I was generally reviled by both camps.
I worked for peace, order and safety, as always the good citizen, treating ladies gently and men squarely, fighting natural and unnatural emergencies. I worked with Wyatt and indeed Virgil, who were as generally regarded as the town’s salvation. Nevertheless, my presence was considered a blight.
I was an insouciant Southerner with my softer accent, occasionally still marred by a slight hiss from my cleft palate. I was ill, coughing and shaking, taken by fever and weakness at what were often inconvenient times. Though tuberculosis is not contagious, it was mentioned by some
that it was unseemly to show myself. I drank for ease, for companionship, for steadiness, or for some small measure of peace. I was a gambler, dealing Faro, sitting for days at poker and, unforgivably, winning
. There was Kate, who was apparently my consort but more closely resembled a proverbial millstone. She had saved my life in Fort Griffin and it was thus my duty to humour her, as a gentleman, though she was a perfidious whore, as you will see – not that I
would or should condemn anyone for her profession. I was an associate of Billy and his friends. As if all this were not enough, I was unapologetic, proud, courteous and intelligent. I was not to be borne by ‘decent citizens.’ I was not welcome even at church, which ought to have been doing its best to save my soul.
To the cowboys, on the other hand, I was a Southerner who rode with Wyatt against Texans and therefore a traitor. I was a former outlaw associating with present outlaws and thus a probable spy, and though my words and reputation should have told them otherwise, they were suspicious. I had rights they did not have, as a lawman, and because with guns and Wyatt’s protection I was to some degree untouchable, they scorned me as a cheat hiding illegitimately behind the law. I was, again, a successful sporting man and more than competent with guns and knives, which only made them jealous, as did the fact that I was truly a gentleman. And of course anything I had I did not deserve.
I was therefore universally hated, but still I held my head erect, continued in all of my chosen activities, maintained my friendships and remained a useful citizen. If it is not easy as a child to hear whispers and taunts from every mouth; to be jostled and assaulted as one walks; to feel eyes watching with hostility and turn to meet them; to be excluded from all companionable gatherings; to be threatened constantly, directly and indirectly, how much worse is it as an adult to suffer that, when one is all one will ever be and there is no chance to show them all, or to seek out a community of kindred people, or to escape to something better?
Of course the inevitable occurred.
Billy held up a stage carrying a Welles Fargo strongbox of silver with his friends King, Head and Crane. Bud Philpott was killed, or I should say rather that they killed Bud Philpott. I still do not know if they were trying to kill Bob Paul for political reasons. He had traded places on the seat with Bud, and the stage was robbed at twilight. I would have stopped it if I had known. But perhaps they would not have told me, knowing I would have to do so.
Because they were so often present, I always saw conspiracies. I had been told that day that there was a high-stakes poker game in Charleston, and I was out in the hills, for when I arrived there was neither game nor rumour of game. I rode back, I thank God, with the water wagon, tying my horse to the backboard.
It was still early when I arrived back, and I dealt Faro until I heard the news. Paul had ridden the runaway stage into Contention, the next stage stop, climbing bravely onto the tongue to retrieve the reins. He had wired Wyatt from there. Bud’s body had been tossed out and dragged from the hold-up site, a difficult dip and bend at the beginning of a slope. There was a passenger who had been shot too, from behind – Pete Roerig. I did not know him. I rented another horse and tied it outside to the rail to be ready when Wyatt called for me, but the call did not come and when morning came I retired.
Wyatt knew, I think, that it was my comrade who was implicated, and he surely knew that if that were the case my loyalty would be hopelessly divided. He did not ask it of me – did not ask me to choose. I owed him any aid I could give, and I owed Billy my protection. In the morning they were gone.
In any case, had I been on that manhunt, I would have died. Conspiracy! I still believe that Behan and his minions tried to lead Wyatt and his posse away from the hold-up men. I still believe that they tried to kill them out on the desert by denying them food, water and horses. But all were strong men and they came back
. Bob Paul’s horse had died under him out there and so had Virgil’s. They had been on the desert sixteen days
without extra food or water, all told, though Behan’s men could have brought it to them and did not. Had I been there, weak and ill as I was and am, I would have perished.
Wyatt and his posse managed to capture one of the men – King. That was the reason for their difference in location from Behan and his men. They sent King back under the custody of Behan, which he claimed he had right to. Instead of putting the man in jail, they put him up in the house of… oh, a man on the posse, who just happened to be oh, the editor of the newspaper in Behan’s pocket. He rode away on a horse mysteriously waiting at the back porch for him. Mysteriously. Though that was not the account in the newspaper.
In the meantime, Behan and company had cooked up the kind idea of blaming the hold-up on me. If they could do so, it would ruin me for good, perhaps even kill me if they could arrange a corrupt trial. And through me they would finish Wyatt’s career as a lawman, leaving the cowboys free to pillage and murder with no hand against them, and Behan himself to profit therefrom. And they held to their plan, spreading further libelous rumours about town. Disliked as I was, they were believed.
Wyatt did his best on his return to squelch these. He always spoke for me and believed in me. Always, whatever the cost. But in two weeks the lies had become entrenched in popular opinion. I knew there was nothing I could say. My only word on the subject was that had I attempted to rob the stage I would have shot the horses and actually taken the strong-box, which the true thieves had not managed to do.
Kate, meanwhile, was whoring around town with the cowboys. My fortunes, at least in terms of cachet, had fallen. Behan’s boys were rising stars. One night he hired her, cajoled her, and appealed to her new shame as my former associate. She had always hated me – it was only duty that required I take her in again and again. She berated me constantly and sometimes beat me – I was too weak to physically defend myself and could not shoot her. She was, as I say, a curse. I cannot fathom why she insisted upon haunting me beyond my occasional wealth.
Behan convinced Kate to sign an affidavit stating that I had known of the hold-up and had participated in it. This was her way of ridding herself of me – bringing me to hang and die. She had the intent of murder. It was generally thought, even by some of Wyatt's friends, that I had
shot Bud and the passenger, so a trial was called, the only evidence being Kate’s document. Wyatt sobered her up meantime, and she was convinced to swear that she had not to her knowledge signed such a paper, and that it was not the truth. Somehow he managed to nudge some tiny grain of honour within her. And Mr. Fuller, with the water wagon, attested that I had been with him on the night in question.
The scandal was causing Wyatt a loss of goodwill. He needed that as marshal, and as a political man, and for his own reputation, then and forever. My reputation was destroying his good name.
After the trial I stood on the steps, brave but empty, sorry beyond words. I offered to go, if it would help him. All my world and the fragments of my hope would be over once again, given up. The small measure of love and family I had would be gone, traded for cold honour again. “Do you want me to leave town?”
“No,” he said, and if he did not already own my heart and soul, he would have earned it there again. “But get rid of that fool woman.”
I did so. Wyatt and I each put in $500 to give her. $1000 to leave town and never to trouble me again. And she left, forever.
It was not the end of the story, though. That was barely the beginning. A prelude.