Ralph of the Roundhouse/Chapter 13
MAKING HIS WAY
Big Denny confronted the roundhouse foreman, an obstructing block in his path. He was one of the heaviest men in the service, built like an ox, and immensely good-natured.
Just now, however, he was also immensely excited and serious, and the crowd stared at him curiously, and at Forgan in an astonished way.
"This is none of your business. Don't you interfere, don't you try to shield that miserable blunderer!" shouted the foreman.
"Hold on, Tim," advised the watchman, putting out his big arm, and abruptly checking Forgan in a forward dash.
"Do you know what he's done!" howled Forgan.
"I guess you don't, Tim," said Big Denny quietly. "Just you cool down. This way, boys" called the watchman into the crowd at his heels. "Keep cool, Tim—there's no harm done, but there might have been if Fairbanks here wasn't quicker than lightning, and a brave young hero, besides!"
The crowd parted, a switchman came into view. He carried in his arms, white and limp, a little girl about ten years of age.
Hanging by the neck ribbon was her pretty summer hat, crushed and cut squarely in two. One temple was somewhat disfigured, and her dress was soiled with roadbed dust and grime.
Tim Forgan looked once and his jaws dropped. He shuddered as if some one had dealt him a blow, and staggered where he stood, his face turning to a sickly gray.
"Nora!" he gasped—"my little Nora! Denny—boys! she is hurt—dead!"
"Neither," answered the big watchman promptly, placing a soothing hand on the foreman's quivering arm. "Steady, old man, now!"
"Give her to me!" shouted Forgan, in a frenzy. "Nora, my little Nora! What has happened? what has happened?"
The big fellow had one idol, one warm corner in his heart—his little grandchild.
His rugged brow corrugated, and he was frantic beyond all reason as he covered the still white face with kisses, nestling the motionless child in his arms tenderly.
"Take her into the office," directed Denny. "Give her air, lads—and get some cold water, some of you."
He blocked the doorway with his bulky frame as the foreman and his charge passed through, admitting a moment later a switchman with a can of water, and two of the older engineers at his heels.
Then he closed the door, and looked around for Ralph. The latter had sunk to a bench, still pale and faint-looking. The lame helper was ransacking his locker. Coming thence with some clean waste and a bottle of liniment, he snatched up a pail, went outside, got some warm water from a locomotive, and approached Ralph.
Ralph regarded him in some wonder, but made no demur as the strange, silent fellow began to wash and dress his injured arm with a touch soft and careful as that of a woman.
Big Denny continued to stand on guard at the closed door of the foreman's little office.
The crowd from the outside was exchanging information with the roundhouse throng, trying to patch mutual disclosures together into some coherency.
Ike Slump's look of malevolent gratification had faded away. He began to surmise that Ralph had a purpose in so summarily deserting his post, and that the anticipated "turning of the tables" was not destined to materialize.
"What's the rights of things, Denny?" asked one of the engineers. "That was little Nora Forgan, wasn't it!"
"Sure—and you know what she is to gruff old Tim, apple of his eye. If anything happened to her, I believe he'd go mad."
"He's pretty near there now, with his tantrums!" volunteered a voice from the crowd.
"I think this will cure him a bit," said Denny. "The little one has been bringing him his dinner lately, you know. A child like that has no business along the tracks, but he usually had her come back of the roundhouse, where there wasn't so much risk. This time, I suppose she feared she'd be late, and crossed over the busiest switches. My heart stood still, lads, when, ten minutes since, five hundred feet away from her, I saw her trip, fall, strike her head on the rails, and lay there stunned, squarely in the way of a dead-end freight, coming."
Big Denny squirmed with real feeling in his powerful, husky voice, as he dabbed the perspiration from his brow.
"Next thing, I saw a flash come out through the roundhouse door here. It was—him!"
Mechanically the crowd turned. Twenty pairs of eyes rested on Ralph, whom Denny had pointed out.
"Yes, sir—it was him, young Fairbanks! He's got the right blood in him, that kid. I knew his father, and he wouldn't be Jack Fairbanks' son if he hadn't acted just as he did!"
No comment could have pleased Ralph more than that. He darted a grateful look at his bulky champion.
"No one any good seemed to have noticed the accident except him," went on Denny, the eyes of his absorbed auditors again riveted intently upon him. "I counted the seconds in a sort of sickly horror, for it seemed impossible that he could make it in time."
"But he did!" cried a strained voice.
"He did—it was terrifying. The last ten feet he saw his only chance. It was like a fellow sliding for base. Flat he dived and drove, it must have been an awful scrape! The first wheels of the backing car fairly reached the little angel's long, golden curls. As it was, they cut the dangling hat straight in two. He grabbed her, just escaping the wheels, not a second too soon."
With a working face the lame helper had stood listening, rooted to the spot like a statue.
The crowd swayed towards Ralph. They were all in one uniform mood of admiration for his nervy exploit, only they expressed it in different ways.
A dozen shook his hand till they nearly wrung it off; a big, bluff fireman, with a fist like a ham, slapped his shoulders so exuberantly that the contact nearly drove the breath out of his body.
"As to that little heap of rubbish," observed Big Denny, with lofty contempt indicating the broken brick wall—"I reckon Tim Forgan won't let that count against the life of that child."
Ralph arose to his feet.
"But I didn't do it," he asseverated.
"Don't you worry about trifles, kid," advised Denny.
"But I didn't!" insisted Ralph.
Denny looked annoyed. He wished to dismiss the subject peremptorily while his hero was still on the pedestal, and, human-like, he believed Ralph was trying to square himself at the cost of a lame explanation, or a lie.
"That's—that's right," suddenly interposed a quavering voice.
"Hello!" laughed Denny, turning to confront the sphinx-like helper, whose taciturnity was proverbial. "You'll be making a speech, next!"
"Yes," bolted out the lame helper, very much agitated over his own unusual temerity.
"Give it a voice, Limpy."
"He didn't do it."
"Didn't do what?"
"Run that engine into the wall."
"How do you know?"
"I saw him—he started her up, but shut her off, dead, before he jumped for the tracks and ran outside."
Ralph looked surprised, but pleased, Big Denny convinced, and the crowd tremendously interested.
On the outskirts of the crowd Ike Slump gave ear, perked up his face in a grimace, and a minute later sneaked out of the place.
"Saw the whole thing," declared Limpy. "Fellow in the next engine leaned over soon as Fairbanks left, slipped the lever, and let her drive."
"Who was it?" demanded the watchman indignantly.
"Slump, the scamp."
"Where is he?"
The crowd made a search, but it was unavailing—Ike Slump had "jumped his job" permanently, to all appearances, for his locker was empty.
The fireman came out of the office.
"She's all right," he announced to Denny, "but the old man's terribly broken up. Better go in and give him a word."
"All right," said Denny—"you come, too, Fairbanks."
"I'd rather not," said Ralph—"I've got work to do."
"You take a rest and eat your dinner before you do anything else," advised the big watchman.
The noon whistle sounded just then and dispersed the crowd. Ralph went over to a bench and brought out his dinner pail.
His arm was sore and smarting, but he was not at all seriously crippled, and he sat thoughtfully eating his lunch and wondering how the damage to the wall would be repaired.
Ralph noticed the two engineers leave the office, then Big Denny. The latter had hold of the hand of little Nora.
He led the way up to Ralph. Limpy had just taken his seat on the other end of the bench.
"I'm going to take her home," said the watchman. "Nora, do you know who this young gentleman is?"
The little girl looked still pale and frightened, but except for the torn dress and hat and a dark bruise on her forehead seemed none the worse for her recent perilous experience.
"No, sir," she said shyly.
"It's Ralph Fairbanks. He saved your life."
"Oh, sir! did you? did you?" she cried, running up to Ralph. She put her arms around his neck and kissed him, the tears running down her cheeks. "When I tell mamma, she'll come down and thank you, too!" she continued and then passed on.
Ralph was affected by the incident. His heart warmed up as he reflected how the tide of feeling had changed towards him in the past hour. Then, reaching for his lunch pail, his hand unexpectedly came in contact with a big, juicy square of pie. The lame helper had disappeared.
It was a further tribute from that strange, silent man, and it told Ralph unmistakably that beyond that grim wall of reserve was probably hidden a heart of gold.
The excitement and rough usage of the morning had used up Ralph considerably. He felt the need of fresh air, put aside his dinner pail, and started for the outside.
Just then, the helper came across to him from the direction of the little office.
"Wanted," he said sententiously. "Foreman wants to see you."