Ralph on the Engine/Chapter 15
THE RUNAWAY TRAINS
Ralph and his companion followed the train till it left the siding, when the young fireman set the switch and they stood by the side of the track until the locomotive backed down to where they were.
"Going into Dover?" inquired the man who had rendered Ralph such signal service.
"Yes," nodded Griscom, looking the questioner over suspiciously, as was his custom with all strangers recently since the strike began.
"Give me a lift, will you? I am through with my work here," observed the man. "My name is Drury. I am a car finder."
"Indeed?" said the old engineer with some interest of manner. "I've heard of you fellows. Often thought I'd like the job."
"You wouldn't, if you knew its troubles and difficulties," asserted Drury with a laugh, as he climbed into the tender. "You think it's just riding around and asking a few questions. Why, say, I have spent a whole month tracing down two strays alone."
"That so?" said Griscom.
"Yes, it is true. You see, cars get on a line shy of them, and they keep them purposely. Then, again, cars are lost in wrecks, burned up, or thrown on a siding and neglected. You would be surprised to know how many cars disappear and are never heard of again."
This was a new phase in railroad life to Ralph, and he was greatly interested. He plied the man with questions, and gained a good deal of information from him.
"Switch off here, Fairbanks," ordered Griscom, as they neared a siding.
"Is your name Fairbanks?" asked the carfinder of Ralph.
"Heard of you," said Drury, glancing keenly at the young fireman. "It was down at Millville, last week. They seem to think a good deal of you, the railroad men there."
"I hope I deserve it," said Ralph modestly.
"Took a meal at a restaurant kept by a friend of yours," continued the carfinder.
"You mean Limpy Joe?"
"Exactly. Original little fellow—spry, handy and accommodating. Met another genius there—Dallas."
"Zeph? Yes," said Ralph. "He has got lots to learn, but he has the making of a man in him."
"He has. He was greatly interested in my position. Wanted me to hire him right away. Said he knew he could find any car that was ever lost. I gave him a job," and Drury smiled queerly.
"What kind of a job?" inquired Ralph.
"Oh, you ask him when you see him," said Drury mysteriously. "I promised to keep it a secret," and he smiled again. "Good-bye, I leave you here."
"Now then," said Griscom to his young assistant, "orders are to run to Ridgeton and start out in the morning picking up strays between there and Stanley Junction."
When they got to Ridgeton, it had begun to rain. It was a lonely station with a telegraph operator, and a few houses quite a distance away. The operator was not on duty nights since the strike. The engine was sidetracked. They got a meal at the nearest house, and the operator gave them the key to the depot, where he said they could sleep all night on the benches. This Griscom insisted on doing, in order that they might keep an eye on the locomotive.
They sat up until about nine o'clock. Then, tired out with a hard day's work, both soon sank into profound sleep. It was some time later when both, always vigilant and easily aroused, awoke together.
"Oh," said the old engineer drowsily, "only the ticker."
"Yes, some one is telegraphing," answered Ralph, "but it is a hurry call."
"Understand the code, do you?"
"Yes," answered Ralph. "Quiet, please, for a moment. Mr. Griscom, this is urgent," and Ralph arose and hurried to the next room, where the instrument was located.
He listened to the sharp ticking of the little machine. There was the double-hurry call. Then came some sharp, nervous clicks.
"R-u-n-a-w-a-y," he spelled out.
"What's that?" cried Griscom, springing to his feet.
"J-u-s-t p-a-s-s-e-d Wi-l-m-e-r, s-i-x f-r-e-i-g-h-t c-a-r-s. S-t-o-p t-h-e-m a-t R-i-d-g-e-t-o-n, o-r t-h-e-y w-i-1-1 m-e-e-t N-o. f-o-r-t-y-e-i-g-h-t."
Ralph looked up excitedly. Griscom stood by his side. His eyes were wide awake enough now.
"Repeat that message—quick, lad!" he said in a suppressed tone. "Can you signal for repeat?"
Ralph did so, once more spelling out the message as it came over the wire.
"No 48?" spoke Griscom rapidly. "That is the special passenger they have been sending out from Stanley Junction since the strike. What is the next station north? Act! Wire north to stop the train."
Ralph got the next station with some difficulty. A depressing reply came. No. 48 had passed that point.
"Then she's somewhere on the thirty-mile stretch between there and here," said Griscom. "Lad, it is quick action—wind blowing a hurricane, and those freights thundering down a one per cent. grade. Bring the lantern. Don't lose a moment. Hurry!"
Ralph took the lead, and they rushed for their locomotive. The young fireman got a red lantern and ran down the track, set the light, and was back to the engine quickly.
"This is bad, very bad," said Griscom. "Nothing but this siding, ending at a big ravine, the only track besides the main. The runaway must have a fearful momentum on that grade. What can we do?"
Ralph tested the valves. He found sufficient steam on to run the engine.
"I can suggest only one thing, Mr. Griscom," he said.
"Out with it, lad, there is not a moment to lose," hurriedly directed the old engineer.
"Get onto the main, back down north, set the switch here to turn the runaways onto the siding."
"But suppose No. 48 gets here first?"
"Then we must take the risk, start south till she reaches the danger signals, and sacrifice our engine, that is all," said Ralph plainly.
It was a moment of intense importance and strain. In any event, unless the unexpected happened, No. 48 or their own locomotive would be destroyed. On the coming passenger were men, women and children.
"Duty, lad," said Griscom, in a kind of desperate gasp. "We must not hesitate. Pile in the black diamonds and hope for the best. If we can reach the creek before the runaways, we can switch them onto a spur. It means a smash into the freights there. But anything to save the precious lives aboard the night passenger from Stanley Junction."
They ran on slowly, then, gaining speed, got a full head of steam on the cylinders. At a curve the bridge lights came into view.
"What do you see?" demanded Griscom, his hand trembling on the throttle, wide open now.
"She's coming," cried Ralph. "I caught the glint of the bridge lights. She's not six hundred yards away."
It was a desperate situation now. Both engineer and fireman realized this. The backward swing was caught, and down the course they had just come their locomotive sped with frightful velocity. It was a mad race, but they had the advantage. One mile, two miles, three miles, the depot, down the main, and before the engine had stopped, Ralph was on the ground. He ran to the switch, set it, and then both listened, watched and waited.
"There are the runaways," said Ralph.
Yes, there they were, speeding like phantoms over the rain-glistening steel. Nearer and nearer they came, passed the siding, struck the switch, ran its length, and then a crash—and the night passenger from Stanley Junction was saved!
"I don't know what the damage will be," muttered Griscom in a long-drawn breath of relief "but we have done our duty as we saw it."
They got back on the siding and removed the red lights before No. 48 arrived. The night passenger sped tranquilly by, her train crew little dreaming of the peril they had escaped.
The next afternoon, when they arrived at Stanley Junction, the assistant superintendent of the road highly commended their action in regard to the runaway freights.
Ralph went home tired out from strain of work and excitement. As he neared the house he noticed a wagon in the yard and a horse browsing beside it.
"Why," he said, "that rig belongs to Limpy Joe."
Ralph hurried into the house. He found both Joe and Zeph in the sitting room. They were conversing with his mother, with whom the cripple boy had always been a great favorite.
"Well, fellows, I am glad to see you," said Ralph heartily, "but what brought you here?"
"Plainly," replied Limpy Joe—"Ike Slump."
"Why, what do you mean?" inquired the young fireman.
"I mean that we have been burned out," said Joe, "and Ike Slump did it."