Ralph in the Switch Tower/Chapter 10

CHAPTER X


A MILE A MINUTE


Ralph stood dumfounded as he made out the great Indian tiger, Calcutta Tom, that "had cost six thousand dollars to cage after it had killed five men."

The encounter was so unlooked for that Ralph stood transfixed for a second or two.

The escaped animal could not have been long in the switch house, otherwise Knight or others would have discovered it. It had escaped before daybreak that morning. Since then it must have been in hiding around the depot yards.

About twenty feet away from the switch tower were some open vault-like recesses fitting into a brick abutment. This inclined from the depot baggage room. Up and down this, baggage was run on trucks. It was possible that for a time the tiger had lurked in some of these dark recesses, transferring itself to the lower tower room within the last fifteen minutes.

Calcutta Tom was a formidable-looking beast of enormous size. Ralph noticed, however, that while the animal growled and bristled fiercely, it did not crouch or threaten to spring. It posed clumsily, showed no teeth—if it had any—and seemed determined to act simply on the defensive and repel intruders.

Toot-toot-toot-too-ooo-oot!

The shrill, strange whistle in the distance cut vividly on Ralph's ear because it proceeded from that unusual locality—the north spur.

With a thrill he caught its signal warning. The limited was coming, the mile-a-minute special would be hammering the main depot rails in less than three minutes now!

Its engineer had right of way track signal from fifteen miles back. He was not expected to be looking out for obstructions. The "O. K. clear" order meant that he need not trouble his mind as to complications in unfamiliar territory. The delayed express on the out track was hidden from view by a curve. Even if discovered, the special, going at a tremendous rate of speed, could not slow up in time to avoid a collision.

All these thoughts flashed through the young leverman's mind within the space of a single second. Ralph knew that he must instantly scale the ladder and set the levers, or else all would be lost.

He made a reckless run for the iron ladder. Four feet from it, he went bounding back like a rubber ball.

Calcutta Tom had simply raised a ponderous paw. It dropped on Ralph's breast with the force of a sledge-hammer.

Ralph landed with a thud against the inside sheathing of the tower. Then he stumbled flat, but came erect, grasping a broken brake-rod his hand had chanced to touch on the flood.

Again the "Clear the way!" signal of the speeding special to the north sent the blood rushing through his veins like quicksilver.

Ralph sprang at the tiger, striking out with all his strength.

The bar was wrenched from his grasp by his formidable brute foe. He saw it twisted up like a bit of flexible licorice. The tiger made a spring. Its bristling form filled the doorway almost as quickly as Ralph had sped through it.

There the tiger stood, blinking at the light, and snarling fiercely. Ralph gave a great gasp of desperation, and looked wildly all about him for escape from his dilemma.

No one on the sidings was near enough to signal to any advantage. By the time he could summon help and explain matters, the special would be on hand and the damage done.

A cold sweat came out all over his body. Ralph began to quake. It meant sure death to oppose the stubborn brute in the open doorway.

"What shall I do—oh, what can I do?" panted Ralph in a torment of agony.

He ran out a few steps and looked up at the tower room. This loomed twenty feet aloft, flanging out mushroom-fashion over the lower story, which presented a solid base.

The tower room was inaccessible, even if he could scale the lower building. Ralph ran a complete circuit of the structure. Then his eye flashed with sudden hope.

As nimbly as though his tiger foe was directly at his heels, Ralph sprang at and clasped a telegraph pole. Its surface was roughened and indented by the hooks of linemen, allowing him to get a lifting grip.

Ralph drew himself up slowly. The ascent to his overwrought mind seemed to consume an age. It was just forty-five seconds, however, when twenty-five feet from the ground, his slivered and bleeding hands grasped the first cross-bar of the telegraph pole and he lifted himself to it.

A foot or two down and six feet away was the glass-windowed side of the tower room. Ralph pulled himself erect till both feet rested on the narrow cross-bar.

He steadied himself on his dizzy perch. He seemed to have ceased to breathe, and his heart stood still, so intense was the strain on his nerves. The wreck and ruin of a great railroad system to his exaggerated senses seemed to impend on his success in a daring dive.

For a dive it was, and a desperate one. All the upper sashes fronting him were lowered, as was the usage in clear weather. Ralph caught the shrieking blast of the special. His expert ear told him that it was less than a mile distant. He poised, wavered, and then made a forward spring.

There was a great clatter of glass. Ralph half hung over the top of the lower and the lowered sashes, but his feet had kicked in the double panes. He fairly fell over the sashes into the tower room.

On his feet in a flash, the youth darted a swift glance at the tower clock. It was just 1.15.

"Made it !" he cried, but in a faint, hoarse tone—"made it, but just in time!"

He was so overcome that it was his sheer weight rather than any exertion of muscle that pulled bar 4 over into place. Then Ralph staggered back, and fairly fell into the armchair.

The ordeal had been a terrible one. He understood how a man's hair turned white sometimes in an hour. His teeth were chattering, his cheeks blanched. He turned his eyes to the north, chained to the chair momentarily in a kind of a dread stupor.

A flagman across the rails was yelling up at him. He had witnessed Ralph's sensational proceedings, and was staring at the broken window panes. Ralph did not hear him.

Instead, his ears were filled with a grinding on the north rails. Tearing down them, swaying from side to side, shrieking out constantly for clear tracks, a locomotive with one car attached reached the far depot end and went its length like a flash of light.

"The special!" breathed Ralph,—"on time!"