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The Face and the Mask/Old Number Eighty-six


John Saggart stood in a dark corner of the terminus, out of the rays of the glittering arc lamps, and watched engine Number Eighty-six. The engineer was oiling her, and the fireman, as he opened the furnace-door and shovelled in the coal, stood out like a red Rembrandt picture in the cab against the darkness beyond. As the engineer with his oil can went carefully around Number Eighty-six, John Saggart drew his sleeve across his eyes, and a gulp came up his throat. He knew every joint and bolt in that contrary old engine—the most cantankerous iron brute on the road—and yet, if rightly managed, one of the swiftest and most powerful machines the company had, notwithstanding the many improvements that had been put upon locomotives since old Eighty-six had left the foundry.

Saggart, as he stood there, thought of the seven years he had spent on the foot-board of old Eighty-six, and of the many tricks she had played him during that period. If, as the poet says, the very chains and the prisoner become friends through long association, it may be imagined how much of a man's affection goes out to a machine that he thoroughly understands and likes—a machine that is his daily companion for years, in danger and out of it. Number Eighty-six and John had been in many a close pinch together, and at this moment the man seemed to have forgotten that often the pinch was caused by the pure cussedness of Eighty-six herself, and he remembered only that she had bravely done her part several times when the situation was exceedingly serious.

The cry "All aboard" rang out and was echoed down from the high-arched roof of the great terminus, and John with a sigh turned from his contemplation of the engine, and went to take his seat in the car. It was a long train with many sleeping-cars at the end of it. The engineer had put away his oil-can, and had taken his place on the engine, standing ready to begin the long journey at the moment the signal was given.

John Saggart climbed into the smoking-carriage at the front part of the train. He found a place in one of the forward seats, and sank down into it with a vague feeling of uneasiness at being inside the coach instead of on the engine. He gazed out of the window and saw the glittering electric lights slide slowly behind, then, more quickly, the red, green, and white lights of the signal lamps, and finally there flickered swiftly past the brilliant constellation of city windows, showing that the town had not yet gone to bed. At last the flying train plunged into the country, and Saggart pressed his face against the cold glass of the window, unable to shake off his feeling of responsibility, although he knew there was another man at the throttle.

He was aroused from his reverie by a touch on the shoulder, and a curt request, "Tickets, please."

He pulled out of his pocket a pass, and turned to hand it to the conductor who stood there with a glittering, plated, and crystal lantern on his arm.

"Hello, John, is this you?" cried the conductor, as soon as he saw the face. "Hang it, man, you didn't need a pass in travelling with me."

"They gave it to me to take me home," said Saggart, a touch of sadness in his voice, "and I may as well use it as not. I don't want to get you into trouble."

"Oh, I'd risk the trouble," said the conductor, placing the lantern on the floor and taking his seat beside the engineer. "I heard about your worry to-day. It's too bad. If a man had got drunk at his post, as you and I have known 'em to do, it wouldn't have seemed so hard; but at its worst your case was only an error of judgment, and then nothing really happened. Old Eighty-six seems to have the habit of pulling herself through. I suppose you and she have been in worse fixes than that, with not a word said about it."

"Oh, yes," said John, "we've been in many a tight place together, but we won't be any more. It's rough, as you say. I've been fifteen years with the company, and seven on old Eighty-six, and at first it comes mighty hard. But I suppose I'll get used to it."

"Look here, John," said the conductor, lowering his voice to a confidential tone, "the president of the road is with us to-night; his private car is the last but one on the train. How would it do to speak to him? If you are afraid to tackle him, I'll put in a word for you in a minute, and tell him your side of the story."

John Saggart shook his head.

"It wouldn't do," he said; "he wouldn't overrule what one of his subordinates had done, unless there was serious injustice in the case. It's the new manager, you know. There's always trouble with a new manager. He sweeps clean. And I suppose that he thinks by 'bouncing' one of the oldest engineers on the road, he will scare the rest."

"Well, I don't think much of him between ourselves," said the conductor. "What do you think he has done to-night? He's put a new man on Eighty-six. A man from one of the branch lines who doesn't know the road. I doubt if he's ever been over the main line before. Now, it's an anxious enough time for me anyhow with a heavy train to take through, with the thermometer at zero, and the rails like glass, and I like to have a man in front that I can depend on."

"It's bad enough not to know the road," said John gloomily, "but it's worse not to know old Eighty-six. She's a brute if she takes a notion."

"I don't suppose there is another engine that could draw this train and keep her time," said the conductor.

"No! She'll do her work all right if you'll only humor her," admitted Saggart, who could not conceal his love for the engine even while he blamed her.

"Well," said the conductor, rising and picking up his lantern, "the man in front may be all right, but I would feel safer if you were further ahead than the smoker. I'm sorry I can't offer you a berth to-night, John, but we're full clear through to the rear lights. There isn't even a vacant upper on the train."

"Oh, it doesn't matter," said Saggart. "I couldn't sleep, anyhow. I'd rather sit here and look out of the window."

"Well, so long," said the conductor. "I'll drop in and see you as the night passes on."

Saggart lit his pipe and gazed out into darkness. He knew every inch of the road—all the up grades and the down grades and the levels. He knew it even better in the murkiest night than in the clearest day. Now and then the black bulk of a barn or a clump of trees showed for one moment against the sky, and Saggart would say to himself, "Now he should shut off an inch of steam," or, "Now he should throw her wide open." The train made few stops, but he saw that they were losing time. Eighty-six was sulking, very likely. Thinking of the engine turned his mind to his own fate. No man was of very much use in the world, after all, for the moment he steps down another is ready to stand in his place. The wise men in the city who had listened to his defence knew so well that an engine was merely a combination of iron and steel and brass, and that a given number of pounds of steam would get it over a given number of miles in a given number of hours, and they had smiled incredulously when he told them that an engine had her tantrums, and informed them that sometimes she had to be coddled up like any other female. Even when a man did his best there were occasions when nothing he could do would mollify her, and then there was sure to be trouble, although, he added, in his desire to be fair, she was always sorry for it afterward. Which remark, to his confusion, had turned the smile into a laugh.

He wondered what Eighty-six thought of the new man. Not much, evidently, for she was losing time, which she had no business to do on that section of the road. Still it might be the fault of the new man not knowing when to push her for all she was worth and when to ease up. All these things go to the making of time. But it was more than probable that old Eighty-six, like Gilpin's horse, was wondering more and more what thing upon her back had got. "He'll have trouble," muttered John to himself, "when she finds out."

The conductor came in again and sat down beside the engineer. He said nothing, but sat there sorting his tickets, while Saggart gazed out of the window. Suddenly the engineer sprang to his feet with his eyes wide open. The train was swaying from side to side and going at great speed.

The conductor looked up with a smile.

"Old Eighty-six," he said, "is evidently going to make up for lost time."

"She should be slowing down for crossing the G. & M. line," replied the engineer. "Good heavens!" he cried a moment after, "we've gone across the G. & M. track on the keen jump."

The conductor sprang to his feet. He knew the seriousness of such a thing. Even the fastest expresses must stop dead before crossing on the level the line of another railway. It is the law.

"Doesn't that fool in front know enough to stop at a crossing?"

"It isn't that." said Saggart. "He knows all right. Even the train boys know that. Old Eighty-six has taken the bit between her teeth. He can't stop her. Where do you pass No. 6 to-night?"

"At Pointsville."

"That's only six miles ahead," said the engineer; "and in five minutes at this rate we will be running on her time and on her rails. She's always late, and won't be on the side track. I must get to Eighty-six."

Saggart quickly made his way through the baggage-coach, climbed on the express car, and jumped on the coal of the tender. He cast his eye up the track and saw glimmering in the distance, like a faint wavering star, the headlight of No. 6. Looking down into the cab he realized the situation in a glance. The engineer, with fear in his face and beads of perspiration on his brow, was throwing his whole weight on the lever, the fireman helping him. Saggart leaped down to the floor of the cab.

"Stand aside," he shouted; and there was such a ring of confident command in his voice that both men instantly obeyed.

Saggart grasped the lever, and instead of trying to shut off steam flung it wide open. Number Eighty-six gave a quiver and a jump forward. "You old fiend!" muttered John between his teeth. Then he pushed the lever home, and it slid into place as if there had never been any impediment. The steam was shut off, but the lights of Pointsville flashed past them with the empty side-track on the left, and they were now flying along the single line of rails with the headlight of No. 6 growing brighter and brighter in front of them.

"Reverse her, reverse her!" cried the other engineer, with fear in his voice.

"Reverse nothing," said Saggart. "She'll slide ten miles if you do. Jump, if you're afraid."

The man from the branch line promptly jumped.

"Save yourself," said Saggart to the stoker; "there's bound to be a smash."

"I'll stick by you, Mr. Saggart," said the fireman, who knew him. But his hand trembled.

The air-brake was grinding the long train and sending a shiver of fear through every timber, but the rails were slippery with frost, and the speed of the train seemed as great as ever. At the right moment Saggart reversed the engine, and the sparks flew up from her great drivers like catharine wheels.

"Brace yourself," cried Saggart. "No. 6 is backing up, thank God!"

Next instant the crash came. Two headlights and two cow-catchers went to flinders, and the two trains stood there with horns locked, but no great damage done, except a shaking up for a lot of panic-stricken passengers.

The burly engineer of No. 6 jumped down and came forward, his mouth full of oaths.

"What the h—l do you mean by running in on our time like this? Hello, is that you, Saggart? I thought there was a new man on to-night. I didn't expect this from you."

"It's all right, Billy. It wasn't the new man's fault. He's back in the ditch with a broken leg, I should say, from the way he jumped. Old Eighty-six is to blame. She got on the rampage. Took advantage of the greenhorn."

The conductor came running up.

"How is it?" he cried.

"It's all right. Number Eighty-six got her nose broke, and served her right, that's all. Tell the passengers there's no danger, and get 'em on board. We're going to back up to Pointsville. Better send the brakesmen to pick up the other engineer. The ground's hard tonight, and he may be hurt."

"I'm going back to talk to the president," said the conductor emphatically. "He's in a condition of mind to listen to reason, judging from the glimpse I got of his face at the door of his car a moment ago. Either he re-instates you or I go gathering tickets on a street-car. This kind of thing is too exciting for my nerves."

The conductor's interview with the president of the road was apparently satisfactory, for old Number Eighty-six is trying to lead a better life under the guidance of John Saggart.

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.