Ralph in the Switch Tower/Chapter 19
THE DOUBLE WRECK
Ralph Fairbanks had disobeyed orders.
That was the first overwhelming thought that rushed through the young leverman's mind. He stood in the midst of the storm, still clasping the red switch light.
The echo of that ominous crash was in his ears. Louder and fiercer, it seemed, thumping away at his heart with a dull, depressing force, was the realization that he had violated the stringent instructions of his superior, Jack Knight: "Never disobey orders!"
Something had been wrong at the limits tower—hence, two wrecks within sixty minutes. But that was not Ralph's business. Limits had ordered track 7. He had sent the through freight down track 6. No matter what humane sense had prompted his choice, the railroad regime was strictly inviolable. There had been a wreck, how bad he did not yet know, and he was responsible for it.
The freight had come to a stop. Lanterns now began to flit in its vicinity. Above the raging tumult of the storm, vague shouts reached Ralph's ear.
A brakeman, carrying a lantern, came rushing towards him.
"What has happened?" asked Ralph faintly.
"Towerman?" queried the brakeman sharply, flashing the lantern in Ralph's face. "Only a shake-up at my end. What's ahead, I don't know. Nothing coming behind?"
"No—get me word how bad the smash-up is, will you?" and, recalled to his duty by the brakeman's appearance, Ralph hurried back to the tower.
He closed the switch on track 6. Then, somewhat faint and badly worried, he sank into the armchair. Nothing was due on regular schedule. The express was reported stalled. Still, so many strange mix-ups had occurred during the night, that Ralph watched the dial, on the keen edge of suspense and distraction.
"Hello!" he cried finally, and started to his feet in wonder.
The dial disc transfixed his glance. It had begun to work. Within thirty seconds it indicated as many varied orders. It scheduled freights, passengers, "chasers." It called for one switch after another.
In stupefaction Ralph watched the brass index finger flit, whirl, and tremble. Then it circled round and round several times, vibrated at "blank," and rested there.
"Why!" gasped the stupefied Ralph, "am I crazy, or is someone else at the other end of the line?"
Voices below made Ralph start, listen, and watch. A grimed face came up through the trap. Ralph recognized the fireman of the through freight.
"Quick!" he spoke—"how bad?"
"Three empty freights kindling wood, front of the engine stove in," reported the fireman.
"No one hurt?"
"Not a soul."
"Thank Heaven!" murmured Ralph presently.
"I jumped, after the shutting down of the air brakes," went on the fireman. "So did Foster. But say, kid, why in the world didn't you give us the long siding?"
"Orders from limits for 7," explained Ralph. "It was a desperate chance. I took it, and gave you 6, for 7 was in use with a sleeper. Are you going to the depot? Please tell the dispatcher our 'phone is burned out, something wrong at limits, and to send to me for a report right away."
"There's a mix-up all along the line, the way things look," observed the fireman, disappearing.
Ralph took up a position at an open window. He watched the lanterns bobbing along the tracks and at the depot.
He was unnerved and in a direful condition of suspense. Only the glad thought that no loss of life attended the collision sustained him.
The train dispatcher's assistant put in an appearance in about twenty minutes. He looked flustered as he told Ralph that they had two wrecks on their hands.
Ralph made his report clearly, concisely. His visitor looked astonished as he learned of the amazing gyrations of the signal dial.
"You're a brick, just the same, Fairbanks!" said the man, as Ralph concluded his report. "If the freight had got track 7, there would have been a fine slaughter for the railroad company to pay for."
"I disobeyed orders," observed Ralph in a depressed tone.
"Limits seems to have made a fine mess of it all along the line, and we are going to find out why, very promptly."
"I wish you would send a messenger for Mr. Knight," said Ralph. "I think he ought to be here to straighten things out."
"We have done that already."
"Look—see!" cried Ralph suddenly.
The dial began its strange manifestations again. The man from the dispatcher's office started, gulped, and with a mutter of astonishment and concern ran down the trap ladder.
The depot yards became a scene of activity as the minutes wore on.
The seriousness of the occasion, with three trains out of service, called for immediate attention. Handcars were flitting hither and thither. Ralph was kept busy sending them on their way.
The master mechanic, depot master, and Jack Knight made up one handcar load. Two engines with tackle and relief cars came down from the roundhouse, lining up at the side of the through freight.
Ralph was fully watchful and employed for the next hour. Then he became dreadfully anxious. A handcar bolted right under the windows of the switch tower. The master mechanic and Jack Knight got off, and came up the ladder a minute later.
Ralph stood holding to the armchair, a picture of suspense. The master mechanic looked grave and bothered. On the contrary, bluff and hearty as ever, Knight came forward. He grasped Ralph by both shoulders, swinging him backwards and forwards in a playful, encouraging way.
"Shake, old fellow!" he sang out, slipping one hand down one arm and gripping Ralph's fingers heartily.
"Why?" asked Ralph with a half-smile. "Good-bye? I suppose that is the programme for me," he added, with an anxious look at the master mechanic.
"What's that?" demanded old Jack keenly. "Oh, on account of the through freight? Humph! If the Great Northern don't appreciate the wise, wide-awake common sense that saw the difference between three old box cars and eleven precious human lives, I'll take my walking papers instanter. Is that right, Mr. Blake?" challenged Knight.
"Yes," nodded the master mechanic, "your sentiment is right, Mr. Knight. I have nothing but praise for the good judgment young Fairbanks has shown."
"But I disobeyed orders," suggested Ralph in an uncertain tone.
"Orders?" sniffed Knight—"yes, luckily! A crazy man's order."
"Why, what do you mean?" inquired Ralph in perplexity.
"What I say. For three hours the limits tower has been in charge of a stark, raving lunatic—the Great Northern railroad system the plaything of a madman. Never has this company been so near wreck and ruin. And you, Fairbanks," added the veteran towerman, with a tender, fatherly touch on the arm of his young protégé—"you saved your end of the line!"