Read CHAPTER XXII of The Young Railroaders Tales of Adventure and Ingenuity , free online book, by Francis Lovell Coombs, on ReadCentral.com.

THE DEFENSE OF THE VIADUCT

Thanks to the termination of the interference from the opposition road, the work on the extension progressed rapidly, and two weeks later found the rail-head seven miles beyond the Antelope viaduct, in the lower slopes of the Dog Rib Mountains. The coveted pass to the Yellow Creek gold-field lay but eight miles distant, and as the K. & Z. was still twenty miles east, it appeared certain that the Middle Western would win the great race.

The time had passed uneventfully with the three young telegraphers, the end of the second week finding Alex and Jack together with the construction-train at the rail-head, and Wilson Jennings back at the temporary station and material-sidings at the viaduct.

Perhaps the last few days had passed least interestingly with Wilson, alone in his little box-car station, not far from the old river-bed. Saturday had seemed particularly slow, for some reason, and shortly after 8 o’clock Wilson threw aside a book he had been reading, and catching up his hat, made for the door, for a brief stroll, previous to retiring.

The moon was momentarily showing through a break in the cloudy sky, and looking to the west, Wilson was somewhat surprised to discover the figures of two men approaching. When as he watched they reached the first of a train of tie-cars, and leaving the rails, continued forward in the shadows, Wilson stepped back, in disquiet.

The strangers came opposite, and paused, looking toward the station window and speaking in subdued voices. Convinced that something was afoot, the young operator turned quickly, and stooping low, that his shadow might not be seen on the window, crept to the little instrument table and reached for the telegraph key. He opened, and pressed it down. The sounder did not respond. He tried again, adjusting the relay, and turned about in genuine alarm.

The wire had been cut! Some mischief was surely afoot.

From without came the crunch of stealthy footsteps. Springing to his bunk, Wilson secured his revolver and belt the same taken from the would-be bullion thief he had captured at Bonepile and stealing to the rear door, slipped out and to the ground just as the strangers approached the opposite side of the little car-depot.

The car was raised on a foundation of ties, and as the two men entered, Wilson crept beneath.

“No one here,” said a gruff voice. “Say, do you s’pose he saw us, and sneaked?”

“Like as not. I told you to keep to the rails and come straight up,” chided the other.

“Perhaps he will come back. We’re in charge of the station anyway. That was the real thing.”

Wilson waited to hear no more. Creeping forth, he stole off toward the ravine, intending to get out of sight in its shadows.

A short distance from the head of the viaduct was the green light of a small target-switch. The head of the downward path lay just beyond, and Wilson headed for the light. He reached it, and passed on.

Abruptly he halted and turned about. Like an inspiration had come the remembrance of Alex Ward’s signalling feat two years before at Bixton, of which he had heard from Jack Orr. Could he not do the same? Try and signal Alex or Jack, at the construction-train? Say, from one of the box-cars at the farther corner of the yard?

Casting a glance toward the little station to assure himself that all was quiet there, Wilson retraced his steps to the switch, removed the lantern, and tucking it under his coat, was off between the material-cars for the farthermost corner of the sidings.

The outermost car was a box-car. Climbing the ladder, with his handkerchief Wilson tied the lantern to the topmost rung, the red light out, and using his hat just as Alex had done, began flashing the call of the construction-train,

“KX, KX, V! KX, KX, V!”

Since the construction-train had started from Yellow Creek Junction it had been a center of attraction to coyotes for fifty miles around, and one of the few recreations enjoyed by the men of the train had been hunting them at night.

This Saturday night Alex and Jack, borrowing Winchesters from other members of the telegraph-car party, had set out for a “couple of good rugs,” as they put it, and on leaving the train had headed east, toward the aqueduct, in which direction they had heard barks of the midnight prowlers.

They had gone perhaps three miles, and had fired on several of the wily animals, without success, when suddenly Jack caught Alex by the arm and pointed away to the east.

“Look, Al! What’s that?”

“Why, it looks like It is! It’s a signal light!

“And calling us KX!” cried Alex. “Something must be wrong with Wilson!”

“What’ll we do? Back to the train?”

“Have you a match and some paper?” said Alex, going hurriedly through his own pockets.

“Some matches.”

“Here’s a couple of letters. Come on back to the rails, find some chips, and make a fire. See if we can’t answer him, and learn what the trouble is.”

They were already racing for the track, reached it, and quickly gathering together a little pile of dry bark and chips knocked from the ties, made a fire at the track-side, and lit it.

As the flames burst up Alex threw off his coat, and using it as a curtain, raised and lowered it in a flashed “I, I, KX!”

The call twinkled on. Wilson had not seen it. But the next moment, before Alex had completed a second answer, the red light disappeared. Alex again shot forth the gleaming “I, I, KX!” and in blinking response they read:

“Chased out of station. Two men. Wire cut. Something wrong. Help! V.”

“OK. But we are three miles from the train. Hunting. Will we come, or go back for help?” signalled Alex.

There was a pause, and the red light blinked, “Come! Quick!”

“OK. Coming.” Only pausing to stamp out the fire, the two boys were away at a run, heading directly for the light, which at intervals Wilson continued to show, as a guide.

Their open-air experience of a month had put the two boys in the best of condition, and keeping on at a smart pace, within half an hour the light showed just ahead, and a few minutes after Wilson ran forward to greet them.

“I don’t know what’s in the air, but certainly something,” he announced. “As you fellows are armed too, suppose we go back and get the two men in the station car, and see if we can’t make them tell?” he suggested.

“Lead ahead,” agreed the others.

Stealthily they made their way amid the intervening cars, and emerged opposite the little depot.

In the window was the shadow of a man smoking.

They stole across to the door, and Wilson, leading, cautiously glanced within. He turned and held up one finger. Revolver in hand, he tiptoed up the steps, and with a cry sprang inside and toward the man in the chair. The intruder was so taken by surprise that he tumbled over backward. In a jiffy the three boys were upon him, and had pinned him to the floor; and while Alex closely clutched his mouth, to prevent him calling out, the others speedily bound his hands and feet with some convenient pieces of wire.

Satisfied that their prisoner was firmly secured, and having removed his pistol and cartridge-belt, the boys replaced him in the chair, and Wilson, pointing his revolver at the man’s head, demanded, “Where is your pard? And what are you and he up to?”

There was a look of amusement in the man’s face as Alex removed his hand, and he replied, “Nothin’ doin’, boys. You’ll have to guess.”

“I’ll give you three, to tell,” said Wilson, assuming a fierce expression and beginning to count.

The prisoner laughed outright. “You gentleman kids wouldn’t shoot a fly,” he declared coolly.

Wilson colored with mortification. For of course he had had no intention of shooting. Even Alex and Jack were forced to smile at the turn of the situation. Wilson had his revenge, however. “Gag him, then, Al,” he suggested, “and we will stow him away beneath the car.”

The man’s mouth opened for a shout. In a flash Alex had slapped a handkerchief between his teeth, and despite the man’s struggles stuffed it well in. Then, taking from his neck a long colored neckerchief, he bound it twice about the man’s face.

“Now out with him, this side,” said Wilson, opening the rear door.

“Wouldn’t it be better to take him over under one of the cars on the sidings?” Jack suggested. “His pard might return, and he kick, or make some kind of a noise underneath.”

“That’s so.” Dragging their prisoner forth, they glanced up and down to see that no one was in sight, and with Jack at his feet and Alex and Wilson at his arms, they hastened across the rails, passed between two freight-cars, and in the deep shadow beyond placed him on the ground and bound him firmly to a rail.

“Be sure you don’t talk now,” said Wilson derisively as they turned away.

“What next?” Jack asked.

“It’s pretty sure to be some mischief about the bridge. Let’s have a look around there,” suggested Alex.

Approaching the brink of the ravine at a point some distance from the viaduct, the boys glanced below. From the three broke a simultaneous low cry of understanding and indignation.

In the light of several lanterns a party of seemingly fifteen or twenty men were piling brush about the base of one of the central wooden piers.

“The K. & Z. people again, sure as you’re born!” exclaimed Alex hotly. “And after their solemn agreement!”

“If they succeed in burning it, they will hold back our supplies two or three weeks, and reach the pass ahead of us, dead certain,” added Jack through his teeth. “We’ve got to stop them, boys!”

“Isn’t there a hand-car or a velocipede here, Wilse?” Alex inquired.

“No. Not even a push-car. And it’d take one of us an hour and a half to reach the construction-train.”

“But that’s certainly the only thing to be done,” Jack pointed out. “Perhaps two of us, with the rifles, could hold them ”

A flicker of light broke out below which was not a lantern, and approached the dimly disclosed brush-pile. Quick as a flash Jack’s rifle went to his shoulder, and there was a reverberating crash. The light disappeared and there came up a chorus of surprised shouts and the clatter of running feet.

“Now we are in for it. I think we had better stick it out together,” said Alex quietly. “Perhaps the firing will be heard at the train.”

The others agreed, and at Wilson’s suggestion they made their way a few feet down the slope to a ledge from which the whole structure of the bridge could dimly be seen.

“How are you fellows off for ammunition?” whispered Wilson.

“I have four more rounds in the rifle, and thirty in my belt,” said Jack.

“Five in the gun and twenty-seven in the belt,” Alex announced.

Wilson had been examining the revolver and belt they had taken from the prisoner, and which he had brought with him. “Fourteen in the two pistols and nearly sixty in the two belts,” he said.

“We ought to be able to put up all kinds of a fight,” Alex declared confidently. “That is, unless they ”

He broke off, and all leaned forward, peering down into the gloom, and listening. From a little to the left rose the clatter of a pebble. Wilson stretched himself on his face, and bent over, one of his pistols extended. Barely breathing, they waited, and again came a faint clatter as of loosened earth, nearer.

“Don’t let him get too close,” Alex whispered.

There came the sound of something snapping, a smothered exclamation, and instantly Wilson fired. There was a shrill cry, and the crash of something rolling downward. At the same moment from below came a crashing volley of shots, and bullets snarled upward by them like a swarm of bees. The boys shrank back flat, then leaned over and returned two quick volleys.

Another cry indicated that one of their bullets had found a mark, and following a scattering return volley from the darkness there were sounds of a hurried scuttling for cover.

“Anyone touched?” Jack asked.

“I think I lost a little hair,” said Wilson quietly.

“Me too,” said Alex. “But a miss is as good as a mile, you know. And we have the advantage so far.”

“Sh!” warned Jack. In the silence came the sound of running footsteps farther up the gully, followed by a continuous rattle of falling stones.

“They’re making a rush up another path. Quick, and stop them!” exclaimed Wilson, starting to his feet.

“Hold on,” Alex interrupted as they reached the crest of the slope. “Perhaps it’s a ruse to get us away, so they can start the fire. You two run and chase them down, and I’ll stay and watch here. If you need help, shout.”

Wilson and Jack sprang away along the brink of the ravine. A hundred yards distant the sounds of men ascending rose from directly beneath them. Without pause they fired. Cries of rage followed, and as the boys dropped to the ground a dozen bullets whined over them. Promptly Wilson replied with the entire seven shots from one of his pistols, there was a crash as of someone falling, then a general scrambling as the entire party apparently tumbled precipitately down the steep slope. Rising to their feet, the boys fired several more shots, and hastened back toward Alex.

As they neared him the crash of his rifle told he had guessed rightly that another attempt would be made to light the fire.

“Quick!” he said, slamming the loading mechanism. “They’re sticking to it!”

Wilson and Jack saw several twinkling flames, and the roar of Alex’s next shot was followed by the crash of their own weapons. A cry of agony followed, and one of the lights disappeared. Another faltered, and also went out.

Alex once more brought up his rifle, took careful aim; the jet of flame leaped from the muzzle, and with a shout the boys saw the last spot of light describe an arc in the air, and go out.

An angry howl followed, then a continuous volley from several different points. The spirit of fight had taken full possession of the three lads on the brink of the ravine, however, and lying close, they gave back shot for shot, quickly but steadily. Finally a lull came, and Alex rose exultingly on an elbow and shouted below, “Come on, you cowards! Come ”

From behind one of the bridge pillars leaped a flame, and with a sharp intake of breath Alex slipped sideways. But as Wilson and Jack sprang to his side he again rose. “It’s nothing,” he declared. “Just a graze inside the arm.”

The quiet continuing, the others insisted on removing Alex’s coat, and feeling, found the shirt-sleeve wet. “Tie a handkerchief round it,” Alex directed. “There. That’s all right.

“That’s what I get for allowing myself to be carried away, isn’t it?” he added as Wilson and Jack helped him into his coat. “I didn’t realize how ”

All three snatched up their weapons and spun about.

A tall stooped figure was standing within a few feet of them.

“Surrender!” cried Wilson. “Quick, or I’ll

“It me, Little Hawk,” said a quiet voice. “Why shoot?”

With a common cry of joy the boys sprang forward, and quickly explained the situation. The Indian grunted. “Not K. & Z. man,” he said. “Bad cowboy, miner, gambler, from Yellow Creek. Makeum big bet K. & Z. win, come burn bridge, makeum win. Little Hawk hearum talk, come follow, hearum fight, come quick.

“Thinkum big fight. Only three boy fight, eh?” he added in surprise.

Alex had been considering. “Look here, Little Hawk,” he suggested, “you ride back to the construction-train and give the alarm, will you? I think we have these fellows scared now, and can hold them till help comes. And none of us could ride that pony of yours.”

“I findum nother hoss cowboy hoss,” said the Indian, pointing the way he had come. “You go, takeum, Little Hawk stay fight.”

Alex thought a minute. “No; I’d rather stick, and see the thing through, now,” he declared.

“Me too,” said Jack promptly.

“Same here,” Wilson agreed.

“It’s up to you, then, Little Hawk.

“Say, hold on!” Alex interrupted as the Indian turned away. “Boys, how about Little Hawk taking our prisoner back with him on the other horse? The folks at the train might get some information out of him.

“Could you take him, Little Hawk?” he asked.

The redskin grunted assent. “Tieum to saddle,” he said.

“I’ll go and show him where the rascal is,” volunteered Wilson.

A few minutes later, with the boys’ prisoner trailing behind, securely bound to the saddle of the wandering horse he had picked up, the Indian was off across the plain to the west at the top of his mottled pony’s speed.

When Wilson returned to Alex and Jack he found them busy constructing a miniature block-house of ties they had thrown from a neighboring car. “That’s the idea,” he said, joining them. “We could hold out in that all night, easily.”

“No; leave that opening, Wilse,” Jack interposed as Wilson began closing a gap at one of the corners. “That’s to command the bridge. We’re going to fire through, not over.”

The boys had just completed their little fort when from the top of the gully immediately opposite came a spit of flame, followed by the plaintive hum of a pistol bullet above them. Promptly they dropped below the ties, and Alex, who had that side, aimed toward the spot at which he had seen the flash, and as it spat out again, crashed back with his Winchester. From several points along the opposite level a ragged fire followed, and continued intermittently.

Then finally, as the boys had half expected, there came a smattering volley from amid the cars on the sidings behind them. The body of their assailants had reached the surface on their side.

Now it was that the three began to experience their first real anxiety. For despite their show of confidence to one another, each secretly knew that if a determined rush was made from near at hand, there was scarcely an even chance of their standing it off.

As a provision against this eventuality Wilson did very little firing during the almost steady exchange of shots that followed, keeping the chambers of his two revolvers always full. To the same end, Alex and Jack used their magazine-rifles as single-shots, holding the magazines, fully charged, in reserve.

“I think I’m getting one of them now and then,” Alex was saying about half an hour after the disappearance of the Indian. “Or else ” He broke off to fire again. “Unless their ammunition is giving out over there.”

Suddenly Jack snapped open his magazine. “Here they come!” he whispered. Alex scrambled about beside him. Wilson thrust the pistol-barrels through the loop-hole.

From the dark line of the cars rose a shouted command, there came a ripping volley of a dozen Colts, and a dim group of figures rushed toward them.

“Now, steady!” warned Alex. “And shoot low!

Fire!

Crash!” went the Winchesters, “Crack, crack, crack!” the pistols.

Two of the leading runners went to their hands and knees. The others rushed on, shouting and spitting flames.

Keeping well under cover, the boys fired as quickly as they could work their weapons. Wilson felt a stinging snip at his right ear, and a warm stream trickling down his neck. He emptied the first pistol, and began with the second.

Crash! Crash!” roared the Winchesters.

The attackers held on. They had made half the distance. In spite of themselves, the boys began firing nervously.

Closer the running figures came.

Jack snapped back his reloading mechanism, and pulled the trigger. There was no report.

His cry of consternation was echoed by Alex.

They had fired their last shots!

With a wild shout of triumph two of their assailants were upon them.

From a clear patch of sky bright moonlight flooded the construction-train and the gray slope of the hill to the southeast about which the rails had crept that day. Grouped on the rear steps of the store-car, Superintendent Finnan and several of his foremen sat and smoked, and listened.

“Yes; it’s a horse,” said one of the foremen.

“Two horses,” declared the superintendent. “And coming as though Old Nick were after them.”

Over the moonlit rise swept a figure on horseback, then another.

On discovering the group at the car, the leader uttered a shrill whoop, and tore down the slope toward them.

“The first is Little Hawk! The other is a prisoner! What’s wrong?” cried the superintendent, springing to the ground.

The Indian pulled up in a cloud of dust before him, and threw himself from his reeking pony.

“Want burnum bridge,” he said, indicating his prisoner. “Five, ten, more! Much more! Three boy tick-knock boy fightem!

“Hear? Hear?”

He placed his hand to his ear.

The incredulous group turned to the east and listened.

As from infinitely far away, half heard, half felt, came a low, deadened
“Plugk!... Plugk, plugk!... Plugk!”

A moment the startled railroadmen stared at one another. Then quickly the superintendent spoke.

“Ryan, rout out the engineer and firemen! The rest of you run for your guns, and a dozen good men from your gangs! Don’t lose a minute!”

The group scattered with a rush. Fifteen minutes later, with men filling her cab and clustered on the tender, the engine was under way, rushing eastward.

As rapidly the speed was increased, the locomotive rocked and leaped over the new roadbed, but with the superintendent at his elbow, the engineer drove her up to the last notch, and the prairie streamed by them like a blanket.

Half the distance was made, and above the noise of the engine came a sharp “Tap, tap! Tap, tap, tap!”

On the engine rushed, and the distant shapes of cars appeared. Simultaneously there came a crashing volley of shots, and a chorus of shouting. The men on the engine gripped their guns, and stared ahead into the space lit up by the headlight.

With reducing speed they struck a curve, and the stream of light swung about toward the bridge. The next moment into the glare broke a group of madly struggling figures.

On the flash of the light the fighting ceased. There were cries of alarm, and the renegades began to break and flee. A small party stood, and fired toward the engine. But with a roar the railroadmen leaped and tumbled to the ground, and rushed at them, and they too broke and fled.

And the great fight was over, and won.

The superintendent was first to reach the little barricade. Jack, he found unconscious from a blow on the head. Wilson had fainted, and Alex drooped limply on the wall of ties, exhausted past speaking. The faces, hands and clothes of all bore mute witness to the desperate struggle they had put up during those last terrible minutes.

Within a short time, however, all three boys had somewhat recovered, and were able to take their places in the engine cab; and a half hour later the party headed back for the construction-train, coupled behind them a box-car containing eighteen prisoners. Ten of the captured men were found to have been wounded, several seriously; but to the relief of the boys none had been killed outright.

When rescued, rescuers and prisoners arrived at the construction-train they found an excited crowd of over three hundred men awaiting them. And on the details of the affair quickly spreading, the three boys were literally swept from their feet by the enthusiastic foreigners, hoisted into the air, and carried to the telegraph-car to a continuous roar of “hurrahs” and “bravos.”

The following Wednesday a special train, to which was attached Division Superintendent Cameron’s private car, drew up at the rear of the boarding-train. Proceeding thither in response to a message, Alex and Jack found Wilson, who had been picked up at the viaduct station, Construction Superintendent Finnan and several other Middle Western officials.

Having greeted them warmly, the division superintendent took a small package from his desk, and opened it. “I know you don’t like speeches, boys,” he began; “and in any case, I’m not sure I could do justice to the occasion. But, here! These three gold watches the very finest the company’s money could buy, I may say will show you what we think of the loyalty to the company, and the splendid courage you three lads displayed last Saturday night in defense of the Antelope viaduct.

“I might just read one of the inscriptions,” he said, opening Alex’s watch.

“’To Alex Ward, from the Middle Western Railroad, in recognition of the heroic part he played in the defense of the Antelope viaduct, November 2nd, 18 , and in thus ensuring the victory of the Middle Western in its memorable race with the K. & Z. for the Yellow Creek Pass.’

“For that is precisely what it meant,” declared the superintendent. “The pass is ours now, beyond any chance.

“And finally,” he concluded, as Alex, Jack and Wilson, scarcely knowing what to say, took the three beautiful watches, “I would just like to remark that if you three boys do not some day stand where I stand, or higher, I’ll be both greatly surprised and disappointed.”

That this prediction was justified, you can to-day learn from any directory of railroad officials for there, in the pages devoted to the Middle Western, you will find the name of Alexander Ward, Superintendent, Western Division; John Orr, Superintendent, Central Division; and, as General Superintendent of Telegraphs, Wilson A. Jennings.