A Peg-legged Romance by John A. Hill
Some men are born heroes, some become heroic, and some have heroism
thrust upon them; but nothing of the kind ever happened to me.
I don't know how it is; but, some way or other, I remember all the
railroad incidents I see or hear, and get to the bottom of most of the
stories of the road. I must study them over more than most men do, or
else the other fellows enjoy the comedies and deplore the tragedies, and
say nothing. Sometimes I am mean enough to think that the romance, the
dramas, and the tragedies of the road don't impress them as being as
interesting as those of the plains, the Indians, or the seas—people are
so apt to see only the everyday side of life anyway, and to draw all
their romance and heroics from books.
I helped make a hero once—no, I didn't either; I helped make the
golden setting after the rough diamond had shown its value.
Miles Diston pulled freight on our road a few years ago. He was of
medium stature, dark complexion, but no beauty. He was a manly-looking
fellow, well-educated enough, sober, and a steady-going, reliable
engineer; you would never pick him out for a hero. Miles was young
yet—not thirty—but, somehow or other, he had escaped matrimony: I
guess he had never had time. He stayed on the farm at home until he was
of age, and then went firing, so that when I first knew him he had
barely got to his goal—the throttle.
A good many men, when they first get there, take great interest in their
work for a few months—until experience gives them confidence; then they
take it easier, look around, and take some interest in other things.
Most of them never hope to get above running, and so sit down more or
less contented, get married, buy real estate, gamble, or grow fat, each
according to the dictates of his own conscience or the inclinations of
his make-up. Miles figured a little on matrimony.
I can't explain it; but when a railroad man is in trouble, he comes to
me for advice, just as he would go to the company doctor for kidney
complaint. I am a specialist in heart troubles. Miles came to me.
Miles was like the rest of them. They don't come right down and say,
"Something's the matter with me; what would you do for it?" No, sir!
They hem and haw, and laugh off the symptoms, until you come right out
and tell them just how they feel and explain the cause; then they will
do anything you say. Miles hemmed and hawed a little, but soon came out
and showed his symptoms—he asked me if I had ever noticed the "Frenchman's" girl.
"The Frenchman," be it known, was our boss bridge carpenter. He lived at
a small place half-way over my division—I was pulling express—and the
freights stopped there, changing engines. I knew Venot, the bridge
carpenter, very well; met him in lodge occasionally, and once in a
while he rode on the engine with me to inspect bridges. His wife was a
Canadian woman, and good-looking for her forty years and ten children.
The daughter that was killing Miles Diston, Marie Venot, was the eldest,
and had just graduated from some sisters' school. She was a very
handsome girl, and you could read the romantic nature of her being
through her big, round, gray eyes. She was vivacious, and loved to go;
but she was a dutiful daughter, and at once took hold to help her mother
in a way that made her all the more adorable in the eyes of practical men like Miles.
Miles made the most of his opportunities.
But, bless you, there were other eyes for good-looking girls besides
those in poor Miles Diston's head, and he was far from having the field
to himself; this he wanted badly, and came to get advice from me.
I advised strongly against wasting energy to clear the field, and in
favor of putting it all into making the best show and in getting ahead
of all competitors. Under my advice, Miles disposed of some vacant
lots, and bought a neat little house, put it in thorough order, and made
the best of his opportunities with Marie.
Marie came to our house regularly, and I had good opportunity to study
her. She was a sensible little creature, and, to my mind, just the girl
for Miles, as Miles was just the man for her. But she had confided to my
wife the fact that she never, never could consent to marry and settle
down in the regulation, humdrum way; she wanted to marry a hero, some
one she could look up to—a king among men.
My wife told her that kings and heroes were scarce just then, and that a
lot of pretty good women managed to be comparatively happy with common
railroad men. But Marie wanted a hero, and would hear of nothing less.
It was during one of her visits to my house that Miles took Marie out
for a ride and (accidentally, of course) dropped around by his new
house, induced her to look at it, and told his story, asking her to
make the home complete. It would have caught almost any girl; but when
Miles delivered her at our door and drove off, I knew that there would
be a "For Rent" card on that house in a few days and that Marie Venot
was bound to have a hero or nothing.
Miles took his repulse calmly, but it hurt. He told me that Marie was
hunting for a different kind of man from him; said that he thought
perhaps if he would enlist, and go out to fight Sitting Bull, and come
home in a new, brass-bound uniform, with a poisoned arrow sticking out
of his breast, she would fall at his feet and worship him. She told him
she liked him better than any of the town boys; his calling was noble
enough and hard enough; but she failed to see her ideal hero in a man
with blue overclothes on and cinders in his ears. If any of Miles's
competitors had rescued a drowning child, or killed a bear with a
penknife, at this juncture, I'm afraid Marie would have taken him. But,
as I have indicated, it was a dull season for heroes.
About this time our road invested in some mogul passenger engines, and
I drew one. I didn't like the boiler sticking back between me and Dennis
Rafferty. I didn't like six wheels connected. I didn't like a
knuckle-joint in the side rod. I didn't like eighteen-inch cylinders. I
was opposed to solid-end rods. And I am afraid I belonged to a class of
ignorant, short-sighted, bull-headed engineers who didn't believe that a
railroad had any right to buy anything but fifteen by twenty-two
eight-wheelers—the smaller they were the more men they would want. I
got over that a long time ago; but, at the time I write of, I was cranky
about it. The moguls were high and short and jerky, and they tossed a
man around like a rat in a corn-popper. One day, as I was chasing time
over our worst division, holding on to the arm-rest and watching to see
if the main frame touched the driving-boxes as she rolled, Dennis
Rafferty punched me in the small of the back, and said: "Jahn, for the
love ave the Vargin, lave up on her a minit. Oi does be chasing that
dure for the lasth twinty minits, and dang the wan'st has I hit it
fair. She's the divil on th' dodge."
Dennis had a pile of coal just inside and just outside of the door, the
forward grates were bare, the steam was down, and I went in seven
minutes late, too mad to eat—and that's pretty mad for me. I laid off,
and Miles Diston took the high-roller out next trip.
Miles didn't rant and write letters or poetry, or marry some one else to
spite himself, or take the first steamer for Burraga, or Equatorial
Africa, as rejected lovers in stories do. It hurt, and he didn't enjoy
it, but he bore up all right, and went about his business, just as
hundreds of other sensible men do every day. He gave up entirely,
however, rented his house, and said he couldn't fill the bill—there
wasn't a hero in his family as far back as he could remember.
Miles had been making time with the Black Maria for about a week, when
the big accident happened in our town. The boilers in a cotton mill blew
up, and killed a score of girls and injured hundreds more. Miles was at
the other end of the division, and they hurried him out to take a
car-load of doctors down. They were given the right of the road, and
Miles tested the speed of that mogul—proving that a pony truck would
stay on the track at fifty miles an hour, which a lot of us "cranks" had disputed.
A few miles out there is a coaling-station, and at that time they were
building the chutes. One of the iron drop-aprons fell just before Miles
with the mogul got to it; it smashed the headlight, dented the stack,
ripped up the casing of the sand-box and dome, cut a slit in the jacket
the length of the boiler, tore off the cab, struck the end of the first
car, and then tore itself loose, and fell to the ground.
The throttle was knocked wide open, and the mogul was flying. Miles was
thrown down, his head cut open by a splinter, and his foot pretty badly
hurt. He picked himself up instantly, and took a look back as he closed
the throttle. Everything was "coming" all right, he remembered the
emergency of the case, and opened the throttle again. A hasty
inspection showed the engine in condition to run—she only looked
crippled. Miles had to stand up. His foot felt numb and weak, so he
rested his weight on the other foot. He was afraid he would fall off if
he became faint, and he had Dennis take off the bell-cord and tie it
around his waist, throwing a loop over the reverse lever, as a measure
of safety. The right side of the cab and all the roof were gone, so that
Miles was in plain sight. The cut in his scalp bled profusely, and in
trying to wipe the blood from his eyes, he merely spread it all over
himself, so that he looked as if he had been half murdered.
It was this apparition of wreck, ruin, and concentrated energy that
Marie Venot saw flash past her father's door, hastening to the relief of
the victims of a worse disaster, forty miles away.
Her father came home for his dinner in a few minutes from his little
office in the depot. To his daughter's eager inquiry he said there had
been some big accident in town and the "extra" was carrying doctors
from up the road. But what was the matter with the engine, he didn't
know; it was the 170; so it was old man Alexander, he said—and that's
the nearest I ever came to being a hero.
Marie knew who was running the 170 pretty well; so after dinner she went
to the telegraph office for information, and there she learned that the
special had struck the new coal chute at Coalton and that the engineer
was hurt. It was time she ran down to see Mrs. Alexander, she said, and
that afternoon's regular delivered her in town.
Like all other railroaders not better employed, I dropped round to the
depot at train time to talk with the boys and keep track of things in
general. The regular was late, but Miles Diston was coming with a
special, and came while we were talking about it. Miles didn't realize
how badly he was hurt until he stopped the mogul in front of the general
office. So long as the excitement of the run was on, so long as he saw
the absolute necessity of doing his whole duty until the desired end was
accomplished, so long as he had a reputation to protect, his will power
subordinated all else. But when several of us engineers ran up to the
engine, we found Miles hanging to the reverse lever by his safety cord,
in a dead faint. We carried him into the depot, and one of the doctors
administered some restorative. Then we got a hack and started him and
the doctor for my house; but Miles came to himself, and insisted on
going to his boarding-house and nowhere else.
"We carried him into the depot."
Mrs. Bailey, Miles's boarding-house keeper, had been a trained nurse,
but had a few years before invested in a rather disappointing
matrimonial venture. She was one of the best nurses and one of the
"crankiest" women I ever knew. I believe she was actually glad to see
Miles come home hurt, just to show how she could pull him through.
The doctor found that Miles had an ankle out of joint; the little toe
was badly crushed; there was a bad cut in the leg, that had bled
profusely; there was a black bruise over the short ribs on the right
side, and there was a button-hole in the scalp that needed about four
stitches. The little toe was cut off without ceremony, the ankle
replaced and hot bandages applied, and other repairs were made, which took up most of the afternoon.
When the doctor got through, he called Mrs. Bailey and myself out into
the parlor, and said that we must not let people crowd in to see the
patient; that his wounds were not dangerous, but very painful; that
Miles was weak from loss of blood, and that his constitution was not in
particularly good condition. The doctor, in fact, thought that Miles
would be in great luck if he got out of the scrape without a run of
fever. Thereafter Mrs. Bailey referred all visitors to me. I talked with
the doctor and the nurse, and we all agreed that it would stop most
inquisitive people to simply say that the patient had suffered an amputation.
That evening, when I went home, there were two anxious women to receive
me, and the younger of them looked suspiciously as if she had been
crying. I told them something of the accident, how it all happened, and
about Miles's injuries. Both of them wanted to go right down and help
"do something," but I told them of the doctor's order and of his fears.
By this time the reporters came; and I called them into the parlor, and
then let them pump me. I detailed the accident in full, but declined to
tell anything about Miles or his history. "The fact is," said I, "that
you people won't give an engineer his just dues. Now, if Miles Diston
had been a fireman and had climbed down a ladder with a child, you would
have his picture in the paper and call him a hero and all that sort of
thing; but here is a man crushed, bleeding, with broken bones, and a
crippled engine, who stands on one foot, lashed to his reverse lever,
for eighty miles, and making the fastest time ever made over the road,
because he knew that others were suffering for the relief he brought."
"That's nerve," said one of the young men.
"Nerve!" said I, "nerve! Why, that man knows no more about fear than a
lion; and think of the sand of the man! This afternoon he sat up and
watched the doctor perform that amputation without a quiver; he wouldn't
take chloroform; he wouldn't even lie down."
"Was the amputation above or below the knee?" asked the reporter.
"Below" (I didn't state how far).
"He is in no great danger?"
"Yes, the doctor says he will be a very sick man for some time—if he
recovers at all. Boys," I added, "there's one thing you might
mention—and I think you ought to—and that is that it is such heroes as
this that give a road its reputation; people feel as though they were
safe behind such men."
If Miles Diston had read the papers the next morning he would have died
of flattery; the reporters did themselves proud, and they made a whole
column of the "iron will and nerves of steel" shown in that "amputation
Marie Venot was full of sympathy for Miles; she wanted to see him, but
Mrs. Bailey referred her to me, and she finally went home, still
inquiring every day about him. I don't think she had much other feeling
for him than pity. She was down again a week later, and I talked freely
of going to pick out a wooden foot for Miles, who was improving right along.
Meanwhile, the papers far and near copied the articles about the "Hero
of the Throttle," and the item about the road's interest in heroes
attracted the attention of our general passenger agent—he liked the
free advertising and wanted more of it—so he called me in one day, and
asked if I knew of a choice run they could give Miles as a reward of merit.
I told him, if he wanted to make a show of gratitude from the road, and
get a big free advertisement in the papers, to have Miles appointed
superintendent of the Spring Creek branch, where a practical man was
needed, and then give it out "cold" that Miles had been rewarded by
being made superintendent of the road. This was afterwards done, with a
great hurrah (in the papers).
The second Sunday after Miles was hurt, Marie was down, and I thought
I'd have a little fun with her, and see how she regarded Miles.
"There's quite a romance connected with Diston's affair," said I at the
dinner table, rather carelessly. "There is a young lady visiting here in
town—I hear she is very wealthy—who saw Miles when we took him off his
engine. She sends flowers every day, calls him her hero, and is just
crazy for him to get well so she can see him."
"Who is she, did you say?" asked my wife.
"I forgot her name," said I, "but I am here to tell you that she will
get Miles if there is any chance in the world. Her father is an army
officer, but she says that Miles Diston is a greater hero than the army ever produced."
"She's a hussy," said Marie.
I don't know whether you would call that a bull or a bear movement on
the Diston stock, but it went up—I could see that.
A week later Miles was able to come down to our house for dinner, and my
wife asked Marie to come also. I met her at the depot, and after she was
safe in the buggy, I told her that Miles was up at the house. She nearly
jumped out; but I quieted her, and told her she mustn't notice or say a
word about Miles's game leg, as he was extremely sensitive about it.
My wife was in the kitchen, and I went to the barn to put out the horse.
Marie went to the sitting-room to avoid the parlor and Miles, but he was
there, I guess, and Marie found her hero, for when they came out to
dinner he had his arm around her. They were married a month later, and
went to Washington, stopping to see us on the way back.
As I came home that night with my patent dinner pail, and with two rows
of wrinkles and a load of responsibility on my brow, Marie shook her
fist in my face and called me "an old story-teller."
"Story-teller," said I; "what story?"
"Oh, what story? That leg story, of course, you old cheat."
"What leg story?"
"Old innocence; that amputation below the knee—you know."
"Wa'n't it below the knee?"
"Yes, but it was only the little toe."
"John," said Miles, "she cried when she looked for that wooden foot and
only found a slightly flat wheel."
"That's just like 'em," said I. "Here Marie only expected a part of a
hero, and we give her a whole man, and she kicks—that's gratitude for you."
"I got my hero all right, though," said Marie; "you told me a big fib
just the same, but I could kiss you for it."
"Don't you do that," said I; "but if the Lord should send you many
blessings, and any of 'em are boys, you might name one after me."
She said she'd do it—and she did.