Train wreckers! A runaway on the main line! What could a mere brass pounder do ?
JIMMY REGAN got off the Eastbound 202 at Rock River. He answered the conductor’s “so long" with a nod, and hurried through the slanting rain to the dark station. It was 10.26 p.m., perfect train schedule, but Regan wasn’t aware of it. He only knew that the world had taken on a decidedly black appearance during the past few hours, and the soaking downpour did much to foster his mood.
From his place huddled under the eaves of the deserted station, Regan watched a big locomotive, ten cars down the track, move forward with a bark of exhaust, and head down the wet rails toward Garwood, forty miles farther on. Two minutes later only a dot of red, the tail light on the last coach, glimmered like a star on the horizon.
Regan drew himself into the unprotecting folds of his coat and shivered. Five miles from home. No way to get there but walk, and the road about as passable as a canal. Well, he wouldn’t have stayed longer in Hill Junction for love or money. When a man is fired and fired cold, he doesn’t wait to see the new man take over his duties. Not if he has any pride, he doesn’t. And Jim Regan, though bewildered and cut to the quick, hadn’t lost his pride.
He moved a few steps down the platform to avoid a stream of icy water that jumped from the station’s roof and frowned slowly. Even now he couldn’t tell how his discharge
had happened. The whole affair was like some strange dream, disconnected, impossible. For the hundredth time his brain strove to arrange the events in their proper order.
He remembered receiving the dispatcher’s train order at his station, Hill Junction. When a message as different as that came through, an operator wouldn’t be inclined to forget it. It instructed the conductor and engineer of the Overland Mail to stop at the next blind station east and pick up an armed guard of twelve men, two machine guns and a crate of tear-gas bombs. Railroad bulls had sent in the tip at the last moment that the notorious Mountain gang which had robbed the “washboard” division twice in recent years, was planning another hold-up.
An hour later it had happened. The Overland Mail reported a dead fireman, a wounded engineer, and a list of stolen mail and registered stuff that totalled into big red figures.
Regan frowned again, tightened his lips. All because he had failed to deliver that order! When the investigation began, they said he hadn’t made the slightest attempt to deliver it. They hinted broadly he was a paid “inside man.” And when Superintendent Hawley asked for an explanation, he could only shake his head and stammer helplessly.
“I don’t know,” was all he could answer. “I don’t remember what I did. I can’t remember. It’s all just a blank.”
And he didn’t remember. After the reception of that message, his brain seemed to have gone absolutely blank. There was a space, a strange gulf in his memory he could not cross.
“But whatever happened,” he told himself mournfully, “I’ll do no more brass-pounding in this neck of the woods for a long time. I’m washed up.”
THE RAIN was coming down harder as he stood there.
A gust of wind tore along the eave, whipped up a shower of water and soaked him to the skin. Absently Regan looked over his shoulder through the window of the dark station.
Rock River wasn’t im|X>rtant enough to boast a night operator. The day agent locked up and went home at six o’clock. But it was dry in there, and there was a stove that would take the chill out of a man’s bones. Regan sighed and lit a cigarette.
Then suddenly as the match flared brighter, his sigh changed to an exclamation of satisfaction. The door might be locked, but the window wasn’t. It had been jammed down hard and the catch lock shoved over.
But a splinter of wood, broken from the frame, had lodged under the sill, and the bolt had missed the socket.
A moment later he was inside, kerosene lantern lit, nursing back to life the embers of fire that still glowed in the stove. It was a typical “washboard” station, bleak and dingy. A partition divided the waiting-room from the agent’s office. The door to the latter stood open, the operator’s desk partially revealed in the half light. Regan shut the stove door and moved slowly into the other room.
For a moment he stood there motionless, musing over the quick twists that can send a man back to the very place from which he started. Then he strode forward, sank into the swivel chair and lit the desk lantern. He stared down at the familiar instruments. Little things. Scraps of brass and wire. Funny the spell they wove around a man. Automatically, moved by force of long habit, Regan glanced at his watch and opened the switch to the train wire.
A moment’s silence, and then the sounder responded with a chattering staccato. The ex-op leaned back, his brain swiftly translating the rattle of dots and dashes into words and sentences. Routine stuff, which a few days ago he would have listened to without interest.
The novelty of the situation wore off after a while The silence of the room closed in about him. He rose to his feet, went back to the waiting room and took another look at the stove. It needed more coal. After a moment’s search he found a filled scuttle near the wall and tossed several lumps on the blaze.
Then suddenly his every muscle became rigid.
He had heard footsteps and the murmur of voices approaching from the other side of the freight shed. Someone was coming.
Regan thought quickly. It might be railroad bulls. It might be the agent returning. In either case, his explanation that he had broken in here to escape the rain would hardly be believed. The fact suddenly dawned upon him that he was standing on forbidden premises and that his presence here, especially considering his record, was open to suspicion.
Quickly he stepped into the agent’s office, extinguished the desk lantern, closed the train-wire switch. In the waiting-room once again, he blew out the flame of the second lantern, kicked shut the draught door of the stove and stood in silence, listening.
THE OWNERS of the voices had rounded the comer of the freight shed and were advancing down the platform to the front of the station. Shoes splashed through pools of rain water.
“Go easy, Flash,” one of the voices said hoarsely. “I’m tellin’ you I saw a light shinin’ outa that window. We don’t want to—”
“Light, nothin’.” The reply came in deep gutturals. “There ain’t no operator here after six o’clock. This is Rock River. Now shut up and hand me that key.”
Metal jingled sharply in the silence, and the first voice came again. “Don’t see why we’re goin’ in here anyway. We got the car ready. Let it roll, and beat it. That’s my way. What’s Waller care if we report? He’s far enough away so he won’t get his fingers burned if anything goes wrong.” There was a moment’s hesitation, then steel grated in the lock. Regan, standing there in the darkness, felt his heart begin to thump in his chest. Whoever those men were, the trend of their conversation told him they wouldn’t be pleased to find a visitor inside. If there were only some place where he could hide . . . The key grated again, harshly as it tried to force the lock, and the young op’s brain snapped into action. He ran lightly into the operator’s office, felt about him in the blackness. Unless his memory played him false, there were two old packing boxes standing in the corner opposite the instrument desk, boxes whose presence there was against the regulations but which the agent had evidently used to store old books and magazines.
Regan’s groping hands touched the sides. An instant later he wedged his body into the space between the cases and the wall.
The outer door creaked open. A flashlight sent a white beam stabbing into the blackness of the station. From his hiding place, Regan watched it travel across the walls of the waiting-room to the agent’s office and finally come to a halt on the instrument table. The two men strode forward.
“Do you call Waller or does he call us?” asked one of them.
The man called Flash grunted. “He calls us. And we wait until he does.”
They were directly before him now, and Regan, by the light of the flash refracted back from the staiion’s walls, peered out through a slit in the packing boxes and studied them closely. The man called Flash was tall and bulking. A long scar ran zigzag across his left cheek. The other was an undersized man with a cap pulled low over his eyes.
Flash slid into the swivel chair, leaned forward and switched in the message wire. Immediately, as if it had been waiting for such a move, the sounder began with a flutter of dots and dashes, hesitated and then subsided.
“Not yet,” he said. “We’re a couple of minutes early.” He reached in his pocket for a cigarette, lit it and inhaled deeply.
“I don’t like this,” said the smaller man. “When Waller starts talking over that wire, every station along the line can listen in, can’t they?”
Flash looked up through a fog of smoke and nodded. “They can, but it won’t make any difference if they do. We ain’t talkin’ all night.”
“Well, it seems to me Waller’s takin’ a lot of unnecessary chances for no reason at all.”
Flash spat contemptuously. “Listen,” he said. “We’re here to find out from Waller just where Extra 24 West is at the present time. It might be anywhere between here and the Coast for all we know. We’re not shootin’ that car loose until we’re sure. Not with any slug of nitro in the coupling. I—”
His words died off as the sounder suddenly rattled a call. Regan, behind the packing cases, listened to the familiar clicks and translated to himself:
Flash breathed hard in satisfaction. “There’s Waller now. I'll let him call again to make sure.” He reached for the key, waited until the sounder, after a moment’s pause, spelled a second time:
Then the big man was pounding an answer with an experienced touch:
REGAN’S nerves were jumping as he crouched there. The - realization suddenly swept over him that he was witnessing something that went a good deal farther than two men breaking into a telegraph office and operating a forbidden key. More than that, the man at the other end of the wire who signed himself “W” had a touch to his brass that struck a responsive chord far back in Regan’s brain. He felt as if he had heard it many times before. The sounder was racing furiously now. Ears strained to catch each pulsation, Regan transcribed the message in his brain: “Three boxes mac on twice 12. Reach ST about 11.45 OK. W.”
Flash grinned broadly as he laid a burly fist on the key and immediately hammered back a terse reply:
“I—I—RR—30” (no more).
Then he closed the switch and turned to face the hunched form of his companion.
“Runnin’ off like clockwork,” he smirked. “Waller said the three cars of machinery are cornin’ on twice twelve. That means Extra 24 West. He liggers it’ll reach Swamp Trestle by 11.45. All we gotta do is set the car rollin’ and we’re sittin’ pretty. Smooth, eh?”
The little man glanced at the telegraph instruments as if doubting such contraptions could transmit a message of such importance.
“I still don’t get it. What good's that information goin’ to do us? How do we know how far that car’ll travel? It might stop a mile or ten miles from here.”
“It won’t,” Flash said. “Two years ago, almost the same thing happened. An empty got loose right here at Rock
River. It ran straight down the main line, and it didn’t stop till it got in the middle of Swamp Trestle. The same thing’ll happen again. Has to. This division’s built like a ferris wheel, and there’s a nice downgrade runnin’ east of here. Track levels out then for a mile or so, and then starts climbin’ the other way. That car’ll have just enough momentum to reach the top of the upgrade and get on the trestle. If it goes farther, it’ll drift back, because there’s another steep upgrade on the other side. Get it? Car’s planted there as if it dropped from the sky and no evidence.”
“And the extra freight?” “Busts into it goin’ like fury, or maybe the boghead will see it in time, slow down and try and push it to the the nearest passing track. Whichever happens, it don’t make any difference. There’s a nice little metal container fastened in the car’s coupling, and that container’s packed full of nitroglycerin, which, in case you don’t know it, is enough to blow the freight and the whole trestle to smithereens. There won’t be nothin’ left but a bunch of pieces, and that sinks into the quicksand swamp below.” “Then the railroad company stands the loss?” Warmed by the certainty in the big man's voice, the other was fast losing his fear.
“Sure. Those ten cars on the freight were sent through with a bill of lading that read ‘Valuable Airplane Machinery.’ Couple of crates had airplane machinery all right, but the rest are filled with nothin’ but castings and scrap iron. The loss costs us nothing, but the railroad company has to dig deep.” Flash tossed his cigarette butt to the floor, ground it with his heel and pushed to
his feet. A moment later the two men strode through the waiting-room and left the station. Regan listened, heard their steps pound down the platform, then wormed his way from behind the packing cases, his mouth pressed in a hard line.
So that was it. Baiting the freight with a fake shipment, and then wrecking the train to obtain claim money from the company. An ingenious scheme but grim in its significance. It meant the death of every man on No. 24 from engineer to “shack,” and the tying up of the division for weeks until that trestle could be rebuilt.
Regan scowled, made fists of his hands. For an instant he debated whether to call the dispatcher and report his discoveries or trail the two outlaws. Then a new thought flashed through his brain; he jerked around and paced toward the door.
The truth had suddenly surged upon him that the plot upon which he had stumbled was undoubtedly the work of the same gang that had held up the Overland Mail and
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in some mysterious way had cost him disgrace as well as his job. Perhaps if he worked alone, there would be a chance of reinstating himself and proving to the world that he was innocent.
ON THE platform the rain slapped him in the face. The wind tore at his clothing like so many restraining hands. He made his way to the end of the freight shed and peered cautiously around its comer. Ahead of him, moving parallel with the siding, the outlaw’s flashlight leered dimly through the murk. A voice called something from beyond, where a bulk of heavier blackness marked the presence of a sided box-car.
Gone was Regan’s disgust for the weather conditions now. He was thankful that the rain and darkness were there to mask his movements.
Making no sound, he lessened the intervening distance until he was only a few yards from the box-car. Then, as he gazed at the moving shadows before him, he uttered an exclamation of surprise. There were fully ten men there, and by the intermittent glare of the flash he could see that all were armed with crowbars. They were prying under the wheels of the box-car, moving it slowly inches at a time down the track toward the main line.
Regan felt his heart sink. Alone he could do nothing. Yet neither could he stand by and watch wholesale murder arranged without raising a finger. Somewhere to the east a doomed freight was thundering through the blackness, and he was the only person that stood between it and tragedy.
A thought filtered through his brain. Carwood! That was the next station forty miles farther on. If the freight hadn’t passed there yet . . .
With a last glance at the slowly advancing box-car, he inched his way backward
through the darkness. Once out of hearing range, he broke into a run and raced back into the station. An instant later he was bent over the instrument table, feverishly pounding the Rockwood call. Seconds and minutes dragged by without answer. Then with maddening slowness the sounder clicked off:
Little beads of cold sweat oozed out on Regan’s forehead as he shot through the question that meant so much:
“No. 24 by there yet?”
There was a moment’s hesitation, then: “Wo U?” (Who are you?)
With an exclamation of impatience. Regan repeated his query in sizzling Morse.
“No. 24 by there yet? Answer!”
An instant later the ex-op was staring at the sounder like a man in a trance. Gone! No. 24 had passed Carwood, was speeding over a roller-coaster section of track, heading straight for doom. No power on earth could save the freight now. Even as he stood there, Regan heard the propelled box-car grinding its way past the station toward the main.
A moment more he hesitated, eyes staring wide. Then once again he placed his hand on the key, this time to hammer out the call letters of the dispatcher. Without waiting for a reply, he raced off a hopeless message: “Mountain gang here at Rock River. Wreck Extra 24. Send help. Jimmy Regan.”
HE TURNED, undecided and confused.
Stood there gazing into space, his heart thumping like a mallet. The clock up on the wall ticked off the passing seconds. Death seconds. Seconds which screamed for action. A window pane rattled. Outside there was the grinding cf steel against steel as the box-car caromed into the main line.
Regan walked slowly across the floor of the waiting-room toward the outer door.
His hands opened and closed convulsively. If he could only do something! If he only had a car or a motorcycle to race against the wild box-car, head it off and warn the freight. Futile thought! Swamp Trestle lay in virgin country. There was no road near trackage. But to stand here, knowing it all . . .
He had walked closer to the wall than he intended in the darkness, and his right shoe struck something that gave forth a dull clang. Regan stopped dead in his tracks, paused rigid a moment, and then started as ¡ an electric shock darted through him from | bead to foot.
With a smothered exclamation he was down on his knees, groping across the floor. ! A can of kerosene was there, used by the : Rock River operator for his lanterns. His fingers closed over it, slung it under his arm. He ran to the door, ripped the barrier open and peered out.
On the platform by the freight shed the bandits were clustered, laughing and talking among themselves. Off to the right, moving slowly down the main trackage, was the dark bulk of the box-car.
Regan set his teeth, bent his head down, and charged into the pouring rain. To the edge of the platform, ten steps beyond, he raced unnoticed. Then from the darkness a hoarse shout snarled after him. A revolver shot followed; a slug of lead whined past his I ear.
On he ran, pandemonium breaking loose behind him. He could hear feet leap off the platform and jxjund down the wet cinders in pursuit. More shouts and profane oaths accompanied them. He was gaining on the car, but the wheels were feeling the effect of the downgrade and were slowly increasing their speed.
A fusillade of shots plopped into the ties. More yells sounded behind, and one pair of pursuing feet was overhauling him fast.
But he was only a few feet from the rear wheels of the box-car now, and with a last burst of strength he flung himself forward, clawed for the grab-iron, and felt his arms yank tight with the sudden strain. Then slowly he was climbing to the top of the car. The running steps of the last pursuer came to a halt abruptly, and three shots in quick succession tore red lanes of fire in the darkness. Two of those shots thudded harmlessly in the wooden side boards. But the third
With a hoarse cry, Regan lurched forward from the top rung of the ladder, fell flat on the roof of the car. A burning pain suddenly transformed his left leg into a limb of pumping agony. For a moment he lay there, gasping, a wave of inner sickness sweeping over him. Slowly he struggled to a sitting position, and tried to examine his injury.
“His last shot, and I had to get in the way of it,” Regan moaned aloud. “Lady Luck and me are sure strangers.”
Beneath him the box-car was moving with increased speed. To the rear, the bandits and the station had disappeared. There was only the rain and the blackness.
Stop the car. Remove the capsule of nitro from the front coupling. Then douse the top of the car with the contents of the kerosene can, ignite it, and trust to luck the hogger of the oncoming freight would see the fire. 'That was the wild plan that had flashed across the op’s brain. At first it had seemed simple enough. But now with this leg of his . . .
He tried to rise, then crumpled dizzily back to the roof. His leg was shooting fire through his body in pulsing throbs. Word«
! came from his lips: “Can’t—can’t go out now. Got to set that brake !”
Lips pressed tight, he began to crawl toward the end of the car. It was slow, mankilling work, and a limp numbness was stealing over him.
The car had gained momentum, was beginning to streak along at a terrific rate. There was no visible landscape to gauge the speed, but from the howl of the wind and the roaring of the wheels he knew he was receiving the full benefit of the downgrade.
Desperately he crawled on, over what
seemed miles of roof until his groping hands finally grasped the iron rod of the brake wheel. He set the kerosene can down in a position where the vibration would not dislodge it, then relaxed a moment, hoping to get back a few ounces of strength he knew he would need.
A moment later he braced himself, lurched to a standing position, fingers clenched hard on the rim of the brake wheel. But below, those thundering trucks seemed to know what was happening. They shot into a sudden curve, heeled to the tangent, and screamed as the car shifted its balance. Regan felt himself thrown sideways, felt his full weight come down on that wounded leg.
A burst of colored lights whirled in his vision, darkened to a curtain of ink. He slumped backward, unconscious.
Y\ THEN HE opened his eyes again, it
*Y was with the feeling that an eternity had passed. The rain was still beating down on his face, soaking his clothes. The night darkness was all around him. Only the wind had lessened. His leg was numb now from the hip downward. He felt strange and feverish, and the slightest movement sent a streak of agony through him.
Painfully he dragged himself to the edge of the car, peered over it. When he straightened up and lay back on the deck again it was with a hollow groan of despair. In spite of all his efforts, the bandits’ plans had proceeded without a hitch. The car had come to a stop in the middle of Swamp Trestle!
For a moment he lay there motionless. How much time had elapsed? How long since the car had stopped its mad flight? He didn’t know. Only one thing hammered into his thoughts. The kerosene! The can was still lying where he had left it on the roof of the car.
Slowly, each move costing him burning torture, Regan removed his coat, rolled it into a ball and began to wipe the water from the deck. He lay on his side, extending his arm in a half circle as far as he could reach. Once he paused to listen, but there was only the thud of the rain on the wooden boards.
After a while he had a square surface fairly dry of excess moisture. Regan seized the fuel can, uncorked its spout and spilled the liquid contents over the deck. He reached in his pocket, searched for a match, then froze into immobility.
From the east, from the blackness beyond the trestle, a sound had come to his ears, low at first, then rising to a gradual wail. It died away, came again, and then all was silence.
Feverishly Regan found his match, lit it and threw it out before him. There was a tunnel just in advance of the last grade. Then the long curve leading to where his car was standing on the trestle. Regan was working on counted seconds.
A streak of flame leaped up hungrily and began to sweep across the roof. It flared higher in a widening circle. The op watched it anxiously. But a moment later his heart sank within him. There was a loud sputtering and crackling as the flame, eating through the kerosene, reached the rainsoaked wood. The fire diminished slowly, sank into a bluish blaze that darted over the roof like a wind-blown gas jet.
Stretched out on his side, Regan lay there, the dull glow outlining the hopelessness in his face. There was only one thing to do now. He must try to light his way down the ladder of the car and remove that charge of nitro from the coupling. He must summon every ounce of strength he possessed to accomplish it. He must do it before he went under.
Quickly he wrung the water out of his coat, soaked it thoroughly with the remaining kerosene in the can. He slung the coat under his arm, and dragged himself to the iron ladder that led down the side of the car.
At first he thought he was too far gone. But, gritting his teeth, he managed to lower his body over the side and stand with his good leg on the ladder. Jerkily, dizzily, he began to descend. The wounded leg dangled useless from the hip. At the slightest touch or movement it sent a wave of nausea
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surging through him. Rung by rung he continued downward, supporting himself by his hands. Flis heart was pounding. A growing heaviness seemed pressing upon his head.
Abruptly then, a hundred times nearer, that wailing screech came again. The freight had left the tunnel and was climbing the upgrade.
There were only two rungs of the ladder left, and Regan hurried to pass them. Halfway to the second, his weakened fingers lost their grip, and he slipped. Fie fell through five feet of space to the trestle.
TT WAS his arm, doubled quickly under
that saved him. Even so, the blow knocked the wind out of him, caused his leg to pain horribly. Twice the operator struggled to rise. Rain streamed into his face, soaked his hair.
Then, still clutching the coat, Regan rolled inward and by sheer force of will began to crawl on hands and knees past the car wheels to the front of the car. It seemed miles, those few yards. The black wall of the boxcar continued endlessly. But at length his outstretched fingers touched the cold steel of the coupling.
At first he found nothing. Then his hands felt the capsule containing the nitroglycerin. It was wired to the front of the drawbar, where the first attempt to couple the car would set off the explosive. His trembling fingers raced to remove it. Seconds, minutes hurried by, while the spliced wire resisted his efforts. Then at last a strand broke loose, and the capsule was free in his hand.
He paused an instant, braced himself against the coupling, forced himself erect. One arm poised back of his head, he waited. Waited until that glare in the sky beyond the trestle changed to a winking eye, a rapidly nearing headlight.
Not until the oncoming freight was halfway down the grade and the rails were twin ribbons of silver, did Regan act.
Fie snapped his arm forward, shot the capsule far out into the darkness. For a split second nothing happened; then the whole scene was outlined like a painted picture. A red wall of flame streaked up from below, and a thundering roar trembled the supports of the trestle. Water, pulverized sand, rained upon Regan’s head.
But the op didn’t wait a second. At best his throw had been a short one, and he wasn’t sure but what the explosion had weakened the trestle to such a point it would need only the additional weight of the heavily-loaded oncoming freight to crack up. Regan seized his saturated coat, struck a match and fanned the material into flame.
Back and forth he waved the burning
signal. His leg was now a white-hot iron searing at his vitals, and the approaching headlight seemed to waver and glisten as though seen through water. It was racing closer, that light, sending its beams like a thousand needles through the blackness straight into his eyes. It was growing in size, moving inexorably toward the trestle.
“Back !’’ the op shouted. “Go—go hack !’’ His words roared in his ears.
And still the light continued, until the whole sky seemed lit by its brilliance. The op’s hands were growing heavier. They seemed far removed from his body, and he controlled them with an effort. The headlight before him became a gleaming ball of fire. Fire, that was it. His whole body was on fire, from his leg up to his very brain. 1 lis head was growing heavy now ; his eyes were closing. Slowly he felt himself falling into a bottomless pit of darkness.
npiIEY FOUND Regan there, propped up against the drawbar like a scarecrow on a stick. He still clenched the burning remnant of his coat, and the fire, windswept and fed by the kerosene, had continued down to the sleeves of his shirt. Regan’s hands were blistered and blackened and not lovely to look at.
Thereafter the scene changed for the young op. He dreamed wild dreams of receiving countless train orders over a fastmoving sounder while physically unable to rise from the instrument desk and deliver those orders.
But the dreams gradually faded. The scene changed to the white walls of a hospital.
The face of Superintendent Hawley moved into focus then, and with it came the words he was saying:
. fine work, Operator Regan. You saved the road a lot of money, not to mention the lives of some pretty valuable train men . . . Caught the Mountain gang, and they’re all behind the bars. But it’s a funny thing; the man, Waller, who was their leader, was one of our employees. Used the name of Jennings and worked as second trick operator at your old station . . . We * have his complete confession, and it clears you in every way. You go back on duty at Hill Junction the first of the month with more pay.”
Half-dozing, Regan heard the words as from far off.
“But how . . . ?” he asked. “Why didn’t I . . . ?”
Superintendent Hawley smiled. “You were drugged, Regan. Waller, or Jennings, doped the coffee in your vacuum bottle before he went off duty. It was all part of a plan. That’s what kept you from delivering that train order to the Overland Mail.”