Coffin Varnish

Coffin Varnish
by Cy Warman

From The Railroad Man's Magazine, Sep 1909



There Was Trouble, and Then More Trouble, and There Was Only One Cause for It All.

NO. 7, the Salt Lake Limited, used to chase No. 21, the fast freight, into Salida, as a terrier chases a tomcat into the kitchen. If 21 was ten minutes late, she had to pull right into the yards, but if she arrived sharp at 4.15, the road engines would cut off at the coal-chutes, pull up and back in on the house track.

That gave the yard engine ten minutes to pull the freight in to clear the main line, allowing five minutes for variations, clearing the line for 7, due at 4.30.

Now, if you have never done one hundred and twenty miles on an alkali division in summer, you will say it's a small thing to scrap about. Why don't you pull on up into the yard?

That's all very fine, but just pulling up isn't all. The limited follows you in. The road forks here. The limited has to be cut and shifted into two sections—one for Leadville and the other over Marshall Pass to Salt Lake; for this thing happened when what is now the main line ended at Leadville.

It was summer in Salida. Johnny Hill and Johnny Carr came in on 21—double-heading. They were on time. The 217 and the 222, respectively, were the Grants, handled by these energetic space-eaters. Hill was ahead, and when the 217 was opposite the switch he hooked her over. The head brakeman pulled the pin behind the second engine.

All this time Killeen, the yardmaster, was giving frantic signals for the double-header to hoist the train up into the yard. Hill didn't appear to see these signals. When the yardmaster saw that the brakeman was cutting off, he jumped on the foot-board and told the driver of the 106 (that was the goat) to back up.

Just as Hill and Carr got their engines into the forward motion, the goat jumped on-to the frog and blocked the switch.

The yardmaster—whose word is law in the yard limits—ordered them to back up, couple on, and pull the train. Hill asked him where the yardmen were. Killeen intimated that that was his business.

"Bet four dollars they're over at McGuire's gin-mill."

"That's their business—back up."

"Have they any other business?" Hill asked.

Killeen knew that old Tom Andrews was on No. 7, and as he looked at his big watch she blew. The rear brakeman had gone back, and, a second later, they heard Tom answer his signal.

"Now will you back up? You still have two minutes to save your job."

All three of the engines were blowing off. Hill beckoned Killeen up under the cab window and told him to ask Carr. As Killeen went back, Hill's fireman dropped off, and picked up the pilot-bar of the 217. As he did so, Hill pushed forward, and, before the yard engineer knew what had happened, they were all coupled up.

Hill whistled Carr ahead, and then began a tug of war that resembled a fight between bulls.

If the goat had been on her guard she could have backed them up, but they got her going. All three were wide open, spitting fire and grinding sand. The air was blue with smoke and full of a smell like brimstone.

The goat screamed down brakes, but the two Grants, eager to get to the turntable, to turn and head for home, would not down.

At the water-tank, where the rail was wet, both the Grants blew up, and before they could get sand to them, the yard engine started them back.

The racket created by the three engines brought Carl Ridgway, chief clerk in the office of his father, the superintendent, bare-headed, to see what was happening.

Jones, the master mechanic, rushed from his office, and De Remer, the foreman, from the roundhouse.

The yardmaster and the head brakeman on the freight were scrapping for the possession of the switch. There was such a rain of fire from the three stacks that nobody seemed to care to rush in and pry them apart.

Without taking time to hear the case the motive-power officials were inclined to sympathize with the road engineers, while young Ridgway leaned toward the yard crew.

While they scrapped, old Tom, back on 177, swore audibly, while traveling men, who knew the road, left the train and hurried up to the hotel to supper.

It was smooth sledding for the goat until she struck the wet rail. By this time, the road engines were on dry sand. One more run and they shot the goat over to switch. The brakeman and the yardmaster were still struggling for the switch when Carr's fireman threw it over and the two Grants backed into clear.

When the officials had succeeded in pulling Killeen from the brakeman, the goat backed down, coupled on, and took the freight in off the main line; No. 7 pulled up to the station fifteen minutes late.

Hill and Carr were in bad.

The law of the rail is to obey orders on the road and kick after.

The conductor of No. 7 was first to report. Cause of delay: "Line blocked by twenty-one."

Despatcher to Hill: "Matter at Salida?"

Hill: "Yard crew."

Despatcher: "Matter with yard crew?"

Hill: "Coffin varnish."

The yard crew, save Killeen, were still lopping up intoxicants at McGuire's, along whose front porch lay the lead of the yard tracks. Killeen, with an eye in mourning, had to make up the two sections of No. 7, one for the third, the other for the fourth, division, getting them out thirty minutes late.

Meanwhile, Hill and Carr received orders, while their engines were being turned, and were now screaming down the Grand Cañon of the Arkansas for Pueblo, wondering what they would do to kill time for the next thirty days.

When the two sections of 7 and three sections of 21 had departed—the last section an hour and forty minutes late—Killeen went over to McGuire's to round up his Indians.

As the evening was young, some of them objected to the yardmaster's interference, and, eventually, they started a row among themselves. One fellow found a gun and chased the yardmaster across the track as No. 8 was coming in from Leadville.

Just here, John Hill's good fortune, which has chased him through forty-five years, turned up. Mr. Kelker, the master mechanic to whom Hill and Carr would have to explain on the morrow, was in the east sleeper—just going to bed.

Before the train had stopped at the station there was a loud report outside and a bullet smashed through the window immediately over the master mechanic's bed, ripped through the curtains, crashed out through another window and sped on its way.

Hill and Carr were not called to go out the following afternoon. They were called to go in and see the master mechanic.

They went. The Old Man had all the papers in the case before him. Hill recognized his wire of the previous night to the train-master. The master mechanic asked:

"What was the trouble out at Salida?"

Hill: "The yard crew."

Master Mechanic: "There was some excitement when 8 came through."

Hill: "Yes. That was Rough Neck Ryan shootin' at Killeen."

Master Mechanic: "What made him want to kill Killeen?"

Hill: "Same thing that made all the trouble, Mr. Kelker—coffin varnish."

This work was published before January 1, 1927, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.