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Banneker came out of his chair with a spring.
"Help! Help! Help! Help! Help!" screamed the strident voice.
It was like an animal in pain and panic.
For a brief instant the station-agent halted at the door to assure himself that the call was stationary. It was. Also it was slightly muffled. That meant that the train was still in the cut. As he ran to the key and sent in the signal for Stanwood, Banneker reflected what this might mean. Crippled? Likely enough. Ditched? He guessed not. A ditched locomotive is usually voiceless if not driverless as well. Blocked by a slide? Rock Cut had a bad repute for that kind of accident. But the quality of the call predicated more of a catastrophe than a mere blockade. Besides, in that case why could not the train back down--
The answering signal from the dispatcher at Stanwood interrupted his conjectures.
"Number Three in trouble in the Cut," ticked Banneker fluently. "Think help probably needed from you. Shall I go out?"
"O. K.," came the answer. "Take charge. Bad track reported three miles east may delay arrival."
Banneker dropped and locked the windows, set his signal for "track blocked" and ran to the portable house. Inside he stood, considering. With swift precision he took from one of the home-carpentered shelves a compact emergency kit, 17 S 4230, "hefted" it, and adjusted it, knapsack fashion, to his back; then from a small cabinet drew a flask, which he disposed in his hip-pocket. Another part of the same cabinet provided a first-aid outfit, 3 R 0114. Thus equipped he was just closing the door after him when another thought struck him and he returned to slip a coil of light, strong sash-cord, 36 J 9078, over his shoulders to his waist where he deftly tautened it. He had seen railroad wrecks before. For a moment he considered leaving his coat, for he had upwards of three miles to go in the increasing heat; but, reflecting that the outward and visible signs of authority might save time and questions, he thought better of it. Patting his pocket to make sure that his necessary notebook and pencil were there, he set out at a moderate, even, springless lope. He had no mind to reach a scene which might require his best qualities of mind and body, in a semi-exhausted state. Nevertheless, laden as he was, he made the three miles in less than half an hour. Let no man who has not tried to cover at speed the ribbed treacheries of a railroad track minimize the achievement!
A sharp curve leads to the entrance of Rock Cut. Running easily, Banneker had reached the beginning of the turn, when he became aware of a lumbering figure approaching him at a high and wild sort of half-gallop. The man's face was a welter of blood. One hand was pressed to it. The other swung crazily as he ran. He would have swept past Banneker unregarding had not the agent caught him by the shoulder.
"Where are you hurt?"
The runner stared wildly at the young man. "I'll soom," he mumbled breathlessly, his hand still crumpled against the dreadfully smeared face. "Dammum, I'll soom."
He removed his hand from his mouth, and the red drops splattered and were lost upon the glittering, thirsty sand. Banneker wiped the man's face, and found no injury. But the fingers which he had crammed into his mouth were bleeding profusely.
"They oughta be prosecuted," moaned the sufferer. "I'll soom. For ten thousan' dollars. M'hand is smashed. Looka that! Smashed like a bug."
Banneker caught the hand and expertly bound it, taking the man's name and address as he worked.
"Is it a bad wreck?" he asked.
"It's hell. Look at m'hand! But I'll soom, all right. I'll show'm ... Oh! ... Cars are afire, too ... Oh-h-h! Where's a hospital?"
He cursed weakly as Banneker, without answering, re-stowed his packet and ran on.
A thin wisp of smoke rising above the nearer wall of rocks made the agent set his teeth. Throughout his course the voice of the engine had, as it were, yapped at his hurrying heels, but now it was silent, and he could hear a murmur of voices and an occasional shouted order. He came into sight of the accident, to face a bewildering scene.
Two hundred yards up the track stood the major portion of the train, intact. Behind it, by itself, lay a Pullman sleeper, on its side and apparently little harmed. Nearest to Banneker, partly on the rails but mainly beside them, was jumbled a ridiculous mess of woodwork, with here and there a gleam of metal, centering on a large and jagged boulder. Smaller rocks were scattered through the melange. It was exactly like a heap of giant jack-straws into which some mischievous spirit had tossed a large pebble. At one end a flame sputtered and spread cheerfully.
A panting and grimy conductor staggered toward it with a pail of water from the engine. Banneker accosted him.
"Any one in--"
"Get outa my way!" gasped the official.
"I'm agent at Manzanita."
The conductor set down his pail. "O God!" he said. "Did you bring any help?"
"No, I'm alone. Any one in there?" He pointed to the flaming debris.
"One that we know of. He's dead."
"Sure?" cried Banneker sharply.
"Look for yourself. Go the other side."
Banneker looked and returned, white and set of face. "How many others?"
"Seven, so far."
"Is that all?" asked the agent with a sense of relief. It seemed as if no occupant could have come forth of that ghastly and absurd rubbish-heap, which had been two luxurious Pullmans, alive.
"There's a dozen that's hurt bad."
"No use watering that mess," said Banneker. "It won't burn much further. Wind's against it. Anybody left in the other smashed cars?"
"Don't think so."
"Got the names of the dead?"
"Now, how would I have the time!" demanded the conductor resentfully.
Banneker turned to the far side of the track where the seven bodies lay. They were not disposed decorously. The faces were uncovered. The postures were crumpled and grotesque. A forgotten corner of a battle-field might look like that, the young agent thought, bloody and disordered and casual.
Nearest him was the body of a woman badly crushed, and, crouching beside it, a man who fondled one of its hands, weeping quietly. Close by lay the corpse of a child showing no wound or mark, and next that, something so mangled that it might have been either man or woman--or neither. The other victims were humped or sprawled upon the sand in postures of exaggerated abandon; all but one, a blonde young girl whose upthrust arm seemed to be reaching for something just beyond her grasp.
A group of the uninjured from the forward cars surrounded and enclosed a confused sound of moaning and crying. Banneker pushed briskly through the ring. About twenty wounded lay upon the ground or were propped against the rock-wall. Over them two women were expertly working, one tiny and beautiful, with jewels gleaming on her reddened hands; the other brisk, homely, with a suggestion of the professional in her precise motions. A broad, fat, white-bearded man seemed to be informally in charge. At least he was giving directions in a growling voice as he bent over the sufferers. Banneker went to him.
"Doctor?" he inquired.
The other did not even look up. "Don't bother me," he snapped.
The station-agent pushed his first-aid packet into the old man's hands.
"Good!" grunted the other. "Hold this fellow's head, will you? Hold it hard."
Banneker's wrists were props of steel as he gripped the tossing head. The old man took a turn with a bandage and fastened it.
"He'll die, anyway," he said, and lifted his face.
Banneker cackled like a silly girl at full sight of him. The spreading whisker on the far side of his stern face was gayly pied in blotches of red and green.
"Going to have hysterics?" demanded the old man, striking not so far short of the truth.
"No," said the agent, mastering himself. "Hey! you, trainman," he called to a hobbling, blue-coated fellow. "Bring two buckets of water from the boiler-tap, hot and clean. Clean, mind you!" The man nodded and limped away. "Anything else, Doctor?" asked the agent. "Got towels?"
"Yes. And I'm not a doctor--not for forty years. But I'm the nearest thing to it in this shambles. Who are you?"
Banneker explained. "I'll be back in five minutes," he said and passed into the subdued and tremulous crowd.
On the outskirts loitered a lank, idle young man clad beyond the glories of Messrs. Sears-Roebuck's highest-colored imaginings.
"Hurt?" asked Banneker.
"No," said the youth.
"Can you run three miles?"
"I fancy so."
"Will you take an urgent message to be wired from Manzanita?"
"Certainly," said the youth with good-will.
Tearing a leaf from his pocket-ledger, Banneker scribbled a dispatch which is still preserved in the road's archives as giving more vital information in fewer words than any other railroad document extant. He instructed the messenger where to find a substitute telegrapher.
"Answer?" asked the youth, unfurling his long legs.
"No," returned Banneker, and the courier, tossing his coat off, took the road.
Banneker turned back to the improvised hospital.
"I'm going to move these people into the cars," he said to the man in charge. "The berths are being made up now."
The other nodded. Banneker gathered helpers and superintended the transfer. One of the passengers, an elderly lady who had shown no sign of grave injury, died smiling courageously as they were lifting her.
It gave Banneker a momentary shock of helpless responsibility. Why should she have been the one to die? Only five minutes before she had spoken to him in self-possessed, even tones, saying that her traveling-bag contained camphor, ammonia, and iodine if he needed them. She had seemed a reliable, helpful kind of lady, and now she was dead. It struck Banneker as improbable and, in a queer sense, discriminatory. Remembering the slight, ready smile with which she had addressed him, he felt as if he had suffered a personal loss; he would have liked to stay and work over her, trying to discover if there might not be some spark of life remaining, to be cherished back into flame, but the burly old man's decisive "Gone," settled that. Besides, there were other things, official things to be looked to.
A full report would be expected of him, as to the cause of the accident. The presence of the boulder in the wreckage explained that grimly. It was now his routine duty to collect the names of the dead and wounded, and such details as he could elicit. He went about it briskly, conscientiously, and with distaste. All this would go to the claim agent of the road eventually and might serve to mitigate the total of damages exacted of the company. Vaguely Banneker resented such probable penalties as unfair; the most unremitting watchfulness could not have detected the subtle undermining of that fatal boulder. But essentially he was not interested in claims and damages. His sensitive mind hovered around the mystery of death; that file of crumpled bodies, the woman of the stilled smile, the man fondling a limp hand, weeping quietly. Officially, he was a smooth-working bit of mechanism. As an individual he probed tragic depths to which he was alien otherwise than by a large and vague sympathy. Facts of the baldest were entered neatly; but in the back of his eager brain Banneker was storing details of a far different kind and of no earthly use to a railroad corporation.
He became aware of some one waiting at his elbow. The lank young man had spoken to him twice.
"Well?" said Banneker sharply. "Oh, it's you! How did you get back so soon?"
"Under the hour," replied the other with pride. "Your message has gone. The operator's a queer duck. Dealing faro. Made me play through a case before he'd quit. I stung him for twenty. Here's some stuff I thought might be useful."
From a cotton bag he discharged a miscellaneous heap of patent preparations; salves, ointments, emollients, liniments, plasters.
"All I could get," he explained. "No drug-store in the funny burg."
"Thank you," said Banneker. "You're all right. Want another job?"
"Certainly," said the lily of the field with undiminished good-will.
"Go and help the white-whiskered old boy in the Pullman yonder."
"Oh, he'd chase me," returned the other calmly. "He's my uncle. He thinks I'm no use."
"Does he? Well, suppose you get names and addresses of the slightly injured for me, then. Here's your coat."
"Tha-anks," drawled the young man. He was turning away to his new duties when a thought struck him. "Making a list?" he asked.
"Yes. For my report."
"Got a name with the initials I. O. W.?"
Banneker ran through the roster in the pocket-ledger. "Not yet. Some one that's hurt?"
"Don't know what became of her. Peach of a girl. Black hair, big, sleepy, black eyes with a fire in 'em. Dressed right. Traveling alone, and minding her own business, too. Had a stateroom in that Pullman there in the ditch. Noticed her initials on her traveling-bag."
"Have you seen her since the smash?"
"Don't know. Got a kind of confused recklection of seeing her wobbling around at the side of the track. Can't be sure, though. Might have been me."
"Might have been you? How could--"
"Wobbly, myself. Mixed in my thinks. When I came to I was pretty busy putting my lunch," explained the other with simple realism. "One of Mr. Pullman's seats butted me in the stomach. They ain't upholstered as soft as you'd think to look at 'em. I went reeling around, looking for Miss I. O. W., she being alone, you know, and I thought she might need some looking after. And I had that idea of having seen her with her hand to her head dazed and running--yes; that's it, she was running. Wow!" said the young man fervently. "She was a pretty thing! You don't suppose--" He turned hesitantly to the file of bodies, now decently covered with sheets.
For a grisly instant Banneker thought of the one mangled monstrosity--that to have been so lately loveliness and charm, with deep fire in its eyes and perhaps deep tenderness and passion in its heart. He dismissed the thought as being against the evidence and entered the initials in his booklet.
"I'll look out for her," said he. "Probably she's forward somewhere."
Without respite he toiled until a long whistle gave notice of the return of the locomotive which had gone forward to meet the delayed special from Stanwood. Human beings were clinging about it in little clusters like bees; physicians, nurses, officials, and hospital attendants. The dispatcher from Stanwood listened to Banneker's brief report, and sent him back to Manzanita, with a curt word of approval for his work.
Banneker's last sight of the wreck, as he paused at the curve, was the helpful young man perched on the rear heap of wreckage which had been the observation car, peering anxiously into its depths ("Looking for I. O. W. probably," surmised the agent), and two commercial gentlemen from the smoker whiling away a commercially unproductive hiatus by playing pinochle on a suitcase held across their knees. Glancing at the vast, swollen, blue-black billows rolling up the sky, Banneker guessed that their game would be shortly interrupted.
He hoped that the dead would not get wet.
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