Ralph of the Roundhouse/Chapter 24
A NEW ENEMY
The box car was smashed teetotally. The car that struck it had one end battered in, its rear trucks rode up over the debris threatening to telescope or derail others, but the engineer ahead, catching the token of some obstruction from the shock, shut off steam quick enough to prevent any very serious general results.
The crash had sounded far and wide. Ralph stood surveying the wreck and ruin in a kind of fascinated daze.
Yardmen came rushing up from all directions. Soon too, the brakeman of the freight and its engineer were hurrying to the scene of the wreck.
More leisurely, a man carrying a cane, faultlessly dressed, and accompanied by the depot master, crossed from the semaphore house to the spot.
Ralph turned to look at the stranger of the twain as he heard a voice in the crowd say:
"There's Bardon, the inspector."
The engineer was vociferously disclaiming any responsibility in the affair, and his brakeman tranquilly listened to him as he recited that he had taken signals as set.
The one-armed switchman who had charge of these tracks appeared on the scene, his signal flag stuck under his perfect arm, and looking flustered.
Everybody was asking questions or explaining, as the depot master and his companion edged their way to the rails.
Ralph had a full view now of the man he knew to be Bardon, the inspector.
His first impression was a vivid one. He saw nothing in the coarse, sensual lips and shifty, sneering eye of the man to commend him for either humanity or ability.
"What's the trouble here?" questioned Bardon, with the air of a person owning everything in sight, and calling down the humble myrmidons who had dared to interfere with the smooth workings of an immaculate railway system.
"You ought to be able to see," growled the freight engineer bluntly.
The inspector frowned at this free-and-easy, offhand offense to his dignity and importance.
"I'm Bardon," he said, as if the mention of that name would suffice to bring the stalwart engineer to the dust.
"I know you are," said the latter indifferently. "Cut off the two last cars," he ordered to his brakeman, turning his back on Bardon and starting back for his engine to pull out.
"Hold on," ordered the inspector.
The engineer halted with a sullen, disrespectful face.
"Well?" he projected.
"Who's to blame in this smash up?"
"Tain't me, that's dead sure," retorted the engineer, with a careless shrug of his shoulders, "and we'll leave it to the yardmaster to find out."
"I want to find out," spoke Bardon incisively—"I am here to do just this kind of thing. Can't you read a signal right?" he demanded of the brakeman.
The latter smiled a lazy smile, lurched amusedly from side to side, took a chew of tobacco, and counter-questioned:
Mr. Bardon, inspector, was getting scant courtesy shown him all around, and his eyes flashed. He deigned to glance at the first switch. It was set wrong, he could detect that at a glance.
"How's this?" he called to the one-armed switchman sharply. "You're responsible here."
"I reckon not, cap'n," answered the man lightly. "The switch is set on rule. I got no signal to change it."
"But the indicator's wrong?"
"That's the repair gang's business—and the wind. The Great Northern don't own the wind, so I reckon it will have to pocket the loss gracefully."
Bardon bit his lips.
"We've saved the junkmen a job as it is," said the freight engineer. "The switch was set for track C. You'd have had a pretty bill if you'd smashed that twenty-thousand dollar show car yonder."
"That's right—the switch was C open," declared the switchman.
"Then who changed it?" demanded Bardon, scenting a chance yet to exploit his meddling, nosing qualifications.
Ralph hesitated. He doubted if Bardon was the proper party to whom to report. He, however, simplified the situation by saying:
"I did it, sir."
"Eh? Why—you!" exclaimed the inspector, turning on him with a malevolent scowl.
"What did you change it for?"
The freight engineer gave a derisive guffaw.
"To save the show car, of course!" he said quickly. "The company owes you about nine-teen thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine dollars, kid!" declared the engineer, giving Ralph a glance of the profoundest admiration.
But Mr. Bardon, inspector, was not to be moved by matters of sentiment. He fixed a stony stare on the free-and-easy engineer, and turned upon Ralph, the icy, immovable disciplinarian to perfection.
"What right have you to tamper with the railway company's switches?" he demanded.
"None, perhaps," answered Ralph, "but——"
"You are a switchman?"
"No, sir, but I am an employe of the company."
"Oh, you are?"
"In what capacity?"
"At the roundhouse?"
"And you took it on yourself to——"
"To choose the best horn of a dilemma, and saved the company a big lump of money," put in the imperturbable freight engineer. "And bully for you, kid! and if we had more sharp young eyes and ready wits like yours, there would not be so many smash-ups. That's right, Bardon?"
The inspector scowled dreadfully. If the engineer had called him Mr. Bardon he might have coincided in the view of the case presented. Turning his back on the free and fearless knight of the lever as if he was dirt under his feet, he took out a pencil and memorandum book.
"I'll look into this matter myself," he said severely. "You say you are a wiper, young man?"
"Yes, sir," assented Ralph.
"What—eh? Oh, yes! Ralph Fairbanks."
The young railroader regarded the inspector with positive astonishment as he uttered that sharp startling "What." He was manifestly roused up. Quickly, however, Bardon recovered himself, looked Ralph over with a decided show of interest, seemed secretly thinking of something, and then, fingering over the pages of his memorandum book, appeared looking for a notation, found it apparently, glanced again at Ralph in a sinister way, and said calmly:
"Very well, get your time."
"What is that, sir?" exclaimed Ralph, startled anew.
"Laid off, pending an investigation," added Bardon.
Ralph's heart beat a trifle unsteadily, but he straightened up with decision.
"Does that mean, Mr. Bardon, that I am not to go back to work?"
"You can understand what you like," snapped the inspector, seemingly glad to show his authority to this disrespectful crowd, and appearing to bear some personal spite against Ralph in particular, "only you are suspended until this matter is looked into."
Bardon turned to resume his way with the depot master, who looked bored and uneasy.
"Hold on!" thundered a tremendous bass voice. "That don't work."
A greasy paw closed around the immaculate coat-sleeve of the inspector, who turned with a brow as dark as a thunder cloud.
"Drop my arm—what do you mean!" breathed Bardon, with a glance at the husky freight engineer as if he would annihilate him.
"Just this, Mr. Inspector Bardon," said the engineer, with a never-quailing eye and the zest of extreme satisfaction in words and bearing, "you can't lay anybody off."
"I represent the Great Northern Railway Company," announced Bardon grandiloquently.
"Read your rules, then," retorted the engineer, "and see how far it will sustain you in exceeding your duties. I tell you they won't uphold you, and I speak with the voice of eighty-six thousand men and their auxiliaries behind me—the International Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers."
Bardon stood nonplussed. He fidgeted and turned ghastly with vexation.
"I'll see that the proper official carries out my instructions just the same," he said in a kind of a vicious hiss.
"There's just one man to help you, then," coolly anounced the engineer, "and that's Tim Forgan."
The inspector moved hastily away.
"And he won't do it!" concluded the engineer, in an chuckling undertone, giving Ralph a ringing slap on the shoulder.