Just how McWilliams felt we had no means of knowing; but we knew our hearts would not beat freely until his infernal Special should slide safely over the last of the 266 miles which still lay between the distressed man and his unfortunate child.
From McCloud to Ogalalla there is a good bit of twisting and slewing; but looking east from Athens a marble dropped between the rails might roll clear into the Ogalalla yards. It is a sixty-mile grade, the ballast of slag, and the sweetest, springiest bed under steel.
To cover those sixty miles in better than fifty minutes was like picking them off the ponies; and the Five-Nine breasted the Morgan divide, fretting for more hills to climb.
The Five-Nine — for that matter any of the Sky-Scrapers are built to balance ten or a dozen sleepers, and when you run them light they have a fashion of rooting their noses into the track. A modest upgrade just about counters this tendency; but on a slump and a stiff clip and no tail to speak of, you feel as if the drivers were going to buck up on the ponies every once in a while. However, they never do, and Georgie whistled for Scarboro’ junction, and 180 miles and two waters, in 198 minutes out of McCloud; and, looking happy, cussed Mr. McWilliams a little, and gave her another hatful of steam.
It is getting down a hill, like the hills of the Mattaback Valley, at such a pace that pounds the track out of shape. The Five-Nine lurched at the curves like a mad woman, shook free with very fury, and if the baggage-car had not been fairly loaded down with the grief of McWilliams, it must have jumped the rails a dozen times in as many minutes.
Indeed, the fireman — it was Jerry MacElroy — twisting and shifting between the tender and the furnace, looked for the first time grave, and stole a questioning glance from the steam-gauge towards Georgie.
But yet he didn’t expect to see the boy, his face set ahead and down the track, straighten so suddenly up, sink in the lever, and close at the instant on the air. Jerry felt her stumble under his feet — caught up like a girl in a skipping-rope — and grabbing a brace looked, like a wise stoker, for his answer out of his window. There far ahead it rose in hot curling clouds of smoke down among the alfalfa meadows and over the sweep of willows along the Mattaback River. The Mattaback bridge was on fire, with the McWilliams Special on one side and Denver on the other.
Jerry MacElroy yelled — the engineer didn’t even look around; only whistled an alarm back to Pat Francis, eased her down the grade a bit, like a man reflecting, and watched the smoke and flames that rose to bar the McWilliams Special out of Denver.
The Five-Nine skimmed across the meadows without a break, and pulled up a hundred feet from the burning bridge. It was an old Howe truss, and snapped like popcorn as the flames bit into the rotten shed. Pat Francis and his brakeman ran forward. Across the river they could see half a dozen section-men chasing wildly about throwing impotent buckets of water on the burning truss.
“We’re up against it Georgie,” cried Francis.
“Not if we can get across before the bridge tumbles into the river,” returned Sinclair.
“You don’t mean you’d try it?”
“Would I? Wouldn’t I? You know the orders. That bridge is good for an hour yet. Pat, if you’re game, I’ll run it.”
“Holy smoke,” mused Pat Francis, who would have run the river without any bridge at all if so ordered. “They told us to deliver the goods, didn’t they?”
“We might as well be starting, Pat,” suggested Jerry MacElroy, who deprecated losing good time.” There’ll be plenty of time to talk after we get into Denver, or the Mattaback.”
“Think quick, Pat,” urged Sinclair; his safety was popping murder.
“Back her up, then, and let her go,” cried Francis; “I’d just as well have that baggage-car at the bottom of the river as on my hands any longer.”
There was some sharp tooting, then the McWilliams Special backed; backed away across the meadow, halted, and screamed bard enough to wake the dead. Georgie was trying to warn the section-men. At that instant the door of the baggage-car opened and a sharp-featured young man peered out.
“What’s the row — what’s all this screeching about, conductor?” he asked, as Francis passed.
“Bridge burning ahead there.”
“Bridge burning!” he cried, looking nervously forward. “Well, that’s a deal. What you going to do about it?”
“Run it. Are you McWilliams?”
“McWilliams? I wish I was for just one minute. I’m one of his clerks.”
“Where is he?”
“I left him on La Salle Street yesterday afternoon.”
“What’s your name?”
“Just plain Ferguson.”
“Well, Ferguson, it’s none of my business, but as long as we’re going to put you into Denver or into the river in about a minute, I’m curious to know what the blazes you’re hustling along this way for.”
“Me? I’ve got twelve hundred thousand dollars in gold coin in this car for the Sierra Leone National Bank — that’s all. Didn’t you know that five big banks there closed their doors yesterday? Worst panic in the United States. That’s what I’m here for, and five huskies with me eating and sleeping in this car,” continued Ferguson, looking ahead. “You’re not going to tackle that bridge, are you?”
“We are, and right off. If there’s any of your huskies want to drop out, now’s their chance,” said Pat Francis, as Sinclair slowed up for his run.
Ferguson called his men. The five with their rifles came cautiously forward.
“Boys,” said Ferguson, briefly. “There’s a bridge afire ahead. These guys are going to try to run it. It’s not in your contract, that kind of a chance. Do you want to get off? I stay with the specie, myself. You can do exactly as you please. Murray, what do you say?” he asked, addressing the leader of the force, who appeared to weigh about two hundred and sixty.
“What do I say?” echoed Murray, with decision, as he looked for a soft place to alight alongside the track. “I say I’ll drop out right here. I don’t mind train robber, but I don’t tackle a burning, bridge — not if I know it,” and he jumped off.
“Well, Peaters,” asked Ferguson, of the second man, coolly, “do you want to stay?”
“Me?” echoed Peaters, looking ahead at the mass of flame leaping upward — “me stay? Well, not in a thousand years. You can have my gun, Mr. Ferguson, and send my check to 439 Milwaukee Avenue, if you please. Gentlemen, good- day.” And off went Peaters.
And off went every last man of the valorous detectives except one lame fellow, who said he would just as lief be dead as alive anyway, and declared he would stay with Ferguson and die rich!
Sinclair, thinking he might never get another chance, was whistling sharply for orders. Francis, breathless with the news, ran forward.
“Coin? How much? Twelve hundred thousand. Whew!” cried Sinclair. “Swing up, Pat. We’re off.”
The Five-Nine gathered herself with a spring. Even the engineer’s heart quailed as they got headway. He knew his business, and he knew that if only the rails hadn’t buckled they were perfectly safe, for the heavy truss would stand a lot of burning before giving way under a swiftly moving train. Only, as they flew nearer, the blaze rolling up in dense volume looked horribly threatening After all it was foolhardy, and be felt it; but he was past the stopping now, and he pulled the choker to the limit. It seemed as if she never covered steel so fast. Under the head she now had the crackling bridge was less than five hundred — four hundred — three hundred — two hundred feet, and there was no longer time to think. With a stare, Sinclair shut off. He wanted no push or pull on the track. The McWilliams Special was just a tremendous arrow, shooting through a truss of fire, and half a dozen speechless men on either side of the river waiting for the catastrophe.
Jerry MacElroy crouched low under the gauges. Sinclair jumped from his box and stood with a band on the throttle and a hand on the air, the glass crashing around his head like hail. A blast of fiery air and flying cinders burned and choked him. The engine, alive with danger, flew like a great monkey along the writhing steel. So quick, so black, so hot the blast, and so terrific the leap, she stuck her nose into clean air before the men in the cab could rise to it.
There was a heave in the middle like the lurch of a sea-sick steamer, and with it the Five-Nine got her paws on cool iron and solid ground, and the Mattaback and the blaze — all except a dozen tongues which licked the cab and the roof of the baggage-car a minute — were behind. Georgie Sinclair, shaking the hot glass out of his hair, looked ahead through his frizzled eyelids and gave her a full head for the western bluffs of the valley; then looked at his watch.
It was the hundred and ninetieth mile-post just at her nose, and the dial read eight o’clock and fifty-five minutes to a second. There was an hour to the good and seventy-six miles and a water to cover; but they were seventy-six of the prettiest miles under ballast anywhere, and the Five-Nine reeled them off like a cylinder-press. Seventy-nine minutes later Sinclair whistled for the Denver yards.
There was a tremendous commotion among the waiting engines. If there was one there were fifty big locomotives waiting to charivari the McWilliams Special. The wires had told the story in Denver long before, and as the Five-Nine sailed ponderously up the gridiron every mogul, every consolidated, every ten-wheeler, every hog, every switch-bumper, every air-hose screamed an uproarious welcome to Georgie Sinclair and the Sky-Scraper.
They had broken every record from McCloud to Denver, and all knew it; but as the McWilliams Special drew swiftly past, every last man in the yards stared at her cracked, peeled, blistered, haggard looks.
“What the deuce have you bit into?” cried the depot-master, as the Five-Nine swept splendidly up and stopped with her battered eye hard on the depot clock.
“Mattaback bridge is burned; had to crawl over on the stringers,” answered Sinclair, couching up a cinder.
“Back there sitting on his grief, I reckon.”
While the crew went up to register, two big four-horse trucks backed up to the baggage-car, and in a minute a dozen men were rolling specie-keg’s out of the door, which was smashed in, as being quicker than to tear open the barricades.
Sinclair, MacElroy, and Francis with his brakeman were surrounded by a crowd of railroad men. As they stood answering questions, a big prosperous-looking banker, with black rings under his eyes, pushed in towards them, accompanied by the lame fellow, who had missed the chance of a lifetime to die rich, and by Ferguson, who had told the story.
The banker shook hands with each one of the crews. “You’ve saved us, boys. We needed it. There’s a mob of five thousand of the worst-scared people in America clamoring at the doors; and, by the eternal, now we’re fixed for every one of them. Come up to the bank. I want you to ride right up with the coin, all of you.”
It was an uncommonly queer occasion, but an uncommonly enthusiastic one. Fifty policemen made the escort and cleared the way for the trucks to pull up across the sidewalk, so the porters could lug the kegs of gold into the bank before the very eyes of the rattled depositors.
In an hour the run was broken. But when the four railroad men left the bank, after all sorts of hugging by excited directors, they carried not only the blessings of the officials, but each in his vest pocket a check, every one of which discounted the biggest voucher ever drawn on the West End for a month’s pay; though I violate no confidence in stating, that Georgie Sinclair’s was bigger than any two of the others. And this is how it happens that there hangs, in the directors’ room of the Sierra Leone National a very creditable portrait of the kid engineer.
Besides paying tariff on the specie, the bank paid for a new coat of paint for the McWilliams Special from caboose to pilot. She was the last train across the Mattaback for two weeks.