It was June 12, 1895, the most important day of David Scott’s life he thought. It was his twelfth birthday and Mr. Ragan, an engineer, had promised to let him ride the train all the way to Benton, over sixty miles away. He had been in the cab of Mr. Ragan’s locomotive many times, but switching or creeping out of the rail yards wasn’t really riding on a train—not like today!
Tiptoeing downstairs, David slipped out the backdoor and into the misty chill of the morning air. If he could finish his chores early enough, maybe he could hitch a ride into town on one of the farm wagons going to market.
Hurrying to the woodpile, he carried two big armloads of kindling into the kitchen and placed them in the woodbox beside his mother’s black cookstove. As he entered the barn old Bessie, the black cow, bawled in complaint as he poured cracked corn into a pan to carry to the chicken yard. The barn cats tumbled about his feet, then followed him to the door, mewing. Like Bessie, they seemed surprised that he wasn’t milking first, but this was no ordinary morning.
By the time he finished the milking and had carried the pail of warm, sudsy milk to the springhouse, his mother had breakfast ready and a lunch packed for him. Racing down the lane, he heard Mr. Jule’s wagon coming over the steep hill. “Hop on, David,” Mr. Jule shouted as he saw the tall blond youth standing beside the roadside mailbox. After tossing his jacket and lunch into the back of the moving wagon, David leaped in, held on to the swaying side, and eased himself down, legs swinging as they traveled over the deep yellow ruts of the dirt road. I’ll make it in plenty of time, he thought happily.
At the depot he swung down from the wagon bed and thanked Mr. Jule for the ride.
“Are you ready for the big trip, David?” Mr. Ragan asked, leaping down from the cab of the steam-hissing locomotive. Such a giant of a man, David thought. He moves as easily as a cat.
“I sure am,” David answered, his face flushed with excitement. Then, stroking one of the big wheels, David asked, “Can I help you and Mr. Ellis check her over and oil her, Mr. Ragan?”
“Sure, I guess you can. My fireman will probably appreciate a little help—won’t you, Ellis?” Reaching up into the cab, Mr. Ellis handed down a large copper oilcan with a long spout. “But mind you do a good job,” he told David.
Grinning, the stationmaster said, “He ought to know how to do it, as many times as he’s watched. He heads straight here from school every afternoon. I don’t think that boy’s missed meeting the 4 P.M. train from Benton once in two years.” Turning, the stationmaster walked back into the depot with the engineer following.
Later as he perched on a box and leaned out the engineer’s window of the speeding train, David watched an approaching water tower. A moment ago it had only been a dark speck in the distance. He couldn’t believe they had already reached it. Such speed! It was almost like flying. If only I can be an engineer when I grow up, he thought, and by then trains will probably travel even faster.
Of course, it was a lot more complicated than David had thought when he first decided he’d be an engineer. You had to be pretty smart to know about all the levers and gauges and the air brakes that Mr. Ragan handled so easily. Then there were hand, flag, and lamp signals and the block signals and semaphores that tell the engineer to stop or to move ahead. These all had to be learned, besides the fixed signals along the track that told him the proper speed to maintain, the approach of a station crossing, and the whistle posts to let the engineer know when to start blowing a warning whistle. David sighed and wondered how long it had taken Mr. Ragan to learn everything.
“An engineer talks with his whistle,” Mr. Ragan had told him. “It’s like a code. Two long toots means to release brakes and one short toot means to stop. The whistle tells my crew exactly what to do—hop back on the train, protect front of train, or protect rear of train. Each series of short and long toots means something. And a number of short toots is an alarm for persons or livestock on the track.”
Eyes burning from the wind, David drew his head back inside and glanced across the cab at Mr. Ellis, the fireman. The gray-haired man seemed asleep, all scrunched down in his seat, swaying with the motion of the train. No, he looked sick! Tugging on Mr. Ragan’s jacket sleeve, David pointed at the slumped fireman.
“Can you shovel coal into that boiler, David?” Mr. Ragan shouted into his ear, above the deafening noise of the engine. “We’ve got to highball this train into Benton and get Ellis to a doctor. He looks mighty sick to me.”
Hastily David grabbed the shovel and began to toss coal into the cylindrical box of steel with its furnace at one end and smokebox at the other. “I wish we had Locomotive 999,” David mumbled, thinking of the engine that had broken all records by traveling 100 miles per hour two years before. Sweat streamed down his face as he stopped to toss more coal onto the searing fire. He had to keep it blazing to keep plenty of steam up for Mr. Ragan.
Numb with fatigue when the train finally came to a stop, David watched as the men lifted Mr. Ellis down from the locomotive and laid him on the Benton station platform. His face looked so pale that David wondered if he were still alive.
“Just leave him there a minute, boys,” the young doctor said, kneeling beside Mr. Ellis and taking a bottle from his open bag. Pouring some liquid onto a wad of cotton, he passed it back and forth under the nose of the unconscious man. Coughing, Mr. Ellis turned his head away and opened his eyes.
“How is he, doctor?” Mr. Ragan asked after a few moments. “Will he be all right?”
“Yes, I think he’ll be fine. There’s a nasty lump on the side of his head though. He must have hit it while he was firing the boiler. May be a concussion. It’s a good thing you got him here so fast. I’ll want to keep an eye on him today so you’ll have to send for another fireman for your trip back.”
“I have one,” Mr. Ragan said, smiling at David. “That is, if this young man thinks he can still handle that shovel half as well as he did coming in. What do you say, David?”
“Sure. Sure, I can, sir. Soon as I get her oiled,” David answered proudly, teeth gleaming through a layer of coal dust.
“Wait a minute,” protested Mr. Ellis, as the men started to help him into a wagon. “That boy’s a born railroader if I ever saw one, but he needs to borrow my red bandanna handkerchief to keep the sweat from running down his backbone, and my cap, too. Firing’s hot work.”
Turning to the engineer, he said, “Ragan, I predict this lad will be through school and ready to fire for you about the time I’m ready to retire. With a couple of years of study, he’ll make a first-rate engineer and have a locomotive of his own.”
Then shaking the boy’s hand, the firemen smiled. “Thanks a lot, son,” he said. And the men all grinned as David awkwardly knotted the big handkerchief around his neck and placed the high-crowned billed cap on his head.