Western Short Story
Hannah Jones was sidling along out back of Big Red Amos’s saloon about four in the morning when she tripped and fell headlong into money—in a manner of speaking. She’d planned to raid the saloon’s trash bin in hopes that someone had thrown away a bottle with a swallow of whiskey or beer left in the bottom. She forgot all about that when she discovered the windfall her fall had reaped.
--- 2 ---
Four hours later, when Big Red’s opened, Hannah was the second customer through the doors. Only Wade Carlton, a ranch hand who was currently unemployed and seemed to spend most of his time drinking these days, beat her to the bar.
“No, no, no!” Red Amos said when he saw Hannah. “I ain’t giving no free samples so you just take yourself back outa here.”
“Now, Red,” Hannah said. “Surely you ain’t forgot that favor I did for you when we was kids. But it don’t matter none anyway. I ain’t askin’ for nuthin’ free.” Hannah lifted her hand and flashed a gold coin between a grimy thumb and a greasy index finger. Her yellow-toothed mouth gaped a smile as she added, “Got cash money, right here.”
Red frowned as Hannah walked up and plunked the coin down on the bar. He picked it up, started to bite it to see if it was real, then realized it had been in Hannah’s hands and there was no telling where those hands had been. He put it back down and wiped his fingers surreptitiously on his apron.
Seeing the wink of gold, Wade Carlton scooted his boots a few paces closer to the action. He and Red exchanged looks before Red demanded of Hannah:
“Who’d you steal that coin from?”
Hannah drew herself up straight and patted her frizzy, graying hair. “Didn’t steal nuthin’. My boyfriend gave it to me.”
“Boyfriend!” Red spluttered. “You ain’t got no boyfriend. Doubt you ever had a real one. I ain’t never seen one that I recall. Even when you was young.”
“Well, maybe I did and maybe I didn’t,” Hannah said with a wink and a smirk. “But I got one now.” She leaned over the bar and lowered her voice so that both Red and Wade had to scootch closer to hear. “Travelin’ fella,” she added. “But maybe gonna stay around sum now he done foun’ me. He gave me that there gold to spend however’n I want. And I know yore a greedy sumbitch, Red Amos, so you set me up a shot o’ whiskey with a beer chaser. Or you don’ get paid.”
Red drew back to avoid the smell wafting across the bar at him from Hannah’s open mouth. Folks called her “Hard Luck” because life had been kicking her around since childhood. She’d lost both parents and two siblings in a flood when she was ten, and the family that took her in had worked her like a mule. Rumors were, they’d done worse to her. But no one outside of Hannah and that family knew the truth of it.
Red had said publicly plenty of times that he didn’t like Hannah. The woman was a drunk who’d cadged drinks off of him enough over the years. And it didn’t help that she reminded him just about every time she saw him of how they’d been schoolmates thirty-five years gone and she once did him a favor. But he did like money, and, truth is, he felt a little sorry for her.
With a dyspeptic frown on his florid face, Red poured Hannah a shot glass full of rotgut and a mug of beer and set them on the counter. He took the gold coin and gave her back the correct change. Then he stepped back and waited.
Hannah stopped paying attention to anything but the booze in front of her. She picked up the whiskey glass and twisted it back and forth in her hand so that the amber liquor caught flashes of light in the mirror. She threw the drink back, closed her eyes, and smiled. Red considered. The smile made her look younger than she was, and not quite so ugly.
Without opening her eyes, Hannah set down the shot glass and took up her mug. She guzzled a huge swallow, smacked her lips free of the foam with a long, “Ahhhhh!”
The ugly’s back, Red thought, as he reached to refill her shot glass.
Hannah abruptly put her free hand over it. “No more’n right now. Gotta get home to lover boy. He’s not feelin’ all that pert. Maybe sum breakfast will put him right.” She scooped up her change and drained the last dregs of her beer before sashaying out.
Red shook his head and looked over at Wade Carlton, who seemed to be all frowns and deep thought.
“Never seen Hannah turn down another drink when she was flush,” Red told Wade. “You don’t reckon she really has a boyfriend? Not really.”
“If she does,” Wade said. “You can guarantee the fella doesn’t have a sense of smell.”
“And he’s blind to boot,” Red added.
Both men guffawed.
--- 3 ---
The rest of the morning passed uneventfully for Red Amos. But along about noon, Wade Carlton strode back into the saloon and bellied up to the bar for a drink. With a conspiratorial wink, he leaned in to give Red some news.
“Seems old Hannah has been spending money all over town. She bought a dress at the mercantile. A dress! You ever seen her in one of those? Then she went into Bonny McCain’s for a haircut and style.”
“They let her into those places? Filthy as she is?”
“Hell, that’s just it. She bathed herself first. Must have been in the creek by her shack. I wonder how many fish she killed in the act. Probably they’re all too poison to eat now.”
Flummoxed, Red shook his head. “I don’t believe that woman has bathed in ten years.”
“So, I’ve heard,” Wade said. “I reckon she does have some money. Has to. But how the hell she came by it is anyone’s guess. She’s told others about this boyfriend of hers. But you and I know that can’t be true.”
Red was about to agree when Sheriff Harry Whitley walked in. Whitley was a big man, gone a little paunchy these days, but still a substantial presence. He often stopped in Red’s about this time of the day for a beer. He never paid, or offered to. Like plenty of others in Liberty, Arkansas, Red chalked it up to the cost of doing business.
“Sheriff,” Red said, as he filled a mug for the man. “You been hearing about this Hannah Jones kerfuffle?”
“Hearing about what, exactly?”
“Hannah Jones. Spendin’ money all over town. Claiming she’s got a boyfriend who gave it to her. Nonsense of course.”
Whitley took off his Stetson and lay it on the bar, then scratched his graying head. He took a sip of beer, nodded to himself before saying, “Don’t reckon that spending money is a crime.”
“It is if it ain’t yours,” Red said.
Whitley offered Red the stink eye. “What makes you think it ain’t hers?”
Red had a talent for sputtering. He sputtered now. “Hannah Jones ain’t had two coins to rub together in years, Sheriff. You know that. Now she’s got gold? And Wade here says she bought a new dress, and got herself a haircut.”
Whitley took a bigger swig of his beer. “Well now, that is quite a remarkable tale. But I still don’t see no crime for me to investigate. What is it you expect me to do?”
“Well…shouldn’t you…look into it? I mean, she’s gone and took a bath. And that ain’t happened in a coon’s age.”
Whitley frowned. “Bathed herself, you say? Well now that there is a serious crime.” He drank the last of his beer in two big swallows, then clapped his hat back on his head. “I better get out there and investigate right now. Bring in that arch criminal afor she takes up horse thieven.” He laughed uproariously as he strode away.
Red let his glare linger on the Sheriff’s back until the man pushed out through the doors. Then he glanced over at Wade Carlton. “He ain’t gonna do a damn thing. That old woman could a killed somebody for all we know. And our Sheriff goes around insulting decent citizens.”
“How’s he keep getting elected?” Wade asked.
“Heck, no one’ll run against him.”
Wade nodded, then said quietly. “Maybe it’s up to us, then.”
“Us?” Red said. “What can we do?”
“Like the Sheriff said. Investigate. Only, for real. Hannah’s shack ain’t but a few hundred yards south of here. We go out there. Make sure she’s still gone. Then one of us goes in and looks around while the other keeps watch.”
“And what if she really does have a boyfriend?”
Wade smirked. “You don’t believe that anymore than I do. She’s makin’ it up. But she found some money somewhere. That’s for sure.”
“Your right,” Red said. “Let’s do it.”
“And…” Wade added.
“If she found a nice little poke, then it ain’t truly hers is it? Maybe it would be the right thing for us to do to confiscate it. Until the real owner is found, of course.”
Red grinned. “Sounds about right. She owes me anyway” He reached to undo his apron.
“Hang on a minute,” Wade hissed quietly. “Best we not be seen leaving together. You know that old cottonwood out past Dale’s Livery. Meet me there soon as you can. It’s only a hop, skip, and a jump from there to Hannah’s.”
“Right,” Red said, nodding. He looked around at the few other patrons in the bar. Mason Henry was one. He’d worked for Red on occasion. “I’ll get Mason to take over. Tell him I’ve gotta get some lunch to home. Then I’ll meet ya.”
“Don’t dawdle,” Wade said. “I’m itchin’ to solve our little golden mystery.” He finished his beer and was gone.
--- 4 ---
Red met Wade Carlton at the cottonwood on the outskirts of Liberty about fifteen minutes later. They immediately slipped down through the woods to Kiss Creek, and along it to the shack of Hannah Jones.
Hannah’s place was a weathered gray, single room plank hut with a rickety porch on the creek side. A single window on the back side of the shack beckoned, but when Wade and Red approached they found the glass so dirty and fly speckled that they couldn’t see through it.
“No light inside,” Wade said. “And no movement that I could discern. She must still be in town.”
“Shouldn’t we know for sure before we sneak in?”
Wade snapped his fingers. “Got it. You go around, knock on the door. If she answers, tell her you gave her the wrong change for her drinks this morning and she’s got a free one coming. Knowing what a souse she is, she’ll go for it. Take her up and get her a drink, and that’ll give me time to go through her place. Anything I find, I’ll split with you.”
“And if she’s not there?”
“Then you keep watch while I have a look-see.”
Red was beginning to think this wasn’t such a good idea, but he didn’t want to show scared in front of Carlton. Besides, if he got a little money back from Hannah, it would only be fair considering all the crap he’d put up with and all the drinks he’d gifted her over the years.
“All right,” he said, nodding.
The two men gave up sneaking and walked around to the front of the shack. Red knocked on the ramshackle door.
“Hannah. Hannah Jones! You in there?”
“Try again,” Wade said.
Red knocked louder. “Hannah. I gave you the wrong change this morning for your drinks. I owe you a free one. If you come now, I’ll stand you to it.”
Again, there was no answer. Red shrugged at his companion. Wade tried the door and it was unlocked. He glanced at Red with a smirk. “OK, I’ll go in and check the place out. You drift up the trail a bit and watch for the woman coming back. Call out if you see her, then give her the story about the change. That’ll give me time to get out.”
“Gotcha,” Red said.
A dirt trail led from Hannah’s front door up to the main road into Liberty. Red started along it but had gone only a dozen feet before a huge crashing sound came from inside the shack. Turning, Red rushed back to the door.
“Wade,” he called out. “Wade! You OK?”
All was silent now.
Cautiously, fearfully, Red pushed back the door and glanced in. The inside of the shack was gloomy but the light sweeping in over Red’s shoulder showed a dusty floor on which lay a pair of legs in cowboy boots.
“Wade!” Red exclaimed. He stepped into the shack and knelt quickly beside his companion. He felt for a pulse, found one. Carlton was just unconscious. There was a knot on his forehead and a pistol lying near his outstretched hand.
It occurred rather suddenly to Red to wonder how Wade had ended up unconscious. He started to fling himself to his feet when the snap of a match striking froze him. Turning, Red saw the shadow of a big man standing in one corner of the room.
The boyfriend! he thought.
But when the match was touched to the wick of a lantern and the light flared up, Red saw who it really was.
Whitley nodded. “You can stand on up there, Red.”
Red straightened slowly. “What?” he asked. “What’s…goin’ on?”
“Murder,” Whitley said.
“Murder? What! No! Wade ain’t dead. He’s jest knocked out.”
Whitley shook his head. “Not Wade. You remember that drummer fellow came through here a couple of days ago?”
“Drummer,” Red echoed. “You mean that guy selling odds and ends?”
“I do recall him. Not his name. He drank some at the bar.”
“He did. And Hannah Jones tripped over his dead body outside your saloon way early this morning.”
“That I did,” a voice said. “I surely did.”
Red spun around. Hannah stood in the doorway of her shack, backlit by the sun. He saw with surprise that she was wearing a blue gingham dress, and her hair wasn’t so frizzy and maybe not as gray as it had seemed the day before. For the first time in a long time he thought to himself that she wasn’t all that bad looking.
“Hannah came to me about it,” Whitley continued. “I found Wade Carlton’s boot prints near the body. Figured he might have done it. We concocted this little scheme to make him think the drummer had survived. That Hannah had taken him in. If he was the killer, he’d have to show up here to check it out. Didn’t figure on him roping you in.”
“I didn’t have nothin’ to do with any murder, Sheriff,” Red protested violently. “I just…well, I was curious about the story Hannah told. And I thought…well, that maybe if she had come by some money then maybe I deserved a bit of it for givin’ her drinks and food all these years.”
“Given?” Hannah said. “You still owed me for that favor, boy. Owed me big.”
Red shook his head. “You crazy old bat,” he said, but there wasn’t any heat in his voice. He looked back at the Sheriff. “I reckon what I done was pretty lame,” he said. “But…” he looked down at the still unconscious Carlton, “I thought he was a pretty decent feller. Knowed him for six months or so now. Since he rode into Liberty.”
“Yep,” Whitley said. “He did seem a decent sort. If it hadn’t a been for Hannah here, I’d never have checked up on him. Turns out he’s a wanted man. Quite a bit of reward coming to Hannah. I gave her a little advance on that to shake things up.”
“Ah,” Red said. “That’s the gold she’s been spendin’.”
“So you don’t think I had anything to do with this?” Red asked the Sheriff.
“I wasn’t sure at first. But Hannah. She never doubted you was innocent.”
“Hannah!” Red exclaimed, looking over at the woman he’d known for nearly forty years now. Or maybe he hadn’t really known her at all.
“Me,” Hannah said. “Now come along and I’ll buy you a drink in your own saloon. Since it seems I owe youse.”
Red shook his head. “Nope. This time I’ll buy and not complain one whit about it.”
Hannah grinned big and smacked her lips. “I knew there was a reason I done you that favor. Now let’s get agoin’.” She turned and marched off toward town, not waiting to see if she were followed.
Red started after her but Sheriff Whitley caught his arm. “This favor,” he said. “I gotta know what the hell it was?”
Red blushed, then sighed. “It was when we was seven,” he said.
“She showed me her knickers.”