A Thrilling Experience by Eugenia Dunlap Potts

Story type: Literature


It is some years since I was station-master, telegraph-operator, baggage-agent and ticket seller at a little village near some valuable oil wells.

The station-house was a little distance from the unpretentious thoroughfare that had grown up in a day, and my duties were so arduous that I had scarcely leisure for a weekly flitting to a certain mansion on the hill where dwelt Ellen Morris, my promised wife. In fact, it was with the hope of lessening the distance between us that I had under taken these quadruple duties.

The day was gloomy, and towards the afternoon ominous rolls of thunder portended a storm.

Colonel Holloway, the well-known treasurer of the oil company, had been in the village several days. About one o’clock he came hurriedly into the office with a package, which he laid upon my desk, saying:

“Take care of that, Bowen, till to-morrow. I am going up the road.”

The commission was not an unusual one, and my safe was one of Marvin’s best. I counted the money, which footed up into the thousands, placed it in the official envelope, affixed the seals, and deposited it in the safe. As I turned away from the lock, a voice at the door said:

“Say, mister, can you tell me the way to the post office?”

A sort of shock went through me at the unexpected presence that seemed to have dropped down from nowhere, and I replied irritably:

“You could not miss it if you tried. Keep straight ahead.”

Soon large drops of rain came down, then faster and more furiously, till the air was one vast sheet of water, and little rivers leaped madly along the gullies and culverts. Forked lightning kept pace with the pealing thunder, and heaven’s own artillery seemed let loose.

Anything more dismal or dreary could not well be imagined, and gradually the loneliness grew very oppressive. Every straggler had fled to shelter, and the usual idlers had deserted the platform.

But I resolutely set to work at the dry statistics of the station-books, with an occasional call to the wires, which were ticking like mad, so fierce was the electric current.

It was near five o’clock when a long freight train came lumbering by, switched off a car or two, then dragged its slow length onward. This created a brief diversion, then once more I was deserted.

The next passenger train was not due till ten o’clock. I lit the lamps and resigned myself with questionable patience to the intervening hours. An agreeable interruption came in the form of my supper, which was brought in a water-proof basket by a sort of jack-at-all-trades whom we called Jake. Shaking himself like a great dog, he “lowed there wa’n’t much more water up yonder nohow.”

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“I hope not, indeed,” I said, glad of the sound of a human voice. “Jake!” I called, as he left the office, “come back as soon as you can–I may need you.”

I had a vague idea of despatching some sort of report to Ellen that I had not been entirely washed away, and obtaining a similar comfort as to her own fate. I little thought how I should need him.

I think I am not by nature more timid than other men, but as the dismal evening closed in I took from my desk two revolvers kept ready for possible emergencies, and laid one upon the desk where I was making freight entries and the other on the table where the electric battery stood. At intervals a fresh package for the night express was brought by some dripping carrier, who deposited it, got his receipt, hung about for a few minutes, then hastened away to more comfortable quarters.

Still the rain poured in torrents. It must have been nearly nine o’clock when a wagon, hurriedly driven, pulled up suddenly at the platform. In a moment the door was flung open, and I saw a small ambulance well known about the village. Two men sprang out, and with the help of the driver and his assistant, proceeded to lift out a box which from its dimensions could contain only one kind of freight, to wit, the remains of a human being.

Carefully placing this box in a remote corner of the room, near other boxes awaiting transportation, the driver and his man returned to their wagon, while the two strangers approached the desk to enter their ghastly freight. They wore slouched hats and were very wet. They produced a death certificate of one John Slate, who had died at a farm house several miles away, of a non-contagious complaint, and was to be shipped to his friends down the road. This was all. There was nothing singular about it, and yet when the door closed upon the strangers and I was again alone, or worse than alone a feeling of awe came over me. Clearly the storm had somewhat unstrung me.

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Only one hour till the train was due, after which I could turn in for the night.

A louder peal of thunder shook the house, and fiercer flashed the lightning. Minute after minute went by, and each seemed an age. The roar and din of the elements only deepened the gloom inside, where the uncertain kerosene lamp darkened the shadows.

Suddenly to my overstrained nerves the ceaseless clicking of the instrument seemed to say, “Watch the box–watch the box–watch the box.” As a particular strain of melody will at times repeat itself in the mind, and obstinately keep time to every movement, till one is well-nigh distracted, so this refrain began to enchain every sense: “Watch the box–watch the box–watch the box.” Till now my depressed spirits were due only to the solitude and the storm. No suspicion of evil or danger had tormented me.

Peering more closely into the dingy corner, I saw only the ordinary pine box, with what seemed to be a square paper, or placard, on the side facing me. Probably the address, bunglingly adjusted on the side instead of the top, or else a stain of mud from the late rough drive. At all events I was not curious enough to approach more nearly the ghostly visitant.

Ten minutes had crept by, when a muffled noise in the dark corner distinctly sounded above the pelting raindrops, while as if to mock at my quickened fears, the wires continued their monotonous warning, “Watch the box–watch the box–watch the box.” I did watch the box, and now as if by inspiration I grasped the situation. There was indeed a man in the box, but not a dead one. A living man who had boldly lent himself to a plot to rob or murder me, or perhaps both.

I remembered the straggler who had surprised me while at the safe, several hours before. He had doubtless followed Col. Holloway and witnessed the money transaction. Quick and fast flew my thoughts in the startled endeavor to grasp some plan of action. Single-handed I was no match for any man, having recently recovered from an attack of malarial fever. This one in the box (if indeed there was one) must mean to secure the prize before the train was due, and escape the consequences. He must have accomplices, and these were doubtless on watch, either to give or receive a signal. At least it was not probable that he would undertake the job alone, and the fact that he had confederates had already appeared.

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Perhaps the sight of my pistol had delayed the attack. Perhaps some part of their plan had miscarried and caused delay. At all events I must be cool. I fancied I saw his eyes through the dark patch on the box. I was almost sure he was slowly lifting the lid. There was no help near, and much might be done in the time still to elapse before the train was due.

Quietly walking to the battery, I feigned to take a message. In reality I sent one to the conductor of the on-coming express, as the only device whereby I could secure assistance, and this would doubtless come too late. Yet it was all I could do just now.

With every sense on the alert I arose to secrete my key if possible, when the door burst open, and Frank Morris, my future brother-in-law, rushed in, followed by a huge dog that was Ellen’s special pet and attendant.

“Confound you!” said Frank, spluttering about and shaking himself as vigorously as the dog. “I’ll be blowed if I ever go on such a fool’s errand as this.”

“Why you are pretty well ‘blowed’” I said, with a poor attempt to be funny, but immensely relieved.

“I never was so glad to see anybody in my life!” and I meant it.

“There it is,” he said; “make much of it” as he cleverly flipped a little white missive over to me. “Such billing and cooing I never want to see again. Regular spoons, by jove! Can’t go to sleep till she knows you have not been melted, or washed away, or something. And Cato must come along to see that her precious brother doesn’t get lost. Ugh! Lie down over there, old fellow!” Then to me he said; “Here help me out of this wet thing.”

But I was engrossed just then, so ridding him of the offending garment, the broad-shouldered young athlete strode about the room in mock impatience.

“Heavens! what a night!” he exclaimed. “What time does your train pass? Ten? Just three minutes. I guess I’ll stay; but we will have that young damsel floating down here if she doesn’t hear pretty soon.”

“Hello, Cato, what’s the matter?” as the dog gave a low growl, “what’s that in the corner, Bowen?”

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The dog continued to growl and look suspiciously as the young fellow rattled on. “That,” I said, “is a dead man.”

“Humph!” he laughed. “Jolly good company for such a night. I say, Bowen, you’ve got a nice toy there,” and he took up the pistol that lay on the table. In the meanwhile I had scrawled on piece of paper, which I had quietly placed near the pistol: “The man in the box is a burglar. Be ready for an attack.”

“Oh that’s the game!” he said aloud, and instantly strode across the room, as Cato sprang up and barked furiously at the box. Simultaneously the top of the box flew up, and uttering a shrill whistle, the man sprang to a sitting posture, while through the wide-flung door the other two ruffians appeared with pistols cocked, At once there began a deadly struggle. The dog had leaped upon the box and knocked the “dead” man’s pistol out of his hand, as Frank shouted, “Toho Cato!” unwilling that the dog should tear him to pieces, but wishing to keep him at bay.

“Your keys!” yelled the other men; “or by heavens, you’ll drop!”

Instantly closing in, man to man, the fierce struggle went on amid shouts, oaths and pistol shots.

“Call off your cursed dog!” screamed the “dead” man continually.

The encounter, which had occupied scarcely a minute, was at its deadliest, both Frank and I endeavoring to disarm rather than kill, when the whistle of the train sounded, and in another moment the conductor and his men were among us, “Seize that scoundrel!” shouted Frank breathlessly, indicating the man in the box. “Here Cato!” and the obedient animal unwillingly retired, but continued his savage growl.

At this juncture my man fell to the floor, badly wounded in the leg, and uttering groans and imprecations. It was quick work to secure the men, and Jake, who opportunely reappeared, was sent to summon the village police. Some of the passengers, impatient at the delay, had got wind of the adventure, and now crowded into the station in no little excitement. The box was found to have a false side-piece next to the wall, which was easily pushed down by the man inside, for greater comfort in his cramped position; and there were besides a number of air holes. It was the moving of the side-panel that caused the muffled noise I had heard.

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I was questioned in all possible ways, and the curiosity of the passengers was fully gratified amid the clamor of the prisoners, who continually swore at each other. “What did you wait so infernal long for?” said one of them, glaring at the “dead” man.

“What was your infernal hurry?” retorted the other, sarcastically.

It was plain from the quarrel that ensued that the sight of my pistols and my evident uneasiness, together with effect of the fearful storm, which confused all signals, had unsettled the fellow’s plan, and had robbed him of his presence of mind. While puzzling as to the safest course, the sudden entrance of Frank and the dog had precipitated the catastrophe.

The men were conducted to the County Jail, and I was the hero of the hour, although I could not claim much credit for personal valor in the matter.

Was it Fate or Providence that befriended me? But for my presentiment, or what ever it might be, I should have urged Frank’s immediate return to my anxious betrothed. But for her loving anxiety he never would have come down on such a night. But for the dog one of us must have been killed. And first of all, but for the instinctive sense of danger the telegraph wires would never have spoken a warning to my excited fancy; and this manifest feeling of apprehension, though I strove hard to conceal it, held the man in the box at bay.

The practical result of the episode was a more commodious station-house, and more men on duty. My salary was raised; but eventually I gave up the situation because my wife could never feel satisfied to have me perform night work after the fearful experience I have related.

As to Frank, he is not backward with explosive English whenever the subject is mentioned, and no amount of persuasion could ever reconcile Cato to the station-room.

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