Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
Available Now Site-wide ad space Top right corner, replacing the ad to the right. $25 per month. Click HERE to find out more.
Western Short Story
The first public scenes in the life of Shjon Oh’s, as far as we know, occurred in the spring of 1867 in the small Idaho town of Hilton Elvers, on the Snake River and within hailing distance of Oregon. The first scene evolved in the saloon after a discussion of names and when Oh’s‘s name came up the town fist-bully and gun-bully said, “Where in hell did you get a crazy name like that one, fella?” to which Oh’s said, “From my most honorable father and if you have a problem with that, spit it out or shut your mouth, which is too big for such a little man.”
The bully of all sorts was suddenly staring down the barrel of a pistol too close to his nose to ignore, to which posture Oh’s said, “We can buy one another a drink to save spilled blood, or get to it right off.”
The bully slid a coin on the bar.
Deep thanks and relished outcome, showing mouths still open in surprise, floated through the saloon the way a cloud’s shadow moves on certain days of summer. The day was like many past days when elvers, the delicacy spawned in the river, continued their soft, effortless glide to favored grounds; downstream or found on cast iron skillets on a riverbank fire. Of course, that’s how Hilton Elvers got its name, when Dupont Hilton, a fisherman of note from across the seas, decided to change the cooking habits of western women.
The next day, just before noon, the Hilton Elvers Bank was being robbed by four men who broke out of the bank toting their loot, wielding guns and shooting every which way to scatter town folks. In his second public scene, the robbers ran into the spit storm of Shjon Oh’s, whose bullets found all four in a gunfight that lasted less than three minutes. Three men were wounded, one man died, and Oh’s had not taken a deep breath in the whole matter. Quickly he refused an offer to become the new sheriff of Hilton Elvers; the Hilton Elvers sheriff had disappeared at the start of shooting, swearing he had immobilized his shooting hand and severely sprained his leg in a fall rushing to the bank.
Few people believed the sheriff’s story except Shjon Oh’s who had seen him fall. He had also seen where one of the robbers, which turned out to be one Truford Dexter, when he fell wounded, dropped a bag of loot under the boardwalk where it abutted close to the bank. In the middle of that same night, Hilton Elvers dark as a cave, Oh’s retrieved the loot and left town the early morning. The dead robber turned out to be Truford Dexter.
A week later, further along the Snake River, in a settlement called Albatross Rim, Oh’s bought a small ranch from a local girl who had been waiting for him, and married her. He wanted to raise horses. The ranch once belonged to her father, Blanford Dexter, and her uncle, Truford Dexter.
But back at Hilton Elvers, when the recovered stolen money was counted, a single bag was declared missing, unaccounted for, and suspicions ran rampant in the town as to where it was and who took it there.
The banker, Winston Hughes, III, was not only the best dressed man in town; he was the only well-dressed man in the town. Once of London and Derry in Northern Ireland, he was smart as a good pencil or a new spur, and eventually checked on who had left town right after the attempted robbery; it was assumed the bag was taken out of town. The drivers and shotguns of both a stagecoach and a freighter’s wagon had been all day in the saloon during the day of the robbery, left the very next day, and so could not be involved; the only other person that left the town, as far as the banker and all witnesses knew, was Shjon Oh’s.
Was it he who took the valued bag? Was it not he?
The banker Hughes also pursued the real identities of the robbers, three now in prison and one dead, and any available information on them. The three imprisoned were proved nothing more than road dusters, no serious work history available and therefore most suitable for quick ‘n’ dirty hire, and any regular connection would be rare or accidental. But the fourth man hailed from a small settlement down the Snake River, Albatross Rim. He was the man killed by Oh’s, the aforementioned Truford Dexter, once of Derry, Northern Ireland.
Hughes found out Oh’s’s new wife, Peggy, was the niece of the dead Truford Dexter who once was part owner of the ranch that Oh’s now owned. Truford Dexter had been allegedly cheated of his share in the ranch by his brother, and Peggy’s father, Blanford Dexter. Blanford Dexter was also dead when shot by a mysterious assailant met on the trail. “By a cowardly bushwhacker,” Peggy contended every time she was asked. She also discredited the creditors who were exerting undue force on her to part with the ranch, some for obvious reasons; she was often referred to as “The prettiest thing west of wherever,” and known far and wide as a woman who could ride and rope with ability that matched many men.
Hughes, as a fastidious and organized man, slowly began to assemble his “book” on the robbery.
More than once he sat up abruptly in the middle of the night, directly from his sleep, perhaps from his dreams, his sense of mystery whetted by some floating imagery often eluding him. Hughes, a lover of mysteries or puzzlers he found in Poe’s “The Murders of the Rue Morgue” and “The Woman in White” by Wilkie Collins. They enchanted him and he licked his lips on these and other occasions when he began to assemble the foregoing information into a palatable package. It did bring a momentary fear that he’d spend more time on the package than on his bank duties. Yet somewhere inside his structured thought lingered the idea that he had on his hands the makings of a damned good mystery that called for the return of a bag of gold nuggets stolen from the Bank of Hilton Elvers. His bank.
A full week later, musing to himself on a busy day at work, his mind suddenly drifted elsewhere, Hughes said under his breath, “Oh’s saw me the day of the robbery, for that’s what it still is. He saw me, but only for a short time. I could, in reality, become someone else and get closer to things down there in Albatross Rim. Do some investigating, go digging.” He rubbed his hands in expectation and tittered, likewise again to himself , “And perhaps all the luck in all this world might come my way in spite of what Coleridge had to say back there at the turn of the century.”
With a fevered pitch to his interest, the bank manager rode down the trail, along the Snake River and loving the country all the way, to Albatross Rim that sat in the middle of a great saucer of land where the river twisted itself in a quick torture. Dressed in old cowboy clothes he had scrounged from the livery, a hat as old as the mountains themselves, a gray-black shirt looking like it had been found on the edge of the desert, and a pair of Levis shot through with tear and wear, he looked like a down-and-out cowpoke who’d messed up his last job, spent his last dime, but held fast to the last dream … and his horse and saddle, the horse being a spirited red “as big as the King’d allow.”
The only fear he had was opening his mouth to say the right word in the wrong dialect; and he didn’t know if he could correct the eventual impression.
“Ridin’ and ropin’ an’ cattlin’,” he’d said aloud during his approach to Albatross Rim, trying to capture the western dialect in full flavor, knowing he’d try it at least once to speak for his past. He knew he’d probably fail. It was inevitable; “Brits don’t make good cowboys,” he might have also said.
And as it had been proved in this case, they don’t make good bank robbers either. He afforded himself another chuckle at this revelation.
Oh’s, before the robbery came down, was the only hand working the Dexter ranch. He was deeply in love with Peggy and realized he’d like to skewer the creditors hounding her and her uncle, and had undertaken a number of activities, some that came accidentally and some that had grown out of simple musings of his mind, all which dealt with Peggy’s comfort and with his love for her, and his own good will for making amends in her behalf.
He knew that accidental intentions and intentional accidents were not the same from all angles, and when he overheard Peggy’ s uncle and three strange men discussing and planning the robbery of the bank at Hilton Elvers, he remained quiet and hidden in the loft of the barn. It had been where he’d been idly stringing some odd ropes, and it was a moment of Fate, he understood, that had come calling on his attention.
“Go out the same way you came in,” the uncle had said to those men with him in the barn, “and do your mighty best not to appear in the face of anybody for the next few days. Camp in solitude, if you can, off the trail along the river. Find a hidden spot that will keep you secreted, mold yourselves quiet for the while. Under the one big tree north of here you’ll find food, plenty of it, and a few bottles of the best available to keep you happy. Do not go into Hilton Elvers until Thursday morning next at the 8th hour. That’s two days from now. Proceed right to the bank at that time and I’ll meet you on the way. It’ll be a favorable for us, a cinch as all cowpokes say, a knotted rope. I’ll take care of the arrangements to make it so.”
He had paused and Oh’s could imagine him getting ready for a special pitch to the strangers whose voices and language were entirely different. It came as, “We can, each one of us, knock it sure and be set for the rest of our days. Knock it sure.” He clapped his hands and Oh’s could see the image clearly, though he was deep in the hay.
On the prescribed day, two days hence, Oh’s made sure he was in the right place at the right time, hoping for a good reward, a better position, some advancement in life, but never did he imagine the sight of a bag of gold being made so accessible to him. Fortune can swing a wide path, he often thought. And so he cleaned and oiled his pistols several times in the two days following, helping along that thought, making ready his own fate.
Choosing his place for the event of robbery, he secured the best possible spot, did his thing, sprayed the bank robbers, saw the bag of nuggets fall where it was difficult to see, changed his plans; Fate giving him the faintest nudge to a new plan.
It should be noted here that Shjon Oh’s’s father was Ollie Oh’s, whose childhood tormentors pushed him towards artistry with the handgun. It was his father’s reaction to the constant screams of those tormentors deriding him in his youth with their cries of, “Ollie Ollie oxen free," derived from the German settlers’ "Alles, Alles auch so ein frei!" His gun artistry came to him after serious practice and several years of his adolescent years, and eventually the same for his only son, Shjon, born in 1844 in a fast western town in the Kansas territory, 17 years before it became 34th state of the union. He was an anxious child aimed at his manhood, after being tormented as “Shjon Oh’s the pretty Rose,” or Shjonny Oh’s has 16 toes,” and other such sobriquets, some not so petty or pretty. For Oh’s was a handsome young man whose image Peggy Dexter, from her first sight of him, took to her covers each night thereafter, until the image was real, as we have seen.
Banker Hughes, as can be said, was smooth, as smooth as a good knight of the crown could be in a motley cowboy outfit. His hang-up was that he remained “still desperately British. “If I keep my mouth shut for the nonce, I may proceed to some fruition here.” He was optimistic at the least point. Some people, he knew, could tell where a man came from by a few words out of a man’s mouth, at least where that man had spent his early years bred on local time and timbre.
But he was dog thorough, mole deep, and set out to prove it, though with cautions and considerations in mind at all times. Those reflections he could have listed, and often did so in a mental sweep to keep alert:
Somebody in Hilton Elvers has gained in the theft.
That someone has secreted away the gold in some manner.
It may have been planned or it was accidental, as influenced by the shooting.
Oh’s was in on the shooting, “which is why I am here in Albatross Rim.”
Oh’s has seen me in Hilton Elvers, though for a short time.
I have to keep an eye on Oh’s without Oh’s seeing me.
I have to determine the kind/color of the horse(s) that Oh’s rides, so as to know when he is in Albatross Rim, tied at which rail, in what building, and the time/habit of such visits. These included visits to the saloon, which all men visit, if not for drink, then for socializing, cards, news, or rumor.
I need to have a vantage point for this watch. (One offering a view of the town’s main street, and the best place in the saloon for indiscrete observation.)
The hotel, small as it was, had two front rooms that were suitable, but both were plainly occupied. He had to reserve one for the first availability once vacated, which he set out to do.
On his way to the hotel, walking along the main street in the town, he felt adrift … but determined. Nor did he entertain any random thoughts of Fate’s intervention, but such a worldly man was supposed to be alert to such an appearance. “Luck has funny legs that it dances with,” he remembered one customer at the bank saying when he’d found a gold coin in the street.
He mulled over his coming encounter with the hotel clerk/owner, and found something measuring him for possible action. It caused only a slight hesitation to his step at the same time he saw rider dismount and walk into the hotel ahead of him.
Hughes hurried his step.
He stepped into the hotel and heard the new arrival say, loudly, “Whadyamean you ain’t got no room. I’m trail-busted and road-dusted and need a room.”
Hughes was greatly surprised to hear the clerk say, in a definite Londoner’s tone, “It’s as I said, ‘eh Mate; we have no vacancies.” He looked at Hughes, as if sharing his response and shrugged one shoulder in the most subtle manner.
Hughes, stocked with surprise, and a sudden glee, shifted his head slightly toward the street, to which the clerk smiled and said to the angered man, “Well, mate, you come in later in the day or on the morrow and we’ll see what’s in fare, if there is a room possibility.”
The new arrival, without a look at Hughes, turned and walked to the door, muttering, “The country ain’t safe even three wars later from them damned Brits.” The door slammed behind him.
Hughes said to the clerk in his old Yorkshire way, “Now then, my good man, that was a bloody neat comeuppance for that barmy lad. Blimey, ‘ey what.”
Hughes had his room that evening, overlooking the main street of Albatross Rim, and with it came a long talk with the clerk.
That very evening, from a corner table of the Broken Wing Saloon, still in his cowboy get-up, the banker from Hilton Elvers spotted Shjon Oh’s when he entered with two companions, all three going right to the bar and ordering whiskeys.
One of Oh’s’s companion said, “Well, Shjon, we got to toast your good luck in finding that gold in a mine that’s been done in for years. And damned thoughtful to file that claim on it. Peggy’s got to be damned happy to get the yoke off her back, now that you bought things outright and clear.” He tipped his glass to Oh’s and said, “Here’s to you, Shjon. Luck comes to them that looks for it. You always said that, yes siree, even when you was looking at Peggy from outside the fence.”
All three of them laughed, as Hughes, unnoticed by them, slipped out of the saloon and went to the local land office. He received little information other than the claim was left useless and abandoned some 20 years earlier with never any follow-up action until recently, the fortunate discovery of a bag of gold presumably lost or hidden for years in or near the mine, but not fully qualified by the finder. There were no legal ramifications bound upon the find.
That was the cover story Oh’s furnished on several occasions.
Without spending much thought on it, Hughes knew he needed an ally, a person of influence, to carry his mission to completion. It would not be the Albatross Rim’s banker, or the sheriff, or the hotel owner/clerk or a barber or the owner of the general store across the street from the hotel. It was not somebody back at Hilton Elvers.
It had to be somebody here at Albatross Rim.
It had to be Peggy Oh’s, and the idea struck him with its irony: Peggy Oh’s owes. He’d put it in her lap. It was the only chance he had; Shjon Oh’s was too ingrained in the community, too secure in his status as landowner, businessman, new husband in an old love story.
Almost untouchable. Almost.
It was revealed that Oh’s had a Saturday habit of spending a good part of the day at the Broken Wing Saloon. So when he came into town that Saturday, Hughes rode out of town, and eventually introduced himself to Peggy Oh’s. He was wearing his banker’s clothes, and she was impressed with his qualities, his voice, his language, and his manners.
“I hesitate to bother you, Mrs. Oh’s,” he said. “I am Winston Hughes, III, and I own the bank up river at Hilton Elvers. It was robbed, as you know, and your uncle, as you also know, was killed in the supposedly unsuccessful robbery.”
Peggy Oh’s replied, “Oh, call me Peggy, please. Mrs. Oh’s sounds rather stuffy. We know each other already. And he wasn’t my favorite uncle”
“I think it would take me a whole day to get to know you, Ma’am. Maybe more than that.”
“We definitely have a head start,” she said. “What can I do for you, Winston? It’s surely about the robbery, isn’t it?”
“You have a feeling about the affair?”
It did not take him long to reveal to her, piece by piece, the background of the robbery of a bag of gold, and all the ensuing activity; some of which she knew already.
“If there was a retrieval of a good part of the stolen gold,” Hughes said, “there might be a good chance of a compromise. My main duty is to recover what was lost while it was in my custody.”
The understanding sat directly in front of them.
It did not take long after Peggy asked her husband the next day to show her where he found the bag of gold. “That bag was not even worn out a little from the weather or time, which most people think was about 20 years ago, unless it was stolen more recently and hidden there.”
The law of the kitchen and the bedroom hovered over the Oh’s until he admitted to most all things, but not saying that he knew her uncle would be in the robbery, or that the man had it coming to him as the man suspected of killing his own brother.
It was late in the evening when Oh’s finally said to his wife, “All I saw were men who were about to kill some innocent people of the town, so I started shooting.”
The lie, in due time, saved a banker’s sense of responsibility and a new marriage with all the associated intangibles, as Fate would have it.