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Western Short Story
The sun was just cresting the mesa on the edge of town, as the men rode past a sign emblazoned with the words Joshua Gulch. Tents dotted a hill that sloped south of buildings set in the small valley. The dust from the men's horses settled in front of collapsed mine entrances as they rode into the small village. A handful of sleepy townspeople strolled around the packed earth Plaza.
Thundering through the town, the riders pulled to a halt in front of an imposing half brick, half clapboard building. The central square structure was inbetween a pair of smaller, mostly brick, wings flanking its entrance. A high, cracked, wooden sign looming over its entrance was emblazoned with the aging, ornate, gilt letters 'bank'. The riders, clad in tan dusters and plaid clothes over their faces, charged in.
The main room of the bank was square with a high ceiling. Ornate molding ran around the top of the bright yellow walls. Nine teller's windows opened from a counter that ran in a horseshoe shape along the sides and back of the room. A vault door of iron was set into the wall to the left of the entrance. another door with a sign reading offices was set into the wall on the right. Half-dozen people milled about the main floor. The riders flooded the center of the room. Several had revolvers drawn, others had shotguns or repeaters. One darted to the windows and, shoving people out-of-the-way, started pulling the green, ceiling high curtains.
The man leading the charge strode up to one of the tellers. The rail thin teller blinked blankly behind the massive brass grating over the oak counter. Customers, all as unfazed as the teller, moved casually out of his way. He pulled a sawed-off double-barreled shotgun out from under his duster and shoved it under the grating.
"My name is Nate Picker." He shouted, cocking the hammers of the gun. "And this here is a robbery."
The teller blithely raised his hands. Other employees and the bank patrons were herded by the other robbers into the middle of the banks lobby. Picker stood at the counter, still keeping his gun on the blasé teller. One of the herded patrons yawned. Robbers exchanged glances.
Picker, was looking about the room, began to grind his teeth. Snapping back to the teller, he shoved the shotgun further forward and growled. "Why ain't none of you people afraid?" His lip curled over yellowed teeth into a sneer. "Y'all but confident in your Marshall?"
"We ain't got a Marshall here in Joshua Gulch." The teller said, eyelids drooping.
"You… You ain't got a Marshall?" Picker laughed. "Then I reckon y'all gonna need a preacher."
"We ain't got a preacher here neither."
"You ain't got a preacher? How the sam-hell can y'all not have a preacher or a Marshall?" Picker slid his gun back a little.
"Well I reckon that's because we got the Rabbi."
"The what?" Picker withdrew his gun, one side of his face squished up.
"Rabbi. He's like a preacher, but a Jewish feller."
"A Jewish preacher? And he's your Marshall? Why the hell y'all got a Jewish preacher?"
"He was a chaplain in the Army of the Potomac. According to the war Department single-handedly stopped a Confederate Regiment. When we heard he'd been to the war, we made him town Marshall. And he gives a hell of a sermon, when we understand what he's saying"
The robbers switched their attention from the heap of humanity in the middle of the room to the teller. Glares and growls were aimed at him. Picker strolled around the counter, took the teller by the caller and pulled him into the middle of the room.
"Y'all this confident because of a Yankee?" Picker sneered. "Well, see here, me and the boys wore gray during the war and we ain't never been whipped by a Yankee."
A muffled voice from the street cut in. Everyone looked towards the front door. One of the robbers, a medium built man with long, red hair and suspenders, rushed to a window beside the entrance. He pulled the blind back. Turning from the window with a half smile, his gun drooped as he started laughing.
"Y'all gotta see this, Nate."
Picker sauntered to the window. Standing in the middle of the road was a medium height, very thin man. He had a thin face, scraggly beard and curls from his scalp in front of his ears. He wore a wide brimmed black hat, long black coat with a black, woven belt tied over it. A pair of very thick glasses, which magnified his eyes, sat on the bridge of his wide nose. Over the coat and woven belt he had a gun belt. A pair of outlandishly disproportionate revolvers were on his hips.
Going slack jaw, Picker turned to the teller. "Who's that?" He pointed, eyebrow raised.
The teller craned his neck and nodded. "That there's the Rabbi."
"Him?" Picker pointed over his shoulder, eyes wide. "You ain't got a Marshall or preacher because of that feller?" He turned back to the window. "He looks like a scarecrow."
The man standing next to Picker smacked the side of his boss's arm. "Nate, you and the boys stay here and clean out the till. I'll go deal with Mr. scarecrow."
The long-haired robber slapped Nate on the back and headed for the door. As the bell over the entrance rang, the teller cleared his throat. "You should tell your friend not to go out there." He said. The other employees and patrons nodded in agreement. "The Rabbi's gonna whip 'em."
Nate chuckled. "Y'all ain't never seen my boy Jake at work. We'll see who gets the dub."
Jake had slipped through the front entrance, and was standing on the top stair. The Rabbi was in the middle of the street. A light breeze blew wisps of dust along the street.
"All right, law man." Jake shouted, drawing his revolver, hammer cocked. "You best step aside. I ain't planned on killing no Bible thumper, Jewish or not, but I will if you get in our way."
"Mamesh, what's with the yelling?" The Rabbi replied in a nasal, high-pitched voice. "You want me to leave, I understand. But the yelling? Oy!"
Jake stared for a moment, blinking repeatedly. His pistol drooped a little. He looked back at Nate, who was shrugging in the window. Turning back to the Rabbi, he said. "I have a gun pointed at you and y'all upset because of how loud I'm being?"
"Robbing the bank? This I understand why you're doing it. But the yelling? Oy! Where's the need?"
Jake blinked again. He slowly rotated his head a bit, mistrusting eyes never disengaging from the Rabbi. "Alright Mr. scarecrow… Er… Jewish preacher feller… Whatever you are, I'm gonna give y'all a chance. I'll let you draw. Sound about fair to you?"
"Mamesh, why not with the drawing?"
Jake paused. "I reckon that means yes." He let his arm dangled, the gun loosely gripped.
The Rabbi shifted his hand over the butt of the gun.
"All right then, Jewish preacher feller."
The two men stood motionless for several seconds. Nate stared intently through the plate glass.
"Wait, wait, wait." The Rabbi said with a wave of his hand. "What's without the timing? How do we know when the time is for drawing the gun?"
Jake let his head tilt to one side. "I'll count to three."
"That's meshugganah." The Rabbi shook his head. "Who makes the counter has an advantage. Let's draw on the chiming of the town clock." The Rabbi then pointed to the City Hall, a dilapidated building down the road with a slightly crooked clock tower. "What's not fair by that?"
Jake slumped, stomping his foot. "The town clock? Y'all been reading too many dime novels! Ain't no one ever draw at the chiming of no dadgum town clock!"
The Rabbi scratched his chin with his left hand. His eyebrows shot up, he stopped scratching. "I've got it, already. I know what we should." He shook his raised left hand, index finger pointing to the sky. "One of us throws a coin in the air, why not. What when it hits the ground, we shoot."
Straightening his back, Jake agreed. "Much better than that there clock chime. Whoever heard of such?" He muttered.
Nate rapped his fingers on the glass. "Something ain't right." He scanned the street. Small pieces of movement caught his eye. People darted through the alley shadows around the bank. "It's a damn set up." He growled.
Nate spun to his compatriots. "That Jewish preacher feller's wasting time while he moves his people into position."
"That ain't it." The teller shook his head. "The Rabbi always works alone. A reckon he ain't ever asked a soul for help."
"You shut your mouth." Nate snapped. "Jed, Billy." He turned to two of the other robbers. "On my word y'all run out and get our horses. Steve, Cole." He looked over his shoulder at two other thieves. "You get all the money you can into bags and be ready to hightail it."
One of the robbers cleared his throat. "What about the safe, Nate?"
Picker ground his teeth. "We ain't got time for it. While that preacher feller kept our attention, we been surrounded." He flattened himself beside the window, shotgun at the ready.
Jake and the Rabbi were searching through their pockets. The robber on the stairs was growling about there not being any coinage when it would be helpful.
Picker gave a muffled snort. "When I smash this here window and shoot, y'all run and grab the horses. The rest of us will follow. Cole, Steve." He turned to the men who were furiously stuffing whatever they could grab into cloth bags. "Y'all leave last. We'll cover you." The two men nodded between greedy handfuls.
At this point Jake had fished a half dollar out of one of his pockets.
"All right, I'll toss this here coin." He held the half dollar out for the Rabbi to see. "When it hits the ground, we shoot."
"What's with the reiteration? Throw the coin already."
Upper lip curling, the robber threw the half dollar. The silver arced through the year. As it tumbled to earth, Jed and Billy started out behind Jake, to the sound of shattering glass. The coin hit the ground. The long-haired robber raised his arm. Nate thrust his shotgun out the broken window. Two shots rang out.
Jake dropped his gun, recoiling in pain. His gun belt, sliced by the ricochet from off his revolver, fell to the ground. Nate, meanwhile, was struggling with his shotgun, a dent in the side of the breach. A loud spring twanging came from the weapons block as he tried to free the hammer. The Rabbi stood there, both pistols drawn, a look of confusion on his face.
"What's with this mishegas?" The Rabbi asked. "What's with the not being good boytshik?"
Nate moved to draw his revolver as the remaining thieves, with bags full of money, rushed out. Jake, still holding his gun hand, remained frozen. Three more shots rang out. Nate's pistol hit the ground outside the broken window with a dull thud. Robbers stopped cold in their tracks as Jed and Billy pulled the horses up. A loud creaking, cracking sound rumbled overhead. Everyone, except the Rabbi, stopped in their tracks.
"What the sam hell is that sound?" Jake asked aloud.
Two more gunshots went off. The Rabbi stood there, guns pointed up and smoking. The robbers slowly traced the angle of the barrels to the decrepit bank sign. Two bullet holes were barely visible in each of the two wooden beams that held up the sign. There was another loud crack.
"Oh hell." Jake gulped. "This has got to be a joke."
As if in slow motion, the sign tottered and fell on the robbers.
* * * * *
The groaning could be heard between drags of a tin cup across the bars of the cell. A line of nervous townsfolk lined the interior. The Rabbi sat at a large, oak desk, filling out a stack of papers. He was now without his hat. His close cropped hair was now capped with the black disk of a yarmulke. Nate, along with the rest of his gang, were crammed into two, small cells. Picker continued to run his cup against the bars.
With a few whispered words, a smile and a wave of his hand, the Rabbi shuffled the townspeople out of the building. After latching the door closed, he turned to the erstwhile robbers.
"A Marshall from the county is coming, to the prison he'll be taking you." Rabbi said, walking up to the cell just outside of arms reach.
"Ain't no surprise in that." Nate said, still running the cup on the bars. "You mind answering one question?"
"Answering one question? Why wouldn't I mind answering one question?"
"How is it some Jewish preacher feller like you is so handy with a gun?" Nate stopped rattling the cup. His comrades gathered around him. "I know you was a chaplain in Lincoln's army and all, but I ain't seen anyone in blue or gray shoot like you did."
"I'm sorry, I'm not following with your question." The Rabbi scratched the side of his head.
"What the sam hell don't you follow?" Nate huffed. "You shot guns out of our hands! You took on my boys and I and won. You can't do that without skill. What I want to know is." He slammed his bare hand against the bars. "How do you aim your guns so well? They say you whipped a whole regiment of our boys during the war. So how did you do it?"
"Aiming? That's with your question?" He shrugged. "What is with aiming?"
"Dang all!" He snorted. "I want to know what your secret is to shootin'! You know… How you make the bullets go where you want!"
The Rabbi tilted his head to one side. His forelocks shifted over his shoulders. "What does a bullet know from aiming? What I do is pull the trigger and the Abeshta does the rest."
"The Aber – who?"
The Rabbi raised his hands, looked to the ceiling and then back to his prisoners. "The Abeshta."
"You mean…" Nate looked up at the ceiling, then back to the Rabbi, and pointed up. The Rabbi nodded. "You mean?" The robber folded his hands as if in prayer.
The Rabbi smiled as he repeated. "The Abeshta."
Nate felt the blood rushed from his face. "So when you took on that regiment… "
"The regiment in the war?" The Rabbi scratched his beard. "I was in the building on the edge of a battlefield, I was. There were a lot of wounded. I collected the rifles from the wounded soldiers and just shot out of the windows at noises. They told me I turned back an attack, but who am I to say?"
Jake, his head wrapped in gauze down to his eyebrows, tottered to the bars beside Nate. His eyes wide, he leaned heavily against the bars. "Did I hear you right? Y'all let lead fly and left the rest in the Lord's hands?"
"Yes." The Rabbi smiled. "With the eyes I do have, aiming is a luxury I don't."
"Your eyes so bad you can't even use your gun's site?"
"Guns have a site now? And what would that be?"
Jake blinked slowly. "Little metal bump on the end of the gun's barrel that you used to line up a shot."
"Is that what the bump is for? Aiming?" The Rabbi looked down at his side arm. "I thought it was to help with the keeping the gun in the holster."
Nate reeled. Jake blinked again. "He had no idea…" Was quietly mumbled by the bandaged bandit.
"You just had faith?" Nate growled at the Rabbi. "Faith that you could take on all of us and win?"
The Rabbi smiled warmly. "I have faith? Of course, it's my profession to have faith." He put his hands on his hips. "I believe that whatever the Abeshta wants to happen, happens. If the Abeshta wants you should shoot yourself in the foot, you will. If you put your pistol." Rabbi held out a hand, his fingers mimicking gun. "Against someone's head and pulled the trigger and the Abeshta wants that you should shoot yourself in the foot, you'll shoot yourself in the foot."
At this point all the former robbers were on their feet, crammed against the bars. Many were open mouthed, some shook their heads. No color had returned to Nate's face. Briefly scratching his temple again, the Rabbi studied the faces of his prisoners.
"You boytshik look all verklempt." His eyebrows raised; he snapped his fingers. "I know! I'll get you all nice bowl matzo ball soup, you'll feel better." He rushed to his coat and hat, which hung off pegs in the wall by the door. "The Rebbetzin, my wife, makes the best matzo ball soup in the territory, she does! Wait to try it, you'll love it!" He slipped to the entrance with a whoosh, the door slamming behind him.
Jake limply smacked Nate's shoulders for attention. "You get the feeling that if everyone in Lincoln's army had been like him, that the war would've been over in a couple of months?"
Nate wiggled his jaw. "I reckon that if everyone in Lincoln's army had been like him, the war would've been over in a couple hours."
The robbers all nodded.