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Hopkin's Safe

By W. L. Alden.
Illustrated by R. Jack.


"I SEE," said the Jericho station-master, "that a train on the Denver road has just been held up, and the safe robbed of over three hundred thousand dollars. Well! these things has to happen so long as the present style of burglar-proof safes is in fashion. Any robber that has been properly educated to the business can open a safe inside of half-an-hour, and can do it without any dynamite or such violent ways. Now a safe can be made that nobody can open except with the proper combination, for I've seen such a safe myself. Saw it on this very road too, and it was buried only about fifty miles from here."

"What in the world was the reason for burying a safe?" I asked.

"Because you can't have a funeral without burying the corpse," replied the station-master. "I've got just about time enough to tell you the story before the Athensville express comes in, so set down and you shall hear all about it.

"About ten years ago, or mebbe eleven, I ain't any sort of a hand for dates, there was a baggage-master on this road by the name of Hopkins. He and I were on the same train, which was the regular day express, and carried the gold dust that used to be sent down once a week from Custerville, where the mines were panning out at the time pretty middling well. Thishyer Hopkins—Jim was his name—besides being baggage-master, also acted as agent for the express company, and took charge of the safe. As a rule, the train was held up about once a month, and the safe was either opened by Jim, with a pistol to his ear, or else, if the robbers had plenty of time before them, and took a pride in their profession, they would open it themselves.

"Jim got tired of this sort of thing, and, being an ingenious sort of chap who had invented quite a lot of things, he undertook to invent a safe that nobody could open except with the combination. Moreover, he cal'lated to make it so strong that dynamite wouldn't have no effect upon it, so that it would really be a burglar-proof safe, in good earnest. Well, Jim he worked at that safe for a good part of the winter, until he had got it planned out in a way to suit him, and then he took some of his savings, for he had a good lot of money in the bank, and he built his new patent burglar-proof safe, and had it put in his baggage-car.

"The new safe was about twice the size of an ordinary express company's safe. Outside it looked like any other safe, but besides being twice as strong as anything of the kind that had ever been built before, it had a good many special features, which I don't pretend to remember, not being a mechanical sharp myself. I do recall, however, that it had a spring lock, which Jim explained was for convenience in case the train should be held up very sudden, and there shouldn't be time to close the safe and lock it in the usual way.

" 'Seems to me,' said the conductor, whose name was Sampson, though we always called him Gates, after that friend of Sampson's that he carried away from somewhere on his back—I don't exactly remember the name of the town—'Seems to me,' said he, 'that when you get a pistol to your ear that safe'll come open as easy as any other safe.'

" 'So it will,' says Jim, 'provided I ever find that pistol alongside of my ear. But I cal'late that I've got through with that style of amusement. The next time thishyer train is held up, the robbers won't find me, unless they can open that safe, which is just what I mean that they shan't be able to do.'

" 'Why, where are you going to be?' asks Gates. 'Are you cal'lating to hide yourself in the fire-box, or under the water in the tank? '

" 'See here,' says Jim. 'I ain't no blamed fool, if I do look like one. No, Sir, I don't cal'late to try any such games as those you're a-referring to, but I do expect to get inside of that safe when the train is held up, and to stay there till the robbers get tired of trying to open it.'

" 'That's a big scheme, Jim,' says the conductor; 'but I'd like to know how you expect to open the safe again when you want to come out.'

" 'O!' says Jim, 'that part of the business I leave with you. I'll give you the combination, and after the robbers have got tired and gone home, you can open the safe and let me out.'

" 'All right,' says Gates. 'I'll let you out fast enough, provided I can remember the combination, but you know my memory isn't what you might call first-class, and I might forget the combination, and never be able to open the safe. Of course, you wouldn't mind a little thing like that, for you'd be snug and comfortable, though perhaps a little bit hungry after a while.'

"Well, the conductor kept on chaffing Jim about his new invention, but the two were good friends, though it was afterwards thought by people who didn't know all the facts that Gates was partly to blame for what happened. Jim he gave Gates the combination of the safe, and the very next day after the thing was put in the baggage-car the train was held up just this side of Athensville.

"The robbers climbed into the baggage-car, and when they couldn't find Jim they brought up the conductor and told him to open the safe. The conductor swore that nobody knew the combination except Jim, and that he wasn't aboard the train that night, but had laid over at Jones's Misery, owing to not feeling very well. The robbers, seeing as Jim was not to be found, believed what the conductor said, and they went to work to pick the lock of the safe. Of course they couldn't do it, for that lock was just a masterpiece of engineering, and there wasn't a man living that could pick it. Then they tried their centrebits, but they couldn't make any impression on the safe. The bits would just slide around and scratch the surface here and there, but they hardly made a dent in the steel. By this time the robbers had got pretty mad, and they slid the safe out into the open, and tried what they could do with dynamite. They must have put a lot of the stuff under the safe, for when it went off the safe sailed more than thirty feet into the air, and came down so solid that she made a big hole in the ground. But when they came to examine her she wasn't hurt a bit. Not a joint nor a bolt was started, and except for a little blackening of the outside she was as good as new.

" 'Thishyer is a low-down outrage,' says the robber captain. 'The man that made that safe deserves hanging if ever a man did, for the thing is going to put an end to train robbing, and will throw hundreds of men out of employment. I hate a man what hasn't any feelings for his fellow-men.'

"Well, the rest of the robbers they stood around the safe and cussed till they were tired, but they admitted that they couldn't open it, and after a while they told the conductor that he might take his safe back again, and start his train down the road. Accordingly, we got the safe into the baggage-car again, and after the train was a mile or two down the road the conductor he opens her, and there was Jim, as gay as a jaybird, and laughing himself sick over the failure of the robbers.

"There wasn't any doubt that Jim's scheme had worked well, and the express company gave him fifty dollars as a testimonial of their gratitude for having prevented the robbers from seizing two hundred thousand dollars worth of gold dust. Bimeby, a new idea occurred to Jim. You see, at that time there wasn't any telegraph on this line, and there being only a single track, and that a pretty rough one, accidents were frequent. One day when there was a drove of cattle on the line, and Jim, looking out of the car saw that there was certain to be a smash up, he just opened his safe and gets into it, to wait for better times. That train went off the track, and the baggage car broke loose and went down an embankment, turning over a half-a-dozen times, and going clean to kindling-wood. When we began to clear things up, and missed Jim, we all supposed that he had been smashed, but when the conductor opened the safe to see if the contents were all right, there was Jim as smiling as a basket of chips, and enquiring in a kind of careless way if there was anything the matter with the train. After that, Jim regularly climbed into his safe whenever he heard the danger signal, and he never once got the least scratch or bruise. He went through three collisions in that safe, and after one of them, the safe was buried so deep among the rubbish that it was two days before we could dig it out. That didn't disturb Jim, however. He just took the time out in sleep, and, according to what he said, would have been perfectly contented if he had only been able to smoke his pipe, which he couldn't do owing to the scarcity of air in the safe. You see, as long as he kept his mouth somewhere near the key-hole he managed to do very well, but it wasn't what you could call an airy sort of place.

"Jim was a careful man, and never neglected any precaution that would make the valuables in his charge as safe as possible. This was why he made it a rule to change the combination of the safe every month. About the third day of August—I remember the month, because I always suffer from the liver complaint in August, and I was off duty at the time and riding in the smoking car, being too sick to work as brakesman—we came near running into a waggon that was crossing the track. When Jim heard the brakes blown down, he crawled into his safe and shut the door, expecting there would be an accident. It so happened that the waggon got clear of the track just in time, and we went on our way rejoicing. After awhile we missed Jim, and, knowing that he must be in his safe, the conductor started to open it. He found that the combination wouldn't work, and then, remembering that it was just after the first of the month, he knew Jim must have changed it and forgotten to give him the new combination. So the conductor gets close to the keyhole and calls to Jim to give him the combination, but Jim answers that he had changed it that very morning but couldn't for the life of him remember what it was.

"Here was a pretty go. The only man who knew the combination had forgot it, and he was shut up in the safe. We told Jim that we would leave him quiet for an hour, and that there wasn't any doubt that he would be able to remember the combination in that time, but somehow when he agreed to this his voice didn't sound very sanguine. At the end of an hour he hadn't made any progress. All he could say was, that the word had something to do either with robbery or politics, and that it must be a word of five letters, that being the way the lock was made.

"Well, we set to work to think of every word in the language relating to robbery and containing five letters. It was like working out some of these puzzles that you see in the Sunday papers, but we couldn't hit on the right answer. Seeing as 'robbery' didn't furnish us with the word, we tried words connected with 'politics,' and if we had only known it, we were on the right track, but we never got there. The conductor sent to his house for a big dictionary, and proposed to begin and try every word of five letters in the whole concern, but after awhile we found that it would take pretty near a year to get through with them all, and by that time Jim wouldn't be wanting to get out.

"We worked at that combination for a good twenty-four hours, taking it altogether, and then we had to give it up. Then we sent for the best safe burglar in the whole North-west, and offered him a hundred dollars to open the safe, giving him leave to try any plan he might prefer. The man had heard of Jim's patent burglar-proof safe, and, being an ambitious chap who took a genuine pride in his profession, he was glad of the job. But he didn't succeed any better than we had done. Picking the lock, guessing at the combination, and working with the jimmy were all failures, and having heard about the experiment that the first gang of train robbers had made on the safe with dynamite, he didn't think it worth while to try that sort of thing second time. However, he did say that in his opinion sledge-hammers would open the safe if they were used long enough. So we got two men with big sledge-hammers and set them to hammering the safe hour after hour in the same place, and when they were tired we had two more men to relieve them. We took the safe and the men along with us in the train, and they made such a noise that you could have heard that train a mile away, and would have thought that she was a boiler manufactory on wheels. At the end of twelve hours of steady hammering there wasn't so much as a good-sized dent on that safe, and we gave up sledge-hammers and made up our minds that we had seen the last of Jim.

"For all that we kept tinkering at the combination for a fortnight or more afterwards. Jim had been quiet after the end of the first eight days, and we couldn't get any answer from him. So, seeing as the time had come for to bid farewell to him, we decided that we would take the safe down to the Athensville cemetery and bury it as it stood. Which accordingly was done on the following Sunday, and, seeing as it was well known that safe belonged to Jim, and was empty at the time, except so far as Jim was concerned, there was nobody who had the right to make any objection. The minister who conducted the funeral did say something about the extraordinary nature of the coffin that we had chosen for the deceased, but we told him that the coffin didn't concern him, and that all he had to do was to heave ahead and give it Christian burial without passing any of his remarks. We didn't think it worth while to sink the safe very deep, because some day the combination might be discovered, and then Jim's heirs would want to get the safe out again and put it among Jim's assets, for it would have been sure to fetch a big price if there had been any way of getting into it.

"It must have been a year after the funeral when a passenger got to talking with the conductor of the express in the smoking-car about Jim and his safe, and he accidentally mentioned that the night before Jim shut himself up for the last time they two had been talking politics, and Jim, who was a Democrat, was slinging language about President Hayes, and saying that he had stole the Presidency from Tilden, and was no better than a train robber. When the conductor heard this he swore a while in a thoughtful sort of way, and then he says, 'We've got that combination at last.'

" 'How so?' says the man.

" 'Why,' says the conductor, 'Jim allowed that the combination was a word of five letters that had something to do either with robbery or politics. Now "Hayes" would be exactly that sort of word, and I can't think how it happened that we didn't try it. I haven't the least manner of doubt that if we was to dig that safe up and try it with "Hayes" it would open without the least trouble.'

" 'What's the good of opening it after Jim has been occupying it for more than a year?' says the man.

" 'Why, just this,' says the conductor. 'That there safe is the only burglar-proof safe ever built, and if the combination was known the relatives of the remains could sell it for two thousand dollars easy. I'll see them about it to-morrow, and we'll have one more try at opening it.'

"Well, to make a long story short, the relatives dug the safe up, and found sure enough that 'Hayes' was the word that unlocked it. It was a little rusty on the outside, but otherwise it was just as good as ever. There wasn't very much left of Jim by that time, but what there was received a second funeral, for there wasn't anything mean about Jim's family, and then the express company bought the safe for eighteen hundred dollars, and it was used on this road for upwards of two years."

"What became of it finally?" I asked.

"What always becomes of anything or anybody that sticks to railroading too long. The train went off of Three Mile Bridge, about seventy-five miles north of Josephusville, and, there being a quicksand at the bottom of the creek that no man could ever find the bottom of, the whole train—including Jim's safe—sank out of sight, and nobody ever found the least trace of it afterwards. You ought to have heard of that accident, for about three hundred passengers went down with the train, and the company never paid a cent of damages because there were no remains found, and nobody could prove that anybody in particular had been killed. I say it didn't cost the company anything for damages, though they do say that the jurymen cost altogether not far from five thousand dollars a-piece. However, the company got out of it very cheap, and the directors were more disgusted about losing that safe than they were about losing the whole train. Come into my office and I'll show you Jim's photograph standing by his new safe, and making believe to pronounce an oration on its merits. He was a good fellow was Jim, but he put his confidence in that safe once too often."

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.