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HOME > Classical Novels > The Young Section-Hand > CHAPTER XI. CLEARING THE TRACK
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 Allan did his best to force himself to eat, but the strangeness of the hour and the excitement of the promised adventure took all desire for food from him. He managed, however, to drink a cup of coffee, but his hands were trembling so with excitement he could scarcely hold the cup. It was a wreck1, and a bad one. How terrible to lose a moment! He was eager to be off. But Jack2 knew from experience the value and need of food while it could be obtained, in view of what might be before them.  
“It’ll take ’em some time t’ git’ th’ wreckin’-train ready,” he said. “Git our waterproofs3, Mary.”
But Mary had them waiting, as well as a lot of sandwiches. She had been through such scenes before.
“There, stuff your pockets full,” she said to Allan. “You’ll want ’em.”
Jack nodded assent4, and took his share.
“And now, good-bye, Mary,” said Jack. “No, don’t wake the baby. If we git back by t’-morrer night, we’ll be lucky. Come on, Allan.”
The snow was still falling heavily as they left the house, and they made their way with some difficulty to the corner of the yards where the wrecking-train stood on its spur of siding. A score of section-men had already gathered, and more were coming up every minute. Nobody knew anything definite about the wreck—some one had heard that Bill Miller5, the engineer, was hurt. It seemed they were taking a doctor along, for Allan saw his tall form in the uncertain light. And the train-master and division superintendent6 were with him, talking together in low tones.
Jack began checking off his men as they came up and reported.
An engine backed up and coupled on to the wrecking-train, and the men slowly clambered aboard. The switch at the end of the siding was opened.
“How many men have you got, Welsh?” asked Mr. Schofield, the train-master.
“Thirty-six, so far, sir.”
“All right. We’ll pick up the gangs on Twenty-three and four as we pass. Go ahead,” he shouted to the engineer. “We’ve got a clear track to Vinton,” and he followed Allan and Jack up the steps into the car.
There was a hiss7 of steam into the cylinders8 and the train pulled slowly out upon the main track, the wheels slipping over the rails at first, but gripping better as the train gathered headway and shot eastward9 into the whirling snow. Operators, switchmen, station-agents, flagmen, all looked out to see it pass. It had only two cars—one, a long flat car loaded with ties and rails, piled with ropes and jacks10 and crowbars. At one end stood the heavy steel derrick, strong enough to lift even a great mogul of a freight-engine and swing it clear of the track.
In the other car, which looked very much like an overgrown box-car, was the powerful donkey-engine which worked the derrick, more tools, a cooking-stove, and a number of narrow cots. Two oil-lanterns swung from the roof, half-illuminating the faces of the men, who sat along the edges of the cots, talking together in low tones.
At Byers, the section-gang from Twenty-three clambered aboard; at Hamden came the gangs from Twenty-four and Twenty-five. Nearly sixty men were crowded together in the car; but there was little noise. It reminded Allan of a funeral.
And it was a funeral. The great railroad, binding11 East to West, was lying dead, its back broken, useless, its circulation stopped. The line was blocked, the track torn up—it was no longer warm, living, vital. It had been torn asunder12. It was a mere13 useless mass of wood and steel. These men were hastening to resurrect it, to make it whole again.
At McArthur the superintendent came aboard with a yellow paper in his hand,—the conductor’s report of the accident,—and he and the train-master bent14 their heads together over it. The men watched them intently.
“Is it a bad one, sir?” asked Jack at last.
“Bad enough,” answered the superintendent. “It seems that first Ninety-eight broke in two on the grade just beyond Vinton. Track so slippery they couldn’t hold, and she ran back into the second section. They came together in the cut at the foot of the grade, and fifteen cars loaded with nut coal were wrecked15. Miller seems the only one hurt, but the track’s torn up badly.”
“Nut coal!” said Jack, with a whistle. “We’ve got our work cut out for us, boys.”
The men nodded—they knew now what to expect. And they fell to talking together in low tones, telling stories of past wrecks16, of feats17 of endurance in the breathless battle which always follows when this leviathan of steel is torn asunder. But the superintendent had used one word which Allan had not wholly understood, and he took the first opportunity to ask Jack about it.
“What did Mr. Heywood mean, Jack,” he inquired, “when he said the train broke in two?”
“That’s so,” and Jack laughed. “It’s your first one—I’d forgot that. I wish it was mine,” and he forthwith explained just how the accident had probably happened.
A “break-in-two” occurs usually as a train is topping a heavy grade. The unusual strain breaks a coupling-pin or pulls out a draw-bar, and the portion of the train released from the engine goes whirling back down the grade, carrying death and destruction with it, unless the crew can set the brakes and get it stopped. Or, on a down-grade, a coupling-pin jumps out and then the two sections come together with a crash, unless the engineer sees the danger in time, and runs away at full speed from the pursuing section. It is only freights that “break in two,” for passenger couplings are made heavy enough to withstand any strain; besides, the moment a passenger-train parts, the air-brakes automatically stop both sections. But to freight crews there is no danger more menacing than the “break-in-two,” although, happily, this danger is gradually growing less and less, with the introduction of air-brakes on freight-cars as well as passenger.
Freight-trains, when traffic is heavy, are usually run in sections, with as many cars to each section as an engine can handle. The sections are run as close together as they can be with safety, and, in railroad parlance19, the first section of Freight-train Ninety-eight, for instance, is known as “first Ninety-eight”; the second section as “second Ninety-eight,” and so on.
In this instance, the first section of Train Ninety-eight had broken in two at the top of a long grade, and fifteen coal-cars, together with the caboose, had gone hurtling back down the grade, finally crashing into the front end of the second section, which was following about a mile behind. The conductor and brakemen, who were in the caboose, after a vain attempt to stop the runaway20 cars with the hand-brakes, had jumped off, and escaped with slight bruises21, but the engineer and fireman of the second section had had no warning of their danger until the cars swept down upon them out of the storm. There was no time to jump—it would have been folly22 to jump, anyhow, since the high walls of the cut shut them in on either side; yet the fireman had escaped almost unhurt, only the engineer being badly injured. The impact of the collision had been terrific, and, as the telegram from the conductor stated, fifteen cars had been completely wrecked.
So much the section-men understood from the superintendent’s brief description, and Jack explained it to Allan, while the others listened, putting in a word of correction now and then.
On and on sped the wrecking-train through the night. The oil-lamps flared23 and flickered24, throwing a yellow, feeble light down into the car, where the men sat crowded together, for the most part silent now, figuring on the task before them. It was evident that it would be no easy one, but they had confidence in their officers,—the same confidence that soldiers have in a general whose ability has been fully25 tested,—and they knew that the task would be made as easy as might be.
The atmosphere of the car grew close to suffocation26. Every one, almost, was smoking, and the lamps soon glowed dimly through the smoke like the sun upon a foggy day. Outside, the snow still fell, thickly, softly; their engineer could not see the track twenty feet ahead; but the superintendent had told him that the way was clear, so he kept his throttle27 open and plunged28 blindly on into the night, for every moment was valuable now; every nerve must............
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