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HOME > Classical Novels > The Young Section-Hand > CHAPTER XII. UNSUNG HEROES
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 Allan laboured savagely1 with the others. One thought sang in his brain, keeping time to the steady rise and fall of the shovels2: “The track must be cleared; the track must be cleared.” The great pile of coal before him took on a hideous3 and threatening personality—it was a dragon, with its claws at the road’s throat. It must be conquered—must be dragged away. From time to time he stopped a moment to munch4 one of the sandwiches, not noticing the dirt and coal-dust that settled upon it. He was not hungry, but he felt instinctively5 that he must eat the food.  
Most of the other men were chewing tobacco, their jaws6 working convulsively in unison7 with their arms. They had long since ceased to be human beings—they had become machines. Their movements were precise, automatic, regular. Their faces grew gradually black and blacker in the perpetual dust which arose from the coal; their eyes became rimmed8 with black, and bloodshot under the constant irritation9 of the dust. They breathed it in, swallowed it, absorbed it. Their sense of smell and taste gradually left them—or, at least, they could smell and taste only one thing, coal-dust. They ceased to resemble men; one coming upon them unawares would have taken them for some horrible group from Dante’s inferno10, doing terrible penance11 through eternity12. They looked neither to the right nor left; their eyes were always on the coal—on this shifting black monster with which they were doing battle. Their hands seemed welded to the shovels, which rose and fell, rose and fell.
The cold rain beat in sheets around them, soaking their clothes, and yet they scarcely felt this added discomfort13, so intent were they upon the task before them. Most of them had thrown off their coats at the beginning of the struggle, and now their wet shirts stuck tightly to their skins, showing every muscle. Gradually, by almost imperceptible degrees, the pile of coal on the banks of the cut grew higher; gradually the pile on the track grew less, but so slowly that it was agonizing14.
Above them on the bank, the great locomotive, hurled15 there and turned completely around by the force of the collision, stood a grim sentinel. It was the one piece of luck, the officers told themselves, in connection with this wreck16, that the engine had been tossed there out of the way. To have raised it from the track and placed it there would have taken hours, and every minute was so precious! It would take hours to get it down again, but that need not be done until the track was clear.
Toward the middle of the morning, three fresh gangs of men came from the east and fell to work beside the others. But the others did not think of stopping. Instead, with staring eyes and tight-set teeth, they worked a little harder, to keep pace with the freshness and vigour17 of the newcomers. Ninety shovels were hurling18 the coal aside, digging into it, eating it away. Here, there, and everywhere the officials went, seeing that every stroke told, that not an ounce of energy was wasted, taking a hand themselves, driving themselves as hard as any of the men. Soon the coal was heaped so high along the sides of the cut that a force was put to work throwing it farther back. Almost all of it had to be handled twice!
Noon came—a dark noon without a sun; a noon marked by no hour of rest for these toilers. Back in the wrecking-car a great boiler19 of coffee steamed and bubbled; the cook carried pails of it among the men, who paused only long enough to swallow a big dipperful. Even Allan, who had no taste for it, drank deep and long, and he was astonished at the flood of warm vigour it seemed to send through him. Every half-hour this coffee was passed around, strong and black and stimulating20. It was a stimulation21 for which the men would pay later on in limp reaction, but it did its work now.
Experience had proved that no other means was so good as this to sustain men against fatigue22, hour after hour, and to drive away sleep from the brain. Time was when the railroad company had experimented with other stimulants23, but they had long since been discarded.
Still the rain descended24, and a biting wind from the north turned the weather steadily25 colder and colder. A sheet of sleet26 formed over the coal, welding it into a solid mass, which required the vigorous use of picks to dislodge. The men slipped and stumbled, gasping27 with exhaustion28, but still the shovels rose and fell. Here and there, the twisted and broken track began to appear.
At the side of the track the train-master called a lineman, who carried a wire up a pole and attached it to one of the wires overhead. A telegraph instrument was connected with this, and, sitting down upon the bank, the train-master ticked in to headquarters the news that the track would be clear at midnight, and repaired six hours later.
In this, as in everything, the train-master knew his men. Ten minutes before midnight the last shovelful29 of coal was out of the way,—the track was clear,—one part of the battle had been won. But another part yet remained to fight,—the track must be rebuilt, and the work of doing it began without a moment’s delay. The twisted rails and splintered ties were wrenched30 out of the way; the road-bed, which had been ploughed up by the wheels of the derailed cars, was hastily levelled. From the wrecking-car gangs of men staggered under new ties and rails, which were piled along beside the track where they would be needed.
At last the road-bed was fairly level again, and ties were laid with feverish31 energy by the light of the flaring32 torches, which gave the scene a weirdness33 which it had lacked by day. Phantoms34 of men moved back and
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