All along the P. L. and X. they're still talking about Iron Mike's record run—The run that started as a race with Time and ended as a race with Death
FOR TWENTY YEARS a man drinks his coffee palebrown with lots of cream; then he switches and orders it'hot and dirty—straight black. Maybe, you'd say, his nerves were all shot and he needed a bracer, especially if he were an engineer on the P. L. and X. Railroad and had just pulled in from a run the boys on the line are still talking about.
The newspaper reporters made one story out of it, but I'm giving you another the one that is going the rounds of the service pits at the Corn Brook terminus, where the 6,000-horsepower Diesel streamliner of the P. L. and X. is tuned up twice a week for Iron Mike to take into Lake Harter. X
Iron Mike had been living with the Diesel streamliner practically ever since it was delivered to the line for the final acceptance test. For two solid weeks he had been shoving her fifty miles out the Allisonville division and fifty back, getting the feel of the electrical controller and how to get her moving without slipping the drivers and burning flats on his wheels. Then came the big day, when the linepassed out engraved invitations to a flock of big shots, along with free rides and sandwiches to the crack reporters of the big city pajx-rs. Twelve, noon, the invitation read, the new P. L. and X. streamliner was leaving for Lake Harter, inaugurating the fastest long run on any railroad line in the country 386 miles, nonstop, from station to station.
Eight that morning, Iron Mike showed up at the service pits and dumped his lunch box and tool kit into the operating compartment of Streamliner's jx>wer car. Then he went back and looked over the job the mechanics were doing on numtx-r three main engine—the one that had blown an exhaust manifold gasket on the final test run yesterday.
He tix)k one look at what was going on, and made tracks for the back-shop foreman’s office.
"Who told your nut busters to put steam packing on my engines?" he asked McCann, the back-shop foreman. Iron Mike pitched down on the desk a piece off the sheet packing he had picked up in the power car. “Should be using a soft copper gasket with an asbestos filler, like it says on page ninety-six of the instruction txK)k.”
McCann all but knocked the back spindles out of his chair getting up and around to Iron Mike’s side of the desk. “Twenty below!" he yells, pointing at the thick coating of frost on the back-shop office window. "Twenty below every six hundred class hog on the division piled in on me for rush repairs, and you bellyache about the kind of packing my men are using on that blankety oil stinkeroo. Get out !"
"Okay." said Iron Mike, starting to button the storm flap of his reefer. "I'm taking this right on over your head."
“Hop to it. and see how far you get." McCann fired back, but cooling down fast. “I've got my two best mechanics on your job. haven’t 1? There isn’t a copper gasket within 500 miles of here. You're getting my best hydrauliccompressed superheater gasket material. She'll hold temperature and pressure till the cows wander home. Not even the master mechanic can give you more.”
Still Iron Mike wasn’t satisfied, lie knew he had a tough run ahead. Even had a letter from the president of the line. J. P. Hartwell, a personally signed letter from the big boss himself, telling Iron Mike how much depended on him for the success of the first scheduled run of the Diesel streamliner. "A great personal responsibility, which I know you will meet.” said the letter. Okay, then; there wasn't going to be any exhaust manifold gaskets blowing out and filling the power car with smoke.
OVER AT the master mechanic’s office. Iron Mike bumped Charlie, the chief clerk, for a gab with the old
"Ain’t in, Mike.” Charlie told him. “Him and the super are pallbearers for Fogerty this morning. Sorta thought you'd be there too. Mike
“Was going to.” mumbled Iron Mike uncomfortably. He
left without explaining why. It didn’t l(x>k right for an engineer to stay away from the funeral of the division travelling engineer. Fogerty had been found slumped over the steering wheel of his wife’s car — carbon monoxide gas poisoning, the coroner decided after finding a loose joint in the muffler pipe. And if it had not been for the same trouble on number three engine of his streamliner and having to get it repa ired before noon.
Iron Mike would have gone to the funeral too. Now it was going to look like he was carrying a grudge past a grave — about the time when Fogerty got promoted from a passenger run to travelling engineer and the iob Iron Mike had been expecting.
Yes, Fogerty had beat him out of the job. Better pay, and you were telling the other engineers on the line instead of getting told. But Fogerty got the job
. Younger . . . Got along better with the men . . . Would have a longer time on the job before he came up for retirement. Excuses like that Mike had to swallow when Fogerty was handed the job he figured was his. Now Fogerty was dead, and Iron Mike hadn't gone to the funeral. Had to see that his streamliner was ready for the big run. But it was going to te hard to make the boys see it that way.
Back to the service pits again. Iron Mike climbed aboard the power car and looked over the repair job the back-shop mechanics were finishing up. The five big Diesels were standing idle, and the grumbling sarcasm of the machinist talking to his helper echoed clear up to where Iron Mike was wiping finger smudges off a gauge panel.
”... Yeah, engineers, them bogheads call themselves.” the machinist was saying to his helper. "AH they know is how to start and stop an engine. Don't even know which way to screw a nut back on. case it falls off.”
“And lookit the pay they get." chimed in the machinist’s helper. “Better’n thirty-six bucks Iron Mike’ll get for this run to Lake Harter.”
That was all old stuff to Iron Mike. Ever since he had started firing as a husky kid for old John Booker on a yard switch engine, he had been hearing the back-shop machinists gripe about how little brains it took to run a locomotive Okay, let ’em gripe. They didn't have to learn a book ful of rules and stand rigid physical examinations to hold their jobs. Sure, it was big pay. But when a man has 1.700 feet of train behind him. snaking along at ninety per. and a school bus pops out on the track in front of him. he earns twice that in the next ten seconds. And maybe he never pulls a throttle again as long as he lives—nerves all
shot, thinking about what happened. Takes a job as crossing watchman, and yells his lungs out every time a kid comes within fifty feet of the gates when they’re down.
But it wasn’t good to be thinking about school buses stalled on the track. Iron Mike kept his hands busy—doing work Joe Spooner, his fireman, would be doing all over again, after he reported to start the big Diesels and get her ready to back down into the train shed.
It was only eleven o’clock. An hour yet before he was pulling out from Corn Brook on that long run for Lake Harbor, but Iron Mike dived into his lunch box for his hot coffee bottle. He poured out a half cupful and held it close to the frosted window of his control cab, making sure it was the proper light brown color—had the right amount of cream in it—before downing it, scalding hot ... It was just right. He took another swig and put away his coffee bottle just as Joe Spooner pounded on the side door.
"Colder'n blazes. Mike.” said Joe, piling in and slamming the door quickly. "Swell day for a train line to freeze solid, unh?”
“Blew her down myself. She won’t freeze,” said Iron Mike, brushing a crumb off the green leather upholstery of his seat, then jerking his thumb back at the big Diesels. "Warm up number three, easy. Don’t want to blow that new gasket if we can help it.”
JOE SPOONER fished a morning paper from his pocket and tossed it over to Iron Mike. "Tough about McCann’s kid swallowing that wood screw and getting it down in his lung. Making a bobsled when it happened, the paper says.” Just pretending to read about the accident to McCann’s kid. Iron Mike waited until his fireman had gone back to start up the Diesels before jamming the morning paper back of his seat in the control cab. It was bad on a man’s nerves, reading about things like that before starting on a fast run. Had you fighting to keep your lips from jerking every time you ran over a switch frog.
Fifteen minutes more . . . sitting there and waiting while Joe Spooner got the engines rolling and hooked up on the idling stops of the governors . . . Flash boilers for the train heating system working at capacity to knock the chill off the coaches and club cars behind . . . auxiliary Diesel engines connected to smaller dynamos that fed the juice to the air-brake compressors; all the machinery in working order and Joe standing by for the signal on the bell cord to back into the train shed.
“Number three’s doing okay,’’ Joe opened the door between the control compartment and the power car to report. “Ready to roll, back here.’’
Iron Mike got the signal from the conductor to back her in. The station platform was crowded with people. The big shots were shaking hands all round while the news photographers and movie men shot pictures. All those big shots were riding behind him. Mike thought. Okay, he'd give ’em a good ride.
Iron Mike sat there with his big hand on the dead-man controller, waiting to pull it round and feed the juice from his five big Diesels into the driving motors of the power-car trucks . . . Five minutes past twelve, and he was still waiting . . . Yes, and it looked like something big was going to happen inside the station, because the newspapermen and the camera boys were leaving Iron Mike’s train and chasing back through the gates. Big excitement of some kind.
In a little while. Iron Mike—still sitting there with his hand on the dead-man controller found out. A white ambulance pulled into the train shed from the open end and wheeled slowly along past the power car, with the cameramen trotting beside it Five more minutes and Joe Spooner pushed open the door to the control cab.
“It's McCann’s kid, they’ve been holding us for,’’ he explained to Iron Mike. “Was going to rush him to Lake Harbor by airplane. Doctors got scared the bumps of taking off and landing would jar the screw deeper in his lungs and start him coughing. Big Boss heard about it. and orders us held till they could get the kid aboard.’’
McCann’s kid So that's why McCann blew up SÍ) hot when Iron Mike had yelled about the kind of packing being used on number three. Okay; the kid would get an easy ride.
Iron Mike wiped the sweat from his palms and glanced at his watch just as he got the conductor’s signal to roll . . . Twelve-twenty twenty minutes late. Meaning he’d have to cut an hour and twenty minutes off the old running time if he brought her into Lake Harbor on schedule. An hour and twenty minutes to make up in 380 miles meant highballing it for fair. Okay; he’d give ’em a ride.
One notch the dead-man controller moved with his fist. The five big Diesels behind him snapped out of their idling notches and commenced pouring 6,000 horses'to the driver motors. No sudden motion to it at all. He fed another controller notch of juice to the drivers, and listened to the trucks chuckling over the crossing at the signal tower.
She was rolling now. Rolling sweet. Iron Mike pulled the dead-man controller round against (he pin. and set his shoulder muscles for a long siege of pressure against the
safety trip of his controller. He had to keep a grip on it. because if he opened his fingers for a second the dead-man device would take charge and snap off the power. That’s what it was there for—to stop the train in case the engineer died at the throttle.
She was doing ninety now. Iron Mike kept his eyes fixed far up the track, where the two strips of frosty steel looked like they came together at a point. He didn’t bother much with worrying about all those other tracks curving off from the main line; he shot up to them and through without having those little chills he used to get as a fireman the first time he made a fast passenger run.
He read every automatic block signal with his eyes and lips both. Just being doubly careful . . Green board ahead. Mayfield—track clear. Watch yourself on the slow reverse curve; outside rail isn’tany too high, and there’s a soft spot in the track where it meets the river again.
The door of the control compartment swung open. The power noises of the big Diesels grew loud. Joe Spooner, his fireman, leaned over and yelled, "We’ve got McCann’s kid aboard. McCann is riding the baggage car with him. Take it as easy as you can on the curves, he says. If that thing goes any deeper, the kid’s a goner.’’
IRON MIKE nodded and reached for his whistle cord, turning loose a series of hoarse squawling blasts from the triple trumpets of his diaphone signal on top the power car. The sound kicked back from the sides of a long string of empty box cars clattering past.
Once more Iron Mike blew for the crossing. He was on a down grade, and the five big Diesels were snatching the streamliner along at close to 100 miles an hour. There came a break in the long line of empties on the siding. Iron Mike caught a glimpse of a rural schoolhouse. A loaded bus was pulling away from the schoolhouse d(X)r. Full of kids.
His watch was in his palm again. Just eighteen minutes behind time now. Two made up. Luther’s grain elevator, that was, he just passed. They were coming tough. She had to roll wide open the full forty miles down grade to Brenner’s gravel pit to knock off another five. And with the school-bus drivers not knowing he was running late too. Iron Mike running late the engineer a reporter once wrote up in a story and said more clocks were set by his whistle than by radio along the P. L. and X. . . . Got to watch out for those school-bus drivers.
Automatically, Iron Mike was on the whistle cord again. A loaded cattle truck was crawling across ahead. Dumb people like that couldn’t seem to get it that it only took a shade under forty seconds to knock off a mile . . . Didn’t miss the fool’s tail gate by a foot Okay; a miss is as good as a mile. Except for a man's nerves. *
Iron Mike laid on the whistle cord again, putting on extra stuff, thinking how cold it was and how the school buses were closed up tight. Kids laughing and cutting up inside; so the driver would have a hard time hearing any steady sound figuring, anyway, that Iron Mike’s flyer had gone through twenty minutes ago.
Up on the high rail he was riding now, taking a long, slow curve. He felt his arm-rest nudge him in the ribs. He wondered if those newfangled stabilizers on the trucks were taking out most of the sidesway for McCann’s kid, back there in the baggage car.
Joe Spooner came back into the control cab.
“How’s that new gasket on number three's exhaust line holding?’’ Iron Mike asked.
Joe shook his head, worried. “Not so hot. She spits when you gun her heavy. Sounds like it's getting worse."
By less than a flicker of an eyebrow did it show on Iron Mike’s face that he heard. He kept his eyes far up the track —always the same distance out there, so he wouldn’t tire his eyes by making them pick up an object in the distance and follow it right in till it jumped down his throat . . . That big red bam, only a colored speck in the distance a moment ago, seemed to come out of nowhere and dive behind him quicker than a man could bat his eyes. Now, a truck loaded with coal—when you hit something like that solid, and you’re sitting right up there on the nose, just a triple thickness of plate glass between you and the truck . . . Hey, since when did you start thinking about things like that? Read your block signals. Okay, it was green —track clear. But you can't swear you did see it green. Stick to railroading. Okay, I’ll stick to railroading.
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Mustn’t let that young punk, Joe Spooner, catch me chewing my lip again. Bad; he'll be saying 4">n Mike is losing his nerve.
Iron Mike settled down and got set to spot the next automatic block signal, that protected the main line from a cut of gravel cars getting out from Brenner’s gravel pit. And this side of the gravel pit was another school-bus crossing—where Jack Mahar at the throttle of old six nineteen had his last accident. Shanty watchman was Jack now, and only fiftytwo. Just fifty-two . . .
The noises from back in the power car got louder just then. Iron Mike didn't look around. Just shot a wide-angle look across at Joe Spooner’s seat Joe was there, so somebody else* must have come into the control compartment.
“Three's a crowd, up here, fella." That was Joe bawling out a nosy visitor. “Scram !’’
“Got special permission from the president of your line,” came back a cocky answer. “Have a look.”
“Oh, a newspaper guy. Okay.” Joe was saying. “Get your nose full . Here. Sit in my place. Gotta go back and check my bearing temperatures.”
OUT JOE went . . . Iron Mike kept his eye cocked for that block signal protecting the main line from Brenner’s gravel pit; watching for the next schoolbus crossing.
“What speed you making?” asked the reporter from Joe's seat.
“Track’s rough along here just ninetytwo.” Iron Mike answered mechanically. Then: “How’s the McCann kid riding it, back in the baggage car?”
“Pretty good, one of the nurses told me." Iron Mike nodded. “I'm trying to give him a soft ride. He’ll make it. you think?” “Doc with him says he will,” answered the reporter. “Rushing him to a special clinic at Lake Harbor hospital, where they got all the trick gadgets for getting things out of a kid's lung. If he doesn’t start coughing again.”
. . . Just thirteen minutes behind time.
now. was the way Iron Mike read his watch as he reached for the whistle cord Y es. there it was—school bus rolling for a stop at the crossing. Sure, he’d stop with that load of kids to think about. But no use taking chances.
Iron Mike put all his stuff into the triple trumpets of his diaphone signal. One eye cocked, too, to catch the color of the Ixx'.rd on the signal block for Brenner’s switch Bus was stopped. Okay. The feel of the dead-man controller in his hand was slippery from his sweating palm . . . Bad place to have to big-hole a seventeencar train, doing ninety-two, and fight her to a dead stop and stay off the ground.
Automatic block was getting close enough to read the boardalmost . . . Gcxxl grief, was that the school bus starting across?
Flash! A blinding light winked inside the control cab. For a long second. Iron Mike was stone blind. Unable to see anything but two red spots in front of his
He was reaching for the emergency air when he felt a distinct jar and heard the crash.
“Of all the fools!” yelled the reporter, from over in Joe Spooner’s seat. “That crazy truck driver, with a big plank sticking over his tail gate, shot right around the school bus. We didn’t miss him by more than a whisker.”
Cold clear to his knees. Iron Mike checked his hand closing over the emergency air valve. A long breath came whistling in through his teeth. Okay, forget it; the kids in the school bus were safe.
“Never saw a plank blow up into splinters like that before.”
Iron Mike heard, and wiped the sweat from both palms. But an awful close shave for McCann's kid. back there in the baggage car. Him and his cot and the doc and the nurses would have piled up
against the front end. Curtains, for sure.
The reporter was swaying on his feet, swabbing his face. “Good grief, Cap, how do you stand fools like that racing you to the crossings?”
Iron Mike saw the reporter raising his camera for another flashlight picture. “Talk about fools—get out before I bust you wide open with a wrench!”
The reporter sneaked out.
Back snapped Iron Mike’s eyes to the yawning rails ahead. Now he knew what had blinded him, back there when he had needed his eyes the worst way. That flash from the camera bulb had sent him through an automatic block signal, blind as a bat.
Joe was tapping him on the shoulder. “Getting colder’n zero outside. If it starts snowing—”
“It won’t snow,” Iron Mike heard himself snarling back at his fireman. He wasn’t going to let it snow; he had set his jaw against it. “You heard me. I said it won’t snow!”
“Sure, it ain’t gonna snow, Mike,” Joe agreed. “But you don’t have to chew my nose off telling me.”
QUICK as that, Iron Mike figured Joe _\vas getting jumpy about something. Out of the comer of his eye. he watched his fireman take a long swig of cold water and mop off his face. Joe kept up a hacking cough all the time. Then Iron Mike found out he had been coughing a good deal too.
“How’s that gasket holding in number three?” he asked Joe.
“She’s blowed out,” Joe answered between coughs. “Can’t you get the stink of it, clear up here?”
Joe was getting set to open the window on his side of the cab.
“Leave it shut !” Iron Mike yelled over at him. “The blower’ll suck all that cold back into the power car and freeze the oil lines solid. That’s what happened the other time the gasket blew. Killed us dead
on the main line, with the oil so stiff in the feed pipes, it wouldn’t pump.”
Joe started peeling off his jacket. “Listen, you,” he said, shoving his chin close to Iron Mike’s face, “I got a wife and two kids to think about. See? I ain’t gonna die of monoxide poisoning like old man Fogerty. See? I’m gonna close off the blower opening with my jacket and then get me some fresh air.”
Iron Mike had a crossing signal to blow. But as soon as that was over, he yelled across to Joe: “A little smoke can’t hurt you.”
“To hades with the smoke,” coughed Joe, trying to blank off the blower opening with his jacket. “It’s the monoxide gas from the engine exhaust I’m worrying about before it’s too late.”
“Diesels don’t make monoxide gas, you fool !” Iron Mike yelled back. “Keep away from opening that window !”
Joe Spooner yanked open the window, anyhow. Instantly a knife-edged blast of bitter cold wind tore into the control cab. Two streams of white vapor—frosted breathcame out of Iron Mike’s nose. He pawed under his seat and pulled on his gloves.
“That’s what them factory engineers told me too,” growled Joe Spooner. “But one shot of that stuff in my lungs told me different. See?”
Iron Mike let it go. When a man gets an idea like that, yelling at him isn’t going to change his mind—especially when he can’t see the thing that’s choking off his breath. No use telling Joe how many books about Diesels said they didn't make monoxide gasbooks he had been studying for two years back, gambling that some day the line would be using Diesels on the fast runs.
Time to check air pressure, Iron Mike broke off to remind himself. Down ten pounds.
“Get back there and cut in the emergency compressor !” he yelled across at Joe.
Joe had just shut his window again—too cold to stand the knife-edged blast of cold.
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He was already coughing, harder than ever. “What—d'you say?”
“Get back there! Cut in the emergency compressor!” Iron Mike repeated.
“Not me!” gasped Joe between coughs. “A guy’s wife would be a widow before he could get back to the switch panel. And I got my kids to think about—”
“Take over!” yelled Mike, motioning for Joe to grab the dead-man controller and keep her highballing.
As Joe slid into the seat, Iron Mike slid out. Back to the switch panel—groping through the rank smoke over circuit breakers hot with juice from the big Diesels’ generators. And above all the pounding noise came the hissing bark oí the blown exhaust gasket on number three.
Iron Mike’s lungs had searing fire in them by the time he threw in the switch to the emergency compressor. He stuck it out until the air gauge showed the trainline pressure was back to normal again.
Back into the control cab again. He waved Joe out of his seat and took over the dead-man controller. Joe again tried to jam his jacket into the blower opening, tight enough so the smoke and gas would not come through. He kept on coughing while he did it.
The big Diesels were working harder now ... On the long grade up from the big river, and climbing for the watershed of Lake Harbor . . . All but five minutes of that late start made up, said Iron Mike’s watch as he looked at it.
Joe was hunched over in his seat, coughing—coughing. Iron Mike motioned for him to come over.
"Getting—tough,” he said, coughing hard himself. “We’ll try shutting down number three and running on just four engines, soon as we make the hill.”
The place was blue with exhaust smoke from the engine, and Joe’s shoulders were jumping with every cough. He shook his head. “Can’t wait another minute, Mike. The monoxide is getting me. Can feel my head getting big—”
“It’s just the smoke!” Iron Mike yelled back. “I told you there isn’t any monoxide from a Diesel.”
Joe stabbed a finger at the dead-man controller. “I know what’s happening to me! And you’ll be needing that yourself, you pig-headed dumbbell. I’m shutting down number three now' !”
Iron Mike couldn’t leave his controller to stop him. He had to sit there, checking block signals and working his triple trumpets for the crossings. You couldn’t let a train go shooting along at better than ninety . . .
But Joe didn’t get out of the control cab. That was because McCann came stumbling in; McCann, the back-shop foreman who had put the wrong packing between the exhaust flanges on numlxir three; McCann, the father of the kid back there in the baggage car and hanging onto life by a thread.
\yfcCANN came in coughing too. He -‘•Y*pushed Joe back from the door and grabbed Iron Mike by the shoulder. “Faster, Mike. For God’s sake faster! Doc says there’s only a slim chance left. It’s for the boy, I’m asking, Mike.”
Iron Mike’s hand w-as up for the whistle cord. No matter what else was going on, he had to keep ’em off the track ahead— read his block signals—watch he didn’t dive into the curves too fast and pile a whole trainload of passengers into the ditch.
“Take it easy, Mac,” he said over his shoulder to the boy’s father. “Take it easy. I’ll be bringing her in. Fifty-one minutes, now, and we’ll be having the boy on his way to the clinic.”
Green board coming up—Iron Mike didn’t even feel McCann’s last squeeze of his shoulder. He was reading his block signal with his eyes and lips both, coughing almost steadily and wiping the water out of his eyes with a finger . . . Things were looking misty out there ahead—all greyish.
Snow. That’s w'hat it wras; not his eyes getting dim. It was snow, and getting heavier. Iron Mike looked back for McCann.
But he wasn’t there. Joe Spooner explained w'hy: “Nurse came up and got him. The kid has started coughing—bad.”
Maywood, that was it just going by. Iron Mike checked on the red barn on his side of the track to make sure. He was blowing again for the next crossing. Almost time now for the hands at the woodworking factory to be starting home. Everybody too anxious to get home to the wife and kids to stop and look very long at a crossing .. . Westfield.
Yellow board coming up through the grey swirl of snow-a block set, calling for caution. “Hey, Joe! Was that board yellow?”
Joe turned his head. “Didn’t notice, Mike. I was coughing too hard.”
Caution! Yellow board meant caution. “Faster, for God’s sake, faster,” was what McCann was asking for his kid . . . “Catch this next one with me, Joe.”
Iron Mike strained his eyes through the slanting snow at the next automatic block signal.
“Yellow board, she is!” barked Joe from his side of the cab.
Iron Mike cut off his controller and let the hurtling train coast—feeling her out with his air brakes, checking her gently ... A red board will be coming up next. Block on the main line ahead . . . This was being tough on McCann’s kid. Tough, but there was a whole trainload of people back there to think about, and nobody could know' how many up ahead that were depending on the automatic block to protect them.
“Red board! Red board, Mike!” Joe was yelling over.
Already, Iron Mike was giving her more air; clamping the brake shoes harder to the wheels and watching his w'heel-slippage signals to make sure she didn’t get on her skates and start sliding flats on her wheels.
“Watch for the next block!” He yelled across to Joe. “It might be clear again.”
No; it w'asn’t. The Diesel streamliner coasted gently to a stop in the face of another red block signal. Iron Mike looked up the track. As far as he could see through the swirling snow, there wasn’t a thing on the main line.
“Some kid has dragged a wdre across the tracks and thrown the board,” was Joe's idea.
No; that w-asn’t it either. Mike saw a section hand open the door of a farmhouse close to the track and wave at him. Then four—five—six other people came out. They carried leather cases, like doctors’ instrument cases. Two of them were women.
They hurried out through the farm gate and down past where Iron Mike sat. But the section hand stopped and motioned for Mike to open.
“Them is doctors and nurses from Lake Harbor,” explained the section hand. “That one in the yellow overcoat is a bigshot specialist. Fishes things out of your lung. Him and the young doc were practicing on a rubber dummy while they w'as waitin’. Brought along a coupla suitcaseslike full of trick gimmicks they can see down inside you with when they’re fishing to get that screw outta the McCann kid’s lung.”
“How did you know we had McCann’s kid aboard?” was all Mike could think of to say.
“One of the big broadcasting networks was putting on a short-wave program from your train,” answered the section hand. “All of a sudden, the old baloney was shut off and a doctor starts calling for Lake Harbor hospital to listen in . . . Made you feel all funny inside to hear the doc asking for them lung-fishin’ specialists to meet the train and save the kid’s life. Then I gets orders to set the board against you and hold you here till the rescue squad got here in a flock of automobiles.”
A flagman from the streamliner hurried past, his chin buried in his turned-up coat
collar, lantern swinging from the same arm carrying a metal case of signal flares. Soon he was a dark blur up the track. Lantern bobbing along like a faint yellow spot in the grey ness. Then the lurid glow of a signal flare.
TEN MINUTES went by—fifteen— seventeen. All the time Iron Mike had fought to make up was lost again. He sat there, with the big Diesels behind him chuckling away at their idling stops, and stared at the flare still painting a blood-red circle in the driving snow . . . The specialists had got to McCann’s kid an hour quicker than if he had shoved her into the terminal on time. Okay ; it was worth the chance. Yeah, and people seemed to think a railroad pushed its trains through, regardless. Well, maybe they’d think different now.
The block ahead suddenly was green again. Iron Mike blew to recall the front and rear flagmen . . . She was rolling again.
“Cut out number three engine. She don’t mean anything any more,” he said to Joe Spooner, his fireman.
“Done that twenty minutes ago,” Joe grinned back. He reached over Iron Mike’s shoulder and dropped a brass wood-screw into his free hand. “Saw McCann a minute ago. He come to the power-car door and said to give you this. Take it slow and easy, McCann says. The kid has a fighting chance now. An hour more and it would’ve been curtains, the specialist told Mac.”
JUST twenty minutes late to the dot, Iron Mike pulled his streamliner into Lake Harbor terminus. She had no more than quit rolling when the reporters and photographers were out, getting set for shots of McCann’s kid as they carried him to the ambulance on a stretcher.
A big newspaper story was breaking. A railroading record had been choked off by J. P. Hartwell, president of the P. L. and X., in order to save a kid’s life; contact made by short-wave radio with the specialists at the hospital; a flock of big shots furnishing “names” to fatten the story.
Yes, even Iron Mike, sitting there in his cab and looking down, could see a big story was breaking. Nobody seemed to pay any attention to him. Except the kid.
When the two hospital orderlies wheeled McCann's kid past Iron Mike’s cab, his red-headed nurse leaned over and touched his cheek and pointed up at Mike. The kid turned his eyes up and smiled.
Iron Mike just had time to wave a gloved hand back before he got the signal to back her out of the train shed and down to the service pits.
“Be sure you put a copper-faced gasket between number three’s exhaust flanges,” he told the Lake Harbor back-shop foreman. “Steam packing won’t hold there.’’
Then with his tool grip in a big fist, Iron Mike crossed the yards to the restaurant where he always ate supper after a run.
“Here’s your first cup of Java, Mike,” said the little blond waitress, setting a steaming cup in front of him and letting fall a clatter of table silver beside it. “Double shot of cream—just like you always want it. Hasn’t been a thing coming over the radio for an hour, Mike, but stories about what was going on on your streamliner.”
Iron Mike reached mechanically for his coffee. He held it halfway to his lips, and saw that his hand was trembling and the pale brown liquid was spilling over the rim onto his fingers. He put down his cup and pushed it back.
“Change my order. Hazel,” he said to his waitress. “Make it hot and dirty—black.”
A machinist from the back shop sitting next to Iron Mike turned his face and grinned. “ ’Smatter, Mike—losin’ your nerve?”
Quick as that, everybody in the place shut up. Sort of surprised, the machinist turned around to see why he wasn’t getting a laugh, and looked up at Joe Spooner standing over him with a fist cocked.
Out of the corner of his eye, Iron Mike saw the blazing red in his fireman’s eyes. He gave a little brass screw he was playing with in his fingers a spin on a saucer.
“The board is red, Joe,” he said, giving the brass screw another spin. “Stop where you are when you see red. That’s railroading, kid.”
Joe uncocked his fist and sat down on the other side of Iron Mike.
“Make mine hot and dirty too, Hazel,” he said.
“Two. black, coming up!” said Hazel, swinging her nose high as she passed the back-shop machinist.