Western Short Story
The lone bank in Wicksville had already been robbed three times. The only common factor in each robbery was the precise and scheduled timing of deposits by local businesses, except those of the two saloons in town, The Merry Bucket and The Good Catch Saloon. Not in any case had the saloons’ deposits yet been made when the bank was hit by masked men, four bandits dressed in near identical clothes, riding identical horses, riding out of town like a four-horse team.
Any clues were dissipated almost immediately by witnesses, none of whom saw anything the same way.
Sheriff Bill Caldwerth had “leanings,” as he called them, but said nothing to deputies or the town council. Coincidences always bothered him from any angle until proper light fell in place.
Within a few weeks of the latest robbery, Homer Simmons, not a recluse but a porch sitter these days late in his life sharing his home with his daughter, saw the boy he knew as Arnie Kellner roll a hoop down the alley beside The Good Catch Saloon. Simmons, just past 70, a bit infirm from years of hard work on a local ranch, figured the hoop most likely had come off an old beer barrel. Some days the boy made a fast trip through the alley, his shirttail flying, raising his own cloud of dust. Some days he didn’t make a lot of dust, didn’t make haste.
From where Simmons sat on his small porch on most days, from just after breakfast until late afternoon lunch coincident with the dipping sun, he had an angled view of the saloon and could see both ends of the alley. As long as the weather was good, the breeze like a desert of joy, he’d sit and watch, or study things. The boy usually rolled the hoop several times a day and would often come out on the other end in a matter of seconds.
Today it was different. Simmons reflected back that it usually was quicker than this. He wondered what little Kellner did in those lost moments when the visit down the alley took longer.
This day, a half hour later, the boy came out of the alley and went running and rolling his hoop down the dusty street of town. Simmons watched the boy pushing the hoop with a piece of old wood, making the hoop roll as fast as he could run. Vaguely he remembered doing it himself back in New Orleans, in another time, practically in another life.
The Kellner boy, on a sudden turn, sped down the alley beside the other saloon in town, The Merry Bucket. Ten minutes later, Simmons saw the owner of The Merry Bucket, Edmund Trask, walk out of the alley and diagonally head toward The Good Catch Saloon. He appeared in a hurry to get there.
Simmons, most days just about anchored on his porch by a number of old complaints, realized that his curiosity had been piqued. He managed to squirrel himself off the porch and hobbled down beside The Good Catch Saloon.
He was breathing heavily and was not prepared for any surprises, mild or otherwise.
Trask and the owner of The Good Catch Saloon, Lee Heflin, supposedly dread opposites and enemies, were in the alley, their heads locked up in an obvious secret discussion. Nobody else was around, and the back door of the saloon appeared barely ajar. Trask, at one point, looked around to make sure that no one else was in the alley, and then shook hands with Heflin. They parted ways after shaking hands, Heflin slipping into the back door of his place, Trask continuing down the alley to come out on the far side of town.
A few minutes later, down the dusty main road through town, Simmons saw Trask emerge on one side of the street and cross over to his saloon.
It was too secretive for Simmons. He’d have to tell someone, though he didn’t know who that would be or should be. What was the boy in all his? Was he a messenger? A spy? A Peeping Tom? There ought to be a fair reason for the boy’s activities. Shouldn’t there? He hoped the youngster was not being taken advantage of. The thought made him grind his teeth.
In his mind, Simmons assessed the situation, and then passed his judgment on the sheriff, Bill Caldwerth, who was an ordinary guy doing an ordinary job, and who also moved at mule speed in most things, but never backed off one bit. He liked the sheriff, and knew he could be trusted to provide some insight to the bothersome incident.
With some spirit in his mind if not in his body, Simmons made his way to the sheriff’s office not too many doors down from his porch bastion. In his faltered approach, the old wounds making new rounds, he thought back to whatever he had learned about the two saloon owners, meager as it was. Both men landed in Wicksville within a year of each other. Heflin had come first, bought the saloon from its original owner, changed the name to The Good Catch Saloon, and built a rousing and busy clientele that promised more growth down the long stretch.
Within a year, Trask came to town and opened The Merry Bucket just down the street, but on the other side. It drew off some of the customers from the first saloon, yet both grew apace, like twins sitting at the same table, having the same meals.
One thing Simmons did know: he and Sheriff Caldwerth would share concerns about coincidences, even those they were aware of but never mentioned.
“Bill,” he said as he entered the sheriff’s office, him at coffee and a small steak, “thought I’d drop by and say hello.” He put his hand out to the lawman who shook it in an official manner.
“What can I do for you, Homer? I haven’t seen you off the porch since we had the rope and shoot last month. You see something not the way it’s supposed to be?” He poured the old gent a shot of whiskey from a flask as though it was a routine event for the two men.
“The old nose gets stuck in a trot every now and then and I can’t shake it loose. Let me tell you what I saw today that just rubs in like salt in a wound.” He explained the circumstances of the boy with the hoop, using no name for him, but did expound on the two saloon owners talking at length in the alley beside The Good Catch Saloon.
“It looks too coincidental, Sheriff,” Simmons said. “Plain fishy if you was to ask me. Plain all out fishy.”
The old gent felt good; he had keyed directly on his feelings. “You think there might be some kind of connection with ‘other things.’”
This time he felt himself backing off from saying “robberies.” “You might figure there’d be no love lost between them two, being on opposite sides of the street in a few things, never mind them getting as close as they did from what I saw down the alley.”
The sheriff had another thought on his mind. “Let’s look at the kid in this. It looks like he’s being used by the saloon owners. Think he’s been roped into the situation, been forced to become a messenger, like an unseen connection between Trask and Heflin? That’d get me a little upset, using a kid.”
He paused in his questions, frowned with another thought, and said, “What’s his mom doing now that the boy’s father’s dead? I guess she’s been working for a few ladies around town and living in that old section on the back side of The Merry Bucket. Trask must have an arrangement with her. Probably got the boy squeezed into a deal as a runner of sorts, or else his mom and him are out on their ears. That’s one situation ought to be fixed before we cause her any harm. She’s been a good lady since her husband got shot by accident not too many months ago.”
“Well,” said Simmons, “I got a good idea there, Sheriff. My daughter’s waiting to get married and she’s been living with me until things got squared away. I could invite the widow Kellner to share the house with me. She’d have her own room, the boy’d have a place too. She could cook and do other work and we could share the costs. She has those other jobs she’s doing. Could be okay for a few years anyway, less’n she gets married again or whatever. It’d please me, help her and the boy. I worked 35 years for Harvey Walkins and he ain’t ever going to take the place away from me. He’s plumb too fair for any of that. We come out of too many scrapes for that.” He paused and added, “And I like the spunk of that boy even if he’s been pointed in the wrong direction. We could get her and the boy out of the bind they’re in.”
Sheriff Caldwerth said, simply, “Let’s get it done, and then we’ll rein in the other stuff.”
Simmons’ daughter was married and went off to live with her new husband with his father on a small ranch downriver from Wicksville. The widow Keller, name of Alma, came to live in Simmons’ little house, along with her son after being approached by Simmons. “It’ll be free, Alma, cooking for yourself and the boy and just throwing an extra jigger in for me. I don’t need many comforts in my old age, but a sip once in a while and a good night’s sleep. You got the run of the place. If you got a fellow, he’s welcome for visits. I got the porch on most days.”
It was revealed there had been a head-to-head between her and Trask about the situation as she was leaving her living quarters made available to her at her husband’s death.
A week later, in late afternoon, Arnie Kellner and Simmons were sitting on the porch and the subject of the trips down the alley came up.
“Oh,” Arnie said, “I was just carrying notes from Mr. Trask to Mr. Heflin or the other way around some days. They kept saying it was good for my mom even though she still had to work for people around town.”
Simmons’ curiosity was full bloom. “Notes just between the two of them, is that right, Arnie?”
“A few times I had to get a note from the telegraph operator at the station, or sometimes take him a note, but I never once peeked at anything. That’s honest injun.”
Simmons rubbed him on the head. “It’s okay, Arnie. You did good.”
He dropped the newest bit of information in the sheriff’s lap. “I got the sneakingest feeling in all this, Sheriff. None of it sits plumb right in my mind, and that boy is a great little kid who’d be well shuck of those two salooners and our mysterious telegraph gent at the station. I bet you know how I read that connection. I’m sure as shooting you do.” He felt like clapping the sheriff on the back.
“I’ll have a little talk with Ringo down at the station. I’ll whip him into shape in a hurry. He ain’t got much room to play in if the railroad knows it’s being used over by an employee. Want to wander down that way with me, seeing as you brought all this out in the open? Shake him up a bit.”
“Sure would, Bill, if we was to walk slow as a newborn. It’ll give me exercise enough for a week.”
Ringo, on being sat down in a hurry, said, “I don’t know if it’s any of your business, Sheriff, what I do for Trask or Heflin. They’re friends of mine.”
He held a haughty upper-hand look on his face longer than he ought to, for the sheriff said, “I sent a rider off this morning carrying word to Max Linwood of the railroad. I suspect he’ll be here latest by tomorrow afternoon to take care of things in the railroad’s interest. If you’re okay with that, that’s okay with me.”
He started to leave the station, knowing Ringo was weighing all the possibilities. He was at the door when Ringo said, “I just send special messages to their pals down the line. That’s all I do.”
Sheriff Caldwerth came right back at him. “Long as any of ‘em don’t match up with the bank robberies, I’m okay with that. But if any of your messages match up with the bank robberies, that’s not okay with me. You ever think of that? Ever think you’re being used as part of the gang that’s robbing our bank, taking the money of most of the people in this town? I wouldn’t put on your pants or your boots if I was in that position. You know how that’s going to sit with some folks here who ain’t all so calm as I am?”
Ringo’s façade began to change, the haughty look long gone as realization came home. “Honest, Sheriff, I never did make that connection until you said so, but each time was the day before the robberies. I only thought it might be suspicious, but I ain’t no lawman at this.”
The sheriff nodded at Simmons and spoke to the telegrapher. “Here’s how it’s going to come down, Ringo, just like I say it’s going to come down the next time the Kellner kid comes with a note from Trask or Heflin, the next time a message goes to their hired hands down the line.” He added his own punch line, a reverse threat of sorts, by saying, “And you might get to keep your job if everything goes okay.”
And Simmons, at the behest of the sheriff, sat down with Arnie Kellner and explained how he had to help the sheriff get the bad guys who’d been robbing the bank of money belonging to townsfolk and also to his mom.
So the collusion between saloon owners in Wicksville came down to a boy rolling a hoop down the dusty road in the center of town. Arnie, little more than a week later, was summoned by Trask as though nothing had changed, given a note for the telegrapher, which was thereupon delivered … after showing the note to Simmons and the sheriff.
Ringo the telegrapher had also turned a new leaf and advised the sheriff that the message had gone out to the gang somewhere down the line.
When the robbers entered the bank the next day, almost in uniform because they wore clothes so similar they could have been conscripted, they were met on the way out by a horde of lawmen, sheriff, special deputy and appointed newcomers to the ranks. There was neither heated exchange nor firing of weapons, as the locals mounted a most singular force.
In succession the following happened … Trask and Heflin were tried and convicted, as were the actual four masked robbers, and sentenced to jail; Ringo the telegrapher, in a bargain with the railroad bosses, was allowed to walk away and was never heard from again; Sheriff Bill Caldwerth quietly retired; the widow Kellner married a local rancher and moved to his ranch with her son Arnie who, late on the day of departure, the sun fading behind the mountains, waved goodbye to the old man on the porch.
Simmons, in a short period of time, celebrated on becoming a grandfather for the first time, sent a birthday present to Arnie out to the ranch, and just a few months later dozed off for a short nap on the porch near sunset, and never woke up.