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HOME > Classical Novels > The Young Section-Hand > CHAPTER I. THE BOTTOM ROUND
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 “Excuse me, sir, but do you need a man?”  
Jack1 Welsh, foreman of Section Twenty-one, on the Ohio division of the P. & O., turned sharply around at sound of the voice and inspected the speaker for a moment.
“A man, yes,” he said, at last. “But not a boy. This ain’t boy’s work.”
And he bent2 over again to sight along the rail and make sure that the track was quite level.
“Up a little!” he shouted to the gang who had their crowbars under the ties some distance ahead.
They heaved at their bars painfully, growing red in the face under the strain.
“That’ll do! Now keep it there!”
Some of the men braced3 themselves and held on to their bars, while others hastened to tamp4 some gravel5 solidly under the ties to keep them in place. The foreman, at leisure for a moment, turned again to the boy, who had stood by with downcast face, plainly undecided what to do. Welsh had a kindly6 Irish heart, which not even the irksomeness of section work could sour, and he had noted8 the boy’s fresh face and honest eyes. It was not an especially handsome face, yet one worth looking twice at, if only for its frankness.
“What’s yer name, sonny?” he asked.
“Allan West.”
“An’ where’d y’ come from?”
“From Cincinnati.”
The foreman looked the boy over again. His clothes were good, but the worn, dusty shoes told that the journey of nearly a hundred miles had been made on foot. He glanced again at the face—no, the boy was not a tramp; it was easy to see he was ambitious and had ideals; he was no idler—he would work if he had the chance.
“What made y’ come all that way?” asked Welsh, at last.
“I couldn’t find any work at Cincinnati,” said the boy, and it was evident that he was speaking the truth. “There’s too many people there out of work now. So I came on to Loveland and Midland City and Greenfield, but it’s the same story everywhere. I got some little jobs here and there, but nothing permanent. I thought perhaps at Wadsworth—”
“No,” interrupted the foreman. “No, Wadsworth’s th’ same way—dead as a doornail. How old’re you?” he asked, suddenly.
“Seventeen. And indeed I’m very strong,” added the boy, eagerly, as he caught a gleam of relenting in the other’s eye. “I’m sure I could do the work.”
He wanted work desperately9; he felt that he had to have it, and he straightened instinctively10 and drew a long breath of hope as he saw the foreman examining him more carefully. He had always been glad that he was muscular and well-built, but never quite so glad as at this moment.
“It’s mighty11 hard work,” added Jack, reflectively. “Mighty hard. Do y’ think y’ could stand it?”
“I’m sure I could, sir,” answered Allan, his face glowing. “Just let me try.”
“An’ th’ pay’s only a dollar an’ a quarter a day.”
The boy drew a quick breath.
“That’s more than I’ve ever made regularly, sir,” he said. “I’ve always thought myself lucky if I could earn a dollar a day.”
Jack smiled grimly.
“You’ll earn your dollar an’ a quarter all right at this work,” he said. “An’ you’ll find it’s mighty little when it comes t’ feedin’ an’ clothin’ an’ lodgin’ yerself. But you’d like t’ try, would y’?”
“Yes, indeed!” said Allan.
There could be no doubting his eagerness, and as he looked at him, Jack smiled again.
“I don’t know what th’ road-master’ll say; mebbe he won’t let me keep you—I know he won’t if he sees you can’t do th’ work.” He looked down the line toward the gang, who stood leaning on their tools, enjoying the unusual privilege of a moment’s rest. “But I’m a man short,” he added. “I had t’ fire one this mornin’. We’ll try you, anyway. Put your coat an’ vest on th’ hand-car over there, git a pick an’ shovel12 an’ go up there with th’ gang.”
The boy flushed with pleasure and hurried away toward the hand-car, taking off his coat and vest as he went. He was back again in a moment, armed with the tools.
“Reddy, you show him the ropes!” shouted the foreman to one of the men.
“All roight, sir!” answered Reddy, easily distinguishable by the colour of his hair. “Come over here, youngster,” he added, as Allan joined the group. “Now you watch me, an’ you’ll soon be as good a section-man as they is on th’ road.”
The others laughed good-naturedly, then bent to work again, straightening the track. For this thing of steel and oak which bound the East to the West, and which, at first glance, would seem to have been built, like the Roman roads of old, to last for ever, was in constant need of attention. The great rails were of the toughest steel that forge could make; the ties were of the best and soundest oak; the gravel which served as ballast lay under them a foot deep and extended a foot on either side; the road-bed was as solid as the art of man could make it, pounded, tamped13, and rolled, until it seemed strong as the eternal hills.
Yet it did not endure. For every hour of the day there swept over it, pounding at it, the monstrous14 freight locomotives, weighing a hundred tons, marvels15 of strength and power, pulling long lines of heavy cars, laden16 with coal and iron and grain, hurrying to give the Old World of the abundance of the New. And every hour, too, there flashed over it, at a speed almost lightning-like, the through passenger trains—the engines slim, supple17, panting, thoroughbred; the lumbering18 mail-cars and day coaches; the luxurious19 Pullmans far heavier than any freight-car.
Day and night these thousands of tons hurled20 themselves along the rails, tearing at them at every curve, pounding them at every joint21. Small wonder that they sometimes gave and spread, or broke short off, especially in zero weather, under the great pressure. Then, too, the thaws22 of spring loosened the road-bed and softened23 it; freshets undermined it and sapped the foundations of bridge and culvert. A red-hot cinder25 from the firebox, dropped on a wooden trestle, might start a disastrous26 blaze. And the least defect meant, perhaps, the loss of a score of lives.
So every day, over the whole length of the line, gangs of section-men went up and down, putting in a new tie here, replacing a defective27 rail there, tightening28 bolts, straightening the track, clearing the ditches along the road of water lest it seep29 under the road-bed and soften24 it; doing a thousand and one things that only a section-foreman would think needful. And all this that passengers and freight alike might go in safety to their destinations; that the road, at the year’s end, might declare a dividend30.
There was nothing spectacular about their work; there was no romance connected with it. The passengers who caught a glimpse of them, as the train flashed by, never gave them a second thought. Their clothes were always tom and soiled; their hands hard and rough; the tugging31 at the bars had pulled their shoulders over into an ungraceful stoop; almost always they had the haggard, patient look of men who labour beyond their strength. But they were cogs in the great machine, just as important, in their way, as the big fly-wheel of a superintendent32 in the general offices; more important, sometimes, for the superintendent took frequent vacations, but the section work could not be neglected for a single day.
Allan West soon discovered what soul-racking work it was. To raise the rigid33 track a fraction of an inch required that muscles be strained to bursting. To replace a tie was a task that tried every nerve and sinew. The sun beat down upon them mercilessly, bringing out the sweat in streams. But the boy kept at it bravely, determined34 to do his part and hold the place if he could. He was under a good teacher, for Reddy, otherwise Timothy Magraw, was a thorough-going section-hand. He knew his work inside and out, and it was only a characteristic Irish carelessness, a certain unreliability, that kept him in the ranks, where, indeed, he was quite content to stay.
“Oi d’ want nothin’ else,” he would say. “Oi does me wor-rk, an’ draws me pay, an’ goes home an’ goes t’ sleep, with niver a thing t’ worrit me; while Welsh there’s a tossin’ aroun’ thinkin’ o’ what’s before him. Reespons’bility—that’s th’ thing Oi can’t stand.”
On the wages he drew as section-hand—and with the assistance, in summer, of a little “truck-patch” back of his house—he managed to keep himself and his wife and numerous children clothed; they had enough to eat and a place to sleep, and they were all as happy as possible. So that, in this case, Reddy’s philosophy seemed not a half-bad one. Certainly this freedom from responsibility left him in perpetual good-humour that lightened the work for the whole gang and made the hours pass more swiftly. Under his direction, the boy soon learned just what was expected of him, and even drew a word of commendation from his teacher.
“But don’t try to do the work all by yourself, me b’y,” he cautioned, noting Allan’s eagerness. “We’re all willing t’ help a little. If y’ try t’ lift that track by yerself, ye’ll wrinch y’r back, an’ll be laid up fer a week.”
Allan laughed and coloured a little at this good-natured raillery.
“I’ll try not to do more than my share,” he said.
“That’s roight!” approved Reddy, with a nod. “Whin each man does his share, why, th’ wor-rk goes along stiddy an’ aisy. It’s whin we gits a shirker on th’ gang like that there Dan Nolan—”
A chorus of low growls35 from the other men interrupted him. Nolan, evidently, was not a popular person.
“Who was he?” asked Allan, at the next breathing-spell.
“He’s th’ lazy hound that Jack fired from th’ gang this mornin’,” answered Reddy, his blue eyes blazing with unaccustomed wrath36. “He’s a reg’lar bad ’un, he is. We used t’ think he was workin’ like anything, he’d git so red in th’ face, but come t’ find out he had a trick o’ holdin’ his breath t’ make hisself look that way. He was allers shirkin’, an’ when he had it in fer a feller, no trick was too mean or dir-rty fer him t’ try. Y’ remimber, boys, whin he dropped that rail on poor Tom Collins’s foot?”
The gang murmured an angry assent37, and bent to their work again. Rod by rod they worked their way down the track, lifting, straining, tamping38 down the gravel. Occasionally a train thundered past, and they stood aside, leaning on their tools, glad of the moment’s rest. At last, away in the distance, Allan caught the faint sound of blowing whistles and ringing bells. The foreman took out his watch, looked at it, and closed it with a snap.
“Come on, boys,” he said. “It’s dinner-time!”
They went back together to the hand-car at the side of the road, which was their base of supplies, and slowly got out their dinner-pails. Allan was sent with a bucket to a farmhouse39 a quarter of a mile away to get some fresh water, and, when he returned, he found the men already busy with their food. They drank the cool water eagerly, for the hot sun had given them a burning thirst.
“Set down here,” said the foreman, “an’ dip in with me. I’ve got enough fer three men.”
And Allan sat down right willingly, for his stomach was protesting loudly against its continued state of emptiness. Never did cheese, fried ham, boiled eggs, bread, butter, and apple pie taste better. The compartment40 in the top of the dinner-pail was filled with coffee, but a share of this the boy declined, for he had never acquired a taste for that beverage41. At last he settled back with a long sigh of content.
“That went t’ th’ right place, didn’t it?” asked Jack, with twinkling eyes.
“That it did!” assented42 Allan, heartily43. “I don’t know what I’d have done if you hadn’t taken pity on me,” he added. “I was simply starving.”
“You had your breakfast this mornin’, didn’t y’?” demanded Jack, sharply.
Allan coloured a little under his fierce gaze.
“No, sir, I didn’t,” he said, rather hoarsely44. “I couldn’t find any work to do, and I—I couldn’t beg!”
Jack looked at him without speaking, but his eyes were suspiciously bright.
“So you see, I just had to have this job,” Allan went on. “And now that I’ve got it, I’m going to do my best to keep it!”
Jack turned away for a moment, before he could trust himself to speak.
“I like your grit,” he said, at last. “It’s th’ right kind. An’ you won’t have any trouble keepin’ your job. But, man alive, why didn’t y’ tell me y’ was hungry? Jest a hint would ’a’ been enough! Why, th’ wife’ll never fergive me when she hears about it!”
“Oh,” protested Allan, “I couldn’t—”
He stopped without finishing the sentence.
“Well, I’ll fergive y’ this time,” said Jack. “Are y’ sure y’ve ate all y’ kin7 hold?”
“Every mite,” Allan assured him, his heart warming toward the friendly, weather-beaten face that looked at him so kindly. “I couldn’t eat another morsel45!”
“All right, then; we’ll see that it don’t occur ag’in,” said Jack, putting the cover on his pail, and then stretching out in an easier position. “Now, d’ y’ want a stiddy job here?” he asked.
“If I can get it.”
“I guess y’ kin git it, all right. But how about your home?”
“I haven’t any home,” and the boy gazed out across the fields, his lips quivering a little despite his efforts to keep them still.
The foreman looked at him for a moment. There was something in the face that moved him, and he held out his hand impulsively46.
“Here, shake!” he said. “I’m your friend.”
The boy put his hand in the great, rough palm extended to him, but he did not speak—his throat was too full for that.
“Now, if you’re goin’ t’ stay,” went on the other, “you’ve got t’ have some place t’ board. I’ll board an’ room y’ fer three dollars a week. It won’t be like Delmonicer’s, but y’ won’t starve—y’ll git yer three square meals a day. That’ll leave y’ four-fifty a week fer clothes an’ things. How’ll that suit y’?”
The boy looked at him gratefully.
“You are very kind,” he said, huskily. “I’m sure it’s worth more than three dollars a week.”
“No, it ain’t—not a cent more. Well, that’s settled. Some day, maybe, you’ll feel like tellin’ me about yerself. I’d like to hear it. But not now—wait till y’ git used t’ me.”
A freight-train, flying two dirty white flags, to show that it was running extra and not on a definite schedule, rumbled47 by, and the train-crew waved their caps at the section-men, who responded in kind. The engineer leaned far out the cab window and shouted something, but his voice was lost in the roar of the train.
“That’s Bill Morrison,” observed Jack, when the train was past. “There ain’t a finer engineer on th’ road. Two year ago he run into a washout down here at Oak Furnace. He seen it in time t’ jump, but he told his fireman t’ jump instead, and he stuck to her an’ tried to stop her. They found him in th’ ditch under th’ engine, with his leg mashed48 an’ his arm broke an’ his head cut open. He opened his eyes fer a minute as they was draggin’ him out, an’ what d’ y’ think he says?”
Jack paused a moment, while Allan listened breathlessly, with fast-beating heart.
“He says, ‘Flag Number Three!’ says he, an’ then dropped off senseless ag’in. They’d forgot all about Number Three, th’ fastest passenger-train on th’ road, an’ she’d have run into them as sure as shootin’, if it hadn’t been fer Bill. Well, sir, they hurried out a flagman an’ stopped her jest in time, an’ you ort t’ seen them passengers when they heard about Bill! They all went up t’ him where he was layin’ pale-like an’ bleedin’ on th’ ground, an’ they was mighty few of th’ men but what was blowin’ their noses; an’ as fer the women, they jest naturally slopped over! Well, they thought Bill was goin’ t’ die, but he pulled through. Yes, he’s still runnin’ freight—he’s got t’ wait his turn fer promotion49; that’s th’ rule o’ th’ road. But he’s got th’ finest gold watch y’ ever seen; them passengers sent it t’ him; an’ right in th’ middle of th’ case it says, ‘Flag Number Three.’”
Jack stopped and looked out over the landscape, more affected50 by his own story than he cared to show.
As for Allan, he gazed after the fast disappearing train as though it were an emperor’s triumphal car.

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