Ralph on the Overland Express/24

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The young engineer stood shocked and motionless—only, however, for the minutest fraction of a moment. A railroad man's life is full of sudden surprises and situations calling for prompt, decisive and effective action. Ralph had learned this from experience.

The master mechanic was in the direct path of the train backing into the depot. The one he had just left and the one proceeding in the same direction shut him in where there was no flagman or switches. The train bearing down upon him was on a rounding bend of rails, the locomotive not in view, and there was no possible chance of signalling the engineer.

As Ralph started forward the engine of the outbound train passed him. He waited for one car only to pass him. How he skimmed its rear platform he never knew. It was a daring, reckless spring, and he landed on the planking beyond the rails on a dizzying slide. The next instant he was at the side of the imperilled railroad official.

"I'm caught!" gasped the master mechanic, with a white but set face, as he recognized Ralph.

"Swing down!" cried the young railroader. "It's your only chance."

The master mechanic barely suppressed a groan as he toppled sideways. The twist to his ankle made him wince. Ralph saw that his foot was held as in a vise. No amount of pulling could get him free. The train backing down was less than thirty feet away.

"Hold steady," breathed Ralph in a shaking tone, and his hand dove for his pocket. He recalled it all afterwards as a remarkable thing that, standing there, a great peril hovering, there seemed to flash through his mind a vivid photograph of Torchy.

The call boy at the roundhouse was a great friend of the young engineer. Ralph had been his model, as was he his friend. He had loaned the little fellow a book on railroading that had delighted Torchy, and observing Ralph sharpening a peg for his bumper with a decidedly blunt-edged knife, he had begged the privilege of getting it sharpened for him.

When he had returned the knife to Ralph the day previous, Torchy declared that it was sharp as a razor and would cut a hair in two. Ralph found this to be no exaggeration. In addition Torchy had oiled the blade hinges. Now the young engineer thought of Torchy and of the knife as he drew it from his pocket, whipped open its big blade and made a dive rather than a swoop beside the body of the master mechanic.

"Pull back your foot!" cried Ralph, and made a swoop. The flanges of the near truck wheels were grinding on the edge of the rails not five feet away. Ralph's arm described a deft oval movement. In one swift stroke he slit the shoe from vamp to sole. He was conscious that the foot of the master mechanic came free. Then something struck Ralph, and he felt himself tossed aside inert and unconscious by some stunning force.

When he again opened his eyes Ralph caught the vague hum of a lingo of switch pidgin, smut-faced, blear-eyed men near by, himself stretched at full length on sleeping car cushions on the floor of the dog house. He sat up promptly. There was a momentary blur to his sight, but this quickly passed away.

"Aha—only a bump—I told you so!" cried bluff-hearted Tim Forgan, the foreman, jumping from a bench and approaching Ralph.

"All right, Fairbanks?" questioned John Griscom, coming to his side.

"Right as a trivet," reported Ralph, getting to his feet. "What hit me?"

"The step of a coach, it seems," explained Forgan.

Ralph passed his hand over his head until it rested on a lump and a sore spot near one ear. It was wet and greasy where some liniment had been applied.

"The master mechanic?" he asked, with a quick memory of what had happened.

"Ankle wrenched," said Griscom. "We made him get to a surgeon on a litter. He minded nothing but you, till he was sure that you were all right."

Ralph uttered a vast sigh of relief and satisfaction. Forgan led him to his own special office armchair. Half-a-dozen crowded about him, curious for details of the accident no one of them had witnessed.

Ralph gave them the particulars as he could remember them. He asked for a drink of water, felt of the bump again with a smiling grimace, and arose to his feet.

"Same schedule, I suppose?" he inquired, starting to go outside the doghouse and inspect the bulletin board on which daily orders were posted.

"You don't mean that you are going to make your run to-day, Fairbanks?" asked the foreman.

"Why not?"

"Used up."

"Am I?" queried Ralph with a smiie. "Then I don't know it. I fancy it was a narrow escape, and I am grateful for it."

"The master mechanic was looking for you when he got frogged," observed Griscom.

"Yes, I thought he was," nodded Ralph.

"Here, Fairbanks," broke in the foreman of the roundhouse, "tack up this flimsy with the rest, will you?"

Ralph took the tissue sheet tendered, stepped through the open doorway into the roundhouse, and set the sheet upon two tacks on the bulletin board. He started to stroll over to No. 999 in her stall.

"Hold on," challenged Forgan; "that flimsy just came in. It's an important order. Better read it, Fairbanks."

"All right," assented Ralph, and turning, cast his eyes at the sheet. They distended wide, for this is what he read:

"No. 7, new train, Overland Express, Mountain Division, 6.12 p. m., beginning Monday, the 15th. Engineer: Fairbanks—Fireman: Fogg."

"My!" was all that Ralph could gasp out.

A great hearty hand, that of the old railroad veteran, John Griscom, landed on Ralph's shoulder with a resounding slap.

"Fairbanks!" he roared in the ear of the bewildered young engineer, "the top rung of the ladder at last!"