The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 7, Issue 7 (December 1, 1932)
The Red Light in Haunted Gorge
Had Long Charlie, driver of No. 738, which hauled the Western Mail that night, and his mate Ben Jones, been astronomers, they would not have lived to tell the tale of the strange happenings in Haunted Gorge. For on that dark stretch of track, with the towering cliffs shutting out even the moonlight and starlight, Long Charlie always let the monster engine all out, and if he had not heeded the mysterious warning, he would have met the fast special head on.
Haunted Gorge was an unusual formation, where the Red River passed through the mountain range which divided the plains into two vast level areas. The line was level for the ten miles in the gorge, with three tunnels and some deep cuttings. Midway through was Rocky Ledge, an isolated station where there was a loop in the single track, for trains to pass.
In the barracks that afternoon, at Emerald, the enginemen had been talking of mysterious happenings on the roads, Paddy Mills, an Irish fireman, having started the talk with a vivid account of a woman who had saved a train from disaster, and had afterwards been declared to have been a ghost.
“For no woman resembling her had been seen in that locality before or since,” added Paddy.
“What about the night when Fireworks Fraser threw on all his ‘air’ because he caught a glimpse of the rising moon coming out of the Gorge and mistook it for a headlight?” Steve commented, “or the ghost of Aitchison's. Most spooky things are simple enough afterwards.”
“Well, I wouldn't care to be night officer at Rocky Ledge,” a youngster said. “Barring the trains going through, there's nobody to see or speak to except on the telephone. It's all right for us fellows, we soon run through it.”
“It would take a hefty ghost to stop my old girl,” Long Charlie drawled, “though I admit I'm glad to get through the gorge; but that's just because I hate a single track. Keep's you too much on the jump, watching ahead.”
The Company was busy about that time, moving large numbers of holiday people back to the city, and they were piling the trains pretty close on one another's heels. The stretch of single track through Haunted Gorge was a trial to the despatchers.
Long Charlie and Ben Jones left the barracks about dusk, and went down to the steam shed where 738 was getting the finishing touches at the hands of the shed men. The two enginemen got their stores and tools for the trip, and after looking their engine over, they took her page 38 out to the siding to wait for the Western Mail, which was careering towards them over the plains as fast as the big wheeled express engine could bring her.
While they stood there, the loco, ‘super.’ himself walked across to tell them to keep a special lookout going through the Gorge of the Red River.
“You're timed to meet the Gulgong Mail at the Ledge,” he told them, “and after that give her all she'll take and get out of the Gorge as if old Nick was after you. The trains will be hunting one another along to-night, with six specials crowded in among the expresses and ordinaries.”
They promised to do all he told them, and, the Western Mail rolling in about that time, the “super.” went away to attend to his other worries connected with the moving of fast trains.
As they backed down to the train, old Jonah, who had brought her from Dubbo, called out to them from his engine as they passed, some pleasantry of the road. The old man had the reputation of never having been late with his train, and it was one which Steve Hill and Long Charlie envied, for they knew that it had been won through an uncanny intimacy between the old driver and his engine; she appeared almost to be a living thing in his hands.
“I've just remembered,” Long Charlie said to Ben, “that this is Jonah's old engine. Since he took one of the new C's he is wrapped up in it, but he must remember old 738. That was what he was chyacking us about, I expect.”
Ben Jones paused in his trimming and slicing.
“Yes, this engine used to be looked on as a witch in the Bathurst yard, because the boys swore they used to hear another voice besides Jonah's when he was going over her before taking her out for a trip. She never let him down, anyway. Maybe she is lucky, like Jonah.”
With the Western Mail securely coupled to their drawbar, they pulled out presently from Emerald, and were headed for Haunted Gorge, twenty miles away. The five sleepers on the train were soon wrapped in darkness and silence, for it was nearly midnight, and when the Gorge was reached and the train stopped at the Portal to get her running orders through, all the window screens were down and no lights showed from the darkened carriages.
“You meet No. 81 at Rocky Ledge,” the Stationmaster said, as he handed the driver his orders, “and then let her all out for Red River. The fast special will be waiting for you there, and there are some big men on board who won't want to be late getting to the city in the morning.”
The sob of the steam as they drew away into the gloomy narrow gorge made weird echoes along the cliffs, which could be sensed rather than seen in the darkness. No. 738 was sizzling with power, and at every pull of Long Charlie's hand at the throttle lever, she moved faster. Soon she was humming along the tracks like a meteor come to earth, and the enginemen were settling down for a fast trip, once they had got the gorge behind them.
The Gulgong Mail was half-a-minute late at The Ledge, and Long Charlie shouted some “barrack” to Gentleman John, who was driving, as the engines passed. Then they were away again, burning the metals with their eager drivers, the long sleepers rolling with the speed. They were almost out of the last tunnel, where a straight stretch leads out of the gorge, when Ben Jones shouted to Charlie:
“Hold her! There's the ‘red’ at the River distance Light.”
Instinctively the driver swung on the air, then he laughed and released again.
“You can't see Red River signal from here. Heavens, there it is, though!”
In the flash of an eye he had seen a dull, smoky red light glowing away down the track, which led through high wall-like cliffs to the open plain. But this time he did not use the air. Instead, he pulled his throttle wide open, and shouted:
“Every pound you can, Ben; there's something wrong, but I'm not going to stop in this gorge. We'll reach the page 39 open before the special can leave Red River anyway.”
“Why should she leave before we get there?” Ben asked, in amazement. All the same he shot the coal into the roaring furnace that the high, rapid exhaust was making, and the train flew over the metals.
“It's that red light,” Charlie went on; “it's a warning, but it's not the Red River light. There's something queer about it, and I'm going to leg it to Red River as if Old Nick was after us, as the ‘super.’ said.”
The train was rocking along behind the speeding engine, with the car-wheels making one long roar as they rapped over the rail-joints. The end of the Gorge was in sight, and still the red light glowed ahead. It seemed to move away as they approached, a phenomenon which increased the mystification of the enginemen.
Red River was only a mile away when Ben, whose eyes were keen for lights, yelled:
“Look, it's changed. A White Light!”
“It's a headlight, travelling when it should be slowing,” Long Charlie said, in a tense voice.
No. 738's whistle began to sound then, in long wailing calls, such as are used as warnings of some unusual happening.
“We've got to pull into the siding,” Long Charlie said, with set face, staring ahead. “I hope they're awake at Red River and have the points set. That headlight's coming too fast for my liking.”
They were awake at Red River. The signals had been dropped to green, and a waving hand-lamp showed that the points were set for the Western Mail. The way in which she swung into them at thirty miles an hour made the porter gasp, while his eyes followed her glowing tail-lights away to the end of the loop before Long Charlie managed to stop her.
But the enginemen had no time to spare for the porter. They were intent on the brilliant headlight which was now roaring down on Red River at fifty miles an hour, and never a whistle call for the signals from the engine behind the light.
With her wheels clipping the points as she rolled, a mighty express engine careered past, her carriages flipping past like the pages of a book in an impatient hand. Then she was gone, howling away through the Gorge. It was the Special! And both her enginemen were asleep.
The porter ran to them along the ballast, incoherent with surprise. He took their tablet, then turned back.
“What were your orders?” he gasped.
“To wait here for her, weren't they?”page 40
Long Charlie nodded.
“But you're here two minutes early.”
“Never mind about that,” Charlie said. “Run for your life and tell the S.M. to warn the Ledge that the special is running wild, with both her men asleep. Maybe she'll stop before she gets there, maybe she won't. It's up to you.”
A tired-looking stationmaster came up to the engine a couple of minutes later.
“They've stopped her,” he said. “Her guard got suspicious after she tore through here like that, and at the Ledge, when she was easing up for want of steam, he stopped her with his emergency. Sammy Bull and Jimmy are her crew. Overtime work, and the warm night made them sleepy, I suppose. By Jove, I got a shock when she ripped like that, just after you got in. If you'd met her in the Gorge —”*
He let their imagination fill in the picture.
“What got you here so quickly?” the stationmaster asked.
“We got a warning,” Long Charlie answered in a serious tone of voice.
“There was a red light in the Gorge, Ben sang out to stop, but I hate a single track. I'd rather stop here. So we came all out.”
“A red light?” the S.M. said wonderingly, and looking along the track to see if it was still there. Low down in the sky, and right ahead was a reddish-coloured star.
“That's Mars,” he said. “It's very near and bright just now, but I can't say it looks as red as a signal light.”
“In the Gorge it looked very red and near,” Charlie told him. “Maybe it was the darkness in there. Anyhow, whatever's queer about the place it is not evil. Why, if we'd known that was a star we'd both be dead men now.”
“I bet it was Jonah's old engine, too, that played a hand,” Ben, the fireman said, with a funny kind of laugh. “She always was lucky and a bit uncanny, too.”
* Note.—On the New Zealand Railways, strict limitation of the hours of continuous duty, and provision for rest periods, prevent the possibility of any such happening as that so vividly described by Mr. Lawson.—Ed.