Western Short Story
“Are you having trouble sleeping?”
The little boy curled up against his pillow in a state of embarrassment mixed with fear. “Yes,” he almost whispered.
His mother sat on the bedside and stroked a swatch of hair on his forehead. “Do you want your ants scratched?” she said.
This was code. The boy and his mother had established that phrase for the times he’d wake in the middle of the night, swimming in the anxiety of one of his night terrors, when instead of confessing to fear he’d call for his mother and say his back itched, so would she come and scratch it for a while. By the time the itch went away, so did, usually, the fear.
He rolled over and she lifted his shirt. “You know, your grandfather is here.”
“Yes. And you know how he is. Sometimes the doorbell rings and you go out and there he is, unannounced, unexpected, with a big smile on his face.”
“That’s him all right.”
“Loves the element of surprise.”
She stretched his shirt back down to his waist and patted his back. “Enough for the ants?” she said.
The boy was still on edge but didn’t want to admit it, so he just said, “Okay.”
She sensed his reluctance and continued rubbing his back a little longer. “You know what?” she said.
“How would you like it if I ask grandpa to come tell you a story?”
The boy turned back over and looked at his mother. “His stories are always so hard to believe,” he said.
“They are not supposed to be believed, not entirely anyway.” She smiled the dreamy kind of smile that contained her own memories of childhood and bedside stories. “He elaborates a lot,” she said.
“Is that another word for lying?”
She laughed. “Oh. Don’t be so hard on him. He means well. Besides, his stories are intended to take you places that true stories can’t. That’s what makes them interesting.”
“If you say so.”
She smiled broadly.
The boy looked out the window, contemplated being alone in the dark once more and said, “I guess you can send him in.”
The grandpa skipped in the room, danced to the bedside and sat in the chair. He put his hat on the bedside table. “Ready for a story, Chipper?”
“That’s not my name.”
“That’s why I like it. What’ll it be this time?”
The boy looked at him with curiosity and mischief. “Let’s see if you can tell me a story about Sam Bass,” he said.
“Sam Bass! How the hell. . . pardon me. . . He cleared his throat and started again. “How did you hear about him?”
“We talked about him in school this week. He was quite famous around here.”
“That he was, my son. That he was, right down the road in Round Rock. Right?”
“Right. Do you know anything about him?”
“A bit? Oh, no.”
Grandpa stoked his chin. “Love that little flash of enthusiasm you just showed. But as it happens, I know quite a bit about Sam Bass.”
The kid looked at him skeptically. “How do you know about him?”
“Never you mind. We’ll get to that later.” He rubbed his hands together. “Ready to go?”
“All right, then. Turns out Mr. Bass was born in Indiana.”
“Is that the truth?”
“Truth. What? You don’t trust me?”
The boy stroked his chin in a direct imitation of his grandfather. “Sometimes,” he said.
“Very wise, my boy. Very wise. But, turns out, it’s true.”
“But you haven’t got started yet.”
“Where was I? Oh, yes. Born in Indiana. Orphaned at 12 or 13, and then he and his sisters lived with an uncle who already had nine children of his own.”
“Is that even important? Nine children of his own?”
“Everything in a story is important. It’s there for a reason. In this case, it tells you he probably didn’t have much of a parent, or maybe even not much love as a child. . . he had to kind of make it on his own, whatever he decided to do in his life. Anyway, he left home at 18 and went down to Mississippi.”
“What about school.”
“Never had any.”
Grandpa laughed. “You might think differently about that when you get a little older.”
“Don’t count on it.”
Grandpa nodded and continued. “Mississippi. Worked in a mill. Learned how to handle a pistol and how to gamble at poker.”
“Those two always go together?”
“Often do, and often lead into big trouble. Okay. So he always dreamed of being a cowboy so he struck out for Texas and started working for the Sheriff around Denton.”
“Sheriff! How does an outlaw work for a sheriff?”
“He wasn’t an outlaw yet. That comes later.”
“What made him an outlaw?”
“Ah. Now you’ve hit the home run.”
“Hit on the hard question.”
“What’s the answer?”
Grandpa chuckled. “Do you want me to tell the truth or make something up?”
The boy looked disgusted. “Just do what you want.”
“Maybe he met a girl.”
“You’re making that up.”
“Maybe her name was Blossom.”
“Blossom! Now I know you’re making it up. What kind of a name is that for a girl?”
“There’s a lot in a name, son. When you hear the name Blossom you think of beauty, springtime, love in the air.”
“Ugh. Now you’re getting syrupy. Blossom. Does that mean she smelled good?”
He raised his hand. “Don’t worry, I can take your sarcasm. Reminds me of myself when I was your age. Meanwhile my story is having an impact on you, I can tell.”
“Look. He was lucky to have a girlfriend. The only picture I ever saw of him he looked like a beanpole, tall and thin with a black hat on his head. He looked like a deer in the headlights.”
“Okay. So this is getting really crazy.”
“So, do you want me to stop?” He raised his eyebrows and started to get up.
The boy spoke quickly, gesturing with his hand. “Well, I guess I’ll let you keep going a little while longer.”
“Okay. So Blossom followed him around. She went with him on his teamster trips.”
“What’s a teamster?”
“Nowadays, they drive trucks. Back in Sam’s day they drove wagons, hauling goods from one part of the state to another. Hard work. Twelve hours a day for two bucks. And they had to be responsible for their goods if they got lost or stolen. It was kind of a blessing that Blossom accompanied him on these trips.”
“It was on these trips that he learned the roads, and, more importantly, the back roads, and trails, and caves and mountain passes all over Texas. That would come in handy later.”
“Why was that important?”
“Well, he had a reputation of disappearing after he had robbed a store or a train. Nobody could find him. That was because he knew the trails nobody but the Indians knew.”
“You haven’t got to the part of his becoming a robber.”
Grandpa leaned back and regarded the boy with curiosity. “Why you so interested in his outlaw life.”
“Well, that’s the fun part, isn’t it?”
Grandpa nodded. “I’d have to say you’re dead right about that. There’s a strange curiosity about that issue that a lot of us human beings have, I don’t know why. . . and maybe we have a little guilty respect, too, for those that can accomplish it with an artistic flare. Okay. So here goes.”
“So Sam Bass was good at a few things but bad at a lot of other things. One thing he was bad at was keeping his money. He spent it all on gambling and booze. . .” Grandpa paused and then spoke behind his hand “. . . and women he met in the bars.”
“What happened to Blossom?”
“Oh, she kicked him out ‘cause he could never settle down.”
“That wasn’t kind.”
“So you kinda like Blossom.”
“I don’t even know her. But she’s interesting.”
“Okay, so maybe we’ll bring her back later.”
“I knew you were making this up.”
Grandpa furrowed his brow but went on. “Well now, around Denton he was considered thrifty.”
“Hey, wait a minute! I thought you said he spent all his money.”
“I see you’re paying attention. That was later.”
“You’re not telling the story straight.”
“That’s because I keep getting asked questions.”
“Okay. I get it. Go on.”
“Well, he bought him a racehorse and won a whole bunch of races with it which make him kind of well to do. He left Denton and went to San Antonio where he befriended a guy and decided to drive some cattle up to Nebraska to make a little more money. You see, they had lots of cattle in Texas but not so many in Nebraska so the money was good. Well, they sold the cattle, but instead of returning to San Antonio and paying off their debts they lost it all on speculations.”
“What does that mean?”
“Buying land or businesses expecting to make money that didn’t happen.”
“What did they do?”
“That’s when it started.” Grandpa paused. “You see, young man, dreams are made of many shapes. If the first one, being a cowboy for example, doesn’t work out, then the second one will do.”
“Did he say that?”
“He might have. Anyway, that’s how he acted. You see, they figured there was a lot of money traveling by coach or rail so why not help themselves to some. So he started robbing stages.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that. They made a little money, had a pretty good time doing it, he seemed to fit right in to that kind of life, maybe even got a thrill from facing danger and pulling it off anyway. And then, and then. . .” he leaned closer “. . . they struck it rich.”
“Now we’re getting to the good part,” said the boy.
“Six guys held up a train and came away with 60,000 dollars of freshly minted gold coins headed from San Francisco to a bank back east.”
“Only it didn’t make it did it?”
“It surely did not! So they divided up the loot and split, going separate ways two-by-two. He went back to Texas and started this own gang robbing stages and trains.”
“How did he get away with all that?”
“Why, don’t you believe he had special powers?”
Grandpa nodded. “You might be right about that. But he was smart. You see, back in Nebraska, Joel Collins and his partner went one direction and they were shot. James Berry and Nixon went another. Berry was captured, Nixon probably made it to Canada. Sam and Jack Davis headed back to Texas in a one-horse buggy, hiding the money under the seat. They were stopped by a bunch of soldiers and lawmen looking for the robbers of that very same train but Sam managed to convince them that they were looking for the robbers too. They ’joined the hunt’ and later, while they weren’t looking, managed to slip away.”
“That’s funny. Him joining the hunt to hunt for himself.”
“He managed to convince them. Don’t know how, but he did.”
“So he kinda did have a little magic power.”
“Yeah, maybe. But you see, an interesting thing happened. The people started liking him.”
“Liking an outlaw? How’s that possible?”
“Oh, it’s very possible. But it’s a little complicated.”
“I can take it.”
“I know you can, son.” He stopped and stroked his chin again. “Here’s what I think. The railroads and the stages were not liked at all by the people because they cost a lot of money and they just seemed to be making the rich richer and the poor, who had to kind of stand by unable to do anything about it, a lot poorer.”
“They didn’t like the rich.”
“Not one bit. You can imagine why. The rich sat in their expensive homes in San Francisco or New York and pushed their railroads through the ranchland and the farmland of the people, ran their stages where the people couldn’t make fences. They had the government on their side, too, probably bribed a few congressmen. . .”
“Just like today.”
“Yee haw,” said Grandpa and slapped his knee. “You’re more grown up than I thought.”
The mother peeked in the door. “I heard some yelling in here. Everything all right?”
The boy and the grandpa both laughed.
“Just got a little carried away—excitement and all that,” said Grandpa.
She put her hands on her hips and raised one eyebrow. “Just so I don’t have to think somebody is dying in here.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” said Grandpa, and turned back to the boy.
“Anyway, the money they made building railroads and running stages all went into the rich folk’s pockets with very little filtering down to the people. It’s always a mistake to assume the rich will be generous. Besides, in order to get very, very rich you usually have to step on the backs of a lot of people along the way. That doesn’t win friends. So the people were only too glad that someone was able to take money from them. Besides, it was, at least in the imagination of the people, an exciting life stealing from guys that they referred to as The Robber Barons. Think about it, riding a horse alongside a train or forcing a station master to give an emergency stop signal, then boarding the train, and taking what you want. Halting stagecoaches and making off with the booty.” Grandpa stopped and scrutinized the boy with one eye open. “Maybe you don’t like this part, but the women found him irresistible.”
“I can like that, all right.”
“Ha!” Grandpa did a little double take, and then continued. “You see, people dream about excitement like that, and secretly wish they could ride along with the gang because their own lives were kind of boring. That’s why we like stories, isn’t it? They fill the imagination with excitement. And there was plenty of excitement when it came to Sam Bass. Anyway, stories began to spread about his deeds.”
“Some true, some not so true?”
“That’s how legends get started.”
“So people hid him out?”
“They did! Or, so suspicioned the Texas Rangers who were trying to find him and weren’t having much luck.”
“Remember those trails and back roads.”
“That started a pretty successful career, robbing trains and stages, sometimes banks and stores all over Texas. And he got famous, or notorious, maybe both.”
“Famous for bad things.”
“But were they altogether bad?”
“Well now, that depends on your point of view. For the folks that got robbed they were. For the folks who were glad to see those people get robbed they kinda liked it. Besides, there was the adventure part of it that attracted people. Kinda like the Robin Hood story.”
“Don’t know that Sam Bass gave anything to the poor.”
“Don’t know that he didn’t. I know that he did have a good heart. One time as he was escaping a gun battle he saw a little girl playing in a tree. He stopped and told her to get down and go home in order to stay out of danger.”
The boy was quiet for a while. Grandpa could see his wheels turning and decided to give him room to think about whatever he was working on. After a minute, the boy turned a sad face to the man.
“But they caught him, didn’t they.”
“Most robbers have a short but electric life. Some get away. Most don’t. He got betrayed.”
“What does that mean.”
“Does the name Judas mean anything to you?”
“Sure. Judas Iscariot who gave up Jesus.”
Grandpa chuckled. “I see you been to Sunday School.”
“Too many times, I’d say.”
He smiled. “Boring, I know. Usually taught by boring people. But sometimes you pick up some really important ideas.”
The boy was quiet a moment. He sighed.
Grandpa watched him. “Is this story scaring you?”
The boy stayed silent a moment longer. Directly, he raised his shoulders, took a deep breath and said, “I guess you better tell me how it all ends.”
“Otherwise I’ll stay awake wondering.”
“Gotcha. Okay. Well, this all happened after the Civil War and Restoration was in full force. People were concerned about living an organized life with less wildness, less outlaw sort of stuff, you know, so the clamps clamped down and the politicians ran on platforms that talked a lot about law and order. The Texas Rangers sensed that competition to their weak organization would result from all this so they organized a special force designed to trap and get rid of Sam Bass.”
“But he was slippery, remember?”
“I do remember. And that worked for him. This period was called the “Bass War” and it was those events that became the stuff of legends. Bass led the Rangers on long chases with narrow escapes. He would suddenly surface in one area then disappear when things got a little tight, only to show up somewhere else. The pursuers were inept and the terrain was difficult and, don’t forget, he could rely on his knowledge of all those trails and back roads. He was so slippery that when things got really tight he fooled them by leaving North Texas altogether and going down to Round Rock to set up shop.”
“How’d they find out about that?”
“Ah, now that’s when this Judas business set in. You see, the Rangers conducted a sweep of the houses suspected of harboring gang members and they came upon a house owned by one Jim Murphy and his father, Henderson. They got a tip that they hid Sam and his gang from time to time so they took both of them to Tyler and put pressure on Jim to rat on Sam.”
“He wouldn’t rat on his friend, would he?”
“Well, not ordinarily. But there’s a rumor that Jim’s father was pretty ill and the Rangers might have threatened to withhold medical treatment that could save his life if Jim didn’t cooperate.”
“That’s dirty pool.”
Grandpa leaned back and looked down at his thumb picking at a wart on his hand. “Well, not all lawmen are pure as the driven snow. So, I guess that silver star of the Texas Rangers gets a little tarnished over this.”
“I don’t like how this is going.”
“Nobody said life would be easy. Do we stop here?”
Grandpa leaned back. His eyes lit up with a mysterious look that the boy couldn’t figure out. He spoke in deliberate tones. “So Jim went back into the gang and when they were moving down to Round Rock he slipped away somehow and posted a letter of betrayal to the Rangers who sent down some men to intercept Sam and the gang.”
“So there was a battle.”
“Just like in the movies. Now, it’s important to know that up until this time Sam Bass had never killed a man.”
“Never had. But when a guy recognized him buying tobacco in a general store in Round Rock and drew his gun Sam and some of the members of his gang shot him.”
“Another lawman was getting a shave, heard the shots, ran out into the street with soap still on his face and fired at Sam and his gang. A bullet hit a cartridge in Sam’s belt, split in two parts and went into his body.”
The boy hit the bed with his hand and leaned back, crossing his arms. “Let’s get this over with,” he said.
Grandpa eyed the boy with a sympathetic eye. “Maybe we better save the rest.”
The boy grabbed his pillow and hugged it tight. “I’ve heard ghost stories before and they didn’t do me no harm. Go ahead.”
Grandpa took a deep breath. “Frank Jackson, Sam’s partner, showed great courage then, holding off the Rangers with gunfire while helping his leader, Sam, get on his horse and get away, which they did together. But Sam was badly wounded and out in a field west of Round Rock he got off his horse and lay down. He told Frank to save himself and go on without him but Frank resisted. Sam eventually talked him into leaving, saying that he couldn’t travel, but Frank lingered in the woods nearby watching out for Sam until finally, to save himself, he had to go.”
“They took Sam back to Round Rock where he died the next day. It was his twenty-seventh birthday.”
“Oooh. That’s extra sad.”
“He was buried in Round Rock Cemetery and his sister erected a tombstone with an epitaph written on it, ‘A brave man reposes in death here, why was he not true?’”
“Is it still there?”
“What still there?”
“Well, the people were so taken with Sam that souvenir hunters chipped away at the tombstone until there was very little of it left. They moved that last piece to a museum and erected a granite stone there that nobody bothered.”
“That’s a sad ending.”
“Yes, it is. But if you think about it one way, he lives on in the stories, and the legends, and the songs written about him, and in the celebrations in Round Rock every year that commemorate his life and death. Maybe even in the chips of stone that people save and cherish. Not too bad for an outlaw, I’d say.”
The boy nodded. “What happened to all his gold?”
“Ah ha! Nobody knows! Most people believe it’s hidden somewhere. I can tell you that lots of people have looked for it.”
“How do you know so much about Sam Bass, anyway?”
“It’s a family matter, but that’s a story for a different time.”
A little smile crossed the boy’s face. Grandpa took it as a sign his moment with the boy was over. He put on his hat and headed for the door.
“What ever happened to Blossom?” said the kid.
“Ah, said Grandpa. He turned and raised one finger. “Now that’s an interesting question. Rumor has it she found all that gold.”
“Sam must have told her where it was.”
“I imagine that would be true. Don’t you think that of all the people in the world, he’d want his true love to have it? Anyway, she moved as far away from railroads and stagecoaches as she could, bought a ranch out in Idaho and raised racehorses. Hear tell, she was pretty good at it.”
“Is that really true?”
Grandpa regarded his grandson with penetrating eyes. “Remember, my boy,” he said, and spread his hands to one side, “there’s one kind of truth in facts and another kind of truth in stories. This one has some of both.”
The boy looked perplexed.
“Aww, said grandpa. Listen.” He came back to the bedside and put one hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Here’s something from this story that will take you to a nice, peaceful sleep.”
Grandpa stepped back a couple of paces and lifted one finger.
“Remember?” he said. “Dreams are made of many shapes. If you don’t get the first one. . . .” He gave the boy time to finish the sentence in his head. Then he touched his finger to his brim of his hat and made a little salute.
The boy nodded.
Grandpa nodded back,
and then he turned toward the door. “Goodnight, son,” he said.