The Cassowary

By Stanley Waterloo, 1906


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The blizzard snorted and raged at midnight up the narrow pass west of Pike's Peak, at the bottom of which lay the railroad track, and with this tumult of the elements the snow was falling in masses which were caught up and tossed about in the gale until the air was but a white, swirling, yeasty mass through which nothing could be seen a yard away. The canyon was filling rapidly and the awful storm showed no sign of abatement. The passage was not of the narrowest at the place to which this description refers. The railroad builders had done good work in what had been little more than a gorge. They had blasted and carried away after the manner of man who, if resolute enough, must find the way. He may sweat for it; he may freeze for it, but he attains his end, as he did in forcing a passage through the vainglorious labyrinths of the Rockies. So, he had made a road between the towering heights of the Cleft Mountains. He had done well, but he had left a way so indefensible that indecent Nature, seeking reprisals, might do almost anything there in winter. Just now, with the accompanying war-whoop of the roaring blast, she was building up an enormous buttress across the King's Highway. The canyon was filled to the depth of many feet, and the buttress was growing higher every moment.

And, plunging forward from the West toward this buttress of snow, now came tearing ahead boisterously the trans-continental train from San Francisco. Its crew had hoped to get through the pass while yet the thing was possible. On it came at full speed, the big train, with all its great weight and tremendous force of impact, and plunged, like a bull with lowered horns, into the uplifting mountain of snow. It tore its way forward, resistlessly at first, then more slowly, and slower still, until, at last, it stopped quiveringly. But it was not beaten yet. Back it went hundreds of yards and hurled itself a second time into the growing drift. It made a slight advance, and that was all. Again and again it charged, but it was useless. Nature had won! Paralyzed and inefficient, the train lay still.

Then to the wild clamor of the storm was added another note. The whistle screamed like a woman. Why it should be sounded at all none but the engineer could tell—perhaps it was the instinct of a railroad man to sound the whistle anywhere in an emergency. Speaking the voice of the train, its cry seemed to be, at first, one of alarm and protest, then, as the hand on the throttle wavered, one of pleading, until, finally, beaten and discouraged, it sank sobbingly into silence, awaiting that first aid for the wounded in the case of railroad trains—the telegraph.

Upon the trains which must adventure the passes of the Rocky Mountains in winter are carried all the means for wire-tapping, that communication may be had with the outside world on any occasion of disaster at a distance from a station, the climbing spikes, the cutters, tweezers and leather gloves, and all the kit of a professional line repairer. Ordinarily, too, some one of the train crew, or a professional telegrapher, in times of special apprehension is prepared to do the work of the emergency. This particular train had all the necessary kit, but, to the alarm of the conductor and engineer and all the train crew, it was discovered, after they had met in hurried consultation, that while they had the means, they lacked the man. What was to be done? They must reach the outside world somehow; they must reach Belden, whence must come the relief train headed by the huge snow-plow which would eventually release them. The conductor was a man of action: "It may be," he said, "it may be that there is some one on the train who can do the job. It's a mighty doubtful thing, but I'll find out."

He was a big, red-faced, heavy-moustached man, with a big voice, and he started promptly on his way, bellowing through each car:

"Is there anybody here who can cut in on a wire, and telegraph? Is there anybody here who can cut in on a wire, and telegraph?"

The strident call aroused everybody as he passed along, but response was lacking. He became discouraged. As he reached the drawing-room car he was tempted to abandon the idea. He hesitated, unwilling to disturb the sleepers in—or rather the occupants of the berths, for the general tumult outside had awakened them—but pulled himself together and kept on. He entered the car roaringly as he had the others:

"Is there anybody here who can cut in on a wire, and telegraph? Is there anybody here who can cut in on a wire, and telegraph?"

The curtains of one of the berths were drawn apart, and a head appeared, the head of a man of about forty years of age with clean-cut features, distinctly those of a gentleman. There was force in the aquiline nose and the strong jaw, but the voice was gentle enough when he spoke:

"I might do it, possibly. What's the matter? Stalled?"

The conductor was astounded. The drawing-room car was the last place from which he had expected or hoped assistance, but he answered promptly:

"Yes, sir," he said, "we are in a bad way, half buried in a snow mountain. We've got to reach Belden by wire, but we've no one to make the connection and send the message. If you can help us it will be a great thing. I hate to ask you. It's going to be an awful job."

"Have you got the tools?"

"Yes, sir."

"Well, I'll try it."