Western Short Story
A Billy Cotton Short Story by Martyn C. Marais
Dedicated to Ellen L. Watson and James Averell. Victims of a bare-faced outrage.
20 July 1889
I lift my hat and run a sleeve across my forehead. I raise my gaze to the azure sky. Soft brilliant white clouds have settled above the low ridge of hills to the south.
“I’ll say one thing about Wyoming,” I say to Anthracite as he gratefully draws cool water from the Sweetwater River, “the skies are sure biiiig.”
Anthracite gives a throat rumble as though in agreement. I lean forward and pat his strong, soot-black neck. A cloud of dust rises from under my hand. For a moment I consider giving him a wash down. Maybe later, I think. The heat from the July sun has made me lethargic.
I turn and study the sweeping flatlands that stretch out around me; flat except for occasional huge, domes of grey rock that rise like the shells of monstrous turtles in a sea of waving, yellowing grass. Domes like that of Independence Rock, which I have just visited.
I sigh. I muse for a while. Why have I not done this before? Just ride around, relax and enjoy life. Look at stuff, like the names scratched into the surface of Independence Rock, the astonishing gorge of Devil’s Gate, the ruts left by the wagon wheels of those travelling the Oregon Trail. And the landscapes, such as here, the vast, wide open grasslands of the Sweetwater River. My eyes settle on the multitudinous cattle grazing the drying grass. Their shapes dance in the mid-July heat wave and look like small boats set adrift on a vast shimmering ocean. There are a lot of them and where there are cattle there are people and where there are people there is generally trouble. Indeed, many may see myself as a symbol of that trouble. A man out to make a reputation for himself in a land where the rule of law is often no more than a shoot-out during a drunken brawl or an inauspicious death from a lynch mob. No, the roaming life of the mountain man is not for me. I have a reputation to build. This time on the trail is a small respite for me. I’m just passing through on my way to Cheyenne and then Denver and I thought I’d take the opportunity to have a look at these places since I happened to be passing. The ridge of low hills I can see ahead of me is my next destination, before I get on my way. I’d been informed by a local homesteader that there’s a gulch there that is filled with the skulls and skeletons of a million cattle that died during the killer winter of 86/87. I doubted it was so many, but I have seen a good number of skeletons scattered about the plains, so it could be true and might be worth a look. A million sounds like a big number and I wonder what a pile of one million skulls looks like.
Anthracite has finished drinking and I nudge him on, into the water and across the river. As we come out onto the other bank, I scan the landscape, keeping an eye out for danger, but see no one and relax. The homesteader was a garrulous fellow; lonesome, I suppose. But one thing he was very adamant about was to beware of a man called Albert Bothwell. This Bothwell is apparently a nasty piece-of-work who owns most of the cattle in the Sweetwater area and lords it about as though he owns the land, even though his cattle are grazing it illegally.
“He’s broken the dern law at every dern turn and’s a derned bully,” the homesteader had asserted. “He’s bullied his way into getting lan’ and’s ben puttin’ the fear o’ the Lord to a young couple so’s to get their lan’, but they’re tough-uns they’re, an’ so fer they’ve done put up a dern good fight. They still got their lan’, so fer, at seny rate. So’s, you be dern careful, mister, that dern Bothwell, he doughn like no-body … no-body … roaming over what he seys’s his lan’, which’s perdy much every dern pert of the dern territory you’ll be crossin’ o’r in these dern perts.”
I chuckle at the memory of his earnestness. I’m in no rush and give Anthracite his head. He ambles along with a slow, head-nodding gait towards the broken line of low hills. Suddenly he lifts his head and pricks his ears. I follow his gaze. A rider is speeding along in the distance, a trail of dust tumbling into the air behind him. I draw Anthracite to a halt and watch as he gallops away.
“What’s bitten his tail?” I ask anthracite.
He doesn’t answer, but his ears are erect and his head held up; he’s as curious as I am.
We wait a short while. There’s no-one chasing the rider. Anthracite relaxes, I nudge him on.
When we hit the man’s trail, I stare down at it. He sure was going some. I’m intrigued. I decide to follow his trail to see what he was rushing from. The trail leads us into a narrow gulch. The sides are steep and made of layers of round rocks, interspersed with a low, dark-green scrub, stunted cottonwood trees and some kind of pine, I never was any good at naming trees. I’m not concentrating on the trail – being more focussed on, and wary about, coming across something that might frighten a man so. I lose the trail. The Gulch is getting narrower and the sides steeper. I’m just about thinking of turning back when I hear a woman shout angrily, “LET ME GO!”
I cannot see her, but it sounds like her voice comes from further up the valley. I ride on cautiously, my hand resting on the sun-warmed grip of my Colt. We round a shoulder of rock and come face to face with a gaggle of people.
“Stranger!” one of the men shouts.
They all turn to look at me, including a tall, young woman, who was wrestling with one of the men.
In all, there are seven men and this one woman. Most of them are standing on a flat, smooth, weathered rock near the base of the slope. Their horses are tethered to bushes on the valley floor. Beside them is a white topped, four-seater buggy. It looks new and out of place in this rugged landscape, more like something you might expect to see taking gentle folk to a church picnic. One of the men is standing beside it. Like the rest of the men, he’s in his late thirties or early forties. The woman’s in her twenties. Judging by the cut of their clothes, five of the men are obviously well-to-do, and in Wyoming that means they’re cattle barons. One of them has blood staining his fine clothes at his hip. The other two men, and the woman, are dressed more like myself, ordinary folk, but probably homesteaders, rather than gunslingers.
My sudden appearance has not panicked them, but there are five rifles pointing in my direction, not aimed, just pointing. That tells me these men are not gunslingers. If they were, they would have pistols, and in particular Colts, as I do. My hands are resting on the grips of one each. They may not be gunslingers, but they’re confident, they’re calm and poised. They stare at me with the cold, confident eyes of men self-assured by their exalted status in society.
There are only five rifles, because one man is occupied with holding the woman in a bear-hug like grip and the other has a noose round his neck. The other end of the lariat is secured to a bough of a tall tree growing beside the flat rock. The man is standing very close, too close, to the rounded edge of the rock platform. Beside him a second noose shifts in the breeze.
The woman breaks from her surprise first. “Help us, Mister,” she shouts. “they’re trying to murder us!” Her voice is strong, self-assured, but is tinged with an undercurrent of fear.
“Best you ride on mister,” one of the men says. He looks like one of the younger men there. He’s tall and lean, and holds himself with arrogant authority. “You’re a stranger to Sweetwater, mister. There’s no need for you to get into trouble with the law.”
“You the law around here?”
“No!” the woman yells. “He’s the Justice of the Peace!” she shouts, yanking an arm free and pointing at the man with the noose around his neck.
“Get her tied up, Ernie!” the leader shouts.
Ernie hauls the woman over to the second noose and tries to slip it over her head.
She dodges and writhes like a snake and curses and snarls like a lynx. Her fingers scratch at his face.
“Damn you, woman! Hold still!” Ernie demands. “Damn it, Robert, will you help me with this wild cat!”
Robert lowers his rifle and strides across the rock towards the wrestling couple.
“Now, Albert,” the man beside the buggy calls. “This is going too far.”
“Shut up, Tom!” Albert yells at him. “Everything’s fine. Everything’s under control!”
“Help us, Mister,” the woman shouts. The fear has grown in her voice.
I look at Albert. As the apparent leader, he’s the one I decide to focus on.
He glares back.
“This official?” I ask, sarcastically.
“That’s none of your damned business, mister,” he snaps.
“Uhuh,” I grunt, in contradiction. I let my gaze run over the other men. They wait to see what I will do. “I could make it my business,” I say slowly.
“What’s your name, mister?” Albert asks. He’s trying the diplomatic approach.
“Billy Cotton,” I reply.
He frowns and nods, slowly. “Pleased to meet you, Mister Cotton. I’ve heard of you.”
“Good things, I hope.”
“You seen Old Bill recently?” Ernie mocks.
I flick my gaze at him. Stare silently at him. He’s got the noose around the woman’s neck and is holding her arms behind her back in his massive paws. I take in the detail of his face, his high cheekbones, mouse-coloured hair, thin lips, and bright, blue eyes beneath heavy brows.
“You been listening to stories?” I ask.
He grins uncertainly. Straight, yellow teeth. He glances at Albert.
I turn my gaze back to the man in charge. We have a stalemate. He knows that should the shooting start he’ll be my primary target. I would almost certainly die, but he understands he’ll probably die as well. What would happen to the man and the woman with the nooses around their necks? They might still be lynched, but then that Tom fellow might stop it. He seems to be the next one in charge, or the one to whom the others might listen. But even if he did stop the lynching there would still be two dead people and one of them would be me. I need a signal from Albert as to how much he wants to live.
“Hold your tongue, Ernie,” Albert orders.
I nod. We have an understanding.
“Who are they?” I ask, nodding at the man and woman. I’m playing for time. The longer I can hold off the lynching the less likely it will happen, at least that’s what I’m assuming.
“What the hell do you care?” Albert says irritably. “You’re starting to outstay your welcome Mister Cotton. I suggest you leave … now!”
“Hey, mister,” the woman shouts. “You going to help us or not?” Through the fear in her voice I can hear her anger at my inaction.
I frown. “Ordinarily, ma’am, I’d take my chances, but the odds are stacked against me and you both on this occasion. You’ll have to rely on the goodwill of your friends.”
She gives me a sardonic laugh.
“Albert!” the man beside her demands. He seems remarkably calm, given his circumstances. “You have to stop this. You can’t just decide who can and who cannot stay in Sweetwater. Ellie and I have done nothing wrong. She did not steal any of your cattle. She can prove she purchased those animals. And our stakes are both legal. You know that.”
“Damnit! James, will you shut up.” Albert commands. He strides over to the man. Gets up close to him. “This is your last chance, James,” he snarls. “Will you and your whoring wife leave Sweetwater?”
“No Albert, we will not.”
Albert shoves the man.
“Jimmy!” Ellie screams. She turns on Albert. “You son-of-a-bitch! You’re all low-down sons-of-bitches!”
Ernie pushes her.
She screams, but her scream is choked off.
The two of them drop no more than two feet. So, they are still alive. Their hands and feet are not tied, so they claw at the ropes cutting into their throats. Their legs and feet dance in a macabre jig of death. The bough of the pine sags under their combined weight. Ellie is a tall woman and the toes of her moccasins brush the ground throwing up little clouds of dust. I wonder if she had the presence of mind to stand still whether she might be able to save herself by standing on tip-toes. But, of course, she does not. She dances and struggles for breath like her man, Jimmy. She thrashes about so much that her moccasins fly from her feet. They look new, like she might have bought them just that day.
I hear a retching sound and turn to see Tom throwing up violently, beside the new buggy.
He stands up and looks at me, wiping his mouth. “I suggest you get out of here, Cotton,” he says.
“What? You just going to let him go?” Ernie blurts out. “He’s seen all our faces. He’ll go to the sheriff, get us thrown in jail.”
“Be quiet, Ernie,” Tom orders.
“Your name’s Ernie?” I say, looking at the man.
“Yeah, Ernie McLean, what you going to do about it?”
“Nothing … today.”
Tom shakes his head. “I told you to be quiet, Ernie. Now he knows your name.”
“So?” McLean said, drawing his gun on me.
I nudge Anthracite and turn him, so I end up with my back to the man. I stare at Tom.
“Put it away, Ernie!” Tom orders.
He looks at me and nods.
I feel the prickles on my back subside. It’s always a risky thing to do – turn your back on a man you don’t know. But I had the sense that this Tom was generally an honourable man. Sometimes a man can get himself into a situation not of his own making.
The sounds of their struggling have subsided and I turn to look at the victims. They hang limply and sway gently at the ends of their ropes.
The enormity of what they had just done has settled on the six men and they now stand, silently, dazed, not looking at their victims, but looking about them, staring at the ground, looking anywhere but at the two dead people. Two innocent, dead people. Two people in whose deaths they have played a part. Two innocent deaths in which I have played a part.
I look at Tom.
“This is a bad business,” I say.
He just shakes his head.
“They were cattle thieves!” Albert shouts at me.
I stare at him. Say nothing. No need to antagonise him further. There’s a very good chance he’ll shoot before he thinks.
I turn back to Tom. “A very bad business.”
He looks at me. “You’d better get out of here.”
I tip my hat at him. He’ll protect my back. Save me from the hotheads in his group. I nudge Anthracite forward. He starts off at a fast lope, sensing the urgency of the situation. I hold him back a little, slow him down to show the men behind me that I do not fear them. But there is another reason for me to hold Anthracite back – I need to think, mull over what has just happened. Although I am probably less impacted by the deaths than those who actually perpetrated the lynching, I have still witnessed the hanging of two people who were most likely innocent of any crime. I wonder if I should have intervened more, attempted at least to save their innocent lives, but I come back to the same conclusion I did before. My own death would most certainly have been a result. I would certainly have killed Albert and maybe even Ernie, but once bullets start to fly, everyone gets involved and the way the others were spread out, I would not have had a chance of getting all of them before I was shot. On that basis, I’m satisfied. I could not have done more. But having to abandon two innocent people to be hung sticks in the craw. So, I decide, it remains for the wheels of justice to set in motion and make sure the two victims get the justice they deserve. But my experience of such things is not good. I saw the confidence of those men who did the lynching. They seemed unconcerned that I had seen their faces and even knew their names. They had an arrogance about them that suggested they knew they were above the law, that they were the law. And so, the burden of the victims getting justice might still rest on my shoulders. It’s a burden I do not wish to carry. I have seen what ‘important’ men can do to protect their interests. I have no local support I can rely on, while they will have armies of killers they can call upon. I have no wish to endanger my life for someone else’s cause. Nevertheless, I decide I shall delay in Cheyenne a little longer than I intended to see how things pan out. It may be those men are not as invincible as they believe themselves to be. It may be that I can help get justice for those two people. I frown to myself. I’m not optimistic. Although I’ve seen many changes that would suggest civilisation is coming to most parts of the country, there are still wild parts in many areas; places where good folk still come up against wild men who care little for the civilising influence of those folk. And at this moment in time, it seems it is the wild, uncivilised men that control Wyoming Territory.
© Martin Marais 2020
In Memory of:
Ellen Liddy Watson (2 Jul 1861 - 20 Jul 1889)
James Averell (20 Mar 1851 - 20 Jul 1889)
"… the strangling of the couple
was one of the most bare-faced outrages
ever committed in the territory."
Laramie Daily Boomerang, 1 August, 1889