SUNSET STORIES : NUMBER TWENTY-FIVE
“Where is he now, if that isn’t too stupid a question?”
“We’ve no idea, sir. There are lots of rumours. Some say he has a hideout way south of here. Others claim he’s up in Montana. Then there are those who reckon he spends most of his time in the East and comes out here only when he has a job in mind. Truth is he could be just about anywhere. Needles and haystacks come to mind.”
“Yes, they do. Still, the chance of this sort of plunder might bring him out. You know, when I consider all that money, I sometimes get improper ideas.”
“So do I. It makes a man think.”
“Well, this is no way for men in our position to be talking.”
“No, sir. I reckon not.”
The first speaker was Lieutenant Richard Ames of the U.S. Army, the second, his immediate subordinate, Sergeant Michael McMahon. The subject of their conversation was the outlaw Conrad Perry and the reason they were interested in him was that Sergeant McMahon was about to select a detachment of six men, led by a corporal, to escort a consignment of bullion, coin and banknotes south to Santa Fe. Perry had several times demonstrated an uncanny ability to locate money on the move, so it had been deemed sensible to take every precaution.
The army didn’t make a habit of doing this kind of work, but it happened that the local commanding officer was a friend of Hugh Jennings, joint head of the mighty Jennings & Reid Construction Company, which was about to embark on a big expansion programme, to be administered by its southern office in New Mexico. The consignment was the first of two, intended to finance the plan. It was not strictly necessary for such large sums to be transferred that way, but Jennings and his partner Donald Reid had satisfied themselves that the step was appropriate on this occasion. Jennings frequently spent evenings with the local army chief, Colonel Sampson, and had mentioned that he was about to employ a private agency to accompany the money. The colonel had offered to provide soldiers to do the job and Jennings had been pleased and relieved to accept.
Of all the unusual characters living on the wrong side of the law in the West, probably none was odder than Conrad Perry. To some, he was a common bandit. That was only partly true. He was a bandit all right, but far from common. His crimes were characterised by such finesse and audacity that they engendered, even among the forces of law and order, more admiration than opprobrium.
There were those who considered Perry an ethical thief, as no one was ever killed during his exploits and only one person – a young man who accidentally got in the way – had been injured, slightly and inadvertently, and not by Perry but by an associate. Even so, the master organiser considered the incident a blot on his escutcheon, since it was an article of faith with him that no one should be maltreated during his escapades. He would have abandoned a job rather than break that rule. In the case of the injured man, Perry had surreptitiously returned a large part of his loot to the family concerned.
A strange man in many ways, Perry was a thinker and planner who could have made his mark by legitimate efforts. He was intensely interested in mathematics, physics and chemistry, this analytical trait accounting for the meticulous preparation and execution of his capers. He was a reclusive fellow, preferring his own company to that of others. Only one man ever got close to him. That was Sam Elliot, who had worked with Perry several times and who usually served as his link with the outside world. This was necessary, for Perry’s physical description was as well known as his deeds, and equally distinctive. Five foot seven, slim-built and fair-haired, had a pronounced limp and a livid three-inch scar on the left side of his face, both features the result of a boyhood accident.
Perry would have trusted Elliot with his life anytime, and had done so more than once, but that confidence didn’t extend to anyone else. Elliot, a tall thin fellow with black hair and a straggly moustache, was responsible for passing information to Perry, who rarely dared to show himself, except when he had work to do. For his part, Elliot would have faced any hazard in Perry’s company. He realised that, though he had nerves of steel and a fair measure of intelligence, he lacked the creative spark which characterised his friend. So he provided the news and Perry decided what, if anything, was to be done.
For Conrad Perry, the whole thing was a game, his misdeeds being more a challenge to his ingenuity than a route to wealth, for which he had no great regard. On account of his instantly recognisable appearance, the fleshpots would have been out of bounds to him, even if he’d had any taste for them. He enjoyed comfortable living as much as the next man, but preferred it in solitude.
In order to find a lifestyle that matched his necessarily circumscribed movements, Perry had found a hideaway in New Mexico. It was a remarkable place, a side canyon, accessed from its larger neighbour only via a rock fissure wide enough for one man and a horse to ride through. Though Perry had long had a vague hope of finding something of the sort, he’d usually thought of the idea as a pipe dream, so considered himself lucky to have come upon the spot.
Fastidious about his wellbeing, Perry had bought a freight wagon and team, loaded everything he would need for some time, then driven to his prospective lair. With Elliot’s help, he had moved the supplies through the narrow crack and set about making himself comfortable. Elliot had driven the wagon away and kept it for further use. Perry, a good workman, built a home, using the stone around him and the timber, tools and explosives he had brought.
The anchorite lifestyle had drawbacks. There was neither woodland nor game around, and Perry had to set about drilling for water, as the nearest surface source entailed too much hauling. However, he had food, wine, brandy and cigars, plus his precious books, and the place was a safe haven. Elliot would bring in further supplies as needed and his partner would emerge when there was a job in prospect. Sergeant McMahon had been right in saying that anyone seeking Conrad Perry would have a difficult time.
In the course of their earlier activities, Perry and Elliot had made the acquaintance of the scheduling manager of the Colorado & Southern Railroad. Having concluded that the man was no more honest than strictly necessary, Perry had made him a proposition. If the manager were ever able to supply beneficial information, he would be amply rewarded. There was nothing niggardly about Perry. He gave the railroad employee five hundred dollars as a token of good faith.
Nothing happened for eight months and when he could be bothered to think about it, Perry wondered whether he had wasted his money, though that caused him no concern. Then one day Sam Elliot arrived at the hideout. The railroad man had news of the Jennings & Reid consignment. The sum involved was rumoured to be seventy thousand dollars. The scheduling manager would be interested to know what was in it for him if he supplied full details. He needed to know quickly. Perry sent Elliot back with the news that if a robbery seemed feasible, which Perry would decide after reconnaissance, the railroad man could count on receiving ten per cent of the take.
Moving fast, Elliot returned to the hideout with the news that the terms were acceptable. The consignment was to be moved in ten days and was to leave on the morning train from Gainsboro, travelling south to the Colorado & Southern’s terminus at Dalton’s Brook, where the transfer for the run to Santa Fe would take place. Of the six-man escort, one would be behind the tender, one among the paying passengers and the other four with the guard in his caboose.
There was no point in considering any attack between Dalton’s Brook and Santa Fe because the trains that ran between the two places were usually crowded and often used by troops. If a raid was practicable at all, it would have to be before the consignment was transferred.
Six days before the proposed movement, Sam Elliot arrived in Gainsboro, accompanied by a man on crutches, face swathed in bandages. It was an adequate disguise for Conrad Perry, who early the following day introduced himself to the depot manager as a New York newspaper reporter, commissioned to write a series of articles about communications in the West. Unfortunately, he’d had an accident, but intended to complete his assignment. He found a kindred spirit in the manager, a railroad enthusiast who was delighted to answer his questions.
Having travelled up from Dalton’s Brook, Perry had studied the geography. Now he acquainted himself with the timetable, which could hardly have been simpler. There was one train a day in each direction, the morning one leaving Gainsboro at eleven o’clock. The trains were capable of maintaining a speed of well over thirty miles an hour, but the terrain made that impossible for part of the way, so the journey of a hundred and eighteen miles took five hours. The return train from Dalton’s Brook arrived in Gainsboro exactly twelve hours after the morning departure. The composition and length of both trains were constant, comprising locomotive and tender, one passenger car, two boxcars and the caboose.
The sham journalist was particularly interested in safety, and went to great pains to establish the braking distance of the train, especially in an emergency. He asked many other questions, most of them irrelevant to his plans, but music to the ears of the depot manager. Thanking the man profusely, Perry left him, staying the night in the town’s only hotel.
The following day, Perry and Elliot left Gainsboro on the morning train. Armed with mental notes from his two journeys, Perry had considered the lie of the land, which wasn’t too promising, but did have possibilities. The area he felt most worthy of his attention was a stretch of serrated country where the track was carried across chasms and rivers by five trestle bridges. He rejected the three over dry land, but the two spanning waterways were interesting. Conveniently for his purpose, both were within thirty miles of Dalton’s Brook.
By the time the train reached its southern terminus, Perry had the outline of a scheme in mind. “I think I have a plan,” he said to Elliot as the two disembarked, “but I’d like another man. He’ll need to be active and he’d better be able to swim. Any ideas?”
Elliot rubbed his jaw for a while. “Yes,” he said finally, “There’s Tom Bean.”
“Tom?” Perry answered in surprise. “I thought he was in jail.”
“He was,” Elliot replied. “He got out two months ago. They released him early – for good conduct, if you can believe that.”
Perry laughed. “It takes some imagination,” he said. “I always thought that Tom Bean and reasonable behaviour went together like milk and vinegar. Anyway, he’s the right man for this kind of game. Can you get him, quick?”
“Probably. I guess we could have him here by tomorrow night, if I start now.”
“Good. Do that. We have a little riding ahead of us.”
The conversation between Perry and Elliot had taken place on a Monday evening. As good as his word, Elliot returned to Dalton’s Brook on the Tuesday night, bringing with him Tom Bean, a slim, middle-sized, bearded man and a rapscallion who didn’t give a damn about anything or anybody. However, once having agreed to do a job, he was totally reliable. This satisfied Perry, who had decided to include a third man because he was not as energetic as he once had been, and saw no reason to overtax himself. After all, he was in business for art’s sake more than anything else. Bean wasn’t essential, but he would be a helpful addition. Among other things, he could do much of the donkey work.
During Elliot’s absence, Perry had been busy. Still using his disguise, he had bought a packhorse and a mysterious assortment of items, some of which puzzled his companions. The great planner, who had a well-developed dramatic sense, would not be drawn, saying that he would reveal all at the right time. Bean was nonplussed, but Elliot, who had experience of Perry’s mental gymnastics, merely smiled. He had every confidence in his wily partner.
During the night, Perry finally disposed of the crutches and bandages, and the three men left Dalton’s Brook before dawn on the Wednesday, riding as far as possible parallel with the railroad. By noon, they reached the first of the five bridges. Perry was not interested in that one. The second was four miles further north and there he called a halt. He dismounted and wandered around for over an hour, examining the surroundings, then he left his companions, crossed the bridge on foot and carried out a careful inspection of the far side before returning to stand gazing down at the river for a further half-hour. During all that time, he said nothing.
The country was rugged. Approaching from the north, the train would run through a cleft which had been blasted out of the rock, cross the bridge and run into another opening, similar to that at the northern side. The bridge, a hundred and forty feet in length, crossed the water at a height of around fifty feet. The gorge formed a shallow U shape, the river being more than a hundred feet wide. Over a width of several feet on both sides, the water was lined with jumbled rocks, some deposited naturally, others the result of the construction crew’s blasting. The steep sides of the declivity precluded access from the top, other than by rope. There was a stand of trees half a mile east of the bridge, the only other vegetation being the tenacious bushes clinging to the sides of the gorge.
“What do you think, Con?” asked Elliot, breaking the long silence.
Perry rested his chin on a fist. “It’s not perfect,” he answered, “but I think it comes pretty close. Just follow me, boys, and don’t talk for a minute. I need to do some counting.” Starting at the southern end of the bridge, Perry paced slowly southwards along the track. After a minute or so, he stopped. “Right, Tom,” he said to Bean. “This’ll be your first job. I’ll tell you how to go about it.” He explained what he wanted done, then turned again, making for the horses. “Next thing is we need some of that wood yonder. It’s going to be a help to us that it’s upriver. We’ll just ride over and take a look.”
Fifteen minutes later, the three men were standing in the welcome shade of the stand of pines. Perry looked over the timber, nodded, then walked the hundred yards to the river bank. He came back, smiling broadly. “Couldn’t be better,” he said. “There’s a spot over there where the ground’s broken away and it’s only about twenty feet down to the water. Now we can get started.”
Elliot grinned. “I swear, Con, you should have been on the stage, or maybe writing novels. You’ve got imagination enough for three normal men.”
“I like to see a problem, think things out, then present my conclusions without explaining the steps between. Makes it all look like magic. This time, I’ll go into the details shortly. Now, remember one thing, boys. Nobody gets hurt.”
Bean looked startled. “What do you mean?” he asked. “Seems to me if we run into opposition, somebody might catch a little lead.”
“No, Tom. I believe we can overcome any resistance by using our heads. What we can’t do with brains, we’re not going to do with bullets. If we have to call this off, I’ll compensate you. We may have to threaten violence, but we don’t carry it out. You’d better be clear about that.”
“Okay, don’t get excited,” Bean replied. “You’re the boss.”
Moving to the packhorse, Perry unstrapped its load, dumped four bundles onto the ground and opened them. One long package contained an assortment of carpentry tools. Another had in it three lengths of rope, a can of grease and, of all things, a megaphone. A third had a short pole, a flat length of wood, a crowbar and a box of dynamite, and the fourth had a small empty keg with a round hole drilled through the bottom and a matching one in the lid. “Now,” said Perry, “I think you’ve both been patient enough. I’ll go through what I have in mind, then we’ll set things up.” He revealed his plan.
Shortly before three o’clock on a blazing hot afternoon, the train from Gainsboro, travelling at less than twenty miles an hour, emerged from the cleft in the rocks and began to rumble across the bridge. Seconds later there was an explosion up ahead and a mass of rock and rubble crashed down onto the track. Sparks flew as the brakes were applied.
It was a close run thing, the cowcatcher only three or four feet from the debris when the train stopped. Well east of the track, crouching among the bushes and in line with the southern end of the bridge, Conrad Perry inspected his handiwork. It wasn’t absolutely right, but good enough. The plan had been to have the train stop with only the caboose remaining on the bridge and the other rolling stock on terra firma at the south side. As it was, the coupling forward of the caboose and nine or ten feet of the rear boxcar hadn’t made it. Still, there was plenty of weight up front to keep everything in place for the next stage of the operation.
As Perry had expected, there was no instant reaction from inside the train. The occupants would be trying to come to terms with the shock. Picking up the megaphone, he went into action. “You, in the caboose,” he bawled. “Open the door and tell me who’s in charge there. Speak up, and be quick.”
The door opened slightly and a voice, less than stentorian but clear, reached Perry. “I’m Corporal Simmons, U.S. Army. I lead this detachment.”
“Good. Now, I’ll keep this short because you don’t have much time. I want the guard to stay where he is, and the four of you to throw your weapons out, then get down to the track, now.”
“How come you know there are four of us?”
“Never mind that. There’s a charge of dynamite under you and you’ll need to move fast.”
“What if I refuse?”
“You’ll be blown up. Listen, Corporal, you’re army trained. You don’t need me to remind you that your first duty is the safety of your men. If you don’t do as I say, and hurry it up, you’ll be committing suicide. You may have the right to kill yourself, but not the others.”
Perry was right. That was the corporal’s weak spot. If he got his men out, they might live to fight another day. If he didn’t and they were all killed, it would be his fault, even though he would go, too. He realised that Perry might be bluffing, but what if he wasn’t? Simmons reached his decision in less than a minute. The door opened wide, four rifles were dropped to the track and the soldiers jumped down. Perry realised that they might have retained some firepower and that his cover wasn’t bullet-proof. He picked up the megaphone again. “You did the right thing, Corporal. There are guns pointing at you. I don’t want to kill you if I don’t have to. Now get your men up forward with the others. And stay there.”
The troopers clumped along the track to join their two comrades, the train crew and the handful of passengers. As they moved off, the guard yelled out to Perry. “What about me, mister? I don’t want to get killed.”
“You won’t be, if you do as you’re told,” Perry answered. “I want you to uncouple the caboose from the boxcar, then you can go. You have a minute and a half.”
The frantic guard didn’t need that much time. He scuttled off and released the coupling. “It’s done,” he shouted.
“Good. Get moving – and tell everybody to keep well clear.” The guard ran off. Now it was time for stage three. There was indeed a charge of dynamite fixed to the bridge, directly beneath the caboose. That was the reason why Tom Bean was under there, clinging to the trestle-work.
At Perry’s shout, Bean lit the fuse, then slithered down the rope he’d tied to the bridge. Reaching the riverside, he scrambled westwards to where the three men had moored a raft, made from the stand of trees. It was a small but workmanlike job, with a pole for fending off obstacles and a simple, stout rudder, next to which was mounted a contraption dreamed up by Perry. This consisted of a short log, nailed perpendicular to the raft timbers and coated with grease around the top and bottom. The barrel, with holes in lid and base, had been lowered over the log, to form a drum, rotatable by means of a short plank nailed across the top, off-centre. A long coil of rope wound around the outside made the apparatus a crude winch.
The troopers had not been completely idle. One of them began to clamber up the pile of fallen rocks, trying to worm his way into an advantageous position. This was where Sam Elliot came in. He had taken his rifle and positioned himself high above the northern end of the bridge, where he had a clear view of the train. The soldier had been climbing for no more than twenty seconds when Elliot bracketed him with two warning bullets, both hitting the rocks within a foot of his body. The man instantly scuttled back to join the others. “It’s no use,” he said to Corporal Simmons. “We’re sitting ducks for this fellow.”
As Tom Bean got clear of the bridge, Perry waited. Bean reached the raft two minutes after lighting the fuse. The instant he climbed aboard, the second explosion came. Perry ducked. “Now we’ll see what gravity can do,” he muttered. He’d used a big charge and it worked as planned. A thirty-foot length of the southern end of the bridge was destroyed. As the mangled woodwork gave way, the caboose crashed through to splinter on the riverside rocks, exactly as Perry had envisaged.
Now there was no time to lose. Perry moved back to the rope he had fixed to a bush, lowering himself swiftly to the riverside, taking a few scratches on the way. Splashing through the shallow water, he joined Tom Bean. “I’d say it’s going all right so far,” he said.
“Even better than you thought,” Bean replied. “The strongbox got thrown clear. See it yonder?”
“Yes, and that’s a bonus. I hoped it might happen, but couldn’t be sure. I thought we might have to poke around in what was left of the caboose, or maybe even do some serious underwater work, but all it needs is a little dive. Now, you go and attach the line and we’ll haul in the money.” Bean waded off, unspooling the rope. The makeshift winch proved useful. With Perry turning the capstan bar at one end and Bean pushing and guiding the strongbox at the other, it took less than five minutes for the two to get the heavy metal container aboard the raft. Bean freed the mooring rope and the drift downstream began.
Sam Elliot had drawn the easy part of the job. His role had been to stop any interference. He finished his work by loosing off a volley of shots, his bullets spanging off the rocks, well above the train’s occupants, but close enough to ensure that they would stay quiet for a while, then he hurried off to his horse. Because of the lie of the land’s contours, he had to cover four miles to meet his partners, who had to float less than half that distance, to where they’d left their mounts.
By the time Elliot arrived, Perry and Bean had opened the box and were surveying the contents. “How’d we do?” said Elliot.
“Fine,” Perry answered. “I reckon there’s as much here we figured.”
“Wonderful. I got to take my hat off to you, Con. Sheer magic. Man, you have a hell of a mind.”
Bean, who had never before worked so closely with Perry, was entranced. “Yeah, Con,” he said. “You sure are a brilliant organiser. Just tell us again. How did you think it all up?”
“Well, we’ll have to be moving on pretty soon, but I guess we can take a short rest. Now, you know how I work. First, I avoid gun battles. They’re crude and they cause casualties. I don’t like that. Then I try to find where the other side has a weakness. I didn’t see much chance of a successful attack in open country because the trains usually move too quickly there, but I thought the bridges were more promising. I didn’t like the looks of the three over dry land because in each case the contours would have made a getaway awkward. That left the other two, and you’ll remember that the water under one of them was quite a torrent and too deep for our purpose. So, this was the only place where I thought we could pull it off.
“I found out how long the train would be and how quickly it could stop in an emergency. I also got our helpful depot manager in Gainsboro to confirm my assumption that trains on this line slow down when they’re approaching bridges and never stop on them unless that’s unavoidable – too much potential danger there. When we arrived back yonder, I paced out the distance beyond the bridge, so the train would stop, leaving just the caboose to crash down after the explosion. It turned out close to my expectation. We were lucky that the strongbox fell clear, but because the water was fairly shallow, the plan would have worked anyway. It would have just taken a little longer and might have involved a short dive for Tom. I figured that with the soldiers pinned down, we’d have time to get the money and float it away.”
Elliot chuckled. “You can call it what you like, but I say it’s wizardry. ’Course, those boys back there won’t wait for ever. We’d better get going.”
Bean started laughing. “Oh, my, Conrad Perry,” he said. “It’s a pleasure working with you.” His mirth was infectious and within seconds, partially out of triumph and partially from sheer relief, the three desperadoes were all convulsed with near- hysterical laughter. They were still splitting their sides when two rifles cracked from a tangle of bushes sixty yards away, the bullets bracketing the trio, spewing up dust and rock splinters. “Hands high,” came a shout, as two uniformed men marched up.
“Who the hell are you?” said Bean.
“Never mind that,” answered the man in officer’s dress. “Just shed the guns, take off your coats, shirts, pants and boots get onto that raft.”
As they were not in a position to argue, the bandits complied. When they were afloat, Perry spread his hands in resignation. “Okay, you’ve got us fair and square,” he said, “but I’d appreciate an explanation.”
The officer smiled. “Well, I think a man as smart as Conrad Perry is entitled to that. We’ve been watching you ever since you showed up in Gainsboro.”
“I’m afraid your choice of associates was faulty. That railroad man you trusted is a cousin of my partner here. Maybe blood is thicker than water. Anyway, your man lost his nerve and tipped us off, so we’ve been watching you all the way, mostly with field glasses. Even saw you building that raft. It was clear you intended to take it downstream, so we just kept you under observation. We reckoned this would be a likely spot, but that didn’t matter because we could have picked you up almost anywhere after you left the bridge.”
Perry rubbed his forehead. “Well,” he said, “I hope I’m a fair enough man to know when I’ve been outwitted. But why? I mean, you could have got us back there.”
“We have our reasons. Now, you have transportation, so move.”
“I don’t get this. Why aren’t you taking us in? You’re army men, aren’t you?”
As Perry spoke, the two soldiers were doffing their uniforms, revealing civilian clothes underneath. “Not exactly,” came the reply. “From the moment we saw that strongbox, there was no more Lieutenant Ames or Sergeant McMahon. We’re just plain folk now. We have different names and you’re free. By the way, your railroad man will get his fair share.” He fished in a pocket, produced a gold coin and tossed it to Perry. “Use that to buy some new clothes,” he said, “I told you to go. There’s a fairish current here, so if you’re not way downriver within two minutes, I’ll open fire on you.”
Without further comment, the crestfallen train robbers departed.
* * *