The two resumed their journey. Banneker returned to his book. A freight, “running extra,” interrupted him, but not for long. The wire had been practicing a seemly restraint for uneventful weeks, so the agent felt that he could settle down to a sure hour’s bookishness yet, even though the west-bound Transcontinental Special should be on time, which was improbable, as “bad track” had been reported from eastward, owing to the rains. Rather to his surprise, he had hardly got well reimmersed in the enchantments of the mercantile fairyland when the “Open Office” wire warned him to be attentive, and presently from the east came tidings of Number Three running almost true to schedule, as befitted the pride of the line, the finest train that crossed the continent.
Past the gaunt station she roared, only seven minutes late, giving the imaginative young official a glimpse and flash of the uttermost luxury of travel: rich woods, gleaming metal, elegance of finish, and on the rear of the observation-car a group so lily-clad that Sears-Roebuck at its most glorious was not like unto them. Would such a train, the implanted youth wondered, ever bear him away to unknown, undreamed enchantments?
Would he even wish to go if he might? Life was full of many things to do and learn at Manzanita. Mahomet need not go to the mountain when, with but a mustard seed of faith in the proven potency of mail-order miracles he could move mountains to come to him. Leaning to his telegraph instrument, he wired to the agent at Stanwood, twenty-six miles down-line, his formal announcement.
“O. S.—G. I. No. 3 by at 10.46.”
“O. K.—D. S.,” came the response.
Banneker returned to the sunlight. In seven minutes or perhaps less, as the Transcontinental would be straining to make up lost time, the train would enter Rock Cut three miles and more west, and he would recapture the powerful throbbing of the locomotive as she emerged on the farther side, having conquered the worst of the grade.
Banneker waited. He drew out his watch. Seven. Seven and a half. Eight. No sound from westward. He frowned. Like most of the road’s employees, he took a special and almost personal interest in having the regal train on time, as if, in dispatching it through, he had given it a friendly push on its swift and mighty mission. Was she steaming badly? There had been no sign of it as she passed. Perhaps something had gone wrong with the brakes. Or could the track have—
The agent tilted sharply forward, his lithe frame tense. A long drawn, quivering shriek came down-wind to him. It was repeated. Then short and sharp, piercing note on piercing note, sounded the shrill, clamant voice.
The great engine of Number Three was yelling for help.
Banneker came out of his chair with a spring.
“Help! Help! Help! Help! Help!” screamed the strident voice.