On the Iron at Big Cloud/The Builder
THERE are two sides to every story—which is a proverb so old that it is in the running with Father Time himself. It is repeated here because there must be some truth in it—anything that can stand the wear and tear of the ages, and the cynics, and the wise old philosophical owls without getting any knock-out dints punched in its vital spots must have some sort of merit fundamentally, what? Anyway, the company had their side, and the men's version differed—of course. Maybe each, in a way, was more or less right, and, equally, in a way, more or less wrong. Maybe, too, both sides lost their tempers and got their crown-sheets burned out before the arbitration pow-wow had a chance to get the line clear and give anybody rights, schedule or otherwise. However, be that as it may, whoever was right or whoever was wrong, one or the other, or both, it is the strike, not the ethics of it, that has to do with—but just a moment, we're over-running our holding orders.
From the time the last rail was spiked home and bridging the Rockies was a reality, not a dream from then to the present day, there isn't any very much better way of describing the Hill Division than to call it rough and ready. Coming right down to cases, the history of that piece of track, the history of the men who gave the last that was in them to make it, and the history of those who have operated it since isn't far from being a pretty typical and comprehensive example of the pulsing, dominating, dogged, go-forward spirit of a continent whose strides and progress are the marvel of the world; and, withal, it is an example so compact and concrete that through it one may see and view the larger picture in all its angles and in all its shades. Heroism and fame and death and failure—it has known them all—but ever, and above all else, it has known the indomitable patience, the indomitable perseverance, the indomitable determination against which no times, nor conditions, nor manners, nor customs, nor obstacles can stand—the spirit of the New Race and the Great New Land, the essence and the germ of it.
Building a road through the Rockies and tapping the Sierras to give zest to the finish wasn't an infant's performance; and operating it, single-track, on crazy-wild cuts and fills and tangents and curves and tunnels and trestles with nature to battle and fight against, isn't any infant's performance, either. The Hill Division was rough and ready. It always was, and it is now—just naturally so. And Big Cloud, the divisional point, snuggling amongst the buttes in the eastern foothills, is even more so. It boasts about every nationality classified in certain erudite editions of small books with big names, and, to top that, has an extra anomaly or two left over and up its sleeve for good measure; but, mostly, it is, or rather was—it has changed some with the years—composed of Indians, bad Americans, a scattering of Chinese, and an indescribable medley of humans from the four quarters of Europe, the Cockney, the Polack, the Swede, the Russian and the Italian—laborers on the construction gangs. Big Cloud was a little more than rough and ready—it wasn't exactly what you'd call a health resort for finnicky nerves.
So, take it by and large, the Hill Division, from one end to the other, wasn't the quietest or most peaceful locality on the map even before the trouble came. After that—well, mention the Big Strike to any of the old-timers and they'll talk fast enough and hard enough and say enough in a minute to set you wondering if the biographers hadn't got mixed on dates and if Dante hadn't got his material for that little hair-stiffener of his no further away than the Rockies, and no longer back than a few years ago. But no matter——
The story opens on the strike—not the ethics of it. There's some hard feeling yet—too much of it to take sides one way or the other. But then, apart from that, this is not the story of a strike, it is the story of men —a story that the boys tell at night in the darkened roundhouses in the shadow of the big ten-wheelers on the pits, while the steam purrs softly at the gauges and sometimes a pop- valve lifts with a catchy sob. They tell it, too, across the tracks at headquarters, or on the road and in construction camps; but they tell it better, somehow, in the roundhouse, though it is not an engineer's tale—and Clarihue, the night turner, tells it best of all. Set forth as it is here it takes no rank with him,—but all are not so fortunate as to have listened while Clarihue talked.
Just one word more to make sure that the red isn't against us anywhere and we'll get to Keating and Spirlaw—just a word to say that Carleton, "Royal" Carleton, was superintendent then, and Regan was master mechanic, Harvey was division engineer, Spence was chief dispatcher, and Riley was trainmaster. Pretty good men that little group, pretty good railroaders—there have never been better. Some of them are bigger now in the world's eyes, heads of systems instead of departments—and some of them will never railroad any more. However——
If you haven't forgotten Shanley you will recall the Glacier Cañon, and, most of all, you will recall the Glacier River with its treacherous sandy bed that snuggled close to the right of way and forced the track hard against the rocky walls of the mountain's base. The havoc the Glacier played with the operating department on the night of Shanley's memorable heroism was not the first time it had misbehaved itself, nor was it the last—that was the trouble. It washed out the road-bed with such consistent persistency, on so little provocation, and did it so effectually as to stir at last to resentment even the torpid blood of the directors down East. So they voted the sum, though it hurt, and solaced themselves with the thought that after all it was economy—which was true.
There was only one thing to do against that over-hospitable and affectionate little stream, and that was to get away from it; but, before proceeding to do so—in order to get elbow room to work so that the flyers and the fast mails and the traffic generally wouldn't be hung up every time a Polack swung a pick—they pushed the track out over the chattering river on a long, temporary, hybrid trestle of wood and steel. That done, the rest was up to Spirlaw—up to Spirlaw and Keating.
The plans called for the shaving down of the mountain-side, the barbering, mostly, to be done with dynamite, for the beard of the Rockies is not the down of a youth. So, when the trestle was finished, Spirlaw with a gang of some thirty Polacks moved into construction camp, promptly tore up the old track, and set themselves to the task in hand. A little later, Keating joined them.
Spirlaw was a road boss, and the roughest of his kind. Physically he was a giant; and which of the three was the hardest, his face, his fist, or his tongue, would afford the sporting element a most excellent opportunity to indulge in a little book-making with the odds about even all round. His hair was a coarse mop of tawny brown that straggled over his eyes; and his eyes were all black, every bit of them—there didn't seem to be any pupil at all, which gave them a glint that was harder than a cold chisel. Take him summed up, Spirlaw looked a pretty tough proposition, and in some ways, most ways perhaps, he was—he never denied it.
"What the blue blinding blazes, d'ye think, h'm?" he would remark, reaching into his hip pocket for his "chewing," as he swept the other arm comprehensively over the particular crowd of sweating foreigners that happened to be under his particular jurisdiction at the time. "What d'ye think! You can't run cuts an' fills with an outfit like this on soft soap an' candy sticks, can you? Well then—h'm?"
That last "h'm" was more or less conclusive—very few cared to pursue the argument any further. At a safe distance, the Big Fellows on the division, as a salve to their consciences when humanitarian ideas were in the ascendancy, would bombard Spirlaw with telegrams which were forceful in tone and direful in threat—but that's all it ever amounted to. Spirlaw's work report for a day on anything, from bridging a cañon to punching a hole in the bitter hard rock of the mountain-side, was a report that no one else on the division had ever approached, let alone duplicated—and figures count perhaps just a little bit more in the operating department of a railroad than they do anywhere else in the world. Spirlaw used the telegrams as spills to light a pipe as hard-looking as himself, whose bowl was down at the heels on one side from much scraping, and on such occasions it was more than ordinarily unfortunate for the sour-visaged Polack who should chance to arouse his ire.
Some men possess the love of a fight and their natures are tempestuous by virtue of their nationality, because some nationalities are addicted that way. This may have been the case with Spirlaw—or it may not. There's no saying, for Spirlaw's nationality was a question mark. He never delivered himself on the subject, and, certainly, there was no figuring it out from the derivation of his name—that could have been most anything, and could have come from most anywhere.
To say that "opposites attract" isn't any more original, any less gray-bearded, than the words at the head of these pages. Generally, that sort of thing is figured in the worn-out, stale, familiarity-breeds-contempt realm of platitude, and at its unctuous repetition one comes to turn up his nose; but, once in a while, life has a habit of getting in a kink or a twist that gives you a jolt and a different side-light, and then, somehow, a thing like that rings as fresh and virile as though you had just heard it for the first time. As far as any one ever knew, Keating was the only one that ever got inside of Spirlaw's shell, the only one that the road boss ever showed the slightest symptoms of caring a hang about—and yet, on the surface, between the two there was nothing in common. Where one was polished the other was rough; where one was weak the other was strong. Keating was small, thin, pale-faced, and he had a cough—a cough that had sent him West in a hurry without waiting for the other year that would have given him his engineer's diploma from the college in the East.
When the boy, he wasn't much more than a boy, dropped off at Big Cloud, and Carleton read the letter he brought from one of the big Eastern operators, the super raised his eyebrows a little, looked him over and sent him out to Spirlaw. Afterwards, he spoke to Regan about him.
"I didn't know what to do with him, Tommy; but I had to do something, what? Any one with half an eye could tell that he had to be kept out of doors. Thought he might be able to help Spirlaw out a little as assistant, h'm? Guess he'll pick up the work quick enough. He don't look strong."
"Mabbe it's just as well," grinned the master mechanic. "He won't be able to batter the gang any. One man doing that is enough—when it's Spirlaw."
Spirlaw heard about it before he saw Keating, and he swore fervently.
"What the hell!" he growled. "Think I'm runnin' a nursery or an outdoor sanatorium? I guess I've got enough to do without lookin' after sick kids, I guess I have. Fat lot of help he'll be—help my eye! I don't need no help."
But for all that, somehow, from the first minute when Keating got off the local freight, that stopped for him at the camp, and shoved out his hand to Spirlaw it was different—after that it was all Keating as far as the road boss was concerned.
Queer the way things go. Keating looked about the last man on earth you would expect to find rubbing elbows with an iron-fisted foreman whose tongue was rougher than a barbed-wire fence; the last man to hold his own with a slave-driven gang of ugly Polacks. He seemed too quiet, too shy, too utterly unfit, physically, for that sort of thing. The blood was all out of the boy—he got rid of it faster than he could make it. But his training stood him in good stead, and, within his limitations, he took hold like an old hand. That was what caught Spirlaw. He did what he was told, and he did what he could—did a little more than he could at times, which would lay him up for a bad two or three days of it.
"Good man," Spirlaw scribbled across the bottom of a report one day—a day that was about equally divided between barking his knuckles on a Polack's head and feeding cracked ice to Keating in his bunk. Cracked ice? No, it wasn't on the regular camp bill of fare—but the company supplied it for all that. Spirlaw, with supreme contempt for the dispatchers and their schedules and their train sheets, held up Number Twelve and the porter of the Pullman for a goodly share of the commodity possessed by that colored gentleman. That's what Spirlaw thought of Keating.
For the first few weeks after he struck the camp Keating didn't have very much to say about himself, or anything else for that matter; but after he got a little nearer to Spirlaw and the mutual liking grew stronger, he began to open up at nights when he and the road boss sat outside the door of the construction shanty and watched the sun lose itself behind the mighty peaks, creep again with a wondrous golden-tinted glow between a rift in the range, and finally sink with ensuing twilight out of sight. Keating could talk then.
"Don't see what you ever took up engineerin' for," remarked Spirlaw one evening. "It's about the roughest kind of a life I know of, an' you——"
"I know, I know," Keating smiled. "You think I'm not strong enough for it. Why, another year out here in the West and I'll be like a horse."
"Sure, you will," agreed Spirlaw, hastily. "I didn't mean just that." Then he sucked his briar hard. Spirlaw wasn't much up on therapeutics, he knew more about blasting rock, but down in his heart there wasn't much doubt about another year in the West for the boy, and another and another, all of them—only they would be over the Great Divide that one only crosses once when it is crossed forever. Six months, four, three,—just months, not years, was what he read in Keating's face. "What I meant," he amended, "was that you don't have to. From what you've said, I figur' your folks back there would be willin' to stake you in most any line you picked out, h'm?"
"No, I don't have to," Keating answered, and his face lighted up as he leaned over and touched the road boss on the sleeve. "But, Spirlaw, it's the greatest thing in all the world. Don't you see? A man does something. He builds. I'm going to be a builder—a builder of bridges and roads and things like that. I want to do something some day—something that will be worth while. That's why I'm going to be an engineer; because, all over the world from the beginning, the engineers have led the way and—and they've left something behind them. I think that's the biggest thing they can say of any man when he dies—that he was a builder, that he left something behind him. I'd like to have them say that about me. Well, after I put in another year out here—I'm a heap better even now than when I came—I'm going back to finish my course, and then—well, you understand what I want to do, don't you?"
There were lots of talks like that, evening after evening, and they all of them ended in the same way—Spirlaw would knock out his pipe against a stone or his boot heel, and "figur' he'd stroll up the camp a bit an' make sure all was right for the night."
A pretty hard man Spirlaw was, but under the rough and the brutal, the horny, thick-shelled exterior was another self, a strange side of self that he had never known until he had known Keating. It got into him pretty deep and pretty hard, the boy and his ambitions; and the irony of it, grim and bitter, deepened his pity and roused, too, a sense of fierce, hot resentment against the fate that mocked in its pitiless might so defenseless and puny a victim. To himself he came to call Keating "The Builder," and one day when Harvey came down on an inspection trip, he told the division engineer about it—that's how it got around.
Carleton, when he heard it, didn't say anything—just crammed the dottle in his pipe down with his forefinger and stared out at the switches in the yards. They were used to seeing the surface of things plowed up and the corners turned back in the mountains, there weren't many days went by when something that showed the raw didn't happen in one way or another, but it never brought callousness or indifference, only, perhaps, a truer sense of values.
They had been blasting in the Cañon for a matter of two months when the first signs of trouble began to show themselves, and the beginning was when the shop hands at Big Cloud went out—the boiler-makers and the blacksmiths, the painters, the carpenters and the fitters. The construction camp, that is Spirlaw, didn't worry very much about this for the very simple reason that there didn't appear to be any reason why it, or he, should—that was Regan's hunt. But when the train crews followed suit and stray rumors of a fight or two at Big Cloud began to come in, with the likelihood of more hard on the heels of the first, it put a different complexion on things; for the rioting, what there had been of it, lay, not at the door of the railroad boys, but with the town's loafers and hangers-on, these and the foreign element—particularly the foreign element—the brothers and the cousins of the Polacks who were swinging the picks and the shovels under the iron hand of Spirlaw, their temporary lord and master—the Polacks, as pungently ungentle, when amuck, as starved pumas.
Then the Brotherhood said "quit," and the engine crews followed the trainmen. Things began to look black, and headquarters began to find it pretty hard to move anything. The train schedule past the Cañon was cut better than in half, and the faces of the men in the cabs and the cabooses were new faces to those in camp—the faces of the men the company were bringing in on hurry calls from wherever they could get them, from the plains East or the coast West.
Every day brought reports of trouble from one end of the line to the other, more rioting, more disorder at Big Cloud; and, in an effort to nip as much of it in the bud as possible, Carleton issued orders to stop all construction work—all except the work in Glacier Cañon, for there the temporary trestle lay uneasy on his mind.
The day the stop orders went out elsewhere a letter went out to Spirlaw. Spirlaw read it and his face set like a thunder cloud. He handed it to Keating.
Keating read it—and looked serious.
"I guess things aren't any too rosy down there," he commented; then slowly: "I've noticed our men seemed a bit sullen lately. They don't care anything much about the strike, it must be a sort of sympathetic movement with the rest of their crowd that's running wild at Big Cloud—only I don't just figure how they can know very much about what's going on. We don't ourselves, for that matter."
Spirlaw smiled grimly.
"I'll tell you how," he said. "I caught a Polack in the camp last night that didn't belong here—and I broke his head for the second time, see? He used to work for me about a year ago—that's when I broke it the first time. He's one of their influential citizens—name's Kuryla. Sneaked in here to stir up trouble—guess he's sorry for it, I guess he is."
"That's the first I've heard of it," said Keating, his eyes opening a little wider in surprise.
"You was asleep," explained Spirlaw tersely.
Keating stared curiously at the road boss for a minute, then he glanced again at the super's letter which he still held in his hand.
"Carleton says he is depending on you to put this work through if it's a possible thing. You don't really think we'll have any serious trouble here though, do you?"
Spirlaw bit deeply into his plug before he answered.
"Yes, son; I do," he said at last. "And there's a good many reasons why we will, too. Once start 'em goin' an' there's no worse hellions on earth than the breed we're livin' next door to. Furthermore they don't love me—they're just afraid of me as, by the holy razoo, I mean 'em to be. Let 'em once get a smell of the upper hand an' it would be all day an' good-by. Let 'em get goin' good at Big Cloud an' they'll get goin' good here—they'll kind of figur' then that there ain't any law to bother 'em—an', unless I miss my guess, Big Cloud's in for the hottest celebration in its history, which will be goin' some for it's had a few before that weren't tame by a damn sight."
"Well," inquired Keating, "what do you intend to do?"
"H'm-m," drawled Spirlaw reflectively, and there was a speculative look in his eyes as they roved over his assistant. "That's what I've been chewin' over since I caught that skunk Kuryla last night. As far as I can figur' it the chance of trouble here depends on how far those cusses go at Big Cloud. If I knew that, I'd know what to expect, h'm? I thought I'd send you up to headquarters for a day. You could have a talk with the super, tell him just where we stand here, an' size things up there generally. What do you say?"
"Why, of course. All right, if you want me to," agreed Keating readily.
"That's the boy," said Spirlaw, heartily. "Number Twelve will be along in half an hour. I'll flag her, an' you can go an' get ready now. I'll give you a letter to take along to Carleton."
As Keating, with a nod of assent, turned briskly away, Spirlaw watched him out of sight—and the hint of a smile played over the lips of the road boss. He pulled a report sheet from his pocket, and on the back of it scrawled laboriously a letter to the superintendent of the Hill Division. It wasn't a very long letter even with the P. S. included. His smile hardened as he read it over.
"Supt., Big Cloud," it ran. "Dear Sir:—Replying to yours 8th inst, please send a couple of good ·45s, and plenty of stuffing. ('Plenty of stuffing' was heavily underscored.) Yrs. Resp., H. Spirlaw. P.S. Keep the boy up there out of this." (The P. S. was even more heavily underscored than the other.)
Wise and learned in the ways of men—and Polacks—was Spirlaw. Spirlaw was not dealing with the possibility of trouble—it was simply a question of how long it would be before it started. He folded the letter, sealed it in one of the company's manilas, and, as he watched Number Twelve disappear around the bend steaming east for Big Cloud with Keating aboard her and the epistle reposing in Keating's pocket, he stretched out his arms that were big as derrick booms and drew in a long breath like a man from whose shoulders has dropped a heavy load.
That day Spirlaw talked from his heart to the men, and they listened in sullen, stupid silence, leaning on their picks and shovels.
"You know me," he snapped, and his eyes starting at the right of the group rested for a bare second on each individual face as they swept down the line. "You know me. You've been actin' like sulky dogs lately—don't think I haven't spotted it. You saw what happened to that coyote friend of yours that sneaked in here last night. I meant it as a lesson for the bunch of you as well as him. The yarns he was fillin' you full of are mostly lies, an' if they ain't it's none of your business, anyhow. It won't pay you to look for trouble, I promise you that. You can take it from me that I'll bash the first man to powder that tries it. Get that? Well then, wiggle them picks a bit an' get busy!"
"The man that hits first," said Spirlaw to himself, as he walked away, "is the man that usually comes out on top. I guess them there few kind words of mine'll give 'em a little something to chew on till Carleton sends that hardware down, I guess they will, h'm?"
The camp was pretty quiet that night—quieter than usual. The cook-house and the three bunk-houses, that lay a few hundred yards east of the trestle, might have been occupied by dead men for all the sounds that came from them. Occasionally, Spirlaw, sitting out as usual in front of his own shanty, that was between the trestle and the gang's quarters, saw a Polack or two skulk from one of the bunk-houses to the other—and he scowled savagely as he divided his glances between them and the sky. It looked like a storm in the mountains, and a storm in the mountains is never by any possibility to be desired—least of all was it to be desired just then. The men at work was one thing; the men cooped up for a day, or two days, of enforced idleness with the temper they were in was another—Spirlaw turned in that night with the low, ominous roll of distant thunder for a lullaby.
Once in the night he woke suddenly at the sound of a splitting crash, and once, twice, and again, like a fierce, winking stream of flame, the lightning filled the shack bright as day, while on the roof the rain beat steadily like the tattoo of a corps of snare drums. Spirlaw smiled grimly as the darkness shut down on him again.
"Got the little builder out just about the right time, h'm?" he remarked to himself; and, turning over in his bunk, went to sleep again—but even in his sleep the grim smile lingered on his lips.
The morning broke with the steady downpour unabated. Everything ran water, and the rock cut was filled with it. Work was out of the question. Spirlaw ate his breakfast, that the dripping camp cook brought him, and then, putting on his rubber boots and coat, started over for the track. Number Eleven was due at the Cañon at seven-thirty, and she would have the package of "hardware" he had asked Carleton for.
But though seven-thirty came, Number Eleven did not—neither did any other train, east or west. The hours passed from a long morning to drag through a longer afternoon. Something was wrong somewhere—and badly wrong at that. Spirlaw's face was blacker than the storm. Twice, once in the morning and once in the afternoon, he started down the track in the direction of Keefer's Siding, which was just what its name proclaimed it to be—a siding, no more, no less, only there was an operator there. Each time, however, he changed his mind after getting no further than a few yards. The Polacks could be no less alive to the fact than himself that something out of the ordinary was in the air, and second considerations swung strongly to the advisability of sticking close to the camp, so that his presence might have the effect of dampening the ardor of any mischief that might be brewing.
It was not until well on toward eight o'clock in the evening and the last of the twilight that the hoarse screech of a whistle sounded down the cañon grade—a long blast and three short ones. It was belated Number Eleven whistling for the camp—she wouldn't stop, just slow down to transact her business. Spirlaw, who was in his shanty at the time, snatched up his hat, dashed out of the door, and headed for the bend of the track. As he did so, out of the tail of his eye, he caught sight of the Polacks clustered with out-poked heads from the open doors of the bunk-houses.
As he reached the line, Number Eleven came round the curve, and the door of the express car swung back. The messenger dropped a package into his hand that the road boss received with a grim smile, and a word into his ear that caused Spirlaw's jaw to drop—nor was that all that dropped, for, from the rear end, as the train rolled by—dropped Keating.
White- faced and shaky the boy looked—more so than usual. Spirlaw stared as though he had seen an apparition, stared for a minute in silence before he could lay tongue to words—then they came like the out-spout of a volcano.
"What the hell's the meanin' of this?" he roared. "Who in the double-blanked blazes let you out of Big Cloud, h'm? I'll have some——"
"Let's get in out of the wet," broke in Keating, smiling through a spell of coughing that racked him at that moment. "You can growl your head off then, if you like"—and he started on a run for the shack.
Once inside, Spirlaw rounded on the boy again, and he stopped only when he was out of breath.
"Didn't Carleton tell you to stay where you was?" he finished bitterly.
"Oh yes," said Keating, "that's about the first thing he did say after he had read your letter, when I gave it to him yesterday. Then I tumbled to why you had sent me out of camp. You're about as square as they make them, Spirlaw. You needn't blame Carleton, he had about all he could do without paying any attention to me or any one else. Had any wires or news in here?"
Spirlaw shook his head.
"No; but I knew something was up, because Number Eleven is the first train in or out to-day. The express messenger just said they'd cut loose in Big Cloud and wrecked about everything in sight, but I guess he was puttin' it on a bit."
"He didn't put on anything," said Keating slowly. "My God, Spirlaw, it was an awful night! The freight-house and the shops and the roundhouse, what's left of them, are ashes. They cut all the wires and then they cut loose themselves—the Polacks and that crowd, you know. Yes, they wrecked everything in sight, and there's a dozen lives gone out to pay for it." Keating stopped suddenly, and again began to cough.
Spirlaw looked at the boy uneasily, and mechanically fumbled with the cords of the package he had laid upon the table. By the time he had removed the wrappers and disclosed two ugly, businesslike looking ·45s and a half-dozen boxes of cartridges, Keating's paroxysm had passed.
"I guess it was exciting enough for me, anyhow"—Keating tried hard to make his laugh ring true. "I'm a little weak from it yet."
"If you weren't sick," Spirlaw burst out, "I'd make you sick for comin' back here. You know well enough we'll get it next—you knew so well you came back to help——"
"I told Carleton he ought to send some help down here," Keating interrupted hastily; "and he just looked at me like a crazy man—he was half mad anyhow with the ruin of things. 'Help!' he flung out at me. 'Where's it coming from? Let Spirlaw yank up his stakes and pull out if things get looking bad!'"
"Pull out!" shouted Spirlaw, in a sudden roar. "Pull out! Me! Not for all the cross-eyed, hamstrung Polacks on the system!"
"I think you'd better," said Keating quietly. "After what I saw last night, I think you'd better. There was no holding them—they were like savages, and the further they went the worse they got. They were backed up by whisky and the worst element in town. I was in the station with Carleton, Regan, Harvey, Riley and Spence and some of the other dispatchers. It was a regular pitched battle, and in spite of their revolvers the station would have gone with the rest if, along toward morning, the striking trainmen and the Brotherhood hadn't taken a hand and helped us out. I don't know that it's over yet, that it won't break out again to-night; though I heard Carleton say there'd be a detachment of the police in town by four o'clock. I wish you would pull out, Spirlaw. You said yourself that all these fellows here needed to start them sticking their claws into you was a little encouragement from the other end. They've been afraid of you, but they hate you like poison. Once started, they'll be worse than the crowd at Big Cloud for hate is a harder driver than whisky. Then besides, I really think you'd be of more use in Big Cloud. You could do some good there no matter what the end was, while here you're alone and you stand to lose everything and gain nothing. I wish you would pull out, Spirlaw, won't you?"
Spirlaw reached out his hand and laid it on Keating's shoulder, as he shook his head.
"I've got a whole lot to lose," he answered, his hard face softening a little. "A whole lot. I can't say things the way you do, but I guess you'll understand. You got something that means a whole lot to you, that you'd risk anything for—what you want to do and what you want to leave behind you when it comes along time to cash in. Well, I guess most of us have in one way or another, though mabbe it don't rank anywheres up to that. I reckon, too, a whole lot of us don't never think to put it in words, an' a whole lot of us couldn't if we tried to, but it's there with any man that's any good. I'd rather go out for keeps than pull out—I'd rather they'd plant me. D'ye think I'd want to live an' have to cross the street because I couldn't look even a Polack in the eyes—a man would be better dead, what?"
For a moment Keating did not answer, he seemed to be weighing the possibility of still shaking the determination of the road boss before accepting it as irrevocable: then, evidently coming to the conclusion that it was useless to argue further, he pointed to the revolvers.
"Then the sooner you load those the better," he jerked out.
Spirlaw looked at him curiously, questioningly.
"Because," went on Keating, answering the unspoken interrogation, "when I dropped off the train I saw that fellow Kuryla—he was pointed out to me in Big Cloud yesterday—and three or four more drop off on the other side. I didn't know they were on the train until then, of course, or I would have had them put off. There isn't much doubt about what they are here for, is there?"
"So that's it, is it?" Spirlaw ripped out with an oath. "No, there ain't much doubt!"
He snatched up a cartridge-box, slit the paper band with his thumb nail, and, breaking the revolvers, began to cram the cartridges into the cylinders. His face was twitching and the red that flushed it shaded to a deep purple. Not another word came from him—just a deadly quiet. He thrust the weapons into his pockets, strode to the door, opened it, stepped over the threshold—and stopped. An instant he hung there in indecision, then he came back, shut the door behind him, sat down on the edge of his bunk, and looked at Keating grimly.
"There's been one train along, there'll be another," he snapped. "An' the first one that comes you'll get aboard of. I hate to keep those whinin' coyotes waitin', but——"
"I'll take no train," Keating cut in coolly; "but I'll take a revolver."
Spirlaw growled and shook his head.
"Why didn't you tell me about Kuryla at first?" he demanded abruptly.
"You know why as well as I do," smiled Keating. "I wanted to get you away from here if I could. There wouldn't have been any use trying at all if I'd begun by telling you that. Wild horses wouldn't have budged you then. As for a train, what's the use of talking about it, there probably won't be another one along under an hour. In the meantime, give me one of the guns."
Spirlaw's refusal died half uttered on his lips, as he sprang suddenly to his feet; then he whipped out the revolvers and shoved one quickly into Keating's hand.
Carried down with the sweep of the wind came the sound of many voices raised in shouts and discordant song. It grew louder, swelled, and broke into a high-pitched, defiant yell.
"Whisky!" gritted Spirlaw between his teeth. "That devil Kuryla and the coyotes that came with him knew the best an' quickest way to start the ball rollin'. Well, son, I reckon we're in for it. The only thing I'm sorry about is that you're here; but that can't be helped now. You were white clean through to come—Holy Mother, listen to that!"—another yell broke louder, fiercer than before over the roar of the storm.
Spirlaw stepped to the door and peered out. It was already getting dark. The rain still poured in sheets, and the wind howled down the gorge in wild, furious, spasmodic gusts. Thin streaks of light strayed out from the doors of the bunk-houses, and around the doors were gathered shadowy groups. A moment more and the shadowy groups welded into a single dark mass. Came a mad, exultant yell from a single throat. It was caught up, flung back, echoed and re-echoed by a score of voices—and the dark mass began to move.
"Guess you'd better put out that light, son," said Spirlaw coolly. "There's no use makin' targets of our——"
Before he ended, before Keating had more than taken a step forward, a lump of rock shivered the little window and crashed into the lamp—it was out for keeps. A howl followed this exhibition of marksmanship, and, following that, a volley of stones smashed against the side of the shack thick and fast as hail—then the onrush of feet.
Spirlaw's revolver cut the black with a long, blinding flash, then another, and another. Screams and shrieks answered him, but it did not halt the Polacks. In a mob they rushed the door. Spirlaw sprang back, trying to close it after him; instead, a dozen hands grasped and half wrenched it from its hinges.
"Lie down on the floor, Spirlaw, quick!"—it was Keating's voice, punctuated with a cough. The next instant his gun barked, playing through the doorway like a gatling.
From the floor the road boss joined in. The mob wavered, pitched swaying this way and that, then broke and ran, struggling with each other to get out of the line of fire.
"Hurrah!" cried Keating. "I guess that will hold them."
"'Tain't begun," was Spirlaw's grim response. "Where's them cartridges?"
"On the table—got them?"
"Yes," said Spirlaw, after a minute's groping. "Here, put a box in your pocket."
"What are they up to now?" asked Keating as, in the silence that had fallen, they reloaded and listened.
"God knows," growled Spirlaw; "but I guess we'll find out quick enough."
As he spoke, from a little distance away, came the splintering crash of woodwork—then silence again.
"That's the storehouse," Spirlaw snarled. "They're after the bars an' anything else they can lay their hands on. Guess they weren't countin' on our havin' anything more than our fists to fight with, guess they weren't."
Keating's only reply was a cough.
The minutes passed, two, three, five of them. Once outside sounded what might have been the stealthy scuffle of feet or only a storm-sound so construed by the imagination. Then, from the direction of the river-bed, sudden, sharp, came a terrific roar.
"My God!" yelled Spirlaw. "There's the trestle gone—they've blown it up! They're sure to have laid a fuse here, too. Get out of here quick! Fool that I was, I might have known it was the dynamite they were after."
Both men were scrambling for the door as he spoke. They reached it not an instant too soon. The ground behind them lifted, heaved; the walls, the roof of the shack rose, cracked like eggshells, and scattered in flying pieces—and the mighty, deafening detonation of the explosion echoed up and down the gorge, echoed again—and died away.
The mob caught sight of them as they ran and, foiled for the moment, sent up a yell of rage—then started in pursuit.
"Make for the cut," shouted Spirlaw. "We can hold them off there behind the rocks."
Keating had no breath for words. Panting, sick, his head swimming, a fleck of blood upon his lips, he struggled after the giant form of the road boss; while, behind, coming ever closer, ringing in his ears, were the wild cries of the maddened Polacks. The splash of water revived him a little as they plunged along the old right of way where the river, flooded by the storm, had again claimed its own. The worst of it was up to his armpits. A grip on his shoulder and a pull from Spirlaw helped him over. They gained the other side with a bare two yards separating them from the mob behind, went on again—and then Spirlaw caught his foot, tripped and pitched headlong, causing Keating, at his heels, to stumble and fall over him.
Like wild beasts the Polacks surged upon them. Keating tried to regain his feet—but he got no further than his knees as a swinging blow from a pick-handle aught him on his head. Half-stunned, he sank back and, as consciousness left him, he heard Spirlaw's great voice roar out like the maddened bellow of a bull, saw the giant form rise with, it seemed, a dozen Polacks clinging to neck and shoulders, legs and body, saw him shake them off and the massive arms rise and fall—and all was a blur, all darkness.
The road boss lay stretched out a yard away from him when he opened his eyes. He was very weak. He raised himself on his elbow. From the camp down the line he could see the lights in the bunk-houses, hear drunken, chorused shouts. He crept to Spirlaw, called him, shook him—the big road boss never moved. The Polacks had evidently left both of them for dead—and one, it seemed, was. He slid his hand inside the other's vest for the heart beat. So faint it was at first he could not feel it, then he got it, and, realizing that Spirlaw was still alive he straightened up and looked helplessly around—and, in a flash, like the knell of doom, Spirlaw's words came back to him: "There's the trestle gone!"
Sick the boy was with his clotting lungs, deathly sick, weak from the blow on his head, dizzy, and his brain swam. "There's the trestle gone!"—he coughed it out between blue lips.
"There's the trestle gone!"
Keefer's Siding was a mile away. Somehow he must reach it, must get the word along the line that the trestle was out, get the word along before the stalled traffic moved, before the first train east or west crashed through to death, before more wreck and ruin was added to the tale that had gone before. He bent to Spirlaw's ear and three times called him frantically: "Spirlaw! Spirlaw! Spirlaw!" There was no response. He tried to lift him, tried to drag him—the great bulk was far beyond his strength. And the minutes were flying by, each marking the one perhaps when it would be too late, too late to warn any one that the trestle was out.
Just up past the rock cut, a bare twenty yards away where the leads to the temporary track swung into the straight of the main line, was the platform handcar they had used for carrying tools and the odds and ends of supplies between the storehouse and the work—if he could only get Spirlaw there!
He called him again, shook him, breathing a prayer for help. The road boss stirred, raised himself a little, and sank down again with a moan.
"Spirlaw, Spirlaw, for God's sake, man, try to get up! I'll help you. You must, do you hear, you must!"—he was dragging at the road boss's collar.
Keating's voice seemed to reach the other's consciousness, for, weakly, dazed, without sense, blindly, Spirlaw got upon his knees, then to his feet, and, staggering, reeling like a drunken man, his arm around Keating's neck, his weight almost crushing to the ground the one sicker than himself, the two stumbled, pitched, and, at the end, crawled those twenty yards.
"The handcar, Spirlaw, the handcar!" gasped Keating. "Get on it. You must! Try! Try!"
Spirlaw straightened, lurched forward, and fell half across the car with out-flung arms—unconscious again.
The rest Keating managed somehow, enough so that the dangling legs freed the ground by a few inches; then, with bursting lungs, far spent, he unblocked the wheels, pushed the car down the little spur, swung the switch, dragged himself aboard, and began to pump his way west toward Keefer's Siding.
No man may tell the details of that mile, every inch of which was wrung from blood that oozed from parted, quivering lips; no man may question from Whom came the strength to the frail body, where strength was not; the reprieve to the broken lungs, that long since should have done their worst—only Keating knew that the years were ended forever, that with every stroke of the pump-handle the time was shorter. The few minutes to win through—that was the last stake!
At the end he choked—fighting for his consciousness, as, like dancing points, switch lights swam before him. He checked with the brake, reeled from the car, fell, tried to rise and fell back again. Then, on his hands and knees, he crept toward the station door. It had come at last. The hemorrhage that he had fought back with all his strength was upon him. He beat upon the door. It opened, a lantern was flashed upon him, and he fell inside.
"The trestle's out at the Glacier—hold trains both ways—Polacks—Spirlaw on—handcar—I——"
That was all. Keating never spoke again.
"I dunno as you'd call him a builder," says Clarihue, the night turner, when he tells the story in the darkened roundhouse in the shadow of the big ten-wheelers on the pits, while the steam purrs softly at the gauges and sometimes a pop-valve lifts with a catchy sob, "I dunno as you would. It depends on the way you look at it. Accordin' to him, he was. He left something behind him, what?"