I see a lot of strange people in my saloon. Some are good for a laugh; others are deadbeats I can't afford to be kind to in spite of their pitiful tales. Still others are friends who make my life interesting in this new town.
One of my favorite customers is Billy Reems. He's good natured, always ready with a joke and entertains us with his wild tales of life as a cowboy when he was young. I let him run up a small tab against the advice of my bartender, Ned, who is tighter with my money than I am. Billy always pays me when he has money. He doesn't drink in excess, just an occasional whiskey when he's flush and a nickel beer when he's broke and thirsty. He works hard at a variety of jobs, never makes much money, and is always seeking a way to make more. He doesn't have a family. We don't know where he came from and that isn't a problem.
Some men talk about their past, some aren't so forthcoming. I'll tell anyone who asks that I came to America from Italy after my brothers emigrated and found this great land to be as wonderful as we had always heard. We invested in this saloon because we believe this town is going to grow and be important some day.
On this particular day someone ran into my saloon with the big news that the bank just two doors down had been robbed. The crook had a bandana over his face, a dirty hat pulled low and a big gun. He got away with a bag of twenty dollar gold pieces. He had gone in the bank when there were no customers, held up the clerk at gun point, had her fill up a sack and had walked calmly out after scaring her half to death.
The sheriff eventually got around to talking to me.
"Now, Sam, the clerk said the robber had whiskey on his breath. Do you remember who was in here right before the robbery?"
The bartender and I thought back and came up with three names. There were never many customers close to noon. The regulars would show up after supper; the lushes weren't awake yet.
"That seems like a mighty slim lead, Sheriff. It's possible for someone to drink whiskey that I didn't sell them. Mr. Lloyd McDonald came in for a quick one. He left right away and said he had to meet a man about some property he was looking to buy out east of town. Joe Cagligone was here to ask me for a job again. I may have to hire him just to get my money back I loaned him. I can't remember if he had a drink or not; Ned might know. Billy Reems said he had worked for Jonas Slidell unloading some grain at the railroad siding, been paid in cash and needed a drink to clean out the chaff he breathed. Do any of those sound like your man?"
"It's hard to tell. Did any of them leave the saloon and then come back?"
"Billy did, come to think of it. Pretty strange, too. He bought a shot of whiskey the first time he was in, put it on his tab, then showed up later with a twenty dollar gold piece, had a beer and paid his tab in full. I don't think he made that kind of money unloading grain."
The sheriff got all excited when I told him that.
"You say he paid you with a twenty dollar gold piece? Why, Sam, that's all that was stolen! I think I need to see that fellow!"
The sheriff found Billy at the boarding house and arrested him for the robbery. His room was searched but very little money was found. I went to see him in jail that evening. He insisted he had found the coin in the street. He thought it was a miracle and had gone around town paying what he owed. Apparently I wasn't the only merchant who let him run up a little tab. He had some money left which would keep him going until he could get another job but the sheriff confiscated that. He said he had told the sheriff about finding the money and the sheriff just laughed at him.
I was sure Billy wouldn't rob a bank. He matched the description the clerk had given the sheriff, but then so did most of the men in town, including me. Although it would have been hard to cover up my splendid moustache. Also I retain a little accent. Later that night, Ned came over to me at the little table where I kept my books and showed me another twenty dollar gold piece. A customer had just paid for a drink with it.
"Reckon it's any good?"
"Did you bite it?"
"Sure, but where would Hiram Foster get this kind of money?"
"Let's ask him. Tell him to come talk to me."
I questioned Hiram and he told me that he had been on the way to town and had found the money in the middle of the road. Now that was strange. Was it raining twenty dollar gold pieces? Should I put out my bucket?
This was just too much of a coincidence. I told Ned I would be back shortly, put on my cap and went over to the sheriff's office. I told him about the coin that Hiram had used. Even showed it to him. One gold piece looks much like the next, so that didn't help. He looked amazed.
"Sheriff, I don't think Hiram is dumb enough to use money he stole the same day he stole it. Billy wouldn't either for that matter."
The sheriff put his head in his hands and moaned, "If word of this gets out, everyone is going to go nuts hunting gold. Wonder how we can keep it quiet and still try to find out what's going on?"
"I think I'd wait until tomorrow when it's light and start a search down the road toward Hiram's farm. Get some of the guys you can trust to keep their mouth shut to go with you."
"Good idea. You keep your eyes out for any more coins. I'm going to go ask some of the other merchants if they know anyone who's struck it rich."
"Anyone who spends money like that in my saloon is going to stand out. I'll let you know."
When daylight came the sheriff and a couple of his deputies mounted up and rode out of town. He came in about noon to tell me the rest of the story.
"We watched the road carefully as far as Hiram's farm but didn't see any money. There hadn't been a lot of traffic out that way lately. Past Hiram's we slowed down and really searched. Found three more coins, one at a time, right in the middle of the road. Thank heavens it hadn't rained. We kept looking until we came to a camp out west of town on the river.
"There was a guy rolled up in a blanket who was sleeping off a drinking binge. He didn't give us any trouble when we arrested him. He had the money he stole in an old sack with—you guessed it—a hole in the corner. He had an empty bottle of cheap whiskey in his saddlebag. I guess he drank it before the robbery to give him courage and after to celebrate his new wealth. He couldn't believe we had tracked him so easily. I threw him in jail and let Billy out with my apologies. Since I couldn't prove the coins that Billy and Hiram found had come from the bank, I decided to just let them keep what was left."
"Well done. How about a beer to settle the dust?"
"Sounds good to me. I wish all the tracks I had to follow were marked with gold. Sure would make my life easier. Well, shucks, then anybody could be sheriff."
I poured him a beer, lit up a cigar, wiped the bar and settled down to get the details. I should write a book
about the stories I hear in this bar. Can't wait to get home and tell the wife about this one.