Story by Brian Biswas
Illustration by John Waltrip
It was four years ago, in the fall of 1892, when my father, Ricky Treyburn, was charged with the murder of a prostitute in Phoenix, Arizona, where we lived. The woman had been raped and strangled, her body set aflame. While in prison awaiting trial, my father maintained a stony silence, even when the sheriff found evidence connecting him to the deaths of three other women. Two of the latter crimes were unsolved, but as for the third, another man, a Mr. Randolph Rice, had been convicted and was serving time in prison. Mr. Rice had always maintained his innocence.
During the trial, the testimony of each witness for the prosecution was like a nail in my father’s coffin. My father, it was said, was a member of the notorious Red Jack Gang, a gang that preyed on stagecoaches along the San Pedro River. He was a cattle rustler and racketeer. And the head of prostitution ring in Phoenix. Mr. Alasso–an ugly man with enormous hands and a pale, wolf-like face–was the most damaging witness. After receiving immunity from prosecution, he testified that he had helped my father establish a bordello in Phoenix. He spoke of my father’s wild temper and fits of drunkenness. Mr. Alasso claimed that on more than one occasion he heard my father threaten the girls, and once came upon him beating a sixteen-year-old runaway whom he had recently hired.
My father looked at the floor most of the time and glanced at the jury only occasionally. A quiet, unassuming man, he hardly seemed the evil person who was being painstakingly depicted.
The defense said the prosecution’s case was character assassination and that it had nothing to do with the charges against my father. It was pointed out that no one was able to connect my father to the murdered women. There were no fingerprints, no murder weapons, not even a motive had been put forward.
But the arguments failed to sway the jury, who deliberated less than a day before returning the guilty verdict. My father was sentenced to hang.
He showed no emotion when the verdict was read. When asked if he wished to make a statement, he spoke only seven words: “Your honor, I wasn’t part of it.” The judge stared at him and asked if that was all he had to say. He was silent. A deputy led him away and I never saw him again. The entire trial, through the jury’s empanelment, to the steady parade of witnesses, to the sad and weighty conclusion, took two weeks. Mr. Rice was released from prison, and sentence was carried out the next day.
My mother did not miss a moment of my father’s trial. Throughout the proceedings, she sat directly behind him, her hands folded in her lap, her long chestnut-brown hair, which she normally wore loose, pulled up in a bun. She seemed to radiate peace in a courtroom that was clamoring for my father’s blood.
“He didn’t do it, Rhonda,” she said one night shortly after the trial had ended. “He wasn’t capable.”
“But why was he silent?”
“I don’t know.”
With my father dead, the health of my mother deteriorated rapidly. They had been married over forty years and my mother was as devoted as any wife has ever been. Even though he had been found guilty in a court of law, she was convinced of his innocence. And equally convinced that one day his name would be cleared.
“He was framed,” she told me, repeating the sentence several times. As if it was a mantra.
That winter, my mother caught pneumonia; and after several weeks, died in her sleep one dismal evening. I cried for what seemed like an eternity.
I had an older brother who lived in San Antonio, Texas. Ted Treyburn. Thirty-eight years old. Ten years older than me.
Not only had my brother not attended the trial, but we had not heard from him the entire time. It was not unexpected. My brother had been estranged from the family for some time, having quarreled with my father shortly before leaving home, insisting he would never set foot in Phoenix again. I never learned the reason for their argument. I am not sure anyone knew the reason for their argument. Here today–writing these words in a cold prison cell that may as well be my coffin–I still do not know if there was an argument.
It was upon the death of my mother that my brother returned from Texas. One look told me something was wrong. A coolness that bordered on arrogance. Our parents were dead, for God’s sake, but Ted attended my mother’s funeral–and later, the reading of her will–displaying an attitude of almost chilling indifference. Unfortunately, I was too overcome with grief to make inquiries into my brother’s state of mind.
There was no inheritance for either of us. The trial, it seems, had bankrupted my parents. Ted was staying with his wife at a hotel in town, and the evening before he was to return to Texas I went to see him. I went to say good-bye. That was all I intended to do.
Ted was not there, but his wife was. I had never seen her–for some reason she had not attended the funerals–and I was shocked when the door opened and I saw before me a beautiful blonde in her early twenties, her hair a waterfall of curls. She was wearing a white pleated floor-length skirt and a lace pastel blouse with ruffled sleeves. Her eyes were light-green, her arms long and slender, her fingernails exquisite. She introduced herself as Donna and invited me inside. Ted would be back shortly, she said, and would love to see me. I stepped inside and she shut the door. I found myself in a lavish suite. It was hardly what I had expected for I had never thought of my brother as particularly well-off. Donna told me to have a seat on the couch and then went to fix drinks at a bar adjoining the kitchen. I looked around the room. Two opened suitcases on the floor. A pile of dirty clothes near the window. Several newspapers on an end table next to the couch. An ashtray filled with cigarette butts. I went over to the couch and sat down. I happened to glance over the armrest and saw dozens of albumen prints scattered on the floor. I picked up one and examined it. A crude image of a lady of the evening in provocative dress. To say I felt ill would have been an understatement.
Donna returned with my drink and saw me looking at the photograph. She did not act surprised. She said:
“Ted’s told me so much about you. I’m glad we had a chance to meet before we return to Chicago.”
I said: “I thought you lived in Texas.”
She frowned. “Where did you get that idea?”
“It’s what Ted told us.” I turned the photograph over. I folded it in two. I did not want to be seen holding the photograph.
“You must be confused,” she continued. “I’ve never been in Texas.”
“There must be some misunderstanding. My brother, Ted Treyburn, is married.” I was not sure what the misunderstanding was and I was not sure I wanted to know. Right then, I just wanted to leave. But before I had a chance to excuse myself, Donna said:
“I’m Ted’s girlfriend, Donna Cox. And there’s no wife, if that’s what you’re thinking. Ted and I have been together for years.”
“Excuse me. But that’s not what my brother had led us to believe.”
For some reason, I was emboldened. Maybe it was anger at my brother’s betrayal of our family. Or my budding suspicions. Or something else. I don’t know. I held up the photograph and said: “What’s this?”
The blue-eyed blonde who claimed to be my brother’s girlfriend and who was more likely a highly-paid prostitute was unfazed. “We brought some prints for the distributor to examine.”
“You mean you peddle this filth?”
My accusation must have taken her by surprise, for a startled look came over her face. But before she could answer, the door opened and my brother strode into the room. He looked at me and at the photograph in my hands. Then he looked at Donna, who was as pale as a ghost. “How’d she get in here?” he said, thrusting a thumb in my direction.
“I’m sorry, Ted,” Donna said. “I thought the woman knew.”
Ted pulled a revolver from his pocket and pointed it at me. I inhaled sharply. “Turn around,” he said.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” I said, looking into my brother’s eyes. “There must be some mistake.”
“That’s what it looks like.”
I crumpled to the floor in a mock-faint. Lady Luck must have been smiling on me that day, for they were completely taken in. “She was always weak at heart,” my brother crooned. “Such a sissy.”
My brother said: “You idiot.”
“I didn’t know, for Christ’s sake.”
“When are you going to learn to keep your mouth shut?”
“Take it easy. She doesn’t know anything.”
“She knows plenty. But it doesn’t matter what she knows, because we’re going to kill her.”
I heard a gasp. Then Donna said: “Ted, you’re talking about your sister.”
“Hey, it’s her or me. Now shut up and listen.”
“Teddy …” I imagined her pouting.
“Don’t get sweet with me, babe.”
A pause. A sigh. A bitter voice: “Why not? Everyone else does.”
The gun went off and I heard a body fall to the floor. Then:
“Oh, my God.”
Through the slits of my eyes, I saw my brother next to the door. His face registered shock. He limped across the room, laying the gun on the desk when he passed it, and knelt where Donna had fallen. “Why did you make me do it, babe?” he sobbed and then he started to cry. “No, baby, no …” No, not a prostitute. Maybe she really was his girlfriend.
I fixed my gaze on the gun. It must have been no more than ten feet away. Ted’s back was to me. I inched forward. If he turned around, I was dead. There would be no second chance. At one point my foot knocked against the end table which made a creaking noise. I stopped short. Every nerve in my body was taut. Luckily, Ted was still spilling tears over the body of his dead girlfriend and he didn’t hear. I sighed in relief. Two more feet to go.
And then my brother began to talk. He spoke to himself, but he seemed to address his words to someone else, Donna at first, and then a distant other, a higher being perhaps. I heard what sounded like a window opening. I thought nothing of it at the time. I was mesmerized by the sound of Ted’s voice.
He told Donna that he loved her. He told her he did not mean for it to end this way. He told her he was nothing without her. He wanted to die. She had done it. His kindred spirit. She. That is what he said. She had done it. She made him do it. And now his life was a void, empty and without meaning. He would go to another place. A place where he could dream in peace.
As my outlaw brother blathered on, I noticed that a window in the back of the room was wide open. A gentle breeze was rustling the curtains. And that is not all I saw. While Ted hung over the body of Donna, the smell of death heavy in the air, I saw, in the shadows of the room, the figure of my father looking at me. He was wearing a brown vest, jeans, and black boots. His favorite white Stetson clutched in his left hand. His pale-blue eyes were filled with despair. And they were urging me to avenge his death.
When I reached the desk, I raised myself to my knees and picked up the gun. I could only pray that there were bullets in the chamber. My brother was on the other side of the room. I could have retraced my steps to the door, retreated into the hallway and fled down the stairs, but I could not bring myself to do so. At that moment, I was overcome with a feeling of revenge. And of rage. There was only me and Ted in the world. And this piece of warm metal I held in my hands. I did not know exactly what had happened, but I knew enough. They framed him. My mother’s words came back to me, echoing inside the spaces of my skull. They framed him, Rhonda. I heard the voices of my mother and my father. I saw them in my mind’s eye. We would never be together again. We would never be together because my brother had murdered them. In cold blood and without remorse. I rose to my feet, aimed the gun, and fired. I think the first bullet must have killed him, for he slumped to the floor and lay still. I kept firing until there were no more bullets in the gun. I went to where my brother lay, his blood flowing lazily from several wounds in his back. Donna was not two feet away, her eyes staring up at me cold and lifeless, scarlet rivulets of blood on her forehead. I took out my handkerchief and wiped the gun clean. Then I put the gun in her hands. A murder-suicide. The sheriff would never question the death of two outlaws who were far from home.
I went downstairs. The lobby was empty. I became aware of the pounding of my heart. Of my clammy skin. The shortness of my breath. And of a deathly chill that was overtaking me.
I emerged from the hotel into a drizzly night. I went home, took a shower, and went to bed.
The next morning the town was abuzz with news of the murder-suicide. Yes, the news had come off just as I had hoped. But what followed was worse than I thought possible. The investigation into my brother’s death revealed that he had been part of a crime ring headquartered in San Antonio, a ring that was in competition with my father’s. Evidently, the extent of the family’s criminal activity was greater than previously thought. It had–in fact–encompassed the entire southwest. As you can imagine, the news became the talk of the town and I became something of a celebrity. The questions were endless. How did it feel knowing I had spent my life with criminals? Had I suspected what was happening around me? And if not…
I tried to be accommodating, but I could only go on for so long. One day I put a halt to it all. I needed to be alone, I said. I would take no more questions. I hid in the house and went out only in the dead of night. I dressed up as a glamorous young woman and fled to a saloon where I drowned my sorrows in drink and deflected amorous glances from men who wanted to help me forget my troubles.
It started as rumors. Rumors that turned hateful. I was a common prostitute and had been involved with my family’s criminal activity. Just look at the gaudy clothes I wore. The way I conducted my life. Did I seem like a woman coming to terms with grief?
A different story was put forth. My brother, people said, had left San Antonio to escape a life of crime. He took a train to Chicago where he fell in love with Donna. They settled down in the windy city to begin a new life together. A life that, sadly, turned to crime once more. He returned to the Arizona Territory only when he thought it safe to do so. But he didn’t know that I knew of his past. That I blamed him for my parents’ deaths.
And then a witness stepped forward. A middle-aged woman who’d been walking past Ted’s room when the confrontation occurred. Her ear pressed to the door after the fatal gunshot rang out, she’d heard the words of a dying man who pledged eternal love to his dead girlfriend. Donna’s name was spoken. And so was mine. “She did it. My kindred spirit. She.” Clearly a reference to the sister. To Rhonda Treyburn. And then a man came forward and said he had seen me leaving my brother’s hotel on that fateful evening. And that was all the evidence that was needed. The story became: I killed Donna Cox, my brother’s girlfriend. I allowed my brother a few words of repentance. And then I shot him. In cold blood and with no remorse.
“It wasn’t like that,” I sobbed.
The whispers became a crescendo that throbbed in my ears. I would have left town, but I knew that if I tried to go I would have been lynched. And so I did not try. Phoenix became my prison.
Surprisingly, the sheriff never questioned me. I knew I was his prime suspect. Indeed, the whole town thought it was me. I guess they wanted to draw out their investigation, wait for me to break down and confess.
One day, after nearly two months of this hell, I could stand the torture no longer. I could not deny that I had been born into a family of outlaws. I must now atone for their sins. I went to the sheriff’s department. I spoke to a pleasant-looking gentleman with hair graying around his temples. He smiled when I entered the front office; he seemed to be expecting me. He picked up his pen and pulled a blank piece of paper from a drawer. And even before I opened my mouth, he was writing my name with a flourish.
“I did it,” I said. “It was me.”
My trial was conducted with almost textbook precision and I watched the proceedings with stony detachment. Though urged to do so by my lawyer, I refused to speak on my behalf. Even so, he put up a valiant defense, claiming I murdered in self-defense, but it was all for naught. The townspeople demanded I be punished, and I was hardly surprised when a guilty verdict was announced. I expected to be led to the gallows, but my lawyer was able to persuade the judge that leniency was called for. I was given a life sentence.
— ♦♦♦ —
The jailer comes mid-morning. I hear the clop-clop of boots as he saunters down the hall, a ring of keys jangling. He really is a nice fellow. There is always a sparkle in his eye. He stays with me sometimes–he outside my cell, looking in–and talks about the world. And even though the world does not interest me, I listen. I listen for he interests me. Life is a series of forks on the trail, he tells me. You take one branch and then you move on. I smile. I know exactly what he means.
— ♦♦♦ —
Beau Shearing had a sordid history. But he’d managed to get himself out of a serious situation. Now he was, what you might call, a legend. Carl Dietz, sought Beau’s help getting himself out of a situation as well. Beau considered his options. Saying no was always one of them. He didn’t always help everyone who crossed his path with a sob story…Was this one of those times? People never knew exactly how Beau managed to do what he did for a reason. By the end of this story, Carl is going to understand that silence is golden. Don’t miss it next week!