On the Iron at Big Cloud/Spitzer
Spitzer was just naturally born diffident. Sometimes that sort of thing wears off as one grows older, sometimes it doesn't. When it doesn't, it is worse than the most virulent disease—it had been virulent with Spitzer for all of his twenty-two years.
Spitzer wasn't much to look at, neither was he of much account on the Hill Division. Some men rise to occasions, others don't; as for Spitzer—well, he was a snubby-nosed, peaked-faced, touzled-haired little fellow with washed-out blue eyes that always seemed to carry around an apology in their depths that their owner existed, and this idea was backed up a good bit by Spitzer's voice. Spitzer had a weak voice and that militated against him. The ordinary voice of the ordinary man on the Hill Division was not weak—it was assertive. Spitzer suffered thereby because everybody crawled over him. Nobody thought anything of Spitzer. They all knew him, of course, that is, those whose duties brought them within the zone of Spitzer's orbit, which was restricted to Big Cloud or, rather, to the roundhouse at Big Cloud. Nobody ever gave him credit for courage enough to call his soul his own. Even when it came to pay day he took his check as though it was a mistake and that it really wasn't meant for him. He just dubbed along, doing his work day after day like a faithful dog, only he was a hanged sight less obtrusive. Summed up in a word, Spitzer ranked as a nonentity, physically, mentally, professionally.
Of course he never got ahead. He just kept on sweeping out the roundhouse and puttering around playing bell-boy to every Tom, Dick and Harry that lifted a finger at him. Year in, year out, he swept and wiped in the roundhouse. As far as seniority went he was it, but when it came to promotion he wasn't. Promotion and Spitzer were so obviously, so ostentatiously at variance with each other that no one ever thought of such a thing. When there was a vacancy others got it. Spitzer saw them move along, firing, driving spare, up to full-fledged regulars on the right-hand side of the cabs, men that had started after he did; but Spitzer still wiped and swept out the roundhouse.
Carleton, the super, called him a landmark, and that hit the bull's-eye. Summer, winter, fall, spring, good weather, bad weather, five-foot-five-with-his-boots-on Spitzer, lugging a little tin dinner-pail, trudged down Main Street in Big Cloud as regular as clockwork, and reported at the roundhouse at precisely the same hour every morning—five minutes of seven. Never a miss, never a slip—five minutes of seven. The train crews got to setting their watches by him, and the dispatchers wired the meteorological observatory every time their chronometers didn't tally—that is, tally with Spitzer—and the meteorological crowd put Spitzer first across the tape every shot.
It was just the same at night, only then Spitzer went by the six o'clock whistle. Ten hours a day, Sundays off—sometimes—wiping, sweeping, sweeping, wiping, from his boarding-house to the roundhouse in the morning, from the roundhouse to his boarding-house at night—that was Spitzer, self-effaced, self-obliterated, innocuous, modest Spitzer.
Night times? Spitzer didn't exist, there was no Spitzer—it wasn't expected of him! If any one had been asked they would have looked their amazement, but then no one ever was asked—or asked, which is the same thing the other way. Spitzer was like a tool laid away after the day's work and forgotten absolutely and profoundly until the following morning. No one knew anything about Spitzer after the six o'clock whistle blew, no one knew and cared less—that is, none of the railroad crowd knew, and they, when all is said and done, were Big Cloud, they owned it, ran it, absorbed it, and properly so, since Big Cloud was the divisional point on the Hill Division.
In the ineffable perversity of things is the spice and variety of life. Tommy Regan, the master mechanic, was a man not easily jolted, not easily disturbed. He was very short, very broad, with little black eyes, and a long, scraggly, drooping-at-the-corners, brown mustache. Also, he was blessed with a well-defined, well-nourished paunch—which is a sign irrefutable of contentment, a calm and placid outlook upon life in general and particular, and a freedom from the ills of haste and worry. A man with a paunch is a man apart and greatly to be envied, even when that paunch, as was the case with Regan, is of Irish extraction, for then the accompanying touch of Celtic temper makes him more like an ordinary, cross-grained, irritable, everyday mortal and less of a temperamental curiosity. Regan was justly proud of both—his paunch and his nationality. Regan put it the other way—his nationality and his paunch. That, however, is a matter for individual decision and the relative importance of things is as one sees it; the main thing is that one permitted him to use fiery words on occasion, and the other enabled him to preserve, ordinarily, a much to be commended state of equanimity.
Perversity of perversities! It was Spitzer that jolted Regan—not once, more than once. And before he got through, jolted him so hard that Regan hasn't got over the wonder of it yet.
"Think of it," he'll say, when the subject is brought up. "Think of it! You know Spitzer, h'm? Well, think of it! SPITZER!" And if it's summer he'll mop his beady brow, and if it's winter he'll twiddle his thumbs with his fingers laced over his embonpoint, which is to say over the lower button of his waistcoat.
Regan's first jolt came to him one morning as, after a critical inspection of his pets in the roundhouse—big six- and eight-wheeled mountain engines—he strolled out and leaned against the push-bar on the turntable, mentally debating the respective merits of a rust-joint and a straight patch as specifically applied to number 583 that had been run into the shops the day before for repairs.
A figure emerged from the engine doors at the far end of the roundhouse and came toward him. Regan's eyes, attracted, barely glanced in that direction, and then went down again in meditation, as he kicked a little hole in the cinders with the toe of his boot—it was only Spitzer.
When he looked up again Spitzer was nearer, quite near. Spitzer had halted before him and was standing there patiently, an embarrassed flush on his cheeks, wiping his hands nervously on an exceedingly dirty piece of packing which in his abstraction, for Spitzer was plainly abstracted, he had picked up for a piece of waste.
"Huh!" said Regan, staring at Spitzer's hands, "what you trying to do? Black up for a minstrel show?"
Spitzer dropped the packing as though it had been a handful of thistles, and rubbed his hands up and down the legs of his overalls.
"Well?" Regan invited.
Spitzer began to talk, rapidly, hurriedly—that is, his lips moved rapidly, hurriedly.
Regan listened attentively and with a strained and hopeless expression, as he strove to catch a word and hence the drift of Spitzer's remarks.
"How?" he demanded, when he saw Spitzer was at an end. "Speak out, man. You won't wake the baby up."
Spitzer began all over again. This time he did a little better.
"A dollar twenty-five," repeated the master mechanic numbly.
Spitzer brightened visibly, and nodded.
Regan stared, bewildered and dumfounded. Gradually, impossible, incomprehensible, incongruous as it appeared, it dawned on him that Spitzer, even Spitzer, Spitzer was asking for a raise!
"A dollar twenty-five," was all Regan could repeat over again, and the words came away with a gasp.
Spitzer, misinterpreting the tone, his face grew rueful and full of trouble. He was appalled at his own temerity in broaching the subject in the first place, but now he had overstepped the bounds—he had asked for too much!
"A dollar twenty," he ventured, in timid compromise—Spitzer was getting a dollar fifteen.
"How long you been working here?" inquired Regan, recovering a little and beginning to get a grip on himself.
"Four years," said Spitzer faintly.
"Good Lord!" mumbled Regan. "Four years. A dollar twenty-five, h'm? Well, I dunno, I guess we can manage that." And then, as a new thought suddenly struck him: "What the blazes would you do with more money, h'm?"
But Spitzer only grinned sheepishly as, after murmuring his thanks, he walked back and disappeared in the roundhouse.
"Good Lord!" muttered Regan, looking after him. "Four years, and a dollar and a quarter, and Spitzer! Good Lord!"
Regan went around more or less dazed all that day. He ordered the patch on 583 when he had definitely decided on the rust-joint as the best tonic for the engine's complaint, and he figured out how much one dollar and fifteen cents a day came to for a year barring Sundays, then he did the same with a dollar twenty-five as the multiplicand and compared the results. Spitzer's demand was not exorbitant, and it wasn't much to upset any man—that was just it—it was Spitzer, and Spitzer wasn't much. Effect, psychological or otherwise, is by no manner of means to be measured by the mere magnitude of the cause, it is the phenomenal and unusual that is to be treated with wholesome respect, and for safe handling requires a double-tracked, block system with the cautionary signals up from start to finish—the master mechanic found it that way anyhow, and he ought to know.
He unburdened himself that night after supper to Carleton and a few of the others over at division headquarters, which had been moved upstairs over the station, where the chiefs used to meet regularly each evening for a pipe, with a round of pedro thrown in to liven things up a bit—Big Cloud not being blessed with many attractions in the amusement line.
"Bad company," he suggested. "Hard lot, that of yours over in the roundhouse, Tommy. They're spoiling his manners. Been a long time in coming, but you know the old story of the water and the stone. What?"
"What in blazes would he do with more money?" inquired Spence, the chief dispatcher, in unfeigned astonishment.
Regan glared disdainfully. He had put precisely the same question to Spitzer himself, but since then he had been brushing up his mathematics.
"Do with it!" he choked. "Thirty dollars and eighty cents—a year. Hell of a problem, ain't it?"
"Well, you needn't run off your schedule," said Spence, a little tartly. "You're the one that's making most of the fuss over it."
"Tell you what, Tommy," remarked Carleton, still grinning, "you want to look out for Spitzer from now on. I guess his emancipation has begun—nothing like a start. Before you know it he'll be running roughshod over the motive power department, including the master mechanic."
"I give him the raise," said Regan, more to himself than aloud. "'Twas coming to him, what? Four years, and the first time I ever heard a yip out of him."
"You'll hear more," prophesied Carleton; "even if he doesn't talk very loud."
"Think so?" said Regan, puckering up his eyes.
"I do," said Carleton.
And Regan did.
Not at once, not for several weeks. But in the meantime a change came over Spitzer. He swept and wiped and reported at five minutes of seven every morning and kept himself just as much in the background, just as much out of everybody's way, just as unobtrusive as he had before, but Spitzer was none the less changed.
It began the day after he got his raise. It was an indefinite, elusive, negative sort of a change, not the kind you could lay your hand on and describe in so many words. Regan tried to, and gave it up. The nearest he came to anything concrete was one day when he came around the tail-end of a tender and, unexpectedly, upon Spitzer. Spitzer was sweeping as usual, but Spitzer was also whistling—which was not usual. Regan, it is true, couldn't puzzle very much out of that, but then Regan had his limitations.
Mindful of Carleton's words, Regan kept his eye in a mildly curious kind of a way on the little faded, blue-eyed drudge, and as he noticed the first change without being able to define it, he now, after a week or so, noticed a second, with the difference that this time the diagnosis was painfully obvious—Spitzer's return to Spitzer's normal self. Spitzer stopped whistling.
Regan began to catch Spitzer's eyes fixed on him with a hesitating, irresolute, anxious gaze about every time he entered the roundhouse. And though he didn't quite grasp it, something of the truth came to him. Spitzer was screwing up his courage to the sticking point preparatory to another step onward in his belated march toward emancipation.
It was a month to the day from the first interview when Spitzer tackled the master mechanic again, and as before, out by the turntable in front of the roundhouse, and, if anything, in a manner even more nervous and ill at ease than on the former occasion. He stammered once or twice in an effort to begin—and his effort was utter failure.
Regan eyed him in profound distrust. Once in four years wasn't so much, and after all, even Spitzer, now that the shock was over, might be expected to do that. But again in a month—and from Spitzer! Something was wrong—perhaps Carleton was right.
"Well," he snapped, "you got your raise. Ain't you satisfied?"
Spitzer nodded dumbly.
"Well, then, what's the matter with you if you're satisfied?" exploded the master mechanic.
"I want to get——" the last word trailed off into tremulous, quavering incoherency.
"You want to get what?" growled Regan. "Don't sputter as though you'd swallowed your teeth. What is it you want to get?"
"Firing," blurted Spitzer after a desperate struggle.
Regan gasped for his breath. Spitzer! SPITZER—in a cab! He couldn't have heard straight.
"Say it again," whispered the master mechanic.
"Firing," repeated Spitzer, with more confidence now that the plunge was taken.
"Yes," said Regan weakly to himself. "That's it. I got it right—firing! He wants to get firing!"
"I—I can do it," faltered Spitzer. "I 'got to."
"Eh? What's that? " said Regan. "You got to? Say, you, Spitzer, what the devil's the matter with you anyway?"
Spitzer wriggled like a worm on a hook, and his face went the color of a semaphore arm—a deep red one. Spitzer was suffering acutely.
"Well, well," prodded Regan. "Release the air! Take the brakes off!"
"I'm," began Spitzer shamefacedly, "I'm——" He gulped down his Adam's apple hard, twice, and then it came away with a rush: "I'm going to get married to Merla Swenson."
Regan's jaw sagged like the broken limb of a tree, and his eyes fairly popped out and hung down over the roll of his cheeks. Then gradually, very gradually, he began to double up and unhandsome contortions afflicted his facial muscles. Spitzer! Spitzer was enough! But Spitzer and Merla Swenson! Six-foot-heavy-boned-long-armed Swedish-maiden Merla! Oh, contrariety, variety, perversity of life!
"Haw!" he roared suddenly. "Haw, haw! Haw, haw, haw!" And again——only louder. The turner and a helper or two poked their noses out of the roundhouse doors to get a line on the disturbance.
Can a stone float? Can a feather sink? Astonishing, bewildering, dumfounding, impossible, oh, yes; but it was also very funny. It was the funniest thing that Regan had ever heard in his life.
"Haw, haw!" he screamed. "Ho, ho! Haw, haw!"
His paunch shook like jelly, and he held both hands to his sides to ease the pain. He straightened up preparatory to going off into another burst of guffaws, and then, with his mouth already opened to begin, he stopped as though he had been stunned. Spitzer was still standing before him, and Spitzer's head was turned away, but Regan caught it, caught the two big tears that rolled slowly down the grimy cheeks. And in that moment he realized what neither he nor any other man on the Hill Division had ever realized before—that Spitzer, too, was human.
Regan coughed, choked, and cleared his throat. Here was Spitzer in a new light, but the Spitzer of years was not so readily to be consigned to the background of oblivion. Spitzer in a cab was as much an anomaly as ever, conjugal aspirations to the contrary.
"Firing?" said he, with grave consideration that he meant, by contrast, should serve as palliation for the sting of his mirth. "Firing? I'm afraid not. You're not fit for it. You're not big enough."
Spitzer dashed his hands across his eyes.
"I can fire," he announced with a surprising show of spirit, "an' I got to. There's smaller ones than me doing it."
"What do you mean by 'got to'?" demanded the master mechanic.
Spitzer shifted uneasily and kicked at the ground.
"Merla an' me's been making up for quite a while," he stammered: "but she wouldn't say nothing one way or the other till I got a raise."
"Well, you got it," said Regan.
Spitzer nodded miserably.
"Yes, an' now she says 'tain't enough to get married on, an—an' we'll have to wait till I get firing."
"Good Lord!" murmured Regan, and he mopped his brow in deep perplexity. The destiny of mortals was in his hands—but so was the motive power department of the Hill Division. He could no more see Spitzer in a cab than he could see the time-honored camel passing through the eye of a needle. Then inspiration came to him.
"Look here, Spitzer," said he, soothingly. "There ain't any use talking about firing, and I ain't going to let you build up any false hopes. But I'll tell you what, you don't need to feel glum about it. She loves you, don't she?"
Spitzer's lips moved.
"H'm?" inquired Regan solicitously, bending forward.
"Yes; she says she does," repeated Spitzer in thin tones.
"Yes; well then, when you know women, and as much about 'em as I do, you'll know that nothing else counts—nothing but the love, I mean. It's their nature, and they're all alike. That's the way it is with all of 'em"—Regan waved his hand expansively. "It'll be all right. You'll see. She won't hold out on that line."
Some men profit much by little experience, others profit little by much experience. Spitzer, possibly, had had little, very little, but the dejected droop of his shoulders, as he started back for the roundhouse, intimated that in the matter of knowledge as applied to the eternal feminine he was perhaps, in so far as it lay between himself and the master mechanic, the better qualified of the two to speak. And that, certainly, when concretely applied, which is to say applied to Merla Swenson.
Regan couldn't have kept the story back to save his life, and it didn't take long for the division to get it. They all got it—train crews and engine crews on way freights, stray freights, locals, extras and regulars, the staff, the shop hands, the track-walkers and the section gangs down to the last car-tink. At first the division looked incredulous, then it grinned, and then it howled, and its howl was the one word "Spitzer!" with seventeen exclamation points after it to make the tempo and rhythm hang out in a manner befitting and commensurate with the occasion.
It's an ill wind that blows nobody good. Dutchy Damrosch did the business of his life—he did more business than he had ever dreamed of doing in his wildest flights of imagination, for Dutchy had the lunch counter rights at Big Cloud. What's that got to do with Spitzer and his marital ambition? Well, a whole lot! Merla Swenson was second girl in Dutchy's establishment, and Merla was the "fee-ancy" of Spitzer—which was a rotten bad pun of Spider Kelly's, the conductor, and due more to the brogue-like twist of his tongue than to any malice aforethought.
To see any girl that was in love with Spitzer was worth the price of coffee and sinkers any old time. The lunch counter took on the air of a dime museum, and the visitors questioned Merla anxiously, a little suspicious that after all there might be a nigger in the woodpile somewhere in the shape of a "frame-up" with the hoax on themselves.
Merla settled all doubts on that score. Unruffled, calmly, stoically, dispassionately she answered the same question fifty times a day, and each time in the same way.
"Yah, I ban love Spitzer," was her infallible reply, in a tone that made the bare possibility that she could have done anything else seem the very acme of absurdity. Merla's inflexion struck deep at the root of things inevitable.
After that there was nothing to be said. A few, very few, and as the days went by their numbers thinned with amazing rapidity, had the temerity to snicker audibly. They only did it once, as with arms akimbo and hands on hips Merla advanced to the edge of the counter with a look in her steadfast, blue eyes, that was far from inviting, and inquired:
"Him ban goot mans, I tank?"
It was put in the form of a question, it is true, but the "put" was of such cold uncompromise that the result was always the same. The offender hastily buried his nose in his coffee-cup, dug for a dime to square his account—with Dutchy—and made for the platform.
This was all very well, but unless Regan died and some one with a little less—or a little more, depending on how you look at it—imagination took his place, Spitzer's chances of getting into a cab were as good as ever, which is to say that they were about as good as the goodness of a plugged nickel. And the trouble was that, as far as Spitzer could see, the master mechanic wasn't sprouting out with any visible signs of premature decay. Furthermore, as he had suspicioned and now discovered, Regan wasn't the last word on women; not, perhaps, that Merla put firing before love, only she was uncommonly strong on firing. Spitzer was unhappy.
All things come to those who wait, they say. So they do, perhaps; but the way of their coming is sometimes not to be understood or fathomed. The story of a man who fell from the eighteenth story window of an office building, and, incidentally, broke his neck has no place here except in a general way. A friend who took a passing interest in the event was curious enough to investigate the cause, and he traced it back step by step, logically, surely, inevitably, beyond the possibility of refutation, to the fact that the second hook from the top on the back of the man's wife's dress—not the man's dress, the dress of the man's wife—was missing on the morning of the day of his untimely decease. The man—not the man's friend—was an inventor. But no matter. It just shows. Regan being still alive, the chances are better than a thousand to one that Spitzer would have known a cold and forlorn old age, as Robert Louis puts it, and Merla would never have had a second edition of herself if it hadn't been for a few measly, unripe crab-apples. What? Yes, that's it—crab-apples. That's the way Spitzer got where he is to-day—just crab-apples. Funny how things happen sometimes when you come to think of it, isn't it? Spitzer and the man who broke his neck aren't the only ones who've had their ups and downs that way, not by several. There isn't any moral to this except that here and there you'll find a man who isn't as modest about his own ability as he ought to be!
Spitzer's nocturnal habits, that were a matter of so much unconcern and of which the railroad crowd at Big Cloud were so densely in ignorance, have a part in this. The truth is that between the lunch-counter and the station is the baggage and freight-shed, and behind the freight-shed it is very dark; and also, not less pertinent, is the fact that Merla was possessed of no other quarters than those shared by her sister-in-arms in Dutchy's employ—which were neither propitious nor commodious. Hence—but the connection is obvious.
On Merla's night off at eight o'clock, Spitzer sneaked down through the fields and across the platform, weather permitting, and on those nights Merla donned her bonnet "for a walk"—at the same hour. When the station-clock struck ten and, coincidentally, Number One's mellow chime sounded down the gorge, Merla retraced her steps to the upstairs rear of the lunch-counter, and Spitzer retraced his across the platform to the fields in the direction of the town and his boarding-house; only, of late, Spitzer had taken to lingering on the platform way up at the far end where it was also very dark and equally as deserted.
Here he would gaze wistfully at the big mogul with valves popping and the steam drumming at her gauges, as she waited on the siding just in front of him—Big Cloud being a divisional point where the engines were changed—to back down onto Number One for the first stretch of the mountain run—Burke's run with 503, and big Jim MacAloon looking after the shovel end of it.
There wasn't anything novel in the sight, but it didn't seem to strike Spitzer as monotonous although, when it was all over and he watched the vanishing tail lights, he always sighed. It was just the same performance each time. Ten minutes or so before Number One, westbound, was due, MacAloon would run 503 out of the roundhouse, over the turntable, up the line, and back onto the siding. Then Burke would appear on the scene, light a torch, and poke around with a long-spouted oil can.
Spitzer would usually reach his position up the platform in time to see the engineer's final jab with the torch between the drivers or into the link-motion before swinging himself through the gangway into the cab, as the Limited with snapping trucks and screeching brake-shoes rolled into the station; but one night it fell out a little differently. The station clock had struck ten, Merla had hastened to her domicile, and Spitzer to the far end of the platform as usual, but Number One was late.
Suddenly Spitzer jumped and his heart seemed to shoot into his mouth. There was a wild, piercing scream of agony. It came again. The blood left Spitzer's cheeks. He saw Burke fly around the end of the pilot, the torch dancing in his hand, and make for the cab. Spitzer involuntarily leaped from the platform to the track and ran in the same direction, then the safety-valve popped with a terrific roar, drowning out all other sounds. He clambered cautiously into the cab. On the floor MacAloon was going through a performance that would have beggared the efforts of a writhing python, and the while he groaned and yelled.
As Spitzer watched, Burke, who was bending over MacAloon with an anxious face, suddenly reached forward and picked up a little round object that rolled from the pocket of the fireman's jumper, then another and another. Spitzer instinctively craned forward, and in so doing attracted Burke's notice for the first time. Burke's look of anxiety gave way to a grin and he held out the objects to Spitzer, just as if it wasn't Spitzer at all but an ordinary man—humor, like death, is a great leveler, but no matter, let that go. Burke held them out to Spitzer, Spitzer took them, and even Spitzer grinned. It didn't need any doctor to diagnose MacAloon's complaint and the complaint wasn't poetic! Cramps, old-fashioned, unadulterated cramps—just plain cramps and green crab-apples! Some things lay a man out worse perhaps—but there aren't many.
Burke's grin didn't last long, for at that moment came Number One's long, clear siren note, and back over the tender a streak of light shot out in a wide circle from around a butte and then danced along the rails and began to light up the platform, as the Limited thundered, five minutes late, into the straight stretch.
"Holy fishplates!" yelled Burke. "I've got to get a man to fire. Spitzer, you run like hell to the roundhouse and——"
Burke stopped. Spitzer stopped him. There are moments in everybody's life when they rise above themselves, above habit, above environment, above everything, if even for only a brief instant. A chance like this would never come again. If he could fire one trip maybe Regan would change his mind. Spitzer grasped at it frantically, despairingly.
"Burke, I can fire," he fairly screamed. "Give me a chance, Burke. I'll never get one if you don't."
Burke gasped for a moment like a man with his breath knocked out of him, then something like a dry chuckle sounded in his throat. No one knows but Burke what decided him. It might have been either of two things, or a combination of them both—Spitzer's pleading face, or the desire to take a rise out of Regan—Burke and Regan not having been on the best of terms since the last general elections. Be that as it may, Burke pointed at the squirming fireman.
"Take his feet," he grunted.
Together they lifted and dragged the stricken MacAloon out of the cab and to the ground. 1108, pulling Number One, had come to a stop abreast of them by now, and Burke shouted at the engine crew.
"Here!" he bawled. "Lend a hand!"
And as both men stuck their heads out of the gangway, he and Spitzer boosted the fireman up to them.
"Got cramps," explained Burke tersely. "You'll be able to fix him up in the roundhouse. Five minutes late, h'm? Well, hurry, you're clear. There's your 'go-ahead.' Pull out and let me get hold."
Burke turned to Spitzer, as 1108 slipped away from the baggage-car and moved up the track, and pointed to the gangway of his own engine.
"Get in," he said grimly. "You'll get a chance to fire, and, take it from me, you'll never get a chance to do that or anything else again this side of the happy hunting-grounds, my bucko, if you throw me down."
And while Regan quarreled amiably over a game of pedro upstairs in the station with Carleton, 503, with Spitzer, touzled-haired, mild-eyed, heart-beating-like-a-trip-hammer Spitzer, in the cab, backed down on the Imperial Limited and coupled on for the mountain run. There was a quick testing of the "air," a hurried running up and down the platform, and then Burke, leaning from the window with his arms stretched out inside the cab and fingers on the throttle, opened a notch, and the platform began to slide past them.
Spitzer wrinkled his face and stared at the gauge needle—two hundred and ten pounds, all the way, all the time—two hundred and ten pounds. It was up to him. With a jerk of the chain, he swung the furnace door wide and a shovelful of coal shot, neatly scattered, over the grate.
There is art in all things; there is the quintessence of art in the prosaic and laborious task of firing an engine. Spitzer was not without art, for in a way he had had years of experience; but banking a fire in the roundhouse, and nursing a roaring pit of flame to its highest degree of efficiency in a swaying, lurching cab, are two different and distinct operations that are in no way to be confounded. 503 began to lurch and sway. Notch by notch Burke was opening her out, and the bark of her exhaust was coming like the quick crackle of a gatling. Five minutes late in the mountains on a time schedule already marked up to a dizzy height that called for more chances than the passengers paid for is—well, it's five minutes, just five minutes, that's all. Some men would have left it for the Pacific Division crowd the next day on a level track and a straight sweep—but not Burke.
Spitzer's initiation was in ample form and he got the full benefit of all the rites and ceremonies with every detail of the ritual worked in—and no favors shown. So far all was well, the rough country was all in front of the pilot, and Spitzer was all business. His pulse was beating in tune to only one thing—the dancing needle on the gauge. Again he swung the door open, and the red flare lighted up the heavens and played on features that Regan would never have known for Spitzer's—they were set, grim and determined, covered with little sweat beads that glistened like diamonds. The singing sweep of the wind was in his ears as he poised his shovel. There was a sickening slur. 503 shot round a tangent—and the shovelful of coal shot like bullets all over the cab, and, including Burke, hit about everything in sight but the objective point aimed at. Simultaneously, Spitzer promptly performed a gyration that resembled something like a back hand-spring and landed well up on the tender, to roll back to the floor of the cab again with an accompanying avalanche of coal.
He picked himself up and glanced apprehensively at the engineer. There was not a scowl, not even a grin on Burke's face, just an encouraging flirt of the hand—but the flirt was momentous. Wise and full of guile was Burke, for with that little act Spitzer, biblically speaking, girded up his loins and got his second wind.
They were well into the foothills now, and the right of way was an amazing wonder. Diving, twisting, curving, it circled and bored and trestled its way, and buttes, cañons, gorges and coulees roared past like flights of fancy.
The speed was terrific. To Spitzer it was all a wild, mad medley of things he had never known before, of things that had neither beginning nor end. The giddy slew as the big mountain racer hit the curves, the crunching grind of the flanges as for an instant she lifted from her wheel-base, the pitch, the roll, the staggering reel, the gasp for breath, the beat of the trucks, the whir of the racing drivers, the rush of the wind, the echoing thunder of the flying coaches behind—it was all there, all separate, all welded into one, a creation, new, vernal, life, the life of the rail, that beat at his eardrums and quickened the pounding throb of his heart.
At first, from time to time, Burke leaned over his levers to glance at the pressure gauge, but after a bit he crouched a little further forward in his seat and his eyes held on the track ahead where the beam of the electric headlight flooded the glittering ribbons of steel. He was getting what MacAloon or no other man had ever given him before—two hundred and ten pounds all the way. SPITZER was firing Number One, the Imperial Limited, westbound, on the mountain run, three minutes late!
The sweat was rolling in streams from the little fellow now, and he clung in the gangway for a moment's breathing spell, leaning out, staring ahead at a few shining lights in the distance. Came the hoarse scream of the whistle, the clattering crash as they shattered the yard switches, a blurred vision of dark outlines dotted with tiny scintillating points, and station, yard, lights, switches and all were behind him.
Spitzer drew his sleeve across his forehead, and turned again to his work as they thundered over a long steel trestle—Thief Creek. Spitzer knew the road well enough at second hand, if not from personal experience. Just ahead was The Pass—Sucker Pass—straight enough for its quarter-mile stretch, but where the rock walls rose up on either side so close as to almost scratch the paint off the rolling stock. Eased for a moment in scant deference to switches and trestle just passed, Spitzer felt the forward leap of the racer as Burke threw her wide open again. He bent for his shovel—and then, quick as the winking of an eye, sudden as doom, came a tearing, rending crash, a scream from Burke, and the right-hand side of the cab seemed literally torn in two.
A flying piece of woodwork that struck him across the eyes, a terrific jolt as the engine lifted and fell back, sent Spitzer headlong to the floor of the cab. Dazed, half mad with the pain, the blood streaming from his forehead, he staggered to his feet. Burke lay coiled in an inert heap just in front of him by the furnace door. A whizzing piece of steel rose up, crunched, slithered, gashed a track of ruin for itself, and was gone. It had missed Burke only by a hair's-breadth—next time there might not be even that limit of safety. With a cry, Spitzer leaped forward and dragged the unconscious engineer across the cab. Again the jolt, the slur, the stagger, the desperate wrench. It seemed like years, like eternity to Spitzer. He was living a lifetime in the passing of a second—it had been no more than that, no more than two or three at most.
There are some things worse, much worse, in railroading than a broken crank-pin and a rod amuck, but not when it comes in The Pass, where derailment at their racing speed spelt death, quick and sudden. There was just one chance for the trailing string of coaches, just one for every last soul aboard—Spitzer. But between Spitzer and the throttle and the air-latch was a thing of steel that rose and fell, now swinging a splintering, murderous arc through the shattered side of the cab, now grinding into the ties and roadbed, threatening with every revolution to pitch 503 and the train behind her headlong from the rails to crumple like flimsy egg-shells against the narrow rocky walls that lined The Pass. Just one chance for the train crew and passengers—just one in a thousand for Spitzer. And little five-foot-five Spitzer, diffident, retiring, self -effaced, unobtrusive Spitzer, with a dry, choking sob in his throat, flung himself forward to stop the train. His hands clutched desperately at the levers, there was a hiss, the vicious bite of the brake-shoes, then a blinding light before his eyes as the rod caught him and he pitched, senseless, half out through the front window of the cab, head down on the running-board.
The last word is a woman's—it is her inalienable right. Said Merla to Regan with a world of suggestion in the cadence of her voice, when Spitzer was getting well enough to think about going to work again:
"I ban love Spitzer."
"Well," said Regan, squinting at her round, steadfast, blue eyes, "there ain't anything I know of to keep you waiting. He can name any run he wants. And then, the wonder of it being still heavy upon him, he exclaimed with the air of one invoking the universe: "Now, wouldn't that get you! What do you think, h'm?"
All English to Merla was literal.
"Him ban goot mans, I tank," she said.