The big engine

Crack! Crack! Crack! The big engine smashed the rails like paper

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Reprinted from The Youth's Companion, September 16, 1926. Submitted by Wayne D. Jacobs, 220 N. Water St., Pinconning, MI 48650

There is a certain part of Indiana where the soil is so productive and the climate conditions so favorable that it bears the name of 'Sugarland.' Indeed, it has borne this name so long that many people living there and in the surrounding country know none other for it. It is bounded on one side by a county line, on another by a town, on another by a river, and on the fourth by a state road.

Threshing men always made an effort to clean up neighboring 'sets' as quickly as possible and get into that section, because the wheat yielded more, and because the 'sets' a set is the amount of wheat threshed on one farm were large and close together, which reduced to a minimum the amount of 'pulling' from one farm to another. Moreover, the roads were better. In fact any threshing man could give a large number of reasons why threshing was most profitable there.

These very advantages were the cause of much friction among threshing men and of dissatisfaction among the farmers. Sometimes there were eight or ten different 'rigs' in the community a condition that was objectionable because it prevented the farmers from helping one another. Moreover, the threshing men always rushed the work in order to get as much of the 'picking' as possible, and consequently much of the valuable grain was 'blown over' into the straw pile. Many straw stacks became green with sprouted wheat after a few rains.

When they had endured these conditions for some time, the farmers finally found them so disagreeable that they met to decide upon a remedy. The result was that every man who owned or controlled a threshing rig, and who intended making Sugarland his goal, received a letter.

Clem Ward sat on the doorstep of his home, frowning over a letter the mail carrier had just left. He was a clean cut young fellow of twenty, working on his father's farm during the summer to pay his expenses during the winter in an agricultural college.

Rising, he went into the house and laid the letter before his father.

'Read that, Dad,' he said. 'I thought it was for me, our names being the same.'

His father read aloud:

Dear Sir: Owing to the unsatisfactory conditions that result from a large number of threshing rigs coming into this locality every year, we have decided to give the entire amount of wheat to be threshed in this settlement to the first machine that pulls in.

It was signed by the secretary of the farmers' corporation of Sugarland.

His father was astounded. 'We're in a nice fix, aren't we? Three sets here to make and our drum smashed!' He referred to an accident that had occurred two days before when a pitch fork had gone through the machine and played havoc with the big drum. 'And we can't get those repairs before day after tomorrow.'

'Yes, and Big Ike's rig has only two days here, and he's at it now,' said Clem, pointing to a spiral of smoke half a mile distant. 'Even if we didn't have a bundle to thresh here, we couldn't get those repairs in time to get into Sugarland ahead of him. We'll be the last ones to pull in. I suppose we shall have to pull round over these hills and thresh about a thousand bushels a day and make enough to pay our expenses.'

'I'm afraid it can't be helped, Clem,' said Mr. Ward, 'but let's go over to the machine. Maybe we can patch her up without the repairs.'

The new separator was at a neighbor's a quarter of a mile distant, where the accident had occurred. When they arrived Clem stopped, looked at the wide mouth of the cylinder and said despairingly: 'Think of it! That big mouth just hungry for wheat and capable of taking and digesting more than any machine hereabouts, and knocked out by a little old pitchfork! Shucks!'

He followed his father round to the rear of the machine, and together they viewed the damage. It was hopelessly beyond repair without new parts. The cylindrical covering was ripped half open where the fork had emerged, and half of the blades of the fans were demolished.

'It's no use, Dad,' said Clem hopelessly.

'Guess not, let's go back to the house.'

Across the field came the short blasts from Big Ike's machine, calling for, 'More wheat! More wheat! More wheat!' Both carefully refrained from noticing it.

'I wish that we had asked them to send those repairs by express,' said Clem earnestly. 'They'll send them by freight, and it'll take a week. Today's Thursday, and they can't get here before Saturday at the earliest.'

'No use to wish, son,' said Mr. Ward with a note of discouragement in his voice.

That evening about eight o'clock Clem was sitting on the doorstep, brooding, when a buggy stopped at the gate.

'That you, Clem?' said a neighbor. 'I was in town this afternoon, and the station agent said a telegram had just come in for you, and he asked me to bring it out.' He handed Clem an envelope.

'Much obliged, George,' said the boy. 'Maybe I can favor you some day.'

'Don't mention it, Clem,' returned the man as he drove away.

Clem tore open the envelope on the way to the house. As he came into the light he took in the contents at a glance. It was from the machine company and read: 'Shipped goods by express, knowing value of time at this season. Should arrive fourteenth.'

Clem dashed into the house. 'What day of the month is this?' he cried to his father.

'Why the fourteenth; but what's all this noise about?'

'Read that!' Clem handed him the telegram and dashed out. Presently the sputtering of his motorcycle shattered the air and then rose to a roar as he shot down the road toward town.

When the shaft of light from his headlight reappeared, coming from town, it fell upon Mr. Ward, waiting at the roadside near the place where the machine was.

Clem drew up and threw a bag on the ground that clinked of steel. 'I got it!' he cried

They proceeded directly to the machine and by the rays of the lantern installed the new parts.

'I guess the old girl will be on her feet again tomorrow,' said Clem as he patted the now neatly repaired drum, 'but we've got to hustle. We've three regular days work here, and Big Ike has only two.'

'We'll have to start early,' said his father. 'Let's go home and call the men so that they can be on hand early in the morning.'

The next morning long before day Clem was feeding coal into the fire box of the big thirty-five horsepower engine, and before sunup the whistle, under a hundred and fifty pounds of steam, was hoarsely calling the men to work.

Across the fields came an answering whistle from Big Ike's rig; it seemed that he also had received a letter. As the men had been informed of the situation, they wasted no time in rolling in the wheat.

'We'll choke your old rig up so full you'll never get her empty,' jestingly remarked the neighbor who had brought the telegram to Clem the evening before.

'Try it,' said Clem, with a grin; 'you're welcome.' His confidence in the machine was not misplaced. The big cylinder swallowed, nonchalantly, all the wheat the men could throw into it and seemed always to be calling for more.

'That machine is sure some feeder, Clem,' said the farmer for whom they were threshing. 'Never saw one that would take so much wheat; it's turning out good too.'

Clem was a good engineer; and no better separator man than his father ever looked into a cylinder. In addition to that their rig was not equalled in that country. But they had a task ahead of them three days' work to do in two, and possibly less. Big Ike was sure to speed his crew, even though he had the lead of a day. He was the only competitor that was likely to prove dangerous.

Mr. Ward's crew had three sets to make, including the one they were now on. Ordinarily it would require three days, but they planned by exerting themselves to the utmost to finish in two. The set they were on would require until the middle of the afternoon, the pulling to and threshing of the second would involve the remainder of the day, while there was a full day's work at the third.

Clem watched the diminishing number of shocks closely. They were disappearing at an unusually rapid rate, but to him it seemed exactly the reverse. By the middle of the afternoon, however, the last bundle was thrown into the feeder; barely had the separator cleared itself before Clem threw off the belt, coupled up and rumbled down the road to the second set.

They finished the second set by working until ten o'clock in the evening. Then, after eating, Clem and his father returned to the engine and prepared to pull to the last set in order to get an early start on the following morning.

'You're not going to pull tonight, are you?' asked the owner of the farm.

'Yes. Got to,' was Clem's cheerful reply. 'We've got to finish that job of Mr. Brown's tomorrow.'

'Say, I'd like to know why you fellows are in such a thundering hurry! I was past Big Ike's rig this afternoon as I came from town, and he sure is sending that old rig of his for all it's worth. Says he'll finish by four or take off the governor belt and let her run.'

'That's why we've got to go some,' replied Clem, and he explained the situation.

'Sam Hill!' said the farmer, as he watched the rig rumble away.

The next morning Clem approached the farmer for whom they were to thresh. 'Mr. Brown,' he began, 'we've got to finish this set by four o'clock. Will you put on a couple of extra haulers?'

'By four o'clock!' exclaimed the man, who was an eccentric old fellow. 'Great Scott, boy! I didn't expect you to finish until tomorrow.'

'But we've got to beat Big Ike, over there.' And he again explained the situation.

'We'll beat him or break a hamstring!' cried the old man. 'I'll keep the men in water!' And off he dashed to his buggy, in which he hauled water to the field for the men.

The men worked with a will, and with the two additional helpers they kept the big mouth of the separator full. Indeed, they kept it so full that occasionally the steady drone of the cylinder decreased. Clem, who was always watchful, opened the throttle of the engine a little wider and smiled as the drone rose again to its accustomed note.

The old farmer drove up with his horse in a gallop. 'Great Scott!' he ejaculated. 'The boys are absorbing a powerful lot of water!'

He unloaded the two big jugs of water, replaced them with two empty ones and drove away at a gallop.

Work as hard as they might, by noon the field was only half finished. The old farmer put two more wagons in the field; he also kept six men pitching to the machine.

'Guess we'll have to take out the dividing board, Dad,' said Clem with a grin. 'I've tied down the safety valve.'

The dividing board kept an over-supply of bundles from entering the cylinder. It was removed, and the men who sacked the grain were all but overwhelmed by the deluge that poured out.

Mr. Ward came round where Clem was firing. 'Takes some coal to keep up steam,' said Clem, wiping his brow, 'but that separator is a dandy. I don't believe that enough men could get round it to choke it down.'

His father smiled. 'Seems as if this engine is doing pretty well too. How's your water?'

'It's getting pretty low,' replied Clem seriously. 'I've been expecting the tank for half an hour.'

Mr. Ward looked at the gauge. 'I should say it is!' he exclaimed. 'There isn't a sixteenth of an inch of water showing. Don't hold out too long, Clem; there have been many accidents of this kind. If the tank doesn't arrive in a quarter of an hour, shut down.'

'All right, Dad, but I hate to be beaten now,' he said as he stepped to the whistle and began signaling for water.

Just then the old farmer drove up. 'What's the matter? Isn't your tanker showing up?'

'No,' said Clem ruefully, 'and I'll have to shut down pretty soon unless he does.' And he pointed to the gauge.

'Great Scott! I'll get him.' And off the old man went at a mad gallop in search of the water-hauler.

Clem went to the tool wagon, secured two jacks and proceeded to jack up the fore part of the engine. The purpose of this was to keep as much water round the walls of the fire box as possible.

Mr. Ward came round about fifteen minutes later. 'Hasn't the water got here yet?'

'No. I'll hold out just five minutes more, and then if he doesn't come I'll shut down.'

At the expiration of five minutes Clem was just reaching for the throttle when the water wagon appeared with the old farmer driving.

'Much obliged, Mr. Brown,' he said. 'You're just in time. What was the matter with the tanker?'

'It wasn't all his fault I saw somebody that looked a lot like Big Ike going over the hill as I came up. One of the boys that has just come from there says he's broke a swinger and will lose about an hour guess he wanted to stop you awhile too.'

'Well, I guess he won't this time,' said Clem grimly, as he admitted the water very slowly into the boiler.

For the next two hours the big separator devoured the wheat in monster mouthfuls. Clem kept a heavy head of steam and never allowed the motion to slacken. Just before four o'clock the men tossed the last bundle into the cylinder and Clem shut down the engine and climbed upon the separator, where his father stood.

'Two thousand bushels!' exclaimed Clem, pointing to the grain tally. 'That's going some; but I expect we'd better get out of here. I'm looking for Big Ike to come over the hill any time.'

He ran back to the engine, coupled up to the separator and pulled out on the road that led to Sugarland. This road forked about an eighth of a mile beyond their present position; the two forks came together again only a few rods from the state road that formed the southern boundary of Sugarland. One of the roads was more than a mile shorter, but the other was more level.

'Dad,' said Clem as his father climbed up beside him and took the steering wheel, 'which road shall we take?'

'Which do you say?' asked his father.

'Well, the lower is more than a mile farther, but the upper fork is rough and hilly, and I believe we will make time by taking the lower fork.'

'I think so too,' replied his father.

Knowing that Big Ike still had a chance of taking the upper road and perhaps beating them, Clem kept the engine hot 'popping off' a great part of the time. The speed if a traction engine has speed they made was remarkable. About eight miles down the road a short but very steep hill curved down to a bridge directly at its foot. Travelers descending the hill could not see the bridge until they rounded the curve within a few feet of it.

Clem had the engine 'wide open' and rolled down the slope round the curve rapidly. His attention was focused on the engine, while his father, who was steering, watched the road.

'Reverse her, Clem!' he suddenly shouted.

Clem snatched the lever back and set the engine in reverse. The shock of the sudden reverse was so violent and the strain so great that for a second or two it seemed that the gears would be stripped. However, the engine halted a scant yard from the bridge. They both jumped down to examine the bridge.

'That's queer,' said Mr. Ward. 'George Cohan was over this road an hour ago and said nothing about this.'

Clem pointed to one of the supports, which bore evidence of the hasty use of an axe. 'Looks to me as if it had been knocked down purposely,' he said.

They crossed the ditch, in which less than a foot of water was running.

'Look here, Dad,' said Clem, pointing to the imprint left by a light automobile tire, which had been turned round at that point. 'Whoever did it came in a car.'

'Perhaps the car came after the bridge was down and had to turn round.'

'Maybe,' assented Clem, 'but they could have crossed a little below. And what do you think of this?' He stooped and picked up a heavy leather glove, black with grease and oil. 'Nobody but some one that works round an engine has such a glove as this.'

'You're right, but let's try to get out. We can't back up the hill.'

'I believe we can shovel the banks down and fill the ditch with fence rails and get across.'

'Good idea; we'll try it anyway.'

They worked like beavers and in less than an hour had the ditch well filled with rails and cemented with moist soil. Clem climbed upon the engine, guided it carefully down upon the rails and then opened the throttle to its fullest extent.

Crack! Crack! Crack! The big engine smashed the rails like paper, but it went over, dragging the separator after it. When they were safely across Clem drew a deep breath of relief. His father took the wheel, and they moved on.

They were within a quarter of a mile of the point at which the upper and the lower road joined when Clem, who had been watching the other road for some time, pointed to a burst of smoke that suddenly appeared over a small hill.

'Big Ike!' he exclaimed.

'And he is two hundred yards nearer the line than we are, and has a down grade,' said his father.

Sure enough, the rig that appeared was Big Ike's; he had them hopelessly beaten, it appeared.

'He couldn't have done it if his dirty tricks hadn't helped him,' said Clem despairingly, sitting down on a coal box.

Big Ike was within twenty rods of the line where the upper and the lower roads came together when a large load of hay approached him. The road was narrow, but there was sufficient room to allow them to pass, by careful driving. Big Ike had now seen Clem and Mr. Ward, and he had even waved his hand sardonically. As the hayrack pulled toward him he began to shout to the driver to pull out of the way. Big Ike was 'hogging the road'; he seemed determined not to slacken his pace or to pull out to the side. Apparently he expected the hay wagon to turn and go back to the state highway. But the team was young, and the two horses suddenly became frightened at the iron monster puffing and rumbling toward them. The driver tried to urge them on, but, whirling suddenly to the right, they upset the load of hay squarely in the middle of the road.

Big Ike yelled loudly and shut down his engine just in time to prevent a collision. For a moment he seemed about to attempt to drive his machine round the wreck, but, seeing the futility of such a move, he stood scowling in his tracks and watched Clem and Mr. Ward drive over the line into the state road.

The earnings of the Wards that season far exceeded the expectations that Clem had entertained at the outset, but what pleased father and son still more was that their big new machine did such excellent service in those rich wheat fields that the farmers of Sugarland unanimously agreed to give them the contract for succeeding years as long as they wanted it.

'Think of it! That big mouth just hungry for wheat and capable of taking and digesting more than any machine hereabouts, and knocked out by a little old pitchfork! Shucks!'

Clem snatched the lever back and set the engine in reverse. The shock of the sudden reverse was so violent and the strain so great that for a second or two it seemed that the gears would be stripped.