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Chapter 11 – “Down Brakes”

Louisa May AlcottNov 04, 2016'Command+D' Bookmark this page

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The greatest people have their weak points, and the best-behaved
boys now and then yield to temptation and get into trouble, as
everybody knows. Frank was considered a remarkably well-bred
and proper lad, and rather prided himself on his good reputation,
for he never got into scrapes like the other fellows. Well, hardly
ever, for we must confess that at rare intervals his besetting sin
overcame his prudence, and he proved himself an erring, human
boy. Steam-engines had been his idols for years, and they alone
could lure him from the path of virtue. Once, in trying to
investigate the mechanism of a toy specimen, which had its little
boiler and ran about whistling and puffing in the most delightful
way, he nearly set the house afire by the sparks that dropped on the
straw carpet. Another time, in trying experiments with the kitchen
tea-kettle, he blew himself up, and the scars of that explosion he
still carried on his hands.

He was long past such childish amusements now, but his favorite
haunt was the engine-house of the new railroad, where he observed
the habits of his pets with never-failing interest, and cultivated the
good-will of stokers and brakemen till they allowed him many
liberties, and were rather flattered by the admiration expressed for
their iron horses by a young gentleman who liked them better even
than his Greek and Latin.

There was not much business doing on this road as yet, and the
two cars of the passenger-trains were often nearly empty, though
full freight-trains rolled from the factory to the main road, of
which this was only a branch. So things went on in a leisurely
manner, which gave Frank many opportunities of pursuing his
favorite pastime. He soon knew all about No. 11, his pet engine,
and had several rides on it with Bill, the engineer, so that he felt at
home there, and privately resolved that when he was a rich man he
would have a road of his own, and run trains as often as he liked.

Gus took less interest than his friend in the study of steam, but
usually accompanied him when he went over after school to
disport himself in the engine-house, interview the stoker, or see if
there was anything new in the way of brakes.

One afternoon they found No. 11 on the side-track, puffing away
as if enjoying a quiet smoke before starting. No cars were attached,
and no driver was to be seen, for Bill was off with the other men
behind the station-house, helping the expressman, whose horse had
backed down a bank and upset the wagon.

"Good chance for a look at the old lady," said Frank, speaking of
the engine as Bill did, and jumping aboard with great satisfaction,
followed by Gus.

"I’d give ten dollars if I could run her up to the bend and back," he
added, fondly touching the bright brass knobs and glancing at the
fire with a critical eye.

"You couldn’t do it alone," answered Gus, sitting down on the
grimy little perch, willing to indulge his mate’s amiable weakness.

"Give me leave to try? Steam is up, and I could do it as easy as
not;" and Frank put his hand on the throttle-valve, as if daring Gus
to give the word.

"Fire up and make her hum!" laughed Gus, quoting Bill’s frequent
order to his mate, but with no idea of being obeyed.

"All right; I’ll just roll her up to the switch and back again. I’ve
often done it with Bill;" and Frank cautiously opened the
throttle-valve, threw back the lever, and the great thing moved
with a throb and a puff.

"Steady, old fellow, or you’ll come to grief. Here, don’t open that!"
shouted Gus, for just at that moment Joe appeared at the switch,
looking ready for mischief.

"Wish he would; no train for twenty minutes, and we could run up
to the bend as well as not," said Frank, getting excited with the
sense of power, as the monster obeyed his hand so entirely that it
was impossible to resist prolonging the delight.

"By George, he has! Stop her! Back her! Hold on, Frank!" cried
Gus, as Joe, only catching the words "Open that!" obeyed, without
the least idea that they would dare to leave the siding.

But they did, for Frank rather lost his head for a minute, and out
upon the main track rolled No. 11 as quietly as a well-trained
horse taking a familiar road.

"Now you’ve done it! I’ll give you a good thrashing when I get
back!" roared Gus, shaking his fist at Joe, who stood staring,
half-pleased, half-scared, at what he had done.

"Are you really going to try it?" asked Gus, as they glided on with
increasing speed, and he, too, felt the charm of such a novel
adventure, though the consequences bid fair to be serious.

"Yes, I am," answered Frank, with the grim look he always wore
when his strong will got the upper hand. "Bill will give it to us,
any way, so we may as well have our fun out. If you are afraid, I’ll
slow down and you can jump off," and his brown eyes sparkled
with the double delight of getting his heart’s desire and astonishing
his friend at the same time by his skill and coolness.

"Go ahead. I’ll jump when you do;" and Gus calmly sat down
again, bound in honor to stand by his mate till the smash came,
though rather dismayed at the audacity of the prank.

"Don’t you call this just splendid?" exclaimed Frank, as they rolled
along over the crossing, past the bridge, toward the curve, a mile
from the station.

"Not bad. They are yelling like mad after us. Better go back, if you
can," said Gus, who was anxiously peering out, and, in spite of his
efforts to seem at ease, not enjoying the trip a particle.

"Let them yell. I started to go to the curve, and I’ll do it if it costs
me a hundred dollars. No danger; there’s no train under twenty
minutes, I tell you," and Frank pulled out his watch. But the sun
was in his eyes, and he did not see clearly, or he would have
discovered that it was later than he thought.

On they went, and were just rounding the bend when a shrill
whistle in front startled both boys, and drove the color out of their
cheeks.

"It’s the factory train!" cried Gus, in a husky tone, as he sprang to
his feet.

"No; it’s the five-forty on the other road," answered Frank, with a
queer thrill all through him at the thought of what might happen if
it was not. Both looked straight ahead as the last tree glided by,
and the long track lay before them, with the freight train slowly
coming down. For an instant, the boys stood as if paralyzed.

"Jump!" said Gus, looking at the steep bank on one side and the
river on the other, undecided which to try.

"Sit still!" commanded Frank, collecting his wits, as he gave a
warning whistle to retard the on-coming train, while he reversed
the engine and went back faster than he came.

A crowd of angry men was waiting for them, and Bill stood at the
open switch in a towering passion as No. 11 returned to her place
unharmed, but bearing two pale and frightened boys, who stepped
slowly and silently down, without a word to say for themselves,
while the freight train rumbled by on the main track.

Frank and Gus never had a very clear idea as to what occurred
during the next few minutes, but vaguely remembered being well
shaken, sworn at, questioned, threatened with direful penalties,
and finally ordered off the premises forever by the wrathful
depot-master. Joe was nowhere to be seen, and as the two culprits
walked away, trying to go steadily, while their heads spun round,
and all the strength seemed to have departed from their legs, Frank
said, in an exhausted tone, –

"Come down to the boat-house and rest a minute."

Both were glad to get out of sight, and dropped upon the steps red,
rumpled, and breathless, after the late exciting scene. Gus
generously forebore to speak, though he felt that he was the least
to blame; and Frank, after eating a bit of snow to moisten his dry
lips, said, handsomely, –

"Now, don’t you worry, old man. I’ll pay the damages, for it was
my fault. Joe will dodge, but I won’t, so make your mind easy.

"We sha’n’t hear the last of this in a hurry," responded Gus,
relieved, yet anxious, as he thought of the reprimand his father
would give him.

"I hope mother won’t hear of it till I tell her quietly myself. She
will be so frightened, and think I’m surely smashed up, if she is
told in a hurry;" and Frank gave a shiver, as all the danger he had
run came over him suddenly.

"I thought we were done for when we saw that train. Guess we
should have been if you had not had your wits about you. I always
said you were a cool one;" and Gus patted Frank’s back with a look
of great admiration, for, now that it was all over, he considered it a
very remarkable performance.

"Which do you suppose it will be, fine or imprisonment?" asked
Frank, after sitting in a despondent attitude for a moment.

"Shouldn’t wonder if it was both. Running off with an engine is no
joke, you know."

"What did possess me to be such a fool?" groaned Frank, repenting,
all too late, of yielding to the temptation which assailed him.

"Bear up, old fellow, I’ll stand by you; and if the worst comes, I’ll
call as often as the rules of the prison allow," said Gus,
consolingly, as he gave his afflicted friend an arm, and they
walked away, both feeling that they were marked men from that
day forth.

Meantime, Joe, as soon as he recovered from the shock of seeing
the boys actually go off, ran away, as fast as his legs could carry
him, to prepare Mrs. Minot for the loss of her son; for the idea of
their coming safely back never occurred to him, his knowledge of
engines being limited. A loud ring at the bell brought Mrs. Pecq,
who was guarding the house, while Mrs. Minot entertained a
parlor full of company.

"Frank’s run off with No. 11, and he’ll be killed sure. Thought I’d
come up and tell you," stammered Joe, all out of breath and
looking wild.

He got no further, for Mrs. Pecq clapped one hand over his mouth,
caught him by the collar with the other, and hustled him into the
ante-room before any one else could hear the bad news.

"Tell me all about it, and don’t shout. What’s come to the boy?" she
demanded, in a tone that reduced Joe to a whisper at once.

"Go right back and see what has happened to him, then come and
tell me quietly. I’ll wait for you here. I wouldn’t have his mother
startled for the world," said the good soul, when she knew all.

"Oh, I dar’sn’t! I opened the switch as they told me to, and Bill will
half kill me when he knows it!" cried Joe, in a panic, as the awful
consequences of his deed rose before him, showing both boys
mortally injured and several trains wrecked.

"Then take yourself off home and hold your tongue. I’ll watch the
door, for I won’t have any more ridiculous boys tearing in to
disturb my lady."

Mrs. Pecq often called this good neighbor "my lady" when
speaking of her, for Mrs. Minot was a true gentlewoman, and
much pleasanter to live with than the titled mistress had been.

Joe scudded away as if the constable was after him, and presently
Frank was seen slowly approaching with an unusually sober face
and a pair of very dirty hands.

"Thank heaven, he’s safe!" and, softly opening the door, Mrs. Pecq
actually hustled the young master into the ante-room as
unceremoniously as she had hustled Joe.

"I beg pardon, but the parlor is full of company, and that fool of a
Joe came roaring in with a cock-and-bull story that gave me quite
a turn. What is it, Mr. Frank?" she asked eagerly, seeing that
something was amiss.

He told her in a few words, and she was much relieved to find that
no harm had been done.

"Ah, the danger is to come," said Frank, darkly, as be went away to
wash his hands and prepare to relate his misdeeds.

It was a very bad quarter of an hour for the poor fellow, who so
seldom had any grave faults to confess; but he did it manfully, and
his mother was so grateful for the safety of her boy that she found
it difficult to be severe enough, and contented herself with
forbidding any more visits to the too charming No. 11.

"What do you suppose will be done to me?" asked Frank, on whom
the idea of imprisonment had made a deep impression.

"I don’t know, dear, but I shall go over to see Mr. Burton right
after tea. He will tell us what to do and what to expect. Gus must
not suffer for your fault."

"He’ll come off clear enough, but Joe must take his share, for if he
hadn’t opened that confounded switch, no harm would have been
done. But when I saw the way clear, I actually couldn’t resist going
ahead," said Frank, getting excited again at the memory of that
blissful moment when he started the engine.

Here Jack came hurrying in, having heard the news, and refused to
believe it from any lips but Frank’s. When he could no longer
doubt, he was so much impressed with the daring of the deed that
he had nothing but admiration for his brother, till a sudden thought
made him clap his hands and exclaim exultingly, –

"His runaway beats mine all hollow, and now he can’t crow over
me! Won’t that be a comfort? The good boy has got into a scrape.
Hooray!"

This was such a droll way of taking it, that they had to laugh; and
Frank took his humiliation so meekly that Jack soon fell to
comforting him, instead of crowing over him.

Jill thought it a most interesting event; and, when Frank and his
mother went over to consult Mr. Burton, she and Jack planned out
for the dear culprit a dramatic trial which would have convulsed
the soberest of judges. His sentence was ten years’ imprisonment,
and such heavy fines that the family would have been reduced to
beggary but for the sums made by Jill’s fancy work and Jack’s
success as a champion pedestrian.

They found such comfort and amusement in this sensational
programme that they were rather disappointed when Frank
returned, reporting that a fine would probably be all the penalty
exacted, as no harm had been done, and he and Gus were such
respectable boys. What would happen to Joe, he could not tell, but
he thought a good whipping ought to be added to his share.

Of course, the affair made a stir in the little world of children; and
when Frank went to school, feeling that his character for good
behavior was forever damaged, he found himself a lion, and was in
danger of being spoiled by the admiration of his comrades, who
pointed him out with pride as "the fellow who ran off with a
steam-engine."

But an interview with Judge Kemble, a fine of twenty-five dollars,
and lectures from all the grown people of his acquaintance,
prevented him from regarding his escapade as a feat to boast of.
He discovered, also, how fickle a thing is public favor, for very
soon those who had praised began to tease, and it took all his
courage, patience, and pride to carry him through the next week or
two. The lads were never tired of alluding to No. 11, giving shrill
whistles in his ear, asking if his watch was right, and drawing
locomotives on the blackboard whenever they got a chance.

The girls, too, had sly nods and smiles, hints and jokes of a milder
sort, which made him color and fume, and once lose his dignity
entirely. Molly Loo, who dearly loved to torment the big boys, and
dared attack even solemn Frank, left one of Boo’s old tin trains on
the door-step, directed to "Conductor Minot," who, I regret to say,
could not refrain from kicking it into the street, and slamming the
door with a bang that shook the house. Shrieks of laughter from
wicked Molly and her coadjutor, Grif, greeted this explosion of
wrath, which did no good, however, for half an hour later the same
cars, all in a heap, were on the steps again, with two headless dolls
tumbling out of the cab, and the dilapidated engine labelled, "No.
11 after the collision."

No one ever saw that ruin again, and for days Frank was utterly
unconscious of Molly’s existence, as propriety forbade his having
it out with her as he had with Grif. Then Annette made peace
between them, and the approach of the Twenty-second gave the
wags something else to think of.

But it was long before Frank forgot that costly prank; for he was a
thoughtful boy, who honestly wanted to be good; so he remembered
this episode humbly, and whenever he felt the approach of temptation
he made the strong will master it, saying to himself "Down brakes!"
thus saving the precious freight he carried from many of the accidents
which befall us when we try to run our trains without orders, and so
often wreck ourselves as well as others.

 

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