Chapter II Arizona Charlie

Jack Van Ryder drawing depicts an old ranch hand playing poker
Jack Van Ryder drawing depicts an old ranch hand playing poker

OUTSIDE the wind tore at the Pennsyl­vania hillsides, whipping the driving sleet-like rain against the sides of the Pullman coach as the train knifed its way through the storm. In the drawing-room a man, woman and child, surrounded by gleaming hardwood and soft plush, laughed and chatted. The beat of the rain on the windows was a softened undertone for the happy medley of their voices.

The man leaning forward spread his hands while the little girl made a cat's-cradle of string on his fingers. His eyes, softening as he gazed on the curly head in front of him, turned to the smiling woman who was lying on the divan.

"It's grand to think we're actually going West, Father," she said. "It will be a fine way to enjoy the first vacation you've had in years."

"There, Daddy, it worked!" cried the child, as the intricate puzzle of string performed as she wished.

"All right now, Honey; it's bedtime," her mother told her.

Stretching, the man arose. "I'll walk back to the observation while you put Girlie to bed," he said. "You'll find me there."

Stepping into the aisle he started for the rear of the train.

As he was passing through the vestibule between cars there was a heavy shock as the brakes set, the screech of wheels, and a crash. The train, plung­ing from a storm-weakened trestle, had piled up at the bottom of a gorge -- a mass of wreckage.

Hours later as rescuers completed their work and reported that all who could have been saved had been found and cared for, a sorrow-stricken man was led away from the tangled wreckage. Blood dropped from his torn fingers; his clothing, sodden and torn, hung from a gaunt figure that had aged since it swung through the drawing-room door.

"But my wife, my baby, I must find them," he told the doctors again and again. "They need me; they must have Charlie. They're all alone!"

"He is not seriously hurt," said one of the doc­tors, "but mentally he's in bad shape. With rest and care his distress will pass. But he must have rest."

The doctor was wrong, for in that hour Arizona Charlie was born.

Months had passed since that wreck in the Alleghenies. Many miles to the westward beyond Deming, New Mexico, an engineer leaned from his cab window and watched the shuttling mileposts as his train, the Sunset Limited, speeded on toward the Pacific Coast.

He reached for the whistle-cord and a long- drawn blast followed as the train neared a lone man who was walking along the right-of-way. The man in the cab waved and the man afoot answered the signal as the gleaming coaches swept past him.

Arizona Charlie already was occupied with what was to become his life work, that of self-appointed track-walker on that long stretch of the Southern Pacific which runs from Deming to Indio. Back and forth, a solitary sentry, he walked post.

As he plodded steadily along not a switch or a rail, and not one of those bridges like the one which had cost him all that was dear to him, escaped his eye. Now, his mind dimmed by tragedy, he held to one idea only -- that no other lives should be sacrificed on the same altar. Once a month his brother, who had despaired of being able to help him in any other way, mailed a trustfund check to the train dispatcher at Indio.

And so it continued for more than twenty years. During all those years Arizona Charlie, although his name appeared on no payroll, regularly drew his "pay."

In all kinds of weather, enduring desert heat and mountain cold, he packed his meager belong­ings to and fro over that long stretch of track. Many times he told dispatchers of some minor fault on the right-of-way. Many times his reports were groundless.

But all the railroad men liked him, admired his sturdy courage and his loyalty to his self-imposed task. He was welcome on any train. All the men knew his story and their rough sympathy went out to the stoical wanderer and made him one of them­selves. They all watched for his lonely figure along the right-of-way, either walking slowly along or crouched beside his little lonesome fire. Not once did he cease his tiresome vigil.

The Gila River was in flood. Swollen tributaries, carrying more than their load from the mountain watersheds, ran bankfull and under the drive of heavy rains spilled over. Roads were washed out and the traffic slowed on the railway as washout after washout was reported.

Veteran enginemen were plainly worried as they rolled their heavy drags along the line. Gila Bend, Mohawk, Wellton, at all points dispatchers and trainmen were talking about nothing except the unusual rise of the waters and the possibilities of wrecks. Bridge foremen, tired and wet, went without sleep or rest as they checked along the route for failing culverts and trestles. The steady downpour continued and the muddy, silt-filled waters of the Gila rolled on toward the Colorado, sullen and treacherous.

Arizona Charlie, his clothing wet and mud spattered, strode along the track near Wellton. He was cold and hungry, but he did not want to stop. In such a storm anything might happen.

He came to a place where the track crossed a roaring arroyo whose muddy waters were rolling on toward the Gila. He started over the trestle but drew back. He had felt it sway beneath his feet. As he stood watching it he saw the structure quiver from the impact of rolling rock and his experience, gained through twenty lonely years, told him that within a very short time the long trestle would go out.

Already the water was pouring over the ties as again Charlie started over the shaky trestle. He knew that it would not be long before the Limited, eastward-bound, was due. He must reach Wellton before the train.

Once over the trestle he began to run, slipping and staggering along the center of the track.

Dripping wet, gasping for breath, almost beaten, he staggered into the operator's little office at Wellton. Jerkily he told his story: the trestle was going out; it wouldn't hold the train; the train must be stopped.

A short time later the east-bound Limited thundered in to pull to a sliding halt as the semaphore arm showed red. The engineer leaned from his cab and the conductor trotted forward along the side of the train to find the reason for the unscheduled stop. The trestle was gone.

In the telegrapher's office at Wellton Charlie, his job done, dozed beside the stove. To those who tried to thank him he roused himself sufficiently to say, "Darn it! just can't remember things, but somebody I knew once was hurt when a bridge went out. At least that's the way it seems to me."

Years have passed and so has Arizona Charlie. No longer is the old man seen along the right-of- way between Deming and Indio. But as they roll along through the desert night, their graying heads thrust out of their cab windows, the older engineers sometimes see lonely little fires beside the right-of-way, solitary figures huddled over them.

"I wonder whatever became of Arizona Charlie," an engineer is likely to say to his fire­man. "I haven't seen him for years. What'? You don't know him? No, I suppose not. I guess he was before your time. Better check your fire." *

* Shortly following the appearance of this story in The Arizona Daily Star  an old-time railroader sent me a photograph of Arizona Charlie and the information that his body had been found under one of the trestles he had so faithfully guarded. J. W.

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