Cal Loman pulled on the reins and drew the gray stallion he was riding to a halt; he looked behind him to check his other animals. Dallied around his saddle horn was the lead rope attached to the prized Arabian mare he’d just bought at the fall auction, in Bisby. The mare was a sleek, muscular, chestnut, standing at fifteen hands; she had a chiseled frame like most of her breed. Behind the mare was a pack- mule, loaded with travelling gear and food. Bulging canvass packs hung on either side of the burly animal. A clear, bright blue sky hung above them but off to the north a darker, threatening, sky was blowing their way.
Cal stood in his stirrups and looked down the twisting trail in front of him. Not much of a road, just a narrow winding path, with jagged mountain rocks on his right and a steep drop-off of probably a thousand feet to his left. Two animals couldn’t walk side by side on this portion of the trail. This path wasn’t the safest way down from the high country but it cut at least two days travel off his trip. Cal had been in the saddle the better part of a week already, with probably two or maybe three days left on his journey.
Two days earlier the horse wrangler had dropped off a small herd of twenty saddle broke mustangs at the Rounded T ranch in Ardsley. The next day, on his way home, he stopped in the town of Bisby to buy the mare that Jack Tryre, the owner of the Rounded T, had spoken about so highly. Horses and livestock, in general, were the main topic of conversation the night before at dinner in the Tryre kitchen. Cal had spent the night in their bunkhouse and then started his trek home early the next morning.
Even as he felt the weariness settling into his body, Cal watched each step his horse took. A misstep or a hoof sliding on loose shale could send horse and rider to the bottom and a sure death. The bleached bones of more than a few men and animals littered the bottom of the treacherous trail.
Cal heard the rockslide start as a small murmur of grumbling movement high above him. A loud snap crackled through the air, small stones began raining down on him. Cal slapped his horse’s rump with his hat and kicked at its flanks with his boots, desperately trying to move the animals faster.
The slide was swift and deadly. It passed just behind the cowboy and his Arabian horse, taking the pack-mule over the side and down the cliff with the rest of its rumbling dirt and rocks. Small chunks of hard dirt and sharp rocks bounced off the hand covering Cal’s head, taking nips out of his skin. The noise was deafening, the dust covered him like a dirty fog. Breathing was difficult. Cal pulled a blue bandana from his neck and placed it across his face, bandit style. The dust-filled air screamed with the whinnying of his horses. The gray’s body was taut with fright, the Arabian pulled on the rope, its’ iron shod hooves chattering on the rocky ground below it. Cal cleared his eyes and looked down at the dusty, tumbling, mass falling down to the valley floor. Fortunately, the mule was following un-tethered and didn’t pull the others over with it.
The mule had been a good mule, not as ornery as most but the goods attached to it would be sorely missed even more. A tent and blankets, food and cooking gear, as well as a heavy winter coat, went crashing down the mountainside strapped to the mule. It was late September and in this part of Montana, the weather changed quickly. A cool morning like the one they were travelling in could easily turn into a bitter cold afternoon and an even more frigid night. The light jacket Cal was wearing would not do him much good. Cal urged the horses on.
By late afternoon Loman reached the base of the foot- hills, he’d been riding through. The trail-weary cowboy looked up and watched smoky gray clouds cover the top of the Beartooth Mountain Range behind him. There would be no sense making an early camp as he had planned. His original plan was to camp at the first water hole or stream he came to when they reached the flatlands and then rests the animals there for the almost fifty-mile push to the town of Billings and the train depot, the next day. Now, with no food and more importantly no warm coat or blankets, he’d have to ride on and try to make it to Cross Wells, a closer town, by nightfall. Cross Wells was ten miles out of his way but if he hurried, he could probably make it there by nightfall, or soon after and hopefully find a warm place for him and his animals to spend the night and maybe get some hot food. There, he would buy a warm coat and provisions and then head out for Billings again in the morning.
The afternoon light faded, the bright purplish-pink colors of the bitterroot flowers that covered the plains, below the Beartooth Range, turned a dull gray, like the evening coming on. A cold wind picked up from the north. Cal huddled close to his horse’s neck to keep warm. Cal Loman had been wrangling horses for the last four years. Before that, among other things, he rode the cattle trails, pushing beef to the railheads in Kansas. The Arabian would be his first attempt at horse breeding. Until now, his business had been rounding up the wild mustangs that roamed the free lands and breaking them to the saddle. After they were broken in, he would sell the horses to the Cavalry and the large cattle ranches in the area, for their remudas, their working stock. Now, he intended to make breeding horses a part of that business.
Cal figured to breed the chestnut mare with a particularly large Palomino stallion he’d caught last spring. Arabians are known for their beauty but their best attributes are their stamina and speed. Cal figured he’d end up with a foal that would grow into a faster and stronger animal with plenty of endurance and be the future of his horse breeding business.
The day turned to night and was full dark by the time Cal saw the first glow of lamplight from Cross Wells. A frosty white moon, sitting low in the evening sky, had guided Cal to the town for the last hour. The golden blush of lamplight led him onto the main street in the small town. The road, three streets long, weaved its way, crookedly, through the town, like an old man’s spine. Dark alleys and empty lots shared the street with a few stores and wood framed homes. A blustery wind was at Cal’s back, as he started down the street, blowing dust devils down the road in front of him. Most of the businesses were already closed for the day. A saloon on Cal’s left marked the beginning of the town. The sign, swaying above the door read -The Hangout-. It was open to a few drinkers at the bar. A shout for “Another beer, Ed,” floated out into the street and mixed in with the squeaking of the metal hinges that held the saloon sign and the clip clop of Cal’s horses; otherwise, the street was eerily silent.
Two men stepped out of the barbershop next door and watched the lightly dressed cowboy riding into their town. The man on the left was a short, stocky, man wearing a beaver-pelt coat. He turned left, walked a few feet, and stopped. He turned back to look at the stranger. The other man pulled his coat collar up to shield his neck from the cold wind; he stepped forward for a better look at the rider.
“Can I help you mister,” he called out. The man was dressed in a brown cloth coat; a Bowler type hat covered his head. A barber’s apron hung down below his coat hem.
“Looking for a warm place for me and my animals to bed down; wouldn’t mind some hot food either.” Cal rubbed his arms as he said the last few words.
“Livery’s straight ahead on your left at the end of town. Can’t say Wild Billy ain’t asleep already but you bang on that small side door loud enough you’ll ‘rouse him I expect.” The barber used his left hand to point down the street.
“There’s a restaurant down that way too, just past Murphy’s lot.” This time the barber was pointing with his right hand, over to the other side of the street, pointing past a large open lot. The street was darker down that way. Except for a few street lamps wavering in the gusting wind, there wasn’t much light.
“Can’t see if they’re still open from here but Will’s a good soul and probably will feed ya if he’s got anything left from the day. Knock on his door too, if the lamps’ lit in the back.”
“Thanks kindly mister, appreciate your help.”
Cal touched his hat brim and nodded his head at the barber. He brushed his boot along his horse’s flank and moved down the street.
The barber waved a hand at Cal, followed his travel a few moments and then retreated into the dark barbershop. The other man walked along the boardwalk keeping abreast of the cowboy; his eyes studied him.
There was a light on in the back of the restaurant. Cal dismounted and stood for a moment looking through the large front window. His body was stiff from the long ride and the cold. He moved his wide shoulders up and down and pumped his legs to get the circulation moving again. Standing up straight Cal Loman stood right at six feet tall. His muscular body weighed in at one hundred and eighty pounds. A square jaw and high cheekbones made some women think he was handsome. His intelligent, dark brown, eyes told most men to be wary of him.
Cal tapped on the glass door panel, the place seemed empty. A moment later, a curtain moved behind the two sections of the service counter by the far wall and a large man in a white shirt and white apron moved through it. Despite the apron, the man looked more like a banker than a cook. He had wavy black hair with shades of gray across the sides and down his sideburns. A lazy left eye was barely noticed by most people just meeting him for the first time.
“Sorry mister we’re closed,” the man said, and waved his hand at Cal.
“Please mister, I’ve been traveling all day on an empty stomach; lost my pack mule this morning. I’m chilled to the bone too,” Cal, pleaded.
The man eyed Cal carefully, he looked unsure but he reached a hand up and slid down a locking bolt on the top of the door. He turned the handle and opened the door.
“C’mon in mister, can’t do much for ya, some left over beef stew and a biscuit or two. Can’t say it’ll be a full portion either, and maybe some coffee dregs. We’re just shutting down for the night.” The man’s voice had some apology and some annoyance in it that matched the look on his face. He moved back from the door and waved Cal in.
“Much obliged,” Cal answered the man and stepped inside.
The restaurant was still warm from the day’s business. It was the first warmth Cal had felt since early afternoon. A slender woman, dressed in a long gray coat, with a pretty face and dark brown hair curling around her shoulders, came through the curtain. She wasn’t a young woman, maybe about forty, Cal thought, but held her youthful smile and walk. She looked at Cal and then turned to the man in the apron.
“Do you want me to stay mister Karner?”
“No, no thank you Mrs. Risto, I’ll take care of the gentleman, you go home now.”
The woman smiled at both men and said goodnight. Cal tipped his hat to the woman and both men watched her leave the restaurant.
Cal looked around the room and then back at the cook. He stuck his hand out. “Name’s Cal Loman, I’m heading to Billings and the railroad. Lost my pack mule this morning in a rock slide, this side of the Beartooth; been traveling all day with nothin’ in my belly but cold air.”
“Will Karner,” the man said and released Cal’s hand. He pointed to the counter. “Sit down, it’ll be awhile, got to heat it up some for ya.”
“Then maybe I can put my animals up first, if that’s ok.” Cal was looking into the street at his horses as he spoke. The gray’s head was down, his tail wasn’t swatting at any imaginary flies, a sure sign he was tired.
“Sure, go ahead, it’ll take awhile to get the fire hot again.” The man walked behind the curtain and Cal left the restaurant, heading for the livery.
A dog barked as Cal neared the door of the livery, a small yapping bark; horses whinnied in the back corral. Wild Billy opened his side door on Cal’s third time knocking. He pushed at the little dog with his boot and told him to hush up. The little brown mutt with the white blaze across his chest quieted immediately and lay down at his owner’s feet. The liveryman looked up at Cal.
“What can I do for ya stranger?” He asked.
Cal looked down at the man asking the question. Wild Billy stood no more than five foot three inches tall and his red hair burst off his head in every direction but down, near as Cal could tell.
“Like to put up my animals if I could. Feed and rub ‘em some too if that’s alright. Pay cash up front, on the barrelhead, if you’d like.”
Cal didn’t like paying for something he hadn’t gotten yet but he knew many saddle-tramps would promise to pay in the morning and then leave just before it showed up. He didn’t want to risk being turned down.
Wild Billy’s voice wasn’t exactly shrill but it was close.
“Two bits a head what’s I charge for the stay. Feed depends on how much they eat. Can call a boy in to brush ‘em down for ya if ya want?”
“That would be fine, if he’s good with animals?”
“Wouldn’t let him in here if he weren’t, now would I?” Billy’s voice deepened some as he said the last few words, his heavy red eyebrows lowered to almost close his eyes.
“Can’t argue with that,” Cal agreed.
“Any rooms to rent in town?”
Billy lifted his small shoulders and shook his head side to side.
“Nope, but you can curl up in the hayloft for the same two bits. Don’t ‘spect nobody to rub ya down though.”
Wild Billy started cackling with laughter as soon as he got the last words out; when he stopped laughing he pointed to a large door in the front of the livery.
“Bring ‘em in there,” he said.
Cal finished the deal with the livery owner, including blankets for his horses and one for himself and then set off for the restaurant.
The restaurant felt even warmer when Cal returned. He sat at the counter and looked around. Lithograph pictures of famous men, including one of Wild Bill Hickock shooting two pistols in the air hung on the walls. An advertisement for a circus show in Billings was on the wall too; a tiger was jumping through a fiery hoop. According to the advertisement, the circus would be gone three weeks already. Three wanted posters hung next to the circus announcement. Cal was looking at the circus poster when his food was put on the counter in front of him. The cook looked at Cal and then at the wanted posters on the wall. He turned without saying anything and disappeared back behind the curtain.
The meal was smaller than most he’d eaten in restaurants but it was hot and it was tasty. The hot coffee was good too. Cal ate quickly; he didn’t want to overstay his welcome. The big fellow had put himself out by feeding him and Cal wanted to let the cook get finished with his chores and get home. Cal finished his meal and stood up facing the wanted posters. He dug in his pocket and put some coins on the counter. The cook came out from the back and put a beefy hand on the coins, he pushed them back to Cal. “Not necessary,” the man said. “Not much of a meal, don’t figure I should charge ya, mister.” He took his hands off the coins and picked up Cal’s dish and cup. “Come for breakfast in the morning, open half hour after sun-up,” he said. The cook turned and walked back behind the curtain.
A tall, thin, youngster about fourteen years of age was just finishing brushing down the gray when Cal arrived back at the livery; the boy had already finished the mare. Cal paid the boy with the coins he had offered the restaurant owner a few minutes earlier. “Thanks son you done a good job. A well-curried horse is a healthy horse.” Cal patted the boy’s shoulder. “Yes sir, you done a real good job.”
The tow-headed youngster clapped his currying brushes together, the dust from the horses floated to the livery floor. The boy beamed with pride and smiled broadly, he thanked Cal and said goodnight. Cal watched the youngster bow his head into the wind and run up the street.
The barn had six stalls on either side of the main room and a smaller room on the side for horseshoeing and other repairs. A large roughed-up table in that room held some leather pieces and the tools to repair them. A worn saddle hung on a peg over the table with a twenty-dollar price tag on it. The owner’s quarters’ was in the back, the room was out of site behind a six-foot knee-wall.
A nervous, speckled white horse kept a wary eye on Cal from the front stall nearest the small door. Cal put his two horses in the stalls opposite the restless horse the other stalls were empty. He climbed the ladder up to the loft. The hay in the loft above the stalls was clean and still held the strong scent of fresh cut hay. Cal picked a spot, wrapped the wool blanket around himself and lay down. It didn’t take long for the weary horse wrangler to fall asleep. But even as tired as he was the noisy wind and creaking building woke him from time to time. Something was keeping his tired mind from resting.
Later, into the night: The wind raced through town looking for leaves and any small debris to blow from one place to another. The starless black night hid the winds little game from view. The rustling sounds of papers and dead leaves mixed in with the occasional sound of whistling from the wind. A piece of torn paper landed by the back door of the two-story, wood clapboard, structure directly across from the livery. A boot-toe stepped on the paper and trapped it against the doorframe. A shoulder, hidden in the shroud of darkness, pushed against the door and broke the small latch off the worn casing. The ripping sound it made was hidden by a gust of howling wind and the flapping noise of a lantern swaying on the front porch of the building. Slow footsteps kept close to the wall allowed the intruder to reach the second floor of the dark building without being heard. At the top of the stairs and to the left, a door was ajar. Loud snoring emanated from the room and rolled out into the hallway.
The intruder opened the door, slowly at first, when he heard no squeaking sound he opened it further and stepped into the room. To his right two windows looked out over the street. A four-drawer bureau, with a square mirror hanging over it, sat between the two windows. The swishing sound of bed covers froze the silhouette in place. He leaned against the wall and listened; his breathing was noiseless. The movement on the bed stopped and a dim light showed a shadow cross the mirror. The intruder crept over to the bed by the far wall and put his hand over the snoring man’s face. The man in the bed was a thin, weak man; his arms were barely the size of the intruder’s wrist. The struggle was silent and the man was pulled to the floor. The hand over his face was covering his mouth and his nose. The man couldn’t breath; his attacker was too strong for him. He kicked his thin legs frantically until his attacker knelt on them. The pain shot through his body. The gaunt man’s face grew slick with sweat and saliva as he wiggled it back and forth fighting for a life-saving breath. It was getting harder for the assailant to hold his hand over the man’s slippery mouth. His muffled cries for help were getting louder. The intruder drew a knife from a sheath on his belt and stabbed the man in the chest. A small gasping noise rose from the floor but the woman sleeping in the bed next to the man was too weary from her long day’s work, to hear anything.
The murderer wiped his knife blade on the man’s nightshirt and stood up. He walked slowly around the bed to the woman’s side. Lisa Risto was sound asleep. An oil lamp, with its wick turned down low, burned dully on her night table; she left it on for her husband, who got up often during the night. A draft from a nearby window caused the lamp light to flicker; the wavering glow slid across the woman’s face. The intruder thought she looked even prettier in her sleep.
Lisa woke to feel a heavy weight on her body. A strong hand covered her mouth and stifled the scream she was trying to scream. She knew immediately the man on her wasn’t her husband. For some reason, Lisa thought about the way the man smelled. This man was rough and much heavier than Ernie. Ernie had been sickly for the last eight months, ever since the freight wagon he drove turned over on him. He lay under the wagon for six hours until two cowhands, heading into town, spotted him and freed him. Doc Pender said things were crushed inside him that couldn’t be fixed. Ernie hadn’t had the strength to make love to her ever since.
The woman struggled fiercely for several minutes, testing the attacker’s strength. He didn’t want to hurt her but he couldn’t let her shout for help. He kept one hand over her mouth and cupped her left breast with his other hand. He could feel her heart pounding. He clumsily tried to kiss her cheek but her violent struggling thwarted him. He took his hand from her breast and moved it up to her throat. He knew he was doing something he didn’t want to do but his lust for the woman in the bed was urging him on. The woman’s strength ebbed suddenly and she stopped struggling. The intruder continued to do what he wanted to her.
Cal’s dream was filled with braying mules and shouting men. He was slipping off a large rock when he woke abruptly. Five men were standing down on the livery floor, shouting up at him. Two of the men held lanterns straight out and up towards Cal. Cal shook his head; he was trying to wake up. Wild Billy was one of the men down on the floor. He screeched up at Cal. “You’d better come down here mister, they ain’t foolin’.”
Cal could hear the men shouting at him but he couldn’t understand what they were saying. They were all shouting different words at the same time.
“Hold up I’m coming down,” Cal called out and wiped at his sleepy eyes with his hands.
“Keep your hands up,” a short wide man with a drooping mustache shouted at Cal as he started down to the floor. The man held a pistol in his left hand, pointed at Cal.
Cal climbed down the ladder in his stocking feet; flecks of hay drifted down in front of him. When he reached the floor, he turned to face the men. The small side door was open, letting the first gray light of the new day set on their faces. A cold breeze blew in with the light, making Cal shiver. Angry looks searched Cal’s face. The short wide man stepped forward and punched Cal in the stomach. Cal fell to the floor on all fours, gasping for air. The man kicked him in the face. Blood spurted from Cal’s nose and his mouth went numb, he was stunned. Cal could only watch as the boot drew back, readying for another kick. The boot-toe was smeared with Cal’s blood and the dust from the livery floor.
“Hold it Walt, ain’t no need for that yet,” a man shouted. The speaker was a man about Cal’s size. He wore a black duster with a constable badge stuck on the left lapel. A gunbelt was cinched around the outside of the coat, at his waist, pulling the duster in. His right hand held a Colt Peacemaker pistol in it. He used his left hand to push the man named Walt away from Cal.
“What’s your name mister and where you from?” He asked the questions while poking down at Cal’s shoulder with his Peacemaker.
Cal stood up slowly, his knees weakened from the belly punch and the kick. He shook his head again, he was trying to wake up and get out of his nightmare. He covered his bloody nose with the blue bandanna he wore around his neck and held his head back. He worked hard to steady his eyes on the man behind the Constable badge. “Cal Loman. I’m a horse rancher from Bannack, east of here. I’ve been there four years, runnin’ horses. What’s this all about?” Cal was just starting to get feeling back in his mouth; he tasted the saltiness of his blood on his swollen lips. Cal’s speech was slow and garbled. His tongue just wouldn’t work right.
“You know damn well what it’s about.” The heavyset man named Walt rushed at Cal again. He swung a heavy fist that grazed Cal’s right temple, wobbling him. Cal grabbed on to one of the upright post that supported the loft.
“Damn it, hold on Walt.” The constable stepped between Cal and the irate Walt. “We gotta’ give him a chance to say his piece.”
Walt kicked at the stable floor and turned a hateful glare at Cal. He started for him again.” Why?” He shouted. “He didn’t give poor Ernie a chance, nor his wife neither.”
The constable put his hand up to quiet Walt. He turned to the other men. “Get a rope to tie him up. I’m putting him in a cell for now, ‘til we get a good handle on this.” The constable spoke with the authority of a lawman even though his position was little more than honorary. He continued giving orders. “Check his belongings, see what’s there. Billy, get me something to tie him with.” The constable reached his left hand out wiggling his fingers.
“He ain’t got no belongings but them two horses, a saddle, an Evans carbine and a six shooter.” Billy pointed to the gray stallion and the mare and then walked to a post where a length of rope hung on a nail.
“This must be his,” A man with a moon-shaped face and thick sideburns running down to is chin was calling down from the loft. He held Cal’s gunbelt in his right hand.
“Toss ‘em down here.” The constable called up to the man in the loft.
The man dropped the gunbelt to the floor at the Constable’s feet. Walt reached down and picked it up. He pulled a knife from the sheath on the left side of the belt, handed the belt to the Constable and then examined the knife. He turned a scornful glare at Cal.
“Why you son of a bitch, I oughta…” he threatened Cal with the knife.
Cal recognized Walt as the man coming out of the barbershop when he rode into town, the man in the beaver- pelt coat. He’d felt the man’s eyes on his back until he entered the restaurant. Walt turned away from Cal.
“Look’it here Frank, ain’t that blood?”
The short, squat, man was pointing at dried blood near the hilt of Cal’s knife. Frank Gormin, the constable, took the knife from Walt. He examined the blade a minute and then held it in front of Cal.
“How do you explain this mister?”
Cal shook his head, drops of blood sprayed to the livery floor again. He looked at the knife with a frightened question in his eyes. “I don’t know…” he started to say more and then stopped. He was rubbing his eyes with the heel of his right hand, his other hand rubbed roughly on the week-old beard on his left cheek. He stopped abruptly and looked at the constable. A small smile almost broke out on his swollen face. “Wait a minute, I remember. Two days ago, I skinned a rabbit for dinner. I had a dry camp that night so I just rubbed my knife in some loose dirt to clean it. You all have done the same thing. Haven’t you?” Cal looked from one man to another, looking for agreement; something near panic showing in his eyes. He was still trying to wake up. Or was he in another one of those dreams, he was asking himself. Cold, hard, stares burned back at him.
“Where’d you get them scratches on your hand?”
This time it was a man with squinty eyes and dirty blonde hair down to his shoulders asking the question. He was of average size with a pointed nose and chin. A ragged scar ran across the bottom of his chin. His voice had some Texas cowhand in it, Cal thought. He’d been quiet up until now. He was pointing at Cal’s left hand.
Cal picked up his hand and looked at it. “The rock slide…” he started to say.
“Move, move out of the way,” Walt Beckworth, the man in the beaver-pelt coat, walked through the group of men surrounding Cal. He had the lariat Cal used to secure his Arabian mare on the trail, in his hands. Walt had fashioned a noose with a crude hang-mans’ knot on one end. He swung the loop over his head twice and then flung it over a roof beam. “Let’s get this over with; he should be in the ground before poor Ernie. That’s only right.” He held the end of the rope and looked at each man, daring them to argue that point.
The constable stepped in front of Beckworth and looked hard at him. He put his hand with the gun in it down by his side and poked Beckworth with the pointer finger on his other hand. He lowered his voice and spoke as if he were telling the man an angry secret. “Damn it Walt, we ain’t hanging him yet. We’re not turning this town back into a lawless mining camp. Folks here have been working hard to get the Great Northern to look at us for their last train depot before the mountains. Judge Holliman will be coming this way in a week’s time; we can wait ‘til then to hang him, legally.”
Walt let his end of the rope fall to the stable floor. He looked around at each man in the room, and then locked his eyes on the Constable. “You forgettin’ everything Ernie meant to this town. He’s the one brought us our winter goods just before snowfall, every year, ‘til he got hurt. Risked his life to do it too; brought ‘em through the Beartooth Pass, sometimes, with snow already covering his tracks. Only reason you’re the law instead of him is because he was always on the road for his freight business.”
The constable holstered his pistol and took two short lengths of rope from Wild Billy. He looked over the untamed head of red hair at Walt Beckworth.
“I ain’t forgetting nothing Ernie done for this town. But he done it so folks here could make a respectable town for their families to live in and do better for themselves. We need the railroad for Cross Wells to prosper. Ernie believed that too and led most of the talks with the Great Northern Railroad people himself.” The constable finished what he had to say and backed toward Cal with the ropes in his hand.
Carpe Diem (Grab the Chance)
Cal was standing behind the constable and heard everything the two men had just said. They weren’t arguing if he was guilty or not or about a fair trial, they were only arguing about how soon they should hang him. He didn’t stop to consider anything more. Cal reached forward and drew the lawman’s pistol out of its holster. He put the gun in the man’s back and reached his other hand into the back of the constable’s gun belt. He pulled Frank Gormin under the hayloft with him. The man above them would think twice before shooting down at him through the floorboards.
He pushed Gormin against a beam so the constable’s right arm couldn’t move. Cal stood behind the Constable and pointed his pistol at the man who was so intent on hanging him. He cocked the single action revolver, just to make his intent clear. “Drop that gun, now!” There was no mistaking Cal’s voice. This was Walt Beckworth’s first and final warning.
Beckworth drew his gun while Cal was pulling the constable under the hayloft; he held it steady on Cal. The man with the long hair froze with his pistol half out of its holster. Cal figured he’d be the second man he’d have to kill. The air in the livery barn stilled. All the men knew what was sure to happen next. One of the horses blew and pawed at the ground; the ominous, “Thump, thump, thump” of its heavy hoof, stomping the hard dirt, seeming to count the time to gunplay.
Wild Billy stepped into the middle of the men pointing their guns at each other. The one strap of his suspenders lying across his right shoulder held up his pants. His nightshirt half tucked into his pants and half hanging out. His feet were bare and his hands were empty of any weapon. Billy looked at each of the men in the barn, even the man up in the loft. As he turned to each man, he had his hands raised in the air palms facing the men. “Hold on boys.” Billy’s voice had a calm demand in it that none of the men had ever heard from him before. The little man with the wild red hair was taking command. He stopped turning and settled steely eyes on Cal; he was standing between two guns. Walt Beckworth was right behind him. “Son you got about as much chance of getting out of this town alive as a snowflake in hell. And even if you did, where would you go? The next town’s sixty mile from here; we’d run you down in half that.”
Cal understood the wisdom in Wild Billy’s remark; he just couldn’t see any other way out. “I appreciate your concern mister but these fellas make it pretty clear they intend to hang me. Only thing they’re arguing about is when.” Cal motioned with the constables’ pistol for Billy to get out of the line of fire between him and the man in the beaver coat.
The liveryman moved slowly to his right, his hands still in the air. The man with the long hair and Texas twang let his six-shooter slide back into its holster and put his hands in the air. Cal and the man so anxious to hang him stood facing each other, six feet apart. Cal figured he had a slight edge. Both men had single action revolvers but Cal’s gun was already cocked. His gun would need only a slight pull on the trigger to fire; his gun would fire even if he were hit first. Walt would have to cock his hammer back and then squeeze the trigger.
Constable Gormin cleared his throat. He looked at the man in the beaver- pelt coat, the man who had hatred in his eyes, and now, a slight tremor in his gun-hand. Gormin’s words came out slow and quiet. “Put it down Walt, we’ll give him his head start and then run him down, like Billy said.” Gormin looked back at Cal. “Don’t do no shooting in town mister and we’ll still give ya a fair trial when we catch you.” He watched Cal’s eyes register the offer with no hint of what he thought about it.
Walt let his gun arm fall to his side. He wasn’t looking at Cal anymore, his eyes bore into the Constable’s eyes. He bent over and let his gun fall to the floor while still looking at him. “I won’t promise any fair trial, Frank.” He put his hands in the air and stepped back away from his gun, his angry eyes back on Cal.
Cal had the man in the loft come down and bring Cal’s boots and jacket with him. He told the livery owner to collect all of the guns and put them in a sack. Cal stepped in front of the man who hit him. “Take that coat off and drop it on the floor.” Then he had all the men, except for Billy, climb up into the loft and sit with their feet hanging over the side. Cal put the warm coat on. It was a little short on the arms but because of the stoutness of its owner, it fit Cal otherwise. A pair of gloves was in the pockets.
Cal put on his holster, picked up his knife and sheathed it. He pointed his pistol at the men in the loft. “Keep them boots hanging where I can see them. If I see one boot missing when I look up, I’m letting loose with this six-shooter.”
Billy put all the guns he’d collected in a gunnysack. Cal told him to tie the sack tight and put it on the floor near his horses. The liveryman did as he was told and with a grim look on his face, he spoke quietly to Cal. “Son you’re making a big mistake. Most of the people in this town are decent folks and will listen to what you have to say at your trial. If you run now you’ll give them no choice but to think you’re guilty; which, by the way, I don’t.”
Cal reached over with his left hand and squeezed Billy’s shoulder with an easy grip. “I know you’re giving me good advice mister but I’d have to prove myself innocent and I don’t know how I’d do that. Do you?”
Billy looked at Cal and then up to the men in his loft. He returned his worried look back to Cal. “Guess not,” he said sadly. He saddled the Arabian with Cal’s saddle and then threw the twenty-dollar saddle on the gray Cal rode into town. He whispered to Cal while he worked. “Stay left at the fork just outside of town, it’ll take you to a shortcut through Major’s Pass. Then keep northeast until you come upon the Great Northern’s tracks, follow them east into Billings. Ride the gray as far as he’ll take ya and then leave him on the trail. I’ll find him, get my saddle back and take care of your horse, ‘til its safe for you to come back for him”.
The liveryman said the last few words with doubt sounding across each word. He shook Cal’s hand quickly, while they were out of sight of the others. Billy opened the big barn door and then walked over to the speckled horse. He let down the rope holding him in the stall and led him outside. He slapped the horse’s rump, sending him galloping down the street. Billy looked back at Cal and winked; he climbed the ladder and joined the others.
Cal mounted the gray with the sack of guns in his hand. The Arabian was once again tethered to his saddle horn. Cal turned right out of the livery and raced up the still quiet street. A light was on in the restaurant he’d eaten in the night before. A wispy dusting of snow covered the roadway and recorded his tracks; loosing this posse wasn’t going to be easy.
Cal rode hard out of town at a steady mile-gaining lope. Two miles out of town, he stopped and checked his back-trail. He threw the gunnysack into a small pond off the road. The rising sun was warm; it was melting the light snow on the hard ground. The horses hoof prints were disappearing. Cal stayed left at the fork, as Billy had suggested. Major’s Pass wasn’t very wide in most places and the morning light hadn’t gotten to it yet. It probably wouldn’t until near noon as the cut ran north to south.
Things had happened so fast earlier that Cal had no real plan, other than to reach Billings and hope the law there would protect him. If he could, he might just board a train and head home. The folks in Bannack knew him well and would surely treat him better than the men chasing him. The only thing he’d get in Cross Wells was hung. The hoof-beats of the two horses reverberated loudly off the close walls of Major’s Pass. Cal slowed the horses down and listened for the posse he knew would be after him by now. Other than the blowing of his horses, the pass was quiet.
Cal thought for a while about what the men back at Cross Wells would do. They’d have to get warm clothing, replace the guns he’d taken from them and then saddle their mounts; maybe pick up extra riders too. Cal guessed that would give him at least a half-hour head start. The posse would figure Cal to run his animals full out, until they dropped. Then they would pick him up on foot, somewhere before Billings. They were wrong.
Cal Loman was a good horseman, who knew the measure of good horses. His gray was a steady, sure footed, animal with better than average speed and strength. The Arabian was, as yet, untested, but her breed was well known and acknowledged as some of the best horse stock in the world. The stallion was a good animal to ride and was trustworthy in rough terrain. Cal had counted on the gray many times and now was asking for one more hard ride out of him. He knew he’d sense when the horse was tiring and would then stop. He’d unsaddle the stallion and let him graze until Billy could find him and most likely keep him. He’d mount the Arabian and ride the rest of the way to Billings. Cal knew he’d make it to Billings; the men chasing him might think he’d quit but they weren’t facing a rope.
Cal saw bright daylight ahead of him; the pass was flaring out at its end. The prairie, he would ride across to Billings, was in front of him. The deep green, late summer, grass in some areas as high as the horses bellies, flowed on as far as he could see. He slapped at the gray with his boots urging him into a fast gallop. The two horses responded and Cal bent low into the wind. The mouth of the canyon looked smaller each time he looked back.
The five men climbed down from the loft as soon as Cal left the livery. Constable Gormin was red faced with embarrassment and anger. He looked at Walt with hate in his eyes. If it weren’t for Walt’s meddling, he would have had the stranger, the murderer, the rapist, in jail. Instead, he looked like a bumbling fool. Any chance he’d be elected the regular sheriff, when the town, with the new train depot, grew, was out of the question now. He turned to the other men and angrily shouted orders. “Billy, get them nags you got out back saddled, the rest of you get your horses and find some extra hardware. We’re going after him in ten minutes, hurry!”
The constable ran out of the barn and pulled on the thick rope hanging down from the roof. The town’s fire bell, mounted on the livery roof, began ringing. The clanging noise brought people to the center of the street, some still in their nightclothes.
The early morning light was chasing the shadows into the corners. The day was dawning bright but it did no good for Gormin’s mood. He put his hands to his mouth in the shape of a funnel and began shouting. “Folks I hate to break this sad news to you this way but Ernie Risto was murdered in his sleep last night and his wife was raped. Now we got an escaped killer and rapist on the loose, he’s heading to Billings. I need every able-bodied man to get saddled, bring your weapons and extra ammo. When you’re ready meet here in front of the livery….” He stopped talking and looked hard at Walt Beckworth. Beckworth looked back at him but there was no challenge in his eyes this time. The constable put his hands to his mouth again. “When you’re ready muster up in front of the livery. Mr. Beckworth ….” He spat the name in Walt’s direction, “Will be in charge of the second group. Spread out on the prairie and make sure he doesn’t double back. Head toward Billings.”
Cal could no longer see Major’s Pass. He’d let the gray have it’s head two miles back and now the stallion was setting a pace that would be difficult for most horses to maintain. The Arabian ran with him with little effort. The prairie in front of them was flat with small hills and plateaus to the east; some woodland’s lined the eastern side of the prairie as well. The Beartooth Mountain Range covered most of the vista beyond that. Cal felt the morning sun on his right cheek and shoulder. He would reach Billings by late afternoon at this pace.
Constable Gormin stood in the middle of the crowd. He answered a few questions from the irate townspeople while he waited for Wild Billy to saddle the horses.
“Yes, unfortunately, Ernie Risto is dead. No, Mrs. Risto is still alive, but unconscious. Doc Pender is looking after her as best he can. No, she didn’t describe the attacker; it was probably too dark to see him anyway. She woke her next- door neighbors Bill and Franny Smythe, told them Ernie was upstairs on the floor and that she had been raped; then she passed out and hasn’t come to since, far as I know. That’s all I got to say for now. Leave Doc alone and go about your business, ‘til we bring the killer back. What men stay behind keep a lively eye in case he sneaks back into town.”
The livery owner walked down to the crowd, leading four horses. Gormin mounted a chestnut gelding and rode over to a man with a flowing gray beard and a gimpy left leg, his long gray hair was partially covered with a Union cavalry hat. The man reached up to the constable and handed him a pistol and a rifle. “Here Frank use these. I ain’t able to ride with you no-how. I’ll keep my eyes open here though, you can rest assured on that.”
Will Karner walked up to the constable and took hold of his horses’ bridle. He looked up at Gormin, the restaurant owner’s eyes were red and his skin looked sallow, he’d aged ten years. “ Frank, I’ll stay here and wait for Ernie’s wife to wake up. I’ll stand guard ‘til you get back, in case he returns to kill the only witness to his vicious deeds. Ernie was my best friend, I have to do all I can for Lisa now. Hang him where you find him Frank.”
Karner walked over to the Smythe home and stood next to the chair he’d brought from his restaurant. He placed the Winchester rifle he’d been carrying against the wall and drew a tobacco pouch and paper out of his shirt pocket. Karner put together a cigarette and lit it with a slight tremor in his hand.
Karner was awakened and told of the killing and rape by Bill Smythe. Smythe had awakened Doc Pender first and then the constable, Gormin. Smythe had told the Doc and Gormin how Lisa Risto showed up at his home, her nightdress covered in blood; her eyes were wide and frightened, a dark bruise surrounded her neck. She was barely able to get the words out, that her husband had been killed, before she passed out again.
Will Karner and Ernie Risto had become good friends after the bank in Billings refused to lend Ernie’s new freight business the start up money he would need, to buy the horses and wagon to haul his freight. Ernie also needed cash to pay for the feed and stable fees his team of four horses and the two spares would cost. Karner saw the need for a freight company originating in Cross Wells and the benefit it would be to his restaurant. He lent Ernie the money, with no interest to be paid. The business grew quickly and Ernie repaid the loan within two years, just as he had promised. After Ernie was hurt, Will gave his wife, Lisa, a job in his restaurant to help her pay the bills.
Cal stopped with the sun directly overhead. The day was getting warm. With a bright blue sky and no wind, the sun heated up the prairie. In a few weeks, when the northwest wind blew constantly, the sun would only melt the frost for a few hours in mid-day. Then the snow would begin to fall and the sun would go away until spring.
Cal dismounted near a wide stream. The water gurgling over the smooth rocks made a soothing, unrushed, sound. A rare group of a dozen willow trees shaded the water. Buffalo grass covered the ground down to the rocky creek bed. Cal unsaddled both animals and let them drink the water. He lay down by the stream, drank from the chilly water and splashed some on his head. He watched as an Osprey soared down from the blue sky and snatched a trout out of the glistening water. The fish wiggled in the talons of the large bird as it climbed back into the sky. Cal stood up and looked around. The prairie was endless; Bison by the thousands used to roam it, from morning ‘til night, following the grass from east to west and north to south. A brown wave of Bison would float across the swaying sea of green grass daily. Relentless hunting had greatly reduced the herd sizes. Fresh meat for the ever-encroaching railroad workers and hides for the tanners to sell to the rich folks back east were the main culprits.
Cal took the bridle off the stallion and looped a short rope around his neck. If he didn’t tie the gray to a tree, the horse would follow Cal and the Arabian. The stallion had given his all to carry Cal this far, at the pace he’d been setting. He needed to rest. Cal cut the rope halfway through. When the animal was rested and wanted to get loose he would break the rope easily, unless Wild Billy got to him first, which would be fine with Cal.
Cal walked away from the whispering of the creek and the neighing of the horses. He looked back toward Cross Wells. He thought he saw a small cloud of dust far back in the distance and maybe he heard a pistol shot.
The constable was whipping his horse, riding hell bent for leather. A plume of dust rose in the air behind him and the other men riding with him. Wild Billy had been shouting at him for the last mile to slow down. The liveryman drew his pistol and fired a shot into the wide sky above them. Frank Gormin turned to look back. Billy was aiming his six-shooter at the constable’s horse. Gormin pulled hard on the reins and recklessly brought the horse to a stop. He rode over to Billy and didn’t stop his horse until its chest bumped into the liveryman’s leg. The white foam that had spread over the exhausted animal’s front rubbed onto Billy’s pant leg.
“What the hell are you doing?” Frank Gormin screamed at the diminutive liveryman. The constable’s face was red, his teeth were bared, his anger uncontrolled. Billy calmly stepped down from his horse and took hold of the bridle of Gormin’s lathered steed. The animal was noisily sucking air into empty lungs. Its withers were quivering from the strain.
Billy stood firm, his pistol pointing up at the lawman.
“You ain’t killing my horse just because your ambitions have been stomped on. I’d just as soon shoot him out from under you than see him run to death.” Billy waved the gun at Gormin and ordered him to step down. Gormin’s right leg started crossing over the saddle as his right hand reached for his gun. A horse made a skittish step that clacked on the hard ground but the click of the hammer on Billy’s six-gun was still heard by Gormin. The constable opened his hand and let his pistol slide back into its holster.
“Lookit here Frank them two horses that feller’s riding can travel all day at this pace. They’re special animals. That gray’s a pure stallion and large enough to pull a stagecoach. The other ones’ an Arabian, they can run from sunup ‘til sundown and win a race the next morning. We can’t catch them. I was bluffing when I said we’d ride him down before he got to Billings. That boy knows horses; he’ll probably stop just about now and switch horses. The Arabian will be fresher than any of our mounts and if we continue riding, like we’ve been doing, these horses will drop out from under us and we’ll end up walking into Billings, tomorrow morning.”
Billy stopped talking and turned to look over the flat prairie in front of them. He spoke again while still looking towards Billings. “Beside’s which, that Evans rifle he’s carrying can fire up to thirty-four rounds before he has to reload it. It’s not a well-known rifle but it’s as accurate as the man holding it and I’d say that feller looks like he can shoot pretty good. If he catches us coming up on him out in the open, we’re liable to be eating forty-four slugs for dinner.” Billy was finished scolding the constable; he holstered his pistol, walked over to his horse, and started unsaddling him.
Gormin threw his hat on the ground and kicked it. Kicked up dirt and rocks followed the hat across the grassy plain. He yanked at his saddle strap and glared at Billy. He was angrier at himself but couldn’t admit it. “Dammit Billy, don’t ever pull a gun on me again.” Gormin shouted the words and threw his saddle on the ground.
Billy had had his say; no more words were needed, as far as he was concerned. The other men stepped out of their saddles. All agreed they would rest the worn out horses for an hour and then trot them into Billings.
Cal followed the tracks into town as Wild Billy had suggested. A train depot sat next to the tracks. The red, wood framed building looked deserted. Luggage sat on a hand truck next to a closed window. A weathered American flag hung down from the porch roof. It waved easily in the slight breeze. This was the older end of Billings, called “Old Town” by the citizens of Billings, new or old; wood framed homes, storefronts with dusty windows and empty lots filled the next four streets. Across from the depot was a large livery barn with a public corral attached to its right side, the side facing the tracks. It looked to Cal to be holding about a dozen horses. Cal slipped the saddle off his horse and stored it out of sight under the depot porch. He casually walked the Arabian over to the corral and led the mare into it. He took the bridle off the horse and sent it into the middle of the herd with a slap to its rump. Cal walked back to the train depot and looked around. No one was in sight. He threw the harness under the porch with his saddle.
A two-story log building was up the road, just past the livery barn. A sagging porch on the second floor gave shade to the two large windows that fronted the building. The Big Nugget- read the sign on the window on the right side; a picture of a gold nugget was under the name. On the left hand window, the saloon had a sign advertising free lunch and cold beer on ice. Cal stepped through the worn swinging doors with the chipped green paint and walked to a large table in the middle of the room. The men crowding around the table were a rough looking group, most of them packing iron. Cal reached in, careful not to interfere with any of the other eager hands picking out their food. Bread and sandwich fixings filled the table, for all to have. Sandwich in hand, Cal headed for the bar. He got the attention of a barman and ordered a beer.
The saloon looked old and roughed up but the large mirror behind the bar looked new. A diverse group of cowboys, miner’s, railroaders, cattlemen and even a few mountain men moved about in the background. The new mirror reflected a big room full of boisterous men. The noise was friendly chatter and laughter in most areas; loud threats were being made in others. A thin man in a derby hat and striped shirt played a quickstep tune on a piano, which sat on the small stage in the far corner of the room. The floor of the stage and the step up to it were pock- marked with splintered bullet holes. A half dozen tables with five and six chairs at each table were spread throughout the room. Cal found an empty seat at a table with four other men. “Howdy gents mind if I sit down?” Cal asked the question as he drew a chair out next to the oldest looking man at the table. The old timer looked like a mountain man who trapped and hunted for a living. He had a scraggly looking gray beard that almost covered his scratched lips and swollen left eye. He looked Cal over with his good eye and nodded his head.
“Sit down son, name’s Mace. What’s yours?” The man with the swollen eye took a bite out of a thick sandwich and waited for an answer; still looking at Cal with his one good eye.
“John Trask.” Cal lied easily, using a friend’s name. Johnny Trask was one of the cowboys who rode for him when he was rounding up wild horses. Cal didn’t like lying to the friendly gent who invited him to sit down but he thought it best to be anonymous for the time being. He hadn’t noticed if Cross Wells had a telegraph wire when he was there. If they did, they might have wired ahead, giving his name and description.
Mace reached out with a ham-sized hand. The man’s handshake closed on Cal’s hand like a bear trap, despite knuckles that were bruised and swollen. “Always good to meet someone new,” the man said and smiled a swollen lip grin. He took note of the bruises on Cal’s face.
“You ain’t Johnny Trask!” The words boomed across the table like a rifle shot. A tall, heavy-built cowhand with a sun-browned face stood up and slammed a mug of sudsy beer hard against the tabletop. The golden liquid splashed over his fist and across the table, some dropping on Cal’s sandwich. Cal stood and faced the accuser across the table from him. The man looked drunk but Cal noticed his right hand was steady as it hovered over the pearl handled six-gun in his well-worn holster. The holster was tied down to his leg, quick draw style.
Cal spoke his words slowly and easy-like. “Fact is mister, there’s lots of us Johnny Trask riding around this country, it seems. Fact is, only last spring, I met a feller with the same name. Said he’d been riding down along the Brazos, last few years. A feller about my age, but a might shorter in height. Had brown hair like me but wore it closer to his head. Nice feller, left hand draw, as I recall.”
Cal had just described the friend whose name he’d stolen. He hoped it satisfied the man across the table from him. The last thing Cal wanted now was to bring attention to himself, and maybe a Sheriff or Town Marshal to investigate the ruckus. His eyes held steady on his accuser, his own hand close to the walnut handle of his Colt.
The big man wasn’t satisfied. He flung his chair backwards sending three men from the table behind him, scattering. “You think I’m stupid, cowboy. They’s only one Johnny Trask and I say he ain’t you.”
Cal didn’t want any trouble but that’s just what this drunk was looking for. Cal needed to stay quiet and be near the train station so he could jump on the first train available. He’d pay for his ticket on board. Damn all the drunks, Cal thought, and drew his six-gun. The move was fluid and quick. Several men watching the goings on didn’t see what happened. They wondered how Johnny Trask had filled his hand with that pistol.
“Don’t reckon you ought to push this mister,” Cal cautioned the drunken cowboy. The other men at the table stood and moved away from the line of fire. The drunk waved his hand at Cal, muttered something under his breath, and started for the door. Cal holstered his pistol and watched him leave.
Two steps from the door the drunk whirled around and drew his gun. He got two shots off but both missed their mark. Cal’s six-shooter was out and firing after the drunks’ first shot. The two bullets Cal fired went through the left hand shirt pocket of the drunk. He collapsed to the floor in a heap. His pearl handled six-gun clattered across the bar- room floor.
Cal looked behind him at the side door he’d spied when he first entered the saloon. He put his gun up and headed for the door. “Hold on son you got no reason to run.” The man with the scratchy gray beard had a hold of Cal’s arm. “It was a fair shootin’, he shot first. We all saw that.”
Cal pulled his arm away from Mace. “I got to go, that’s all.”
“You on the run boy?”
Cal didn’t answer; he just stared at the man.
“Go on git, then. I’ll cover your trail.” Mace pushed Cal toward the side door. Cal ran through the door and down a back alley.
Mace walked over to the stage. The piano player watched him step up onto the stage and pull his gun. He covered his ears. Mace shot two bullets into the wall next to the piano. The man turned back to his piano and started playing louder and faster.
Enforcing the law at the older, less affluent, end of Billings fell to Deputy Sheriff, Averill Mosley. Mosley was a brute of a man, able to crack heads and keep things quiet. That’s all the good people in the newer part of Billings, wanted from him. He drew fifty dollars a month pay and fifty percent of any fines for his endeavors.
Mosley burst through the saloon doors and immediately tripped over the dead body lying on the floor. He fell to one knee and stopped from falling face down by the shear strength in his massive arms. Mosley stood six- foot two and he weighed two hundred and fifty pounds. He pushed himself to his feet and bellowed, pointing down at the corpse at his feet. “What’s the hell’s he doing down there?”
Mace walked over to the deputy and stood in front of him. He put his hands on his hips and looked straight across at the deputy. Both men stood to the same height but Mace was a good fifty pounds lighter. “Had to gun him down Averill. Fella must’a had too many beers. He said he didn’t like the piano playing. Said it was too loud. So he shot a couple a bullets Benny’s way and when I told him to stop, he threw two shots at me. Damn near took my ear off, see.” Mace turned his face so the deputy could see the blood running across his left ear and down his cheek. He had pulled a scab off that ear a few seconds earlier. “Not much else I could do, right boys?” Mace looked around the room at some men he’d known for a while and some total strangers. A murmur of agreement washed across the room like a gurgling brook. Nods of agreeing, mumbling, heads attested to the truth of Mace’s statement.
The deputy counted the shots he’d heard, six sounded just about right. He looked at Mace and furrowed his brow with a question. “That the way it was, then?”
Mace looked straight at the deputy, the end of his cracked lips bent upward in an almost smile
“Sure was, Averill.”
The deputy looked back at Mace with a question still in his eyes; he shook his head slightly and said, “So be it then.” His large right hand swept across a group of men standing nearby. “Get him up to the undertakers and tell Josh to leave him as he is, ‘til I get there.” The deputy also got to keep whatever was in the pockets of the dead, unless they had nearby family, which few did.
“How’s your eye Mace?” The deputy pointed at the bruised left side of Mace’s head.
“A little better, no thanks to you,” Mace answered the deputy. The grin returned to his face. The two men had fought a rough and tumble fight two nights earlier, in this very saloon.
Averill had arrested Mace that night but let him out the next morning without a fine. He had told Mace, “a man that can give me that much of a tussle don’t have to pay no fine.”
Mace pointed at the floor, near the stage. “Fella had a nice pistol, Averill. Reckon it’s yours now.”
“Why, of course I’ll have to see if he had any family first.” The deputy winked at Mace, walked over, and retrieved the pearl handled six-gun. He admired it a moment and then tucked it in his belt and looked back at Mace. “Well, I guess this was a fair shootin’ and I ain’t gonna’ waste no more time on it. Good day gents.” The deputy followed the men carrying the body out the door.
Cal slowed down and looked back toward the Nugget. No one was following him. He began walking more carefully. The back alley, littered with broken boards with rusted nails sticking out of them and other debris was getting dark. Five streets down Cal turned left and joined the people walking on the main street in the newer part of town. Many of the buildings were brick, two or three story, structures with a business of some kind on the street level and a family space or rental units above.
It was early evening, dusk was settling in. Grayness was in the air, the color between daylight and nighttime. The sharp contrast between the older buildings on the lower end of the street and the newer homes and shops on the upper end was diminishing. Cal saw the sign for a room to-let in a second floor window across the street. A man was locking the door to the bootery and leather goods store below. Two expensive looking saddles were in the window along with a pair of high chaparral boots. His back was to Cal.
“Hold on mister, wait up a minute.” Cal called out his request as he ran across the street. The man turned and watched Cal approach him.
“I’d like to rent that room upstairs if it’s still for rent.” Cal pointed to the window with the sign in it.
The man was portly but tall as Cal. He was dressed in a leather coat that hung down to his knees and a Low Derby hat covered his head. His jowly face was stern looking and suspicious. He looked at Cal and then up to the window. He returned his look back to Cal and studied him up and down. “It’s a dollar a night mister. Can you afford that?”
The price was high. The man probably wanted to discourage him from renting the room. Didn’t like his look, he supposed. Cal reached into his pocket and drew out a pad of folded bills. He unfolded the money and peeled off two dollar bills. “Yes sir I can. I’d like to pay for two nights.” Cal reached the money out to the man.
The shopkeeper took the money and put it in his pocket. “Hold on right here, I’ll get you the keys.” He turned and unlocked the door he had just locked and disappeared into the dark shop. A minute later, he came back out, holding two keys in his right hand. “Follow me.” He pointed ahead of himself as he walked to the end of the building and turned left. The alley floor was cobblestoned and the alley went through to a narrow back street. Brick walls lined the alley. Most of the buildings in the new end of Billings were brick. A stairway against the building led up to the second floor. A door inside would lead up to the third floor. The man dropped the keys into Cal’s hand. He looked at Cal with a stern look. “One opens the door at the top of the stairs, the other’s for room number two; the room’s clean, keep it that way, no company and no smoking in bed. Understood?”
Cal’s money was still in his hand. He unfolded the bills again and showed the man the fifty-dollar silver certificate he had on the inside of the fold. “Do you think I could get a new pair of boots tomorrow? I’ve about wore these one’s through.” Cal pointed down at his worn boots.
The man was looking at the money in Cal’s hand; he looked back at Cal. His eyes seemed to be more open, his face relaxed. “I’m sure we have something you’ll like, in your size. Store opens at eight. Have a good night.” The boot salesman tipped his hat and walked down the street.
Cal opened the first door and entered into a narrow hallway. On his right was a door marked stairs. On his left, the number one hung crookedly on a solid door. Down the hall on the left was room number two. Cal entered that room and walked over to the window that held the to-let sign. Cal took the sign and placed it on the floor, leaning it against the wall. Since this was the only room with the sign in the window Cal figured the other rooms must be spoken for. He was right. Above him was room 4, occupied by Sam Fletcher, the lead bartender in the Lucky Lady saloon. Room 3 was next to that and Henry Sherbaw the chef at Brocwells Steakhouse occupied it. Both men paid a small monthly rental of ten dollars. Phil Mosley; owned the building and the business on the ground floor; his cousin Averill stayed in room number one free of charge. From Averill, Phil got round the clock police protection for his business, from Sam, a lot of free drinks, from Henry, very well cooked choice steaks at discount prices. “One-hand washes the other,” was Phil’s favorite saying.
A corner window had a dark shade pulled down. Cal lifted the shade halfway. The lamp lit streets below were bustling with people moving about; some were closing stores while others were entering eateries and saloons. Cal couldn’t remember being in such a busy place. No sign of the posse he knew would be chasing him. But he was sure they had arrived by now. It was six o’clock.
Cal had paid for two nights, hoping that if the property owner were asked about a stranger who might be looking to jump on the next train out of town, he wouldn’t think about the man who just paid him two dollars for a two - night stay.
Gormin tied his horse to the hitching rail outside the Big Nugget saloon. He stepped up to the boardwalk and watched the other four members of his posse tie up. As Billy dismounted, the constable pointed to the livery next door. “Billy check the corral, see if his horse is there. We’ll be in here.” Gormin pointed his chin at the saloon.
The feisty liveryman raised his hand and signaled that he would look. Billy walked in among the horses but most of their backs were taller than he was. He couldn’t see the Arabian. Billy walked to a side fence and climbed up to the second rail. From there he could see all the horses in the corral. Even in the dim daylight left, Billy recognized Cal’s mare, she was in the far corner staying out of trouble. Billy hoped her owner was doing the same. Billy liked Ernie Rizo and wanted to get the man who killed him and raped his wife. He just didn’t think the young stranger had done it. Something was nagging him about this morning, something he couldn’t remember. He wanted to make sure the boy got a fair trial.
Billy had picked up Cal’s gray on the way into town. He’d gladly arrest the boy himself if he thought the posse would let him stand trial, but Billy knew a rope around the man’s neck was all that would satisfy Beckworth and his crew. They’d take him out to the first tree outside town and hang him.
Mace saw the man with the constable badge step into the Nugget and start looking around. He didn’t have to be told who he was looking for. “Help yourselves gents, foods free for another hour. Sign say’s lunch but its free all day, most days.”
Gormin looked over at the man who was talking. “You been here a while mister?” He asked him.
“A while, yep.” Mace answered and stood up, looking the constable over.
“Seen a stranger about my size, few years younger? Was riding a chestnut mare.”
“Lots a men ride brown mounts mister, but no, ain’t been no strangers in here. I been here all day watching the lunch table for Will, the owner. I’d a seen him if he came in. I know all the boys been in here today.” Mace scratched at his beard and sat down.
Gormin looked around at the dozen men in the room. He raised his voice but didn’t shout. “I’m constable Gormin from Cross Wells; we’re looking for a poke about my size, some marks on his face, shoulda come in town about three hours ago. Anybody seen him, he’s wanted for murder.” Gormin stopped before he mentioned the rape charge; he thought he saw a hand raised. The man was signaling the barkeep for a beer. Once again, a gurgling noise rolled across the room. Men were muttering and shaking their heads. These men wouldn’t give any man up to the law, even for murder or certainly any lesser offense. Rape would have gotten a different response from most of them, even Mace.
“Train left, runnin east, just a little more’n three hours ago. Could be he made that train.” Mace said his piece, walked over to the bar and ordered a beer. No one in the room corrected him, even though the afternoon train left at one o’clock, right on time.
Billy walked into the Nugget and approached Gormin. “Nope, don’t see nothin’ looks like his horse. Maybe he rode on. I told you, them Arabians has got staying power coming out their ears.”
“All right we’ll spread out and mosey through town real slow. Anyone sees him, pull your gun on him and lay him down in the middle of the street. Don’t give him a chance to pull a slip on ya, if he tries, shoot him down. And keep your eyes open for that mare; he ain’t giving up that horse so easy.” Gormin walked out onto the boardwalk. He pointed at Billy and the man with the Texas drawl. “You two cross over and cover that side of the street check the alleys and look in what stores are still open.”
Curt Bowden was the man with the Texas drawl and he was hungry. As Billy was stepping into the road, he grabbed his arm and then turned and spoke to the constable. “Hey Gormin when is we supposed to eat. We rid a fair distance today and I’m ready for some o’ that free food, and a cold beer would go down pretty good too, long about now.”
Gormin looked up the road toward the new end of Billings. Darkness had pretty well set in; even with the street lamps, it was hard to see from one street to the next. The alleyways would be impossible to see in without lamps, which they didn’t have. He would let the men eat and then check the hotels and boarding houses. If they didn’t find their fugitive, they would take a couple of rooms and get some rest. Before dawn he would have them up and guarding the exits from town, especially the railroad.
Walt Beckworth and six men rode into Billings an hour later. They walked into the Nugget just as Gormin and his men were getting ready to leave. Gormin signaled Beckworth to step back outside with him. Mace had wandered to a table in the far corner of the room and was watching the goings on. He began wondering, just how bad an hombre this Johnny Trask must be, to warrant this size of a posse hunting him down, and who the hell did he kill? The Governor?
Gormin leaned against a post and lit a cigarette. He shook the match out and threw it into the street. With puffs of smoke steaming out between his lips, Gormin snarled. “Damn you Walt, this is your fault, so don’t tell me what you won’t do.” Walt had rejected Gormin’s idea of resting for the night and starting the search in earnest, just before first light, in the morning. Beckworth wanted to alert the sheriff and do a house-to-house search of all of Billings, right then.
“Firstly we don’t even know he’s here for sure. There’s a chance he caught an afternoon train. Fella inside says there was an Eastbound left here about three o’clock, just about when he could’a got here. Besides too, Billy says that horse he’s riding could ride this fella another fifty mile tonight. We’re already laughing stocks in Cross Wells, I ain’t gonna lets us be made fools of in this town too. We’ll comb this town good tomorrow, if he’s here we’ll catch him, if not we’ll pick up his trail and ride on with fresh mounts. I ain’t giving up; I just want to act smarter than we did back home.” Gormin took a long hard pull on his smoke and then flipped it into the night sky; it sparked as it landed on the roadway.
Beckworth was tired and some of the men with him were grumbling about the long hard ride they had made. He gave in to Gormin’s idea and went back into the saloon. The men who had ridden with him found tables and all had sandwiches and beers in front of them. The men who had arrived earlier were mixed in with them. Except for Wild Billy.
Billy was no stranger to Billings; he knew many folks here. The man who owned the livery next door, Paul Straight, did business with Billy on occasion. If Billy rented a horse and buggy for someone to ride to Billings and catch the train, Paul would care for the animal and the buggy until Billy got there to fetch them back. He’d charge Billy a nominal fee. However, Billy went looking for a different friend, up in the newer end of Billings.
He walked into the Lucky Lady saloon and scanned the room with anxious eyes, hoping not to see Cal. Over in a corner, a large man in a leather coat was talking to a slender, blonde-haired, woman in a red dress with green trim. The heavy makeup she wore was having a hard time hiding her age and the hard-earned lines she wore on her face.
Billy walked up to the couple and stuck his hand out to the man in the leather coat. He repaired saddles and other leather goods for Phil Mosley from time to time. “Howdy, Phil, mind if I talk to Nancy?” The two men shook hands.
“Sure thing Billy, I was just heading up to Brocwells to get a steak. Good evening Nancy.” Phil tipped his hat to the woman and walked away.
“Nance, can I talk to you?”
“Sure Bill, what brings you to town?”
Billy walked over to an empty table and pulled a chair out for Nancy. He signaled a bartender for two drinks and sat down next to the woman. Her name was Nancy O’Connell and she was the widow of Mick O’Connell, a good friend of Billy’s. Billy and Mick met when they rode the Pony Express route through some of the most dangerous territory the company served. The job lasted only a little more than a year and a half, from the spring of eighteen sixty up to the fall of sixty-one. More than twenty years ago, Billy reminded himself. He and Mick would cross trails many times in that short time. They would “halloo,” to each other as they galloped past one another, one heading west to Sacramento while the other burned dust eastbound to St. Jo Missouri. They were just teenage boys who loved to ride like the wind and didn’t know what fear was. They were part of a courageous group of young men. It all ended when the telegraph wires reached across the country.
The two riders stayed friends as they grew into adults. After the Pony Express folded, they rode the west pushing cattle and doing ranch work in a half dozen territories. When Mick married Nancy, Billy lit out on his own, ending up in a new struggling town called Cross Wells.
Nancy had no family of her own and after her husband died from a rattlesnake bite, she drifted from town to town and job to job. With no education and no skills, she ended up in Billings as a saloon girl. She wasn’t proud of her profession but she held her head high, she was doing what she had to do to get by. Billy had offered to marry Nancy and take care of her but she didn’t want to be a burden to a good friend.
“Nance have you seen any strangers in here today? A young fella probably as tall as Phil but much lighter in weight. Would’ a showed up about three o’clock or so.” Billy was still looking around the room as he spoke.
“No, Billy I don’t remember any new customers coming in today and we’ve been pretty slow. Why are you looking for him?”
“He’s wanted for the murder of Ernie Rizo.”
“The fella who runs the freight wagon?”
“Yep, and that ain’t the worst of it. But I won’t tell you about that now.”
Billy held up his hand to Nancy.
The bartender put a beer in front of Billy and a champagne glass in front of Nancy. The champagne glass was filled with mostly water, with very little wine in it, the price a man paid to sit and talk to one of the girls. The bartender took Billy’s money and left.
Nancy’s face registered the shock at hearing of that nice man Ernie being killed.
“Wasn’t Ernie laid up in bed? Why would anyone want to kill him? When was this?”
All good questions but Billy wasn’t in the mood to talk about them just now. Something was still scratching at the inside of his head, something he should remember but couldn’t. Billy held his hand up again.
“Shhh. I’ll explain it all to you later Nance, right now, I’m too tired. We rode all day today to get here. Left Cross Wells at dawn.”
Nancy took a sip from her glass and looked at Billy. “Why don’t you stay with me tonight Bill, you’re not going to ride back in the dark are you?”
“I have to check with our constable, first. I don’t know what plans he’s made for us.” Billy stood and took a final look around the room.
Nancy stood up with him; she had an unusual look on her face. “Billy, please think it over, I could use the company. You know my place; I’ll be leaving here in a half hour.” Nancy picked up their glasses and walked to the bar. Billy left.
“We got a couple’a room’s upstairs, bunkhouse style. First ones in shares the beds, the rest share the floor.” Gormin answered Billy’s question, and emptied his glass. He tapped his empty glass on the bar; he needed a refill. The Big Nugget was empty except for the posse from Cross Wells. He turned back to Billy. “You’re welcome to fit in or do as you please but an hour before sunrise we’re meeting outside. I’ll divide everyone into teams and we’ll cover this town. If he’s hold up here or planning on riding a train out’ta here we’ll be ready for him.”
Billy nodded at Gormin but didn’t say anything. He walked outside.
Nancy O’Connell lived in a small house, not much larger than a line shack. The house sat on a corner in Old Town; it was one block before the new part of Billings began. Her home was always neat and tidy and a comfortable place for Nancy to hide from her life outside. Billy had stayed there before and slept with Nancy but he was never a customer. He was a friend and they took care of each other’s needs.
Billy was standing by a window looking at the eastern sky. He was watching for the night to change from black to gray. Then the search would begin. A slight headache had formed in the front of his head. A nagging question he couldn’t resolve kept rubbing around in there.
Nancy got out of bed when Billy did and made coffee. She set two cups on her kitchen table and sat down. “Billy sit down and drink your coffee, you have more than two hours ‘til dawn.”
Billy walked over to the table. His worry plainly written on his face, he sat down and picked up his cup. He had explained what he knew about the murder of Ernie Rizo and the rape of his wife to Nancy, during the night. The news was shocking, even to a saloon girl. Billy saw the fright in Nancy’s eyes. He was sorry he didn’t hold back the part about the rape. Nancy got up to re-fill their cups. Her nightgown caught on the table edge and lifted up, exposing her left thigh to the lamplight. Two ugly, raw scars were there, that Billy had never seen before.
“Nancy, what’s that!” Billy pointed at the scars and jumped up from the table. “Who did that?” He grabbed her arm before she could pull her gown down and cover the scars.
She began to sob. The news of Ernie’s death and his wife being raped brought back a horrible memory. She never met the woman but felt a kinship with her never the- less. She couldn’t hold back. She told Billy about the scars.
“A man from your town named Will. I don’t know his last name. He started coming to me about a year ago. Said his wife had left him. He was rough with me at times but he paid me extra and always apologized afterwards. Usually he would slap my legs or my rear, very hard, but never my face. One day, two months ago, he began punching me and even slapped my face. I kicked him hard and told him to leave me alone. His face turned ugly and he threw me on the floor. When I kicked up at him, he took a knife off his belt and cut me. When I tried to scream, he put his hand over my mouth. He said if I were quiet, he would leave me be and he would go. So I stopped trying to scream and he let me up. I told him if I ever saw him in Billings again, I’d tell the sheriff. He never came back”
Billy held his friend close until she quieted down. When she did, he took her
back to her bed and sat with her.
“What did this Will look like?” Billy only knew one man named Will in Cross Wells but he wanted to be sure.
“Tall, maybe forty, turning gray on his sideburns. He always smelled like grease, like a cook smells like. When he’s excited, his left eye droops.”
“Will Karner.” Billy blurted the name out. It had been on his mind since yesterday. Was that the puzzle he’d been trying to figure out? Billy sat back and held Nancy to him. He told her to close her eyes and stay quiet until she felt relaxed.
Billy stared ahead, into the dim light of the kitchen lamp. He was remembering a night a little more than a year ago. Will’s wife Nola had run off with her ex husband, three days after he got out of jail. The ex husband showed up early that morning and by noon they were gone. Will ran into the livery about one o’clock that afternoon and told Billy to quickly saddle him a horse. He ran back out the door but returned ten minutes later with a rifle in his hand and a pistol on his right hip. He rode out like the devil was chasing him. No one in town learned what happened until later that day.
Will rode back into town an hour after dark. He was quiet when he walked the spent horse into the barn. Billy took the horse from him but knowing what the town gossip was, he didn’t ask any questions. There was no need; Will’s face confirmed the truth of the rumors. He looked at Billy, “I didn’t find them. Sorry ‘bout runnin’ your horse so bad.”
Billy unsaddled the horse and started to care for him. Will walked to the open doorway and turned up the street to his restaurant. Billy walked to his doorway and watched Karner. As he walked away from the livery, Karner took his pistol out. He unloaded five shells onto the dirt road and reloaded the gun. Billy remembered seeing a dark smudge across his pant leg and across the rawhide knife pouch he had on his gunbelt. It looked like he had wiped a bloody knife across his leg.
Billy had never mentioned what he saw to anyone, he figured a man had to do what a man had to do. He knew it wasn’t right but running away from your husband or running away with another man’s wife wasn’t right either.
Nancy snuggled into Billy’s arms; she was asleep. Neither one had gotten much sleep. Billy held her closer she was warm and comfortable. He closed his eyes.
No one had moved in the street for the last hour. Cal moved away from the window he’d been sitting in front of, for the last hour. He figured the time to be right at 4 a:m Maybe two hours before day-light.
Cal slipped down the stairs and out into the cobblestone alley. He walked to the backstreet and headed for the depot. Cal had slept a fitful three hours and then lay awake planning his escape. He’d walk the mare out of town and the stay on the track bed until daylight rose in the sky in front of him. There would be no shoe-tracks for the posse to follow out of town, on the dew-covered grass. When the sun rose he’d ride the mare at an easy pace towards it. When it warmed his back, he’d ride away from it. He’d head east until he came to The Little Big Horn River. He’d turn south there and be home in a days ride.
Cal stood on the train depot porch and looked around. Satisfied no one was watching, he walked to the corral. Cal led the Arabian back to the depot and reached down for his saddle.
“Don’t move cowboy.”
Walt Beckworth couldn’t stay asleep. He took the blanket off the two men he shared a bed with and sat on the, dark, Big Nugget porch. The rocking chair squeaked, he stopped moving, he just sat and watched in silence. He watched as a man walked out from behind the depot and checked on his saddle under the porch.
“Put ‘em up high.” Beckworth was enjoying his triumph. Now, they could hang this stranger and be done with it. He’d also have the added pleasure of watching that stuck-up Gormin squirm.
Beckworth told Cal to take his coat off and give it back to him. Cal held the coat out. As Beckworth grabbed for it Cal let it slip from his fingers. Walt realized a second too late that he’d made a mistake grabbing for his coat before it hit the ground. The second was all Cal needed. He punched the coat’s owner and knocked him to the ground. The pistol fell from Walt’s hand and Cal kicked it away, into the darkness under the porch,
Walt recovered quickly; he stood up and started to holler for help. Cal closed on him and hit him again. A belly punch folded Walt over and Cal sent an uppercut right hand at his chin. Beckworth wasn’t finished yet, though. He slipped Cal’s punch and landed a hard left of his own. The fist landed on Cal’s right cheek and rocked Cal’s head back. The little bull of a man rushed Cal and picked him off his feet. He ran at the porch post and slammed Cal into it. Dazed, his back aching, Cal fell to the ground. Walt kicked him in the ribs and then raised his foot to stomp his head. Cal grabbed the boot and twisted. Beckworth fell in a heap, into the street. He was strong but not as agile as Cal. Cal let him rise and then jabbed him twice with his left hand. Beckworth’s nose was bloody; his left eye was swelling shut. Cal was a blur in front of him. Cal moved in for the knockout. He cocked his right hand. Beckworth looked beat and about to fall. As Cal swung his fist Beckworth lunged into him, smothering the punch. He grabbed Cal in a bear hug. The two men wrestled and Beckworth’s right hand found Cal’s gun. He pulled it from its holster and squeezed off two shots. The gunshots boomed through the quiet, still dark night. One bullet grazed Cal’s side, burning his skin. Beckworth managed to get the gun muzzle in Cal’s belly.
“Back off! Get back!” Beckworth screamed at Cal.
Cal backed away. Men were running at them. The Big Nugget hotel was emptying out. Cal put his hands in the air. Beckworth backed away and fell into the street. He kept the gun pointed at Cal.
Frank Gormin tied two bandanas together and bound Cal’s hands. He reached down and helped Beckworth to his feet. “Are you all right Walt?”
“Yeah, let’s hang this bastard before he gets away again.” Walt looked at the men surrounding him. None looked like they disagreed.
“You ain’t hanging nobody. Least, not without a trial.” Deputy Averill Mosley walked into the middle of the mob. A pearl handled pistol in his huge right hand.
Mace stood beside him. He had intercepted Mosley on his way to the ruckus and told him that the posse intended to hang Cal, as soon as they were out of town. He’d heard them discussing the lynching all last night, over their beers in the Nugget.
“He’s our prisoner deputy; don’t go interfering where you got no say.” Walt had gotten steady on his feet. He wiped at his nose but only managed to spread his blood over his mouth and chin. His left eye was swollen closed.
He started to bring Cal’s pistol up but Mosley hit him with the barrel of his pearl handled six-gun and laid him out.
An hour later the posse left Billings. Gormin had rented fresh mounts for the posse. Their own horses would be left as collateral and returned when the rented horses were brought back. Cal was riding his gray horse. Walt Beckworth was riding beside him, gun in hand. He rode on Cal’s left hand side so he could see him out of his right eye. His head was still pounding from the deputy’s gun-barrel. In all the commotion no one asked about Wild Billy or the Arabian horse.
Frank Gormin had managed to convince the deputy that Cross Wells was a civilized town and of course there would be a fair trial. The talk last night was just that. Talk amongst tired, angry men. He gave his word and Mosley told him he would hold him to it.
Billy woke with the little house bathed in daylight. He jumped out of bed and looked at the clock on Nancy’s kitchen wall. It was nine thirty, at least three hours after dawn. Billy dressed while Nancy heated his coffee.
“No time Nance, I have to get out there before they shoot that fella down. We’ll finish our talk later. Goodbye.” Billy ran out the door and up to the Big Nugget.
Mace sat in the same chair he was in when Cal walked into the saloon the afternoon before. Mace knew Billy but hadn’t had a chance to talk to him last night. Billy asked him about the posse and was shocked when Mace told him they left at sunrise with their prisoner. He told Billy about the fight and how he made his friend, Deputy Mosley, get a swear from the constable, that the fella would get a fair trial.
Billy couldn’t believe he slept through two gunshots. He couldn’t believe he’d let the young stranger down. They’d give him a trial, sure, but it wouldn’t be fair and then they’d hang him. He had to get to Cross Wells before they could do that. He had to tell them about Will Karner and his wife and ex-husband. And about Nancy.
Mace saddled the Arabian mare for Billy, while he slurped coffee and stuffed a sandwich down his belly. Billy rode out of Billings hell bent for leather just like when he rode for The Pony Express. There’d be no re-mounts along the way. The gray had done most of the work yesterday. Billy could tell by the distance he’d been rode, before Cal tied him off to the tree branch, with the partially cut through rope. A sign of a good horseman.
“Hear Ye! Hear Ye! Court is now in session. The honorable Constable Gormin is in charge.”
The gray haired man, who gave Gormin his weapons as he left Cross Wells, the day before, was hollering at the top of his voice.
Cal was tied to a chair in the front of the meeting hall. Out side the street lamps were being lit. Flaming lanterns were already spread throughout the hall.
The trial was over before the last street lamp was lit. The stranger did it, he was guilty. A rope was already hanging over the pulley brace Billy used to pull bails of hay up to his loft. The hang-mans knot was swaying slowly in the evening breeze. A crowd was milling about, waiting for the murderer and rapist to be brought out of the meeting- house. Billy rode the mare wildly down the dark street, crashing through the crowd. Several men were knocked to the ground.
Billy dismounted and fired his pistol into the air.
“Move out’ta my way, you’re hanging the wrong man.”
He walked the lathered chestnut steed over to a water trough and unsaddled her in the street. The horse was covered in foamy white sweat. Billy looked in the crowd. He saw the young man who helped him in the livery. He told the boy to care for the animal and went over to the meeting hall. Men were standing around, confused by Billy’s shenanigans.
Billy walked inside and stood on a chair in the front of the hall. He spoke for ten minutes. He spoke loudly and clearly. He told them about Will Karner coming back to his livery after chasing after his wife and her ex-husband. He told them about Will re-loading his gun and the stain that looked like blood across his pants. And then he told them about Nancy O’Connell, and what he did to her.
Will Karner hadn’t attended the trial. He was sitting guard in Lisa Rizo’s room. Mrs. Smythe was in there too. Mr. Smythe was in the meeting hall. Billy laid out a good case, at least as far as Karner’s wife and ex-husband were concerned. Telling Nancy’s story was hard for him but he told it well.
Karner was confronted and confessed to killing his wife and her ex- husband. He cried genuine tears when he told of beating the saloon girl in Billings and of cutting her with his knife. He drew the line there.
“I didn’t kill Ernie, I swear.” Karner said the words and fell on the floor.
Walt Beckworth stepped forward. His face was swollen and purple with bruises. He stepped up on the chair Billy stood on earlier.
“Hurrruuumph. Hurrrumph.” He cleared his voice, he looked unsure. The normally outspoken, assertive Walt Beckworth clearly was having a hard time saying his piece. He mumbled the words first and then spoke louder.
“Will and me shared a bottle, one night, a few weeks ago. That night, Will told me he thought it would be a good thing…” Walt rubbed his hand across his swollen face. He continued. “That it would be a kindness to Lisa Rizo, if Ernie were to pass in his sleep.”
A buzz built in the room and grew into shouts of, “Hang him. Hang him.”
Gormin couldn’t face down the town a second time. He ordered Cal released and Karner hung.
“We’ll give him an hour to make his peace.”
Gormin wouldn’t back down from that.
An hour later, Cal was ten miles out of town. He was riding a strong black stallion. Billy would keep his horses in trade; he figured he owed Billy that much. Cal was happy to leave Cross Wells behind him, and that same nightmare he had whenever he stayed in a strange town. He felt a shiver run down his back and his large shoulders shook. He’d reached a crossroad. To his left was east and home; straight ahead was the south and a new beginning.
In Cross Wells, three things happened at once:
A snap of a rope against a frenzied horse’s rump sent it charging down the street. The murderer, who sat on it, a second ago, was swinging in the air outside Wild Billy’s livery.
Wild Billy didn’t watch the hanging; he was looking for his dog. The dog that always yapped and yapped any time there was a commotion near the livery. Why hadn’t he barked yesterday morning? That was the question nagging him. He saw a tail under the hay in the second stall. Billy pulled on the tail and dragged out the cold lifeless body of his pet. Its neck was twisted in an unnatural way.
Across the way in the Smythe home, Lisa Rizo woke. She sat up in bed, wide eyed, and screamed.
“Fresh cut hay! It was fresh cut hay that I smelled!”
Ten miles away a rider reached behind him and drew a knife out of its pouch. He looked at the blood on the hilt of the blade. He put it to his mouth and licked the blade clean.
Cal Loman chose to ride south.
-John Greenleaf Whittier, "Maud Muller" (1856)