EBooks - Fiction, Nonfiction 1000s of them ~ Index

 
 
 

Bucks by Frank H. Spearman

 

“I see a good deal of stuff in print about the engineer,” said Callahan, dejectedly. “What's the matter with the dispatcher? What's the matter with the man who tells the engineer what to do—and just what to do? How to do it—and exactly how to do it? With the man who sits shut in brick walls and hung in Chinese puzzles, his ear glued to a receiver, and his finger fast to a key, and his eye riveted on a train chart? The man who orders and annuls and stops and starts everything within five hundred miles of him, and holds under his thumb more lives every minute than a brigadier does in a lifetime? For instance,” asked Callahan, in his tired way, “what's the matter with Bucks?”

       * * * * *

Now, I myself never knew Bucks. He left the West End before I went on. Bucks is second vice-president—which means the boss—of a transcontinental line now, and a very great swell. But no man from the West End who calls on Bucks has to wait for an audience, though bigger men do. They talk of him out there yet. Not of General Superintendent Bucks, which he came to be, nor of General Manager Bucks. On the West End he is just plain Bucks; but Bucks on the West End means a whole lot.

“He saved the company $300,000 that night the Ogalalla train ran away,” mused Callahan. Callahan himself is assistant superintendent now.

“Three hundred thousand dollars is a good deal of money, Callahan,” I objected.

“Figure it out yourself. To begin with, fifty passengers' lives—that's $5000 apiece, isn't it?” Callahan had a cold-blooded way of figuring a passenger's life from the company standpoint. “It would have killed over fifty passengers if the runaway had ever struck 59. There wouldn't have been enough left of 59 to make a decent funeral. Then the equipment, at least $50,000. But there was a whole lot more than $300,000 in it for Bucks.”

“How so?”

“He told me once that if he hadn't saved 59 that night he would never have signed another order anywhere on any road.”

“Why?”

“Why? Because, after it was all over, he found out that his own mother was aboard 59. Didn't you ever hear that? Well, sir, it was Christmas Eve, and the year was 1884.”

       * * * * *

Christmas Eve everywhere; but on the West End it was just plain December 24th.

“High winds will prevail for ensuing twenty-four hours. Station agents will use extra care to secure cars on sidings; brakemen must use care to avoid being blown from moving trains.”

That is about all Bucks said in his bulletins that evening; not a word about Christmas or Merry Christmas. In fact, if Christmas had come to McCloud that night they couldn't have held it twenty-four minutes, much less twenty-four hours; the wind was too high. All the week, all the day, all the night it had blown—a December wind; dry as an August noon, bitter as powdered ice. It was in the early days of our Western railroading, when we had only one fast train on the schedule—the St. Louis-California Express; and only one fast engine on the division—the 101; and only one man on the whole West End—Bucks.

Bucks was assistant superintendent and master-mechanic and train-master and chief dispatcher and storekeeper—and a bully good fellow. There were some boys in the service; among them, Callahan. Callahan was seventeen, with hair like a sunset, and a mind quick as an air-brake. It was his first year at the key, and he had a night trick under Bucks.

Callahan claims it blew so hard that night that it blew most of the color out of his hair. Sod houses had sprung up like dog-towns in the buffalo grass during the fall. But that day homesteaders crept into dugouts and smothered over buffalo chip fires. Horses and cattle huddled into friendly pockets a little out of the worst of it, or froze mutely in pitiless fence corners on the divides. Sand drove gritting down from the Cheyenne hills like a storm of snow. Streets of the raw prairie towns stared deserted at the sky. Even cowboys kept their ranches, and through the gloom of noon the sun cast a coward shadow. It was a wretched day, and the sun went down with the wind tuning into a gale, and all the boys in bad humor—except Bucks. Not that Bucks couldn't get mad; but it took more than a cyclone to start him.

No. 59, the California Express, was late that night. All the way up the valley the wind caught her quartering. Really the marvel is that out there on the plains such storms didn't blow our toy engines clear off the rails; for that matter they might as well have taken the rails, too, for none of them went over sixty pounds. 59 was due at eleven o'clock; it was half-past twelve when she pulled in and on Callahan's trick. But Bucks hung around the office until she staggered up under the streaked moonlight, as frowsy a looking train as ever choked on alkali.

There was always a crowd down at the station to meet 59; she was the big arrival of the day at McCloud, even if she didn't get in until eleven o'clock at night. She brought the mail and the express and the landseekers and the travelling men and the strangers generally; so the McCloud livery men and hotel runners and prominent citizens and prominent loafers and the city marshal usually came down to meet her. But it was not so that night. The platform was bare. Not even the hardy chief of police, who was town watch and city marshal all combined, ventured out.

The engineer swung out of his cab with the silence of an abused man. His eyes were full of soda, his ears full of sand, his mustache full of burrs, and his whiskers full of tumble-weeds. The conductor and the brakemen climbed sullenly down, and the baggage-man shoved open his door and slammed a trunk out on the platform without a pretence of sympathy. Then the outgoing crew climbed aboard, and in a hurry. The conductor-elect ran down-stairs from the register, and pulled his cap down hard before he pushed ahead against the wind to give the engineer his copy of the orders as the new engine was coupled up. The fireman pulled the canvas jealously around the cab end. The brakeman ran hurriedly back to examine the air connections, and gave his signal to the conductor; the conductor gave his to the engineer. There were two short, choppy snorts from the 101, and 59 moved out stealthily, evenly, resistlessly into the teeth of the night. In another minute, only her red lamps gleamed up the yard. One man still on the platform watched them recede; it was Bucks.

He came up to the dispatcher's office and sat down. Callahan wondered why he didn't go home and to bed; but Callahan was too good a railroad man to ask questions of a superior. Bucks might have stood on his head on the stove, and it red-hot, without being pursued with inquiries from Callahan. If Bucks chose to sit up out there on the frozen prairies, in a flimsy barn of a station, and with the wind howling murder at twelve o'clock past, and that on Chri—the twenty-fourth of December, it was Bucks's own business.

“I kind of looked for my mother to-night,” said he, after Callahan got his orders out of the way for a minute. “Wrote she was coming out pretty soon for a little visit.”

“Where does your mother live?”

“Chicago. I sent her transportation two weeks ago. Reckon she thought she'd better stay home for Christmas. Back in God's country they have Christmas just about this time of year. Watch out to-night, Jim. I'm going home. It's a wind for your life.”

Callahan was making a meeting-point for two freights when the door closed behind Bucks; he didn't even sing out “Good-night.” And as for Merry Chri—well, that had no place on the West End anyhow.

“D-i, D-i, D-i, D-i,” came clicking into the room. Callahan wasn't asleep. Once he did sleep over the key. When he told Bucks, he made sure of his time; only he thought Bucks ought to know.

Bucks shook his head pretty hard that time. “It's awful business, Jim. It's murder, you know. It's the penitentiary, if they should convict you. But it's worse than that. If anything happened because you went to sleep over the key, you'd have them on your mind all your life, don't you know—forever. Men—and—and children. That's what I always think about—the children. Maimed and scalded and burned. Jim, if it ever happens again, quit dispatching; get into commercial work; mistakes don't cost life there; don't try to handle trains. If it ever happens with you, you'll kill yourself.”

That was all he said; it was enough. And no wonder Callahan loved him.

The wind tore frantically around the station; but everything else was so still. It was one o'clock now, and not a soul about but Callahan. D-i, D-i, J, clicked sharp and fast. “Twelve or fourteen cars passed here—just—now east—running a-a-a-” Callahan sprang up like a flash—listened. What? R-u-n-n-i-n-g a-w-a-y?

It was the Jackson operator calling; Callahan jumped to the key. “What's that?” he asked, quick as lightning could dash it.

“Twelve or fourteen cars coal passed here, fully forty miles an hour, headed east, driven by the wi—”

That was all J could send, for Ogalalla broke in. Ogalalla is the station just west of Jackson. And with Callahan's copper hair raising higher at every letter, this came from Ogalalla: “Heavy gust caught twelve coal cars on side track, sent them out on main line off down the grade.”

They were already past Jackson, eight miles away, headed east, and running down hill. Callahan's eyes turned like hares to the train sheet. 59, going west, was due that minute to leave Callendar. From Callendar to Griffin is a twenty-miles' run. There is a station between, but in those days no night operator. The runaway coal-train was then less than thirty miles west of Griffin, coming down a forty-mile grade like a cannon ball. If 59 could be stopped at Callendar, she could be laid by in five minutes, out of the way of the certain destruction ahead of her on the main line. Callahan seized the key, and began calling “Cn.” He pounded until the call burned into his fingers. It was an age before Callendar answered; then Callahan's order flew:

“Hold 59. Answer quick.”

And Callendar answered: “59 just pulling out of upper yard. Too late to stop her. What's the matter?”

Callahan struck the table with his clinched fist, looked wildly about him, then sprang from the chair, ran to the window, and threw up the sash. The moon shone a bit through the storm of sand, but there was not a soul in sight. There were lights in the round-house a hundred yards across the track. He pulled a revolver—every railroad man out there carried one those days—and, covering one of the round-house windows, began firing. It was a risk. There was one chance, maybe, to a thousand of his killing a night man. But there were a thousand chances to one that a whole train-load of men and women would be killed inside of thirty minutes if he couldn't get help. He chose a window in the machinists' section, where he knew no one usually went at night. He poured bullets into the unlucky casement as fast as powder could carry them. Reloading rapidly, he watched the round-house door; and, sure enough, almost at once, it was cautiously opened. Then he fired into the air—one, two, three, four, five, six—and he saw a man start for the station on the dead run. He knew, too, by the tremendous sweep of his legs that it was Ole Anderson, the night foreman, the man of all others he wanted.

“Ole,” cried the dispatcher, waving his arms frantically as the giant Swede leaped across the track and looked up from the platform below, “go get Bucks. I've got a runaway train going against 59. For your life, Ole, run!”

The big fellow was into the wind with the word. Bucks boarded four blocks away. Callahan, slamming down the window, took the key, and began calling Rowe. Rowe is the first station east of Jackson; it was now the first point at which the runaway coal-train could be headed.

“R-o R-o,” he rattled. The operator must have been sitting on the wire, for he answered at once. As fast as Callahan's fingers could talk, he told Rowe the story and gave him orders to get the night agent, who, he knew, must be down to sell tickets for 59, and pile all the ties they could gather across the track to derail the runaway train. Then he began thumping for Kolar, the next station east of Rowe, and the second ahead of the runaways. He pounded and he pounded, and when the man at Kolar answered, Callahan could have sworn he had been asleep—just from the way he talked. Does it seem strange? There are many strange things about a dispatcher's senses. “Send your night man to west switch house-track, and open for runaway train. Set brakes hard on your empties on siding, to spill runaways if possible. Do anything and everything to keep them from getting by you. Work quick.”

Behind Kolar's O.K. came a frantic call from Rowe. “Runaways passed here like a streak. Knocked the ties into toothpicks. Couldn't head them.”

Callahan didn't wait to hear any more. He only wiped the sweat from his face. It seemed forever before Kolar spoke again. Then it was only to say: “Runaways went by here before night man could get to switch and open it.”

Would Bucks never come? And if he did come, what on earth could stop the runaway train now? They were heading into the worst grade on the West End. It averages one per cent. from Kolar to Griffin, and there we get down off the Cheyenne Hills with a long reverse curve, and drop into the canon of the Blackwood with a three per cent. grade. Callahan, almost beside himself, threw open a north window to look for Bucks. Two men were flying down Main Street towards the station. He knew them; it was Ole and Bucks.

But Bucks! Never before or since was seen on a street of McCloud such a figure as Bucks, in his trousers and slippers, with his night-shirt free as he sailed down the wind. In another instant he was bounding up the stairs. Callahan told him.

“What have you done?” he panted, throwing himself into the chair. Callahan told him. Bucks held his head in his hands while the boy talked. He turned to the sheet—asked quick for 59.

“She's out of Callendar. I tried hard to stop her. I didn't lose a second; she was gone.”

Barely an instant Bucks studied the sheet. Routed out of a sound sleep after an eight-hour trick, and on such a night, by such a message—the marvel was he could think at all, much less set a trap which should save 59. In twenty minutes from the time Bucks took the key the two trains would be together—could he save the passenger? Callahan didn't believe it.

A sharp, quick call brought Griffin. We had one of the brightest lads on the whole division at Griffin. Callahan, listening, heard Griffin answer. Bucks rattled a question. How the heart hangs on the faint, uncertain tick of a sounder when human lives hang on it!

“Where are your section men?” asked Bucks.

“In bed at the section house.”

“Who's with you?”

“Night agent. Sheriff with two cowboy prisoners waiting to take 59.”

Before the last word came, Bucks was back at him:

     To Opr.:

     Ask Sheriff release his prisoners to save passenger-train. Go
     together to west switch house-track, open, and set it. Smash in
     section tool-house, get tools. Go to point of house-track
     curve, cut the rails, and point them to send runaway train from
     Ogalalla over the bluff into the river.

     BUCKS.

The words flew off his fingers like sparks, and another message crowded the wire behind it:

     To Agt.:

     Go to east switch, open, and set for passing-track. Flag 59,
     and run her on siding. If can't get 59 into the clear, ditch
     the runaways.

     BUCKS.

They look old now. The ink is faded, and the paper is smoked with the fire of fifteen winters and bleached with the sun of fifteen summers. But to this day they hang there in their walnut frames, the original orders, just as Bucks scratched them off. They hang there in the dispatchers' offices in the new depot. But in their present swell surroundings Bucks wouldn't know them. It was Harvey Reynolds who took them off the other end of the wire—a boy in a thousand for that night and that minute. The instant the words flashed into the room he instructed the agent, grabbed an axe, and dashed out into the waiting-room, where the sheriff, Ed Banks, sat with his prisoners, the cowboys.

“Ed,” cried Harvey, “there's a runaway train from Ogalalla coming down the line in the wind. If we can't trap it here, it'll knock 59 into kindling-wood. Turn the boys loose, Ed, and save the passenger-train. Boys, show the man and square yourselves right now. I don't know what you're here for; but I believe it's to save 59. Will you help?”

The three men sprang to their feet; Ed

Banks slipped the handcuffs off in a trice. “Never mind the rest of it. Save the passenger-train first,” he roared. Everybody from Ogalalla to Omaha knew Ed Banks.

“Which way? How?” cried the cowboys, in a lather of excitement.

Harvey Reynolds, beckoning as he ran, rushed out the door and up the track, his posse at his heels, stumbling into the gale like lunatics.

“Smash in the tool-house door,” panted Harvey as they neared it.

Ed Banks seized the axe from his hands and took command as naturally as Dewey.

“Pick up that tie and ram her,” he cried, pointing to the door. “All together—now.”

Harvey and the cowboys splintered the panel in a twinkling, and Banks, with a few clean strokes, cut an opening. The cowboys, jumping together, ran in and began fishing for tools in the dark. One got hold of a wrench; the other, a pick. Harvey caught up a clawbar, and Banks grabbed a spike-maul. In a bunch they ran for the point of the curve on the house-track. It lies there close to the verge of a limestone bluff that looms up fifty feet above the river.

But it is one thing to order a contact opened, and another and very different thing to open it, at two in the morning on December twenty-fifth, by men who know no more about track-cutting than about logarithms. Side by side and shoulder to shoulder the man of the law and the men out of the law, the rough-riders and the railroad boy, pried and wrenched and clawed and struggled with the steel. While Harvey and Banks clawed at the spikes the cowboys wrestled with the nuts on the bolts of the fish-plates. It was a baffle. The nuts wouldn't twist, the spikes stuck like piles, sweat covered the assailants, Harvey went into a frenzy. “Boys, we must work faster,” he cried, tugging at the frosty spikes; but flesh and blood could do no more.

“There they come—there's the runaway train—do you hear it? I'm going to open the switch, anyhow,” Harvey shouted, starting up the track. “Save yourselves.”

Heedless of the warning, Banks struggled with the plate-bolts in a silent fury. Suddenly he sprang to his feet. “Give me the maul!” he cried.

Raising the heavy tool like a tack-hammer he landed heavily on the bolt nuts; once, and again; and they flew in a stream like bullets over the bluff. The taller cowboy, bending close on his knees, raised a yell. The plates had given. Springing to the other rail, Banks stripped the bolts even after the mad train had shot into the gorge above them. They drove the pick under the loosened steel, and with a pry that bent the clawbar and a yell that reached Harvey, trembling at the switch, they tore away the stubborn contact, and pointed the rails over the precipice.

The shriek of a locomotive whistle cut the wind. Looking east, Harvey had been watching 59's headlight. She was pulling in on the siding. He still held the switch open to send the runaways into the trap Bucks had set, if the passenger-train failed to get into the clear; but there was a minute yet—a bare sixty seconds—and Harvey had no idea of dumping ten thousand dollars' worth of equipment into the river unless he had to.

Suddenly, up went the safety signals from the east end. The 101 was coughing noisily up the passing-track—the line was clear. Banks and the cowboys, waiting breathless, saw Harvey with a determined lurch close the main-line contact.

In the next breath the coalers, with the sweep of the gale in their frightful velocity, smashed over the switch and on. A rattling whirl of ballast and a dizzy clatter of noise, and before the frightened crew of 59 could see what was against them, the runaway train was passed—gone!

“I wasn't going to stop here to-night,” muttered the engineer, as he stood with the conductor over Harvey's shoulder at the operator's desk a minute later and wiped the chill from his forehead with a piece of waste. “We'd have met them in the canon.”

Harvey was reporting to Bucks. Callahan heard it coming: “Rails cut, but 59 safe. Runaways went by here fully seventy miles an hour.”

It was easy after that. Griffin is the foot of the grade; from there on, the runaway train had a hill to climb. Bucks had held 250, the local passenger, side-tracked at Davis, thirty miles farther east. Sped by the wind, the runaways passed Davis, though not at half their highest speed. An instant later, 250's engine was cut loose, and started after them like a scared collie. Three miles east of Davis they were overhauled by the light engine. The fireman, Donahue, crawled out of the cab window, along the foot-rail, and down on the pilot, caught the ladder of the first car, and, running up, crept along to the leader and began setting brakes. Ten minutes later they were brought back in triumph to Davis.

When the multitude of orders was out of the way, Bucks wired Ed Banks to bring his cowboys down to McCloud on 60. 60 was the east-bound passenger due at McCloud at 5.30 A.M. It turned out that the cowboys had been arrested for lassoing a Norwegian homesteader who had cut their wire. It was not a heinous offence, and after it was straightened out by the intervention of Bucks—who was the whole thing then—they were given jobs lassoing sugar barrels in the train service. One of them, the tall fellow, is a passenger conductor on the high line yet.

It was three o'clock that morning—the twenty-fifth of December in small letters, on the West End—before they got things decently straightened out: there was so much to do—orders to make and reports to take. Bucks, still on the key in his flowing robes and tumbling hair, sent and took them all. Then he turned the seat over to Callahan, and getting up for the first time in two hours, dropped into another chair.

The very first thing Callahan received was a personal from Pat Francis, at Ogalalla, conductor of 59. It was for Bucks:

     Your mother is aboard 59. She was carried by McCloud in the
     Denver sleeper. Sending her back to you on 60. Merry Christmas.

It came off the wire fast. Callahan, taking it, didn't think Bucks heard; though it's probable he did hear. Anyway, Callahan threw the clip over towards him with a laugh.

“Look there, old man. There's your mother coming, after all your kicking—carried by on 59.”

As the boy turned he saw the big dispatcher's head sink between his arms on the table. Callahan sprang to his side; but Bucks had fainted.

 
 
 

EBooks - Fiction, Nonfiction 1000s of them ~ Index