Western Short Story
At one minute before 8:00 o’clock on a Monday morning in April, Jasper Wills opened the front door of the Waco Grand Bank, not off by a minute from all his mornings for almost a year, since Mr. Powell gave him his own key and his new assignment. In that time Wills married Powell’s daughter Samantha, had a son he called Lawrence, and built a new house on a piece of land just on the edge of town. That piece of land had been held by Powell sine he had bought it almost 20 years earlier.
Both men were looking down the sunny trail.
On the following day, another bright April morning with the sun at his back, at about the exact same time, as Wills inserted the key in the bank door, a gun was put against the back of his head. He remembered later how cold that pistol bore was against his skin and remembered measuring it against the sun whose April touch he had been enjoying.
“Move inside real quick,” a voice said, “and don’t make any noise. My pal is sitting outside your house right now and you know what that means.” The nudge of the gun into his back was sincere and sharp.
Wills never had seen a gun drawn at the bank, wondered if he’d get shot, wondered who was watching his family, who might be the first customer to come to the bank and set off an alarm about a holdup. His first guess, and his first choice, which he also admitted later on, was Charlie Hussey, the old Waco Deliveries driver who had been, “in half a dozen holdups, but the unsuccessful ones don’t count.” In his prime, Charlie was a snappy gunsmith with pistol and rifle, knew the failures abounding in thieves’ make-up, kept surprise on his side in such confrontations, and talked all the time during attempted holdups as if his nerves had been shot before a trigger was pulled.
Wills felt the jab all the way into a numb subconscious that had set on him as if he had been hit by lightning … it burned down through his whole body. The sudden taste in his mouth was the taste of all the fears he had ever known. Wills knew he was not a brave man; he was just a lucky coin counter who had come along at the right time for the Waco Grand Bank, for Mr. Powell, for Samantha. The sense of total helplessness crawled all over his body.
He wished again that Charlie Hussey would fall from the sky at this moment and rescue him so he could rush home and hug Samantha and Lawrence and then come back to work.
But it was Clara Lukes who came in the door right after the robber and for a few seconds had no idea that a pistol was in play, and in plain sight.
Clara was in her late 60s, carried a cane not so much for walking assistance, but more for self- defense in the city still rife with “bad hombres who would not get a step into my rooming house in a hundred years.”
Clara liked Jasper Wills and Samantha and had seen little Larry a dozen times at the bank or about town. She also had a crush on Reggie Powell since she had come into Waco 30 some years earlier, a widow bent on business, got a hand from the new banker Powell, saw him married, have a daughter, get widowed, and retreat from any real social life. She was, like Charlie Hussey, a daily visitor to the bank. In both accounts their pennies had mounted to a comfortable sum, and each depositor liked to see their money at work by daily visits to the bank. Wills knew it all as a sort of social network; Charlie was a talker and Clara had a crush on his father-in-law.
All the history and makeup of the two customers ran through Wills’s mind, even to the latest tab on the balance of each account, right to the penny. He knew he’d be asked every day, so he was always prepared.
At that thought, noting Clara’s balance was $383.73, Clara spotted the pistol, slammed her cane down on the man’s arm just as Charlie Hussey walked in the door and stepped on the robber’s hand as he reached for his gun. “Don’t do that, son,” Hussey said in his most critical voice, “or I’ll knock you down with a shot right where you least want it.” His gun was pointed right at the robber’s crotch.
Clara said, “Don’t shoot him, Charlie. I don’t like the sound of gunfire.”
Wills yelled at Hussey. “Charlie, he says he’s got a pard who’s watching my house now, got his eye on Samantha and Larry.” His voice was in a high pitch, his eyes leaping loosely in their sockets as if shock was taking hold of him.”
With one swipe of his gun hand to the head, Hussey knocked the robber to the floor of the bank, stuck the gun in his crotch, shoved it hard, and said, “A few questions I got that better have good answers or I don’t care about what Clara here says about gunfire. You will learn the lesson of your life.” He jammed the gun again so that both Wills and Clara flinched at the phantom pain.
“Anything,” the prone man said. “Anything. His name’s Duke Gattling. He’s all mean. He don’t like anything about town life. Hates sheriffs and teachers and ranchers with big spreads. What else you want to know?”
Hussey smiled at his own assessment of the robber. “What kind of side arms he carrying? One or two? When did he shoot a man last? Is he toting a rifle? Where’s he watching the house from? Where’s he keeping his horse? I ain’t waiting all day, mister.” He jammed the man again.
The gasp came back in reply, and then some answers. “He’s settin’ behind the barn, where his horse is tied off. It’s a new mount he stole and they ain’t real pals yet. He ain’t shot any man I know of, but says he has, lots of times.”
“Lots of times saying it or doing it?” Hussey tossed at him quickly.
“Lots of times saying it, like he’s tryin’ to believe it himself.”
“You believe him?”
“No, he’s a liar about some things, from what I know, but he helped me in a holdup once and we been together ever since.”
“Think he’s afraid of anything?”
“He’s afraid of dyin’, I know that. Keeps sayin’ he’ll go down so quick he won’t ever know it himself.”
Hussey smiled and said, “Clara, you go get the sheriff and do it easy-like, with no big fuss, and tell him to walk, not run here. Don’t make no commotion. I’m going after this gent’s pard and I want to surprise him.”
Clara walked out the door like she was on her morning stroll, the cane up under her arm the way proud people declare independence. She waved to an acquaintance across the street, said, “Morning, Sally. You have yourself a nice day today. Mine’s already started.” She waved again.
Hussey said, “Come here, Jasper, and hold this feller’s gun on him until the sheriff gets here.” He handed the gun to Wills, who said, “Charlie, I don’t like guns either,” but he took the gun.
“Jasper, you just think what this guy’s pard might do to Samantha and Larry. Keep that in your mind if he moves so much as a wrinkle on his face. Hurt him where he’s worried about, and think maybe his pard’s got onto something bad already.”
Hussey turned his back on the two men and walked out the door as Jasper Wills aimed his unsteady hand at the man on the floor.
The bank robber did not even frown as Wills’s gun hand continued to shake.
Hussey mounted his horse in no hurry, turned him down the alley beside the bank, came out on another street and galloped behind a whole block of buildings and out of town on a different road from Wills’s road. In less than five minutes he was in the grass between a growth of trees and the barn on Wills’s small homestead.
His old bones were aching a bit as he crawled in the grass that now and then tickled his nose. He prayed he wouldn’t sneeze. He had known Samantha for a number of years and knew she was a good woman and a good mother. She and Jasper made a good couple. Nothing excitable about them from the word go, but pleasant folks of the world. He wondered if Jasper would fire the gun if the robber moved and worried about that. He’d have to corral his pard and get back to the bank as soon as possible. Then he realized that if Clara couldn’t find the sheriff, she’d get somebody else, somebody reliable. She probably had the same view of Jasper as he had.
He saw the horse tied behind the barn, but did not see anybody hanging around. “Probably ducked into the barn,” he thought.
There was no door or loft opening in the back of the barn, so he slipped quietly up to the horse, patted it on the neck, rubbed its mane, untied the reins and draped them over the pommel. Staying flush against the wall of the barn, Hussey waited a few minutes while the horse looked around and then wandered off to the water trough at the side of the barn and began to slurp some of the water. The noise was loud and Hussey heard the man in the barn curse, move against something solid, and heard it fall over on the earthen floor with a thud.
At that minute Hussey heard Jasper Wills screaming, “He’s up there, sheriff. Probably in the barn. That looks like his horse. It’s not one of ours.”
Wills’s horse’s hoofs were beating on the dusty road, along with the sheriff’s horse. The two men were alone. The dust was making small spirals behind them, and down the road Waco looked like another sleepy Tuesday morning about to happen.
Hussey heard the man in the barn curse again, trip again over some other obstacle, the sound coming from the front part of the barn. Hussey slipped down one side of the building and stood watching the door from the corner. A big, rugged looking gent, gun in one hand, was looking at his horse at the water trough, measuring the distance, the time it would take to reach the horse, the sound of Wills’s yelling, the hoof beats of the two horses coming down the road. He made a dash for his horse. Just as he was about to mount the animal, Hussey fired a shot between his feet. The horse shied and took off at a gallop, and the man raised his hands.
“I ain’t shootin’,” he said, put down one hand and dropped his gun belt. He looked down at the gun belt even as his horse went up a rise on the grass.
From the house Samantha came rushing, with Larry in her arms as her husband and the sheriff rode into the front yard in a flurry. She saw Charlie Hussey with a gun at the back of a big man and a horse running across the grass. She couldn’t imagine what had happened all around her. She hugged little Larry again as a glimmer of the morning’s events came to her.
Jasper Wills jumped off his horse and hugged his wife and son. He yelled, “I shot the man, Samantha. I shot him. He said his partner would get even with me for everything. He jumped up, thinking I wouldn’t shoot him, but I did. I shot him.”
Samantha was still caught up in wondering.
Wills looked at Hussey and said, “He’s really hurting, Charlie. Really hurting.”
His eyes were bright as fire and the pride rang in his voice.