On the Iron at Big Cloud/"If a Man Die"
"IF A MAN DIE"
East and West now, the Transcontinental is double-tracked, all except the Hill Division and—that, in the nature of things, probably never will be. If you know the mountains, you know the Hill Division. From the divisional point, Big Cloud, that snuggles at the eastern foothills, the right of way, like the trail of a great sinewy serpent, twists and curves through the mountains, through the Rockies, through the Sierras, and finally emerges to link its steel with a sister division, that stretches onward to the great blue of the Pacific Ocean.
It is a stupendous piece of track. It has cost fabulous sums, and the lives of many men; it has made the fame of some, and been the graveyard of more. The history of the world, in big things, in little things, in battles, in strife, in sudden death, in peace, in progress, and in achievement, has its counterpart, in miniature, in the history of the Hill Division. There is a page in that history that belongs to "Angel" Breen. This is Breen's story.
It has been written much, and said oftener, that men in every walk of life, save one, may make mistakes and live them down, but that the dispatcher who falls once is damned forever. And it is true. I am a dispatcher. I know.
Where he got the nickname "Angel" from, is more than I can tell you, and I've wondered at it often enough myself. Contrast, I guess it was. Contrast with the boisterous, rough and ready men around him, for this happened back in the early days when men were what a life of hardship and no comfort made them. No, Breen wasn't soft—far from it. He was just quiet and mild-mannered. It must have been that—contrast. Anyway, he was "Angel" when I first knew him, and you can draw your own conclusions as to what he is now—I'm not saying anything at all about that.
Where did he come from? What was he before he came here? I don't know. I don't believe anybody knew, or ever gave the matter a thought. That sort of question was never asked—it was too delicate and pointed in the majority of cases. A man was what he was out here, not what he had been; he made good, or he didn't. Not that I mean to imply that there was anything crooked or anything wrong with Breen's past, I'm sure there wasn't for that matter, but I'm just trying to make you understand that when I say Breen had the night trick in the dispatcher's office here in Big Cloud, I'm beginning at the beginning.
Breen wasn't popular. He wasn't a good enough mixer for that. Personally, it isn't anything I'd hold up against him, or any other man. Popularity is too often cheap, and being a "good fellow" isn't always a license for a man to puff out his chest—though most of them do it, and that's the high sign that what I say is right. No, I'm not moralizing, I'm telling a story, you'll see what I mean before I get through. I say Breen wasn't popular. He got the reputation of thinking himself a little above the rank and file of those around him, stuck-up, to put it in cold English, and that's where they did him an injustice. It was the man's nature, unobtrusive, retiring—different from theirs, if you get my point, and they couldn't understand just because it was different. The limitations weren't all up to Breen.
If they had known, or taken the trouble to know, as much about him as they could have known before passing judgment on him, perhaps things might have been a little different; perhaps not, I won't say, for it's pretty generally accepted in railroad law that a dispatcher's slip is a capital offense, and there's no court of appeal, no stay of execution, no anything, and to all intents and purposes he's dead from the moment that slip is made. There have been lots of cases like that, lots of them, and there's no class of men I pity more—a slip, and damned for the rest of their lives! I don't say that because I'm a dispatcher myself. We're only human, aren't we? Mistakes like that, God knows, aren't made intentionally. Sometimes a man is overworked, sometimes queer brain kinks happen to him just as they do to every other man. We're ranked as human in everything but our work. I'm not saying it's not right. In the last analysis I suppose it has to be that way. It's part of the game, and we know the rules when we "sit in." We've no reason to complain, only I get a shiver every time I read a newspaper headline that I know, besides being a death-warrant, is tearing the heart out of some poor devil. You've seen the kind I mean, read scores of them—"Dispatcher's Blunder Costs Many Lives"—or something to the same effect. Maybe you'll think it queer, but for days afterward I can't handle an order book or a train sheet when I'm on duty without my heart being in my mouth half the time.
What's this got to do with Breen? Well, in one way, it hasn't anything to do with him; and, then again, in another way, it has. I want you to know that a blunder means something to a dispatcher besides the loss of his job. Do you think they're a cold-blooded, calloused lot? I want you to know that they care. Oh, yes, they're human. They've got a heart and they've got a soul; the one to break, the other to sear. My God! think of it—a slip. That's the ghastly horror of it all—a slip! Don't you think they can feel? Don't you think their own agony of mind is punishment enough without the added reproach, and worse, of their fellows? But let it go, it's the Law of the Game.
I said they didn't know much about Breen out here then except that he was a pretty good dispatcher, but as far as that goes it didn't help him any, rather the reverse, when the smash came. The better the man the harder the fall, what? It's generally that way, isn't it? Perhaps you're wondering what I know about him. I'll tell you. If any one knew Breen, I knew him. I was only a kid then, I'm a man now. I hadn't even a coat—Breen gave me one. I'm a dispatcher—Breen taught me, and no better man on the "key" than Breen ever lived, a better man than I could ever hope to be, yet he slipped. Do you wonder I shiver when I read those things? I'm not a religious man, but I've asked God on my bended knees, over and over again, to keep me from the horror, the suffering, the blasted life that came to Breen and many another man—through a slip. Yes, if any one knew Breen, I did. All I know, all I've got, everything in this whole wide world, I owe to Breen—"Angel" Breen.
You probably read of the Elktail wreck at the time it happened, but you've forgotten about it by now. Those things don't live long in the mind unless they come pretty close home to you; there's too many other things happening every hour in this big pulsing world to make it anything more than the sensation of the moment. But out here the details have cause enough to be fixed in the minds of most of us, not only of the wreck itself, but of what happened afterward as well—and I don't know which of the two was the worse. You can judge for yourself.
I'm not going into technicalities. You'll understand better if I don't. You'll remember I said that the Hill Division is only single-tracked. That means, I don't need to tell you, that it's up to the dispatcher every second, and all that stands between the trains and eternity is the bit of tissue tucked in the engineer's blouse and its duplicate crammed in the conductor's side pocket. Orders, meeting points, single track, you understand? The dispatcher holds them all, every last one of them, for life or death, men, women and children, train crews and company property, all—and Breen slipped!
No one knows to this day how it happened. I daresay some eminent authority on psychology might explain it, but the explanation would be too high-browed and too far over my head to understand it even if he did. I only know the facts and the result. Breen sent out a lap order on Number One, the Imperial Limited, westbound, and Number Eighty-Two, a fast freight, perishable, streaking east. Both were off schedule, and he was nursing them along for every second he could squeeze. Back through the mountains, both ways, all through the night, he'd given them the best of everything—the Imperial clear rights, and Eighty-Two pretty nearly, if not quite, as good. Then he fixed the meeting point for the two trains.
I read a story once where the dispatcher sent out a lap order on two trains and his mistake was staring at him all the time from his order book. I guess that was a slip of the pen, and he never noticed it. That was queer enough, but what Breen did was queerer still. His order book showed straight as a string. The freight was to hold at Muddy Lake, ten miles west of Elktail, for Number One. Number One, of course, as I told you, running free. Somehow, I don't know how, it's one of those things you can't explain, a subconscious break between the mind and the mechanical, physical action, you've noticed it in little things you've done yourself, Breen wired the word "Elktail" instead of "Muddy Lake"—and never knew it—never had a hint that anything was wrong—never caught it on the repeat, and gave back his O. K. The order, the written order in the book, was exactly as it should be. It read Muddy Lake—that was right, Muddy Lake. You see what happened? There wasn't time for the freight to make Elktail, but she got within three miles of it—and that's as far as she ever got! In a nasty piece of track, full of trestles and gorges, where the right of way bends worse than the letter S, they met, the two of them, head on—Number One and Number Eighty-Two!
And Breen didn't know what he had done even after the details began to pour in. How could he know? What was Eighty-Two doing east of Muddy Lake? She should have been waiting there for Number One to pass her. The order book showed that plain enough. And all through the rest of that night, while he worked like a madman clearing the line, getting up hospital relief, and wrecking trains—with Carleton, he was super then, gray-faced and haggard, like the master of a storm-tossed liner on his bridge giving orders, pacing the room, cursing at times at his own impotency—Breen didn't know, neither of them knew, where the blame lay. But the horror of the thing had Breen in its grip even then. I was there that night, and I can see him now bent over under the green-shaded lamp—I can see Carleton's face, and it wasn't a pleasant face to see. One thing I remember Breen said. Once, as the sounder pitilessly clicked a message more ghastly than any that had gone before, adding to the number of those whose lives had gone out forever, adding to the tale of the wounded, to the wild, mad story of chaos and ruin, Breen lifted his head from the key for a moment, pushed his hair out of his eyes with a nervous, shaky sweep of his hand, and looked at Carleton.
"It's horrible, horrible," he whispered; "but think of the man who did it. Death would be easy compared to what he must feel. It makes me as weak as a kitten to think of it, Carleton. My God, man, don't you see! I, or any other dispatcher, might do this same thing to-morrow, the next day, or the day after. Tell me again, Carleton, tell me again, that order's straight."
"Don't lose your nerve," Carleton answered sharply. "Whoever has blundered, it's not you."
Irony? No. It's beyond all that, isn't it? It's getting about as near to the tragedy of a man's life as you can get. It's getting as deep and tapping as near bed-rock as we'll ever do this side of the Great Divide. Think of it! Think of Breen that night—it's too big to get, isn't it? God pity him! Those words of his have rung in my ears all these years, and that scene I can see over again in every detail every time I close my eyes.
In the few hours left before dawn that morning, there wasn't time to give much attention to the cause. There was enough else to think of, enough to give every last man on the division from car tink to superintendent all, and more, than they could handle—the investigation could come later. But it never came. There was no need for one. How did they find out? It came like the crack of doom, and Breen got it—got it—and it seemed to burst the floodgates of his memory open, seemed to touch that dormant chord, and he knew, knew as he knew that he had a God, what he had done.
They found the order that made the meeting point Elktail tucked in Mooney's jumper when, after they got the crane at work, they hauled him out from under his engine. Who was Mooney? Engineer of the freight. They found him before they did any of his train crew, or his fireman either, for that matter. Dead? Yes. I'm a dispatcher, look at it from the other side if you want to, it's only fair. That bit of tissue cleared Mooney, of course—but it sent him to his death. Yes, I know, good God, don't you think I know what it means—to slip?
It was just before Davis, Breen's relief, came on for the morning trick, in fact Davis was in the room, when Breen got the report. He scribbled it on a pad, word by word as it came in, for Carleton to see. For a minute it didn't seem to mean anything to him, and then, as I say, he got it. I never saw such a look on a man's face before, and I pray God I never may again. He seemed to wither up, blasted as the oak is blasted by a lightning stroke. The horror, the despair, the agony in his eyes are beyond any words of mine to describe, and you wouldn't want to hear it if I could tell you. He held out his arms pitifully like a pleading child. His lips moved, but he had to try over and over again before any sound came from them. There was no thought of throwing the blame on anybody else. Breen wasn't that kind. Oh, yes, he could have done it. He could have put the blunder on the night man at the Gap where Mooney received his Elktail holding order, and Breen's order book would have left it an open question as to which of the two had made the mistake—would probably have let him out and damned the other. You say from the way he acted he didn't think of that and therefore the temptation didn't come to him. Yes, I know what you mean. Not so much to Breen's credit, what? Well, I don't know, it depends on the way you look at it. I'd rather believe the thought didn't come because the man's soul was too clean. It was clean them—no matter what he did afterward.
There have been death scenes of dispatchers before, many of them—there will be others in the days to come, many of them. So long as there are railroads and so long as men are frail as men, lacking the infallibility of a higher power, just so long will they be inevitable. But no death scene of a dispatcher's career was ever as this one was. Breen was his own judge, his own jury, his own executioner. Do you think I could ever forget his words? He pointed his hand toward the window that faced the western stretch of track, toward the foothills, toward the mighty peaks of the Rockies that towered beyond them, and the life, the being of the man was in his voice. They came slowly, those words, wrenched from a broken heart, torn from a shuddering soul.
"I wish to God that it were me in their stead. Christ be merciful! I did it, Carleton. I don't know how. I did it."
No one answered him. No one spoke. For a moment that seemed like all eternity there was silence, then Breen, his arms still held out before him, walked across the room as a blind man walks in his own utter darkness, walked to the door and passed out—alone. Those few steps across the room—alone! I've thought of that pretty often since—they seemed so horribly, grimly, significantly in keeping with what there was of life left for the stricken man—alone. It's a pretty hard word, that, sometimes, and sometimes it brings the tears.
I don't know how I let him go like that. I was too stunned to move I guess, but I reached him at the foot of the stairs as he stepped out onto the platform. There wasn't anything I could say, was there? What would you have said?
No man knew better than Breen himself what this would mean to him. He was wrecked, wrecked worse than that other wreck, for his was a living death. There weren't any grand jurys or things of that kind out here then, not that it would have made any difference to Breen if there had been. You can't put any more water in a pail when it's already full, can you? You can't add to the maximum, can you? Don't you think Breen's punishment was beyond the reach of man or men to add to, or, for that matter, to abate by so much as the smallest fraction? It was, God knows it was—all except one final twinge, that I believe now settled him, though I'll say here that whatever it did to Breen it's not for me to judge her. Who am I, that I should? It is between her and her Maker. I'll come to that in a minute.
Yes, Breen knew well enough what it meant to him, but his thoughts that morning as we walked up the street weren't, I know right well, on himself—he was thinking of those others. And I, well, I was thinking of Breen. Wouldn't you? I told you I owed Breen everything I had in the world. Neither of us said a word all the way up to his boarding-house. It was almost as though I wasn't with him for all the attention he paid to me. But he knew I was there just the same. I like to think of that. I wasn't very old then—I'm not offering that as an excuse, for I'm not ashamed to admit that I was near to tears—if I'd been older perhaps I could have said or done something to help. As it was, all I could do was to turn that one black thought over and over and over again in my mind. Breen's living death, death, death, death. That's the way it hit me, the way it caught me, and the word clung and repeated itself as I kept step beside him.
He was dead, dead to hope, ambition, future, everything, as dead as though he lay outstretched before me in his coffin. It seemed as if I could see him that way. And then, don't ask me why, I don't know, I only know such things happen, come upon you unconsciously, suddenly, there flashed into my mind that bit of verse from the Bible, you know it—"if a man die, shall he live again?" I must have said it out loud without knowing it, for he whirled upon me quick as lightning, placed his two hands upon my shoulders, and stared with a startled gaze into my eyes. I say startled. It was, but there was more. There seemed for a second a gleam of hope awakened, hungry, oh, how hungry, pitiful in its yearning, and then the uselessness, the futility of that hope crushed it back, stamped it out, and the light in his eyes grew dull and died away.
We had halted at the door of his boarding-house and I made as though to go upstairs with him to his room, but he stopped me.
"Not now, Charlie, boy," he said, shaking his head and trying to smile; "not now. I want to be alone."
And so I left him.
Alone! He wanted to be alone. Were ever words more full of cruel mockery! It seems hard to understand sometimes, doesn't it? And we get to questioning things we'd far better leave alone. I know at first I used to wonder why Almighty God ever let Breen make that slip. He could have stopped it, couldn't He? But that's not right. We're running on train orders from the Great Dispatcher, and the finite can't span the infinite.
Maybe you'll think it queer that I left Breen like that, let him go to his room alone. You're thinking that in his condition he might do himself harm—end it all, to put it bluntly. Well, that thought didn't come to me then, it did afterward, but not then. Why? It must have been just the innate consciousness that he wouldn't do that sort of thing. Some men face things one way, some face them another. It's a question of individuality and temperament. I don't think Breen could have done anything like that, I know he seemed so far apart from it in my mind that, as I say, the thought didn't come to me. He was too big a man, big enough to have faced what was before him, faced conditions, faced the men, though God knows they treated him like skulking coyote, if it had not been for her. I want to stand right on this. Breen would never have done what he did if she had acted differently. That much I know. But, I want to say it again, I've no right to judge her.
Perhaps you've read that story of Kipling's about the Black Tyrone Regiment that saw their dead? Well, Breen, as I told you, at the beginning, wasn't popular, and the boys had seen their dead. Do you understand? Pariah, outcast, what you like, they made him, all except pity they gave him, and I say he would have taken it all, accepted it all, only there are some things too heavy for a man to bear, aren't there? Load limit, the engineers call it when they build their bridge. Well, there's a load limit on the heart and brain and soul of a man just as there is on a bridge; and while one, strained beyond the breaking point, goes crashing in a horrid mass of twisted wreckage to the bottom of the cañon, to the bottom of the gorge, into the rushing, boiling waters of the river beneath, the other crashes, a damned soul, to the bottom of hell. Kitty Mooney had seen her dead. Kitty Mooney, the engineer's sister! And Breen loved her, was going to marry her. That's all.
How do I know? How do you know? Perhaps it was grief, perhaps it was hysteria, perhaps it was according to the light God gave her and she couldn't understand, perhaps it was only wild, unreasoning, frantic passion. I don't know. I only know she called him—a murderer. She couldn't have loved him, you say. Perhaps no, perhaps yes. Does it make any difference? Breen thought she did, and Breen loved her. I don't know. I only know that where he looked for a ray of mercy, her mercy, to light the blackened depths, for the touch, her touch, that would have held him back from the brink, for the word of comfort, her word, that would have bid him stand like a gallant soldier facing untold odds, he received, instead, a condemnation more terrible than any that had gone before, and a bleeding heart dried bitter as gall, a patient, grief-stricken man became a vicious snapping wolf, and "Angel" Breen—a devil.
Would I have been a stronger man than Breen? Would you? Would I have done differently than Kitty Mooney did if I had been in her place? Would you? We don't know, do we? No one knows. God keep us from ever knowing. The poor devil in the gutters, the wretched, ruined lives of women who have lost their grip and drunk the dregs, the human, stranded, battered wrecks we see around us, were once like you and me. We don't know, do we? God pity them! God keep us from the sneer! Our strength has never been measured. It may be no greater than theirs. To-morrow it may be you or I.
It was pretty lawless out here in those days. We had the riff-raff of the East, and worse; and there was nothing to restrain them, nothing much to keep them in check, and they did about as they liked. They brought the touch into the picture of the West that the West hasn't lived down yet, and I'm not sure ever will. The brawling, gambling, gun-handling type, the thief, the desperado, the bad man, rotten bad, bad to the core. They've been stamped out now most of them, but it was different then. They didn't turn a cold shoulder to Breen. Why should they? They were outcasts and pariahs, too, weren't they? And Breen, well, I guess you understand as well as I do, and you know as I know that when a man like that goes he goes the limit. There's no middle course for some men, they're not made that way.
Whatever holds them for good, or whatever holds them for bad, it holds them all, either way, all, body, mind and spirit, all. And that is true in spite of the fact that, often enough, there's some one thing, it may be a little thing, it may be a big thing, but some one thing that the worst of us balk at, can't do. It's not morality, it's not conscience, a man gets way beyond all that; it's a memory of the past perhaps, a something bred in him from babyhood. I don't know. You can't treat human nature like a specimen on the glass slide under a microscope. There is no specimen. As there are millions of people, so is each one in some way different from the other. You can't classify, you can't tabulate the different kinks into a list and learn it by heart, can you? The man who says he knows human nature says he is as wise as the God who made him, and that man is a poor fool. That's right, isn't it? And so I say that, strange as it may seem, in the worst of us, fall as low as we will, there's generally some one thing our soul, what's left of it, revolts at doing. Breen was a railroad man. Railroading was in his blood. I want you to get that. It was part of him. Any man that's worth his salt in this business is that way. It's in the blood or it isn't; you're a railroad man or you're not.
Breen disappeared from Big Cloud and I didn't see him from the day Kitty Mooney turned him from her door until the night—but I'm coming to that—that's the end. There's a word or two that goes before—so that you'll understand. He disappeared from Big Cloud, but he didn't leave the mountains. Maybe back of it all, an almost impossible theory if you like, but I can understand it, a something in him wouldn't let him run away. He did run away, you say. Yes, but there's the queer brain kink again. Perhaps he temporized. You temporize. I temporize. We try to fool and delude sometimes, snatch at loopholes, snatch at straws, to bolster up our self-respect, don't we? That's what I mean when I say it's possible he couldn't run away. He clung to the straw, the loophole, that running away was measured in miles. I don't say that was it, for I don't know. It's possible. We heard of him from time to time as the months went by, and the things we heard weren't pleasant things to hear. He drifted from bad to worse, until that something that he couldn't do brought him to a halt—brought the end.
Don't ask me when Breen threw in his lot with Black Dempsey and the band of fiends that called him leader—the ugliest, soul-blackened set of fiends that ever polluted the West, and that's using pretty strong language. Don't ask me how Breen got to Big Cloud that night away from the others waiting to begin their hellish work. Don't ask me. I don't know. Why he did it—is different. That, I can tell you. What they wanted him to do, to have a part in, was that one thing I was speaking about, the one thing he couldn't do. Breen was a railroad man, railroading was in his blood, that's all—but it's everything—railroading was in his blood. As for the rest, maybe he didn't know what they were really up to until the last moment, and then stole away from them. Maybe they found it out, suspected him, and some of them followed him, tried to stop him, tried to keep him from reaching here. But what's the use of speculating? I never knew, I never will know. Breen can't tell me, can he? And all that I can tell you is what I saw and heard that night.
I had the night trick then—Breen's job—they gave me Breen's job. It seemed somehow at first like sacrilege to take it—as though I was robbing him of it, taking it away from him, wronging, stripping, impoverishing the man to whom I owed even the knowledge that made me fit, that made it possible, to hold down a key—his key. Of course, that was only sensitiveness, but you understand, don't you? It caught me hard when I first "sat in," but gradually the feeling wore off; not that I ever forgot, I haven't yet for that matter, only time blunts the sharp edges, and routine, habit, and custom do the rest. I don't need to tell you that I remember that night. Remember it! That was before this station was built, and in those days we had an old wooden shack here that did duty for freight house, station, division headquarters, and everything else all rolled into one. The dispatcher's room was upstairs.
Things were moving slick as a whistle that night. No extra traffic, no road troubles, in—out, in—out, all along the line the trains were running like clockwork from one end of the division to the other. If there was anything on my mind at all it was the Limited, Number Two, eastbound. We were handling a good deal of gold in those days, there was a lot of it being shipped East then—is still, from the Klondyke now, you know—and we were getting a fair share of the business away from the southern competition. We hadn't had any trouble, weren't looking for any, but it was pretty generally understood that all shipments of that kind were to get special attention. Number Two was carrying an extra express car with a consignment for the mint that night, so, naturally, I had kept my eye on her more closely than usual all the way through the mountains from the time I got her from the Pacific Division. At the time I'm speaking about, four o'clock in the morning, I was almost clear of her, for she wasn't much west of Coyote Bend, fifteen miles from here, and she had rights all the way in. Half an hour more at the most, and she would be off my hands and up to the dispatchers of the Prairie Division. She had held her schedule to the tick every foot of the way, and all I was waiting for was the call from Coyote Bend that would report her in and out again into the clear for Big Cloud. Coyote Bend is the first station west of here, you understand? There's nothing between. She was due at Coyote at 4.05, and I want you to remember this—I said it before, but I want to repeat it. I want you to get it hard—she had run to the second all through the night.
My watch was open on the table before me, and I watched the minute hand creep round the dial. 4.03, 4.04, 4.05, 4.06, 4.07, 4.08. I was alone in the office. The night caller had gone out perhaps ten minutes before to call the train crew of the five o'clock local. There wasn't anything to be nervous about. I don't put it down to that. Three minutes wasn't anything. Perhaps it was just impatience, fretfulness. You know how it is when you're waiting for something to happen, and I was expecting the sounder to break every second with that report from Coyote Bend. Anyway, put it down to what you like, though I didn't want a drink particularly I pushed back my chair, got up, and walked over to the water cooler. The dispatcher's table was on the east side of the room, the door opened on the south side, and the water cooler was over in the opposite corner. I'm explaining this so that you'll understand that the door was between the water cooler and the table. That old shack was rough and ready, and I've wondered more than once what ever kept it from falling to pieces. It didn't take more than a breath of wind to set every window-sash in the outfit rattling like a corps of snare drums. That's why, I guess, I didn't hear any one coming up the stairs. It was blowing pretty hard that night. But I heard the door open. I thought it was the caller back again, and I wondered how he'd made his rounds in such quick time. With the tumbler half up to my lips I turned around—then the glass slipped from my fingers and crashed into slivers on the floor. My mouth went dry, my heart seemed to stop. I couldn't speak, couldn't move. It was Breen—"Angel" Breen!
I saw him start at the noise of the splintering glass, but he didn't look at me. He clung swaying to the door jamb for an instant, his face chalky white, then he reeled across the room—and dropped into his old chair. I saw him glance at my watch and his face seemed to go whiter than before, then he snatched at the train sheet and a smile—no, it wasn't exactly a smile, you couldn't call it that, his whole face seemed to change, light up, and his lips moved—I know now in a prayer of gratitude. You understand, don't you? He knew the time-card, knew that Number Two, after he had seen my watch, should have been out of Coyote Bend four, perhaps five, minutes before, but the train sheet showed her still unreported. His fingers closed on the key and he began to make the Coyote Bend call. Over and over, quick, sharp, clear, incisive, with all the old masterful touch of his sending Breen was rattling the call—cc,cx—cc,cx—cc,cx—cc,cx.
And then I found my voice.
"God in Heaven, Breen!" I stammered, and started toward him. "You! What——"
The sounder broke. Coyote Bend answered. And on the instant Breen flashed this order over the wire.
"Hold Number Two. Hold Number Two"—twice the sender spelled out the words.
Then Coyote Bend repeated the order, and Breen gave back the O. K.
"Breen!" I shouted. "What are you doing? Are you crazy! What are you doing here? Speak, man, what——"
He had straightened in his chair, and a sort of low, catchy gasp came from his lips. It seemed as though it took all his power, all his strength, to lift his eyes to mine. I sprang for the key, but he jerked himself suddenly forward and pushed me desperately away. And then he called me by the old name, not much above a whisper, I could hardly catch the words, and I didn't understand, didn't know, that the man before me was a wounded, dying man. My brain was whirling, full of that other night, full of the days and months that had followed. I couldn't think. I——
"Charlie boy, it's all right. Black Dempsey in the Cut. I was afraid I was too late—too late. They shot—me—here"—he was tearing with his fingers at his waistcoat.
And then I understood—too late. As I reached for him, he swayed forward and toppled over, a huddled heap, over the key, over the order book, over the train sheet that once had taken his life and now had given it back to him—dead.
What is there to say? Whatever he may have done, however far he may have fallen, back of it all, through it all, bigger than himself, stronger than any other bond was the railroading that was in his blood. Breen was a railroad man.
I don't know why, do I? You don't know why, after Number Two had run to schedule all that night, it happened just when it did. It might have happened at some other time—but it didn't. Luck or chance if you like, more than that if you'd rather think of it in another way, but just a few miles west of Coyote Bend something went wrong in the cab of Number Two. Nothing much, I don't remember now what it was, don't know that I ever knew, nothing much. Just enough to hold her back a few minutes, the few minutes that let Breen sit in again on the night dispatcher's trick, sit in again at the key, hold down his old job once more before he quit railroading forever with the order that he gave his life to send, to keep Number Two from rushing to death and destruction against the rocks and boulders Black Dempsey and his gang had piled across the track in the Cut five miles east of Coyote Bend.
I don't know. "If a man die, shall he live again?" I leave it to you. I only know that they think a lot of him out here, think a lot of Breen, "Angel" Breen—now.