The McWilliams Special
by Frank H. Spearman
It belongs to the Stories That Never Were Told, this of the
McWilliams Special. But it happened years ago, and for that matter
McWilliams is dead. It wasn't grief that killed him, either; though at
one time his grief came uncommonly near killing us.
It is an odd sort of a yarn, too; because one part of it never got
to headquarters, and another part of it never got from headquarters.
How, for instance, the mysterious car was ever started from Chicago
on such a delirious schedule, how many men in the service know that
How, for another instance, Sinclair and Francis took the ratty old
car reeling into Denver with the glass shrivelled, the paint blistered,
the hose burned, and a tire sprung on one of the Five-Nine's
drivershow many headquarters slaves know that?
Our end of the story never went in at all. Never went in because it
was not deemedwell, essential to the getting up of the annual report.
We could have raised their hair; they could have raised our salaries;
but they didn't; we didn't.
In telling this story I would not be misunderstood; ours is not the
only line between Chicago and Denver: there are others, I admit it. But
there is only one line (all the same) that could have taken the
McWilliams Special, as we did, out of Chicago at four in the evening
and put it in Denver long before noon the next day.
A communication came from a great La Salle Street banker to the
president of our road. Next, the second vice-president heard of it; but
in this way:
Why have you turned down Peter McWilliams's request for a special
to Denver this afternoon? asked the president.
He wants too much, came back over the private wire. We can't do
After satisfying himself on this point the president called up La
Our folks say, Mr. McWilliams, we simply can't do it.
You must do it.
When will the car be ready?
At three o'clock.
When must it be in Denver?
Ten o'clock to-morrow morning.
The president nearly jumped the wire.
McWilliams, you're crazy. What on earth do you mean?
The talk came back so low that the wires hardly caught it. There
were occasional outbursts such as, situation is extremely critical,
grave danger, acute distress, must help me out.
But none of this would ever have moved the president had not Peter
McWilliams been a bigger man than most corporations; and a personal
request from Peter, if he stuck for it, could hardly be refused; and
for this he most decidedly stuck.
I tell you it will turn us upside-down, stormed the president.
Do you recollect, asked Peter McWilliams, when your infernal old
pot of a road was busted eight years agoyou were turned inside out
then, weren't you? and hung up to dry, weren't you?
The president did recollect; he could not decently help
recollecting. And he recollected how, about that same time, Peter
McWilliams had one week taken up for him a matter of two millions
floating, with a personal check; and carried it eighteen months without
security, when money could not be had in Wall Street on government
Do youthat is, have you heretofore supposed that a railroad
belongs to the stockholders? Not so; it belongs to men like Mr.
McWilliams, who own it when they need it. At other times they let the
stockholders carry ituntil they want it again.
We'll do what we can, Peter, replied the president, desperately
I am giving you only an inkling of how it started. Not a word as to
how countless orders were issued, and countless schedules were
cancelled. Not a paragraph about numberless trains abandoned in toto, and numberless others pulled and hauled and held and annulled. The
McWilliams Special in a twinkle tore a great system into great
It set master-mechanics by the ears and made reckless falsifiers of
previously conservative trainmen. It made undying enemies of rival
superintendents, and incipient paretics of jolly train-dispatchers. It
shivered us from end to end and stem to stern, but it covered 1026
miles of the best steel in the world in rather better than twenty hours
and a blaze of glory.
My word is out, said the president in his message to all
superintendents, thirty minutes later. You will get your division
schedule in a few moments. Send no reasons for inability to make it;
simply deliver the goods. With your time-report, which comes by Ry. M.
S., I want the names and records of every member of every train-crew
and every engine-crew that haul the McWilliams car. Then followed
particular injunctions of secrecy; above all, the newspapers must not
But where newspapers are, secrecy can only be hoped fornever
attained. In spite of the most elaborate precautions to preserve Peter
McWilliams's secretwould you believe it?the evening papers had half
a columnpractically the whole thing. Of course they had to guess at
some of it, but for a newspaper-story it was pretty correct, just the
same. They had, to a minute, the time of the start from Chicago, and
hinted broadly that the schedule was a hair-raiser; something to make
previous very fast records previous very slow records. Andhere in a
scoop was the secretthe train was to convey a prominent Chicago
capitalist to the bedside of his dying son, Philip McWilliams, in
Denver. Further, that hourly bulletins were being wired to the
distressed father, and that every effort of science would be put forth
to keep the unhappy boy alive until his father could reach Denver on
the Special. Lastly, it was hoped by all the evening papers (to fill
out the half first column scare) that sunrise would see the anxious
parent well on towards the gateway of the Rockies.
Of course the morning papers from the Atlantic to the Pacific had
the story repeatedscare-headed, in factand the public were laughing
at our people's dogged refusal to confirm the report or to be
interviewed at all on the subject. The papers had the story, anyway.
What did they care for our efforts to screen a private distress which
insisted on so paralyzing a time-card for 1026 miles?
When our own, the West End of the schedule, came over the wires
there was a universal, a vociferous, kick. Dispatchers, superintendent
of motive-power, train-master, everybody, protested. We were given
about seven hours to cover 400 milesthe fastest percentage,
by-the-way, on the whole run.
This may be grief for young McWilliams, and for his dad, grumbled
the chief dispatcher that evening, as he cribbed the press dispatches
going over the wires about the Special, but the grief is not theirs
Then he made a protest to Chicago. What the answer was none but
himself ever knew. It came personal, and he took it personally; but the
manner in which he went to work clearing track and making a card for
the McWilliams Special showed better speed than the train itself ever
attemptedand he kicked no more.
After all the row, it seems incredible, but they never got ready to
leave Chicago till four o'clock; and when the McWilliams Special lit
into our train system, it was like dropping a mountain-lion into a
bunch of steers.
Freights and extras, local passenger-trains even, were used to being
side-tracked; but when it came to laying out the Flyers and (I whisper
this) the White Mail, and the Manila express, the oil began to sizzle
in the journal-boxes. The freight business, the passenger trafficthe
mail-schedules of a whole railway system were actually knocked by the
McWilliams Special into a cocked hat.
From the minute it cleared Western Avenue it was the only thing
talked of. Divisional headquarters and car tink shanties alike were
bursting with excitement.
On the West End we had all night to prepare, and at five o'clock
next morning every man in the operating department was on edge. At
precisely 3.58 A.M. the McWilliams Special stuck its nose into our
division, and Foleypulled off No. 1 with the 466was heading her
dizzy for McCloud. Already the McWilliams had made up thirty-one
minutes on the one hour delay in Chicago, and Lincoln threw her into
our hands with a sort of There, now! You fellowsare you any good at
all on the West End? And we thought we were.
Sitting in the dispatcher's office, we tagged her down the line like
a swallow. Harvard, Oxford, Zanesville, Ashtonand a thousand people
at the McCloud station waited for six o'clock and for Foley's muddy cap
to pop through the Blackwood bluffs; watched him stain the valley
maples with a stream of white and black, scream at the junction
switches, tear and crash through the yards, and slide hissing and
panting up under our nose, swing out of his cab, and look at nobody at
all but his watch.
We made it 5.59 A.M. Central Time. The miles, 136; the minutes, 121.
The schedule was beatenand that with the 136 miles the fastest on the
whole 1026. Everybody in town yelled except Foley; he asked for a chew
of tobacco, and not getting one handily, bit into his own piece.
While Foley melted his weed George Sinclair stepped out of the
superintendent's officehe was done in a black silk shirt, with a blue
four-in-hand streaming over his frontstepped out to shake hands with
Foley, as one hostler got the 466 out of the way, and another backed
down with a new Sky-Scraper, the 509.
But nobody paid much attention to all this. The mob had swarmed
around the ratty, old, blind-eyed baggage-car which, with an ordinary
way-car, constituted the McWilliams Special.
Now what does a man with McWilliams's money want to travel special
in an old photograph-gallery like that for? asked Andy Cameron, who
was the least bit huffed because he hadn't been marked up for the run
himself. You better take him in a cup of hot coffee, Sinkers,
suggested Andy to the lunch-counter boy. You might get a ten-dollar
bill if the old man isn't feeling too badly. What do you hear from
Denver, Neighbor? he asked, turning to the superintendent of motive
power. Is the boy holding out?
I'm not worrying about the boy holding out; it's whether the
Five-Nine will hold out.
Aren't you going to change engines and crews at Arickaree?
Not to-day, said Neighbor, grimly; we haven't time.
Just then Sinkers rushed at the baggage-car with a cup of hot coffee
for Mr. McWilliams. Everybody, hoping to get a peep at the capitalist,
made way. Sinkers climbed over the train chests which were lashed to
the platforms and pounded on the door. He pounded hard, for he hoped
and believed that there was something in it. But he might have pounded
till his coffee froze for all the impression it made on the sleepy
Hasn't the man trouble enough without tackling your chiccory? sang
out Felix Kennedy, and the laugh so discouraged Sinkers that he gave
over and sneaked away.
At that moment the editor of the local paper came around the depot
corner on the run. He was out for an interview, and, as usual, just a
trifle late. However, he insisted on boarding the baggage-car to tender
his sympathy to McWilliams.
The barricades bothered him, but he mounted them all, and began an
emergency pound on the forbidding blind door. Imagine his feelings when
the door was gently opened by a sad-eyed man, who opened the ball by
shoving a rifle as big as a pinch-bar under the editorial nose.
My grief, Mr. McWilliams, protested the interviewer, in a
trembling voice, don't imagine I want to hold you up. Our citizens are
Why, man, I'm not even asking for a subscription; I simply want to
Get out! snapped the man with the gun; and in a foam the newsman
climbed down. A curious crowd gathered close to hear an editorial
version of the ten commandments revised on the spur of the moment.
Felix Kennedy said it was worth going miles to hear. That's the
coldest deal I ever struck on the plains, boys, declared the editor.
Talk about your bereaved parents. If the boy doesn't have a chill when
that man reaches him, I miss my guess. He acts to me as if he was
afraid his grief would get away before he got to Denver.
Meantime Georgie Sinclair was tying a silk handkerchief around his
neck, while Neighbor gave him parting injunctions. As he put up his
foot to swing into the cab the boy looked for all the world like a
jockey toe in stirrup. Neighbor glanced at his watch.
Can you make it by eleven o'clock? he growled.
Denver or the ditch, Neighbor, laughed Georgie, testing the air.
Are you right back there, Pat? he called, as Conductor Francis strode
forward to compare the Mountain Time.
Right and tight, and I call it five-two-thirty now. What have you,
Five-two-thirty-two, answered Sinclair, leaning from the cab
window. And we're ready.
Then go! cried Pat Francis, raising two fingers.
Go! echoed Sinclair, and waved a backward smile to the crowd, as
the pistons took the push and the escapes wheezed.
A roar went up. The little engineer shook his cap, and with a
flirting, snaking slide, the McWilliams Special drew slipping away
between the shining rails for the Rockies.
Just how McWilliams felt we had no means of knowing; but we knew our
hearts would not beat freely until his infernal Special should slide
safely over the last of the 266 miles which still lay between the
distressed man and his unfortunate child.
From McCloud to Ogalalla there is a good bit of twisting and
slewing; but looking east from Athens a marble dropped between the
rails might roll clear into the Ogalalla yards. It is a sixty-mile
grade, the ballast of slag, and the sweetest, springiest bed under
To cover those sixty miles in better than fifty minutes was like
picking them off the ponies; and the Five-Nine breasted the Morgan
divide, fretting for more hills to climb.
The Five-Ninefor that matter any of the Sky-Scrapers are built to
balance ten or a dozen sleepers, and when you run them light they have
a fashion of rooting their noses into the track. A modest up-grade just
about counters this tendency; but on a slump and a stiff clip and no
tail to speak of, you feel as if the drivers were going to buck up on
the ponies every once in a while. However, they never do, and Georgie
whistled for Scarboro' junction, and 180 miles and two waters, in 198
minutes out of McCloud; and, looking happy, cussed Mr. McWilliams a
little, and gave her another hatful of steam.
It is getting down a hill, like the hills of the Mattaback Valley,
at such a pace that pounds the track out of shape. The Five-Nine
lurched at the curves like a mad woman, shook free with very fury, and
if the baggage-car had not been fairly loaded down with the grief of
McWilliams, it must have jumped the rails a dozen times in as many
Indeed, the firemanit was Jerry MacElroytwisting and shifting
between the tender and the furnace, looked for the first time grave,
and stole a questioning glance from the steam-gauge towards Georgie.
But yet he didn't expect to see the boy, his face set ahead and down
the track, straighten so suddenly up, sink in the lever, and close at
the instant on the air. Jerry felt her stumble under his feetcaught
up like a girl in a skipping-ropeand grabbing a brace looked, like a
wise stoker, for his answer out of his window. There far ahead it rose
in hot curling clouds of smoke down among the alfalfa meadows and over
the sweep of willows along the Mattaback River. The Mattaback bridge
was on fire, with the McWilliams Special on one side and Denver on the
Jerry MacElroy yelledthe engineer didn't even look around; only
whistled an alarm back to Pat Francis, eased her down the grade a bit,
like a man reflecting, and watched the smoke and flames that rose to
bar the McWilliams Special out of Denver.
The Five-Nine skimmed across the meadows without a break, and pulled
up a hundred feet from the burning bridge. It was an old Howe truss,
and snapped like popcorn as the flames bit into the rotten shed.
Pat Francis and his brakeman ran forward. Across the river they
could see half a dozen section-men chasing wildly about throwing
impotent buckets of water on the burning truss.
We're up against it, Georgie, cried Francis.
Not if we can get across before the bridge tumbles into the river,
You don't mean you'd try it?
Would I? Wouldn't I? You know the orders. That bridge is good for
an hour yet. Pat, if you're game, I'll run it.
Holy smoke, mused Pat Francis, who would have run the river
without any bridge at all if so ordered. They told us to deliver the
goods, didn't they?
We might as well be starting, Pat, suggested Jerry MacElroy, who
deprecated losing good time. There'll be plenty of time to talk after
we get into Denver, or the Mattaback.
Think quick, Pat, urged Sinclair; his safety was popping murder.
Back her up, then, and let her go, cried Francis; I'd just as
lief have that baggage-car at the bottom of the river as on my hands
There was some sharp tooting, then the McWilliams Special backed;
backed away across the meadow, halted, and screamed hard enough to wake
the dead. Georgie was trying to warn the section-men. At that instant
the door of the baggage-car opened and a sharp-featured young man
What's the rowwhat's all this screeching about, conductor? he
asked, as Francis passed.
Bridge burning ahead there.
Bridge burning! he cried, looking nervously forward. Well, that's
a deal. What you going to do about it?
Run it. Are you McWilliams?
McWilliams? I wish I was for just one minute. I'm one of his
Where is he?
I left him on La Salle Street yesterday afternoon.
What's your name?
Just plain Ferguson.
Well, Ferguson, it's none of my business, but as long as we're
going to put you into Denver or into the river in about a minute, I'm
curious to know what the blazes you're hustling along this way for.
Me? I've got twelve hundred thousand dollars in gold coin in this
car for the Sierra Leone National Bankthat's all. Didn't you know
that five big banks there closed their doors yesterday? Worst panic in
the United States. That's what I'm here for, and five huskies with me
eating and sleeping in this car, continued Ferguson, looking ahead.
You're not going to tackle that bridge, are you?
We are, and right off. If there's any of your huskies want to drop
out, now's their chance, said Pat Francis, as Sinclair slowed up for
Ferguson called his men. The five with their rifles came cautiously
Boys, said Ferguson, briefly. There's a bridge afire ahead. These
guys are going to try to run it. It's not in your contract, that kind
of a chance. Do you want to get off? I stay with the specie, myself.
You can do exactly as you please. Murray, what do you say? he asked,
addressing the leader of the force, who appeared to weigh about two
hundred and sixty.
What do I say? echoed Murray, with decision, as he looked for a
soft place to alight alongside the track. I say I'll drop out right
here. I don't mind train robbers, but I don't tackle a burning
bridgenot if I know it, and he jumped off.
Well, Peaters, asked Ferguson, of the second man, coolly, do you
want to stay?
Me? echoed Peaters, looking ahead at the mass of flame leaping
upwardme stay? Well, not in a thousand years. You can have my gun,
Mr. Ferguson, and send my check to 439 Milwaukee Avenue, if you please.
Gentlemen, good-day. And off went Peaters.
And off went every last man of the valorous detectives except one
lame fellow, who said he would just as lief be dead as alive anyway,
and declared he would stay with Ferguson and die rich!
Sinclair, thinking he might never get another chance, was whistling
sharply for orders. Francis, breathless with the news, ran forward.
[Illustration: SINCLAIR WAS WHISTLING SHARPLY FOR ORDERS"]
Coin? How much? Twelve hundred thousand. Whew! cried Sinclair.
Swing up, Pat. We're off.
The Five-Nine gathered herself with a spring. Even the engineer's
heart quailed as they got headway. He knew his business, and he knew
that if only the rails hadn't buckled they were perfectly safe, for the
heavy truss would stand a lot of burning before giving way under a
swiftly moving train. Only, as they flew nearer, the blaze rolling up
in dense volume looked horribly threatening. After all it was
foolhardy, and he felt it; but he was past the stopping now, and he
pulled the choker to the limit. It seemed as if she never covered steel
so fast. Under the head she now had the crackling bridge was less than
five hundredfour hundredthree hundredtwo hundred feet, and there
was no longer time to think. With a stare, Sinclair shut off. He wanted
no push or pull on the track. The McWilliams Special was just a
tremendous arrow, shooting through a truss of fire, and half a dozen
speechless men on either side of the river waiting for the catastrophe.
Jerry MacElroy crouched low under the gauges. Sinclair jumped from
his box and stood with a hand on the throttle and a hand on the air,
the glass crashing around his head like hail. A blast of fiery air and
flying cinders burned and choked him. The engine, alive with danger,
flew like a great monkey along the writhing steel. So quick, so black,
so hot the blast, and so terrific the leap, she stuck her nose into
clean air before the men in the cab could rise to it.
There was a heave in the middle like the lurch of a sea-sick
steamer, and with it the Five-Nine got her paws on cool iron and solid
ground, and the Mattaback and the blazeall except a dozen tongues
which licked the cab and the roof of the baggage-car a minutewere
behind. Georgie Sinclair, shaking the hot glass out of his hair, looked
ahead through his frizzled eyelids and gave her a full head for the
western bluffs of the valley; then looked at his watch.
It was the hundred and ninetieth mile-post just at her nose, and the
dial read eight o'clock and fifty-five minutes to a second. There was
an hour to the good and seventy-six miles and a water to cover; but
they were seventy-six of the prettiest miles under ballast anywhere,
and the Five-Nine reeled them off like a cylinder-press. Seventy-nine
minutes later Sinclair whistled for the Denver yards.
There was a tremendous commotion among the waiting engines. If there
was one there were fifty big locomotives waiting to charivari the
McWilliams Special. The wires had told the story in Denver long before,
and as the Five-Nine sailed ponderously up the gridiron every mogul,
every consolidated, every ten-wheeler, every hog, every switch-bumper,
every air-hose screamed an uproarious welcome to Georgie Sinclair and
They had broken every record from McCloud to Denver, and all knew
it; but as the McWilliams Special drew swiftly past, every last man in
the yards stared at her cracked, peeled, blistered, haggard looks.
What the deuce have you bit into? cried the depot-master, as the
Five-Nine swept splendidly up and stopped with her battered eye hard on
the depot clock.
Mattaback bridge is burned; had to crawl over on the stringers,
answered Sinclair, coughing up a cinder.
Back there sitting on his grief, I reckon.
While the crew went up to register, two big four-horse trucks backed
up to the baggage-car, and in a minute a dozen men were rolling
specie-kegs out of the door, which was smashed in, as being quicker
than to tear open the barricades.
Sinclair, MacElroy, and Francis with his brakeman were surrounded by
a crowd of railroad men. As they stood answering questions, a big
prosperous-looking banker, with black rings under his eyes, pushed in
towards them, accompanied by the lame fellow, who had missed the chance
of a lifetime to die rich, and by Ferguson, who had told the story.
The banker shook hands with each one of the crews. You've saved us,
boys. We needed it. There's a mob of five thousand of the worst-scared
people in America clamoring at the doors; and, by the eternal, now
we're fixed for every one of them. Come up to the bank. I want you to
ride right up with the coin, all of you.
It was an uncommonly queer occasion, but an uncommonly enthusiastic
one. Fifty policemen made the escort and cleared the way for the trucks
to pull up across the sidewalk, so the porters could lug the kegs of
gold into the bank before the very eyes of the rattled depositors.
In an hour the run was broken. But when the four railroad men left
the bank, after all sorts of hugging by excited directors, they carried
not only the blessings of the officials, but each in his vest pocket a
check, every one of which discounted the biggest voucher ever drawn on
the West End for a month's pay; though I violate no confidence in
stating that Georgie Sinclair's was bigger than any two of the others.
And this is how it happens that there hangs in the directors' room of
the Sierra Leone National a very creditable portrait of the kid
Besides paying tariff on the specie, the bank paid for a new coat of
paint for the McWilliams Special from caboose to pilot. She was the
last train across the Mattaback for two weeks.