You wouldn’t see a single tree
in Bountiful, Wyoming.
just barren ground for miles around
that scarcely seemed worth owning.
Isaiah Birch was state and church
in fact if not in name.
There weren’t no stone he didn’t own
in all this bleak domain.
Now Bill Malone, he rode alone
without no home to stay in
and no one sought to learn his thoughts
nor he the words to say ’em.
He left Cheyenne without a plan
and drifted many miles.
He thought it best that he should rest
in Bountiful awhile.
When every cent he had was spent
and every bottle drained
he turned his hand to work the land
on Mister Birch’s claim.
A year went by, still drear and dry
in Bountiful, Wyoming.
At sunrise Bill sat cold and still
and wished he’d kept on roaming.
Or burned it down, the whole damn town
and Mister Birch as well.
He wished in vain. The sheriff came
and took him from his cell.
With cheerful mask his lawyer asked
about his health and such.
“They kept me fed,” Bill softly said
“but I ain’t slept too much.”
“Now take the stand, and raise your hand
and tell me how you plead.”
“Not guilty, sir.” The whispers stirred
like snakes among the reeds.
“You killed poor Jake for killing’s sake!”
the prosecutor cried.
“If you weren’t there, then tell us where
you were the night he died.”
Bill knew all right. He saw that night
in memory clear and tender.
He sadly sighed, and then he lied:
“I guess I don’t remember.”
Bill looked around and grimly found
that every face was stamped
with Cain’s red curse, the bloody thirst
of wolves around a camp.
No kindly stare consoled him there
for all was vengeful fury.
No face exempt from cold contempt
not crowd nor judge nor jury.
Yet here was one whose head was hung.
A pale, unsmiling youth
who had no heart to play a part
and feared to speak the truth.
Among the proud and cruel crowd
Bill saw no more than one
who showed no hate. His name was Nate.
Isaiah Birch’s son.
“You don’t recall.” A mocking drawl.
The prosecutor smiled.
Time ticked away. With naught to say
Bill trembled like a child.
The scornful sneers, Bill heard ’em clear
the jurors’ muffled scoffing
each bitter barb that hammered hard
like nails to seal a coffin.
The foreman’s grin was sour as gin
and colder than December.
Bill hung his head. At last he said
“No sir, I don’t remember.”
“It’s quite absurd,” the counsel purred
“to think you could forget.
I say some sin is hid within
you haven’t told us yet.”
Bill breathed Nate’s name, his tone the same
as one who names a saint.
His voice rang out, now free from doubt.
“It’s like I said. There ain’t.”
His lawyer spoke without much hope
against the coming slaughter.
“You know damn well Jake must have fell.
He drank like booze was water.”
The jury spent the night content
up in the Grand Hotel.
They gave scant thought to what they ought
and ate and drank too well.
The coarsest jokes, and laughs half-choked
and coughs and smirks were signs
that none thought Bill the kind to kill:
they punished other crimes.
This weren’t no trial, but sport most vile
a lynching plain and simple.
Now Law was fled and Justice dead
and Death was in their temple.
“Now Bill Malone, you haven’t shown
a hint of true repentance.
Well here’s your chance to change that stance
before I pass my sentence.”
With shallow breath and pale as death
Bill swayed as if to fall.
Nate stared aghast. Bill spoke at last
and silenced one and all.
“I heard that men can start again
out West where folks are free.
A pledge betrayed as soon as made
at least for men like me.
“I rose this morn as I was born:
unmoneyed and unlettered.
Most folks that took a single look
would think ’emselves my better.
“But if I saw an honest law
I reckon I obeyed it.
I broke no rule that wasn’t cruel
and shamed the ones who made it.
“I bear a curse the world calls worse
than greed or lies or stealing
but better lust than laws unjust
and virtues so unfeeling.
“I tell you judge, I bear no grudge
for what you’re soon to say.
But bend a leg and meekly beg?
There ain’t no God-damn way.”
The show was done. The world had won.
They sentenced Bill to die.
That night Nate sobbed for comrade robbed
and justice gone awry.
He wailed his grief without relief
though eyes were sore and empty
as if again a boy of ten
not man of one-and-twenty.
Isaiah lay at end of day
with family pride unstained
his foe cast down, a king uncrowned
who nonetheless still reigned.
He murmured there in grateful prayer
for vengeance full and splendid
and wealth and land at his command
then went to sleep contented.
Photo by Sam Beebe [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.