Western Short Story
Jocko Carnes slipped down off the top of the freight car onto the rear deck of the passenger car and did not see the man standing in the evening shadows.
“That’s a novel way of travel, son,” the man said to Jocko. “I wouldn’t want to slip off and get pulled under the wheels.”
“No way, mister. I done this way plenty of times. Cheap as it can get.”
Then the stranger said to Jocko, “Are you part of the gang that has robbed thus train?”
“What the hell are you talking about:”
“Just what I said. Some gang has robbed this train and thrown stuff off the side of the train from the freight cars, and right onto the side of the tracks, and I don’t know how many times, or what they threw off, but they must have some reason for it. I’m guessing some of it must be valuable.”
“That’s their business, not ours.”
The stranger said, “We can make it ours, if I pay you to search back along the tracks for 30 or 40 miles, I’ll pay the price for your work, give you $100 right now and $100 for every piece of value you come up with. Is that a good deal or not?”
Jocko blurted out, “I’m hired! I’m hired!”
The stranger said, “My name is Edward Sloan. I make investments for people. I’m making an investment for me and you, 50-50, is that okay?”
“Pleased to meet you, Edward Sloan,” said Jocko. lighted up with glee at the opportunity.
“How do you get a horse and saddle to get going?”
“No problem there, Edward Sloan. I have a saddle back in a freight car and I’ll saddle up a horse and when the train slows down some place, I’ll jump him off. Should be easy enough. How do I get in touch with you after I find something?”
“The next town in Cedarville with a nice hotel and I’ll get a room there and wait no more than two weeks to hear from you. Should be enough time and, if not, you already have $100.” He added, “Drive a couple of spikes into a track-bed timber five steps off the spikes, on the side of the tracks where you bury what you find if you’re not able to carry it on the horse. The driven spikes should be easy enough to find.”
They parted as employer and employee.
As he projected, Jocko Carnes saddled up one of the horses in a freight car full of horses in transport, and when the train slowed near a water pump, he jumped with the horse from the freight car and disappeared into a trailside wooded section. Once he was out of sight of the train, he rode each side of the tracks checking for tossed goods. Soon he had several rifles, a mix of handguns, two wallets stuffed with green stuff,
Nothing was much of an interest until he found a small safe down one embankment, still tight as it was meant to be. He drove the two spikes, as instructed, and then buried the small but still tight safe right off the tracks, at a five-step mark. He figured the safe was going to be the crème de menthe of the take. The cumbersome rifles and assortment of handguns, as if an army was eventually going to be armed.
The big surprise for Jocko was a second safe, slightly bigger than the first one, and he quickly began to get it buried, and the spot marked by two spikes, and the coming green tickling his hands already. “Sloan,” he thought, “has made a good investment for us, even if he is a stranger that I have to keep my eye on when we meet up.”
He found wallets, women’s purses, sundry pieces of valuable odds and ends of the showcase variety, and began, by need, to amass found pieces in common burials, also so marked by the spikes, each pair driven into a track timber almost to their heads, but out far enough as suitable markers and easy to spot.
He kept hearing a voice in his head saying things like, “I wonder why he picked on this train? Does he know something special? Is he on the inside there also, but on his own, a one-man plotter, robber, stealer, but with a pard? Hell, I wish I knew what he really is up to. If those safes aren’t loaded with green-backs, big bundles of big bills, it won’t put him much ahead of himself, though it’s doing me a solid good turn for a common digger like Jocko Carnes, late of one tight little jail that couldn’t hold me for a damned whole weekend.”
In such a manner, Jocko entertained himself with a barrage of questions and surmised answers to keep his searches constant, kept him alert to the mission, and every now and then checking his ration of spikes. He sure couldn’t carry all the goods he was finding on the rail side. There had to be a dozen men robbing the train’s passengers, and he could imagine some women having their purses, pocketbooks, and personal baggage tossed off the train for miles atop miles. It was never heard of before.
“At least,” Jocko admitted, “I never heard of it being done.” But he realized he had been in so many jails that he might have missed a whole new state being born. Times, and new deals, were being changed, and affixed to everyday standings, He was in part of it, being his own small chunk of history.
Every now and then he could swell himself, be bigger than he really was. It was the way one might pay his dues in this world. At such times, he also remembered that he’d meet with Sloan in a short while in Cedarville where he’d most certainly get a good night’s sleep and a decent payback for all his labors, he hoped. Jocko laughed himself silly vert he thought of his learning course u=in carpentry training now underway. It was good to lighten one’s self, get real for a change.
But the association with Sloan, still an absolute stranger for all the findings and spiking he’d done. It was in this mood that he determined he’d best check Sloan out in Cedarville, after he cleared his own tracks of certain conditions; he turned loose his stolen horse, bought another horse from a rancher on the move to new territory, and slipped into Cedarville in the evening shadows, put his new horse in a horse barn at the edge of town, and began a sly watch on the Cedarville Manse Rooms and the Three Trees Saloon.
He spotted Sloan leaving the hotel and entering the saloon. He pictured himself as he was now, different clothes, different hat, and a full beard that was all of three weeks older, and darker. He decided he had a different image, and with caution could spend some time in the saloon, if he kept a low profile. He put himself at the end of the long bar, as far as he could get from Sloan.
Sloan, in a poker game at one corner table, did not even look up when he entered the saloon, the table filled with cards and money and the flash of hands and toss of cards.
The barkeep said, “Howdy, mister, what’ll you have. You look thirsty. What direction you come from?”
“From due north,” Jocko replied.”
“Then I guess you got no news on the train robbery.”
“What train, where and when, sounds like somebody stole a whole train.”
“Practly,” answered the barkeep, but nobody knows what they did with the stuff they stole, you name it and they took it, everything from women’s purses to safes as big as a rock, and no sight yet of anything turning up, at least not here in the nearest town.”
“Oh, it happened here, right in this town?” His surprise was elegant, on full display.
“Nope. Not here but along the whole route of the rails, and nobody sure of anything directly, but done good.” He nodded his head in admiration.
Jocko went right back at him. “You mean they stole a bunch of stuff and nobody knows what and how much and they ain’t seen none of it yet?”
“Not much any of us can do, What the hell would you do?”
“First I’d do is join the posse.”
The barkeep yelled across the saloon, “Hey, Sheriff, here’s your first volunteer for the posse. Came from up north of us.” H turned to jocko and said, “What’s your name, fella?”
“Name is Gordy Means, pleased to meet ya.” His smile was still working, but now he was out in the open in the Three Trees Saloon.
He did not look at Sloan at the card table, but could feel his eyes on him, but the man was composed as ever, even as he win a big hand, groans all around the table otherwise. In that flushed moment, Sloan managed to raise his eyes upward, like at the next floor at the Cedarville Manse Rooms right next door.
It was a firm order.
In that bared moment, Jocko never let Sloan know that before he came into town, he had moved every spike ten feet away from the original marking, and smiled inwardly, as Sloan jumped up and said, as he pointed his finger at Jocko, “That’s the man I told you about, Sheriff, the one who I saw on the train and who stole a horse.”
But he said nothing about another man he’d just sent that day to move the spikes from their locations, and chop a nick in those same railroad ties.
To this day, the railroad heist has never been solved, Jocko Carnes dying later in the penitentiary where he could not break out, not in a half dozen tries.