On the gray, dull morning of April 6, 1878, in the Wyoming town of Westlynne on a crude gallows made overnight by a couple of drinking patrons pulled from the Wild Horse Saloon by the sheriff, young Garret Byrnes was hung and left on the rope until the coffin maker finished his assigned task. It took several hours for that job to get completed.
The sheriff, Corpus Chrysler, had arrested Byrnes the week before for the murder of a young lady Byrnes had been seeing against her father's wishes. The case was presented to a hastily drawn court and a most curious judge who had been en route to another town, evidence presented, and the jury of townsfolk, in a rapid decision, declared him guilty on the basis of the father's evidence, and other supposed eye witness accounts.
All participants, except Byrnes, retired immediately to the saloon and spent the latter part of the day with free drinks provided by the girl's father, celebrating the verdict as the chief witness in the case.
Byrnes did not kill his sweetheart, which you all must understand from this moment, from here at the outset of this chronicle. The young man had never aimed a gun at any man, or woman, in his life, never mind pulling the trigger on them. He was as innocent as a babe on an Indian cradle board.
In his last words, speaking after the verdict was delivered, Byrnes said, "I admit I only did two good things in my life. One was to break the wildest horses you can imagine, the whole lot of you," said as he looked directly at the jury and then at the rest of the congregation from the town, "and I loved MaryGrace Bartlett as she will never be loved again in this poor life."
It seemed it was all over at that point, records show, except he had one more thing to add to his last words. At that particular moment few of those in attendance were paying much attention to him; it was over and done with and he might cry and wail all the way to the rope, but they'd be busy otherwise.
Byrnes, in a subdued voice that the judge heard clearly along with a few of the jurors and the sheriff himself, said, "My brothers will come looking for me. You will answer to them, for me and for MaryGrace." Those last words were delivered directly to Mel Bartlett, sitting in the first row between two of his hired hands. The man had shown little remorse for the death of his daughter.
A long time after Garret Byrnes was hung, left for hours on the rope, and buried outside town, and long after his final words had been swept into far yesterday, a rider came into town on a gray stallion that was as big as any horse in town. The man, perhaps in his mid-30s, a decent looking man with a chiseled face, cheeks that seemed to wear the sun in them, and a soft but steady voice, rented a room for a week at the Harmony Hotel above the Wild Horse Saloon. The room looked out over much of Westlynne and presented a view of the white capped peaks in the distant range where the morning sun would rise in stark contrast.
The rider said he was an advance man for the railroad company.
All that late afternoon a handful of townsfolk noticed him sitting at the window of his room, looking down on the town, and then looking off to the mountains in the distance, as though he was committing both scenes to memory, possibly setting up a route of railroad tracks firmly in his mind . . . around a rim of the mountains, down along the river, and out onto the wide grass coming up against Westlynne.
In reality, Corbett Wilson, as he had registered in the hotel book, was getting a feeling about the town that had hung his kid brother.
Two nights later, after several incidents in the town and at the Wild Horse Saloon, the sheriff said to him. "You come with a lot of trouble in your saddle bags, mister. You're running the plow low and the land's all gone dry around you."
Wilson, who had raised some agitation with certain people over past incidents, said, "This is a town born for trouble, Sheriff, and most of it hasn't come by yet."
Sheriff Chrysler realized it was more a threat than an off-hand remark; he'd found a load of sincerity in Wilson's tone and in his eyes when they closed down. They made him wonder what the young man was seeing in the back of his mind, what images clawed for attention.
"How come you keep asking questions all over town, Wilson, getting people upset about old stuff? Let's face it, we grow so fast here, like your railroad coming along some day, that history gets left behind in a big hurry. Nothing much in the past can help us today. We got to ride and rope and dig our way every day. It's dirty work. It's hard work."
"You're not kidding it's dirty work, Sheriff, and there's a whole lot more coming this way. There's more than a loud steam engine coming down the line. You can bet the pot on that."
It wasn't the image that had collared Wilson's mind, for there had come to him the words spoken at a line camp not more than a month earlier:
The day's work was done. Loose cattle run into a box canyon. Breaks in a fence fixed. A fire lit outside the canyon as the stars began to appear, the brightest one coming first and low on the horizon. The hired cowpokes talking around the fire, the coffee pot set for pouring. Corporal Jameson, an old hand for the ranch, said, "This is the end of it. The boss is makin' one more drive and then sellin' out to Purdy. He's going back to Chicago before they have to ship him back, like that kid I heard of up in Westlynne who got hung for killin' the girl he loved, but some people I know don't think he did it. They buried him on boot hill 'cause they didn't know where he was from. Was kinda close-mouthed, as I heard it. They left him for a couple of hours hangin' there, on the rope, like he was a bounty critter. Could have been all day for that matter, far as I know.'Magine that, hangin' like a pelt in the sun and no one to cut him down, them folks all drinkin' in the saloon. Don't say much for dyin' there, even if no place is good for dyin'."
"You hear the kid's name?"
"All I heard was 'Garret' and don't know anything else, like if it was first name or last, but maybe he was about 22. Yup, maybe 22 and a good looking kid the girl loved. Oh, yuh," he added, "they said he could break horses like he was born for it."
He had summed up a life.
"No," the other man had quickly said. "Not 22. Only 20." And he left the fire and got his saddle and his horse and left the line camp.
All the events of that sad and gruesome day of the past had been relayed to him by a few more friends at the ranch and out on the trail. He had started out for Westlynne in the early hours of the following morning.
On the way he turned over a lot of things on his mind, and recollected the special ones, all the way back to his early days.
"There's always tendin' to be done," their father had said. He'd said it at a hundred campfires on the drives, a hundred times in the kitchen around the old iron stove or the stone fireplace, both giving off the crackling sounds of wood popping and splitting from its own heat.
"There's always tendin' to be done. You always owe somebody in this life, from your mother's first pains, to those who ran you right into this day." He was a big man, raised on hard work, his hands and shoulders and forearms showing what they had reaped from his labors. A hard, square firmness sat about him as he talked, as if to say, "You better believe what I'm sayin', 'cause I've been where you're goin' and it ain't easy gettin' there."
He'd pause to look into the eyes of his sons, like a doom master was afoot in the firelight, and carry on with his message.
"Don't forget who gave you a hand, who gave you a lift when it was needed. They could've kept goin' wherever and left you lookin', so don't forget none of them when it comes to tendin'. They made the difference. And it binds us like the best leather made, like the best rope we can twist."
Once arrived in Westlynne the first move Corbett Wilson had decided on was to take a look at Mel Bartlett's ranch, and make Bartlett and those around him think the railroad was coming across their grass. The land was already changing; and it would change some more. The railroads were seeing to that all over the country, and heading all the way to the Pacific and the coastal states beyond the mountains.
Bartlett, being introduced, said, "My foreman says you want to look over my ranch. That you're a railroad man coming ahead of the tracks, looking for the best place to put them down. We've been waiting a long time for some railroad action out this way. We knew it was coming sometime after we heard rumors and whispers coming down the range. Just had to come. Glad you came by. I'll be very interested if the proposition is right." His smile was a thorough one, coming on like it was lard in the skillet, setting the pace for cooking.
Wilson, still in the saddle, his face posed at quizzical, said, "Are all your papers in good order? Your claim? The land office records you're supposed to have on hand? I can't work without them being in good order. I can't make an offer if there's any doubt. Too many places around here are looking for a chance to get the railroad across their spread. They know what changes will come to them. I'm sure you understand that."
"No problem," Bartlett said. "Everything is tight as a noose. No loop holes. Cinched true and tight. All the signatures in place and been there for a spell." There was an instant pause in his voice. "Or the one signature that's really needed, my daughter's when she signed the place over to me. It had been her mother's place."
"Oh," Wilson said, more puzzled than before. "How did she get it? Inherit it? Buy it? Win it in a card game?"
"Hell, no," Bartlett said. "That woman was a damned Apache I had to take the strap to a few times. Straighten her out. Get her in order. But she'd been married before." He shook his head with a quizzical shake. "Why I married that woman I'll never know. Well, I can say she was the most beautiful woman I ever saw, Indian or no Indian. Apache or no Apache. As beautiful as they can come to a tribe. And I stole her from some kind of chief, from what I heard. Always wagging that in front of me, and trouble from the first day."
His smile was a rudimentary clue in giving away inside information, and Wilson would like nothing better than to play poker against him.
"Why'd your daughter sign them over? She sick or generous or with the family's best interests? I'd like to meet her sometime."
Bartlett wasn't about to be knocked off his stride. "She's dead," he said. "Some saddle tramp shot her one night. I never did like that prairie rat, sneaking in here at night to see her, or getting her to sneak out, but I caught them and scared him off. But he came back one night and she was out in the barn to meet him and he must have thought she was someone else and plain killed her on the spot. We grabbed him and his smoking pistol and stood up against him in court and he was hung the way he ought to be."
Wilson, showing great interest in the events, said, "You gents were right on the spot, ready to protect the ranch and all your possessions, from what I can see. That's real interesting, and you got the murderer's gun for evidence. You should be a detective or at least the sheriff. I can see that you'll protect the railroad interests out this way. I'll make sure that information gets sent along to my boss who's the one that'll make the decision on where the new tracks'll go. And he'll handle the money side of things too."
The curious railroad man said, "What does the law do with a weapon that's used in a crime, and is solid evidence? Do they put it on display? Hang it up for the whole town and any new potential killers to take a gander at and think things over before pulling the trigger? Do they make sure it gets sent to the family of the killer or sold off or what? That kind of stuff is real interesting to me."
"Oh, no," Bartlett said. "The sheriff gave it to me and I have it inside to remind me of a real bad night around here."
Wilson said, "A regular Peacemaker, I'd guess. Can always be used by someone."
"Not a Colt. No sir. It's a Remington, Army model. Sits on the shelf in the house. Keeps me aware of what's all around us."
"The killer's gun, huh?"
"That's it. That's what we call it, me and my boys."
Riding back to town, Wilson kept thinking of all the things Bartlett had said. The first one he'd talk to would be the sheriff again, but from a new angle. In town, he went right to the sheriff's office.
Corpus Chrysler, sheriff, saw Wilson coming down the street, and didn't like the feeling that had come over him since Wilson came into town. The feeling mounted as Wilson reined up in front of his office.
"I've been out to the Bartlett place, giving it the look-over and discussing the possibilities of a purchase with Bartlett. I had a good talk with him about things in general."
Wilson sat on the edge of the sheriff's desk, as much an intruder as a visitor.
Chrysler felt his nerves and muscles tighten and a ball of doubt sink low in his gut. The room seemed smaller, the walls closer than he thought. His breathing pattern unveiled a change in him and he spoke haltingly. "He tell you how they caught the killer red-handed, that Byrnes kid, a saddle tramp."
"Sure did. And he told me you gave the killer's gun to him, like a souvenir. But it was a Remington Army model and not a Colt Peacemaker, which most cowpokes carry these days."
"Yup. Least I could do with the gun that killed his girl. Besides, Byrnes had no family around here. Like I said, just a saddle tramp trying to get closer to a good grub stake for the future."
"Ever think the kid might be a relative of those Byrneses down by Cavalry Valley, the ones who own the whole valley almost? If he was he sure wouldn't need any grub stake." He shook his head in mock disgust and put another round in his irony. "You give him the killer's belt and holster, too? Those are nice presents." The facetious remark went right over the sheriff's head.
"No," Chrysler said, "not the holster or the belt. They're still hanging right there on the hook." He pointed to a belt and holster hanging on an iron hook beside a rifle rack. "Been there ever since they brought the kid in for trial. Ain't been moved."
"You sure they're the ones they brought in? "
"Damned sure. Why do you ask?"
"I can see from here, Sheriff, that that holster ain't no holster for a Remington. That's a Peacemaker holster, and that belt was made by Fitzpatrick down in Chilchester. I can tell from the work done on it."
He smiled an insider's smile, and said, "Looks just like mine, don't it?"
Standing beside the desk, he showed Chrysler his belt that was near identical to the one hanging on the iron hook. Then he turned sideways and showed him his holster. It too was a twin to the one hanging with the belt.
The air in the room changed further; it had cooled down, getting icy, but heat was rising in the sheriff's gut. It was like a branding iron had been applied to his stomach. He was slowly coming apart, for all this time he had had questions, but couldn't face up to them. Couldn't bring them to light. Now, he knew, it was all catching up to him, him and his soft stance on the murder of Bartlett's daughter. And him knowing all the time she was not Bartlett's real daughter. That fact had drawn up his interest in the beginning, but he'd let it fall to the side; it would have certainly lead to dangerous and highly unthinkable grounds.
Chrysler said, "You know more than you're letting on, don't you? You're playing with me now. I don't know a whole lot, only what was told me and said in court under oath. In front of the judge and the jury."
Wilson came right after him. "What did the kid say at the trial?"
"Said a shot came from behind him. She got hit. He yelled out that she was dead. "
Wilson continued, "Then they come up behind him? Grabbed him? Called him a murderer? Said he murdered the girl he loved? That it?"
"That's the whole of it. There were three of 'em that swore to it. Bartlett and two of his hands."
"What are their names?" Wilson's voice, the sheriff was sure, carried a threat in it if answers were not forthcoming.
"Chad Burling's the foreman," the sheriff said convincingly, like he was prodded or whipped into line. "And the other was his regular saloon sidekick with him, Hank Waitte, a big redhead and mean as they come. Appears to me to be Burling's watchdog. One of 'em's got the voice, that's Burling, but the other's got the gun, the fast gun. I seen him once on a posse, being mean as they come."
His face showed what was mounting in his stomach, coming along the route of all his nerves. And his eyes began to twitch, with the expression on his face undergoing changes, rapid changes.
Wilson read him easily, as though his cards were dealt face up, and pressure could be applied in a number of ways. He went right at him again. "You're part of it now, Sheriff. Have been since the first, but now I know, too. You're not alone in this anymore. It's just like you finally got it figured out, ain't it? And there's going to be a few trade-offs made here, between you and me. "
There had come the revelation, the opening. The wedge had been slipped into place, presenting the chance to wipe the slate. The sheriff felt better.
Not yet done and as smooth as an old prison interrogator, Wilson jumped in with the clincher, "Now's your chance to get back on the good side, Sheriff, where you should have been all the time. Both of us know the Byrnes kid didn't kill the girl he loved, but someone did and made him the only suspect. You can see now how that was arranged, can't you?"
In a move as old as forever, Wilson dropped a condescending hand on the sheriff's shoulder, locking up the new union. He made it as tight as an Indian drum when he said, "We would have been a great team right from the beginning, Sheriff, if we started out from the same stall. That's my solemn word on it."
The new tandem in the cause of Garret Byrnes cornered their first suspect in the case at the Wild Horse Saloon that evening when Hank Waitte entered and they ran him into a back room before his drinking pal showed up. Hank Waitte's bravado soon disappeared when the sheriff introduced Wilson.
"This gent's real name is Gavin Byrnes, the oldest brother of the kid who was hung for a murder he didn't commit and which was arranged by you-know-who. He's got all this written down in those papers he's writing in now. It's the whole story right up to now with only a few pieces missing and you got one chance to get a break in the whole thing. All we want to know is who planned it, who said it first, who set it up, who pulled the trigger on the Remington that was supposed to be the kid's gun, but really wasn't. And by the way, where's the kid's Peacemaker? Who took that? Where's it at now?"
Chrysler turned to Gavin Byrnes and said, "You got all that written down 'cause now we're going to get some real answers?"
The steel in Byrnes' eyes was enough for the disarmed Hank Waitte.
"Bartlett planned the whole thing," Waitte said." Faked the girl's signature on those papers of his, said he hated her and she wasn't his real daughter and knew some Indian used to slip into the barn when he wasn't around. Figured that Indian was the father, so it didn't bother him none until the railroad thing came up. And she owned the land from her mother from way back and he killed her, the mother, maybe 5 years ago. Got her caught in a rock fall that he rigged on his own. He faked the girl's signature right after she died from that shot."
Waitte was unloading years of dirty work, and Gavin Byrnes was writing it all down.
He let Waitte run his mouth.
"Bartlett knew the kid was sneaking in to visit the girl, at night, like maybe the mother's Indian friend was doing for who knows how long, and we caught them in the middle of you-know-what, in the barn. Burling shot her with a gun that Bartlett gave him, the Remington, his gun. Now Bartlett's got the kid's gun. Wears it on his own belt."
Byrnes hadn't stopped writing in the papers he had put down on a table, the lamp shining on them, where Waitte could see the load of evidence piling up, and the penitentiary coming down the line for him if he didn't get a break.
"What happens now?" Waitte said.
Gavin Byrnes said, "There's a few of the kid's brothers coming this way to straighten things out. We're going to take Garret Byrnes home after we get everything squared away. We're going to do more for this town than any railroad that might come along, but the railroad isn't coming near here anytime in the near future.
He stuffed the papers under his shirt, ready to meet his brothers and finish up some "business that needs tendin'."