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HOME > Classical Novels > The Young Section-Hand > CHAPTER II. A NEW EXPERIENCE
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 “When I was a kid,” continued Welsh, reminiscently, after a moment, “I was foolish, like all other kids. I thought they wasn’t nothin’ in th’ world so much fun as railroadin’. I made up my mind t’ be a brakeman, fer I thought all a brakeman had t’ do was t’ set out on top of a car, with his legs a-hangin’ over, an’ see th’ country, an’ wave his hat at th’ girls, an’ chase th’ boys off th’ platform, an’ order th’ engineer around by shakin’ his hand at him. Gee2 whiz!” and he laughed and slapped his leg. “It tickles3 me even yet t’ think what an ijit I was!”  
“Did you try braking?” asked Allan.
“Yes—I tried it,” and Welsh’s eyes twinkled; “but I soon got enough. Them wasn’t th’ days of air-brakes, an’ I tell you they was mighty4 little fun in runnin’ along th’ top of a train in th’ dead o’ winter when th’ cars was covered with ice an’ th’ wind blowin’ fifty mile an hour. They wasn’t no automatic couplers, neither; a man had t’ go right in between th’ cars t’ drop in th’ pin, an’ th’ engineer never seemed t’ care how hard he backed down on a feller. After about six months of it, I come t’ th’ conclusion that section-work was nearer my size. It ain’t so excitin’, an’ a man don’t make quite so much money; but he’s sure o’ gettin’ home t’ his wife when th’ day’s work’s over, an’ of havin’ all his legs an’ arms with him. That counts fer a whole lot, I tell yer!”
He had got out a little black pipe as he talked, and filled it with tobacco from a paper sack. Then he applied5 a lighted match to the bowl and sent a long whiff of purple smoke circling upwards6.
“There!” he said, leaning back with a sigh of ineffable7 content. “That’s better—that’s jest th’ dessert a man wants. You don’t smoke, I guess?”
“No,” and Allan shook his head.
“Well, I reckon you’re as well off—better off, maybe; but I begun smokin’ when I was knee high to a duck.”
“You were telling me about that engineer,” prompted Allan, hoping for another story. “Are there any more like him?”
“Plenty more!” answered Jack8, vigorously. “Why, nine engineers out o’ ten would ’a’ done jest what he done. It comes nat’ral, after a feller’s worked on th’ road awhile. Th’ road comes t’ be more t’ him than wife ’r childer—it gits t’ be a kind o’ big idol9 thet he bows down an’ worships; an’ his engine’s a little idol thet he thinks more of than he does of his home. When he ain’t workin’, instead of stayin’ at home an’ weedin’ his garden, or playin’ with his childer, he’ll come down t’ th’ roundhouse an’ pet his engine, an’ polish her up, an’ walk around her an’ look at her, an’ try her valves an’ watch th’ stokers t’ see thet they clean her out proper. An’ when she wears out ’r breaks down, why, you’d think he’d lost his best friend. There was old Cliff Gudgeon. He had a swell10 passenger run on th’ east end; but when they got t’ puttin’ four ’r five sleepers11 on his train, his old engine was too light t’ git over th’ road on time, so they give him a new one—a great big one—a beauty. An’ what did Cliff do? Well, sir, he said he was too old t’ learn th’ tricks of another engine, an’ he’d stick to his old one, an’ he’s runnin’ a little accommodation train up here on th’ Hillsboro branch at seventy-five a month, when he might ’a’ been makin’ twict that a-handlin’ th’ Royal Blue. Then, there’s Reddy Magraw—now, t’ look at Reddy, y’ wouldn’t think he was anything but a chuckle-headed Irishman. Yet, six year ago—”
Reddy had caught the sound of his name, and looked up suddenly.
“Hey, Jack, cut it out!” he called.
Welsh laughed good-naturedly.
“All right!” he said. “He’s th’ most modest man in th’ world, is Reddy. But they ain’t all that way. There’s Dan Nolan,” and Jack’s face darkened. “I had him on th’ gang up till this mornin’, but I couldn’t stan’ him no longer, so I jest fired him. That’s th’ reason there was a place fer you, m’ boy.”
“Yes,” said Allan, “Reddy was telling me about him. What was it he did?”
“He didn’t do anything,” laughed Jack. “That was th’ trouble. He was jest naturally lazy—sneakin’ lazy an’ mean. There’s jest two things a railroad asks of its men—you might as well learn it now as any time—they must be on hand when they’re needed, an’ they must be willin’ t’ work. As long as y’re stiddy an’ willin’ t’ work, y’ won’t have no trouble holdin’ a job on a railroad.”
Allan looked out across the fields and determined12 that in these two respects, at least, he would not be found wanting. He glanced at the other group, gossiping together in the shade of a tree. They were not attractive-looking, certainly, but he was beginning to learn already that a man may be brave and honest, whatever his appearance. They were laughing at one of Reddy’s jokes, and Allan looked at him with a new respect, wondering what it was he had done. The foreman watched the boy’s face with a little smile, reading his thoughts.
“He ain’t much t’ look at, is he?” he said. “But you’ll soon learn—if you ain’t learnt already—that you can’t judge a man’s inside by his outside. There’s no place you’ll learn it quicker than on a railroad. Railroad men, barrin’ th’ passenger train crews, who have t’ keep themselves spruced up t’ hold their jobs, ain’t much t’ look at, as a rule, but down at th’ bottom of most of them there allers seems t’ be a man—a real man—a man who don’t lose his head when he sees death a-starin’ him in th’ face, but jest grits13 his teeth an’ sticks to his post an’ does his duty. Railroad men ain’t little tin gods nor plaster saints—fur from it!—but they’re worth a mighty sight more than either. There was Jim Blakeson, th’ skinniest, lankest, most woe-begone-lookin’ feller I ever see outside of a circus. He was brakin’ front-end one night on third ninety-eight, an’—”
From afar off came the faint blowing of whistles, telling that, in the town of Wadsworth, the wheels in the factories had started up again, that men and women were bending again to their tasks, after the brief noon hour. Welsh stopped abruptly14, much to Allan’s disappointment, knocked out his pipe against his boot-heel, and rose quickly to his feet. If there was one article in Welsh’s code of honour which stood before all the rest, it was this: That the railroad which employed him should have the full use of the ten hours a day for which it paid. To waste any part of that time was to steal the railroad’s money. It is a good principle for any man—or for any boy—to cling to.
“One o’clock!” he cried. “Come on, boys! We’ve got a good stretch o’ track to finish up down there.”
The dinner-pails were replaced on the hand-car and it was run down the road about half a mile and then derailed again. The straining work began; tugging15 at the bars, tamping16 gravel17 under the ties, driving new spikes18, replacing a fish-plate here and there. And the new hand learned many things.
He learned that with the advent19 of the great, modern, ten-wheeled freight locomotives, all the rails on the line had been replaced with heavier ones weighing eighty-five pounds to the yard,—850 pounds to their thirty feet of length,—the old ones being too light to carry such enormous weights with safety. They were called T-rails, because, in cross-section, they somewhat resembled that letter. The top of the rail is the “head”; the thinner stem, the “web”; and the wide, flat bottom, the “base.” Besides being spiked20 down to the ties, which are first firmly bedded in gravel or crushed stone, the rails are bolted together at the ends with iron bars called “fish-plates.” These are fitted to the web, one on each side of the junction21 of two rails, and bolts are then passed through them and nuts screwed on tightly.
This work of joining the rails is done with such nicety, and the road-bed built so solidly, that there is no longer such a great rattle22 and bang as the trains pass over them—a rattle and bang formerly23 as destructive to the track as to the nerves of the passenger. It is the duty of the section-foreman to see that the six or eight miles of track which is under his supervision24 is kept in the best possible shape, and to inspect it from end to end twice daily, to guard against any possibility of accident.
As the hours passed, Allan’s muscles began to ache sadly, but there were few chances to rest. At last the foreman perceived that he was overworking himself, and sent him and Reddy back to bring up the hand-car and prepare for the homeward trip. They walked back to where it stood, rolled it out upon the track, and pumped it down to the spot where the others were working, Reddy giving Allan his first lesson in how to work the levers, for there is a right and wrong way of managing a hand-car, just as there is a right and wrong way of doing everything else.
“That’s about all we kin1 do to-day,” and Jack took out his watch and looked at it reflectively, as the car came rolling up. “I guess we kin git in before Number Six comes along. What y’ think?” and he looked at Reddy.
“How much time we got?” asked the latter, for only the foreman of the gang could afford to carry a watch.
“Twelve minutes.”
“That’s aisy! We kin make it in eight without half-tryin’!”
“All right!” and Jack thrust the watch back into his pocket. “Pile on, boys!”
And pile on they did, bringing their tools with them. They seized the levers, and in a moment the car was spinning down the track. There was something fascinating and invigorating in the motion. As they pumped up and down, Allan could see the fields, fences, and telegraph-poles rushing past them. It seemed to him that they were going faster even than the “flier.” The wind whistled against him and the car jolted25 back and forth27 in an alarming way.
“Hold tight!” yelled Reddy, and they flashed around a curve, across a high trestle, through a deep cut, and down a long grade on the other side. Away ahead he could see the chimneys of the town nestling among the trees. They were down the grade in a moment, and whirling along an embankment that bordered a wide and placid28 river, when the car gave a sudden, violent jolt26, ran for fifty feet on three wheels, and then settled down on the track again.
“Stop her!” yelled the foreman. “Stop her!”
They strained at the levers, but the car seemed alive and sprang away from them. Twice she almost shook them off, then sullenly29 succumbed30, and finally stopped.
“Somethin’s th’ matter back there!” panted Jack. “Give her a shove, Reddy!”
Reddy jumped off and started her back up the track. In a moment the levers caught, and they were soon at the place where the jolt had occurred.
The foreman sprang off and for an instant bent31 over the track. Then he straightened up with stern face.
“Quick!” he cried. “Jerk that car off th’ track and bring two fish-plates an’ some spikes. West, take that flag, run up th’ track as far as y’ kin, an’ flag Number Six. Mind, don’t stop runnin’ till y’ see her. She’ll have her hands full stoppin’ on that grade.”
With beating heart Allan seized the flag and ran up the track as fast as his legs would carry him. The thought that the lives of perhaps a hundred human beings depended upon him set his hands to trembling and his heart to beating wildly. On and on he went, until his breath came in gasps32 and his head sang. It seemed that he must have covered a mile at least, yet it was only a few hundred feet. And then, away ahead, he saw the train flash into sight around the curve and come hurtling down the grade toward him.
He shook loose the flag and waved it wildly over his head, still running forward. He even shouted, not realizing how puny33 his voice was. The engine grew larger and larger with amazing swiftness. He could hear the roar of the wheels; a shaft34 of steam leaped into the air, and, an instant later, the wind brought him the sound of a shrill35 whistle. He saw the engineer leaning from his window, and, with a great sob36 of relief, knew that he had been seen. He had just presence of mind to spring from the track, and the train passed him, the wheels grinding and shrieking37 under the pressure of the air-brakes, the drivers of the engine whirling madly backwards38. He caught a glimpse of startled passengers peering from the windows, and then the train was past. But it was going slower and slower, and stopped at last with a jerk.
When he reached the place, he found Jack explaining to the conductor about the broken fish-plates and the loose rail. What had caused it could not be told with certainty—the expansion from the heat, perhaps, or the vibration39 from a heavy freight that had passed half an hour before, or a defect in the plates, which inspection40 had not revealed. Allan sat weakly down upon the overturned hand-car. No one paid any heed41 to him, and he was astonished that they treated the occurrence so lightly. Jack and the engineer were joking together. Only the conductor seemed worried, and that was because the delay would throw his train a few minutes late.
Half a dozen of the passengers, who had been almost hurled42 from their seats by the suddenness of the stop, came hurrying up. All along the line of coaches windows had been raised, and white, anxious faces were peering out. Inside the coaches, brakemen and porters were busy picking up the packages that had been thrown from the racks, and reassuring43 the frightened people.
“What’s the matter?” gasped44 one of the passengers, a tall, thin, nervous-looking man, as soon as he reached the conductor’s side. “Nothing serious, I hope? There’s no danger, is there? My wife and children are back there—”
The conductor smiled at him indulgently.
“There’s no danger at all, my dear sir,” he interrupted. “The section-gang here flagged us until they could bolt this rail down. That is all.”
“But,” protested the man, looking around for sympathy, and obviously anxious not to appear unduly45 alarmed, “do you usually throw things about that way when you stop?”
“No,” said the conductor, smiling again; “but you see we were on a heavy down-grade, and going pretty fast. I’d advise you gentlemen to get back into the train at once,” he added, glancing at his watch again. “We’ll be starting in a minute or two.”
The little group of passengers walked slowly back and disappeared into the train. Allan, looking after them, caught his first glimpse of one side of railroad policy—a policy which minimizes every danger, which does its utmost to keep every peril46 from the knowledge of its patrons—a wise policy, since nervousness will never add to safety. Away up the track he saw the brakeman, who had been sent back as soon as the train stopped, to prevent the possibility of a rear-end collision, and he understood dimly something of the wonderful system which guards the safety of the trains.
Then, suddenly, he realized that he was not working, that his place was with that little group labouring to repair the track, and he sprang to his feet, but at that instant Jack stood back with a sigh of relief and turned to the conductor.
“All right,” he said.
The conductor raised his hand, a sharp whistle recalled the brakeman, who came down the track on a run; the engineer opened his throttle47; there was a long hiss48 of escaping steam, and the train started slowly. As it passed him, Allan could see the passengers settling back contentedly49 in their seats, the episode already forgotten. In a moment the train was gone, growing rapidly smaller away down the track ahead of them. A few extra spikes were driven in to further strengthen the place, and the hand-car was run out on the track again.
“Y’ made pretty good time,” said Jack to the boy; and then, as he saw his white face, he added, “Kind o’ winded y’, didn’t it?”
Allan nodded, and climbed silently to his place on the car.
“Shook y’r nerve a little, too, I reckon,” added Jack, as the car started slowly. “But y’ mustn’t mind a little thing like that, m’ boy. It’s all in th’ day’s work.”
All in the day’s work! The flagging of a train was an ordinary incident in the lives of these men. There had, perhaps, been no great danger, yet the boy caught his breath as he recalled that fearful moment when the train rushed down upon him. All in the day’s work—for which the road paid a dollar and a quarter!

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