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   Chapter 2 No.2

The Wreckers By Francis Lynde Characters: 14237

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


A Tank Party

When he saw that it was no manner of use, the boss quit on the handicap race and put his two armfuls down while he still had breath enough left to talk with.

"Well," he said, in his best rusty-hinge rasp, "you've done it! Why, in the name of common sense, couldn't you have let me go back after that muff thing?"

The young woman was panting as if she had been doing the running, and the girl was choking and making a noise that made me think that she was crying. If I had been as well acquainted with her as I got to be a little later on, I would have known that she was only trying to bottle up a laugh that was too beautifully big to be wasted upon just three people and a treeless desert.

It was the young woman who answered the boss.

"I-I didn't stop to think!" she fluttered, taking the blame as if she had been the one to head the procession. "Isn't there any way we can stop that train?"

The boss said there wasn't, and I know the only reason why he didn't say a lot of other things was because he was too much of a gentleman to say them in the presence of a couple of women.

"But what shall we do?" the young woman went on, gasping a little. "Isn't there any telegraph station, or-or anything?"

There wasn't. So far as we could see, the surroundings consisted of a short side-track, a spur running off into the hills, and the water tank. The siding switches had no lights, which argued that there wasn't even a pump-man at the tank-as there was not, the tank being filled automatically by a gravity pipe line running back to a natural reservoir in the mountains.

Before the boss had a chance to answer her question about the telegraph office he got his eye on me, and then I knew that he hadn't noticed me before.

"You here, too?" he ripped out, and I know it did him a lot of good to be able to unload on somebody in trousers. "Why in blue blazes didn't you stay on that train and keep it from running away from us?"

That's it: why didn't I? What made the dog stop before he caught the rabbit? I was trying to frame up some sort of an excuse that would sound just a few degrees less than plumb foolish, when the young woman took up for me. She'd had the clatter of my typewriter dinned into her pretty ears all day, and she knew who I was, even if it was dark.

"Don't take it out on the poor boy!" she said, kind of crisp, and yet sort of motherly. "If you feel obliged to bully some one, I'm the one who is to blame."

"Indeed, you're not!" chipped in the stocky little girl. "I was the one who jumped off first. And I don't care: I wasn't going to lose my perfectly good muff."

By this time the boss was beginning to get a little better grip on himself and he laughed.

"We've all earned the leather medal, I guess," he chuckled. "It's done now, and it can't be helped. We're stuck until another train comes along, and perhaps we ought to be thankful that we've got Jimmie Dodds along to chaperon us."

"But isn't there anything else we can do?" said the young woman. "Can't we walk somewhere to where there is a station or a town with people in it?"

I saw Mr. Norcross look down at her skirts and then at the girl's.

"You two couldn't walk very far or very fast in those things you are wearing," he grunted. "Besides, we are in one of the desert strips, and it is probably miles to a night wire station in either direction."

"And how long shall we have to wait for another train?" This time it was the little girl who wanted to know.

"I wish I could tell you, but I can't," said the boss. "I'm not familiar with the Short Line schedules." Then to the young woman: "Shall we go and sit under the water tank? That seems to be about the nearest approach to a waiting-room that the place affords."

We trailed off together up the track, two and two, the boss walking with the young woman. After we'd counted a few of the cross-ties, the girl said: "Is your name Jimmie Dodds?" And when I admitted it: "Mine is Maisie Ann. I'm Sheila's cousin on her mother's side. I think this is a great lark; don't you?"

"I can tell better after it's over," I said. "Maybe we'll have to stay here all night."

"I shouldn't mind," she came back airily. "I haven't been up all night since I was a little kiddie and our house burned down. You're just a boy, aren't you? You must excuse me; it's so dark that I can't see you very well."

I told her I had been shaving for three years and more, and she let out a little gurgling laugh, as though I had said something funny. By that time we had reached the big water tank, and the boss picked out one of the square footing timbers for a seat. It seemed as if he were finding it a good bit harder to get acquainted with his half of the combination than I was with mine, but after a little the young women thawed out a bit and made him talk-to help pass away the time, I took it-and the little girl and I sat and listened. When the young woman finally got him started, the boss told her all about himself, how he'd been railroading ever since he left college, and a lot of things that I'd never even dreamed of. It's curious how a pretty woman can make a man turn himself inside out that way, just for her amusement.

Maisie Ann and I sat on the end of the timber; not too near to be butt-ins, nor so far away that we couldn't hear all that was said. I still had the cigar the boss had given me, and I sure wanted to smoke mighty bad, only I thought it wouldn't look just right-me being the chaperon. Along in the middle of things, Mr. Norcross broke off short and begged the young woman's pardon for boring her with so much shop talk.

"Oh, you're not boring me at all; I like to hear it," she protested. And then: "You have been telling me the story of a man who has done things, Mr. Norcross. It has been my misfortune to have to associate chiefly with men who only play at doing things."

He switched off at that and asked her if she were warm enough, saying that if she were not, he and I would scrap up some sage-brush or something and make a fire. She replied that she didn't care for a fire, that the night wasn't at all cold-which it wasn't. Then she showed that she was human, clear down to the tips of her pretty fingers.

"You may smoke if you want to," she told the boss. "I sha'n't mind it in the least."

At that, my little girl turned on me and said, in exactly the same tone: "You may smoke if you want to, Mr. Dodds. I sha'n't mind it in the least." I heard a sort of smothered chuckle from the other end of the timber seat, and the boss lighted his cigar. Then there was more talk, in which it turned out that the young woman and her cousin were to have been met at Portal City by somebody she called "Cousin Basil," but there wouldn't be any scare, because she had written ahead to say that possibly they might stop over with some friends in one of the apple towns.

Then Mr. Norcross said he wouldn't miss anything by the drop-out but an appointment he had with an old friend, and he guessed that could wait. I listened, thinking maybe he would mention the name of the fr

iend, and after a while he did. The forwarded Portal City telegram the boss had gotten just before we went to dinner in the dining-car was from "Uncle John" Chadwick, the Chicago wheat king, and that left me wondering what the mischief Mr. Chadwick was doing away out in the wild and woolly western country where they raise more apples than they do wheat, and more mining stock schemes than they do either.

There was another thing that I listened for, too, but it didn't come. That was some little side mention of the young woman's husband. So far as that under-the-tank talk went, there needn't have been any "Mr. Macrae" at all, and I was puzzled. If she'd been wearing mourning-but she wasn't, so I told myself that she simply couldn't be a widow. Anyway, she was a lot too light-hearted for that.

We had been marooned for nearly an hour when I struck a match and looked at my watch. Mr. Norcross was still doing his best to kill time for the young woman, and he was just in the exciting part of another railroad story, telling about a right-of-way fight on the Midland, where we had to smuggle in a few cases of Winchesters and arm the track-layers to keep from being shut out of the only canyon there was by the P. & S. F., when the little girl grabbed my arm and said: "Listen!"

I did, and broke in promptly. "Excuse me," I called to the other two, "but I think there's a train coming."

The boss cut his story short and we all listened. It seemed that I was wrong. The noise we heard was more like an auto running with the cut-out open than a train rumbling.

"What do you make it, Jimmie?" came from the boss's end of the timber.

"Motor car. It's out that way," I said, pointing in the darkness toward the east.

My guess was right. In less than a minute we saw the lights of the car, which was turning in a wide circle to come up beside the main line track so it would head back to the east. It stopped a little way below the water tank and about a hundred yards north of the track, or maybe less; anyway, we could see it quite well even when the lamps were switched off and four men came tumbling out of it. If I had been alone on the job I should probably have called to the men as they came tramping over to the side-track. But Mr. Norcross had a different think coming.

"Out of sight-quick, Jimmie!" he whispered, and in another second he had whipped the young woman over the big footing timber to a standing place under the tank among the braces, and I had done the same for the girl.

What followed was as mysterious as a chapter out of an Anna Katherine Green detective story. After doing something to the switch of the unused spur track, the four men separated. One of them went back to the auto, and the other three walked down the main track to the lower switch of the short siding which was on the same side of the main line as the spur. Here the fourth man rejoined them, and the girl at my elbow told us what he had gone back to the car for.

"He has lighted a red lantern," she whispered. "I saw it when he took it out of the auto."

I guess it was pretty plain to all of us by this time that there was something decidedly crooked on the cards, but if we had known what it was, we couldn't very well have done anything to prevent it. There were only two of us men to their four; and, besides, there wasn't any time. The lantern-carrying man had barely reached the lower switch when we heard the whistle of a locomotive. There was a train coming from the west, and a few seconds later an electric headlight showed up on the long tangent beyond the siding.

It was a bandit hold-up, all right. We saw the four men at the switch stop the train, which seemed to be a special, since it had only the engine and one passenger car. One of the men stood on the track waving the red lantern; we could see him plainly in the glare of the headlight. There wasn't much of a scrap. There were two or three pistol shots, and then, as near as we could make out, the hold-up men, or some of them, climbed into the engine.

What they did next was as blind as a Chinese puzzle. Before you could count ten they had made a flying switch with the single car, kicking it in on the siding. Before the car had come fully to a stop, the engine was switched in behind it, coupled on, and the reversed train, with the engine pushing the car, rattled away on the old spur that led off into the hills; clattered away and was lost to sight and hearing in less than a minute.

It was not until after the train was switched and gone that we discovered that two of the bandits had been left behind. These two reset the switches for the main track, leaving everything as they had found it, and then crossed over to the auto. Pretty soon we saw match flares, and two little red dots that appeared told us that they were smoking.

"What are they doing, Jimmie?" asked the boss, under his breath.

"They are waiting for the other two to come back," I ventured, taking a chance shot at it. Then I asked him if he knew where the old spur track led to. He said he didn't; that there used to be some bauxite mines back in the hills, somewhere in this vicinity, but he understood they had been worked out and abandoned.

I was just thinking that all this mystery and kidnapping and gun play must be sort of hard on the young woman and the girl, but though my half of the allotment was shivering a little and snuggling up just a grain closer to me, she proved that she hadn't lost her nerve.

"Did you see the name on that car when the engine went past to get in behind it?" she asked, turning the whispered question loose for anybody to answer.

"No," said the boss; and I hadn't, either.

"I did," she asserted, showing that her eyes, or her wits, were quicker than ours. "I had just one little glimpse of it. The name is 'A-l-e-x-a,'" spelling it out.

Mr. Norcross started as if he had been shot.

"The Alexa? That is Mr. Chadwick's private car-they've kidnapped him!" Then he whirled short on me. "Jimmie, are you man enough to go with me and try a tackle on those fellows over there in that auto?"

I said I was; but I didn't add what I thought-that it would probably be a case of double suicide for us two to go up against a pair of armed thugs with our bare hands. The boss would have done it in the hollow half of a minute; he's built just that way. But now the young woman put in her word.

"You mustn't think of doing such a thing!" she protested; and she was still telling him all the different reasons why he mustn't, when we heard the creak and grind of the stolen engine coming back down the old spur.

After that there was nothing to do but to wait and see what was going to happen next. What did happen was as blind as all the rest. The engine was stopped somewhere in the gulch back of us and out of sight from our hiding-place, and pretty soon the two men who had gone with her came hurrying across out of the hill shadows, making straight for the auto. A minute or two later they had climbed into the machine, the motor had sputtered, and the car was gone.

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