The unexpected call of the train whistle raised the concern of the men that quiet morning. The sun was just beginning to shine through the branches of the surrounding trees. One, two, three, the whistle shrilled again. He turned and stared at the man across the tracks with a questioning shrug. The man hung the water dipper on the twig and wiped his mouth and dripping beard on his sleeve. He shook his head quickly, not saying a word but listening, carefully listening. Time seemed to stand still as questions flooded his thoughts. He glanced around the area and saw the two men at the woodpile frantically scanning the forest edge all around the area, eyes wide, peering deep into the foliage of spruce and pine trees, also listening. Time. He glanced to his side and at the same time felt for the revolver at his waist. There was his rifle propped up against the trunk of the nearest tree. A survey of the railroad line that was clear for about a mile to the west and about the same to the east gave no hint as to any trouble. Time. He pulled the watch from his pocket and snapped it open. 9:05, nothing special about that except the train was due in later this morning, though not much later. Additional whistles in quick succession, one, two, three, ripped through the still morning and cloudless sky and reverberated off the hills around. One, two, three. The cry went up amongst those in the area to lend aid to whomever was calling from the train. It seemed everyone grabbed their weapon whether it was a rifle or club or axe and ran up the railroad tracks.
The tracks were narrow, and the hillside cuts were steep with barely enough room alongside the outside edge of the railroad tie therefore running down the center made the most sense. The terrain in the Black Hills was a rugged area with unpredictable outcroppings of hard slate interspersed with tall, lanky pine trees and bushy spruce tree branches.
In some areas around the railroad tracks where the ties were bedded into the grade the ground was fairly flat and easy to traverse the gentle slopes. However, in others, the rock walls were steep cuts with sloughing slate and shale and tight bends. The small group, about sixteen men of various ages and abilities, ran at a full gallop down the tracks in the direction of the whistle. The shrill steam whistle repeated the call for emergency, one, two, three, pause and it began again. The running men were unsure exactly what would be found but the wide sweeping gestures of the man in front encouraged onward progress without the need for speech. That was a good thing as the work already completed this morning would have been a full day’s work for most men in other parts of the country, but here, the morning work was just what came before the afternoon work, which ended the day after the evening work was completed. All to say, the dash down the railroad tracks was taxing even for the men in this part of the country just getting their workday started. The first part of the run was about a mile before the big bend of track through the steep cut, which was such a deterrent now. No one could see far enough ahead and the seemingly never-ending bend in the track hid much of what could be happening. His heart pounded in his chest with nervous anticipation, but his legs easily covered the distance between railroad ties in an even cantor. The most tiresome part of the run was the awkward swing of his rifle and the pinch of his pistol in his belt and wedged across his waist. In this part of the country at this time in history with the unusual insistent scream of the train whistle, a man could not be without defense of any kind. The fellow alongside him had his axe, which, he surmised, would be an even more awkward weapon to run with. A few more yards and the bend may begin to reveal the activity and he began to slow just a bit. Today was not a day he wanted to run into a gun fight nor the front end of a narrow-gauge train. He scanned the terrain around the group of men as they continued to hurry on. The narrow cut through the solid rock began to open up along the southern side which could offer a place for cover if needed yet the northern side of the cut was still so severe there would be little cover unless a man were flat on his belly between the rails. With his hat off. Any other time, this bend had offered the small community of Woodville solitude and privacy to continue the prospecting and logging efforts only interrupted by the daily passing of the train. The train traveled into and out of the bustling towns of Lead and Deadwood with exchanges and sidings along the route. Mail was the most anticipated delivered item, second only to the pay that was being sent out from the Mine for the timber these men had supplied. The pay train! The idea hit him like a club in the head and he almost missed the next railroad tie ahead of him. Not just the pay train for themselves for their timber, but the pay for those folks further down the line to the east from Branch Mint and to the south. He looked back at the men running with him as the group began to gather into a tighter group. There was one man leading, a few strides ahead, then he and the axe wielding man, then the remaining numbers in the group. The last part of the bend was approaching, and the group skidded to a halt. Chests heaving there were no words to speak only frantic hand signals and finger pointing, guns and rifles and axes and clubs being ready for something, though, who knew what exactly. The train whistle had been getting louder, especially now that the bend was just beginning to end. Another man, panting, stepped forward as if on a stroll, just to get eyes on the situation, if this were the location. He had his right arm down with his hand behind his behind signaling his group into the north side of the cut. Here he, and the other three men, rested to catch their breath and waited for a plan. Some of the men had moved behind the slope for cover on the southern side of the tracks and were hunched over. They were shuffling along in the brush trying to be as invisible as possible behind anything to get eyes on the commotion. As his breathing quieted, the shouting began to be heard in the distance, about five men raising demands and two men responding in opposition. The lead man of the group from Woodville signaled a five, then five guns, train, then two, then two guns. Train! Five! Two! The few men with him along the steep rock cut readied their weapons, the men on the southern embankment increased their speed no longer concerned about remaining out of sight. That group and the solitary strolling man each dove for a tree or rock outcropping to set up behind. About 100 yards is all they needed, an easy shot with most Winchester rifles carried by the group. He touched his pistol making sure it was still snug in his belt. In his group there was just his rifle but two axes and a club and it was his group that would rush up to the commotion and the others would offer cover. He signaled to his small group the countdown, then they rushed around the cover of the bend and toward the train and its challengers. Loud whoops and a single rifle report announced their arrival which at first glance appeared small. The five on the ground spun around brandishing their weapons with tough looking scowls and promises of grim consequences for the interruption. There were two men hanging out the windows of the engine. Each was trying to gain a target on their attackers who were just outside their rifle sights. His small group were quite the sight with just one rifle though the large axe wielded by capable hands was easy to discount as dangerous. A mistake for sure. The Five were not impressed, though at first caught off guard. They quickly returned their attention back to the engine, except for the one who trained his weapon on him as he shouldered his Winchester 1873. The hidden men from Woodville hollered and offered a shot at the foot of the single man facing him. That skillful shot got his attention and he lost contact with his target as he dropped both this eyes and his weapon. Novice. He sighed. The report of the rifle also got the attention of the four who had the arrogance to turn their backs to him and the small group of visible men. Their sneers turned to panic as the other dozen or so men stepped up and out from behind their cover. With a quick glance to one another, the Five reluctantly, but hurriedly dropped their weapons with two of the group of Five dashing away into the forest. The club wielding man rushed forward to kick away or snatch up the remaining attackers’ weapons while the axe men closed in. The two that tried to flee ran right into the rifle sights of the quickly emerging group. The engineer and the fireman were sliding down the ladder to the ground surveying the damage. The Five had managed to pull the spikes from the railroad tie plates and released the rails. The train had split the rails and came to rest on the ties, the engine completely on the ground and a few cars. The Five had intended to steal the pay that was on the train and make off into the rugged country to count their gold and notes and celebrate. However, their scheme was foiled by the responsive locals from Woodville and the engineer who signaled with the narrow-gauge train’s whistle. The Five were held in an informal form of custody, and none too comfortable of custody. He saw to that.
At least that is how I imagine it would have gone as I rest in the shade of a birch tree along the now-abandoned railroad line. In this area, from my perch atop an outcropping of rock, I am provided a glorious view of the surrounding country. The long and narrow cut with the impressive bend reminds me of the story from my Dad and the attempted train robbery near the town of Woodville along the narrow-gauge railroad bed turned trail. The courageous residents of Woodville responded to the rifle reports in the early morning and saved the pay and the lives of the engineer, fireman, and brakies from the thieves who really did remove the spikes from the tie plates and waited for the train to derail. There is so much history here in my backyard, the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota.