The Express Messenger, and Other Tales of the Rail/A Ghost Train Illusion

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A Ghost Train Illusion


WHEN the Rio Grande Western was a narrow-gauge road it was very crooked. Even in the Utah desert there were many curves among the sand hills that have been piled up during the last few thousand years. A locomotive—one of a type known as "sewing machines," because all their machinery was in sight—was trying to make a spur for the general manager's special, against which she had a time order. The time was growing alarmingly short, and the driver of the light engine knew that the man on the special, with the G. M. behind him, would be crowding the limit. These "sewing machines" were famous riders. The springs were so light and so perfectly adjusted, that one of these locomotives would ride as easily to the engineer as a Pullman car does to a commercial traveller, with one seat for himself and another for his feet. As the little machine rocked round the corners, screaming at every curve, the engineer and fireman kept a sharp lookout ahead, at the same time counting the minutes and reckoning the miles that lay between them and the spur.

Down the desert one of the swiftest engines on the road was trembling away toward the sewing machine, and at the end of each minute the two locomotives were a mile and a half nearer each other.

To be allowed to "pull" the general manager is an honor earnestly striven for by engineers, and when once obtained it is carefully guarded. Whatever record a man makes at the head of such a train is sure to count for or against him, since he is then directly under the eye of the management. The chances are always in favor of a good run, for the train despatcher, with his own reputation at stake, can be depended upon to keep the track clear. He will hold a passenger train ten minutes rather than hold the special five. Another point in favor of the special engineer is the fact that he is due at no particular point at any specified time, and having no time-card to hold him down, he may regulate the speed of the train to suit himself. He is always an experienced runner who knows the road,—knows every low joint and high centre, every curve and sag on his division; consequently the officials put no limit upon the speed of the train, but leave it all to the good judgment of the engineer. It was a clear, dry day in the early autumn, the very best time of year for a fast run, and "Old Sam" had been gauging his speed for fifty miles back so as to hit Coyote spur on the dot, and break the record for fast running on the Alkali division.

By the rules of the road, five minutes were allowed for the variation of watches, but the rule is not always respected, and as the man on the special was known to be a daring driver, the sewing machine crew saw that they were in a close place long before the smoke of the approaching locomotive was seen. Now they had barely five minutes left, and nothing for the variation, and the coveted siding four miles away. At last there remained but a single mile, and only a minute to do it in. The throttle was wide open, and the little engine was rolling so that the bell rang continually. The fireman had put in his last fire, and was now straining his eyes to catch the smoke of the special. The engineer, with his left hand on the whistle-rope, clung to the side of the cab to keep from being thrown out of the right of way.

The wheels under the sewing machine were so small that the best she could do was forty-five miles, and now when she came down to the very last second, there was still a quarter of a mile between her and the meeting point, but at that moment the flying wheels of the special engine crashed over the switch and shut her out. The little sewing machine, hid among the sand hills, was straining every nerve to reach the passing point at which she was already overdue. The man on the special was just beginning to feel sure of his position, when he rounded a curve and saw the light engine emerging from a shallow cut. Of course, he shut off and tried to lessen the force of the collision, but to stop was out of the question.

The fireman on the light engine saw the special, and warned his companion, for they were curving to the left and the driver could not see, but the four men knew that nothing short of a miracle could prevent a dreadful collision, and that in a few seconds' time they would all be piled up in a heap. Both drivers had called to their firemen to jump, and the firemen had turned to their windows. The special engineer was in the act of reversing, that he might take the good opinion of the official with him. The other driver only shoved the throttle lever in, braced himself, and awaited the shock.

A man who has never lived up to what he thought his last moment on earth, and survived to tell about it afterward, can never know how much business one can transact, in his mind, during that moment in which he waits and listens for the swish of the scythe. But one does not always review his past life at such a moment; often he wastes time thinking upon a mere trifle. Lafe Pence was in a wreck the next day after his election to Congress, and, although he had been a Democrat, and had become a Populist, he gave no thought to the past nor the future, but said to himself, as the sleeper plunged down an embankment, "Now, what the devil was I elected for?"

The driver of the special engine had a boy, and this boy had climbed up on a picket fence to kiss his father good-by that morning at their home in Salt Lake, but he slipped, fell, and hung there with a fence picket through the seat of his first pair of trousers, and it was all so funny that, now as the engineer recalled the circumstance, he threw back his head and laughed as heartily as he had ever laughed in his life. The fireman, casting a farewell glance at his companion, saw him laughing, and concluded, in his last moment, that the driver had suddenly become insane, but as he glanced ahead where death was waiting, he was not sure that he was sane himself.

The driver, having finished his laugh and still feeling no shock, looked ahead. The track was clear! He unlatched the reverse lever and threw the engine in the forward motion, and the speed of the train, which had been but little checked, carried them away down among the sand hills. The driver looked at the fireman and asked: "Did you see anything?"

"No," said the fireman. "Did you?" and the driver said no, tried his water and opened the throttle, and the engine whirled away, while the fireman returned to his place at the furnace door.

The two men scarcely glanced at each other again until they stopped for water at Green River, but each in his own mind was recalling all the wild tales of ghost trains he had ever heard. Each was firm in the belief that he had seen a ghost, but he would never tell it,—not for his job.

The officials in the special train felt the resistance of the engine when the engineer shut off and reversed, and the general manager, turning to the superintendent, asked, with surprise: "When did you put in that siding?"

"What, back there? That's Coyote spur, and has been there for six months," was the reply.

"I know very well," said the manager, "where Coyote spur is, for we waited there fifteen minutes for No. 8 going down the other day, but we just passed a siding on the north."

The superintendent was inclined to be funny, but the Colonel, stroking his long gray Peffers, remarked that he had seen a locomotive standing at the point mentioned, and "as trains are not in the habit of meeting and passing between stations, I take it that there must be a siding there." There was just a twinkle of mirth in the Colonel's eyes, which, despite the finger marks left about them by the touch of time, are still bright with the sparkle of youth, but the superintendent was utterly unable to understand the general manager.

There was silence for a little while, but the general manager was by no means satisfied. He pressed the button, and when the black porter came in he asked: "Did you see an engine on a siding back a ways, George?"

"No, sah, I have n't saw no engine: d'ain't no sidin' 'cept Ci-ote spur, an' dat was clear."

"Send the conductor to me," said the official, and when the conductor came in the manager asked to look at the running orders.

" Run special to Grand Junction, avoiding all regular trains. Extra engine 57 has until 5-55 to make Coyote spur against you."

"What time did you pass the spur?" demanded the Colonel.

"Precisely at 5-55," said the conductor, now somewhat alarmed at the manager's air.

"Is there a siding between here and Coyote?" asked the Colonel, and the superintendent, being at a loss to make out what the manager was driving at, started to leave the car, but was called back.

"There is not," was the conductor's reply.

"Perhaps," said the Colonel, "there was not when we went down, but there is now, for I saw a locomotive standing there."

The conductor laughed as the superintendent had done, but the Colonel offered to risk a case of champagne that he had seen no ghost train, and the superintendent took the bet as the easiest way of settling an argument which was about to become embarrassing.

When the special reached Green River the party went into the eating-house, where supper had been ordered, and, as was his habit, the Colonel sat at the same table with the train and engine crew.

"What did you shut off for just this side of Coyote spur, Sam?" asked the Colonel, looking the engineer in the eye, and instantly the eyes of the whole party were upon the driver's dusky face. The engineer was speechless. Not that the circumstances had escaped his mind, for as a matter of fact he had thought of little else, but he knew not how to answer.

"Did you think that engine was on the main line?" asked the general manager, noticing the embarrassment of the engine crew.

"What engine?" asked the engineer, trying to look and speak naturally.

"There was only one engine there besides your own," was the Colonel's response. "Will you be good enough to answer my question?"

"Well," thought the driver, "if I've got 'em the G. M.'s got 'em," and he answered: "I did think she was on the main stem."

"What did you think, Harry?" asked the superintendent of the fireman, who was staring at the engineer. The fireman only closed his eyes and shook his head slowly, as if he considered them all crazy, and his long lashes, dark with coal dust, lay upon his newly washed face like the lashes of a chorus girl.

"Did you see anything on your side?" asked the Colonel, who was determined to unlock the lips of the fireman.

"Not a thing," said Harry. "I don't believe in ghosts."

"It will not be necessary for you to take out 63 [an accident report], but I wish you would tell me what you saw and how it affected you," said the general manager to the engineer."

"May I ask you first if you saw anything, Colonel?" said the driver.

"I saw a locomotive standing on a spur or siding just east of Coyote."

"When I see her first," said Sam, taking courage from the Colonel's confession, "she was bang in front of us, coming out of a cut like a ball out of a cannon. I saw it was all up with us, but I naturally shut off—mechanically, so to speak. I think I hooked her over, but I did n't whistle, open the sand valve, or set the air—they wa n't no use—no time; but just then I thought of little Sammie as I saw him last, hangin' on the fence by the seat of his pants, an it seemed to me that I never see anything quite so funny, and I laughed that hard that the tears came in my eyes and blinded me. Then the thought came to me that we were a long time coming together, so I looks ahead, an' there was n't a thing in sight. I asked Harry if he see anything, an he lied an' asked if I see anything, an' I lied, too, an' opened up the throttle again. That's all I know about it."

There was a noticeable increase in the attention of the company, and Tim Flarrity, the flagman, leaning low toward the table, crossed himself and ventured the prediction that they would have a head-end collision before they reached the junction. "I never see a ghost train show up yet that did n't mean something," he added, but the burst of laughter that followed closed his circuit, and he said no more.

Now the agent came in with a number of messages for the superintendent, and as the official began reading the first of the lot, he began to smile.

"Read it out," said the Colonel. "Perhaps it will tell us something about the ghost." The superintendent read:—

"Engine 57 is off the track and nearly off the right of way 1,000 yards east of Coyote spur, but still on her feet."

That explained the ghost engine. At the instant when the engineer shut off, the "sewing machine," just then rounding a sharp curve, jumped the track, lit square on her wheels, and went ploughing out over the hard adobe of the desert. She rolled and rocked for a few seconds, and then came to a stop with the engine-men still standing in the cab. The engine had been working hard, and if the throttle had remained open, she might have made the curve all right, but the sudden relaxation of all her tension caused a jar that threw her off her feet, and it was a lucky jar for her crew.

Since that time, however, old Sam has been in hard luck. He has already lost three legs. The last one, being caught under an engine, was chopped off by the conductor with an ordinary axe to prevent the engineer being roasted alive. Those who witnessed the operation say that Sam rested on one elbow and smoked a cigar while the conductor hacked away at his ankle. It was a wooden leg.