Western Short Story
Fair Exchange
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

When Marshal Max Preshong walked into the biggest saloon in Waco, after being out on a posse for almost three days successfully chasing down a rustler and killer, a small man, not a cow man, slipped out the side door. Nobody saw him leave except Max Preshong. From outside the door for a short time he had noticed the man sitting alone at a corner table studying every man in the room, every new-comer, all the while playing make-believe with a deck of cards, waiting. Preshong was sure the man was waiting for him, waiting to scramble and tell someone that the marshal was back in town.

Who might that be, waiting such information? He wondered for but a second and slipped back out the front door and saw the scrambler entering the hotel. Outside Preshong stayed in the shadows across the road and watched the windows, saw a shade drawn, a light go on inside, had his man.

The hotel register said “Blare Fenton, ST Co.” The name was printed in a bold and stumpy fashion, like a man who had trouble formulating the words, was copying words from another paper, was just learning to write, or was missing fingers on his writing hand.

There! He had it. Butch Fallon on the loose again, and, as usual, paving his way for a new activity, laying groundwork, keeping a schedule on the local law. Butch Fallon, once a righty with his six guns, now a lefty, with right-hand two fingers displaced by one shot from Preshong all of ten years earlier, and his eventual stay behind bars for eight years.

Preshong pushed through his mind the possible target in Waco that Fallon might have interest in. There was a lot going on in the burgeoning town; the Chisholm Trail crossed the Brazos River here at Waco, the new bridge over the Brazos was now open to wagon traffic, horsemen and those who came by foot because of one circumstance or another. Some of those pedestrians had been robbed of their wagons or horses, and all their valuables taken. In addition, the tracks for The Waco and Northwest Railroad had arrived and the fertility of the Brazos Valley gave significant promise to agriculture. With all business on an upswing, the banks were active.

“Rustling isn’t my only problem,” Preshong said to himself as he kept his eye on the hotel window where he was sure Fallon was accepting the information that the marshal was back in town. He tried to separate all the opportunities for theft that had surfaced within Waco as business had developed. Rustling, he might have said, was a lot of work, and now, that it was not the only target, he’d have to agree that the banks or a rail car were prime objectives for easy money … but he was a major deterrent to that kind of activity. He and Fallon, and any other worldly robber newly arrived in Waco or the vicinity of the Brazos Valley, had to know that. His reputation was widespread; in a battle he was as good as his gun; in criminal detection, he was at least a day ahead of those who intended to thwart him or his constituents.

“Whatever he’s planning, he needs me out of the way,” he said in a soft whisper, still keeping himself in the dark recess where he had in view the upstairs window and the front entrance. “So, it’s going to be a bushwhacking most likely, something coming from false information or a phony cry for help. All the possibilities raced through his mind. Each one was clicked into his memory, filed away, an alert being built into his mind; a gunshot from darkness, a cry for help from a woman most likely, an unknown rider reporting a bad incident outside of town, perhaps a body in the road, a ranch house burning, a stampede of an arriving herd. Along with each particular thought came an image … he had the ability to “see” how something would take place, how it would act out with certain characters, what had really taken place to foment the alarm.

Now he brought those summoning powers into force, all based on knowledge already in place, his knowing who he was dealing with or would have to deal with. That is how the scene would develop behind the window he was looking at, the soft glow shimmering at the edges from a candle or an oil lamp, the two men facing each other in the mere light. He was sure of it: the scrambler would have his hand out for money, for his pay-off for the information provided; Fallon would search in his pockets for a likely sum and turn it over to the scrambler. There would be a stern admonishment from Fallon about divulging any of the transaction, a threat as heavy as silence could make it, as simple as a nod at his gun hanging by the bed in a well-worn holster, a shake of the head, a “No” unsaid on his lips, but heard just the same.

The scrambler would nod his silent agreement and leave the room. Preshong swore he could hear the steps on the stairs. Within seconds the scrambler came out the hotel door and disappeared down a side alley; he was now out of the picture.

Fallon, the pursuer, was now the pursued. Preshong stepped further into is dark recess. He’d stay awake for 48 hours if need be. But he was sure it would not take long.

It didn’t.

Ten minutes later the fragile light behind the window curtain went out. Two or three minutes later, sly as a lead scout, Fallon came out the hotel door, crossed the road at an oblique angle, headed straight for one of the town’s three liveries. In another ten minutes he rode slowly out of town, heading north. It was just after midnight. Preshong stayed in the depths of the shadows for almost half an hour. Street traffic was light. A few drunks announced themselves at odd moments. A carriage rolled softly into town and parked in front of one of the small town houses further down the road. He suspected it was one of the two doctors returning from a late call. His dog welcomed him home; there was indistinguishable chatter, body noises.

In a quarter of an hour, he figured, he headed north out of town, his horse at an easy walk. A filigree moon peaked through clouds just as thin. A barn owl stated his position in the night. A dog, locked inside one of the buildings at the edge of town, whined his disposition. Preshong noticed and accepted it all, just parts of his day. Things, for the time being, were normal and were to be enjoyed. It was the way they were.

So as not to get caught up in euphoria, he sent his summoning powers ahead of him; Fallon, believing he was alone on the road, or at least having nobody knowing what he was up to, would keep his journey as shadowy and as silent as possible. There’d be no hurry, no galloping, no noise. He’d have at least five hours of darkness to get his plan into action. The less he was noticed, the better off he’d be, and the surer was the outcome. That was all the caution he used.

When he left the road and moseyed up into a small canyon in the foothills sweeping down to the Brazos, he did not even take a look behind him in the darkness. The smell of pinion smoke sifted down to him, and then the aroma of coffee; they’d be waiting for him.

Marshal Max Preshong was half an hour away from those smells, those canyon signals, his horse keeping at a slow gait, then, closing down distance and time, he thought, “Hell, I hope there’s enough coffee to go around.”

In a clutch of brush at the edge of the canyon he tethered the horse, slipped his rifle from the saddle, and walked slowly and quietly to find a hummock where he could survey the area. The sound of horses at a stand came to him, slight snickers, in the far night a wolf howled. From an old line cabin he knew to be long out of general use, he saw a glow of light. He lay down to watch, and wait. The grass was soft and thick and he knew practically anything could grow along the Brazos. The smell of green things also came to him, and then an image. It was associated with a small red flicker, off to one side of the cabin; a lookout on watch, his cigar or cigarette sighting his position. The small illumination lasted for almost five minutes … but did not move. The lookout was stationary, he thought, possibly tired, sleepy, and not fully alert.

Preshong got really close to the spot. He could see the slump in the lookout’s posture. When he said, in a decidedly sincere voice, “Move and you’re dead,” there was no response except the sound of a rifle sliding down to the ground, the lookout standing, saying, “That you, Marshal? I tried to get them to know who we’d have to buck for this job, but they don’t know of you like I’ve heard.”

“Who are you,” Preshong said, “and who’s inside the cabin? How many? What’s Fallon up to?”

“I’m Dewey Draigle, the Chucker’s nephew. They gave me five years for something I didn’t do, that killing of The Braker. You’ll remember that one. Even now I can’t get away from it, so I end up here. Chances are they’ll look for me sometime to take me back. It’s like it’s in the cards for me.”

“You do as I say and I’ll take a new look at things for you. Who’s in there? Besides Fallon.”

“Three hombres came along with Fallon and pulled me in from a card game one night, I suppose because I know the area. Names are Marks, Trevorne and Calimore, three toughies they think but ain’t come upon you yet, Marshal. Calimore’s awful fast and slick as a coyote. Watch him first. Trevorne’s a simple one. Just muscle. Never killed anyone, like me. I think he’s afraid to. Fallon’s got him shaking. Marks is pure mean, born for beating things down, killing, but always needs the upper hand, like most bullies.”

“What’s Fallon planning?”

“He wants the next mail car on the Waco and NW coming in. Got a lot of money aboard for the bank. They’re starting a new business, going to buy ranches, spread their wings. There’s a lot of new business and it all means money … lots of money.”

“That’s scheduled for two days from now.”

“They know that. The station master let it out of the bag at the saloon one night, at Momma Katie’s. They got him slathered and he was choking up news of all kind.”

“Here’s what I’ll do for you, Dewey. I’ll give you back your rifle and you go to the back end of the cabin and sit by yourself. Help me if and when you can, but don’t start anything any way but the right way. I have sent for a Ranger. Harry Cousins will be here in two days. He’ll sniff you out quick as a wink if you mess up. Hear me?”

“Yes, sir. You going to really check back for me?”

“That’s my promise, now get yourself back of the cabin, and as easy as you can make it, so they don’t hear you. I’m counting on you.”

“I’ll deliver, Marshal, ‘n’ that’s a promise.” He thrust his rifle upwards, and Preshong felt the younger man’s sudden enthusiasm and confidence. He had an ally he could count on.

“How long will it take, Marshal? Doing it now or later?”

“When are you supposed to get a break?”

“I’m here until dawn. Fallon said he’d pay us double what he promised, not that I ever believed him.”

“We’ll wait until someone comes out to stretch or wet, then we’ll have one man less. You tell me who it is. I want to get that real gunslinger out of the way if I can.”

“Calimore’s tall ‘n’ skinny, Marshal, like a beanpole. I can spot him a mile away. “n’ he hates to wear a hat.”

Preshong did not allow himself to get caught up in that trait, though it was an oddity in this part of the world; men used their sombreros as shelter from the sun, as barriers against the rain, as small vessels for watering their horses, for fixing the oddities of possession and subtle compromise, like cards, bullets, hearty breakfasts of eggs from nests found on the open plain, eggs whose shells would be crushed down onto coffee grounds dumped by hand count into their battered coffee pots. The range law said coffee grounds had to be stilled in the pot and life moved around the hats such men wore, so it was exceptionally odd that the gunslinger was out of line in that measure. Perhaps he was not a real cowboy. If not, what was he?

When hatless Calimore came out into the veiled morning, he was pinned against the twist of dawn as it lit about the cabin. And he was skinny, a tall pole for beans to be hung on, as Dewey Draigle had said. A thin presentation of a cowboy. He wore no hat! No Stetson, wide at the brim. No sombrero full of southern flavor. No tool for an ordinary cowboy.

Preshong counted him a loser. Saw him as a loser. Pointed his rifle at him from less than twenty yards. “Drop your weapons, friend, or you’re dead. I won’t say it twice.”

For a moment silence hung in the air, and measurements of all kinds. Life hung in the balance of the charge. The words resonated in the early morning. They echoed . All could hear them.

Calimore, without a hat to mark him, went for his weapons. Preshong fired instantly, at the thin man’s hands flashing for his guns, at the movement. The sound roared into the night, and brought the occupants out of the cabin in a rush.

Fallon the hero was behind two other men, stumbling, reaching for weapons, the three of them trying to see what targets they had. One man went down instantly, a round in his leg from Preshong’s rifle, the entry mark blood red on his pants, his screams full of pain. Fallon and the third man, in a rapid calculation of where they were in the dispute, raised their hands in a quick motion.

Preshong saw it all develop down the road; Dewey cleared and exonerated of all charges; Fallon facing up to his planned crime, two others in his crew scrambling for the best they could find by spilling the beans on Fallon, fast-gun Calimore placed in peaceful ground on the side of a hill just outside of town. Nobody else in the whole of Waco even knew what had been coming their way.

The cattle herds, though, kept coming for a few years, up the Chisholm Trail, across the Brazos River. More trains crawled into town from Missouri and Oklahoma, from Ohio and Illinois and Pennsylvania, and now and then a few freight cars never seen before, with the oddest names painted on their sides. The cotton on the small farms of the Brazos River Valley grew as good as any place in the country, the whole valley coming green and much of it leaving on the rails … cotton, corn and eventually the dwindling cattle herds leaving by the carload, and Butch Fallon, facing another eight years from a superstitious judge, was sent off without so much as a wave of a hand.

And Marshal Max Preshong, the star on his chest as shiny as ever, getting a bit longer in the tooth, marking his time until the end of time, walked a bit slower, a might cautious, now and then an image floating into his mind from some place locked in his past… or in his future. He was never sure from which direction the images came … as long as he saw them coming.

It was all a fair swap.