Dan Byrne received the news during a poker game at The Round-Up. He turned his upper body around, empty beer mug raised in his right about to scream across the noisy saloon for a refill when he noticed Sheriff Beckley bearing down on him. The lawman’s look said trouble.
“See you a minute, Dan?” his thick moustache twitching.
With a collective nod, the players excused Dan and rested their cards on the pitted circular table.
Beckley put an arm around Byrne’s shoulder. “’Fraid I got some bad news, Dan. It’s ‘bout your brother…”
Dan’s shoulder, along with the sheriff’s hand dropped an inch. Hank Byrne was about the last thing the older sibling wanted to think about. It had been going on two years since Hank was locked up in a Nevada jail for murdering three residents of Laramie, in the newly created state of Wyoming. The victims were Jonathan Field and his young twin sons. The only saving grace was that the man’s wife, Mary, wasn’t home at the time. Tracking down Hank proved difficult at first. But, weeks following the rampage, he headed to some place called the Belt Buckle Saloon where he got roaring drunk and passed out. Prior to hitting the floor and cracking his empty head open, Hank had bragged to the stunned patrons about what he had done. He was arrested and jailed shortly thereafter. Dan made the three and a half day ride from Rapid City to Laramie to attend the burial and to pay his respects and apologize to the widow. It was about the most difficult thing he had ever done in his 28 years. He’d tried to raise his brother right, took him to church every Sunday, but without a mother’s or father’s help, it wasn’t in the cards. Hank Byrne was more than a handful ever since he learned how to shoot a pistol. It started with small critters when he could barely hold a gun and quickly progressed to humans. The Laramie killings were particularly unthinkable. According to the doctor who examined the bodies, the two little boys were murdered after their father, and probably witnessed his killing. This was determined by the fact that Jonathan’s blood had run down the Field’s slanted wooden planks and could be found underneath the bodies of the twins.
“…he’s done busted out of jail. Just got this here telegram.” The sheriff pulled a slip of paper out of the back pocket of his jeans and showed it to Dan Byrne. “We’ll find him, sure enough. U.S. Marshalls along with every other lawman in the territory are watchin’ for him. Doubt he’ll roam around for too long, but just in case I figure if he can get this far, he might come and see you.”
The sheriff was half right. No lawmen would stop Hank, Dan was certain despite the sheriff’s confidence. He was also sure that Hank would at some point pay his older brother a visit. “Hell of a time to tell me, Sheriff. I had three aces.” Dan tried to force a smile. “Got some business in Laramie. Be back soon as I can. Keep an eye on the place while I’m gone, will ya?”
It was a rough couple of weeks for Dan Byrne. Waiting. He tried to go about his business in a normal way, but images of Hank drowned his thoughts like a whiskey-soaked liver. Reports of murdered lawmen from Nevada clear to South Dakota made their way across the prairie.
A pot of coffee was heating up when Dan Byrne tensed. He could smell the stench. “What’s wrong, Dan?” the woman asked.
“He’s here. I know it. I can feel his filth and terror. I’ll be damned if he didn’t make it after all.”
The door to the small ranch house flung open. The first thing Dan noticed about his younger brother was his teeth, broken, brown and rotted. Hank looked around from one to the other and let himself in. He was dusty, the hair on his hatless head matted down as if painted onto his scalp, his tan trousers torn beyond the help of the most skilled tailor. He carried a battered suede bag.
“Get the hell out of here, Hank!” screamed Dan. “You’re not wanted here. Do everyone a favor and turn yourself in at the sheriff’s office.”
Hank took a few steps toward the coffee pot. “Is that a ways to talk to your little brother? The little brother you ain’t seen in years? Coffee smells real good. Ain’t ya gonna offer me a cup?”
“Get out!” Dan was hot. He felt as though his skin could have branded a calf.
Hank turned toward the woman tending to a loaf of bread. “Sure looks good. And I ain’t talkin’ ‘bout the bread there.” With that, he let out a great hoarse laugh. “Yessir, its been a long damned time since I’d been me with a woman, ‘specially one as purdy as your missus here, big brother. You didn’t even invite your little brother to the wedding.” Hank laughed again, coughed, and spit a filmy wad against the wall.
Dan jumped out of his seat. “You son of a bitch. I’ll kill…”
With that, Hank yanked a colt .45 from his bag and pointed it at Dan. “Shuddup! I’ll kill you just as I’m standin here. You…” he nodded his head away from Dan, “tie him up.” With his free hand, Hank tossed the bag across the room. “There’s rope in there. Tie him up tight, real good, or things are gonna get real messy in this nice little house. Brothers should share what they got.”
“Do as he says,” Dan commanded, “You’ll never get away with this, Hank. I’ll personally see to it that you’ll pay for this and every other horrible thing you’ve done.”
“Ain’t that sweet. I told you to shuddup!”
Once Dan was tied and gagged, Hank sat down at the table and gulped down the coffee. He tore into the bread like a vulture on a coyote carcass. “Now, it’s time for dessert.”
The rabid human animal moved a step forward and pressed against her. At contact, the breadknife plunged into his breadbasket. With a sharp upward motion, the sharp side of the blade met resistance and stopped against bone. Bright red flowed like an oil gusher. Hank’s stunned face showed a brief sign of bewilderment, then a sickly grin and then nothing as he fell face down against the hard clay floor. The crunching sound was his nose. His rotted teeth, shoved back down into his throat, were too soft to make a noise. She left the knife, now dug in deeply, in the lifeless body and untied Dan Byrne. “That’s that,” said Deputy Mary Field.
“Come back any time, ma’am,” said Sheriff Beckley with a tip of his ten-gallon. The three of them, Dan Byrne, Sheriff Beckley, and Mary Field were standing in front of The Round-Up Saloon as the stagecoach to Wyoming pulled up.