The Express Messenger, and Other Tales of the Rail/Scraptomania
EVERY man who has railroaded for a single day on the Rio Grande, has heard of John Jones,—"Scrappy" Jones they called him. If there is such a disease as scraptomania then John Jones had it, good and hard. He began at the bottom as helper in the machine shops and industriously fought his way up the ladder until he became a full-fledged locomotive engineer. There is scarcely a flag station on the entire system that has not at some time or another been his battlefield.
The most interesting feature in the history of Jones is the fact that he never sought a fight, or fought for the "fun of it," as most fighting characters do. I knew him intimately, worked with him many a day, and it seemed to me that he had fights thrust upon him in nearly every instance. When he was "hostler" at Salida I was his assistant. One day when we were dangling our feet from a high bench in the round-house, I asked him how it was that he had so many fights. "You are better tempered and happier than I am. I have had one fight since I began railroading; how many have you had?"
"'Bout a hundred," said Jones, and his homely face was sad. He told me, then and there, that fighting was his besetting sin. He had worked and prayed that he might be spared the necessity of thrashing men, but it seemed a part of his mission on earth. When the noon whistle sounded, we slid off the high bench and went into the washroom to prepare for luncheon. Before we left the house we were obliged to use the turn-table. "Hey there, back up. We want to use the turn-table!" Jones called cheerfully enough to a passenger engineer who was oiling his locomotive which, contrary to all rules and customs, was left standing on the table. Now Jones had thrashed nearly every engineer he had fired for during his apprenticeship and they all hated him, so this middle division man only gave him a sour look and went on oiling. "Say," said Jones, rolling his thumb and twirling his watch chain about it, "are you going to back up?"
"Yes, when I get ready," was the reply, and Jones made straight for the engine. As he climbed up on one side the driver mounted from the other, and, snatching up a hand hammer, raised it above Jones's head and warned him to keep off his engine. I held my breath as Jones continued to climb and the engineer stood ready to brain him. When the hostler, who appeared not to have heard the warning, had gained the deck, he twisted the hammer from the grasp of the engineer, threw it back into the coal tank, backed the engine from the table, set the air brakes, and leaped to the ground. He had missed a fight here simply because the engineer weakened, and yet Jones was wholly in the right. Once when he was firing a passenger engine they stopped at Cleora, only two miles from the end of the run; the engineer abused Jones and Jones thumped him. The driver told the conductor that he would not run the engine in with that fireman, whereupon Jones gave the driver another licking, drove him into the cab, and compelled him to go to the end of the division. There was an investigation in the office of Master Mechanic Kelker, at Pueblo, the engineer began to abuse the fireman, and he was notified by the latter that such a course was liable to lead to trouble. Presently the engineer called Jones a liar, and instantly he fell sprawling across the master mechanic's desk. This caused the fireman's discharge. But the provocation had been great, and the official gave Jones a rather complimentary letter to the general master mechanic at Denver. Jones went up and told the whole story, not even attempting to justify his own actions, and he was reemployed upon another run.
In those days engineers and firemen worked far apart, and as Jones had licked about half the engineers on the middle division, he was simply despised by the men on the right hand side. There was a young Irishman who was a magnificent man, physically, and possessed of no end of sand, and to this handsome fellow was given the task of thrashing Scrappy Jones. They met one day out at the steel works, and the Irishman had no trouble in working Jones up to the proper pitch. Jones told the story of this fight to me. "He looked like a giant," he said, "when he faced me, but I was mad. Before I knew he was within reach he hit me square between the eyes, and it seemed to me that it was raining fire. I fell sprawling on my back, but got up as quickly as I could, and he knocked me down again. I got up again, with the air full of sparks. He knocked me down again. More fire. I continued to go down and get up. It didn't hurt so very much, only it blinded me, and that annoyed me, for I was anxious to see how he did it, for I had never found it utterly impossible to get at a man before. As often as I straightened up he hit me plumb between the eyes and down I went. I had been down six times, but my wind was better than that of my opponent, and that very fact seemed to discourage him. He was breathing like a snow plough, and when I went down for the seventh time he started to climb my frame, and that was his Waterloo. I saw him coming, dimly, as through a veil all dotted with stars. I doubled up like a jack-knife, and when I straightened my legs out I drove my feet into the stomach of my antagonist. He went over on his back, and I went over on top of him and closed the incident. He had me whipped. I was completely done out and three more falls would have ended me, but he got scared and wanted to end the fight."
The next man selected to discipline Jones was a yard-master, named Jim Williams. When Williams saw the fighter for the first time he laughed at him.
"Are you the artist that has licked all the engineers on the middle division?" asked Jim with a quizzical smile.
Jones showed plainly that he was embarrassed. He always looked so when he knew that a man was trying to pick a quarrel with him. He answered that he had done the best he could for those who had come up against him, and Jim laughed some more. Three or four seconds were now wasted in preliminary talk, and then the two climbed into an empty box and shut the door. The men on the outside only listened to catch a word that would give them some idea as to how the fight was going, but there was no talk. At times one would fancy that a football team was performing inside. Now there came heaves and grunts as if two men were trying to put up a heavy stove, and then you might guess that a dray had backed up to the opposite door and they were throwing in a few sacks of potatoes. Presently there was a "rush" and they threw in the dray, horse and all. This was followed by perfect quiet, save for the heavy breathing of the horse. A few moments later the door was opened and the two men came out, bleeding through their smiles, and still the result of the fight was a secret, and it has, so far as I know, remained so to this day.
Jones's fights became so notorious that the travelling engineer waited upon him to say that the master mechanic had ordered that the belligerent engineer be discharged at the conclusion of his next fight. Jones promised to reform. About a month later the travelling engineer climbed into the cab of the engine which Jones was running, helping trains from Colorado Springs up over the Divide. The young driver showed much feeling upon meeting the T. E., and at once assured the official that he appreciated the leniency of the management; that they had all been very forgiving, and now he hoped that he might leave the service with the good wishes of the officials.
"Why, you are not going to quit, are you, John? The old man has complimented you repeatedly upon the excellent work you have been doing here on the hill."
"Then I take it that the old man is n't on," said Jones. "That's like you, Frank, to try to save my neck, but it's no use."
Suddenly it dawned upon the mind of the travelling superintendent of motive power that Jones had been fighting. If he wanted to be sure, all he had to do was to ask Jones and he would get the whole truth, so he asked him whom he had fought with.
"The hill crew," was the brief reply.
"All of them."
"Yep—began on the head brakeman and cleaned out the caboose, including the captain," said Jones with no show of pride. The official jumped off the engine and swung into the caboose of an east-bound freight train, and that was the last Jones heard of the order to discharge him, for the conductor was too proud to report the fact that a little man weighing less than one hundred and forty pounds had cleaned out the crew with his naked hands. The story of this fight and how it came about was related to the writer by the travelling engineer himself.
"We've got a cranky engineer," the old brakeman had said to the new brake man, who boasted that he was off the stormy division of the "Q," and that he had not yet met an engineer who could tame him. "The only way you can handle him is to go at him dead hard from the jump; cuss him good and plenty, and, if necessary, thump him, and he 'll be your friend."
"Cussin's like walkin to me," said the "Q" man, "and when it comes to a scrap, that's me Prince Albert," and he went up to the head end. When he had arrived at a point immediately under the cab window, he began a torrent of blankety blanking that made the engineer dart his head out of the window to see what was the matter. The moment that Jones realized that the fellow was cursing him, he leaped right out through the cab window and lit on top of the brakeman, and by the time the rear man came up the head man was yelling for help. He told Jones at once that the rear brakeman had informed him that the engineer was a tough mug, who had to be cursed or he would be ugly, and Jones promptly apologized to the head brakeman and thrashed the other fellow. Now the conductor, who had allowed all this to come about with his knowledge and silent consent, observed that Jones was a brute, and he got what the other two men had received, and from that day the hill crew dwelt together in peace and brotherly love.
Once when Jones was still a fireman he was transferred to the mountain division, so as to be forgotten for a time by the engineers of the middle of the road. When he reached the top of the hill for the first time he noticed that the rear end of the tank was covered with wet cinders, and, like the industrious fireman that he was, he got up and began to sweep them off in the long snowshed at Marshall Pass.
The superintendent's private car was standing near by, but Jones did not notice it in the smoky shed, and the first swipe of his broom sent a flood of cinders over the superintendent, who happened at that moment to be passing.
"Blank, blank you," shouted the official, and, as he looked up, he saw the fireman leap from the top of the tank, and he had to step back to avoid a crush. "Do you know who I am?" asked the official.
"No, and I don't care so long as you've got gray hair."
"I'm the superintendent."
"Well,——— you, don't you ——— me again," said Jones, and he got back on his engine, and the superintendent, who was himself a high-spirited man, remarked afterwards that he liked that fellow's spunk, and, in fact, he showed in after years that he did like it, for he would have Jones when none of the other division superintendents would.
The last time I saw Jones he told me that he had quit railroading. He had bought, with the money he had saved up, the old farm in Kentucky where he was born, had married the little girl who had been his playmate in childhood, and I presume she and I were about the only close friends he had whom he had never thrashed.