Dan Peters and Casey Jones.
That was the day when Dan Willard and his officers, sitting open-mouthed like a glee club around the big desk, heard that the B. & O. had somehow mislaid a train.
Dan Willard's eloquence, when the situation demanded it, was like Boulder Dam breaking, but his silence was sometimes more ominous than the rain before a typhoon. Dan Willard was silent. And when he finally spoke, it was only to gasp, "Who in Tophet--What engineer has managed to do that?" It took a long-distance call to answer this question. When the answer came, it was in one of those moments like Daniel Boone looking through Cumberland Gap into Kentucky: it was the first time that the most famous name in railroad history since Stephenson, save only Dan Willard's name, had been mentioned in the big office in Baltimore.
The traffic manager looked up from the telephone and said, "The engineer is Dan Peters."
They combed the record as though it was a Shetland pony, trying to find what they could about Dan Peters. His history was neat and favorable. Twenty years an engineer on the Muskingum Valley spur line in Ohio. Twenty years a well-kept timetable.
"If you saw a roomful of quiet little men," the personnel manager said, "Dan Peters would be the quietest and littlest." A mild little man, the records agreed, meek and gentle, completely dependable, but no imagination.
Then they kept the wires warm to the west, and the more they asked, the more items people remembered about Dan Peters. For one thing, he talked to his locomotive. When he came down in the morning to his little train that had lain all night like a sleeping cocker spaniel in the yards at Parkersburg, West Virginia, where the long greyhounds of the main line could sniff at it before they dashed on to St. Louis or Washington--when he came down he would put his hand gently on the ords and say something to the locomotive; and it would pant out cones of white smoke and tremble as though it were a streamliner eager to be off for San Francisco, rather than a milk train bound for Marietta, Ohio. So people said.
He called the engine "Casey Jones"--"Casey" for short. "Come on, Casey," brakemen would sometimes hear him say in the morning, "don't let 'em get you down. We aren't very big, but we're good. Good old Casey]" he would say, sadly.
Then, at 5:40, he would clang carefully out of the station. By 6:15, when the sun climbed the hills, spangled the river and danced on the milk cans beside the tracks, he was in Marietta, 13 miles on his way. At 6:20 he tipped his cap forward off his short gray hair to Mrs. Blennerhassett, who lived beside the railroad, and pointed Casey north under the Harmer bluffs. At 10:00, or a little later if there had been many milk cans, he was calming his puffy little train to a stop where the shadow of the Zanesville courthouse pointed the finger of its across the tracks. Then, at 1:00, back over the 85 miles to Parkersburg. By 5:30 he would be sliding across the bridge, out of the coolness of the Ohio hills into the late-afternoon sunshine, ease into the Parkersburg station and tenderly, tenderly apply the air, so that the last forward impetus would die just before the brakes had to kill it. This, faithfully, for 20 years.
A calm man who said little and kept his timetables, everyone agreed. Not until Dan Peters had committed the engineer's unpardonable sin and broken out of the timetable did people realize how many of his little sayings had stuck like cockleburs in their memories.
"Would you rather own a zebra or a giraffe?" he asked a brakeman one day. Another time he said, "You know, I was looking at a map last night and found a town named What Cheer, Iowa. Now what do you suppose What Cheer, Iowa, is like?" And one day just before starting time, the station agent overheard this conversation.
"Bill," Dan Peters asked Big Bill, his fireman, "do you suppose a locomotive ever gets jealous of automobiles?"
"Uh," remarked the fireman.
"As far as we know," said Dan, "there isn't a hill in the valley with more than one side."
"Want to bet on it?" asked the fireman.
"And no offense to your home town," said Dan, "but sometimes I get so damned tired riding into MArietta, Ohio."
"Marietta, Ohio, is one of the most interesting small towns in the United States of America," said Big Bill. "It has the biggest elm tree in the country."
"That's what I mean," said Dan. "If Marietta only had the smallest elm tree once."
The fireman rolled his eyes.
"Every day for 20 years," said Dan, "I've picked up three milk cans at Ben Eppel's farm. Never two or four. For 20 years."
"How much time we got?" asked the fireman.
"I mean," said Dan Peters, "wouldn't it be fun to pull a string of sleepers over the Painted Desert? Or listen to station names like Lackawanna and Tonawanda, intead of Marietta, Ohio, some morning?"
"Mr. Dan," said the fireman, "for a solid man you've got the unsolidest ideas. You'd drive the train off the tracks, like an automobile, if you could. If you could steer it. Wouldn't you?"
"Well, I don't know," said Dan Peters thoughtfully. "Casey and me have a sort of understanding."
The station agent swore that is what he heard Dan Peters say on the morning of the day they had to telegraph President Dan Willard that No. 41 hadn't come into Zanesville, and apparently wasn't going to come.
"What do you make of it?" Dan Willard asked his officers.
"The train isn't on the tracks or beside the tracks," said the traffic manager. "They rode the whole line."
"I read a book once," said the executive vice president, "about a town that waited all day for a milk train. Then they found that the tracks ended at the edge of town. All other civilization had disappeared. The train never did come in."
"What happened?" asked the consulting professor from Cornell.
"The milk spoiled," said the vice president. "There was a beautiful red-haired widow in the book. It was a good story."
"The analogy doesn't seem to be perfect," objected the professor.
"Gentlemen," said Dan Willard, "let us come down to cases."
"It must be a very rare situation," mused the professor. "Unique," grunted the traffic manager.
"Let us not make an arbitrary assumption," said the professor, producing a pencil. "Let us proceed empirically on the evidence. We know at least that the train will be late at Zanesville. Now, how many times in the last 12 months has a B. & O. train been late in arriving at its destination?" "Ahem]" said Dan Willard.
"There's no sign of an accident," said the personnel manager. "There's just no train."
"I read a book once," said the executive vice president, "about a train that was running along and nobody could find the engineer, and nobody knew where it was going. They finally found they were going to heaven, and this was the westbound train of souls, or something like that. I believe it was a ship, not a train."
Then President Dan Willard rose and delivered one of those pithy remarks for which he is famous wherever railroad men come to warm their feet around an iron stove. "Gentlemen," he said, "you can lose a crowbar. You can lose a brakeman. You can even lose an elephant. Gentlemen"--his fist fell--"gentlemen, you can't lose a train]" But his voice lacked conviction.
Alone in the big office, Dan Willard set about quilting together the story of what had happened that day in the Muskingum Valley. It was a long time before he could make the pieces fit.
No. 41 was puffing into a curve. The brakeman later said they might have been going a little fast. Certainly they were going faster than cautious Dan Peters usually went. There was a jolt--a slight jolt, more than a loose rail, less than a cow--and the hills, which had been on only the left side of the train, now appeared on both sides. A picket fence was sliding past the windows like a fine-toothed comb.
The brakeman, in his sworn testimony before the Interstate Commerce Commission, said that he had rubbed his eyes and leaned out the door, and--he hoped the gentlemen of the commission would believe him when he said that he was not drunk--he observed that they were running along the concrete highway.
He went back to talk to the conductor. There were no passengers. The conductor was sitting in the coach, rubbing his hand over his eyes and forehead.
"Was that an automobile we just went around?" he asked sleepily.
"It was," said the brakeman.
"Hold on]" shouted the conductor and braced himself for the pile-up. But the train leaned around a curve and rumbled comfortably on beside the picket fence.
"This is a funny kind of dream," said the conductor at last. "I have a sensation that we're running on a concrete road."
"Maybe we're chasing a rabbit," grunted the brakeman.
"If this isn't a dream," said the conductor, "in 25 years on the railroad I've never seen anything like it."
"It isn't a dream," said the brakeman.
"But it simply isn't possible," the conductor argued, "for a train to run on a concrete road."
"Tell that to Dan Peters," said the brakeman.
Then the train pulled up beside the road, and Dan Peters came back to the coach.
When President Dan Willard finally had a chance to talk to the conductor, he asked how Dan Peters looked that morning. The conductor said that Dan came back in his sooty overalls. He looked a little hurt and pitiful, if one didn't look at him carefully. His bushy gray eyebrows curved over the fierce wind-burned red of his cheeks, and when he wasn't talking his eyes were a cool gray and his face had the downward curves that seem to say, "Here is a public servant." But when he talked his eyes flamed into the gray of an August storm that sweeps uo out of Kentucky and breaks on the Ohio hills. He didn't say much, but what he said was sure and confident, like Pullman wheels clicking over the rail joints at night.
"When will we get into Zanesville?" the conductor said. He thought later the question sounded rather stupid.
"We won't," said Dan Peters.
"Where are we going?" asked the brakeman.
"I don't rightly know," said Dan. "Except nowehere we've ever gone before. We're even going to run at night, because we've always had to run in the daytime. I'm sorry for the inconvenience. You can get off here."
That is the story Dan Willard heard when the conductor telephoned the morning after the train disappeared. He was calling from jail. He wanted to explain what had happened. When he and the brakeman had told their story, a constable had locked them up as drunk and disorderly. A justice of the peace had fined them a dollar and costs each, which added up to 39 dollars and 20[, and there they were with $3 between them, and would the railroad please do something. President Dan asked a great many questions, then called the constable to the phone and explained sadly that the conductor and the brakeman were bad ones who should be kept in jail and on no condition allowed to talk to anyone.
Then he showed the executive vice president a report from Zanesville which said that a sideshow had moved into the station to wait for the next train to Marietta. Siamese twins and missing likns were sleeping on the benches, and monkeys were playing in the signal tower. The manager of the sideshow threatened to sue the railroad.
"I read a book once--" began the vice president.
"You," Dan Willard said--"you seem to have some ideas on this matter. Suppose you go out and find that train. After as many years as you've worked with trains that knew where they were going, you ought to find it refreshing to deal with one that doesn't know where it's going. Which puts it in exactly the same situation as most of the world at the present moment," he added.
"The worst of it is," he reminded his officers after the vice president had left, "we don't dare get out the police and really look for that train, because if we ever admit we've lost a train, they'll never quit laughing at us."
President Dan drummed lightly on his desk until the switch engines danced in the Baltimore yards.
President Dan Willard began to see a pattern in the fantastic news that filled the papers during the next days.
From a hospital in Indiana came the strange story of a farm woman under treatment for hysteria. She told doctors that a small gray-haired man with red cheeks had appeared at her door and asked permission to park in her yard that day, inasmuch as he traveled only at night. She charged him 25[. An hour later she looked out the window and thought she saw a train next to the front porch. The hallucination was remarkably vivid. She could even swear that she saw three men, two in overalls, one in a business suit, cooking beans on the engine's boiler. Then she fainted.
The men in overalls, said President Dan to himself, are Dan Peters and the fireman. Who is the man in a business suit?
A coal dealer in Watseka, Illinois, reported ruefully that thieves with a nasty sense of humor had taken 20 tons of coal from his yard in the dead of night and left a check to which they had forged the name of a vice president of the B. & O. Railroad.
President Dan looked a long time at that item, then called in the visiting professor from Cornell, who was on his way to address the Baltimore Kiwanis Club.
"I'm going to make you a detective," the president said. "If you can't find the train, find the vice president."
On the outskirts of What Cheer, Iowa, a dazed filling-station attendant said that--his hand upon a Bible--he had just serviced a train.
President Dan observed that the papers were concerning themselves with a psychological phenomenon. All over the Middle West, psychiatrists reported a sort of mass hallucination--the sensation of seeing or hearing a train passing in the night, although there were no tracks near by.
A tribe of Navaho Indians told tourists that a god had passed their hogans one night, panted hard, ground his teeth and turned the painted sands of their desert bright as day.
A Columbia University psychologist said that such mass delusions are perfectly understandable in the light of Freud and Pavlov. A minister in Boston said that the beasts of the Apocalypse were abroad on the face of the earth. The Saturday Review of Literature said that the psychosis was a remarkable demonstration of the power of Thomas Wolfe's descriptions of trains. All the studios in Hollywood wired offers to Wolfe, and were much disappointed to find that he was dead.
President Dan noticed, not without a certain grim satisfaction, what was happening to motor-truck lines. Without apparent reason, the number of smashed fenders on trucks, the number of trucks forced into ditches, had increased 300 percent. The accidents strangely enough occurred almost entirely at night, and doctors suggested that truck drivers be fed carrots for night blindness. The New York times, tracing the epidemic of smashed fenders, pointed out the extreme vagueness with which the accidents were explained. The first driver to come in without a left front fender had reported, it is true, that a railroad train had crowded him off the highway, the engineer chuckling wickedly in the cab. The driver had been a notorious road hog, and nobody felt bad when he was discharged on suspicion of drunkenness. But thereafter drivers were loath to say how their accidents had come about. Motorists reported that trucks, instead of taking two thirds of the road, were now riding with one wheel off the concrete. The editor of the Epworth Messenger, himself a motorist, said that the source of all good works is hidden only to those who will not see.
Persons close to President Dan in those days say that he sat in his big office in Baltimore gritted his teeth like a tobacco worm, and that he B. & O. tracks between Washington and Philadelphia trembled with a constant ague.
"It's just a question whether we or the newspapers find him first," he told the traffic manager. "You know, I sort of admire the cuss," he admitted. "If I met him I wouldn't know whether to fire him or make him a vice president."
But when the president got a post card from Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, he closed himself in his office, and spectators saw the windows bulging and contracting like a horse's sides after a long race. The post card was signed by the executive vice president and the consulting professor. "Have found the train," said the vice president. "Have found the v.p.," said the professor. Then they joined in a final message. "Having fine time," they wrote. "Wish you were here."
President Dan packed his bag. "If I don't come back in ten days," he said, "send the police after the train."
How the newspapers got the story, President Dan never knew. Yet when the story came out, everyone wondered why the newspapers had been so long breaking it. Frank Luther Mott gave a whole chapter to the problem in his American Journalism (pages 773-778)--how could the fact that four men were missing in such unusual circumstances be kept so long from reporters? He decided finally it was partly skillful management, partly chance. The railroad had put a new gasoline trian on the spur line, and it was implied that Dan Peters and Big Bill, both bachelors and solitary men, had been transferred elsewhere. The executive vice president was habitually away from his office much of the time. as for the professor, his family and the university and the Baltimore Kiwanis Club had simply decided to leave well enough alone. And thus it is that if you are looking today for contemporary accounts of the famous lost train, you must leaf through the papers of that year until July 29 before you find a story that mentions Dan Peters.
It was apparently the conductor's trial on a charge of insanity that uncovered the story. The jury was ten to two for insanity, but the testimony was such a humorous angle on the current locomotive hysteria that a few reporters decided to look farther. They smelled something. A traffic policeman in Weirton, West Virginia, finally uncovered the hot trail.
This copper, sane and sensible, reported to headquarters that about 3 a.m. he had tried to give a ticket to a vehicle passing through the outskirts of town and showing only one headlight. The vehicle was coming toward him. When he signaled it to stop, he was no little startled to find that he had halted a train. There were no tracks; it was on the highway. Under the circumstances, it seemed rather silly to say, as he usually did, "What do you think you are? The Twentieth Century Limited?"
The engineer, a lively little gray-haired fellow, politely returned the ticket, challenging him to produce a law saying that a locomotive must carry more than one headlight. Then one of the passengers had got off the train and given him a long lecture on the laws of optics, proving with diagrams and formulas that the train was better lighted than a fleet of 36-1/2 automobiles; the man had long hair and talked like a professor. When the policeman was thoroughly flabber-gasted anyway, he heard the professor fellow call the engineer "Dan," and the thought occurred to him that perhaps he was trying to arrest Dan Scratch, Old Nick himself. The engineer did look red in the glow from the firebox; like a demon from hell in the midst of the red light.
So the officer waved the train on and sat down on the curb to recover his self-possession. When he had nearly decided that the incident had been a moment's madness or a nasty dream, he was reminded by the first light of morning that he was still holding a piece of paper on which the passenger lecturer had been diagramming optics. The paper was not asbestos. In fact, it bore the letterhead of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.
"What," everyone asked, "does Dan Peters look like?" For it was discovered that there was nowhere a picture of him. "And is he a genius or a madman? And will he give himself up, or run his train over the Grand Canyon or into the Gulf of Mexico? And what will President Dan Willard do about him?"
"Let us hope," said most of the little people who do not own railroad stocks, "that he will not be fired or put into jail."
The night after Dan Peters' story finally became public property, hardly an eye was closed in the United States. Packs of cars wandered like coyotes over the roads. Seats on high buildings or hills were sold at scalpers' prices, although there was no proof that Dan Peters was within a thousand miles. In later years that night was remembered as Peters-night and celebrated in some parts of the country as Walpurgisnacht is in Europe. When, shortly after midnight, a comet blazed out inthe southern skies, correspondents reported that the train's headlight had been seen over Alabama, and many disappointed Northerners and Westerners relaxed their own vigilance and listened to reports from the South. Only a few thousand people saw the little train chugging north through a fog that blew off the eastern shoulder of Lake Erie.
It was from Niagara Falls early the next morning that President Dan Willard got the telegram: Urgent suggest come here stop your train trying cross international bridge.
When President Dan saw the train puffing quietly there, he was surprised to find it so small. While he had kept the secret locked up in his Baltimore office, the train had grown in his mind to gigantic size. Now he saw a stubby locomotive, a small coar car, one combination coach and baggage car.
The coach was splattered with mud. Through the half-open doors of the baggage compartment he could see milk cans. The engine's boiler sagged like an old horse's back, and steam sizzled out the joints. Every wheel was worn down below the flange.
It was an old, disreputable, rundown train, and he was a little ashamed of the "B. & O." that shone bright yellow in the morning sun.
The train, said the morning extras, had appeared last night at the entrance to the International Bridge. The engineer had offered the guards 40[ toll for a motor vehicle with driver and three passengers.
The guards refused the money, and sait that they had no instructions for charging trains. As a matter of fact, there was no precedent. And in any case, no vehicle whatsoever could cross the International Bridge, because it wasn't dedicated yet. It was to be a memorial to international peace and friendship, and therefore it was to be dedicated by the secretary of war. So Dan Peters pulled his little train up next to the red-white-and-blue ribbon that the secretary was to cut and said he'd wait. He warmed some cans of beans on the boiler, and he and Big Bill and the guards and the two passengers sat down to breakfast.
Ontario, New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio had declared legal holidays, the papers said. In Ottawa, the dominion parliament was meeting to decide whether the train should be allowed to enter Canada. In Washington, the cabinet had been summoned to consider what to do in case Canada decided wrong. And into Niagara Falls people were streaming at the rate of a million an hour, draining the surrounding country dry as a pomegranate.
As President Dan Willard pushed through the great crowd toward the train, he heard the loudspeakers bomming from the stand by the new bridge. The governor of New York was talking. "In the absence of the secretary of war----" he was explaining. He was talking a very long time. But Dan WillarD, shouldering his neighbors, soon observed that nobody was listening to the speaker; they were all looking at the train. The loudspeakers droned over a buzz of conversation.
Then one spectator shouted a sentence that the crowd caught up as though a cheerleader were directing them. "We want Dan Peters]" commanded the crowd. The loudspeakers bellowed again. The echo came back: "We want Dan Peters]"
The governor hesitated, smiled brightly, stepped down from the stand and whispered in Dan Peters' ear. Those close by could see Dan shake his head in protest. The governor whispered again, and listened. Then he stepped jauntily back to the stand.
"We are fortunate in having with us today," the loudspeakers crackled, "Mr. Dan Peters, of the B. & O. Railroad, and--ah--other points, who will dedicate the bridge."
The roar that went up from the crowd, they said, could be heard in New York City.
Dan climbed slowly up the steps and put his hands on one of the microphones.
"They tell me this is a peace bridge," he said. Then he put a hand over his bushy eyebrows in an attitude of thought. He paused so long that the people shuffled their feet impatiently and cupped their ears.
"Peace is when you don't have to be afraid," he said slowly. "When all the tough guys keep on their side of the road. That's what we call law and order, I reckon. And when you've got that, you've got freedom. For the little guys who aren't going to hurt anybody. Freedom to keep their own timetables without somebody busting in on 'em. Freedom to make some of the timetables too. Not to have them all come from the m ain office. Freedom to look at the Tetons and get to know somebody in What Cheer, Iowa. Whenyou get to know somebody, pretty soon you find who you can trust. Like the U.S. and Canada. And because the U.S. trusts Canada, we've got this bridge, and a mighty pretty one it is. And I thank you."
Dan Peters turned away from the applause to go back to the train, but flash bulbs burst around him like an artillery barrage.
"Mr. Peters," a reporter asked, "is there anything left that you want to see, after your long trip?"
The microphones picked up his answer, and the crowd held their stomachs and shook with laughter.
"More than anything else," he said, "I'd like to see a zebra, and President Dan Willard, of the B. & O., who is a greater man than Napoleon," he added.
"I'm Dan Willard," said a big man, pushing his way up to the stand.
"It is] It is Dan Willard]" cried the governor.
President Dan hauled himself up on the stand and strode over and took Dan Peters' hand. "I've wanted to meet you," he said. "Bad."
They stood looking at each other while the crowd gave cheer on cheer--big burly Dan Willard and short wiry Dan Peters. He looked tired, the president thought. And old. It had probably been hard work, that trip. But Dan's eyes were a fiery gray when he spoke.
"I thought you would be bigger," Dan said frankly.
"I thought you would be bigger too," said the president. "I thought you would be 20 feet tall."
Dan Peters lowered his eyes. "I'm sorry, Mr. President," he said. "I'm sorry I didn't keep the schedule."
"Dan," rumbled the president, "I can't forgive you for not keeping the schedule. But what I can't forgive I can sometimes forget. I'm going to forget what you didn't do and remember what you did."
"Mr. Peters," said the governor, "if you can move your train enough so we can get the official automobile past it, we want you to cut the ribbon and ride over the bridge with us in the first car."
The two trainmen blanched.
"Did you say 'automobile'?" Dan Willard asked.
"We'll ride over in Casey," said Dan Peters firmly. That was why the governors, the ambassadors, the generals piled into the green, plush coach, the mayors and captains sat on the milk cans in the baggage car, President Dan Willard crawled into the cab with Dan Peters and the cocky little train burst the red-white-and-blue ribbon and moved into the great arch of the new bridge.
"You've done a great thing for the railroads," said President Dan as soon as he could make himself heard above the crowd. "You've been worth thousands of dollars in advertising. The question is, what do you want to do now? Would you like to be a vice president? I want officers with imagination around me. I've been willing to take a chance or two myself, you know."
"I'm not a fancy man," said Dan Peters. "I'm an engineer."
"Then we'll give you a new 16-coach Diesel streamliner," said Dan Willard. "We can get 20,000 applications for your first trip. We'll pass an act of Congress; you an go where you want to."
"No," said Dan Peters. "I don't guess I could drive any train except Casey this way."
"Why not?" asked the president.
"It's a matter of souls," explained Dan Peters. "Casey has a soul. You can talk to him. You can't talk to these shiny new engines. All you can do is feed 'em oil and grease. I don't know whether souls grow or you build 'em in," he said. "I suspect they grow."
"But you can't drive this train any more," said President Dan. "It's worn out."
"Casey's old and tired, and so am I," said Dan Peters. "I'm at pension age and I'm going to retire."
That was why no other train has ever done what Dan Peters' train did, although they say the railroads spent a million dollars trying to build souls into streamliners. They gave Casey the best room in the Smithsonian for his old age, and Dan Willard gave him a pension to keep his metal shining and his whistle whetted. Dan Peters just dropped out of sight. Some people say he went to live in What Cheer, Iowa, and others that he went to Africa to see zebras. They say they have known lots of engineers who feel near enough the way Dan Peters felt to be Dan Peters. Lots of men who aren't engineers, too, for that matter. And Dan Peters didn't tell President Dan he wouldn't ever drive a train again. "I'm going to make my own timetables now," was all he said.
Of course, most of the crowd at Niagara that morning didn't hear what Dan Peters said to the president. The part they remember is the rainbow over the Horseshoe Falls, and the two great railroad Dans-- Dan Willard so tall he could hardly stand in the cab, and Dan Peters tipping his cap forward off his gray hair and talking low and lovingly to his engine. And they remember how, in the middle of the bridge, President Dan winked at Dan Peters and pulled on the whistle cord, and Casey's hoarse old voice yelled up and down Niagara gorge.
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|Title Annotation:||short story|
|Publication:||Saturday Evening Post|
|Date:||Oct 1, 1984|
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