Nonfiction > E.C. Stedman & E.M. Hutchinson, eds. > A Library of American Literature > 1835–1860
Stedman and Hutchinson, comps.  A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes.  1891.
Vols. VI–VIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 1835–1860
By Joseph Kirkland (1830–1894)
[The McVeys. An Episode. 1888.]

LATE in the afternoon they stopped for wood at a small station not far beyond the old ox-killing crossing. They took on as much as possible, piling it high above the top of the tender.
  “Look out for the track-repairers jest this side of the curve, Phil,” said the telegrapher, as the train pulled out. “I guess they’ll have got through and run the push-car in onto the next siding afore you git thar; if they haven’t they’ll have a flag out.”  2
  As Phil neared the curve he saw the freshly moved dirt where they had been at work, and also observed the flagman, evidently relieved from duty, walking on with his flag rolled up under his arm. This freed Phil from any anxiety as to the state of the road, although he thought he noticed that the fellow was unsteady in his gait, as he passed him.  3
  He rounded the curve at full speed, and saw the distant station, the switch-target set up all right for the main track.  4
  What else did he see?  5
  He saw, and took in at a glance, that the push-car, loaded with many bars of railroad iron, had run off the track between him and the station. Also that the laborers, insane or drunk, were trying to replace the car instead of running back to warn him to stop!  6
  Still there was some chance to modify the disaster,—if he whistled for brakes—he had done it already; if he reversed his engine—he had done that too; and started the sand to running on the rail—he had opened the sand-valve;—there was a bare chance to avert, not wreck, but utter ruin.  7
  “Brake!” shrieked the whistle. “Brake!” it wailed again; and again “Brake!”—“Brake!”—“Brake!” And “Brake!” the echoing woods replied in despairing chorus.  8
  Sam sprang to his wheel and began his tightening. Then Phil, finding that she was not holding back as she ought, stepped to the side and looked down. The sand was not running!  9
  “Jump, Sam! Never mind the brake! Jump, I say!”  10
  Sam gave one glance to where Phil stood hanging out of his door, and thought he was looking for a favorable place to jump. Then he leaped and looked back—there was Phil back at his lever, rattling the handle of the sand-valve! Sam grasped blindly at the passing cars to try to get back to his post; but then came an awful crash of breaking wood, iron, and glass, and the four cars spliced themselves into each other as one long mass and pushed forward a few yards while the engine surged over on its side, and then all was still except a wild rush of escaping steam about the prostrate Pioneer.  11
  Sam flew to the front, climbed over the wrecked push-car with its tangle of rails scattered like gigantic jack-straws, and screamed “Phil! Phil!! Phil!!!” in wild despair. The engine’s wheels, playing backward like lightning, were toward him as she lay, and he rushed around her front still screaming “Phil! Phil! Phil! Phil!” Then he dashed through the few scared laborers and threw himself like a madman on the pile of fire-wood that covered the foot-board where his beloved chief had stood so often and so long, and where he saw him last.  12
  The sticks as they plunged forward had broken off the safety-valve hangers, so the valve had blown clear out and nearly freed the boiler from pressure, in a few seconds; still, the whole place was one undistinguishable mass of steam and hot water, and wood and fragments of the cab.  13
  Fast and furious flew the sticks behind him as he dug and burrowed in the hot and horrible mess. Sometimes he was entirely invisible—sometimes his feet might be seen protruding from the place as he grovelled to find Phil. His worn and shapeless working-shoes sticking out of the dreadful ruck attracted the attention of some on-looker who seized them to drag him out, but he kicked him away with a shout of “Lemme be!” and a curse.  14
  In perhaps two minutes, which seemed an hour, his voice was heard again.  15
  “Now, pull me out.”  16
  And they dragged with all their might—one man at first—then one at each foot, then as many as could get hold of him—and slowly, slowly, he was brought into view.  17
  But what is that thing he has fastened himself to with a grip like the clasp of death? A long, heavy, limp bundle of steaming rags—all there is left of the young Samson, Phil McVey!  18
  Both seemed dead. So tightly was one clasped by the other that they had to be forced apart, being too heavy to be carried together. They were taken into the barn-like freight-room of the little station and laid side by side on the floor until cots could be brought, when they were separated and one stretched on each.  19
  Sam, though dreadfully scalded about the hands and face, soon recovered from his swoon, and raising himself with difficulty tottered over to Phil’s side. He thrust his hand within his jacket and cried:  20
  “His heart’s a-beatin’! Why don’t ye git a doctor, ye hell-hounds! What ye monkeyin’ raound h’yer fer, ye ** ** **! I’d like t’ kill every ** ** ** ** of ye!” And he started for the door, even in his maimed condition, but was prevented from going out by the others, who told him the doctor was at the passenger-cars, but would be up in a minute; at the same time sending one of their number to hasten his coming.  21
  Then Sam went back and blew in Phil’s mouth, and raised his arms and pressed his chest alternately, to try to restore respiration. At last something that sounded like a sob rewarded his efforts, and the breath seemed to flutter a little of itself.  22
  When the doctor came, after a delay that seemed an age, Sam explained to him:  23
  “I got his head free ’most as soon as I teched him; ’n’ all the rest of the time I wuz a-throwin’ the wood offen his legs.”  24
  The doctor examined Phil carefully, pushed up his eyelids, and observed the pupils.  25
  “He’ll likely come to!”  26
  “Glory hallelujah, doctor! Say that agin!”  27
  “He’ll likely come to—but I’d a leetle druther he wouldn’t.”  28
  “Wha—at?” asked poor Sam, in a faint quaver.  29
  “Can’t live.”  30
  The crushed friend went and sat down in his own place and groaned aloud. Then he went back to where the doctor was at work over Phil.  31
  “I don’t believe it! It’s a cursed lie! Phil can’t die! Can’t live? I say he can’t die! If there’s a God in heaven, Phil McVey can’t die like this!”  32
  “Too much cuticle destroyed,” said the doctor. And he went on clipping and removing the soaked fabrics, the skin coming with the clothes, in pale, shriveled patches.  33
  “Bring me some linen—or if the linen and lint’s all used up, bring me some of that cotton batting. I can’t save him, but I can let him die easy.”  34
  The fresh air on his burns woke Phil up to consciousness.  35
  “What’s all this, boys? Oh, I remember! Well, I feel pretty comfortable. Doctor, are you doing anything to me? I can’t feel you. I don’t feel any pain.”  36
  “Sorry for it, my poor boy.”  37
  This was Phil’s first intimation that all was not well with him. When the stripping operation was carried far enough, he said:  38
  “Lemme see, doctor.”  39
  They raised his head, and he gave one glance down his trunk, which looked like one of those anatomical colored drawings of the flayed body of a man; and he said, with a sigh:  40
  “Oh—it’s no use!”  41
  Then they put the fluffy cotton all over him, wet with some cold oil, and drew the sheet up to his poor blistered chin, and laid small pieces of the cotton on such parts of his face as could be covered without impeding his breathing.  42
  “Now, for you, my man,” said the doctor to Sam.  43
  “Me! I didn’t know as I was hurt. Oh, yes!” (Looking at his dreadful hands, and feeling his thickened and distorted nose and lips, and blistered throat.) “But that ain’t noth’n’. You jes’ ’tend t’ him.”  44
  “Lay down, boy, and lemme take a little care of you.”  45
  “Yes, do, Sam,” mumbled Phil, “I sh’ll want you to care for mother and Meg.”  46
  So the doctor dressed Sam’s injuries, while the salt tears ran down his cheeks and soaked the wounds underneath the doctor’s applications. As soon as he was free, he staggered to his feet again and went to Phil, who had seemed to be wanting him, and calling him with his piteous eyes.  47
  “How did you get hurt, Sam? I saw you jump.”  48
  “Wal—the’ wuz a leetle wood a-layin’ on yer legs; ’n’ I jest—laid it off like.”  49
  Then two raw and blistered hands met in a moment’s pressure. Phil could see the whole scene after the wreck and all his friend’s self-sacrifice.  50
  “I wouldn’t ’a’ jumped, Phil; only I seed ye a-hangin’ aout, ’n’ I thort ye wuz a-jumpin’.”  51
  Phil only shook his head, and said:  52
  “The sand wouldn’t run!”  53
  “Ye’d orter jumped, Phil! Oh, I wish’t ye’d ’a’ jumped, Phil!”  54
  “And seen my whole train in the ditch? And maybe burnt up, passengers and all? No, Sam. It’s better as it is. It’s better as it is.”  55
  Next, thinking of his lost lady-love, he whispered:  56
  “Is she hurt, Sam?”  57
  “Not a mite! Smoke-stack and headlight off—safety-valve blowed out, ’n’ one gauge-cock broke off. That’s what let the water out on you. A derrick ’ll set her on her legs agin, to-morrer.”  58
  “Oh, the Pioneer,” said Phil, and the ghost of a wan smile almost made its appearance on the changed face.  59
  “Doctor, was—were there any of the passengers hurt?”  60
  “A woman had her arm broke—middle-aged woman with a young woman daughter.”  61
  “Daughter all right?”  62
  “Yes—she’s tendin’ tew her mother at the section-house S’pose ye heered about the conductor?”  63
  “Jim Sanders? No! what?”  64
  “He was a-settin’ brakes when you struck—’n’ he never knowed what hurt him. Thar he lays in the corner.” And he pointed to a shapeless mass—poor Jim Sanders’s body, covered with some empty grain-bags and staining the rough boards of the floor with a long, dark-red streak that perhaps shows there to this day.  65
  A deep groan burst from Phil at this news. He thought of gay, good-natured, simple-hearted, conductor Jim, and tears of pity and regret—and remorse—forced themselves from the corners of his eyes.  66
  Soon after nightfall arrived the relief-train from Galena, with Zury Prouder on board. Zury did not know the height, breadth, and depth of the monstrous loss which had befallen him until he burst into the freight-room, and sank on his trembling knees at Phil’s side. They had told him that the engineer was killed—afterward that he was only hurt—but he did not ascertain the truth until he reached the spot.  67
  His Bible furnished the only words he could think of; the only words he needed:  68
  “‘Oh, my son Absalom; would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!’”  69
  When the Galena doctors came in to hold a consultation, he met them at the door, and whispered that if a hundred dollars apiece, or a thousand for that matter, would make any difference to Phil, they could have it. Then he stepped out, and agonized and wrestled with his agony until they had finished. When they came out, he saw all they had to say; it was scarcely necessary for them even to shake their heads to let him know that there was no hope. Then he called up his manhood, and entered the chamber of death with a smile.  70
  “Phil, my boy; we shall all be together before long, where pain and sorrow and parting are no more.”  71
  “I hope so, Uncle Zury,” mumbled the other.  72
  Later the relief-train was ready to run back to Galena with the dead and such of the living as could be moved without harm. Phil was neither; but Sam was to go, and the doctors came in to move him.  73
  “No. I’ll stay with Phil!”  74
  “Better go in, my boy. We can’t half care for you here, nor ’tend to you right. Phil won’t need ye.”  75
  “I don’t care for that; and I don’t go, what’s more.”  76
  They silently nodded to each other and stepped up to the cot, one at each corner. But before they could lift it, Sam slipped off one side, staggered to his feet, and seizing a spike-maul which lay there, he raised it in his bandaged hands, and said, with a curse:  77
  “I’ll kill the man that lays a hand on me! You hear me?”  78
  Old Prouder here interfered, and said:  79
  “Gentlemen, ye mean well, but ye’re makin’ a mistake. This h’yer young man ’n’ me, we ain’t a-goin’ on this train: ’n’ we’re free men, ’n’ ye can’t take us without a warrant.”  80
  So they desisted, and Sam rolled heavily on his cot once more, and let the doctor replace his disordered bandages. Then they all departed, lugging off Jim Sanders’s remains, and leaving only the original country practitioner in charge. Soon the sound of the departing train was heard through the evening dews and damps; and then all was still and lonely—no one in the room but the doctor, Zury, Sam, and Phil—and Death.  81
  Phil wanted to ask the doctor whether any of the passengers inquired for him before they all went away on the train; but while trying to bring his failing faculties to bear to do so, he fell into a lethargy, during which the doctor went elsewhere. In a half-hour or so, Phil awoke from his stupor with a start, and an agonized cry:  82
  “Mother! Mother! MOTHER! How sorry you’ll be! Who’ll take care of you and Meg? Alone in the world! Alone and poor! Poor!”  83
  “Philip, my boy; is ole Zury Prouder poor? ’Cause if he ain’t, they ain’t. What’s his’n, is their’n.”  84
  “I know what you mean, Uncle Zury, but it won’t do.”  85
  “Philip, I asked your mother to marry me, ’n’ she refused, ’n’ she was right, tew. Mebbe she’ll change her mind, ’n’ dew it yet. But that don’t make a mite o’ diff’rence—not a mite. What’s mine’s her’n, all the same.” Then seeing that Phil shook his head a little, he added:  86
  “I’m a man o’ my word, ’n’ Sam Sanders here ’s a witness.”  87
  Phil seemed satisfied, or at least silenced; and soon after fell into another lethargy, or doze, from which he started as before:  88
  “Mother, Mother, MOTHER! Alone and poor!”  89
  “Philip, my dear boy! Do you wanter kill yer old friend? Ye might’s well’s talk so! Oh, if I had a lawyer, I’d fix it all so ye couldn’t be so hard on poor ole Zury no more! I’d deed the whole on it, I would—’n’ joyf’ly!”  90
  “Alone and poor,” mumbled the sufferer, scarcely knowing what Prouder had said, or what he himself was saying.  91
  “Oh, my God! Can’t I do noth’n? My tongue’s tied, between the livin’ ’n’ the dyin’ so I can’t say what’s in my heart to my boy! Here, my son,—look at me a half a minute! Here in my ole pocket-book’s money ’n’ good notes for risin’ nine thaousan’ dollars, besides trash. Sam! Say, you Sam! See me give ’n’ transfer this h’yer puss’n’l prop’ty to Philip McVey, t’ have ’n’ t’hold, to be his’n, live er die, ’n’ mine no longer!”  92
  “I see you, Uncle Zury,” answered Sam.  93
  Even Phil seemed, with the physical possession of this little fortune, to perceive that his filial anxiety as to the provision for his mother and sister was no longer reasonable. He clutched the fat wallet on his breast, and tried to smile at the giver.  94
  “Couldn’t ye call me daddy, jes’ once, my boy?”  95
  “Daddy, daddy, ye deserve it if ye keep yer word—an’ ye will!”  96
  “Mightn’t I kiss ye jes’ once—son?”  97
  “If ye kin find a place, daddy, that ain’t—biled.”  98
  And the trembling grizzled lips rested a little while on that pitiful strip of forehead. Then the poor old soul sank into a heap at the head of Phil’s cot, and was still.  99
  Zury’s attention was attracted by the entrance of the doctor, who called him, and said to him in a low voice:  100
  “That thar young gal whose mother was hurt’s a-comin’ in.”  101
  “Oh, don’t let her,” cried Phil, who had been roused by the movement.  102
  “I’m coming, Phil! Don’t send me off! Oh, please— Dear Phil, don’t kill me!”  103
  “Well—put the lights where they won’t shine on me. So! Oh, Annie!” he murmured, with blistered tongue in shapeless mouth.  104
  The dear girl knelt by him, and soiled her sweet lips in his damp and grimy hair.  105
  “I thought you went on the train, Annie!”  106
  “Oh, Phil!” (reproachfully). “Haven’t you learned to know me yet?”  107
  She put her arm around his head for the first time in her life.  108
  “Have you forgiven me, Annie?”  109
  “I’ve been trying not to, Phil, for almost twenty-four hours! That was a long time for me to be angry with my own love, don’t you think? I don’t know whether I could have kept on trying much longer—if it hadn’t been for this, I might have tried a while longer. But this puts it all away, far away, out of sight! I don’t care for anything now, but this!”  110
  “It was bad, though, wasn’t it?”  111
  “Yes; especially seeing that it went on after you knew me.”  112
  “Oh, if I’d known you a little sooner!”  113
  Then he felt her left hand around his head, and reached up a bandaged and misshapen paw, and grasped the pure, translucent fingers and lifted them where he could see them once more. Not an imperfection or blemish except on the forefinger, where were those thousands of needle-marks. She saw him look at them.  114
  “My hands would have worked for you and yours, Phil, whenever you came and asked for them.”  115
  She had again forgotten her little speech prepared for refusing him.  116
  “Annie,” he whispered, “can’t you put the light so I can see you and you not see me? There—down on the opposite side of the bed—so! I don’t want you to carry this picture of me in your memory—looking like this!”  117
  It was difficult to make out his words, try as hard as he might, with his failing strength and faculties, to make them understood. Then he gazed on her face with glazing eyes that seemed to thrust away Death itself in their longing to keep their hold on that beloved vision. But at last they slowly closed, and then Annie sank on her knees at his side, and sobbed and prayed, and prayed and sobbed, till some one came and begged her to go away. She only asked if her mother wanted her, and learning that she was still asleep, resumed her kneeling vigil.  118
  Once more Phil, in his delirium, said aloud: “Mother! MOTHER!” and the sound floated out of the open window into the darkness. Just then an emigrant wagon headed westward passed the station, and from it might have been heard, if any one had listened, a kind of distorted echo:  119
  “By God!”  120
  And the vehicle labored on and disappeared.  121
  While Annie was still kneeling, sobbing, and praying, Phil grew more restless and feverish, wakeful and flighty. He would try, in his imperfect utterance, to say, “Mother,” “Oh, Meg!” “Mother, mother!” and once, in gentle tones:  122
  “Annie! Oh, Annie!”  123
  She rose and kissed his forehead, but he did not know her.  124
  Again she was urged to leave the unfit place, but in vain. Then Phil chanced to say, in a questioning, chiding, expostulatory tone:  125
  “Dolly? Dolly? Why, Dolly!” and then she silently got up and went away.  126
  Then Zury was alone with the poor fellow in his wanderings; now painless, thanks to the merciful provision that ends anguish when death has become inevitable and imminent. Phil’s mind strayed farther and farther backward into past years as it lost its hold on the present and future.  127
  “It was not the axe, I tell you! It was the grindstone.”  128
  Zury bent over him and met his unrecognizing gaze.  129
  “Oh, I—I guess you can’t understand—of course you can’t! But mother will understand! Mother will know!” and a sweet smile of perfect, restful confidence shone about his eyes. “Mother—and Meg! Meg understands everything!”  130
  Toward morning all his maundering ceased; and Zury observed that the poor head began to roll and turn wearily from side to side. He roused the tired doctor and called his attention to the new circumstance. The doctor nodded and said:  131
  “That’s about the last.”  132
  When day broke Sam Sanders awoke all feverish from a long stupor; and then he saw that they had pulled the sheet up over the face of what had been Phil McVey. And there at the bed’s head, in a crushed heap, crouched poor Zury Prouder,—like a great hulk, wrecked just as it was entering its longed-for harbor.  133

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.