Ralph on the Overland Express/23
A CRITICAL MOMENT
If the rails under which Ike Slump lay had not caught at their ends with other rails, his limbs would have been crushed out of all semblance. Ralph noted this at once, and as well the extreme peril of the situation of the enemy who, a minute previous had been gloating over his helplessness.
"Don't move—for your life, don't move!" shouted Ralph, and he sprang forward in front of the pinioned Ike Slump.
"I'm killed, I'm crushed to death!" bellowed Ike. "Oh, help! help!"
The weapon had fallen from his hand. Both arms wildly sawing the air. Ike shivered and shrank like the arrant craven he was at heart.
"Do just as I say," ordered the young engineer breathlessly. "Don't stir—don't even breathe."
Ralph had jumped to the end of the pile of rails. His quick eye selected the one rail that was the key of the tangle, which, directed wrong, would sweep the mass with crushing force acrosy the pinioned body of Ike. The rails were short lengths. But for this, Ralph, strong as he was, could have done little or nothing. He got a grasp upon the rail. Then he sung out.
"Slip when I lift."
"I can't,—I can't!" wailed Ike.
"You've got to—now!"
Ralph gave a tug at the rail. There was an ominous grind and quiver as the others interlocked. He made a tremendous lift, one which strained every sinew and started the perspiration from every pore.
"I'm numbed, I'm all crushed!" snivelled Ike; nevertheless he managed to crawl out, or rather slip out from under the uplifted rail. He rolled on the dirt floor of the shed, making a great ado. It was just in time, for Ralph felt his eyes starting from his head. He dropped the heavy mass he had sustained and staggered back, well-nigh overcome.
As his breath came back to him, Ralph glanced particularly at Ike. The latter was completely absorbed in his own sufferings. Ralph could discern from the movements of his limbs that neither of them was dislocated and apparently no bones were broken. Still, he realized that they must be badly bruised and that Ike was disabled, at least for a time.
"I'm going for help," he said simply, and darted from the shed. Ike yelled after him to protest against desertion, but Ralph paid no attention. He planned to get to friends while Evans was still away, and he determined to get back with friends by the time Evans returned.
Fogg was at the engine as Ralph ran along the tracks, and one of the brakemen of the accommodation was with him. Ralph rapidly apprized his fireman of the situation.
"Slump and Evans, eh!" muttered Fogg, a deep crinkle of belligerency crossing his forehead. "It was Slump who stole half my chickens. As to Evans, his mean treachery during the strike came near getting me discharged. I thought they were safe in jail."
"So did I," said Ralph. "They seem to have escaped, though. Mr. Fogg, they are bad people to have at large."
"Bad! they're of a dangerous breed, I tell you. Simmons, hustle along with us."
The fireman snatched up a furnace poker and put down the track after Ralph, on the run. He was the first to dart into the shed when they reached it, and ran up against the others following, after a swift glance about the place.
"No one here," he reported. "Gone—they've slipped us—there's no one in this shed."
"Ah, I see, " spoke Ralph, with a look about the place outside. "Here are wagon wheels," and then he cast his eye across the landscape.
It was so crowded with tracks, buildings and trees beyond that he could not look far in the distance. Ralph, however, was satisfied that Evans, returning with the wagon, had made haste to carry his helpless comrade to the vehicle and get beyond reach of capture.
Fogg was for starting a pursuit, but Ralph convinced him of the futility of this course, and they returned to the locomotive. Once there, the fireman went over the case in all its bearings. Ralph had heretofore told him little concerning Fred Porter and Marvin Clark. He had shown him the photograph of the latter some days previous, asking him to keep an eye out for its original. Now he felt that some confidence was due his loyal cab mate, and he recited the entire story of what he knew and his surmises.
"You've got a square head, Fairbanks," said Fogg, "and I'll rely on it every time. It's logic to think your way. Some fellow is mightily interested in this young Clark. None too good is the fellow, either, or he wouldn't have to beat around the bush. No, he's not straight, or he wouldn't hire such fellows as Evans and Ike Slump to help him out."
"I don't understand it all," confessed Ralph, but I can see that a good deal of mysterious interest centers around this young Clark. I'm going to try and get some word to Porter—and to Zeph Dallas. They should know what's going on regarding Clark."
The incident did not depart from the young engineer's mind during the return trip to Stanley Junction, nor for several days later. With the escape of Evans and Ike Slump, however, the episode ended, at least for the time being. A week and more passed by, and that precious pair and their presumable employer, the pretended Lord Montague, seemed to have drifted out of existence quite as fully as had Zeph, Porter and young Clark.
One morning there was an animated discussion going on when Ralph entered the roundhouse. He was greatly interested in it, although he did not share in the general commotion.
The result of somebody's "confidential" talk with the division superintendent had leaked out—the Great Northern was figuring to soon announce its new train.
"As I get it," observed old John Griscom, "the road is in for a bid on the service the Midland Central is getting."
"You don't mean through business?" spoke an inquiring voice.
"Sure, that," assented the veteran railroader. "We've beat them on the China & Japan Mail run to Bridgeport, and now the scheme is to run the Overland Express in from the north, catch her up here, and cut out Bridgeport at a saving of fifty miles on the regular western run."
"Then they will have to take the Mountain Division from Stanley Junction."
"Just that, if they expect to make the time needed," assented Griscom. "Hey, Bill Somers," to a grizzled old fellow with one arm, who was shaking his head seriously at all this confab, "what you mooning about?"
"I wouldn't take that run," croaked Somers, "if they gave me a solid gold engine with the tender full of diamonds. I left an arm on that route. Say, Dave Little and I had a construction run over those sliding curves up and down the canyon grades. It lasted a month. There were snowslides, washouts, forest fires. There's a part of the road that's haunted. There's a hoodoo over one section, where they kill a man about once a week. Little lost his leg and his job there. My old arm is sleeping thereabouts in some ravine. No Mountain Division run for me, boys!"
"You won't get it, never fear," observed a voice.
"No, I know that," retorted Somers a little sadly, indicating his helplessness by moving his stump of an arm, "but I pity the fellow who does."
Day by day after that there were new additions to the fund of gossip concerning the new run. It all interested Ralph. Nothing definite, however, was as yet stated officially. Ralph and Fogg continued on the accommodation, and there was now little break in the regular routine of their railroad experience.
Ralph had made a short cut across the switch yards one morning, when a stirring episode occurred that he was not soon to forget, nor others. It took an expert to thread the maze of cars in motion, trains stalled on sidings, and trains arriving and departing.
It was the busiest hour of the day, and Ralph kept his eye out sharply. He had paused for a moment in a clear triangle formed by diverging rails, to allow an outward bound train to clear the switch, when a man on the lower step of the last car waved his hand and hailed him.
It was the master mechanic, and Ralph was pleased at the notice taken of him, and interested to iearn what the official wanted of him. The master mechanic, alighting, started across the tracks to join Ralph.
A train was backing on the one track between them. Another train was moving out on the rails still nearer to Ralph.
It was a scene of noise, commotion and confusion. If the master mechanic had been a novice in railroad routine, Ralph could not have repressed a warning shout, for with his usual coolness that official, timing all train movements about him with his practiced eye, made a quick run to clear the train backing in to the depot. He calculated then, Ralph foresaw, to cross the tracks along which the outgoing train was coming.
"He's taking a risk—it's a graze," murmured the young engineer in some trepidation.
The master mechanic was alert and nimble, though past middle age. He took the chances of a spry jump across the rails, his eye fixed on the outgoing train, aiming to get across to Ralph before it passed. In landing, however, he miscalculated. The run and jump brought him to a dead halt against a split switch. His foot drove into the jaws of the frog as if wedged there by the blow of a sledge-hammer.