Some Freaks of Fate

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

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

By John A. Hill and Jasper Ewing Brady in 1898

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.

I gave Gun the paper; he thanked me; said he must look out better for those receipts, and added that he was educating a bit of a girl out on the coast.

“Yours, Gun?” I asked kindly.

“No, John; she ain’t; I’d give $5,000 if she was.”

He looked at me straight, with that clear, blue eye, and I knew he told me the truth.

Railroad train with locomotive in foreground 1915

Railroad train with locomotive in foreground 1915. Click for prints & products.

“How old is she?” I asked.

“I don’t know; ’bout five or six.”

“Ever seen her?”


“Where did you get her?”

“Ain’t had her.”

“Tell me about her?”

“She was willed to me, John, kinder put in extra, but I can’t tell you her story now, partly because I don’t know it all myself, and partly because I won’t—I won’t even tell her.”

Little girl, W.B. Poynter, 1916

Little girl, W.B. Poynter, 1916

I did not again refer to Gun’s little girl, and soon other experiences and other biographies crowded the story out of my mind.

One evening in the spring, I sat by the open window, enjoying the cool night breeze from off the mountains, when I heard Gun’s cheery voice on the porch below. He was lecturing his fireman, in his own, unique way.

“Well, Jim, if I ain’t ashamed of you! There ain’t no one but you; coming into general headquarters with a flutter in the stack, so full that you can’t whistle, air-pump a-squealing ‘count of water, smeared from stack to man-hole, headlight smoked and glimmery, don’t know your own rights, kind o’ runnin’ wildcat, without proper signals, imagining you’re first section with a regardless order. You want to blow out, man, and trim up, get your packing set out and carry less juice. You’re worse than one of them slippin’, dancin’, three-legged, no-good Grants.”

“The next time I catch you at high-tide, I’ll scrap you, that’s what I’ll do, fire you into the scrap-pile. Why can’t you use some judgment in your runnin’? Why can’t you say, ‘Why, here’s the town of Whisky, I’m going to stop here and oil around,’ sail right into town, put the air on steady and fine, bring her right down to the proper gait, throw her into full release, so as to just stop right, shut off your squirt, drop a little oil on the worst points, ring your bell and sail on.

“But you, you come into town forty miles an hour, jam on the emergency and while the passengers pick ’emselves out of the ends of the cars, you go into the supply house and leave the injector on, and then, when you do move, you’re too full to go without opening your cylinder cocks and givin’ yourself dead away.

“Now, I’m goin’ to Californ’, next month, and if you get so as you can tell when you’ve got enough liquor without waiting for it to break your injectors, I’ll ask the old man to let you finger the plug on Old Baldy whilst I’m gone. But I’m damned if I don’t feel as if you was like that measly old 19—jest fit to be jacked up to saw wood with.”

While Gun was in California, I was taken home on a requisition from my wife, and Oscar Gunderson and his little girl became a memory—a page in a book that I had partly read and lost, but not entirely forgotten.

One day last summer I took the westbound express at Topeka, and spreading my grip, hat, coat and umbrella, out on the seats, so as to resemble an experienced English tourist, I fished up a Wheeling stogie and a book and went into the smoking-pen of the sleeper, which I had all to myself for half-an-hour.

The train stopped to give the thirsty tender a drink and a man came in to wash his hands. He had been riding on the engine.

After washing, he stepped to the door of the “smokery,” struck a match on the leg of his pants, held both hands around the end of his cigar while he lighted it, then waving the match to put it out, he threw it down and came in.

While he was absorbed in all this, I took a glance at him. Six-foot-four, if an inch; high cheek bones; yellow beard; clear, blue eyes; white skin, and a hand about the size of a Cincinnati ham. I knew that face despite twelve years of turkey-tracks about the eyes.

“Gunderson, old man, how are you?” I said, offering my fin.

“Well, John Alexander, how in the name of thunder did you get away out here on the main stem, without orders?”

“Inspection-car,” said I; “how did you get here?”

“Deadheading home; been out on special, a gilt-edged special, took her clean through to New York.”

“You did!” I exclaimed; “why, how was that?”

“Went up special to a weddin’, don’t you see? Went up to see a new compound start off—prettiest sight I ever saw—working smooth as grease; but I’m kind of dubious about repairs and general running. I’m anxious to see how the performance sheet looks at the end of the year, John.”

“Who’s been double-heading, Gun?”

“Why—why, my little girl, trimmest, neatest, slickest little mill you ever saw. Lord! but she was painted red and white and gold-leaf, three brass bands on her stack, solid nickel trimming, all the latest improvements, corrugated fire-box, high pressure smoke consumer and sand-jet—jest made a purpose for specials, and pay-car. But if she ain’t got herself coupled onto a long-fire-boxed ten-wheeler, with a big lap and a Joy gear, you can put me down for a clinker. Yes, sir; the baby is a heart-breaker on dress-parade, and the ten-wheeler is a whale on business, and if they don’t jump the track, you watch out for some express speed that will make the canals sick, see if they don’t.”

Without giving me time to say a word, he was off again.

“You ought to seen ’em start out, nary a slip, cutting off square as a die, small one ahead speaking her little piece chipper and fast on account of her smaller wheels, and the ten-wheeler barking bass, steady as a clock, with a hundred-and-enough on the gauge, a full throttle, and half a pipe of sand. You couldn’t tell to save you whether the little one was pulling the big one or the big one shoving the little—never saw a relief train start out in such shape in my life.”

Gunderson was evidently enthusiastic over the marriage of his little girl. We talked over old times and the changes, and followed each other up to date with a great deal of mutual enjoyment, until the porter demanded the “smokery” for his bunk.

As we started for bed, Gun laid his hand on my shoulder and said:

“John, a good many years ago, you asked me to tell you the story of my little girl. I refused then for her sake. I’ll tell you in the morning.”

After a hearty breakfast and a good cigar, Gunderson squared himself for the story. He shut his eyes for a few minutes, as if to recall something, and then, speaking as if to himself, he said:

“Well, sir, there wasn’t a simmer anywhere, dampers all shut; you wouldn’t’a suspected they was up to the popping point, but the minute they got their orders, and the con. put up his hand, so, up went—”

“Say,” I interrupted, “I thought I was to have the story. I believe you told me about the wedding, last night. The young couple started out well.”

“Oh, yes, old man, I forgot, the story; well, get on the next pit here,” motioning to a seat next to him, “and I’ll give you the history of an old, hook-motion, name of Oscar Gunderson, and a trim, Class “G” made of solid silver, from pilot to draft-gear.

“You think I’m a Swede; well, I ain’t, I don’t know what I am, but I guess I come nearer to being a Chinaman than anything else. My father was a sea-captain, and my mother found me on the China sea—but they were both Swedes just the same. I had two sisters older than myself, and in order to better our chances, father moved to New York when I was less than five years old.

“He soon secured work as captain on a steamer in the Cuban trade, and died at sea, when I was ten.

Virginia Truckee Railroad, Carson City, NV

Virginia Truckee Railroad, Carson City, NV. Click for prints & products.

“I had a bent for machinery, and tried the old machine-shops of the Central road, but soon found myself firing.

“I went to California, shortly after the war, on account of a woman—mostly my fault.

“Well, after running around there for some years, I struck a job on the Virginia & Truckee, in ’73.

“Virginia City and Carson and all the Nevada towns were doing a fall-rush business, turning every wheel they had, with three crews to a mill. Why, if you’d go down street in any one of them towns at night, and see the crowds around the gamblers and molls, you’d think hell was a-coming forty-mile an hour, and that it wan’t more than a car-length away.

“Well, one morning, I came into Virginia [City] about breakfast time, and with the rest of the crew, went up to the old California Chop-house for breakfast. This same chop-house was a building about good-enough for a stable, these days; but it had a reputation then for steaks. All the gamblers ate there; and it’s a safe rule to eat where the gamblers do, in a frontier town, if you want the best there is, regardless of price.

Pioneer Stage leaving Wells-Fargo, Virginia City, Nevada, 1866.

Virginia City, Nevada – Pioneer Stage leaving Wells Fargo, by Lawrence and Houseworth. 1866. Click for prints, downloads and products.

“It was early for the regular trade, and we had the dining-room mostly to ourselves, for a few minutes, then there were four women folks came in and sat down at a table bearing a card: ‘Reserved for Ladies.’

“Three of them were dressed loud, had signs out whereby any one could tell that they wouldn’t be received into no Four Hundred; but one of them was a nice-looking, modestly-dressed woman, had on half-mourning, if I remember.

“She had one of them sweet, strong faces, John, like the nun when I had my arm broke and was scalded,—her sweet mouth kept mumblin’ prayers, but her fingers held an artery shut that was trying its damndest to pump Gun Gunderson’s old heart dry—strong character, you bet.

“Well, that woman sat facing our table and kept looking at me; I couldn’t see her without turning, but I knew she was looking. John, did you ever notice that you could feel the presence of some people; you knew they were near you without seeing them? Well, when that happens, don’t forget to give that fellow due credit; for whoever it is he or she has the strongest mind—the dominant one.

“I had to look around at that woman. I shall never forget how she looked; her hand was on the side of her face; her great, brown, tender eyes were staring right at me—she was reading my very soul. I let her read.

“I had been jacking up a gilly of a gafter who had referred to his mother as “the old woman,” and I didn’t let the four females disturb me. I meant to hold up a looking-glass for that young whelp to look into. I hate a man that don’t love his mother.

“Why,” says I, “you miserable example of Divine carelessness, do you know what that ‘old woman’ mother has done for you, you drivelin’ idiot, a-thankin’ God that you’re alive and forgetting the very mother that bore you; if you could see the tears that she has shed, if you could count the sleepless nights that she has put in, the heartaches, the pain, the privation that she has humbly, silently, even thankfully borne that you might simply live, you’d squander your last cent and your last breath to make her life a joy, from this day until her light goes out. A man that don’t respect his mother is lost to all decency; a man who will hear her name belittled is a Judas, and a man who will call his mother ‘old woman’ is a no-good, low-down, misbehaven whelp. Why, damn it, I’d fight a buzz-saw, if it called my mother ‘old woman’—and she’s been dead a long time; gone to that special, exalted, gilt-edged and glorious heaven for mothers. No one but mothers have a right to expect to go to a heaven, and the only question that’ll be asked is, ‘Have you been a mother?’

“Well, sir, I had forgot about the women, but they clapped their hands and I looked around, and there were tears in the eyes of that one woman.

“She got up; came to our table and laid a card by my plate, and said, ‘I beg your pardon; but won’t you call on me? Please do.’

Danger Signals Illustration

“He was the first man I ever killed.” Illustration from the book, Danger Signals by John A. Hill and Jasper Ewing Brady.

“I was completely knocked out, but told her I would, and she went out alone; the others finished their breakfast.

“She had no sooner gone than Cy Nash, my conductor, commenced to giggle—’Made a mash on the flyest woman in town,’ he tittered; ‘ain’t a blood in town but what would give his head for your boots, old man; that’s Mabel Verne—owns the Odeon dance hall, and the Tontine, in Carson.’

“I glanced at the card, and it did read, ‘Mabel Verne, 21 Flood avenue.’

“Well, Flood avenue is no slouch of a street, the best folks live there,” I answered.

“‘Yes, that’s her private residence, and if you go there and are let in, you’d be the first man ever seen around there. She’s a curious critter, never rides or drives, or shows herself off at all; but you bet she sees that the rest of the stock show off. She’s in it for money, I tell you.’

“I don’t know why, but it made me kind of heart-sick to think of the hell that woman must be in, for I knew by her looks that she had a heart and a brain, and that neither of them was in the Odeon or the Tontine dance-houses.

“I thought the matter over,—and didn’t go to see her. The next trip, she sent a carriage for me.

“She met me at the door, and took my hat, and as I dropped into an easy chair, I opened the ball to the effect that ‘this here was a strange proceeding for a lady.’

“‘Yes,’ said she, sitting down square in front of me; ‘it is; I felt as if I had found a true man, when I first saw you, and I have asked you here to tell you a story, my story, and ask your help and advice. I am so earnest, so anxious to do thoroughly what I have undertaken, that I fear to overdo it; I need counsel, restraint; I can trust you. Won’t you help me?”

“‘If I can; what is it that you want me to do, madam?’

“‘First of all, keep a secret, and next, protect or help protect, an innocent child.’

“‘Suppose I help the child, and you don’t tell me the secret?’

“‘No, it concerns the child, sir; she is my child; I want her to grow up without knowing what her mother has done, or how she has lived and suffered; you wouldn’t tell her that, would you?’

“‘No; certainly not!’

“‘Nor anyone else?’


“‘You would judge her alone, forgetting her mother?’


“‘Then I will tell you the story.’

“She got up and changed the window blinds, so that the light shone on my face; I guess she wanted to study the effect of her words.

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