IN the summer, fall, and early winter of
1863, I was tossing chips into an old
Hinkley insider up in New England,
for an engineer by the name of James
Dillon. Dillon was considered as good a
man as there was on the road: careful, yet
fearless, kindhearted, yet impulsive, a man
whose friends would fight for him and
whose enemies hated him right royally.
Dillon took a great notion to me, and I
loved him as a father; the fact of the matter
is, he was more of a father to me than I
had at home, for my father refused to be
comforted when I took to railroading, and
I could not see him more than two or three
times a year at the most - so when I wanted
advice I went to Jim.
I was a young fellow then, and being
without a home at either end of the run,
was likely to drop into pitfalls. Dillon
saw this long before I did. Before I had
been with him three months, he told me one
day, coming in, that it was against his
principles to teach locomotive-running to a
young man who was likely to turn out a
drunkard or gambler and disgrace the profession, and he added that I had better pack
up my duds and come up to his house and
let "mother" take care of me - and I went.
I was not a guest there; I paid my room-rent and board just as I should have done
anywhere else, but I had all the comforts of
a home, and enjoyed a thousand advantages
that money could not buy. I told Mrs. Dillon all my troubles, and found kindly sympathy and advice; she encouraged me in all
my ambitions, mended my shirts, and went
with me when I bought my clothes. Inside
of a month, I felt like one of the family,
called Mrs. Dillon "mother," and blessed
my lucky stars that I had found them.
Dillon had run a good many years, and
was heartily tired of it, and he seldom
passed a nice farm that he did not call my
attention to it, saying: "Jack, now there's
comfort; you just wait a couple of years -
I've got my eye on the slickest little place
just on the edge of M---, that I am saving
up my pile to buy. I'll give you the 'Roger
William' one of these days, Jack, say good
evening to grief, and me and mother will
take comfort. Think of sleeping till eight
o'clock, - and no poor steamers, Jack, no
poor steamers!" And he would reach over,
and give my head a gentle duck as I tried
to pitch a curve to a front corner with a
knot; those Hinkleys were powerful on
In Dillon's household there was a "system" of financial management. He always
gave his wife just half of what he earned;
kept ten dollars for his own expenses during
the month, out of which he clothed himself; and put the remainder in the bank.
It was before the days of high wages, however, and even with this frugal management, the bank account did not grow
rapidly. They owned the house in which
they lived, and out of her half "mother"
had to pay all the household expenses and
taxes, clothe herself and two children, and
send the children to school. The oldest, a
girl of some sixteen years, was away at normal school, and the boy, about thirteen or
fourteen, was at home, going to the public
school and wearing out more clothes than
all the rest of the family.
Dillon told me that they had agreed on
the financial plan followed in the family before their marriage, and he used to say that
for the life of him he did not see how
"mother" got along so well on the allowance. When he drew a small month's pay
he would say to me, as we walked home:
"No cream in the coffee this month, Jack."
If it were unusually large, he would say:
"Plum duff and fried chicken for a Sunday
dinner." He insisted that he could detect
the rate of his pay in the food, but this was
not true - it was his kind of fun. "Mother" and I were fast friends. She became
my banker, and when I wanted an extra
dollar, I had to ask her for it and tell what
I wanted it for, and all that.
Along late in November, Jim had to make
an extra one night on another engine,
which left me at home alone with "mother"
and the boy - I had never seen the girl -
and after swearing me to be both deaf,
dumb, and blind, "mother" told me a secret. For ten years she had been saving
money out of her allowance, until the
amount now reached nearly $2,000. She
knew of Jim's life ambition to own a farm,
and she had the matter in hand, if I would
help her. Of course I was head over heels
into the scheme at once. She wanted to
buy the farm near M---,and give Jim the
deed for a Christmas present; and Jim
mustn't even suspect.
Jim never did.
The next trip I had to buy some underclothes; would "mother" tell me how to
pick out pure wool? Why, bless your
heart, no, she wouldn't, but she'd just put
on her things and go down with me. Jim
smoked and read at home.
We went straight to the bank where Jim
kept his money, asked for the president,
and let him into the whole plan. Would he
take $2,100 out of Jim's money, unbeknown
to Jim, and pay the balance of the price of
the farm over what "mother" had?
No, he would not; but he would advance
the money for the purpose - have the deeds
sent to him, and he would pay the price -
that was fixed.
Then I hatched up an excuse and changed
off with the fireman on the M--- branch,
and spent the best part of two lay-overs
fixing up things with the owner of the farm
and arranging to hold back the recording
of the deeds until after Christmas. Every
evening there was some part of the project
to be talked over, and "mother" and I held
many whispered conversations. Once Jim,
smiling, observed that, if I had any hair on
my face, he would be jealous.
I remember that it was on the 14th day of
December, 1863, that pay-day came. I
banked my money with "mother," and
Jim, as usual, counted out his half to that
dear old financier.
"Uncle Sam'd better put that 'un in the
hospital," observed Jim, as he came to a
ragged ten-dollar bill. "Goddess of Liberty pretty near got her throat cut there;
guess some reb has had hold of her," he
continued, as he held up the bill. Then
laying it down, he took out his pocket-book
and cut off a little three-cornered strip of
pink court-plaster, and made repairs on the
Mother" pocketed her money greedily,
and before an hour I had that very bill in
my pocket to pay the recording fees in the
court-house at M---.
The next day Jim wanted to use more
money than he had in his pocket, and asked
me to lend him a dollar. As I opened my
wallet to oblige him, that patched bill
showed up. Jim put his finger on it, and
then turning me around towards him, he
said: "How came you by that?"
I turned red - I know I did - but I said,
cool enough, "'Mother' gave it to me in
"That's a lie," he said, and turned.
The next day we were more than two-thirds of the way home before he spoke;
then, as I straightened up after a fire, he
said: "John Alexander, when we get in,
you go to Aleck (the foreman) and get
changed to some other engine."
There was a queer look on his face; it
was not anger; it was not sorrow - it was
more like pain. I looked the man straight
in the eye, and said: "All right, Jim; it
shall be as you say - but, so help me God,
I don't know what for. If you will tell me
what I have done that is wrong, I will not
make the same mistake with the next man I
He looked away from me, reached over
and started the pump, and said: "Don't
No, sir, I have not the slightest idea."
"Then you stay, and I'll change," said
he, with a determined look, and leaned out
of the window, and said no more all the
I did not go home that day. I cleaned
the "Roger William" from the top of that
mountain of sheet-iron known as a wood-burner stack to the back casting on the
tank, and tried to think what I had done
wrong, or not done at all, to incur such displeasure from Dillon. He was in bed when
I went to the house that evening, and I did
not see him until breakfast. He was in his
usual spirits there, but on the way to the
station, and all day long, he did not speak
to me. He noticed the extra cleaning, and
carefully avoided tarnishing any of the cab-fittings; - but that awful quiet! I could
hardly bear it, and was half sick at the
trouble, the cause of which I could not
understand. I thought that, if the patched
bill had anything to do with it, Christmas
morning would clear it up.
Our return trip was the night express,
leaving the terminus at 9.30. As usual,
that night I got the engine out, oiled,
switched out the cars, and took the train to
the station, trimmed my signals and headlight, and was all ready for Jim to pull out.
Nine o'clock came, and no Jim; at 9.10 I
sent to his boarding-house. He had not
been there. He did not come at leaving
time - he did not come at all. At ten o'clock
the conductor sent to the engine-house for
another engineer, and at 10.45, instead of
an engineer, a fireman came, with orders
for John Alexander to run the "Roger
William" until further orders, - I never
fired a locomotive again.
I went over that road the saddest-hearted
man that ever made a maiden trip. I hoped
there would be some tidings of Jim at home
- there were none. I can never forget the
blow it was to "mother"; how she braced
up on account of her children - but oh, that
sad face! Christmas came and with it the
daughter, and then there were two instead
of one, - the boy was frantic the first day,
and playing marbles the next.
Christmas day there came a letter. It
was from Jim - brief and cold enough -
but it was such a comfort to "mother." It
was directed to Mary J. Dillon, and bore the
New York post-mark. It read:
"Uncle Sam is in need of men, and those
who lose with Venus may win with Mars.
Enclosed papers you will know best what
to do with. Be a mother to the children -
you have three of them.
He underscored the three - he was a mystery to me. Poor "mother"! She declared that no doubt "poor James's head
was affected." The papers with the letter
were a will, leaving her all, and a power of
attorney, allowing her to dispose of or use
the money in the bank. Not a line of endearment or love for that faithful heart
that lived on love, asked only for love, and
cared for little else.
That Christmas was a day of fasting and
prayer for us. Many letters did we send,
many advertisements were printed, but we
never got a word from James Dillon, and
Uncle Sam's army was too big to hunt
in. We were a changed family: quieter
and more tender of one another's feelings,
In the fall of '64, they changed the runs
around, and I was booked to run into
M---. Ed, the boy, was firing for me.
There was no reason why "mother" should
stay in Boston, and we moved out to the
little farm. That daughter, who was a
second "mother" all over, used to come
down to meet us at the station with the
horse, and I talked "sweet" to her; yet at
a certain point in the sweetness I became
Along in May, '65, "mother" got a package from Washington. It contained a tintype of herself; a card with a hole in it
(made evidently by having been forced over
a button), on which was her name and the
old address in town; then there was a ring
and a saber, and on the blade of the saber
was etched, "Presented to Lieutenant Jas.
Dillon, for bravery on the field of battle."
At the bottom of the parcel was a note in a
strange hand, saying simply, "Found on
the body of Lieutenant Dillon after the
battle of Five Forks."
Poor "mother "! Her heart was wrung
again, and again the scalding tears fell.
She never told her suffering, and no one
ever knew what she bore. Her face was a
little sadder and sweeter, her hair a little
whiter - that was all.
I am not a bit superstitious - don't believe in signs or presentiments or pre-nothings - but when I went to get my pay
on the 14th day of December, 1866, it gave
me a little start to find in it the bill bearing
the chromo of the Goddess of Liberty with
the little three-cornered piece of court-plaster that Dillon had put on her windpipe. I got rid of it at once, and said
nothing to "mother" about it; but I kept
thinking of it and seeing it all the next day
On the night of the 16th, I was oiling
around my Black Maria to take out a local
leaving our western terminus just after
dark, when a tall, slim old gentleman
stepped up to me and asked if I was the
engineer. I don't suppose I looked like the
president: I confessed, and held up my
torch, so I could see his face - a pretty
tough-looking face. The white mustache
was one of that military kind reinforced
with whiskers on the right and left flank of
the mustache proper. He wore glasses,
and one of the lights was ground glass.
The right cheek bone was crushed in, and
a red scar extended across the eye and
cheek; the scar looked blue around the red
line because of the cold.
"I used to be an engineer before the
war," said he. "Do you go to Boston?"
"No, to M---"
"M---! I thought that was on a
"It is, but is now an important manufacturing point, with regular trains from
there to each end of the main line."
"When can I get to Boston?"
"Not till Monday now -; we run no
through Sunday trains. You can go to
M--- with me to-night, and catch a local
to Boston in the morning."
He thought a minute, and then said,
"Well, yes; guess I had better. How is it
for a ride?"
"Good: just tell the conductor that I
told you to get on."
"Thanks; that's clever. I used to know
a soldier who used to run up in this country," said the stranger, musing. "Dillon;
that's it, Dillon."
"I knew him well," said I. "I - want to
hear about him."
"Queer man," said he, and I noticed he
was eyeing me pretty sharp.
"A good engineer."
"Perhaps," said he.
I coaxed the old veteran to ride on the
Engine - the first coal-burner I had had.
He seemed more than glad to comply. Ed
was as black as a negro, and swearing about
coal-burners in general and this one in particular, and made so much noise with his
fire-irons after we started that the old man
came over and sat behind me, so as to be
able to talk.
The first time I looked around after getting out of the yard, I noticed his long slim
hand on the top of the reverse-lever. Did
you ever notice how it seems to make an
ex-engineer feel better and more satisfied to
get his hand on a reverse-lever and feel the
life-throbs of the great giant under him?
Why, his hand goes there by instinct - just
as an ambulance surgeon will feel for the
heart of the boy with a broken leg.
I asked the stranger to "give her a
whirl," and noticed with what eager joy
he took hold of her. I also observed with
surprise that he seemed to know all about
"four-mile hill," where most new men got
stuck. He caught me looking at his face,
and touching the scar, remarked: "A little
love pat, with the compliments of Wade
Hampton's men." We talked on a good
many subjects, and got pretty well acquainted before we were over the division,
but at last we seemed talked out.
"Where does Dillon's folks live now?"
asked the stranger, slowly after a time.
"M---," said I.
He nearly jumped off the box. "M---?
I thought it was Boston!"
"Moved to M---."
"Own a farm there."
"Oh, I see; married again?"
"Widow thought too much of Jim for
"Er - what became of the young man
that they - er - adopted?"
"Lives with 'em yet."
Just then we struck the suburbs of
M---, and, as we passed the cemetery, I
pointed to a high shaft, and said: "Dillon's monument."
"Why, how's that?"
"Killed at Five Forks. Widow put up
He shaded his eyes with his hand, and
peered through the moonlight for a minute.
"That's clever," was all he said.
I insisted that he go home with me. Ed
took the Black Maria to the house, and we
took the street cars for it to the end of the
line, and then walked. As we cleaned our
feet at the door, I said: "Let me see, I did
not hear your name?"
"James," said he, "Mr. James."
I opened the sitting-room door, and
ushered the stranger in.
"Well, boys," said "mother," slowly
getting up from before the fire and hurriedly taking a few extra stitches in her
knitting before laying it down to look up
at us, "you're early."
She looked up, not ten feet from the
stranger, as he took off his slouched hat
and brushed back the white hair. In another minute her arms were around his
neck, and she was murmuring "James" in
his ear, and, I, like a dumb fool, wondered
who told her his name.
Well, to make a long story short, it was
James Dillon himself, and the daughter
came in, and Ed came, and between the
three they nearly smothered the old fellow.
You may thing it funny he didn't know
me, but don't forget that I had been running for three years - that takes the fresh
off a fellow; then, when I had the typhoid,
my hair laid off, and was never reinstated,
and when I got well, the whiskers - that
had always refused to grow - came on with
a rush, and they were red. And again, I
had tried to switch with an old hook-motion
- in the night and forgot to take out the
starting-bar, and she threw it at me, knocking out some teeth; and taking it altogether,
I was a changed man.
"Where's John?" he said finally.
"Here," said I.
He took my hand, and said, "John, I left
all that was dear to me once because I was
jealous of you. I never knew how you
came to have that money or why, and don't
want to. Forgive me."
"That is the first time I ever heard of
that," said "mother."
"I had it to buy this farm for you - a Christmas present - if you had waited,"
"That is the first time I ever heard of
that," said he.
"And you might have been shot," said
"mother," getting up close.
"I tried my darndest to be. That's why
I got promoted so fast."
"Oh, James!" and her arms were around
his neck again.
"And I sent that saber home myself,
never intending to come back."
"Oh, James, how could you!"
"Mother, how can you forgive me?"
"Mother" was still for a minute, looking at the fire in the grate. "James, it is
late in life to apply such tests, but love is
like gold; ours will be better now - the
dross has been burned away in the fire. I
did what I did for love of you, and you did
what you did for love of me; let us all commence to live again in the old way," and
those arms of hers could not keep away
from his neck.
Ed went out with tears in his eyes, and
I beckoned the daughter to follow me. We
passed into the parlor, drew the curtain over
the doorway - and there was nothing but
that rag between us and heaven.
© RailroadStories, 2001.