Western Short Story
Note: The following record has been reconstructed by Wm. Longley, Sheriff, Houston, as “Information assumed and/or sworn to by witnesses and a recovered victim, all the parts depending on each other like an overview reading of trail signs, and presented at resolution of the incident involved.”
6:00 A.M. Houston woke up in the midst of blistering heat, every window open in every building, hoping for one breath of sweet air, perhaps captured from a valley deep in the far mountains or off the Gulf itself and then aimed to idle across the grass in its sweet contentment. Only cows, coyotes and birds of every color knew the kind of storm being brewed up. Heat was the least of the problems coming their way.
8:00 A.M. Toliver Bushmill, teller at the Houston First Bank, adjusted his collar, then loosened the collar so the boss, Bank Manager Lucien Graves, wouldn’t notice it too soon as he lifted the “Closed sign” and unlocked the door of the bank. Not a soul stood outside in the heat.
8:25 A.M. No customers had come into the bank and Bushmill, usually neat as a good shooter’s gear, and so conscientious about his work that some found him a bit uppity, wondered if the whole day was to be the same. He was sorry he had shaved earlier, the itch setting in as the heat built its own, continuing invasion.
9:00 A.M. In a quick move, Bushmill finished off a cup of coffee that sat at his elbow just below the counter since he had opened the bars on his cage; because the boss, behind the closed door of his office was opening the big safe on the back side of the office, could not see him, and there was not a single customer in the bank.
9:02 A.M. The first customer, not one Bushmill recognized, entered the bank with a black bag , much like a doctor’s bag, and a young woman, exceptionally attractive, came in right behind him. Bushmill put forward the open palm of his right hand, the way he normally invited customers to step up to his window. The man swung the bag up on the counter and said, “I want to make a large deposit, but you’ll have to count the money.” He proceeded to open the bag to show a mass of band-wrapped currency, which made Bushmill smile, as the attractive young lady sauntered toward the bank manager’s office.
9:04 A.M. As Bushmill accepted the package of currency from the man, the woman dropped what was apparently a glass container of some sort that smashed to pieces on the floor with a loud crash. She threw up one hand beside her face in a gesture of surprise and shame, as if she was totally embarrassed, and with the other hand stuck a gun in the face of the bank manager who had flung open the office door. At the same moment the man stuck a gun into the face of Bushmill.
9:05 A.M. The bank was immobilized for but a few ticks of the clock as the man instructed Bushmill to “Dump the bag on the floor and fill it with real money,” and the woman had forcefully jammed her gun into the side of manager Wilkerson and had him, in the same few ticks of the clock, filling a black cloth bag with banded money from the wide-open safe in the back of his office.
9:08 A.M. Nobody else had entered the bank. The man’s black bag was filled with currency, the woman’s black cloth bag was filled with the contents of the safe. When Wilkerson turned to the safe again, the woman hit him on the head with her weapon. He collapsed on the floor. The man by that time had set his bag near the door along with another small bag and ushered Bushmill at the point of his weapon into the office where he was banged on the head and collapsed right beside the manager.
9:10 A.M. Leon Caruthers, at the livery, saw the two customers leave the bank and climb leisurely into a small carriage, the man take the reins and giddy-up their horse, turn the corner of the bank, and go down a side road. It was too damned hot to notice anything else, except the onerous black clouds building up south of town, and a change in the air that suddenly brought him alert to another condition … at the far end of town, where the road forked at a wide spot in the road, a dust cloud had risen like it had “plumb bloomed aloud,” as he told the sheriff later on. (Later, he also remembered something else he had thought at the moment, “that the damned birds had lit out too, not a one around, not a peep, not a wing against the sky, making me think now they’re a helluva lot smarter than we are, reading sign like they do.”)
9:13 A.M. Both Leon Caruthers and the sheriff, Bill Longley, agreed they had noticed a sudden silence in the air, an eerie silence both men attested that captured their attention because of its previously unknown situation, as a horrific wind slammed into town and a terrifying explosion blew out the front of the bank, the fire starting immediately and the just-as-explosive wind tossing that fire like a lit matchstick directly into dusty tinder for immediate ignition.
9:15 A.M. Two men from the back of MaryGrace’s Rooming House, right behind the bank, rushed into the alley and saw the bank on fire, felt the awful wind carrying heat almost claiming them, and Toliver Bushmill stagger out of the bank, his jacket on fire. In the midst of the heat and the wind and the onerous forces seemingly piled atop them, they managed to get Bushmill’s jacket off and the flames stomped out. They staggered off half carrying Bushmill with them, which eventually saved his life.
9:30 A.M. Firefighting, what there was of it in the face of the winds shrieking down the main street and up every alley, was very difficult, but the meager efforts did managed to contain the fire to three buildings, all three totally demolished, and by 10:50 only smoke and an occasional spark rose from the burnt sites.
10:50 A.M. As the last of the flames had been seen, and attention thrown back on Bushmill, those in attendance heard him scream in his delirious condition that the bank was being robbed. The sheriff, when he heard about it a few minutes later, said, “No way I can check that now. Anybody seen Lucien around? He was always there when the bank was opened.” Nobody had seen Lucien Graves.
11:20 A.M. Leon Caruthers said, aloud, to nobody in particular because he was in front of half the town as they stood like muster before the saloon, “Any of you folks hear any birds yet? I ain’t heard a bird since before that damned wind started outside of town, and then the explosion and then the fire. Them birds knew it all along, before us, I bet before the telegraph stopped working, might have been someone trying to let us know a storm was coming on from the Gulf. When he asked if the telegrapher Burt Stubbs was there, Stubbs spoke up and said, “I just had two customers this morning, a man and his lady friend and one message came in when I was checking out back for some lost luggage and I swear this gent could have read the message because he grabbed his girl and run off just as my whole rig went dead. I could hear that much. It ain’t back in place yet, at least not working yet’s far as I know.
11:32 A.M. Someone on the edge of the gathering told the sheriff what Stubbs had said. He asked Stubbs if he knew them and Stubbs said he’d never seen them before. “What time was that?” the sheriff said and Stubbs said it was near 9 o’clock. “Where are those folks now?” the sheriff said to the crowd. Caruthers, up front of the crowd, said, “They left just before everything hit us, like they knew it was coming just like the damned birds I told you about.”
11:35 A.M. After deep thought, the sheriff told Stubbs to see if he could track down the message that came in around 9 o’clock, “when you’re up and running again,” which made it kind of official that he was onto something.
3:20 P.M. With the fire mostly dead, no flames for hours, the force of volunteers went looking for the bank manager. They found him, shriveled and burnt beyond general recognition, on the floor of his office, or what was left of it. The rings on his hands proved that the body was that of Lucien Graves. Burial services were planned post haste, as he had no relatives in town.
3:45 P.M. Outside his office, on the small poster board where he put notices and wanted posters, now completely bare, Sheriff Bill Longley posted a notice that a man and woman, as chief suspects, were wanted for questioning in the robbery of the Houston Bank and murder of the bank manage, Lucien Graves. It is suspected that some kind of bomb or incendiary device was used in the explosion that started the fire when the brunt of the windstorm hit the town.
6:37 P.M. The telegrapher Stubbs reported to the sheriff that a message had been sent along the line advising Houston to expect shortly a terrific storm coming inland from the sea, like a hurricane, which had swept into that location and was bound northwest, toward Houston. The message was sent out at 8:50 that morning, from a telegrapher near Galveston Island, about 50 miles away.
6:55 P.M. Sheriff Longley added to the poster outside his office a statement that said, “The male suspect in this case is assumed to have telegrapher training.”
8:15 P.M. At the saloon, Longley corners Caruthers in a corner and says, “Leon, I’d say you’re the only one who saw the murderers, the man and his woman companion. I want you to go back over every detail and tell me what you can remember about them. I don’t care how damned small a detail it is. Just think about everything you saw. Close your eyes, I’ll buy you another drink, and just try to see what you saw back this morning before we almost lost our whole town. Caruthers closed his eyes, thought a while, tried to bring back images he had seen and forgotten, admitted a lot of stuff got in his way even with his eyes closed, and finally said one thing; “The gent was a lefty. I ‘member how he grabbed the reins of the buckboard, how he handled them.”
8:32 P.M. Longley spotted Stubbs at the other end of the saloon, took him by the arm and ushered him out of the saloon, advising him that he had to send out a telegraph message all along the line.
8:41 P.M. At the key of his apparatus, Stubbs sent out the following message: “Wanted for questioning of bank robbery and murder is a suspect described as a man capable at telegraphic use, is left-handed, and was in Houston on this day traveling with a very attractive woman. It is believed they left for dead a bank manager and a teller. Only the teller survived. Wire any information to W. Longley, Sheriff, Houston.”
6:56 A.M. Burt Stubbs rushed into the sheriff’s office, roused him from sleep in one of his cells, and said, “Bill, I got a message from my old pal Romo up in Humble where his family runs the ferry across the river. He says a man named Carl Locklin was a telegrapher for a while, would rather gamble than work, liked the ladies a little too much, and was seen coming into Humble last evening after being away for several months. He is left-handed and is staying at the Humble Hotel, Room 6. I will not advise anybody until Houston sheriff says so.”
7:31 A.M. Stubbs sent a message to Humble: “Do not advise anybody. I am on the way and will be there in a few hours. Much appreciation. W. Longley, Sheriff, Houston.”