Read CHAPTER XXIV - THE RACE BEGINS of Every Man for Himself , free online book, by Hopkins Moorhouse, on ReadCentral.com.

It was just a few minutes past eleven o’clock when Cristy Lawson climbed to the railroad track out of breath and hurried towards the section shanty. She had made good time in the canoe with the swift current of the Wolverine in her favor, and she was elated at her progress. The remaining stage of the journey should not present much difficulty, once she had persuaded Thorlakson of the urgency of her mission.

The place was in darkness and she tapped loudly on the window-pane of Mrs. Thorlakson’s bedroom. After a little while she heard the woman stir and call out. Cristy shouted in to her and with many strange Icelandic expressions of astonishment Mrs. Thorlakson came to the door and let her in.

The kind-hearted woman’s appearance in a flaming red canton-flannel nightgown, her hair comically “done up” for the night, was grotesque. But Cristy did not laugh. Instead, she asked for Thorlakson and cried out in dismay to learn that he was not there that he had taken the handcar and had gone off with the two Norwegians to visit Bilodeau, the foreman on the section below.

Cristy poured out her story, at least as much of it as she thought would convey the urgency of the situation; but it was rather difficult to make the woman grasp it, Mrs. Thorlakson’s English being somewhat limited, while the girl had no knowledge whatever of Icelandic. At last she gave it up.

“May I have some biscuits or something from the pantry?” she asked, and at the woman’s nod she rummaged around among crocks and pans in search of portable edibles. She stuffed a handful of stale doughnuts inside her shirtwaist, together with a lump of cheese.

Mrs. Thorlakson stood at the door with the lamp held high in one hand, peering in upon these operations in dumb wonderment. When she finally realized that the girl purposed setting off along the track on foot, she became loud in her protests. Cristy made out that she was anxious about the sprained ankle; but this was so entirely better that it had given her no trouble at all so far and she merely laughed away the good woman’s fears and, with a hasty good-bye, ran out of the house and disappeared in the dark. For several minutes Mrs. Thorlakson continued to stand in the doorway, the lamp above her head, her face shining in the mellow glow with a queer mixture of apprehension and mystification. These city people were beyond her comprehension.

Cristy hesitated a moment as to which direction she should take. She knew that Indian Creek was west and she knew also that she and Kendrick had walked that eastern stretch of track for miles and miles. She turned west.

At first she ran, experiencing a thrill of satisfaction that her ankle seemed to be almost as good as it ever was. Lack of breath soon slackened her pace to a walk. There was a long trudge ahead of her before she could hope to reach the station above and the wisdom of conserving her energies was evident. She had no idea how far away the station might be possibly a couple of miles; more likely many more. She had heard the foreman say his section was about nine miles long, but she was ignorant as to how much of it lay west of the shanty. She hoped devoutly that the station was not too far away. Time was precious. Time was everything.

The night had grown cloudy and dark. She could not see more than a few feet away; but that was nothing. All she had to do was to keep on walking as fast as she could until she got to the next station up the line. After that she merely had to sit down at a table in the station-agent’s room and write up the whole story for her paper. The operator and the Recorder would do the rest. She would send a flash wire to notify Brennon, the night editor, what to expect and she would send a special message to McAllister that would send him jumping for the Chief of Police.

The Recorder was a morning paper. It did not go to press until about four a.m., and they could hold it beyond that hour if necessary. That part of it was all right if they could only get the police into action in time to catch the scoundrels who were plotting at Waring’s house. If all went well she might expect to reach the wire by midnight. They would have her story in type in plenty of time if there was no wire trouble. That was a chance which she would have to take. It might be, of course, that Nickleby and Rives had acted already; but hardly likely, she thought.

She could not afford to fail. She MUST not fail! There was no use in trying to rake up obstacles until she came to them. All sorts of possibilities for failure at the Toronto end occurred to her; but she shut her lips tight together and thrust these doubts aside angrily.

Just then she tripped on a cross-tie, stumbled and fell. Her heart leaped in fright at thought of the ankle and she tested it anxiously; but it seemed all right. She would have to pay more attention to her feet. Here now she had gone and skinned the palm of her hand for nothing and lost two doughnuts out of her waist! There was comfort in the knowledge that there were no cattleguards to tumble into in this lonesome stretch of wild Algoma.

She hurried on, straining her eyes at the barrier of gloom that rose a few yards ahead. And out of it kept springing faint grotesque shapes that changed themselves slowly, resolving into dim rocks and bushes, telegraph poles and high embankments, finally melting away behind her and losing their identity in the gloom from which they came. But through it all, ever the same, the never-ending length of track undulated in slow measure beneath her feet. Overhead the sky was filled with drifting shadow hosts.

The night blackened. The heavens seemed to draw down upon her and fantastic ghost creatures of her disordered fancy crept hungrily in. The warm air hung heavy and still between the flanking forest walls and she might have been lost in some unreal world but for the rough insistence of the roadbed through the thin soles of her shoes.

She stopped. A loud rustle of the bushes a few feet away in the dark set her pulses beating foolishly. Some animal was there, she knew, and breaking into a run, she fled from the spot, halting only when her breath gave out. She found herself walking rapidly, agitated and alert, shuddering with a nameless fear that was getting on her nerves. She caught herself looking over her shoulder, haunted by the idea that she was being followed. There seemed to be stealthy, padded footfalls behind her in the enveloping darkness and numberless eyes that peered as she passed small, glowing dots in pairs, close together, that were gone when she looked a second time. Was it only imagination or were the soft steps behind her increasing in number? She recalled stories of wolf packs that had tracked down human beings and had torn them to pieces! She stood still and listened. But there was nothing nothing but blackness and infinite silence.

Very sharply she took herself to task. She must not become nonsensical like this. There had been noises in the underbrush the other night when she and he “Rabbits,” he had said. And who ever heard tell of a rabbit attacking a person? They were given big ears to hear well, so that they could use their long legs for running away from everything. The idea of her being afraid of a rabbit!

She laughed nervously. If only she had a revolver or some weapon. Off the track she was in an instant, groping about in the ballasting for a large stone. She found two and walked on more confidently, carrying one in each hand.

A fine drizzle began to fall intermittently. She hoped it would not rain hard, though after all, what difference did it make whether it did or not? She would be wet through anyway by the time she got there.

How much longer would that be? She must have come quite a distance now, and the thought cheered her. The ankle was beginning to give an occasional twinge and growing a little weak; in fact, it was feeling rather numb. Nothing to be alarmed about, she told herself. What else could she expect? It was sure to be hurting before she reached her destination.

Something struck her knee and she found that it was one of the doughnuts. She went on, munching the food she had brought along. The doughnuts were very dry. The cheese was hard, too; but it was old cheese that nipped the tongue, the kind she liked.

Time dragged. The girl plodded on painfully. There was no use in trying any longer to deceive herself into the belief that the injured ankle was holding out; it was not! She was hobbling now, as she had done the other night; but there was no strong arm to lean on now.

She would get there all right. That station could not be so very much farther on and she simply had to succeed. It was not that the “story” would be a feather in her own cap, nor yet was it the success of her paper which was at stake; not even the restoration of her father to his place in the financial world not even that was the main result that hung in the balance. But the prevention of a great wrong, the meting out of rogues’ deserts, the saving from suffering of the “every-day” people, thousands of them, to whom life meant little more than a grind for bread these were the things that mattered; for chiefly upon these poor people whose all was entrusted to the keeping of the Interprovincial Loan and Savings would fall the disaster of the company’s failure if it were forced to close its doors because of a swindle of trust funds.

Faces began to float about in the darkness faces of careworn clerks; of factory workers, lined and lean; child faces with great gaunt eyes; old men, old women she MUST not fail!

The fitful drizzle settled down steadily, blotting them out. The girl dropped the stones she had been carrying and struggled on bravely, fears lessened by discomfort. She was wet through and began to feel chilly, shuddering as she stumbled forward. Perhaps after all it might have been better to wait but she cried aloud in anger at the thought. This had been the only way and she must do what she had set out to do. Time was everything. She wondered what time it was now. Surely the station could not be much farther away!

Her mind wandered back to this strong, broad shouldered young man who had shared with her all the strange experiences of the last few days. Three days? Four days? Was that all? It seemed as if she had known him for years. And he had had his arm around her the other night! She laughed, forgetful of everything else for the moment, in a funny sense of belated dismay.

He had been very good to her. And he was handsome. Above all, he was manly a gentleman. She knew that now. Her woman’s intuition told her he was a fine, splendid boy, sincere, brave. Now that she had come to know him, she realized that her former suspicions had been based upon a misunderstanding of the situation. He was not to be held responsible for the kind of man his uncle was. How quickly he had taken the right attitude when he found out the truth about the Honorable Milton Waring. He had urged her not to lose a minute, to get away without fail, even when he knew that her success meant a family disgrace which would be very bitter to bear. Oh, but he was a dear!

That kiss, the night of the fog? How angry she had been! Yet who was to blame for it? Hadn’t she invited it? Hadn’t she dared him to it? Phil would take no dare from anybody! She laughed softly as she thought of it all, her cheeks blush-burning in the dark.

Time passed. She halted suddenly, aware of a huge shadowy something directly opposite, looming out at her unexpectedly. With a cry of delight she recognized it as a water-tank; she could make out the spout overhanging the track, a stick of pallor in the darkness.

And the station? Eagerly she ran forward then stopped again, perplexed. There ought to be lights of some sort; but where were they? A day station, maybe, with the operator asleep not far away. She would have to waken him. She did not think to look for switch-lights, and when she discerned the dark mass where the station stood she ran to it gladly and began pounding on the door.

The echoes resounded hollowly through the little building. They seemed strangely loud with emptiness! She started for the nearest window and broken glass crunched beneath her feet.

Her sharp cry of consternation fell upon the unresponsive night and was swallowed up in blackness, solitude, dead heavy silence. The windows were full of broken panes!

Frantically she hobbled around to the side of the building, only to find the doors boarded up! The truth laid a cold hand upon her. This was one of those stations she had heard Phil tell about, built during construction of the road, but afterwards closed up as unnecessary in the depths of the wild country. Not even a flag station! Not even used by section men! Deserted, abandoned!

And there was no operator here! nobody who could come to her assistance!

Cristy sank upon the rotting boards, trembling and sick at heart. Her long walk had been for nothing. She was still miles and miles and miles from the goal, with no possible chance of making the distance with an ankle which was swollen now and becoming very painful.

Wet and chilled through, miserable and dazed, she crouched in a huddle of fear. She was utterly alone, miles from help of any sort. The silence throbbed, it was so deep. She imagined faces again, grinning at her from the blackness the leering faces of Nickleby and others; her father’s, pleading; the working people’s, the disappointed face of Philip Kendrick! The hour was late already and all the issues which hung at stake?

“Oh, what can I do? Whatever can I do?” she sobbed.

But the night held no answer to her despair.