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HOME > Classical Novels > The Young Section-Hand > CHAPTER III. AN ADVENTURE AND A STORY
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 Jack1 Welsh, section-foreman, lived in a little frame house perched high on an embankment just back of the railroad yards. The bank had been left there when the yards had been levelled down, and the railroad company, always anxious to promote habits of sobriety and industry in its men, and knowing that no influence makes for such habits as does the possession of a home, had erected2 a row of cottages along the top of the embankment, and offered them on easy terms to its employés. They weren’t palatial—they weren’t even particularly attractive—but they were homes.  
In front, the bank dropped steeply down to the level of the yards, but behind they sloped more gently, so that each of the cottages had a yard ample for a vegetable garden. To attend to this was the work of the wife and the children—a work which always yielded a bountiful reward.
There were six cottages in the row, but one was distinguished3 from the others in summer by a mass of vines which clambered over it, and a garden of sweet-scented flowers which occupied the little front yard. This was Welsh’s, and he never mounted toward it without a feeling of pride and a quick rush of affection for the little woman who found time, amid all her household duties, to add her mite4 to the world’s beauty. As he glanced at the other yards, with their litter of trash and broken playthings, he realized, more keenly perhaps than most of us do, what a splendid thing it is to render our little corner of the world more beautiful, instead of making it uglier, as human beings have a way of doing.
It was toward this little vine-embowered cottage that Jack and Allan turned their steps, as soon as the hand-car and tools had been deposited safely in the little section shanty6. As they neared the house, a midget in blue calico came running down the path toward them.
“It’s Mamie,” said Welsh, his face alight with tenderness; and, as the child swept down upon him, he seized her, kissed her, and swung her to his shoulder, where she sat screaming in triumph.
They mounted the path so, and, at the door, Mrs. Welsh, a little, plump, black-eyed woman, met them.
“I’ve brought you a boarder, Mary,” said Welsh, setting Mamie down upon her sturdy little legs. “Allan West’s his name. I took him on th’ gang to-day, an’ told him he might come here till he found some place he liked better.”
“That’s right!” and Mrs. Welsh held out her hand in hearty7 welcome, pleased with the boy’s frank face. “We’ll try t’ make you comf’terble,” she added. “You’re a little late, Jack.”
“Yes, we had t’ stop t’ fix a break,” he answered; and he told her in a few words the story of the broken fish-plates. “It don’t happen often,” he added, “but y’ never know when t’ expect it.”
“No, y’ never do,” agreed Mary, her face clouding for an instant, then clearing with true Irish optimism. “You’ll find th’ wash-basin out there on th’ back porch, m’ boy,” she added to Allan, and he hastened away to cleanse8 himself, so far as soap and water could do it, of the marks of the day’s toil9.
Mrs. Welsh turned again to her husband as soon as the boy was out of ear-shot.
“Where’d you pick him up, Jack?” she asked. “He ain’t no common tramp.”
“Not a bit of it,” agreed her husband. “He looks like a nice boy. He jest come along an’ wanted a job. He said he’d come from Cincinnati, an’ hadn’t any home; but he didn’t seem t’ want t’ talk about hisself.”
“No home!” repeated Mary, her heart warming with instant sympathy. “Poor boy! We’ll have t’ look out fer him, Jack.”
“I knew you’d say that, darlint!” cried her husband, and gave her a hearty hug.
“Go ’long with you!” cried Mary, trying in vain to speak sternly. “I smell th’ meat a-burnin’!” and she disappeared into the kitchen, while Jack joined Allan on the back porch.
How good the cool, clean water felt, splashed over hands and face; what a luxury it was to scrub with the thick lather10 of the soap, and then rinse11 off in a brimming basin of clear water; how delicious it was to be clean again! Jack dipped his whole head deep into the basin, and then, after a vigorous rubbing with the towel, took his station before a little glass and brushed his black hair until it presented a surface almost as polished as the mirror’s own.
Then Mamie came with the summons to supper, and they hurried in to it, for ten hours’ work on section will make even a confirmed dyspeptic hungry—yes, and give him power properly to digest his food.
How pretty the table looked, with its white cloth and shining dishes! For Mary was a true Irish housewife, with a passion for cleanliness and a pride in her home. It was growing dark, and a lamp had been lighted and placed in the middle of the board, making it look bright and cosy12.
“You set over there, m’ boy,” said Mary, herself taking the housewife’s inevitable13 place behind the coffee-pot, with her husband opposite. “Now, Mamie, you behave yourself,” she added, for Mamie was peeping around the lamp at Allan with roguish eyes. “We’re all hungry, Jack, so don’t keep us waitin’.”
And Jack didn’t.
How good the food smelt14, and how good it tasted! Allan relished15 it more than he would have done any dinner of “Delmonicer’s,” for Mary was one of the best of cooks, and only the jaded16 palate relishes17 the sauces and fripperies of French chefs.
“A girl as can’t cook ain’t fit t’ marry,” Mary often said; a maxim18 which she had inherited from her mother, and would doubtless hand down to Mamie. “There’s nothin’ that’ll break up a home quicker ’n a bad cook, an’ nothin’ that’ll make a man happier ’n a good one.”
Certainly, if cooking were a test, this supper was proof enough of her fitness for the state of matrimony. There was a great platter of ham and eggs, fluffy19 biscuits, and the sweetest of yellow butter. And, since he did not drink coffee, Allan was given a big glass of fragrant20 milk to match Mamie’s. They were tasting one of the best sweets of toil—to sit down with appetite to a table well-laden.
After supper, they gathered on the front porch, and sat looking down over the busy, noisy yards. The switch-lamps gleamed in long rows, red and green and white, telling which tracks were open and which closed. The yard-engines ran fussily21 up and down, shifting the freight-cars back and forth22, and arranging them in trains to be sent east or west. Over by the roundhouse, engines were being run in on the big turntable and from there into the stalls, where they would be furbished up and overhauled23 for the next trip. Others were being brought out, tanks filled with water, and tenders heaped high with coal, ready for the run to Parkersburg or Cincinnati. They seemed almost human in their impatience24 to be off—breathing deeply in loud pants, the steam now and then throwing up the safety-valve and “popping off” with a great noise.
The clamour, the hurry, the rush of work, never ceasing from dawn to dawn, gave the boy a dim understanding of the importance of this great corporation which he had just begun to serve. He was only a very little cog in the vast machine, to be sure, but the smoothness of its running depended upon the little cogs no less than on the big ones.
A man’s figure, indistinct in the twilight25, stopped at the gate below and whistled.
“There’s Reddy Magraw,” said Jack, with a laugh. “I’d forgot—it was so hot t’-day, we thought we’d go over t’ th’ river an’ take a dip t’-night. Do you know how t’ swim, Allan?”
“Just a little,” answered Allan; “all I know about it was picked up in the swimming-pool at the gymnasium at Cincinnati.”
“Well, it’s time y’ learned more,” said Jack. “Every boy ought t’ know how t’ swim—mebbe some day not only his own life but the lives o’ some o’ his women-folks’ll depend on him. Come along, an’ we’ll give y’ a lesson.”
“I’ll be glad to!” Allan cried, and ran indoors for his hat.
Reddy whistled again.
“We’re comin’,” called Jack. “We won’t be gone long,” he added to his wife, as they started down the path.
“All right, dear,” she answered. “An’ take good care o’ th’ boy.”
Reddy greeted Allan warmly, and thoroughly26 agreed with Jack that it was every boy’s duty to learn how to swim. Together they started off briskly toward the river—across the yards, picking their way carefully over the maze27 of tracks, then along the railroad embankment which skirted the stream, and finally through a corn-field to the water’s edge. The river looked very wide and still in the semidarkness, and Allan shivered a little as he looked at it; but the feeling passed in a moment. Reddy had his clothes off first, and dived in with a splash; Jack waded28 in to show Allan the depth. The boy followed, with sudden exhilaration, as he felt the cool water rise about him.
“This is different from a swimmin’-pool, ain’t it?” said Jack.
“Indeed it is!” agreed Allan; “and a thousand times nicer!”
“Now,” added Jack, “let me give you a lesson,” and he proceeded to instruct Allan in the intricacies of the broad and powerful breast stroke.
The boy was an apt pupil, and at the end of twenty minutes had mastered it sufficiently29 to be able to make fair progress through the water. He would have kept on practising, but Jack stopped him.
“We’ve been in long enough,” he said; “you mustn’t overdo30 it. Come along, Reddy,” he called to that worthy31, who was disporting32 himself out in the middle of the current.
As they turned toward the shore the full moon peeped suddenly over a little hill on the eastern horizon, and cast a broad stream of silver light across the water, touching33 every ripple34 and little wave with magic beauty.
“Oh, look!” cried Allan. “Look!”
They stood and watched the moon until it sailed proudly above the hill, and then waded to the bank, rubbed themselves down briskly, and resumed their clothes, cleansed35 and purified in spirit as well as body. They made their way back through the corn-field, but just as they reached the embankment, Reddy stopped them with a quick, stifled36 cry.
“Whist!” he said, hoarsely38. “Look there! What’s that?”
Straining his eyes through the darkness, Allan saw, far down the track ahead of them, a dim, white figure. It seemed to be going through some sort of pantomime, waving its arms wildly above its head.
“It’s a ghost!” whispered Reddy, breathing heavily. “It’s Tim Dorsey’s ghost! D’ y’ raymimber, Jack, it was jist there thet th’ poor feller was killed last month! That’s his ghost, sure as I’m standin’ here!”
“Oh, nonsense!” retorted Jack, with a little laugh, but his heart was beating faster than usual, as he peered through the darkness at the strange figure. What could it be that would stand there and wave its arms in that unearthly fashion?
“It’s his ghost!” repeated Reddy. “Come on, Jack; Oi’m a-goin’ back!”
“Well, I’m not!” said Jack. “I’m not afraid of a ghost, are you, Allan?”
“I don’t believe in ghosts,” said Allan, but it must be confessed that his nerves were not wholly steady as he kept his eyes on the strange figure dancing there in the moonlight.
“If it ain’t a ghost, what is it?” demanded Reddy, hoarsely.
“That’s just what we’re goin’ t’ find out,” answered Jack, and started forward, resolutely39.
Allan went with him, but Reddy kept discreetly40 in the rear. He was no coward,—he was as brave as any man in facing a danger which he knew the nature of,—but all the superstition41 of his untutored Irish heart held him back from this unearthly apparition42.
As they drew near, its lines became more clearly defined; it was undoubtedly43 of human shape, but apparently44 it had no head, only a pair of short, stubby arms, which waved wildly in the air, and a pair of legs that danced frantically45. Near at hand it was even more terrifying than at a distance, and their pace grew slower and slower, while Reddy stopped short where he was, his teeth chattering46, his eyes staring. They could hear what seemed to be a human voice proceeding47 from the figure, raised in a sort of weird48 incantation, now high, now low. Was it really a ghost? Allan asked himself; was it really the spirit of the poor fellow whose life had been crushed out a few weeks before? could it be....
Suddenly Jack laughed aloud with relief, and hurried forward.
“Come on,” he called. “It’s no ghost!”
And in a moment Allan saw him reach the figure and pull the white garment down over its head, disclosing a flushed and wrathful, but very human, face.
“Thankee, sir,” said a hoarse37 voice to Jack. “A lady in th’ house back there give me a clean shirt, an’ I was jest puttin’ it on when I got stuck in th’ durn thing, an’ couldn’t git it either way. I reckon I’d ’a’ suffocated49 if you hadn’t come along!”
Jack laughed again.
“We thought you was a ghost!” he said. “You scared Reddy, there, out of a year’s growth, I reckon. Come here, Reddy,” he called, “an’ take a look at yer ghost!”
Reddy came cautiously forward and examined the released tramp.
“Well,” he said, at last, “if you ain’t a ghost, you ought t’ be! I never seed anything that looked more loike one!”
“No, an’ you never will!” retorted Jack. “Come along; it’s time we was home,” and leaving the tramp to complete his toilet, they hurried away.
They found Mary sitting on the front porch, crooning softly to herself as she rocked Mamie to sleep. They bade Reddy good night, and sat down beside her.
“Well, did y’ have a nice time?” she asked.
“Yes,” laughed Jack, and told her the story of the ghost.
They sat silent for a time after that, looking down over the busy yards, breathing in the cool night air, watching the moon as it sailed slowly up the heavens. Allan felt utterly50 at rest; for the first time in many days he felt that he had a home, that there were people in the world who loved him. The thought brought the quick tears to his eyes; an impulse to confide51 in these new friends surged up within him.
“I want to tell you something about myself,” he said, turning to them quickly. “It’s only right that you should know.”
Mrs. Welsh stopped the lullaby she had been humming, and sat quietly waiting.
“Just as y’ please,” said Jack, but the boy knew he would be glad to hear the story.
“It’s not a very long one,” said Allan, his lips trembling, “nor an unusual one, for that matter. Father was a carpenter, and we lived in a little home just out of Cincinnati—he and mother and I. We were very happy, and I went to school every day, while father went in to the city to his work. But one day I was called from school, and when I got home I found that father had fallen from a scaffolding he had been working on, and was so badly injured that he had been taken to a hospital. We thought for a long time that he would die, but he got better slowly, and at last we were able to take him home. But he was never able to work any more,—his spine52 had been injured so that he could scarcely move himself,—and our little savings53 grew smaller and smaller.”
Allan stopped, and looked off across the yards, gripping his hands together to preserve his self-control.
“Father worried about it,” he went on, at last; “worried so much that he grew worse and worse, until—until—he brought on a fever. He hadn’t any strength to fight with. He just sank under it, and died. I was fifteen years old then—but boys don’t understand at the time how hard things are. After he was gone—well, it seems now, looking back, that I could have done something more to help than I did.”
“There, now, don’t be a-blamin’ yerself,” said Jack, consolingly.
The little woman in the rocking-chair leaned over and touched his arm softly, caressingly54.
“No; don’t be blamin’ yerself,” she said. “I know y’ did th’ best y’ could. They ain’t so very much a boy kin5 do, when it’s money that’s needed.”
“No,” and Allan drew a deep breath; “nor a woman, either. Though it wasn’t only that; I’d have worked on; I wouldn’t have given up—but—but—”
“Yes,” said Mary, understanding with quick, unfailing sympathy; “it was th’ mother.”
“She did the best she could,” went on Allan, falteringly55. “She tried to bear up for my sake; but after father was gone she was never quite the same again; she never seemed to rally from the shock of it. She was never strong to start with, and I saw that she grew weaker and weaker every day.” He stopped and cleared his voice. “That’s about all there is to the story,” he added. “I got a little from the furniture and paid off some of the debts, but I couldn’t do much. I tried to get work there, but there didn’t seem to be anybody who wanted me. There were some distant relatives, but I had never known them—and besides, I didn’t want to seem a beggar. There wasn’t anything to keep me in Cincinnati, so I struck out.”
“And y’ did well,” said Welsh. “I’m mighty56 glad y’ come along jest when y’ did. Y’ll find enough to do here, if y’ will keep a willin’ hand. Section work ain’t much, but maybe y’ can git out of it after awhile. Y’ might git a place in th’ yard office if ye’re good at figgers. Ye’ve got more eddication than some. It’s them that git lifted.”
“You’d better talk!” said the wife. “’Tain’t every man with an eddication that gits t’ be foreman at your age.”
“No more it ain’t,” and Jack smiled. “Come on; it’s time t’ go t’ bed. Say good night t’ th’ boy, Mamie.”
“Night,” murmured Mamie, sleepily, and held out her moist, red lips.
With a quick warmth at his heart, Allan stooped and kissed them. It was the first kiss he had given or received since his mother’s death, and, after he had got to bed in the little hot attic57 room, with its single window looking out upon the yards, he lay for a long time thinking over the events of the day, and his great good fortune in falling in with these kindly58 people. Sometime, perhaps, he might be able to prove how much their kindness meant to him.

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