How Ould Michael McConnell Saved the Engine He Loved—and Averted a Wreck
By L. R. RORKE
SHE stood impatient on the siding at the divisional point of Jackman, a snorting, shining beauty—the big Mallett engine which pulled the
westbound morning express through the length of Bald Mountain Division, No. 6918, and the pride and love of Ould Michael McConnell, her engineer.
Ould Michael had little else to be
proud of, save it was the reputation of being the best trusted engineer on the line. In the roundhouse the men speculated, looking out through blinding
storm, on the whereabouts of stalled trains, and took bets with the unwary that “Ould Mike McConnell” would “pull through with 6918.” They were seldom
wrong. No train on all the mountain division ran closer to.her schedule, no train came more triumphantly forging its way through storm and snow; but this, McConnell averred, was merely the excellence of the great engine, and in no way due to any superior judgment or energy on the part of her engineer.
“She’s a darlin’!” he would say, his eyes appreciative on the ice-coated engine, “Just a bit of coaxin’ she needed. Took her two hours to clear the cutting this side of Ould Baldy, but she’s here, not tin minits behind her time—an’ 674 sittin’ shnortin’ forninst a drift beyant Sleepy River.”
That was as near to sentiment as Ould Mike had been known to come openly, but Bill Lanning, his fireman, told how
when the tail of the Wallace Mountain slide had heaped itself two feet deep for half a mile along the track the old man had brought his train with the special car of the president and his party attached triumphantly through in time to make important connection with the Coast City Express. For three hours the big engine had bucked snow—for there was no waiting for the ploughs.
“Ah, thry her again for me,” McConnell would coax, backing out of the snow for a fresh start. “Shure, it’s but shnow bowlders, me dear. Don’t be afeard now. Ah, but that was crool hard! Shtuck, are ye? Come out of it. Is it rested ye ar-re? Thry her again—Ah, ye’re a darlin’! Good for yez!”
So for three hours of struggle Ould Mike entreated, coaxed and praised, and the big engine, thrilling response, flung herself again and again at the wall of snow, while the passenger-coaches, detached, waited comfortably in the rear. At the end of that time she had nosed her way to the clear track beyond and Ould Mike started out to regain what he might of the hours thus lost.
Except for this strange sweetheart the old man had little to love. He had come to the Bald Mountain division twelve years before, “Ould” Mike McConnell
then. Finlayson, to be sure, who claimed a prior acquaintance with the grizzled old engineer, talked occasionally of “Young Mike McConnell,” telling dare-devil tales of the days when this same young Mike “waked up the town o’ nights.” He even whispered that young Mike had been no woman-hater, that Annie Rafferty was “the foinest girrl in Warrendale,” and that the night she died —but that, mind ye, was nigh unto two years after she married Tom Nixon—McConnell’s engine came thundering into Warrendale an hour before she was due, and Old Bridget Mallory, who was with Annie at the last, told how she thought it was her husband’s engine coming in, “But her mind was wanderin’ an’ ’twas Michael” she said, an’ turned her face to the tracks an’ wished he’d come. ’Twas “Michael” was last on her lips— an’ shmall wonder, for Mike was that handsome an’ lovin’, an’ Annie couldn’t forget herself of the years they’d been sweet-heartin’ before the quarrel that Christmas night, when young Mike tried to murder Nixon an’ Annie gave him back the ring.”
But these wandering reminiscences of Finlayson’s were never repeated save when the old man had been drinking to excess; and those who knew McConnell best refused to place any confidence in such tales. McConnell, who had no friends, no home—who cared for none, dividing his time between long runs on
his engine and the miserable discomforts of a railway boarding house—-there was no connection between this man whom they knew and the young Michael McConnell of Finlayson’s drunken meanderings.
“Finlayson’d ought to write a book,” The engineer of 794 stood chatting with a bunch of men on the platform before turning in after his all night’s run. As usual when this remark was made it was McConnell who was under discussion. “Looks queer to see anybody beside Ould Mike take out 6918.”
“Sure enough! That’s Rogers. Is Mike sick or drunk?”
“Up the line with the ploughs. Davis was hurt in the smash yesterday and they sent for Mike last night. Seems they’re pretty badly blocked in the cutting and on the Atchison line, but the main line’s clear again. They’ll likely keep Ould Mike with the ploughs till the Atchison line is clear. Hello, Rogers! Coast City late?”
“What’s doing down there?”
Rogers turned and glanced down the shining rails to the big engine on the siding.
“Petro’s gang coaling her up. Lazy beggars!”
“Does Lanning go out with you?” “Yes. There he goes now. Why, what in—” the engineer broke from the group and started on a run down the long plat-
Lanning, running wildly, shouting at the top of his lungs, was some sixty yards ahead. Suddenly he turned and started back waving frantic directions to the switchman in his signal cage above the tracks. Behind him the big engine, gaining speed as she came, thundered up and passed. A moment later with a swaying lurch she had left the siding— they heard the switch clank shut behind her—and was on the main line. As she swept toward them the watching men saw Rogers, nearer on the platform, crouched as if for a spring, his eyes intent on the canvas-covered door of the cab. Then she roared past him and he straightened himself again with a gesture half hopeless, half bewildered. The huge monster drew abreast of them, roared a derisive greeting and was gone. They faced each other with horror, for the cab was empty and the throttle wide !
Pandemonium reigned on the long platform. A hundred men sprang into life from office, waiting room and roundhouse. Question and explanation filled the crisp clearness of the winter sunshine.
“Where’s Ould Mike?”
“Dagoes coaling her up.”
“Where’s that Petro?”
“There he goes! Get him!”
“Where’s the express?”
“Thought he’d bring her up nearer the coal-”
“Scared—Yes, jumped. Yes, wide “Where?”
"Across the fields like a coyote—”
“See him run!”
“They’ll never get him!”
“Where’s the Express?”
“He shant get off that way! Come on, men !”
“Where’s Ould Mike McConnell?” “Where’s the express?”
“Make it hot for him!”
“Where’s the express?”
“Where was Rogers? Where’s Lanning?”
“Where’s Ould Mike McConnell?” “Where is the Coast City Express?” inside the dispatching office, shut off from this babel only by its thick brick walls, was silence absolute save for the voice of the chief, low, intense, steadfast, calling Kestor Station. He had tried Ready, a tiny station with a siding where it was possible to ditch the iron monster could they be reached in time, but the express never stopped there and the mixed was not due for hours. There had been no response.
The men who had just left the desks— the night force had been changed some five minutes—stood grouped in the doorway, haggard, intent. By the little desks throughout the room men stood where they leaped to their, feet at the news, receivers, pushed back from their ears listening for the chief’s replies. In the stillness watches hidden away in silent pockets spoke out with sudden distinctness. Over in the corner where the last telegraphic dispatcher on the division still Kept his desk a message rapped out, sharp and distinct, and was answered. A moment later another. Marton met the eyes of his chief across the room. Ready and Cormack had both announced the passing of the runaway.
Men held their breath. Between Cormack and Kestor was a stretch of wilderness—mountain, cutting, tunnel, forest and the bare sides of Bald Mountain, a few sidings seldom used whose switches were operated by the engineer, and close to Kestor in the sloping side of Lower Hill, a disused spur which opened into an old quarry. Here the huge monster might be easily trapped. Here against the cruel rock she could dash out her angry force in one huge onslaught. Here, her strength gone, she might lie broken and disgraced until the company saw fit to send its salvage ship in the shape of some huge flat car and load and tow her away —to be used again, it may be, in the structure of something newer, wiser, and less rebellious—never again to be 6918, the pride of the division and the joy and love of Ould Mike McConnell, her engineer.
There was plenty of time. Running light and wild the engine would do it in much less, but ordinarily it was an hour’s run between Cormack and Kestor Station. It was for the whereabouts of the Coast City Express that the silent men listened, trying to gather the truth of her danger or safety from the chief’s words.
They could not know the answer to his order for signals out against her, but Garry McLean saw his chief’s hand suddenly clenched. He caught his breath sharply and the other men looked at him
—and looked away. McLean’s father was conductor on the Coast City Express.
Then the voice of the chief dispatcher broke the silence. “Good,” it said, “hold lor further orders.”
A little stir swept the room. Men sought for confirmation of their own relief in the faces of their comrades and finding it dropped again to their places. Only nobody looked at young Garry McLean, whose head was bent low over his train sheet. The chief was giving quiet commands spelled in the repeating as to the opening of the spur and the holding of work-extra No. 5. The ploughs were already in the siding. The group at the door vanished; low voices took up their work; and the incident was closed. Silence, save for the quiet tones of the men at work, fell in the great room.
At Kestor Ould Mike pleaded with
“Leave me thry it, sor. I kin do it. Ye can’t ditch a big engine like 6918 as if ’twere a toy. Leave me thry!”
“You’re crazy, Michael. You couldn’t do it—not in the mountain division.”
“Leave me thry, sor! I can do it Shure, see what you’d be savin’! Leave me take 711 from the Coast City; she’s got her steam up.”
“An’ wreck them both! And lose a good engineer to boot ! No, Mike, it can’t be done. Besides I have orders—”
“Indade it can, sor. Leave me show yju! Obey yer ordhers ! Send yer man to open the switch; I’ll whistle on him to close it for me when I come. Give me 711 off the Coast City—” He broke into low, rapid explanation. The other man listened unconvinced.
“No, Mike,” he said at last, “I can’t.
Mike turned away despairing. He had a vision of his engine lying a broken wreck among the granites of the old stone quarry, and the thought made him desperate. He started blindly for the ploughs.
“Mike!” A man in a huge storm-coat, who had been pacing the platform stopped him as he came out? “Any luck?” he asked.
McConnell shook his head.
“Well,” the other responded pointedly, “that’s Denton’s car and Leeming is in it.”
McConnell listened to the information unheeding. “Is it so, sor?” he responded and would have passed on.
But the other reached out a detaining hand. “Mike,” he said with unmistakable emphasis, “Leeming is general manager of the line.”
An instant comprehension flashed into the face of the old Irishman. He flung away and down the long platform, springing aboard the standing train and presenting himself, grimed and eager before Leeming and Dr. Challoner, who to while the monotony of waiting had started a game of chess. Laughing behind him came Denton himself, the new president of the company.
The trained eyes of the engineer distinguished the railroad man. As Den-
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ton joined them he was mapping his plan in quick eager words.
“But the risk to yourself?” the general manager answered with a question.
“There’s none, sor. She’ll mind me. She’ll come in that quite an’ sorry like! You’ll see. Shure she’s the best engine on the line. We can’t wreck her—forbye there’s no need. Let me get till her! I can do it, sor. Leave me thry.”
“Let him try, Leeming. I heard his plan to Manisty. I believe he can do it.” Denton spoke from behind the engi-
“Come an’ see Manisty, sor,” Ould Mike put in eagerly.
“Do you know,” the general manager demanded, “that you are facing every chance of death?”
“I do, sor,” Mike answered steadily, “but I don’t believe it. Ye don’t know 6918, sor, I’ve run her this seven year. We’re sweethearts, like; an’ I’m thinkin’ she’d not hurt me. I’ll thrust her, sor. I’m not goin’ back on her—so ye’ll lave me thry—an’ she’ll not go back on me.”
“Come on, then,” said Leeming.
Three minutes later 711 with full steam backed out of the yards. As she passed the station, where groups of silent men stood to watch her out, the old engineer, poking a grizzled head from the window of the cab, swung his cap in joyous greeting. Above the roar of the engine they heard his cheer.
McConnell, the. grim old Irishman who joined in no revels, who claimed no boon companions, who laughed seldom and bitterly, McConnell, the silent, going out from them like a laughing school-boy to face an odds so tremendous that thinking of it the bravest of them went sick at heart ! Going out with a boyish gleam in the sombre eyes and a light on the old face such as the sunshine of Donegal may have seen on that of the spalpeen hiding in the turf-riggs—a daring which might have belonged to the Young Mike McConnell who “waked up Warrendale o’ nights,”—and a gladness surely such as only Annie Rafferty had ever seen.
“By heaven,” said Manisty, “I believe those yarns of Tom Finlayson’s.”
From the knob of Lower Hill they watched with glasses for the struggle in the valley—Denton, Leeming and Manisty. Challoner had refused to come.
“There’s Mike, now, creeping up the grade! How slow he goes! He wants to reverse quickly when she comes in sight. There she is! No. Yes, she is!”
“Can he see her?”
“Where will they meet?”
The runaway, a bit of flashing steel, was lost in a cutting, flashed out again, and again was lost.
711 went serenely on her way.
Up on the hill men held their breath in suspense, but in the cab the engineer was humming softly—little Irish tunes
of Donegal or snatches of Canadian lov« songs.
When 6918 came in sight he would re verse and start back at full speed anc this he hoped would be at least equal that made by the runaway. Once as sured of this, he would slow slightly— barely enough to let the pursuing engint gain on him. Then when her nose was close against his tender—when she hac actually began to shove the engine ir front, he might gradually cut off more steam, and then—then there was the pos sibility of climbing from the eab along the foot-board and tender and so board ing 6918.
He made his plans composedly. Jusi where he would meet the runaway he could not tell, but he judged from the dispatch orders regarding her that she must be nearing the big cut on Bald Mountain. Just beyond it was a long grade with neither fill nor cutting, and here he had chosen to make the struggle. But that was as might he. She might flash out from any piece of forest, or be lying in wait to spring upon him beyond any curve.
As no one else could do he understood the ways of 6918. He knew to a nicety just where she would lose time and where gain; he held his breath over curves where she might be ditched, and thought of possible dangers to her with a sinking heart.
“She’s missin’ me now, “he said aloud, remembering the bridge above Lost
And when he caught first sight of her, across the stretch of the valley, a shining smoke-plumed demon rushing toward him, he laughed an amused greeting. “She’s all right!” he said.
He gave 711 headway and she sprang away under it. There was still time to make the appointed battle-ground.
To the men on the hill both engines had been lost. Leeming kept his eyes on the long stretch of track showing a shadowy line at the foot of Bald Mountain. Here, he guessed, was Mike’s ground of vantage, and he watched the upper edge where it bit into the forest for the runaway to appear.
“He won’t make it,” he thought.
From the curve below 711 crept into the area of conflict. Up, up the grade she crawled, ever approaching the dark line of spruce from which would flash the derelict.
“He’s reversed,” said Manisty, “She’s coming!”
711 slowed, hung for an uncertain second in position, and started down grade again at a swiftly accelerating pace. From the dark spruce above flashed out the pursuing engine.
“She doesn’t gain,” Manisty cried.
Denton leaned forward, watching . It looked too horribly like a chase. He could not feel but that the engine ahead was fleeing panic-stricken. As he watched she seemed to slow very slightly. 6918 was gaining!— gaining!— upon her! Denton cried out and turned away; but Manisty broke into a cheer.
“Hurrah! Hurrah!” he cried.
For the two engines were running as one, the wicked nose of 6918 shoved close against the tender of the leading engine.
Gradually the speed decreased. McConnell, so far as he dared, was lessening that of the engine in front, and the runaway felt the added weight. They passed thus around the curve at the foot of Bald Mountain; and Manisty shifted his glass.
“You’ll get him again, “he said, “at the edge of the Knob. There they come at last! There!—My God, Leeming, did you see him?”
For as the engine slipped past the opening between the hills they had caught one glimpse—two rocking, swaying monsters, close-locked, and against the black side of 6918, above the footboard, a glint of blue—the engineer’s blue shirt!
They ran around the shoulder of the knob, and gained another fleeting glimpse of the track below, It might have been the same glimpse, save that the patch of blue was gone.
“He’s made it,” Manisty said uncertainly.
Denton swore—or prayed—under his breath.
“Why doesn’t he whistle?” Leeming asked anxiously; and after a moment, “Why doesn’t he whistle? They’re almost at the spur!”
And then, distinct through the frosty, sun-lit air came the whistle—clear, steady—6918 asking again for right of way.
At the station, where an eager throng waited expectant, the sound was answered by cheer after cheer; and when, three minutes later the two engines came to a stand in the yards the tracks were black with men. No prodigal was ever welcomed more warmly.
The yards rang with it.
“Be aisy, boys!” McConnell said, warding off the hands reached to draw him from the cab, “I’ve a shoulder!”
He climbed stiffly to the ground, an arm hanging limp. His shirt was torn and his face cut and bruised, but it had still the look of boyish happiness with which he had said good-bye.
To this new Mike they responded with eagerness, cheer after cheer.
“That’s better than the stone quarry,” somebody said, and McConnell turned back to his engine with an odd little gesture of protection.
“It's the foine gurrl she is, cornin’ over all that track by her lonesome an’ makiir the big curve an’ Lost Creek with niver a miss—the darlin’—An’ she snuggled down into me hand like she’d been lonesome an’ wanted to come home. Wreck her, would they? Not with Ould Mike—”
He broke off abruptly, for Denton, Leeming and Manisty had made their way into the crowd.
He heard their congratulations, ill at ease.
“Not much, sor,” in answer to Leeming’s inquiry as to his arm—"An 'twas no fault o’ 6918. Shure she nestled in as quite an' sorry-like as a baby that’s been naughty an’ just wants lovin’.
’Twas my own clumsiness in boardin’ her. She wouldn’t go for to hurt me. An’ now, sor, I’ll get the docthor to tie up this arrm before I go back on the ploughs.”
He walked away from them across the platform silent through the cheering crowds—the Ould Michael McConnell they had always known.