Western Short Story
The old man, beggar of drinks, spittoon cleaner, dung shoveler, was shot and killed behind the livery. Taylor Maxon rushed from his card game. He was kneeling over the town drunk when the others came from the card game. “He’s dead,” Maxon said, “and he said he felt a whole lot of curses coming right up from his belly and then he said Shearwell did it. In his last breath he said Shearwell did it. Called him a liar and then shot him.” He looked up from where he still knelt over the dead man. “I heard a galloper heading out of town. Round up a posse!”
That little burp of light in the morning’s pre-dawn sky could always twinkle Luke Shearwell awake from the deepest sleep, out on the prairie, at a branding campsite, on a line fence by himself. All that after a full day in the saddle and a late plate of beans and steak on the run. He and the star had a history of sorts. And on this day of flight it would rouse him once again from sleep on the small ledge where he was hidden from the posse.
It didn’t matter that Luke Shearwell had not done anything wrong except run from the posse’s wild bunch headed, of course, by Taylor Maxon, who’d been in love with Laura Mordant long before Luke had come along. Maxon had practically demanded the deputy’s badge from the sheriff of the growing town of Canyon. “You need all the help you can get, sheriff, ‘cause there’s something going on around us. I can feel it and I know you can. Too much trouble when it should be quiet. Little guys getting squeezed by big guys. Rustlers. Mysterious ranch house fires in the night. You need another good gun at your side.” He nodded his head in that cocky way he had as he added, “and a decision-maker wearing the badge. You’d get that in me and everybody’s for it. I fit in this town. I always have.” And then he capped his stance off with what could be called a marquee statement of the times in The Panhandle: “There are too many ‘big Interest’ outfits looking at all the assets in The Panhandle, including all of Palo Duro Canyon.”
Maxon, for all his bluster, sat well on a horse, could shoot the spokes off a wheel at 60 feet, no mean feat for anybody in the saddle, and had captured one bushwhacker in the middle of his act. Some of the townsfolk said, with enough time under his belt, Maxon would have the stuff to become the governor of the state… his name floating always in good tidings. He never personally affirmed that such aims were in his saddlebags, and only smiled at the rumors.
What Taylor Maxon really wanted, besides Laura Mordant, and the huge spread out there in the Palo Duro Canyon that Colley Mordant was building, was getting newcomer Luke Shearwell out of the way. Too many times in the too few days he’d been in town had Laura’s eyes drifted from conversation with Maxon to find the newcomer Shearwell never far away. That was enough to get under Maxon’s skin early on.
And Mordant’s ranch, being almost half the size of the whole Palo Duro Canyon, was a sign of the times. Big spreads had taken bites out of every little spread in the territory. Some of the takings did indeed smell from afar with more than wood smoke. As it happens, rumor and distrust went hand in hand.
Shearwell was looked upon by many citizens as just another saddle tramp who swung his leg off the saddle for a quick drink at the first saloon he came to and had got himself stuck in the little town of Canyon.
Canyon, new and growing, having a sheriff and no deputies, was also in The Panhandle, not far from the Palo Duro Canyon. Its stretch marks were not noticed by its own citizens, some of whom had slept right through its birth.
With comfort easing out of his body as night moved across the flat plains and the slight hills where he bivouacked, Shearwell shifted his head again on the edge of his saddle and crossed his ankles. His blanket felt warm and the position change offered temporary suspension of aches that had not really gone away after his hectic ride. At the site his boots were as close to him as his rifle, and just as necessary. The posse, he supposed, was still camped out there, resting for the night, getting ready for morning’s resumption of the hunt, Maxon cracking the whip over their heads. If he could drive Shearwell into a lopsided gunfight, things would be a lot easier when it came to Laura. At the least, he could bring Shearwell into the jail, and there was no telling what could happen from then on, with him holding the keys.
Yet Luke Shearwell had been a step ahead of Maxon. And he had a good idea of what was happening, not only in the whole of the Panhandle, but what Maxon was up to from the beginning.
Luke Shearwell, in the darkness, studied the stars. As usual, they came with connections of all kinds… stories, directions, an opponent’s plans at the end of deep thought, lighting the way home from a dark or perilous journey. He trusted them as he trusted his horse; those above him, imperial in a way, that under him, provincial in a way. He calculated his position. He planned his moves.
On the edge of the little shelf of rock he had selected to rest upon, his horse snickered and kicked at the hard surface, but it was the view that satisfied Luke’s look out for horse traffic. During long stretches earlier in the night he had looked for flames flickering from a camp fire, and saw nothing. Nor had he smelled any coffee aroma riding the cool air of a September night. But intuition of a restless order kept working on him, and the sly and solitary messages that seemed to slip into his consciousness from that intuition kept saying, “Before the morning star.” Like a toothache while in the saddle, or the sore rump at the other end of his small world, the words kept coming back to him. They were not new, those words. Hardly new.
For much of his life he had heard them handed to him as if on a family platter.
“Before the morning star.”
He wanted to close his eyes for a while more, find a decent rest for mere minutes. It would do him the greatest good later on. But he kept hearing the same words. It made him move without closing his eyes. He rolled his blanket, saddled Plunger, slipped off the rim before daylight could circle his frame, strike his silhouette. The breeze was like a drink of water, cool, from deep in a well of sorts. He swore he could taste it in his throat.
Overhead he looked again, saw the star where it belonged since forever, and said, “Before the morning star.” A pause was followed by, “Yes, sir, I’m moving before the morning star moves.” He was speaking to an old man in his past, his grandfather. A vague image came to mind. But he heard the voice again, fresh, urgent: “Before the morning star.”
There was so much more that Shearwell knew. When he looked into Plunger’s eyes, he was looking at hundreds of years into the past when Plungers’ forebears had come up out of Mexico with the Spanish explorer Coronado. The Indians, from down where Coronado had come, called the star the “Dawn Star.” And the Comanche and Kiowa and other Plains Indians, who got the “gift of horses” from Coronado, knew all along that many stories had come along with Coronado’s horses. They knew some of the stories that were being carried in horses’ eyes, as well as some of the magic and some of the kinship between horse and rider. It was enough confirmation for Shearwell that the star could be seen in Plunger’s eyes.
He slipped off the rim, thought of a providential route out of his troubles, and again brought all of Canyon to mind. Laura Mordant was right in the middle of it.
What had bothered the town fathers, so to speak, was Shearwell’s knowledge of the territory, the whole Panhandle and what made it tick, and it frightened them for a drifter to be so well-informed. The banker and a couple of big spread owners were more than upset, calling him a malingering upstart and rumor monger. Sodholme the banker thought him to be highly suspicious. A few of Shearwell’s words hung on him and caused him deep unrest; “That ranch out there in the Palo Duro Canyon that Mordant’s building is big as hell and is a sign of the times.”
Some of his other observations, spoken out loud in Canyon saloons, made certain high-deal customers uneasy, like the night he carried on in the Dead Wagon Saloon:
“Way, way back, the Spaniard Coronado brought horses with him on his long walks and those ponies ended up a couple a hundred years later bred to Plains beauties by the Comanche and the Apache and the Kiowa. When the Indians were sent to reservations, the sheep and cattle war started and this little spot called Canyon grew and big ranches came along.”
He could carry on for hours:
“When the Indians got to the reservations and the buffalo were practically wiped off the Plains, we saw sheep come into the region from south of us, just the way that Coronado came. Everything and everybody came this way. The railroad is coming too. Why? What’s here beside tough weather and flat land and a couple of rivers running loose? I saw it all east a ways and it’s headed here in a dozen or so years, that’ll get some gents scratching for open land. That big ranch out there is bringing new times with it. Mark my words. Cattle life, as we know it, is going to change. Good old politics is going to crowd us, for damn sure. And any little guy that gets in the way.”
Shearwell was too much to take, having come down right off a dirty, old saddle after a long dirty ride. He was marked as if a branding iron had been heated just for him.
Maxon’s deep-seated interests took over and the town, in its own sleepy way, kept its eyes closed. That’s much of the reason why the posse was so fast in getting after Luke Shearwell, when they should have waited until morning to study trail sign.
When Luke Shearwell finished off reading the stars, especially the morning star, and decided what course of actions he would take, there was one location that offered the best options. He rode fast for Lookout Mound and tethered Plunger in a thick copse of cottonwoods. He put down his bed with a small log as a head rest, lit a small fire and let it smoke a bit, and sought a place to watch the trail he had left.
It was Maxon, ahead of the posse of course, who came up on the trail, looped his horse’s reins about a rock, and walked to within rifle shot of the campsite. The sleeping form was easily seen alongside the fire. From his position, Maxon leveled his rifle at the form, looked back over his shoulder, saw a few shadows of the posse coming along the trail. When he hit the target dead center with two quick shots, he screamed at the lead men in the posse. “I got him. He went for his rifle and I got him. I got the killer as he was going for his rifle right beside him.” He was exultant.
They rode in on the campfire, still smoldering. Two riders dropped down off their mounts and approached the form on the ground, their side arms in hand.
One of them yelled out, “Hey, Taylor, there’s no one here. Just a blanket and a saddle bag rolled up. There’s no rifle here. Thought you said he was goin’ for his gun. There’s only a stick here. You gotta be seein’ things. You shoot a couple of holes in a blanket and give the man no chance? You want Shearwell that bad, you go get him yourself. I’m goin’ back to town. I don’t want none of this.”
The two men mounted their horses, rode back to the balance of the posse coming up on them, and the whole posse, after a few minutes of talk, headed back to town.
Maxon was alone… until Luke Shearwell stepped out of the darkness, his rifle leveled at the new deputy.
“When you get all your explaining done, Maxon, I got a few surprises for you. The whole state of Texas has a surprise for you. I come right from the governor, and you can explain to him about some of the stuff that’s going on out here. He’ll be glad to hear it. And I guess someone in town will be able to make a decision right soon.”
He looked off as the morning star vanished with grace into blue skies coming alive.