Steve Southall is the sheriff of Branding, a small town in Texas in Garth Ennis’ four part “Streets of Laredo” story arc from Punisher #28 – 31. Ennis’ story recounts the uneasy peace that exists with the sheriff’s consent between the town’s law enforcement and a gang of weapons dealers situated in an enclave on nearby Monastery Hill that deals in military grade ordnance. The status quo is about to be shaken up when Punisher (Frank Castle) traces weapons found in New York to the area and decides to intervene. The hardworking sheriff tries to persuade the stranger (Castle) that the delicate balance of power is being maintained. Castle remains unconvinced but doesn’t tip his hand or reveal his identity to the sheriff.
Southall may have earned the respect of much of the town (the notable exception being Reverend Henry McCarthy), but he isn’t completely altruistic when it comes to the arrangement with the Monastery Hill crew. He and Clark, the 24 year old son of the enclave’s leader, a tougher than nails woman named Rachel are having a discreet relationship.Clark’s mother Rachel may be a gun runner, but she’s totally supportive of her son as a new recruit learns after making a homophobic remark for which he pays with his life. In one scene the two men have snuck away to be alone. Clark shares his dream of the two starting a new life on the West Coast, a wish that underscores the the brevity of their relationship. Steve voices his feeling of being duty bound to the area and the date ends on a low note as things that can’t be taken back are said. Hours pass and Clark’s efforts to reach Steve to apologize have been useless. A big sedan speeds toward the unsuspecting man and runs over him several times before driving away from his broken and bloody body.
The next morning Rachel swears all out war on the town over Clark’s dead body. Meanwhile, Southall is in town preparing to defend singlehandedly his town until he asks Castle for his help. Mayhem and hell ensue. Southall is wounded and captured, then strung up on a town building and left to die, recalling Matthew Shepard’s murder for me. Punisher cuts him down and takes him back to the sheriff’s office. A hospital is too far away for Southall to survive and he dies in his chair. The doomed lovers are tragic but to be expected from an Ennis script and he does include some supportive commentary on LGBT rights in his dialog. In the end, Clark’s murderer is discovered and dealt with by the Punisher in a fashion that is both typical style for the character’s tone and I believe alludes to the fate of an African American man killed in another hate crime.
Southall is first seen and outed in Punisher #28 (vol 5), Clark is first seen and outed in Punisher #29.
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