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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Pass Came too Late

By Edgar Wilson (Bill) Nye (1850–1896)

[Born in Shirley, Me., 1850. Died in Arden, N. C., 1896.]

’TWAS just after the Thornburg massacre on Milk River, and some time subsequent to the ghastly horror of the White River Agency, and while we were the neighbors of the mild, gentle Ute, the low-browed but loving Ute, who murdered poor old Agent Meeker, and dragged his gray head through the clay with a log-chain about his neck afterward, because he had, in a cruel and harsh spirit, asked the whole White River tribe to hoe two acres of their own potatoes!…

Our town being more or less of a mining town, and the Utes, especially under Colorow, the wickedest unhung murderer west of the Missouri, having prior claims to a good deal of our mining district, which seemed to curse the most of us with doubt when we went into a prospect hole, as to whether we would ever come out alive or not, we were watching the reports with a good deal of interest, and doing very little general prospecting.

It was at the close of one of these apprehensive days that a healthy but plebeian-looking party, weighing about two hundred pounds, rapped softly, and then came into the dugout which we called our office.

I will call him St. Aubrey, because I do not exactly recall his name, and because I can just remember that he was an Englishman with a French name. He was a “low-sot” man with an air of neglect about his clothes, such as most anybody would have after dining and dressing out of a hollow-chested pack-saddle for six months, during which time he hadn’t seen a white man or a Chinese laundry.

I was sitting on a frontier chair, made of a pine butt with a strap handle nailed on the top, and administering a dose of kerosene to my “weepon,” when Mr. St. Aubrey came in.

He didn’t try to look pretty, like a toy cowboy with a chamois shirt and a nine-dollar sombrero with wattles on the side, or wear soft buckskin pantaloons, trimmed with beads. He was homely, I’ll admit, and onery as you might say, with a tendency toward gastric preponderance. His eyes were small, and he had a contour like a woodchuck or a prairie-dog after a prosperous season. He had the air of a man who might be in search of more means, and so he didn’t impress me very well, for I had been doing a pretty active business in the way of assisting deserving but busted young people down toward San Francisco, and then when they had been hungry enough there, and at the same time jobless, I had helped them to get back to the States, where the home-nest was just suffering to receive them. So I was coy when Mr. St. Aubrey said he had called to see me, bearing a note of introduction from the managing editor of the Denver “Tribune.” I did not flush with that keen sense of general jubilee that had soaked into my system when such a letter was presented to me earlier in the season.

I controlled myself, and kept on swabbing the cylinder of my great blood-purifier and self-cocking arbitrator. He didn’t get mad. He remained patient, and bided his time.

He said he was a newspaper man. I said yes, this seemed to be a good year for newspaper men. Several hundred of them had gone to San Francisco during the past twelve months in palace cars, returning later on in a more deliberate way, by means of the old overland dirt road. I had been the humble means of half-soling and rehabilitating several myself.

Mr. St. Aubrey did not seem to squirm or get irritated. He just quietly looked at me, and waited for me to read the note of introduction. I didn’t read it, though, for I am prejudiced against letters of introduction generally, knowing as I do that they are frequently written under duress, and that between the lines there is ever and anon a dumb appeal for the recipient to kick the bearer across a wide sweep of country, in the interests of humanity.

“And so you are going on over to the coast, Mr. St. Aubrey?” I asked, feeling certain that he was, and that the meaner I could treat him now the less likely he would be to assess me on his way back in the fall.

“Yes, sir,” he said. “I am the correspondent of the Liverpool ‘Courier.’ I’ve got a whole lot of letters here from prominent Americans, if you would like to look them over.”

He then produced a red cotton handkerchief, containing about forty letters, with tear-stains and bacon gravy on the outside. I waved them aside, stating that I had so far kept myself aloof from prominent people, mixing up more with the lowly, as a general thing, where I could have fun.

He took it all in good part, and put the letters back in his pocket. After a while I asked him if he had his special car this trip, or did he expect to overtake it on the way? He said he was just travelling in a plain way by himself, and that while the overland train was taking twenty minutes for supper, he had run in to see me.

“And so you have missed your supper to drop in here?”


“Well, what can I do for you?” I asked, feeling apprehensively in my pocket.

“Oh, nothing special. I wasn’t very hungry, anyhow, and I thought I wouldn’t go through without seeing you and shaking hands with you.”

Well, to be brief about it, I put on my hat and strolled down to the train with him. He talked like a cultivated American, and when he said that he was an Englishman, in spite of his odd name, I could not believe it, for he didn’t talk at all like our domestic Englishman.

Casually he remarked that he was paying full fare on the railroad, and asked if I thought he ought to do so, considering that he was a newspaper man, with the proper credentials. As the local fare was then ten cents a mile, it cut into the profits, and he wondered if he couldn’t at least get half rates. I then looked over his credentials, and feeling sure that he was entitled to privileges, agreed to introduce him to the division superintendent.

As soon as we came in, I knew that it was a gone case, for the superintendent showed on his face that he would grant no favors to Mr. St. Aubrey. He said he was sorry, and all that, and in fact did have that pained look which a superintendent wears when his whole being gets upon its hind feet and yearns to give a man a pass, but stern duty just simply will not let him do it.

By that time I began to take an interest in St. Aubrey, especially as it seemed to me that he was a quiet, modest man, who had some local pride in himself, though it did not run in the direction of clothes. So I said to him:

“You just telegraph to the general passenger agent, and I’ll vouch for your credentials, and you can have your pass meet you at Green River to-morrow for breakfast.”

He thanked me and forthwith did so. I will add that the pass was there waiting for him when the train came in, but he was not on the train.

The next day I got a note from him stating that he had stopped off at Rock Creek, only a few miles up the road, and was working with a section gang for a couple of days, to get the experience and write it up for his paper. The note was full of massive English humor, which went to my heart. You know how pathetic some English humor is. Well, it was so with this note. It had parenthetical explanations of preceding humor, and full directions, and a little oil-can, and side-notes, and everything that ought to go with an English joke.

All that he had said to me, and all the letters I had seen introducing him, had failed to move my stony heart, but when he began to joke with me, my eyes were moist, and as I finished the letter I began to pity him.

Moreover, I feared that he was concealing the truth from me, and that behind the light and flippant mask of his kiln-dried humor he strove to hide the fact that he was stranded at Rock Creek, and couldn’t reach his pass at Green River until he had put in a week on the section.

That same day I got a letter from the editor of the “Tribune” saying that St. Aubrey was up our way somewhere, and that he had been for the past six weeks travelling alone through the hostile hill country, with no human being near him except a pearl-gray pack jack, which was almost like no society at all, and that on a saddle horse he had made the trip through from the Milk River massacre and the White River Agency, seeing and writing up everything for his paper, which was just about like going through the regions of the damned, lengthwise, with a two-gallon bomb in each coat-tail pocket, writing up the general aspect and resources of the country. In other words St. Aubrey didn’t care a speckled anathema for danger, while we people, with a garrison two miles away, didn’t dare to go to church for fear we would be killed before we could get there and get our sins forgiven.

I wrote to St. Aubrey and told him that I feared he needed money, and was too poor to ask for it, and I asked him to tell me candidly about it, as I knew where I could get some under the circumstances. I even went so far as to tell him that I had just sold my interest in a stove-polish mine at Sabile Pass for nine dollars, a part of which had already been paid in on the property, and that if four dollars would be of any use to him, to so state by note sent at once care of conductor on Number 6.

The letter was on his body when we found him.


The day following he had drawn his pay as a section man, and at evening had tried to get aboard the west-bound emigrant train as it left Rock Creek. In the uncertainty of night his foot had slipped, and when we found him, the whole pitiful story was clear to us all. The wheel had gone over his right arm and right leg, and then pushed him into a culvert. Realizing that it was a question of a few agonizing hours—hours which he could spare himself—he had reached around to his right hip pocket with his left hand, and with his English bull-dog cut short the little tragedy.

In his pocket we found the letters which neither the superintendent nor I had cared to read, all strong and cordial indorsement of a brave and modest man, and in the bosom of his gray flannel shirt there was another letter of indorsement more powerful and more tender than all the rest. It came entirely unsought, from a warm, true heart away in England. It did not state in formal terms that the bearer was a man of integrity and worth. It did not say that he was entitled to respect and esteem, but in every line, and between the lines, it said:

“You are all I have in the world. Your life is my horizon. Should anything befall you, the sun will shine no more for me. Take care of yourself, not alone for yourself, but because if you were never, never to return, the daylight will come to me no more until we meet again beyond all this.”

Soiled with frequent handling and powder-burned on one corner, and with a bright red stain on the envelope, lay his most powerful and most beautiful letter of indorsement, and in his pocket the little he had earned as a section man—too little to pay his fare to Green River—and that was all.

In the shadow of the Snowy Range, where the hoary heads of the Rocky Mountains are on terms of eternal intimacy with the blue sky, on the high plateau, near the shore of the waterless sea, where the grass is greenest and the cactus blossoms through the snow, St. Aubrey is buried.

That is all.

In the little frontier graveyard, where most everybody, according to the tombstones, seems to have been “killed,” and where very few have “died,” lies young St. Aubrey.

A two-line cablegram in the English paper broke the heart that beat for him alone.

There is no moral to this story. It is just a plain tale, true as to every detail so near as I can recall it after ten years. There is no more to tell. The tragedy was a brief one, and many a weather-beaten cheek browned by prospecting across dazzling snow and against keen mountain winds was wet as the curtain went down, and the ghoulish undertaker jerked the leather lines from under the cheap coffin, and kicking a few yellow clods of mountain soil into the shallow grave, drove away.

But out of it all came the calm and unruffled railroad “one trip-pass ahead.”