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   Chapter 18 AT SILVER SWITCH

The Taming of Red Butte Western By Francis Lynde Characters: 22641

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Like that of other railroad officials, whose duties constrain them to spend much time in transit, Lidgerwood's desk-work went with him up and down and around and about on the two divisions, and before leaving his office in the Crow's Nest to go down to the waiting special, he had thrust a bunch of letters and papers into his pocket to be ground through the business-mill on the run to Little Butte.

It was his surreptitious transference of the rubber-banded bunch of letters to the oblivion of the closed service-car desk, observed by Miss Brewster, that gave the president's daughter an opportunity to make partial amends for having turned his business trip into a car-party. Before the special was well out of the Angels yard she was commanding silence, and laying down the law for the others, particularizing Carolyn Doty, though only by way of a transfixing eye.

"Listen a moment, all of you," she called. "We mustn't forget that this isn't a planned excursion for us; it's a business trip for Mr. Lidgerwood, and we are here by our own invitation. We must make ourselves small, accordingly, and not bother him. Savez vous?"

Van Lew laughed, spread his long arms, and swept them all out toward the rear platform. But Miss Eleanor escaped at the door and went back to Lidgerwood.

"There, now!" she whispered, "don't ever say that I can't do the really handsome thing when I try. Can you manage to work at all, with these chatterers on the car?"

She was steadying herself against the swing of the car, with one shapely hand on the edge of the desk, and he covered it with one of his own.

"Yes, I can work," he asserted. "The one thing impossible is not to love you, Eleanor. It's hard enough when you are unkind; you mustn't make it harder by being what you used always to be to me."

"What a lover you are when you forget to be self-conscious!" she said softly; none the less she freed the imprisoned hand with a hasty little jerk. Then she went on with playful austerity: "Now you are to do exactly what you were meaning to do when you didn't know we were coming with you. I'll make them all stay away from you just as long as I can."

She kept her promise so well that for an industrious hour Lidgerwood scarcely realized that he was not alone. For the greater part of the interval the sight-seers were out on the rear platform, listening to Miss Brewster's stories of the Red Desert. When she had repeated all she had ever heard, she began to invent; and she was in the midst of one of the most blood-curdling of the inventions when Lidgerwood, having worked through his bunch of papers, opened the door and joined the platform party. Miss Brewster's animation died out and her voice trailed away into-"and that's all; I don't know the rest of it."

Lidgerwood's laugh was as hearty as Van Lew's or the collegian's.

"Please go on," he teased. Then quoting her: "'And after they had shot up all the peaceable people in the town, they fell to killing each other, and'-Don't let me spoil the dramatic conclusion."

"You are the dramatic conclusion to that story," retorted Miss Brewster, reproachfully. Whereupon she immediately wrenched the conversation aside into a new channel by asking how far it was to the canyon portal.

"Only a mile or two now," was Lidgerwood's rejoinder. "Williams has been making good time." And two minutes later the one-car train, with the foaming torrent of the Timanyoni for its pathfinder, plunged between the narrow walls of the upper canyon, and the race down the grade of the crooked water-trail through the heart of the mountains began.

There was little chance for speech, even if the overawing grandeurs of the stupendous crevice, seen in their most impressive presentment as alternating vistas of stark, moonlighted crags and gulches and depths of blackest shadow, had encouraged it. The hiss and whistle of the air-brakes, the harsh, sustained note of the shrieking wheel-flanges shearing the inner edges of the railheads on the curves, and the stuttering roar of the 266's safety-valve were continuous; a deafening medley of sounds multiplied a hundred-fold by the demoniac laughter of the echoes.

Miss Carolyn clung to the platform hand-rail, and once Lidgerwood thought he surprised Van Lew with his arm about her; thought it, and immediately concluded that he was mistaken. Miriam Holcombe had the opposite corner of the platform, and Jefferis was making it his business to see to it that she was not entirely crushed by the grandeurs.

Miss Brewster, steadying herself by the knob of the closed door, was not overawed; she had seen Rocky Mountain canyons at their best and their worst, many times before. But excitement, and the relaxing of the conventional leash that accompanies it, roused the spirit of daring mockery which was never wholly beyond call in Miss Brewster's mental processes. With her lips to Lidgerwood's ear she said: "Tell me, Howard; how soon should a chaperon begin to make a diversion? I'm only an apprentice, you know. Does it occur to you that these young persons need to be shocked into a better appreciation of the conventions?"

There was a small Pintsch globe in the hollow of the "umbrella roof," with its single burner turned down to a mere pea of light. Lidgerwood's answer was to reach up and flood the platform with a sudden glow of artificial radiance. The chorus of protest was immediate and reproachful.

"Oh, Mr. Lidgerwood! don't spoil the perfect moonlight that way!" cried Miss Doty, and the others echoed the beseeching.

"You'll get used to it in a minute," asserted Lidgerwood, in good-natured sarcasm. "It is so dark here in the canyon that I'm afraid some of you might fall overboard or get hit by the rocks, or something."

"The idea!" scoffed Miss Carolyn. Then, petulantly, to Van Lew: "We may as well go in. There is nothing more to be seen out here."

Lidgerwood looked to Eleanor for his cue, or at least for a whiff of moral support. But she turned traitor.

"You can do the meanest things in the name of solicitude, Howard," she began; but before she could finish he had reached up and turned the gas off with a snap, saying, "All right; anything to please the children." After which, however, he spoke authoritatively to Van Lew and Jefferis. "Don't let your responsibilities lean out over the railing, you two. There are places below here where the rocks barely give a train room to pass."

"I'm not leaning out," said Miss Brewster, as if she resented his care-taking. Then, for his ear alone: "But I shall if I want to."

"Not while I am here to prevent you."

"But you couldn't prevent me, you know."

"Yes, I could."

"How?"

The special was rushing through the darkest of the high-walled clefts in the lower part of the canyon. "This way," he said, his love suddenly breaking bounds, and he took her in his arms.

She freed herself quickly, breathless and indignantly reproachful.

"I am ashamed for you!" she panted. And then, with carefully calculated malice: "What if Herbert had been looking?"

"I shouldn't care if all the world had been looking," was the stubborn rejoinder. Then, passionately: "Tell me one thing before we go any farther, Eleanor: have you given him the right to call me out?"

"How can you doubt it?" she said; but now she was laughing at him again.

There was safety only in flight, and he fled; back to his desk and the work thereon. He was wading dismally through a thick mass of correspondence, relating to a cattleman's claim for stock killed, and thinking of nothing so little as the type-written words, when the roar of the echoing canyon walls died away, and the train came to a stand at Timanyoni, the first telegraph station in the shut-in valley between the mountain ranges. A minute or two later the wheels began to revolve again, and Bradford came in.

"More maverick railroading," he said disgustedly. "Timanyoni had his red light out, and when I asked for orders he said he hadn't any-thought maybe we'd want to ask for 'em ourselves, being as we was running wild."

"So he thoughtfully stopped us to give us the chance!" snapped Lidgerwood in wrathful scorn. "What did you do?"

"Oh, as long as he had done it, I had him call up the Angels despatcher to find out where we were at. We're on 204's time, you know-ought to have met her here."

"Why didn't we?" asked the superintendent, taking the time-card from its pigeon-hole and glancing at Train 204's schedule.

"She was late out of Red Butte; broke something and had to stop and tie it up; lost a half-hour makin' her get-away."

"Then we reach Little Butte before 204 gets there-is that it?"

"That's about the way the night despatcher has it ciphered out. He gave the Timanyoni plug operator hot stuff for holdin' us up."

Lidgerwood shook his head. The artless simplicity of Red-Butte-Western methods, or unmethods, was dying hard, inexcusably hard.

"Does the night despatcher happen to know just where 204 is, at this present moment?" he inquired with gentle irony.

Bradford laughed.

"I'd be willing to bet a piebald pinto against a no-account yaller dog that he don't. But I reckon he won't be likely to let her get past Little Butte, comin' this way, when he has let us get by Timanyoni goin' t'other way."

"That's all right, Andy; that is the way you would have a right to figure it out if you were running a special on a normally healthy railroad-you'd be justified in running to your next telegraph station, regardless. But the Red Butte Western is an abnormally unhealthy railroad, and you'd better feel your way-pretty carefully, too. From Point-of-Rocks you can see well down toward Little Butte. Tell Williams to watch for 204's headlight, and if he sees it, to take the siding at Silver Switch, the old Wire-Silver spur."

Bradford nodded, and when Lidgerwood reimmersed himself in the cattleman's claim papers, went forward to share Williams's watch in the cab of the 266.

Twenty minutes farther on, the train slowed again, made a momentary stop, and began to screech and grind heavily around a sharp curve. Lidgerwood looked out of the window at his right. The moon had gone behind a huge hill, a lantern was pricking a point in the shadows some little distance from the track, and the tumultuous river was no longer sweeping parallel with the embankment. He shut his desk and went to the rear platform, projecting himself into the group of sight-seers just as the train stopped for the second time.

"Where are we now?" asked Miss Brewster, looking up at the dark mass of the hill whose forested ramparts loomed black in the near foreground.

"At Silver Switch," replied Lidgerwood; and when the bobbing lantern came nearer he called to the bearer of it. "What is it, Bradford?"

"The passenger, I reckon," was the answer. "Williams thought he saw it as we came around Point-o'-Rocks, and he was afraid the despatcher had got balled up some and let 'em get past Little Butte without a meet-order."

For a moment the group on the railed platform was silent, and in the little interval a low, humming sound made itself felt rather than heard; a shuddering murmur, coming from all points of the compass at once, as it seemed, and filling the still night air with its vibrations.

"Wil

liams was right!" rejoined the superintended sharply. "She's coming!" And even as he spoke, the white glare of an electric headlight burst into full view on the shelf-like cutting along the northern face of the great hill, pricking out the smallest details of the waiting special, the closed switch, and the gleaming lines of the rails.

With this powerful spot-light to project its cone of dazzling brilliance upon the scene, the watchers on the railed platform of the superintendent's service-car saw every detail in the swift outworking of the tragic spectacle for which the hill-facing curve was the stage-setting.

When the oncoming passenger-train was within three or four hundred yards of the spur track switch and racing toward it at full speed, a man, who seemed to the onlookers to rise up out of the ground in the train's path, ran down the track to meet the uprushing headlight, waving his arms frantically in the stop signal. For an instant that seemed an age, the passenger engineer made no sign. Then came a short, sharp whistle-scream, a spewing of sparks from rail-head and tire at the clip of the emergency brakes, a crash as of the ripping asunder of the mechanical soul and body, and a wrecked train lay tilted at an angle of forty-five degrees against the bank of the hill-side cutting.

It was a moment for action rather than for words, and when he cleared the platform hand-rail and dropped, running, Lidgerwood was only the fraction of a second ahead of Van Lew and Jefferis. With Bradford swinging his lantern for Williams and his fireman to come on, the four men were at the wreck before the cries of fright and agony had broken out upon the awful stillness following the crash.

There was quick work and heart-breaking to be done, and, for the first few critical minutes, a terrible lack of hands to do it. Cranford, the engineer, was still in his cab, pinned down by the coal which had shifted forward at the shock of the sudden stop. In the wreck of the tender, the iron-work of which was rammed into shapeless crumplings by the upreared trucks of the baggage-car, lay the fireman, past human help, as a hasty side-swing of Bradford's lantern showed.

The baggage-car, riding high upon the crushed tender, was body-whole, but the smoker, day-coach, and sleeper were all more or less shattered, with the smoking-car already beginning to blaze from the broken lamps. It was a crisis to call out the best in any gift of leadership, and Lidgerwood's genius for swift and effective organization came out strong under the hammer-blow of the occasion.

"Stay here with Bradford and Jefferis, and get that engineer out!" he called to Van Lew. Then, with arms outspread, he charged down upon the train's company, escaping as it could through the broken windows of the cars. "This way, every man of you!" he yelled, his shout dominating the clamor of cries, crashing glass, and hissing steam. "The fire's what we've got to fight! Line up down to the river, and pass water in anything you can get hold of! Here, Groner"-to the train conductor, who was picking himself up out of the ditch into which the shock had thrown him-"send somebody to the Pullman for blankets. Jump for it, man, before this fire gets headway!"

Luckily, there were by this time plenty of willing hands to help. The Timanyoni is a man's country, and there were few women in the train's passenger list. Quickly a line was formed to the near-by margin of the river, and water, in hats, in buckets improvised out of pieces of tin torn from the wrecked car-roofs, in saturated coats, cushion covers, and Pullman blankets, hissed upon the fire, beat it down, and presently extinguished it.

Then the work of extricating the imprisoned ones began, light for it being obtained by the backing of Williams's engine to the main line above the switch so that the headlight played upon the scene.

Lidgerwood was fairly in the thick of the rescue work when Miss Brewster, walking down the track from the service-car and bringing the two young women who were afraid to be left behind, launched herself and her companions into the midst of the nerve-racking horror.

"Give us something to do," she commanded, when he would have sent them back; and he changed his mind and set them at work binding up wounds and caring for the injured quite as if they had been trained nurses sent from heaven at the opportune moment.

In a very little time the length and breadth of the disaster were fully known, and its consequences alleviated, so far as they might be with the means at hand. There were three killed outright in the smoker, two in the half-filled day-coach, and none in the sleeper; six in all, including the fireman pinned beneath the wreck of the tender. Cranford, the engineer, was dug out of his coal-covered grave by Van Lew and Jefferis, badly burned and bruised, but still living; and there were a score of other woundings, more or less dreadful.

Red Butte was the nearest point from which a relief-train could be sent, and Lidgerwood promptly cut the telegraph wire, connected his pocket set of instruments, and sent in the call for help. That done he transferred the pocket relay to the other end of the cut wire, and called up the night despatcher at Angels. Fortunately, McCloskey and Dawson were just in with the two wrecking-trains from the Crosswater Hills, and the superintendent ordered Dawson to come out immediately with his train and a fresh crew, if it could be obtained.

Dawson took the wire and replied in person. His crew was good for another tussle, he said, and his train was still in readiness. He would start west at once, or the moment the despatcher could clear for him, and would be at Silver Switch as soon as the intervening miles would permit.

Eleanor Brewster and her guests were grouped beside Lidgerwood when he disconnected the pocket set from the cut wire, and temporarily repaired the break. The service-car had been turned into a make-shift hospital for the wounded, and the car-party was homeless.

"We are all waiting to say how sorry we are that we insisted on coming and thus adding to your responsibilities, Howard," said the president's daughter, and now there was no trace of mockery in her voice.

His answer was entirely sympathetic and grateful.

"I'm only sorry that you have been obliged to see and take part in such a frightful horror, that's all. As for your being in the way-it's quite the other thing. Cranford owes his life to Mr. Van Lew and Jefferis; and as for you three," including Eleanor and the two young women, "your work is beyond any praise of mine. I'm anxious now merely because I don't know what to do with you while we wait for the relief-train to come."

"Ignore us completely," said Eleanor promptly. "We are going over to that little level place by the side-track and make us a camp-fire. We were just waiting to be comfortably forgiven for having burdened you with a pleasure party at such a time."

"We couldn't foresee this, any of us," he made haste to say. "Now, if you'll do what you suggested-go and build a fire to wait by?-I hope it won't be very long."

Freed of the more crushing responsibilities, Lidgerwood found Bradford and Groner, and with the two conductors went down the track to the point of derailment to make the technical investigation of causes.

Ordinarily, the mere fact of a destructive derailment leaves little to be discovered when the cause is sought afterward. But, singularly enough, the curved track was torn up only on the side toward the hill; the outer rail was still in place, and the cross-ties, deeply bedded in the hard gravel of the cutting, showed only the surface mutilation of the grinding wheels.

"Broken flange under the 215, I'll bet," said Groner, holding his lantern down to the gashed ties. But Bradford denied it.

"No," he contradicted: "Cranford was able to talk a little after we toted him back to the service-car. He says it was a broken rail; says he saw it and saw the man that was flaggin' him down, all in good time to give her the air before he hit it."

"What man was that?" asked Groner, whose point of view had not been that of an onlooker.

Lidgerwood answered for himself and Bradford.

"That is one of the things we'd like to know, Groner. Just before the smash a man, whom none of us recognized, ran down the track and tried to give Cranford the stop signal."

They had been walking on down the line, looking for the actual point of derailment. When it was found, it proved Cranford's assertion-in part. There was a gap in the rail on the river side of the line, but it was not a fracture. At one of the joints the fish-plates were missing, and the rail-ends were sprung apart sidewise sufficiently to let the wheel flanges pass through. Groner went down on his hands and knees with the lantern held low, and made another discovery.

"This ain't no happen-so, Mr. Lidgerwood," he said, when he got up. "The spikes are pulled!"

Lidgerwood said nothing. There are discoveries which are beyond speech. But he stooped to examine for himself. Groner was right. For a distance of eight or ten feet the rail had been loosened, and the spikes were gone out of the corresponding cross-ties. After it was loosened, the rail had been sprung aside, and the bit of rock inserted between the parted ends to keep them from springing together was still in place.

Lidgerwood's eyes were bloodshot when he rose and said:

"I'd like to ask you two men, as men, what devil out of hell would set a trap like this for a train-load of unoffending passengers?"

Bradford's slow drawl dispelled a little of the mystery.

"It wasn't meant for Groner and his passenger-wagons, I reckon. In the natural run of things, it was the 266 and the service-car that ought to've hit this thing first-204 bein' supposed to be a half-hour off her schedule. It was aimed for us, all right enough. And it wasn't meant to throw us into the hill, neither. If we'd hit it goin' west, we'd be in the river. That's why it was sprung out instead of in."

Lidgerwood's right hand, balled into a fist, smote the air, and his outburst was a fierce imprecation. In the midst of it Groner said, "Listen!" and a moment later a man, walking rapidly up the track from the direction of Little Butte station, came into the small circle of lantern-light. Groner threw the light on the new-comer, revealing a haggard face-the face of the owner of the Wire-Silver mine.

"Heavens and earth, Mr. Lidgerwood-this is awful!" he exclaimed. "I heard of it by 'phone, and hurried over to do what I could. My men of the night-shift are on the way, walking up the track, and the entire Wire-Silver outfit is at your disposal."

"I am afraid you are a little late, Mr. Flemister," was Lidgerwood's rejoinder, unreasoning antagonism making the words sound crisp and ungrateful. "Half an hour ago--"

"Yes, certainly; Goodloe should have 'phoned me, if he knew," cut in the mine-owner. "Anybody hurt?"

"Half of the number involved, and six dead," said the superintendent soberly; then the four of them walked slowly and in silence up the track toward the two camp-fires, where the unhurt survivors and the service-car's guests were fighting the chill of the high-mountain midnight.

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