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The Wreckers By Francis Lynde Characters: 12496

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


At Sand Creek Siding

As a general proposition, I don't believe much in the things called "hunches." They are bad for the digestion, and as often as not are like those patent barometers that are always pointing to "Set Fair" when it is raining like Noah's flood. But there are exceptions to all rules, and we certainly uncovered the biggest one of the lot-the boss and I-the night we left Portland and the good old Pacific Coast.

It was this way. We had finished the construction work on the Oregon Midland; had quit, cleaned up the offices, drawn our last pay-checks, told everybody good-by, and were on our way to the train, when I had one of those queer little premonitory chills you hear so much about and knew just as well as could be that we were never going to pull through to Chicago without getting a jolt of some sort. The reason-if you'll call it a reason-was that, just before we came to the railroad station, the boss walked calmly under a ladder standing in front of a new building; and besides that, it was the thirteenth day of the month, a Friday, and raining like the very mischief.

Just to sort of toll us along, maybe, the fates didn't begin on us that night. They waited until the next day, and then proceeded to shove us in behind a freight-train wreck at Widner, Idaho, where we lost twelve hours. It looked as if that didn't amount to much, because we weren't due anywhere at any particular time. The boss was on his way home for a little visit with his folks in Illinois, and beyond that he was going to meet a bunch of Englishmen in Montreal, and maybe let them make him General Manager of one of the Canadian railroads.

So Mr. Norcross was in no special hurry, and neither was I. I wasn't under pay, but I expected to be when we reached Canada. I had been confidential clerk and shorthand man for the boss on the Midland construction, and he was taking me along partly because he knows a cracking good stenographer when he sees one, but mostly because I was dead anxious to go anywhere he was going.

But to come back to the Widner delay: if it hadn't been for that twelve-hour lay-out we would have caught the Saturday night train on the Pioneer Short Line, instead of the day train Sunday morning, and there would have been no meeting with Mrs. Sheila and Maisie Ann; no telegram from Mr. Chadwick, because it wouldn't have found us; no hold-up at Sand Creek Siding; in short, nothing would have happened that did happen. But I mustn't get ahead of my story.

It was on Sunday that the jolt began to get ready to land on us. Mr. Norcross had been a railroad man for so long that he had forgotten how to knock off on Sundays, and right soon after breakfast, with the help of a little Pullman berth table and me and my typewriter, he turned our section into a business office, saying that now we had a good quiet day, we'd clean up the million or so odds and ends of correspondence he'd been letting go while we were tussling for the Midland right-of-way through the Oregon mountains.

By this time, you will understand, we were rocketing along over the Pioneer Short Line, and were supposed to be due at Portal City at half-past seven that evening. From where he sat dictating to me the boss was facing forward and now and then an absent sort of look came into his eyes while he was talking off his letters, and it puzzled me because it wasn't like him. I may as well say here as anywhere that one of his strong points is to be always "at himself" under all sorts of conditions.

So, as I say, I was sort of puzzled; and one of the times after he had given me a full grist of letters and had gone off to smoke while I typed a few thousand lines from my notes to catch up, I made a discovery. There were two people in Section Five just ahead of us, a young woman and a girl of maybe fifteen or so, and the Pullman was the old-fashioned kind, with low seat-backs. I put it up that in those absent-eyed intervals Mr. Norcross had been studying the back of the young woman's neck. I was measurably sure it wasn't the little girl's.

Along in the forenoon I made an excuse to go and get a drink of water out of the forward cooler, and on the way back I took a good square look at our neighbors in Number Five. At that I didn't wonder at the boss's temporary lapses any more whatever. The young woman was pretty enough to start a stopped clock-only "pretty" isn't just the word, either; there wasn't any word, when you come right down to it. And the little girl was simply a peach-a nice, downy, rosy peach; chunky, round-faced, sunny-haired, jolly; with a neat little turned-up nose and big sort of boyish laughing eyes that fairly dared the world.

I made a good half-dozen mistakes when I got in behind the old writing machine again and went on with the letters; but never mind about that. As I began to say, things rocked along until we had about worn the day out, and at the second call to dinner Mr. Norcross told me to strap up the machine and put the files away in the grips and we'd go eat. Though I was only his stenographer, and a kid at that, he was big enough and Western enough not to let the buck-private-to-officer gap make any difference, and always when we were knocking about together he made me sit at his table.

Sometimes, when it happened that way, he'd ditch the rank-and-file dignities and talk to me as if the thousand miles or so between his job and mine were wiped out. But this Sunday evening he was pretty quiet, breaking out once in the meat course to tell me that he'd just had a forwarded telegram from an old friend of his that would stop us off for a day or two in Portal City, the headquarters of the Pioneer Short Line. Farther along, pretty well into the ice-cream and black coffee, he came to life again to ask me if I had noticed the young lady and the girl in the Pullman section next to ours.

I told him I had, and then, because I had never known him to bother his head for two minutes in succession about any woman, he gave me a shock; said they were ticketed to Portal City-and to find that out he must have asked the train conductor-adding that when we reached Portal it would be the neighborly thing for me to do to help them off with their hand-bags a

nd see that they got a cab if they wanted one.

"Sure I will," says I. "That is, if the lady's husband isn't there to meet them."

"What?" he snaps out. "You know her? She is married?"

"No, I don't exactly know her," I shuffled. "But she is married, all right."

"How can you tell if you don't know her?" he barked; just like that.

I had to make good, right quick, as everybody does who goes up against Mr. Graham Norcross. But it so happened that I was able to.

"Her suit case is standing in the aisle, and I saw the tag. It has her name, 'Mrs. Sheila Macrae,' on it."

The boss has a way of making two up-and-down wrinkles and a little curved horse-shoe line come between his eyes when he is going to reach for you.

"There are times, Jimmie, when you see altogether too much," he said, sort of gruff; and he ate straight through to the far side of his ice-cream pyramid before he began again.

"'Macrae,' you say: that is Scotch. And so is 'Sheila.' Most likely the names, both of them, are only hand-downs. She looks straight American to me."

"She is pretty enough to look anything," I threw in, just to see how he would take it.

"Right you are, Jimmie," he agreed. "I've been looking at the back of her neck all day. I don't know whether you've ever noticed it-you are only a boy and probably you haven't-but there are so many women who don't measure up to the promises they make when you see 'em from behind. You catch a glimpse of a pretty neck, and when you get around to the face you find out that the neck was only a bit of bluff."

If I had been eating anything in the world but ice-cream I believe it would have choked me. What he said led up to the admission that he had been making these face-and-neck comparisons for goodness knows how long, and I couldn't surround that, all at once. You see, he was such a picture of a man's man in every sense of the word; a fighter and a hard-hitter, right from the jump. And for a man of that sort women are usually no more than fluffy little side-issues, as Eve said when they told her she was made out of Adam's rib.

That ended the dining-car part of it. The sure-enough, knock-out round was fought at the rear end of our Pullman, which happened to be the last car in the train. As we walked back after dinner Mr. Norcross gave me a cigar and said we'd go out to the observation platform to smoke, because the smoking-room was full up with apple-raisers, and sheep-feeders and cattlemen, all talking at once.

As we went down the aisle I noticed that Section Five was empty, and when we reached the door we found the young lady and the girl standing at the rear railing to watch the track unroll itself under the trucks and go sliding backwards into the starlight; or at least that was what they seemed to be doing. The young lady was wearing a coat with a storm collar, but the girl had a fur thing around her neck, and her stocky, chunky little arms were elbow deep in a big pillow muff to match, though the April night wasn't even half-way chilly.

The boss growled out something about waiting until the ladies should go in; and then, for pure safety's sake, he stepped out on the platform to close the side trap door which, with the railing gate on that side, had been left open by a careless rear flagman. Just then the big "Pacific type" that was pulling us let out a whistle screech that would have waked the dead, and the air-brakes went on with a jerk that showed how beautifully reckless the railroading was on the Pioneer Short Line.

Mr. Norcross was reaching for the catch on the floor trap and the jerk didn't throw him. But it snapped the young woman and the girl away from the railing so suddenly that the little one had to grab for hand-holds; and when she did that, of course the big muff went overboard.

At this, a bunch of things happened, all in an eye-wink. The train ground and jiggled to a stop; the girl squealed, "Oh, my muff!" and skipped down the steps to disappear in the general direction of the Pacific Coast; the young woman shrieked after her, "Maisie Ann!-come back here-you'll be left!" and then took her turn at disappearing by the same route; and, on top of it all, the boss jumped off and sprinted after both of them, leaving a string of large, man-sized comments on the foolishness of women as a sex trailing along behind him as he flew.

Right then it was my golden moment to play safe and sane. With three of them off and lost in the gathering night, somebody with at least a grain of sense ought to have stood by to pull the emergency cord if the train should start. But of course I had to take a chance and spill the gravy all over the tablecloth. The stop was at a blind siding in the edge of a mountain desert, and when I squinted up ahead and saw that the engine was taking water, it looked as if there were going to be plenty of time for a bit of a promenade under the stars. So I swung off and went to join the muff hunt.

Amongst them, they had found the pillow thing before I had a chance to horn in. They were coming up the track, and the boss had each of the two by an arm and was telling them that they'd be left to a dead moral certainty if they didn't run. They couldn't run because their skirts were too fashionably narrow, and there were still three or four car-lengths to go when the tank spout went up with a clang and a clatter of chains and the old "Pacific type" gave a couple of hisses and a snort.

"They're going!" gritted the boss, sort of between his teeth, and without another word he grabbed those two hobbled women folks up under his arms, just as if they'd been a couple of sacks of meal, and broke into a run.

It wasn't a morsel of use, you know. Mr. Norcross stands six feet two in his socks, and I've heard that he was the best all-around athlete in his college bunch. But old Hercules himself couldn't have run very far or very fast with the handicap the boss had taken on, and in less than half a minute the "Pacific type" had caught her stride and the red tail lights of the train were vanishing to pin points in the night. We were like the little tad that went out to the garden to eat worms. Nobody loved us, and we were beautifully and artistically left.

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