Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
“We ought to rob a train.”
The piano was tinkling as the saloon patrons milled through the poker room. Among the tables of barflies and high rollers, there sat a group of six rumpled, middle-aged men. An empty pitcher of beer and a bowl full of nuts stood over the cards and poker chips.
“Rob a train? You can’t even dig a proper silver mine! How are you supposed to rob a train? You’re out smarted by dirt!”
“Hobble your lip!”
“It isn't as if you were successful. Remember the horse ranch? You spent all your spare money on mustache wax.”
“Don't remind me.”
“You're the only one who's had any success, with your blacksmith shop.”
“My blacksmith business has been going down hill since the silver mines have slowed production and now scuttlebutt is that there's an inspector coming.”
“We're having troubles of our own, the store hasn't been as active as usual.”
“So the mercantile brothers are facing financial woes?”
“Who isn't facing issues?”
“Who wouldn't want to knock over a train? The Lincoln skins would be more than helpful.”
Shouting erupted from the bar. Three ranchers started fighting over who owned what grazing land along a stream. One rancher, his nose bloodied, hefted his opponent and tossed his through the swinging front doors. The defeated rancher landed in the dirt street with a dull thud. Mud splattered the front of the adobe and gray-wood saloon. Pedestrians on the wooden sidewalks dodged the dirt missiles.
A fresh full pitcher of beer was slammed onto the table. Sang Lo, one of the barkeeps and the owner of the saloon, scowled at the motley gathering. He wore a black silk cheongsam with gold brocade trim and patterned leather shoes. A beaten, undersized fedora perched over his weather creased face.
“You don’t plot here!” Sang Lo snapped.
“We weren’t plotting. We were discussing alternative financial arrangements.” Amos Jorgansen elucidated.
The soft spoken Swede leaned back in his chair. Forge dust puffed off his old tidy jacket and beard. The big blonde man exhaled audibly. The other men at the table faced Sang Lo.
“We’re all hurting right now. You can twig it, right Sanlu?” Amos sighed. “We all know that knocking over a train is a bad idea, but if the option is starvation…” His voice trailed off.
Sang Lo grimaced. Amos’ cadre adjusted their waistcoats and jackets. One old miner scratched his dirt stained, gray beard.
“I understand.” Sang Lo relaxed. “I work for three years on railroad and five years in laundry.” He pulled a chair up to the table and sat down. “I save up to buy high class saloon and wind up serving only barfly!”
“Well, the barflies thank you.” Snuffed Dirty Beard.
Sang Lo seesawed his head. Dirty Beard tipped his loam encrusted bowler. Amos smiled and shook his head. Sang Lo gave him a serious glance.
“Why you risk robbing train? You get caught, they hang you.”
“My wife said she would take our kids, and move back to Minnesota with her parents if things don’t get better.” Amos growled. “I’d rather hang than lose my little ones.”
“What about others?” Sang Lo looked around at the seated men.
“I’ve got nothing to lose.” Dirty Beard said. He gathered his suspender to the side and reached into a soiled shirt pocket. He pulled out a small snuff box and took a pinch.
The other men nodded in agreement.
“So, you all insane and willing to die for money.”
“It would seem that way.” Amos said. “Same with you, Jed?”
“It must be.” Grunted the man seated between Dirty Beard and Amos. He was tall, thin and pale. His waxed mustache was the same russet tone as his round-rimmer and belt. “How about you two? You brothers crazy enough to risk your life for a few dollars?”
The two men between Jed and Sang Lo chuckled. One wore a green panel front shirt, the other a white, collared shirt and buckskin waist coat. Both men had long hair, the buckskin wearer's was pulled back into a pony tail.
“Yes, Sanlu, we’re all cracked.” Jed stated. He leaned back in his chair and tipped his hat over his face. “Hiram and John as well, right?”
“Undoubtedly. Right John?” the green shirted man said as he poured a fresh glass of beer.
“Can’t conceal it, big brother.” clucked the buckskin wearer.
“How much you going to take from train?”
“We’ve discussed going after the 4:15.” Amos stated, straightening up in his chair. “Should be carrying about fifteen thousand dollars in silver.”
The table went quiet. Sang Lo’s eyebrows shot up.
“Perhaps I help you.” Sang Lo gave a sly smile. “You plot well, tell me plan later.” He stood up and pushed the chair back. “I have to check on bottles. Workers sometimes steal stock.”
“Of course, I’ll send you a letter.” Amos grinned.
The train whistled as it approached the town. Roof tiles dangled of the edge of the dilapidated station house. Oil lamp residue coated the windows. Creaks came from the loose boards of the platform as Hiram and John paced back and forth. Amos, Sang Lo and Dirty Beard sat on the wooden benches, facing the rail tracks. Several small bags were assembled at their feet. From where they were seated the trio could see John leaning on the railing at the end of the platform. Hiram still paced the floor.
Sang Lo held a crumpled paper in his lap.
We’ve put the plan together. Since trying to rob a train by riding it down on horseback is foolish, we’re going to board the train first. We each bring a bag of weapons and sit in different cars. At 5:15 PM sharp we switch cars, put handkerchiefs over our faces and rob the other cars. You and I will make our way to the engine and stop the train while Hiram and John break the safe and grab the silver. At that time Jed will show up with our horses so we can make our escape. Bring your weapons of choice.
He folded the paper up and slid it into the front pocket of his bag. Amos nudged Sang Lo.
The train’s brakes hissed to life as it rolled into the station dock. The whistle shrieked as the 4:15 rumbled to a stop. Conductors stepped out and started directing people off the cars.
Dirty Beard stood up, bag in hand, and strolled to a conductor. The two men spoke briefly and the bearded conspirator was ushered onto the car amidst the flow of other passengers. Amos and Sang Lo collected their luggage and strode to the car’s door. As the pair reached the entrance to the car, a conductor thrust his arm in front of Sang Lo.
“No Johnnys allowed on board.” snapped the rail employee. He stood about Sang Lo’s height. His willowy limb was resolutely blocking the Oriental bartender. His other hand was resting on his hip.
Amos stepped in front of the conductor. The big Swede slowly, tightly gripped the smaller man’s arm. With a simple twist Amos moved the conductor and put him in a hammer lock.
“Sanlu is with me. If you have a problem with him, you have a problem with me. Understand, friend?”
The conductor looked back and forth from Sang Lo to Amos and back again. Amos’ brow furrowed. The gripped man gave a weak grin.
“Well if he’s with you, I guess he can board the train.”
Amos released the conductor’s arm. The smaller man retracted and massaged his crushed limb. Sang Lo and Amos shot each other sideways glances.
“After you.” Amos said to Sang Lo with a sweep of his arm.
“Thank you.” Replied the Chinese barkeep.
The two men ascended the steps to the dark red passenger car. They tromped down the aisle looking for a pair of open seats. Women and children jabbered, while acutely stoic men resisted the urge to talk. The wooden seats squeaked loudly as the duo plunked down themselves down, their small, weapon filled parcel at their feet.
Sang Lo peered about. Through the door to the car anterior to their own he saw the back of Dirty Beard’s head. A gander abaft revealed Hiram and John on opposite sides of the center aisle. The brothers tipped their hats at the Asian barkeep.
Amos stretched his lanky legs out and folded his arms behind his head. Sang Lo bunched up his cheongsam, then crossed his legs and arms.
The conductor, still rubbing his arm, leaned into the car.
“All aboard!” He sounded off.
The train whistled to life to life with a shuddering lurch. The cars jolted, wheels shivered awake and ground against the rails. The station was slipping past the windows. Amos plucked his watch out of his pocket.
“4:15 exactly. One hour and fifteen minutes to go.”
“Good. We finish this quick so I go back to bar. I don’t want barflies to destroy saloon.”
The train rumbled along past sagebrush and desert marigold. Dirty Beard looked over his shoulder. Sang Lo returned the glance with a tilt of his head. The bartender then looked back at Hiram and John. Both men and the Saloon owner exchanged knowing looks.
Sang Lo nudged a snoozing Amos. The large Swede’s grunted to consciousness. His Asian companion motioned towards Dirty Beard. Amos checked his pocket watch. 5:10 pm. Amos emitted groggy glee as he plunked the watch back into his jacket.
“Just about there.” The blond man snickered.
Several women from Dirty Beard’s car shrieked. Sang Lo and Amos snapped to attention. Male passengers started shouting. Gunshots rang out.
“The train is being robbed!” A woman from Hiram and John’s car screeched.
Passengers flung themselves flat on the floor. Women and children screamed, everyone shielded their faces from shards of breached glass.
The would-be outlaws, undaunted, beset the unbroken grimy side windows. About a dozen men on horseback were riding the train down. Several wore tan dusters. Their faces were covered in various shades of handkerchiefs. Revolvers and rifle fire peppered the train’s flank.
“They’re trying to rob my train.” Amos mumbled. His pale face started to boil red.
“What we do now?”
Amos’ calm demeanor was rapidly decaying into a berserker’s fury.
“They’re robbing my train.” He growled. His eyes turned bloodshot and crazed. Sang Lo retreated from the Swede a little.
“Helen, Jasper, Emma. Minnesota. In-laws.” Came seething through Amos’ clenched teeth.
“Those are his kids.” Hiram gulped.
“Amos…” Sang Lo soothed, turning to his large companion.
“They’re trying to rob my train!” Roared the Swede. His face twisted into a bare toothed snarl. Sang Lo withdrew, stumbled and fell back into his seat.
Amos had ripped open his bag and extracted a double barreled shotgun. The glass shattered as first one then the other barrel discharged. One of the horsemen slipped from his saddle and clattered to the ground.
“This isn’t good.” Hiram barked.
“The last time he went full split like that he broke a ranch.” John cut in.
“He broke whole ranch?”
“Yes.” Hiram flared. He and John were readying their weapons to fire back. “We’ll hold the fort down here, Sanlu; you stay with Amos make certain he doesn’t do anything… deranged.” John opined between shots from his pistols.
Sang Lo set his jaw and bucked his head in concurrence.
For a few moments the gunfire stopped. A small girl in a pasley, frock dress jumped up.
“Daddy, that man is protecting the train.”
Her father pulled her back to the floor.
Sang Lo dove into his luggage and withdrew a Spencer rifle. He smashed out a window and aimed the weapon.
“You don’t rob train.” The bartender shouted, as he opened fire. Another rider fell. Several of the train travelers began cheering.
Hiram and John paused and looked at each other and grinned. Both men started shouting oaths at the horse mounted robbers.
Three of the horse men pulled ahead, going straight after the engine. Amos grabbed his ammunition filled luggage and embarked up the car. Sang Lo hesitated, and then followed the blond man.
“They’re robbing my train.” Hissed Amos, Sang Lo right on his tail.
At intervals they would stop and shatter a window with a double barreled blast. Sang Lo ducking thrown cartridges while sniping at the mustangs’ mounts.
“Minnesota, Minnesota. In-laws, Minnesota.” Growled the Swede as he rumbled his way forward.
The rails veered towards the horsemen. The riders quickened pace, charging the engine.
From the safety of his craggy, mesa outcrop Jed watched the riders assault the engine. The train was curving toward the horsemen. Three of the attackers were along-side the boiler. With a loud hiss the train began to slow, gunshots still blaring back and forth.
This is really bad, thought Jed.
Two dots emerged from the first car. The first dot was large and pale with yellow trim, the second was smaller and bobbing about.
Is that Amos and Sanlu?
The two dots mounted the coal-car. Two of the riders hurtled themselves onto the slowing engine. The two engineers scurried about, robbers revolvers fixed on them the entire time. Amos and Sang Lo crawled over the coal towards the, now captive, engineers.
Jed grit his teeth, mounted his horse and galloped towards the train.
Two bullets pinged off the edge of the coal-car. Amos and Sang Lo scuttled on their bellies across the mound of rough fuel. Amos' face was streaked with dust, his beard stained black. Sang Lo crawled behind, muttering to himself in Mandarin.
A gunshot sparked off the edge of the roof over the engineer's compartment. Sang Lo scuttled up next to Amos, along the lip of the coal container. Two figures held the engineers at revolver point, a third on horseback beside the engine. Amos lumbered to his feet.
“Get off my train!” Amos roared.
The two robbers spun. Both were medium height and extremely thin. One had a long, triangular face with wispy facial hair, a greasy pony tail and close set eyes. The other had a small, round mouth, round feminine features, a tiny nose and red hair. Both had tan dusters, narrow boots and shocked expressions.
Wispy beard snapped his revolver up and with a resounding pop the gun jammed. One twelve gauge barrel dropped the scruffy outlaw. A rifle shot rang out. The effeminate robber's right arm flopped, the revolver clattered to the floor. A second rifle report took out a knee cap. The red head hit the ground, hard, snarling like a wounded animal. The horseman by the train took off, Sang Lo sniping at his back.
Shots from the rail-car tapered off as the remaining robbers retreated. Shouts of joy echoed from the car.
Amos and Sang Lo jumped off the fuel pile into the engine cab. The huffing Swede seemed to calm a bit at the sight of the corpse. Amos jabbed at the body with tip of his boot. Sang Lo covered the other robber. Cheers echoed from the train as the rest of the gang was driven off.
“Thank you both so much!” Exuberated the fat, walrus like engineer, his mustache bristling with emotion. “I thought I was going to run against a pill.”
The engineer hugged Amos.
“Why you so worried? How often engineers get shot when train gets robber?”
The engineer turned to Sang Lo, his mouth agape and eyes wide.
“Don't you know who these two are?”
Amos and Sang Lo shook their heads.
“No, I never see them before. You see them before, Amos?”
The engineer sucked in his breath.
“You've never heard of Coyote Jack and Sandstorm Sally?”
Amos kept shaking his head.
“Sally?” Sang Lo looked closely at his prisoner. “You a woman?”
“Yes, I'm a shakester.” Sally nasally, rumbled in response.
“You have stupid nickname, lady.”
“Wait a minute.” Amos grumbled. “These two are famous longriders?”
“Yes, very well known.” Gushed the walrus engineer. “The territory will pay ten thousand dollars for each of them, dead or alive.”
Amos' face flushed. Sang Lo's jaw dropped.
“How much?” Both men asked in unison.
“Ten thousand dollars each.” The rotund rail employee smiled. “And every member of their gang has a bounty on their heads as well.”
Amos and Sang Lo looked at the corpse, then at each other, then at the snarling, wounded female robber, then back to each other.
“Twenty thousand?” Amos asked as he and Sang Lo looked back at the engineer.
“Yup.” Walrus mustache clucked.
“How much silver was the train carrying today?” Amos inquired. Sally snorted.
The engineer tilted his head to the side and jawed the air with a quizzical expression on his face.
“What difference does it make?” He replied.
Sang Lo audibly cleared his throat. “He just curious.” He interjected. ”Wants to know if these two,” he motioned toward Jack and Sally, “try to rob train that less valuable then bounty on their head.”
“Oh.” The engineer blinked. “Well, the train is only carrying about two thousand dollars worth today. Seems the mines are being inspected, surveyed, something that stopped work.”
“So,” Sang Lo exhaled, “we just capture twenty thousand dollars in criminal?”
“Yes, plus the bounties on the heads of the other gang members.”
“There's more money?” Amos burst out.
“Hmm... Yes, a great deal of it. Every member of the gang has a bounty out on them.”
Amos and Sang Lo both leaned their heads to the right, amazement spread across their faces.
“How much you think we made?”
“Counting the robbers you and your companions shot earlier? Around thirty thousand or more.”
Like an oak being felled, Amos toppled over.
“Having the job and money issues solved is wonderful. It's wonderful to be flushed!” Amos was standing over the poker table, in a brand new suit of gray and green. His compatriots sat about the, now quieter, card room. Dirty Beard's beard wasn't dirty anymore. Not a speck of coal or loam was present. Jed had fresh, coconut scented wax in his mustache. New hats, boots, and belts adorned the group. Sang Lo strode by grinning, in a new green silk cheongsam.
The carpets and wall paper in the saloon were brand new. All the woodwork had been redone. Several new bouncers meandered around, keeping peace in the few instances where things got out of hand.
“I can't believe the rail line gave us work as armed guards.” Formerly Dirty Beard chuckled.
“I can't believe we each made more than six thousand dollars by not robbing the train.” John chimed in.
“What ever happened to Sandstorm Sally?” Hiram inquired.
“Gone up the flume, I heard. The Territory hemped her about a week ago.” Jed replied.
Amos strolled around the table.
“My wife and kids aren't going to Minnesota!” Amos beamed. Hiram and Jed grinned and tipped their new hats to him.
Sang Lo breezed over to the table.
“Six thousand spent on saloon, new class of customers come in now.” Sang Lo waved his arms. “And I still stuck with you barflies!”
Amos grinned at the Asian Bar owner. Sang Lo smiled back.