Ralph of the Roundhouse/Chapter 6
THE MASTER MECHANIC
A man appearing to be a railway official shouted up an order to the haggard engineer as he rushed by.
"Get out of this—there's twenty tons of powder in that car!"
Griscom dashed his hand across his eyes. He seemed to clear them partially, and strained his gaze ahead and took in the meaning of the scene, if not all its vivid outlines, and muttered:
"If that stuff goes off, the whole yards are doomed."
Ralph hung on the engineer's words and hovered at his elbow.
"We had better get out of this, Mr. Griscom," he suggested.
The engineer made a rough, impatient gesture with his arm, and then pulled his young helper to the window.
"Look sharp!" he ordered.
"Yes, Mr. Griscom."
"My—my eyes are pretty bad. When the smoke lifts—what's beyond the car yonder?"
"I can't make out exactly, but I think a clear track."
"How's the furnace?"
"All right. Now then, you jump off. I'm going to let her go."
Ralph stared hard at the grim old veteran. He could see he was on the verge of physical collapse, and he wondered if his mind was not tottering too; his pertinacity had something weird and astonishing in it.
"Jump!" ordered Griscom, giving the lever a pull.
Ralph did not budge. As he clearly read his companion's purpose, he made up his mind to stick.
The prospect was something awful, and yet, after the previous experiences of that exciting half-hour, he had somehow become inured to danger, and reckless of its risks. The excitement and wild, hustling activity bore a certain stimulating fascination.
With a leap 99 bounded forward at the magic touch of the old king of the lever. It plunged headlong into a whirling vortex of smoke.
A groaning yell went up from the fugitive crowds in the distance, as the intrepid occupants, of the cab disappeared like lost spirits.
Only for the shelter of the cab roof, they would have been deluged with burning sparks.
A tongue of flame took Griscom across the side of his face, and he uttered an angry yell—it seemed to madden him that he could not see clearly. Then as they struck the car they were making for with a heavy thump, the shock and a spasm of weakness drove Griscom from the cushion, and he slipped to the floor of the cab.
Ralph's mind grasped the situation in all its details. He knew the engineer's purpose, and he felt that it was incumbent on him to carry it out if he could do so. He stepped over his recumbent companion, and placed his hand on the lever.
He could not now see ten feet ahead. They were in the very vortex of the fire. Suddenly they shot into the clear, cool air, bracing as a shower bath.
The cab roof was smoking, the cab floor was paved with burning cinders, and some oil waste was blazing back among the coal at the edge of the tender.
Ahead, the top and sides of the powder car were sheeted with flames, which the swift forward movement drove back in shroud-like form.
On the end of the car facing, the grim, black warning: "Powder! Danger!" stared squared and menacingly into the eye of the pilot front.
Griscom struggled to his feet. He fell against Ralph. The latter thought he was delirious, for his lips were moving, and his tortured face working spasmodically. Finally he said weakly: "Put my hands on the gearing. We're out of it?"
"Yes, but the car is blazing."
"Dead tracks for nearly a thousand feet."
"And the dump pit beyond?"
"It looks so," said Ralph, leaning from the window and glancing ahead anxiously. "Yes, it's rusted rails clear up to what looks like a slough hole, and no buildings beyond."
He held his breath as Griscom pulled the momentum up another notch. This last effort palsied the engineer, his fingers relaxed, and he slipped again to the floor, nerveless but writhing.
"Keep her going—full speed for five hundred feet," he panted. "Then stop her."
"Yes," breathed Ralph quickly. "Stop her—how," he projected, knowing in a way, but wanting to be sure, for the sense of crisis was strong on him, and the present was no time to make mistakes. Griscom's directions came quick and clear, and Ralph obeyed every indication with promptness.
Ninety-nine with its deadly pilot of destruction plunged ahead. Ralph estimated distance. He threw himself upon the lever, and reversed.
The wheels shivered to a sliding halt. He ran back rapidly five hundred feet, slowed down, and half hung out of the window, white as a sheet and limp as a rag.
A glance towards the burning shops had shown the firemen back at their work; the powder-car menace removed. Ralph, too, saw little crowds rounding the shops, and making towards them.
Then he fixed his eyes on the lone-speeding powder car.
It had been thrown at full-tilt impetus, and drove away and ahead, a living firebrand, reached the end of the rusted rails, ran off the roadbed, tilted, careened, took a sliding header, and disappeared from view.
Even at the distance of a thousand feet Ralph could hear a prodigious splash. A cascade of water shot up, and then a steamy smoke, and then there lifted, torrent-like, house-high above the pit, a Vesuvius of water, dirt, splinters and twisted pieces of iron. A reverberating crash and the end had come!
Griscom struggled to his feet. On his face there was a grimace meant for a smile, and he chuckled:
"We made it!"
He managed with Ralph's help to get into the engineer's seat.
"Mr. Griscom," said Ralph, "you're in bad shape. We can't get back the way we came, but if you could walk as far as the offices we might find a doctor."
"That's so, kid," nodded the old engineer, a little wearily. "I've got to get this junk and glassware out of my eyes if I run the 10.15 tomorrow."
Soon the advance stragglers of the curious crowd from the shops drew near. One little group was headed by a man of rather more imposing appearance than the section men in his train.
He was a big-faced individual who looked of uncertain temper, yet there were force and power in his bearing.
"Hello, there—that you, Griscom?" he sang out.
The engineer blinked his troubled eyes, and nodded curtly.
"It's what's left of me, Mr. Blake," he observed grimly.
Ralph caught the name and recognized the speaker—he was the master mechanic of the road.
"They're going to get the fire under control, I guess," continued Blake. "They wouldn't, though, if you hadn't got that car out of the way. Why, you're hurt, man!" exclaimed the official, really concerned as he caught a closer glimpse of the face of the engineer.
"Oh, a little scratch."
Ralph broke in. He hurriedly explained what had happened to the engineer's eyes, while the nervy Griscom tried to make little of it.
"Bring a truck out here," cried the master mechanic. "Why, man! you can't stand up! This is serious."
In about five minutes they had rolled a freight truck to the locomotive, and in ten more Griscom was under charge of one of the road surgeons, hastily summoned to a room in the yard office, where the sufferer was taken.
It took an hour to mend up the old veteran. It was lucky, the surgeon told him, that soot and putty had mixed with the glass in the explosion dose, or the patient would have been blinded for life.
Griscom could see quite comfortably when he was turned over to the master mechanic again, although his forehead was bandaged, and his cheeks dotted here and there with little criss-cross patches of sticking-plaster.
Ralph, waiting outside, had been forced to tell the story of the daring dash through the flames more than once to inquisitive railroad men. He quite obliterated himself in the recital.
The firemen had gained control of the flames, the exigency locomotives had all been sent back to the city. The master mechanic stood conversing with Griscom for a few moments after the latter left the surgeon's hands, and then approached Ralph with him. It was dusk now.
"We'll catch the 8.12, kid," announced Griscom. "That's him, Mr. Blake," he added, pointing Ralph out to his companion. "He did it, and I only helped him, and he's an all-around corker. I can tell you!"
Griscom slapped Ralph on the shoulder emphatically. The master mechanic looked at the youth grimly, yet with a glance not lacking real interest.
"From the Junction?" he said.
"What's the name?"
"Oh," said the master mechanic quickly, as if he recognized the name. "We'll remember you, Fairbanks. If I can do anything for you——"
"You can, sir." The words were out of Ralph's mouth before he intended it. "I want to learn railroading."
"Learn!" chuckled Griscom—"why! the way you worked that lever——"
"Which you needn't dwell on," interrupted the master mechanic, a harsh disciplinarian on principle. "He had no right in your locomotive, I suppose you know, and rules say you are liable for a lay off."
Griscom kept on chuckling.
"We'll forget that, though. Where do you want to start, Fairbanks?"
"Right at the bottom, sir," answered Ralph modestly.
"In the roundhouse?"
The master mechanic drew a card from his pocket, wrote a few lines, and handed it to Ralph.
"Give that to Tim Forgan," he said simply.
To Ralph, just then, he was the greatest man in the world—he who could in ten words command the position that seemed to mean for him the entrance into the grandest realm of industry, ambition and opulence.