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   Chapter 3 No.3

The Wreckers By Francis Lynde Characters: 16484

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

Mr. Chadwick's Special

Of course, as soon as the skip-out of the four hold-up men gave us a free hand we knew it was up to us to get busy and do something. It was a safe bet that the Alexa was carrying her owner, and in that case Mr. John Chadwick and his train crew were somewhere back in the hills, without an engine, and with a good prospect of staying "put" until somebody should go and hunt them up.

Mr. Norcross had our part in the play figured out before the retreating auto had covered its first mile.

"We've got to find out what they've done with Mr. Chadwick," he broke out. And then: "It can't be very far to where they have left the engine, and if they haven't crippled it-" He stopped short and slung a question at the two women: "Will you two stay here with Jimmie while I go and see what I can find in that gulch?"

They both paid me the compliment of saying that they'd stay with me, but the young woman suggested that it might be just as well if we should all go up the gulch together. So we piked out in the dark, the boss helping Mrs. Sheila to hobo along over the cross-ties of the spur, and the little girl stumbling on behind with me. She had got over her scare, if she had any, and when I asked her if she didn't want an arm to grab at, she laughed and said, No, and that it was grand; that she wouldn't miss a single stumble for worlds.

"In all my life I've never had anything half as exciting as this happen to me," was the way she put it, and she sure acted as if she meant to make the most of it.

We had followed the spur track up the gulch for maybe a short quarter of a mile when we came to the engine. There was nobody on it, and the brigands had been good-natured enough to leave the fire-door open so that the steam would run down gently and let the boiler cool off by degrees. Luckily for us, the boss was an expert on engines, just as he is on everything else belonging to a railroad, and he struck matches and looked our find over carefully before he tried to move it. As we had feared it might be, the big machine was crippled. There was a key gone out of one of the connecting-rod crank-pin straps; one miserable little piece of steel, maybe eight inches long and tapering one way, and half an inch or so thick the other; but that was a-plenty. We couldn't make a move without it.

I thought we were done for, but Mr. Norcross chased me up into the cab for a lantern. With the light we began to hunt around in the short grass, all four of us down on our hands and knees doing the needle-in-the-haystack stunt. I had been sensible enough to show the little girl the other connecting-rod key, so she knew exactly what to look for, and it did me a heap of good when it turned out that she was the one who found the lost bit of steel.

"I've got it-I've got it!" she cried; and sure enough she had. The hold-up people had merely taken it out and thrown it aside on the extremely probable chance that nobody would be foolish enough to look for it so near at hand, or, looking, would be able to find it in the dark.

It didn't take more than a minute or two, with a wrench from the engineer's box, to put the key back in place. Then, with one to boost and the other to pull, we got our two passengers up into the high cab, and Mr. Norcross made them as comfortable as he could on the fireman's box, showing them how to brace and hang on when the machine should begin to bounce over the rough track of the old spur.

While he was doing this, I threw a few shovelfuls of coal into the firebox and put the blower on; and when we were all set, the boss opened the throttle and we went carefully nosing ahead over the old track, feeling our way up the gulch and keeping a sharp lookout for the Alexa as we ground and squealed around the curves.

It must have been four or five miles back in the hills to the place where we found the private car, and a little way short of it we picked up Mr. Chadwick's conductor, walking the ties to try to get in touch with the civilized world once more. He looked a trifle suspicious when he found the engine in the hands of still another bunch of strangers, and two of them women; but as soon as he heard Mr. Norcross's name he quit being offish and got suddenly respectful. Young as he was for a top-rounder, the boss had a "rep," and I guess there were not very many railroad men west of the Rockies who didn't know him, or know of him.

The conductor told us where we'd find the car, and we found it just as he said we would: pushed in on an old mine-loading track at the end of the spur. The other members of the crew were off and waiting for us; and standing out on the back platform, in the full glare of the headlight as we nosed up for a coupling, there was a big, gray-haired man, bareheaded and dressed in rough-looking old clothes like a mining prospector.

The big man was "Uncle John" Chadwick, and if he was properly astonished at seeing us turn up with his lost engine, he didn't let it interfere with our welcome when we took our passengers around to the car and lifted them one at a time over the railing and climbed up after them. Mr. Chadwick seemed to know Mrs. Sheila; at any rate, he shook hands with her and called her by name. Then he grabbed for the boss and fairly shouted at him: "Well, well, Graham!-of all the lucky things this side of Mesopotamia! How the dev-how in thunder did you manage to turn up here?" And all that, you know.

The explanations, such as they were, came later, after the young lady, confessing herself a bit excited and fussed up, had taken her cousin under her arm and they had both gone to lie down in one of the staterooms. With the women out of the way, the boss and Mr. Chadwick sat together in the open compartment while the train crew was trundling us back to the main line. Mr. Norcross had put me in right by telling the wheat king who I was, so they didn't pay any attention to me.

As a matter of course, the talk jumped first to the mysterious hold-up and kidnapping and the reason why. All either of them could say didn't serve to throw any light on the mystery, not a single ray. There had been no violence-the pistol shots had been merely meant to scare the trainmen-and there had been no attempt at robbery; for that matter, Mr. Chadwick hadn't even seen the kidnappers, and hadn't known what was going on until after it was all over.

Mr. Norcross told what we had seen, and how we had come to be where we were able to see it, but that didn't help out much, either. From any point of view it seemed perfectly foolish, and the boss made mention of that. If we hadn't happened to be there to bring the engine back, the worst that could have befallen Mr. Chadwick and the crew of the special would have been a few hours' bother and delay. In the course of time the conductor would have walked out and got to a wire station somewhere, though it might have taken him all night, and then some, to get another engine.

Naturally, Mr. Chadwick was red-hot about it, on general principles. I guess he wasn't used to being kidnapped. But, after all, the thing that bothered him most was the fact that he couldn't account for it.

"I can't help thinking that it is connected with what is due to happen to-morrow morning, Graham," he said, at the end of things. "There are some certain scoundrels in Portal City at the present moment who wouldn't stop at anything to gain their ends, and I am wondering now if Dawes wasn't mixed up in it."

The boss laughed and said:

"You'll have to begin at the beginning with me: I'm too new in this region to know even the names. Who is Dawes?"

"Dawes is a mining man in Portal City, and before I'd been an hour in town yesterday he hunted me up and wanted me to go over to Strathcona to look at some gold prospects he's trying to finance. I said 'No' at first, because I was expecting you, and thought you'd reach Portal City this morning. When you didn't show up, I knew I had twelve hours more on my hands, and as Dawes was still hanging on, I had our trainmaster give me a special over to Strathcona, on a promise that I'd be brought back early this evening, ahead of the 'Flyer' from the west-the train you were on."

Mr. Norcross

nodded. "And the promise wasn't kept."

"No promise is ever kept on the Pioneer Short Line," growled the big magnate. And then, with a beautiful disregard for the mixed figures of speech: "Once in a blue moon the chapter of accidents hits the bull's-eye whack in the middle, Graham. When Hardshaw wired me from Portland, I knew you couldn't reach Portal City before this morning, at the very earliest. That was going to cut my time pretty short, with the big gun due to be fired to-morrow morning, and you cut it still shorter by losing twelve hours somewhere along the road-they told me in the despatcher's office that your train was behind a wreck somewhere up in Oregon. But it has turned out all right, in spite of everything. You're here, and we've got the night before us."

Again Mr. Norcross said something about beginning at the beginning. "Just remember that I am entirely in the dark," he went on. "I didn't see Hardshaw at all before leaving Portland; he merely forwarded your wire, asking me to stop over in Portal City, to me on the train-and it was handed to me just before dinner this evening. Of course, that was enough-from anybody who has been as good a friend to me as you have."

"We'll see presently just how far that friendship rope is going to reach," returned the wheat king, and though my back was turned to them, I could easily imagine the quizzical twinkle of the shrewd old eyes that went with it. Then I suppose he nodded toward me, for the boss said:

"Oh, Jimmie's all right; he knew what I had for dinner this evening, and he'll know what I'm going to have for breakfast to-morrow morning."

With the bridle off, the big man went ahead abruptly, cutting out all the frills.

"You finished your building contract on the Oregon Midland, Graham, and after the road was opened for business you refused an offer of the general managership. Would you mind telling me why you did that?"

"Not in the least. I'm rather burnt out on trying to operate American railroads; at any rate, when it comes to trying to operate one of them for a legitimate profit. There is nothing in it. An operating head is now nothing more than a score-keeper for a national gambling game. The boss gamblers around the railroad post in the Stock Exchange tell him what he has to do and where he has to get off. Stock gambling, under whatever name it masquerades-boosting values, buying and selling margins, reorganizations, with their huge rake-offs for the underwriters-is the incubus which is crushing the life out of the nation's industries, especially in the railroad field. It makes me wish I'd never seen a railroad track."

"Yet it is your trade, isn't it?" asked the wheat king.

"It is; but luckily I can build railroads as well as operate them; and there are other countries besides the United States of America. I'm on my way home to Illinois for a little visit with my mother and sisters; and after that I think I shall close with an offer I've had from one of the Canadian companies."

"Good boy!" chuckled the Chicago magnate. "In due time we might hope to be reading your name in the newspapers-'Sir Graham Norcross, D.S.O.,' or something of that sort." Then, with a sharp return to the sort of gritting seriousness: "You've been riding over the Pioneer Short Line since early this morning, Graham: what do you think of it?"

I couldn't see the boss's smile, but I could figure it pretty well when he said: "There may be worse managed, worse neglected pieces of railroad track in some of the great transcontinental lines, but if there are I haven't happened to notice them. I suppose it is capitalized to death, like many of the others."

"Fictitious values doubtless have something to do with it at the present stage of the game," Mr. Chadwick admitted. "The Pioneer Short Line is 'under suspicion' on the books of the commissions, both State and Interstate, as a heavily 'watered' corporation-which it is. Do you know the history of the road?"

When I got up to get a match, Mr. Norcross was shaking his head and saying: "Not categorically; no."

"Then I'll brief it for you," said the big man in the stuffed wicker chair. "It has always been a good earning property, being largely, even yet, without much local competition. But from the day it was completed its securities have figured in the market only for their speculative values. The property itself has never been considered, save as a means to an end; the end being to enable one bunch of the Wall Street gamesters you speak of to make a 'killing' and unload on another bunch."

"The old story," said Mr. Norcross.

"We are bumping over the net result, right now," Mr. Chadwick went on. "The property is bled white; there is no money for betterments; we are tied hand and foot by all sorts of legal restrictions and regulations; and, worse than all, the people we are supposed to serve hate us until you can smell it and taste it in every town and hamlet on the right-of-way."

"So I have heard," put in the boss, calmly.

"That brings us down to the nib of the matter. Pioneer Short Line is practically in the last ditch. The stock has slumped to forty and worse; Shaffer, the general manager and the only able man we have had for years, has resigned in disgust; and if something isn't done to-morrow morning in Portal City, I know of at least one minority stockholder who is going to throw the whole mess into the courts and try for a receivership."

Mr. Norcross looked up quickly.

"Are you the minority stockholder, Uncle John?" he asked, letting himself use the name by which Mr. Chadwick was best known in the wheat pit.

"I am-more's the pity. I had a little lapse of sanity one fine morning a few years ago and bought in for an investment. I've done everything I could think of, Graham, to persuade Breck Dunton and his Wall Street accomplices to spend just one dollar in ten of their reorganization and recapitalization stealings on the road itself, but it's no good. All they want is to get one more rise out of the securities, so they can unload."

"Is there to be a stockholders' meeting in Portal City to-morrow morning?"

"No; a directors' meeting. Dunton has been making an inspection trip over the system with a dozen or so of his New York cronies. It's a junketing excursion, pure and simple, but while they're here they'll get together and go through the form of picking out a new general manager. I'm on the board and they had to send me notice, though it's an even bet they hoped I'd stay away. In fact, I think they scheduled the meeting out here on the chance that the distance from Chicago would keep me from attending it."

All this talk had taken up a good bit of time, and just as Mr. Chadwick said that about the "even bet," our engineer was whistling for Portal City. From where I was sitting I could see the electric lights dotting the wide valley between the two gateway buttes from which the city gets its name. Mr. Norcross was looking at the lights, too, when he said:

"Are you really going to spring the receivership on the Dunton people to-morrow?"

"I'm going to give Dunton his chance. He can appoint the man I want appointed as general manager, with full power to act, and ratify a little plan I've got up my sleeve for providing a bit of working capital for the road, or-he can turn me down."

"And if he does turn you down?"

"Then, by George, I'll see if I can't persuade the courts to put the property into bankruptcy and install my man as receiver!"

"I don't envy your man his job, either way around; not the least little morsel in the world," said the boss, quietly. And then: "Who is he, Uncle John?"

The wheat king gave a great laugh.

"Don't tell me you haven't guessed it," he chuckled. "You're the man, Graham."

But now Mr. Norcross had something to say for himself, sitting up straight and shaking his head sort of sorrowfully at the big man in the padded chair.

"No you don't, my good old friend; not in a thousand years! You'd lose out in the end, and I'd lose out; and besides, I'm not quite ready to commit suicide." And then to me: "Jimmie, suppose you go and tap on the door and tell the ladies we're pulling into Portal City."

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