Some Freaks of Fate

By John A. Hill and Jasper Ewing Brady in 1898

Railroad building on the great plains, A.R. Waud, 1875

Railroad building on the great plains, A.R. Waud, 1875

I am just back from a visit to old scenes, old chums and old memories of my interesting experience on the western fringe of Uncle Sam’s great, gray blanket—the plains.

If some of these fellows who know more about writing than about running engines would only go out there for a year and keep their eyes and ears and brains open, and mouths shut, they could come home and write us some true stories that would make fiction-grinders exceedingly weary.

The frontier attracts strong characters, men with pioneer spirit, men who are willing to sacrifice something, in order to gain an end; men with loves and men with hates. Bad men are there, some of them hunted from Eastern communities, perhaps, but you will find no fools and mighty few weak faces—there’s character in every feature you look at.

Every one is there for a purpose; to accomplish something; to get ahead in the world; to make a new start; perhaps to live down something, or to get out of the rut cut by ancestors; some may only want to drink, and shout, and shoot, but even these do it with a vim—they mean it.

Of the many men who ran engines at the front, with me in the old days, I recall few whose lives were purposeless; almost every one had a life-story.

If there’s anything that I enjoy, it’s to sit down to a pipe and a life-story—told by the subject himself. How many have I listened to, out there, and every one of them worthy the pen of a Kipling!

The population of the frontier is never all made up of men, and the women all have strong features, too—self-sacrifice, devotion, degradation, or something, is written on every face. There are no blanks in that lottery—there’s little material there for homes of feeble-minded.

It isn’t strange, either, when you come to think of it; fools never go anywhere, they are just born and raised. If they move it’s because they are “took”—you never heard of a pioneer fool.

One of the strongest characters I ever knew was a runner out there by the name of Gunderson—Oscar Gunderson. He was of Swedish parentage, very light-complexioned, very large, and a splendid mechanic, as Swedes are apt to be when they try. Gunderson’s name was, I suppose, properly entered on the company’s time-book, but it never was in the nomenclature of the road. With the railroaders’ gift for abbreviation and nickname, Gunderson soon came down to “Gun,” his size, head, hand or heart furnished the prefix of “Big,” and “Big Gun” he remains to-day. “Big Gun” among his friends, but simple “Gun” to me. I think I called him “Gun” from the start.

Gun ran himself as he did his engine, exercised the same care of himself, and always talked engine about his own anatomy, clothes, food and drink.

His hat was always referred to as his “dome-casing;” his Brotherhood pin was his “number-plate;” his coat was “the jacket;” his legs the “drivers;” his hands “the pins;” arms were “side-rods;” stomach “fire-box;” and his mouth “the pop.”

Railroad Worker, by Jack Delano, 1943

Railroad Worker, by Jack Delano, 1943

He invariably referred to a missing suspender-button as a broken “spring-hanger;” to a limp as a “flat-wheel;” he “fired up” when eating; he “took water,” the same as the engine; and “oiled round,” when he tasted whisky.

Gun knew all the slang and shop-talk of the road, and used it—was even accused of inventing much of it—but his engine talk was unique and inimitable.

We roomed together a whole winter; and often, after I had gone to bed, Gun would come in, and as he peeled off his clothes he would deliver himself something as follows:

“Say, John, you don’t know who I met on the up trip? Well, sir, Dock Taggert. I was sailin’ along up the main line near Bob’s, and who should I see but Dock backed in on the sidin’—seemed kinder dilapidated, like he was runnin’ on one side. I jest slammed on the wind and went over and shook. Dock looks pretty tough, John—must have been out surfacing track, ain’t been wiped in Lord knows when, oiled a good deal, but nary a wipe, jacket rusted and streaked, tire double flanged, valves blowin’, packing down, don’t seem to steam, maybe’s had poor coal, or is all limed up. He’s got to go through the back shop ‘efore the old man’ll ever let him into the roundhouse. I set his packin’ out and put him in a stall at the Gray’s corral; hope he’ll brace up. Dock’s a mighty good workin’ scrap, if you could only get him to carryin’ his water right; if he’d come down to three gauges he’d be a dandy, but this tryin’ to run first section with a flutter in the stack all the time is no good—he must ‘a flagged in.”

Which, being translated into English, would carry the information that Gun had seen one of the old ex-engineers at Bob Slattery’s saloon, had stopped and greeted him. Dock looked as if he had tramped, had drank, was dirty, coat had holes, soles of his boots badly worn, wheezing, seemed hungry and lifeless, been eating poor food, and was in a general run-down condition. Gun had “set out his packing” by feeding him and put him in a bed at the Grand Central Hotel—nicknamed the “Grayback’s Corral.” Gun thought he would have to reform, before the M. M. put him into active service. He was a good engineer, but drank too much, and lastly, he was in so bad a condition he could not get himself into headquarters unless someone helped him by “flagging” for him.

Gun was a bachelor; he came to us from the Pacific side, and told me once that he first went west on account of a woman, but—begging Mr. Kipling’s pardon—that’s another story.

“I don’t think I’d care to double-crew my mill,” Gun would say when the conversation turned to matrimony. “I’ve been raised to keep your own engine and take care of it, and pull what you could. In double-heading there’s always a row as to who ought to go ahead and enjoy the scenery or stay behind and eat cinders.”

I knew from the first that Gun had a story to tell, if he’d only give it up, and I fear I often led up to it, with the hope that he would tell it to me—but he never did.

My big friend sent a sum of money away every month, I supposed to some relative, until one day I picked up from the floor a folded paper dirty from having been carried long in Gun’s pocket, and found a receipt. It read:

“Mission, San Antonio, Jan. 1, 1878.

“Received of O. Gunderson, for Mabel Rogers, $40.00.

“Sister Theresa.”

Ah, a little girl in the story! I thought; it’s a sad story, then. There’s nothing so pure and beautiful and sweet and joyous as a little girl, yet when a little girl has a story it’s almost always a sad story.

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