John Stocks and the Bison

by Mrs. George Cupples

ONE winter afternoon, as Archy Douglas sat studying his lessons, Mrs. Falkoner, the housekeeper, came to invite him to have tea in her room. While they were at the table, they heard the kitchen bell ring, at which Mrs. Falkoner seemed surprised, for she said the weather would incline few people to leave their own firesides.

It turned out, however, to be a visitor for Mrs. Falkoner herself, for in a few minutes one of the servants came to say a person who called himself John Stocks wanted to see her, and John presented himself in the doorway without further delay.

An active man, with the look, at first sight, of the mate of a ship, he stood gently stamping the snow off his boots on the door mat, laughing in a low tone, as if he was very much pleased to see the worthy Mrs. Falkoner, and was enjoying her stare of astonishment to the full.

“Dear bless me, John, is it really you?” said Mrs. Falkoner, almost running to meet him. “Whatever wind has blown you here?”

“No wind at all, Mary; nought but the snow,” he said, laughing: but correcting himself, he added, “Ah, well, there was a wind, after all, for we’re fairly drifted up a few miles t’other side of the Junction; and so I got leave to run over and see you: not often I get the chance—is it, now?”

All this time he had been taking off his outer coat; and when he was fairly in the room, Archy found he was a young man, certainly not more than thirty. He had crisp black hair, a bold, manly face, very red with exposure to the weather, and at the same time expressive of great determination of character. But one peculiarity about his face was, that though so young, his forehead was not only scarred and lined, but round his eyes and about his mouth it was puckered and wrinkled to a most extraordinary degree. Archy  felt a great curiosity about him, but was not long left in doubt, for Mrs. Falkoner took care to make her visitor known to the young gentleman as her youngest half brother and an engine-driver on the main line.

A remarkably quiet man did John Stocks seem in regard to general conversation; he said very little about the weather, and less about things going on in the great world, and anything he did say on these topics had almost to be coaxed out of him. However, he evidently took great delight in giving all the family news, even to the most minute particular.

“Of course you’ve heard,” he said, warming one hand at the fire, “that Bob’s come home from America. Then that old Thompson has given up the shop.”

“Yes; so I heard,” said Mrs. Falkoner, pouring out another cup of tea, not appearing to take very great interest in them. “No accidents on your line lately, I hope.”

“Not much,” was the answer, and he again went back to the family news. “Jenny’s got a baby,” he said, suddenly, with great glee, as if this piece of news was far before any other.

This intelligence at least was news to Mrs. Falkoner, and she listened to all he had to say about it with great interest.

But when Mrs. Falkoner was called away for a few minutes, it became necessary for Archy to entertain the visitor till her return.

Of course Archy had many questions to put about the railway and the engines, and dangers and catastrophes. John was excessively civil, and on this subject was full of intelligence; but when he was asked if his own engine had broken down in the snow, he became quite horrified, if not indignant.

“What, master, broke down?” he said. “Not a bit o’t. I’d back the old Bison against a drift twice as heavy. But, d’ye see, when you comes and finds an engine and seven wagons o’ minerals, and another engine, and wagons besides that all ahead o’ ye, and stuck fast, why, I says, ye must give in. There ain’t no use expecting yer engine to drive through ’em, so must lie by till all’s cleared, which won’t be for five hours at least.”

“How is it that the line’s blocked up now?” asked Archy. “There has been no more snow all day.”

“Ay, that’s true, master,” said the engine-driver. “But d’ye see, a mile from the Junction there’s a bit of heavy cutting, with a steep sloping bank on either side. Now, this afternoon there was a slip; most all the snow drifted there, and part of the bank itself fell in, and so there is a block-up. As I said afore, the mineral train, she comes up first, and she sticks fast, and then we has to follow, as a matter in course. But had my old Bison been afront, he’d have done differently, I make no doubt.”

“Is your engine a much stronger one?” said Archy, greatly amused to hear how funny it was to call a train she, while he called the engine he, and by an animal’s name, too.

“It’s not that he’s stronger, sir, but he’s got more go in him, has the Bison. He’s an extraordinary plucky engine. I’ve seen him do wonderful things when Mat Whitelaw was driver, and me stoker to ’em. I’ll just tell you one on ’em, and then ye can judge what sort o’ stuff the Bison’s made o’. It was one day in summer, some two years ago; we had just taken in water at the junction, and were about to run back to couple on the coaches, when an engine passed us tearing along at a tremendous speed on the other line o’ rail, but, mark me, without a driver or stoker, or aught else on it. I thought my mate was mad, when he got up steam, and off in the same direction;  but in a moment I saw what he was up to. The Bison was going in the chase. ‘See to the brake, John,’ was all Mat said, when off we were after the runaway at full speed. It seemed to me nought but a wild-goose chase; for, d’ye see, master, we were on another line o’ rails altogether. But Mat knew what he was about, and it was my place to do his bidding. I was always proud o’ the old Bison before that morning, but I never knew till then what a good engine was, and what was depending on it.

“You would have thought he fairly snorted to his work, going at the rate o’ forty miles an hour we were, and at last we got abreast o’ the runaway engine, and could have passed him, but that would have been useless. There wasn’t another driver on the whole line would have thought of the thing so quickly as Mat did, nor could have regulated the speed so nicely to a moment. The two different engines were running just opposite each other on the two different lines, the runaway being a good deal worn out now, and going much slower than at first, when Mat he says to me, hoarsely, ‘Jump across. It’ll be safer if I stick here to hold the regulator; but I’ll go, if you’d rather stay.’ I had such confidence in Mat Whitelaw, that I could trust my life with him before any mortal man; and the instant he gave the word, I jumped, and did it safe. We each put on our brakes, and took breath, and desperately hot we both were, I can assure you.”

“Were you not terribly afraid?” said Archy, who had been almost breathless during the recital.

“I can’t say that we were,” said John, coolly; “but I’ll tell you I was frightened enough the next moment, when Mat looked at his watch, and sees that the down express was due in a few minutes on his line. I believe that Mat thought more o’ the passengers that might be smashed, and the risk for the Bison, than o’ his own safety. He said it would never do to reverse the engines now; but if we kept on, he thought there might yet be time to run into the siding at the nearest station. So on we went once more at increased speed, straight on ahead, though it was like running into the very face of the danger. The telegraph had been hard at work, and the station people had been laying their heads together, and they were at the points. So, when they heard the whistle, and saw Mat putting on the brake, they at once opened the points,—not a moment too soon, I can tell you,—and in he ran into the siding. Now, what Mat did, sir, was what I call about equal to most generals in war, and as great a benefit to society.”

“He must be a brave fellow,” said Archy; “and I hope you were both rewarded for it.”

“The company behaved very handsome,” was the answer. “Mat got on to the Great Western line at once; but the worst of it is, he and I are parted, and the old Bison; he felt his loss as much, if not more than me.”

Mrs. Falkoner, who had come in during the latter part of the story, now said,—

“But tell the young gentleman what you did your own self, and what the company thought of your conduct.”

“Tuts, Mary,” he answered; “I did nought extraordinary; there ain’t a man in the service but could have done the same, had they known old Bison as well as I did.”

“I should like to hear it, John,” said Archy, who was standing ready to leave the brother and sister alone.

“Well, ’cept it be to tell you how I got to be driver of the Bison myself, it’s not worth the listening to. When Mat left, Bill Jones got to be my mate—the worst driver on the line; at least he couldn’t manage the Bison. He did not understand  that engine one bit, and was constantly getting into trouble, till I was driven almost wild. Bill would say, ‘Bison, indeed! he ought to be called Donkey; it would suit his kicking ways better.’ It was quite true he kicked, but he never did it with Mat on him, and went along the rails as smooth as oil. Well, at one part o’ the line, there is a gradual long incline, and one day we were just putting on more steam to run up, when we sees at the top two or three coaches coming tearing down straight upon us. We knew there was a heavy excursion train on ahead, and we had been going rather slow on that account, and this was some of the coaches that had got uncoupled from the rest. Well, Bill, my mate, no sooner saw it coming, than says he, ‘Jump for your life!’ and out he went. But I knew what a quick engine the Bison was, and, moreover, I saw our guard had noticed the danger, too, and would work with me; so I reversed the engine, and ran back, until the coaches came up to us, but did no further damage save giving us a bit of a shake as they struck on the old Bison; and so we drove them afore us right up to the station. Bill was killed, as might have been expected, for he had no faith in the Bison whatever; and so the company, they came to see I understood that engine, and they made me driver o’ him from that time.”

Archy now bade the worthy engine-driver good night, saying that he should always take a greater interest in engines than ever before, and that he should have liked very much to have seen such a famous one as the Bison.

John Stocks evidently took this speech as a personal compliment, and, in consequence, bade Archy a friendly good by, saying, as he did so, “that people nowadays talked of nothing but ships and extraordinary guns, and what not, but to his mind a good engine was before them all.”