The Terror on the Boiling Water
THE TERROR ON THE BOILING WATER
By Francis Lynde
IT began while Brice, the general manager of the D. & U.P. Short Line, was two thousand miles away, getting married; and Upham, whose hold on the men would have counted for something, was also out of reach, figuring as Brice's best man. And it was as far beyond any rational explanation as a panic among the horses in a burning stable.
Its heralding was in mid-afternoon of a perfect day in June. Brice and Upham were a week gone on the wedding errand, and Rader, the general manager's assistant, was carrying double; keeping his chief's office in touch with the traffic world, and holding down the details of the operating department for Upham. Incidentally, everything on the three divisions of the Short Line was on the hilltop of disciplinary good behavior; trains running on time, employee loyalty on its mettle, the various cog-wheels of the traffic machine intermeshing without a jar, and as smoothly as the mechanism of the electrically synchronized clock on the wall of Chief-Despatcher Dawson's room in the Castle Cliff headquarters.
At the fateful moment Rader was in the superintendent's office, arranging, with Reddick, the general passenger agent, a special schedule for a train-load of Iowa excursionists due to arrive from the East the following morning. Into the schedule-making broke little Cranston, Upham's chief clerk, carefully closing the door behind him.
"There's a solemn old crank out yonder who refuses to do business with me; says it's him for the biggest boss in the outfit. What shall I do with him?" was Cranston's wording of his dilemma.
"What does he want?" queried Rader, keeping his place on the Iowa schedule with the pencil point.
"I'm trying to tell you that's what I can't find out," complained the chief clerk, who was ordinarily a past adept at prying into the inner consciousness of the visitor with a grievance to air or an axe to grind. "He says his name is Hinchcliffe; and he looks as if he might be the father of all the cattlemen, with a claim for a whole herd killed on the right-of-way."
"Oh, well; send him in," grumbled Rader, "There is no choking these claim-pushers off till they've climbed to the top round of the ladder."
Cranston disappeared, and a moment later the door opened to admit the supposed claimant. He was an old man, white-haired and bearded like the caricatures of the Populist Senators; decently clothed, but with the white dust of the desert thick on shoe and trouser-leg.
"Well, Mr. Hinchcliffe," said Rader briskly, "what can I do for you?"
The old man's voice went with his bent shoulders and way-wearied attitude. "Air you the gineral manager of this here railroad?" he began.
"No; but I represent him. Mr. Brice is away. Rader is my name."
The "father of all the cattlemen," as Cranston had dubbed him, stood awkwardly fumbling his dusty hat. Reddick, looking on, marked the blue powder burns in the weathered face and the battered knuckles of the drill-holding left hand; miner's tokens, these, and no stockman's, he decided. And the old man's next word confirmed the shrewder guess.
"My claim is up yonder on Sombre headwaters, and I've been sont here," he went on in the shaken voice. "I allowed to the good Lord that it wouldn't make no differ' to a faithless and onbelievin' gineration; but He laid it on to me, and I had to come. I reckon you all don't believe none in visions o' the night?" he concluded, with an appealing look from one to the other of his auditors.
Neither of the two laughed outright. Age is in some sort venerable, even in this the century of the young. But Rader shook his head.
"I don't know about Mr. Reddick, here. He is a passenger man. But I have never had one that a late supper wouldn't sufficiently account for."
"I was lookin' to be scoffed at," said the graybeard patiently. "The Good Book say, 'There shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts.' Nev'theless, I must cry aloud and deliver my own soul. Harken at me, young man, and ricollect that I've tromped twenty-five mile in the cold o' the mornin' and the heat o' the noonday to bring the shore word of prophecy. There's goin' to be a terr'ble smash-up on your railroad at four o'clock to-morrow, jes' before day."
Rader's thought went instantly to train-wreckers. How else could a disaster be so confidently predicted? "Go on," he said, gravely. "How do you happen to know this, Mr. Hinchcliffe?"
"I've seen it in a vision o' the night," was the solemn rejoinder, and Rader breathed freer. "I was settin' on top of a high rock, lookin' down into a narrer slit of a gulch. Down at the bottom of the gulch was a river, bigger thern the Sombre, a-foamin' and tumblin' over the rocks; and a railroad track twisted down one side o' the gulch and crossed over on a slanch-wise bridge to the other, so"—illustrating with the work-worn hands on the flat top of the counter-rail.
Rader and the general passenger agent exchanged glances of startled intelligence. The old man was describing very accurately Black Rock Canyon and bridge, on the upper Boiling Water.
"One moment," Rader interrupted. "You know our line—you've been over it, Mr. Hinchcliffe?"
The old man shook his head.
"I been six year in the Sombre country, and I came in afoot acrosst the Taylor range before your road was built. I never sot eyes on a rail of it till to-day—that is, not in the flesh," said the seer.
"All right; go on."
"Well, as I was sayin', I sot on top o' that high rock, lookin' down at the river and the railroad and the bridge. Bimeby I heard a train comin' from somewheres up along in the gulch. Down she come, rippin' and snortin' and th'owin' fire; and when she hit the bridge—bing! there she was! a mixed-up mess o' broke-up keers and twisted irons piled down into the river. Hit was a passenger train, and I could see 'em tryin' to climb out through the winders; and—and say, I can hear 'em groanin' and shriekin' even to this minute!"
Reddick got up and walked to the window. After a little he heard Rader say: "But about the time—how do you know this is to happen to-morrow morning?"
"I cayn't tell," was the muttered reply. "But when I waked up—with the cold sweat standin' out all over me—them figgers was runnin' in my head: Four o'clock, June twenty-three. That's to-morrow, ain't it?"
When Reddick faced about Rader was filling out a pass in his book of blanks, and saying, "I wish our Dolomite line ran right up to your cabin door, Mr. Hinchcliffe. But we can give you a lift as far as the camp, anyway. That will still leave us under the greatest obligations to you; you'll understand that, won't you?"
"But you don't believe a single word I've been tellin' ye," said the old man suspiciously.
"Don't I? I can assure you there will be no accident at Black Rock bridge to-morrow morning if we can prevent it. Here is your pass to Dolomite. Good-day, and good luck to you."
There was silence in the superintendent's office while the shuffling footsteps of the prophet of evil could be heard in the corridor. It was Reddick who broke it with a remark critical.
"There is one screw loose in the prophecy, and it's a rather important one, when you come to think of it. If our trains are anywhere near on time, we shall have no passenger within thirty miles of Black Rock bridge at four o'clock in the morning."
Rader smiled and tossed the pencilled schedule of the Iowa excursion special across to the passenger agent.
"If you will run your eye down that string of figures, you'll see that we have timed the special to a dot. If it leaves Bent's at three twenty, it will pass the bridge in the canyon within a minute or two of four o'clock."
Reddick was visibly impressed for a moment, but he shook himself free with a laugh.
"It is only a raw coincidence. You don't let that old man's fantastic pipe-dream weigh an ounce, and you know it, Rader."
"Perhaps not. But you are opening up a big vein when you sling a pick on that claim. Ninety-nine men out of a hundred will laugh and tell you that superstition has been choked out and reasoned out long since, with witchcraft and all the devil-business of the ignorant ages. Yet ninety-eight of the ninety-nine have their own little private hoodoos which they worship like so many."
"The superstition is, but the fact remains. Only yesterday, I overheard as sober a man as Mac Bostwick telling Haskell, the roundhouse foreman, that there were Fridays when the 1219 would not mind throttle or brake."
"Oh, pshaw! I know the men say such things. But they don't really believe them."
"Don't they? Possibly not. Just the same, I wouldn't have this old fellow's dream story get wind on the line for a farm in God's country. It might be laughed at; and then again it might not. Even you were a little startled when he described a bit of scenery he has never seen."
"Bosh! Assuming that he wasn't lying, there are a dozen ways in which he might, consciously or subconsciously, have obtained his picture of Black Rock bridge without having actually seen it. I saw a very striking photograph of it in a shop-window the last time I was in Dolomite; and you forget that our own advertising matter, which is scattered far and wide, carries many cuts of our scenic points, But to come back to business: you won't change the schedule of the Iowa train? The Dolomite Board of Trade is to breakfast these people, and I have promised to get the train to Dolomite by eight o'clock, sharp."
"No, we won't change any schedules. But I shall have Holtkampf go up on Two and examine that bridge; and it will be watched until after the Iowa train passes it to-morrow morning."
"By Jove! "laughed the skeptic. "I half believe you're touched yourself, Rader."
"Not necessarily. But suppose the old man's story does leak out, and by some trick of coincidence there should be a wreck to fit it? I know railroad human nature well enough to do a little prophesying on my own account. Every man in the service might take the sensible view of it; but the chances are ten to one the other way."
Reddick had made a copy of the Iowa train's schedule; and his hand was on the door-knob.
"Then let us hope the old gentleman won't talk. We don't want to spoil Mr. Brice's honeymoon with a calamity howl."
Unhappily, the seer of visions did talk. He had two full hours to wait before the departure of the Dolomite train, and in the interval he chanced to foregather with Sanborn, the Castle Cliff baggage agent. Sanborn was a New Hampshire man, with an itch for prying into the mental interstices of other folk. He got the story of the Hinchcliffe vision, scoffed at it in his own inner consciousness, but did not fail to pass it on to Jurgins, the hostler who brought Number Two's engine up from the coal track.
From Jurgins it spread to the waiting engine crews at the round-house, losing nothing in transmission; and before night other details were added. For example, it was whispered about that Chief-Engineer Holtkampf had gone up on Two to examine the bridge; that a special track gang had been told off to watch it during the night; that the engineer of the excursion train had verbal orders to run cautiously in Black Rock Canyon.
From this the story got on to the wires, and by midnight of the 22nd every man in the train service had heard some version of it, and the conditions were psychologically ripe for wreckings, mental and material.
After all, nothing happened in Black Rock Canyon. Holtkampf found the bridge in perfect condition—he had the steel-loaded cars of a material train backed upon it, testing it to a strain far above that of any passing traffic. The watchers saw nothing amiss; and in due time, at precisely four o'clock, as it chanced, the Iowa excursion safely crossed the dead line and steamed briskly on its way to Castle Cliff and Dolomite.
But the psychological mischief was done. Two nights later, Goodhue, engineer of the 1217, tailing a long string of boxes down the canyon, had a case of "nerves," superinduced by the sight—or the fancied sight—of an obstruction between the rails.
With ample time and space to make a safe stop, he clapped on the air and slammed the 1217 into the reverse motion, taking the back slack so suddenly with the heavy engine that the long train buckled on the curve, spread the rails, and a dozen of the boxes were piled neatly into the Boiling Water.
Rader was in the despatcher's office at Castle Cliff when the wreck was reported. What he said was profanely objurgatory and quite unprintable, and it included the false prophets in general and one Hinchcliffe in particular. Later, he ordered out the wrecking train, and while it was making up in the yard he laid down the law to Dawson.
"Don't you let any of this crazy foolishness get into the despatching, Tom," he snapped. "It's bad enough to have it rattling every third train-man on the line."
Dawson looked up from his key and grinned good-naturedly. He was a big, smooth-faced, cold-blooded man, as a despatcher should be; a man devoid of imagination, with a mind soberly mathematical and warranted to run inexorably, like a piece of well-adjusted mechanism.
"You needn't worry about this end of the string," he said confidently. "If the men read their orders straight, we'll keep the wheels turning."
So much for the brave word, yet it was precisely in Dawson's office that the next phase of the terror developed.
It was in Mart Carnagan's trick, between midnight and morning. As the trains were scheduled, the hours between one o'clock and four were the least strenuous in the despatcher's office. Carnagan never left his key; he was too conscientious to do that. But he was given to reading blood-and-thunder stories—this to keep from dozing in the quieter intervals.
It was on the morning of the 27th, at half-past two o'clock, and exactly forty-eight hours after the Goodhue episode in Black Rock Canyon, when Carnagan put down his paper-back at a most exciting crisis in the history of certain famous train robbers to answer a stuttering call from Callidonia.
He cut in on the wire promptly, and, "Orders for Train 202," clicked from the Callidonia end.
Now Carnagan's brain was still only on the returning way to its normal acuteness, owing to the stirring crisis in the robber tale; but he was well convinced that Train 202 had been provided for two stations west of Callidonia.
"What's the matter with you?" he clicked back. "Two-two had orders at Quirada."
"Train here without orders," was the answer. "Send them."
It was like a blow in the dark, and it left Carnagan groping. A glance at the train-sheet, the record of all moving trains, served only to confuse him the more completely. The proper entries stared up at him from the figured sheet; Train 202 to meet Train 105 at the blind siding at Arreta; and there was the "O.K." of the operator at Quirada, twenty miles west of Callidonia. How could he have made the entry unless the order had been given?
Carnagan rubbed his eyes and touched the hot bulb of the electric light to make sure he was awake. "You're crazy," he snapped back at the Callidonia man. "Make Two-two's crew show up."
"Crew here; no orders," came the monotonous repetition.
The night despatcher, still groping, steadied himself with a left-hand grip on the table's edge and sent them: "Train Two-two, Henson, conductor, Hollingsworth, engineer, to meet Train One-five, Gurley, conductor, Bostwick, engineer, at Arreta." Almost instantly the "O.K." rattled through the office sounder, and Carnagan drew a deep breath and dipped his pen to make the corrected entries on the record.
In the act he saw a thing to make the electric lights go red and the room to spin like a top with a certain set of ink-black figures for its axis. Train 202, a heavy freight, had been on time up to Quirada, the station where the original meeting order seemed to have been given, but not received. At Callidonia, however, it was thirty minutes late. Hence, it would be thirty minutes late at Arreta, where there was no station—no operator; and Train 105, a passenger with the right of road, would wait ten minutes, and five more for a possible variation of watches, and then proceed to a head-end collision with the delayed freight!
The night man pounced upon his key and rattled the Callidonia call, "Cn, Cn, Cn," thickly interspersed with, "Hold Two-two," and presently the circuit was broken and the response came. "Two-two is pulling out of upper yard. Clancy has gone to try to flag her down. Hold wire."
Carnagan held the wire open, and great drops of sweat ran down his face and fell upon the train-sheet. Two other minutes of the soul-killing suspense would have finished him, but the interval was shortened. "Couldn't catch Two-two," was the unnerving reply, and Carnagan sprang up, overturning his chair and raving as one suddenly gone mad.
There was no hope; no telegraph station between Callidonia and the meeting-point where he could intercept the freight, and none east of Arreta where he could catch and hold the passenger. In a blind frenzy he began to walk the floor so mechanically that he fell over a chair without seeing it. The shock set his brain at work again. Though there was no station at Arreta, there was a private wire to the shaft-house of the Arreta mine, a short half-mile up the mountain above the fatal blind siding. Branziger, the mine superintendent, was a self-taught operator, but he would be abed and asleep. Carnagan did not know whether or not he slept within sound of the telegraph instrument; but there was the slenderest of chances, and he sat down to snip out the Arreta mine call in endless repetition, breaking now and then to sign his own office call.
Again and again he tried, and once more the cold sweat trickled from his face. The minutes passed swiftly; the hands on the clock-face seemed to flick forward by jerks. In his ears was the drumming of One-five's wheels, and in his mind's eye he could see the fast passenger train flying down the long tangents and racing onward, nearer and ever nearer to the meeting-point. Now she was passing Boyer's; now she was pitching up to the summit where her head-light would search out the switches at Arreta; now she was standing, air-brake palpitant, at the siding, and the engineer and conductor would be comparing watches and swearing wrathfully at the delay.
And still the mine wire was dead to his clamoring. It must be as he feared; the telegraph instruments were doubtless in Branziger's office, and his bed was somewhere else. Carnagan's hand fell from the key upon the handle of the drawer where the file of train-sheets was kept. He opened the drawer mechanically. A revolver lay in one corner, and his hand was creeping toward it when the sounder snapped hesitantly once or twice and he started alive again. The snipping clicks were spelling out his office call and signing "Arreta."
In a fierce fury of hope revived he fell upon the key and sent his beseeching, in briefest form, for now the very seconds were priceless. Yet he had to send it slowly to enable Branziger to get it at all. "Get word quick to night passenger, now on mine siding. Hold it till freight passes."
The answer was encouraging. Branziger would go himself, and report later.
Martin Carnagan was a young man when that first clicking call from Callidonia made him put down the paper-back tale of train robbers to reply to the demand for orders for Train Two-two. But before the Arreta mine call had broken for the second time into the horrible silence of the Castle Cliff wire office, he was staggering up and down under a weight of years crowded into minutes; and once he had stopped in front of the little toilet-stand mirror in the corner of the room to look at his haggard face in the glass, and to wonder if the morning light would show his hair whitening at the temples.
At last, after what seemed like a lifetime of torturing suspense, the call came. He reeled across to the table and answered it. Then, slowly, as from the difficult sending of an unpractised hand, the letters and words dribbled out upon the silence.
"Too late. One-five pulled out before I could get down mountain.
The night man locked his forehead between his hands and staggered to a chair. The last hope was gone, and for the moment he wished to die. Then the strong hand of routine laid hold upon him and he did what remained to be done: sprung the electric alarm for Dawson, whose sleeping-room was in the other end of the building, and sat down to his key to call up the master-mechanic emergency crew for the wrecking train.
It was a pretty bad collision, and it set every nerve of the D. & U.P.—nerves already at panic tension—quivering afresh. Bostwick, engineer of the passenger, had a leg broken, and his fireman was killed outright. Hollingsworth and his fireman jumped before the crash, but they were both severely injured. A car-load of mail was burned, and the postal clerk in charge lost an arm in the telescoping of his car by the tender of the colliding engine.
Carnagan, happily or unhappily, was out of it. When Dawson had come hurrying and half dressed at the summons of the electric alarm, he had found the night despatcher gibbering and mowing at his reflection in the little looking-glass; past cursing, past discharging, past everything save a strait-jacket and a padded cell. Hence the mystery of the double order entry on the train-sheet remained a mystery.
Rader, roused by the call-boy who turned out the members of the emergency crew, came down in the gray twilight of the dawn and found Dawson patiently unravelling the tangle caused by the blocking of the line and Carnagan's abandonment of the wires.
By this time the report of the wreck was in over the Arreta mine wire, and a relief train was hurrying to the scene in the wake of the wrecking outfit. Rader stepped into the breach, praying for a cool head. The sight of Dawson's massive face, calmly hard and impassive, was comforting, and he felt that the wires, at least, were in safe hands while the chief despatcher could keep up.
Elsewhere, however, the terror was in full swing. Out in the yards, where the night crew was making up the east-bound freight, a man came running with the news that a switchman had been caught in coupling. A little later word came from the yard office that Jurgins, the hostler, had backed the 1310 over an open switch. At breakfast time when Train Three arrived from the night run down the Boiling Water, the remains of a mangled steer bespattered the front end of the engine, and the two engine-men were pallid under the coal grime, and shaking like the ague-smitten.
Rader telephoned for Grimmer, the master-mechanic, and found he had gone out with the wrecking train. Then he summoned Haskell, the round-house foreman, a big-boned, bearded giant of a man whose very bulk bespoke hard-headed sanity.
"Haskell, what are the men saying? Do they charge this head-ender at Arreta to—to the hoodoo?"
The big foreman lounged across the counter-rail and nodded.
"There's a caucus of 'em over yonder in the house, right now. You'd think they was a lot of scared kids," he added, contemptuously.
Rader was tramping the floor with his head down and his hands behind him.
"Haskell, Grimmer's away, and I've got to depend on you. Size up the men as they come down to take their runs, and 'phone me the names of the rattled ones."
"That'll be about three out of every two," said the giant.
"I can't help it. I'll not let a crazy crew take a train out of this yard—not if I have to abandon every other number on the time-card. But I hope you won't find it as bad as you talk."
Haskell shook his shaggy head.
"These here things run in streaks, Mr. Rader. I've seen 'em before—on a better-manned road than the D. & U.P., if you'll lemme say so. It's a plum' loco, and it's like the Rooshan grip; it ain't no respecter o' persons."
Rader sat down and swung his chair to face the open desk.
"There is a way to cure it, if I only knew how to find it," he said, half to himself; and the big foreman took him up promptly.
"Not at this stage o' the game, there ain't. You couldn't make a single one o' the locoed bunch believe that it'll stop short o' three bad smashes; not if you'd get an angel to come down here and holler at 'em through his golden bugle. Goodhue's buckle-up in the canyon counts one; this here head-ender this morning counts two; and every last man of 'em will tell you there's another one due."
"Oh, hell!" said Rader, and it came from his heart. Then he dismissed Haskell and sat for a silent half-hour wrestling with an idea suggested by the foreman's summing up of the matter.
"It's as crazy as anything that's been done since the world began, but it may do to think about," he mused, when little Cranston came in with the train mail from Number Two. "But we'll fight it out in the open first."
An hour beyond this, when Rader went to his belated breakfast, three crews had been laid off and one freight had to be abandoned for the lack of sane men to man it. In spite of his shrewdest efforts to resist, Rader was finding it fiercely hard to keep clear of the infection in his own proper person. All through the day, whenever the office door opened he expected to see Dickson, the office operator, coming in with the report of a fresh disaster.
He had already wired Upham and the general manager, assuming that they would read the Associated Press report of the collision in the afternoon papers. When he went out to supper there was still no reply from either of the absent officials; but this mattered little. Their last address had been Mount Desert, and it would require three days of the swiftest steaming to bring either the superintendent or the general manager to Colorado. Rader scowled and forgot to order when the waiter brought the menu card. For three days, at the shortest, he must carry the crushing load of responsibility, and in much less than three double circles of the clock-hands he, too, would be panic-mad, like the others.
That night he had Dawson's cot carried into the despatcher's office, and with Dickson to help out with a set of duplicate train-sheets, he stood watch and watch with the wearied chief.
There was need for cool heads and unceasing vigilance. The terror was no longer confined to the train-men. It had by now crept into the telegraphic nerves of the system. The plainest language in a train order seemed open to misconstruction; and before morning one of the three men at the wires was constantly "tracing"—following each moving train from station to station, and checking and rechecking the running orders by every device known to the craft of despatching.
It imposed a crucial strain on the office force throughout the long night; and the day succeeding was scarcely less anxious. All day reports of minor accidents, every one of them due to the general demoralization of the service, trickled in over the wires; and Rader was on the ragged edge of despair. Still there was no word from Upham or Brice; no signs of relief on the eastern horizon.
"How much longer can we keep this up, Dawson?" he asked desperately, when the second night watch of the wires began.
The despatcher's smile was sardonic. "Till one or the other of us falls asleep over the key and pulls down the very thing we're trying to stand off, I reckon."
"But there must be a let-up, sometime," insisted Rader. "It can't last forever."
"It'll last until we have that third smash; all right," said Dawson grimly.
"You don't believe any such rotten superstition as that, Tom; you know you don't. Why has there got to be three?"
"Because three out of every four of the men think so—that's all. And they'll keep on thinking so till it is."
"Will they come down to earth again after the third rip-up?"
"I never knew it to fail," said the despatches snapping his key to reopen the battle with the fates. "About all you can do is to pray it won't be a man-killer."
Rader flung himself upon the cot to snatch a little rest, and harassed as he was, sleep came quickly. Dawson called him at ten o'clock, made the transfers, and gave his verbal report.
"Worse and more of it, David; you'll have to hold them down hard. Every man jack of 'em is looking for that third wreck, and wondering if he is going to be in it."
Rader took his place at the train table, and for an hour his hands were full. Then came a lull, and he sat back, soberly thoughtful. At midnight the rush was on again, and he called Dawson.
When the shift was made, he found his overcoat and struggled into it. "I'm not sleepy this time," he explained. "I think I'll go out and get a breath of fresh air. It's miserably close in here."
In the yards there was the profound stillness of midnight—in the mountain skyland where there are no night choruses by Nature's orchestra. The abandonment of two more freight trains had shortened the hours of the second switching crew, and the silence was breached only by the hiss and click of the high arc-lights and the muffled gas-roar in the firebox of the switching engine blocked on the shop track.
Rader walked the length of the yard between the broken lines of freight-cars strung in apparent disorder upon the various tracks. Down toward the round-house, where the many tracks converged, the switches were picked out in high relief by the broad beam of a head-light; the light of an engine standing, as Rader made out, at one of the coal chutes.
When he came nearer, he saw that the head-lighted engine was Dolan's big freight-puller, bulletined to go east with the California fruit line at one o'clock. It was standing on the coal track, ready for its crew, and at irregular intervals the safety-valve stuttered, roared, and reseated itself with a spiteful "phut!" The tender had its lading of coal, and there was no one in the cab.
These details Rader noted from his halt in the shadow of the round-house. There was an open window a few steps farther on, the window in Haskell's tool-room; and between the stutterings of the safety-valve Rader could hear voices which he recognized as Haskell's and Dolan's. He had no thought of eavesdropping, but a sentence in Dolan's rich brogue drifted through the open window and caught him.
"'Tis all right for you, Johnny Haskell, that don't have to pound your ear on these ould scrap-heaps wid the iron flyin' undher yez a good thirty mile an hour, and the wife and babies at home. But I'm tellin' ye plain—till thot third smash comes, 'tis meself 'll be lukin' for ut the yon side of ivery curve!"
Rader strolled over to the deserted engine. From where he paused, in the shadow cast by the high boiler, the head-light traced the glistening steel trail through the yards over which Dolan would presently trundle the big ten-wheeler. The switches were set to lead to the main line in the upper yard, all save one, the last in the swerving trail, which showed green instead of red. Rader knew the yard by heart. The misplaced switch led to the repair track, full now with cars waiting for the mechanics and with the "cripples" from the late collision. At the moment Rader disregarded it, knowing that Dolan would stop on the way out to let his fireman drop off and turn the switch. Then——
Dolan, Haskell, and the fireman had come to the door of the tool-room, the latter with his oil-can and lantern.
"Well, I s'pose it's my life and Johnny Shovel's for ut, wan more time," the Irish-man was saying. "Dommed if I——"
He stopped open-mouthed; and the fireman dropped the oil-can and lantern and started to run across the tracks. Then Dolan came alive with a shrill yell. "Catch her!" he shouted; but it was too late. With a sudden grinding of fire from under her wheels and a roaring thunder of quickening exhausts from the stack, the big freight-puller had shot away up its tortuous steel trail, masterless.
When Rader entered the despatcher's office a few minutes later, he was sweating profusely, though the midsummer night—like all the upland nights—was autumn cool.
"How are they chasing?" he asked; and Dawson noticed that his voice had a curious unlikeness to itself.
"Rocky as ever," was the gloomy reply.
Rader had thrown off his coat and dropped heavily into a chair.
"It's come," he said in the same strained tone; "the third one, you know. Dolan's engine, the 1017, got away from him on the coal track just now and ran amuck up the yard. There are a good many more 'cripples' on the repair track now than there were a few minutes ago."
"What! " said Dawson. Then his cold eyes lighted up. "Was Dolan on her?"
"No; she was standing alone at the coal chute—the bin men had just finished coaling her. Throttle jumped open of its own accord, I guess. Those new balanced throttles have a way of doing that when the latch gets a little worn. Reckon it will pass for wreck number three—the charm?"
Dawson's eyes had narrowed to thin reptilian slits.
"We'll put it on the wires for that, anyhow," he said slowly. "Luckily, Grimmer was just talking from Rachab Junction. I'll report it to him, and every plug operator on the line will have his ears open to catch it."
"Do it," said Rader; and while the sounder was clicking he fell asleep in his chair.
The gray dawn was dimming the incandescent lights in the despatcher's room when Dawson aroused the sleeping substitute. A relief despatcher from the mountain division was at the train-sheet, and Rader sat up, rubbing his eyes.
"Why the devil didn't you call me to take my trick?" he demanded crustily.
Dawson's laugh showed his strong white teeth.
"There wasn't any need of it. Lewison came down on Three, and so did Mr. Brice and Mr. Upham. They both said to let you sleep, and I did. Come on down to the lunch-counter and we'll have a cup of coffee. You look as if you were dead on your feet."
On the way around the end of the building Rader gave only a passing glance at the havoc wrought by the runaway engine; havoc but just now getting itself viewed by a curious throng of railway employees and townspeople.
"Did it do the business?" he asked quietly.
"It did for a fact. I could feel the pressure easing from the very minute it got on the wires." Then, with a sharp side-glance at his companion: "The men are calling it a miracle; is it, David?"
"I guess maybe we'd better let it go at that," said the substitute gravely. "To balance old man Hinchcliffe's pipe dream," he added. All this soberly and without a tremor. But a moment later he was shaking like a man in an ague fit and saying brokenly: "My God, Tom, when I saw that engine go tearing up the yard——"
Dawson nodded. "I know. There might have been somebody hanging round that string of 'cripples,' after all. It took nerve."
They were turning in at the door of the men's waiting-room, and Rader had recovered his self-control as suddenly as he had lost it.
"Nerve to watch it?" he said. "Oh, not so much as you might think."
Dawson had drawn out two of the high stools at the lunch-counter. He shoved Rader in rough good comradeship toward the nearest and climbed to his own place on the other, sniffing the stimulating fragrance of the bubbling coffee-urn.
"I wasn't born yesterday, David," he said in mild sarcasm. "I meant nerve to do it. Two coffees, Jimmie, and let 'em come good and black. We've been carrying the banner all night—Mr. Rader and I."