VIEW THE MOBILE VERSION of Informational Site Network Informational
   Home - Science Fiction Stories - Western Stories

The Cub Engineer

From: Still Jim

"Humans constantly shift sand and rock from place to place.
They call this work. I have seen time return their every
work to the form in which it was created."


It was hard to go. But Jim was young and adventure called him. As the
train began its long transcontinental journey, Jim would not have
exchanged places with any man on earth. He was a full-fledged engineer.
He was that creature of unmatched vanity, a young man with his first
job. And Jim's first job was with his government. The Reclamation
Service was, to Jim's mind, a collection of great souls, scientifically
inclined, giving their lives to their country, harvesting their rewards
in adventure and in the abandoned gratitude of a watching nation.

Jim was headed for the Green Mountain project which was located in the
Indian country of the far Northwest. There were not many months of work
left on the dam or the canals. But Jim was to report to the engineer in
charge of this project to receive from him his first training.

This was Jim's first trip away from the Atlantic coast. He was a typical
Easterner, accustomed to landscapes on a small scale and to the human
touch on everything. Until he left St. Paul, nothing except the extreme
width of the map really surprised him. But after the train had crossed
the Mississippi valley, it began to traverse vast rolling plains,
covered from horizon to horizon with wheat. At endless intervals were
set tiny dwellings like lone sentinels guarding the nation's bread.
After the plains, came an arid country where a constantly beaten
vegetation fought with the alkali until at last it gave way to a world
of yellow sand and purple sky.

After a day of this, far to the west appeared a delicate line of
snowcapped peaks toward which the flying train snailed for hours, until
Jim, watching eagerly, saw the sand give way to low grassy hills, the
hills merge into ridges and the ridges into pine-clad mountain slopes.

For the last two days of the trip the train swung through dizzy spaces,
slid through dim, dripping canyons, crossed trestles even greater than
the trestles of Jim's boyhood dreams; twisted about peaks that gave
unexpected, fleeting views of other peaks of other ranges until Jim
crawled into his berth at night sight-weary and with a sense of
loneliness that appalled him.

At noon of a bright day, Jim landed at a little way station from which a
single-gauge track ran off into apparent nothingness. Puffing on the
single-gauge track was a "dinky" engine, coupled to a flat car. Wooden
benches were fastened along one end of the car. The engineer and fireman
were loading sheet iron on the other end. They looked Jim over as he
approached them.

"Do you go up to the dam?" he asked.

"If we ever get this stuff loaded," replied the engineer.

"I'd like to go up with you," said Jim. "I've got a job up there."

The engineer grunted. "Another cub engineer. All right, sonny. Load your
trousseau onto the Pullman."

Jim grinned sheepishly and heaved his trunk and suit case up on the flat
car. Then he lent a hand with the sheet iron and climbed aboard.

"Let her rip, Bill," said the fireman. And she proceeded to rip. Jim
held his hat between his knees and clung to the bench with both hands.
The dinky whipped around curves and across viaducts, the grade rising
steadily until just as Jim had made up his mind that his moments were
numbered, they reached the first steep grade into the mountain. From
this point the ride was a slow and steady climb up a pine-covered
mountain. Just before sunset the engine stopped at a freight shed.

"Go on up the trail," said the fireman. "We'll send your stuff up to the
officers' camp."

Jim saw a wide macadam road leading up through the pines. The
unmistakable sounds of great construction work dropped faintly down to
him. His pulse quickened and he started up the road which wound for a
quarter of a mile through trees the trunks of which were silhouetted
against the setting sun. Then the road swept into the open. Jim stopped.

First he saw ranges, stretching away and away to the evening glory of
the sky. Then, nearer, he saw solitary peaks, etched black against the
heavens, and groups of peaks whose mighty flanks merged as if in a final
struggle for supremacy.

The boy saw a country of mighty distances, of indescribable cruelty and
hostility, a country of unthinkable heights and impassable depths. And,
standing so, struggling to resist the sense of the region's terrifying
bigness, he saw that all the valleys and canyons and mountain slopes
seemed to focus toward one point. It was as if they had concentrated at
one spot against a common enemy.

This point, he saw, was a huge black canyon that carried the waters from
all the hundred hills around. It was the point where the war of waters
must be keenest, where the stand of the wilderness was most savage and
where lay the one touch of man in all that area of contending mountains.

A vast wall of masonry had been built to block the outlet of the ranges.
A curving wall of gray stone, so huge, so naked of conscious adornment
that the hills might well have disbelieved it to be an enemy and have
accepted it as part and parcel of their own silent grandeur.

Jim lifted his hat slowly and moistened his lips. This, then, was the
labor to which he had so patronizingly offered his puny hands.

After a while, details obtruded themselves. Jim saw black dots of men
moving about the top of the dam. He heard the clatter of concrete
mixers, the raucous grind of the crusher, the scream of donkey engines
and the shouts of foremen. Back to the right, among the trees, was a
long military line of tents. Above the noise of construction the boy
caught the silent brooding of the forest and, poured round all, the
liquid glory of the sunset. Suddenly he saw the whole great picture as
his own work, and it was a picture as elusive, as tantalizing, as a
boy's first dreams of pirate adventure. Jim had come to his first great

When he had shaken himself together and had swallowed the lump in his
throat, he asked a passing workman for Mr. Freet, the Project Engineer.
He was directed to a tent with a sheet iron roof. Jim stopped bashfully
in the door. A tall man was standing before a map. Jim had a good look
at him before he turned around.

Mr. Freet wore corduroy riding breeches and leather puttees, a blue
flannel shirt and soft tie. He was thin and tall and had a shock of
bright red hair. When he turned, Jim saw that his face was bronzed and
deeply lined. His eyes were black and small and piercing.

"Mr. Freet," said Jim, "my name is Manning."

The project engineer came forward with a pleasant smile. "Why, Mr.
Manning, we didn't look for you until tomorrow, though your tent is
ready for you. Come in and sit down."

Jim took the proffered camp chair and after a few inquiries about his
trip, Mr. Freet said: "It's supper time and I'll take you over to the
mess and introduce you. Only a few of the engineers have their wives
here and all the others, with the so-called 'office' force, eat at
'Officers' Mess'. I'm not going to load you up with advice, Mr. Manning.
You are a tenderfoot and fresh from college. You occupy the position of
cub engineer here, so you will be fair bait for hazing. Don't take it
too seriously. About your work? I shall put you into the hands of the
chief draughtsman for a time. I want you to thoroughly familiarize
yourself with that end of the work. Then, although most of that part is
done, you will go into the concrete works, then out on the dam with the
superintendent. Remember that you have no record except some good
college work. Forget that you ever were a senior. Look at yourself as a
freshman in a difficult course, where too many cons means a life

Jim listened respectfully. At that moment Arthur Freet was the biggest
man on earth to him.

"Yes, sir," he said. "Thank you."

Freet pulled on a corduroy coat. "Come over to supper, Manning. Too much
advice on an empty stomach is bad for the digestion."

Jim followed meekly after the Big Boss.

Jim reported to Charlie Tuck, the head draughtsman the next morning.
Tuck was a plump, middle-aged man, bald headed and clean shaven, with
mild blue eyes. Jim put him down in his own mind as a sissy and chafed a
little at being put into Tuck's care. But his discontent was shortlived.

Tuck proved to be a hard taskmaster. Before the end of the week Jim
realized that he would not get out of Tuck's hands until he knew every
inch of the design of the great dam from the sluice gates and the
drainage holes to the complete vertical section. He had no patience with
mistakes and Jim took his grilling in silence, for the fat little man
showed a deep knowledge of the technical side of dam building that
reduced the cub engineer to a humble pulp.

Also, Jim discovered that Tuck was an old Yale man and that his
avocation in life seemed to be tennis. The engineers had a good court in
the woods and after Tuck found that Jim liked the game, he took the boy
over to the court every afternoon before supper and beat him with
monotonous regularity. And Jim was a good player.

The dam was far from civilization and the engineers welcomed Jim,
although they treated him with the jocularity that his youth and
inexperience demanded. The novelty of his environment, the romance of
the great gray dam, built with such frightful risk and difficulty,
absorbed Jim for the first week or so. He had no thought of homesickness
until the excitement of his new work began to recede. And then, quite
unexpectedly, it descended on him like a leaden cloud.

The longing for home! The helpless, hopeless sickness of the heart for
dear familiar faces! The seeing of alien places through tear-dimmed
eyes, the answering to strange voices with an aching throat, and the
poignancy of memory! Jim's mind dwelt monotonously on the worn spot in
the library hearth rug where he and Uncle Denny had spent so many, many
hours. There was the crack in the brown teapot that his mother would not
discard because she had poured Big Jim's tea from it. There was Uncle
Denny's rich Irish voice, "Ah, Still Jim, me boy!" And there was
Pen--dear, dear Penelope, with her woman's eyes in her child's
face--with her halo of hair. Pen's "Take me with you, Still," was the
very peak of sorrow now to the boy. Jim was homesick. And he who has not
known homesickness does not know one of life's most exquisite griefs.

It seemed to Jim now that he hated the Big Country. At night in his tent
he was conscious of the giant dam lying so silent in the darkness and it
made him feel helpless and alone. By day he hid his unhappiness, he
thought. He worked doggedly and did not guess that Charlie Tuck
understood that many times he saw the designs for the wonderful bronze
gates of the sluicing tunnel over which Charlie heckled him for days,
through tear-dimmed eyes.

The camp was lighted by electricity. Jim would sit watching the lights
flare up after supper, watching the night shift on the broad top of the
dam which was as wide as a street and try to pretend that the noise and
the light and the figures belonged to 23rd street. Jim was sitting so in
the door of his tent one night after nearly a month in camp. He held his
pipe but could not smoke because of the ache in his throat. He had not
been there long when Charlie Tuck came up the trail and with a nod sat
down beside Jim.

"Let me have a light," he said. "The fellows are having a rough house
over in the office tonight. Why don't you go over?"

"I don't feel like it, somehow," replied Jim.

Tuck nodded. "You may have hated New York while you lived there, but it
looks good now, eh?"

"Yes," answered Jim.

"You'll feel better when the Boss begins to give you some
responsibility. Were you ever up in the Makon country, Manning?"

"No," said Jim.

"Don't strain yourself talking," commented Tuck, sarcastically. "You are
rather given to blathering, I see. Well, the Makon country wants a dam.
It wants it bad but the Service doesn't see how to get in there. There
is a big valley that has been partially farmed for years. It is
enormously fertile, but there is only enough water in it to irrigate a
limited number of farms.

"Now, ten miles to the north, is the Makon river that never fails of
water. But as near as anyone can find out the only feasible place for
damming it is somewhere in a beastly canyon that no man has ever gone
through alive. The river is treacherous and the country would make this
look as well manicured as the Swiss Alps."

Jim listened intently. Charlie Tuck pulled at his pipe for a time, then
he said: "My end of this job is about finished. I like the exploring end
of the work best, anyhow. I was with the Geological Survey for ten years
before the Reclamation Service was created. I made the preliminary
surveys for this project and for the Whitson. I tell you, Manning,
that's the greatest work in the world--getting out into the wilderness
and finding the right spot for civilization to come and thrive. There's
where you get a sense of power that makes you feel like a Pilgrim
Father. The Reclamation Service is a great pipe dream. Some of the
finest men in the country are in it today and nobody knows it."

"Like Mr. Freet," said Jim.

Jim thought that Tuck hesitated for a moment before he answered. "Yes,
and a dozen others. I consider it a privilege to work with them. Say,
Manning, if some way they could find the right level in that canyon and
drive a tunnel through its solid granite walls, they could send the
Makon over into the valley."

"Why doesn't the Service send a man to explore the crevice?" asked Jim.

"That's what I say!" cried Tuck. "Just because a lot of cold feet claim
it can't be done, just because no man has come through that crevice
alive, is no reason one won't. Say, Manning, if I can get the Service to
send me up there, will you go with me?"

"Me!" gasped Jim.

Tuck nodded in his gentle way. "Yes, you see I like you. You are more
congenial than most of the fellows here to me. On a trip like that you
want to be mighty sure you like the fellow you are going to be with.
Then I think you would learn more on a trip like that than in a year of
the sort of work Freet plans for you. And last, because I think you've
got the same kind of feeling for the Service that I have though you've
been here so short a time. It's something that's born in you. What do
you say, Manning?"

Jim never had felt so flattered in his life. And Adventure called to him
like a ship to a land-locked mariner.

"Gee!" he cried, "but you're good to ask me, Mr. Tuck! Bet your life
I'll go!"

Tuck emptied his pipe and rose. "I'll go see Freet now and persuade him
to get busy with the Chief in Washington. One thing, Manning. It will be
a dangerous undertaking. We may not come through alive. You must get
used to the idea, though, that every Project demands its toll of deaths.
People don't realize that. Are you willing to go, knowing the risk?"

With all the valor of youth and ignorance, Jim answered, "I'm ready to
start now."

Mr. Freet was not adverse to the undertaking and the Washington office
shrugged its shoulders. The Project engineer talked seriously to Jim,
though, about the danger of the mission and insisted that he write home
about it before finally committing himself. Jim's letter home, however,
would have moved a far more stolid spirit than Uncle Denny, for he
sketched the danger hazily and dwelt at length on the honor and glory of
the undertaking. The reply from the brownstone front was as enthusiastic
as Jim could desire.

Tuck undertook the preparations for the expedition with the utmost care.
Only the two of them were to go. The outfit must be such as they could
handle themselves, yet as complete as possible. Two folding canvas
boats, two air mattresses, life preservers, waterproof bags, first aid
appliances, brandy, sweet oil, surveying implements, food in as compact
form as possible, guns and fishing tackle made a formidable pile for two
men to manage. But at Jim's protest Charlie answered grimly that they
would not be heavily laden when they came out of the canyon.

It was mid-August when the two men reached the Makon country. They
arranged with a rancher to take them and their outfit up to the river.
There was no road, scarcely even a trail up to the canyon. The green of
the ranches was encircled by a greasewood-covered plain that, toward the
river, became rock covered and rough so that a wagon was out of the
question and the sturdy pack horses themselves could move but slowly.

Jim's first view of the Makon Canyon was of a black rift in a rough
brown sea of sand, with a blue gray sky above. As the little pack train
drew nearer he saw that the walls of the rift were weathered and broken
into fissures and points of seeming impassable roughness. So deep and
so craggy were these walls that the river a half mile below could be
seen only at infrequent intervals. The labor of getting into the crevice
would be quite as difficult, Jim thought, as going through it.

They made camp that night close beside the canyon edge. Early the next
morning the rancher left them and Charlie and Jim prepared to get
themselves and their outfit down over the mighty, bristling walls.
Lowering each other and the packs by ropes, sliding, rolling, jumping,
crawling, it was night before they reached the river's edge, where they
made camp. There was a narrow sandy beach with a cottonwood tree growing
close to the granite wall. Under this they put their air mattresses and
built their fire.

Jim did not like the feeling of nervousness he had in realizing how deep
they were below the desert and how narrow and oppressive were the canyon
walls. He was glad that the strenuous day sent them off to bed and to
sleep as soon as they had finished supper. They were up at dawn.

Charlie's purpose was to work down the river, surveying as he went until
he found a level where the river would flow through a tunnel out onto
the valley. And this level, too, must be at a point where construction
work was possible. The river was incredibly rough and treacherous. From
the first they packed everything in waterproof bags. The canvas canoes
were impractical. The river was full of hidden rock and by the third day
the second canoe was torn to pieces and they were depending on rafts
made from the air mattresses.

After the canoes were gone, they spent practically all the daylight in
the water, swimming or wading and towing or pushing the mattresses. The
water was very cold but they were obliged to work so hard that they
scarcely felt the chill until they made camp at night. Jim discovered
that a transit could be used in a cauldron of water or on a peak of rock
where a slip meant instant death or clinging to steep walls that
threatened rock slide at the misplacing of a pebble.

One arduous task was the locating of a camp at night. The second night
in the camp they were lucky. They found a broad ledge in a spot that at
first seemed hopeless, for the blank walls appeared here almost to meet
above the deep well of water. There was a little driftwood on the ledge
and they had a fire. The following two nights they were less fortunate.
The best they could find were chaotic heaps of fallen rock on which to
lay their mattresses, and they slept with extreme discomfort.

The fifth day was a black day. They were swimming slowly behind their
laden mattresses through deep, smooth black water when, without warning,
the river curved and swept over a small fall into heavy rapids.
Instantly the mattresses were whirling like chips. The two men fought
like mad to tow them to a rock ledge, the only visible landing place the
crevice had to offer. But long before this haven was reached the
mattresses were torn to shreds and Jim and Charlie were glad to reach
the ledge with their surveying instruments and two bags of "grub." Here
they sat dripping and exhausted. It was nearly dark. Night set in early
in the canyon. They dared not try to look for a better camping ground
that night. The ledge was just large enough for the two of them, with
what remained of their dunnage.

Charlie grinned. "Welcome to our city. Well, it's as good as a Pullman
berth at that."

"And no harder to dress on," said Jim, standing up carefully and
beginning to peel off his wet clothes. "I guess if we wring these duds
out and rub with alcohol, they won't feel so cold."

Charlie rose and began to undress gingerly. "You can stand up to make
your toilet," he said, "which is more than the Pullman offers you."

They ate a cold canned supper and afterward, as they sat shivering, Jim
said, "If we fail to locate the dam site, no one will have any sympathy
with our troubles."

"We will find it," said Charlie with the calm certainty he never had
lost. "Jupiter looks as big as a dinner plate down here. Sometimes when
I look at the stars I wonder what is the use of this kind of work."

Jim looked up at the stars which seemed almost within hand touch. Their
nearness was an unspeakable comfort to the two in the crevice. He spoke
slowly but with unusual ease. Charlie Tuck had grown very near to him in
the past few days.

"I've had a feeling," he said, "ever since we actually got down here and
on the job, that I'm doing the thing I've always been intended to do. I
don't know how I got that feeling because I've always lived in towns."

"I feel that way every time I go out exploring," answered Tuck. "I can
stand the draughting board just so long and then I break loose. I
suppose someone has got to do these jobs and there is always someone
willing to take the responsibility. Kipling calls it being a Son of
Martha. Do you know those verses?"

"No," said Jim. "I'd like to hear them."

Charlie chuckled. "Me reciting Kipling is like hearing a 'co-ed
yell'--it's the only poem I know, though, and here goes. The Sons of

'--say to the Mountains, Be ye removed! They say to the lesser floods,
run dry!
Under their rods are the rocks reproved. They are not afraid of that
which is high.
Then do the hilltops shake to their summits, then is the bed of the deep
laid bare,
That the Sons of Mary may overcome it, pleasantly sleeping and unaware.

They do not preach that their God will rouse them a little before the
nuts break loose,
They do not teach that His pity allows them to leave their work whenever
they choose.
As in the thronged and the lighted ways, so in the dark and the desert
they stand,
Wary and watchful all their days that their brethren's days may be long
in the land.

Lift ye the stone or cleave the wood to make a path more fair or flat,
Lo, it is black already with blood some Son of Martha spilled for that.
Not as a ladder from Earth to Heaven, not as an altar to any creed,
But simple Service, simply given, to their own kind, in their
common need.'"

The two men sat in silence after Charlie had finished until he said: "If
I were you I'd read Kipling a good deal. He's good food for a man of
your type. People don't realize what their comforts cost. I hope that
when I die it will be on a Son of Martha job. I'm built that way. My
people were New Englanders, then middle west pioneers, and now here I
am, still breaking the wilderness."

Jim sat with his heart swelling with he knew not what great dream. It
was the divine fire of young sacrifice, the subtle sense of devotion
that has made men since the world began lay down their lives for the
thing not seen with the eye.

"I wish you'd teach me those verses," said Jim. "We've got to keep awake
or roll off the ledge."

And so the night passed.

The next day the way was unspeakably difficult. They made progress
slowly and heavily, clambering from rock to rock, clinging to the walls,
fighting through rapids. It was past mid afternoon when they ran a level
in a spot of surpassing grandeur. A rock slide had sent a great heap of
stone into the river. Close beside this they set the transit. Forward
the river swept smoothly round a curve. Back, the two looked on a
magnificent series of flying buttresses of serrated granite, their bases
guarding the river, their tops remotely supporting the heavens. The
buttresses nearest the rock heap and on opposite sides of the river were
not two rods apart.

They ran the levels carefully and then looked at each other in silence.
Then they made another reading and again looked at each other. Then they
packed the transit into its rubber bag, sat down on the rock heap and
gazed at the marching, impregnable line of buttresses.

"It will be even higher than the Green Mountain and a hundred times
more difficult to build," said Charlie, softly.

"She'll be a wonder, won't she!" exclaimed Jim. "The Makon dam. It will
be the highest in the world."

"Granite and concrete! Some beauty that! Eternal as the hills!" said
Charlie. "We will make camp and finish the map here."

They lay long, looking at the stars that night. "Some day," said Jim,
"there will be a two hundred feet width of concrete wall right where we
are lying. Doesn't it make you feel a little hollow in your stomach to
think that you and I have decreed where it shall be?"

"Yes," said Charlie. "It's a good spot, Manning. I hope I get a chance
to lay out the road down here. They will have to blast it out of the
solid granite. It will eat money up to make it."

"Let me in on it, won't you," pleaded Jim.

"Well, slightly!" exclaimed Charlie. "Now for a good night's sleep. We
ought to be out in three days. That will make ten days in all, just what
I planned."

Jim hardly knew Charlie the next day. No college freshman on his first
holiday ever acted more outrageously. He sang ancient college songs that
reverberated in the canyon like yells on a football field. He stood
solemnly on his head on the top of rock pinnacles. He crowned himself
and Jim with wreaths made of water cress that he found on a tiny sandy
beach. When they were obliged to take to the water he pretended that he
was an alligator and made uncouth sounds and lashed the water with the
grub bag in lieu of a tail.

Late in the afternoon, while they were swimming through a whirlpool, he
insisted on giving Jim a lecture on the gentle art of bee-hunting as he
had seen it practiced in Maine.

"Now we will pretend that I am the bee!" he shouted at Jim. "You will
admit that I look like one! I am drunk with honey and I hang to the comb

He caught a point of rock with one hand and lazily waved the other.

"This is my proboscis," he explained.

"For heaven's sake, be careful!" yelled Jim. "This is no blooming
ten-cent show! Keep both hands on the rock and climb up for a rest."

Charlie suddenly went white. "God! I've got cramp!" he screamed. "Both
legs. Help me, Manning!"

He struggled to get his free hand on the rock, but the water tore at him
like a ravening beast and he lost his hold. Jim swam furiously after
him. The white head showed for a moment, then disappeared around a turn
of the wall.

Next: The Broken Seal

Previous: The Marathon

Add to Informational Site Network

Viewed 399