|Those 999 1/2 Blues by Col. Stoopnagle|
Did you ever read a mystery story that made you cling to the arms of your chair, practically? Or if you weren't sitting in a chair at the time, did you cling to a nearby cigar stand or something? Of course. Well, you're going to be actually astounded at this story, then, because regardless of any mystery you ever read, this is a -- well, shall we say -- a peachy. (The reason for the above introduction is on account of I wanted time to work out a plot, which I did while writing about the cigar stand and stuff. So now we are ready to open fire.) The first scene is laid in the wee office of a railroad clerk in KICK-THE-GONG, Kansas. The clerk's name is Herm. And he looks it.
"Well, Herm," thought Herm to himself, "this business of railroading is indeed tedious. All you have to do is to sit around all day and think. And sometimes you just sit. If only there'd be a robbery or some --" And with that he sat stalk upright in his chair and listened to the steady and somewhat accelerated staccato of the telegraph key.
"Am I dreaming?" thought Herm. And the telegraph instrument ticked out this cryptic message:
"N-o, y-o-u a-r-e n-o-t d-r-e-a-m-i-n-g. I-t i-s t-r-u-e a-s t-h-e v-e-r-y d-i-c-k-e-n-s."
Well, you could have pushed Herm over with a freight car, he was that nonplused. And who wouldn't have been?
In the first place, although it didn't especially occur to him at the moment, the telegraph instrument had clicked out an answer to his THOUGHT, and in the next place it had told him that good old 999 1/2 was due at KICK-THE-GONG in five minutes with a fierce robber-fellow at the throttle and several of his swarthy mates robbing people in the cars.
Herm was told to do something about it. His mind, which had hitherto been fairly blank, now began to, shall we say, feel life. True, his thoughts were muddled and his brain befuddled, but he thought to himself:
"Herm! Here is indeed a desperate situation. The time has come when you must do or die for the good old Chesapeake, Long Island, Buffalo, Rochester, Pittsburgh Railroad Company Incorporated, of which you are a station agent and about as good as they go, at that.
Collecting his thoughts like so many pieces of a picture-puzzle, which is the craze now, for those who can afford it, Herm stood up, stood for a moment at attention before the likeness of his president, a Mister Upquirp, and dashed out into the foggy night in a complete daze.
Meanwhile, we must trace our steps slightly backward, O Time, in thy flight, for things have been happening on the good old 999 1/2.
And before we get on further with this thriller, just let us explain that the good old 999 1/2 was built back in the '70's between the 999 and the 1000 and had always been the favorite engine of the C., L.I., B., R., P., R.R. Co. Inc., purely for sentimental reasons, because she came into being at just about the same time as Mister Upquirp's cat, Fluff, had kittens.
999 1/2 seemed to sort of have taken unto herself an identity of her own, if you understand. True, she was just a mass of steel and stuff, but still her engineer, old Carstairs, felt toward her as a -- well, there's no use going into embarrassing detail about the thing. (This is all being said to get your sympathy.) Suppose we say "as salt feels toward pepper" and let it go at that.
This fine day in February, the 29th, to be exact, Carstairs leapt into the cab blithely, turned smilingly toward the rear of the train and pushed the throttle slowly ahead.
"Puff, puff, puff," went the sturdy iron steed.
"Puff, puff, puff yourself," admonished Carstairs, with a sly twinkle in his eyes.
(By the way, don't forget that 'Herm', the station agent, has dashed out into the foggy night. You have to remember that in order to get the sense to the story, if any. Thank you. -- Author's note.)
Now, we bring in several new characters. It is often good to make a list of them so you can keep them straight in your mind. The first is an old roué named Crizzby, who is going West, young man, with his beautiful daughter Sunshine. The daughter's full name is Sunshine Crizzby, and is she full of the joy of life? Think not?
And then, in car 456, one car ahead of Crizzby's, next to the diner, sit three swarthy-looking strangers. That is, they are strangers to Crizzby because he hasn't ever seen them nor they him.
The three swarthy strangers exchanged glances. Winken gave his to Nod, Blinken tendered his to Winken and the other doesn't make any difference.
Suddenly, Winken spoke.
"Nod, do you remember the old story about the spinster who said: 'Who's robbing this car?'"
"Never mind the stories now, Winken," exclaimed Nod; "this is no time for good-natured banter."
"Perhaps you had better say raillery," Nod answered, "especially since we are riding the rails."
Which, of course, caused a considerable amount of merriment. Goodies were passed and time went on. Suddenly, the train gave a lurch which told the three swarthy strangers that the time was ripe for the robbery they had planned. Their light-hearted conversation became whispered. Fingers were placed alongside noses and one could hear faint sh's (pronounced 'shushes').
"At the count of ten, Nod, you are to run stealthily forward until you reach the cab of good old 999 1/2. Take this cigar and offer it to the engineer. Just as he reaches for it, give him this decanter of poison and make him drain it to the very last drop."
"Good," averred Nod, who was up on coffee advertising.
"Then, Blinken, you and I will pass through the train disguised as news butchers or vendors."
"Vender Moon Comes Over der Mountain!" said Nod, affirmatively.
"This is no time for puns, Nod," laughed Winken. "Remember -- I'm the boss of this gang of swarthy strangers and you'll do exactly as I say or else."
"Or else what?" said Blinken.
"Just or else, that's all," answered Winken, as Nod started forward to the engine with the cigar and Eddie Canter. (A decanter. Hm.)
"Just a moment, there, you old Nod, you," called Winken, the boss of the swarthy strangers. "Don't forget. Use no force unless you are forced to. If he gets nasty about drinking the poison, just strike him a thwack alongside the temple with a shovel or some other blunt instrument."
"O. K., boss," hollered back Nod, "nighty-night!" And he disappeared among the pullmans.
There was quite a stir among the passengers as Winken and Blinken informed them they were about to be robbed of their all. One old lady fainted, but came to immediately when Winken told her she was beautiful.
It was Winken's turn to speak:
"Ladies and gentlemen," he said. "My partner and I are about to rob you of your worldly goods. We wish to shed no blood nor do we wish you to become unduly alarmed at our actions, because after all, it isn't the material things that count in this world, it's the spiritual and the mental stuff. So, just hand over your valuables, let us out of the car without so much as an outburst of applause and all will be hotsy-totsy. However, if any one takes to giggling or cheering or hysterical blustering, that'll be different and we may have to mow you down summarily."
The passengers looked at this swarthy stranger in absolute awe. How could such a fine man be engaged in committing robbery? What if he had a mother or a sister who didn't know of his dastardly business? How old a man was he? Was he of marriageable timber? All these thoughts and many more (which may be had on request) went coursing through their heads in that brief second.
Then, suddenly, there was a shot! Well, not exactly a shot, but Mister Crizzby shot a glance at the head-robber, who was clearly making a slight play for his daughter. The name of the play may also be had on request.
Taken aback, practically, by this new turn in affairs, Winken stepped back slightly, pulled out his machine gun, or rather his sub-machine gun, for he had been in the submarine service during the war, and plugged Mister Crizzby plumb full of hot lead.
"Great Day," screamed Sunshine, "you have strucken down my father!"
"Not 'strucken', my little lady, just plain 'struck' is better English," said Winken.
The details of the robbery amount to so little that they're perhaps best left unsaid. Sufficeth to say, however, that the robbers collected $435,000 in dollar bills, several used collar buttons named Dumke and a great lot of gew-gaws and knick-knacks such as diamond rings and brooches that we won't mention except in passing.
In passing Walla Walla on the left....Well, after our heroes had swept through the train collecting everyone's valuables, Winken, the head-man telephoned up to the engineer, who had been hit over the head by Nod.
Of course, the regular engineer couldn't even hope to answer the phone under the conditions, being very unconscious, so Nod, the engineer pro tempore answered the merry jingle.
"Hello. This is Nod speaking," he said.
"Well, then," said a cheery voice, "this is Winken. How's every little thing up forward?"
"Oh, it's fine, thanks. I like the breeze. And by the way, I had to knock off the engineer. He didn't want me to try to run the train without first a bit of practice. I kept him here with me as long as I could and then I tossed him out somewhere back around Peoria. How's about the robbery? Did you do it?"
"Hm. Do it? I'll tell the world!" answered Winken as he brought back into being one of America's most clever sayings. "We have several hundred thousand dollars and only had to knock off about eighteen people. The others behaved splendidly. Now listen, mug. As you steam by Kick-the-Gong, begin to slow down. Then, when you pass the third switch, stop the train and we'll make our getaway. Get me?"
But there was no answer from the man in the cab, for he had become tired of hearing the same thing over and over so many times.
Now, if you haven't, after several reproofs, referred to Herm, you'd better do it now, because he's bounding right back into the thrilling tale with gusto. You see, now we have the telegraph clerk running out to stop the train. We have the train all nicely robbed by a bunch of thugs and everything is rosy except the final solution of the story.
How is Herm going to snare the thieves and win Miss Sunshine Crizzby? How are the robbers, Winken, Blinken and Nod, going to prove they are the robbers if they are accused of being the three men who set sail in a boat? These questions and many more besides will be cleared up before we can quit this narrative.
As Herm, another of our heroes, rushed out that dark night into the fog, his thoughts were completely muddled and so he felt perfectly natural. There are lots of people like that. He wanted to save the passengers on the good old 999 1/2 from being robbed, alright, only he had been playing solitaire when the message came and he thought he might win if given a moment or two longer. However, we'd best allow that matter no more space.
Here was good old 999 1/2 coming down the track at breakneck speed and here was Herm standing like the goop he was, wondering what to do.
What would you do under the circumstances? What would your uncle do? Where were you on the night of April 17th?
Well, Herm thought quickly. With a sudden, panther-like dash, he sped out to the middle of the track and stood there like the cast-iron elk in front of the Elk's Club.
"By gosh," he thought, "I'll either stop this here, now, train, or else I'll know the reason why, and darned soon."
At least, that's what we imagine he thought.
And just as the giant engine was bearing down on him, he put up his hand and cried: "Say there, you in that engine! Halt! Halt, I say, in the name of the Chesapeake, Long Island, Buffalo, Rochester, Pittsburgh Railroad Company, Incorporated, of which I am the sole station agent in these parts!"
And who could resist such imperative language? So, consequently, the great, hurtling behemoth of iron and possibly a slight bit of steel came grinding to a sudden and abrupt stop.
"What do you mean by stopping this train on its scheduled route? Nor hail, nor snow, nor rain can stop this swift courier in its flight," thundered a huge voice behind him.
"Go take a flying tackle at a galloping pig," answered Herm, in his best Polish. "This train is being robbed and I'm determined to find out how come and who is perpetrating the dastardly deed."
"Well, young man," averred he with the huge voice again, "there's nothing like coming to headquarters for information! I am driving the train. My partners are robbing it. I don't see why we shouldn't. My name is Nod. My partners are Winken and Blinken, respectively. If you think I stopped this train because you got out in the middle of the track, you're crazy, because that was what we all decided to do anyway. It is just lucky for you that we decided to stop before we got to where you were standing....Now to go on -- the others will be up forward here in just a moment and we'll all have a merry time dividing the swag."
Well, I wish you could have seen the look of utter disdain on the face of Herm. Here he had come out to stop the train so as to save the passengers and he had already been asked to participate in the division of the spoils. He would pay off the old mortgage; he would buy Hortense the pink parasol she wanted; he would be able now to get the haircut; but that's all hearsay, so we'll let it go for now.
Soon, several of the passengers were arriving at the side of the engine.
"Let's all have a game of cops and robbers," suggested one of the gentlemen passengers named Crizzby.
"I don't know, father," answered a small voice behind him, which later turned out to be his daughter's. "It would be capital fun, alright, but I like Pom-pom-peed-away."
"Let's put the names of several games into a cocked hat and then draw them out one by one. The first one out is it," put in Winken as he distributed various articles of jewelry and stuff around between himself and his two partners and Herm.
Everyone agreed and the game that won was Tap-the-ice-box, which everyone agreed was indeed capital.
Time passed quickly and at seven o'clock that morning the players began to yawn and finally some one suggested they return to their berths for a good day's sleep. This they did, with the exception of Winken, Blinken and Nod and Herm, who like the Arabs silently folded their hands (or whatever it was they folded) and crept stealthily away. The regular engineer was still lying in a ditch forty miles back, so as far as I know, he wasn't there to run the train. And so here is the scream: The passengers all went back to sleep and slept for three days. When they awoke, the train hadn't budged an inch and it certainly afforded them a goodly laugh.
[From Illustrated Detective Magazine, September 1932]
Page created November 14, 2006. Copyright 1998-2006 by Richard D. Squires.