Ralph on the Overland Express/3

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



Locomotive No. 999 landed against the bumper of the gondola car with a sharp shock. However, there was no crash of consequence. The headlight radiance now flooded fully the obstruction. Young Clark suddenly shouted:

"Look out!"

The quick-witted, keen-eyed special passenger was certainly getting railroad training so coveted by his magnate father. He saw the fireman shoot through the air in his frightened jump for safety. Lemuel Fogg landed in a muddy ditch at the side of the tracks, up to his knees in water.

The sharp, warning cry of Marvin Clark was not needed to appraise Ralph of the danger that threatened. The jar of the collision had displaced and upset the derrick. Ralph saw it falling slantingly towards them. He pulled the reverse lever, but could not get action quick enough to entirely evade the falling derrick. It grazed the headlight, chopping off one of its metal wings, and striking the pilot crushed in one side of the front fender rails.

The young engineer gave the signal for backing the train, and kept in motion. His purpose was to allay any panic on the part of the passengers, whom he knew must be alarmed by the erratic tactics of the past few moments. Then after thus traversing about half the distance back to the main line, he shut off steam and whistled for instructions.

"Another notch in my education," observed young Clark with a chuckle—"been waiting to pass examination on a smash up."

"Oh, this isn't one," replied Ralph. His tone was tense, and he showed that he was disturbed. He was too quick a thinker not to at once comprehend the vital issue of the present incident. With Fogg headed down the track towards him from the ditch, trying to overtake the train, and the conductor, lantern in hand, running to learn what had happened, Ralph sized up the situation with decided annoyance.

The action of the station man in giving the free track signal and then at a critical moment shooting the special onto the siding, had something mysterious about it that Ralph could not readily solve. The slight mishap to the locomotive and the smashing of the derrick was not particularly serious, but there would be a report, an investigation, and somebody would be blamed and punished. Ralph wanted to keep a clear slate, and here was a bad break, right at the threshold of his new railroad career.

All he thought of, however, were the delays, all he cared for at this particular moment was to get back to the main tracks on his way for Bridgeport, with a chance to make up lost time. A sudden vague suspicion flashing through his mind added to his mental disquietude: was there a plot to purposely cripple or delay his train, so that he would be defeated in his efforts to make a record run?

"What's this tangle, Fairbanks?" shouted out the conductor sharply, as he arrived breathless and excited at the side of the cab.

His name was Danforth, and he was a model employee of long experience, always very neat and dressy in appearance and exact and systematic in his work. Any break in routine nettled him, and he spoke quite censuringly to the young engineer, whom, however, he liked greatly.

"I'm all at sea, Mr. Danforth," confessed Ralph bluntly.

"Any damage?—I see," muttered the conductor, going forward a few steps and surveying the scratched, bruised face of the locomotive.

"Theres' a gondola derailed and a derrick smashed where we struck," reported Ralph. "I acted on my duplicate orders, Mr. Danforth," he added earnestly, "and had the clear signal almost until I passed it and shot the siding."

"I don't understand it at all," remarked the conductor in a troubled and irritated way. "You had the clear signal, you say?"

"Positively," answered Ralph.

"Any serious damage ahead?"

"Nothing of consequence."

"Back slowly, we'll see the station man about this."

The conductor mounted to the cab step, and No. 999 backed slowly. As they neared the end of the siding the train was again halted. All down its length heads were thrust from coach windows. There was some excitement and alarm, but the discipline of the train hands and the young engineer's provision had prevented any semblance of panic.

The conductor, lantern in hand, ran across the tracks to the station. Ralph saw him engaged in vigorous conversation with the man on duty them The conductor had taken out a memorandum book and was jotting down something. The station man with excited gestures ran inside the depot, and the signal turned to clear tracks. Ralph switched to the main. Then the conductor gave the go ahead signal.

"That's cool," observed young Clark. "I should think the conductor would give us an inkling of how all this came about."

"Oh, we'll learn soon enough," said Ralph. "There will have to be an official report on this."

"I'm curious. Guess I'll go back and worm out an explanation," spoke Clark. "I'll see you with news later."

As Clark left the cab on one side Fogg came up on the other. He had been looking over the front of the locomotive. Ralph noticed that he did not seem to have suffered any damage from his wild jump beyond a slight shaking up. He was wet and spattered to the waist, however, and had lost his cap.

Lemuel Fogg's eyes wore a frightened, shifty expression as he stepped to the tender. His face was wretchedly pale, his hands trembled as he proceeded to pile in the coal. Every vestige of unsteadiness and maudlin bravado was gone. He resembled a man who had gazed upon some unexpected danger, and there was a half guiltiness in his manner as if he was responsible for the impending mishap.

The fireman did not speak a word, and Ralph considered that it was no time for discussion or explanations. The injury to the locomotive was comparatively slight, and with a somewhat worried glance at the clock and schedule card the young railroader focussed all his ability and attention upon making up for lost time

Soon Ralph was so engrossed in his work that he forgot the fireman, young Clark, the accident, everything except that he was driving a mighty steel steed in a race against time, with either the winning post or defeat in view. There was a rare pride in the thought that upon him depended a new railway record. There was a fascinating exhiliration in observing the new king of the road gain steadily half a mile, one mile, two miles, overlapping lost time.

A smile of joy crossed the face of the young engineer, a great aspiration of relief and triumph escaped his lips as No. 999 pulled into Derby two hours later. They were twenty-one minutes ahead of time.

"Mr. Fogg," shouted Ralph across to the fireman's seat, "you're a brick!"

It was the first word that had passed between them since the mishap at the siding, but many a grateful glance had the young engineer cast at his helper. It seemed as if the shake-up at Plympton had shaken all the nonsense out of Lemuel Fogg. Before that it had been evident to Ralph that the fireman was doing all he could to queer the run. He had been slow in firing and then had choked the furnace. His movements had been suspicious and then alarming to Ralph, but since leaving Plympton he had acted like a different person. Ralph knew from practical experience what good firing was, and he had to admit that Fogg had outdone himself in the splendid run of the last one hundred miles. He was therefore fully in earnest when he enthusiastically designated his erratic helper as a "brick."

It was hard for Fogg to come out from his grumpiness and cross-grained malice quickly. Half resentful, half shamed, he cast a furtive, sullen look at Ralph.

"Humph!" he muttered, "it isn't any brick that did it—it was the briquettes."

"The what, Mr. Fogg?" inquired Ralph.

"Them," and with contemptuous indifference Fogg pointed to a coarse sack lying among the coal. "New-fangled fuel. Master mechanic wanted to make a test."

"Why, yes, I heard about that," said Ralprquickly. "Look like baseballs. Full of pitch, oil and sulphur, I understand. They say they urge up the fire."

"They do, they burn like powder. They are great steam makers, and no question," observed Fogg. "Won't do for a regular thing, though."

"No?" insinuated Ralph attentively, glad to rouse his grouchy helper from his morose mood.

"Not a bit of it."

"Why not?"

"Used right along, they'd burn out any crown sheet. What's more, wait till you come to clean up—the whole furnace will be choked with cinders."

"I see," nodded Ralph, and just then they rounded near Macon for a fifteen minutes wait.

As Fogg went outside with oil can and waste roll, Mervin Clark came into the cab.

"Glad to get back where it's home like," he sang out in his chirp, brisk way. "Say, Engineer Fairbanks, that monument of brass buttons and gold cap braid is the limit. Discipline? why, he works on springs and you have to touch a button to make him act. I had to chum with the brakeman to find out what's up."

"Something is up, then?" inquired Ralph a trifle uneasily.

"Oh, quite. The conductor has been writing a ten-page report on the collision. It's funny, but the station man at Plympton——"

"New man, isn't he?" inquired Ralph.

"Just transferred to Plympton yesterday morning," explained Clark. "Well, he swears that your front signals were special at the curves and flashed green just as you neared the semaphore."

"Absurd!" exclaimed Ralph.

"That's what the conductor says, too," said Clark. "He told the station agent so. They nearly had a fight. 'Color blind!' he told the station agent and challenged him to find green lights on No. 999 if he could. The station man was awfully rattled and worried. He says he knew a special was on the list, but being new to this part of the road he acted on Rule 23 when he saw the green lights. He sticks to that, says that he will positively swear to it. He says he knows some one will be slated, but it won't be him."

"What does the conductor say?" inquired Ralph.

"He says Rule 23 doesn't apply, as the white lights prove. If there was any trickery or any mistake, then it's up to the fireman, not to the engineer."

At that moment, happening to glance past Clark, the young engineer caught sight of Lemuel Fogg. The latter, half crouching near a drive wheel, was listening intently. The torch he carried illuminated a pale, twitching face. His eyes were filled with a craven fear, and Ralph tried to imagine what was passing through his mind.

There was something mysterious about Fogg's actions, yet Ralph accepted the theory of the conductor that the station man had made a careless blunder or was color blind.

"You see, it isn't that the smash up amounts to much," explained Clark, "but it might have, see?"

"Yes, I see," replied Ralph thoughtfully.

"Then again," continued Clark, "the conductor says that it delayed a test run, and there's a scratched locomotive and a busted constructor car."

"I'm thankful that no one was hurt," said Ralph earnestly.

When the next start was made, Fogg was taciturn and gloomy-looking, but attended strictly to his duty. Ralph voted him to be a capital fireman when he wanted to be. As an hour after midnight they spurted past Hopeville forty minutes to the good, he could not help shouting over a delighted word of commendation to Fogg.

"I said you were a brick, Mr. Fogg," he observed. "You're more than that—you're a wonder."

Fogg's face momentarily lighted up. It looked as if he was half minded to come out of his shell and give some gracious response, but instantly the old sullenness settled down over his face, accompanied by a gloomy manner that Ralph could not analyze. He half believed, however, that Fogg was a pretty good fellow at heart, had started out to queer the run, and was now sorry and ashamed that he had betrayed his weakness for drink.

"Maybe he is genuinely sorry for his tantrums," reflected Ralph, "and maybe our narrow escape at the siding has sobered him into common sense."

What the glum and gruff fireman lacked of comradeship, the young passenger made up in jolly good cheer. He was interested in everything going on. He found opportunity to tell Ralph several rattling good stories, full of incident and humor, of his amateur railroad experiences, and the time was whiled away pleasantly for these two acquaintances.

Ralph could not repress a grand, satisfied expression of exultation as No. 999 glided gracefully into the depot at Bridgeport, over forty-seven minutes ahead of time.

The station master and the assistant superintendent of the division came up to the cab instantly, the latter with his watch in his hand.

"Worth waiting for, this, Fairbanks," he called out cheerily—he was well acquainted with the young railroader, for Ralph had fired freights to this point over the Great Northern once regularly for several weeks. "I'll send in a bouncing good report with lots of pleasure."

"Thank you," said Ralph. "We've demonstrated, anyhow."

"You have, Fairbanks," returned the official commendingly.

"Only, don't lay any stress on my part of it," said Ralph. "Any engineer could run such a superb monarch of the rail as No. 999. If you don't tell them how much the experiment depended on our good friend, Fogg, here, I will have to, that's all."

The fireman flushed. His eyes had a momentary pleased expression, and he glanced at Ralph, really grateful. He almost made a move as if to heartily shake the hand of his unselfish champion.

"You're too modest, Fairbanks," laughed the assistant superintendent, "but we'll boost Fogg, just as he deserves. It's been a hard, anxious run, I'll warrant. We've got a relief crew coming, so you can get to bed just as soon as you like."

The passenger coaches were soon emptied of the through passengers. A local engineer, fireman and brakeman took charge of the train to switch the China & Japan Mail car over to another track, ready to hitch on to the Overland express, soon to arrive, sidetrack the other coaches, and take No. 999 to the roundhouse.