The Express Messenger, and Other Tales of the Rail/A Locomotive as a War Chariot

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A Locomotive as a War Chariot

 

A LOCOMOTIVE AS A WAR CHARIOT

"SMOKY HILL was the end of the track at that time," said the old engineer, shifting his lame foot to an easy position. "'We had built a round-house,—a square one, with only two stalls and room at the back for three or four bunks and a work bench. To protect ourselves against the Sioux we had lined the house up to about five feet from the ground, and filled in behind the lining with sand.

"Indians were thicker than grasshoppers in Kansas in the days of the building of the Kansas Pacific, and scarcely a day—never a week—went by without a fight. At first they appeared to be awed by the locomotives, but in a little while their superstitious fear had vanished, and they were constantly setting lures to capture the 'big hoss', as they called the engine. One day we were out at the front with a train of steel, some eight or ten miles west of the Hill. It had been snowing all day in little fits and spits, and near nightfall the clouds became thicker and darker, and before the sun had gone down the snow was falling fast. By the time the last rail had been unloaded it was pitch dark, and as the engine was headed west, we were obliged to back up all the way to Smoky Hill. The conductor and the captain of the guard, composed of government scouts, took a stand on the rearmost flat-car, and when I got a signal I opened the throttle and began to poke the blunt end of the construction train into the darkness. Ordinarily I hate running backward at night, but in a case of this kind it is a real relief to know that there are a dozen or more well-armed soldiers between you and whatever the darkness holds. Three or four men with white lights were stationed at intervals along the tops of the ten or twelve cars that made up the train. The house car, or caboose, was next the engine, and upon the top of this car stood the foreman of the gang, and from him I was supposed to take my 'tokens.'

"We had been in motion less than ten minutes when I saw the conductor's light (we were going with the storm) stand out, and following this movement all the lights along the train's top pointed out over the plain, and I began to slow down. Instantly a dozen shots were fired from the darkness. Muffled by the storm, the sound came as if a pack of fire-crackers were going off under a dinner pail, and we all knew what we had run into. 'Injuns,' shouted the fireman, leaping across the gangway, and they 're on my side. 'Keep your seat,' said I, 'they 're on my side, too.'

"Now all the white lights, following another signal from the conductor, began to whirl furiously in a short circle. That was my notion precisely. If they had prepared to ditch us, we might as well go into the ditch as remain on the tops of the cars to be picked off by the Sioux, so I opened the throttle and began to back away again as fast as possible. The Indians had prepared to ditch our train. They had placed a great pile of cross ties upon the track, expecting that when we struck them our train would come to a dead stop. This small party which had fired upon us was the outer watch, the main band being huddled about the heap of ties where they expected us to halt, and where most of the amusement would occur. The track was newly laid, and as billowy as a rough sea, but this was no time for careful running. The old work engine soon had the empty train going at a thirty-mile gait, and then we hit the tie pile. The men on the rear car, which was now in front, had anticipated a wreck, and retired in bad order to the centre of the train. The Indians, who had only a faint notion of the power and resistance of a locomotive, stood close together about the pile of ties. The falling snow had made the rail and timbers so wet and slippery, that when we hit the stack of wood the ties flew in all directions. Some of them were thrown to the tops of the cars and others flew into the mob of redskins, knocking them into confusion. A fine buck, who must have been standing on the track, was picked up in the collision and landed upon the top of the second car, right at the conductor's feet. The fellow was considerably stunned by the fall, and, taking advantage of his condition, the scouts seized and bound him with a piece of bell-cord, taking care to remove an ugly knife from his rawhide belt. The band was so surprised to see the train plough through the wreckage that they forgot to fire until we had almost passed them, and a great flood of fire from the engine stack was falling among them. They then threw up their guns, those who were still on their feet, and let go at us, but none of the bullets affected our party.

"When we reached the station the Pawnees who were among the scouts recognized our captive at once as Bear Foot, a noted and very wicked chief. When the Sioux came to himself and realized that he was a captive, he became furious. He surged and strained at the bell-rope, but in vain, and finally he gave up.

"When we had eaten our supper we all went into the round-house, soldiers and all; for we knew the Sioux would make a desperate effort to rescue their chief before the night was out.

"Now appreciating the importance of our capture, the captain in command had set four powerful Pawnee scouts to guard Bear Foot, the Sioux chief. It was no sure thing that we would be able to stand the Indians off till morning, and as the storm had knocked the wires down, we had been unable to telegraph to Lawrence for reenforcements. The fact that their brave chief was himself a captive would increase the wrath of the red men without, and taking even a moderate view of the situation, we were in a hard hole. I for one would have gladly bartered our captive and the glory of the capture away, for the assurance of seeing the sun rise on the following morning, but I dared not hint such a thing to the captain, much less to the Pawnees.

"The four scouts, with their prisoner, were placed in the coal tank of the locomotive, while the fireman and I occupied our places in the cab and kept the steam up to one hundred and forty pounds. If at any time it seemed to me the fight was going against us, and the Sioux stood a chance to effect an entrance, I was to pull out for Lawrence with the captive and fetch assistance, provided I did not meet a west-bound train and lose my locomotive. I rather liked this arrangement, risky as it was, for it was preferable to remaining in the round-house to be roasted alive. Then, again, I disliked fighting,—that's what we fed and hauled these soldiers around for. They were so infernally lazy in times of peace that I used almost to pray for trouble, that they might have an opportunity at least once a week to earn their board and keep. Now that the opportunity seemed to be at hand, I had no wish to deprive them of the excitement and glory of being killed in real battle, and so sat nodding in the cab of old 49.

"It was long after midnight when one of the men on duty heard a low scraping sound, like that made by a hog crawling under a gate. A moment later the noise was repeated, and when the same sound had been heard three or four times, the lieutenant in command flashed a bull's-eye lamp in the direction of the door, and the light of it revealed three big braves standing close together, while a fourth was just creeping in under the door. Then, as if the idea had struck all of them at once, they threw their guns up and let go along down the ray of light, and the lieutenant fell severely wounded. The scouts returned the fire and four Indians fell.

"The report of the rifles within the building had been answered and immediately a shower of lead rained and rattled upon the wooden doors from without. One of the scouts picked the bull's-eye lamp up and placed it upon the work bench, training the light upon the double doors immediately in front of my engine. Our men knew how useless it would be to fire into the sand-stuffed sides of the building, and not caring to put themselves into a position where they could fire effectively above the wainscoting, they very wisely kept close to the ground and allowed the Sioux to empty their guns into the sand.

"Presently, hearing no sound from within, the attacking party ceased firing, and began to prowl about the building in search of a weak spot through which they might effect an entrance. The fate of the three early callers who had hogged it under the door, kept them from fooling about that trap for the remainder of the evening. In a little while the whole place was as still as the tomb, save for the soft flutter of steam from the safety valve of the 49. Bear Foot knew what was going on. Even though he could see nothing, he knew that his faithful followers were working his release, and now when all was silent, he shouted from the coal tank to his braves to break the door and come in. Before the Pawnee scouts could pound him into a state of quietude he had imparted to his people the particulars of his whereabout, and immediately the whole band threw themselves against the front of the building.

"The house fairly trembled, the Indians surged from without, and the great doors swayed to and fro, threatening at any moment to give way and let the flood of bloodthirsty redskins in upon us.

"'Stand together,' cried the captain to his men.

"'Put on the blower and get her hot,' I called to the fireman, for I knew the frail structure could not withstand the strain much longer. As often as the fireman opened the furnace door to rake his fire, the glare of the fire-box lit up the whole interior and showed four dead Sioux near the door. One of them lay across the rail, and I found myself speculating as to whether the pilot of the 49 would throw him off, or whether I must run over him. Now it seemed that the whole band had thrown themselves against the building, and the yelling was deafening. Above it all I heard our captain shout: 'Get ready, Frank.'

"'I am ready,' said I.

"'All right,' said he, 'shoot it to 'em,' and I opened the sand valves and the throttle. I have often thought what a temptation it was for those soldiers to leap upon the engine and make their escape, but although they all understood perfectly what was going on, not one of them took advantage of this 'last train out.'

"Just as the 'Big Hoss' moved with all her ponderous and almost irresistible weight toward the front of the building, the double doors sagged toward me like the head gate of a great reservoir that is overcharged, and then I hit 'em. The big doors, being forced from their hinges, fell out upon the redskins, and they were caught like rats in a trap. The pilot ploughed through them, maiming and killing a score of them, and on went the 49 over the safe switches, which had already been set for her before the fight began. The confusion caused by the awful work of Big Hoss, which they regarded as little less than the devil, was increased when the Indians who remained unhurt realized that the engine was making away with their chief, for he had told them how he was held a captive in the belly of the big horse.

"All effort for the capture of the round-house was instantly abandoned, and the Sioux, as one man, turned and ran after the locomotive. The captain in command of the scouts, taking advantage of the confusion of his foe, and of the fact that his force was in the dark building, while the Sioux were out upon the whitened earth, quickly massed his men at the open door and began to pour a murderously wicked fire into the baffled Sioux, who, like foolish farm dogs, were chasing the 49 over the switches.

"All the Indians who were crippled by the engine were promptly, and I thought very properly, killed by the Pawnee scouts, and the rest were driven away.

"It was a desperately risky run from Smoky Hill to Lawrence, with no running orders, and due to collide with a west-bound special or an extra that might be going out to the rescue with a train load of material, but the officials, fearing that something might arise which would cause us to want to come in, had very wisely abandoned all trains the moment the wires went down, and so we reached Lawrence just before day without a mishap.

"My first thought was of our captive, Bear Foot, who had made track laying dangerous business for our people for the past three or four weeks, but upon looking about I saw only four Pawnees, and concluded that the fierce fellows had killed the chief and rolled him off.

"'Where's Bear Foot?' I demanded.

"'Here,' said a Pawnee, who was quietly seated upon the manhole of the engine tank, and he pointed down. During the excitement in the round-house at Smoky Hill the Sioux had made a desperate effort to escape, and had been quietly dropped into the tank where he had remained throughout the entire run.

"Now, it's one thing to stay in a tank that is half filled with water when the engine is in her stall, and quite another thing to inhabit a place of that kind when a locomotive is making a fly run over a new track. After much time and labor had been lost fishing for the chief with a clinker hook, one of the scouts got into the tank, which was now quite empty, and handed Bear Foot out.

"When we had bailed him out and placed him alongside the depot where the sun would catch him early, the coroner came and sat on him and pronounced him a good Indian."