She was an American 4-4-0 coal burner, fresh out of the Rogers Locomotive Works of Paterson, N.J. Weighing in at 68,000 pounds she boasted 54-inch driving wheels, 24-inch cylinders and an adjustable cinder screen that could be controlled from the cab by the fireman.
Shipped west as dead freight on another train, she'd crossed the Mississippi at Council Bluffs and reached her destination at the Omaha roundhouse before anyone noticed she was missing parts.
Setting her aside had been a difficult and expensive decision but the Kansas Pacific Railway needed engines and not problems. Time was money and there was no money in getting up steam for a dead engine. She'd been abandoned to her fate alongside a number of broken-down cattle cars, switch stands and hand cars.
Her rescuers—two diehard railroaders, Rufus Grainger and Abner Dowd—refused to leave her be. Engineer and fireman respectively, they boasted more railroad time together than the company they worked for. They stumbled across her sitting on an abandoned stretch of track behind the roundhouse and a sorry sight she was, dulled brass work, faded paint, rust running in streaks down the boiler.
It seemed a crying shame to leave her sit there and rust away to nothing so they rolled up their sleeves and got right to work. They spent endless hours of their own time tracking down missing parts and on more than one occasion making what they needed in the roundhouse machine shop.
Two months later the sight of her slowly chugging into the yard, bright with paint and gleaming brass work was the talk of the roundhouse. Work stopped as everyone from fitters to managers came running over to see the miracle for themselves. They cheered themselves hoarse as Kansas Pacific's newest engine gently rolled to a stop on the turntable, ready to go to work.
As a thank you for all their hard work, Kansas Pacific gave her the number 40, reflecting the time the two railroaders had spent together running freight and cattle across the wide-open prairie of Kansas and Missouri. As for her name, well, that was a different story.
Rufus was a widower, his dear wife Gertie having passed on some time back from consumption. The tough old railroader missed her sorely and was moved to shed a tear or two when Abner suggested they call her Gert. 40 be damned, he said, she had a heart and soul like all good engines, be a crying shame iffen we didn't! Rufus proudly painted her name on both sides of the coal tender with a lick of gold paint scrounged from the paint shop.
As for Abner, he had a son long since grown up and moved out west where he was an engineer for the Union Pacific. His wife, Abigail, ran a rooming house back in Kansas City, proud as punch that both of the men in her life were railroaders.
Gert made a name for herself by reaching the unheard-of speed of 82 miles per hour on her inaugural run. Hauling a string of empty cattle cars and a caboose out west to Ogden, Rufus and Abner stoked her firebox red-hot and darn near boiled her dry before declaring their first trip an overwhelming success! They were Throttle Hogs!
Today they had their work cut out for themselves. They had 'ol Gert running for her life, tearing up the track between Omaha and Abilene at a speed that threatened to melt the rails. Thick black smoke streamed out of her straight stack in a long greasy plume that dulled the shine of the brass cap. It blew back along the length of the train enveloping it in a thin layer of soot.
Rufus and Abner were determined to get every ounce of speed out of her, they had to if they were to outrun the local range rider they were racing against. Their very reputations were on the line. They were hauling a couple of empty cattle cars and a caboose but they could have used another tender. With all that extra stoking to do, they were in danger of running out of coal before they reached the finish line!
"Well Abner," gasped Rufus over the roar of the engine. "I'm thinkin' we're doing good right now. We're up to full speed and pressure still reads good on the boiler."
"Yesirree bob it does," said Abner loudly in reply. "That'll stand us in good stead all the way to Abilene! She's got to iffen we're gonna whup that rider fellah! He seemed mighty sure of hisself giving 'ol Gert the evil eye an' all. Well we'll show him won't we ol' girl!" He blew the whistle long and loud as if to signal her agreement. She sure was feeling her oats, could be she might set another speed record or two this trip!
With the eastern conflict over, travel west had gone from a trickle to a stampede. Seemed like everyone and his dog wanted a new life and were heading west to start one. Railroads like the Kansas Pacific were laying new track as fast as they could in order to meet the demand. It took time and money which they had aplenty, along with that fierce western pride of being the best in the west when it came to running a railroad.
A friendly race between steam engine and horse was always a crowd pleaser. It set the stage for the railroad's arrival in town, an event that promised to change people's lives and make cattlemen rich.
Sodbusters, ranch hands, townsfolk and the just plain curious gathered from miles around to watch the race. Liquor flowed freely and sides of beef smoked deliciously over open fires making race day almost as much a holiday as the Fourth of July!
Kansas Pacific turned to 'ol Gert to represent them as she was the newest engine in the fleet and stoked by the two most experienced railroaders in the west. Rufus and Abner had run 'ol Gert through a handful of races already, quickly becoming the favorite of the local crowds.
The race was much the same no matter what the town they steamed into. Today it was Stillman's siding, newly sprung up along the main line and looking to make a name for itself as a whistle stop. A local rider cantered up to 'ol Gert a whoopin' and a hollerin' to beat all. He swore on his mother's grave to ride her into the dirt, much to the amusement of the half-drunk crowd. Gert blew off some steam through her pistons in reply.
Come race time the local law swaggered out to the tracks and climbed up onto Gert's cowcatcher. A shot from his Colt Peacemaker quieted the crowd, allowing for some speechifying by local businessmen and the mayor. Rail was progress, rail was the way of the future, rail meant prosperity for all.
A man of the cloth being present, a brief prayer to the good Lord for honesty and fair play was offered up. A moment of silence, followed by a loud amen, and the crowd exploded back into life, liquor and money flowing freely as before.
A second pistol shot announced the start of the race and the horse and rider leaped into action. They streaked down the track along the ballast while 'ol Gert got up steam and slowly chugged to life. Rufus and Abner knew they would be well behind until she was at full pressure, then she would fly down the track and rapidly overtake the rider.
Finally, up to full steam, 'ol Gert swayed gently from side to side as she tore down the track at breakneck speed. The rider was too far ahead to be seen but Rufus and Abner were confident they would catch him up soon. Horses were fast and full of heart but Gert was faster and full of coal.
"Tarnation but that's a lot of coal," gasped Abner. "I'm all but done in and we ain't even a half-hour in! You sure you cain't see him yet?" He was leaning against the side of the coal bunker, sweat streaking his coal dusted face. It was like stoking a boiler in Hades it was so hot and noisy.
"Nope!" hollered Rufus from his perch on the engineer's seat. "Don't see nuthin' no how but he'll show hisself soon enough, you mark my words." He looked back at Abner, took in the heaving chest and sweat soaked bandana and shook his head. Stubborn old fool, no race was worth a heart attack. But they were Throttle Hogs, kinda came with the job.
"You look all done in Ab, tell yuh what," said Rufus sliding off his seat into the tender. "You set a spell and let me stoke some, no sense in overdoin' it now, not with Gert running as sweet as she is."
"Thanks Rufe, don't mind if I do." Abner slumped down gratefully onto the driver's seat and stuck his head out the cab window. The rush of cool prairie air on his skin felt mighty good. Rufus tore a chaw off his plug of tobacco and got to it.
A few minutes to catch his breath and Abner was back to his crusty old self. It was then that he saw something off in the distance, far enough up the track to be little more than a smudge. But it was right in front of them and coming up fast! And right on the rails!
"Hey Rufe, come and see this! What do you make of that?"
Rufus put down his shovel, plunked himself down on the fireman's seat and peered out the cab window. The smudge grew rapidly until they could see it was some sodbuster or other standing smack dab in the middle of tracks, waving his arms hard as he could. And 'ol Gert tearing up the rails like they were afire.
Just up the line was a Conestoga wagon, front wheels driven right up to the ballast, the falling tongue draped across the tracks. On the other side a lone piebald quietly grazing on the short prairie grasses. What in Sam hill was going on?
Abner hauled on the whistle cord, sending a long loud wail to warn the old fool to clear the tracks. Instead he kept on waving his arms and started running towards them.
The two railroaders came to the same conclusion, leaped off their seats and pulled hard on the brake levers. That locked 'ol Gert's 54" drive wheels up tight sending her into a teeth-rattling, bone-jarring slide. She shot down the rails in a shower of fiery orange sparks, screeching mightily in protest. Behind her the cars banged hard on their couplings. Steam roared out of the pistons as she did her best to stop before she walloped the wagon and sent it spinning across the prairie.
"C'mon old girl!" roared Rufus. "You kin do it! Yeah I know he's a damn fool sodbuster but he don't deserve to get hisself kilt!"
Engine, tender, cattle cars and caboose rattled to a grinding halt in a great cloud of steam and smoke, the wagon barely a foot from the pointed nose of Gert's cowcatcher.
"Thank God you stopped!" hollered the sodbuster as he ran up to the cab. "Thank God almighty! She's close to time and the wagon done broke down on me." He doubled over gasping for breath as Rufus jumped down from the cab. He pulled a bright red and white checked neckcloth from his back pocket and mopped his sweaty brow, face and neck.
"Glad to oblige mister tho' I don't suppose 'ol Gert was none too happy. Darn near hit that there wagon o' yourn, woulda smashed it all to kindling."
The sodbuster straightened up after a time, extending a gnarled hand to shake Rufe's with a firm prairie grip. Out west a handshake told a story all its own, soft as a tenderfoot or muscled as old oak. His spoke of a hard-working homesteader grateful they'd stopped in time.
"Name's Bill, yonder's Annie," he said, nodding at the wagon. "She needs a doctor real bad!"
Jumping down from the cab to join Rufus, Abner gasped in disbelief at what he was hearing. "What're you telling me, there's someone in there?" he said nodding at the wagon.
"Yessirree! Be muh wife, Annie. She's gonna have a baby, our first, and it don't look too good. She needs a doctor bad but my wagon broke down as we were trying to cross. Looking to reach the trail just north of here, mebbe find some help. Then you boys come along." He looked anxious as any new father might.
"Well," said Abner. "Nearest doc I know is down the track a ways near Picot Junction. Some Frenchie or other settled down there after the war, set hisself up as a Doctor, does some tooth pulling and the like. Might be he can help."
He looked over at Rufus, knowing what he was about to say was going to cost them the race, and maybe a little money on the side. Neither could be called gambling men but a friendly wager on a race wasn't above them.
"Whadda ya say we take her to the junction Rufe," said Abner. "Means we lose out today, might be the railroad won't take to kindly to that."
Rufus paused for a moment to shift his plug a mite and squirt some juice out of the side of his mouth. He looked hard at Abner. "Well sir, might be we lose the race an' all, but we got us a woman needs help, not the kind we can give. Be up to 'ol Gert here to get us there in good time. I reckon she can do her part." He turned back to the sodbuster. "Shore 'nuff Bill, let's get you two into the boxcar and we'll make tracks."
"Yer a good man Rufus Grainger," said Abner slapping him hard on the back. "Just thinkin' the same thing myself. You get 'em on board and I'll see to Gert. Might be she's still got a little extry something in her."
Rufus stumped over to the broken-down wagon and helped a very pregnant woman down off the tailgate and over to the door of the boxcar. He slammed it open and, with the help of Bill, managed to get the Annie on board. Judging by her moans and groans she was near her time. They were going to have to hurry!
No sooner was Rufus climbing into the cab than Abner released the brakes to send Gert on her way. Her drive wheels jerked to life, fighting hard to grip the rails and get a move on. It was as if she could sense the danger Annie was in and was doing her darndest to be as helpful as Abner and Rufus. Ready or not, that child was coming into the world and it was going to need a whole lotta help. The needle on the pressure gauge began to nudge the red line.
Picot Junction was a maybe a mile or so down the tracks, little more than a stop for coal and water. It was the smallest settlement in the old west graced by a doctor. He was a veteran of the recent war between the States, a French gentleman who had travelled to the United States to see something of it. Instead he got caught up in the fracas, not taking a side but setting up a practice near to Sharpsburg, doctoring to whomever came to his office.
The war over, he continued with his travels, finding himself stranded out in the middle of the great prairie when the train he was riding on broke down at the junction. He wasn't there more than a day before patients came a knockin'. Before he knew it, he was setting up shop inside an old tool shed. That soon grew into a house, a barn, and finally a surgery that treated all and sundry.
Patients arrived by rail, horseback, wagon, and even on foot, so many that he became his own town, mayor, doctor and undertaker. As the junction was on newly laid track just to the south of the Santa Fe trail, it became a favourite stop along the way for long lines of Sooners heading west.
In no time they were flying down the tracks, smoking streaming out of 'ol Gert's straight stack. Abner and Rufus shovelled as never before, determined to get to Picot and the doctor as fast as was humanly possible. The heat from the boiler was so intense they had to shovel with their faces covered by bandannas. And the noise, louder than the Union guns at Antietam.
Both men were aware of the difficulty facing them, a woman facing a difficult birth with no help in sight for miles, except the two of them and ol' Gert. They were confident they could get to the junction in time to welcome this new life into the world. With any luck he'd grow up to be a railroader just like them.
Yet again it was Abner who spotted trouble down the line, another arm waver frantically trying to get their attention.
"We ain't stopping, Rufe!" roared Abner, sweat-soaked and half deaf. "We gotta get that there baby to Picot so's it can be born! Whoever it is we'll come back for 'em!"
"Sounds right by me," Rufus roared back. "Slow down some so's I can tell him. Mebbe he can jump on board but we cain't stop, take too long for 'ol Gert to get up steam again."
"Right you are!" He worked the brakes to slow Gert a little. The waver alongside the tracks was all buckskin and boots, a pair of saddlebags slung over a brawny shoulder. The range rider. A cheery wave turned to a look of concern as Gert slowly chugged past him. He loped easily alongside the cab as Rufus leaned down to explain things.
"Sorry son cain't stop none! Got us a woman on board needs a doc real bad. We're making for Picot fast as we can. Mebbe you can grab onto that boxcar back there," he said pointing back to the open door.
"Obliged mister," said the rider. "Much obliged for the ride". And with that he dropped back eyeing the open door as it came up. Rufus watched him hurl his bags and then himself into the boxcar. He nodded at Abner who threw the throttles wide open. Gert leaped forward like she'd been stung by a bee.
Both men were grim-faced knowing they'd maybe put Annie and the baby in further danger just by slowing down for the rider. They grabbed shovels and jumped to it, feeding the boiler hard and fast. God fearin' men, they said every prayer they knew to try and give their passenger every help possible.
The coal in the tender was running a little low when Picot Junction finally came into view, the water tower marking the place in an otherwise flat and featureless prairie. The doctor's surgery was a short distance back of the tracks, sitting a narrow gully and not easy to see. Both men knew where it was but was the doctor home?
Gert rolled into the junction, soot stained and smoky, whistle blowing long loud and hard, brass bell ringing furiously. To their dismay no one came out to greet them, Picot junction was silent as a grave.
"Damnation," gasped Rufus. "Ain't nobody to home! We done got here fast as fast, ol' Gert done give it her all! Tain't fair I tells ya, tain't fair!" He slammed his fist into his palm in frustration, that baby was gonna have to come along on his own.
"Hold on there, old friend, lemme go see if anyone's over to the doc's! Could be he's busy or asleep or some damn thing. Be right back!" And with that Abner leaped from the cab and hot-footed towards the gully and the doctor's office.
He came back a short time later shaking his head, the doc wasn't there, a note pinned to his door saying he was gone west to help with another birth. With nothing but bad news in his heart he was staggered to hear a high-pitched screech coming from the track where Gert sat huffing and puffing.
Rufus was standing beside the open door of the boxcar cradling a bundle of cloth in his arms, a bundle that was making a loud wailing noise. Beside him stood the sodbuster, and the range rider. All three were staring at Rufus, sporting grins as wide as the Mississippi.
"What the Sam Hill?" gasped a puzzled Abner.
"Sam Hill nuthin', lookee here," said the proud sodbuster. "Got me a new son and all on account of him." He slapped the rider on the back. "Weren't fer you, Annie woulda had too hard a time birthing my boy, but you done saved 'em both. Cain't thank you enough!" Another slap on the back.
"You did this?" said Abner, peering into the little face that looked up at him from the depths of Rufus's arms.
"Yessir, did my best and it come out okay. Did a lot of doctoring for the army way back, fixed a lot of arms and legs and more than few ribs. But never did no baby before. Leastwise not a child, done a lot of sheep and horses back on the farm so's I figured it couldn't much different. Turns out I was right."
"His ma's okay?" asked Abner. He didn't see her anywhere. Yeah was the reply, she's just taking her ease on some straw in the boxcar. Be right as rain soon enough.
"Well if that don't beat all," said Abner. "Wait 'til Abigail hears about this. I'm supposed to be running freight and cattle, not babies. She'll never let me live it down."
"That ain't all," boasted Rufus. "We's uncles you an' me, she done named the boy Abner Rufus!"
"I shoulda knowed," boasted Abner. "Another Throttle Hog!"