Western Short Story
Paul John Morgan, Jr. became Stitch Morgan on his 14th birthday when a fight with a friend ended up being clumsily stitched on his face in three highly-lit spots, as doctored by the friend, Harry Howard, also 14. The stitches stuck in place and so did his nickname, as the boys tried to keep the circumstances from their parents, especially both fathers, not gifted with a general understanding of things as they were.
It should be noted here again, early on, that the nickname stuck for good for Morgan and his stitch-worked face, fully observable from 40-50 feet and Harry Howard became, eventually, Dr. H. Howard, with an office in Tucson, and a name that had broad acceptance in the territory for a variety of reasons, all on the good side of medicine.
In the interim, life went on for both of them, with more than casual encounters, more than one being the marker and the other being the marked, the pen coming to one and the gun to the other, Stitch being the gun hand, as elusive as he was fast, seemingly no place too small for him to stash himself from posses and singular pursuits.
His first encounter, as a rustler, was with a local cowpoke working a herd of cattle to a local market, the cowpoke, aiming his way but slow on the trigger, got knocked clean off the saddle, and Stitch embraced the sudden feeling of victory coming over him, a feeling he had never known to that level. It had an undeniable grip on him, chasing him no matter where he went, what he did, or why it sprung loose from him, opportunity not being the main drive. Mere chance never moved his trigger finger, but self-preservation tipped the scales every time, as it did on this circumstance.
There was a trial, but no convictions, though one witness said two of the rustlers wore masks which made him think they were local and stayed unknown, unidentified, through the whole operation. He also stated, “If I ever see one of their horses, I’ll know it and will swear to it.” There seemed to be a strong conviction in his words, the kind not often heard from a witness to a rustling. Such words were never players in the game of stealing cattle or horses regardless of the number of animals or their ownership.
Such promises usually did not carry past the day of occurrence, whether they were so common, or protection had to own the upper hand on deadly trigger fingers, there had to be no question on duties wearing gun belts, not for a minute of sworn loyalty, or so said; “Your hearts and your trigger fingers now belong to me,” was spouted long enough and loud enough for all to hear, a promise near sacred to some folks of soul, and by some others as minor promises only good enough for that moment, life not in the deal anywhere, under ordinary circumstances..
“They had too many guns,” was often quoted by cowpokes losing control of their herds, unless they lay still in the sunlight, their smell drawing attention from above flights of birds in constant searches for food, or from pack animals seeking free lunch.
It came in the deal as: “If I die, you’re saying you’ll bury me so I won’t get eaten up by hawks or eagles or land critters by the pack. You got my gun; I got your promise to bury me.”
Those words echoed for whole drives to market, for every stop or meal site en route, in every instance of protection, both ways.
Stitch swore a number of times that he had been alone on the job a few times, that nobody else in the crew would stand up and be counted in a shoot-out. That did not happen often, but once was enough for some men to worry about the end of a drive—heavy alcohol, free-spending, loose women with tight hands and hungry appetites not sworn to any deal except survival.
“Don’t let him ever walk off saying he’ll pay you next time around, ‘cause that ain’t coming no way soon or again.” Each party with a code of conduct. Like an owner at pay-off would say, “If you party, you’re on your own,” and mean every word of it.
Stitch walked into the Open Belly Saloon hoping to meet again with an old friend, any one of them, to gab a while about the ones not there, just as if they didn’t count any more being talked about.
Billy Crowdler nabbed him just inside the door; “Hey, Stitch, pleasure meeting up again. Hear anything about Conrad Hoyer getting caught hugging an owner’s wife in the barn down Topeka way? Kind of messy from what I heard. You hear anything? Conrad laid out like there’s no tomorrow for him; the lady not able to stop crying.”
“I don’t believe any of it ‘cause I saw Conrad last week, no tears in his eyes, either one, so someone started a story to scare off some of the boys who get around too much, if you know what I mean. Plumb useless saying no to anyone or anything, far as I see. So, no made-up story gets any reading from me. It’s a lazy man’s way of making a point better left unsaid.”
“You’re awful calm for a gent who’s being looked for by a big-spread owner over in Big Talbert on the border. Says he wants to talk to you and it’s worth a hundred bucks to anybody brings you to him, in any fashion, even dead I bet. I’d be leery of that man, who sounds too mean to be kidding around about you.”
“I don’t worry about big guys poking fun on me when I’m wearing my irons. That’s teaching time as far as I’m concerned over bar talk, big mouths never closing down, part of their front view of cowpoke life on the run. They don’t trust us none with their women far as you can throw ‘em.”
“Disappearance is not magic, it’s dart-quick behind anything big enough to hide a man, like Ray Duble just tied up out front and I’m getting lost in the shuffle. Tell him you saw me yesterday heading to Colorado,” Duble being the rustiest gunman in any lot.
Stitch was out of sight, in a hurry, wanderer, ponderer, as though a rope dragged him everywhere a man could go, and get to.