Western Short Story
The Lone Oak
By Christopher Scott
The old red oak stood tall and
majestic. That went without saying. It had had over two hundred years
to perfect itself. Its mighty branches covered most of the quarter
acre lot assigned to it and the massive trunk was an impressive chunk
of timber. The lone tree stood atop a small rise, next to an old
dilapidated barn in the middle of what was once a forty-acre horse
pasture. Two men, land developers, stood at its base, contemplating
“Maybe we should leave it as the centerpiece of our new development. I mean, what would be the point of calling this development Lone Oak Estates if there’s no lone oak? Not only that, it will cost us to have it cut down, plus there would be the added expense of tearing out the stump.”
“That may not be true?” Replied the
other. “We might be able to get someone to cut it down for the
wood. Why there must be six cords just in those branches alone. The
trunk itself may be worth a few hundred bucks to one of the local
mills, and as for the old barn, I’m sure one of our contractors
would love to tear it down in exchange for the wood. All we would be
left to deal with is the stump. Getting rid of that tree would give
us a prime location for another house. I’m sure we could work this
out to be little or no cost to us. What do you think?”
“What do I think?” came the
reply. “I think this is the biggest oak tree I’ve ever seen. It
has to be a hundred and fifty, maybe two hundred years old. Sure, we
could rip it out of the ground and plant a house in its place, but
this is living history. I’m inclined to leave it. Too bad this ol’
tree can’t talk. I’ll bet it could tell us a story or two.”
The developer had no idea...
The Laraby mine was prospering. It had
hit one of the largest gold veins ever recorded and was pulling
upwards of twenty pounds of gold per week from its number two shaft
alone. The mine was doing well enough to have its own smelter right
on the property, where men refined the gold and poured it into five
pound ingots. Once poured, it was crated up into unmarked boxes and
shipped back east to an undisclosed location, one hundred pounds at a
time. The United Stated Government was buying up every ounce it could
get its hands on and paying the Laraby Mine a fair price of twenty
dollars an ounce.
The shipments went by coach to the rail yard twenty miles away. The local sheriff had jurisdiction over the stage line where his men guarded the box until it was transferred to a fortified boxcar at the rail yard. From there, Pinkerton guards escorted it along the rest of its journey.
Willy Wilson was one of the sheriffs
men. He was young and cocky. The type that thought he had the world
by the tail, and it owed him. The truth is, the world had a mighty
tight grip on him and it was about to collect its due.
“Hey Willy, I hear you lost big at
the table last night…again,” chided Oliver.
Oliver ‘Olly’ Norton was a skinny
little runt. He worked for the Laraby mine in the smelter area. He
was in charge of pouring the melted gold into ingots. The mine
employed guards to keep a close eye on Oliver and the others that
worked in the smelter. Being around that much gold could make the
most honest of men entertain thoughts of slipping an ounce or two
into ones pocket if no one was watching.
“You know ‘Irish’ is going to
come looking for his money, and when he finds out you don’t have
it”…Oliver ran his finger across his throat for added emphasis as
he spoke. “He’s going to slit your throat from ear to ear with
that big knife he carries.”
The hair on the back of Willies neck
stood on end at the very thought. “I hear he did it to a man up
North a while back. That’s why he’s down in this part of the
country. Runnin’ from the law I expect,” he replied.
“Well, if that’s the case, why
don’t you arrest him? You won’t have to pay him back if he’s in
“I’m not the law, I’m just a
guard,” retorted Willy.
“Well then you’re in a heap of
trouble,” replied Oliver.
“You don’t need to tell me, but I
don’t know what I can do about it, unless of course you can slip me
one of those bars of gold you’ve been making,” Willy joked.
Oliver stepped up close to Willy and
spoke in a low hushed voice. “I might be able to do better than
that, if you’re interested.”
Willy didn’t answer for a moment as
he sorted the question out in his mind. Was this a joke or was Oliver
serious. Chancing that Oliver could possibly be serious, he replied,
“Might be. What do you have in mind?”
“Well,” Oliver replied cautiously.
“Irish and I have a plan, but we need a third person.” Oliver
waited for a response from Willy, but since one was not forthcoming,
he took Willies silence as definite interest in what he had to say,
so he went on.
“A hundred pounds of gold is a lot for two men to carry.” Again Oliver paused and studied Willies face as he waited for some type of response.
“You’re kidding, right?” Willy
“No, I’m not,” replied Oliver.
“Do you want to hear more?”
“Well I’ve heard this much. Go on,”
“Oliver continued, we got the plans
all worked out, but we need you in on it. There’s a shipment going
out tomorrow and you’re on duty. Irish and I will wait in the trees
along the road by Old Birch Bend. Once we step out and stop the
coach, you get the drop on your partner on the inside. Irish and I
will take care of the two on the outside. We split the gold between
us and go our separate ways. What do you think?”
"And all I have to do is get the drop
on my partner?” questioned Willy.
“And nobody gets shot?”
"Well, that sounds too easy to me. I
need to give it some thought.”
“No time for thinkin',” replied
Oliver. I got to know now.”
Willy was understandably nervous, but
the money and the plan sounded good, so he agreed. “OK, I’m in.”
The following day, as part of his duties, Willy helped load up the strongbox filled with twenty, five-pound bars of gold. It was set onto the floor of the coach and Willy and his partner, Johnny Womack climbed in behind it. They sat across from each other as they had done many times before, resting their feet on the box as the coach headed for the rail yard where the Pinkerton’s were waiting to take possession.
The two made small talk as they rode along. “This here is the easy part of the job. Sit back and relax, and get paid to do it,” observed Willy.
Johnny tipped his head back and closed his eyes. “Wake me when we get close to the yard,” he mumbled, just before he dozed off.
The coach was getting close to Old
Birch Bend and Willy was beginning to get a little nervous. He
calculated the gold’s value as he did every time he guarded a
shipment. It always came up the same. Twenty dollars per ounce,
twelve troy ounces per pound, five pounds per bar, twenty bars per
crate. “Yep, twenty four thousand dollars, just like last time,”
he thought. “That was a lot of money.”
As Willy considered the situation he
was now involved in, he totally lost track of time. Without realizing
it, the stage had reached Old Birch Bend and was pulling to a stop.
Oliver stood in the road with his rifle pointed at the driver.
Willies partner woke up with a start.
“Dang it Willy. I told you to wake me
up when we got close.”
That was when he realized Willy had a
revolver pointed at his gut.
“I didn’t wake you cuz’ we’re not there yet.”
“Just what the hell are you doing
Willy?” questioned Johnny.
"I’m afraid this will be my last
ride with you Johnny,” replied Willy. “I’m cashing in and
“Don’t be a fool Willy. The
Pinkerton’s will be on you like flies on a cow pie.”
“The Pinkerton’s don’t take over
until we get to the yard. Besides, it’s too late Johnny, I done
made my decision, now get out.”
Johnny stepped out of the coach with
Willy right behind him. The old timer who rode shotgun decided to
play hero and went for his gun. A shot rang out from the nearby trees
hitting him in the neck. He tumbled from the wagon landing on his
head. It was the last move he ever made.
“Hey!” protested Willy. “You said
no one would get hurt.”
“I guess the plans have changed,”
laughed Oliver as Irish stepped out from the trees. “Anyone else
want to play hero?”
Johnny, still wearing his revolver and
fearing for his life, spun around and grabbed at both his gun and
Willy, hoping to use him as a shield. Oliver took a quick shot at him
but missed, hitting Willy in the upper thigh. In the commotion, the
driver tried to run Oliver down with the horses in an attempt to
escape, but Oliver shot the lead horse putting a stop to that idea.
The driver pulled his gun and shot Oliver in the gut. Irish shot
Johnny and the driver too. He calmly walked over to Oliver. Seeing
his situation was hopeless, he put him out of his misery.
“Well, I guess it’s just you and me
Willy,” laughed Irish. “Lets load up that gold.”
Willy and Irish divided up the gold,
each of them taking ten bars. As they mounted up, ready to part
company, Irish pointed his rifle at Willy. “You’ve been shot. I
could finish you off right now and take all the gold for myself. But
I like you Willy, even though you’re a lousy poker player. Which
reminds me, you owe me.”
“You’re right, I do.” Replied
Willy as he pulled one of the bars from his saddlebag and handed it
to Irish. “Square?”
“We’re square,” answered Irish as
he loaded the bar into his bag.
As he turned to leave, a shot rang out. Irish slumped in his saddle and fell to the ground. The driver had mustered up enough life to get off one last shot before his final breath, and the shot had hit its mark. Willy, being the lone survivor of this badly botched robbery attempt, quickly loaded up Irish’s gold and headed across country with his heavy load.
Willy Wilson needed a doctor. His leg was bleeding bad. The loss of blood was making him dizzy and he was having trouble staying on his horse. He knew he wasn’t going to get too far in the shape he was in, and with an extra hundred pounds strapped to his saddle, he wouldn’t be going very fast either. He was probably not more than a quarter mile from the road when he came upon a lone oak tree at the top of a small rise. Willy could still see the coach and the dead men from where he was. He dismounted and began to dig a hole at the root of the tree with a hunting knife he had found in Irish’s saddlebags. It took a few minutes, but soon the hole was deep enough to hold the two saddlebags filled with the hundred pounds of gold. He dumped them in and covered it all up with plenty of dirt, mounted up and headed out in search of a doctor.
Back in town, the Pinkertons' had informed Sheriff Dan Baxter about the robbery. Seems they had waited for over an hour past the time when the gold shipment was due to have arrived at the rail yard at which point two of the men, thinking there may have been some trouble with the coach, decided to head out and meet up with it along the road. They met up with it all right. It was a disaster scene. One dead horse, five dead men, and no gold. Upon closer inspection, they found one of the men still alive. It was Willies partner, Johnny Womack. He had been shot in the chest. His breathing was labored and he was wheezing badly, more than likely from a collapsed lung. Fearing for his life he had made a wise decision to play dead after he had been shot. That decision had prolonged the inevitable long enough to tell the Pinkerton men what had happened and who they were looking for. He died shortly after.
Since the gold wasn’t yet in their possession, it wasn’t their responsibility to go looking for it. That task would be left to the sheriff. So they headed into town to report the news.
Sheriff Baxter had just heard the news.
“OK then, I need at least two good men with guns to ride with me. I’m not letting that thievin’ son of Satan get away,” stated Baxter. “Who’s going with me?”
Two eager young men stepped forward. “We’ll go with you sheriff. Two of those men were friends of ours.”
The three men mounted up and headed out towards Old Birch Bend to see if they could pick up a trail. Several others rode along to take care of the dead. Once they arrived, they easily found Willies tracks and followed them up the rise toward the lone oak tree. As they reached the top, but before they got to the tree, they saw a single horse off in the distance grazing in some tall grass. They cautiously rode in its direction and soon discovered Willy Wilson lying dead on the ground. The bullet in his leg had nicked an artery and he had bled to death. Everyone involved in the holdup was dead, and as for the gold, it was never found.
The two developers stared at the huge oak tree.
“I’m sure it does have a story or two, but we’ll never know what they are.
Lone Oak Estates with one lone oak? That sounds good to me. Let’s leave the tree.”