Frank H. Spearman

The Mountain Divide

Published by Good Press, 2019
EAN 4064066191269

Table of Contents



Table of Contents

Night had fallen and a warm rain drifting down from the mountains hung in a mist over the railroad yards and obscured the lights of Medicine Bend. Two men dismounting from their drooping horses at the foot of Front Street threw the reins to a man in waiting and made their way on foot across the muddy square to the building which served the new railroad as a station and as division head-quarters. In Medicine Bend, the town, the railroad, everything was new; and the broad, low pine building which they entered had not yet been painted.

The public waiting-room was large, roughly framed, and lighted with hanging kerosene lamps. Within the room a door communicated with the agent’s office, and this was divided by a wooden 2 railing into a freight office and a ticket and telegraph office.

It could be seen, as the two men paused at the door of the inner room, that the first wore a military fatigue-cap, and his alert carriage as he threw open his cape-coat indicated the bearing of an American army officer. He was of medium height, and his features and eyes implied that the storms and winds of the plains and mountains were familiar friends. This was Park Stanley, charged at that time with the construction of the first transcontinental railroad.

The agent’s office, which he and his companion now looked into, was half-filled with a crowd of frontiersmen, smoking, talking, disputing, asking questions, and crowding against the fence that railed off the private end of the room; while at the operator’s table next to the platform window a tall, spindling boy was trying in the confusion behind him to get a message off the wire.

Stanley, eying the lad, noticed how thin his face was and what a bony frame spread out under the roundabout jacket that he appeared already 3 to have outgrown. And he concluded this must be the new operator, Bucks, who for some days had been expected from the East.

The receiver clicked insistently and Bucks endeavored to follow the message, but the babel of talking made it almost impossible. Stanley heard the boy appeal more than once for less noise, but his appeals were unheeded. He saw symptoms of fire in the operator’s eyes as the latter glared occasionally at the crowd behind him, but for what followed even Stanley was unprepared. Bucks threw down his pen and coming forward with angry impatience ordered the crowd out of the room.

He pushed the foremost of the intruders back from the rail and followed up his commands by opening the wicket gate and driving those ahead of him toward the door of the waiting-room. “Get out where you belong,” he repeated, urging the crowd on. Stanley turned to the man at his side. “I will go upstairs to write my message. This must be the new boy, Bob,” he added; “he acts as if he might make things go.”


His companion, Bob Scott, smiled as he followed Stanley out upon the platform and up the narrow stairway leading to the division offices. But Bob Scott was conservative. He never spoke above an undertone and naturally took the conservative side: “If he only doesn’t make them go too fast, Colonel,” was his comment.

A tall young man, spare but almost gigantic in stature, standing back in one corner of the agent’s office as the men about him were hustled along, likewise regarded Bucks with surprise as he saw him start single-handed to expel the intruders. This was the mountain telegraph lineman, Bill Dancing, as simple as he was strong, and ready at any time to be surprised, but not often disconcerted. In this instance, however, he was amazed, for almost before he realized it the energetic operator was hustling him out with the others.

When Bucks thought the room cleared he turned to go back to his table, but he saw that one man had been overlooked. This man was still sitting on a stool in the farthest corner of the 5 dimly lighted room. The spindling operator without hesitation walked over to him and laid his hand on the man’s shoulder. Dancing, looking back through the door, held his breath.

“Move out of here, please,” said Bucks, “into the public waiting-room.” The man rose with the utmost politeness. “Sorry to be in your way,” he returned mildly, though there was a note not quite pleasant in his voice.

“Your place is outside,” continued the operator. “I can’t do anything with a mob in here all talking at once.”

“I haven’t done my talking yet,” suggested the man, with a shade of significance. This, however, was lost on Bucks, who looked sharply at the stool from which the man had risen.

“I think this stool is mine,” said he, picking it up and examining it. “It is mine,” he added, after a moment’s inspection. “Please move on.”

“Perhaps before I go,” returned the man with the same unpleasant irony, “you will tell me whether you have an express package here for Harvey Levake.”


“Of course I will, Harvey,” responded the operator in a matter-of-fact way. “Just wait a minute.”

Levake’s lips stretched into a ghost of a smile, and his white-lashed gray eyes contracted with an effort at amiability.

The operator, going inside the railing, ran over the express way-bills which, not yet entered up, lay on the freight desk.

“There is a package here for you,” he announced a moment later, and turning to a heap of parcels thrown under the desk he searched among them until he found and produced the one he sought.

“Here it is––a box of cartridges.”

“What are the charges?” asked the man.

“Four dollars and sixty cents.”

The man laid down a twenty-dollar bank-bill. The operator hesitated: “I haven’t the change.”

Levake showed no sympathy: “That is not my fault,” he returned.

The operator looked at him: “Do you want the package to-night?”


“If I didn’t, do you suppose I would waste an hour here waiting for it?”

The boy considered a moment and made a decision, but it chanced to be the wrong decision. “Take the package along. Bring me the charges in the morning.”

Levake made no response beyond a further glance at the boy somewhat contemptuous; but he said nothing and picking up his package walked out. No one opposed him. Indeed, had the operator been interested he would have noticed with what marked alacrity every man, as he passed through the waiting-room, got out of Levake’s way. Dancing, standing at the door and with his hair on end, awaited the close of the incident. He now re-entered the inner office and shut the waiting-room door behind him with an audible bang. Bucks, who had returned to his table, looked around. “Well, who are you?” he demanded as he regarded Dancing. “And what are you doing here?”

“Who are you?” retorted Dancing bluntly. “And what are you doing here?”


“My name is Bucks and I am the new night operator.”

“You look new. And you act all-fired new. My name is Bill Dancing and I am the telegraph lineman.”

“Why, you are the man I am looking for.”

“So I thought, when you pushed me out of here with the rest of your visitors.”

“Why didn’t you speak up, Bill?” demanded Bucks calmly.

A quizzical expression passed over Dancing’s face. “I didn’t want to break the calm. When I see a man walking around a powder magazine I hate to do anything that might set it off.

“So your name is Bucks,” continued Dancing, as he walked through the wicket and threw his wet hat among the way-bills on the freight desk. “Well, Mr. Bucks, do you know what was most likely to happen to you any minute before you got through with that crowd, just now?”

“No, I don’t know. Why?” asked Bucks, busy with his messages.

“Have you ever seen a shooting mix-up in Medicine 9 Bend?” demanded Dancing in a tone of calculated indifference.

“No,” answered Bucks in decided but off-hand manner, “I never saw a shooting mix-up anywhere.”

“Never got shot up just for fun?” persisted Dancing. “Do you know,” he continued without waiting for an answer, “who that polite man was, the last one you shouldered out of here?” Dancing pointed as he spoke to the corner from which Levake had risen, but the operator, straightening out the papers before him, did not look around.

“No, Bill, I don’t know anybody here. You see I am a stranger.”

“I see you are a stranger,” echoed Dancing. “Let me tell you something, then, will you?”

“Tell it quick, Bill.”

“There is no cemetery in this town.”

“I have understood it is very healthy, Bill,” returned the operator.

“Not for everybody.” Bill Dancing paused to let the words sink in, as his big eyes fixed upon 10 the young operator’s eyes. “Not for everybody––sometimes not for strangers. Strangers have to get used to it. There is a river here,” added the lineman sententiously. “It’s pretty swift, too.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean you have got to be careful how you do things out in this country.”

“But, Bill,” persisted the lad, “if there is going to be any business done in this office we have got to have order, haven’t we?” The lineman snorted and the operator saw that his appeal had fallen flat. “My batteries, Bill,” he added, changing the subject, “are no good at all. I sent for you because I want you to go over them now, to-night, and start me right. What are you going to do?”

Dancing had begun to poke at the ashes in the stove. “Build a fire,” he returned, looking about for material. He gathered up what waste paper was at hand, pushed it into the stove, and catching up the way-bills from the desk, threw them in on the paper and began to feel in his wet pockets for matches.


“Hold on,” cried Bucks. “What do you mean? You must be crazy!” he exclaimed, running to the stove and pulling the way-bills out.

“Not half so crazy as you are,” replied Dancing undisturbed. “I’m only trying to show you how crazy you are. Burning up way-bills isn’t a circumstance to what you did just now. You are the looniest operator I ever saw.” As he looked at Bucks he extended his finger impressively. “When you laid your hand on that man’s shoulder to-night––the one sitting on your stool––I wouldn’t have given ten cents for your life.”

Bucks regarded him with astonishment. “Why so?”

“He’s the meanest man between here and Fort Bridger,” asserted Dancing. “He’d think no more of shooting you than I would of scratching a match.” Bucks stared at the comparison. “He is the worst scoundrel in this country and partners with Seagrue and John Rebstock in everything that’s going on, and even they are afraid of him.”

Dancing stopped for breath. “Talk about my 12 making a fire out of way-bills! When I saw you lay your hand on that man, I stopped breathing––can’t breathe just right yet,” he muttered, pulling at his shirt collar. “Do you know why you didn’t get killed?”

“Why, no, Bill, not exactly,” confessed Bucks in embarrassment.

“Because Levake was out of cartridges. I heard him tell Rebstock so when they walked past me.”

“Thank you for posting me. How should I know he was Seagrue’s partner, or who Rebstock is? Let’s make a bargain. I will be more careful in clearing out the office, and you be more careful about building fires. There’s wood in the baggage-room. I couldn’t get out to get it for fear the crowd would steal the tickets.”

“Well, you are ‘out’ four dollars and sixty cents charges on the cartridges,” continued Dancing, “and you had better say nothing about it. If you ever ask Levake for the money he will kill you.”

Bucks looked rebellious. “It’s only right for 13 him to pay the charges. I shall ask him for them the next time I see him. And what is more he will have to pay, I don’t care whose partner he is.”

Dancing now regarded the operator with unconcealed impatience. “I suppose there are more where you came from,” he muttered. “They will need a lot of them here, if they carry on like that. How old are you?” he demanded of Bucks abruptly.


“How long have you been in this country?”

Bucks looked at the clock. “About five hours, Bill.”

“Reckon time close, don’t you?”

“Have to, Bill, in the railroad business.”

Dancing reflected a moment. “Five hours,” he repeated. “If you don’t get killed within the next five you may live to be a useful citizen of Medicine Bend. Where are you from, and how did you happen to come away out here on the plains?”

“I am from Pittsburgh. I had to quit school and go to work.”

“Where did you go to school?”


“Well, I didn’t go–––”

“Quit before you went, did you?”

“I mean, I was preparing for Van Dyne College. One of my brothers teaches there. I couldn’t start there after I lost my father––he was killed in the Wilderness Campaign, Bill. But when I can earn money enough, I am going back to Van Dyne and take an engineering course.”

“Got it all figured out, have you?”

“Then I heard they were building the Union Pacific, and I knew something about telegraphing––Jim Foster and I had a line from the house to the barn.”

“Had a line from the house to the barn, eh?” chuckled Dancing.

“So I bought a railroad ticket to Des Moines from Pittsburgh and staged it to Omaha, and General Park gave me a job right away and sent me out on the first train to take this office, nights. I didn’t even know where Medicine Bend was.”

“Don’t believe you know yet. Now that’s right, I don’t believe you know yet. You’re a good boy, but you talk too much.”


“How old are you, Bill?”

“I am twenty.”

“Twenty!” echoed Bucks, as if that were not very much, either.

“Twenty!” repeated the lineman. “But,” he added, drawing himself up in his tremendous stature, with dignity, “I have been on the plains driving wagons and building telegraph lines for seven years–––”

“Seven years!” echoed Bucks, now genuinely admiring his companion.

“My father was a Forty-niner. I was a line foreman when I was seventeen, for Edward Creighton, and we put the first telegraph line through from the Missouri River to the Pacific,” continued Dancing, ready to back his words with blows if necessary.

“You are an old-timer,” cried Bucks enviously. “Any good rabbit-shooting around here, Bill?”

“Rabbit-shooting?” echoed Dancing in scorn. “The only rabbits they shoot around here, young fellow, are Pittsburgh rabbits, that don’t keep their ears hid proper. When we go hunting, we go 16 antelope-hunting, buffalo-hunting, grizzly-bear hunting, elk-hunting. Now I don’t say I don’t like you and I don’t say you won’t do. What I say is, you talk too much. I’ll tell you what I’ve learned. I’ve learned not to say too much at a time. And when I say it, I don’t say it very loud. And if you don’t get killed, in advance, you will learn the same thing in the same way I learned it. Where are your blamed batteries?”

“Bill, you are all right.”

“I am, am I?”

“First help me enter these way-bills and check up the express packages so I can deliver them to this mob.”

“My business isn’t checking up express; but I like you, young fellow, so, go ahead. Only you talk too much.”

“Just a moment!”

At these words coming from the other end of the office, the lineman and the operator looked around. The military-looking man and his companion had entered the room unobserved and 17 stood at the counter listening to the colloquy between the Eastern boy and the plainsman––for neither of the two were more than boys. Dancing saluted the new-comers. “It’s Colonel Stanley and Bob Scott,” he exclaimed.

Bucks walked forward. Stanley handed him a message. “You are the night operator? Here is a despatch for General Park. Get it out for me right away, will you?”

Dancing came forward to the railing. “How are you, Bill?” said Stanley, greeting the lineman as Bucks read the long message. “I am going up into the mountains next week, and I am just asking General Park for a cavalry detail.”

“Going to need me, Colonel?”

“Better hold yourself ready. Can you read that, young man?” he asked, speaking to Bucks.

“Yes, sir.”

“Lose no time in getting it off.”

With the words he turned on his heel and leaving the office went upstairs to the despatcher’s rooms. During the interval that the message was being sent, Dancing worked at the express matter. 18 While the two were busy, Bob Scott, moving so quietly that he disturbed no one, laid carefully upon the smouldering paper in the stove such chips as he could pick from the wood-box, nursing and developing a little blaze until, without noise or fuss, he soon had a good fire going. In all of the mountain country there was but one kind of men who built fires in that way and these were Indians.

Such was Bob Scott, who, wet to the skin from his ride down the hills with Stanley, now stood slowly drying himself and watching Dancing and the new operator.

Scott was a half-blood Chippewa Indian, silent as a mountain night and as patient as time. He served Colonel Stanley as guide and scout wherever the railroad man rode upon his surveys or reconnoissances. Dancing, emerging presently from the batteries, greeted Scott again, this time boisterously. The Indian only smiled, but his face reflected the warmth of his friendship for the big lineman. And at this juncture Dancing, slapping him on the shoulder, turned to introduce 19 him to Bucks. The three stood and talked a moment together, though, perhaps, without realizing what they were almost at once to go through together. The outgoing Eastern passenger train now pulled up to the platform and Bucks was kept busy for some time selling tickets.

His buyers were all sorts and conditions of men. And one forlorn-looking woman, with a babe in her arms and a little girl clinging to her skirt, asked the price of a ticket to Omaha. When told, she turned away to count her money. Among the men were traders and frontiersmen going to Missouri River markets with buffalo robes; trappers from the Big Horn country with furs; Mormon elders on their way from Utah to their Eastern settlements; soldiers on furlough and men from the railroad-construction camps on the front; adventurers, disgusted with the hardships of frontier life, and gamblers and desperadoes, restless and always moving.

Bucks needed his wits to watch the money that was pushed under his little wicket and to make change without mistake. There was elbowing and 20 contention and bad language, but the troublesome crowd was finally disposed of, and when the last of the line had left the ticket window the waiting-room was pretty well cleared. There remained only a black-bearded man half-asleep in a chair by the stove, and in one corner on a bench the woman, who was trying to quiet the child she held in her lap.



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As Bucks looked through his embrasure to see if all had been served, his eye fell on the group in the corner and he heard the woman suppressing the sobbing of her little girl. He walked out into the waiting-room to ask what the trouble was. He learned afterward that she was the wife of a gambler, but she told him only that she had followed her husband to Medicine Bend and was now trying to get back with her two children to her parents in Iowa. When she had ascertained the price of the railroad ticket she found that she lacked five dollars of the sum needed to make up the fare. Bucks had just a little money of his own, but he had counted on using that for his meals. While he was debating what to do, the elder child tugging still at the mother’s dress asked for something to eat, and while the mother tried to quiet it Bucks felt he could manage somehow without 22 the price of the ticket better than this woman could.

“Give me what money you have,” he said. “I will get you a ticket.”

“But isn’t the train gone?”


The black-bearded man dozing near the stove had his ears open although his eyes were closed. He had heard fragments of the talk and saw the boy dig into his own pocket, as he would have expressed it, to start the woman home. After Bucks had given her the ticket and she was trying to thank him and to quiet again the tired child, the drowsy man rose, picked up the woman’s hand-bag and told her gruffly he would put her on the train. As he started with her out into the drizzling rain, he carried her little girl, and, stopping down the platform at a sheltered lunch-counter, he bought a bag of doughnuts big enough to sink a ship. He offered no money to the man at the counter, but his credit seemed unquestioned. In the train the seats appeared all to be taken, but the drowsy man again showed 23 his authority by rolling a tipsy fellow out of a seat and piling him up in a corner near the stove––which fortunately had no fire in it.

During all this time he had not said a word. But at the last, having placed the woman and the children in two seats and made them comfortable, he asked the mother one question––her husband’s name. She told him, and, without any comment or good-bys, he left the car and started through the rain uptown.

After the train pulled out, the wind shifted and the rain changed into a snow which, driven from the mountains, thickened on the wet window in front of the operator’s table. A message came for the night yardmaster, and the operator, seeing the head-light of the switch-engine which was working close by, put on his cap and stepped out to deliver the message. As he opened the waiting-room door, a man confronted him––the bearded man who had taken the woman and children to the train. Bucks saw under the visor of a cloth cap, a straight white nose, a dark eye piercingly keen, and a rather long, glossy, black beard. 24 It was the passenger conductor, David Hawk. Without speaking, Hawk held out his hand with a five-dollar bank note in it.

“What is this?” asked Bucks.

“The money you gave the woman.”

Bucks, taking the bill, regarded his visitor with surprise. “Where did you get this?”

“What’s that to you?”


“Don’t ask questions,” returned Hawk brusquely. “You’ve got your money, haven’t you?”

“Yes, but–––”

“That’s enough.” And with Bucks staring at him, Hawk, without a word or a smile, walked out of the station.

But Bill Dancing had seen the incident and was ready to answer Bucks’s question as he turned with the money in his hand. “That is Dave Hawk,” explained Dancing. “Dave hates a sneak. The way he got the money from the woman’s husband was probably by telling him if he didn’t pay for his wife’s ticket and add enough to feed her and her babies to the river he would 25 blow his head off. Dave doesn’t explain things especially.”

Bucks put the money in his pocket and started on with his message. The yards covered the wide flat along the river. Medicine Bend was then the western operating point for the railroad and the distributing point for all material used in the advancing construction through the mountains.

Not until he left the shelter of the station building did he realize the force of the storm that was now sweeping across the flat. The wind had swung into the northwest and blew almost a gale and the snow stung his face as he started across the dark yard. There were practically no lights at all beyond the platform except those in the roundhouse, too far away to be seen, but the operator saw the moving head-light of the switch-engine and hastened across the slippery tracks toward it. The crew were making up a material train to send west and the engine was snorting and puffing among long strings of flat cars loaded with rails, ties, stringers, and bridge timbers.


As Bucks neared the working engine it receded from him, and following it up he soon found his feet slipping in the wet mud and the wind at times taking his breath. Conscious of the folly of running farther, he halted for a moment and turning his back to the storm resolved to wait till the engine returned. He chose a spot under the lee of a box-car, and was soon rewarded by hearing a new movement from the working engine. By the increasing noise of the open cylinder cocks he concluded it was backing toward him. He stepped across the nearest track to reach a switch-stand, a car-length away, whence he thought he could signal the engine with his lantern. He had nearly reached the switch when his foot slipped from a rail into a frog that held him fast. Holding his lantern down, he saw how he was caught and tried to free his heel. It seemed as if it might easily be done, but the more he worked the faster caught he found himself. For a moment he still made sure he could loosen his foot. Even when he realized that this was not easy, he felt no alarm until 27 he heard the switch-engine whistle. Through the driving snow he could see that it was coming toward him, pushing ahead of it a lead of flat cars.

Bucks was no stranger to railroad yards even then, and the realization of his peril flashed across his mind. He renewed his efforts to loosen his imprisoned heel. They were useless. He stood caught in the iron vice. A sweat of fear moistened his forehead. He hoped for an instant that the moving cars were not coming on his track; but almost at once he saw that they were being pushed toward the very switch he was trying to reach. Even where he stood, struggling, he was not six feet away from the switch-stand and safety. It seemed as if he could almost reach it, as he writhed and twisted in his agony of apprehension.

He swung his lantern frantically, hoping to catch the eye of one of the switching crew. But the only answer was the heavy pounding of the loaded cars over the rail joints as they were pushed down upon the helpless operator. Worst of all, 28 while he was swinging his lantern high in the air, the wind sucked the flame up into the globe and it went out and left him helpless in the dark. Like the hare caught in the steel teeth of a trap, the boy stood in the storm facing impending death.

The bitterest feelings overwhelmed him. After coming hundreds of miles and plunging into his work with the most complacent self-confidence, he stood before the close of the first day about to be snuffed out of existence as if he were no more than the flame of his useless lantern. A cruel sense of pain oppressed his thoughts. Each second of recollection seemed to cover the ground of years. The dull, heavy jolting of the slow-coming cars shook the ground. He twisted and writhed this way and that and cried out, knowing there were none to hear him: the wind swept away his appeal upon its heedless wings; the nearest car was almost upon him. Then a strange feeling of calm came over him. He felt that death was knocking at his heart. Hope had gone, and his lips were only moving in prayer, when a 29 light flashed out of the darkness at his very side and he felt himself seized as if by a giant and wrenched away from where he stood and through the air.

He heard a quick exclamation, saw a lighted lantern fall to the ground, felt a stinging pain in his right foot, and knew no more.

When he recovered consciousness, three lanterns shone in his eyes. He was lying in the mud near the switch with the engine crew standing over him. One of the men knelt at his side and he saw the thin, strong features of a face he had seen among the railroad men, but one that he knew then he was never to forget––the face of the yardmaster, Callahan. Callahan knelt in the storm with a good-natured expression. The men about the yardmaster were less kindly.

“Who are you, tar heels?” demanded the engineman angrily.

Resentment, which would have been quick in the operator a little earlier, had died in the few moments in which he had faced death. He answered only in the quietest way:


“I am the night operator.”

“The deuce you are!” exclaimed the man bending over him.

“Who are you?” demanded the operator, in turn.

“I am Callahan, the night yardmaster.”

“I have an order for you to send a car of spikes on No. 7, Callahan. I was trying to find you when I got caught in the frog.” The pain in his foot overcame Bucks as he spoke. Another dread was in his mind and he framed a question to which he dreaded to hear the answer. “Is my foot gone?” he faltered.

The yardmaster hesitated a moment and turned to an older man at his side wearing a heavy cap. “How about it, doctor?” he asked.

Doctor Arnold, the railway surgeon, a kindly but stern man, answered briefly, “We won’t take it off this time. But if he is that careless again we will take his head off.”

“How old are you, boy?” demanded Callahan.


“Well, your foot isn’t hurt,” he continued 31 gruffly. “But it’s only God’s mercy that I got here in time to pull you out of the frog.”

The operator was already up. “I hope I shan’t forget it,” he said, putting out his hand. “Will you remember the spikes?”

“I will,” responded Callahan grimly. “And I guess–––”

“Say it,” said the operator gamely, as the yardmaster hesitated.

“I guess you will.”



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Bucks, after his eventful first night on duty, slept so heavily that on the following afternoon he had only time to eat his supper, walk haltingly up the main street of Medicine Bend and back to the square, when it was time to relieve the day man at the station.

But the few minutes in the narrow business street filled him with interest and at times with astonishment. Medicine Bend, still very young, was a mushroom railroad town of frame store buildings hastily thrown together, and houses, shanties, and tents. It was already the largest and most important town between the mountains and the Missouri River. The Union Pacific Railroad, now a double-tracked, transcontinental highway, laid with ninety and one hundred pound steel rails, and ballasted with disintegrated granite, a model of railroad construction, equipment, and maintenance, was, after the close of the Civil War, 33 being pushed with light iron rails and heavy gradients across what was then known to geographers as the Great American Desert, and the project of a transcontinental railroad was meant at that time to unite the chief port of the Pacific coast, San Francisco, with the leading cities of the Atlantic seaboard.

A railroad in building across a country considers first the two uttermost cities (its principal terminals), or those two portions of the country which it seeks to connect for the interchange of traffic.