A Midsummer Night's Trip by John A. Hill
It is all of twenty years now since the little incident happened that I
am going to tell you about. After the strike of '77, I went into exile
in the wild and woolly West, mostly in "bleeding Kansas," but often in
Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona—the Santa Fé goes almost everywhere
in the Southwest.
One night in August I was dropping an old Baldwin consolidator down a
long Mexican grade, after having helped a stock train over the division
by double-heading. It was close and hot on this sage-brush waste,
something not unusual at night in high altitudes, and the heat and sheet
lightning around the horizon warned me that there was to be one of those
short, fierce storms that come but once or twice a year in these
latitudes, and which are known as cloudbursts.
The alkali plains, or deserts, as they are often erroneously called,
are great stretches of adobe soil, known as "dobie" by the natives. This
soil is a yellowish brown, or perhaps more of a gray color, and as fine
as flour. Water plays sad havoc with it, if the soil lies so as to
oppose the flow, and it moves like dust before a slight stream. On the
flat, hard-baked plains, the water makes no impression, but on a
railroad grade, be it ever so slight, the tendency is to dig pitfalls. I
have seen a little stream of water, just enough to fill the ditches on
each side of the track, take out all the dirt, and keep the ties and
track afloat until the water was gone, then drop them into a hole eight
or ten feet deep, or if the wash-out was short, leave them suspended,
looking safe and sound, to lure some poor engineer and his mate to death.
Another peculiarity of these storms is that they come quickly, rage
furiously for a few minutes, and are gone, and their lines are sharply
defined. It is not uncommon to find a lot of water, or a wash-out,
within a mile of land so dry that it looks as if it had never seen a
drop of water.
All this land is fertile when it can be brought under irrigating ditches
and watered, but here it lies out almost like a desert. It is sparsely
inhabited along the little streams by a straggling off-shoot of the
Mexican race; yet once in a while a fine place is to be seen, like an
oasis in the Sahara, the home of some old Spanish Don, with thousands of
cattle or sheep ranging on the plains, or perhaps the headquarters of
some enterprising cattle company. But these places were few and far
between at the time of which I write; the stations were mere passing
places, long side-tracks, with perhaps a stock-yard and section house
once in a while, but generally without buildings or even switch lights.
Noting the approach of the storm, I let the heavy engine drop the
faster, hoping to reach a certain side-track, over twenty miles away,
where there was a telegraph operator, and learn from him the condition
of the road. But the storm was faster than any consolidator that
Baldwins ever built, and as the lightning suddenly ceased and the air
became heavy, hot, and absolutely motionless, I realized that we would
have the storm full upon us in a few moments. I had nothing to meet for
more than thirty miles, and there was nothing behind me; so I stopped,
turned the headlight up, and hung my white signal lamps down below the
buffer-beams each side of the pilot—this to enable me to see the ends
of the ties and the ditch.
Billy Howell, my fireman, and a good one, hastily went over the
boiler-jacket with signal oil, to prevent rust; we donned our gum coats;
I dropped a little oil on the "Mary Ann's" gudgeon's, and we proceeded
on our way without a word. On these big consolidators you cannot see
well ahead, past the big boiler, from the cab, and I always ran with my
head out of the side window. Both of us took this position now, standing
up ready for anything; but we bowled safely along for one mile—two
miles, through the awful hush. Then, as sudden as a flash of light,
"boom!" went a peal of thunder as sharp and clear as a signal gun.
There was a flash of light along the rails, the surface of the desert
seemed to break out here and there with little fitful jets of
greenish-blue flame, and from every side came the answering reports from
the batteries of heaven, like sister gun-boats answering a salute. The
rain fell in torrents, yes, in sheets. I have never, before or since,
seen such a grand and fantastic display of fireworks, nor heard such
rivalry of cannonade. I stopped my engine, and looked with awe and
interest at this angry fit of nature, watched the balls of fire play
along the ground, and realized for the first time what a sight was an electric storm.
As the storm commenced at the signal of a mighty peal of thunder, so it
ended as suddenly at the same signal; the rain changed in an instant
from a torrent to a gentle shower, the lightning went out, the batteries
ceased their firing, the breeze commenced to blow gently, the air was
purified. Again we heard the signal peal of thunder, but it seemed a
great way off, as if the piece was hurrying away to a more urgent
quarter. The gentle shower ceased, the black clouds were torn asunder
overhead; invisible hands seemed to snatch a gray veil of fleecy clouds
from the face of the harvest moon, and it shone out as clear and serene
as before the storm. The ditches on each side of the track were half
full of water, ties were floating along in them, but the track seemed
safe and sound, and we proceeded cautiously on our way. Within two miles
the road turned to the West, and here we found the water in the ditches
running through dry soil, carrying dead grass and twigs of sage upon its
surface; we passed the head of the flood, tumbling along through the dry
ditches as dirty as it well could be, and fast soaking into the soil;
and then we passed beyond the line of the storm entirely.
Billy put up his seat and filled his pipe, and I sat down and absorbed a
sandwich as I urged my engine ahead to make up for lost time; we took up
our routine of work just where we had left it, and—life was the same
old song. It was past midnight now, and as I never did a great deal of
talking on an engine, I settled down to watching the rails ahead, and
wondering if the knuckle-joints would pound the rods off the pins before
we got to the end of the division.
Billy, with his eyes on the track ahead, was smoking his second pipe and
humming a tune, and the "Mary Ann" was making about forty miles an hour,
but doing more rolling and pitching and jumping up and down than an
eight-wheeler would at sixty. All at once I discerned something away
down the track where the rails seemed to meet. The moon had gone behind
a cloud, and the headlight gave a better view and penetrated further.
Billy saw it, too, for he took his pipe out of his mouth, and with his
eyes still upon it, said laconically, as was his wont: "Cow."
"Yes," said I, closing the throttle and dropping the lever ahead.
"Man," said Billy, as the shape seemed to assume a perpendicular
"Yes," said I, reaching for the three-way cock, and applying the tender
brake, without thinking what I did.
"Woman," said Billy, as the shape was seen to wear skirts, or at least
"Mexican," said I, as I noted the mantilla over the head. We were fast
nearing the object.
"'Mexican,' said I."
"No," said Billy, "too well built."
I don't know what he judged by; we could not see the face, for it was
turned away from us; but the form was plainly that of a comely woman.
She stood between the rails with her arms stretched out like a cross,
her white gown fitting her figure closely. A black, shawl-like mantilla
was over the head, partly concealing her face; her right foot was upon
the left-hand rail. She stood perfectly still. We were within fifty feet
of her, and our speed was reduced to half, when Billy said sharply:
"Hold her, John—for God's sake!"
But I had the "Mary Ann" in the back motion before the words left his
mouth, and was choking her on sand. Billy leaned upon the boiler-head
and pulled the whistle-cord, but the white figure did not move. I shut
my eyes as we passed the spot where she had stood. We got stopped a rod
or two beyond. I took the white light in the tank and sprang to the
ground. Billy lit the torch, and followed me with haste. The form still
stood upon the track just where we had first seen it; but it faced us
and the arms were folded. I confess to hurrying slowly until Billy
caught up with the torch, which he held over his head.
"Good evening, señors," said the apparition, in very sweet English, just
tinged with the Castilian accent, but she spoke as if nearly exhausted.
"Good gracious," said I, "whatever brought you away out here, and hadn't
you just as lief shoot a man as scare him to death?"
She laughed very sweetly, and said: "The washout brought me just here,
and I fancy it was lucky for you—both of you."
"Washout?" said I. "Where?"
"At the dry bridge beyond."
Well, to make a long story short, we took her on the engine—she was wet
through—and went on to the dry bridge. This was a little wooden
structure in a sag, about a mile away, and we found that the storm we
had encountered farther back had done bad work at each end of the
bridge. We did not cross that night, but after placing signals well
behind us and ahead of the washout, we waited until morning, the three
of us sitting in the cab of the "Mary Ann," chatting as if we were old acquaintances.
This young girl, whose fortunes had been so strangely cast with ours,
was the daughter of Señor Juan Arboles, a rich old Spanish Don who owned
a fine place and immense herds of sheep over on the Rio Pecos, some ten
miles west of the road. She was being educated in some Catholic school
or convent at Trinidad, and had the evening before alighted at the big
corrals, a few miles below, where she was met by one of her father's
Mexican rancheros, who led her saddle broncho. They had started on their
fifteen-mile ride in the cool of the evening, and following the road
back for a few miles were just striking off toward the distant hedge of
cotton woods that lined the little stream by her home when the storm
came upon them.
There was a lone pine tree hardly larger than a bush about a half-mile
from the track, and riding to this, the girl, whose name was Josephine,
had dismounted to seek its scant protection, while the herder tried to
hold the frightened horses. As peal on peal of thunder resounded and the
electric lights of nature played tag over the plain, the horses became
more and more unmanageable and at last stampeded, with old Paz muttering
Mexican curses and chasing after them wildly.
After the storm passed, Josephine waited in vain for Paz and the
bronchos, and then debated whether she should walk toward her home or
back to the corrals. In either direction the distance was long, and the
adobe soil is very tenacious when wet, and the wayfarer needs great
strength to carry the load it imposes on the feet. As she stood there,
thinking what it was best to do, a sound came to her ears from the
direction of the timber and home, which she recognized in an instant,
and without waiting to debate further, she turned and ran with all her
strength, not toward her home, but away from it. Across the waste of
stunted sage she sped, the cool breeze upon her face, every muscle
strained to its utmost. Nearer and nearer came the sound; the deep,
regular bay of the timber wolf. These animals are large and fierce; they
do not go in packs, like the smaller and more cowardly breeds of wolves,
but in pairs, or, at most, six together. A pair of them will attack a
man even when he is mounted, and lucky is he if he is well armed and
cool enough to despatch one before it fastens its fangs in his horse's
throat or his own thigh.
As the brave girl ran, she cast about for some means of escape or place
of refuge. She decided to run to the railroad track and climb a
telegraph pole—a feat which, owing to her free life on the ranch, she
was perfectly capable of. Once up the pole, she could rest on the
cross-tree, in perfect safety from the wolves, and she would be sure to
be seen and rescued by the first train that came along after daybreak.
She approached the track over perfectly dry ground. To reach the
telegraph poles, she sprang nimbly into the ditch; and as she did so,
she saw a stream of water coming rapidly toward her—it was the front of
the flood. The ditch on the opposite side of the track, which she must
also cross to reach the line of poles, she found already full-flooded.
She decided to run up the track, between the walls of water. This would
put a ten-foot stream between her and her pursuers, and change her
course enough, she hoped, to throw them off the scent. In this design
she was partly successful, for the bay of the wolves showed that they
were going to the track as she had gone, instead of cutting straight
across toward her. Thus she gained considerable time. She reached the
little arroyo spanned by the dry bridge; it was like a mill-pond, and
the track was afloat. She ran across the bridge; she scarcely slackened
speed, although the ties rocked and moved on the spike-heads holding
them to the rails.
She hoped for a moment that the wolves would not venture to follow her
over such a way; but their hideous voices were still in her ear and came
nearer and nearer. Then there came to her, faintly, another, a strange,
metallic sound. What was it? Where was it? She ran on tiptoe a few paces
in order to hear it better; it was in the rails—the vibration of a
train in motion. Then there came into view a light—a headlight; but it
was so far away, so very far, and that awful baying so close! The "Mary
Ann," however, was fleeter of foot than the wolves; the light grew big
and bright and the sound of working machinery came to the girl on the breeze.
Would they stop for her? Could she make them see her? Then she thought
of the bridge. It was death for them as well as for her—they must see
her. She resolved to stay on the track until they whistled her off; but
now the light seemed to come so slow. A splash at her side caused her to
turn her head, and there, a dozen feet away, were her pursuers, their
tongues out, their eyes shining like balls of fire. They were just
entering the water to come across to her. They fascinated her by their
very fierceness. Forgetting where she was for the instant, she stared
dumbly at them until called to life and action by a scream from the
locomotive's whistle. Then she sprang from the track just in the nick of
time. She actually laughed as she saw two grayish-white wolf-tails bob
here and there among the sage brush, as the wolves took flight at sight of the engine.
This was the story she told as she dried her garments before the furnace
door, and I confess to holding this cool, self-reliant girl in high
admiration. She never once thought of fainting; but along toward morning
she did say that she was scared then at thinking of it.
Early in the morning a party of herders, with Josephine's father ahead,
rode into sight. They were hunting for her. Josephine got up on the
tender to attract their attention, and soon she was in her father's
arms. Her frightened pony had gone home as fast as his legs would carry
him, and a relief party swam their horses at the ford and rode forward at once.
The old Don was profuse in his thanks, and would not leave us until
Billy and I had agreed to visit his ranch and enjoy a hunt with him, and
actually set a date when we should meet him at the big corral. I wanted
a rest anyway, and it was perfectly plain that Billy was beyond his
depth in love with the girl at first sight; so we were not hard to
persuade when she added her voice to her father's.
Early in September Billy and I dropped off No. 1 with our guns and
"plunder," as baggage is called there, and a couple of the old Don's men
met us with saddle and pack animals. I never spent a pleasanter two
weeks in my life. The quiet, almost gloomy, old Don and I became fast
friends, and the hunting was good. The Don was a Spaniard, but
Josephine's mother had been a Mexican woman, and one noted for her
beauty. She had been dead some years at the time of our visit. Billy
devoted most of his time to the girl. They were a fine looking young
couple, he being strong and broad-shouldered, with laughing blue eyes
and light curly hair, she slender and perfect in outline, with a typical
Southern complexion, black eyes—and such eyes they were—and hair and
eyebrows like the raven's wing.
A few days before Billy and I were booked to resume our duties on the
deck of the "Mary Ann," Miss Josephine took my arm and walked me down
the yard and pumped me quietly about "Mr. Howell," as she called Billy.
She went into details a little, and I answered all questions as best I
could. All I said was in the young man's favor—it could not, in truth,
be otherwise. Josephine seemed satisfied and pleased.
When we got back to headquarters, I was given the care of a cold-water
Hinkley, with a row of varnished cars behind her, and Billy fell heir to
the rudder of the "Mary Ann." We still roomed together. Billy put in
most of his lay-over time writing long letters to somebody, and every
Thursday, as regular as a clock, one came for him, with a censor's mark
on it. Often after reading the letter, Billy would say: "That girl has
more horse sense than the rest of the whole female race—she don't slop
over worth a cent." He invariably spoke of her as "my Mexican girl," and
often asked my opinion about white men intermarrying with that mongrel
race. Sometimes he said that his mother would go crazy if he married a
Mexican, his father would disown him, and his brother Henry—well, Billy
did not like to think just what revenge Henry would take. Billy's father
was manager of an Eastern road, and his brother was assistant to the
first vice-president, and Billy looked up to the latter as a great man
and a sage. He himself was in the West for practical experience in the
machinery department, and to get rid of a slight tendency to asthma. He
could have gone East any time and "been somebody" on the road under his father.
Finally, Billy missed a week in writing. At once there was a cog gone
from the answering wheel to match. Billy shortened his letters; the
answers were shortened. Then he quit writing, and his Thursday letter
ceased to come. He had thought the matter all over, and decided, no
doubt, that he was doing what was best—both for himself and the girl;
that his family's high ideas should not be outraged by a Mexican
marriage. He had put a piece of flesh-colored court-plaster over his
wound, not healed it.
Early in the winter the old Don wrote, urging us to come down and hunt
antelope, but Billy declined to go—said that the road needed him, and
that Josephine might come home from school and this would make them both
uncomfortable. But Henry, his older brother, was visiting him, and he
suggested that I take Henry; he would enjoy the hunt, and it would help
him drown his sorrow over the loss of his aristocratic young wife, who
had died a year or two before. So Henry went with me, and we hunted
antelope until we tired of the slaughter. Then the old Don planned a
deer-hunting trip in the mountains, but I had to go back to work, and
left Henry and the old Don to take the trip without me. While they were
in the mountains, Josephine came home, and Henry Howell's stay
lengthened out to a month. But I did not know until long afterward that
the two had met.
Billy was pretty quiet all winter, worked hard and went out but
little—he was thinking about something. One day I came home and found
him writing a letter. "What now, Billy?" I asked.
"Writing to my Mexican girl," said he.
"I thought you had got over that a long time ago?"
"So did I, but I hadn't. I've been trying to please somebody else
besides myself in this matter, and I'm done. I'm going to work for Bill now."
"Take an old man's advice, Billy, and don't write that girl a line—go
and see her."
"Oh, I can fix it all right by letter, and then run down there and see her."
"Don't do it."
"I'll risk it."
A week later Billy and I sat on the veranda of the company's
hash-foundry, figuring up our time and smoking our cob meerschaums,
when one of the boys who had been to the office, placed two letters in
Billy's hands. One of them was directed in the handwriting that used to
be on the old Thursday letters. Billy tore it open eagerly—and his own
letter to Josephine dropped into his hand. Billy looked at the ground
steadily for five minutes, and I pretended not to have seen. Finally he
said, half to himself: "You were right, I ought to have gone myself—but
I'll go now, go to-morrow." Then he opened the other letter.
He read its single page with manifest interest, and when his eyes
reached the last line they went straight on, and looked at the ground,
and continued to do so for fully five minutes. Without looking up, he
said: "John, I want you to do me two favors."
"All right," said I.
Still keeping his eyes on the ground, he said, slowly, as if measuring
everything well: "I'm going up and draw my time, and will leave for Old
Mexico on No. 4 to-night. I want you to write to both these parties and
tell them that I have gone there and that you have forwarded both these
letters. Don't tell 'em that I went after reading 'em."
"And the other favor, Billy?"
"Read this letter, and see me off to-night."
The letter read:
"Philadelphia, May 1, 1879.
"Dear Brother Will: I want you and Mr. A. to go down to Don Juan
Arboles's by the first of June. I will be there then. You must be
my best man, as I stand up to marry the sweetest, dearest
wild-flower of a woman that ever bloomed in a land of beauty. Don't
fail me. Josephine will like you for my sake, and you will love her
for your brother.
Most engineers' lives are busy ones and full of accident and incident,
and having my full share of both, I had almost forgotten all these
points about Billy Howell and his Mexican girl, when they were all
recalled by a letter from Billy himself. With his letter was a
photograph of a family group—a bewhiskered man of thirty-five, a
good-looking woman of twenty, but undoubtedly a Mexican, and a
curly-headed baby, perhaps a year old. The letter ran:
"City of Mexico, July 21, 1890.
"Dear Old John: I had lost you, and thought that perhaps you had
gone over to the majority, until I saw your name and recognized
your quill in a story. Write to me; am doing well. I send you a
photograph of all there are of the Howell outfit. No half-breeds
for your uncle this time.