Slack Creek, Texas - 1885
The train arrived in Slack Creek early on Thursday evening. Before going to the Sheriff’s office, Russ Martin again read the telegram he’d received just days earlier.
RUSS - WILL TYLER DEAD - CLAY TYLER WOUNDED - TRAIL IN SLACK CREEK THURSDAY - WILL TRY TO POSTPONE HANGING UNTIL YOU ARRIVE - TOM.
So few words and yet they changed his life, changed his outlook.
Four years earlier, the Tyler gang had ridden into his town, into Stillwater, Oklahoma Territory. Four years ago, a stray bullet had taken the life of his wife, Ellie. Four years ago, his own bullet had ended Ed Tyler’s life. Four years ago, everything he’d ever known became meaningless.
He’d missed the trial, but hoped he wouldn’t miss the hanging. More than anything else, he wanted to see Clay Tyler pay for what his family had done.
Groups of people milled in the main street. He didn’t have to ask anyone about the outcome of the morning’s trial. The jubilation on their faces told him Clay Tyler would surely hang the next morning.
He wasted no time in getting to Tom Claxton’s office. He’d met Tom just after he and Ellie were married, just after he took the job of sheriff in Stillwater. Tom had been visiting family and stopped in to meet the new sheriff. They formed an instant friendship. Tom consoled him after Ellie’s death, first with a visit and later with long letters.
“Russ, it’s good to see you. Guess I don’t have to ask how you’re feeling. It’s written all over your face.”
“It’s good to see you, too, Tom,” Russ replied. “Can I see him?”
“Of course you can, but I’d better warn you, you won’t find what you expect.”
“What do you mean?”
“Clay Tyler isn’t much more than a boy. I’d be surprised if he’s even nineteen. He ain’t hardly said a word since I put him in his cell, not even at his trial. Seems like he’s just trying to accept what tomorrow morning will bring.”
“Nineteen?” Russ repeated. He’d heard what Tom said, but had trouble believing Clay’s age. Had Ed been so young? He couldn’t remember what the man even looked like.
“That’s about what I reckon. He hardly has the beginnings of a beard. Such a waste, but he’s a Tyler, and you know what they are.”
Russ nodded. There was no use in trying to figure anything else. He wanted to see at least one of the monsters that had killed Ellie hang for their crime.
Tom got to his feet, and Russ followed him to the cell area. A lantern burned, bathing Clay in an eerie light.
“Someone here to see you, boy,” Tom said.
Clay raised his head and looked into Russ’ eyes. “Did you come to see the condemned man, Mister?”
“Guess you could say as much,” Russ replied. “I’m Russ Martin. I won’t make no bones about the fact that I came to see you hang. You killed my wife when you robbed the bank in Stillwater.”
“Stillwater. In Oklahoma Territory. You must remember. It’s the town where Ed got killed.”
Clay nodded, tears beginning to spill down his cheeks. “I’m right sorry, Mister. I don’t remember towns. I don’t remember much, but I remember Ed gettin’ killed. Do you know who done it?”
Russ swallowed hard. “I did. At least I think I did. Everyone was shooting. I like to think it was my bullet, like to think I made him pay for what you did to Ellie.”
“Ellie? Was she your wife? You don’t have to answer. If she wasn’t your wife, you wouldn’t be here, would you? They’re gonna’ hang me in the mornin’. Would you mind if I talked to you for a while?”
Russ looked at Tom who merely shrugged his shoulders as though he didn’t understand the boy’s motives. “Guess it won’t hurt none.”
“I don’t want him here.” Clay pointed at Tom. “Only you.”
Russ nodded and waited for Tom to leave and close the door before he pulled a chair up close to the bars of the cell.
“You must think I’ve lost my mind, askin’ to talk to you and all,” Clay began, “but I have to talk to someone. I can’t talk to a preacher. It wouldn’t be right, me bein’ who I am and all.”
Russ nodded. He could understand about the preacher. He’d not been in church since Ellie’s funeral, not confessed his part in Ed’s death to anyone but himself, even though everyone in town thought he’d been the one to bring the man down.
“Why me?” he finally said.
“Because you shot Ed. You know what it’s like to kill a man. Most folks don’t know. They just don’t know what you carry around inside of you. It don’t go away. I want you to know about the Tylers, all of ‘em. I want you to understand we didn’t start out this way. It won’t help me none, but maybe it will do some good for Gary and Jesse.”
“Gary and Jesse?” Russ said.
“Gary’s been ridin’ with us for the past three years. They always call him the masked one. Can’t understand why Pa hasn’t let his name be known, but he will. Gary’s different from the rest of us. He don’t belong with Pa.”
“What do you mean he doesn’t belong?”
Clay remained silent for a long moment, as if he wondered whether he was doing the right thing. Slowly the words began to come and Russ listened, trying to understand their meaning.
“He … he should have gone on to school, got an education, made something of himself. He’ll never adjust to our kind of life. He can’t pull the trigger, even to shoot a rabbit. He cries a lot at night, when he thinks no one’s awake. I know he hates what he’s become, but he can’t leave. He’s got a price on his head. He’ll hang, just like I’ll hang.”
“How old is he?” Russ was intrigued with the Tyler he’d only heard referred to as ‘the masked one’ in the past.
“Gary’s gonna turn eighteen in the fall. You’d think he would have learned to do as Pa says by now, but he hasn’t. He just takes his beatings and does the same things over and over again.”
Russ shook his head to rid himself of the image of an intelligent young man being forced into the life Clay described. “What about this Jesse? What’s he like?”
For the first time, Clay laughed. “Jesse ain’t a he, Jesse’s a she. She just turned sixteen a few weeks back. Doubt she’ll ever see twenty, though. If she ain’t dead by then, Pa will sell her off to some bordello in Mexico, probably to someone like Isabella. Pa seems right fond of that old whore. They’ll work something out. A fiery redhead with green eyes will bring a handsome price. Knowin’ Pa, he’ll make some sort of deal to get part of her earnings, too.”
“A girl?” Russ was unable to believe his ears. “I’ve never heard of a girl riding with the Tylers.”
“Don’t reckon you have. Pa just went back to get her a few weeks back.”
Russ listened, intrigued by the words. Little by little, Clay told him about Jesse. Little by little, Russ began to picture a young girl treated worse than an animal by her father and brothers.
“She’s like Gary. She just don’t belong,” Clay finally said.
“So why tell me about the two of them?”
“I can’t save either of them from Pa or my brother, Frank, for that matter. Maybe by tellin’ you about them, I can save my soul, if not my life. It probably won’t ever happen, but someday you may hear one of them has been caught. Could be you might remember what I told you about them. I’d like to think maybe you’d tell folks the truth about them. The thought of either of them bein’ hanged makes me sick.”
“Why do you think I’d ever lift a finger to help a Tyler, especially after what you’ve done to me?”
“I don’t know. I just had a feelin’ when I saw you. I know you hate us. I even know you only came here to see me hang, but you don’t strike me as a man who would let kids like Gary and Jesse pay for something they ain’t done. With me, it’s different. I’ve done everything I’ve been accused of. I became what Pa wanted me to be, and I deserve whatever I get. I’m ready to die. At least I won’t have to follow Pa’s orders or face Frank’s bullwhip anymore.”
“I can’t say I’ll ever come to the rescue of a Tyler,” Russ said. “It goes against my grain. I will watch you hang tomorrow and then I’m going to start a new life. I plan to get away from this area, away from anyone who even knows the name of Caleb Tyler. He ruined my life once. I won’t let him do it again. Maybe you can’t understand it, but I doubt I’ll ever attend another hanging after today. Watching you die will close this chapter of my life, and I swear I’ll never so much as think about the Tylers again, as long as I live.”
Clay smiled. “I can understand how you feel, but don’t expect the Tylers to disappear from your life so easily. Once Caleb touches you, you ain’t never the same. Because of him, you’ve killed a man. Now, you’ve come to see me hang. Believe me, you will never be the same again, and Caleb will enter your life whether you want him to or not.”