The Express Messenger, and Other Tales of the Rail/Catching a Runaway Engine

Catching a Runaway Engine


THE grade on La Veta Mountain is over two hundred feet to the mile, and when a locomotive gets away it drops down the hill much as a bucket drops down a well when the rope breaks. Jakie Mover and a new man who had been hired from an Eastern road, had helped the west-bound passenger train up the hill, and were ordered by the train despatcher to turn at the summit and run light to La Veta, which is at the foot of La Veta Mountain. These Eastern runners were called "prairie sailors" by the mountain men, who took great pleasure in chasing the tender-foot drivers down the hill. Jakie was one of those dare-devils famous for fast runs, and to prevent his becoming "funny," the despatcher had ordered him out first.

Jakie dropped down off the east leg of the "Y," took a copy of the order from the operator, and began to fix himself for a comfortable ride down the hill. The fireman banked his fire, and made himself comfortable also, for these mountain men have nothing to do on the down grade. If the run is twenty-two miles, they will do it in an hour, for which they are allowed a half day, the fireman receiving one dollar and twenty cents, and the engineer two dollars. Running on a mountain is more or less hazardous, more so than politics, biking, or bull-fighting. There is no dearth, however, of opportunity for the daring driver who is "laying" for a show to distinguish himself; but the opportunity usually comes when it is least expected. It was so in this instance. Jakie had barely fixed his feet comfortably among the oil-cans, when he was startled by the wild scream of a locomotive calling for brakes. One short, sharp blast, under these circumstances, signifies that the engineer wants to stop, but can't, and so publishes his embarrassment. Glancing back, Jakie saw the fireman shoot out at one window and the "prairie sailor" out at the other, leaving the locomotive free to chase Jakie's. Both engines were going at a lively gait,—too lively to make jumping for Jakie less hazardous than dying at his post. This statement is made as a fact, and not to insinuate that Jakie was shy on "sand," for he was not. He was an old-timer on the hill, and had his own engine under complete control. He could stop her in three telegraph poles, but the other engine would surely play leap-frog with him if he did; so how to stop them both was a problem which Jakie had to solve inside of five seconds. He told his fireman to jump, but the fireman, for the first time in his life, refused to take Jakie's signal. If he jumped on his side he would smash up against a rough rock wall, and on the other side it was at least three-quarters of a mile to the bottom of the gulch; so the fireman elected to die with the engineer, and have the whole matter settled in one issue of the Huerfano County Cactus. These arrangements were made by the engineer and fireman in much less time than it takes to tell the tale.

It was not necessary for Jakie to slow down in order to allow the wild engine to come up with him; she was coming up at every revolution of her wheels. The delicate task which Jakie had to perform was to get a good gait on, so that when the runaway struck him, both engines might still remain on the rail; and that he proceeded to do. Round curves, reverse curves, through tunnels and hemi-tunnels, over high wooden bridges, and down deep cuts, Jakie slammed the 403 at a rate which the builders of the time-card had never dreamed of. The right of way behind the flying engines was literally strewn with headlights, white lights, oil-cans, coal, smoking tobacco, and pictures of play-actresses,—in fact, a little of everything that properly belongs on a locomotive. Now and then Jakie glanced back only to see the rolling engine bearing down upon his unprotected tank. Nearer and nearer she came, and at last, as he headed into a short tangent, Jakie concluded that here was a good place to settle the matter. He had even gone so far in his deliberations as to grasp the reverse lever to slow down, but it was not necessary. When the wild engine found the tangent and freed her flanges from the hard, grinding curves, she shot ahead as though she had been thrown from the mouth of a great cannon, and the next moment she had Jakie's tank on her pilot. The force of the collision threw Jakie and his fireman both back into the coal-tank, but aside from a few bruises they were unhurt.

Climbing into the cab again, Jakie left the fireman in charge of the 403, and undertook to climb back over the tank and board the runaway. The task under ordinary circumstances would have been a difficult one, but at the rate they were now running it was almost impossible. As the flying engines left the short tangent and dashed into another group of curves they rolled frightfully, and made it almost impossible for Jakie to hang on to the hand-railing. But he was so accustomed to being slammed about that he managed to stick to the wreck, and finally reached the cab of the second engine. The curves, so long as the engines could make them, were to the advantage of the runaways; and now, what with the resistance they made, and the second engine being put far down in the back motion, the locomotives began to slow down, and were finally brought to a standstill.

It was a great achievement, and Jakie was the hero of the day. "Windy" Davis said afterward that Jakie stopped them because he was unable to get off, but the railway officials did not agree with "Windy." Mr. Sample, the general master mechanic, believed that Jakie had done a brave act, and he set about to see him rewarded for his bravery. This kind official—who looks like Lincoln, though not so homely—caused Jakie to receive a gold watch, and money to buy a ranch or waste in riotous living. I don't know how much money, but I have heard it stated all the way from two hundred to one thousand dollars. At all events, it was enough to prove Jakie a good emergency man; and when you cross La Veta Mountain again, ask for Jakie Moyer,—he's the boy.