Chapter 51 Sweet Caroline
Somehow he found it fascinating, to watch your own gallows being built. What else did he have to do? It made him laugh, the absurdity of the situation. 'Gallows humor' was as good a name as any. He'd accepted the fact that no one was coming to rescue him, despite everyone's assurance to the contrary. If Bret and Beau were able to find Rusty Meyers in time, they would have been here by now. Even if they located him there was no reason to believe he would admit to anything. Why would he put his neck in a noose to save Bart? He'd already tried to kill him once.
Pappy came to see him in the afternoon. It was an awkward meeting at first, probably their last meeting. Georgia came with him but didn't come back to the cell; she tried to give them the father-son talk she thought they needed. Pappy brought over the 'visiting chair' and sat with his youngest son. They talked about little, odd things at first; Bart's first horseback ride, why he learned to cheat at cards faster than Bret, who was really responsible for the pig's running away, his first kiss with little Susie Whitmore, and on until they couldn't think of anything else. Then the subject came up that Pappy had hoped never to discuss – where Bart wanted to be buried and why.
"Dry Springs is in New Mexico, Pappy."
"Why, Bart? Why there and not in Little Bend where your Momma is?"
"I have my reasons." Why couldn't Pappy just let this go? The last thing Bart wanted to do was admit to Pappy that he'd been lied to. By Bart. For a long time.
"No." As far as Pappy was concerned the subject was closed. This was no time to be arguing with your youngest son over where he wanted to be buried, especially when there was no good reason for it.
"It's not your decision, Pappy, it's mine."
Stubborn boy. "Yes, but I'll be the one makin' it after you're gone."
No more stubborn than his own father. "No, you won't. I left a will. Bret's in charge."
Now Pappy was perturbed. "Your brother. Why?"
This whole conversation was absurd, Bart realized. WHY WOULDN'T PAPPY LET IT GO? "Because he'll do what I asked."
Bart sighed and owned up to the truth. "Because my wife is buried there."
The only sound in the entire jail was the sound of Bart's breathing. Well, Pappy wanted the reason, he got the reason. Then, out of nowhere, a small admission. "I know."
Bart stood up and leaned into the bars of the cell. "You know?"
Pappy hung his head a bit, slightly embarrassed. 'Yes, son, I know."
"And you made me tell you anyway?"
Now it was Beauregard's turn to be upset. "I'm your father!"
Bart almost laughed at that one. "Never mattered before."
"Have some respect, young man. It always mattered." Pappy cleared his throat and started over. "Your brother told me."
"When?" No answer. "WHEN?"
If it was humanly possible for Pappy to get quieter, he did. "When you disappeared for six months."
'All this time,' Bart thought, 'He's known all this time.' "Why didn't you tell me?"
"Wasn't any reason to tell you. Not until now."
"And you let me go on feeling guilty that I lied to you by not telling you the truth?"
"Well, you did."
Bart stood there and looked at his father while he digested that thought. Pappy crossed his legs and acted like nothing had just happened. The silence was finally broken with the question "Did you love her?"
Long moments passed and Beauregard didn't think he was going to get an answer. Then he did. "Not at first."
"And at the end?"
Again a long stretch of silence. "Yes." Defiantly. "I did."
"Did she know that?"
"I think she did."
"Caroline. Caroline Crawford Maverick."
"One more thing, boy. Would you have stayed with her if she'd lived?"
That's the one question he'd never asked himself. Because the answer was unimportant – until now. "As long as she'd have me."
Pappy rose from the chair. He reached through the bars to grasp his son's hand. "Then I'm truly sorry, boy." There were tears in Pappy's eyes. "I know exactly how you feel."
It took some time for Bret, Beau and Sheriff McNally to get everything straightened out. They tied Rusty's body across his horse and patched up Jack as best they could before riding back to Shanksville. There the doctor tended to the wounded outlaw and the undertaker took possession of Meyers body. As soon as Jack was patched up the sheriff got a wagon and loaded the prisoner. After Jack Sanborn was told about his brother's death he was more than willing to go back to Silver Creek and testify about everything that had really happened. Now it was a race against the clock. The hanging was set for ten a.m. and Bret and Beau had no intention of letting the youngest Maverick swing. If the wagon couldn't get there in time it was up to the Mavericks to delay the proceedings until the sheriff and the proof could arrive.
The sun didn't come up but the sky lightened. Bart was up before the roosters crowed, having lain awake most of the night. Difficult to sleep through your last night on earth. He'd said his good-byes to Pappy yesterday afternoon, and done the same to Georgia, Doc and Hiram. Harry brought his final dinner and told Bart how well things were running and how much he would be missed. He promised to help 'Miz' Jody in any way he could, just as he'd done all those years for her mother and 'Miz' Jessie. There was only one more person left to see this morning and he was dreading that final meeting. Jody.
He remembered the first time they'd met and she'd 'fainted' in his arms. What a little firecracker she turned out to be! The sister he never had, the best friend she'd become, the person he most needed to protect from the world. How could he tell her good-bye?
But he had to. The last thing he wanted was for her to watch him hang. He'd made Georgia promise that when it was time for him to go, she would take Jody home; away from the sights and sounds of his death. He knew what a heavy burden that would place on her mother, but it had to be done. He needed to be at peace, and to know that she was, and neither of them would be if she stayed. So he'd agreed to one last good-bye if she would promise to go quietly when the time came. He paced his cell as best he could, still leaning heavily on the cane to walk, and laughed again at the thought of needing help to ascend the stairs.
And then it was time, and Jody came. She was beautiful today, her long red hair brushed to a high shine, her pale blue eyes bright as the sun that hadn't shone its face, dressed in a pretty dark purple dress he'd never seen before. She walked in quietly, rather than bounding in like she usually did, knowing full well and good she'd not greet him in the morning any more. "Good morning, Bartley. I wanted to prove to you that I could act like a lady. So here I am . . . . . " That was as far as she got before bursting into tears. She leaned her head against the cell bars and wept. "It's . . . not . . . fair . . . it's . . . not . . . right . . . it's . . . not . . . "
He made his way to her and held her as best he could through the bars. Her body continued to shake with sobs long after she stopped making any noise. He kept her in his embrace until she grew quiet, not wanting to let her go for the last time. Finally he heard them testing the gallows trap door outside and knew. He raised her chin with one hand and continued to hold her with the other. "Remember your promise to me." She looked at him questioningly and he reminded her. "About the saloon. And the babies."
She didn't trust her mouth to form words. She nodded her head 'yes.'
"Tell them all about their Uncle Bartley. And make sure Beau spoils them rotten."
She nodded again, 'yes.'
He stood straight and let go of her. "It's time to go."
She sounded just like Pappy as she simply said "No."
"Jody, you promised."
"I don't care. I un-promise."
"No good, girl. No such word."
She lowered her eyes to the ground. "I know." Then in a very tiny voice she whispered "I love you, Bartley."
"I know, Jody. I love you, too.' There it was, finally. The last good-bye.
The traveling was going even slower than expected. The wagon hit every rock and bump along the road and Jack was in considerable pain, so Sheriff McNally took it exceedingly slow. Finally Bret and Beau realized that the caravan wasn't going to make it to Silver Creek by ten o'clock and that it was best that Bret ride on ahead to stop everything until they arrived. They debated momentarily whether Beau should go with him but decided to stay with Sheriff McNally. Bret took off like a bat out of hell and rode as hard and fast as he could. Like his brother's life was at stake.
A few minutes before ten Sheriff Mort Bowman walked into the back end of the Silver Creek Jail and unlocked the cell door that held his prisoner. Deputy Willis stood with a shotgun at the turn to the cells and watched to make sure that nothing went wrong. The sheriff had every intention of following normal procedure and handcuffing Maverick's hands behind his back but realized at the last minute that the prisoner still needed to lean on his cane to walk to the gallows. He cuffed him in front instead. He'd taken men to the gallows before and most of them were scared to death. Some begged and pleaded, some cried and wept, some refused to walk and literally had to be dragged. Bart Maverick did none of those; standing straight and tall he simply said nothing and walked directly in front of the sheriff with no hesitation. As soon as they got outside the jail the gallows loomed over everything like a giant vulture hanging in the sky. Mort walked Maverick to the bottom step and un-cuffed his hands, then re-cuffed them behind him. The whole town was gathered at the gallows base to watch this latest execution, which no one agreed with. Judge Kincaid and Albie Grayson stood on the platform itself, next to the actual 'short rope, long drop' trap door, along with Hiram Foster and Doc Washburn. He saw Harry, trying his best to hold up Pappy, who looked like he would pass out at any moment. Alvin stood next to him. Lettie was there, crying, along with the little redhead he'd never gotten to know. Sammy from the telegraph office and Burt Felton from the JP Ranch were in the crowd, and Bart was surprised at how many faces he recognized. Guess he was gonna give them one last show.
Mort had learned his lesson about forcing an unsteady man to hurry when he wasn't capable of it, and he actually helped Bart ascend the first three stairs. The crowd was still and quiet, unlike they normally were at a hanging, and it was easy to hear the horse come thundering over the last hill before the turn into town. The rider was hooping and hollering for all he was worth, waving his hat and screaming at the top of his lungs, "STOP! STOP! WE CAUGHT HIM! STOP! "
Bart had never been happier to see his brother in his entire life.