Western Short Story
“Sheriff,” the stranger said to the man with the shiny badge, a big, robust man with twin pistols on his belt and a coffee cup in one hand, name of Burt Hollister, “they took my pistol and my rifle and my boots, two men did after gettin’ me in a crossfire position. I was surprised they didn’t grab my horse too, but he might’ve been too damned balky even for them.” He pointed down to the shoes on his feet. “An old lady outside of town gave these to me. Used to be her dead husband’s spent his last years in the rocker on the porch. These shoes are eastern, cut too low, and way out of place out here where ridin’s natural to all folk, but they ‘llowed me to walk right up to your damned door.”
His voice rose in degrees, as if he eas climbing a hill, getting out of breath, but the anger building. “They said plain out I could find the gear in town here, at Flanner’s Place. I saw Flanner. He wants me to buy back what’s mine. Wants more money than I got to buy back my own possessions. So what do you say about that, Sheriff?”
His hands went into his empty pockets. The move matched the forlorn look on his face. He looked thin, but healthy, and carried himself without bending over for a sheriff in what looked like a whole lost cause, “Plumb caught up in an old-time scheme o’ robbin’,” he might have added, but he managed to hold off on expressing all his thoughts
Hollister studied his visitor for a few seconds, seeing a saddle tramp, a drifter, probably wouldn’t have two bucks in his pocket at the end of any day after a stop at a saloon. He sipped another mouthful of coffee, but did not offer a hot drink to the obvious loser.
“Looks to me, mister,” the sheriff said so casual it promised no solution coming the stranger’s way, “Flanner paid out some of his own money and only wants a fair deal on his end now. Can’t blame him for that.” Then, as though to change the direction of the talk, said, “By the way, what’s your handle? I don’t think I’ve seen you around at all, not even slippin’ in and out of town from one of them minin’ camps or one of them ranches grabs anybody they can for a drive. You got a job hereabouts?”
“Name’s Clem Bogger, from nowheres all of a sudden it looks like. That’s my stuff, Sheriff, he’s holdin’ back on me and I aim to get it.”
“You do that, Bogger, scare one of our people here, do any threatenin’ with a gun, and I’ll gun you down soon as look at you.” The free hand was on one of his pistols as he put down the tin cup.
Calmly, as though he was used to this kind of play, he diddled one of his guns out in front of Bogger like he was going to scare him, an obvious drifter trying to make demands in his town. It lasted, that diddle, about two seconds and the gun was in Bogger’s hand, his eyes staring the sheriff back a few paces, the sheriff suddenly realizing he had made an error in judgment concerning the stranger named Bogger.
Bogger cowed the bigger man who wore the shiny badge, but didn’t have a gun in his hand.
“I ain’t payin’ you and your partner for my gear, Sheriff. Plain and simple it is, just like I say it.”
Bogger, with ease in his movements, pushed the sheriff into one of his own cells and said, “I ain’t a killer. I ain’t a thief like you and your pard, but I’m gonna leave some strange leavin’s behind me, but ain’t none of it goin’ to be my gear.”
“Mister, you got this all wrong and I can prove it to you. Let me out of here and we’ll go talk to Flanner.” He shook the bars as if he did not believe where he was, or that the bars could no way keep him from walking out.
“I’ll talk to Flanner and tell him you told me what I just told you.”
The riled stranger in Portico Bluff, Bogger as he said, leaving the sheriff in one of his own cells, and the door locked tight, went directly to Flanner’s General Store a short way down the main street of the town. Flanner was standing outside his store, looking at some gear in the window display, gear which happened to belong to the riled stranger.
Flanner was attempting to sell the gear, his talk rapid but his voice smooth as an old saddle seat, as he talked to a young cowpoke. “Hoke,” he said, “I got the best deal for you. Cheap as it gets. The whole set in the window for 50 dollars. You won’t get that price this side of the big river or the other side of the Divide you go the other way.”
Neither one of them saw the stranger approach, coming up behind them, standing at quiet attention as Flanner insisted on a good buy, a quick sale.
The young cowboy, Hoke Auburn, twisting his hands out of his pockets, said, “Mr. Flanner, I ain’t got but three dollars in my pocket now and won’t have fifty dollars for two months.”
“Hoke, my boy,” Flanner said quickly, “that ain’t no problem. I’ll trust you until you get paid, even a couple of months. Give me two dollars now, take the gear, go have a drink or two at the Black Burro with the boys. Celebrate your new gear. It’ll sure look good with you, like it belonged to you from the beginning.”
“That gear ain’t ever goin’, to belong to you, son,” said the stranger as he stepped in on the deal. “It’s stolen goods. I wouldn’t buy that stuff for a nickel if I was you, ‘cause there’s no way you get to keep it.”
Flanner said, “Don’t listen to him, Hoke. Says he was robbed of it out on the trail and there’s not any kind of a mark on it to prove it’s his. Least none he can point out. I bet Sheriff Hollister already squared him away on it.”
He turned to the stranger and said, “You been to see the sheriff?”
“Yup, and he said you can’t sell stolen goods. Plain and simple. They was stole from me, Clem Bogger. Stolen goods can’t be bought and sold off no way inside the law. All that stuff will have to go to court as evidence, from wherever it’s at come court time. The judge’ll see to that.”
“He damned well didn’t say that,” Flanner insisted, his face still getting redder. “I know just what he did say, that I had an investment in this gear and if you wanted to get it you’d have to pay for it.”
“You gents have got this down kind of pat, haven’t you, the pair of you?” Bogger said with more than a hint of venom in his words. “That’s sure what it looks like to me, a lone rider who was goin’ to drop into your town for a quick drink and just got jerked off my saddle by some real cowards. Wearin’ masks, they was, and hidin’ behind rifles pointed at my gut and butt, sneaky men I’ll spread the word about, all over this territory. Bet your measly life on it. All over this territory.’
Flanner, red in the face and getting redder yet, looking over at the jail for a sign of the sheriff, said, “He’ll toss you in jail for this, you saddle tramp, or send you off to the penitentiary where you’ll learn to keep your big mouth shut.”
“If he was to throw me in jail, Flanner,” Bogger said, “he’d have to share the cell with me, ‘cause that’s where he is right now, restin’ in one of his own cells, probably waitin’ on lunch to be delivered from the hotel ‘cross the road there.”
Mounting his horse near bareback, a simple blanket under him, wearing the out-of-place shoes, he stared at Flanner and said, “If I was you, Flanner, I wouldn’t try to sell that gear anymore. The judge’ll want to see it when he shows up here next time around the circuit. Pretty damned quick, from what I hear.”
He said the latter part more for the young cowpoke than Flanner. He nodded at the young man and continued, “The judge, son. The judge. He snaps the whip out this way, loud as Hell, and it goes all the way back to the territorial bench. Mean as a cornered rattler, what I hear, this one. Bet on it.”
Flanner rushed over to the jail to see what was going on, and had to let the sheriff out of the cell. “We got a problem with that damned drifter, Burt. And I see you already found that out.” He threw his hands up in the air.
“We need to do something about it soon as we can, Burt. If he digs up any dirt, it’ll be the end for our business. We can send the plans right down the trail if they catch wind of us. He might just yell his way all the way to the territorial seat. I keep thinking every time I pass any of Chatterton family in the street or on the trail they look away. The kids even spit at me. If this big mouth trail bum talks to them, they’ll open up, I’m sure of it. I’m sure.”
Flanner looked around to make sure no one was listening in on them, as he continued. “We’re in this together no matter what happens. You’re the one got me to swear in court it was Chatterton who killed that young fellow outside of town, Percy Williams’ boy Raz, when he wasn’t who you thought it was. Oh, I’m damned sorry I came across you and him just lying there in the road dead as he’ll ever be. I can’t go into court again and say I lied one time. Just one time counts all the way to the penitentiary. I’m not goin’ there, not ever. You got to keep me out of there, Burt. I couldn’t handle it.”
“Oh, stop the droolin’ and slobberin’ like a baby all over yourself. You’re a poor sight for a man. Anyone hear you now, or see you like this and you’d lose all your customers. Nobody likes a damned coward, so shut up and let me think. And stop shakin’ like you was goin’ to die right here in front of me. Just let me think.”
Hollister, as if he had no company in the office, sat on his desk and leaned against the wall. When he tipped his hat down over his eyes, Flanner almost had a stroke.
“Are you damned well goin’ to sleep at a time like this?”
“Shut up, I said,” Hollister pushed through his teeth as if he was about to bite the store keeper. “I’m thinkin’.”
A full minute of silence crept through the room, and Hollister, suddenly sitting upright on the desk, said, “When’s the last time you saw that mouthy Chatterton kid?”
“I can’t remember that,” Flanner responded. “He’s like a willow-the-whisp anyway, slidin’ around things like he always does. Never know where he is, so I never worry about it or take notice. Why?”
“I think he’s been out of town for a while, probably stirrin’ somethin’ up about his father. The kid’d be a perfect sucker to blame for killin’ this saddle tramp Bogger if we can arrange it. Make people think Bogger got his father into all this trouble in the first place. And all you got to say is you remember seein’ Bogger when you were near the scene, like you might have made a mistake sayin’ it was Chatterton. Hell, Chatterton in jail would be the first one to say you was wrong before but you was right on this.”
“You think it’ll work?”
“We made it work last time, didn’t we? Now we get a stranger on the hook, get Chatterton out of jail, and we’re clean on it all. All us locals is clear as a bell. Just let the boys keep doin’ the road work like they been doin’ since I came up with the idea. They’ll never even whisper about us, we got too much on them. It’ll be like takin’ a pie off’n Lizzie Meredith’s windowsill, like we used to do. “Member?”
He poured himself a cup of coffee, and kept nodding until Flanner eased himself out of the office and went back to his own comfort.
A few nights later, Bogger still mouthing off about his lost gear, raising one ruckus after another around Portico Bluff, a few more strangers in town, and the Chatterton boy, Clete, saying in the saloon that he was going out to the ranch for the first time in weeks. “I got some news for the folks, so I come in for a quick drink. Be on my way when I get my horse fixed. He threw a shoe out on the trail and made me walk a bit.”
Hollister and Flanner, under cover of darkness started out of town just as Clete Chatterton went down to the blacksmith to get his horse, a paint looking like a picture of a perfect pony.
When Hollister and Flanner, outside of town, called out in the darkness, saying, “Hold there, Clete, we got some news for you.”
The first shot came out of the same darkness where the yelling came from, and the horseman ducked off the paint and scrambled on the ground as shots were returned from another point.
“Who’s shootin’ over there?” yelled Hollister. “This here’s the sheriff of Portico Bluff, Burt Hollister. My pal Flanner’s with me. Who are you. We’re trailin’ a killer who shot a man down the trail a ways and is ridin’ a paint. Who’s shootin’ from over there? I demand to know who’s shootin’ at us.”
“This here is Marshal Dan Waggoner,” came a firm voice, “from the Territorial Seat. I’m the one on the paint you were shooting at. Those shooting at you are my men, and my nephew Clete, sitting over there waiting on the pair of you and waiting to check on the man supposedly shot down the trail. Maybe you know me as Clem Bogger, the other name I use around Portico Bluff. You just have to tell me where that body is, the one making you shoot at another man in the darkness. Be interesting to hear about it … like a lot of other stuff out this way.”
He paused his delivery for a stark moment, then said, “I sure hope you’re going to be reasonable about all of this, Sheriff, you and our storekeeping pal.”