The Express Messenger, and Other Tales of the Rail/A Railway Mail Clerk

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A Railway Mail Clerk

 

A RAILWAY MAIL CLERK


RAILWAY mail clerks are not railway employees, although they are under the orders of the railway officials when on the road. They are, as a class, a bright lot of men. They bring more brains and acquired skill into their work than any class of government employees in proportion to the amount of money they draw. They ride the fastest trains in the country, and ride ahead. On most roads their car is coupled to the locomotive, and they take whatever is left when the grim reaper has finished with the enginemen. Statistics show that the mortality among railway mail clerks through railroad accidents is greater than was that among the troops in the civil war. These clerks are required to pass an examination at a rating of more than ninety per cent. Department employees at Washington are given thirty days vacation each year, but the railway mail clerk is called upon to face the dangers of midnight rides twelve months in the year.

I knew one mail clerk intimately, and found him one of the most interesting characters I ever met. The story of his eventful life would be interesting at any time, and ought to be especially apropos here as an illustration of the character of the average railway mail clerk, and of the dangers through which they pass.

The farms in Illinois upon which we were reared were not far apart, but "Doc," who lived with his uncle, left home before he was twenty-one and went West. I had been to town to get the plough sharpened, and on my way home I saw "Doc" climbing across a cloddy field behind a harrow, and he hailed me. When he came out he hung his chin over the top of the fence and said: "I'm goin' West."

"When?"

"To-night."

"No!"

"Yes. Will you jine me?"

"What'll it cost?" I asked.

"Forty-nine dollars, second class, from St. Louis to Denver."

"Have you got the money?"

Doc shook his head.

"Did you ever see that much money?"

"Well, not at one look, but I've got it all figured out."

"How much have you got?"

"Have n't got any, but I got a job at Whiticer's stable in Carr street, an if you 'll go I 'll see that you never want. We can sleep in the haymow and board around."

"How 'll we get to St. Louis?" I asked.

"Ride when we're tired o walkin an walk when we can't ride," was his reply.

"I'm in the silk an you're in the tassel," he added thoughtfully. "Life is all before us, but you can't get anywhere on a farm. Look at the jays around here. What do they know? They simply stand round on one foot like a gander, till the beard breaks through the freckles, and then they push the old folks off and take the plough, and in a little while get pushed off them selves. Life on a farm is one continual round of work and want. Will you jine me? "

The thought of getting up at morning and not knowing where I was going to sleep at night frightened me and I told Doc so, and so we parted.

A few years later, when the west-bound train stopped at a little bleak and dreary mountain town where I, having gone West, had elected to drop anchor, I looked out from the car window and saw Doc sitting close up to the crupper of an old sorrel horse that was hitched to an express wagon.

I went over to him at once, for I was lonesome. A mountain town is not a thing one is apt to love at first sight. Desolate. That is better than four columns of agate to describe the place. The dry March winds came out of the cañon and swept the sand of the mesa up into eddies that swished and swirled in around your collar and cut your face. The sunlight was so dazzling that it bewildered one and seemed unreal, and the cold winds were constantly contradicting its warmth.

"Are you homesick, Doc?" I asked, as I rode up town with him, for he was there to haul people and their baggage up to the hotel.

"Nop," he said, "it's the dry wind; it's busted my lip so that I look like I'm goin' to cry when I'm tryin to laugh. I'm goin back home this fall," he added, after a pause, "to get my money,—I'm twenty-one now,—but I'm comin back out here; this country is all right."

Doc, who had earned his title by doctoring his uncle's horses, had inherited a little fortune of eighteen hundred dollars, and when the summer had come and gone, he went back home in a Pullman car, for he had saved fifty dollars out of his salary of sixty dollars and board every month.

Five years later, in the dawning of the morning, as I was climbing out of an upper berth at another mountain town, a man caught hold of my coat-tail, and I found that the "man under my bed" was Doc Pippin. He said he was living in Denver; so was I, and in a few days he came in to see me. He came often and told the best stories I had ever heard. He was thin and pale, and I noticed that he coughed and pounded his left lung when he did so. These stories were not told to me for publication, but I know he will not care, for he is careless now.

Doc went to Chicago after receiving his money, and became acquainted with a well known detective. I think he said it was Billy Pinkerton. It was like the Pinkertons to detect in this almost beardless boy a remarkably intelligent person.

Pippin was offered employment; he accepted it, and was sent at once to a small town in Illinois to find out a band of thieves who were stealing hogs and robbing shops.

If Doc had tried he could never have be come a good dresser. Even clothes that were made for him did n't fit, and he wore his hat crosswise, like the leading man at a French funeral. His appearance upon this occasion was in his favor, and he was not long in forming the acquaintance of the toughest lot of loafers in the town. They liked Doc, as every one did who knew him, but it was a long time before they would trust him. Doc's money gave out and he tried to borrow, and the gang gave him the laugh. "Git out an turn a trick—work," said one of the men.

"What can I do? Show me and then watch me," said Doc.

"See that jay ridin' out o' town?" said the tough, nodding down the road where a lone horseman was going away with the sunset on his back.

"Yes."

"Well, he's goin' out to his place in the country, goes every Sat day night an' comes back Monday; hold 'im up."

Doc knew the man, as he knew nearly every man in the place, by the description given him at Chicago, and by the middle of the following week this wealthy citizen had been notified from headquarters that he would be held up on the next Saturday night. Doc was at his post, and as the lone horseman came down the road, the highwayman stepped out from the shadows of a jack oak and covered his man.

That night the gang drank up the best part of twenty-eight dollars and fifty cents, and voted Doc a dead game "toucher."

The verdancy of the gang he had to deal with made Doc's work comparatively easy. He invariably drank gin and water, and by a simple trick that a child ought to have detected—the trick of drinking the water and leaving the gin—he always kept sober.

When the proceeds of Doc's raid had been expended, together with the seven dollars received for the "jay's" watch, the gang determined to rob a hardware store. The job had been undertaken once, but had failed. The time, at Doc's suggestion, was fixed for election night. A great many farmers, he said, would be in to vote and trade, and the people being either drunk or tired would sleep soundly when once asleep; and the gang voted that Doc was a great thinker.

The time arrived, the store was entered, and when they were all in, Doc ducked down behind the counter and reached the rear end of the store. Now a big bull's-eye was turned upon the gang, who arose from their work to look down the barrels of a half dozen shot-guns. One of the gang, seeing Doc with the sheriff's party, made a play for his pistol, but the sheriff shoved his shot-gun yet nearer the robber's face and said softly, "Be quiet," and he was calm.

The next day the father of one of the gang, who was himself a hard man, made an attempt to kill the detective; and, having done his work, Doc departed. Friends of the accused hired a lawyer who made a beautiful picture of these innocent lads who had lived all their lives in this quiet country town, and who had never been guilty of a wrong until they were encouraged and trapped into it by the wicked young detective.

Alas for the criminals! One of the gang gave up to the sheriff, and by the finding of stolen goods and the property of a man who had been murdered, they were all, save the one who had weakened, sent to Joliet, where they are still receiving their mail.

Doc's remarkable success in this case encouraged the agency to send him to Southern Illinois, where he was successful in working out a mystery that had baffled the best men they had. But he refused another assignment, to the agency's surprise, and returning to the West again, entered the service of Uncle Sam as a railway postal clerk.

Finding a letter in the mail marked to me, he took his blue pencil and wrote on the back of the envelope: "Hello—Doc—R. M. S."; and I knew then that he was in the railway mail service.

It was some time after the receipt of this brief message that the meeting in the sleeping car, already referred to, occurred, and it was during his many visits to me at Denver that he related the detective stories herein re-told.

"How is it," I asked one day, "that you are assistant superintendent of mail service here in the West, when you are under thirty and new, comparatively, at the business?"

"Hard luck," said Doc, smiling sadly, coughing and thumping his chest.

Then it was that he began to tell me some of his experience in the postal car, but he did not tell it all. He was as modest as he was honest, and would not tell to me, his friend, the real tales of heroism in which he was himself the hero. He told enough, however, to interest me and cause me to find out more from a mutual friend, and to verify the information by some of the reports and correspondence which I was afterward permitted to see. I found that his loyalty, bravery, and devotion to duty had been warmly commended in autograph letters from the highest officials in the mail service.

It was, indeed, hard luck that brought him promotion and an easy place, which he could not have gained save through the kindness of higher officials. He had been in any number of wrecks, for many of the western roads were new, at that time, and railroading was not safe as it is now. Once there was a head-end collision, in which the wreck took fire. Doc was dreadfully bruised, but he had all his limbs, and as the flames crept closer and closer to his car he busied himself carrying the mail matter to a place of safety. When his work had been completed, and the flames lit up the cañon, they showed Doc lying upon his mail bags apparently dead. The trainmen found him and soon restored him to consciousness, for he had only fainted from overwork and the pain of his many wounds.

It was nearly a year before he was able to take his run again, and this time his routes lay over the Santa Fé system.

One night when the train came roaring down the canon, the engine jumped the track, the mail car went to pieces against the locomotive, the coaches piled upon the pieces, and the wreck began to burn.

When the trainmen and passengers came forward to look for "the fellows up ahead," they saw large and small envelopes sailing out of the burning débris, and they knew at once that the mail agent must be fast in the wreck. The whistle valve had been forced open, and now the wild, ceaseless cry of the wounded engine drowned all other sounds, and made it impossible for the men to hear the cries of the imprisoned postal clerk. All this he knew, and while the hungry flames were eating their way to where he lay, he pulled the register bag to him and began to shy the valuable mail out into the sagebrush.

When the steam was exhausted, and the cry of the engine had hushed, there came no sound from the engine-men, for their voices were hushed in death. Above the sound of the cracking flames they could hear Doc calling to them from his place below the wreck, and the brave train crew worked desperately right in the very face of the fire to rescue the unfortunate.

Gradually the voice of the prisoner grew fainter and fainter, and before the rescuers reached him it hushed entirely.

At last, just as they were about to give him up, as he was now apparently dead, they succeeded in dragging Doc from the wreck, and to the joy of all he soon revived. He was yet alive, but had breathed so much of the flames that his left lung was almost ruined, and he was never able to resume his place on the road.

It was this unfortunate wreck, and the story of his heroism, that gave him the important position of assistant clerk of the western division of the United States mail service when he was not yet thirty years old. It was the burn in his breast that made him cough and beat his left lung, that pinched his face and made his eyes look larger than they were. He went on silently,—almost cheerfully,—doing what he could; but we who watched knew that the hidden scar he had there was wearing his life away.

Not long ago I returned to Denver, and meeting the chief clerk in the street, asked him about Doc. I had been wandering over the face of the earth for nearly two years, and was "behind the times" as good country folk say, and now as my friend looked at me, his face took on a sadder shade and he answered slowly:—

"We buried Doc six months ago."