“California, Clapp, that’s the place, Cal-i-forn-i-a. Why with a fat ole’ grubstake we could open us up a store or mebbe even a whorehouse, ha! California that’s where the future is, son. There ain’t nuthin’ in Texas for us. Nuthin. Sooner I’m done with that crazy wife and these here brats the better. It gits so’s I kin hardly breathe sometimes. I wanna start me a new life, ’cause this old one ain’t worth a hat full o’ possum turds.”
Olson scooted his chair closer leaned real close to Clapp. “This couldn’t be no simpler, Clapp. You climb aboard the car from one end same time as I climb up on t’other end. We’ll have a pistol in one hand a sack in t’other. We tell’em straight, “all your valuables in the bag, boys and nobody gits hurt.” Then me and you skedaddle. It’ll take them dudes hours to fetch up a posse and by then me an’ you, we’ll be crossed over into Mexico free ‘n clear rich hombres. Me ‘n you’ll be wakin’ up in California in a week.
“No it don’t seem that simple to me, Oly. What if it turns out they don’t wanna give us their money and stuff? I don’t cotton to shootin’ nobody. No, sir.”
“Aw shit, it ain’t gonna be no shootin’, Clapp. Aint Mister Mackley the fuckin’ Superintendent? Damn man, he prolly don’t go nowhere without he carries hunnerds of dollars. Why I betcha his railroad watch and fob is worth a year’s pay. No sir. won’t be no shootin’, them fat cats is soft, I tell ya, they see iron and they gonna shit greenbacks, yes they will. A’fore they know what’s happened we’ll be half way to Mexico, fat, dumb and happy, boy.”
The information concerning the Superintendent’s visit had come from cripple Axle Sanderson, a telegrapher for the Pecos River Railroad. Axle, despite having been born lame with a shortened twisted leg had with his older sisters’ help learned to read and to cipher numbers. At an early age he had begun hanging around the railroad depot in Pecos. His voluntary sweeping of the station’s floors, emptying spittoons, and cleaning the privies earned him the attention and friendship of the station master, Elwood Green, a retired lawman, who took Axel under his wing, taught him telegraphy, and eventually hired the boy. From childhood Axel’s best friend had been his neighbor Jenny Olson. As he and Jenny grew so did their affection for one another. Jenny’s father, Niles Olson was a notorious drunkard, thief, wife beater, and all ’round sonofabitch. Though Axel hated Niles he feared older man on account of Niles’s temper and the plain fact that he could easily prevent him from seeing his sweetheart. Axel grew to hate Jenny’s father as much as he loved her, but inwardly felt powerless before him.
Around Pecos Niles Olson was considered trash. Years earlier he’d worked at the stockyard but had been let go after the night man caught him loading sacks of stolen grain in a wagon. But for the sake of his poor wife and daughters who had the pity of the whole town he would have been arrested. As no merchant or rancher would hire the thief, he was reduced to scratching out a living by grubbing sacks of salt peter and sulfur from diggings out in the Chihuahuan desert with. B. M. Clapp. Slow of wit B. M. Clapp easily fell under the sway of glib Olson who had befriended him as much for the fact that Clapp owned two burros as for his easy control over the man. With a sack of pinto beans and water bags the two would trek to diggings twenty miles from Pecos where they’d pick as much mineral as the burros could carry or until the mescal ran out. It was a mean life but about the only option available for a thief and a fool to eek out a living.
Young Axel made it a point to visit Jenny at least once a week as much for the benefit of Jenny’s mother and two sisters who lived sorry lives under the thumb of their father. In a beating one February Niles had broken his wife’s wrist and blackened both eyes. Drunk, he had thrashed poor Lena Olson savagely with a razor strop because there had been no bacon for his supper.
One night Axel had overheard Jenny’s father as he and B. M. Clapp in a drunken ramble on the front porch discussed schemes for fast money and getaway far from Pecos. Poor dumb Clapp sat listening to Niles who was all het up to rob a train. The chance for easy money and escape from tedium and responsibility was pulling hard at Niles Olson who readily convinced the simpleton B. M. Clapp that ease and fortune were waiting out there for men bold enough to act.
One afternoon in May when Niles was in the desert Axel brought Mrs. Olson a slab of bacon and a sack of corn meal. But later that afternoon Niles came in from the diggings sober and in a rare pleasant mood and had asked Axel to stay for supper.
“Some big doin’s comin’ to Pecos, Mr. Olson.”
“Oh yeah, how’s that?”
“Special car comin’ down with Mr. Mackey, the Superintendent. Mr. Mackey he’s comin’ to Pecos in his own special railroad coach with a bunch of big shots to attend Mr. Green’s daughter’s wedding.”
“Oh yeah? So when’s this gonna be, son?”
“This Saturday. But, Mr. Olson, it’s a secret, so please don’t let on to no one. Ain’t anybody s’pose to know. I reckon on accounta they’ll be bringin’ the payroll along on the same special car.”
“Secret’s safe with me, boy. Pass them hoe cakes over this way.”
Niles Olson’s plan was simple. Trains coming into Pecos took on water at the tower at the bend in the river two miles from town. As soon as the train stopped he and B. M Clapp would enter the Superintendent’s car from each end wearing bandanas across their faces and with pistols drawn. Niles would command everyone to squat down on the floor and cover the Superintendent and any guests with him while B. M. Clapp would collect wallets, watches, and rings in a flour sack. Niles would threaten to shoot the Superintendent if he didn’t give up the payroll.
In the early morning dark Captain John Little and Willy Lopez hopped down from the slow moving car to take a piss and stretch their legs just before the train came to a stop beneath the water tower. While the men relieved themselves they overheard from the other side of the coach Niles Olsen telling B. M. Clapp to ” Now remember, hold the damn pistol up like you mean business, ya big dummy. Now let’s rob this fuckin’ train, partner!” Creeping under the car they watched as the robbers stuck their pistols in their belts to tie bandanas across their faces.
“Willy, take fatso at your end; I’ll get stumpy here.”
In a flash it was over. Niles Olson and B. M. Clapp entered Pecos early that morning handcuffed together with their flour sacks over their heads wearing only their underwear, their pants and boots carried under their arms on their march from the depot to the jail. Willy Lopez advised the sheriff that taking away prisoners’ boots and pants, greatly lessened the chance of escape, and oh my, didn’t the folks on main street enjoy such a parade.
Even though that was ten years ago everyone in Pecos remembers that Saturday because that was the day of Jack Green’s daughter Lotte’s and Averil Hauptman’s wedding, the biggest and best wedding Pecos had ever seen. Averil and Lotte were married on the platform at the Pecos River Railroad Depot where Jack’s old father was station master. For twenty-two years old Mr. Green had been a Texas Ranger and earlier on the morning of the wedding the special car the Superintendent had personally loaned to Company B of the Texas Rangers arrived with twelve invited friends, all Rangers of old Mr. Green’s company, come for the wedding and Jack’s retirement ceremony. Adding to the excitement of the wedding had been their arrest of two train robbers. At the wedding old Mr. Green announced his retirement and read aloud the confirming telegram from the Superintendent appointing Mr. Axel Sanderson the new station master of the Pecos River Railroad.
Interestingly, one year later Mr. Sanderson and Jenny Olson were married on the very same platform. Old Jack Green gave the bride away in place of her father Mr. Niles Olson, indisposed by a twenty year prison sentence for attempted train robbery.
© Gary Ives