Western Short Story
The rope was around his neck, his hands were tied behind his back, the crowd in front of him was as quiet as a rabbit in his tracks, everybody holding their breath, and the hangman was standing by. Out beyond them he saw a swirl of dust on the road coming into town. It was a single rider, he decided, out and about on his day, and he wondered what that day would be like for that rider.
He was pretty sure what his was like.
The crowd shuffled around, making little noise, waiting for the end of a dreaded killer’s life, the notorious Will Burke whose story ran ahead of him everywhere he went, from Texas up to Montana and here in Oregon.
In the midst of that silence abounding, a man yelled from that crowd directly at the Sheriff Jigsy Askins, and said, “Hey, Sheriff, if you think that’s Will Burke the great big bad killer up there, you’ve got the wrong man. That ain’t Will Burke, that’s Wilbur Shoberk who used to work with me in the Cudahy slaughterhouse back in Chicago. That ain’t no Will Burke.”
The sheriff said, “He says his name is Will Burke. That’s all I need. And those two people at the bank down the river who got gut shot for nothing.”
“What if his name is Will Berk, spelt with an ‘e’ and not a ‘u’?” said the man from the crowd.
“So what difference does that make?”
“Well, Sheriff, that Will Berk up there about ready to get hanged by you and that gent there, with an ‘e’ in the middle of his name, can’t read.”
The sheriff went up to the hanging platform and said, “What’s your real name, son?”
For the first time he understood that chance had come upon him, an accident again. “My name, my real name, my real real name is Wilbur Shoberk. I did work in the slaughterhouse in Chicago. Some gent I met in a saloon said I ought to change my name to an American name before I came out here to Oregon, so we decided on Will Berk.”
“You changed your name in a saloon? Well, now, son, I guess we got some more talking to do. Might’s well do it in the saloon.”
The nearly hung man from Chicago said, “I have a letter coming to me at General Delivery here in town. It was sent to my real name and that should be proof when it comes.”
“How will that prove it, Will?”
“I know what’s in the letter, but I won’t tell you until just before we open it up.”
“That’s okay with me, Will.” He turned to the crowd and said, “Looks like we almost hung the wrong man, folks. Better go back to the bar and get set for the real Will Burke whenever we catch him. Thought we had him this time. Guess I was wrong. Now I’ll have to let all them sheriffs know, the ones still chasing Will Burke, the real Will Burke.”
Nobody was moving in the crowd, so the sheriff said, “Listen real careful ‘cause it’s going to count … I’m buying a round for the first five men to line up at the bar in the saloon and no more. I figure I owe you something with no hanging here today.”
One man’s leg was twisted and one man’s shoulder was hurt and one man’s face was pushed against the back end of a horse snapping off two teeth in the ensuing rush as the crowd broke up and Wilbur Shoberk, who was once known as Will Berk, who was once known as Will Burke, felt the noose slip easily off his neck, just as easily as it had gone on.
The sheriff patted him on the back, and had a big smile on his face. “I guess I owe you one too, Will. Let’s join them.”
The story here had its start, not in Oregon, but back in Chicago many months earlier.
One evening in May, flowers afloat on damp ground, trees flush with green, Wilbur Shoberk came out of the slaughter house where he worked in Chicago and swore he’d never go back. That vow had leaped right up out of him with a rush that he was not used to. Life had been slow for him, and arduous, with the slaughterhouse the newest of tough jobs. He was 23 years old, and had come on a ship when he was 9 with his mother and father from Germany. The family lived about 7 years with relatives in Chicago in a crowded house and Wilbur and his father worked at any jobs they could get. Life was tough for both of them, not recognizing youth or age. At 20 Wilbur Shoberk had taken the job at the slaughterhouse and soon after his father was shot in a street brawl on the way home from work as a bartender.
But even before he lost his father, Shoberk had long his fill of blood and meat and the surge of cattle knowing a dread smell in the air. He pitied the cattle, not for their imminent death, but for their being aware of what was coming to them … the push and shove on ramps and pens open at one end only.
All he could remember was a piece of advice his grandfather gave him: “Things happen by accident, and the way it goes in life is an accident of hearing a word or the name of a place in a conversation that you’re not part of. I call it ‘The Luck of the Deaf,’ because you will come away from that conversation deaf to all that was said except one word, a place name, an activity, a choice in directions. It is all accidental, Wilbur. Life is all accidental. Always be ready for accidents.”
On the way back to a squalid apartment in a squalid section of the city, west of the great train yard, Shoberk stepped into a tavern and heard the first two men at the bar talking. “Next year, or the year after, me and Mildred are going to Oregon. It’s God’s place they say.”
Shoberk was on his way to Oregon in three days. His meager holdings he gave to a neighbor, got a used money belt and wrapped his life savings around his middle, under his shirt; all of his $120 that had taken him two years to save.
That night he heard a man say the best way to get money delivered was to send it, not carry it, because robbers were always around. “They’re on the road all the way from here to the ocean in California and Oregon. Shoberk picked the name of a distant town and asked the messenger clerk sent how he should send a letter to himself in a town he had not got to yet.
A month later, after passing through Illinois and Missouri, he was leaving Nebraska and entering Wyoming, working his way by train, officially or unofficially, wagon train, coach shotgun rider, cook, cowpuncher, and messenger. He had been kicked off one train, fell off a wagon, took part in a posse rundown of a murderer and was a witness to a hanging out on the trail. Only a week later he saw a jailbreak set up by a crooked deputy to get his uncle out from behind bars. Both men died the following day and the story drifted back into the saloon where Shoberk was, for the time being, chief pourer and bottle washer. It came to him that there were two dead men who had flaunted the law. If that was an accident, he’d best watch his own step and not accidentally get on the wrong side of the law.
The one thing that paved his way across the country in some safety was his hearing. He listened to people talking about this ‘n’ that and made up his mind about what way to go. If it came down to a choice, and the choice was his, he would indeed be a lawman, a good one.
In Wyoming he met a man at a saloon who was talking about Oregon. For the second time his ear had found that word, and he was more convinced than ever that his destiny lay in that far place.
“I tell you, gentlemen, that the coast of Oregon is the most beautiful part of this country. There you can find all the scenes within a few miles that make your eyes swim in your head and your heart to bubble with joy.”
Shoberk asked him what he thought about a small town he had heard mentioned once.
“Why, my dear boy, that place is in the middle of heaven as far as I’m concerned. In the middle of heaven in Oregon, Yes, sir, the middle of heaven.”
Which is where Shoberk had most recently been close to hanging.
In the saloon, drinks piling up in front of Shoberk and the sheriff, the sheriff said, “You best come home with me, Will. You can stay at my place. I’ll keep you busy, keep my eye on you until that letter comes for you, and that will clear the air on all this Will Burke stuff, the Burke with a ‘u.’”
“And I’ll be Berk with ‘you,’” Shoberk said, and the sheriff slapped him on the back again, as hard as ever, and said, “Dammit, Will, my neighbors are going to love you. Bill Plastow is my deputy until I get a better one, his wife cooks for me and the jail, and his daughter takes care of the house for me and does the washing. She’s a looker, too. Can knock a man off the saddle first gander at her. Name’s Margaret but they call her Madge.”
Jigsy Askins, fair tippler on the job and an excellent one off the job, slapped Shoberk on the back for the tenth time and said, “C’mon, Will, let’s go home. Supper’ll be on the table when we get there. We’ll look in the station in the morning see if your letter got here yet.”
Will Shoberk fell in love first thing in the morning when he saw Madge Plastow hanging the sheriff’s clothes on the line in back of the house. He had never had a girlfriend. And Madge was a great first adventure. She was red-haired, fiery eyed, lithesome, moved with a special grace that touched something in him. He watched her for ten minutes as she worked, letting her invade his whole person. It took him all of another ten minutes to introduce himself to her and ask her to go riding with him during the day.
Askins gave his permission for Berk to leave with Madge on an afternoon ride, so they rode out onto the same road that he had seen from the gallows a whole day earlier. And way up ahead of them, out on that same road, he spied a rider coming toward them, no dust rising, no rush, just a leisurely day at hand, it appeared.
“Rider coming, Madge,” he said, as he studied her beauty. “Be alert.”
He could not get over how beautiful she was, sitting the saddle like a queen. He wondered what really had brought him to Oregon. When he looked at her profile, he had his answer. Never would he see anyone as lovely, who could wake up so much feeling in him.
He sputtered, “I think you are real special, Madge. Real special.”
She reached and placed her hand on his arm. “I felt that way about you this morning, Will, when I saw you looking at me. I felt funny all over.” Her face was a pretty crimson, but her eyes were still full of fire.
“Oh,” she said, “here comes that rider.”
The rider, a young man of good looks, wearing a colored vest and denim shirt and pants, said, “Hi, there. I’m on my way into town to see where all the excitement happened. I was scouting out a place for work back down the trail a ways and heard about it.” He put his hand out. “My name is Will,” he said, with a big grin on his face.
“Well,” said Berk, “I guess that works two ways. Glad to meet you. My name’s will too, Will Berk,” as he had decided to keep his new name and make his way in Oregon despite his awful beginning.
“The hell you say,” said the rider, my name is Will Burke.” And before he knew it, Will Burke was under the gun of Will Berk and taken to jail. Will Berk was hired by Jigsy Askins to become a deputy and, before the month was a month old, married Madge Plastow.
Jigsy Askins slapped Berk on the back and said, “It’s a damned good thing I didn’t get you hung that time, Wilbur. It surely is.”
“That’s about the hundredth time you said that, Sheriff. Just about the hundredth time.”
“Hell, Wilbur, it’s a lot better than me hearing people say, a hundred or more times, that I hung the wrong man. Don’t you think so? And we ain’t seen that letter of yours yet. Think someone stole it?”
“We do,” said Madge Berk, leaning into the conversation, smiling.
The sheriff was not sure which question Madge had answered and didn’t want to know.