Western Short Story
A Matter of Disguise
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

He came up out of shale and sand and a face full of grit that cut him when the wind was right, coming down-range and cooler than he thought it would be. His horse shuddered on worn legs, slipped in more shale, and then straightened his legs as he found solid ground underfoot after an arduous climb.

Chaps Stickmore slapped the horse on the neck and said, “Again, Reb, boy. You done it again, boy. Ain’t no posse ever catchin’ you short of Hell. Where we’ll both end up, most likely.” He patted the big black again, went gentle on the spurs as they moved toward a small clutch of brush and trees allowing green for the first time in a long ride on the backside of everything between here and the bank at Gavel Glade, a bank that he did not hold up.

But he had run without thinking.

He was a scrappy kind of young fellow, born in cattle country, bred on herd drives even before he was 12 years old, exposed to a rough life, but prepared for much of it not by his father who treated him like a hired hand, but by his mother who treated him like a son who’d need help along the way. His hair was almost a peach blond, as if it came not from either parent, both of them with hair as dark as his stallion, but from a far relative. He had an air of confidence about him because of trail experience and because young ladies thought him handsome and youthful pals thought him luckier than most with the same young ladies.

But the law was after him for holding up the bank he did not hold up, Sheriff Russ Collamore promising he’d chase Chaps Stickmore until Doomsday came and went. The sheriff saying from the first that he based his accusation on direct personal observation. “I saw him, that Chaps of yours, Mrs. Stickmore, coming out of the bank when all the ruckus broke loose. It was him, Chaps, in that blue shirt he said you made for him and that hat with the funny band on it. He said you made that too.”

It was as if he was laying some blame right at her feet.” It was him,” he repeated. ”I’ll swear it to the High Being.”

He tried to stare into her face with those words, with that fact, but found it most difficult. He was certain of it because Lavette Stickmore was a woman with relentless belief and faith in her family. The response, he felt, was coming when her chin stuck out, her eyes deepened, and an air of the mother-at-bay came about her. She looked formidable in a dress, the apron still about her waist though she was an hour or more from the kitchen.

“Where were you when you saw him, Sheriff?” Lavette Stickmore said, knowing more than anybody that her son would never rob a bank, steal from an old person, or tell a lie unless it would help somebody in trouble.”

“Well,” replied the sheriff, only slightly red-faced, “I was up at a window of the hotel, above the Double Road Saloon, and the view was plain as day.” Knowingly, he had just exposed his habits to a lady with a most discerning eye, and she would enact all the retribution she could … he’d seen her in action before and it was part of his problem, with a total distaste and dislike for anything that even hinted at Stickmore. The background story was long and involved.

The lady came right back at him. “And what kind of business were you up to, Sheriff, when you were at a window of the hotel that looks out on the street and is in one of the ladies’ rooms of the hotel? Were you busy? Minding your business? Tending to other business? Who was with you to say you saw what you saw? Who can say you might not have had something else on your mind at the time you say you saw my son committing the crime of robbing his fellow townsmen?” In an instant she could snap the crying towel as well as a harsh condemnation of a man and his welfare.

For all that matter, she could drag any part of an argument into the fray, like a farmer running a plow at harsh right angles across long, even furrows in an abrupt turn.

“Why, it was Lassie Gilmanton,” the sheriff said defensively, “fresh from New Hampshire, as she says, and looking for work out this way. She’d never tell a lie if you burned her with hot sticks.”

The Lavette Stickmore pursuit followed closely. “Don’t you mean she’d never tell a lie lest the sheriff makes sure she doesn’t get a good job out here, the way the law can twist the ending of any story or,” and she paused to load the gun again, taking a deep breath before she continued her own inquisition, “the very beginning of a story?”

Her hands were on her hips as if she was making a statement at the territorial senate, her face set with an iron grimace, her eyes so full of hatred that she herself seemed out of the ordinary. She put it in other words in a hurry. “The whole town knows you don’t favor me or any of my kin and because I’m not one of the mealy-mouthed snap dragons that dry up when you set on us.”

Collamore knew he was up against a stubborn and formidable foe. On top of Lavette Stickmore’s hard nature to begin with, there was nothing like a mother protecting her young. He’d seen it from she bears and mountain lions and plain old jackrabbits off the grass, as well as birds faking wounded wings to draw the hunter away from the young. Sooner or later she’d be making a stand he’d have to face up to. He dreaded the challenge from this woman, for she was nothing at all like the newest and freshest of young ladies in the town of Gavel Glade, Lassie Gilmanton, late of New Hampshire, now safely set up in Room #3 upstairs over the Double Road Saloon.

The twist in it all was a strange one for Collamore, for his father had often complained that the first Stickmore in Gavel Glade was a thief who had stolen his prize bull and hid it out in some secret place in the maze of canyons, ensuring a herd of superb offspring. “The only way them cows over at Stickmore’s is so good is ‘cause they come from my stolen bull, Crawford Luther #2, the best that ever came into the valley.”

Great endorsements about Stickmore herd came and went and each one burned the souls of the Collamore clan, and here was the last son, now sheriff of Gavel Glade, pursuing one of the hated Stickmores for bank robbery. All this in spite of the stance the boy’s mother had taken, and an unyielding position it was.

As Collamore, at the head of the posse, now reduced to six men, two men having been injured in falls and sent back home, recalled not remarks of the fugitive’s mother but one of the bystanders who had heard the argument. A querulous old towner, Branter Lumsden, had dared speak his piece: “I’d have my own question on this, Sheriff. If you was entertainin’ or bein’ entertained, well if it was in court I’d have the judge ask you and Lassie to show what exactly you were doin’ when you said you saw the boy in a blue shirt and a hat with a funny band., Hell, man, you can find half a dozen young ‘uns sportin’ the same measures if you was to go lookin’ ‘round town this minute. I swear I wouldn’t jail, or hang, if that’s intendin’, a young ‘un on a flimsy look-see from a mostly busy man at other matters.”

Lumsden had gathered himself for a further statement, thought it over, and spit it out. “Now if that was me and I was busy about private business with a lady such as Lassie, bet your last canteen of water I wouldn’t let anythin’ in this earth draw me off. No siree, I wouldn’t.”

He had guffawed to stress his point, drawing a mere flush of redness from the sheriff.

Now Collamore thought about his identification of Chaps Stickmore, but too much embarrassment had already piled up for him to retract what he had said. Condemning possibilities lay ahead; if they cornered the young man in one of the canyons of the area and a shoot-out ensued, it’d be as good as court for both of them. Hell, the Stickmores had built all they had on stolen goods, Crawford Luther #2, a magnificent animal. The bristles started again in the sheriff as he spotted a black spot moving against the backdrop of a canyon wall. He drew his looking glass from his saddlebag, but the black spot, one he was sure had been a man on horseback, disappeared before he could train the glass on the area.

He told the posse they had chased the fugitive down to the canyon directly in front of them, a narrow aperture that may or may not have an escape route on the other end.

“I saw a rider head into that canyon, boys. We might lock him down in there. Let’s go get him.” He was comfortable in taking the gamble because they had been riding for two days and this was the first sign of a strange rider … he had convinced himself of it.

One of the posse, Trot Klamberth, who had jumped into the saddle as the first volunteer of the posse, said, “We get him pinned down in there, Sheriff, he can’t get out. We could bring him back to town slung over the back of his horse.”

Another posse rider said, “Whoa, Trot. Slow it down. The kid ain’t even been found guilty yet. Don’t be so all fired up to get him dead before he has a trial.”

Klamberth replied, “Say that when he ends up shootin’ at you or even hittin’ you. Let’s see you say ‘Whoa’ then.”

The sheriff’s thoughts, with the discussion at hand, ran through a series of images, words, facial grimaces and looks, and a man in a hat with a funny hat band and a blue shirt. There was no way he could have been wrong, he kept saying under his breath, “No way. No way.”

Chaps Stickmore, meanwhile, ahead of them and having seen the posse, ducked down into the canyon, knowing he had a problem of outrunning them now. If there was a way out, he’d take it; otherwise, he’d make a stand of one sort or another. He was sure that Collamore would take him down the first chance he got … it was the blood feud making its way.

In the midst of it all he could see and hear his mother say so many things she had said all his life, from the moment he understood yes and no coming from her lips. And, in the straits he was now in, he’d have to listen and obey; she had always been right.

He drove his horse deep into the canyon, looking all the time for an escape route, a cave he could hide in, a break in the mountain that he might slip into and find a way out of. He saw nothing and knew he was at the end of the run. He ducked behind a rock, took off his gun belt and pistols and hid them under a pile of stones. The road might end here, but he’d neither hurt nor kill any man for something he did not do. With one more thoughtful move, he unsaddled his horse and whacked him on the rump. The horse scampered down into a further end of the canyon. “Go have some fun, Reb. You’ve been a good one.”

When the first bullets came in over his head, and two quick rounds bounced off rocks close to him, Chaps Stickmore dove behind a large boulder.

Klamberth, reloading his weapons, yelled out, “I put a couple of rounds and some fear into that boy just now, Sheriff. Watch out he don’t draw a bead on any of us. I heard he was a damned good shot.” He fired again at the boulder, bouncing another shot off the high face of stone.

“Ease up, Trot,” the sheriff said. “I’ll see if I can talk him out of there.”

Klamberth replied, “Tell me we come this far chasin’ that boy, Sheriff, and we gotta talk him out of hidin'. Just don’t seem right. We ought to teach all bank robbers the law of the land … you mess with us and we’ll mess with you.” He prepared to fire again, taking aim to do so.

“That’s it, Trot. Knock it off. I want to talk to the boy.” There was no way he was going to bring that boy back to his mother draped over the back of his horse. No way in Hell.

At that same moment, Stickmore, unsure of the posse, said, “Hold on, Sheriff. I don’t have any weapons. I am not armed. I don’t have any weapons.”

“Klamberth yelled out, “Don’t believe him, Sheriff. He could kill a few of us if he wanted. Get him now.”

Collamore saw the vision of Lavette Stickmore’s face. That wasn’t for him.

He stood up and yelled to the posse, “No more shots. I’ll talk to the boy. No more shots, and that goes for you, Trot, or I’ll shoot you if you do.”

Turning toward Stickmore’s hiding place behind the boulder, the sheriff said, “C’mon out, Chaps. Nobody will shoot. I want to see your hands empty and in the air.”

“That’s easy, Sheriff,” Stickmore said. “I don’t have any guns. I threw them away.”

He stepped from behind the boulder, his hands over his head, and Collamore saw that he had no gun belt on his waist.

Two of the posse went after Stickmore’s horse, brought him back and saddled him so the prisoner could ride back to Gavel Glade, in the saddle and upright.

A couple of times Klamberth rode up beside him, muttering under his breath, and once he said, “If you was to break away now, Chaps, I’d make sure no one took a shot at you.”

The posse was a good five or six hours from town and the sheriff kept saying how he had seen Stickmore coming out of the bank after the hold-up. “I was up in the hotel, Chaps, and saw you clear as day.” He said it many times, as if he was still trying to convince himself of what he had seen.

They had stopped at a water hole to let the horses drink. With manacles on his wrists, Stickmore stood aside as the horses began to drink. On the edge of one saddlebag he spotted a familiar shade of blue. He knew whose horse it was.

When they started on the ride again, Stickmore rode beside the sheriff. He asked in a straightforward manner, “Who in the posse wants me dead the most, Sheriff?”

“Why ask me that, Chaps? What’s that got to do with anything? I saw you, plain as day, just like I said.”

“Sure you did, Sheriff, in the blue shirt you figure my mother made for me and the band she made for my hat too. That locked it up for you, didn’t it? Like in an instant.”

“Why shouldn’t it?”

“Well, Sheriff, if you were to look in all the saddlebags in the posse, I’m willing to bet you’ll find a shirt just like the blue one my mother supposedly made for me. And if you find a funny hat band, you better start asking yourself some questions. I’m sure my mother, and my father, will. One question you might ask is who’d like to see me as dead as you’d like?”

Collamore looked over his shoulder back at each member of the posse. The possibilities were narrowing.

With a sudden command, he drew the posse to a halt, gathered them in a circle and said, “I want each man, and one at a time, to empty their saddlebags right here on the ground in front of me. And do it now, starting with you, Trot.” He pointed at the ground in front of him. “Put everything in your saddlebag down there.”

“Hell, Sheriff,” Klamberth yammered with much vexation, “I don’t know what that boy’s done said to you, but I ain’t about to let him tell me what to do with my saddlebags.” He started to back his horse out of the circle, drawing back on the reins, setting one spur on the horse’s flank.

Collamore’s gun, quicker than ever, was trained on him. “Don’t try anything, Trot. I just want to look and see what’s in your saddlebags.”

“I just said, Sheriff, I ain’t doin’ anythin’ a bank robber tells you to tell me what to do.” He was about to scamper off when two of the posse closed in on him, one of them reaching for the hint of blue sticking out of the saddlebag, pulling it out, and showing the sheriff the blue shirt like the one Lavette Stickmore had made for her son. The funny hat band, with a conclusive twist of fate, fluttered to the ground and lay there like a statement in court, under oath, and nothing but the truth.

The manacles were swapped, from fugitive and prisoner to former posse member Trot Klamberth.

As the posse neared town a sense of calm rode inside Sheriff Collamore the like of which he had not experienced in a long time. The face of Lavette Stickmore, in the back of his mind, had been softened.