The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 2 (May 1, 1937)
The trappers, back-woodsmen, and settlers along the Fort George-Athabasca rail-road affectionately christened her the Roaring Sal. Affectionately, because in that mighty loneliness the train was a link with civilization.
The Indians, sombre-eyed, and accepting the paleface and all his works without comment, watched her tearing out of the night, and named her “Running Fire.”
Men of the great woods set their watches by her, and judged the hour of the night by the scream of her siren. Lonely trappers, hungering for the sound of a human voice, and when the madness of isolation was upon them, made long trips in, just to see her flash by. One might be lucky enough to receive a wave from someone, a woman, maybe, then he would go back more pleased than if the white dawn had brought him a dozen black foxes in his traps.
Once more, during one of the wildest winters the North West had ever known, the Sal was running late. And this time she was late—just eleven hours behind schedule when she pulled into Sandusky.
A station man, muffled to the eyes in a fur coat, met driver Le Fresne as he stepped down from his engine. “Hullo, Frensy! Just beginning to think you'd decided to wait till summer.”
But Le Fresne was in no mood for joking. In addition to punching the storm for three hundred odd miles, he had the misfortune to blow a gasket in his engine.
Le Fresne turned up the collar of his overalls and tucked his ears up under the band of his cap.
The station man grinned.
“A railroad…. somewhere under the snow. And dead silence. No word for more than twelve hours. Wires down, apparently.”
“Better hold her here,” Le Fresne said eagerly. “Can't go on in this.”
The icy wind screamed down from the back of the Big Horn, tore up the fallen snow, reinforcing its own whirling battalions until all was a wild slather of white.
“Last word from headquarters was to bring her through.”
Le Fresne moved into the shelter of the huge loco.
The passengers dozed in the warm cars, secure from the howling blizzard without, while the men from the roundhouse wrestled with the hot cylinder, packed her, tightened her, and pronounced her O.K. Then they coupled her up again and sent her on her way.
They drove her hard along the stretches between the bending pines, where they knew there would be little danger from landslides or washouts, and where the line was comparatively free from snow. The veteran, Le Fresne, perched high on his seat, one knarled hand on the regulator, the other at frequent intervals dashing the snow from his goggles.
The fireman, a big-boned youth with Indian blood in him, glanced up at the gauge, then across at the speed-indicator. The needle was steady on seventy. The great loco, lifting to her steam. A wild pace! A wild night! But, in the crossing of continents, high speed was a necessity. And Le Fresne knew what he was doing, as well as he knew the road. For twenty years he had ridden the rails, with never a single mishap.
He drew in his cold-blistered face and yelled across at his fireman:
“Where's the hottest place in the world, Charley?”
The fireman smiled with a flash of white teeth and shook his head.
“I don't know either, Charley. But that's where I'm goin' to live when they hand me my pension.”
In the deep ravines with their ten-thousand-feet ramparts on either side, night came down on them like a blanket. Tricky bends, below which the Great Bear roared like its namesake, had to be negotiated carefully. But the Sal thundered on, tossing the miles behind her, in contemptuous disregard of the white fury of the night.
* * *
Into the same wild blizzard rode Monsieur Pierre Lamonte, a king whose crown was his parka-hood; Pierre of the mighty heart.
Indian children chased him when he and his team—the finest dog-team in the whole North West—came swinging through the settlements. The old women crossed themselves and invoked a blessing upon him, saying: “There surely goes a man!” The mounties doffed their hats to him.
Pierre it was who drove his team two hundred miles through a blinding storm to bring a doctor to a sick woman, and who, when the doctor said a return journey was-impossible, seized him, bound him to the sled and brought him back.
Pierre loved his fellows, he loved his wild North West, but he loved his dogs the most.
The big French Canadian stood swaying on the racing sled. On—on—on, crashing through the whirling wall of white, burning a trail that only Pierre could follow.
“Ho! Ho! Ho! Igloo… Klondike…Marie…!”
Half buried in a snow hummock one minute, racing across the level flats the next. Dodging spinneys of pine and fir. Pierre, sweating even in the intense cold, toiling, fighting, yet revelling in the battle.
“Aie-ya! Aie-ya! Aie-ya! Klondike, you ole son-of-a-gun, c'mon, now! Show ‘em how!”
Pierre, running beside the sled, ramming home the gee-pole, swinging her round the bends. Back on the sled again. The dogs, straining at the draglines, too intent on their job, even to yelp.
“Aie-ya! Aie-ya! Aie-ya!”
Down into the valley where the great pines bent before the blast. The sled hurling the snow behind it. Singing runners. Thongs of reindeer hide as tight as bow-strings. Heading for the railroad, and on beyond.
Pierre's long whip flashed out ahead. The lash writhed and snapped, an inch from the furry hides. And Pierre laughed aloud and thought how his dogs must be laughing at him… and his whip, for they had never known its sting. Yet he made longer and faster trips than any other runner, and he always got there.
“He do travel” they said of him in the settlements. “And he do love them dogs.”
Which was no more than the truth. In return for his love, kindness and devotion, they gave him service—such service.
A shout of triumph burst from Pierre as they crossed the railroad just north of Moose Falls. For seven miles he would follow the line, then camp for the night in the shelter of the Moose Jaw. At dawn he would be on his way, cutting straight across the great barrens, to pick up the railroad again at Mohican Lake, and to deliver the mails.
As Pierre arose he knew what had caused the upset. Wire beneath the snow, the wire of the railway telegraph. He righted the sled, called to the dogs and drove on.
Six miles further on, as they rounded the bend of the Moose Jaw, Pierre jerked his team to a standstill and stood staring. For a full forty yards the line was piled high with earth and stones. A few shattered tree trunks stuck out from the debris.
Pierre ran forward, fighting against the wind.
It must have happened hours ago, for the creek which had apparently undermined the wall, was a solid block of ice. Pierre looked up at the sky. The light was dying, and night would come very suddenly.
“By gar!” he ejaculated. “I wonder if they know.” Then he remembered the wire of the telegraph.
Shut off as it was by the bend, even in daylight a driver would have difficulty in pulling up in time. In the darkness, and on such a night, never a hope. They would be round the bend and into it in a flash.
Pierre walked up and down, clapping his mittens together, and thinking aloud, as men of the great barrens will.
“Which way she come, I dunno. But if she come east, den she smash …. one sure t'ing. An' no tail back…”
He visualised the country that lay behind—mountains, ravines, river and forest, through which no runner had ever sawn a trail. The country ahead was just barren flats, clear, all the way to Mohican Lake; but Mohican was a long way off.page 84 page 85
The streamlined express operating over the mountain circuit on the model railway constructed on the roof of Hays Ltd., Christchurch. (See descriptive article on p. 45).
“But if she comes west… den it all depends. Now, don't you let your commonsense say it can't be done, or you're beaten already. It can be done, an' by dam you'll do it!”
He hurried to the sled and yelled to the resting huskies. He scooped a hole and cached the furs, retaining only the two bags of mail, his few provisions and his rifle. Then he cracked his whip and leapt to the sled as it darted away.
“Igloo … Klondike … Marie! Mush on!”
A hard day's trail behind them, yet they went at it with a will. Heads down, slugging into it, straining at the draglines, chopping the snow from their flying heels, their fierce eyes glinting redly in the coming dusk. And Pierre, yelling above the storm, urging them on.
“Aie-ya! Aie-ya! Aie-ya!”
Night came, and still the snow—like the storm King's phantom army. Down from the Arctic tundras, and ice-bound Hudson Bay; screaming south, countless ghostly army corps.
It shut Pierre in, so that he could scarcely see the dogs. The snow gathered and froze on his stubble of beard. He had no idea, of course, when the train would be due at Mohican, there might not even be one. All running could have possibly been suspended. But there might be a train.
It was that thought that drove Pierre on. He urged his team to greater efforts, holding the trail by his own uncanny skill.
His heart went out to his dogs. He was sobbing for very love of them—gallant brutes, every one. He talked to them, promised them long rest, pleaded with them for just a little more speed.
They came to the railroad again. The last lap. Pierre drove as he had never driven before. The snow flew from the singing runners. The wind, colder since the snow had ceased, tore past his face. It was dead level going now, and Mohican almost in sight.
They were skimming across the long plateau. The railroad was below. Mohican, only half an hour away.
Oh, but he would have a tale to tell them in Mohican to-night. A little bragging about these dogs would be excusable. He would buy a bottle of wine—two bottles.
He thrust his hand beneath his parka, then burst into laughter. He had forgotten. Oh, well, the wine could wait. That poor old squaw woman had needed the money so badly…
Merciful Father…! What was that…? A red glare on the sky ahead!
Then there was a train. And that train had left Mohican.
Pierre drove on, thinking desperately. To stop the train was an impossibility. Then what…?
He swung sharply to the left, driving hell-for-leather down from the plateau. The train was lessening the distance between them at every second. Like a fiery arrow streaming out of the night.
Another view of Hays Ltd. model railway, showing the arrival of the express at “Lionel City.” (See descriptive article on p. 45).
Pierre raised his whip, brought it down, every ounce of his strength behind the blow. The dogs yelped in agony and leapt clear from the snow.
Pierre raised a tortured face to the stars.
“My dogs … My God… forgive me!”
The train was almost upon him, its blazing eye blinding him. He raised his whip again, and three times the brutal lash fell. Only that last great effort of the dogs made the plan possible. And he had judged the time to a split second.
He swerved suddenly; drove straight into the track of the flying loco.
* * *
Le Fresne grabbed for the levers.
“God…. we've hit something!”
Something whizzed over the loco., rolled from the tender and lay kicking away its life on the steel floor… a dog.
They pulled up and walked back, and there they found the French Canadian. It was a long time before they could get a coherent explanation from him, he was so busy peering here and there, searching in the darkness.
Marie alone, of all the team, was alive, but mangled. Pierre found his rifle and knelt down beside her. She whined pitifully, nosing into the breast of his parka. He stroked her pretty head, felt for her pounding heart against the rifle-muzzle, and pressed the trigger.
* * *
Pierre still races across the great North West, but in one of the Union's mail-vans. He is, perhaps, the busiest man on the train. But, when the mail is all sorted and sealed up in the different bags, he has his moments of leisure. Then a sad, faraway look will come into his eyes, and you will know he is thinking of Igloo, Klondike, Marie, and all the rest.