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HOME > Classical Novels > The Young Section-Hand > CHAPTER VII. THE IRISH BRIGADE
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 It was not until they were seated around the table that evening that Allan remembered that the next day was to occur the great inspection1 by the Irish Brigade, and he straightened up suddenly as he thought of it.  
“Didn’t that engine tear things up some when she ran off the track?” he asked of Jack2.
“Yes,” answered the foreman, “but it was only at th’ end of th’ sidin’, an’ that won’t matter. Besides, th’ wreckin’ crew’s up there now gittin’ th’ engine back on th’ track an’ fixin’ things up ag’in. If th’ main line on Twenty-one ain’t in good shape, it’s because I don’t know what good shape is,” he added, with decision. “We couldn’t do anything more to it if we worked fer a week. I’ve asked th’ boys t’ take a run over it t’-morrer mornin’ jest as a matter o’ precaution. Do y’ think y’ kin3 git up at midnight?” he added, suddenly, giving his wife a knowing wink4.
“At midnight?” repeated Allan. “Why, yes, of course, if you want me to.”
“Well, y’ll have t’ git up at midnight if y’ want t’ ketch Number Five fer Cincinnati.”
Allan’s face flushed with quick pleasure.
“Am I to go, too?” he asked, eagerly. “Can you take me, too?”
Jack laughed in sympathy with his bright eyes.
“Yes,” he said; “that’s what I kin. I got an extry pass from th’ superintendent5. I told him I had a boy who wanted t’ see th’ road because he was goin’ t’ be superintendent hisself, some day. He said he guessed he knew th’ boy’s name without bein’ told, an’ wrote out th’ pass.”
Allan flushed high with pleasure.
“That was nice of him,” he said.
“Yes,” said Jack; “an’ yet I think he was figgerin’ on helpin’ th’ road, too. Y’ see, whenever a bright feller like you comes along an’ shows that he’s steady an’ can be depended on, he never gits t’ work on section very long. They need boys like that up in th’ offices. That’s where th’ brains o’ th’ road are. In fact, th’ office itself is th’ brain o’ th’ whole system, with wires runnin’ out to every part of it an’ bringin’ back word what’s goin’ on, jest like a doctor told me once th’ nerves do in our bodies.”
“Yes,” nodded Allan; “but what has that got to do with my going over the road to-morrow?”
“Jest this,” said Jack; “before a feller’s fit to hold a job in th’ offices,—a job as operator or despatcher, that is,—and work one o’ them little wires, he’s got t’ know th’ road better’n he knows th’ path in his own back yard. He’s got t’ know every foot of it—where th’ grades are an’ how heavy they are; where th’ curves are, an’ whether they’re long or short; where every sidin’ is, an’ jest how many cars it’ll hold; where th’ track runs through a cut, an’ where it comes out on a fill; where every bridge and culvert is—in fact, he’s got t’ know th’ road so well that when he’s ridin’ over it he kin wake up in th’ night an’ tell by th’ way th’ wheels click an’ th’ cars rock jest exactly where he is!”
At the moment Allan thought that Jack was exaggerating; but he was to learn that there was in all this not the slightest trace of exaggeration. And he was to learn, too, that upon the accuracy of this minute knowledge the safety of passenger and freight train often depended.
They sat on the porch again that evening, while Mary rocked Mamie to sleep and Jack smoked his pipe. Always below them in the yards the little yard-engines puffed6 up and down, placing the cars in position in the trains—cars laden7 with coal and grain for the east; cars laden with finished merchandise for the west; the farmer and miner exchanging his product for that of the manufacturer.
Only there was no Reddy to come and whistle at the gate, and after awhile they walked over to his house to find out how he was.
Mrs. Magraw let them in. Her stout8 Irish optimism had come back again, for Reddy was better.
“Though he’s still a little quare,” she added. “He lays there with his oies open, but he don’t seem t’ notice much. Th’ docther says it’ll be a day or two afore he’s hisself ag’in.”
“Well, I’m glad it’s no worse,” said Jack. “We can’t afford to lose Reddy.”
“We won’t lose him this trip, thank God!” said Mrs. Magraw. “Mr. Schofield was over jist now t’ see if they was anything he could do. He says th’ road’ll make it all roight with Reddy.”
“That’s good!” said Jack, heartily9; “but we won’t keep you any longer, Mrs. Magraw,” and he and Allan said good night.
“We must be gittin’ t’ bed ourselves,” Jack added, as they mounted the path to his home. “Remember, we have t’ git up at midnight. It’s good an’ sleepy you’ll be, my boy!”
“No, I won’t!” laughed Allan. “But I’ll turn in now, anyway.”
It seemed to him that he had been asleep only a few minutes when he heard Jack’s voice calling. But he was out of bed as soon as he got his eyes open, and got into his clothes as quickly as he could in the darkness. Mary had a hot lunch waiting by the time he got down-stairs. He and Jack ate a little,—one doesn’t have much appetite at midnight,—and together they made their way across the yards to the station, where they caught the fast mail for the city.
The smoking-car of the train was crowded with section-men on their way to the rendezvous10, and a jolly, good-natured lot they were. There was no thought of sleep, for this was a holiday for them,—besides, sleep was out of the question in that tumult,—and one story of the rail followed another. As Allan listened, he wondered at these tales of heroism11 and daring told so lightly—of engineers sticking to their posts though certain death stared them in the face; of crossing-flagmen saving the lives of careless men and women, at the cost, often, of their own; of break-in-twos, washouts, head-end collisions, of confusion of orders and mistakes of despatchers—all the lore12 that gathers about the life of the rail. And as he listened, the longing13 came to him to prove himself worthy14 of this brotherhood15.
One story, in particular, stuck in Allan’s memory.
“Then there was Tom Rawlinson,” began one of the men.
“Let Pat tell that story,” interrupted another. “Come out here, Pat. We want t’ hear about Tom Rawlinson an’ his last trip on th’ Two-twenty-four.”
So Pat came out, shyly, a tall, raw-boned man. As he got within the circle of light, Allan saw that his face was frightfully scarred.
“’Twas in th’ summer o’ ninety-two,” he began. “Rawlinson had had th’ Two-twenty-four about a month, an’ was as proud of her as a man is of his first baby. That day he was takin’ a big excursion train in to Parkersburg. He was lettin’ me ride in th’ cab, which he hadn’t any bus’ness t’ do, but Tom Rawlinson was th’ biggest-hearted man that ever pulled a lever on this road.”
He paused a moment, and his listeners gravely nodded their approval of the sentiment.
“Well, he was pullin’ up th’ hill at Torch, an’ th’ engine had on every pound she could carry. There was a big wind whistlin’ down th’ cut, an’ we could hear th’ fire a-roarin’ when th’ fireman pulled open th’ door t’ throw in some more coal. Th’ minute th’ door was open, the wind jest seemed t’ sweep int’ thet fire-box, an’ the first thing I knew, a big sheet o’ flame was shootin’ right out in my face. I went back over that tender like a rabbit, without stoppin’ t’ argy th’ why an’ th’ wherefore, an’ when I got back t’ th’ front platform o’ th’ baggage-car, I found that Tom an’ his fireman had come, too.
“We stood there a minute, hardly darin’ t’ breathe, a-watchin’ thet fire. It licked out at th’ cab, an’ quicker’n I kin tell it, th’ wood was blazin’ away in great shape. Then, all of a sudden, I happened t’ think o’ somethin’ that sent a cold chill down my back, an’ made me sick an’ weak. Here was we poundin’ along at forty miles an hour, with orders t’ take th’ sidin’ fer Number Three at th’ Junction17, five mile ahead. It looked to me as though they’d be about a thousand people killed inside of a mighty18 few minutes.”
He stopped to take a fresh chew of tobacco, and Allan saw that his hands were trembling at the memory of that fearful moment.
“Well,” he continued, “as I was a-sayin’, I could feel my hair a-raisin’ right up on my head. I looked around at Tom, an’ I could tell by his set face that he was thinkin’ of th’ same thing I was.
“‘Boys,’ he says, low-like, ‘I’m goin’ forrerd. I’ve got to shet her off. I hadn’t no business t’ run away.’
“An’ without waitin’ fer either o’ us t’ answer, forrerd he went, climbin’ over th’ coal an’ down into th’ burnin’ cab. It was like goin’ into a furnace, but he never faltered—right on he went—right on into th’ fire—an’ in a minute I felt th’ jerk as he reversed her an’ threw on th’ brakes. It seemed t’ me as though we’d never come to a stop, but we did, an’ then th’ brakeman an’ me went forrerd over th’ coal t’ git Tom out. But it warn’t no use. He was layin’ dead on his seat, still holdin’ to th’ throttle19.
“We lifted him down, an’ by that time th’ conductor an’ a lot o’ th’ passengers come a-runnin’ up. An’ then folks begun tellin’ me my face was burned,” and Pat indicated his scars with a rapid gesture. “Till then, I’d never even felt it. When y’re in it, y’ know, y’ only feel it fer others, not fer yourself.”
That ended the story-telling. There was something in that tale of sacrifice which made other tales seem idle and empty.
The dawn was just tingeing20 the sky in the east when the train rushed into the great, echoing train-shed at Cincinnati. The men got out and hurried forward to the dining-room, where a lunch of coffee and sandwiches awaited them. Here, too, were the train-master and division superintendent, trim-built, well-groomed men, with alert eyes, who knew the value of kind words and appreciative21 criticism when it came to managing men. Lunch was hastily eaten, and then the whole crowd proceeded to the special inspection train, where it stood on the side-track ready to start on its two hundred mile trip eastward22. And a peculiar23 looking train it was—consisting, besides the engine, of only one car, a tall, ungainly, boarded structure, open at one end, and, facing the open end, tiers of seats stretching upward to the roof.
Into this the men poured and took their seats, so that every one could see the long stretch of track as it slid backward under them. Almost at once the signal came to start, and the gaily24 decorated engine—draped from end to end in green, that all might know it was the “Irish Brigade” out on its inspection tour—pulled out through the “ditch,” as the deep cut within the city limits is called, past the vast stock-yards and out upon the level track beyond. Instantly silence settled upon the car, broken only by the puffing25 of the engine and the clanking of the wheels over the rails. Seventy pairs of eyes were bent26 upon the track, the road-bed, the right of way, noting every detail. Seventy pairs of ears listened to the tale the wheels were telling of the track’s condition. It was a serious and solemn moment.
Allan, too, looked out upon all this, and his heart fell within him. Surely, no track could be more perfect, no road-bed better kept. It must be this section which would win the prize. Yet, when that section had been left behind and the next one entered on, he could detect no difference. How could anybody rate one section higher than another, when all alike were perfect? And what possible chance was there for Twenty-one?
They were side-tracked at the end of an hour to allow a through passenger to pass, and the babel of voices arose again. But it was silenced at once the moment they ran out to continue on the journey. Hours passed, and at last, with a leaping heart, Allan recognized the west end of Section Twenty-one. He glanced at Jack Welsh, and saw how his eyes were shining, but he dared not look in his direction a second time. He stared out at the track and wondered if it was really here that he had laboured for the past week.
Yes,—he recognized the landmarks,—the high trestle over the deep ravine, the cut, the long grade, the embankment along the river. It seemed almost that he knew every foot of the track; but he did not know it so well as he thought, for his eyes did not detect what Welsh’s more critical ones saw on the instant,—traces of gravel16 dug out, of whitewash27 rubbed away, of a guard-fence broken down. The gravel had been replaced, the whitewash touched up anew, the fence had been repaired, but Welsh knew that the section was not as he had left it the night before, and in a flash he understood.
“It was some of Dan Nolan’s work,” he said to himself, and, the moment the train stopped in the yards at Wadsworth, he called to Allan and hurried away to the section-shanty to hear the story.

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