Western Short Story
Miss Martha's Signature
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

In his later days Joel Bishop, sitting around the cracker barrel in his general store, had a few favorite stories he told when some of his cronies gathered. The stories mostly dealt with some of the older folks in the little prairie town of William’s Toss. He liked to relate how they made their way in the early tough times, early heroes, like Miss Martha sitting out there on the grass and running her own spread, and once in a rare situation a youngster got into the story-telling, like Bishop’s favorite tale of all, about Willie Braxton, now owner of a prosperous spread out of town a few miles.

“Got it on a platter, that boy, and he plumb deserved it.”

When Bishop and his cronies gathered they played cards, played checkers, and told stories over and over again. If a pal brought along a guest, Bishop was ready with his favorite story.

“There was this time way back then,” he’d say, “when I watched a new boy in town from my place inside the general store, seeing him approach every customer outside, asking to help with their goods and supplies, trying get some money, earn his way. Hot August was sitting on top of us, the grass out there almost on fire, and dust perking like a little funnel was drawing it up. A couple of times I tried not to breath the dust and the heat, but this kid kept offering his help. Sooner or later, when everybody started moving around for the day, doing errands and such, they all turned him down because he was a mess of a boy. Scraggly looking he was, no shirt on his back, no shoes on his feet, hair like a wild bush trampled by angry cows. Looked as though he hadn’t been in the swimming hole in months. After a while of my steady looking something special started to show through all that discomfort he seemed to be in. But he didn’t carry a hang-dog look on his face, not this boy, his confidence saying outright that he’d get work sooner or later. I tell you, he grabbed my attention. Don’t usually see kids sticking to what he was doing, not afraid of what people thought about him, what he was up to. Kid had no shame. That gets attention, at least from me.”

“When Miss Martha drove up in her wagon, the boy tied her horse off at the rack, smiled at her, and sat down again on the edge of the boardwalk without speaking to her. I saw this as another approach. And indeed it was, as Miss Martha said, when she came into the store, ‘Well, Joel, I see you have a doorman on the job, or a pony boy. Who is he? He wasn’t here last month. I don’t think I’ve seen him before.’”

“He’s been around for a few weeks, Miss Martha. Him and his mother came here and are living at her Uncle Wilbur Shaw’s place, him on his last stretch, as you know. She’s Amie Braxton, the boy’s name is Wilfred and she calls him Willie. Lost her husband, the boy’s father, in the war. Likely she’ll own the Shaw spread someday, but there’s little income promised from it, her being a woman not used to such work, him so young, so he tries to get what he can to stock the larder.”

“I understand all that, Joel. Quite commendable,” she added with a quick retort. “You just call him in here for me, will you? I’d like a few words with him.”

Bishop continued with his favorite story.

Miss Martha had known Wilbur Shaw for nearly a dozen years, since she and her brother had taken over their father’s ranch. With her brother hurting now on his own, legs nearly useless from a fall, without a son of her own, she had looked around William’s Toss, as small as a Texas town could be and still count itself, and found no one she could leave her land to. That time would creep up on her so slowly and so suddenly, she might not see it coming. To end her concern she often thought of selecting her own heir, bringing him along. This industrious boy might be her savior, and her heir. She had not found the strong liking for anybody else in all of William’s Toss.

The elderly spinster and the raggy young boy, after a ten minute conversation in a corner of the store, left town in her wagon after Bishop and the boy loaded her purchased supplies. Bishop knew he’d not see her again for about a month. He also wondered for a week or more what they could have talked about, as the boy joined in the conversation at regular intervals, not being afraid to speak up, speak his mind.

It was almost a month to the day that he saw Miss Martha and the boy Willie Braxton again. A high blue Saturday had glowed all day from the horizon, back toward the river, and moved slowly the rest of the day to its bed in the other horizon. Willie tied the wagon horse off on Bishop’s rail and accompanied Miss Martha as she made her monthly rounds, at the livery, the hotel for lunch, and a few social calls in town. At 1 o’clock she and Willie walked in the door of the general store and she presented her order to Bishop who was busting at the seams to find out what was going on.

“Well, Miss Martha,” he said at one point, “what’s happening out your way? I heard you’ve made some changes out there.” He was visibly nervous questioning her, for she was a pretty heady lady, and had a gift for business, and her own personal ways, her conduct generally unquestioned.

“Whoa, Joel,” she said, holding up her hand, smiling half her answer. “No great insides to my business. Willie and I have made a long term deal on employment. He’s now a cowpuncher on our spread, has an open order here with you to get supplies for his mother. You just take care of him or her when they come in here, and put their orders on my bill. I’ll continue to pay you monthly. Is that fine with you?”

Bishop, in turn, smiled his answer, knowing that he had a part in her taking Willie Braxton under her wing. “Fine with me, Miss Martha. And the boy’s whole attitude from the first moment has been on the good side all the way. I’m sure he’ll work out well for you.”

Time hurries, we all become aware of in one fashion or another. So, not feeling how long his own teeth had become, or fully knowing the halting gait in his walk, the way years slip past, Bishop looked up one day as three strangers came into the store. Trail dust rode their frames, sweat sat almost visible on their faces, and they wore their hats low over their eyes, too low for Bishop’s comfort. He was on edge at the instant, seeing something there, feeling something there that did not sit right with him. Not sure if it was a certain kind of light in their eyes, or the way their hands moved when touching things they had not yet purchased, as if coveting property not theirs was an open privilege. A long time at his business, he read people and their immediate intentions and purposes with a keen and discerning eye.

Bishop’s judgments and assessments went to work right away; the shotgun was under the counter, where it had been for yours, but he could no longer remember if it was loaded. Pointing it might be enough, he thought, if need be. All three of the men were wearing their spurs, ready to ride he believed. Saturday afternoon sat in the store windows, with bright sunlight falling across the end of the counter, and also quickly throwing onto the counter the shadow of Willie Braxton looking in the window, waving as he always did, as he had done forever on his Saturday visits. His mother had remarried, to a good man, and Willie was full time at Miss Martha’s and came every weekend to purchase supplies and say hello.

That initial meeting between Miss Martha and young Willie had come out better than expected, Bishop assumed, though Miss Martha had a good deal of human instincts working for her. Apparently it had been a no-lose situation from the outset.

The boy had grown well, had become a most responsible adult; hard working, true as an unbroken handshake, loyal as a dog to Miss Martha who was slowly crumbling in her own way. Bishop had not seen her in a few months and had vowed on a number of occasions that he’d go out to the ranch some Sunday and at least say hello, show his respects, comment on the boy and the good job she had done; the whole town knew Willie was her heir after her brother had passed on. There were other people for whom he had made that same promise to visit, and some of them already gone on. Bishop felt lacking in himself, thinking he was a failure as a neighbor, even if none of them knew of his broken promises, or those many promises not yet kept. Miss Martha was a special one, as was Willie, for Bishop had in his own way brought them together. The sincere connection reigned in him.

All that information and sensitivity weighed on him as he continued to study the strangers. The discomfort continued, in fact it gained strength as they maneuvered into positions in the store.

Willie was still at the window, his shadow falling across the end of the counter. He was waiting for Bishop’s wave, the wave he had sent back on these occasions for almost ten years, a one-handed wave from the storekeeper that said, among other things, I’ll see you when you get through your other errands, and don’t worry, I’ll be here when you come back.

As Bishop stood there behind his counter, still studying the men, he thought of all the things he knew about Willie Braxton, things that he saw personally and had heard, and that Miss Martha had dropped at his feet, all showing that she had picked on a good subject; Willie was an excellent shooter, a grand rider, had served on several posses with distinction, had drawn on two or three drunken trail hands who dropped the gauntlet at his feet.

Willie also carried the scar of one bullet from the day three thugs tried to stop Miss Martha and him on the road from town. He pushed Miss Martha onto the wagon bed, dropped one of the thugs dead on the road, knocked a second one from his mount by snapping a round that ricocheted into his horse in a flash, and let one road agent, having better sense than to carry on, make a successful break out of range. Miss Martha, not touched, or any of her goods, drove the wagon back to town. Willie meanwhile kept his gun on one man sitting in the saddle, with his dead comrade riding flat in the back of the wagon.

The banker said that was the day Miss Martha probably changed her will for the last time.

Bishop, at this moment in the store, saw his life run its quick review; he had not cheated anybody, he was honest in all his dealings and had often cribbed people’s bills to their benefit without ever telling them. For good measure, he had sent his only child, a daughter, to school in Chicago where she now was a teacher and married to a good man.

All of it fell decently at his feet, so the storekeeper in a measured determination lifted his arms in the air while Willie Braxton was looking at him, as if he was facing men with drawn weapons, but saying, as he did so, in a soft whisper to the men, “I’ll have to fix this darn lamp here over the counter before dark sets in. See how it hangs all tilted down up there.”

The large store window erupted as a wooden chair came crashing through from the outside. With sudden desperation, knowing their chore was discovered, their full intent exposed, the strangers drew their guns and fired back through the window. Gunfire ensued from outside as a fourth man, holding his partners’ horses, tried to shoot Willie after he heaved the porch chair. Rolling to one side on the boardwalk, Willie fired a single round that dismounted the man, and then dove in through the doorway onto the floor, firing at the men as he did so. Bishop, with the shotgun in his hands, snapped up their attention with harsh words and the blast of the shotgun into the ceiling. He continued to wave the shotgun at them.

It was all over in minutes.

Later, Willie said the fourth man, holding the horses, said to him as he looked in the window, “Hold it, son. All we want is some free ammunition, unless the old man goes for a weapon. “Willie didn’t wait to find out, knowing he had to get their attention, draw it away from Mr. Bishop. There was no telling what old man Bishop would do, or what the gang would do.

The four men had escaped from the territorial jail and were riding stolen horses and carrying stolen arms from a ranch house invasion back down the trail. When the sheriff showed up, the men were under the guns of Joel Bishop, the storekeeper, and Willie Braxton, heir to Miss Martha’s ranch, as she had promised that day of an earlier encounter when they were heading out of town.

Though Bishop never told Miss Martha, he often wanted to say,” I swear, Miss Martha, the boy looks like you just ordered him up from St Louis or Chicago, and he came as you ordered, just on the strength of your signature on the bottom of the order.”