St. Nicholas/Volume 40/Number 5/Through the Smoke
THROUGH THE SMOKE
A Tale of the Wireless
BY F. LOVELL COOMBS
“I am a reporter of the “Daily Press.” explained the caller. “You are the boy who owns this wireless plant, are you?”
“Yes, sir,” replied Scott, wondering.
“And you can do real work with it? Send and receive messages?”
“Yes, sir; though not so very fast, yet.”
“Can you work as far as River Falls?”
“I talk nearly every evening with a boy up there— Jack Snider, son of the school principal. I was just going to call him up, to ask about the forest fire. There was a rumor down-town that it was spreading.”
“It is. That is just what brought me!" said the reporter. “Both the telegraph- and telephone-wires were interrupted half an hour ago. I came up to see if you could get us any news by wireless. If you can, we will make it worth your while.”
Promptly, Scott threw open the door, revealing a small room in the end of the shed. “I ‘ll try,” he said. “Come in. I'm not sure I can get Jack before six o‘clock—sometimes he is busy—but I'll try.”
“You have a businesslike little outfit,” observed the reporter, taking in the details of the room—the instruments grouped on the table, the neatly made switchboard above, a small incandescent lamp, and a framed “Wireless Code” on the wall. “I understand you made everything yourself?”
“I did n't make this head-’phone,” Scott replied, placing the receiver over his head, and adjusting the ear-pieces snugly; “nor the telegraph-key. The rest I made, though,” and he indicated the spiral “helix” and spark-coil for sending, and the drum-like tuner, condenser, and detector, for catching the air-sent messages.
Throwing a switch on the switchboard, the young operator pressed the key below. From the spark-coil burst a crackling sputter that caused the reporter to start back. Then, keenly interested, he watched the dancing electric flame that leaped between the points of the spark-gap as Scott rapidly worked the key, repeating the letters:
“J S.J S, J S. S D Z-J S. J S. S D Z.”
Several times Scott repeated the call, then snapping the switch back, sat silent, listening. Drawing another chair to the table, the reporter dropped down beside him, watching the lad’s face expectantly.
“No answer?” he asked presently.
Scott shook his head. A moment after, his face lighted. Then it clouded in a frown. “It ’s that idiot Cass Johnson, over on the hill.” he said “He has a fine, portable outfit that his uncle gave him, and is too lazy to learn to read—that is the hardest part. you know—but every once in a while, he breaks in trying to send, and kills Jack Snider’s sending. Their instruments are tuned to the same pitch.
“I can scarcely ever tune him out.” Scott added, moving the tuning-slider farther up the rod. “There, I don’t hear him now. But I could n’t hear Jack either, if he answered.”
The reporter started to his feet. “They have a ‘phone, have n't they?” he asked.
“I ‘ll run down to the corner store and ‘phone him to get off the air—or out of the air—whatever the proper expression is.”
Within a few moments of the reporter's appearance, footsteps again sounded about the house. Scott, breaking the sending circuit after a further spell of calling, glanced over his shouder. “You ’re not back already—” he began, and broke off with an exclamation on recognizing, not the reporter, but the local station-agent. “Hello, Mr. Baker! Come in!”
“Are you busy, Scott?” the station-master asked.
“I’m trying to raise Jack Snider, at the Falls. Your wires have n't failed too, have they?”
"Yes, and we are holding up all trains until we can learn something. I ran over to see if you could n’t find out something for us ‘through the air.’”
“I ll do all I can for you, certainly,” said Scott, readily. “I have been trying to get some news of the fire for the ‘Press.’ Another boy over on the hill has been interrupting, and the ‘Press’ reporter, who was here, just went out to get him to cut off. When he stops, I think I ’ll soon have Jack, if he is in the house.
“There, Cass has stopped at last! Now I ‘ll call Jack again.”
As Scott threw the spark-coil switch to resume his calling, the door again darkened. This time it was one of the station-baggagemen.
He addressed the station-master. “Mr. Baker, the despatcher has ordered ‘46’ to go on—there is a Pullman party aboard that they have guaranteed to get through to Chicago to-night—and you are to go on with her as far as Timberton Junction, to look after the patching of the wires that are down near there.”
“All right! You stay here, and take back to the station any word the lad gets by wireless.”
At the door, the station-agent paused. He turned about.
“My boy, is there any one else in town who can work the wireless?” he questioned.
“My sister can read almost as well as I can. We learned by practising together.”
“Look here, then; could n't you come along with me, bringing the sending part of your set? You could send in word from anywhere along the line, no matter if the wires were broken.”
“Why, yes, I could go; but these instruments would be rather clumsy to carry. And they would n’t be any good without the ‘aérials,’ the overhead wires,” Scott responded. He thought a moment. “I tell you what I could do. There is a boy at Timberton Junction who has a wireless receiving outhit—with aërials, of course—but no sending instruments. I could borrow Cass Johnson’s portable set, take that along, and connect it with the Junction boy’s aërials—and so send word back from there.”
“Then suppose you do that,” said the agent.
Molly Deaton, called from the front veranda, some fancy-work in her hands, readily agreed to her part in the arrangement. “Shall I ‘sit in’ now?” she asked.
“Yes; in case Jack Snider should answer,” said Scott. As he adjusted the receiving ‘phone to his
“Scott threw open the door. ‘I ‘ll try,’ he said.” sister's head, he added: “When the reporter comes back, you explain to him. And tell him anything you hear about the fire.”
“Very well. But don’t you send too fast when you get to the Junction!” Molly admonished.
“I ‘ll not.”
Only taking time to find and inform his mother, Scott was off with the station-agent for the Johnson home. Twenty minutes later, they were at the station, with the borrowed portable wireless set and two powerful storage cells. The train was waiting; and, as soon as they were aboard, it pulled from the depot.
The forest fires, which had now become threatening, had been burning in the northern part of the State for several days, although, because of the direction of the wind, the smoke had not yet reached Beelton. It first became perceptible to those on the train some ten miles north of Scott’s home town. Five miles farther, the flitting landscape had taken on a light blue haze, and the pungent odor of burning leaves began to invade the rear coach, where Scott, the station-agent, and the conductor sat in adjoining seats.
“That does n’t look very good!” observed the station-master, nodding toward the window. “If the smoke gets denser, things will be blind blue at the Junction. You don’t think you are taking chances in running at this speed?” he asked of the conductor.
“No; it ’s a straight track, and Smith is a careful driver,” was the reply. “He has orders to make time to the Junction. We are four hours behind, you know. But if the smoke gets too thick, he will slow down a bit.”
On the train rushed, and soon the haze of smoke almost concealed the trees a hundred yards from the track. The car itself was faintly blue, although the ventilators had been closed. With his face close to the window, the station-agent began watching the telegraph-poles as they swept by, for signs of a break in their number, or trailing wires.
“If the fire has reached the tracks, and burned some of the poles down, it ’s probably near the Junction,” the conductor remarked. “The smoke would be heavier here if the fire was much nearer.”
“That would depend on the wind,” said the station-master, anxiously. “It appears to be blowing from the northeast; and in that case—”
“Here it is now!” cried Scott from the window. “And there ’s a pole down!”
The next instant brakes were thrown on with a suddenness that shot all three from their seats to the floor. Before they had regained their feet, the train had screeched and ground to a stop.
The conductor sprang hastily for the door.
“Then slowly and steadily he began calling.” (See page 425.) Scott and the station-master followed. As they stepped out upon the platform, a wave of heat smote them. They dropped to the ground, and peered ahead through the fog of smoke. On the right-hand side of the track, the woods were on fire; and, as far as they could see ahead, lay a line of prostrate telegraph-poles, still burning.
A crash and a shouting from the head of the train sent them forward on the run. Stumbling about the baggage-car, they pulled up with a cry. The great engine lay on its side in the ditch! Evidently it had just toppled from the embankment. Burning ties explained the accident.
Two smoke-enveloped figures emerged from the ditch. “Is any one hurt?” Scott asked, running forward.
“No,” replied the engineer, grimly.
“But we all stand a good chance of being smothered,”’ added his companion, the fireman; “engine gone, track gone, wires gone!”
Here the conductor appeared, with one of the brakemen. “Stop that kind of talk, boys,” he said sharply. “You ’ll have the passengers in a panic. There is a young wireless operator on the train, with a set of instruments, and he—”
“I ’m right here, sir,” Scott interrupted. “How far is it to the Junction? It was from there I had planned to send back word, you know. I need aërials.”
“Then I ’m afraid you won’t be much help to us. It ’s eight or ten miles, with woods half the way, and probably burning. Could n't you rig up some sort of aërial?”
Scott debated a moment. “All right, I ll try! I’m afraid iron telegraph-wire won’t work very well—proper aërials are made of aluminium or copper—but we can try it. I ’ll get the instruments, and we ’ll take them down the track to a standing pole.”
Followed by the agent, conductor, and trainmen, Scott passed hurriedly back along the stalled train. Already, excited passengers were dropping from the cars, and as the little party passed, demanded what had happened, and what was being done. To all, the conductor explained in a word, and added: “There is a young wireless operator here who is going to send word to Beelton immediately for another engine, to pull us back. Keep to the cars, and you will be in no danger whatever.”
Instead of returning to the cars, however, the majority of the passengers fell in behind the trainmen, followed them to the rear coach, and there waited while Scott and the station-master scrambled aboard, to reappear quickly with the cells and the set of instruments. These were passed down to willing hands, and all hurriedly continued on up the track until two standing poles were found.
“Put the instruments and cells here in the middle of the track, please,” Scott requested. “Now, has any one a file?”
“Here is a small one in a jack-knife,” proffered a young farmer.
“That ‘ll do. Thanks.” Placing it in his pocket, Scott made for the nearest pole, and proceeded to climb it until he reached the crosstrees.
“Here ’s luck!” he called down a moment later. “There are four copper telephone-wires on the top crosspiece. They will make first-class aërials.”’
The crowd below heard the lad filing briskly. For a few minutes, a dim figure in the haze, they watched him rapidly twisting wire-ends, in the making of, to them, mysterious splices. Then, with a warning “Look out!’ he came sliding down.
A similar trip was made up the second pole; two wire-ends were thrust deep into the muddy bed of a near-by spring—for “ground” connections, Scott explained, to a question—and he announced everything ready for “connecting up” the instruments.
By this time, the crowd of anxious and curious passengers had been doubled. When the young operator, seated on the ground in the middle of the track, had at length completed the connections at the instruments, a large number of passengers and trainmen were gathered closely about him.
Without loss of time Scott adjusted the receivers on his head. “Will every one please keep very quiet?” he requested. “The sounds I ’ll get will probably be pretty weak.”
At once a profound silence fell. The lad snapped a switch, and pressed the*key. From the spark-coil broke a sputter. With a low exclamation of satisfaction, Scott made a slight adjustment, and the sputter increased to a crackling buzz that caused the circle about him to widen. Then slowly and steadily, in the straining quiet, while the bank of people about him watched breathlessly, he began calling:
“S D Z, S D Z, S D Z.”
Three times he repeated his home-station call, then, slowly moving the tuning-slider, he listened.
Twice he moved the slider from the base to the end of the rod, and listened in vain for the faint “zz zz” of a response. With a frown of disappointment, he reached again toward the key. Then suddenly he paused, listened sharply, again moved the tuning-slide a fraction. And distinct in his ear sounded a tiny whisper—“zz zz, zz zz, z—z z —z, z z z z’’—Molly’s answer.
The shout which echoed Scott’s instinctive cry of success for a moment drowned the crackling of the spark-gap as, at the dictation of the conductor, he began sending the message describing their predicament, and calling for an engine to pull the train back to Beelton. And when, on concluding the message, Scott read aloud Molly's “O.K.,” and the word that some one was already on the way to the station, the crowd gave vent to a shout of relief, and then to cheers for the young operator that lasted for several seconds.
The appreciation did not end there. On receiving Molly’s “O.K.,” Scott, true to his promise to the reporter, began sending a brief story of the accident to the “Daily Press.” As he ended, a jovial drummer handed him a two-dollar-bill.
“Send a message (by wire from Beelton),” he directed, “to Mrs. J. B. Bauton, Anston, Illinois: ‘Won’t be home to-night. Engine got tired and laid down in the smoke-belt. Your own smoked-herring—John.’”
There was a shout of laughter, then instantly a general scramble on the part of the other passengers to send messages out to their friends, at the same figure.
Scott demurred at the price, as being too high, but the passengers insisted, and when, half an hour later, a prolonged whistle announced the coming of the relief-engine, the drummer thrust into Scott’s coat-pocket a bundle of bills of the size of a base-ball.
“You can use it to buy a portable wireless set for yourself,” suggested the station-agent, as, with the throng of thankful travelers, they returned to the coaches.
“I will,” said Scott. “With half of it, that is. One half goes to Molly, of course.”