mean cusses who wanted to blame some one besides the Almighty for sending the weather, — there wa' n't no use for any of them to try to hide themselves any more than it was for the other kind. The women, as a rule, bore up better than the men. It comes natural, I suppose, for a woman to be kind of silent and pale and patient when she 's suffering. But the young lady was n't that sort either. She was as bright as a button all along. You 'd have supposed from her face that she was having just the best kind of a time!

" I can see her now, standing before the stove, roasting jack-rabbits for the others' supper: some of the gentlemen had revolvers, and when the snow got crusted over so 's they could walk on it, they used to shoot 'em. And we were glad enough of every one shot, provisions were so scanty. The last two days them rabbits, and snow-water melted in a pail over the stove, was all we had to eat or drink."

" I suppose there was nothing for you to do but wait," said Miss Vaughn.

"No, ma'am, there wasn't nothing at all for me to do but help the young lady now and then. She let me help her more than the rest, I used to think. She 'd come to me and say, ' Mr. Scott, this rabbit is for you and the conductor.' She never forgot anybody, — except herself. Once she asked me to hold the sick little girl while she took a sleep. It was mighty pretty always to see her with them children. They never seemed to have enough of her. All of them wanted she should put them to bed, and sing to them, and tell them stories. Sometimes she 'd have all five swarming over her at once. I used to watch them."

" Well, how did it end ? " asked Miss Vaughn, as the engineer's voice, which had gradually grown lower and more dreamy, came to a stop.

"Eh? What? Oh,"—rousing himself, — " it ended when three locomotives and a relief train from Cheyenne broke through to us on the eighth morning after we was block- aded ! They brought provisions and coal, and we got on first-rate after that. Did the sick lady die ? No, ma'am ; she was living, when I last heard of her, down to Santa Barbara. Two years ago that was."

" And what became of your young lady ? "

" She left at Sacramento. Her brother or some one was down to meet her. I saw him a moment. He did n't look like her."

" And you never saw her again ? You never heard her name ? "

" No, ma'am; I never did." The engineer's voice sounded gruff and husky as he said this. He shovelled in coals with needless energy.

" Are you a married man ? " asked Miss Vaughn. The question sounded abrupt, even to herself, but seemed relevant to something in her mind.

" No."

John Scott looked her squarely in the face as he replied. His countenance was rather grim and set, and for a moment she feared that she had offended him. Then, as he met her deprecating gaze, he reassured her with a swift smile.

"No, ma'am, I aint. And I never shall be, as I know of," he added. " Second-rate would n't satisfy me now, I guess." He pulled the cord which hung ready to his hand, and a long screeching whistle rang out over the plain, and sent the prairie dogs scuttling into their burrows.

"This is a feeding-station we're coming to," he explained. "Twenty minutes here for supper, ma'am; and it aint a bad supper either. I reckon you 'd like to have me help you down, wouldn't you?"

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