Holding up a Train

by O. Henry

Note.  The man who told me these things was for sev­eral years an out­law in the South­west and a fol­lower of the pur­suit he so frankly de­scribes. His de­scrip­tion of the modus operandi should prove in­ter­est­ing, his coun­sel of value to the po­ten­tial pas­sen­ger in some fu­ture “hold-up,” while his es­ti­mate of the plea­sures of train rob­bing will hardly in­duce any one to adopt it as a pro­fes­sion. I give the story in al­most ex­actly his own words.
O. H.

Most peo­ple would say, if their opin­ion was asked for, that hold­ing up a train would be a hard job. Well, it isn’t; it’s easy. I have con­tributed some to the un­easi­ness of rail­roads and the in­som­nia of ex­press com­pa­nies, and the most trou­ble I ever had about a hold-up was in being swin­dled by un­scrupu­lous peo­ple while spend­ing the money I got. The dan­ger wasn’t any­thing to speak of, and we didn’t mind the trou­ble.
One man has come pretty near rob­bing a train by him­self; two have suc­ceeded a few times; three can do it if they are hus­tlers, but five is about the right num­ber. The time to do it and the place de­pend upon sev­eral things.
The first “stick-up” I was ever in hap­pened in 1890. Maybe the way I got into it will ex­plain how most train rob­bers start in the busi­ness. Five out of six West­ern out­laws are just cow­boys out of a job and gone wrong. The sixth is a tough from the East who dresses up like a bad man and plays some low-down trick that gives the boys a bad name. Wire fences and “nesters” made five of them; a bad heart made the sixth.
Jim S–––– and I were work­ing on the 101 Ranch in Col­orado. The nesters had the cow­man on the go. They had taken up the land and elected of­fi­cers who were hard to get along with. Jim and I rode into La Junta one day, going south from a round-up. We were hav­ing a lit­tle fun with­out mal­ice to­ward any­body when a farmer ad­min­is­tra­tion cut in and tried to har­vest us. Jim shot a deputy mar­shal, and I kind of cor­rob­o­rated his side of the ar­gu­ment. We skir­mished up and down the main street, the boomers hav­ing bad luck all the time. After a while we leaned for­ward and shoved for the ranch down on the Ceriso. We were rid­ing a cou­ple of horses that couldn’t fly, but they could catch birds.
A few days after that, a gang of the La Junta boomers came to the ranch and wanted us to go back with them. Nat­u­rally, we de­clined. We had the house on them, and be­fore we were done re­fus­ing, that old ‘dobe was plumb full of lead. When dark came we fagged ’em a batch of bul­lets and shoved out the back door for the rocks. They sure smoked us as we went. We had to drift, which we did, and rounded up down in Ok­la­homa.
Well, there wasn’t any­thing we could get there, and, being mighty hard up, we de­cided to trans­act a lit­tle busi­ness with the rail­roads. Jim and I joined forces with Tom and Ike Moore—two broth­ers who had plenty of sand they were will­ing to con­vert into dust. I can call their names, for both of them are dead. Tom was shot while rob­bing a bank in Arkansas; Ike was killed dur­ing the more dan­ger­ous pas­time of at­tend­ing a dance in the Creek Na­tion.
We se­lected a place on the Santa Fé where there was a bridge across a deep creek sur­rounded by heavy tim­ber. All pas­sen­ger trains took water at the tank close to one end of the bridge. It was a quiet place, the near­est house being five miles away. The day be­fore it hap­pened, we rested our horses and “made med­i­cine” as to how we should get about it. Our plans were not at all elab­o­rate, as none of us had ever en­gaged in a hold-up be­fore.
The Santa Fé flyer was due at the tank at 11.15 p. m. At eleven, Tom and I lay down on one side of the track, and Jim and Ike took the other. As the train rolled up, the head­light flash­ing far down the track and the steam hiss­ing from the en­gine, I turned weak all over. I would have worked a whole year on the ranch for noth­ing to have been out of that af­fair right then. Some of the nervi­est men in the busi­ness have told me that they felt the same way the first time.
The en­gine had hardly stopped when I jumped on the run­ning-board on one side, while Jim mounted the other. As soon as the en­gi­neer and fire­man saw our guns they threw up their hands with­out being told, and begged us not to shoot, say­ing they would do any­thing we wanted them to.
“Hit the ground,” I or­dered, and they both jumped off. We drove them be­fore us down the side of the train. While this was hap­pen­ing, Tom and Ike had been blaz­ing away, one on each side of the train, yelling like Apaches, so as to keep the pas­sen­gers herded in the cars. Some fel­low stuck a lit­tle twenty-two cal­i­bre out one of the coach win­dows and fired it straight up in the air. I let drive and smashed the glass just over his head. That set­tled every­thing like re­sis­tance from that di­rec­tion.
By this time all my ner­vous­ness was gone. I felt a kind of pleas­ant ex­cite­ment as if I were at a dance or a frolic of some sort. The lights were all out in the coaches, and, as Tom and Ike grad­u­ally quit fir­ing and yelling, it got to be al­most as still as a grave­yard. I re­mem­ber hear­ing a lit­tle bird chirp­ing in a bush at the side of the track, as if it were com­plain­ing at being waked up.
I made the fire­man get a lantern, and then I went to the ex­press car and yelled to the mes­sen­ger to open up or get per­fo­rated. He slid the door back and stood in it with his hands up. “Jump over­board, son,” I said, and he hit the dirt like a lump of lead. There were two safes in the car—a big one and a lit­tle one. By the way, I first lo­cated the mes­sen­ger’s ar­se­nal—a dou­ble-bar­relled shot-gun with buck­shot car­tridges and a thirty-eight in a drawer. I drew the car­tridges from the shot-gun, pock­eted the pis­tol, and called the mes­sen­ger in­side. I shoved my gun against his nose and put him to work. He couldn’t open the big safe, but he did the lit­tle one. There was only nine hun­dred dol­lars in it. That was mighty small win­nings for our trou­ble, so we de­cided to go through the pas­sen­gers. We took our pris­on­ers to the smok­ing-car, and from there sent the en­gi­neer through the train to light up the coaches. Be­gin­ning with the first one, we placed a man at each door and or­dered the pas­sen­gers to stand be­tween the seats with their hands up.
If you want to find out what cow­ards the ma­jor­ity of men are, all you have to do is rob a pas­sen­ger train. I don’t mean be­cause they don’t re­sist—I’ll tell you later on why they can’t do that—but it makes a man feel sorry for them the way they lose their heads. Big, burly drum­mers and farm­ers and ex-sol­diers and high-col­lared dudes and sports that, a few mo­ments be­fore, were fill­ing the car with noise and brag­ging, get so scared that their ears flop.
There were very few peo­ple in the day coaches at that time of night, so we made a slim haul until we got to the sleeper. The Pull­man con­duc­tor met me at one door while Jim was going round to the other one. He very po­litely in­formed me that I could not go into that car, as it did not be­long to the rail­road com­pany, and, be­sides, the pas­sen­gers had al­ready been greatly dis­turbed by the shout­ing and fir­ing. Never in all my life have I met with a finer in­stance of of­fi­cial dig­nity and re­liance upon the power of Mr. Pull­man’s great name. I jabbed my six-shooter so hard against Mr. Con­duc­tor’s front that I af­ter­ward found one of his vest but­tons so firmly wedged in the end of the bar­rel that I had to shoot it out. He just shut up like a weak-springed knife and rolled down the car steps.
I opened the door of the sleeper and stepped in­side. A big, fat old man came wab­bling up to me, puff­ing and blow­ing. He had one coat-sleeve on and was try­ing to put his vest on over that. I don’t know who he thought I was.
“Young man, young man,” says he, “you must keep cool and not get ex­cited. Above every­thing, keep cool.”
“I can’t,” says I. “Ex­cite­ment’s just eat­ing me up.” And then I let out a yell and turned loose my forty-five through the sky­light.
That old man tried to dive into one of the lower berths, but a screech came out of it and a bare foot that took him in the bread-bas­ket and landed him on the floor. I saw Jim com­ing in the other door, and I hollered for every­body to climb out and line up.
They com­menced to scram­ble down, and for a while we had a three-ringed cir­cus. The men looked as fright­ened and tame as a lot of rab­bits in a deep snow. They had on, on an av­er­age, about a quar­ter of a suit of clothes and one shoe apiece. One chap was sit­ting on the floor of the aisle, look­ing as if he were work­ing a hard sum in arith­metic. He was try­ing, very solemn, to pull a lady’s num­ber two shoe on his num­ber nine foot.
The ladies didn’t stop to dress. They were so cu­ri­ous to see a real, live train rob­ber, bless ’em, that they just wrapped blan­kets and sheets around them­selves and came out, squeaky and fid­gety look­ing. They al­ways show more cu­rios­ity and sand than the men do.
We got them all lined up and pretty quiet, and I went through the bunch. I found very lit­tle on them—I mean in the way of valu­ables. One man in the line was a sight. He was one of those big, over­grown, solemn snooz­ers that sit on the plat­form at lec­tures and look wise. Be­fore crawl­ing out he had man­aged to put on his long, frock-tailed coat and his high silk hat. The rest of him was noth­ing but pa­ja­mas and bunions. When I dug into that Prince Al­bert, I ex­pected to drag out at least a block of gold mine stock or an arm­ful of Gov­ern­ment bonds, but all I found was a lit­tle boy’s French harp about four inches long. What it was there for, I don’t know. I felt a lit­tle mad be­cause he had fooled me so. I stuck the harp up against his mouth.
“If you can’t pay—play,” I says.
“I can’t play,” says he.
“Then learn right off quick,” says I, let­ting him smell the end of my gun-bar­rel.
He caught hold of the harp, turned red as a beet, and com­menced to blow. He blew a dinky lit­tle tune I re­mem­bered hear­ing when I was a kid:

Pret­ti­est lit­tle gal in the coun­try—oh!
Mammy and Daddy told me so.

I made him keep on play­ing it all the time we were in the car. Now and then he’d get weak and off the key, and I’d turn my gun on him and ask what was the mat­ter with that lit­tle gal, and whether he had any in­ten­tion of going back on her, which would make him start up again like sixty. I think that old boy stand­ing there in his silk hat and bare feet, play­ing his lit­tle French harp, was the fun­ni­est sight I ever saw. One lit­tle red-headed woman in the line broke out laugh­ing at him. You could have heard her in the next car.
Then Jim held them steady while I searched the berths. I grap­pled around in those beds and filled a pil­low-case with the strangest as­sort­ment of stuff you ever saw. Now and then I’d come across a lit­tle pop-gun pis­tol, just about right for plug­ging teeth with, which I’d throw out the win­dow. When I fin­ished with the col­lec­tion, I dumped the pil­low-case load in the mid­dle of the aisle. There were a good many watches, bracelets, rings, and pocket-books, with a sprin­kling of false teeth, whiskey flasks, face-pow­der boxes, choco­late caramels, and heads of hair of var­i­ous colours and lengths. There were also about a dozen ladies’ stock­ings into which jew­ellery, watches, and rolls of bills had been stuffed and then wadded up tight and stuck under the mat­tresses. I of­fered to re­turn what I called the “scalps,” say­ing that we were not In­di­ans on the war-path, but none of the ladies seemed to know to whom the hair be­longed.
One of the women—and a good-looker she was—wrapped in a striped blan­ket, saw me pick up one of the stock­ings that was pretty chunky and heavy about the toe, and she snapped out:
“That’s mine, sir. You’re not in the busi­ness of rob­bing women, are you?”
Now, as this was our first hold-up, we hadn’t agreed upon any code of ethics, so I hardly knew what to an­swer. But, any­way, I replied: “Well, not as a spe­cialty. If this con­tains your per­sonal prop­erty you can have it back.”
“It just does,” she de­clared ea­gerly, and reached out her hand for it.
“You’ll ex­cuse my tak­ing a look at the con­tents,” I said, hold­ing the stock­ing up by the toe. Out dumped a big gent’s gold watch, worth two hun­dred, a gent’s leather pocket-book that we af­ter­ward found to con­tain six hun­dred dol­lars, a 32-cal­i­bre re­volver; and the only thing of the lot that could have been a lady’s per­sonal prop­erty was a sil­ver bracelet worth about fifty cents.
I said: “Madame, here’s your prop­erty,” and handed her the bracelet. “Now,” I went on, “how can you ex­pect us to act square with you when you try to de­ceive us in this man­ner? I’m sur­prised at such con­duct.”
The young woman flushed up as if she had been caught doing some­thing dis­hon­est. Some other woman down the line called out: “The mean thing!” I never knew whether she meant the other lady or me.
When we fin­ished our job we or­dered every­body back to bed, told ’em good night very po­litely at the door, and left. We rode forty miles be­fore day­light and then di­vided the stuff. Each one of us got $1,752.85 in money. We lumped the jew­ellery around. Then we scat­tered, each man for him­self.
That was my first train rob­bery, and it was about as eas­ily done as any of the ones that fol­lowed. But that was the last and only time I ever went through the pas­sen­gers. I don’t like that part of the busi­ness. Af­ter­ward I stuck strictly to the ex­press car. Dur­ing the next eight years I han­dled a good deal of money.
The best haul I made was just seven years after the first one. We found out about a train that was going to bring out a lot of money to pay off the sol­diers at a Gov­ern­ment post. We stuck that train up in broad day­light. Five of us lay in the sand hills near a lit­tle sta­tion. Ten sol­diers were guard­ing the money on the train, but they might just as well have been at home on a fur­lough. We didn’t even allow them to stick their heads out the win­dows to see the fun. We had no trou­ble at all in get­ting the money, which was all in gold. Of course, a big howl was raised at the time about the rob­bery. It was Gov­ern­ment stuff, and the Gov­ern­ment got sar­cas­tic and wanted to know what the con­voy of sol­diers went along for. The only ex­cuse given was that no­body was ex­pect­ing an at­tack among those bare sand hills in day­time. I don’t know what the Gov­ern­ment thought about the ex­cuse, but I know that it was a good one. The sur­prise—that is the keynote of the train-rob­bing busi­ness. The pa­pers pub­lished all kinds of sto­ries about the loss, fi­nally agree­ing that it was be­tween nine thou­sand and ten thou­sand dol­lars. The Gov­ern­ment sawed wood. Here are the cor­rect fig­ures, printed for the first time—forty-eight thou­sand dol­lars. If any­body will take the trou­ble to look over Uncle Sam’s pri­vate ac­counts for that lit­tle debit to profit and loss, he will find that I am right to a cent.
By that time we were ex­pert enough to know what to do. We rode due west twenty miles, mak­ing a trail that a Broad­way po­lice­man could have fol­lowed, and then we dou­bled back, hid­ing our tracks. On the sec­ond night after the hold-up, while posses were scour­ing the coun­try in every di­rec­tion, Jim and I were eat­ing sup­per in the sec­ond story of a friend’s house in the town where the alarm started from. Our friend pointed out to us, in an of­fice across the street, a print­ing press at work strik­ing off hand­bills of­fer­ing a re­ward for our cap­ture.
I have been asked what we do with the money we get. Well, I never could ac­count for a tenth part of it after it was spent. It goes fast and freely. An out­law has to have a good many friends. A highly re­spected cit­i­zen may, and often does, get along with very few, but a man on the dodge has got to have “side­kick­ers.” With angry posses and re­ward-hun­gry of­fi­cers cut­ting out a hot trail for him, he must have a few places scat­tered about the coun­try where he can stop and feed him­self and his horse and get a few hours’ sleep with­out hav­ing to keep both eyes open. When he makes a haul he feels like drop­ping some of the coin with these friends, and he does it lib­er­ally. Some­times I have, at the end of a hasty visit at one of these havens of refuge, flung a hand­ful of gold and bills into the laps of the kids play­ing on the floor, with­out know­ing whether my con­tri­bu­tion was a hun­dred dol­lars or a thou­sand.
When old-timers make a big haul they gen­er­ally go far away to one of the big cities to spend their money. Green hands, how­ever suc­cess­ful a hold-up they make, nearly al­ways give them­selves away by show­ing too much money near the place where they got it.
I was in a job in ’94 where we got twenty thou­sand dol­lars. We fol­lowed our favourite plan for a get-away—that is, dou­bled on our trail—and laid low for a time near the scene of the train’s bad luck. One morn­ing I picked up a news­pa­per and read an ar­ti­cle with big head­lines stat­ing that the mar­shal, with eight deputies and a posse of thirty armed cit­i­zens, had the train rob­bers sur­rounded in a mesquite thicket on the Cimar­ron, and that it was a ques­tion of only a few hours when they would be dead men or pris­on­ers. While I was read­ing that ar­ti­cle I was sit­ting at break­fast in one of the most el­e­gant pri­vate res­i­dences in Wash­ing­ton City, with a flunky in knee pants stand­ing be­hind my chair. Jim was sit­ting across the table talk­ing to his half-un­cle, a re­tired naval of­fi­cer, whose name you have often seen in the ac­counts of do­ings in the cap­i­tal. We had gone there and bought rat­tling out­fits of good clothes, and were rest­ing from our labours among the nabobs. We must have been killed in that mesquite thicket, for I can make an af­fi­davit that we didn’t sur­ren­der.
Now I pro­pose to tell why it is easy to hold up a train, and, then, why no one should ever do it.
In the first place, the at­tack­ing party has all the ad­van­tage. That is, of course, sup­pos­ing that they are old-timers with the nec­es­sary ex­pe­ri­ence and courage. They have the out­side and are pro­tected by the dark­ness, while the oth­ers are in the light, hemmed into a small space, and ex­posed, the mo­ment they show a head at a win­dow or door, to the aim of a man who is a dead shot and who won’t hes­i­tate to shoot.
But, in my opin­ion, the main con­di­tion that makes train rob­bing easy is the el­e­ment of sur­prise in con­nec­tion with the imag­i­na­tion of the pas­sen­gers. If you have ever seen a horse that has eaten loco weed you will un­der­stand what I mean when I say that the pas­sen­gers get lo­coed. That horse gets the aw­fullest imag­i­na­tion on him in the world. You can’t coax him to cross a lit­tle branch stream two feet wide. It looks as big to him as the Mis­sis­sippi River. That’s just the way with the pas­sen­ger. He thinks there are a hun­dred men yelling and shoot­ing out­side, when maybe there are only two or three. And the muz­zle of a forty-five looks like the en­trance to a tun­nel. The pas­sen­ger is all right, al­though he may do mean lit­tle tricks, like hid­ing a wad of money in his shoe and for­get­ting to dig-up until you jos­tle his ribs some with the end of your six-shooter; but there’s no harm in him.
As to the train crew, we never had any more trou­ble with them than if they had been so many sheep. I don’t mean that they are cow­ards; I mean that they have got sense. They know they’re not up against a bluff. It’s the same way with the of­fi­cers. I’ve seen se­cret ser­vice men, mar­shals, and rail­road de­tec­tives fork over their change as meek as Moses. I saw one of the bravest mar­shals I ever knew hide his gun under his seat and dig up along with the rest while I was tak­ing toll. He wasn’t afraid; he sim­ply knew that we had the drop on the whole out­fit. Be­sides, many of those of­fi­cers have fam­i­lies and they feel that they oughtn’t to take chances; whereas death has no ter­rors for the man who holds up a train. He ex­pects to get killed some day, and he gen­er­ally does. My ad­vice to you, if you should ever be in a hold-up, is to line up with the cow­ards and save your brav­ery for an oc­ca­sion when it may be of some ben­e­fit to you. An­other rea­son why of­fi­cers are back­ward about mix­ing things with a train rob­ber is a fi­nan­cial one. Every time there is a scrim­mage and some­body gets killed, the of­fi­cers lose money. If the train rob­ber gets away they swear out a war­rant against John Doe et al. and travel hun­dreds of miles and sign vouch­ers for thou­sands on the trail of the fugi­tives, and the Gov­ern­ment foots the bills. So, with them, it is a ques­tion of mileage rather than courage.
I will give one in­stance to sup­port my state­ment that the sur­prise is the best card in play­ing for a hold-up.
Along in ’92 the Dal­tons were cut­ting out a hot trail for the of­fi­cers down in the Chero­kee Na­tion, Those were their lucky days, and they got so reck­less and sandy, that they used to an­nounce be­fore hand what job they were going to un­der­take. Once they gave it out that they were going to hold up the M. K. & T. flyer on a cer­tain night at the sta­tion of Pryor Creek, in In­dian Ter­ri­tory.
That night the rail­road com­pany got fif­teen deputy mar­shals in Musco­gee and put them on the train. Be­side them they had fifty armed men hid in the depot at Pryor Creek.
When the Katy Flyer pulled in not a Dal­ton showed up. The next sta­tion was Adair, six miles away. When the train reached there, and the deputies were hav­ing a good time ex­plain­ing what they would have done to the Dal­ton gang if they had turned up, all at once it sounded like an army fir­ing out­side. The con­duc­tor and brake­man came run­ning into the car yelling, “Train rob­bers!”
Some of those deputies lit out of the door, hit the ground, and kept on run­ning. Some of them hid their Win­ches­ters under the seats. Two of them made a fight and were both killed.
It took the Dal­tons just ten min­utes to cap­ture the train and whip the es­cort. In twenty min­utes more they robbed the ex­press car of twenty-seven thou­sand dol­lars and made a clean get-away.
My opin­ion is that those deputies would have put up a stiff fight at Pryor Creek, where they were ex­pect­ing trou­ble, but they were taken by sur­prise and “lo­coed” at Adair, just as the Dal­tons, who knew their busi­ness, ex­pected they would.
I don’t think I ought to close with­out giv­ing some de­duc­tions from my ex­pe­ri­ence of eight years “on the dodge.” It doesn’t pay to rob trains. Leav­ing out the ques­tion of right and morals, which I don’t think I ought to tackle, there is very lit­tle to envy in the life of an out­law. After a while money ceases to have any value in his eyes. He gets to look­ing upon the rail­roads and ex­press com­pa­nies as his bankers, and his six-shooter as a cheque book good for any amount. He throws away money right and left. Most of the time he is on the jump, rid­ing day and night, and he lives so hard be­tween times that he doesn’t enjoy the taste of high life when he gets it. He knows that his time is bound to come to lose his life or lib­erty, and that the ac­cu­racy of his aim, the speed of his horse, and the fi­delity of his “sider,” are all that post­pone the in­evitable.
It isn’t that he loses any sleep over dan­ger from the of­fi­cers of the law. In all my ex­pe­ri­ence I never knew of­fi­cers to at­tack a band of out­laws un­less they out­num­bered them at least three to one.
But the out­law car­ries one thought con­stantly in his mind—and that is what makes him so sore against life, more than any­thing else—he knows where the mar­shals get their re­cruits of deputies. He knows that the ma­jor­ity of these up­hold­ers of the law were once law­break­ers, horse thieves, rustlers, high­way­men, and out­laws like him­self, and that they gained their po­si­tions and im­mu­nity by turn­ing state’s ev­i­dence, by turn­ing trai­tor and de­liv­er­ing up their com­rades to im­pris­on­ment and death. He knows that some day—un­less he is shot first—his Judas will set to work, the trap will be laid, and he will be the sur­prised in­stead of a sur­priser at a stick-up.
That is why the man who holds up trains picks his com­pany with a thou­sand times the care with which a care­ful girl chooses a sweet­heart. That is why he raises him­self from his blan­ket of nights and lis­tens to the tread of every horse’s hoofs on the dis­tant road. That is why he broods sus­pi­ciously for days upon a jest­ing re­mark or an un­usual move­ment of a tried com­rade, or the bro­ken mut­ter­ings of his clos­est friend, sleep­ing by his side.
And it is one of the rea­sons why the train-rob­bing pro­fes­sion is not so pleas­ant a one as ei­ther of its col­lat­eral branches—pol­i­tics or cor­ner­ing the mar­ket.


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