Open main menu

Ralph in the Switch Tower/Chapter 27



"Good-morning, Mr. Fairbanks."

"Why, good-morning, Mr. Slavin, but—quite formal, aren't you?" said Ralph with a smile.

It was the second day after the factory fire. Ralph and Knight, both busy at their duties, had been visited by Slavin.

He came up the ladder and into the switch tower with a certain slow dignity of manner that made Ralph stare.

"Hello, Slav," nodded old Jack Knight carelessly.

"How do you do—sir?" answered Slavin with rigid courtesy as he sank to the armchair—always a welcome visitor, nowadays.

"Bust me!" whispered Knight with a keen glance at Slavin, and suppressing a quick snicker—"what's in his crop now, Fairbanks?"

Ralph wondered, too. He stole a second furtive look at Slavin. Then he had to turn his head aside to hide a smile.

Slavin sat like a statue. The one impelling motive of his life at present, it seemed, was to suggest the idea that he had weighty matters on his mind.

He looked like a being struggling with the most momentous responsibilities. His eye ran over the long array of levers as if he had been officially delegated to inspect them. His bearing was—profound.

Ralph noticed a change in his general dress. So did Knight, and in a hoarse, undertoned guffaw he observed to his young assistant:

"The spell is on, and he's got himself up regardless!"

Knight could hardly hold himself in. The old veteran had seen every phase of railroad régime and railroad vanity in his long career. At a glance he had guessed what was up with Young Slavin.

Ralph noticed that Slavin wore a new head gear. It was a direct copy of the touring cap affected by the depot master.

The top button of Slavin's coat was a brass one. It was either a conductor's or a Pullman porter's official insignia—at a distance Ralph could not tell which.

Sticking out from one of Slavin's coat pockets was an assortment of folders. Ralph recognized them as including all the official time schedules of the Great Northern.

Besides that, in his hand Slavin carried a somber-looking, flexible-covered book. This suggested some technical engineering or scientific work.

Slavin consulted its pages as he sat in the armchair. Ralph and Knight scented fun in the air. They went on silently with their duties.

This grew irksome to Slavin. He finally arose to his feet, and began restively pacing about the switch tower.

"H'm," he observed at length. "Saw a great article on the combustion of coal gases in locomotives, last night."

"That so?" nodded Knight, and proceeded to whistle industriously.

Slavin looked hurt at the repulse. In a minute or two he blurted out again:

"I see there's a new invention for economizing steam in short-run engines. Sort of studying up things, see? This here book——"

"What book is it, Slavin?" inquired Ralph pleasantly.

"Yes, what's this high jinks in railroad education you're firing at us?" demanded Knight, suddenly seizing the volume from Slavin's hand. "Oh, my! hold me! ha! ha!" roared the veteran towerman. "Listen, Fairbanks: 'Technical Topography of High Grade Elevations in Asiatic Railways.' Oh, me! Oh, my! Slavin, you take the cake!"

"Mr. Knight, I didn't come here to have my feelings trampled on," spoke Slavin in tones of offended dignity.

"Right, old son. You came here to show how hard you'd got the railroad fever—hey, you spoony? Why, it's sticking out all over you. I had it once. They all get it at first. Why, you ambitious young lunkhead," cried Knight, slapping Slavin's shoulder with a hearty whack that nearly knocked him over, "you're simply tickled to death about something, and I can tell it in three words."

"What is it, Mr. Knight?" asked Ralph innocently.

"'Got a job!'"

"Good!" cried Ralph, grasping Slavin's hand in congratulation. "Is it true?"

"Why, yes, it is," answered Slavin proudly. "So, what's the harm in trying to post up, hey?"

"My son," observed Knight in a patriarchal fashion, "posting up and looking railroady is all right, but there's many a long, tough reach in plain buttons, and a long distance away from combustion and high grades, before you even begin to guess what you know about practical railroading. Who did you see—the master mechanic?"

"No—depot master."

"What—not put on duty here with us?" exclaimed Ralph in a really pleased tone.

"That's it," announced Slavin grandly.

"Well, I am truly glad," said Ralph.

"So am I," put in Knight—"I'll catch your mistakes like a true friend, and help you along like a brother."

"I am not going to make any mistakes," declared Slavin confidently.

"Oho! aint?" said Knight softly.

"No, sir. I've watched you two closely. It's simple. You get 7. Pull 7. Muscle does it."

"That so?" continued old Jack, in a slow, pitying drawl. "Well, well! Now, just to demonstrate, suppose you take a test?"

"I'm your man!" cried Slavin, pulling off his coat and striking an attitude.

"Double switch," called out Knight—"18 and 19."

Slavin wavered, Knight had called out two levers way down the line, rarely used. Slavin's eyes ran the long array. Then he got his bearings, and swung his arms down into the battery with a ponderous swoop.

His great strong fists clasped the lever handles in a really admirable manner, and he looked the prodigy of muscle he claimed to be.

"Open 'em up!" shouted Knight.

Slavin bent to his task.

"Pull—you lubber, pull!" yelled old Jack Knight.