'True Heart'

Story Time

April 21, 1999|By Marissa Moss

Editor's note: At the turn of the century, a young woman who works on the railroad accomplishes her ambition to become an engineer and drive the big, iron horse.

I have been working on the railroad since I was sixteen. That was in 1893, the year my mother and father died from the typhus, and I was left with eight brothers and sisters to raise. I've always been strong and hard work doesn't scare me, but I needed to earn good money to provide for my family. At first I got a job doing washing, but I saw that railroad work paid much better. That's when I decided to load freight for the Union Pacific.

At first the railroad didn't want to hire me, but they saw I was good and they needed my muscles. So there I was, loading pipe and machinery, bolts of cloth, and dry goods. It wasn't long before others, hearing of my good pay, came to work with me.

I wanted to be an engineer and ride those trains to big cities with names like Wichita and St. Louis, and to roar into small towns with names like Silver Ridge and Devil's Bowl. Just hearing those names set my mind to spinning, imagining great big buildings and bright red cliffs.

Meanwhile, I sat in the cab whenever I could and closely watched the engineers work. Ole Pete was the best. He sometimes let me drive all the way to the next station. Then I'd hitch a ride back.

Train robberies weren't too uncommon in those days.

That's what almost happened to the True Heart running from San Francisco to Chicago. This time the robbers shot at Ole Pete as he slowed down at a crossing. Pete sped up the train and got away, roaring into the next station, ours, in Cheyenne. He was hurt, and he stumbled out of the cab, clutching his arm. The coal feeder was wounded, too. That left the whole engine room empty.

Mr. Philips, the station manager, said he'd have to hold up the train till a new crew could be rustled up. I didn't waste any time. I knew this was my chance.

"Mr. Philips," I said, "I can drive that train, and Blackie and G.G. here can shovel the coal." G.G. looked at me like I was crazy, but Blackie grinned and gave me a big thumbs-up sign.

But Mr. Philips shook his head. "You're not an engineer."

"I've driven trains before," I said, "hitching them up to cars in the yard, taking them even as far as the next station."

Ole Pete nodded. "Bee's been in my cab many a time, asking questions, even taking over for short bits. I don't know more myself."

"That's different from flat-out driving," Mr. Philips said. "The answer is no."

The passengers began to yell, angry about being stopped over.

"Let 'er drive!" they called. "Come on! We don't want to sit here forever."

A big banker man took Mr. Philips aside, and his face was so red and angry and full of his own importance, I thought his hat would bust off and explode. I could see Mr. Philips arguing with him, then listening, then finally nodding his head. He turned toward me.

"All right, Bee," he growled. "You're an engineer today."

I nodded. "You won't be sorry, sir. I can do it!" I felt like laughing and singing all at once.

"Let's go," I called. "We've got a train to drive."

Blackie and G.G. started in on the coal. That fire was hot! Steam puffed out above us. I tugged on the whistle.

How I love that long, low sound, like the wind blowing down your back. Whoooooo. Whoooooo.

I eased on the lever and the train stuttered out of the station, tickety-tack, tickety-tack. The people waving on the platform got smaller and smaller. There we were going smoothly, chuff-chuffing faster and faster. The wind blew my hair into my mouth and streamed into my nose. The prairie grass rippled by. We passed herds of buffalo like black patches on a yellow quilt. It was just like I always dreamed it would be!

Excerpted from TRUE HEART by Marissa Moss. Text copyright (c) 1999 by Marissa Moss. Illustration copyright (c) 1999 by C. F. Payne. Reprinted by permission of Harcourt Brace & Company. All rights reserved.

Pub Date: 04/21/99

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