Maintenance of Way
Such men as Ireson must needs go berserk, if engines are to be kept roaring on their way when flood menaces the steel
NORMAN MELVILLE CLARKE
IN THAT mountainous country west of Edmonton and the Rockies, where, cupped in a huge valley, stood the freight-divisional point of Bechako, the hghest peaks were still heavily snow-capped, although on the dark, fir-clothed mountain-sides winter was loosening his ley grip.
The first indication of surrender had been given by the lower slopes facing south, in the form of little trickling streams that joyously joined forces and tumbled headlong w.th their message of hope into the s uggish creek that wound its circuitous way through the Bechako Valley. Trie effect of m ob-persuasion was at once apparent in this usually torpid body as it swirled madly onward, raising its voice n boastful song of the triumphant journey ahead t 0 the North Fork of the Fraser, and thence on the broad b_>s >m of the Fraser itself, to the sea, utterly unmindful of the damage it and its riotous companions might do m their mad rush for freedom.
During the early June days, as the power of the sun increased and the days lengthened, and the nights grew less cold, the mountain streams became turbulent foaming agents of destruction, washing down mud and gravel, undermining banks and boulders, uprooting trees, and, at a million points, threatening the safety of the road and of the trains that rushed past most of them at night. Section-bosses and their gangs worked almost continuously in an effort to keep the road open and to avert catastrophe. Yet one night it came, and in such form as to make all their e'forts seem well-nigh hopeless.
On this particular evening, as they lounged around the section-house enjoying the cool air after a day of sweating under the June sun, a homesteader in a settler’s car had given them all the new milk they could drink—rare treat in this country of the 'canned cow’. In return they had patted his choice dairy cows, admired his horses and heard all about the new ranch.
In the middle of the night they were called out to repair the road where a fill over a little lake had disappeared from sight at the moment the settler’s car was crossing. Caught like rats in a trap! Not a chance, although the water was not very deep and rescuers from the other unharmed cars were on the scene instantly. All they could do was their utmost. Everybody knew the line to b? insufficiently manned for the condition it was in, and the dangers that beset it at that time of the year.
\ WEEK later, Jim McLeash, the roadmaster of this abnormally long division, stood before the wicket in the station at Bechako, a sheaf of papers in his hand. The agent grunted as he picked up the order-book: "Slow-running orders again, huh? Seems like you’ve got every other mile on your division ticketed now, Jim. Lucky if you don’t hear a roar from headquarters. They’ve been holding the boats ten to twenty hours for the passengers from No. 1 right along. And as far as your speed freight goes—it’s a joke! Here’s the company agreeing to put Rupert halibut into New York in five days, and you hold them up with these speed-killers.” He waved the order-book. “You better look out; they’re gonna can somebody one of these days for those damage bills on delayed freight.”
Old Jim walked out of the station without giving any indication that he had heard. He had enough to think of, he reflected, without listening to a re-hash of trainmen’s growling and dispatchers’ gossip.
"Damn them! All they think about is speed; gettin’ into the city for as long a time as possible between rims. Easy to sit in a caboose chair an’ curse the roadmaster an’ his slow-runnin’ orders, but let something once break loose . . .! They’re not rushing war-material through now. Tut! Tut!” he chided himself, as he felt his temper flare. “I’ve been hearin’ the same complaint for the last ten years, and I’m still on the job. They haven’t seen the messes I have or they’d be thankful they are compelled to go slow sometimes . . . That homesteader’s widow. Not all the money the company could give her would wipe that bewildered look off the little woman’s face when I told her she’d have to turn round and go back to her folks. Knew every cow and horse —called ’em by name . . . Oh, well, no use thinking about that or I’ll lose my nerve.”
Tired grim lines creased the old Irishman’s face. He knew there were a hundred places along those interminable miles of treacherous lake and river-side track where the spring rains had blocked the culverts with mud, and where the rising water was making a rotten sponge of the road.
“You’ll hold her Jim, until I can get them to give me more men.”
Those had been the sup’s, words a month ago. Things were bad when he used that tone and old Jim felt he would rather die than fail him. But the expected aid had
not been forthcoming. Head offices three thousand miles away.
Bah! What did they know about this country and its needs? Everything tangled up in a snarl of red tape! To the company, more men meant a bigger overhead to explain: to McLeash they were the vital factors in the grim unceasing struggle to maintain ready for traffic at all hours those shining ribbons of steel
It had been a cold backward spring so that the snow and ice had not had a chance to disappear gradually. Then, in late May and early June, had come sudden, blistering heat. During the winter, wherever the heaving frost had tampered with the roadbed, the rails were held in their new high position by means of wooden wedges or ‘shims’. These shimmed-up rails were now high above the sinking road-bed, and fast as his gangs of men worked they could not keep pace with Nature’s forces. However, the great engines still thundered through, while anxious engineers gripped throttle and emergency, fearful of the danger lurking around those sharp curves or in the oozing mud-ledges-overhead. With eagle eye they watched for the little red flags that told of sweating gangs repairing some sudden damage or endeavoring with steady crunch of their shovels to keep the scanty gravel beneath the ties.
McLeash slumped in his chair. He sighed as he realized he could do no more with the means at hand. For months he had had to be ten men molded into one. Dawn would see him leave some lonely section-house where he had snatched a few hours sleep; night would find him in his office over a hundred miles away. Many a section-boss had been roused from his sleep to hear old Jim’s gruff voice on the wire:
“Knock out those shims on such-and-such a mile.” Or: “Get a watchman out to-night where we had that mudslide a week ago.”
Taciturn, ugly-tempered McLeash nevervacknowledged himself beaten, and behind those gleaming eyes and grim jaw was a fighting courage that held his men together in an uncomprehended loyalty. Until a day or so ago, he had believed the climax had been reached and that he would be able to hold her, as the sup. had hoped, but the midsummer rains were starting two weeks earlier than usual, and he well knew what would be in store for him.
From his office-window he saw his yard-crew place their hand-car on the track and pump slowly away to the section-house for dinner. He watched ponderingly the huge figure of Charlie Ireson, the yard boss, advancing toward the restaurant.
Ireson was the best track man in the north, he reflected. He could make use of his brains and brawn in a hundred places up and down the line, yet he had to keep
him puttering here where there was nothirg to do. The extra gang of Chinks, too, would be n this afternoon— Ireson would be the man to drive them. He'd get the work out of them! And when had the road ever needed it more? But it would be just like him to tie up the whole outfit at some bootlegging joint while he went on a week's spree.
Gad, though, there was something about the boy that made you like him. It was too damn bad that a boy like him should be leaving his pay up the street. Some skirt was always playing the devil with a good man, always sticking the booze under his nose so that she could get his next pay cheque to the last cent. He sighed heavily. “I'd sure like to get him out of here.”
Old Jim umped to his feet, the light of sudden resolve in his eyes. He’d give the big Swede another chance; make him feel his responsibility.
“Call Ireson,” he boomed to his clerk.
AS THE yard-boss entered the little office, by contrast with the squat little figure at the desk, he appeared more gigantic than ever. He was one of those men whose physique seems impervious to abuse, and old Jim gazed at him with kindling admiration in his eyes as he strode forward. Sober, he was as inoffensive as a child—with much of a child’s simplicity: drunk, most men would as soon contemplate disagreeing with a grizzly. An office chair protested creakingly as he gripped its back to steady himself as he leaned towards h s chief.
“Hello, Ireson,” McLeash growled; then his eyes narrowed to sparks of fire as he sniffed the unmistakeable odor of extract of lemon—the last resort of the downand-out booze-fighter. He noted with growing anger the bloodshot eyes and parched and swollen lips and that the man was but with difficulty maintaining his balance.
If McLeash had but known it, all morning Ireson had fought off the craving for drink. But when a few minutes earlier he had entered the restaurant determined to finish the fight, the mean-eyed McTavish had raised a significant eyebrow, slipped him the little bottle and the demon
of craving had done the rest. He had just swallowed it mixed with ‘two-per-cent’ when the clerk came in, and now the heat and stuffiness of the office was intensifying its kick.
McLeash sprang to his feet, facing the swaying giant. “I called ye in for promotion,” he almost shouted in his anger and disappointment, “and I find ye drunk on duty. Degenerate enough to resort to a dirty Siwash drink! Ye’re fired Ireson—fired! And by God if I find ye back on my division again I’ll blacklist ye!”
At the words, the big man’s body crouched; he looked as if he were about to blot out the little man and wreck the office. But something in those steady blue eyes and in that lean old face halted him—calmed down the frenzy that was fast turning him into a maniac. Not every man would look an extract-crazed monster in the eye without fear of consequences, but Jim McLeash alone and weaponless, could and did.
“Fire me! Blacklist me! Hell! I’ve worked on a real
road and held a better job than yours. I’ll be on this road when you leave it with a can tied to you.”
The big trackman seemed about to say more but Jim had slumped into his seat, his whole body sagging with weariness, and the sight of his dejection touched some sympathetic chord in Ireson that sobered him like a plunge into the icy Fraser. Jim roused himself to see Ireson disappearing quietly through the door.
Troubles seldom come singly, McLeash reflected, as he received a wire that the passenger train speeding westward was held up behind a mud-slide sixty miles east.
“I’ll get her clear myself,” he told the clerk. “Wire for someone to take Ireson’s place in the yard. Then get every gang on the east-end to report to me. Can’t really spare them from their own part of the road which must be in dirty shape with all this rain, but we gotta get her rollin’.”
A HALF hour later as he threw all his weight to one side to balance the lift of his racing speeder in rounding one of those curves which construction engineers had figured down to the absolute margin of safety in clinging to the river bank, his mind reverted to his discharged foreman.
“Poor Ireson,” he said to himself. “Almost crazy with that poison and yet fit to have eaten his shirt with shame, after all the times he’d gone out of his way so as not to see him drunk on duty. It was strange how the bigness of the job didn’t seem to get him ...”
Old Jim slowed his car that he might inspect the extent of the damage done by a gurgling rivulet playfully bent, apparently, on washing the foundation from a couple of ties. A little shovel work needed here.
Funny, he thought, as the drone of the ‘speeder’s’
motor rose to the peak of its pitch again, that a man like Ireson couldn't see what was happening. Why, there’d be a couple of million people in the Peace River country inside the next fifty years; they’d be producing more wheat than all Canada was doing at present.
Again he slowed down to inspect a treacherous spot before rushing on.
Hell, anybody would’ve known Ireson for an old railroader the day he walked into the office! He'd taken a shovelob, too, without a kick ... A dirty crack that about the company letting him, Old Jim, out, why, he might have been in some office now, missing all this worry if paper railroading had been in his line. But when it came right to gravel, shims, ties and steel, they knew old Jim McLeash was there with the goods.
“Damn,” he muttered, as ahead on a station platform a figure waved a yellow slip. “What now!”
The ‘what-now’ informed him that Bridge 83, forty miles west of Bechako had gone out. Silently he cursed the parsimonious attitude of the head officials responsible for this crisis. Work trains—extra gangs—should have been piling rock in there a month ago, as he had pleaded.
But now—he was in one of the tightest places in his career. Things could not have happened more awkwardly. The pile-driver and bridge-builder, needed now in the worst way at 83, were behind the stalled passenger on that switch; the steam shovel necessary to clear this mudslide, and now supposed to be rushing to his aid, was caught behind the washed-out bridge. Long lines of fishcars cut off from the ice at Bechako, were behind him— they would smell to high Heaven before he could get them moving again; while before him was No. 1 with its fuming tourists. A bad mix-up right at the peak of the season's traffic! . . . Who was goin’ to put that bridge back again? He knew of only one man who could pull off a stunt like that with nothin’ to work with. He could take that extra gang when it came in, though a lot of use it might be when they were only used to a pick-and-shove!
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Continued from vage 11
job or haulin’ along steel. But, anyway, he dared not take the chance. Extract made bad actors of men. No . . the road would have to wait till he’d got this mes - ahead cleared away . . .
DACK in Bechako, Ireson sat on an U upturned baggage truck. He heard the opera or repeating the account of the disasters east and west. They interested him only to the extent that it meant he would be held in Bechako for days and p obably would be obliged to meet old Jim again. Not a nice thought, that, aftethe dirty way he had used the old man who af er all, had been the only real friend he had had in this God-forsaken hole. God ! he had thought that once away f om his old associates he could star again and make good—and this was
how he had done it !.....
God ! why hadn’t they left him to die on the track the other night? But carried in and locked in by his own men . . . !
Scotty, Jim’s clerk, found Ireson on the truck but so beaten did the great man look, so wild his eyes, that he hesitated to deliver his message.
“Ireson,” he said, finally, “poor old ■Jim is in a devil of a hole. Guess you’ve heard of the tie-up both ways. With nothing but shovels he is going to open up the east, and wants a report on 83 so’s no time will be lest when he is through and ready to tackle that end.”
“Did he order me to do it?”
Scotty hesitated but realized truth was best. “He said only: ‘Get some one’. But you know yourself, Ireson, that you are
the only man capable of sizing up the situation. Here, don’t let’s waste time. Take the speeder and report back as soon as you can.”
He could not decide whether Ireson was still too stupid from the effects of the dope to understand what was required of him, but in ten minutes had the satisfaction of seeing him head west on the hand-car.
Late that night he was back—a different I eson, with the light of battle in his eye—and breathing confidence and enthus asm. Scotty hated to say anythirg to discourage him, but it had to be done.
“You see, Ireson, it’s like this: with the line? down both ways I can’t get any authority for such a step. The linemen are out, but it may belate tomorrow before we can get through either to Jim or to headquarters.”
“And by that time,” quickly interposed the eager Ireson, “the stream will have washed the other abutments away, and it will be a couple of weeks before we can get a new bridge in. With those Chinks I can do it.”
"Well, Laferty, their straw boss, has a good head on him if . . Scotty paused in embarrassment.
Ireson’s ruddy face took on a deeper hue. He understood the unfinished, remark. “There’ll be no hooch mixed up with this bridge,” he gruffly affirmed and the look in his eyes made the wary Scotty hand him the necessary authority to move the extra gang, which luckily had got over just before 83 crashed out of the yard.
' I 'HAT afternoon, all Bechako recalled and believed the rumor that Ireson had been a few years ago one of the crack roadmasters on the C.P.R. Now, at dawn, the next morning, he stood gazing anxiously at the forest fringing the rightof-way, at the edge of the washed-out fill. Here were the tall jack pines upon which he must depend for piles, since the yard had been unable to furnish any. Lucky for him there had been a car for bridge timbers and pile caps in, ready to be moved.
He turned to look at the turbulent stream. It was a dirty job all right, he acknowledged to the sympathizing train crew, while his mind again reviewed his plan of attack. The tangled mass of wreckage was useless—it could stay where it was. Where the tumbling edge of the grade sloped down to the yellow foamflecked water he would drive a row of piles at right angles to the track; behind this an abutment of timber to get a solid starting point. The old grade bottom, full of broken rock, would hold his piles like iron. Three rows of these to link his abutment to that part of the bridge still standing with its nearer end in what was now the middle of the stream. These capped with timber from the car and traversed by the bridge joists, twelve inches square, would make a foundation that would carry any train. This was the pictured bridge.
He turned to survey his equipment. First came the old construction days’ pile-driver, resurrected from an almost forgotten spur in the yard, and long ago abandoned for the new steam-lifting type. Upon this obsolete contraption, leaning drunkenly on its sway-backed flat-car, its iron work rusted and bent and its wood work crumbling, he must depend. Behind it was the car of timbers, while farther on were the boarding-cars that housed his laborers.
“You’ve got a man-sized job on your hands,” said Brule the conductor, as a mixed assemblage of Japs and Chinks swarmed out of their cars, gabbling and gesticulating in an effort to have it understood that if replacing bridges was the reason for their being brought here they might be taken right back. They weren’t hired to do this kind of work, didn’t savvy it—in short, refused to consider it. One more look at the swollen stream and they were scrambling back into their cars.
How Ireson got that motley crew to work after the doughty Laferty had given up in despair, he hardly knew. “No work, no money, savvy?” was part of the argument. “No work any time any more,” was another part, but the fear of the towering Swede was the biggest part.
The piles were procured by sheer force of numbers, coupled with his own tremendous strength. The life in his pulses sang as he felled the mighty trees. He’d show old Jim yet.
The first piles were short and easily up-ended and held in position uncil the old pile-driver ‘soaked’ them down through the mud into the hard bed of the bottom of the grade. By nine o’clock he had worked out ten feet into the stream. No experienced bridge gang this, but a crew whose every awkward move had to be directed through interpreters who, themselves, knew nothing of the business. Too terrified even to emit their usual gabble, they stood on the slippery pile-caps clinging to an up-ended stick that might come crashing down on them at any moment, carrying them into the angry waters that curled beneath their feet.
But always towering before them, beside them, behind them, was the big boss. To them he seemed a demon incarnate; better even to risk those swirling waters than the grip of those hands that could crush them as easily as they could wring a chicken’s neck. Again and again his mighty heave had put some tottering timber into place.
To raise the ton weight of the pile-
driver he should have had a donkey engine or teams of horses. Lacking either, he supplied the loss with relays of Japs and Chinamen, who, as the driver was edged out along the new-laid track, worked the cable back along the cars. The great weight was slowly crawling up and Iresm was bending to adjust the rigging when the monotonous ‘Yo-he, he-ha, ho-he’ of the working coolies changed to snarls and angry shouts. A shout of warning from Laferty above made him leap back as the half-raised mass of iron came crashing down with the cable still attached.
For a moment he stood before he realized that a riot was in progress. Then he leaped and sprang to the flat car above his head. A moment he stood poised upon the machinery like some old Viking looking from the poop of his vessel upon a weltering, fighting mass of men.
The hatred between the laboring Japs and Chinamen seems a part of their being, flaring up in unexpected places and at inconvenient times. Your trackman doesn’t try to understand it; he only knows they are bad medicine if mixed and tries to avoid that combination. Now they seemed bent on their mutual destruction. Then with a shout, like some old battle-cry, Ireson hurled his body down on them, followed quickly by the strawboss, the real boss of the gang, and those who felt it safest to be on the side of the big bosses.
IRESON seemed to have been craving *action all these months and he got plenty of it now. Their yellow faces, showing lips drawn back from hideous protruding teeth, seemed to surround him on all sides. He was as some big animal tormented by a snarling, m uthing pack of less noble mould and size. He laid about him with a handspike much as some ancestor might have swung a belaying pin; his great corked boots went smashing here and there and in a few moments with the aid of his able backers he was master of the scene. So has many a riot been quelled on some lonely siding, beside a water-tank.
By nine o’clock that night Ireson swung a spike maul above the final spike. No statesman called upon to perform the ite with ceremony and admiring throng ever swung more exultantly than he, with only a group of coolies and the dark pines andtherushing waters to observe the triumph of his work. He had done his part in maintaining the right of way, and somehow it kind of wiped out his offence against good old Jim.
AT THREE o’clock next morning, x lying in the bunk-house back in Bechako, he heard a whistle come cascading through the valley from the east; so old Jim had got his end c'ear, too. His tired body slept again.
Late that morning he was wakened by the telephone. He heard the operator say:
“The sup. wants you in his car.”
He dressed, being careful to make no noise to waken Jim. He had not even heard him come in.
As Ireson’s body filled the car door, the superintendent’s eyes swept him from head to foot. Then in his quiet voi e he said:
“Your work of yesterday is the finest niece of railroading I have heard of. That bridge of yours will last the year. You have saved the company a good many thousand dollars. We need men with initiative like yours. I am offering you the position of roadmaster on this division.”
“But old Jim ...”
“Old Jim was the grittiest man that ever passed this way,” the superintendent replied. “Lacking men and means, he kept the wheels turning here when I, myself, saw no way out . . . I . . . I thought you knew. Old Jim passed out last night; caught where he stood on the track, when the last slide came down. Will you take his place and help the road to carry on’.”