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,
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,
" 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
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? "
" 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, .
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
" 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
"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
" 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
" 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
" 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
" 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
"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.
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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