The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 7, Issue 9 (April 1, 1933)
The Fireman who fell off
Sometimes in barracks or steam shed, Jonah, the driver, would yarn, and this was one of his favourite tales, of early railway days, though the men had a suspicion that Big Charlie of the tale was Jonah himself.
A greater contrast between two men could not be imagined than that between Big Charlie and his fireman, Tommy Black. According to Jonah's tale Charlie was tall and powerfully built; while Tom was slight and wiry, with the temper of a tiger-cat when anyone roused him, but gentle as a lamb ordinarily. The only man who would not annoy him was Big Charlie. Perhaps it was this fact that made Charlie put up with Tommy's firing, for he was the most aggravating coal slinger that ever rode a footplate.
They were running between Redfern and Bowenfels, the mountain line winding through tall bush which was handy if the engines ever ran out of coal. With the heavy loads they had to take single-handed, this sometimes happened; but it was not a thing to talk about.
Tommy was a man of varying moods. Sometimes he would talk a great deal to Charlie, at other times he would stare out of the cab as though he were counting the trees, or at the fire, like a dreamy cat. Charlie would rouse him to his job, and they would go snorting along, till Tommy got the “dingbats” again. And Charlie, because he liked the lad, and found hint a good mate, kept him on his engine. But the trial of it was almost too much for him when Tommy started falling off the engine. The first time this happened Charlie didn't miss him at once, as his attention was focussed on the road ahead. As soon as he realised what had happened he stopped, and looked out anxiously. What he saw was Tommy tearing after the engine, dodging along the foot-track by the rails in a somewhat excited state. Having taken his shovel with him he was handicapped by having to carry it.page 10
“How did that happen?” Charlie asked him, in cutting tones, as soon as he was on board again, and the old “A” was snorjtjng uphill.
“I dunno,” Tommy replied. “I was lookin’ at a;'possum—at least, I reckon it was a ‘possum—and next thing I was overboard.”
But Charlie believed there was more in it than that. At first he suspected Tommy had been nipping out of a bottle, but he soon proved that theory was wrong, for Tommy was always as sober as a judge. He made three trips without any trouble at all. Then, without warning, as they were coasting down the grade to Emu Plains one day, Tommy fell off again. Charlie saw him go this time. Tommy had been trimming his fire. He set the fire-door a trifle open, and turned to lean out and sniff the breeze. But he went to the open gangway, instead of the window, and just leaned out on nothing. How he wasn't killed Charlie never could understand. But, being lucky, he landed on a heap of loose earth that had been tipped there to fill in some holes in the track, and when Charlie pulled her up and looked out, there he was coming running after the train, like a new chum tram-guard chasing a car that he belongs to.
“It must be your eyesight,” Charlie told Tommy. “I saw you lean out on nothing. Can't you see properly?”
“I can see alright,” Tommy said; “but I was thinking.”
“Well, strike me pink, I'd think at home,” Charlie said. “Lucky for you this isn't a ‘passenger’ or there'd be explanations to make.”
“I'm sorry;” Tommy was very humble; “but I won't fall out again.”
“My oath, you won't,” Charlie swore, and Tommy thought he saw the “sack” ahead. If Charlie reported him that would be the finish. But Charlie didn't report him. He just tied him in.
After they were well away he brought out a length of rope and tied one end of it round Tommy's waist, and the other to the side-rail, giving Tommy enough rope to swing his shovel, but not enough to let him hit the ground if he fell off. Tommy laughed at first, then he nearly lost his temper with Charlie. Had anyone else done this he certainly would have gone mad with rage; but Charlie was so big and solemn, it was no use.
Late that day Tommy fell off again, but Charlie just left his levers and got hold of the rope and hauled him in, from where he was swinging against the tender.
Tommy was breathless.
“My hat!” he gasped. “I nearly went that time.”
“No, you're all right,” Charlie assured him. “You can't fall far, and I know where I've got you now.”
Tommy didn't fall off any more after that. He developed a new trait of dreaminess. He let his fire down on the hills.
This was more irritating to Charlie than falling overboard, and yet Tommy had no more intention of doing it than he had of missing the gangway rail when he leaned out.
He would fire away for a long time and then begin to stir the fire with the pricker. He would stir and stir and think and dream, till Charlie would yell:
“What the blazes are you doing?”
Then Tommy would wake up and get her going again.
There was one place in the mountains where he used to be dreamier than others. It Was just after they had passed a cottage where a red-headed girl would sometimes come to the gate and wave to them. Of course Charlie took the wave for himself, but the girl meant it for Tommy, because she was Tommy's girl.
They had met down at Penrith, when she was working in the refreshment room there. Later on her parents brought her home again, because they didn't like hei mixing with the rough railway boys. So, when they were not watching her, she used to wave to Tommy. That was as far as they got, and the agony of seeing her and never being able to speak to her was worrying Tommy. That was what made him dreamy. And whenever the engine passed with Tommy making her page 11 go, and the girl didn't wave, Tommy would brood, more and more. One day, at this place, he brooded so, he let the fire out altogether, and the old “A” stopped.
Charlie was speechless with rage. He could only wave his arms at Tommy and splutter. So Tommy grabbed the axe from the tool box and tore into the bush to cut some wood to light the fire again, while Charlie got the spanner and took the back wheels off the engine, and sandpapered them, he was so wild.
He knew Tommy was awake and cutting wood, because he heard the axe going steadily for a long time.
But Charlie must have been dreaming then, for he suddenly realised that he hadn't heard the axe for quite a time. He waited a little, to see if Tommy would come back with the wood, but Tommy did not appear. Charlie got the rope and went after him. He meant to tie him up again, but this time to a treex where he could sleep for a week.
Through the brush tramped Charlie, murder growing in his heart, and rehearsing as he went all he would say to Tommy. It was a still, sunny day, soldier birds were chattering in the tall trees, diamond finches were whistling, currajongs were calling, and the sky was as blue as it could be. But all Charlie was thinking of was the old “A” standing on the track with her boiler getting colder and colder.
The guard and the brakesman were playing euchre in the van. They had got so used to Tommy's pranks they never bothered to walk along to the engine to see what was wrong.
Charlie and the piece of rope were, making good progress through the scrub, and still Charlie heard no sound of Tommy, but, all at once, through the thinning trees he saw Tommy, and halted in his tracks, in amazement, for Tommy was seated on a log, with his back towards Charlie, and the red-headed grid's headpage 12
Tommy's shoulder. It was like a bolt from the blue, to a reliable railway man like Charlie, to see them and to think of the train standing on the single track, holding up the traffic for these woodland lovers. But he did not mince matters. He bellowed at Tommy, and the pretty tableau dissolved, the girl fading into the bush, while Tommy jumped towards the bundle of wood and the axe, and seizing them, he raced back to the engine. When Charlie got there, he found thick smoke coming out of the funnel, and Tommy said, desperately:
“She won't take long to boil up again.”
Charlie did not speak. He was too disgusted. But that was the last time Tommy fell off the engine, or went a-dreaming, until the day he became a hero.
Charlie gathered from remarks dropped by Tommy that the girl had left home to work in a railway restaurant again. Tommy and she must have fixed up something that day when they sat on the log, judging by the change in Tommy. He was eager and quick, and often had the old “A” blowing steam from her safety valve as she sobbed up the hills. And the day came when the two enginemen were told to fake over the western mail.
This was a fast train for those days. And they were proud men. Tommy was happy, as well as proud, for his girl had been transferred to the refreshment rooms at Mount Victoria, where the western mail stopped for ten minutes, running west. She could not leave the tables to speak to him, but she could wave to him as the train rushed in and when they were pulling out again. Every trip Tommy looked forward to this. He seemed to have forgotten how to fall off an engine or to let a fire out. But the trick of falling off was not forgotten by his sub-conscious mind. And one day it leaped to life.
The mail had got the signals all right, and was humming down through the station, for Charlie relied on his steam brake to pull the light train up pretty short. As they ran past the door of the refreshment room Tommy saw, to his horror, the red-headed girl struggling in the clutches of a rough-looking bushman. It was just a flashing glimpse that he had, and it upset him so much that he fell off the engine.
The girl, as usual, had been watching out for Tommy's train, when the bushman entered the refreshment room. He leered at her, and called her “dearie,” which might have gone down at any other time, but not when Tommy's train was due. She replied disdainfully, and moved to walk past him to the doorway to wave to Tommy, when he put his arms round her and tried to kiss her.
The colour of her hair did not belie her temper. She swung her arm back, and hit him with the flat of her hand a stinging blow, and at that moment Tommy flashed past, and he fell off the engine.
Several people saw him do it, including his girl, and they were horrified, expecting to see him cut to pieces by the wheels. The bushman didn't see it. He got his shock about ten seconds later. For Tommy had brought his engine-tumbling to so fine an art in the days when Charlie had the rope tied round his middle, that he landed on his feet, so full of bounce he could not keep still. In two jumps he was at the bushman—and that careless wooer had not the calming influence on Tommy's temper that Big Charlie had!
The room became a stadium, with little Tommy dusting the big bushman up and down; and at last he hit the big fellow so hard he just lay down on a nicely-set table and groaned. Then the red-haired girl fell into Tommy's arms, while the guard, who knew nothing about the row, shouted through the doorway:
“All aboard the Western Mail!”