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At Silver Switch








From: Red Butte Western

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.

"Williams 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.





Next: The Challenge

Previous: The Dipsomaniac



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