Ralph of the Roundhouse/Chapter 5

CHAPTER V


OPPORTUNITY


The boy turned and ran back to the culvert crossing just as the fourth locomotive whizzed past the spot.

He waved his hand and yelled out an inquiry as to what was up, but cab and tender flashed by in a sheet of steam and smoke.

He recognized the engineer, however. It was gruff old John Griscom, and in the momentary glimpse Ralph had of his hard, rugged face he looked grimmer than ever.

Ralph marveled at his presence here, for Griscom had the crack run of the road, the 10.15, driven by the biggest twelve-wheeler on the line, and was something of an industrial aristocrat. The locomotive he now propelled was a third-class freight engine, and had no fireman on the present occasion so far as could be seen.

Ralph knew enough about runs, specials and extras, to at once comprehend that something very unusual had happened, or was happening.

Whatever it was, extreme urgency had driven out this last locomotive, for Griscom wore his off-duty suit, and it was plain to be seen had not had time to change it.

Ralph's eyes blankly followed the locomotive. Then he started after it. Five hundred feet down the rails, a detour of a gravel pit sent the tracks rounding to a stretch, below which, in a clump of greenery, half a dozen of the firemen and engineers of the road had their homes.

With a jangle and a shiver the old heap of junk known as 99 came to a stop. Then its whistle began a series of tootings so shrill and piercing that the effect was fairly ear-splitting.

Ralph recognized that they were telegraphic in their import. Very often, he knew, locomotives would sound a note or two, slow up just here to take hands down to the roundhouse, but old Griscom seemed not only calling some one, but calling fiercely and urgently, and adding a whole volume of alarm warnings.

Ralph kept on down the track and doubled his pace, determined now to overtake the locomotive and learn the cause of all this rush and commotion.

As he neared 99, he discerned that the veteran engineer was hustling tremendously. Usually impassive and exact when in charge of the superb 10.15, he was now a picture of almost irritable activity.

Having thrown off his coat, he fired in some coal, impatiently gave the whistle a further exercise, and leaning from the cab window yelled lustily towards the group of houses beyond the embankment.

Just as Ralph reached the end of the tender, he saw emerging from the shaded path down the embankment a girl of twelve. He recognized her as the daughter of jolly Sam Cooper, the fireman.

She was breathless and pale, and she waved her hand up to the impatient engineer with an agitated:

"Was you calling pa, Mr. Griscom?"

"Was I calling him!" growled the gruff old bear—"did he think I was piping for the birds?"

"Oh, Mr. Griscom, he can't come, he——"

"He's got to come! It's life and death! Couldn't he tell it, when he saw me on this crazy old wreck, and shoving up the gauge to bursting point. Don't wait a second—he's got to come!"

"Oh, Mr. Griscom, he's in bed, crippled. Ran into a scythe in the garden, and his ankle is cut terrible. Mother's worried to death, and he won't be able to take the regular run for days and days."

Old Griscom stormed like a pirate. He glared down the tracks towards the roundhouse. Then he shouted ferociously:

"Tell Evans to come, then—not a minute to lose!"

"Mr. Evans has gone for the doctor, for pa," answered the girl.

Griscom nearly had a fit. He flung his big arms around as if he wanted to smash something. He glanced at his watch, and slapped his hand on the lever with an angry yell.

"Can't go back for an extra!" Ralph heard him shout, "and what'll I do? Rot the road! I'll try it alone, but——"

He gave the lever a jerk, the wheels started up. Ralph thought he understood the situation. He sprang to the step.

"Get out—no junketing here—life and death—Hello, Fairbanks!"

"Mr. Griscom," spoke Ralph, "what's the trouble?"

"Trouble—the shops at Acton are on fire, not a locomotive within ten miles, and all the transfer freight hemmed in."

Ralph felt a thrill of interest and excitement.

"Is that so?" he breathed. "I see—they need help?"

"I guess so, and quick. Out of the way!"

The old engineer hustled about the cab, set the machinery whizzing at top-notch speed, and seized the fire shovel.

"Mr. Griscom," cried Ralph, catching on by a sort of inspiration, "let me—let me do that."

"Eh—what——"

Ralph drew the shovel from his unresisting hands.

"You can't do both," he insisted—"you can't drive and fire. Just tell me what to do."

"Can you shovel coal?"

"I can try."

"Here, not that way—" as Ralph opened the furnace door in a clumsy manner. "That's it, more—hustle, kid! That'll do. No talking, now."

Griscom sprang to the cushion. For two minutes he was absorbed, looking ahead, timing himself, reading the gauge, in a fume and sweat, like a trained greyhound eager to strike the home stretch.

Suddenly he ran his head and shoulders far past the window sill, and uttered one of his characteristic alarm yells.

"Rot the road!" he shouted. "No flags!"

He reached over for the tool box, and slammed up its cover. He pawed over a dozen or more soiled flags of different colors, snatched up two, shook out their white folds, and then, as the speeding engine nearly jumped the track at a switch, flopped back the lever.

"Set them," he ordered.

In his absorbed excitement he seemed to forget the dangerous mission he was setting, for a novice. Ralph did not ask a question. He threw in some coal, then taking the flags in one hand, he crept out through the forward window.

It was his first experience in that line. The swishing wind, the teeter-like swaying of the engine, the driving hail of cinders, all combined to daunt and confuse him, but he clung to the engine rail, gained the pilot, set one flag in its socket, then with a stooping swing the other, and felt his way back to the cab, flushed with satisfaction, but glad to feel a safe footing once more.

Griscom glanced at him out of the corner of his eye, with a growl that might mean approbation or anything else.

"Fire her up," he ordered.

Ralph had little leisure during the twenty miles run that followed—he did not know till afterwards that they covered it in exactly thirty minutes, a remarkable record for old 99.

As they whirled by stations he noticed a crowd at each. As they rounded the last timbered curve to the south his glance took in a startling sight just ahead of them.

On a lower level stood the car shops. He could see the site in the near distance like a person looking down from an observation tower.

The setting sun made the west a glow of red. Against it were set the shop yards in a yellow dazzle of flame.

A broad sheet of fire ran in and out from building to building, fanned by the fierce breeze. On twenty different tracks, winding about among the structures, were as many freight trains.

This was a general transfer point to a belt line tapping to the south. Two of the engines from Stanley Junction were now rushing towards the outer trains which the flames had not yet reached, to haul them out of the way of the fire. No. 99 whizzed towards this network of rails, hot on the heels of the third locomotive.

The general scene beggared description. Crowds were rushing from the residence settlement near by, an imperfect fire apparatus was at work, and railroad hands were loading trucks with platform freight and carting it to the nearest unexposed space.

Ralph was panting and in a reek from his unusual exertions, but not a bit tired. Griscom directed a critical glance at him, caught the excited and determined sparkle in his eye, and said in a tone of satisfaction:

"You'll do—if you can stand it out."

"Don't get anybody else, if I will do," said Ralph quickly. "I like it."

Griscom slowed up, shouted to a switchman ahead, using his hand for a speaking trumpet, to set the rails for action. He took advantage of the temporary stop to rake and sift the furnace, put things in trim in expert fireman-like order, and turned to Ralph.

"Now then," he said, "your work's plain—just keep her buzzing."

A yard hand jumped to the pilot with a wave of his arm. Down a long reach of tracks they ran, coupled to some twenty grain cars, backed, set the switch for a safe siding, and came steaming forward for new action.

Little old 99 seemed at times ready to drop to pieces, but she stood the test bravely, braced, tugged and scolded terribly in every loose point and knuckle, but within thirty minutes had conveyed over a hundred cars out of any possible range of the fire.

Ralph, at a momentary cessation of operations, wiped the grime and perspiration from his baked face, to take a scan of the fire-swept area.

A railroad official had come up to the engine, hailed Griscom, and pointed directly into the heart of the flames to where, hemmed in a narrow runway between the walls of two smoking buildings, were four freight cars.

"They'll be gone in five minutes," he observed.

"I can reach them in two," announced Griscom tersely, setting his hand to the lever. "Get a good man to couple—our share won't miss. Let her go!"

A brakeman, winding a coat around his head like a hood, and keeping one end open, sprang to the cowcatcher, link and bar ready.

Ralph shuddered as they ran into the mouth of die lane. It was choked with smoke, burning cinders fell in showers on and under the cab.

"Shove in the coal—shove in the coal!" roared Griscom, eyes ahead, lever under a tensioned control. "Good for you!" he shouted to the nervy brakeman as there was a bump and a snap. "Reverse. We've made it!"

A sweep of flame wreathed the pilot. The air was suffocating. Ralph staggered at his work. As the locomotive reversed and drew quickly out of that dangerous vortex of flame, the boy noticed that the last of the four cars was blazing at the roof.

"Just in time," he heard old Griscom chuckle. "Hot? Whew!"

He set the wheels whirling on the fast backward spin, and stuck his head out of the window to shout encouragingly to the huddled, smoking hero on the pilot.

They were passing a brick building, almost grazing its windows, just then. Of a sudden a curl of smoke from one of these was succeeded by a bursting roar, a leap of flame, and Ralph saw the old engineer enveloped in a blazing cloud.

An explosion had blown out the sash directly in his face. The glass, shivered to a million tiny pieces, came against him like a sheet of hail.

Ralph saw him waver and sprang to his side. The engineer's face was cut in a dozen places, and he had closed his eyes.

"Mr. Griscom," cried Ralph, "are you hurt much?"

"Keep her going," muttered the old hero hoarsely, straightening up, "only, only—tell me."

"You can't see?" breathed Ralph.

"Do as I tell you," came the grim order.

"Switch," said Ralph, in strained, subdued tones as they passed out of the fire belt, ran forward, uncoupled, and sent the four cars down a safe siding, the brakeman and a crowd running after it to extinguish the burning roof of one of the freights.

Ralph saw Griscom strain his sight and blink, and shift the locomotive down a V, then to the next rails leading in among the burning buildings.

He brought the panting little worker to a pause, asked Ralph to draw a cup of water, brushed his face with his hand, and breathed heavily.

"Mr. Griscom," said Ralph, "you are badly hurt! You can't do anything more, for there's only one car left on the last track, right in the nest of the fire. Let me get somebody to help you where you can be attended to."

He placed a hand pleadingly on the engineer's arm. Old Griscom shook it off in his gruff giant way.

"What's that?" he asked.

He turned his face towards the fire. Ralph looked too, in sudden askance. A crowd surged towards two buildings, nearly consumed, between which lay a single car. The firemen who had been playing a hose just there dropped it, running for their lives.

"Get back!" yelled one of them, as he passed the engine, "or you're gone up. That's a powder car! We just found it out, and it's all ablaze!"