John Gregg's home was in Maryland. His father and mother were dead, and he lived on a farm with his married sister.
One afternoon when he was about twelve years old he was sent on an errand to the nearest town. The day was quite warm and he followed the shortest path, which led him after a while to the tracks of the railroad. A great rain had fallen in the morning and every brook and rivulet was full of muddy, rushing water.
As John went merrily tripping along the tracks he came suddenly upon that which made him stop in surprise. At a point where an angry brook went tearing along by the side of the road the embankment had given way. The ties were out of place and one of the rails seemed almost ready to fall into the brook.
"What if a train should come now?" was the boy's first thought.
As if in answer to his question the whistle of an engine was faintly heard far down the road. He knew that it was just time for the Colonial express to pass that place. He knew that it was running at the rate of a mile a minute and that scores of lives were in danger. Without stopping to think, he pulled off his coat and ran swiftly along the tracks to meet the train. He swung his coat wildly above his head and shouted with all his might. But who could hear his voice above the rumble and roar of the great express?
The engineer saw the lad. He threw on the emergency brakes. The train stopped so quickly that the passengers were thrown out of their seats.
"What's the matter, boy?" cried the engineer, half angrily.
"Wash—out—down there. Track—caved in—thought I'd tell you," gasped the boy, all out of breath.
The engineer leaped from the cab, and running forward a few paces was horrified to see the danger his train had escaped. He hurried back just as the passengers came rushing from the coaches.
"A narrow escape," he said, pointing to the washout. "If it hadn't been for this boy, we'd have been dead men. But where is the boy?"
"Yes, where is the boy?" echoed the passengers. But no boy was to be found.
As soon as John Gregg had answered the engineer's question, he had dodged into the woods and was now hurrying away on his errand.
"Where is the boy who saved the Colonial express and the lives of perhaps a hundred passengers?" was the question which many people asked during the next few days. The officers of the railroad sent out a man to find him.
"It must have been an angel," said some; "for what mere boy would do such a thing and not be running everywhere and boasting about it?"
The engineer's description of the lad was repeated to the farmers in the neighborhood.
"Why, that fits Johnnie Gregg better'n any other boy I know," said one.
"Yes," said another, "and now that you speak of it, I do remember seeing Johnnie go past my house that very afternoon. I rather reckon it must have been Johnnie. He's a bashful lad, and never puts himself forward."
"Where does this Johnnie Gregg live?" asked the railroad man.
"Oh, he lives with his married sister a matter of three miles from here. Follow the main road, and you can't help but find the place. It's the second white house after you pass the third corner."
The man, after getting some further directions, drove on. He found the house without trouble.
"I want to see the boy known as Johnnie Gregg," he said.
Soon a bright-faced lad in knickerbockers came into the room.
"Is your name John Gregg?"
"Are you the lad that saved the Colonial express a few weeks ago?"
"I—I told the engineer about the washout."
"Do you know that you saved the lives of a number of passengers besides a great deal of property for the railroad company?"
John blushed and twisted his legs uneasily. "I only told the engineer about it," he answered.
"Well, at any rate," said the man, "you did a noble deed and the officers of the railroad are very grateful to you. I am authorized to say that your name will be placed on the company's pay roll and that you can go through any college you choose at their expense. Don't you think you would like to go to college, Johnnie?"
"I am sure I don't know," he answered. He had never heard much about colleges; he didn't exactly know what they were like.
"If you would rather learn a trade," said the man, "the company will help you to learn the very best and will pay all the cost. Do you think of any trade you would like?"
Johnnie blushed and fidgeted. He had never given much thought to such things, and the question was hard to answer. At last he said, "I guess I'd rather be a fireman than anything else."
"We'll not hurry you for a decision," said the man. "Your pay will begin with the day you saved the train, and you may have a year to make up your mind as to what you would rather do. Good-by, and God bless you!"