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The Taming of Red Butte Western By Francis Lynde Characters: 24486

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Crosswater Gap, so named because the high pass over which the railroad finds its way is anything but a gap, and, save when the winter snows are melting, there is no water within a day's march, was in sight from the loopings of the eastern approach. Lidgerwood, scanning the grades as the service-car swung from tangent to curve and curve to tangent up the steep inclines, was beginning to think of breakfast. The morning air was crisp and bracing, and he had been getting the full benefit of it for an hour or more, sitting under the umbrella roof at the observation end of the car.

With the breakfast thought came the thing itself, or the invitation to it. As a parting kindness the night before, Ford had transferred one of the cooks from his own private car to Lidgerwood's service, and the little man, Tadasu Matsuwari by name, and a subject of the Mikado by race and birth, came to the car door to call his new employer to the table.

It was an attractive table, well appointed and well served; but Lidgerwood, temperamentally single-eyed in all things, was diverted from his reorganization problem for the moment only. Since early dawn he had been up and out on the observation platform, noting, this time with the eye of mastership, the physical condition of the road; the bridges, the embankments, the cross-ties, the miles of steel unreeling under the drumming trucks, and the object-lesson was still fresh in his mind.

To a disheartening extent, the Red Butte demoralization had involved the permanent way. Originally a good track, with heavy steel, easy grades compensated for the curves, and a mathematical alignment, the roadbed and equipment had been allowed to fall into disrepair under indifferent supervision and the short-handing of the section gangs-always an impractical directory's first retrenchment when the dividends begin to fail. Lidgerwood had seen how the ballast had been suffered to sink at the rail-joints, and he had read the record of careless supervision at each fresh swing of the train, since it is the section foreman's weakness to spoil the geometrical curve by working it back, little by little, into the adjoining tangent.

Reflecting upon these things, Lidgerwood's comment fell into speech over his cup of coffee and crisp breakfast bacon.

"About the first man we need is an engineer who won't be too exalted to get down and squint curves with the section bosses," he mused, and from that on he was searching patiently through the memory card-index for the right man.

At the summit station, where the line leaves the Pannikin basin to plunge into the western desert, there was a delay. Lidgerwood was still at the breakfast-table when Bradford, the conductor, black-shirted and looking, in his slouch hat and riding-leggings, more like a horse-wrangler than a captain of railroad trains, lounged in to explain that there was a hot box under the 266's tender. Bradford was not of any faction of discontent, but the spirit of morose insubordination, born of the late change in management, was in the air, and he spoke gruffly. Hence, with the flint and steel thus provided, the spark was promptly evoked.

"Were the boxes properly overhauled before you left Copah?" demanded the new boss.

Bradford did not know, and the manner of his answer implied that he did not care. And for good measure he threw in an intimation that roundhouse dope kettles were not in his line.

Lidgerwood passed over the large impudence and held to the matter in hand.

"How much time have we on 201?" he asked, Train 201 being the westbound passenger overtaken and left behind in the small hours of the morning by the lighter and faster special.

"Thirty minutes, here," growled the little brother of the cows; after which he took himself off as if he considered the incident sufficiently closed.

Fifteen minutes later Lidgerwood finished his breakfast and went back to his camp-chair on the observation platform of the service-car. A glance over the side rail showed him his train crew still working on the heated axle-bearing. Another to the rear picked up the passenger-train storming around the climbing curves of the eastern approach to the summit. There was a small problem impending for the division despatcher at Angels, and the new superintendent held aloof to see how it would be handled.

It was handled rather indifferently. The passenger-train was pulling in over the summit switches when Bradford, sauntering into the telegraph office as if haste were the last thing in the world to be considered, asked for his clearance card, got it, and gave Williams the signal to go.

Lidgerwood got up and went into the car to consult the time-table hanging in the office compartment. Train 201 had no dead time at Crosswater; hence, if the ten-minute interval between trains of the same class moving in the same direction was to be preserved, the passenger would have to be held.

The assumption that the passenger-train would be held aroused all the railroad martinet's fury in the new superintendent. In Lidgerwood's calendar, time-killing on regular trains stood next to an infringement of the rules providing for the safety of life and property. His hand was on the signal-cord when, chancing to look back, he saw that the passenger-train had made only the momentary time-card stop at the summit station, and was coming on.

This turned the high crime into a mere breach of discipline, common enough even on well-managed railroads when the leading train can be trusted to increase the distance interval. But again the martinet in Lidgerwood protested. It was his theory that rules were made to be observed, and his experience had proved that little infractions paved the way for great ones. In the present instance, however, it was too late to interfere; so he drew a chair out in line with one of the rear observation windows and sat down to mark the event.

Pitching over the hilltop summit, within a minute of each other, the two trains raced down the first few curving inclines almost as one. Mile after mile was covered, and still the perilous situation remained unchanged. Down the short tangents and around the constantly recurring curves the special seemed to be towing the passenger at the end of an invisible but dangerously short drag-rope.

Lidgerwood began to grow uneasy. On the straight-line stretches the following train appeared to be rushing onward to an inevitable rear-end collision with the one-car special; and where the track swerved to right or left around the hills, the pursuing smoke trail rose above the intervening hill-shoulders near and threatening. With the parts of a great machine whirling in unison and nicely timed to escape destruction, a small accident to a single cog may spell disaster.

Lidgerwood left his chair and went again to consult the time-table. A brief comparison of miles with minutes explained the effect without excusing the cause. Train 201's schedule from the summit station to the desert level was very fast; and Williams, nursing his hot box, either could not, or would not, increase his lead.

At first, Lidgerwood, anticipating rebellion, was inclined to charge the hazardous situation to intention on the part of his own train crew. Having a good chance to lie out of it if they were accused, Williams and Bradford might be deliberately trying the nerve of the new boss. The presumption did not breed fear; it bred wrath, hot and vindictive. Two sharp tugs at the signal-cord brought Bradford from the engine. The memory of the conductor's gruff replies and easy impudence was fresh enough to make Lidgerwood's reprimand harsh.

"Do you call this railroading?" he rasped, pointing backward to the menace. "Don't you know that we are on 201's time?"

Bradford scowled in surly antagonism.

"That blamed hot box-" he began, but Lidgerwood cut him off short.

"The hot box has nothing to do with the case. You are not hired to take chances, or to hold out regular trains. Go forward and tell your engineer to speed up and get out of the way."

"I got my clearance at the summit, and I ain't despatchin' trains on this jerk-water railroad," observed the conductor coolly. Then he added, with a shade less of the belligerent disinterest: "Williams can't speed up. That housin' under the tender is about ready to blaze up and set the woods afire again, right now."

Once more Lidgerwood turned to the time-card. It was twenty miles farther along to the next telegraph station, and he heaped up wrath against the day of wrath in store for a despatcher who would recklessly turn two trains loose and out of his reach under such critical conditions, for thirty hazardous mountain miles.

Bradford, looking on sullenly, mistook the new boss's frown for more to follow, with himself for the target, and was moving away. Lidgerwood pointed to a chair with a curt, "Sit down!" and the conductor obeyed reluctantly.

"You say you have your clearance card, and that you are not despatching trains," he went on evenly, "but neither fact relieves you of your responsibility. It was your duty to make sure that the despatcher fully understood the situation at Crosswater, and to refuse to pull out ahead of the passenger without something more definite than a formal permit. Weren't you taught that? Where did you learn to run trains?"

It was an opening for hard words, but the conductor let it pass. Something in the steady, business-like tone, or in the shrewdly appraisive eyes, turned Bradford the potential mutineer into Bradford the possible partisan.

"I reckon we are needing a rodeo over here on this jerk-water mighty bad, Mr. Lidgerwood," he said, half humorously. "Take us coming and going, about half of us never had the sure-enough railroad brand put onto us, nohow. But, Lord love you! this little pasear we're making down this hill ain't anything! That's the old 210 chasin' us with the passenger, and she couldn't catch Bat Williams and the '66 in a month o' Sundays if we didn't have that doggoned spavined leg under the tender. She sure couldn't."

Lidgerwood smiled in spite of his annoyance, and wondered at what page in the railroad primer he would have to begin in teaching these men of the camps and the round-ups.

"But it isn't railroading," he insisted, meeting his first pupil half-way, and as man to man. "You might do this thing ninety-nine times without paying for it, and the hundredth time something would turn up to slow or to stop the leading train, and there you are."

"Sure!" said the ex-cowboy, quite heartily.

"Now, if there should happen to be--"

The sentence was never finished. The special, lagging a little now in deference to the smoking hot box, was rounding one of the long hill curves to the left. Suddenly the air-brakes ground sharply upon the wheels, shrill whistlings from the 266 sounded the stop signal, and past the end of the slowing service-car a trackman ran frantically up the line toward the following passenger, yelling and swinging his stripped coat like a madman.

Lidgerwood caught a fleeting glimpse of a section gang's green "slow" flag lying toppled over between the rails a hundred feet to the rear. Measuring the distance of the onrushing passenger-train against the life-saving seconds remaining, he called to Bradford to jump, and then ran forward to drag the Japanese cook out of his galley.

It was all over in a moment. There was time enough for Lidgerwood to rush the little Tadasu to the forward vestibule, to fling him into space, and to make his own flying leap for safety before the crisis came. Happily there was no wreck, though the margin of escape was the narrowest. Williams stuck to his post in the cab of the 266, applying and releasing the brakes, and running as far ahead as he dared upon the loosened timbers of the culvert, for which the section gang's slowflag was out. Carter, the engineer on the passenger-train, jumped; but his fireman was of better mettle and stayed with the machine, sliding the wheels with the driver-jams, and pumping sand on the rails up to the moment when the shuddering mass of iron and steel thrust its pilot under the trucks of Lidgerwood's car, lifted them, dropped them,

and drew back sullenly in obedience to the pull of the reverse and the recoil of the brake mechanism.

It was an excellent opportunity for eloquence of the explosive sort, and when the dust had settled the track and trainmen were evidently expecting the well-deserved tongue-lashing. But in crises like this the new superintendent was at his self-contained best. Instead of swearing at the men, he gave his orders quietly and with the brisk certainty of one who knows his trade. The passenger-train was to keep ten minutes behind its own time until the next siding was passed, making up beyond that point if its running orders permitted. The special was to proceed on 201's time to the siding in question, at which point it would side-track and let the passenger precede it.

Bradford was in the cab of 266 when Williams eased his engine and the service-car over the unsafe culvert, and inched the throttle open for the speeding race down the hill curves toward the wide valley plain of the Red Desert.

"Turn it loose, Andy," said the big engineman, when the requisite number of miles of silence had been ticked off by the space-devouring wheels. "What-all do you think of Mister Collars-and-Cuffs by this time?"

Bradford took a leisurely minute to whittle a chewing cube from his pocket plug of hard-times tobacco.

"Well, first dash out o' the box, I allowed he was some locoed; he jumped me like a jack-rabbit for takin' a clearance right under Jim Carter's nose that-a-way. Then we got down to business, and I was just beginning to get onto his gait a little when the green flag butted in."

"Gait fits the laundry part of him?" suggested Williams.

"It does and it don't. I ain't much on systems and sure things, Bat, but I can make out to guess a guess, once in a while, when I have to. If that little tailor-made man don't get his finger mashed, or something, and have to go home and get somebody to poultice it, things are goin' to have a spell of happenings on this little old cow-trail of a railroad. That's my ante."

"What sort of things?" demanded Williams.

"When it comes to that, your guess is as good as mine, but they'll spell trouble for the amatoors and the trouble-makers, I reckon. I ain't placin' any bets yet, but that's about the way it stacks up to me."

Williams let the 266 out another notch, hung out of his window to look back at the smoking hot box, and, in the complete fulness of time, said, "Think he's got the sand, Andy?"

"This time you've got me goin'," was the slow reply. "Sizing him up one side and down the other when he called me back to pull my ear, I said, 'No, my young bronco-buster; you're a bluffer-the kind that'll put up both hands right quick when the bluff is called.' Afterward, I wasn't so blamed sure. One kind o' sand he's got, to a dead moral certainty. When he saw what was due to happen back yonder at the culvert, he told me '23,' all right, but he took time to hike up ahead and yank that Jap cook out o' the car-kitchen before he turned his own little handspring into the ditch."

The big engineer nodded, but he was still unconvinced when he made the stop for the siding at Last Chance. After the fireman had dropped off to set the switch for the following train, Williams put the unconvincement into words.

"That kind of sand is all right in God's country, Andy, but out here in the nearer edges of hell you got to know how to fight with pitchforks and such other tools as come handy. The new boss may be that kind of a scrapper, but he sure don't look it. You know as well as I do that men like Rufford and 'Cat' Biggs and Red-Light Sammy'll eat him alive, just for the fun of it, if he can't make out to throw lead quicker'n they can. And that ain't saying anything about the hobo outfit he'll have to go up against on this make-b'lieve railroad."

"No," agreed Bradford, ruminating thoughtfully. And then, by way of rounding out the subject: "Here's hopin' his nerve is as good as his clothes. I don't love a Mongolian any better'n you do, Bat, but the way he hustled to save that little brown man's skin sort o' got next to me; it sure did. Says I, 'A man that'll do that won't go round hunting a chance to kick a fice-dog just because the fice don't happen to be a blooded bull-terrier.'"

Williams, brawny and broad-chested, leaned against his box, his bare arms folded and his short pipe at the disputatious angle.

"He'd better have nerve, or get some," he commented. "T'otherways it's him for an early wooden overcoat and a trip back home in the express-car. After which, let me tell you, Andy, that man Ford'll sift this cussed country through a flour-shaker but what he'll cinch the outfit that does it. You write that out in your car-report."

Back in the service-car Lidgerwood was sitting quietly in the doorway, smoking his delayed after-breakfast cigar, and timing the up-coming passenger-train, watch in hand. Carter was ten minutes, to the exact second, behind his schedule time when the train thundered past on the main track, and Lidgerwood pocketed his watch with a smile of satisfaction. It was the first small victory in the campaign for reform.

Later, however, when the special was once more in motion westward, the desert laid hold upon him with the grip which first benumbs, then breeds dull rage, and finally makes men mad. Mile after mile the glistening rails sped backward into a shimmering haze of red dust. The glow of the breathless forenoon was like the blinding brightness of a forge-fire. To right and left the great treeless plain rose to bare buttes, backed by still barer mountains. Let the train speed as it would, there was always the same wearying prospect, devoid of interest, empty of human landmarks. Only the blazing sun swung from side to side with the slow veerings of the track: what answered for a horizon seemed never to change, never to move.

At long intervals a siding, sometimes with its waiting train, but oftener empty and deserted, slid into view and out again. Still less frequently a telegraph station, with its red, iron-roofed office, its water-tank cars and pumping machinery, and its high-fenced corral and loading chute, moved up out of the distorting heat haze ahead, and was lost in the dusty mirages to the rear. But apart from the crews of the waiting trains, and now and then the desert-sobered face of some telegraph operator staring from his window at the passing special, there were no signs of life: no cattle upon the distant hills, no loungers on the station platforms.

Lidgerwood had crossed this arid, lifeless plain twice within the week on his preliminary tour of inspection, but both times he had been in the Pullman, with fellow-passengers to fill the nearer field of vision and to temper the awful loneliness of the waste. Now, however, the desert with its heat, its stillness, its vacancy, its pitiless barrenness, claimed him as its own. He wondered that he had been impatient with the men it bred. The wonder now was that human virtue of any temper could long withstand the blasting touch of so great and awful a desolation.

It was past noon when the bowl-like basin, in which the train seemed to circle helplessly without gaining upon the terrifying horizons, began to lose its harshest features. Little by little, the tumbled hills drew nearer, and the red-sand dust of the road-bed gave place to broken lava. Patches of gray, sun-dried mountain grass appeared on the passing hill slopes, and in the arroyos trickling threads of water glistened, or, if the water were hidden, there were at least paths of damp sand to hint at the blessed moisture underneath.

Lidgerwood began to breathe again; and when the shrill whistle of the locomotive signalled the approach to the division head-quarters, he was thankful that the builders of Angels had pitched their tents and driven their stakes in the desert's edge, rather than in its heart.

Truly, Angels was not much to be thankful for, as the exile from the East regretfully admitted when he looked out upon it from the windows of his office in the second story of the Crow's Nest. A many-tracked railroad yard, flanked on one side by the repair shops, roundhouse, and coal-chutes; and on the other by a straggling town of bare and commonplace exteriors, unpainted, unfenced, treeless, and wind-swept: Angels stood baldly for what it was-a mere stopping-place in transit for the Red Butte Western.

The new superintendent turned his back upon the depressing outlook and laid his hand upon the latch of the door opening into the adjoining room. There was a thing to be said about the reckless bunching of trains out of reach of the wires, and it might as well be said now as later, he determined. But at the moment of door-opening he was made to realize that a tall, box-like contrivance in one corner of the office was a desk, and that it was inhabited.

The man who rose up to greet him was bearded, heavy-shouldered, and hollow-eyed, and he was past middle age. Green cardboard cones protecting his shirt-sleeves, and a shade of the same material visoring the sunken eyes, were the only clerkly suggestions about him. Since he merely stood up and ran his fingers through his thick black hair, with no more than an abstracted "Good-afternoon" for speech, Lidgerwood was left to guess at his identity.

"You are Mr. Hallock?" Lidgerwood made the guess without offering to shake hands, the high, box-like desk forbidding the attempt.

"Yes." The answer was neither antagonistic nor placatory; it was merely colorless.

"My name is Lidgerwood. You have heard of my appointment?"

Again the colorless "Yes."

Lidgerwood saw no good end to be subserved by postponing the inevitable.

"Mr. Ford spoke to me about you last night. He told me that you had been Mr. Cumberley's chief clerk, and that since Cumberley's resignation you have been acting superintendent of the Red Butte Western. Do you want to stay on as my lieutenant?"

For the long minute that Hallock took before replying, the loose-lipped mouth under the shaggy mustache seemed to have lost the power of speech. But when the words finally came, they were shorn of all euphemism.

"I suppose I ought to tell you to go straight to hell, Mr. Lidgerwood, put on my coat and walk out," said this most singular of all railway subordinates. "By all the rules of the game, this job belongs to me. What I've gone through to earn it, you nor any other man will ever know. If I stay, I'll wish I hadn't; and so will you. You'd better give me a time-check and let me go."

Lidgerwood walked to the window and once more stared out upon the dreary prospect, bounded by the bluffs of the second mesa. A horseman was ambling down the single street of the town, weaving in his saddle, and giving vent to a series of Indian war-whoops. Lidgerwood saw the drunken cowboy only with the outward eye. And when he turned back to the man in the rifle-pit desk, he could not have told why the words of regret and dismissal which he had made up his mind to say, refused to come. But they did refuse, and what he said was not at all what he had intended to say.

"If I can't quite match your frankness, Mr. Hallock, it is because my early education was neglected. But I'll say this: I appreciate your disappointment; I know what it means to a man situated as you are. Notwithstanding, I want you to stay with me. I'll say more; I shall take it as a personal favor if you will stay."

"You'll be sorry for it if I do," was the ungracious rejoinder.

"Not because you will do anything to make me sorry, I am sure," said the new superintendent, in his evenest tone. And then, as if the matter were definitely settled: "I'd like to have a word with the trainmaster, Mr. McCloskey. May I trouble you to tell me which is his office?"

Hallock waved a hand toward the door which Lidgerwood had been about to open a few minutes earlier.

"You'll find him in there," he said briefly, adding, with his altogether remarkable disregard for the official proprieties: "If he gives you the same chance that I did, don't take him up. He is the one man in this outfit worth more than the powder it would take to blow him to the devil."

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