The Shagganappi

by Emily Pauline Johnson



The Signal Code


    EVER since Benny Ellis had been a little bit of a shaver he had played at “railroad.” Not just now and again, as other boys do, but he rarely touched a game or a sport before he would ingeniously twist it into a “pretend” railroad. Marbles were to him merely things to be used to indicate telegraph poles, with glass and agate alleys as stations. Sliding down hill on a bobsleigh, he invariably tooted and whistled like an engine, and trudging uphill he puffed and imitated a heavy freight climbing up grade. The ball grounds were to him the “Y” at the Junction, the shunting yards, or the turn bridge at the roundhouse, for Benny’s father was an engineer, who ran the fast mail over the big western division of the new road, where mountains and forests were cut and levelled and tunnelled for the long, heavy transcontinental train to climb through, and in his own home the boy heard little but railroad talk, so he came by his preferences honestly.
    “Well, Benny, been railroading to-day?” his father would often ask playfully, on one of the three nights in the week when he was home, with the grime of the engine coal-oiled from his big hands, and his blue over-jeans hanging out behind the kitchen door.
    “Yes, daddy,” the youngster would begin excitedly, and climbing on to the arm of his father’s chair, he would beat his little heels together in his eagerness to get the story out in speech, and proceed to explain how he had built a “pretend” track in the yard with curves and grades, over which his little express cart ran “bully.” “And ’round the curves we just signal to the other train [Page 221] and have whistles with real meanings to them, like a really big train.”
    “Oho! getting up the signal system, are you, now?” his father would grin. “Why, you’ll be big enough and wise enough soon to come on Number 27 and wipe the engine or ‘fire’ for daddy. Won’t that be nice?” Then the big man would set the chubby child of six years down on the floor to play, as he winked knowingly at Benny’s mother, who nodded a smiling reply.
    But it did not take many years to make Benny a pretty big boy, and one of the boy-kind who always start schemes and devices among their schoolfellows. He seemed to be a born leader, with a crowd of other boys always at his heels ready to follow where he ventured, or to mimic what he did. No one ever walked ahead of him, no one ever suggested things to do or places to go, when the engineer’s son was around. He was always the vanguard, but fortunately was the kind of boy who rarely, if ever, led his followers into trouble. Finally someone nicknamed him “the Con,” as short for “Conductor,” for he still played at railroading, and had long since decided that when school days were over he would go as a train hand, and perhaps be lucky enough to be sometimes in his father’s crew. It was about this time, when Benny was twelve, that he invented the signal code, and more than once it got “the gang” out of serious trouble. The little divisional town where he lived was shut in between hills so closely that it was a veritable furnace in summer, and all who could went out camping, or built shacks on the Three Islands in the little lake two miles farther down the track. So Benny and his little brother and sister went with their mother to join some neighbors camping, and dad would come down on a hand-car on off nights to get a breath of air, and the coal dust blown out of his keen eyes. It did not take the shrewd engineer long to discover that the boys on the islands had a signal code. One would stand on his boat [Page 222] landing and wave a strip of white cotton into a lot of grotesque figures, and far off on another island some other boy would reply with similar figures, and after much “talking,” the various bys would act with perfect understanding, either meeting out on the lake, in the boats, or going swimming, or building camp fires¾it did not matter much what they decided upon, but after these signals they all worked in unison.
    And one night something happened of real import. It was just sunset one beautiful August day, and Mr. Ellis, wearied with a long, hard run, lay drinking in the wild beauty of the lonely lake, with its forest-covered shores and its rocky islands. Over on the mainland the McKenzie’s camp gleamed white in the sunset. One could discern every movement in the clear air, although the tents were a full mile, if not more, from where the wearied engineer lay, grateful for the stillness, after hours of the heated convulsions of the great steed he drove, day after day.
    “There go the McKenzie boys for a swim, Benny,” called out his father. “Too bad you’re not with them, but you and I’ll go in together here, if you like.”
    “All right, dad,” answered Benny, leaving his fishing tackle to watch his young neighbors. Then, “Say, the boys have a dandy beach there. I wish ours was as good. The only trouble is you’ve got to swim around that big rock to it. There’s no climbing over it, and there’s only one resting place on the way, but we always go. It’s great! See, dad, there they go!” as the two white, gleaming young bodies plunged into the lake. No sooner were they well out than right at the base of the rock, and along the very beach they were heading for, came, stealthily and ponderously, a huge black bear and two woolly cubs. Straight for the water’s edge they padded their way; then stood drinking, drinking, endlessly.
    “Great Caesar! Benny, look, look!” yelled Mr. Ellis, sitting upright and rigid. “The boys, the McKenzie [Page 223] boys are heading right round that rock. They’ll head on right into that she-bear!” Benny stood, perfectly voiceless, paralyzed with the sight. “The animal’s savage with heat and thirst. They always are when they have cubs along, and there are those naked boys making straight for her.”
    Then he sprang to his feet, yelling at the top of his lungs, “Take care! Go back! Go back!” But the boys still swam on. They either could not hear him, or else his voice carried no warning. “Quick, Benny!” he shouted, “get my revolver on the shelf. I’ll get the boat out. We must go to help them. They’re dead boys, as sure as anything.”
    But Benny had found his tongue and his wits. “There they go, climbing on to the resting-place. They’ll stay a second there, and—”
    But at that instant he broke off, and dashing into the shack, seized the white tablecloth, scattering the supper dishes far and wide. With a rush he was at a point of rock which the dying sun flooded with a brilliant red light. In this radiance the boy stood, swinging about his head the white cloth until it circled five times, then dropped to his feet. Seizing it again, he held it at arm’s length in his right hand, then dexterously tossed it over his head and caught it in his left.
    “Oh, I wonder if they see me!” he cried, shakily, then once more went through the signals. A faint, far whistle reached his ears. Then, in a weakness of relief, he dropped down on the rocks, shouting, “They’ll never budge, dad. They understand.”
    But Mr. Ellis was already in the boat, revolver in hand, and three seconds later he and Benny were pulling for all they were worth towards the shivering swimmers, who crouched on the resting-place, unconscious of why they must remain there, or what danger threatened.
    Very little was said until Benny and his dad had them safely in the boat, and had rowed them round the rock [Page 224] and pointed silently at the bear and cubs, which still lapped the water at the edge of the beach. As she caught sight of the boat, the mother growled sullenly, and her red tongue dripped saliva as she started for them until she was breast high in the water. But strong arms pulled the boat out far beyond danger, and the tragedy that might have been was averted by a boy’s invention and quick wit. It was very late when the Ellis family had supper that night, but Mrs. Ellis did not mind the broken and scattered dishes when she saw what a rescue Benny had accomplished. They all talked until they were tired, just as the McKenzie boys talked at their camp. Later Mr. and Mrs. McKenzie rowed across the lake in the dark, to tell their gratitude to Benny and his father. But Mr. Ellis would have none of it. “You just owe it to Benny, here,” he laughed. “But what he did with that white tablecloth beats me.”
    “That’s part of my signal code,” said the boy, a little shyly. “I invented it; it’s our Scout Society Code, but I don’t mind telling you, after all this, that three circles of any white cloth above one’s head means ‘Danger,’ five circles means ‘Great Danger,’ and a toss from one hand to the other up through the air means ‘Don’t move. Stay where you are.’”
    “Well, I never knew that child’s play would save my boys’ lives,” said Mr. McKenzie gratefully. “I knew these kiddies had some fool ‘code’ they played at, but this beats me, as well as you.”
    “It’s no ‘fool’ code, friend Mack,” answered the engineer. “It’s what an engine whistle or the swing of a lantern is to us trainmen, and I’m glad our boys play at something so sensible. It’s a mighty good thing once in a while, as we saw to-day—this ‘Signal Code.’”

*         *         *         *         *         *

    It was late in September when the little colony on the lake struck camp and pulled into town. The hunting season was well on, and sportsmen were out after deer [Page 225] and partridge, and Benny and his friends had been fortunate enough to shoot two birds and a jack rabbit. This, of course, meant that every Saturday they took to the woods, with the one little shotgun the crowd possessed, for in the wild, new railway districts it is a good thing for boys to learn to be good shots while yet young. Often in the snowbound winters meat is scarce, and one’s food is frequently the result of being a dead shot, so guns in the hands of boys of ten and twelve are nothing unusual. One wonderful autumn day six of “the gang” had prowled the forest for hours, and had succeeded in bagging some plump partridges, and late in the afternoon they all sprawled out in the Indian summer sunshine, finishing the remnants of their luncheon, and looking about the marvellous cavern that, formed by the pine-crowned hills, lay like a cup at their feet. In and out wound the railroad track, a lonely, isolated bit of man’s handiwork threading through the vastness of nature. It was the only sign of human life visible, until, after a long, lazy hour, Benny sat up staring with round eyes into the valley below. A thin scarf of blue smoke was indolently curling up from a spot apparently in the forest. He called the attention of the boys to it, and for want of something else to do they lay and watched it. Presently a puff arose more rapidly. Then another.
    “That’s a real fire, sure enough,” said Benny. “Bet you it will burn among the timber for a month this dry season.”
    “Doesn’t look among the timber,” said another boy. “Looks as if it was along the track.”
    “Let’s go down there and see,” said someone else, and forthwith “the gang” scrambled to their feet, grabbed their gun and ammunition bag and birds, and proceeded to slip and slide and scramble down the steeps, until a half-hour brought them to the railroad, along which they ran towards the direction from where they had seen the smoke. They ran through a big cut, rounded an abrupt [Page 226] curve, and dashed right into a cloud of smoke, while the crackle of flame spit and sparkled, bringing them up short with speechless horror. The huge, wooden railroad trestle spanning Whitefish Creek was in flames. For an instant the entire gang gazed at it numbly. Then a boy yelled:
    “Great Scott, fellows, isn’t it good there’s no train due? She’d plunge round this curve right into it.”
    Then Benny Ellis went white. “Who’s got a watch?” he asked very quietly.
    “My Ingersoll says five-fifteen, and she’s right, too,” replied Joe McKenzie.
    Benny gulped; he seemed to find a difficulty in speaking, but the words finally came. “My dad went down to Grey’s Point to bring up a special to-night, the Divisional Superintendent’s private car and some fast freight. They’re—they’re—they’re due about now.”
    “Thanks be! Grey’s Point is this side of the trestle. We can stop them,” shouted Joe, and without argument “the gang” turned, tearing at a breakneck pace around the curve, and through the cut, in a hopeless effort to make their home town before the special reached it.
    Breathlessly they ran for ten minutes, stumbling along the sleepers, recovering, then forging ahead, until, cutting the evening air, came a long, thin whistle, and immediately afterwards the black nose of an engine and a ribbon of smoke rounded a distant curve, and came bearing down on them at the rate of forty-five miles an hour.
    “The gang” paused, standing rock still for an instant, then five of them danced up and down, waving their arms wildly, to signal the train to stop. But the sixth boy—Benny Ellis—white as a sheet, was tearing madly at his collar, and dragging off his coat. Then quick as a flash he skinned from his narrow shoulders his blue cotton shirt, faded almost white by the summer suns, and dashing down the track towards the oncoming engine, whirled it high above his head in five distinct circles, [Page 227] while his young voice, hoarse with a frenzy of fear, shrieked, “Father, father! Oh, dad, try to remember. Try, try!”
    And from the cab of the great mogul, Engineer Ellis was peering out with his keen eyes piercing the track ahead, his hand at the throttle.
    “Jim,” he called abruptly to his fireman. There was something in his tone that made Jim fling himself to the window. Then both men exclaimed simultaneously, “It’s a hold-up.”
    “There’s six of them, and one’s got a gun,” gasped the engineer. “We’ll have to crowd on steam and rush them, unless they’ve wrecked the track.” Then, as the huge iron monster lifted itself to greater speed, Mr. Ellis saw something like a white flag wave in the air then fall. Once more it circled, one, two, three, four, five times above someone’s head, fell again, then was tossed from one hand high in the air and caught in the other.
    “Jim, I’ve seen that signal somewhere. It means something.” Then, like a photograph, he seemed to see a lake, two boys swimming, and a black bear and cubs on a far shore, while Benny’s voice rang in his ears: “Five circles means ‘Great danger,’ and a toss from one hand to the other up through the air means ‘Don’t move; stay where you are.’”
    “It’s the boys, Jim,” gasped the engineer. “There’s something wrong.” Before the words had left his lips the shrill whistle was shrieking for “brakes”—“double brakes” at that—and the gigantic engine almost leaped from the rails as the halter was thrown about her neck. On she rushed, slipping, grinding, rocking in her restraint. The train crew and passengers in the rear car pitched almost on their faces with the violent checking of speed, until, snorting and pulsing and belching, the great mogul came to a standstill.
    “Oh, daddy, you did remember, you did, after all!” cried a very white-faced little boy who peered up into the [Page 228] cab window with horrified eyes, while his naked shoulders heaved, and his hand clutched a torn, faded blue shirt.
    “What’s the meaning of this nonsense, Ellis?” thundered an angry voice behind him, and the superintendent, black with scowling, glared at first the boy, then the engineer. “What’s this stop for, when you know I haven’t a minute to spare getting to Dubuc? You nearly broke my neck, too, downing brakes. What does it mean, I say?”
    But when the boys, bold with excitement, dragged the great man around the curve, and pointed to the doomed trestle, with its already falling timbers, it was another story altogether. From the engineer’s white lips he listened to the history of Benny’s “signal code.” Then for a long time the great man stood looking at the burning trestle. Once he muttered aloud, “All our lives, a priceless engine, valuable freight, rolling stock, all saved!” Then, whirling rapidly on his heel, he said, “Ellis, we want your boy on the road when he’s bigger. The boy who can invent a useful plaything and keep his head in an emergency is the boy we want to make into a man on the great Transcontinental. Will you let us have him?”
    “Ask Benny what he wants to do!” smiled the engineer.
    “Well, little ‘Signal Code’ man, what do you want to do?” asked the superintendent. “Speak, old man.”
    The boy was looking him directly in the eyes. “Go on the great Transcontinental, if I get the chance,” he replied.
    “You’ll get the chance all right,” said the superintendent. “I’ll see that you get it. Ellis, you may back the train down into town now. There’s lots to see to about reconstructing the trestle.” Then under his breath he added: “That’s the sort of boy we want on the railroad. That’s the sort of boy!” [Page 229]