Po’ Lightfeather, They Said He Was an Outlaw… – a revisionist western

Po’ Lightfeather, they said he was an outlaw…

Livin’ on the road, my friend, was gonna keep you free and clean

But now you wear your skin like iron and your breath’s as hard as kerosene.”

  • Townes Van Zandt

I

There is no word for Lightfeather in our language. Like many names of the Native American tribespeople, it is metaphorical; a name from which one can infer qualities of nimbleness and dexterity. The name as we read it also implies some kind of softness, but the agility it truly represents is that of a warrior. Lightfeather was certainly a warrior. He lived up to his name, yet he rode with white men and the white man’s gold jangled in his pockets.

Among his posse were the Younger Dean Brothers – Bill and Michael – who’d left their family boarding house in Sawdust, Arizona to make names for themselves on the road. The Reverend Ralston Steenrod provided religious counsel to the men, recited seemingly verbatim from a holy book at which he seldom glanced. And then there was mean old Floyd McGill, who’d been riding for some forty years and in that time had gained only the gift of survival. Hooves swept across an open plain.

Lightfeather rode ahead. The crew hunted men with a price on their head, and he was their scout. When the McGill gang had been rendered short in numbers after a run-in with some bandits, Steenrod had suggested they employ a Native American scout, just as the army had often done in years prior. McGill himself had been averse to racial mixing, but begrudgingly agreed to work with Lightfeather after the Indian, drunk beyond reason on whiskey, had wiped out a band of wanted men who would have surely reduced the crew’s ranks even further. His condition, of course, was that the present bounty be split.

Lightfeather now stayed clear of the spirit water. It was essential he do so, he thought, were he to stop himself from plunging back into the void. He would stay sharp and do his job. The state of being that the spirit water induced was an admission to despair, and he must avoid despair at all costs, he thought. Whilst all else crumbles around him, the individual can remain.

The sun was setting over the plains. They pulled up their horses by a watering hole and started kicking about, swigging from their canteens. The Deans ran about the tall grass competing over how many small animals they could shoot. McGill sidled up to Lightfeather. The posse leader stuck his chin up and surveyed his scout with a shit-eating grin;

“Remind me why you ridin’ wi’ us again?”

They had been through this. Lightfeather stared back at McGill resignedly. “The land was ours for a thousand years. But the white men came, and they are not going. It is best we all accept the land belongs to both of us.”

“Boy, you looked around lately?” The Deans guffawed but Lightfeather made no response. McGill continued; “You been a good scout, boy, but I still do’ know if I likes ya company, see…the negroes sings the Lord’s music all beautiful and such, even the Jews got a sense of humour. Ain’t nobody e’er ‘cused no Injun o’ ha’in a sense o’ humour.”

McGill had by now disappeared into his own diatribe.

“Tell me if this ain’t the case…that on Injun land any ol’ Redskin can just set up camp where’r he so please; even on his neighbour’s property!”

“You misunderstood.” replied Lightfeather.

“Misunderstood what?”

“Of our culture? Everything. The land does not belong indefinitely to anybody – such a thing would be illogical. People would go without homes.”

“Culture?!  You call that a culture, where a man ain’t got no right to his dear own private property?! Some fucken culture, where man’s got no means to ‘mass a fo’tune…”

“Well I’m a Christian man,” interjected Ralston Steenrod with considerable bluster “and I don’t think you should be usin’ such vulgar words of language. You just listen to me, sirs, for in my learnings I have encountered the principle of collective ownership. It is an abomination in the eyes of the Lord! It is for scoundrels; heathens and communists! This country was founded on religious values, and did Jesus himself not wish for every man to improve himself through the turn of profit?”

“My people made many a white man rich by trading for his goods.”

“Y’all savages got no use for our goods!” McGill pontificated.

“McGill; guns will long be of use to the tribes.”

II

As the night descended they rode by the property of Mr. Coleman Stanton with a view to setting themselves down for the night in one of his spacious barns.

“Stanton? Pers’nal friend.” dribbled McGill. “I’m known ‘round he’ anyways.”

The Younger Dean Brothers dismounted by a cornfield, where they walked towards a farmer who heaved a heavy sack of manure onto the back of a cart. He turned to face them and Bill shook his hand.

“Bill Dean, brother of this here Michael Dean, brothers of the legendary, the for-mid-able Pete and Lucien Dean, the baddest men in Sawdust, Arizona! Mighty pleased too meetch’a.”

“Mighty please’ to meet y’all too, sirs,” he shook Michael’s hand too. “Fo’ what can I be of service to you gennul’men?”

“We was lookin’ to bed down, mister. We don’t mind sleepin’ rough a ‘lil some.”

“Well, gee, I sure would like to help you gentlemen but I…I am in the employ of Mr. Coleman Stanton and Mr. Stanton don’t like no drifters. He says they ask if they can bed down fo’ night I say no, no, no!” he wagged his finger at both Deans defiantly.

“My friend, I am in the employ of Mr. Floyd McGill,” Bill lifted up his waistcoat and gestured to his pistol “and I sure’z hell ain’t no drifter. I ha’it on good authority that Messrs McGill and Stanton are close personal friends, and that on this occasion Mr. Stanton will be perfectly willing to relax his…no-guest policy.”

The farmer was jumping on the spot; “You need say no more, my good friends! I has nothing but respect for the law-keepin’ organisation of Mr. Floyd McGill! Is that be the great man he’self I see over yonder?  Oh yes, wi’ his learned friend Mr. Ralston Steenrod…”

The Deans tuned out as the farmer ranted sycophantically. Michael had something to ask his brother;

“Where you learn to talk like that?”

“I learn from big brother Pete.” said Bill. “He talk like a motherfucker.”

“…must say I hain’t the slightest who in the Sam Hill that is!” The farmer had spotted Lightfeather. He recoiled. “You two boys ‘ware a no good Injun’s crept ‘mongst yo’ number? I done seen ‘nuff them ‘round lately.”

“Tha’s our scout, Lightfeather. He know the land.” grunted Michael.

“Yeah, well, the good Mr. Coleman Stanton would be forever indebted to y’all if y’all would sniff out some Injuns been hidin’ out on his land. Before y’all beds down fo’ night, that is.”

“’Sniff out’?”

“I don’t need tell you what we does w’Injuns round these parts.”

On the path at the cornfield’s edge, McGill was conducting an extensive lecture on the ills of sharing one’s food with others. He drew deep from a dusty bottle of brandy that was very much his own.

“Give that kinda ‘sponsibility to anyone else, see, and y’all may’s well be givin’ yo’ seed away like no kind of a father; it’s up to me and me only whe’er or not my chillun starve!”

“Why ever did Mrs. McGill go back to Pennsylvania?” smirked Steenrod.

“That’s none of your business, motherfucker!” spat McGill, and Steenrod tittered.

The Younger Dean Brothers approached their comrades.

“S’all good,” said Bill “just gots to get us some Injuns first.”

Lightfeather led them through the farm on the trail of the Native Americans that the agriculturalists had sighted. He picked up their tracks in no time, which led to the tallest of a cluster of barns, where he imagined they would be hiding out up in the rafters. Lightfeather had turned his gun on Native Americans before; after all, he rode with the White Eye. But the posse still had vestigial distrust for him. McGill pre-emptively cocked his pistol as subtly as he could; the Younger Dean Brothers saw and followed. Lightfeather was ready as ever.

He stopped in front of the barn doors and dismounted, turned to face the barn and looked around, craning his neck to the stars. He stood still and breathed deeply.

“They are in here.”

McGill threw himself off his horse and landed on his feet. For a man of his age, he was – one could say – as light as a feather.

“So what are we waitin’ for?” He marched forwards, twirling his pistol in his hand.

Lightfeather stood in his way. Something had clicked in his head. “I think we should go.”

“Dagnabit, I knew it,” yelled Michael Dean, throwing an elaborate tantrum “You cannot trust an Indian!”

“You’ fucken right there.” McGill insinuated himself into Lightfeather’s personal space. “The fuck are you talkin’ about? You in the killin’ business, you kills Injuns. Men, women and children! Scalps’em too…Whenzat ever stopped you befo’, you greedy motherfucker you?”

“Back off, McGill, or you’re a dead man.”

McGill’s face turned purple. He began to scream “Motherfucker, I’ll kill your Red cotton shit ass-“ but Lightfeather outdrew him, silencing the invectives by jamming his pistol in his mouth and blowing his head open.

Floyd McGill dropped to the floor. A splutter of bullets emanated from the Younger Dean Brothers, but the hubristic siblings’ aim was indecisive and Lightfeather laid them both down with ease. The Rev. Ralston Steenrod’s rifle had been shot from his hands before he’d had a chance to load it, and he’d dived behind a stack of hay-bales to pray. Noticing that Lightfeather was advancing, he unclasped his hands and threw them onto the ground, slapping dust into the air.

“You animal!” he cried “How dare ya take the life of three white men?! You got no right, mister! May God strike you down!”

Lightfeather cast his eyes down upon the professional murderer who boasted so grandly of his religiosity. Steenrod slipped into pastor mode.

“…but, need I say, God is an all-lovin’ God and all-forgivin’ God and if ya would only throw me my Bible, I could cleanse you of your sins! You could still go to heaven…despite your…upbringin’…!”

Lightfeather paused. “No. I do not think I would like your heaven. Too many like you. Nor do I think you know how to read that book.”

“That is a…outrageous aggregation!”

“I have long suspected you are not literate in the white man’s alphabet. What is in that book; profit, hatred and murder? I suspect it is nothing of the sort. For you, it is a conduit for whatever you need to justify because you yourself have no morality. Were you in my position, you would be standing over me, gun in hand, reciting another imaginary verse from your book you don’t understand – more traveling preacher rhetoric bereft of sincerity!”

Lightfeather had immersed himself in Steenrod’s moral universe of bastardised Christianity with heavy overtones of colonialist heartlessness for long enough that there was only one feasible outcome to the situation. He concluded his admonishment of the simpering charlatan and shot him dead.

He gave the horses to the fugitive Natives and lit out for some other town.

III

Newspapermen wrote voraciously of Lightfeather’s lawlessness in the coming weeks. His outlaw ways made him almost overnight into a folk legend, although perhaps not a folk hero because of deeply ingrained racist attitudes. For the lawmen, it was a clear-cut case. When Sheriff Gordon McAlister surveyed the crime scene the next afternoon, there was no doubt in his mind who was responsible for the bounty hunters’ deaths. Only one of the five-piece posse appeared to have survived the gunfight and made it out of there, and the Indian-hating ravings of Mr. Stanton’s employee painted Lightfeather as a shadowy usurper who had planned it all from the start.

McAlister was dedicated to enforcing the law, but all the riding and the shooting had been wearying to him over the years and he felt simply incapable of going on a strenuous search for the outlaw. Local bounty hunters were called along for the ride.

“They wuz a great bunch of fellas.” said one, observing the McGill company, bereft of life.

“Aw shut it, boy, you would’a shot those assholes yo’self in a heartbeat.” His partner puffed out tobacco stale smoke in McAlister’s face. “What price you offering?”

“$1000 but it’s likely to go up. He’s a real tough fella. Done bin kicked out of near every town in AZ for fightin’ with men of more favoured colour and creed than he. I dare say one of those men happen’a pick a fight with Floyd McGill additionally…wasn’t oftentimes you’d see him ridin’ w’ no red men.”

“This here be the Younger Dean brothers?”

“That’s right. Dang. I best get word to Pete and Lucien.”

Pete Dean had famously shot his wife dead in a drunken game of William Tell, and then defended himself rousingly in the subsequent court proceedings;

“If justice is not dealt today” he said in his concluding address. “this unfortunate incident that did befall my Bessie and I has the potential to inspire all kinds of do-gooders to set to work discouraging honourable Americans from usin’ the firearms we so desperately needs to keep us protected from outlaws, Injuns, negroes and – most ‘ all – the government! Already in the town of Tombstone, right here in the state of Arizona, the sheriff confiscates your guns upon entry…I beg the jury, just think of the Injuns. They may be savages, trained in barbarism and sin, but don’t you think they don’t got guns same as you and me, or’t they don’t know how to use ‘em. We, the good people of Arizona State must form an organisation to protect our right to do as we wish with our weapons! Whatever tragic circumstances entailed, my wife and I knew exactly what we were doin’ when I placed that apple upon her head!”

Not only did the jury declare him Not Guilty, but such an organisation was founded immediately upon his release with him at its head and his brother Lucien as treasurer; the man who decided just what to do with the considerable donations they received from legions of other good, honest Americans who just wanted to uphold their constitutional right to own weaponry. The locals said that Pete thought of Bessie every time he fired a gun. As he shot just about anything that moved, he was thought to be in a near-constant state of grieving.

Lucien and Pete Dean were so distraught when McAlister told them of their brothers’ passing that they punched him in the face and threw his deputy through their front window. In the circumstances the sheriff forgave them, but he warned them that they too must keep in check their outlaw ways. Pete suggested that instead they could use their murderous skillset for good, and catch the man who killed their younger brothers. With the sheriff’s reticent approval, they set out that night looking for revenge.

Lightfeather booked a room at the Dean Family Boarding House that same night. It was a defiant move. Once his identity became clear to the clientele, he managed to escape the town of Sawdust, Arizona without killing anybody, which he celebrated in solitude as he rode. It seemed everybody was out looking for him. Bounty hunters and lawmen alike fell as they attempted to capture or kill him. As McAlister had predicted, the price on his head soared. Those who had seen him in Sawdust began to whisper that he was arming the tribes for a full-scale Indian rebellion. Folksingers regaled the folk with the Ballad of Lightfeather the Indian, and the song’s lyrics helped fuel rumours that he had taken to stripping the corpses of his pursuers bare and distributing the spoils amongst the poor.

It is true that he had disavowed the profit motive. He could no longer benefit whilst others suffered. He had tried to merely exist, but existence was no longer enough. The void opened up to him, stretching out for miles like the train track that took his people to Florida. The voice of the spirit water was deafening.

IV

“Ain’t so sho’ I should be fixin’ no Injun whiskey…” hesitated the barman at the Last Dive Saloon in Milk, AZ. Lightfeather fixed him with a cold-eyed stare, and he fixed him some whiskey.

In a booth across the barroom, Sheriff McAlister almost dropped his hot tea. He couldn’t believe that such an outlaw would dare show up in his saloon, in his town, and pondered that maybe his name didn’t mean as much as it once did. He kept his eye trained on Lightfeather, who downed his shot of whiskey, ordered another, and left the bar.

McAlister followed him out onto the street, keeping a distance. Lightfeather had not looked back once. It was unclear whether or not he had noticed he was being watched but, either way, he was on the move. Where was his horse tethered? The sheriff looked around anxiously. The dust of hoof beats blew at the end of the street. It signalled the arrival of the Elder Dean Brothers and their posse.

“We been trackin’ this sumbitch for weeks now.” Pete told McAlister. “No idea in heck he knows this is your town, but I’m’a-“ he raised his voice, hoping to destroy any pretence that Lightfeather was unaware of their presence “-FUCKEN KILL THIS RED-SKIN BASTARD! Know who I am?! I’m Pete Dean, brother of this here Lucien Dean, brothers of Bill and Michael Dean, deceased. Mighty pleased to meetch’a, motherfucker!”

Lightfeather turned to face them and whipped his gun from its holster.

“Don’t shoot yet, partner!” the sheriff urged Pete. “I guarantee he’s a faster gun even than you is. See what he’s goin’ do.”

“I do not do this out of fear.” said Lightfeather. The void was getting deeper and deeper, swallowing him up at last. The pea-sized exit that was the future was growing narrower and narrower, and as he grew further away from that dim beacon he saw everything again; the frontier wars with the White Eye, the dispossession of land, his own abandonment of his people in the name of self-preservation and all the killing that entailed; so much killing. Now he thought, self-preservation? All it amounts to is prolonging the inevitable.  “There is nothing left to be scared of.”

Lightfeather stuck his pistol to his temple and pulled the trigger. As he fell, the Deans disappointedly squeezed off some pointless rounds into him.

“Motherfucker! Why in the fuck he done that?” spluttered Lucien.

“Well, I…that’s a heavy question, Lucien.” McAlister sighed. “Sometimes, y’know, you reach a completeness…you reach a totality…and you just gotta go. Gee, he was spent, I guess, burned out. Now, fellas, I implore ye go back to Sawdust, else I’ll have to confiscate them firearms you got there.”

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