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This episode taken from The Skipper No. 1 - September 6th 1930.


Chased by a Runaway.

“Hullo!” said Shorty Baker cheerily, as he looked down from the cab of No. 97, which he had mounted so proudly a minute before. “I hear you’re on the same line as me to-night, Kendricks. Shorty was the youngest driver of the Rocky Mountain section of the Pacific and Atlantic railroad. This was his first solo run and he was feeling at peace with everybody. It was an unpleasant surprise for him when the older driver looked at the youngster savagely. Olaf Kendricks, short, swarthy, and with a head so close-cropped that it looked like a black billiard ball, snorted. He put one foot on the bottom plate and snarled. “An’ you’d better keep ahead, that’s all. I’m in a hurry to-night, get that? If you don’t give me a clear track when I want it, I’ll smash the rear lights off you!” Shorty Baker started in surprise. The engineer had spoken as though he had a personal grudge against the youngest driver on the P. & A. line, and to the boy’s knowledge he had never had any quarrel with Kendricks.

“What’s the matter?” he demanded, finishing the polishing of the control levers with loving care. “What’s bitten you?” “Quit that!” was the savage reply. “Nothing’s bitten me, but something’s liable to bite you real hard if you delay me on the way to Shannigan to-night.” He lurched away with a roll of his massive shoulders which made him resemble a gorilla. Shorty leaned down from the cab and silently whistled. “Now what on earth! Anyone’d think I was doing him a bad turn by driving the old 97. He must be crazy.” “Aw, you know what’s the matter with him,” broke in Wiper Dodds, the fireman, who had just come across from the roundhouse and mounted to the cab from the other side. “He’s jealous. You don’t want to worry about him!” “Jealous!” The youngest driver on the P. & A. glared. “What’s he got to be jealous of? Not because I’m drivin’ a freighter to Shannigan?” “Aw, use your head, sonny,” drawled the fireman, wiping his nose with a grimy hand. “You know you’re too young to be on the footplate at all. There’s not many at the roundhouse who resent it, for you’ve earned the right if anybody has. But some of ‘em’s prejudiced, an’ Kendrick’s one of ‘em.” “But—” “Then they ought to have known better than to put you ahead of Kendricks on the line to-night. Both freighters have to get to Shannigan before mornin’ with these trucks of cement, but for some reason they’ve made you No. 1 and Kendricks No. 2 on the line. He starts half an hour back of you. That’s what’s ranklin’ him. He’s bad twelve years’ experience an’ you about as many weeks. It makes him sore to think he’ll be behind you to-night.” “Oh, I see!” Shorty’s youthful face clouded. It was a matter of pride. Of course Kendricks felt sore about that. It was a foolish mistake on somebody’s part, but it was not Shorty’s fault. “I’ll step across to the office and see if they won’t alter it. I don’t care if I run first or second. It’s not going to be a record-breaking run, only an ordinary freight trip. I’ll step over and—” “No time, kid.” Wiper pulled him back with one arm. “You’re flagged. We’re off!”

From the rear of the long line of trucks came a whistle from the brakeman. The signal had been given for special freighter No. 1 to start. Shorty thrilled. He was so new to the game that it always gave him a pleasant glow to have the right to set one of these steel monsters into action. The air brakes all down the train hissed into the cylinders as the young driver opened the throttle, and No. 97 slowly moved out of the siding. She was an old engine, though sturdy and full of power, used now only for freight work, growing stiff in the joints through never being pushed at more than forty. But to Shorty she was the most wonderful thing on the line to-night, and as he slowly advanced the throttle and the long string of cement trucks clanged and swung out behind him, he would not have exchanged his place for that of any man in the world. It was the first time he had ever been sent out alone on a cab. All responsibility rested on him. Wiper was quite calm as he deftly spread his fires on the bars. It was just another job to him. “Shouldn’t be surprised if Kendricks didn’t try to crowd you.” “How can he, when he’s starting half an hour behind us?” “Huh! He’s driving the 118, and I know she can fly when she’s asked. Better push her up a bit, sonny.” Shorty frowned. He did not want to be crowded to-night, on his first solo run. The trip of 125 miles to Shannigan, where a new power station was being built, was not to be run on any fixed schedule. The line was clear until four in the morning when the western express would be through. It had been taken for granted at divisional point that the trip would take about four hours, and Shorty had already mapped out in his head a schedule which would fetch him there in exactly that time. But if Kendricks was going to clap on speed with the idea of hustling his young rival off the lines, he should have a run for his money. Shorty wasn’t going to have the man swaggering around the roundhouse, the railroad men’s clubroom, and sneering about Shorty’s slowness, and saying how the boy had held him up.

“I’ll push her,” he grunted, in reply to Wiper Dodds’ kindly advice, and they were soon thundering along at 45 instead of the 35 Shorty had planned to hold. It was a fine, clear night, but windy. The wind was dead ahead and howled along the sides of the cab so wildly that Shorty very rarely put out his head. There was not much to worry about to-night, for with a clear line and signals set for the O.K. it was merely a matter of keeping a level pace. The only ticklish spot would be down Elk Grade, that long, winding gradient on the other side of the range. The speed limit on there was thirty, but otherwise Shorty could do as he liked. Wiper Dodds was a good fireman but not a very talkative chap. Shorty knew he was watching him closely, so as to be able to report to the crowd at the roundhouse how the youngster had behaved on his first “solo.” So Shorty tried to imitate an old hand as much as possible, and merely grunted when they reached Twin Streams the fifty-mile mark in sixty minutes and Wiper offered congratulations. Shorty would not even look round to see if the second freighter was anywhere within sight. It would be beneath his dignity. But the fireman kept hanging out and glancing back. He knew Kendricks better than Shorty did, and was expecting something. Elk Grade was ten miles ahead, and the Double F Box had just passed them when Wiper swung back into the centre of the cab. “He’s coming. Can see his headlights above the last bend.” Shorty did not move a muscle. He had been making the best part of fifty miles an hour. If Kendricks had been catching up on that he must have been touching seventy at times, a crazy speed for a heavy freighter.

Another five miles hummed by, and then Wiper called again. “Better open her out some more, Shorty. He’s coming up rare fast.” “The Elk Grade’s just ahead,” replied Shorty. “We can’t take that at sixty.” “Well Kendricks is doing the best part of eighty, I reckon,” bawled his companion. “Look for yourself!” For the first time Shorty swung out into the howling wind and looked back. Wiper was right. Kendricks injured pride was making him take risks he would never have considered at ordinary times. His headlight was bobbing up and down as though the loco was dancing on the rails. The thrill of the race entered into Shorty’s blood. There was a stretch of four miles ahead before he touched the down-grade. He would just open out and see what the old 97 would do if she was asked. Clang-clang-clang! Whirr-whirr! Sang the driving wheels as they whirled faster in response to the throttle. Shorty watched the meter. The needle moved past sixty to sixty-five—sixty-seven—seventy. Seventy miles an hour, and on the top of the grade! It was good to know they could do it if they wished, but now was the time to slow up. With steam shut off and brakes squealing they gradually dropped down from that break-neck speed to one better suited to the grade. Thirty was the supposed limit, but some experts had been known to take it at forty-five. Shorty was going to try that to-night. He would give Kendricks no chance to say he was a coward. Now they were on the grade, and Wiper was leaning out and gazing behind him. Shorty had taken it for granted that the other freighter would have slowed down, too, and it came as a terrific shock to him when his fireman yelped— “He’s not slowing! He’s almost on us—he’s going to hit us.” “He can’t be—” Shorty swung out the other side and glared. Sparks were flying from the wheels of the trucks behind him as the air brakes bit home, long lines of them from everyone of the fifty-three trucks. Further back he could see sparks in tell-tale streaks from the driving wheels of the other loco, some from the first half-dozen of Kendricks’ trucks, but none from the rear half of his train. “Gosh, Wiper! He’s got his brakes on but they won’t work. The rear half of his train is unbraked. He’s busted his air tube half way back. The back line of runaway trucks are shoving his whole train down the grade at over seventy miles an hour. He’ll crash into us and wreck both trains!”

The Non-Stop Loco

Wiper let out a hollow groan. “Then he can’t stop if he wants to! The weight of them unbraked trucks travelling at nearly eighty will push him clean through us. Jump Man! It’s the only thing to do.” He made for the rail. “I’m staying on,” snapped Shorty, and he deliberately took off the brakes and opened the throttle wide. Before Wiper could take the jump Shorty caught him by the shoulder. “Jump and you don’t have a chance in the world. Stay with me and we may pull through.” Wiper stared; the sweat stood out on his face in great beads. The wind had suddenly redoubled its shrieking alongside. On the steep grade Shorty had given the old 97 her head. He was going to try and keep ahead of the runaway 118 and avoid a smash that way. “By gee, you’re right! I’ll stick here,” screamed the fireman, and turned into the cab. There was terror in Wiper’s heart but he was not the sort to be outdone in nerve by a youngster of Shorty’s age. Now the race was like a nightmare. The wheels bounced and leapt over the rails. The loaded trucks, each of them containing forty tons of cement, gained impetus every second and pushed the harder. Shorty glanced at the needle, then quickly turned his eyes away, for it already registered 75 miles an hour, and he knew that was not going to be the limit.

Wiper swung out for a second and gazed behind. The onrushing headlight of the 118 was not more than fifty yards behind them, but it did not seem to be gaining. Shorty’s mad burst of speed had enabled them to hold their lead. And now they were on the steepest part of the grade, the part that required negotiating at not more than thirty. The speed of those two roaring freighters was over eighty. It was a question of whether 97 or 118 would first jump the rails and pile up. “I hope she smashes first! I hope she smashes first!” cried Wiper. “He deserves it.” Shorty knew what the fireman meant. If 118 smashed up there would yet be time for 97 to be slowed. If 97 smashed first it would mean the end of them both, for the rearmost train would crash into the wreckage. Whoo-oom! Whoo-oom! Whoo-oom! Shorty had never heard wheels make that hollow, roaring sound before. The noise secretly terrified him, for he knew it was largely due to the bouncing up and down of the wheels on the rails. Every second was a second nearer death. He found that his hands were clammy. Whang! They had hit the curve, and were both flung clean across the cab. Wiper caught the rail and stayed them both from going outside, then the on-rushing loco headed down the straight again and they were as suddenly thrown back to the other side.

Still they held the track! It was a miracle. Shorty strained his ears for the sound of a crash behind, but none came. Some special Providence was taking care of those two mad freighters that night. The 118 got round the bend as well. Lights flashed past, and Shorty fancied he heard a yell. It was Elk 65 Box, and he knew that the news of this mad race would now be flashed back along the line. Wiper was laughing and crying at the same time. They were at the bottom of the grade. The track ahead was dead level and dead straight, thirty miles of it to the crossing from Y Loop. “Slow! For the love of Mike slow up, Shorty, an’ don’t tempt death any more.” The boy’s hand automatically moved to the throttle, then he drew back. “Has Kendricks slowed? I can’t slacken until he does.” Wiper swung out to look back for the umptieth time that night. “I’m durned if he has! He’s mad. He’s coming on fast as ever.” On—on—on! Eighty miles an hour with the trucks jumping and pounding behind them. The peril of running off the track on the grade was over, but unless the two freights were able to slow before reaching the Y Loop crossing there might yet be disaster. “Why doesn’t he slow? His brakes can’t be all that bad. He hasn’t attempted to shut her off.” It was Wiper Dodds who was screaming these remarks. He was half out of the cab, watching the freighter behind them, shaking one fist in the direction of 118, calling down all manner of disasters upon the head of the jealous driver who had got them in this fix. Mile after mile fled by, and at last it began to dawn on Shorty what had happened. “I don’t believe Kendricks is aboard!” “What—what d’you mean?” gasped the fireman. “I believe that’s why she’s not slowing. Kendricks and his fireman jumped off at the top of the grade when they found they couldn’t stop her. Somehow the throttle got left at full open.” Wiper staggered, tripped over his shovel, and reeled against the door of the fire-box without noticing the pain of his burns. “By gosh, I believe you’re right, Shorty! I wanted to jump for it meself. Kendricks jumped, an’ now there’s no one aboard to check her. We’re bein’ chased by a driverless outfit, an engine with full open throttle but no engineer!”

Shorty’s brain was working fast. He was not yet an experienced railroad man, but he saw the danger of this situation. The 118 would race on at top speed until the fires died down and the steam pressure dropped. How long would that take? He asked Wiper, and that worthy grabbed a shovel and commenced heaving coal into their own firebox as though the question had reminded him of his own duty. “Might be a quarter-hour, might be twenty minutes. Depends upon how the fires were stacked, and Willis, who was with Kendricks, was a good enough fireman. Must reckon we’ve got to keep ahead at least another twenty-five miles. Keep her goin’.” Shorty kept her going. He was seeing more speed that night than he was likely to see in the next five years of his career with the P. & A. But something else was worrying him. Twenty-five miles would more than take them to the Y Loop crossing. What if they met anything more? The Y Loop traffic was not all cleared for the freighters as it was on the main track. He had been warned to keep his eyes open in case a “special” was signalled. A very important group of experts from the East was touring the sections that crossed the Rockies, and they were reported to be camping for the time being on a section of the Y Loop in their special car. What if they chose that night to leave the district? Then Wiper had him by the arm, shaking him, shrieking, pointing, for the moment too incoherent to make himself understood. He was pointing ahead, where the track curved very gently to a turn of the valley, and when Shorty looked out in the same direction he knew that fates were against him that night. Far down the track showed the red of a contrary signal!

This could mean only one thing. The points at Y Loop were closed against him. The railway commission “special,” or some other “special,” was going to cross that point shortly. The freighters were being ordered to wait.

The Fatal Seconds

Shorty made up his mind, and he made it quickly. He whirled on his white-lipped fireman. “You can drive, eh? You know how to ease her gently?” “Yes, but—” “Then chuck up firing for a few minutes and do as I say. Somebody’s got to get aboard the runaway and slow or stop her before we get to the Y Loop. I think I can see a way to do it.” “You’re sure crazy!” “It’s a chance. If we stop like this we’ll get killed for certain and probably kill others in the special. I’m willing to take a risk if you help.” Wiper’s eyes flashed. He was game. “I’m going back over the trucks,” explained Shorty. “I’m good at climbing. You’ve got to gradually slow us down so that the 118 runs into our rear, but not too hard. If you wangle it so that she hits softly there won’t be any damage done. Then, as soon as she’s pushing against us, shoot off steam and whang on our brakes.” Wiper Dodds looked at him in dumb admiration. It was a daring scheme, but practical. They would employ their own weight and brakes to try and bring the runaway to a standstill.

The trucks were still rolling and swaying along at over seventy. Shorty stood at the rear of the tender. He leapt outwards and downwards. Crash! Almost at once it seemed that the forward end of the cement van hit him on the chest. His hands had broken the impact slightly, but the crashing blow knocked the breath out of him and scared him. Could he stand fifty-three of these smashing blows? Halfway down the train he landed on hands and knees, collapsed for a moment or two, and lay there panting while the wind tried to snatch him from his perch. Then he tore himself to his feet again. He must go on—he must! He crossed three more trucks and then flattened himself and gripped with both hands. The headlight was almost touching their brake van. The contact was going to be made. Seconds passed. Thud! Clang! Crash! Buffers slammed and jumped all along the line, and Shorty was almost thrown off, but his heart was singing in triumph, for that part of his scheme had worked. They had kept the track, and 118 was by its own speed kept hard up at the rear of 97. Then he heard the brakes bite home, saw sparks sliding out on either side as Wiper gave the vacuum system its chance. Everyone of 97’s trucks was braked, and the combined resistance was enough to cause both trains to slow. Shorty waited breathlessly. Would this do the trick? Perhaps it would not be necessary for him to go further. Speed had dropped, but he still calculated that they were doing thirty-five miles an hour under the terrific pushing power of the runaway.

The speed did not seem to drop below that, and Shorty stood up and anxiously glanced ahead. What he saw made him turn and take the leap to the next truck. Less than two miles away was the red warning light that marked the crossing, where the points would be against them. At the rate they were slowing they would stop, either just astride the Y Loop or on the other side of it. That would mean disaster. He had to make his last throw. “Here goes!” he muttered, and covered three truck lengths in about fifteen seconds, taking the gaps in his stride, for at the slower speed and with the practice he had already had, this was getting easier. Now he was scrambling down on to the brake van, and calling to Ellis, the brakeman. He got no reply. Ellis had jumped at the top of the grade when the crew of 118 had made their leap for life. Through the brake van, out on to the platform, and Shorty found the 118 looming over him. He could hear the steam hissing in her cylinders as she bumped against the braked load ahead. Once she sent 97 forward in front of her seven feet, and it was then that Shorty jumped for her front platform. If he slipped down he would at least have the few seconds necessary to pull himself clear before the buffers met again. His leap was successful. “Whoa up!” he muttered, and clawed his way along the side rail until he was in the cab. Once there he was too limp and exhausted to know what he was doing. It was instinct that caused him to first shut off the steam and then put the brake lever hard over. Only half the brakes on 118 were working, because of that disconnected pipe, but they did the trick. Combined with the efforts of the dead load in front the double freights were slowly but surely brought to a standstill.

It was the stopping of the trucks that brought Shorty to his senses and caused him to jump down on to the track. Ahead of him stretched the long line of fifty-three trucks that had been his own load. Right forward he could see the glow from the fire of 97. Almost on top of 97. and cutting straight across her broadside to the track was rushing a light loco with two Pullman coaches attached. The special! Her whistling was shrilling, but she was not slackening one notch. Her driver took it for granted that for him the way would be clear. Then—whirr! Whee-ee-eew! The special was past, and Shorty knew that his night’s adventure was over.

At the subsequent enquiry Shorty did not say much, but Wiper Dodds said it for him, and when at last he returned to the depot after a rest cure paid for by the company on the Pacific Coast, it was to find himself granted something he had coverted more than all the rewards and medals—a regular seat at the roundhouse fire, a place of his very own amongst those veteran railroad men who had in the past helped the Rocky Mountain section of the Pacific and Atlantic Railroad to make history.


© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd 

Vic Whittle 2007