Western Short Story
Black Possum Down
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Former sergeant in the 1st Michigan Cavalry, twice decorated, often honored while serving the Union cause, Hector Threadlove slipped his right leg up over the horse, slipped the left leg out of the stirrup and slid to the ground as easy as a trick rider, landing lightly on his feet. Nothing was jarred in the dismount, not the weapon at his chest, or his beat-up and ugly sombrero, or the casual nature of the man. It was ease at its perfection … and drew a sense of disdain from some of the onlookers who had not seen a black man in Mournful in a few years, and that one time not for a long stretch.

He was a stranger coming into Mournful, Nevada, wearing worn leg-striped Union-blue pants and a faded blue shirt showing the imprint of detached sergeant stripes earned at Gettysburg. On his head he wore the odd sombrero that would look better on most other men, for it gave the appearance that it too had been through a long war. A Colt revolver sat in a shoulder holster, with a certain comfort over his heart and also affirming he was right-handed. A rifle butt showed in his saddle scabbard and on the pommel of the saddle hung an old army issue canteen.

Yet the War Between the States had been over for almost two years.

All his gear said he was a stranger, he was a Union veteran (unless he had stolen the old uniform, as a few of the noisy and disturbed townsmen alleged on the spot); he appeared somewhat brazen in a subtle but powerful way, that being essentially displayed by the way he sat the saddle first and then dismounted, as though he had earned all he held onto; and his horse knew who the boss was at every command.

And he was, as could be seen immediately, the comfortable black man in an uncomfortable situation, his bearing making the announcement. But the other announcements came too, part of the situation as some might call it. From the edge of the boardwalk and from a few doorways came words he had heard limitless times before: “Prob’ly stole the uniform off’n a dead man.” “See where he goes. See what he does.” “Betcha dozen prairie eggs he don’t go into Scanlon’s Place. If he does, it won’t be for long.”

There was a hoot and a holler following that quickly went away with a slight movement of the stranger standing on the road, as though he carried I-dare-you on his back.

The stranger looked ahead of him and saw the hand-drawn letters in black paint saying in an ungainly manner, as if done intentionally, “Scanlon’s Place.” It was Mournful’s only saloon, and on the rail out front were tethered half a dozen horses, all the horses in the mix were paints looking like a wall of maps.

A smile crossed his face as he heard again a mean-edged voice say for the second time, “If he does, it won’t be for long.”

A second voice said, “Let’s sit and wait and see how long it takes.”

Threadlove said to himself, “Remind me of that later tonight and I’ll write a song with it.” He laughed without smiling.

Light on his feet, Threadlove spun about and instantly identified the noisy speakers out of the half dozen on-lookers in one tight spot on the boardwalk in front of the general store. Not a word left his mouth but a promise as much as a threat hung in the air between him and the others. He saw them draw back, which was satisfaction enough for him, no stomachs there backing up their big mouths. He turned away with disdain and looked again at Scanlon’s Place sitting like a hovel beside a nice looking hotel, two floors high, with an artistic sign bearing the name, “Grandview Hotel.” The name was painted against a background of soft white clouds and made one think of soft pillows, a softer bed, and all the other softness that men longed for on the trail and found at last.

Swinging the saloon doors inward, Threadlove came into Scanlon’s Place and put everything in the room in an instant place of memory, each man, each table, each end of the room, the sunlight playing on amber bottles behind the big bartender standing against a collage of bottles and tankards of various colors and inscriptions. In a higher background loomed a single mirror and a painting of a nude woman at rest, a pink and orange fan across part of her breast, a purple slipper missing from one foot, and dark eyes bearing everything possible, including the eternal message.

The bartender, a big burly man with his arms folded across his chest like a guard at one end of a bridge, hastened to look about the room. He rested his look on the face of one cowpoke at a far table, and nodded slightly in some act or designation of recognition. He was not nodding at the cowpoke, but sending his silent message to the black man standing at full alert in the doorway. The bartender’s smile, subtle as his nod could be under the circumstances, held its place about his lips, saying no words, but sending a message.

His name was Dudley Dermott Scanlon, III, once of Newfoundland, Montreal, Montpelier, Vermont, and 1st Michigan Cavalry and the hard rides at Gettysburg and other places heading toward peace across the land … for some men, but not for the man in the doorway. Not yet, at least. Here was another altercation to be settled hopefully before it got underway. Scanlon had seen Threadlove in worse situations.

Like a sergeant of the cavalry, proud, in the lead, Threadlove proceeded across the room toward the directed cowpoke, while saying loudly to the bartender, “Dudley, I been near two year comin’ to get that toast with liquor we promise that time in Gettysburg, ‘n’, man, you better start pourin’ that little halleluiah for me ‘cause I’m dead thirsty after a longish ride.”

His hands hung gracefully at his sides, fingers open, and ease in their readiness. His dark eyes said different.

He came directly opposite the cowpoke still sitting at the table and said, “Mister, I can tell you don’t like me in here, so not likin’ to get shot in the back while I’m toastin’ away with my old comrade, you better try killin’ me now or keep that sidearm in place while I drink, less I kill you easier said than done. How’s that set with you?” The fire was in Threadlove’s eyes.

The cowpoke, noisy and belligerent on most any other similar occasion in the memories of every man in the saloon, including Scanlon’s seeing it too many times to forget, was embarrassed down into his boots, and ended up nodding as barely as Scanlon had in sending a warning to an old comrade.

Threadlove smiled a wide and toothy grin, spun about and rushed at Scanlon. The two of them, the big, burly bartender and the black man wearing yet his old uniform, grappled in a hug and loud yells like a cavalry brigade on the ready-ride.

Scanlon poured the drinks, looked Threadlove in the eyes and said, “You’re him, ain’t ya? The Trooper Marshall I been hearin’ about? Figured from the first it was you, Hector. Tell me I’m right again. I ain’t ever made a mistake on you.”

“Right again, Dudley.”

“Who you after?”

“A sorry-ass killer of women and wagon scouts ‘n’ peaceful Indians sitting with peace pipes in their laps. Name’s Henry Chew Thornton ‘n’ I been trailin’ him for more’n two months ‘n’ know he’s comin’ this way from somethin’ I found out back down the trail just a few days ago. If he ain’t here yet, he’s acomin’.”

“Hector, I know you’ll get him, but I see you’re still wearin’ your uniform. I ‘member the day the stripes went on it.”

“I wear it like my badge,” Threadlove said, “’cause it’s part of me now and I’ll die wearin’ both somewhere along the line, ‘n’ long as they last.”

Scanlon said, “When you’re an old man, Hector, and no time before,” and he poured another drink.

Hector Threadlove and Dudley Dermott Scanlon locked heads for much of the night after the saloon closed down. The two spent their time talking over the old days that were not such good days, except they both had come through them with minor scratches. And they began a plan, which Scanlon called a plot and Threadlove called a maneuver, to catch up to the pursued killer, Henry Chew Thornton, “as bad as a man gits,” according to Threadlove, “’n’ who I want bad as hell ain’t wanted in the end.”

But the word came around just a few days later, after Threadlove had said so long to his old pal and rode out of Mournful at high noon, the sun beating down on him, light flashing on his badge, on his pistol, on the butt of his rifle where a plate carried his name. Some folks breathed easier, not sure of what they had been frightened of in the first place.

It was again at noon time. One old miner came into Scanlon’s Place saying he had seen a “mad as hell cowpoke” knock a man off his horse with a single shot as they faced each other. “The gent who went down, off his horse like a tree limb falls in a storm, was dressed like he was still in the army. I stayed hid in my place and saw winner of the fight bury the other man and his saddle and gear and shoo his horse off into the hills.”

He paused in his story, crossed himself, took a last sip of his drink, and finished his tale as Scanlon poured another beer for him. “Somethin’ about the winner there, I got to say. When he was done doin’ his buryin’ he even said words over the grave, and then at the end, like he was a trooper hisself he saluted the dead man at the end of his words. It sure choked me up, ‘cause that fight was as fair as they get, and that cowpoke, who was challenged by the dead man before he was dead, was in this saloon drinkin’ up a storm last month when I came in for supplies and a wettin’.”

Looking around the room, he summed up his delivery, saying, “But I don’t see him in here now.”

The talk in the saloon, as secret as could be but too loud to be fully hidden, assumed that the man was the angry cowpoke the black marshal had shut down in his seat in a hurry only a few days earlier … and he was not at that moment in the Scanlon’s Place.

That buzz moved around to all the tables in the saloon, and to all the patrons, including those few who either rushed to get out and tell others what the miner had said, or slid out like mice to do the same thing. Either way, the end of Hector Threadlove, veteran, marshal, black man, was common knowledge in Mournful in a matter of hours.

The next morning the extra bartender opened up for the day, saying that Scanlon wasn’t feeling too good and was going to sleep in for a while, or for the day, until he was feeling better.

“He looked plain awful to me,” the bartender said, “since he heard his army pal, that black marshal, was killed. Like something awful caught up to him that was long overdue. Know what I mean about them army boys, the lot of them, and the way they think the hand of death, which they just missed catching so many times you can’t do the counting, finally catches up to them and puts them to sleep forever.”

It all wound up the next evening, in Scanlon’s Place, the sun long gone down, the rail out front full and the bar rail just as heavy with customers. An old timer was playing on the piano, plunking out a slow number while an attractive girl was singing like a prairie bird in a corner, and Scanlon had finally come out of his room in the rear of the saloon. He did look like a wreck of a man caught in the middle of a losing battle, the whole war going down with the loss. He poured himself a drink, which was odd to those who knew him, for it had been bible with him not to drink until the sun went behind one of the peaks of the Rockies.

The girl continued to sing, the piano player finding old numbers for her, the din in the room carried a hum of voices, bragging, yelling, card dealer’s calls on one table in the corner, one man pleading for a loan at the table, a drunk pleading for one more drink at the bar, shadows already folding over on their own contours, when everything stopped happening. It was like a judge had banged down his gavel in a noisy courtroom; there was immediate silence and order.

At the door, on the inside, stood a man taller than anybody in the saloon, in a gray shirt and black pants and matched pistols on his belt. From prior descriptions and stories flying about, all the saloon cortege knew it was Henry Chew Thornton, now without his enemy in pursuit, and the big question was who he’d pick on next, just for the hell of it. The story of why Threadlove had been chasing him were loose in the town, and all the stories gaining added crimes and more evil in nature in the telling … but Thornton was not wanted in Mournful or in all the territory for that matter, which is why Mournful’s quiet sheriff sat still as he had for months on end.

Thornton approached the bar, ordered a drink from Scanlon, and asked, “Where’s this cowpoke I heard about who killed that damned black marshal wearin’ the silly uniform of the Lincoln blue? Served him right, for the war ain’t over by a long shot. I want to buy that fella a drink. Where is he?” He looked all around the saloon, staring into faces, seeing men duck so as not to catch his eye and be recognized again somewhere down the trail.

The sheriff himself would not look into Thornton’s eyes, wondering what other duty might call him out of the saloon before he’d get caught up in anything emotional. He was not ready for Thornton; might never be ready, and Scanlon knew it before the sheriff did.

“C’mon,” Thornton yelled, “which one of you’s him? I hope he’s not duckin’ from me. I want to buy him a drink, maybe partner up with him.”

It was a threat of threats, that idea of partnering with a known killer regardless if he was not wanted in this territory.

No answer from the crowded saloon.

Thornton turned his back on them, and faced Scanlon directly. “You know anything about him, barkeep? You holdin’ anythin’ back on me that’ll come an issue later on? Don’t tell me no lies ‘cause I ain’t in any mood to get told lies.” He slammed his fist down on the bar and the room itself jumped with full reaction … except for Scanlon behind the bar and the new patron standing inside the door, who had entered so quietly and unnoticed in the midst of Thornton’s tirade.

Scanlon, long time combat veteran, survivor of dozens of major engagements, near death many times over, only said, “I ain’t knowing where he ain’t, but only where he is.”

That brought a sudden silence in Scanlon’s Place and pulled surprise across Thornton’s face as rapidly as surprise comes on anyone.

He stared at the bartender’s eyes, but those eyes were not looking at him but past him, way past him, over his shoulder, at something behind him.

The stare was an announcement of the first order.

The stare coupled with the sudden silence, brought to Thornton a brief and clear sense of awareness he had never previously experienced, the way a lamp can light up a dark tunnel. It ran through Thornton from his feet right up to the back of his head and on its way made his hands itch, his arms shake, the ball in his gut take a quick and weighty plunge.

And even as Thornton, now alert, began to spin around, he mouthed a profound exclamation of self-judgment. “Been took by a possum,” came just above a whisper as he fully spun, drew his weapon in haste, and felt a bullet plunge deep into his upper chest.

There, just inside the door, in all righteousness, stood the “dead” black marshal, the man in Union Blue, with a trace of gun smoke swirling upward from his hand.

The sombrero on Threadlove’s head was as ugly as ever, but not a soul said a word about it, including Scanlon standing behind the bar and in front of the bar the once-wanted Henry Chew Thornton folding down into an ignoble death.