The Substitute (Bindloss)
By HAROLD BINDLOSS
OLD man Forbes had taken some liquor, which he claimed to need after three weeks' abstinence, but carried it well. His remarks were only a little more pointed than usual and his eyes brighter, as he sat in the calaboose of the waiting freight train while the blizzard raged outside. He was not old, as men count age in Scotland, where he was born, but they scrap locomotive engineers early in the West. One needs steady nerve to bring in the heavy train on time when wash-outs remove the gravel under the rails, and when the wires go down and the track is lost in blinding snow. Moreover, Forbes had a failing not very uncommon in Canada and the Old Country.
Still, none of the men among whom he sat durst have asked why he was fired. It was understood to be a dangerous subject, and nobody who knew him cared to rouse Forbes's anger. He was not a sober, cautious Scot, but of the other type that is, perhaps, a survival from the old romantic days of the Border wars, when men loved danger more than profit. Besides, he felt he had a good excuse for visiting the saloon.
He loved his daughter as he had loved his wife, who died long since and left him with the child, and for three weeks had watched beside her sick-bed with tense anxiety. The surgeon from Toronto had, however, left that day. All should now go well, he said, and the fear that had long haunted Forbes was banished for good. Jeannie would not be cut off, like her mother, in her early prime.
As he listened to the gale, he thought of Jeannie's husband, who was driving the Experimental freight. Jake Thomson would not have got the telegram—the wires were dwn. The lad would be sorely anxious, and had had neuralgia when he left home. It gripped him now and then, in the body, not the head, and he had borne a heavy strain.
On the whole, Forbes was satisfied with Jake, although he belonged to a tamer generation. The lad was quiet and sober, and fond of his home; he went to meeting when there was one, and played hymn tunes for the bairn on the wee Bell organ. All very right and proper, and Jeannie liked it; but Forbes sometimes wondered. Her mother was a Galloway Marshall, of the old gipsy stock; Kate could make allowances—she understood red-blooded men. Then Jake was scientific, and had won certificates at a technical school. He could argue about grate-areas and what he called calories; the bosses trusted him. Forbes knew nothing about locomotive design, but he had the driver's touch that feels the life-pulse of the huge snorting machine.
An icy blast swept the calaboose as one of the division bosses opened the door. A cloud of fine, dry snow whirled in, the wind shrieked, and one could hardly see the round-house a few yards away. The snow-dust pricked the skin and strewed the floor, without melting, a foot from the stove. As yet it blew up from the frozen earth and none fell from the sky.
"Watch out for the Experimental, boys," the boss said, slamming the door. "If she's held up a minute more than's needful, the bunch of you'll get fired. She's behind schedule now, but it's fierce to-night."
He would have been justified in ordering most of them out, but he was a young man with sound judgment, and seldom strained his powers.
"However," he resumed, with a glance at Forbes, "Thomson, who's at the throttle, is a pretty good man."
"As good as ye have noo," Forbes answered dryly. "There's no much ye can learn from books he doesna ken."
"They teach you a good deal," said the other, beating his numbed hands. "You belong to the old guard, who hadn't much use for theory."
"I drove the Pacific Express to Port Arthur when they had to rake the track oot o' the muskegs as soon as the cars had passed, and ye didna get. your coal by measure. It was burn what ye like and rive her to pieces so long as ye cam in on time! For a' that, there was no run brasses and burned tubes on my machine. Yon were the gran' auld days, when ye didna complain til the Union, but felled the superintendent wi' your fist. I was Mister Forbes then."
"And there arose another boss, who knew not Joseph!" the other remarked, with a twinkle. "Anyhow, if it's a consolation, I have heard of him." Then he opened the door cautiously. "Well, watch out for the Experimental."
"Yon," said Forbes, "is a sensible man."
He owed the other some gratitude, for although he had left the company's regular service under a cloud, he was given odd jobs about the round-house, and took them because he loved the work. The old railroad hand can seldom keep away from the track for long, and, though Forbes might not drive, he cleaned very well.
"Why didn't you give it him in English?" one of his companions asked.
"Yon's no English," Forbes rejoined. "When I'm sober I talk Canadian; it's when I'm a wee bit drunk the Scots comes naitural."
"But what's Joseph to do with it, anyhow?" another inquired.
"Ye're ignorant as dirt. In the auld days a division boss was a kin' o' Pharo, and an express engineer a great man. Train-hands and round-house slouches, such as ye, were the brickmakers."
"Well," remarked a third, "if Jake Thomson brings the Experimental in on schedule, he'll be as big a man as you."
Forbes did not answer, but mused about his son-in-law, who, tormented by poignant anxiety and perhaps bodily pain, was hurrying the heavy train through the blinding storm. The Experimental was being run to prove that the advantage of securing an early market in England for certain valuable goods from China outweighed the extra cost of transport, and the directors had given urgent orders about their being rushed across the American continent. Locomotive engineers on this run must keep to time or go. Forbes admitted that the former needed nerve when a blizzard raged across the northern forests, where the track was bad.
Presently one of the men pushed back the door, and the clank of a bell came faintly through the roar of the wind.
"She's coming! You've got to hustle, boys," he said.
For a few moments, after they got down, the icy blast took their breath away. Hands and feet began to freeze, and one could not see. Then a feeble beam from the powerful head-lamp pierced the whirling snow, and the tolling of the bell got louder as the locomotive rolled by. Behind came a row of box-cars that vanished as they passed. The engineer took her to the water tank, and then leaned, white-faced and shaking, against a locker as Forbes climbed on board.
"How's Jeannie? Has she come through?" he gasped.
"She's doing weel," Forbes said. "But hand up, man! Ye're looking like a ghost."
Jake sat down on the locker, slack with the reaction relief had brought, but the lines on his forehead indicated physical stress and pain. His jaded fireman was occupied outside the cab.
"It's true?" he said. "The operation went all right? She'll get better?"
"Just that," Forbes answered, with rough sympathy. "But are ye fit to drive?"
"It's four nights since I slept, and the pain hasn't left me for a week, but I've got to finish my run. Forty miles to Franklin—perhaps the worst bit on the line, and we're behind schedule now."
"I doot ye canna make it," Forbes replied. "Noo, mark me weel, my lad. Ye never were a driver, though ye got and held the job; I've seen ye strained and shaky when ye cam off the train. But ye're educate', and the bosses think weel o' ye. If ye can make good for a year or two, it's a superintendent's post ye'll get, but there's no promotion if ye put a failure til your name."
Jake tried to think. His father-in-law had guessed the truth; he was not a driver—his talent was for management and design. Well, he might get his chance, but to do so must carry out his orders to the letter. The men who sanctioned an engineer's promotion demanded that his record was clean, and Jake's would bear a black mark if he brought in the Experimental late. Indeed, he might be reduced or dismissed. But he could not reach Franklin on time, much less save the half-hour he was late; his nerve was gone, his body racked with pain. In a way, this did not matter, since Jeannie was getting well; in another way, and for her sake, it mattered much.
"You've got that right," he agreed. "What am I to do about it?"
Forbes grinned. "When ye stop at the switches, get down and slip awa hame. Bide safe in bed until ye see me again."
Jake looked at him stupidly. "You're mad!"
"I'm no—a wee bit drunk, maybe. But I'm a better driver drunk than ye ever were sober. Besides, if ye tak her on, I doot ye'll no make Franklin at all to-night."
Jake knew this was possible, but he argued feebly, until Forbes cut him short.
"Gang hame and leave the rest to me. Ye have to think o' Jeannie and the bairn."
Then he got down and vanished into the snow, and Jake, who tried to do something to a gauge-glass, gave it up. He was worn out, the pain was unbearable, and there was nobody to relieve him if he reported himself sick. He must start and risk the train's being snowed up, or leave the job to Forbes.
Ten minutes later the locomotive stopped a moment at the switches and then rolled slowly back to the cars. The fireman was occupied with his tanks and coal, and only noticed that the cab door was quickly opened and shut. A lantern, flickered, somebody shouted, and there was a horrible harsh grating as Number 09997 pulled out.
"It's fierce. I just hate to hear a big train start when she's been standing in the frost," the fireman remarked, and then paused and gazed at the driver open-mouthed. "Now, what the——"
"Civility's no expensive," Forbes rejoined. "I'm in chairge o' this machine, and if I'm no treated with respect, they'll maybe find a damaged brickmaker lying aside the road."
"You're it all right. But come off that throttle while I take her back."
"Shes gaim to Franklin noo' Forbes answered, with a warning sparkle in his eyes. "Hooever, for the sake o' quietness, if ye'll listen——"
His arguments were unsound and interrupted by the jolting, but he appealed to an article of the railroader's code that forbids a comrade's irregularities being reported. The fireman, who was young and feckless, was persuaded, but he asked: "What d'you mean by calling me a brick maker?"
"Weel," said Forbes dryly, "it's no so plain withoot the contex', but I'll maybe find ye a better name when we make Franklin. In the meantime ye can give her coal."
"She's bowing off now," objected the other, as the roar of escaping steam broke faintly through the scream of the wind and clangour of the wheels.
"I tell ye to give her coal!" said Forbes, with a look that forbade denial.
Afterwards he was silent for a time, seeing with somewhat clouded vision the difficulties in his way. British semaphore signals are not used on single-track Western roads, and though their system works well in normal conditions, the wires were wrecked. There was a slow freight somewhere on the line, but he hoped they had side-tracked her; then, if the last telegram had not got past Franklin, the Vancouver express might enter the section. He must take the risk of this, but there were other obstacles—the curves he could not slow for, the grades that must be climbed on snow-clogged rails, and open stretches where a cross wind would jamb the leeward flanges.
Forbes saw them all as he clung to the lever, while the footplates jarred more and more furiously, but he was mainly conscious of an exultant thrill. Locomotives had grown since he had driven, and Number 09997 was the latest and biggest type. He held vast power in his grimy hand, which had not lost its instinctive sensitiveness. Through the jar and racking throb he could feel the great engine's pulse.
Outside the cab bowed pines leaned towards the track, roaring in the gale. Some blew down as the train sped by, but Forbes and his fireman did not hear the crash, though now and then a torn-off branch struck the cab. Then crags and round-topped rocks streamed past, and high trestles, spanning frozen rivers from which the snow was swept, rocked beneath the wheels. The white powder filled the air and gathered where there was a lee, but Number 09997 drove furiously through the storm. After a time the fireman ventured to indicate the pressure gauge.
"You see where she's pointing?" he remarked.
"I'm no blind," said Forbes. "Ye need not look at her if ye're afraid."
The fireman was not afraid. He was rather uplifted, though he could not have explained this, by a sense of the splendid folly of the thing. The operators could not control the traffic and clear the line, and the Experimental was running at a dangerous pressure, with a man who was drunk or mad in charge. The gauge and roar of blown-off steam gave warning that tubes might burst or the firebox crown collapse; but they held, and the driver looked resolute and cool. The fireman could not stand still when for a few moments he had an opportunity. He slipped about in a clumsy dance as the rocking flung him to and fro.
There was nothing to be seen through the glasses but the blurred halo the head-lamp made, and a haze of tossing specks. Their smallness indicated that they did not come from the clouds, which was something of a relief; but the heavy fall would begin soon and smother the track. Still, they might first make Franklin, where the ploughs were kept, and hand the Experimental on to somebody else—that was, if she did not jump the track before they got there. The fireman tried to guess the distance covered, but gave it up. The Experimental had never run as she was running then.
By and by something blinked in the dark, and, because he knew it was a head-lamp of high electric power, he opened the whistle. The hoarse scream was blown to leeward and hardly reached him, but the blink grew to a misty beam, and was obviously close ahead.
"The slow freight!" he shouted to Forbes, who nodded.
"We'll hope they have side-tracked her."
One could not tell if the light was stationary or advancing to meet them up the single line, but the banging and lurching showed that they were on a downward grade, and it was comforting to remember that the side-track occupied the bottom of a long slope. The fireman held fast and hoped for the best. If the line was clear, there was an awkward curve near the switches, and he had seen rails spread. …
The whistle was heard at the siding, and half-frozen men, standing to lee of the waiting train, glanced uphill when a streak of flame leapt out of the snow. One often saw sparks and flashes when steaming-hard lip grade, but Thomson was bringing his engine down with blazing stack. Besides, it was usual to check her for the curve.
One or two of the watchers set their lips when Number 09997 sprang into the head-lamp's beam. She loomed gigantic through her whirling smoke, and rocked from side to side as the pistons slammed. Jake, though known to be cautious, was running her all out, and the curve was close ahead. Nobody moved as the big box-cars roared by; there was a scream of grinding flanges and a shower of sparks among the wheels as they took the bend, then a rumble in the forest, and the train had gone.
"I allow it's mighty lucky we got here first," a brakesman remarked.
As they cleared the curve, the fireman glanced at his watch. He knew the distance to the siding, and, though the thing seemed impossible, Forbes was making good lost time. The risk they ran was obvious, but the driver's spirit had moved the other, who now felt a strange exaltation. They were breaking the road's fastest record and beating the savage storm; but the fireman saw vaguely that it was not liquor that urged and sustained Forbes. This was a bold man's attempt to test the limits Nature put to human power—his defiant challenge of elemental forces. Forbes was going to do what skilled surveyors and designers agreed must not be tried.
For all that, they had not made Franklin yet, and by and by, when he had a few moments' leisure, the fireman opened a side-glass and looked out. He could see, for they were skirting a frozen lake, from which the gale had swept the snow. There was none left to drive about the engine, but the fireman knew where it had gone. He watched the bent pines stream past, and the red glare sweep across the bush to lee, and then touched Forbes's arm.
"I allow it will be banked up good when we leave the shore and hit the cut."
"She's going through if there's six foot," Forbes answered grimly.
They skirted a bay that looked like black glass among the white-veined rocks, the cars roaring and banging as they swung round the curve, and then the fireman saw that the track was blocked by a white mass. It did not look solid, but billowed, dissolved, and gathered in the wind, and he surmised that it filled the shallow rock-cut. He wondered vaguely whether Number 09997 could bore a way through there.
There was no shock, but by degrees the pace got sluggish, as if a numbing torpor had seized the train. White waves churned about the wheels, another rolling up as each was broken. One could see nothing, for the air was filled with powdery snow, and the fireman imagined its blowing in a dense cloud about the crawling cars. Number 09997 was crawling now, though she snorted hard, and fire and sparks shot from her stack as from the muzzle of a gun.
Fine snow and soft coal smoke worked into the cab. One could scarcely see the gauges, and the air got unbreathable. She lurched with a strange, erratic motion, apparently rising and falling as if she had left the track. The fireman had a horrible suspicion that she had crawled out of the rock-cut and was labouring through the bush. He knew this was ridiculous, but anything might happen that night. Then the motion got a little easier, and the blasts from the stack, which had rung like volleys of musketry when the driving-wheels slipped, steadied into a rhythmic beat. One could feel her grip the rails, and the fireman wiped his sooty face.
"I reckon she's going through," he said.
"See if we've got a' the cars," Forbes replied.
The other opened a window and for a few moments blinked into the dark with watering eyes. His skin smarted intolerably as the icy snow-dust lashed it, and he felt the tears that wet his cheek begin to freeze. Then he dimly distinguished a blurred white oblong emerging from the turmoil behind. Another drew out; there were more, but he could not tell how many.
"We've got some," he answered, slamming the window.
"Aweel!" said Forbes. "If we've left ony, they can look for them the morn. A few cars will not matter if she makes her time."
Panting steadily, Number 09997 climbed a long grade, and Forbes looked at his watch when the quickening motion told him that she had crossed the summit.
"Noo," he said, "hand tight while I race her in! "
The bush in front was open—the gale had swept the track—and the fireman braced himself for the maddest part of the run, as Forbes hurled the Experimental down hill. They felt her lurch round a curve that showed them where they were, and a few moments later loosed the bell, and she rolled into Franklin with fire leaping about the braked wheels. The lights of the round-house flickered to the rear, tank and operator's shack slipped past, and she reached the end of the cross-tracks, where the plough was waiting, before they brought her up.
After this the fireman remarked that Forbes, who got down, muffled to the eyes in an old skin coat, spoke colloquial Canadian. His companion expected trouble, since there were formalities to go through and reports to make, but so far as possible Forbes let the other speak, and they had drowsy, half-frozen men to deal with. When they had run Number 09997 into the round-house, her driver vanished. He had saved Jeannie's husband, and there was no use in making himself conspicuous when his work was done. Perhaps the strangest thing was that the truth did not leak out, though Forbes sometimes thought one of the division bosses guessed.