Medicine Bend, Wyoming Territory — 1883
The Western Diamondback rattlesnake slipped through the cover of the mixed-grass prairie of eastern Wyoming Territory. It was more than four feet long, somewhat larger than normal. The dusty gray brown color of its reticulated skin receded into the dun of the earth and blended with the mottled tones of the grass. The snake searched for its next meal: a mouse, a rat, a squirrel or a rabbit.
The rattler’s venom was a hemotoxin. It destroyed blood cells, blood vessels and the heart. When hunting, the animal moved silently. Only when it felt threatened did it coil its body and warn aggressors to retreat by shaking its rattle. Young snakes might fall prey to hawks or eagles, but adult specimens knew no natural predators. They had aggressive temperaments and rarely backed down from confrontations.
That morning, the snake had the misfortune of approaching only the more alert and able members of the species that made up its diet. The young, the old and the lesser members of its food supply were nowhere to be found. Its hunt for a meal ended temporarily as it broke from the grasses and came out on a brown dirt road. Direct sunlight and the warmth of the bare ground made the animal soporific.
It coiled up in the middle of the road and went to sleep.
Scarcely more conspicuous than it had been in the grass.
But every bit as hungry.
The creaking buckboard wagon carrying two boys and a mongrel dog had seen better days. The younger boy was just ten; the older one, holding the reins, was eighteen. They were brothers. The dray horse, an elderly mare losing her sight, pulled the wagon with the plodding determination of an animal that had known nothing but a life of labor. Her only rewards had been just enough food to stoke her efforts, a rude barn to keep her out of the weather and the dim awareness that her toil didn’t have much farther to go.
The younger boy, Huey Holcomb, looked up at his brother. Clay Holcomb had his eyes fixed in the direction of the town they approached. Their mother had sent them to buy supplies for the small ranch she ran with their help.
Medicine Bend had once been somebody’s idea of a good place to start a town. There was ranch land all around it. People needed a place to conduct their business. Buy finished goods brought in from back east. Take a drink. Eat a hot meal prepared by someone else. Just see the faces and hear the voices of people who didn’t live under your own roof.
In the vast open spaces of Wyoming, it was all too easy to feel alone.
Mostly, though, the town took root because the railroad was supposed to come through on the southern edge of town. The trains would bring a steady supply of commerce, culture and new blood. Getting a foothold early on such prime land would be a ground-floor opportunity to gather wealth, social standing and political influence.
That idea damn near worked out. Union Pacific brought the railroad through all right. But the track bed was laid about twenty miles south of Medicine Bend. Story was the railroad’s surveyors had miscalculated in their original plans, and moving the course of the rail bed further south saved a lot of money.
The founders of Medicine Bend cursed the damned incompetent surveyors, and then rushed to get what land they could closer to the rail line. As ever, though, there were those who clung to familiar ties, even if the acquaintance was of short standing. Not even ten years old, Medicine Bend already had the feeling of a place whose time had passed. The two hundred or so souls who called it home did their best on a daily basis to deny the idea that they’d made a bum deal.
Clay Holcomb didn’t fix his gaze on the future either. Tall and thin, not a whisker on his lip or chin at eighteen, his eyes fastened on the gallows that had been erected on Center Street. A hangman stood on the gallows and busied himself checking the noose he’d tied. Just past the gallows, the last storefront before the street curved to the right was Keegan’s Christian Burials.
A mirthless laugh escaped Clay’s mouth.
Couldn’t ask for better planning than that, he thought. Hang ’em and box ’em. Only other thing you’d need was a cemetery behind the funeral parlor. Then you could plant ’em, too. Be just about as efficient as those slaughterhouses in Chicago he’d read about.
He wondered who the hell in Medicine Bend was going to get —
Huey distracted him, tugging at his sleeve.
“You know what, Clay?” the kid asked, smiling up at his brother.
Truth was, they were half-brothers, had different mothers. Clay still liked Huey, though. He minded Clay with hardly any sass. He always had a smile on his face, too. Something neither Clay nor Ma could claim. Sometimes it seemed Huey’s sweet nature was all that kept the three of them going.
Their herding dog, Orphy, lay sleeping between them. He was a help, too, in a more practical way. The animal had a tenacity a hundred times his size. The steer hadn’t been born that Orphy couldn’t herd. Come to that, he’d go up against a damn grizzly, he ever had to. He just didn’t know the meaning of fear. Neither Clay nor Huey noticed the dog opening his eyes.
Staring ahead, but not at the gallows.
“Do I know what?” Clay asked.
Huey said, “I bet one a these times we come to town, Pa’s home by the time we get back. Before Ma takes us to Iowa, I mean. Where is Iowa anyway?”
Clay looked at Huey and shook his head.
“Pa was a sonofabitch. If we’re lucky, we won’t see him again. If we’re real lucky, he’s dead.”
Huey jerked his head back, as if Clay had just slapped him.
Something he’d never done. Would never think of doing.
The older brother turned his eyes forward. Looking into the distance again, he noticed a majestic black horse hitched out front of Keegan’s. He thought it was too fine an animal to belong to anyone local. A horse like that, he’d cost too much for someone in town. Had to be someone important passing through who owned him.
Maybe the same person who put the wanted poster up on Keegan’s front door. Clay had the eyesight and the learning to read it. Tom Birkett, murderer, it said. Tom looked mean enough to kill someone, that was for sure. Must’ve been somebody special he’d done in, too, what with the reward being offered: $10,000 in gold coin.
Christ, Clay thought, if that wasn’t all the money in the world, it had to be half of it.
What could he do with that kind of riches?
Get Ma, Huey and him the hell out of Wyoming. Someplace other than Iowa. Clay knew Ma had been born back there and still had —
Both brothers turned to look at Orphy as the dog growled and came to his feet.
Clay said, “What the hell’s wrong with —”
Mildred, their old mare, whinnied in fear. Clay and Huey watched in wonder as Mildred did something they would have thought impossible. Lifting her traces, she rose and stood on her rear legs. As her forelegs kicked the air, Clay caught a glimpse of Mildred’s left eye as it rolled with a fear as pure as any he’d ever seen.
Giving voice to his own alarm, Clay said, “What the hell’s got —”
Huey pointed and cried out.
“Clay! A snake!”
Orphy responded by leaping from the wagon, adding to the sense of panic. Distracted by the dog, Clay wasn’t ready when Mildred came back to earth and began to run faster than he would have imagined possible. The reins were ripped from his hands.
A moment later, the buckboard hit a rut in the road and Huey flew from his seat.
Clay’s right hand shot out and grabbed his kid brother by the collar of his shirt. Yanking Huey back to his seat, Clay reached for the reins with his left hand. Before he could take hold, the wagon hit a rock, jumped into the air and came down hard enough to make Clay’s teeth click.
By then it was too late to seize the reins.
The traces had decoupled from the wagon. Freed from pulling the wagon, Mildred ran off ahead, staggering for a moment and then regaining her stride. Huey threw his arms around Clay, keening in fear.
Clay couldn’t make a sound. He was scared breathless.
His chest grew tighter still as he saw the wagon was hurtling at the black stallion tethered outside of Keegan’s Christian Burials. The horse saw the wagon rushing toward it, too. Its eyes were every bit as crazed with fear as Mildred’s had been.
The horse strained to pull free from the hitching rail.
Clay found his voice and yelled at the horse, “Get out of the way, goddamnit!”
Presiding over the makeshift courtroom in the funeral parlor sat Judge Simon Woolsey. His hair and pitiless eyes were as black as the suit he wore. His face and its features were near as angular as the cutting edge of an axe. Behind the judge’s table and chair, resting on a pedestal, was the finest casket Desmond Keegan offered, polished mahogany, the top half opened to display a quilted red silk interior.
It looked far too grand a resting place for the condemned man sitting in manacles and shackles to Woolsey’s right.
The judge addressed the man in an upper-class English accent.
“Andrew Gifford, having been accused of the crime of murder, having been identified as the culprit by three eyewitnesses of good character, having been afforded a week of grace to produce contradictory witnesses, and having failed to do so, I hearby —”
A great racket of shouts, growls and whinnies cut the judge off.
A man at the back of the court looked out Keegan’s front window. His jaw dropped, but he recovered quickly, jumped to his feet and yelled to all those assembled there, “Runaway wagon! Comin’ straight for us!”
The man ran for the front of the room. In a panic, so did everyone else in the back half of the gallery. Judge Woolsey fought against the onrushing rabble and shoved his way toward the front door. His beloved horse, Zephyrus, was out there.
In the commotion, despite his restraints, the condemned man, Andrew Gifford, got to his feet. He didn’t have the least doubt the judge meant to hang him. Even before the gallows went up, being tried in front of an open casket left no doubt as to his fate. He made it three strides from where he’d sat before the one person in the room who was supposed to keep an eye on him did just that.
Deputy Marshal Jedidiah Sinclair yelled to Gifford above the hubbub, “Halt!”
Gifford sneered and yelled back, “Fuck you.”
Sinclair drew his Colt and shot Gifford dead. The round all but cleaved the top of the man’s skull. As he lay on the floor in a sizable pool of his own blood, though, it looked like Gifford wore a grim smile of satisfaction.
Clay thought that beautiful black horse had to be nailed to the hitching post. Then he saw the beast was pulling the post right out of the ground. He urged it on.
“Hurry up, damnit! Get the hell out of the way!”
Oh, God, Clay thought, it was going to be horrible if —
He didn’t have to be on the wagon if it hit the horse, did he? Neither did Huey.
He looked at his little brother. He sat next to Clay like he’d turned to stone. There was no telling which way Huey would be thrown if they hit the horse. He might break his neck.
Clay grabbed Huey and tossed him as gently as he could off the side of the wagon. Maybe if he landed on his backside he’d be all right. Clay was just about to jump when the black horse gave a cry of fear louder than any of the others.
Then came the loud crack of wood snapping.
Clay turned to see what was happening.