REPAIR TRACK JOB
Bowler Maharg was determined to keep war supplies rolling despite freeze-ups, snowslides, and an interfering young upstart
EDMUND E. PUGSLEY
WINDY RIVER folks don’t blow. They leave that for old Windy Mountain and the down-draft chute at Hell Pit. But when they do talk, they like to say what they think.
When young L. C. (Elsie) Graham blew into Selrock with the big New Year snowstorm to take over the new job of assistant superintendent, Windy River didn’t like it a little bit, and said so. Trainmaster Bowler Maharg had been carrying ninety per cent of the district’s worries ever since old Bob Slaney, the superintendent, had taken down with rheumatism. And Bowler was the man who was entitled to any promotion.
That’s what Windy River men said, and that’s what they meant.
It took good men, and tough, to keep things moving over that hundred and twenty-five miles of galloping grades and through its shifting scenery, come winter, come summer. And it took a man with a hickory heart to carry the worries and keep himself off the repair track. Not a silk-shirt clerk from the general manager’s office.
They said more than that right away when they found that big Bowler was taking the run-around without the feeblest squawk. Plenty more. They just couldn’t understand it.
Yet it wasn’t until after that nasty job at Kokshut canyon that Windy River came around, mighty reluctantly, to the idea that Bowler Maharg might be headed for the repair track.
The chinook, trailing right along on the tail of the big snow was what started the real trouble. The whole district was caught with its hair down, making up sleep after four solid days fighting drifts and fills.
The slopes were drumming with slides like distant thunder that night when Bowler thumped up the stairs to look over the dispatcher’s shoulder at the train sheet.
“You letting that stock train down this side now, Harry?” he growled, “With all the big slopes alive up there already?”
The dispatcher kinked his long nose toward the hall door and shrugged. “Mr. Graham’s orders,” he said, sourly.
Bowler scowled. “How’d he know? Why wasn’t I called sooner?”
The dispatcher spread his palms upward. “You’ll have to ask the young whippersnapper that, Bowler. I wouldn’t know. He’s been here since midnight. Came in on the Seaboard. I gave him the report from Cloudrim, told him I’d called you and was holding everything till you’d been up and looked it over. He straddled my neck like a carload of copper ore. It’s the dispatcher’s business to keep things moving, he told me. And where was this magician trainmaster? Why wasn’t he on the job? Etc., and such like.
Bowler shoved his perennial hard hat over his right eye—a little trick of his when trouble showed. Left eye—clear board, normal temper. Right eye— red, trouble ahead. Then in popped L. C. Graham, one of his youthfully superior, don’t-bother.-toexplain smirks wrinkling his Hitler lip. The dispatcher cocked an eye behind his shade and settled back to watch Bowler wipe it off.
But it didn’t work out at all like that. Bowler just stood there with his big mouth half open and not a word coming out. His throat was bobbing
with traction effort, but there was something in his eyes that didn’t synchronize, like a man watching his son in police court. Conductor Mush Martin came up and nodded, waiting. And it was a tossup who would have led off, when the telephone jangled. All swung to listen as a harsh voice sounded over the line.
“This is Griffith at Tumble Creek! Slide caught us in Kokshut canyon ! Head end’s buried forty feet or more. The whole cockeyed mountain is alive! I had to hop like a bob-tailed jack rabbit to get back here. What the devil you birds pulling off, sending a drag down through this chinook? Where’s old Bowler Maharg, sick?”
Bowler was staring at young Elsie again, the young fellow working to make a bold front of it, but making a sorry job. His face was the color of an old boxcar that hadn’t been painted since it was built. Bowler was first to speak.
“Give us the road to Kokshut, Harry,” he ordered, slow and quiet, like he was feeling sorry and tired, but not sore.
“I’d hold everything as she is over the Skyline for now. Better get a rotary moving up the other side from Three Forks and let them work down so the line’ll be clear to take what’s left of the drag’s tail end up out of the way. We’ll try to work through from this side.” He turned to the conductor, ignoring Graham.
“Come on over, soon’s you get your orders, Martin. We’ll get out when we get enough men.” Then he was gone without another glance at Graham, thumping heavily down the stairs. And
the young fellow just let out a big sort of sigh and dived for his own office.
WINDY RIVER men were forty hours getting that mess cleaned up, and neither Bowler nor Graham left the job, though no one could tell you what Elsie was doing. A pile of rock had come down with the snow on the lower end, so the upper gang got through first, took off the train and brought down the big hook derrick to fish out the tender and engine. There wasn’t a more awkward hole on the entire division for clearing a wreck than in that narrow, twisting gut which natives once named Kokshut, meaning broken or beaten. The shovel gangs sliced down the snow in a straight wall, passing it up in relays to where it could be tossed back to clear. So they didn’t take off an inch more than was necessary to get a train through. With the whole system tied up by that bottleneck, and the general offices fuming because of trains piling up on either side, time was everything.
Graham had a lineman tap a wire near the job and from there he reported into the general offices every hour or so. Bowler ignored him, spending most of his time with the shovel gang. For the first job was to dig out the engine crew who had been trapped where they stood. So it was only when they were able to get a line on the big tender at last that Bowler and Graham got really close enough to tangle opinions. Its wheels had barely been set on the rails again when the assistant superintendent was yelping an order loud enough for all to hear.
“Take it away up the hill out of our road!” He
waved a glove at Bowler and Martin. Just like that, see.
Mabarg walked around, looking things over, and found the east drawbar broken off and the air-brake train line gone.
“We’ll need a chain,” he said.
Graham trotted around to meet him, his little eyes snapping this way and that. “Those slings will hold it. Take it like it looks,” he ordered.
Bowler shook his head soberly. “It’s hardly safe that way,” he explained, slow and patient. “Those loops might slip over, and with no hand brakes . . ”
“So what!” Graham snorted. “You’re only wasting time. We’ve got to get things moving before daylight. I wired the general he could expect that, so we’d better be clear, trainmaster.”
Bowler swung on his heels so that he could look down where the shovel and shop gangs were swarming around the big engine—all that stood between miles of stalled trains. If that tank broke loose anywhere up the hill and came high-tailing back into those men in yon trap . . .
Conductor Martin watched Bowler’s face and figured he’d stand pat in a matter of safety like this. Yet when the trainmaster turned with a shrug of submission, Martin was too weary to feel anything but relief that he’d be getting up the hill out of this hole for a change. It’s easy enough to criticize now, and to say what shouldn’t have been done, but men dead on their feet from forty hours of stiff, steady work can’t be expected to act normally. So when Bowler rubbed his chapped hands across his red eyes and threw a signal to the conductor to go ahead, Martin was too tired for argument. He just
passed the order along to the engine and climbed up behind the trainmaster to the crane.
A THIN G like that can happen mighty suddenly, brother. There was the 5960 pounding up through Cougar Creek tunnel and on out around the bare slopes of old Mount Grizzly, with only Tumble Creek trestle to cross before heading into the siding. There they all were—a dozen weary, sleepy men, the engine shoving Griffith’s caboose ahead and dragging the seven outfit cars, with the big crane trailing the crippled tender behind on leash.
And then, in the tick of a watch, Dutch Arnold, the leading brakeman on watch in the caboose cupola, saw a flash of something moving dead ahead. Before his watch could tick again he knew it for a wall of live snow diving hell-bent for the valley bottom a mile below by the most direct route.
Dutch might have remembered his conductor’s warning against a sudden stop, if he’d had time. But meanwhile he did two things automatically. He yelled i/i high H and jammed over the hand that clutched the emergency valve to wide open position. That locked every wheel of the train. Every wheel but those beneath the crippled engine tender dragging by those two wire slings. When the stiff wire shot ahead as the slack bunched there was only one way for the loops to go—up, and off the big hook. They did.
And then there was only one way for the released tank to go—to follow the law of gravity, back down that two per cent grade, the high banks of soft snow
a devilish insulation against sound, cutting off all warning to the gang down there in that trap at Kokshut canyon.
Windy River will take a long time to live down that night’s work. And there are a dozen little markers in the cemetery by the river to remind those who would like to forget.
There was something else they couldn’t soon forget, either. Something that was like a slap in the face from a best friend. It was the way Bowler Maharg stood up, grim and defiant at the inquest to swear that he alone was responsible for the accident. It was his mistake that had let the crane go up the mountain without a safety chain to the tender.
The jurymen looked at each other and shook their heads. And then they brought in a verdict of accident with no direct blame for anyone. They knew, as did every man on the Windy district, that Bowler was covering something or somebody. But a man with his record couldn’t be sent away in a place like Windy River. And what good was prosecution? It couldn’t bring back the dead. The widows and kiddies would be okay, as far as they could make it okay for a fatherless family.
There was only one bit of satisfaction in the whole miserable job for Windy River folks. They’d all figured this prairie gopher, Elsie Graham, would high-tail back for home without even waiting for a verdict.
That’s what they thought, brother. But they didn’t yet know this Elsie from the East. He stayed put right there at Selrock. Oh, he was quiet enough
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Repair Track Job
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for a while, in a penitent sort of way, trying to show how sorry he was for the railroad because Bowler, an old and trusted employee, had made this terrible blunder.
But that didn’t last long with a lad like Elsie. Pretty soon he was chasing up and down the line again, riding everything that moved, but most of all, riding Bowler Maharg. And Bowler taking it without a murmur. Just going around looking miserable and unwanted as a 1900-model flat car. It was plain to all that Elsie figured he had Bowler headed into the long blind siding.
Business was picking up fast, though, and that helped to keep men’s minds off such troubles. Nothing like plenty of hard work to make a man forget his troubles. The war was swinging into its stride and industry was feeling the swing. Tonnage and passenger traffic grew heavier each week. Troops from Eastern camps were seeing Canada first, right through to the Pacific coast, and Western troops were jaunting eastward in a sort of square dance, get-acquainted program. Sleeping cars were filled with eager businessmen and government officials flitting back and forth with war proposals or demands. Steel and hardware, wire and livestock rolled westward, while long drags of lumber wormed eastward in the race to rebuild the blasted cities of Britain. And all this had to crawl over a single track through the mountains, menaced twenty-four hours a day by unpredictable elements. But manned by men who met and mastered what came.
AFTER that January chinook the x\. weather had settled down to normal, and it commenced to look as though Windy River district would wiggle through without further grief. Then, in the last week of February the cold cracked down. And with an extra troop movement on, and the lumber coming heavier each day, Bowler Maharg didn’t wait for something to happen. He crawled into his thick mackinaw and headed for Hell Pit down at the east end of his dis-
trict. The Skyline could take care of itself in cold snaps.
But Hell Pit, now—that’s something else again! You don’t know anything about railroading in wintertime until you’ve worked down there. You don’t know much about wind till you’ve poked your nose around that horseshoe point when it’s hitting a fifty mile clip in the down draft from Windy Glacier at the top of the world. The wind alone is enough to peel off the hide before you can retreat. But mix it with that dry snow that’s whipped into a blizzard to fill your eyes and nose and ears till you’re ready to squeal with the pain; find your face or any other exposed part frozen stiff if you don’t keep it covered constantly; feel your very lungs setting like concrete unless you keep hopping and flopping like a flea, and you’ll begin to understand why Windy River men put an extra L in the original official time card name of Helpit.
Long ago Trainmaster Maharg set up a rule at Hell Pit that winked at the book, but got results. It was simple enough when you knew it. Instead of stopping at the station, trains pulled west, or stopped short eastbound, around the curve in an eddy from the wind. Maybe it wasn’t always quite convenient, but it sure saved a lot of grief, and that’s what mattered. Salvation Point, it was dubbed by the men.
When the wind was driving in Hell Pit it was one crew’s steady job running a wing plow up and down the main line and passing track, keeping the snow drifts brushed back into the river. And with the growing tonnage Bowler didn’t allow himself much sleep in the cold snap. Graham, too, was skipping this way and that, stirring up plenty of fuss at the slightest delay. Yet the monthly reports he sent in showed more tonnage moved than at any time in the road’s history. Elsie underscored this with his own name. With old Bob Slaney headed for pension in July, there’d be an early appointment to fill the vacancy.
The cold snap was still bearing down when word was passed that the
general manager, Price Hardy, was coming West. That meant something was cooking. Men looked and winked at each other, and then stared reflectively at big Bowler Maharg.
The day the special was due Elsie and the Old Man headed east over the divide to meet it. Trainmaster Maharg rode as far as the summit with Martin, the relieving conductor, for a check-in with crews. And when the general’s train came in Bowler and Martin went up ahead on it to make sure that the engineer would pull on down around Salvation Point before stopping at Hell Pit. If they let this train freeze up there in such weather it might be spring before they got it dug out again. That was Bowler’s job, to keep things moving, especially the general’s special.
The special had been eased down the long hill, with Martin checking details with Dan McRae, the skipper from the Foothills district, when Elsie came strutting through to their head coach.
“Everything in good order, conductors?” he asked briskly. “We can’t have a minute’s delay here. Got to meet the Oriental liner at the coast tomorrow noon. We’ll stop just long enough for me to send some telegrams.”
Dan McRae’s eyes widened. “Better give me the wires, Mr. Graham,” he suggested. “We’ll be pulling down around the point here for inspection. It’ll be tough walking for you back through this blizzard.”
“What’s that!” Graham yelled. “You mean you’re pulling past the station? On what authority?”
“Trainmaster,” Martin explained crisply. “We always pull around there in this stuff. Freeze tight if we didn’t.”
“Bunk!” Graham snorted, trying to peer out for location in the darkness. “Pull your signal cord for the regular station stop, McRae,” he ordered.
Old Mac shrugged, rubbing a sleeve on the window. “ ’Fraid it’s too late for that, Mr. Graham. We’re by the station now.”
The west passing track switch lamp blinked faintly to prove it and disappeared. Graham swept both men with angry eyes, then looked over his head. A little rope threaded the length of the coach. He heaped on a seat and clutched it, jerking it savagely. But it wasn’t the blue cord to the signal whistle in the engine cab. It was the red one—to the emergency brake valve. And it was in mighty good working order. The general’s steed reared back on its haunches as sharply as though some naughty little mountain had been setting astride the railroad.
WHEREVER Bowler Maharg had been riding, he was on the job before Elsie could let go the rope. “Who the ...” then he just stared, and finally emitted a long sigh like a releasing retainer valve. “Good goshamighty!” he finished, and swung on Conductor Martin.
“Come on, Mush,” he said wearily, “we’ve got plenty of work to do now. Maybe it’s too late already.”
“Fine!” Martin growled defiantly at Graham’s back where he clawed at the exit trap door. “Just right. That
puts this sort of job right where it belongs, for once.”
Bowler gripped Martin’s arm, easing him toward the exit.
“It’s not just as easy as that, Mush. Not just a job between us men here. The railroad’s got to keep moving, you know that. Everything depends on it—everybody between here and Hitler. The boys over there, and these lads we see heading East these days . . . they’re all looking to us to keep the wheels turning. Give them the tools, you know . . . Your Jimmy, now, he’s got to have the stuff to keep that big bomber of his in the air . . . Eh, Mush?”
What else could a man do when old Bowler put it to him like that? What else but button his high mackinaw collar and plow up through the storm to start the job that was hell on earth. It didn’t matter now who’d got them into this jam. The thing that mattered was getting out of it—in the shortest possible time. Afterward . .
Bowler grabbed the snowplow engine because it was handiest and tied it on ahead. Graham was up there, too, screaming at the delay.
“Get another engine!”
“We’ve got two on now,” Bowler told him. “They can’t lift her. The brakes set up in emergency like that —and all froze tight like concrete...”
“Blaming me again, eh?” Graham squealed. “Get another engine. We’ve plenty of power. Get two more if you need them. This is an important train, Maharg—in case you hadn’t heard, and you’d best get us out of here.”
That was Elsie. Putting it right up Bowler’s siding again. It was a grand chance for Bowler to cut loose at last and tell him off. His face didn’t show what he thought in the storm. But his voice came back firm and patient.
“We’d only pull drawbars with more engines. What we’ve got to do now is to cut and warm up each coach, one at a time . .
“Cut! You can’t cut this train. Where would we get steam heat? Get more engines. Put them on both ends if you’re afraid of your drawbars. But you’d better work fast, trainmaster.”
Well, Bowler got more engines then, knowing mighty well what’d happen, though he might have gone back into the train and hunted up old Slaney and put it up to him. But he wouldn’t chance tying on an engine behind lest it climb right into the general’s bedroom. They got one more engine coupled on ahead and whistled off. The engines grunted and moved. But the coaches stayed put right where they were, with only the draft gear and all its connections trailing out from under the first coach to show for the mighty tractive effort.
And there they were! Thirty below, with that wind driving buckshot snow into everything.
“Get a set of chains,” Bowler ordered right off, without batting an eye.
“I’d like to sling ’em around that young fool’s neck,” the car repairman growled. But he trotted off just the same, and after a while came back with his crew and a load of a few hundred pounds of chain that was so cold it’d tear the flesh from any bare
hand that happened to contact it. Cursing every hair in Graham’s head they worked. And while they worked the train crew got an engine around behind and cut in the steam so the general and his staff wouldn’t freeze to their beds.
With the snow digging in everywhere like a cushion full of needles a man couldn’t work more than a minute or so with his mitts on metal like that without stopping to flop his arms. They took relays at crawling in underneath to tug the chain ends up around the sill and bolster. And when finally they got it hooked up they bled off the first coach and cut it loose from the train, and with a muttered prayer passed the word for a pull. And with an expert hand at the throttle, they saw the slack go out, hold and presently the crippled coach commenced to move. They dragged it down to the shop lead and set it out, coming back to commence the long, weary job of repeating the trick with each coach of the general’s train in turn.
Once the agent came out to find Martin. The dispatcher had a highball lumber train down at Moose Lake, seesawing to keep it from freezing up, and wanted to bring it up to Hell Pit. Martin found Bowler and they agreed there was plenty of time, so the conductor went up and signed an order that gave the freight train running rights into Hell Pit. When it got in they took the two helper engines to boost it right on through and up over the hill for the long trip across the prairie.
THAT WAS the moment that Elsie chose to leave his steamheat comfort and come ahead for a report to the general. The long grey ghost of the lumber train was pulling by on the passing track. He gaped at it.
“How’d that train get up here against us, trainmaster?” he yelped.
“Why, by arrangement between conductor and dispatcher, in the usual way,” Bowler advised him, cool as the driving snow.
“Where were you — did you okay it?”
“And chance tying up the general manager’s rush train in this—this Godforsaken hole indefinitely? Believe me, he’ll get a full report on this.”
And then, at last, something seemed to happen to Bowler Maharg. With one big hand on Graham’s shoulder he shook him.
“You everlasting idiot!” he rumbled. “If you make a pass to squawk about this to the general I’ll give you an installment of what you missed twenty-five years ago. And if I do, it’ll sure be a repair track job!”
They hadn’t noticed who had joined them there in the blinding snow till they heard the voice of Price Hardy himself.
“Any trouble, men?” He was peering at both Bowler and Graham in turn, with old Bob Slaney moving in at his elbow, leaning heavily on his cane.
They’ll tell you on the Windy that Bowler Maharg has pulled some fast ones in his time. But that came very close to his record for quick thinking.
“There’s always trouble here in winter, Mr. Hardy,” he said, still gripping young Graham’s shoulder. “I was just telling Mr. Graham, here, things are coming okay now.”
“Yes?” grunted the general manager. “So it seems. Five hours getting nowhere, and the whole road blocked by someone’s blunder, and I think I know who. But don’t let me detain you more, Maharg. Graham, you’d better come back with me. I want to talk with you.” Then Bowler was alone.
It was along about midnight when the train crew got the last coach pried loose and warmed up, and the whole train moving together once more. It commenced to look like the final exit from Hell Pit for that trip. Keeping the train moving slowly, Martin finally got a clearance and was climbing into the first coach when he bumped into Elsie Graham barging blindly for an exit with his club bag. And right behind him came Bowler Maharg to grab the bag and grip his arm.
“You’re not leaving us?”
Graham turned wild eyes to Bowler and then at the conductor reaching for the signal to speed up and get going out of town. He tugged savagely at his bag.
“I’m getting off here,” he snapped. “Got to catch Number Four.” He looked down the steps to see the snow receding with the slowly moving train, then back at Martin, still gripping the signal cord.
“You’re not quitting the country?” Bowler asked firmly.
“Why shouldn’t I?” Graham snapped.
Bowler didn’t let go. The conductor fumed. “We’ve got to get moving,” he said, flashing his train orders. “I’ve got a meet on Number Four at Moose Lake.” He pulled his watch suggestively.
Bowler ignored him, still facing Graham, holding the bag.
“You fired?” he asked.
Elsie shook his head grimly. “Worse. He wants to make a fool out of me. Promised me Slaney’s place— almost, when I came out here. Now he’s gone back on his word, and giving it to you. I’m pulling out.”
Bowler stared so long that Graham started for the steps again.
“No!” The trainmaster gripped his arm, turning to Martin. “Don’t wait, conductor,” he ordered without moving. Martin yanked the signal cord savagely and dropped the trap. The train gained speed, a faint pair of whistles acknowledging the signal from the engine.
BOWLER steered Graham back inside a smoking compartment. They were alone. Graham glanced at him defiantly, like a guilty boy.
“What’s the idea of holding me here?” he almost whined. “Kidnap?” “Ye-es,” Bowler drawled gravely. “Till you pay your bill.”
“I don’t owe a cent in this place!” Graham snapped. “None of your business if I did.”
“No? You’re wrong, boy. What about Kokshut, for instance?” Bowler’s hard hat pushed over from left to right. His mouth was a fixed signal.
Graham wriggled in his seat and
looked up sharply. “What do you mean—Kokshut?”
“This,” Bowler said, cold as ice. “I okayed you here to Windy people. Understand? You didn’t make the grade. Now, smart boy, you’re sticking till you can look every man, woman and child in the eye and tell them how sorry you are.”
Graham’s face drained white and a queer, shuddering sigh escaped him like an engine slipping under a heavy lift. “Why should I be .sorry?” he said defiantly. “It wasn’t my fault. It’s the railroad. Oh, maybe you think I don’t know how they feel. I’m human, believe it or not. But the railroads are always killing people, and they’ve got to learn to take it like I had to. It was a railroad that killed my father. He went out on his engine one night and forgot his orders.” Graham got up and paced the little room. “Both trains went into the river. They never found him . . . The brotherhood kept me going, then got me a job with this road, damn them. Wish I’d never seen a railroad. But this is the end ...”
Bowler’s hat was off now, his coarse fingers running through his grizzly hair. “Sit down, son,” he said gently. “It’s time you got set right about some things. I was like that once. But the railroad is in your blood now and you’ll never shake it.” He sat back and filled his pipe. “You’re wrong about your dad, lad. He wasn’t killed. He got away. Only one or two in the brotherhood knew about that part. He got back in the railroad game again. It was the only thing he knew . . . understood. And he kept track of you. Sent you money to put you through college, but always just a bit ashamed . . . too much so to let you know or face you after running out on you like ¡ that . . . And now . . . now he’s trying to complete your education ... in the only way he knows.”
Graham was on his feet again, staring wide-eyed, scared, like a boy seeing his first bear. “You don’t
mean . . . you’re not him . . . my father? Alive ... all this time?” Bowler nodded, sucking hard on his pipe, his eyes full on his son. “That’s right, Lee.”
“But . . . the name? How come? And why did you run out on me?” “Responsibility for the accident, remember. Understand, they were mighty rough on a man overrunning his orders those days. But believe me, I’ve paid the bill in full . . . About the name—I wonder you didn’t get wise to that long ago, son. I didn’t really change it—just set it in reverse.”
They sat a long time then, studying each other and each other’s problems. And after a time old Bowler spoke again. “So you see how it is with you, son,” he said softly. “You’ve just got to stick it here. Pay your bill. Show ’em you’ve got what it takes.” And then later, as the boy still stared wordless, “Don’t be afraid of going on the rep track, Lee. It does a man a power of good. I know. I’ve had my time on it. Gives you time to think things through.”
Elsie looked up and spoke at last, puzzled. “But our names—they’re different. We can’t tell people.” Bowler shook his grizzly head, and smiled gravely, shoving out his great, frost-chapped hand. “No, son,” he said softly. “That’s all part of the bill. We’ll have to act like strangers. But you and me—we’ll know. And that’s all that matters, eh, Lee?”
Windy River folks don’t brag about things. But they’ll tell you without much prompting that it takes a mighty tough man to follow big Bowler Maharg’s trail up there along the Skyline and down around Hell Pit. A man with a hickory heart that might be beaten but never broken.
And they’ll tell you, too, with maybe a bit of a sly grin, that sometimes a man’s the better for a spell on the rep track. Especially when the job is under a mechanic like Bowler Maharg.