By Helen Hinckley Jones
The Story So Far: When Mother joined the church her brother Angus swore never to see her nor speak to her again. Prudy and John, sensing Mother’s unhappiness, go to California and find Uncle Angus in Sacramento. At first he refuses to return to Ogden with them, but he is a gun maker and when he hears that there may be an opportunity to work with John Moses Browning, a friend of John’s, he promises to return with the children. Before they leave California, however, he makes them promise not to tell Mother he is coming, since he intends to keep his promise of not seeing her.
It was a dark rainy morning the day that Prudy and John left for Ogden, and it was just as gloomy in the Freibers’ kitchen. Sister Freiber wiped her eyes on her apron. “How I’ll ever get along without you, I don’t know,” she said, clinging to Prudy. “You’re surely a good girl to help.”When Prudy had drawn away to bid Brother Freiber good-by, Sister Freiber held her hand out to John. “We’ve been glad to have you, too. Anytime you get down to Sacramento, make yourself welcome here.”
Brother Freiber tried to be jovial but his voice shook a little. “If either of you young ones ever decide to take up with the printing business, just let me know and I’ll send you a ticket down.”
Prudy answered right off, “Thanks, Brother Freiber. Who knows but what we will, sometime.” But John was thoughtful, tugging at his ear as the color rose slowly in his face. “You’ve been kind to us and we appreciate it, but – well, we came to Sacramento to find Uncle Angus and we’ve done that.”
Brother Freiber’s voice dropped a little. “Write me a note if you ever bring him into the Church.”
Prudy laughed but her eyes were serious. “We’ll try to write you a letter long before that,” she promised.
As John and Prudy waited for Uncle Angus in the railroad station out of the increasing downpour, Prudy confided to John, “I do feel a little sad about going home, eager as I am to see Father and Mother and everybody.”
John patted her shoulder. “Remember how we felt when we left Arizona?”
Prudy looked up with a light of mischief in her eyes.”John, I do hope you won’t need too many drinks of water and too many stories on the way back,” she sighed. Then she imitated Sister Freiber, “I was fair worn out on my last journey.” Then she saw Uncle Angus and ran to him calling, “Here we are. We thought you’d never come.”
When they were settled on the train, Uncle Angus facing Prudy and John, he looked at them closely with half lowered lids.”Did you young ones keep your promise to me?”he asked.
“Our promise not to tell Mother that you were coming back with us? We did.” Then Prudy added honestly, “But for a while John and I almost decided to break it. We thought we’d write to Mother and tell her all about everything and ask her to keep it a secret from you – if she ever met you.”
“If!” Uncle Angus said slowly. “I’ve made up my mind not to see her.” He interrupted himself suddenly, looking at their glum faces. “Don’t look like that, you two. I know how you feel about it. You just don’t understand that seeing her would make her think that I didn’t mean what I said that long-ago afternoon in England. And I did. If she wants to see me she can give up her connections with Mormonism. When she does that you can tell me. I’ll keep in touch with you.”
Prudy’s face was sad. “She’ll never do that, Uncle Angus. Never. I know Mother, and I know what it means to her to be a Mormon, but –”
“No if’s, and’s, and but’s,” Uncle Angus said quickly. Then, to change the subject, “It’s raining hard, isn’t it?”
Prudy put her nose against the window. “Yes, it is.” She bounced on the green plush seat. “Glad I’m inside and dry.”
It seemed only a short time until the flat country gave way to the low gray foothills of the Sierra Mountains, and as the train climbed, the rain turned to snow. Prudy turned away from the window. There was no longer any chance of seeing through the blanket of wet snow that stuck to the glass.
At barely four o’clock the conductor came through the car and lighted the shiny, swinging lamps, and all outside looked like a swirling, whirling blue-white blanket. Uncle Angus dozed and John read a book. Prudy studied the passengers in the car.
It seemed to her that a strange feeling had come into the car with the increased fall of snow. A bald-headed man who had been reading a fat magazine ever since the train left Sacramento put it aside and put his nose to the window pane. A woman down two seats, who had been knitting an intricate pattern of thread lace, put it in her bag and reached for a book which she held unopened in her lap while she gazed out through the window. When the red-faced, red haired conductor came through the car he was as jovial as before, but somehow the words he spoke seemed more like a part in a play.
“How’s the going?” the bald-headed man asked him.
The conductor smiled. “Going’s pretty tough,” he admitted. He stopped and leaned on the back of Prudy’s seat. “ This sort of snow reflects the light from the front of the train and about all the engineer can see is a white sheet in front of him.”
“Notice we’re going pretty slow,” a second man put in.
“Yes, we’ll be late all along the way. May be able to pick up a little time if it clears any.”
“Maybe a wind would help,” the bald-headed man said. “I’ve got an appointment at Lovelock and –”
“A wind?” The conductor pursed his lips. “All we need now to make things right dangerous is a rising wind.”
The knitting woman turned around and called excitedly, “Will we make it all right?”
The conductor walked down even with her seat but his voice carried clearly to Prudy’s attentive ears. “Made it through lots worse storms than this,” he reassured the woman.
The woman’s voice was sharp. “You look worried yourself,” she accused.
He laughed but the sound was a little forced. “Don’t know how it is, but the first snow storm every year gives you a funny feeling. No matter how many years you railroad, you always get it.”
The conductor passed into the next car with a great banging of doors. John closed his book. “Prudy, did you hear that?”
“I wonder why he looked worried if he really thinks we’ll make it,” Prudy responded.
With a quick gesture John swept the lock of hair from his eyes. “He is worried. Look around you. Seems like everybody’s getting fidgety.”
Uncle Angus stirred and wakened. “Pretty dark. I must have slept longer than I intended. You young ones want to go into the diner for a real dinner, huh?”
“How late is it?” Prudy asked.
Uncle Angus looked at the big gold watch that hung on the chain which crossed his vest from buttonhole to pocket. “Four o’clock,” he said. “Not time to eat yet. If that fellow comes through the car again we’ll each have an orange. “He pushed his nose against the glass. “Can’t see anything but snow. The Sierras are famous for their blizzards.”
“A blizzard!” Prudy’s eyes grew large.
“Oh, we’ll get through all right,” Uncle Angus said easily. “A railroad is a wonderful invention.”
“But,” John put in surprisingly, “a railroad isn’t any better than the eyes of the engineer.”
The salesman came back and Uncle Angus bought some peanuts and oranges, but they didn’t taste very good. The conductor came through and Uncle Angus stopped him to ask, “Any wind?”
“She’s rising,” he answered. “Wish we were on the other side of the mountain.” He hitched his shoulders nervously as he went on through the car.
Prudy tried to keep her eyes from the other passengers. Nervousness, she decided, is catching. Like small pox or measles. “Uncle Angus, tell us some stories about when you were a child in England.”
“Well, –” Uncle Angus began, searching his memory for something that would divert the children from the other sounds around them. The bald-headed man was telling his seat mate, “And it got so that you couldn’t see your hand before your face, the snow was that thick.” The snow was no longer wet and soft against the glass. Now the flakes were like pellets of ice and struck against the pane with a “ping” that could be heard above the click of the wheels on the rails and the labored breathing of the engine.
At last Uncle Angus said, “Are you hungry? We could eat now.”
Prudy and John answered at once, “Oh, yes.” But even their first meal in a diner with a courteous waiter standing at their elbow as if they were kings and queens, couldn’t take their minds off what was happening outside. When they went back to their car Uncle Angus said, “Time passes faster when you’re asleep.” And he helped them to get comfortable in their blankets. But still the wind roared and the snow pelted the glass, and the engine snorted as it pushed against the force of the storm.
Prudy thought she would never get to sleep. Uncle Angus dozed and John slept with his mouth slightly open and his face flushed against his closed fist. Now the train was barely creeping through the night, but the slowness, instead of giving a feeling of security, emphasized the feeling of danger. At last the train seemed to gather speed. Prudy slept.
The train stopped with a suddenness that threw Prudy and John out of their seats. Prudy awakened with her knees on the floor between her seat and Uncle Angus’s. Her head ached violently from the bang it had received against the arm of the opposite seat. At first she didn’t know whether it was her aching head that was playing tricks on her or if the train was really swaying from side to side like a dizzy person walking a tight rope, but slowly the car settled back onto all of its wheels. Down the car the knitting woman was screaming over and over, “What is it? What is it?” Someone else was crying, “Oh, me, oh, me,” in the most mournful way that Prudy could imagine.
John righted himself and said, “I’m glad we didn’t eat that lunch Sister Freiber put up for us for dinner tonight. If the train is marooned we can last quite a time on what I saw her putting in that basket.”
In spite of herself Prudy laughed. “It won’t go far in feeding the multitude.” But her laughter didn’t last long. People were pushing past them down the aisle and someone was banging at the door crying, “Let us out of here before this car catches on fire!”
Prudy listened to the disjointed, excited talk around her. Nobody had come into the car but already rumors were thick. The train was derailed. A bridge was out. The train had collided with another in the darkness and both were on fire. Her blood tingled. Already Uncle Angus was pushing down the aisle, signing to them to stay in their seat.
Prudy grasped John’s arm so tightly that her knuckles were shining and white. Minute after minute went by and Uncle Angus didn’t come back. “John,” she finally said, her voice high in her excitement, “I’ve got to go outside and see what’s happened.”
“Let’s,” was all John said.
It took just a second to get to the door now; the aisle had emptied and the people were somewhere outside in the darkness. When John pulled the door open a strange thrill of fear shot through Prudy from her knees to her head. Blended with the shrieking of the wind was the crying of a baby, high and eerie, the recurring scream of a woman, a groaning that seemed to be wrenched from several throats. John was swallowed by the swirling snow and Prudy was left alone standing by the train steps.
She thought for a minute of going back into the car where it was warm and safe, but she discarded the idea. Shielding her eyes with her arm she followed the sounds of suffering toward the end of the train. A trainman set a blazing fuse almost in her path and for the first time Prudy saw what had happened. Somehow the last cars of the train had been thrown from the track. They were still lying on their sides in a shallow gully beside the road and men were carrying the injured people to the last car that was still upright on the tracks.
Now Prudy saw the crying baby, a child of a year and a half or a little older. Beside her was a little girl not more than three or four who was trying to comfort him. Prudy knelt to talk to the baby. “What’s the matter?” she asked in a soothing voice.
“Mama, Mama,” the little one wailed and the older child began to cry, too. “She’s gone. She’s gone.”
“Never mind. We’ll find her,” Prudy promised in a voice that carried more assurance than she felt. She picked up the baby and carried it back to the car that she had left, the older child clinging to her coat. She struggled to open the door and a familiar hand reached out and opened it for her.
“John,” she cried, relief in her voice.
“What are you going to do?”
“Tend these children until someone comes to find them,” Prudy answered without hesitation.
“There are others,” John said. “I saw them. Lots of others.”
Still Prudy didn’t hesitate. “Bring them here and I’ll take care of them. Then tell the trainmen where they are so the mothers won’t worry too much.”
John’s answer was lost in the howling of the wind as he turned away.
Inside the car the little one still cried. Prudy opened the lunch basket and brought out a cookie. The child stopped crying and began to munch on it. She handed a cookie to the other child too, and then settled them in the blankets to warm them and began to tell stories to divert their attention from the loss of their mother. In a few minutes John shepherded several other children back to the car. Prudy gave them something to eat from the basket and took off their wet shoes. She confiscated blankets that had been left on the seats and wrapped the little ones in them.
John came back again and then again, and there were now eighteen children in the group. Prudy fed them from the fast-emptying lunch basket. She sang until her throat hurt, told stories until she was hoarse, but still the train men didn’t come to take the little folks back to their parents. She knew that some of the mothers and fathers were among those who were carried on improvised stretchers into the hospital cars. Poor little fellows. She went on singing and talking.
“One little, two little, three little Indians,” she sang, helping one little mite to fold down one finger at a time. She looked up to see Uncle Angus standing close and smiling down at her. She threw back a smile and went on singing.
“My pigeon house I open wide–”
One after another of the little charges fell asleep. It seemed hours before the trainmen came and took one or two of them away at a trip, restoring them to their parents. At last John came in and threw himself down upon a seat. “Well,” he sighed, “the train taking the injured back to California has gone. Those that aren’t hurt so bad are fixed up in the Pullman. And oh, am I hungry! Where’s the basket?”
“The basket’s under the seat,” Prudy answered, “But –”
Uncle Angus looked from Prudy to John. “I just want to ask one thing,” he said slowly. “What gave you two children the courage – and yes, the ability, to – to go ahead with things when other people were frightened and at a loss to know what to do?”
John tugged at his half frozen ear, but Prudy looked up with a hint of mischief in her eyes. “Do you really want to know?”
“I really want to know.”
“But you told us not to tell you, Uncle Angus.”
“What do you mean?” Uncle Angus bent forward to study Prudy’s teasing face.
“It’s being a Latter-day Saint, Uncle Angus.”
“What?” he asked unbelievingly.
“It’s hard to tell you just how it works,” Prudy tried to explain. “But it’s this way. If you’re a Latter-day Saint you learn from the very first that self reliance is a part of your religion, just like reliance on God is. You learn that you can’t expect our Heavenly Father to help you unless you are willing to do everything in your power to help yourself.”
“Yes, go on. I’m willing to listen now.”
“God has given us special knowledge so we can keep our minds bright and our bodies strong. He has given us a chance to use our talents so that they grow with us.” Prudy paused, searching for words. “Like tonight, for instance. I couldn’t have taken care of those children if I hadn’t helped with a Primary class of little children. Oh, I don’t know how to say it, but being a Mormon is having a religion that works every day and it works especially well at times like tonight.”
Uncle Angus was thoughtful. He didn’t say anything for several minutes and then, “God helps those who help themselves,” he said. “I’ve heard that all my life, but I’m just beginning to see how it can tie in with real religion.” He settled back in his seat. “Tell me more about the things you believe in.”
John still was silent and Prudy said, “It would be better to ask Father or Mother that. They know so much more about it than we do.” Suddenly the color came into Prudy’s face and she apologized, “I forgot, Uncle Angus, that you weren’t going to see Mother.”
Uncle Angus reached out and put his hands over Prudy’s. “Of course I’m going to see your mother. And just as soon as I can I’m going to take a trip down into Arizona to see Aggie, too.” His eyes took in both of the children. “I’m not going to miss a chance to tell your folks what I think of you, and don’t think that I am! Now sing that Mormon hymn, ‘O My Father.’ I’ve been wondering about those words ever since you sang it the other night at the Freibers’.”
Prudy felt light-headed with excitement as the train neared Ogden. Uncle Angus was with them. He was going to see Mother. He was going to listen to the gospel. Oh, the adventure had certainly turned out well! Joy ran like a stream through her spine and tingled in her hands and feet.
And when the train stopped Mother and Father were waiting for them. “Prudy,” Mother called, hurrying down the track toward them. “John! We’ve been frantic, with the train so late and everything.” She took Prudy in one arm and reached the other toward John. It was then that she saw Uncle Angus. “Angus!” she said, and her voice broke and the tears ran down her cheeks. “Angus.” Mother let go of Prudy and John as if she had forgotten them. She put both arms around Uncle Angus and started to cry in long shaking sobs.
Prudy skipped from one foot to another. “Aren’t you going to say something to each other?” she demanded. “I’m going to start keeping a diary and I’d like some momentous statement from both of you.” She gave John a slow wink. “Some momentous statement about– well, about our Gallant Adventure!”