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James Baldwin

A Quick-Witted Mountain Girl

On a hillside overlooking a deep ravine in Colorado stood the little brown house which Nora O'Neill called her home. There was very little level ground near it. The front yard sloped downward, five hundred feet or more, to a broad ledge of solid rock at the foot of which was a railroad track. On the farther side of the track the land again dipped steeply down to the bottom of the ravine, where ran a roaring mountain stream. At the back of the house the hill rose mountain high and was covered with a dense growth of stunted trees and straggling underwoods.

One evening as Nora was helping her mother with the kitchen work they heard a rumbling, rattling sound on the railroad track below them.

"What is that, mother?" asked Nora, running to the door to listen.

"Oh, it's nothing but the handcar going back to town with the men," answered her mother, whose hearing was by no means the sharpest.

"Well, I never heard it make that kind of noise," said Nora. "It sounded more like a coal wagon unloading coal, and not at all like the handcar. I have a notion to go down and see what it was."

"Nonsense, Nora," said her mother. "You're only wanting to shirk your work. Look at the clock. It's just about the time the men always go back. They'll barely get to the station and lift the car off the track before the Rio Grande express goes by."

Nora said no more. She finished her work and then went to the door to listen for the coming express. Soon she heard a faint whistle echoing down the valley through the dusky twilight. The train was skirting the farther side of the great bend and, by way of the winding road, was still several miles distant. Nora ran down to the side of the track to wait for its coming. She had done this every evening through the summer and it was a source of much enjoyment to her. She liked to see the great coaches glide past, each one brilliant with light and full of well-dressed travelers.

"I wonder where all those people come from and where they are going," she often said to herself.

She was scarcely halfway down to the track when she was surprised to see something like a dark shadow lying across it. What could it be?

She hastened her footsteps. Soon it was all plain to her. A big bowlder with several smaller rocks had become loosened from its place above and had slid down upon the rails. No doubt it had fallen soon after the handcar had passed down, and it was this which she and her mother had heard.

What should she do? The express would be there within less than five minutes. There was no time for thought.

She pushed against the bowlder [boulder] with all her strength. She might as well have pushed against the mountain itself, and this she knew in a moment.

Then she turned and ran back toward the house faster than you or I could run up so steep a hill.

"Quick, mother, quick!" she cried. "The oil can! the oil can!"

As she ran she picked up a stick of dry pine that was lying by the path. The can of kerosene was in its usual place. She seized it and dashed the oil over one end of the stick. She had seen her father do this once when he was in haste for a light. It was his way of making a torch.

"Are you crazy, child?" cried her mother.

But Nora did not hear. She quickly lighted the stick in the fire of the kitchen stove. Then, holding her blazing torch high above her head, she ran down the hill by another path in the direction of the train.

The roar of the great express could now be plainly heard. Nora reached the track not a moment too soon.

"What in the world does that mean?" said the engineer as, peering through the dusk, he saw a girl with a flaming torch standing on the road. He did not know that, just around the next short curve, destruction was lurking. He blew the whistle; the girl did not stir. He threw on the brakes as hard as they would go. The train slowed up suddenly, but not too soon.

Nora leaped aside as the pitiless engine rolled past her. It rolled on around the curve. It came to a standstill just as its pilot struck the great bowlder.

"What is the matter?" cried the passengers, rushing out in great alarm.

"Matter enough," said the engineer. "Do you see that bowlder [boulder] on the tracks? If this girl had not signaled us just in time, the whole train would have gone down into the gully there. We all owe our lives to her."

The passengers crowded around Nora. The women kissed her. The men thanked her a dozen times over. She told her story in answer to their questions. A purse full of silver and greenbacks was offered to her.

"I didn't do it for pay," she said. "And besides, it wasn't much to do. It wasn't worth so much money."

"You have saved perhaps a dozen lives," said the conductor, "and certainly that is a good deal to do. We shall never be able to pay you all that we owe you."

Help soon arrived. The bowlder was removed and the track was repaired. Then the train moved away while more than one of the passengers called down heaven's blessing upon the child whose golden deed had saved their lives that night.