On the Iron at Big Cloud/The Blood of Kings
THE BLOOD OF KINGS
There never was, and there isn't now, anything elusive about the Hill Division, unless you get to talking about the mileage—when you strike the mileage you strike deep water, and the way of it is this. Most things that are big and vital and enduring develop with the years to their own maturity, and with maturity comes perfection—as nearly as anything is perfect. When the last rail that proclaimed man's mastery of the Rockies and the Sierras an accomplished fact was spiked to the ties with much ceremony and more eclat, to say nothing of the somewhat wobbly and uncertain blows with which the silk-hatted, very-important-national-personage performed this crowning act, while the rough-and-readys whose toil and sweat and grime and blood had bought the miles the orators were eulogizing, being no longer of the elect, looked on from a respectful distance—when all this was done the Hill Division, even then, was no more than the rough draft of a masterpiece.
In the years that followed came the pruning and the changes, the smoothing and the toning down—tunnels bored through the mountain-sides lessened the grades and lopped off winding miles around projecting spurs; trestles with long embankment approaches added their quota to this much-to-be-desired result; while in the foothills, instead of circling around and around, to the right and the left and the left and the right of an endless procession of buttes, the buttes themselves came to be bisected with mathematical precision. All told, many miles, very many miles, have been wiped out in this fashion—the elusive part of it is that, measured in the dollars and cents paid by the tourists for transportation and the shippers and consignees for freight hauls, the line is just as long as ever it was! And it would appear that a good deal of money had been spent with nothing to show for it; but then against this is the fact that the directors down East were never rated as imminent or near-imminent subjects for a lunacy commission. The mileage is elusive—let it go at that.
For the rest, the right of way from Big Cloud, the divisional point, just East of the mighty blue-blurred, snow-capped range that towers to the skyline North and South—from there to the rolling, undulating country that reaches West from the base of the Sierras, the Hill Division is, without question, the most marvelous piece of track ever conceived by man, and it stands a perpetual and enduring monument to the brains and the genius, ay, and the manhood, too, of those who built it.
Such is the Hill Division. You who know the Rockies know it for the grandeur of its scenery, know it for the glory of its conquest over obstacles seemingly insurmountable; but there is another side that you may not know, a side that the maps and plans and blueprints and the railroad folders and the windows of the observation cars, big as they are, do not show—and that side is the human side. It is full of tears and laughter, full of sorrow and joy, of dangers and death and mistakes and triumph—its history would fill many pages, but it is a history that will never be written, for the generals and the rank and file of its army have fought their battles without the blare of trumpets, have done their work and their duty as they saw it, simply and with few words, without thought of personal profit and, much less, of fame. They tell their own stories amongst themselves, and they hold in honor those entitled thereto—which is a meed beyond any recognition of governments or kings or principalities, because it is the tribute of man to man, without glamor and without pretense. If you are a man as they measure men, they will tell you the stories, too; and, if you care to smoke, they will offer you their black plugs with the heart-shaped tin tags that their favorite manufacturer imbeds therein and, further, they will hand you their clasp knives with which to slice it. If you are wise you will understand that you are honored above most men, and you will be becomingly humble and will listen. But if this, through circumstance and misfortune, has never been your lot, then, here and there, inadequately and meagerly, you may run across, in print, a stray breath from the Hill Division—this is a case in print—the story of "King" Gilleen.
Gilleen was a man you would never pass in a crowd without turning your head to look at him a second time, not even in a big crowd, for nature had dealt with Gilleen generously—or otherwise—whichever way it pleases you best to consider it. He had red hair of a shade that might be classified as brilliant, but which Regan, the master mechanic, described in metaphor. Said Regan: "You could see that head a mile away on the other side of a curve in a blizzard at night when he pokes it out of the cab window. You'll never get Gilleen on the carpet because his headlight's out, what?" Certainly, at any rate, Gilleen's hair was undeniably red. He had blue eyes, and a very small nose which, for all that, was, next to his hair, the most prominent feature he possessed—small noses with a slight up-cant to the tip are pronounced, mere size to the contrary. His face was freckled and so were his hands; also, he was no small chunk of a man, not so very tall, but the shoulders on him were something to envy if you were friendly with him, or to respect if you were not. That was Gilleen, all except the fact that he admitted with emphasis to the blood of some wild Irish race of kings coursing through his veins. This last point was never established—every one took Gilleen's word for it, that is every one but Regan, who was Irish himself and, more pertinent still, Gilleen's direct superior. On this point Regan, who was never averse to doing it, could get a rise out of Gilleen quicker than the bite of a hungry trout.
"By Christmas," Gilleen would sputter on such occasions, "I'll have you know I'm no liar, an' if 'twere not for the missus an' the six kids"—here Gilleen would always stop to count, owing to a possible arrival since the last clash, realizing that any slip would be instantly and mercilessly turned against him by the grinning master mechanic—"if 'twere not for them, Regan, you listen to me, I'd bash your face an' then ram the measly job you give me down your throat, I would that!"
"Well," Regan would return, "when you get to sitting on a dinky, gilded throne, sunk to the crown-sheet in the bogs though it will be, I'd ask no more nor as much from your hands as you get from mine—which is more than your deserts. Who but me would do as much for you? You ought to be back wiping. I've thought some seriously of it, h'm? Six, is it now?—well, it's a grand race!"
Whereupon Gilleen would say hot words and say them fervently, while he shook his fist at the master mechanic.
"I'll show you some day, Regan," was his final word. "I'll show you what kind of a race it is, an' don't you forget it!"
All of which is neither very interesting nor in any degree witty—it simply shows where Gilleen's nickname came from. Everybody on the division called him "King"—not to his face, they do now, but they didn't then. Queer the way a little thing like that acts on a man sometimes. Gilleen was well enough liked in a way, but no one ever really took him seriously in anything. Associate a man with a joke and henceforward and forever after, usually, the two are inseparable. He may have aspirations, ambitions, what you will, but he is given no credit for having them—with Gilleen it was that way. Just Gilleen, "King" Gilleen—and a grin.
The Lord only knows what possessed Gilleen to adhere with such stout-hearted loyalty to his ancestors—you may put an interrogation mark after that last word, if you like—it began with perhaps no more than a boyish boast when his official connection with the system was no further advanced than to the degree of holding down the job of assistant boiler-washer in the roundhouse. The more they guyed him the more stubbornly he stuck—it was a matter worth fighting for, and Gilleen fought. He threw pounds, reach, and other advantages to the winds and took on anybody and everybody. By the time he had moved up to firing he had fought all who cared to fight, who were not a few; and when, following that in the due course of promotion, he got his engine, he had by blows, not argument, established his assertion outwardly at least. At a safe distance the division, remembering broken noses and missing teeth and no longer denying him his royal blood, gave him his way, smiled tolerantly in self-solace and called him "nutty."
Regan, of course, still guyed—but Regan was master mechanic. Not that he did it by virtue of the immunity his official position afforded him, he never gave that a thought. He did it because he was Regan, and Regan was built that way. He could no more forego the chance of a laugh or an inward chuckle than he could forego the act of breathing—and live. A joke was a joke, just fun with him, that was all.
But with Gilleen it was different. Being unable to use his fists as was his wont, and being possessed of no other safety-valve, the pressure mounted steadily until it registered a point on his mental gauge that spoke eloquently of trouble to come.
And so matters stood when, following a rather dull summer, the fall business opened with a rush and a roar. Things moved with a jump, and the rails hummed under a constant stream of traffic east and west. Here, at least, was no joke—a rush on the Hill Division, single-track, through the mountains, never was. A month of it, and every one from car-tink to superintendent began to show the effects of the strain. It was double up everywhere, extra duty, extra tricks. The dispatchers caught their share of it and their eyes grew red and heavy under the lamps at night, and the heads of the day-men ached as they figured a series of meeting points that had no beginning and no end; but, bad as it was for the men on the keys, it was worse for some of those in the cabs. Schedules went to smash. Perishables and flyers were given the best of it—the rights of the rest were the sidings. It was a case of crawl along, sneak from one to the other, with layout after layout, until the ordinary length of a day's duty lapped over into fifteen-hour stretches and sometimes to twenty-four. Sleep, what they could get of it, the engine crews snatched bolt upright in their seats while they waited for Number One's headlight to shoot streaming out of the East, or nodded until roused by the roar and thunder of a flying freight, cars and cars of it crammed with first-class ratings, streaking East, as it hurtled by with insolent disregard for every mortal thing on earth.
Maybe Gilleen got a little more of it than any one else on the throttles, maybe he did—or maybe he didn't. Gilleen thought he did anyhow, and naturally he put it own to Regan's account. Regan was head of the motive power department of the Hill Division—there was no one else to put it down to. It was Regan or imagination. Gilleen, not being strong on imagination, did not debate the question—he let it go at Regan.
In from one run, shot out on another—that was Gilleen's schedule. The little woman in the little house uptown off Main street got to be mostly a memory to Gilleen, and as for the six brick-headed scions of his kingly race he came to wonder if they really existed at all.
Things boomed and hummed on the Hill Division, and while everybody on it snarled and swore and nagged at each other, as weary, worn-out, dropping-with-fatigue men will do, the smiles broadened on the lips and spread over the faces of the directors down East, as they rubbed their palms beneficently, expectantly, scenting extra dividends and soaring stock.
It was noon one day when Gilleen, with a trailing string of slewing freights behind him, pulled into the Big Cloud yards, uncoupled, backed down the spur, crossed the 'table, and ran into the roundhouse. As he swung from the gangway, Regan came hurrying in through the engine doors of Gilleen's pit from the direction of headquarters, and walked up to the engineer.
"Gilleen," said he briskly, "you'll have to take out Special Eighty-three. 1603's ready with a full head on pit two."
"What's that?" snapped Gilleen. "Take out a special now?" You know damn well I'm just in from a run. I'm tired. You'll rub it in once too often, Regan."
"We're all tired, aren't we?" returned the master mechanic tartly. "Do you think you're the only one? As for rubbing it in, you'd better draw your fire, my bucko. There's no rubbing in being done except in your eye! Anyhow, that's enough talk. Special Eighty-three's carded on rush orders from down East, and she's been in here an hour now."
"Well, why didn't you let the crew that brought her in keep goin' then?" snarled Gilleen. It was a fool question and he knew it; but, as he had said, he was tired, and his temper, never angelic, was now pretty well on edge.
Regan glared at him a moment angrily. Regan, too, was tired and irritable, harassed beyond the limit that most men are harassed. The demand upon the motive power department for men and engines had kept him up more than one night trying to figure out a problem that was well-nigh impossible.
"Let 'em go on!" he snorted. "You know well enough I haven't anything on the Prairie Division men. You know that—what d'ye say it for, h'm? You're the first man in—and you go out first."
"It strikes me I'm generally the first man in these days," retorted Gilleen angrily; "an' I'm sick of gettin' the short end of it. I guess I won't go out this time."
It took a breathing spell before the master mechanic could explode adequately.
"You call yourself a railroad man!" he flung out furiously. "What are you whining about? Every man's got his shoulder to the wheel and pushing without talk. We haven't got any room here for quitters. I guess that blood of yours you're so pinhead-brained proud——"
Regan did not finish. With a bellow of rage the red-haired engineer went at the other like a charging bull, and the master mechanic promptly measured his length on the roundhouse floor from a wallop on the head that made him see stars.
Regan scrambled to his feet. His heart was the heart of a fighter, even if his build was not. Straight at Gilleen he flew, and the passes and lunges and jabs he made—while the engineer played on the master mechanic's paunch like a kettle-drum and delivered a second wallop on the head as a plaster for the first—are historic only for their infinitesimal coefficient of effectiveness. It is unquestionably certain that the master mechanic then and there would have proceeded to make up for some of his lost sleep, at least, if Gilleen's fireman and a wiper or two hadn't got in between the two men just when they did.
Gilleen was boiling mad.
"Well," he bawled, "got anything more to say about quittin' or that other thing? I guess I won't go out this time, what?"
Regan was equally mad. And as he felt tenderly of his forehead, where a lump was rapidly approximating the formation of a goose egg, he grew madder still.
"You won't go out, won't you?" he roared. "Well I guess you will; and, what's more, you'll go out now—and get your time! I fire you, understand?"
"You bet!" said "King" Gilleen—and that's all he said. He looked at the master mechanic for a minute, but didn't say anything more—just laughed and walked out of the roundhouse.
Naturally enough, the story got up and down the division, and everybody talked about it. With their rough and impartial justice they put both men in the wrong, but mostly Gilleen for insubordination. The affront Gilleen had suffered was not so big and momentous, a long way from being the vital thing in their eyes that it was in his. Gilleen was just nutty on that point, that was all there was to that. Regan's judgment had been bad and the moment he had seized for his thrust and fling was by no manner of means a psychological one; but, for all that, Gilleen had no business to strike the master mechanic. He had got what was coming to him—that was the verdict. He was out and out for good. It was pretty generally conceded that it would be a long while before he pulled a throttle on the Hill Division again.
What sympathy the engineer got, for he got some, wasn't on his own account. It was on account of his family—not the ancestral end of it, however. Six kids and a wife do not leave much change out of a pay-check even when it's padded by overtime; six kids and a wife with no pay-check is pretty stiff running.
Gilleen was too hot under the collar to give a thought to that when he marched out of the roundhouse that noon; but it wasn't many hours, after he had put in a few to make up for the sleep he hadn't had during the preceding weeks, that the problem was up to him for consideration with a vote for adjournment for once ruled out as not in order.
Mrs. Gilleen may or may not have shared her spouse's opinions on the subject of his illustrious descent—if she did she never put on any "airs" about it. Washing and dressing and cooking was about all one woman could manage for a household as big as hers. That's what she said anyway, whenever any one asked her about it. And one glance at the red-headed brood that filled the front yard and swung on the front gate, whose hinges creaked in loud and bitter protest, was enough to preclude any dispute on that score. Just a little bit of a woman she was physically; but bigger practically than the whole corps of leading lights in social and domestic economy—which, come to think of it, is damning Mrs. Gilleen with faint praise, whereas too much couldn't be said for her. However, let that go. Mrs. Gilleen was practical, and she had the matter up to the engineer almost before he had the sleep washed out of his eyes. No nagging, no reproach, nothing of that kind—Mrs. Gilleen wasn't that sort of a woman. "King," or not, Gilleen might have been, Katie Gilleen was a queen, not in looks perhaps, but a queen—that's flat. A fine woman is the finest thing in the world, and if that were said a little more often than it is maybe things generally wouldn't be any the worse for it—which is not a plank in the platform of the Suffragettes, though it may sound like it.
"Michael," said she, "you rowed with Mr. Regan, and he fired you. Will he take you back?"
Gilleen lowered the towel to his chin to catch the dripping water from his hair—he had just buried his head in the washbowl the minute before—and looked at his wife.
"I wouldn't ask him, Kate," he said shortly.
Mrs. Gilleen was proud, too—but for all that she sighed.
"What will you do, then, Michael?" she asked.
"I dunno yet, little woman. Some of the others will give me a job, I guess. Mabbe I'll try the train crews. I'll hit 'em up for something, anyway."
"But there's ever so much less money in that"—Mrs. Gilleen's tones were judicial, not plaintive.
"I know it," returned Gilleen; "but it'll tide us over an' keep the steam up till we get a chance to pull out for somewheres where a man can get an engine without a grinning fool of a master mechanic to double-cross him with the worst of it every chance he gets."
"I hope it will all come out right," said Mrs. Gilleen, a little wistfully.
"It will," Gilleen assured her. "Don't you worry. I'll get after a job right away as soon as I've had a bite."
It came easier even than Gilleen had figured it would—such as it was—and it was about the last job Gilleen had thought of as a possibility. Things have a peculiar way of working themselves out sometimes, and, curiously enough, by means which, on the surface, are, more often than not, apparently trivial and inconsequent. Certainly, if Gilleen, on his way to the station that morning, had not run into Gleason, the yard-master, why then—but he did.
"Call-boys kind of scarce around your diggin's since yesterday, ain't they, Gilleen?" was Gleason's greeting.
"Yes," said Gilleen. "I'm out."
"See you're headin' for the station," remarked Gleason tentatively. "Goin' down to patch it up?"
"No!" answered Gilleen with a hard ring in his voice—the "no" was emphatic.
Gleason stared at the engineer for a minute, then took a bite from his plug, and the motion of his head might have been a nod of understanding or merely a wrench or two to free his teeth from the black-strap in which they were imbedded.
"No," said Gilleen again; "I'm not. I'm goin' down for another job."
"What kind of a job?" inquired Gleason.
"Any kind from any one that will put me on—except Regan."
Gleason thought of his choked yards—the rush had in no way overlooked him. Men, men that knew a draw-bar and a switch-handle from a hunk of cheese, were as scarce in his department as they were in any of the others.
"Yards?" he queried—and blinked.
"D'y e mean it?" demanded Gilleen, taking him up short.
"Sure, I mean it."
"You're on," said Gilleen.
"Night switchman," amplified the yard-master. "You can begin to-night."
"All right, I'll be on deck," agreed Gilleen; "an' thanks, Gleason. I'm much obliged to you."
"Humph!" grunted Gleason. "'Tain't much of a stake compared with an engine, but it's yours, an' welcome."
It was quite true. Comparatively, it wasn't much of a stake, and even the first night of it was enough to throw the comparison into strong and bitter relief. If anything would have put a finishing touch on Gilleen's feelings anent the master mechanic it was that first night on yard switching, that and, of course, the nights that followed. It wasn't so much the work, though that was hard enough, and, being green, the engineer made about twice as much for himself as there was any need of, it was a not-to-be-denied tendency of his eyes to stray toward the roundhouse every time a gleaming headlight showed on the turn-table. If Gilleen had never known before how much he loved an engine he knew it in those dark hours while he swung a lantern from the roofs of a freight string, or hopped the foot-board of the switcher. Up and down the yards from dusk till dawn, to the accompaniment of the wheezing, grunting, coughing, foreshortened apology for a shunter, the clash of brake-beams, the bump and rattle, staccato, diminuendo, as a line of box-cars grumbled into motion, didn't take on any roseate hues from the angle Gilleen looked at it; nor did an occasional ten-wheeler, out or in, sailing grandly past him with impudent airs help any, either. Gilleen's language became as freckled as his face and hands and as fiery as his head. Even that grand old Irish race from which he sprang, that wild and untamed breed of kingly sires paled into insignificance—Gilleen was more occupied with Regan. What he thought he said, and said it aloud without making any bones about it—said it through his teeth, with his fists clenched.
Perhaps it was just as well Gilleen was on nights, for, ordinarily, the master mechanic had nothing to bring him around the yards, shops or roundhouse after sundown—Regan's evenings being spent with Carleton, the super, a pipe and a game of pedro upstairs over the station in the superintendent's office next door to the dispatcher's room—just as well for both their sakes; for Regan's physically; for Gilleen's because, little fond of his job as he was, there were certain necessities that even little Mrs. Gilleen with all her practicability and economy could not supply without money. Anyway, the days went by and the two men did not meet, though Gilleen's orations got around to Regan's ears fast enough. The master mechanic only laughed when he heard them.
"Gilleen," said he, "is like the parrot that said 'sic 'em!' and said it once too often. He talks too much. If he'd kept his mouth shut I'd have given him his run back, after a lay off to teach him manners. As it is, if he likes switching let him keep at it. Mabbe by the time he's tired the throne of his ancestors'll be ready for him, what?"
All this was enough to spell ructions in the air, and, ordinarily, the division to a man would have hung mildly expectant on the result of the final showdown. But the Hill Division just then wasn't hankering for anything more to liven it up—it was getting all of that sort of thing it wanted and a little besides. Attending strictly to business was about all it could do, a trifle beyond what it could do, and everything else was apart—the boom showed more signs of increasing than it did of being on the wane. There wasn't any let-up anywhere—things sizzled.
It never rains but it pours, they say; and that's one adage, at least, that the railroad men of Big Cloud, and the town itself for that matter, will swear by to this day. There are a few things that Big Cloud remembers vividly and with astounding minuteness for detail, but the night the shops went up tops them all.
When it was all over they decided that a slumbering forge-fire in the blacksmith shop was at the bottom of it—not that any one really knew, or knows now, but they put it down to that because it sounded reasonable and because there wasn't anything else to put it down to. However, whether that was the cause or whether it wasn't, on one point there was no possible opening for an argument—and that was the effect and the result.
If you knew Big Cloud in the old days, you know where the shops were and what they looked like; if you didn't, it won't take a minute to tell you. You could see them from the station platform across the tracks far up at the west end of the yards; and they looked more like a succession of barns nailed on to each other than anything else, except for the roofs which were low and flat—the buildings being all one-storied. What with the quarters of the boiler-makers, the carpenters, the machinists and the fitters, the old shops straggled out over a goodly length of ground, and a grimy, ramshackle, dirty, blackened, Godforsaken looking structure it was. To-day, thanks to that fire and the Big Strike when it came along, there's a modern affair of structural steel—and the rest is but a memory. However——
Night in the mountains in the Fall comes early, and by nine o'clock on the night the fire broke out it had shut down pitch dark. Nothing showed in the yards but the twinkling switch lights, the waving lamps of the men, and an occasional gleam from the shunter's headlight when it shot away from the end of a box-car. Across the tracks the station lights were like fireflies, and there was a glimmer or two showing from the roundhouse. Apart from the fact that a pretty strong west wind was brushing the yards, if you could count that as anything apart, there was nothing out of the ordinary, everything was going on as usual, when, suddenly without warning, a wicked fang of flame shot skyward, then another higher than the first. It was answered by a yell from the yardmen, caught up in the roundhouse, and then the switcher's whistle shrieked the alarm. A minute more, and everything with steam enough to lift a valve joined in. Dark forms began to run in the direction of the shops, and then the bell in the little English chapel uptown took a hand in the clamor. The alarm was unanimous enough and general enough when it came, there was never any doubt about that, but the fire must have got a pretty stiff start before it broke through the windows to fling its first challenge at the railroad men.
Gilleen and the rest of the yard crew were on the run for the scene when Gleason's voice, bawling over the din, halted them.
"Clean out three, four an' five, an' get 'em down to the bottom of the yards, an' look lively!" he yelled. "Leave that string of gondolas on six till the last. Jump now, boys! Eat 'em up!"
Oil-spattered floors and oil-smeared walls are a feeding ground for a fire than which there is no better. The flame tongues leaped higher and higher throwing a lurid glare down the yards, and throwing, too, as the wind caught them up and whirled them in gusts, a driving rain of sparks that threatened the long, dark lines of rolling stock, for the most part choked to the doors with freight—freight enough to total a sum in claim-checks that would blanch the cheeks of the most florid director on the board of the Transcontinental.
With Gleason in command, Gilleen and his mates went at their work heads down. There wasn't anything fancy or artistic about the way they banged those cars to safety—there wasn't time to be fussy. Behind them the south end of the shops was already a blazing mass. The little switcher took hold of first one string then another, shook it angrily for a minute as her exhaust roared into a quick crackle of reports and the drivers spun around like pin-wheels making the steel fly fire, then with a cough and a grunt and a final push she would snap the cars away from her, and the string would go sailing down the yard to bump and pound to a stop, with an echoing crash, into whatever might be at the other end. There was a car or two the next morning with front-ends and rear-ends and both ends at once, that looked as though they had been in a cyclone; and there was a claim- voucher or two put through for a consignment of nursing bottles and a sewing machine—not that the two necessarily go together, but no matter, they did then. Anyway, the record the yardmen made that night is the record to-day, and in no more than ten minutes there wasn't a car within three hundred yards of the shops.
But while the yard crew worked others were not idle. Regan and Carleton, both of them, had caught the first flash from the windows of the super's room, and they were down the stairs, across the yards and into the game from the start. Joined by the nightmen and the hostlers and the wide-eyed call-boys they tackled the blaze. By the time they had dragged and coupled the fifty-foot hose lengths, it took five lengths, along the tracks from the roundhouse, the needle on the stationary's gauge, luckily not yet quite dead from the day's work and whose fire-box Clarihue, the turner, now crammed with oil-soaked packing, began to climb, and they got an uncertain, weakly stream playing— uncertain, but a stream. After that, things went with a rush—both ways—the fire and the fight.
From the gambling hells and the saloons, from the streets and their homes came the population of Big Cloud, the Polacks, the Russians, the railroad men, the good and the bad whites, the half-breeds—and the local fire brigade. Two more streams they ran from the roundhouse and that was the limit—the rest of the hose was liquid rubber somewhere under the blaze.
Regan, with a bitter, hard look on his face for the shops were Regan's, was everywhere at once, and what man could do he did; but, inch by inch, the flames were getting the better of him. The yards were as bright as day now, and the heat was driving the circle of fighters back, stubbornly as they fought to hold their ground. It looked like a grand slam for the fire with the four aces in one hand. Twice Regan had been on the point of ordering the men to the roof, and twice he held back—once he had even ordered a ladder planted, only to order it away again. The building was only wood, and old, and the roof was none too strong at best; but now, under and supported by the roof of the fitting-shop, put in a month before in lieu of the old system of jacking and blocking by hand, making the risk a hundredfold greater, were the heavy steel girders and hydraulic traveling cranes that whipped the big moguls like jack-straws from their wheels preparatory to stripping them to their bare boiler-shells. Regan shook his head—it was asking a man to take his life in his hands. For the moment he stood a little apart in front of the crowd and just behind the nozzle end of one of the streams. Again he measured the chances, and again he shook his head.
"I can't ask a man to do it," he muttered; "but we ought to have a stream up there, it's——"
"Why don't you take it there yourself, then?"—the words came sharp and quick from his elbow, stinging hot like the cut of a whip-lash. It was "King" Gilleen, red-haired, blue-blooded, freckled-skinned Gilleen.
The master mechanic whirled like a shot, and for a minute the two men stared into each other's eyes, stared as the leaping flames sent flickering shadows across the grim, set features of them both, stared at each other face to face for the first time since that noon in the roundhouse days before.
"Why don't you take it there yourself, then?" said Gilleen again, and his laugh rang hard and cold. "You ain't a quitter, are you? There's nothin' wrong with your blood, is there? If you're not afraid—come on!"—as he spoke he stepped forward, pushed the men from the nozzle—and looked back at the master mechanic.
Regan's lips were like a thin, white line.
Gilleen laughed out again, and it carried over the roar and the crackle of the flames, the snapping timbers, the hiss and spit of the water, the voices of the crowd.
"Put up the ladder!"—it was Regan's voice, deadly cold. "Lash a short end around that nozzle, an' stand by to pass it up"—he was at the foot of the ladder almost before they got it in position, and the next instant began to climb.
Like a flash, Gilleen, surrendering the fire-hose temporarily, sprang after him—and up.
It wasn't far—the shops were low, just one story high—and both men were on the roof in a minute. Gilleen caught the coiled rope they slung him from below, and together he and the master mechanic hauled up the writhing, spluttering hose.
A shower of sparks and a swirling cloud of smoke enveloped them as they stood upright and began to advance. It cleared away leaving them silhouetted against the leaping wall of flame a few yards in front of them—and a cheer went up from the throats of the crowd below.
Not a word passed between the two men. Foot by foot they moved forward, laying the hose in a line behind them to lessen the weight and the side-pull, that at first had called forth all their strength to direct the play of the stream; foot by foot they went forward, closer and closer, perilously close, to the blistering, scorching, seething mass—for neither of them would be the first to hold back.
High into the heavens streamed the great yellow-red forks of angry flame, and over all, like a gigantic canopy, rolled dense volumes of gray-black smoke. Came at the two men spurting, fiery tongues, stabbing at them, robbing them of their breath, mocking at their puny might.
Another step forward and Regan reeled back, one hand went to his face—and the nozzle almost wrenched itself from the engineer's grasp.
"It's a grand race!" laughed Gilleen, but the laugh was more of a gasping cough, and the cough came from cracked and swollen lips. "It's a grand race, Regan; an' the blood——"
With a choking sob, Regan steadied himself and seized hold of the nozzle again.
They held where they were now—it was the fire, not they, that was creeping forward, pitilessly, inevitably, licking greedily at the tarred roof until it grew soft beneath their feet and the bubbles puffed up and formed and broke.
A cry of warning came from below, and with it came the ominous rending groan of yielding timbers. It came again, the cry, and rang in Gilleen's ears almost without sense. He could scarcely see, his eyes were scorched and blinded, his lungs were full of the stinging smoke, choking full. Beside him Regan hung, dropping weak. "Get back, for God's sake, get back!" it was Carleton's voice. "Do you hear!" shouted the super frantically. "Get back! The roof is sagging! Run for——"
Like the roar of a giant blast, as a park of artillery belches forth in deafening thunder, there came a terrific crash and, fearful in its echo, a cry of horror rose from those below. Where there had been roof a foot in front of the men was now—nothingness.
Gilleen, with a shout, as he felt the edge crumple under him, flung himself backward and as he leaped he snatched at Regan, His fingers brushed the master mechanic's sleeve, hooked, slipped—and he struck on his back a full yard away. He reeled to his feet like a drunken man, and dug at his eyes with his fists. Over the broken edge of the shattered roof, hanging into the black below, was the dangling hose—but Regan was gone. Weak, spent, exhausted, the master mechanic, unequal to the exertion of Gilleen's leap, had pitched downward, clutching desperately, feebly, vainly, as he went. Regan was gone, and twenty feet, somewhere, below—he lay.
Gilleen staggered forward. It was the far end of the beams that had given away and the six or seven yards of the roof that had fallen still separated him from the heart of the blaze. The advancing flames lighted up a scene of wreck and ruin below in the fitting-shop—girders and steel Ts and cranes and tackles, splotches of roofing, shattered timbers, lay over the black looming shapes of the monster engine-shells blocked on the pit.
"Regan!" he called; and again: "Regan! Regan!"
Above the roaring crackle of the fire, above the surging, pounding noises that beat mercilessly at his eardrums, faint, so faint it seemed like fancy, a low moan answered him. Once more it came and upon Gilleen surged new-born strength and life. He began to drag at the hose with all his might, dropping it foot by foot over the jagged edge of the roof until it reached well down to the snarled and tangled wreckage below. And then a mighty yell went up from a hundred throats—and again and again:
"Gilleen! King Gilleen! King! King!"
There was no gibe now—just a bursting cheer from the full hearts of men. "King!" they roared, and the shout swelled, but Gilleen never heard them as they crowned him. King he was at last in the eyes of all men, a king that knows no blood nor race nor throne nor retinue—Gilleen was lowering himself down the hose.
It was a question of minutes. The fire was sweeping in a mad wave across the intervening space. The engineer's feet touched something solid and he let go his hold of the hose—and stumbled, lost his balance, and pitched forward striking on his head with a blow that dazed and stunned him. Mechanically he understood that what he had taken for flooring was a work-bench. He got to his feet again, the blood streaming from his forehead, and shouted. This time there was no answer. Staggering, falling, tripping, stumbling, he began to search frantically amid the debris. The air was thick with the smothering smoke, hot, stifling, drying up his lungs. He began to moan, crying the name of the master mechanic over and over again, crying it as a man cries out in delirium. Bits of oil-soaked waste and wads of packing, catching from the glowing cinders, were blazing around his feet, the onrush of the flames swept a blighting wave upon him that sent him reeling back, scorching, blistering the naked skin of his face and hands. Again he fell. A great sheet of fire leapt high behind him, held for an instant, and then the dull red glow settled around him again—but in that instant, just a little to the right, pinned under a scanling, half hidden by a snarled knot of roof and girders, was the master mechanic's form.
On his knees, groping with his hands, Gilleen reached him, and began to tear furiously, savagely, madly, at the timber that lay across Regan's chest. He moved it little by little, every inch tasking his weakening muscles to the utmost. Blackness was before him, he could no longer see, he could no longer breathe, hot, nauseating fumes strangled him and sent the blood bursting from his nostrils. He tried to lift Regan's shoulders—and sank down beside the master mechanic instead. Feebly he raised his head—there came the splintering crash of glass, a rushing stream tore through a window, hissed against the boiler-shell above him, and, glancing off, lashed a cold spray of water into his face.
The window! Three yards to the window! He was up again, and pulling at the dead weight of the master mechanic. Just three yards! He cried like a child as he struggled, and the tears ran down his cheeks in streams. A foot, two feet, three—two more yards to go. Axes were swinging now in front of him, shouts reached him. Half the distance was covered—but he had gone to his knees. Everything around was hot, it was all fire and hell and madness. A yard and a half—only a yard and a half. Alone he could make it easily enough and maybe Regan was dead anyhow, alone and there was safety and life, alone—then he laughed. "It's a grand race, Regan, a grand race," he sobbed hysterically, and his grip tightened on the master mechanic, and he won another foot and another and another. A black form wavered before him, he felt an arm reach out and grasp him—then he tottered, swayed, and dropped inert, unconscious.
They got him out, and they got Regan out, and they got the fire out by the time there wasn't much left to burn; and, after a week or two, both men got out of the hospital. That's about all there is to it, except that Gilleen's red head now decorates the swellest cab on the division, and that he never fought for his title after that night—he never had to; though, if you feel like questioning it, you can still get plenty of fight, for all that—any of the boys will accommodate you any time.
Regan isn't an artist as a pugilist, but even so it is unwise to take risks—unscientific men by lucky flukes have handed knockouts to their betters.
"If Gilleen says so that's enough, whether it's so or not, what? "Regan will fling at you. "It's pretty good blood, ain't it, no matter what kind it is? Well then—h'm?"