Western Short Story
Where the River Splits
Tom Sheehan


The argument started in the Cows' Moon Saloon in the town of Stream's Edge on the River Moses, a small stream of sorts in East Texas, when two ranchers of the area tossed barbs and curses at one another over now forgotten issues, but set the groundwork for later. Generally such spouts are about ownership or lines of demarcation, or natural barriers or lines that should settle most arguments by long-known local sightings. (Never about women; they wouldn't allow it.)

Ownership, thus, was settled by loudest voice, first to declare a line, a line marked by natural terrain, or a really visible and normal edge of discussion: a river, a stream, "a piss puddle" someone once uttered in disgust when his declaration was cast off with disdain by listeners, on-lookers, a half-drunk barkeep steeped in his own responsibilities..

The two arguers, combatants, were Wedge McMurry and Sledge Hanswick, so named early on by the same neighbors who still gathered at the Cows' Moon, all older than the two contestants in the current argument over land lines, ownership, where the river really splits, as seasonal changes sometimes forced slight but important alterations in one boundary that may leapfrog subtle or large changes down the line, be it so called as so agreed by at least two or more people.

That young pair, each born to be big and tall men, full-chested, powerful, quick of hand and fist, and unafraid of just about anyone and anything that came their way on foot, paw or horseback. They, in turn admired by the older set, were often pitted against one another for joy's sake of on-lookers, bettors, fight fans before the term came into being. Each of the growing boys agreed to such bouts, early and often with overhand swings and jaw-crunches of the first class, and each had their own gallery of fans, gallery gods too, also before that term came along in conversations, spats, "more troubles brewed up on the spot."

Sledge and Wedge, as it was, went into their twenties, became ranch owners within a year of each other when both fathers fell to rustlers' intrusions a bare month apart. They shared their sorrows and their sufferings as good friends, and went about their business of becoming ranch owners, cowmen to the core, each angling to outgrow the other with similar sorrows but no vindictiveness at the start of the new holdings.

It can be seen that their early encounters, bolstered by others for joy, came upon them with a need to overcome the other at any and every level of competence, measurement, increase, or social standing, such as it was in those days.

This day in May of 1861 found them in the midst of the latest argument at the Cows' Moon Saloon when a lone cowboy rammed through the saloon doors screaming, "Someone blew up the mid-course dam of the River Moses and the water's taken a new course heading down this way. No tellin' what it's gonna do when it gets here! It'll run those property lines all over Hell!"

He threw his arms in the air and yelled out, "Get me a drink 'cause I won't know who owns what!" You can't reckon with the wreckin'." His laughter was far beyond instant thoughts of most men in the Cows' Moon Saloon, most of them seeing an instant confrontation, already tasting the blood of the matter.

Silence swung through the crowded room like an odd night was happening, almost a darkness of clarity, of what could and would happen to property lines once declared hard and fast. The barkeep kept shaking his head the way amazement shows itself in human reflection, but much of that amazement is what surged in the crowded room, what played out for the future not yet in sight ... but coming in a hurry, like anger and deprivation, land loss, shrinkage of property or sudden riches in the same vein, fist-tossing, blood-letting, false justice chasing after the good reckoning, thumbs up on shootings, reparation, exactitude by the acre regained in a damnable hurry before stakes were hammered into new property lines.

The whole essence of wide open space was at times illusionary, the way the grass, the rolling hills of plains and neatness of meadows, the fertile prairies as far as many eyes could see, once free territory for all, might have room for a whole new crib for all of Earth to replant itself with another chance at settling down again, taking another chance, in spite of those who coveted it the most.

Opposite sides were already drawn for the coming encounter, or so it seemed.

"No foolin' with the toolin'," as they might and often did say up along the River Moses, all of East Texas at attention for any and all changes in the landscape, the ownership and the destiny of those two ranches, cattle-marked with the luck of the Irish or Swede Sweetness, the Irish in Public (I/P) or the other end of the argument, the Swedish Nightmare (S/N).The brands were known all over Texas and all neighboring states and territories in all directions, the brand name carried by tongue and tale by like-bred travelers from the old countries across the new land of America. Some might talk of "recovery" or of "theft." Each version in the employ of men who thrived on ownership to the last end, for the "big bite," strong enough to make a grab whenever the chance came along, the way accidents happen, the way fate makes a move, the way luck has a hand in things.

Wedge McMurry moved first from his seat at a poker table. "It's all your doing, Sledge. You either planted dynamite by yourself or paid to have it done!" Anger rode in his face as if he was being strangled, his cheeks puffed and balloon-like, his teeth bared, his eyes lit by fire of a blue code. All his body said he had been robbed by a maneuver he had not even dreamed of, the course of the river being split, being diverted, cutting edges at new outlines, new parameters. It was all falling apart from a good bond.

He started across the room at Sledge Hanswick, shouting, "I ought to kill you for this. You've screwed up everything we had kept in line. We agreed on the river. We said it was okay for both of us. You shook my hand on it."

Partway across the room he halted, looked about him at the audience of men they had known most of their lives and said, in a swift change, "Let's face it, Sledge, whoever did it or arranged it, to get at us for sure, is most likely in this saloon right now."

The silence rode over every face in the room, a testimony about that declaration, and the action that promised to follow.

Wedge's eyes roamed over the saloon full of old friends, hardy cowmen from the first word of dawn, "Go", "Get done", "Do it before somebody else does it.". Most every man in the room moved with those words on his mind, being born with them in their hearing.

He found the center of his mind, the track he wanted to take.

"I'll explain my meaning with these words," he managed in a moderate tone, a deep breath taken for his broad chest.

"You and I handle cards in a different manner, Sledge. You always concentrate on the cards. They mean everything to you when they're dealt; everything, to the end of the world. But, I say now and forever, cards dealt to me, all cards, are or should be accidents, they are plain all-out accidents, almost illusions. I pay little attention to them. Instead, I pay strict attention to the hands and the eyes of those players at the table with me, at nobody else. I study their hands above the table, and their eyes above their hands, as well as their twitches, their quick moves, the nerves, the giveaways free for the taking. They tell me a lot that's never said but hangs in their minds like they'll never let go of them, but damned it, man, they're all loose in this room right now."

"If anyone can benefit by any change in property lines on the stream, or the new slant or angle of it, it's someone else who also has property on the line, and that's a very nervous man at this table with me right now, scared to death about discovery more than what his cards are going to do for him, his hands at a jingle-jangle, his fingers loose as tail feathers on the back end of a horse, I swear his hands feeling like gloves have been glued to his palms."

Blackcat Spoffard, no first name ever known, never used in or outside of these games, a thin and dark-set man with mustache and curly black hair down his back, was suddenly stiff in his seat, as if dynamite was expelling its foul residue from his very person, a sharp and acidic waste emanating from his skin, wide and foul as a pigpen at a farm site, the giveaways of giveaways. everything but the big boom in the transition.

Of course, shaken wide awake from his soft dreaming at cards, Blackcat leaped from his chair to make a break from the room, but Wedge had a solid hand on him before he could take a step or utter a breath.

"Your cards are all dealt for you, Blackcat. You can't get away from this hand, that's for damned sure." He held the other hand in the air. "This other hand in this deal is gonna be for justice and for punishment. That's my promise to all of you gents here and especially to this rat of a man."

He swung a solid fist at Blackcat, letting it miss by a hair's edge. The dynamiter collapsed in terror and fright, not a blow struck for justice, no room left for more forgiveness, as all was cast for his future in the town, if there was any future to be had beyond this day.

With the ease of a giant, Wedge McMurry picked up the unconscious man and dumped him in the dust of the road. That was the last anybody in Stream's Edge ever saw of him.



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