Track of Destiny
EARLY SUMMER came heralded by avalanches. By now the line was plastered with curving snowsheds, the yellow timber of these open-air refuge tunnels glinting blatantly across scarred slopes down which trickled and roared vast rivers of snow and rock; but so soon as they were completed, the mountains in sportive disdain unleashed new perils in new places, and it was not till June, seven months after the last spike was driven, that Van Home felt safe in dispatching his first through transcontinental passenger train from Montreal.
Here was the real thing at last, and the new engine and polished coaches were cheered all along the line ; her coming was a great event. John heard her far down past Stony Creek, coughing as she breasted the grade, and knew by the black smoke that No. 371 was burning coal which Van Horne had dug from the new measures just opened on the Eastern foothills. She worked a baggage car, diner, two passenger and two sleeping coaches with a pusher engine; and when she drew abreast, her grime-faced god, one William Evans, waved an arm to John, who had unlocked a switch, run the velocipede into a siding and stood rigid, possessed by strange emotions. She clanked by, a veritable train at last with veritable passengers who had paid full fare, proclaiming her labors, her exhaust reverberating in buffetted echoes, while strange faces observed John through shining windows and strange hands saluted from the rear platform. He heard No. 371 ease as though to take breath; then she reached the summit; then silence.
This irruption elated and disturbed him. He felt rewarded, yet in a fashion incomplete, and experienced a latent hostility for all who had not to do with the line, for the soul of him was spiked down to the permanent way. No letter had come from Montreal, so that dream was now over, and the sight of those foreign faces gave him a novel sense of loneliness. They didn’t know anything about him or care; and, having given much of himself he now wanted to take something.
In such a mood, he thought of Nell. She was, he had heard, still with Coldwater, who, after watching Holt City degenerate into a flag station, had moved down to the new town of Field, now a divisional point with a tank, roundhouse and engine sheds. Field was below Big Hill on the Kicking Horse flats, with good ground for marshalling trains, and the operator on John’s section used to talk to Field over the wire. One got all the news like that, so on a night when the wire was idle John asked if he could get a message through.
“Sure, Mr. Hickey.”
“It isn’t official.”
“That’s all right,” grinned the operator, “anything goes from you.”
“I want to find out about a girl,” said John, blushing hotly. “I knew her at Holt City on construction. Name Nell Regan; housekeeps for Coldwater Jimmy who runs the hotel.”
The young man laid the second finger of his left hand on a Morse key, his right scribbled rapidly, and presently he pushed over a pad.
“Nothing doing right now, Mr. Hickey. She left yesterday for the States for two months, but the gent called Coldwater says he’ll be pleased to see you any time. It’s called the Field City Hotel. Why don’t you try Golden? Things are lively there.”
John shook his head and left. Roadmasters didn’t drink —the company insisted on that—and he didn’t want Golden, there being, he reckoned, just one woman who quite understood him, and though she wasn’t the marrying kind he thought he could persuade her to come and live up in the Pass long enough to—well, carry him through for the present.
In many ways Nell was very like Molly, with the same darkly passionate nature and buoyant fearlessness—and straight. She knew about his mother, would not care who his father might have been, though perhaps she knew that, too, and he’d feel at home with her. He had, in short, been a fool to try and step out of his own class, so presently he’d go down to Field and bring Nell back.
November came grey with sodden skies that sent a
slithering of loose rock from the upper slopes and kept the maintenance staff anxiously busy. Van Horne was now running three transcontinental trains each way every week, so John covered the whole of his section every twenty-four hours, and at night would often ride out to join the trackwalkers at some soft spot, and see a headlight climbing up from the Beaver, vanishing round curves to reappear like the single yellow frontal eye of some angered monster lost in a dripping forest. He liked to stand back and watch the driver leaning at the cab window on a crooked elbow to pick up the trackwalkers’ swinging lanterns semaphoring that all was well with their bit of the line, and get a wave, and watch the tail-light wind on and up into the Pass.
It was on one of these nights, when coasting down grade, that he nearly hit a man who lurched to one side in the last fraction of time. John jammed on his brakes, walked back cursing, and lifted his lantern.
“Hullo, Mr. Hickey,” croaked a sepulchral voice, broken by a fit of coughing. “I guess you don’t recognize me.”
A tall man with a cadaverous face on which the cheekbones were sharply prominent, large dark feverish eyes, a body excessively thin. He was wrapped in a long frock coat tight at the waist, now soaked with rain; his knee-high boots had the trouser legs stuffed inside; a once white neckcloth covered a stork-like throat; and a wide-brimmed clerical hat flopped dejectedly over his ears, distributing shining drops on the shrunken shoulders.
John, staring at him, suddenly remembered a great deal.
“Hullo, Kelly; how’s things?”
“Things, Mr. Hickey, aren’t just what they might be. Is there any stopping-place round here?”
“My shack, if you want to; nothing else within ten miles.”
“I hate to inconvenience you,” said this echo of the past with a touch of old-time dignity, “but right now I’d certainly appreciate it, business being kind of slow with me.”
John, nodding, put this human wreck on the back seat of his velocipede and pumped homeward while clawlike hands clutched his swaying shoulders. The Rake did not speak but coughed as the cold struck into his lungs, and when finally he lay in John’s bunk sipping scalding tea, he rested silently for some time, eyes exploring these new surroundings. The shack was dry and warm, the weight of blankets comforting. His body was enveloped in a suit of John's heavy woollen underclothing, his
own wet garments hung steaming on a line over a glowing box stove, the lamp burned softly. John, also silent, sat mountainously in a real armchair sent from the East, and the wind roared over the hidden Selkirks.
“I’m sure obliged to you, Mr. Hickey. I'd have passed in my checks right there but for you; I got stalled on the grade.”
“That’s all right,” said John, “and you don’t have to mister me.”
“Roadmaster now, ain’t you?” countered The Rake with courtesy.
“Yes, I’m roadmaster.”
“Quite a job, eh?”
“I like it.”
“Nice place you’ve got here, too.”
“It isn’t so bad. Say, Kelly, you’re a pretty sick man.” “Sick !” The Rake gave a faint smile. “I’m dying.” “Don’t talk like that.”
HIS GUEST, dabbing his lips with a fine linen handkerchief that had J. II. embroidered in one corner, made a slow gesture. The long narrow hand, now clean, looked transparent.
“I’ve known it for quite a while, maybe two months. The last time I saw you was in Eagle Pass when they drove that last spike, and I wasn’t any too peart then, and since that things have been kind of irregular with me. I guess I’ll last a couple of weeks longer if it suits you.”
“Kelly, you’re crazy! You lie round as long as you like and get fixed up. It won’t cost you a cent.”
“Mr. Hickey, I’m just so darn sensible I feel like another person, so if it’s all the same to you I’d like to die right here.
I won’t make any trouble.”
John blinked at him. The man was no more than an animated skeleton, his head a bony framework, and the large eyes, unnaturally bright, held a certitude one could not evade. Marked and doomed, already there proceeded from him that faint but unmistakable aura of translation that cannot be misread. But he was not unhappy.
“Stay as long as you like, Kelly. You’ll get better. Look after yourself for a while; you’re certainly welcome.”
“I reckoned you’d say that, Mr. Hickey. I guess I can keep the place swept and do the cooking till—”
“Now you quit talking like that, and settle right down; there’s plenty of grub.”
The Rake gave a little sigh and said nothing more, while John made a bed for himself in the office. He listened to the other man coughing, and lay awake for hours while the night became peopled with shadowy figures that passed before him in a procession as though claiming remembrance. They all came back : Graveyard with fiat sphinx-like features; Silent Kelly absorbed over a solitaire deck; Hanington, the man butcher; Big Mouth Kelly tumbling still warm Chinamen with swollen, blackened legs into sandy graves; Molly with her dark straight brows, rich color and large generous mouth; Mary, so different in a strange way she had grown still more different; Bulldog with furtive eyes and manner of latent insolence; Hagan, whom one could see tugging at the big lever of the single platen press; Onderdonk, spick, span, with an air of cheerful assurance; Skazzy halfway through Hell’s Gate with a wall of water in front and her stern wheel thrashing the stream to turgid foam; Jack Kirkup coming into a cell in Yale and telling the prisoner that his fine was paid. Lost now, all except the dying one in the next room ; and it seemed that the line had collected and used them for a while—or else they had used the line for their own purpose-—till the line shook itself free of them; while he, John Hickey, a survivor, simply stepped away from that old life into a new one. This should have been comforting, but tonight it only made him feel oddly naked, and he wondered what the rest of life would be like.
“Supposing,” he thought, “I hadn’t been Molly’s son; supposing she hadn’t shamed me out of Yale and I’d stuck there; supposing my wanting that girl hadn’t made me reach out and get a contract and climb up to where I am now—what then?” So often as he got this far, he gave it up.
THERE ENSUED a strange fortnight, at the end of which The Rake died just as he said he would. The line doctor had come in, looked at him sharply, said very little and talked to John outside. He said what John expected, then went away, and The Rake only gave another of his whimsical smiles and said nothing. He knew. But as the days drew out he developed an increasing desire to converse, and John, so often as he could, would listen and hazard how long the tenuous thread might last without snapping. Always at night when he got back he found the floor swept, something hot on the stove and The Rake on his back exhausted, but grateful for the word of thanks that for a little while robbed his eyes of their increasingly pathetic expression. He was apparently not afraid of death, but being now much more comfortable and better fed than for a long time, thought it a pity to have to die so soon. He was very appreciative and invariably respectful.
“Mr. Hickey,” said he after a spasm that left him panting, “when a man is fixed like I am he does a pile of thinking, and what strikes me is that you’ve never asked one single question.”
“I guess there isn’t much to ask, Kelly.”
“Well, there’s Bulldog, my late partner; he’s been right here beside me most of the day, looking kind of neglected.” “What happened to Bulldog after that Baird business?” “Got shot himself,” said The Rake reflectively. “I’ll tell you about it. Mr. Hickey, that Baird business—I’m speaking now of the game and not what came after—broke my nerve. I never struck anything just like it. I was never any good afterward, and sort of lost control of my fingers; so without that I didn’t know any more than the next man. No, sir, I went right down and there’s no use denying it. I certainly misjudged Jim Baird and that’s what shook me, but I didn’t approve of Bulldog’s way of getting even.” “Who shot him?” asked John with interest.
“I was coming to that part of it. He slid over the line all right, but Sam Steele wouldn’t drop it. The Canadian Government got vexed and sent over evidence and had him arrested. That was in St. Paul, and they certainly had the goods on him. Well, sir, he made the jail and darned if some St. Paul association—-I guess it was the Young Men’s Christian—claimed him for a member in good standing and allowed he was a citizen of the U.S.A. and they were not going to have him hung to oblige any Canadian police, so, by heck, he was acquitted right away, and a brakeman on the Northern Pacific near Montana shot him two months afterward, being quicker on the draw. Bulldog carried a gun, so he’d have been plugged sooner or later.”
“He did kill Baird, didn’t he?”
“Sure he did, but was too darned clumsy. Talking like this takes me back to Yale. I liked that place better than most. It was sociable and kind of mixed and you knew where you stood all the time.” Here he paused for a moment, then with the least shade of uncertainty. “Stop me right now if I’m getting too personal, but I was a friend of Molly Kelly’s; maybe her best one.”
John stiffened. “Friend of yours !”
“Sure she was, and before that, too, I knew her down in Sacramento. I won’t say another word if you don’t want it.” “Go on, Kelly, it’s all right.”
“Yes, sir, we were pretty close, if I do say so. I never went there on—well—business, but used to drop in of a morning and we’d have some sarsaparilla together. She’d taste it and laugh and say she was darned if she’d drink it for anyone but me. Mr. Hickey, I’m telling you she was a fine woman. Why she liked me I don’t know but she did, and now it’s all over I might as well say that she talked quite a lot about you.”
“Not to you?” creaked John, doubting his ears.
“Yes, sir, to me; to her old pal, Kelly The Rake. We understood each other all right. I guess she was lonely and locked up and felt kind of safe, and she was safe. She’d sit there with her eyes all soft, forgetting about the sarsa and look round as though looking for someone, and one of the girls would put her head in and see that face and just fade away. She said all she wanted money for was for you. Maybe I’m talking too much.”
“Go on, Kelly.”
“She told me if I breathed a word she’d have me run out of Yale, and she meant it, so I kept my trap shut. She was always afraid she’d give herself away and you’d find out.”
“Did anyone else know?” asked John with difficulty. “None that I ever heard of; not in Yale anyway.”
“Did she”—here came a pause while John steadied the shake in his voice—“did she mention my father?”
THE SICK MAN regarded him with surprise.
“Why, Mr. Hickey, that was the whole thing. And if you’d been your father’s son—what I mean is if her husband had been your father—she wouldn’t have been so darned sorry and ashamed. I thought you’d tumble to that when you read the will.”
“I see.” John got up and stood gazing into the blackness that shrouded the Selkirks, his bulk obscuring the window; his heart beating violently, his mouth dry. Why had he picked up this dying man? Then in an unnatural tone: “What did she say about my real father? Who was he?” “Don’t you know?”
“If I did I wouldn’t ask you.”
“Her husband never spoke of it; he never dropped anything?”
“Not one word,” grunted John. “Go on; out with it.” “Well, Mr. Hickey, your father was a big yellow-haired Dane with blue eyes; he had a job under Onderdonk at Frisco.”
“His name?” breathed John.
“Jan Jurgensen—that’s why she called you John.”
“Is—is my father alive now?” asked John thickly.
“No, Mr. Hickey, he ain’t. He passed in his checks during those Dennis Carney riots, and about that time Molly had the last difference with her husband and pulled out.”
“Sure he knew. She wanted to take you along, but he wouldn’t stand for that. She told me he tumbled to where you came from the minute he looked in the cradle. Seems you were a husky little cuss with hair nearly white, and he fell for you there and then. That’s the straight goods. I’ve been kind of slippy with the pasteboards once in a while, but I’ve never lied to a white man yet.”
“Anything else, Kelly?”
“I guess you know the rest yourself. It’s sort of unnatural to be lying here telling a friend who his own father was, but—well, I’m taking a long trip pretty soon, so it’s my last chance. Sort of upsetting, ain’t it?” he added sympathetically.
“At the same time, Mr. Hickey, ain’t it the case that now it don’t matter nearly as much as it might a while ago? What I mean is that you’ve made good; nobody’s going to worry about who your pa was—or your ma—if you’re a roadmaster, while if you’d known it three years ago you’d have jumped the rails. If it’s taking no liberty, Mr. Hickey, I’d say you’ve shed all that and risen straight up out of it. It’s a cold fact that I used to look right down on you in Yale, and now I’m looking the other way. No, sir, you don’t have to worry about where you came from near as much as I do where I’m heading for.”
“You’re all right, Kelly; don’t lose any sleep over that.”
Again the little smile and slow gesture of wasted hand.
“Now I’m passing in my checks I don’t feel like acting up to schedule like in the books; not in any sense. I’m not forgiving anyone or apologizing or sending messages either, but just sort of vexed that I didn’t make more of my chances. I’m not meaning cards—no, sir, I guess I was the best man west of the Mississippi with cards—but I didn’t make the acquaintance I liked most. There were a lot of things I wanted to argue with Doc. Haning-
ton and Hagan and the Judge back in Yale. I used to look at them and just hunger for a talk; I wanted to swap ideas with bigger men than myself and hoist myself with my own suspenders, but I kind of hung back and that’s where I made the mistake. If I hadn’t, I guess I wouldn’t be here; but just the same I’m obliged to you. Gcsh, Mr. Hickey, I feel tired tonight; and, say, my front name is George. I was born in Idaho—but I don’t just remember when.”
He died before sunrise, and John buried him in the plot kept by the company for those who would remain guarding Rogers Pass for all time, killed mostly in rockslides or avalanches. It was something of a relief to put George instead of The Rake on the cross, though the name looked like that of a stranger.
A week later came a letter from Field.
I guess what I have to say will surprise you, in answer to yours that I found here when I got back from the States. I have to say that I changed my mind while
in the States and got married over there to Mr. Duncan who keeps books for the G. N. in Helena so I’ve just come here to fetch my things and leave for home in Helena tonight,, and it’s a nice house with a porch and bathroom. Mr. Duncan, my husband, gets a hundred and fifty a month with what he considers a good chance for a raise.
I might here say that I wouldn’t have come up to the Pass anyway. The last time I was with you you reckoned I’d robbed you and threw me down for that Miss Moody Plospital Nurse, and no living man gets the chance to throw me down more than once. Some men think they’ve just got to stick up a finger and say HERE, but I’m not like that. Well perhaps there’s no real harm done, and Mr. Duncan is just about your size, and I guess as strong, too, so here’s good-by for ever. Coldwater sends regards.
Mrs. Nell Duncan.
(Last month Nell Regan)
It wasn’t so bad while it lasted.
Stuffing this into the stove, John felt foolish and extraordinarily alone. He had exhausted his feminine acquaintances. The social circle closed, leaving him outside.
He was aroused from chaotic dreams by a hammering at the door.
“Come in; what is it?”
“Operator wants you right away.”
John, cursing, put on his oilskins and tramped across to the telegraph office, leaning forward against a wild wind. The night was thick, streaked with rain, the peaks invisible, shrouded in driving gusts, and he could distinguish only a spot of yellow light. He found the operator tapping, and the young man turned an anxious face.
“Something’s cut loose east of here; I can’t get through. I’ve tested my batteries; they’re all right. Look!”
“How long?” snapped John, anxiously watching the vicious spark.
“Last fifteen minutes; I was talking to Field then, now. the wire’s dead.” He continued to tap mechanically, with several little pauses during which intervals the receiver lay motionless.
“Not a thing getting through; they’ll be trying to get me now.”
“When did No. 1 go west?”
“She didn’t. She’s late; left Beavermouth eighteen minutes ago. I got that, then nothing.”
John flung himself out.
The platform was coated with a skin of wet ice, the weight of wind had the power of a strong man, and rain
driving from speeding caverns of upper air mingled with sleet and snow. The yard signal a hundred feet away had been blotted out.
“Bad rail tonight,” grunted John, plunging across the track to the shed that housed his velocipede. The lock jammed when he pushed in the key, so he drove his knee through and wrenched open the door. With fingers that shook a little, he lit a lantern, lashed it firmly, set the velocipede on the main line and put his back into his work.
A bad rail ! A hundred yards out he pushed on the brake and skidded another fifty, so if the weather held the same farther down it was probable that No. 1 would lose still more time. Minutes were priceless.
HE COULD see nothing except in moments when the wind slackened a little and the snow fell vertically, and then only two dark walls, the palisades of timber on either side. By the feel of the track, by the hollow throaty rumble when he passed over culverts, by the poised emptiness all around when he crossed a trestle, he knew exactly where lie was, but nothing more; while with strained eyes he peered ahead, but the snow, driving in almost horizontal lines, shut out the world, hissing against the hot globe of his lantern. No engine headlight could pierce that veil, and all hung on the judgment of the driver.
A mile farther the track lay on a narrow shelf blasted in solid rock. On his left the sheer rock face; on his right the 2,000-foot drop to the Beaver; somewhere ahead No. 1 beyond a long succession of downward swooping curves.
Ten minutes since he started, and no headlight in sight.
He was in a queer mood, not averse to this combat with the upper gods. He had no recognizable sense of fear or even uncertainty; he was simply on the job and vaguely thankful that something should turn up, even an avalanche, to switch his thoughts into a practical, sensible channel, there being at this moment just three things in the whole world—No. 1, himself, and something lying across the track, something big enough to have swept away telegraph posts and wires.
Clearing the sidehill cut, he caught the faint bellow of a distant whistle. Wiping the sleet from his eyes, he rattled on, saw a dark mass loom suddenly in front and felt a violent shock. Then—nothing.
Presently close to his face he became aware of a small light that described dizzy circles till slowly it steadied, when he made it out to be his own lantern on its side and still burning, the globe protected by the heavy wire guard that had saved it. There was a great roaring in his ears, and when he reached for the lantern his right arm flopped, remaining bent at an angle between shoulder and elbow.
“I’ve broken it,” he murmured.
Capturing the lantern left-handed and staring about, he discovered that he was surrounded by a sea of .boulders stretching into the dark on either side and into obscurity ahead. He tasted something warm, sickish sweet; putting down the lantern he felt his face. It hurt.
Swaying to his feet, he moved round one big boulder to encounter others, wet, slippery with a film of forming ice. He was on top of the track, but none remained visible, only this distorted surface over which he began to struggle, a Lilliputian lost in a vast rabble of mountain wreckage. On side and belly he squirmed ahead, a mutilated human firefly swimming in a sea of stones, lifting the lantern high as one might with the left arm while the other banged and bumped.
The pain was now so intense that he began to sweat. Clenching his teeth, and precipitated into a sort of cavity or pit in this ocean of débris, he stepped on something soft. Lowering the lantern, he saw it to be the torso of a man whose head and legs were flattened out of sight. “Trackwalker,” groaned John, and squirmed on.
It seemed that he would never get through. A big slide! Poles and wires in a tangle somewhere in the gulf on his right, for when the snow ceased for an instant he could see them. .
A rock rolled under foot, he pitched forward and something sharp drove against his breast, but he saved the lantern by lifting it high when falling, though the new torture just below his heart made him gasp. Now it was hard to breathe, for at every laboring inhalation there set up a rasping grind in his breast, and dizziness was overcoming him when the whistle sounded much more clearly and a blurred headlight appeared. It might have been two miles away till snow blotted it out.
“Come on !” he exhorted himself.
EVANS, working No. 371, had been secretly ill at ease since getting clearance from Field, though nothing showed on his masklike face. A dirty night, a two per cent grade, and a bad rail, so he used his sand boxes steadily and it was good to feel the drivers grip as he breasted the climb west of Donald. He leaned far out, hand on throttle,
eyes narrowed to slits. Periodically his fireman crawled ahead to wipe snow from the headlight, when for a moment its rays would be projected against diagonal streaks of sleet and snow till this fitful illumination died and there was cast in front of the engine only a pale gleam that lost itself without revealing anything.
The two did not speak save when a signal lamp came up, and then only to exchange a curt “Clear road” across the darkened cab. As the firebox door clanged open, a red glow cast the fireman’s shadow on the fleecy surface of a trailing plume of steam. It overhung the train, the phantom reflection of a toiling spirit which labored that others might sleep in safety.
Evans sat rigid, tense, feeling the weight of his load, pulling the whistle cord every sixty seconds, while the roar of wind drowned all except the cylinders exhausting through the stack. Like every other driver on the road that night— and every night—he knew he was not alone, the darkness through which he plunged being peopled with invisible guardians. He read this in the trackwalkers’ and bridge tenders’ lanterns all the way up from the Columbia; other men sat at a wire measuring his progress; if lie slowed a little he got a thrust from the pusher engine that was jamming its tubular boilerhead against the rear platform of the last sleeper, while another driver gripped another throttle, keeping similar watch. But what neither could know was that just west of Stony Creek a hundred thousand tons of boulders and loose rock had travelled a mile from their original resting place.
A white world when he saw any of it, white yet darkened by snow whose dancing flakes were now becoming larger, softer and more downy, which presaged milder weather till came the real snows of the Pass which on the Upper Illecillewaet might reach a depth of thirty feet. That winter he was booked to work No. 371 across the Selkirks from Field to Revelstoke, so he would find a lot of it.
He was thinking about this with the section of his brain that operated independently of everything else, and hoping for one of the new eighty-ton six-coupled engines the company would put on next year, when, rounding a curve, he saw or thought he saw a faint glimmer immediately ahead. It was stationary, it seemed to be in the middle of the track, and behind it something that certainly was not snow'.
In a flash he shut off steam. Half a second later he gave three sharp blasts, jerked open the throttle and threw 371 into reverse, hurling her groaning weight against the forward thrust of the train. She jumped, shuddered, claw'ing at the rails w'ith a mechanical protest from every straining member, sparks streaming from her whirring drivers. She stopped. Evans, with one hard glance at his fireman, sw'ung himself to earth and walked forward. Ten feet from the pilot sat a great boulder straddling the track, outlier of a tumbled river of rock that submerged the rails, its boundaries lost in darkness. The headlight faintly illumined their glazed surface.
Halfw'ay between boulder and pilot, nearly touching the w'heels, w'as the body of a man—a big man in oilskins, broken and bloody, his left hand grasping the hoop of a burning lantern. He lay there at the feet of the new' Lord of the Mountain, inert, insensible—yet triumphant, a silent servant of the line.
THE COMPANY hospital for railway men at Field stood on a slope above the track overlooking the Kicking Horse; from its windows one commanded a view of the station, the yards and roundhouses, and the voice of the line being the one most familiar and eloquent to its servants, that sound was welcome in these quiet wards. Should No. 2 be late, the fact was noted and possible reasons discussed with pointed terseness. When the longdrawn hoot of No. 1 floated down as she coasted through the reverse curves on the flanks of Big Hill, the men between the white sheets w'ould nod and say what pair was driving and firing her. Did storms break over the Great Divide, or snow choke the laboring plows in Rogers Pass, these hard-fisted but for a little space impotent servants of the line knew exactly what it meant.
In such a communicative circle Big John relaxed his maimed body and felt at home in spite of suffering. One of the fractured ribs that scored his lung had been put back into place, but still protested and would for some time continue to protest whenever he forgot and breathed deeply. His right arm burned like fire, but he hoped it might come out of its plaster casing in three weeks, with care. The deep gashes in his face stung whenever he opened his mouth and would certainly leave scars, but that was a minor point and did not matter. What pleased and solaced him was that here he had been received into the company of the elect as the man who had saved No. 1.
A good deal about it was printed in a Calgary paper that had just reached Field from the East, and Hell’s Bells, on his way to inspect the damage, came into the ward to say “Thank you.” He sat on the edge of a chair by John’s bed for a few moments, grey eyes twinkling, jaws working overtime while he inspected the spotless floor with growing discomfort. He shot out a few staccato words that were, coming from him, exceedingly complimentary; then, as though he had said too much, asked John if he happened to be the fool who had proposed to meet his payroll with his own money
just before the strike. When John admitted this, he snorted, tugged at Iris wide-winged whiskers and dashed off grinning, whereupon one heard the whistle of the shunting engine that had been commandeered to run him up to the scene of the slide.
It was queer to see one’s own name in print when the nurse showed him the Calgary paper before she settled down to read it aloud; and while he listened, puzzling not a little over the weakness that held him where he lay, there presented itself the picture of another nurse in the same kind of apron and white cap, a nurse about the same height as this one and with the same way of holding her shoulders, so that when she looked at him, smiling, and said, “Mr. Hickey, what does it feel like to be a hero?” he only blinked at a dissolving vision. This girl’s eyes were blue, not hazel. And one night when all was silent in the ward and along the line with only the voice of the Kicking Horse rising in ceaseless babble from its flat gravelly bed, he could not sleep. He felt tired and lonely.
He heard No. 1 come in; heard the Calgary engine roll on into the roundhouse, and No. 371 slide up and couple. That would be Evans again. The last time he had seen Evans on duty was when he came to himself on the floor of a baggage car, with Evans and the conductor bending over him while another man jabbed his good arm with a needle. Then a hoot from the pusher engine and No. 1 began to back down the grade toward Beavermouth. After that he lost interest.
He now knew that the slide was a big one and it would require a week to clear the track. Meantime it had been bridged by a sort of long plankwalk on stilts, and passengers, being taken that far, walked across to another train that took them on to the Coast. Steam shovels were at work on the small stuff, but the big boulders would have to be block-holed and blasted. John visioned it all, and longed to be there. It was his section of the road.
'T'HIS NIGHT, soon after No. 1 pulled in, a nurse brought -L him a drink of water with something in it to make him sleep. The lamps in the ward had been turned low, and he was now so used to these white-clad noiseless figures who moved with such quick certitude that he hardly looked at her, but drank and turned on his left side. In a soft tone she asked whether he was comfortable, and something in her voice made him wince and feel lonelier than ever; so he only nodded and presently drifted into a dream in which he did meet Mary and told her all about himself, who he was and was not, and to his vast astonishment found that she, like Kelly the Rake, had known it all the time and it made no difference whatever.
Now the mysterious sixth sense that sometimes asserts itself midway in the sea of slumber warned him that this was only a dream, but it made him happier than ever before, so with all trouble put away he clung to its dissolving shreds as long as he might, and when morning came lay with his eyes shut, unwilling to face cold realities. Finally, when he did open them, the nurse was still there sitting with her hands folded, and her eyes were not blue but hazel. So he stared and stared.
“Well, John,” she said with a delicious smile, “how are you?”
He lay quite still, lids narrowing, heart thumping. This was not a dream.
“I’m—I’m—” He gave his head an incredulous shake. “How did you get here, miss?”
“There’s only one line through the mountains, so I took that. Oh—I’m so sorry!”
He had grinned—and winced. It was quite extraordinary, but he felt that he knew this girl extremely well, though she was still decidedly unreal, so for a moment his agate eyes remained fixed on her, reflecting an infinity of things of which he was quite unaware.
“You’re held up by that slide,” said he after a long pause. “You’ll have to stick here unless you walk across. It’s a big one.”
“Yes,” she admitted, “the slide did hold me up, but I’m not walking across.”
“Then you’ll wait for a while?” he asked hopefully.
“I will, John.”
She kept watching him with an expression he could not interpret, hands now a little restless, lips quivering a little, eyes half smiling, half tender, then put her head on one side in a bird-like motion that he remembered vividly, and remained there as though she had joined the hospital staff and was on duty. All this time the hazel eyes never left his face. He thought she looked tired and white—but somehow happy.
“You must have started from Montreal just before that stuff came down, miss.”
“No. just after it came down. You see,” she added in a small voice, “it was the slide that brought me.”
“I’ll—I’ll explain presently. How much rock do you suppose there is in it?”
“Gosh, I don’t know—maybe a hundred thousand tons. I never rightly saw it; just kind of felt it.”
“So I gather. Well then, it took a hundred thousand tons of rock to bring one small nurse to Field. Now do you understand?”
Continued on page 36
Continued from page 18—Starts on page 15
“You’re here to see me?” he said under his breath.
“I don’t know another soul in Field except a man called Coldwater something I met at the station, so it must be you. Oh, my dear, my dear, can’t you see? Will this tell you?”
O'LOOPING swiftly, she put her lips to his nJ —warm lips, soft, with a faintly throbbing pulse in them that made him dizzy till a great hand went out feeling for her shoulder and began to stroke it gently. This, the second time he had ever touched her, left him confused and stole away all speech till the hand drew back and he lay there gazing up at her with exaltation creeping through his big maimed body. He tried to say something but could not.
“Do you understand now, John?” said she, winking very fast, her cheeks pink.
He could only nod.
“Why didn’t you answer my letter? I wanted you to come to Montreal. I thought you’d be glad if you came; couldn’t you see what I meant?”
“I did answer it. I wrote to you right away. You said you wanted to know all about everything, so I put it all in; it was pretty bad news, and ...”
He broke off, smitten with crowding fear. She knew nothing about him or who he was and was not, and here she was in ignorance telling him that she loved him—him, the son of Jan Jurgensen and Molly Kelly. He set his teeth and groaned.
“Your arm, John?”
“No,” he said grimly, “the arm’s all right. That letter—you didn’t get it?”
She shook her head. “I haven’t heard from you for months. Three days ago I learned about the slide, and left Montreal in two hours. I just caught No. 1. Was it a special letter?”
“It liad something I was bound to tell you.”
“No, me.” He made a desperate gesture. “Listen, miss, you couldn’t know and neither could I. I told you that—”
He got this far only to be silenced by a small but strong white hand laid on his lips, while again the hazel eyes held that strange look, half smiling, half tender; then
again she leaned forward and with her cheek close to his, as though they had the ward to themselves, she said:
“Oh, my dear, you have told me—told me everything. This morning as soon as I got here I put on my uniform and came into the ward—you see being rather an important person in the nursing line from Montreal, that was easily arranged—and I took over your case. Of course, you didn’t recognize me. I gave you a drink, and nearly spilled it. Then you went to sleep, and talked in your sleep until I could hardly bear it, and nearly woke you. You were talking in your dreams to me, and didn’t know it; so, John, dear John, I know it all now and it doesn’t matter.”
“What’s that?” he stammered.
“How could it matter! You don’t know me yet, and perhaps never will—quite. I’d rather like to have it that way, because I love you. Four years ago—do you remember the hospital in Yale when you came to have your face bandaged?—I felt something for you then. There was no reason for it—but I did. I tried to beat it down, and couldn’t. When you left Yale I was glad and sorry. Molly had talked it over with me without telling who she was. News of you came along the line, and I heard you were climbing higher, which made me happy, but still I couldn’t let you know what I felt. On that trip to the Lake of Little Fishes, I loved being on your shoulder, but dared not let myself go. I wanted you to live just for the work and go on climbing. I sent you Lorna Doone because I liked to think of you as John Ridd and myself as Lorna, and now it’s all come about and you have stormed your castle and Loma is nursing you. And John, I’m making love to my patient in the most unprofessional fashion! What will matron think of us Montreal nurses?”
SHE SAT UP, her lids fluttering, straightening her shoulders while the agate eyes fixed on her in a straight unwinking gaze. This thing might be true, but he could not quite fathom it yet. Assuming, however, that it was true, he felt not any passion of love but a profundity of secret worship, and his mind became occupied with thoughts of what he might do in return. Like one suddenly endowed with great and unexpected treasure, he felt not possessive but protec-
tive, and engulfed the small hand in his great grasp.
“I can’t get used to it,” he confessed. “I’ve thought about it a lot, I’ve wanted it a lot, but when I knew about myself I gave it up. Then I wrote and told you, and said I’d understand if you didn’t answer. Kelly The Rake had just told me one-half of it, and I’d known the other for months. Well, there wasn’t any answer.”
“He died in my shack not long ago, down and out. He knew right along, but kept it to himself because she asked him. Kelly was all right—part of him.” He looked at her wonderingly, and took a long, long breath, unconscious of the pain it gave. “Is—is that part of it all done with?”
“All done with for all time,” said she gently, “and you’ve moved far beyond it. It’s strange to look back and see how everything counts in some way, even the little things; perhaps they count most.”
“I’ve often thought about that, too,” he nodded, “but it was the line that did it. We were all in the grip of it, and it got me as soon as I left Yale. It’s the line that makes or breaks you. I began to feel that it was somehow alive, then set my heart on being a roadmaster. Now I’m wondering about something after we get married.” “Wondering already?”
“You mightn’t be suited with the life.” “I’ll be perfectly suited with you.” “But I’m sticking to the line, miss.” “John,” said she with a swift and brilliant smile, “unless you can get some better word for me than that, you can stick to your old line—but 1 won’t.”
TWENTY years later, The Confederation, crack train of the line, weighed a thousand tons, its locomotive two hundred. From headlight to tail-light it was the very last word in rolling stock, a modern hotel on wheels; it glistened like a battleship. At the rear came the observation car, a sort of glass-walled lounge with cushioned springs, easy chairs and a shaded platform where one could sit and watch the twin ribbon of track streaming back—back, while the rail joints clicked their rhythmic fugue. On the platform were a large fat man and a boy of about fourteen. The man, steeped in physical and mental torpor that follows too much food with too little exercise, was drowsing over a paper, while the boy had been silent for an hour, eyes very wide open, the expression on his small face constantly changing.
Crossing the Columbia, the train now climbed the Selkirks in a smooth upward rush, devouring distance and height in a surge of unfaltering power. From curve to curve it swung, trailing its polished length in mid-air over spidery bridges, burrowing ever deeper into the heart of the eternal ranges. This was the same track, yet not the same, for the road had been stroked, straightened, pruned, subjected to every artifice of the engineer; a thousand things had been done to it since those first English rails were spiked into place.
The boy, whose eyes held a sort of wonder, stared^ and stared till he could contain himself no longer.
“Was there anyone here when this road was begun?”
“I doubt it; maybe an Indian or two.” “Then who found the way; I mean who said it was to go just here and nowhere else?” “I suppose the man who located it.”
“Who was that?”
“You can search me.”
“He must have had a terribly hard time of it.”
“Perhaps he did, but I reckon he was pretty well paid.”
The boy, unconvinced, looked disappointed. He felt very small in this setting, but something had reached him from the wilderness, and his young soul responded in a way that made him happy and sad at the same time. He experienced a sort of hunger, wanting to get out of the train, climb high, sit there and watch the train out of sight.
“It would be nice to stay here a while,” said he half aloud.
“I mean camp just by ourselves, and explore, and—well, do a lot of things. I wouldn’t mind working ever so hard.”
“No, thanks, not in my line. What makes you so romantic?”
“Just what is romantic?”
“Well, taking imaginary things for real ones.”
“Isn’t all this real?”
His father laughed. “It doesn’t matter much either way. Want to see this comic strip?”
“No, thanks, dad.”
A little silence while the train slid from lip to lip of a deep ravine on a steel arch that had the curve of a woman’s eyebrow. Far below, a rock-torn stream jammed itself between vertical walls.
“Dad, how did the first man get across there?”
“Darned if I know.”
“But someone had to get across to measure, hadn’t they?”
“Don’t want to be an engineer yourself, do you?”
“I’d love to—if I was good enough.” “Forget it. Tough work and small pay. There’s a better job in the office waiting for you.”
The lad bit his lip as though something inside him had been hurt, then continued doggedly:
“About that measuring, they had to be sure that the bridge was just exactly the right length, hadn’t they?”
“Certainly, but you’ll have to ask someone else about that. What difference does it make anyway now?”
“It must have meant a lot to the engineer. I wonder if anyone got killed when the road was being built?”
“Sure; lots of ’em.”
The young eyes, large and now soft, searched the phlegmatic face with a touch of desperation, and looked far away, where crystal summits soared to a stainless sky and dwindling verdure lay like a garment on their tilted flanks. Crossing another bridge, The Confederation roared into a rock cut. It differed in no way from hundreds of other cuts, but here a lean surveyor had read his aneroid; here hundreds of men had toiled; and close at hand slept Kelly The Rake.
“Dad, you see those three mountains with sharp tops; they’re called Macdonald, Stephen and Donald—why is that?”
“Well, son, Macdonald was a pretty smart politician when the line was built, and the other two millionaires who made a lot of easy money out of it.”
Beside the line was a section house where four men stood with a handcar they had lifted clear. The boy waved, and they gave him the railwayman’s salute.
“Dad,” said he excitedly, “did you see those fellows?”
“I wonder if they worked here when the road was started?”
“It’s not likely.”
“They could tell me an awful lot if they did.”
“I guess the first lot are all scattered by now.”
“Just when was it they blew up all these rocks and cut down all the trees and did— oh, everything?”
“I can’t rightly say, but quite a while before you were born.”
“Yes, you human interrogation mark?” “You really don’t care very much about it all, do you? What I mean is, if you were just a little interested you’d know more.” “I guess that’s so,” said his father lazily. “But right now there are two things I do know: One is, I’ve had too much lunch.” The boy did not smile. “And the other?” he asked in a dull tone.
“The other”—here the fat man took out his watch—“the other is that the place we’ve just passed is called ‘Rogers’, and according to the time table we’re ten minutes late.” The End