Western Short Story
Joe Shank at Horse Stealing
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

The barkeep stared closely at the new customer at the end of the bar, assuring himself that he had seen the man before, but that someplace was not so evident. He scratched the back of his mind, saw nothing revealing, looked at a pile of wanted posters he kept under the counter, and saw no lookalikes in the pile. The barkeep’s name was Homer Gillespie and he didn’t know the name of the character at the bar, but was sure he’d know it from the past when he heard it.

“Joe Shank” never entered his mind, though he was well-known for supplying horses when needed by ranchers, hobo travelers, and odd and awed lady teachers on great occasions, and who paid on delivery, often a surprise in the mix of their needs.

At that precise moment, a woman entered the saloon, asking openly as she entered, “Is there a man here by the name of Joseph Shank?” Homer was sure nobody would answer, for the posters indeed contained one with his name on it, but no facial view, not even a facsimile pen-and-pencil drawing sketched in a hurry as we have seen all over the place to this day.

The gent at the end of the bar turned around slowly and said, “Well, Ma’am, I’m Joe Shank and I guess you need a favor from me, which we can discuss elsewhere.” For all the way he acted, it looked like Joe Shank was in charge right from the beginning of all things yet to come to the fore.

He held out his hand and pointed to the door and the pair of them departed the Dead Horse Saloon, set right in the middle of the Colorado town of Purple Row, hopefully to become a bigger town, then a city, the citizens doing all they could to get that dream done in spite of who and what was yet to transpire in the community, at cross trails from everywhere in the West.

When Joe Shank came back to the saloon an hour later, he merely said to Homer. “She wants a horse and heard I can supply it for her, which I can and will, but it has to be special and I’ll have to range a big circle to find what she wants, but it’ll be my pleasure. It’ll be worth it.” He smiled sort of an unconscious smile, almost hidden, all kinds of interpretations available in the smile if one were to dwell on them, one at a time or all at once, like a puzzle.

“What’s so special about her request?” said Homer, still scratching his head for possibilities.

Joe Shank said, “It has to be one owned by a wanted man with a big name, a name on a poster and I have to supply a copy of the poster, too. She’s very sure of her need, and won’t bend a bit on that account.” He shrugged once, knocked off his drink, had one more as if to settle his mind or soul, and departed, his last words to Homer being, “I hope I get it done for her. Seems like one nice lady, if you was to ask me, now or whenever the job’s done.”

Homer made up his mind he’d keep up to date on the details, if he could. It sounded mighty interesting to him, teacher lady and a wanted man apparently on the same mission, one of them hiring and the other taking the job, and most-likely a stolen horse in the middle of things, though stolen horses were nothing new thereabouts or any place where horses made the day at least tolerable for working men..

A few weeks later, word started to leak in at the bar as customers started swapping their tales and current news from the many trails leading to The Dead Horse Saloon, some of it concerned Joe Shank getting jailed for stealing a horse and selling it, or tried to sell it, to a teacher of gracefully good standing in her home town.

The upside of it was the horse supposedly belonged to a cellmate in the same jail who had a gun snuck into his possession to shoot Joe Shank for trying to steal his horse out of the local stable while he, Dead-Shot Kiley Dickson, was already in the jail when identified by a citizen who clubbed him with a rifle barrel and lugged him to the sheriff’s office, lock, stock and barrel to collect a reward, duly paid off.

Dickson screamed holy murder at Joe Shank, swearing in turn, to kill him, slaughter him, murder him, all in one breath, for trying to steal a most noble palimino he had stolen on his own from a local horse dealer, right out of the dealer’s barn, and into the hands of the sheriff via the alert citizen.

No accounting came to light about a school teacher who had, supposedly said, started the whole episode wanting someone to steal a horse from a man on a poster, and deliver horse and poster to her. Nobody, of course, believed such a stupid story. “She’s a snappy good teacher, that Miss Bess Burton, and wouldn’t hurt a snake if she stepped on him, poisonous or not. Anybody telling a story like that about such a lady ought to be shot straight out, true or not.”

“It had to start someplace,” was a typical answer to the doldrum even as it gathered steam en route to, “and when it’s most likely not true, it’s better than a trail story made up about a lady teacher who wouldn’t turn her backside to a man on a poster lest he claim her, not on a bet.”

The story, of course, had already started up-hill about the lady teacher, as one version had her promising her students a view of the good and bad in life to her students at a local stool, where the prisoners were a few cellmates telling their own stories, in the jail only a few doors away..

“She’s a damned funny one though,” said one in-mate, “who carries things a bit too far for my taste. I can’t imagine anyone but her who would do such a thing, but she’s the best bet of all the teachers I ever knew, and none of them ever in class as I’ve never been there in the first place.” That statement hung in the air for the first leg of comprehension, as though it was in no hurry on its own.

But Bess Burton wouldn’t let go either, according to Homer Gillespie, who told his final version of the ending right there at the bar of The Dead Horse Saloon only a few weeks later.

“Miss Burton got her horse, for sure,” he said, “and a poster of Dead-Shot Kiley Dickson, not one of those half-done sketches, but a real honest-to-goodness wanted poster which she hung on the wall of the schoolroom. And when the kids went out for recess, there was Dead-Shot Kiley Dickson’s horse waiting for each kid to ride on, and as each one took his or her turn on the rollicking horse all excited by a bunch of screaming kiddos, tossing them all over the place, she announced, “That should show you all that there’s no fun riding a stolen horse no matter who owns it for real or not, not even the poster of the man on the wall in your classroom, now dead as dried up cactus out there on the wide grass.”

The name of Joe Shank never came up.