He was suppose to protect the gold, not steal it. But the temptation was too great and the opportunity too easy… or so he thought.
The old red oak stood tall and majestic. 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 as they contemplated its fate.
“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 three or four 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 and fifty cents 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. He 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 prison.”
“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. Since one was not forthcoming, he took Willies silence as a 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 nervously replied.
“No, I’m not,” replied Oliver. “Do you want to hear more?”
“Well I’ve heard this much. Go on,” answered Willy.
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. They rested 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 and fifty cents per ounce, twelve troy ounces per pound, five pounds per bar, twenty bars per crate. “Yep, twenty four thousand and six hundred dollars, just like last time,” he thought. “That’s 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 heading east.”
“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. The bullet hit Willy in the upper thigh. In the commotion the driver tried to run Oliver down with the horses in an attempt to escape. 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. 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 with the hunting knife he had found in Irish’s saddlebags, he began to dig a hole at the root of the tree. It took a few minutes but the dirt was loose. He soon had a hole more than 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. He 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 the gold shipment was due to have arrived at the rail yard. When it hadn’t showed, two of the men figured there must have been some trouble with the coach. They 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. 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 heard the news as did most of the town by this point.
A crowd was beginning to gather in front of the sheriffs office. Baxter stepped out onto the boardwalk. “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 headed toward the tree they spotted 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 slowly 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. It’s decided. We’ll leave the tree.”
© Copyright 2023 by Scott A. Gese All Rights Reserved.
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