THE WRECK_ THE TRAIL OF THE TRAMP_ CHAPTER THREE_
Gradually I regained the use of my one-time totally frozen limbs, and when I felt myself able to do the severe labor required of men who toil upon a railroad section to earn their daily bread, I begged Foreman McDonald to allow me to work with his crew. I explained to him that this would be the greatest favor he could do for me, who found himself marooned many hundreds of miles from a city, without a job and penniless, in the midst of a bleak, snow-buried prairie. I also argued with him that to give me employment would be the easiest means for me to discharge my debt to him, which, although he absolutely refused to listen to any talk of indebtedness on my part, amounted to a tidy sum. He finally consented, and I commenced my task, fully equipped with warm clothes that were generously donated to me by my fellow laborers. The first time the pay-car stopped and the paymaster handed me my envelope I repaid Foreman McDonald every cent I owed him, and although this settled my financial indebtedness to him, the debt I owe him to this day for his timely help can never be repaid with mere coin.
One other time the pay-car stopped, and then the glad holidays of Christmas approached, and when the happy Yule-tide was just a week away, Foreman McDonald procured for each laborer a return pass to St. Paul. We went and made our Christmas purchases and returned after an absence of three days, each of us staggering under the weight of a heavily-laden sack which we carried slung over our backs, from the train into the bunk house.
Every spare minute until Christmas Eve there was a mysterious activity within the crowded space of the small bunk house. We were not only busy sorting over the purchases we had made in the big cities, which included a suitable present for each one of our foreman's family down to baby Helen, and one for each of the laborers, but we were kept busy keeping the youngsters from prying into the secrets which we did not wish to be revealed to them until Christmas Eve.
One of us had smuggled in a small Christmas tree, while another one had purchased the long whiskers that always go with a genuine "Santa Claus", so dear to the hearts of the children.
At last the natal feast of the Savior arrived, and to the complete surprise and delight of the McDonald family, we marched over to the foreman's home, led by old "Santa Claus", who in all his glory of a fur cap, long white hair and snowy whiskers, carried a wondrously decorated Christmas tree. We were royally welcomed, and after the Christmas tree's colored candles had been lighted and our presents had been distributed, we received those which had been purchased for us by the foreman and his thoughtful wife. Amidst the shouts of glee of the youngsters, and especially of Baby Helen, the hours flew past only too soon. The time came for her to be put to bed, and the moment arrived for our departure, but just before we went, the stern overseer of our work descended to the level of a satisfied father, and proudly permitted each one of us to kiss his baby's forehead, a most signal honor considering circumstances. As we were returning to our bunk house, he called from the porch of the section house, reminding us to be sure to be in proper shape on the coming day to enjoy the best Christmas dinner that his wife, who was a very good cook, had ever placed before guests.
No sooner had we entered our bunk house than we threw off all the restraint of etiquette which we had to observe at the "big" house, and quickly had a roaring fire in our stove, and while out of doors another blizzard was playing a tattoo upon the telegraph wires and was piling tons of snow upon the right of way, we had brewing in a pot upon the stove something that is not altogether in accordance with the tenets of temperance, but which meant additional cheer to us, whose thoughts were ever and anon slipping back to those days when we spent happy Christmas Eve's in very different surroundings. It was a curious fact, that although we celebrated till into the wee, small hours of the morning, when the first one of us crawled into his bunk it was only a few minutes until all of us had followed his example. We seemed to hate to be left alone.
About daybreak a loud pounding upon the door of our bunk house aroused us from our slumbers, and while we rubbed the drowsiness out of our eyes we heard Foreman McDonald calling to us to make haste, as a wrecking train was waiting to take us up the line to clear away a bad wreck.
It took little time for us to slip into our clothes, rush to the tool house and throw our track implements aboard the wrecker, and then climb into the coaches provided for our accommodation, in which were other section crews who had been picked up below us, and into which were loaded those for whom we stopped west of our reservation.
We had the right-of-track over every other train upon the line, and with six powerful engines pushing a snow-plow at full speed ahead of us, we reached our destination in almost record time, where we were put to work clearing away a serious wreck, which had been caused by a heavy passenger train running into a snow drift during a blinding blizzard, and having at the same time been derailed from the tender back to the rear truck beneath the last sleeper. For three days and nights we worked like beavers, taking turns in eight hour shifts, sleeping and dining in the "bunk" cars attached to the wrecking train, shoveling away the solidly packed snow, "jacking" up the coaches, one at a time, and replacing the trucks upon the rails, and in the afternoon of the third day our combined efforts were rewarded, for amid the gladsome whistling of its engine the released train resumed its interrupted, eastbound journey.
We laborers were detained an additional day removing the wreckage, reloading the apparatus used and putting everything into a first-class condition for the resumption of the regular schedule. Then we boarded the wrecker to be distributed along the line.
The wrecking train's speed rapidly closed the gap of miles separating us from our reservation, and when at last—at about supper time—we entered upon our own section, we noted a satisfied sparkle in Foreman McDonald's eyes, when the cars, which had heretofore been lurching like ships at sea, spun with hardly a perceivable motion over the well attended road bed. Now the whistle blew for our section house; the brakes gripped the flanges of the wheels, and we gathered our belongings so as not to unnecessarily delay the others, and when the train stopped we soon had our track tools piled in front of our tool house. Then the wrecking train continued its journey, and while we stored our tools away we noted the disappointed look in our foreman's face when neither his wife nor any of his children came to greet him, or at least inquire as to the extent of the wreck, a most interesting item of gossip, considering the lonely location of our reservation.
When we had finished our task and the foreman had carefully locked the tool house, and while he walked towards the "big" house where not yet a single soul had opened the door to give him the usual glad greeting, although by the lamp that was illuminating the parlor we could see Mrs. McDonald and her children sitting about the heater, we hustled over to the bunk house, in which we quickly kindled a fire and then brought order out of the chaos we had left behind when we had been so unexpectedly called away to clear the track.
While we were thus busily engaged, our work was suddenly interrupted by several almost demoniacal shrieks that seemed to belong to Hades, and as if driven by some common impulse, we rushed pell mell out of doors and towards the "big" house. But before we could even reach it, we stopped short as if rooted into the ground, for there upon the front porch, with his face uplifted towards the starry firmament above him, stood Foreman McDonald, tearing like a raving maniac at the hairs of his head, while through the quietude of the night reverberated his heart-rending shrieks: "Oh God! Give me back my baby! Bring back my darling Helen! Merciful Father, do not punish me so cruelly as this!"
While we stood there wondering as to the causes of Foreman McDonald's strange pleading, his wife, pale as the snow, came from around the rear of the section house and begged us to take hold of Mr. McDonald to prevent him from harming himself, and when at this moment we saw the strong man sink into a corner of the porch and commence to pray aloud, we made a rush and after we took hold of him it required every bit of strength we six husky men could muster to restrain and drag him into the section house, where we stretched and tied him upon his bed and gave him narcotics that caused him to fall into a deep slumber.
While we sat about his bed watching his every move, poor Mrs. McDonald repeated to us, amid heart-racking sobs, the dire calamity that had overtaken her happy family since our departure. That Helen, the pet of the family and of the rough section men, had disappeared from her home, leaving not a trace. Further questioning elicited from the distracted mother this information:
The blizzard had given way to a perfectly calm afternoon, and after they had enjoyed their Christmas dinners, Mrs. McDonald had watched Helen toddle behind her brothers to where the passing siding turned away from the main line, permitting a small pond to form, which, being smooth as glass and swept clear of snow by the storm, offered a splendid opportunity to try out their new skates, which they had received amongst their presents.
The youngsters were altogether too busy enjoying their rare sport to pay heed to their baby sister, and when darkness approached they scampered back to the house where they told their mother of the good time they had had. Her first question, however, was concerning the whereabouts of little Helen, as she quickly noted her absence from the returning children. "Boys, where have you left your little sister?" "Why, mother," readily replied Donald, her eldest son, "Helen must have been back to the house long ago, as we have not seen her since she watched us put on our new skates."
Tormented by a mother's instinct which told her that all was not well with her child, Mrs. McDonald, assisted by her sons, made a thorough search of the house, thinking that perhaps the baby might have toddled back to its home, tired of watching her brothers skate upon the pond, and had, unobserved by her mother, entered one of the bed rooms and gone to sleep. Carefully she looked through every room and then she searched the whole building from cellar to garret, all the while loudly calling for her missing darling, but the search proved futile.
Then she lit lanterns, one for herself and one for each of her boys, and together they searched through the bunk house, the tool house and every other out-building on the reservation, but all their hunting was of no avail, as they found no trace of the child.
Up and down the right-of-way they searched, hoping to find the tracks in the soft snow showing the direction the tot might have taken, but every effort was in vain, and they had almost reached the garden gate of the house, all of them broken-heartedly weeping, having given up all hope of ever hearing again of their Helen, when "Spot", the shepherd dog, the playmate of the children, came racing towards them, swinging a rag, that he held between his sharp teeth, playfully about his head. He had been awakened by his mistress's calls for her child, and the lighted lanterns they carried had fooled the intelligent canine into reasoning that this was to be a prolongation of the Christmas festivities of the preceding night, and he had promptly entered into the spirit of the game.
Mrs. McDonald called the dog to her side, and examined the supposed rag the beast had played with, and found it to be the first clue that she had thus far discovered, as it was little Helen's red flannel undergarment. Reeling but upheld by the thought that she might not yet be too late, poor Mrs, McDonald ordered her boys to take securely hold of Spot, and then she ran as fast as her fright and weakened feet would carry her, to the dog's house, but its interior and the usual slim appearance of the watch dog, disproved the terrible notion which had caused her to make the hasty trip, that Spot had made a meal of her baby. Grateful from the bottom of her heart for even this small relief in her terrible perdicament, she rejoined her boys, and as sort of forlorn hope, she rubbed Helen's tiny garment against the dog's nose, and ordered the collie to go and find the missing child.
The intelligent animal seemed to understand what was demanded of him, for presently, whining as if to appeal to them to go with him, he rushed forward, and as they followed he led them to the pond, then across the tracks where he stopped by a small pile of clothes, which proved to be every stitch of little Helen's garments—shoes, stockings and all, with the sole exception of a tiny gold locket containing her parents' pictures, which Mrs. McDonald had hung by its gold chain around the baby's neck, and the red flannel garment that the dog had brought to their attention, no doubt considering it a most welcome plaything.
Back to the section house she dragged herself carrying the tiny garments. Arriving there, she carefully questioned the boys and brought out only one more useless item, that a westbound immigrant train had pulled into the siding to permit an eastbound passenger train to pass them.
For four seemingly endless days the poor mother with her three small boys helplessly waited for someone to assist her, her husband and all the other men having gone to the wreck. Telephones were unknown in those days, and with no strong hands to pump the heavy hand car through the foot-high snow that now covered the track, there was nothing else to do but to hope, as she did not dare send one of her sons to the nearest village, not knowing at what moment a blizzard might add another calamity to her burden of woe. In all those long days, until the released passenger train flew past, not a single train passed up or down the line, so all she and her children could do was to weep and wait for her husband's return, to whom she then told all the circumstances of the child's disappearance, which affected him far more than she thought it would be possible.
After she had finished her sad story she asked us to give her our opinion as to the cause of the baby's disappearance. One of our men had the most likely solution of the riddle as he thought that the baby had watched her brothers discard their overcoats, and later their coats, as the exercise while skating warmed them, and Helen, childlike, thinking this the proper thing, had in a playful mood discarded her clothes, intending to skate barefooted upon the glistening ice, and finding that the cold snow hurt her feet, and being unable to don her garments, had wandered out upon the bleak prairie and had been frozen to death, the fate that had overtaken Peoria Red and so many strong men.
Leaving one man to act as nurse to the foreman, we others returned to the bunk house, as Mr. McDonald's heavy and regular breathing assured us that he would at least rest peacefully until the following morning.
For several days, undaunted by constant failures to accomplish anything, we carefully searched the right of way and the prairie for our pet, and had Spot, the collie, assist us, but finally were forced to believe that little Helen had departed for the land of the Angels.
In the evenings, to while away the hours and to be in readiness when in the Spring the warm rays of the sun would remove the snowy shroud and reveal to us her mortal remains, we constructed a small coffin, that we carefully painted a somber black, and we also whittled another white cross, which should in due time mark her eternal resting place.
For weeks Foreman McDonald raved in a high fevered delirium, but gradually, assisted by the railroad company's physician, who made frequent calls at the section house, and the loving aid and attention of his ever faithful wife, he rallied so far that he again became able to take us out on the track and personally direct our work.
Night after night, for months after her disappearance, when our supper had been served at the big house, and we had returned to the bunk house and had blown out the lamp before retiring, the stern foreman, now only a broken hearted father, yearning for his own sweet baby girl, would slip noiselessly, and he thought unobserved, out of the front door of the section house, and slink stealthily to the very spot where his darling's tiny garments had been found, and there amid heart-rending shrieks, which we in our bunk house could plainly hear above the weird moanings of the winter storms, he would dig with his bare hands deep into the cruel snow, searching for his lost baby—his own little Helen.
As Spring approached the warming rays of the sun finally conquered the thick snow blanket that covered the landscape, and led by our foreman we carefully searched the prairie, praying to be permitted to give at least a human burial to his daughter's earthly remains, but it nearly wrecked his mind when even this privilege was denied him, as we found not a trace of the child.
Then, hoping to lighten somewhat the fearful burden of woe borne by her parents, we placed those last mementos of her brief visit upon earth into the little black coffin that we had constructed, and gave the baby's garments a solemn burial alongside the mound of my partner, Peoria Red, and above the new mound we erected the other white cross to keep company with the first one, and tell its silent story to the passengers who flew past aboard swift trains, that two pitiful tragedies had been enacted at this lone section reservation within the short span of a few months.