A Lost Hero
by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward
THE materials of heroism are everywhere; each day and all situations
are full of them. The power to recognize them and the will to use them
make the hero. He who saves life, no matter how obscure, how poor, how
ignorant he may be, has a value which can never belong to the spiller
of blood; and the crimson glories of war fade before the white honors
This little story, which was originally contributed to the Youth's
Companion, has sought to teach the young people of America something
of the grandeur which waits upon a brave deed, and something of the
beauty of supreme self-sacrifice.
E. S. P. W.
H. D. W.
A LOST HERO.
The express from Columbia was due. It was almost nine o'clock on
Tuesday night, the 31st of August, 1886. It had been a hot day, sultry
toward night, and the loungers at the Summerville station were divided
between pitying and envying their neighbors on the excursion train. In
such weather, home seems either the most intolerable or the most
comfortable place in the world. It had not rained for six weeks, and
South Carolina panted.
[Illustration: THE ENTERPRISE OF THE SUMMERVILLE MERCHANT.]
There was a larger crowd than usual at the little station to see the
Columbia excursionists come in. The enterprise of the Summerville
merchant who placarded the pine-trees of this forest village with
legends to the effect that his ice-cream would be found Opp. the
depot, was well rewarded that scorching night. The streets
throngedif Summerville streets can ever be said to throngwith warm
and thirsty loungers of both sexes and of every color. South
Carolinians though they were, they objected to the heat of that day.
[Illustration: IN THE GROUP AT THE STATION STOOD A WHITE BOY.]
In the group at the station stood a white boy, about ten years
old,a neatly dressed, well-behaved little fellow, with an expression
of crushing and delightful responsibility. He wandered back and forth
restlessly and proudly from the track to a tree in the square, where an
old horse and wagon were fastened with unnecessary security. The boy
tested the halter, and patted the horse continually.
It was a very important thing to drive two miles in the dark for
one's father and bring him home from the nine o'clock express. Add to
this situation the excitement of an excursion, and Donny de Mone felt
that life lacked nothing more to the position and the dignity of
manhood. Besides, Donny was very fond of his father, and had not seen
him for two weeks.
[Illustration: THE BOY TESTED THE HALTER, AND PATTED THE HORSE.]
Now, there was one curious thing about this crowd which would have
been noticeable to a stranger, but had not as yet attracted the
attention of the residents. This was the extraordinary number of
animals that seemed to be waiting for this train. One would have
thought that half the dogs in the neighborhood had relatives coming
[Illustration: STRAY GOATS AND MULES GAZED EXPECTANTLY.]
Stray goats and mules gazed expectantly up and down the track. Cats
had followed their owners from the houses and betrayed their devotion
by subdued squeals from under their masters' regardless heels. A
brindle-brown pig wriggled its way among the crowd, grunting with
persistent uneasiness; while a couple of wandering cows, unmolested by
the strangely restless dogs, passed and repassed the railroad crossing,
bellowing monotonously. The horses at the station exhibited curious
discomfort; and Donny de Mone's venerable nag Ben Bow astonished the
community by pulling at his halter.
While the boy stood valiantly holding the bridle, an old Negro came
up and pulled his sleeve. He was a shabby old Negro. His lean knees
protruded through his trousers,a mass of patches from under which the
original material, like the jackknife in the mental philosophy problem,
had wholly disappeared. It was especially noticeable that tufts of
white hair found their way through the holes in his coon-skin cap.
Across his shoulder he carried a bundle knotted into an old red
handkerchief with a polka spot.
[Illustration: AN OLD NEGRO CAME UP.]
Say, boss, cud ye tell me whar a poah niggah cud fine a bit o'
kivered hay to sleep on, an' a moufful o' pone in de mauhnin? I'se
footed it clean from Charleston. I'se gwine to Branchville whar my
dahter, Juno Soo, is a dyin' ob fever. She ain't long foh dis wohl.
I'se got money 'nuff foh de breffust.
He looked wistfully at the lad. Donny answered with the heartiness
of a child who has been brought up to think of others.
My father will tell you when he comes in. I expect him every
minute. But why don't you go to Kittie's. He mentioned the name of a
woman well known in Summerville for strong character and wise
benevolence. She lives up the track there. Anybody will show you.
She'll help you; she's the best colored woman in town.
[Illustration: HE PLODDED SLOWLY UP THE TRACK.]
The old man turned away without answering. Perhaps he thought this a
pleasant device on the boy's part to get rid of him. Perhaps he meant
to follow his counsel. Who can say? He plodded slowly up the track and
disappeared in the darkness.
[Illustration: SNAPPED HIS HALTER AND BROKE AWAY.]
NOW, while Donny stood holding Ben Bow by the bridle, the old horse
reared, plunged violently, snapped his halter, and broke away. The boy,
at the same instant, was hurled to the ground. The ringing of hoofs and
whir of wheels made strange sensations in his ears. He thought what a
fool he was to be knocked down by old Ben Bow.
[Illustration: HE GOT DOWN ON HIS HANDS AND KNEES AND CRAWLED.]
Then he tottered to his feet. Complete darkness had come. There was
an unearthly silence. Then a moan, then a howl and a shriek arose which
reached from group to group, from house to house, from square to
forest. Human and animal cries blended in one piteous appeal for mercy.
Again the unknown power smote the lad to the earth, which had become
a raging sea. It rockedit rolled. Terrified, the child no longer
attempted to stand. He got down on his hands and knees and crawled.
[Illustration: BIRDS SEEMED TO SING THROUGH THE AIR.]
The trees whistled overhead. Flocks of birds seemed to sing through
the air, striking against the telegraph wires. The atmosphere, which
but a few moments ago reeked with heat, took on a grave-like chill.
Again the earth heaved and swayed beneath the frightened youngster, who
fell upon his face, vainly clawing the ground for the support which it
The station was only twenty yards away. There, all the people were
in a turmoil. While endeavoring to regain their feet, some were
violently thrown upon the wooden platform. Others, holding to the side
of the building, felt with stupefaction the boards totter beneath their
touch. Was judgment at hand? Had the end of the world come? The terror
of a nameless danger unmanned the stoutest heart. Women shrieked and
prayed. Men cursed and groaned.
[Illustration: HAD THE END OF THE WORLD COME?]
Donny had now joined the stricken group. They huddled together until
another shock threw them one upon another. Delicate women became
nauseated as if in mid-ocean. Sturdy men who had faced bullets in the
Civil War without wincing, lost self-control. They surged; they fought;
they comforted each other; they cried aloud.
At this moment a frightful tremor shook the earth. The station
building gave sickening creaks; then it toppled with a crash.
Yell now followed yell. The crowd, that but now waited the joyous
greetings of friends, was battered by the bruises of the earth and
hurried by fright into a contagious state of mania. The bodies and
faces of the people changed almost beyond recognition. Maddened with
fear, stunned by the last concussion, they stampeded.
The cry rang from mouth to mouth: To the woods! To the hill! Home!
Home!! Home!!! They swayed; they rushed; they parted; they ran. Struck
as by an invisible enemy, they fell prostrate in the powdery dust. They
picked themselves up again and panted in their flight. A voice close to
Donny's side rang above the uproar: Good Lord! It is an earthquake!
Like birds before a tornado, the people scattered to the right, to
the left,this way, that, and were gone. Donny found himself, dazed
and alone, upon the cross-ties, groping toward the oncoming train. He
thrust out his hands and stood a moment piteously crying, Papä! Papä!
the most bewildered little fellow in all that frightened town.
[Illustration: THEY RAN.]
To crawl up the track, to meet the train, to board her, to shriek at
her, to get to his father, to cling to the cow-catcher, perhaps, till
the engineer stopped for sheer mercy,this was the nearest approach to
a purpose that the child had, as he beat along the track, stumbling,
falling, up again, down again, shaken by the rolling earth, and blinded
by darkness more awful than he had ever seen or thought of.
[Illustration: THE PAUPER DOG.]
A strange, thin dog, without a collar, whined at his feet as he
pushed on, and licked his hand and followed him like his own. Huge, dim
forms rushed alongside the embankment, making unearthly sounds. Dragons
could not have seemed more dreadful; but they were only cows. Huge
pine-trees bent to the earth with rapid, vibratory motion as if a
giant's hand clutched and shook them by the roots.
[Illustration: THEY WERE ONLY COWS.]
All the time the awful rumbling of the earth went on; it sounded as
if the world were turning herself over, and thrashing to and fro in a
fit of anger; before every convulsion she uttered a roar which seemed
as if it came from a metal ball bowled along a giant alley beneath. It
reached its climax by trilling the letter =R-r-r-r-r!= in a
mighty voice. Then came the shock.
Suddenly, as the child was making his way through the horror and
desolation of this scene, he felt himself clasped in the outstretched
arms of a figure hurrying from the opposite direction. The two came
together in the dark with a jolt, and recoiled.
Goramercy! said a quavering voice. It was the speech of the old
Negro track-walker, taking two days to get to his dying daughter
because he could not afford the railroad ticket that would have brought
him to her in two hours. Donny recognized the high, cracked, pathetic
tones which had addressed him at the station.
De track's busted! panted the Negro. De rails is done gone twist
wid de shakes. Dey lays like er heap ob corn-shuck in de win' up
yander. Dat ar train don' know hit, an' she'll go to Day ob Jedgment,
an' ebery soul aboard ob her! I'se run like de nation fer to warn de
[Illustration: RUN FOR 'T! RUN!]
Oh, there isn't any town to warn! cried Donny. It's all run off!
There isn't anything left but the earthquake and meand this pupand
nobody to do anythingand my papä's aboard that train! Oh, what shall
we do? What shall we do?
Run, honey, run! said the old man, more hopefully. Mebbe we'll
head her off some ways or 'nuther. Run for 't! Run!
The dirty old black hand clasped the tender little white one, which
nestled into it gratefully. What it meant at that awful time not to be
alone,to feel a human touch, to know that a human heart beat beside
you,one would have to be in the child's place to understand.
[Illustration: AS THEY CAME ABREAST OF THE SECOND LITTLE STATION.]
THE two ran, plunging up the distorted track which swelled and shook
beneath them, toward the coming train. As they came abreast of the
second little station, known as the West End station of Summerville, an
idea shot like hope itself through the confused brain of the hurrying
I know where the torpedoes are! he cried, shrilly. The torpedoes
they put down to stop trains! I've seen 'em. I play with the
superintendent's boys sometimes. If I was bigger I could bu'st open the
doors and windows and find 'em.
I'se an ole man, shouted the Negro, but I'se been a tough one
befo' Freedom. I sole for two thousand dollars onct. I kin smash 'most
anythin' yer give me, honey, if hi'm put to 't. If der's anythin'
wantin' to be bu'sted to stop dat ar train, I reckon I kin bu'st.
[Illustration: I SOLE FOR TWO THOUSAND DOLLARS ONCT.]
Whirling along, in the dark and the uproar, the two panting figures
rushed against the little station. It was very dark. In a lull of the
raging earth the distant whistle of the train could be distinctly
[Illustration: THE RAGGED OLD ARM THAT FELLED IT DOWN.]
In there! cried the boy. There! There! Oh, don't you think
perhaps my papä took some other train? Oh, she's coming! I'll
help. I can help. Oh, the door's too big for me!
But not too big for the ragged old arm that felled it down as an axe
fells the last rings of a stricken tree. Not too big for the remnant of
strength in the once muscular slave. Not too big for the fiery old
heart that trouble and toil and hunger and loneliness had never
The door went downglass crashedanother door yieldedtwo wild
figures fell into the superintendent's private office. The little one
climbed like a monkey upon a shelf he knew of, and then the two rushed
out of the rocking building into the resounding air, on which human
shrieks smote steadily, as it was said they did all that awful night.
Again, the whistle of the trainnear nownearer
[Illustration: THE LITTLE ONE CLIMBED LIKE A MONKEY UPON A SHELF.]
As the pathetic couple ran up the torn and twisted track, Donny
began to sob aloud; but all he said was, Papä! Papä! Papä!
Gib 'em to me, sonny, said the Negro, with the authority of age
and danger. I kin run faster'n you, honey! Goramercy, dar she am!
[Illustration: THE OLD MAN SEIZED THE TORPEDOES.]
The old man seized the torpedoes, and rushing away with them,
vanished in the darkness. The unknown, collarless dog followed him.
Donny, sobbing and calling his father's name, pushed on as well as he
could by himself. As he ran he tried to say his prayers, but all he
could remember was, Our Father who art in heaven.
[Illustration: THIS COMFORTED THE LAD INCREDIBLY.]
Then he thought, how soon might his father on earth be father in
heaven, too? He could not say that prayer. The boy, like many an older
and wiser than Donny, only cried instead of praying. As he ran along in
this sad fashion, something hit against him, whinnying in the dark. It
was Ben Bow, the horse he had ridden ever since he was a baby. Now,
this comforted the lad incredibly, to have one of the family with him.
THE old man and the train were now face to face. The locomotive came
cautiously, for the shocks had penetrated far up the road, but too
fastfar too fast. Where the track had gone to pieces, a mass of
twisted rails and tossing sleepers and furrowed earth, a bankwhat is
called a high bank in Southern topographyraised itself just in the
turn of time to have sent the derailed train plunging down.
The old Negro watched the approaching flare of the head-light as he
ran on, with a grim, defiant eye.
I stump ye! he said aloud. He shook his trembling, black fist at
the locomotive. Stumbling along, his old bundle over one shoulder, and
the torpedoes clutched in the other arm, being thus encumberedfor it
did not occur to him that he could throw away his bundle, he was so
poorhe tripped and fell. His foot caught; it is unknown in what,in
a twisted tie, or perhaps in a crevice of the cracking earth.
When he tried to rise, something held the hero down. He reached his
whole length forward flat upon the road-bed, and with great precision
and with a coolness that one cannot think of now without emotion, he
laid one torpedo on each rail, exactly where it needs must lie to give
the warning through the crushing wheel.
[Illustration: I STUMP YE!]
[Illustration: THE STRONG, BLACK FIST WAS CLINCHED.]
Now for the second time the old man and the locomotive regarded each
other. Her fiery breath was close upon him. Above the uproar of the
reeling earth the shriek of the train sounded in his deafened ears.
Once again, the strong, black fist was clinched in the approaching
I dare ye! he cried. Come on! I dare ye! He pulled himself up
with a mighty wrench. But the unknown power held him. He felt the claws
of the cow-catcher. He gave one low cry:
Lord, I'd like to got dar an' seen Juno Soo afore she died
Then he closed his eyes, that he might not see what would happen,
clasped his hands above his gray head, and gave his manly soul to God.
[Illustration: HE LAID ONE TORPEDO ON EACH RAIL.]
THE anxious and bewildered passengers heard the snap! snap! of the
torpedoes, and half of them rushed to the platforms. The engineer
signalled Down brakes! and the train, with a mighty jolt, came to a
stop. A heavy shock shook the night at that instant. The smell of
sulphur was strong in the chilly air. The engineer got out with a
lantern. The crowd gathered in a moment. At the brink of the scattered
track, at the very edge of wreck and death, the train had come to a
Who did it? swept from lip to lip. No one was in sight.
I thought we hit a man, said the engineer, swinging his lantern
far out into the darkness. But no sign, whether of the dead or of the
living, was in sight,nothing except a half-starved, collarless dog,
who sat stupidly upon the grass, and who did not even wag his tail when
the stoker spoke to him.
Who saved us? Who saved the train?
Ask the disappointed vulture and the mouth of the muttering earth to
tell you, gentlemen passengers! There is no other lip to answer.
* * * * *
Yes, there is one; a little, trembling, ashy lipa
child'sscarcely able to articulate for grief or terror, and pouring
forth confused cries that nobody can understand. The passengers have
left the train, and are making their way cautiously homeward down the
devastated road-bed, where the track had lain. It is hurled now to
every point of the compass in the wild night.
They come to a halt suddenly, before a little huddling figure, with
its face hidden in its arms, crouched beside a crooked rail. An old
horse, with traces hanging and harness a wreck, stands snorting beside
Donny! Donny! Why, my sonny boy!
The crowd parts for a thin, white-faced man,the passenger who had
been heard to say upon the way, My little son is coming to meet me. I
hope these shocks do not extend to the Summerville station.
There is one other little wild call, Papä! Papä!a tremendous
effort to be manly, and not cry before strangersand the boy melts
into his father's arms, and wonders whose tears they are which rain
upon his cuddling face.
[Illustration: PAPÄ! PAPÄ!]
But who saved the train? Where is he? How did he do it? Who took
that noble risk? Where is the hero? Here?
You, my lad?
Then Donny raised his awestruck face from his father's quick-beating
heart, and standing among the strangers and the neighbors, told the
story,all that he knew; all that he could tell.
[Illustration: A LITTLE HUDDLING FIGURE.]
I only remembered the torpedoes, sir. The old man did the rest.
What old man? Where is he?
Why, the old colored man! Haven't you seen him? The old colored man
who ran ahead and put them on the track. He saved the train.
The engineer took his lantern and silently went back and swung the
spot of fire in the black, cold air. It had not rained, as we have
said, for many weeks, but his feet splashed into deep pools and running
rivulets, and sank into crevices and gashes in the trembling earth.
A few of the passengers followed the engineer. The locality where
the train stood was examined thoroughly. Again, the same result,no
human creature, dead or living, was to be seen. The pauper dog sat just
where they had left him. The engineer went up and patted him. At the
touch he fell overdead of fright.
They returned to report what they had found. As they did so, they
called and shouted into the darkness, seeking for the brave life that
had saved their own. Only the roar of the earthquake answered them.
But he must be there! cried the lad, of course he's there.
He's a very shabby old Negro. He is all patches and his knees and hair
stick out. His hat looked like a coon-skin hat. His hair is gray hair.
He carries a little bundle on his shoulder. He's a very strong old
Negro. He smashed the station in likelike blocks. He was a slave, and
he was so strong he cost two thousand dollars. He's going to see his
daughter in Branchville. She's dying. He's so poor he had to walk from
Charleston all the way. He saved the train. You just look and
you'll find him.
[Illustration: THE LOCALITY WHERE THE TRAIN STOOD WAS EXAMINED
A mighty shock drowned the boy's words at this moment, and seemed to
jeer at them. The people huddled together, and looked into each others'
appalled faces, and no man said a word. Instinctively they ranged
themselves into a mass, as if united humanity could defy aroused and
raging Nature,then broke, and ran for their homes, and wives and
babes, and whatever fate had left to them.
BUT where is the hero? Who saved the train? Summerville, to this
day, goes seeking him, and her search is a vain thing. Will he not
break his long, mysterious silence? Will he not come forth to take the
blessing of the grateful people? An obscure old Negro, poor, hungry,
and homeless, will he not accept the proffered reward? Where is the
Like Moses of old, hath God buried him? The earth knows, which
yawned beside the trackand closed againwhen the crushing wheels
struck the life from the unknown savior of the excursion train. The
earth knows; but she keeps her secret. Her awful lips are dumb.
[Illustration: HAD THE CURIOSITY TO PICK UP THE RAGS.]
Some weeks after the shock of August 31, a section hand, setting a
sleeper, found an old bundle, soiled and wet, tied to a stick and
mouldering in the ground. He opened it carelessly, and threw it away,
and hardly thought to mention it to his overseer, who had the curiosity
to pick up the rags and examine them.
A handkerchief, once red, with polka spots, contained a ragged
flannel shirt and a stocking-heel tied with a piece of tape. That was
all. This stocking-heel, evidently the wallet of some poor traveller,
held one silver piece of the value of ten cents, two coppers, and a
newspaper clipping, old and faded. It was a copy of the Proclamation of
Emancipation to the Negro slaves of America, beginning, I, Abraham
Lincoln, and bearing date Eighteen Hundred and Sixty-three.