Clarkston, Nebraska, 1882
The biting January wind swirled around the barn and stung Gary Tyler’s cheeks, bringing tears to his eyes. He’d been chopping wood since early morning, and, as the ax dropped from his hands, he realized how his fingers had stiffened in the cold. Cupping his hands to his mouth, he blew on them to coax warmth back into his extremities. Until now, he hadn’t felt the cold, which had begun settling into his bones.
After today, he wouldn’t have to chop wood or do chores. Early tomorrow morning, he would board the train for St. Louis and begin his new life.
When he completed the eighth grade last spring, his teacher, Mr. Sage, said he wanted to arrange for him to take several exams to get into a school in St. Louis. He didn’t give it much thought over the summer. He had too many things to do on the farm. For the first time, he had crops to plant and fields to tend.
Before, his brothers had helped him, but one by one, his father had taken them away. At first, Ma said Pa was taking the boys to work on a large ranch in Texas to earn their keep. It didn’t take long for rumors about Pa and his sons to make it to Clarkston. It seemed like everyone was talking about Caleb Tyler, the outlaw, the man who formed his sons into a gang of ruthless killers and bank robbers.
It wouldn’t happen to him. Pa wasn’t due home for another month. By then, he’d be far way and he wouldn’t come back until he’d grown up enough to take Ma and Jesse away.
He wondered what his future would hold. Anything was possible. He could become a doctor, lawyer, or even a politician. The thought of the latter made him laugh. Who would ever vote for a politician named Tyler? Who would put their trust in him, knowin’ Pa’s reputation?
Without giving the future further thought, he loaded his arms with wood and started toward the house. A rider loomed on the horizon.
Gary gasped, recognizing the horse if not the man. His father always rode a beautiful black stallion. Following the horse and rider, he saw a pinto.
His stomach clenched. His heart almost stopped. All thoughts of his bright future fled.
He shoved open the house door and piled the wood in the box next to the stove. “Pa’s home.”
Fear in his mother’s eyes hit hard. “It can’t be. It’s too early. Quick. Out the back. I’ll tell him you left for St. Louis.”
“It’s too late, Ma. He’s seen me.”
Laura Tyler hugged Gary, and her tears bathed his cheek. “I’m sorry, so very sorry.”
Before she could say more, Caleb flung open the door with a bang. “Come and give me a kiss, woman. Your man’s here.”
Gary watched his mother stumble slowly to his father’s side and give him a peck on the cheek.
“What kind of a kiss is that? I’ve been gone almost a year. I want a real smacker,” Caleb said. He pulled her into his arms and covered her mouth with his before she could protest.
His mother’s struggle to free herself made Gary’s stomach churn. “Let her go,” he shouted, fearing Pa would hit her like he had so many times before.
Caleb released Laura and stared at Gary. “I didn’t come back here to take none of your sass, boy. I come to get you, and I see I ain’t come too soon.”
“I ain’t goin’,” Gary said, knowing his words meant nothing.
“What d’ you say, boy?” Caleb grabbed Gary’s shirt and pulled him so close, he could smell his father’s whiskey and cigar tainted breath.
“I said I ain’t goin’ with you. You’ve got the other four. You don’t need me. I’m leavin’ in the mornin’.”
“You’re leavin’ all right, but not in the mornin’. Once your ma feeds us supper, we’re goin’ tonight. As for the others, there’s only three.”
“Three?” Laura gasped, before Gary could reply. “One of my boys is...”
“Yeah, Ed got himself killed.”
Laura covered her face with her worn apron and sobbed.
Gary remembered the whispered conversation he hadn’t been meant to hear at the general store. He hadn’t wanted to believe it, but he couldn’t deny it in light of his father’s words. He now had to come to grips with the truth that his brother Ed was dead.
“How?” his mother said.
“He got bit by a rattler. Nothin’ we could do.”
“He got bit by a rattler, all right,” Gary spat at him. “The rattler was you, Pa. He got shot when you were robbin’ a bank in Oklahoma Territory. I’ll bet you don’t even know how many other people died with him, do you?”
Gary’s anger blinded him to Caleb’s actions. The blow knocked him to the floor. As he picked himself up, he felt something warm and sticky running down his upper lip. Wiping away the blood, he scrambled to his feet. His mother’s soft sobs tore him apart.
“What’s the matter, Pa? Can’t you stand to hear the truth?”
Caleb’s nostrils flared. “You callin’ me a liar, boy? What gives you the right to talk back to me?”
“The stories I hear about you every time I go to town gives me the right. Ma doesn’t go anymore, because she can’t stand the looks people give her. I’ve known about Ed for months, but I didn’t tell Ma ‘cause I didn’t want to hurt her.”
“Hurt her?” Caleb echoed. “She’s a woman. It’s time you learned a few things. Women are good for only one thing, and it ain’t got nothin’ to do with their feelings.”
“Stop it, Caleb,” Laura whimpered. “Gary has a chance for a future and not with you. I know he’s thirteen, same as the others when you took them, but he’s different from them. Gary’s smart. Even the teacher in town says so. He’s leavin tomorrow for—”
“I told you afore, he ain’t goin’ nowhere but with me.”
“He has such a wonderful opportunity. You can’t take it away from him. He’s earned the chance to go away to school to study.”
“He ain’t goin’ to no school.”
“I want to go, Pa,” Gary said. “I want to make something of myself.”
“Make something of yourself? You’re a Tyler, boy. Don’t that mean nothin’ to you? Tylers don’t get their learnin’ from books. They get it from life. You’re gonna learn life. Like it or not, you’re comin’ with me. We’re leavin’ as soon as your ma and me have a little talk, and she rustles up somethin’ for me to eat, so get used to the idea. Now, go out and tend the horses. Your ma and me have some things to talk about, so don’t come back ‘til we call you.”
“Do what he says, Gary,” Laura advised, her voice laced with tears. “Just do what he says. Jesse will be home soon Watch for her.”
“Yes, Ma,” Gary replied.
“Bring in my bedroll, boy,” Caleb barked.
“Bring it in yourself,” Gary yelled over his shoulder.
“At least you respect your ma, boy. Too bad, you don’t respect me the same way. ‘Course, you’ll learn, mark my words, you’ll learn.”
“Ain’t nothin to learn, Pa. As far as I can see, there nothin’ to respect, either.”
“Maybe your lessons should start right now,” Caleb shouted.
Gary ducked out of the way of his father’s swinging fist and hurried out the door. Before he could close it securely, he heard the angry tone of his parents’ voices as they argued. He wished he could defend his mother, but he knew himself to be no match for his father. Wiping tears of shame from his eyes with the back of his hand, he made his way to the horses.
Hearing footsteps, he hurried to waylay his sister before she got to the house. “Jes,” he called and motioned for her to follow him to the barn.
“What are you doing out here? Shouldn’t you be packin’?” she said.
“I ain’t goin’ to St. Louis.”
“Don’t be silly. Of course you’re going.”
Gary shook his head. “Pa’s here. He’s takin’ me with him tonight.”
“He can’t!” Jesse cried. “Why don’t you run away?”
“Now you sound like Ma,” he said, hugging her tightly. “I’ve been a fool to think I could get away from him. I’m no different from the others.”
“You are different. I know you are. Oh, Gary, if Pa takes you with him, I may never see you again.”
“Get in here, boy,” Caleb shouted before Gary could reassure Jesse.
The unexpected interruption caused Jesse to jump. “Don’t go, Gary,” she pleaded.
Gary looked at his sister, as if for the first time. When had she ceased to be a little girl, his pesky little sister? At the age of twelve, she would soon be a young woman, a beautiful young woman.
“We have to go, Jes. Don’t worry I won’t let him hurt you. If I could, I’d never let anyone hurt you, ever.” He put his arm around her shoulder and opened the door, allowing the cold wind to bite at their cheeks.
“What took you so long?” Caleb snapped, as soon as they entered the kitchen. “You’d best learn to come when I call you.”
Caleb cuffed Gary’s ear as he walked past. Gary’s hand went swiftly to his injured ear. As he rubbed the painful area, he saw Caleb grab Jesse’s arm and pull her to him.
“Jesse girl, come and give your pa a kiss,” Caleb demanded.
“Don’t, Pa,” Jesse cried, trying to pull away from his grip.
“Are you talkin’ back to me, girl?” Caleb shouted, raising his hand to strike her.
Without regard for his own safety, Gary got to his feet and grabbed his father’s hand. “Leave her be, Pa. I can’t stop you from hittin’ me, but I won’t let you hurt her.”
Caleb’s cold eyes radiated pure hatred. He released Jesse and laughed. “It looks like you might have some spunk after all, boy. Now go get your things. Soon as we eat, we’re leavin’.”
Caleb turned his attention from Gary to Jesse. “Your ma ain’t feelin’ too good, Jesse girl. You’d best start fixin’ supper.”
Gary looked at his mother and knew Caleb had beaten her again. Before they left, Caleb would probably find cause to beat Jesse as well. Gary knew he had to get his things, had to go with his pa, but he vowed he’d never become like his brothers.