Emma pressed her thin, ten-year-old body against the rough boards of the signal shack. She covered her ears with her hands and closed her eyes against the sight and sound of the puffing and panting steam engine. Emma was sure that someday it would jump right off the track.
Father came over and laid a comforting hand on Emma’s shoulder after he replaced the signal flag on a hook. “Now, Mouse, there’s nothing to fear,” he said.
Mouse! How she hated that name. Why couldn’t he call her Emma? It was a perfectly good name. In fact, it had been her grandmother’s and nobody had called her Mouse. Emma knew it was not because of her sleek brown hair and bright brown eyes that she was called Mouse but because of her fear of so many things.
“Too scared to say good-bye, Mouse?” teased her brother Tom a short time later as he lifted the suitcases and started toward the train.
Emma sighed. Her older brother wasn’t afraid of anything. He was leaving for boarding school, and Emma knew she’d miss him in spite of his teasing.
“Now look after each other,” said Mother, who was also boarding the train. She kissed Emma and Father good-bye. “I’ll be back Saturday.”
As the engine chugged away, Emma and Father started along the path that led through the woods to their cabin.
“Tom’s awfully brave to go away alone to school, Pa. I never could.”
“You could be brave if you had to, Mouse,” Father replied, “just like Grandmother Emma was brave. Once, when she was no bigger than you, she chased off a bear that was after the chickens.”
Emma hung her head and scuffed her shoes in the dirt. “She couldn’t have been afraid like me then, Pa.”
“You haven’t needed to be really brave yet, Mouse. You will be when you have to be,” Father comforted.
When they came out of the woods, he paused. “I’d better get to work on that barn tomorrow. It’s in need of a new roof. And some of the bracing is beginning to sag.”
The next day as the sun slipped behind the dark pines that stood like sentinels along the lane, Emma was setting the supper table. Suddenly the air was torn by the sound of a tremendous crash, followed by shouting. Emma flew to the doorway and stood rooted to the spot, still clutching a plate and gazing in horror. One whole section of the barn had settled into a pile of boards, with a few beams slanting crazily upward supporting parts of the roof. The air was filled with a heavy dust.
“Pa! Pa!” Emma screamed as she ran toward the tangled wreckage. At first she could see nothing for the dust, and then her eyes fastened on the still figure of her father, half covered by rubble.
“Oh, Pa,” she breathed as she knelt beside him and wiped the dust from his face with her apron. “Please, Pa, please don’t be dead.”
Pa groaned and opened his eyes, only to cry out and shut them again. Relief flooded over Emma to know he was still alive. “Didn’t make it, Mouse,” he moaned feebly as she pulled frantically at the boards.
“Lie still, Pa. I’ll get you out,” soothed the little girl. It was strange to be comforting her father, who had always before been the one to comfort her. But no matter how she tugged and pushed, her strength was not enough to free him.
“No use … get help,” Pa said faintly.
“I’ll run to the Bartons, Pa. It’s only a mile.”
“Gone away … flag the train, Emma. You can do it.” Then he was unconscious again.
Emma felt desperately alone. The birds were twittering sleepily, and the last rays of sunset streaked the darkening sky with pink. Emma shivered in the chill. She was too frightened to walk through those woods and flag the train by herself.
But someone has to help Pa, she thought. Pa said I could do it. He even called me Emma! He’s depending on me, and if I don’t get help soon, Pa might die. It’s all up to me.
Emma sped back to the cabin. She glanced at the clock ticking away steadily on the mantel as though nothing had happened. If she ran, there would be just enough time to stop the train. She’d have to use a lantern, though, because it was getting too dark for the signal flag to be seen.
Snatching up a blanket, the lantern, and a tin box of matches, she ran back to the barn. Her father lay motionless. Tucking the blanket around him, she whispered, “I’ll do it, Pa. I’ll get help. You’ll be all right.” There was no answer.
Moving quickly through the darkening woods, Emma felt a moment of panic when she heard the sad howl of a wolf. But at last she reached the shack and set the lantern on the ground to light it. The evening breeze snuffed out the first two matches, but her trembling fingers managed to light the lantern with the third.
Emma heard the thin wail of the train whistle. Grasping the lantern tightly in both hands, she stepped into the middle of the track. Shivering with fright, she slowly swung the lantern back and forth, back and forth. Far down the track she could barely see the gleaming eye of the train in the dusk.
The thunder of the wheels became a rushing, deafening roar. And as the train came near, the ground shook beneath her feet. Emma gritted her teeth. She was so frightened that it was all she could do to keep from jumping off the track and running. Only the thought of Pa under the rubble held her there. Oh, please stop! she agonized.
Abruptly the signal came—two short blasts of the whistle. Thankfully, Emma leaped off the track and in a few seconds the train ground to a halt with an earsplitting screech and a shattering blast of steam.
Soon men from the train had Pa on a stretcher, his broken leg in a splint, and they were carrying him through the woods back to the train. Emma walked by his side holding his hand. He was conscious now and managed to squeeze her hand and whisper, “I knew you could do it, Emma. It was your time to be brave.”