Rockslide!


Bobby boosted Priscilla up onto the rock, then scrambled up himself.

“Thanks,” said Priscilla, handing his fishing pole to him. It was the first time she had fished with her brother since they’d moved.

White, billowy clouds drifted across the turquoise sky, and the sun shone down warmly. The children’s blonde hair waved like golden wheat in the afternoon breeze. In the distance they heard the sound of a small engine approaching.

“Here comes the speeder!” exclaimed Bobby. “The passenger train won’t be far behind it.”

“What’s the speeder?” Priscilla asked.

“It’s a small self-propelled car that checks the track to make sure there aren’t any big rocks on it.”

“Do you mean that rocks sometimes slide down from those high mountains?” Priscilla asked, pointing to the cliffs towering behind them.

Bobby nodded. “Dad told me that a long time ago a huge rock slid onto the track, and the passenger train came barreling around the curve and smashed into it! Some of the crew and passengers on the train were killed, so ever since then the speeder checks the track before the passenger train comes through.”

“Well, how does the speeder tell the train that it’s safe to come through the canyon?”

“The man on the speeder contacts a dispatcher on his portable radio,” Bobby explained, “and the dispatcher gives the engineer a green signal along the track.”

“Oh,” Priscilla said, just as the motorized car came speeding around the bend about twenty-five yards from them. The children waved at the driver. He waved back and quickly sped out of view around the next turn.

Soon Bobby and Priscilla heard the train whistle, long and shrill, but still quite far away in the mountains. While they waited for the train to come by, they watched a tiny hummingbird. It flew over to the railroad track and then flew back near the children, hovering above them like a little helicopter. Then it nosedived toward the ground. At the last possible moment it pulled up and veered sharply left. Then it swooped straight up into the sky again.

Bobby laughed. “I think it was showing off for us, Priscilla.”

“Wasn’t it cute!” Priscilla squinted into the sun, trying to see where the tiny bird had flown.

The piercing blast of a train’s whistle filled the air, and the children could feel the ground beneath them tremble as the powerful diesel engine came into sight, pulling stainless steel passenger coaches that shone like silver in the sun.

Bobby spotted the engineer high in the engine’s cab, waving his gray cap at them.

Priscilla and Bobby waved at him, too, and at the passengers inside the coaches as the train thundered by.

The observation car with its high glass windows was the last to roll out of sight.

Priscilla smiled at her brother. “That was fun.”

Bobby smiled back. “Uh-huh. Are you ready to head home for supper?”

“Yes. I’m starved!”

As the days passed and spring turned into summer and summer into fall, the children went fishing at the lake beside the railroad track almost every afternoon. And each time the passenger train rushed by, they waved at the engineer. Sometimes they had a fish to hold up proudly.

One Wednesday afternoon in late October Bobby and Priscilla sat atop the rock, talking and fishing and waiting for the train to roar past. The rattling little speeder had just passed, and Bobby was telling Priscilla about his science experiment at school, when they heard cracking and grating noises behind them. They looked up to see a jumble of rocks sliding and crashing down the sheer cliffs.

Bobby grabbed Priscilla, and they crouched behind the rock and watched gigantic boulders thunder down the mountain, not fifty yards away. Except for the clouds of dust above the fallen rocks, it was all over in a minute or two.

Bobby waited till he was certain the slide was really over, then helped his sister up from behind the rock. Together they edged forward for a closer look.

After picking their way only a few feet, Bobby stopped and pointed. “Priscilla! The rocks are right on top of the tracks!” Bobby’s voice was high and scared. “The man on the speeder has already checked the track! He’ll have told the dispatcher that it’s safe for the train to come ahead. If that passenger train comes around the curve as fast as it usually does, it’ll derail! The crew and passengers could be killed! We have to warn the train to stop.”

Priscilla had already taken off. “Come on!” she yelled over her shoulder. “Run!”

“It’ll take a good half mile for the train to stop at that speed,” Bobby panted, catching up to her, “so we have to run as far as we can and then try to flag down the engineer with our arms!”

The children hurried on, careful not to trip over the ends of the railroad ties. As they rounded a curve in the track, they heard a long, faraway blast of the train’s whistle and ran a little faster.

Priscilla pressed her hand against her side. Soon she gasped, “Bobby, I can’t run anymore. My side hurts too much.”

Bobby helped her up the hill a few feet, safely away from the track. His own breath was coming in great gulps. “I’ll have to leave you here. Now, don’t go near the tracks, no matter what!”

Priscilla nodded, panting and clutching her side. “But what if the train doesn’t stop? What if the engineer thinks that you’re only fooling around?”

“I’m hoping that he’ll trust me because he’s seen us here every day.” Taking another big breath, Bobby scrambled back downhill to the track and pushed on, stride after stride, trying to ignore the pain in his legs and the cramp starting in his own side.

The train whistled, shrill and loud. It was getting closer.

Bobby tried to run harder, but his legs burned and he felt dizzy. He had never run so hard or so far in his life. He struggled to concentrate on every step he took beside the railroad track. He knew that if he tripped and rolled down the grassy slope, the train would go speeding by without anyone to warn it of the danger ahead.

He had barely rounded a curve when he felt the ground rumble beneath his feet. The big diesel engine thundered toward him, its headlight shining into Bobby’s face.

Moving just far enough to the side of the track to avoid getting hit, Bobby jumped up and down, waving his arms back and forth furiously, and screamed, “Stop! Stop!”

In the split second when the engine roared by, Bobby saw both the engineer and the fireman high in the engine’s cab. They had looked him straight in the eye, but had they understood? Would they stop the train in time?

As the coaches rushed by, Bobby fell to the ground, exhausted. But when he heard the hissing of air brakes and the grinding of wheels, he picked himself up off the ground and cheered and whooped. The engineer had trusted him! The train was stopping!

As fast as he could, Bobby limped back along the track. The cramp in his side was almost unbearable, but as he hobbled around the last bend, there was his little sister running toward him.

Bobby and Priscilla helped each other down the track until they could see the observation car and passenger coaches. People were jumping off the steps and running to the front of the train to find out what was wrong.

Farther up, around a bend, the children could see the big engine only feet from the rockslide. People were shouting back and forth above the roar of the engines.

Bobby and Priscilla stopped to rest by the first passenger coach they came to. A man with a kind, wrinkly face rushed over to them. They knew by the flat-crowned hat he wore that he was the conductor.

He shook their hands vigorously, hugged them, and told them that everything was all right.

Later, when Bobby and Priscilla were telling their dad what had happened, Bobby said, “And the conductor said that we were heroes, Dad.”

“Not only that,” Priscilla chimed in, “but he said that heroes can have free train rides whenever they want!”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Charles Shaw