Western Short Story
The Emporium
Jay Peters

Western Short Story

Passing a door, I hear a call, “Mr. Franklin. Mr. Franklin would you stop in a minute?” I take a step back to the door of Hector’s room.

“Sure, Hector, what ken I do for you?” I asks.

“You been writin’ down people’s stories fer a book. Maybe, mine would interest you.”

“Sure would, Hector, it sure would,” As I drag over a chair to his bedside, digging my notebook out of my jacket pocket.

Hector Rasmussen is a small dried-up man. He is a rather new addition to the Home. He never says much when us old timers are gathered in the sun room. He listens intently to all the stories told to pass the time. Always seems to drift him back in time, listening for a hint of himself. Nobody knows anything about Hector, except that he was a storekeeper.

I sit poised with my pencil and reporter’s notebook. He reclined back upon his pillows with eyes half closed and began to speak softly.

“I wus just a fifteen-year-old kid when my twenty-year-old brother, Joe, got a wild idea to rob the bank in the next county over in east Texas. His three friends were enthusiastic, as they all dreamed of heading to the gold fields in Idaho. Being orphans, he couldn’t leave me behind and he didn’t want to take me along. Being the runt of the bunch, I wuz told to hold the horses while they did the deed.”

“Two went in, as two lounged watchful on the boardwalk. I was around the corner with the horses. It was mid-morning on a Tuesday. They come pounding out of the bank and pile into their saddles. The banker starts shooting into the air and yelling. We gallop up the road to the north. We hear a few rifles pop; then the boom of a sharps. Ray grunts and topples out of his saddle.”

“Joe yells ‘keep a-going’ and we run until the horses are nearly exhausted. Joe spots a ranch. He holds the family at gun point until fresh horses are saddled and grub stuffed into gunny sacks. We head west across country. Joe tries all the tricks, he’s heard about, to hide our trail. The posse must’ve heard of them too, fer all the good it did us.

Over bacon and beans that evening, we divided the loot. The plan was to split up in the morning to meet up again in Pueblo, in a month. I had a bad feeling, so I snuck off to answer a call of nature in the night and buried my quarter share. In the early gray of morning, the posse just walked in on us and took us in our sleep.

We got hauled back for trial and hanging. Me, being considered too young fer a noose, got sent to Huntsville for three years in the juvenile wing.

Despite the threats, we never talked about the loot and it was never clear how much was stolen or recovered. Some thought the banker exaggerated his losses.

With my time up, I got a set of clothes, ten dollars, and pushed outside the main gate of the prison. I started walking north. A freighter, twice as big as me, hired me on, even knowing about my past. I started saving my nickels and dimes as we hauled freight back and forth across east Texas. Working fer him, I growed a bit and built up muscle. Took me saving most of two years to afford a forty-dollar horse and a worn out rig. Outfitted, I could now move about and put my plan to work.

I figured to claim to be an orphan from an Iowa farm. Hector was the meanest man in Huntsville and Rasmussen was the freighter. Taking their names, I left my past behind.

I used the cover of darkness for several days to sneak in, to recover my share, and sneak back out again. Once clear of the county, I headed for the Panhandle. Back setting in my cell, I figured out that next to a banker, a shopkeeper handled the most money in a small town. So I wander about until I found an old shopkeeper that looked about ready to sell out. I hired on cheap to learn the business. After six years, he sold me the store.

I began making small changes in the stock I carried. Hired a sharp business minded widder woman to handle the women’s things and food stuffs. She kept track of fashions, baby’s needs and cooking. She lived in a small house by herself claiming she had had enough of men. I lived in the back room of the store and never tried to convince her otherwise.

In addition to extending store credit to farmers and ranchers, I slowly let it be known that if the banker would not lend; mebby I could. I made small loans and began a kind of pawn shop. Eventually, I bought and sold used farm equipment, tools, furniture, and stuff. Everything that Ralph’s Hardware Store did not carry; I did. I even converted several loans or accounts with ranches into minor partnerships. Those paid well in the good times. I changed the store name to The Emporium, advertising in the newspapers of several counties. Maybe, you heard of it?”

“You are that Hector? Nobody here would guess that. Yeah, the Emporium was a famous land mark in its time. Known for its excellent variety of merchandise. Known for the good reputation of its helpful, friendly owner,” I exclaimed. “Why are you so different here?”

“That is my real story behind the above facts,” Hector began again. “Being an orphan, a bothersome younger brother; watching my brother hang; going to jail and being an ex-con, made me a cold person: stand-offish, quiet, and secretive. That old freighter taught me to keep my sorrows to myself as nobody really cared; they had their own troubles. But the old storekeep taught me to warm up and how to relate to customers. So I am really two people inside. The quiet kid and the outgoing storekeep. The one, shy and afraid of people. The second, a businessman serving satisfied customers, borrowers, and business partners.”

“Here in this old folk’s home, I don’t have any customers to be the friendly with. So, I’m left with being the shy silent kid again.”

“Well there, Hector, you are just like everybody in this joint: out of our normal place and kinda lost. We all have had to adjust our thinking and adjust our outlook. We’re jest gonna find for you, Mr. Storekeep, a new kind of merchandise to stock and the new customers to serve.”