From THE CHEYENNE DAILY LEADER, February 21, 1872
MURDERED IN WYOMING SALOON
On the night of February 17 of
this year, J.D. McNulty, once counted among Wyoming’s greatest lawmen, was shot
dead by a gambler in a quarrel over a card game.
The incident occurred at
Glory Gulch, a played-out gold mining camp located in the Wind River Mountains
above South Pass City. According to witnesses, McNulty was seated at a table in
the Laughing Lady Saloon, playing poker with a gambler named Virgil Pomeroy, a
traveling photographer named Asa Smith and two local miners. An hour into the
game McNulty, who was unarmed at the time, accused Pomeroy of using a holdout.
After an angry exchange of words, the gambler drew a derringer from his vest and
fired two shots. The first bullet wounded McNulty in the shoulder. The second
toppled him backward onto the floor where he expired in the arms of an
unidentified saloon girl. He was 44 years old at the time of his death.
Pomeroy fled on a stolen
horse after the shooting. His present whereabouts is unknown.
J.D. McNulty was appointed
deputy sheriff of Fremont County in 1868. Subsequently, he served as Marshal in
Cheyenne and later in Laramie, where he single-handedly dispatched the murderous
Cleary gang in Wyoming’s most famous gunfight.
His body was taken by wagon to South Pass City for burial, there being no level
ground for a cemetery in Glory Gulch.
Mr. Asa Smith, a witness to the shooting, photographed McNulty’s body laid out
in its coffin. For those wishing to pay their respects, the picture will be on
display for the next 30 days in the front window of this newspaper office.
Cletis Morgan, Reporter
South Pass City, Wyoming
December 24, 2010 Emma
Carlyle was on the trail of a man. A man who’d been dead for more than a
Here, in the old mining town where he was buried, lay her last hope
of learning his secrets.
Emma’s‘95 Subaru wagon fishtailed as she swung into the icy parking
lot and pulled up next to a gritty eight-foot mountain of plowed snow.
Outside, the winter hills glittered in blinding sunlight. The sky was a
clear cerulean blue. For a December day it was downright breathtaking.
But Emma had lived in Wyoming long enough to know that when she opened
the door, the air would be cold enough to sear her skin and freeze the
moisture in her lungs.
Grunting with effort, she twisted toward the door and struggled to
zip her goose down parka over her bulging belly. Beyond the barrier of
snow piles she could see the half-buried entry booth and the large,
painted red and white sign that welcomed summer visitors to South Pass
City. December 24 was not the best time for a visit to a ghost town
turned tourist attraction. But Emma had come on an errand of
She was trailing a man—a compelling, elusive and troubled man who’d
captured her imagination and more than a little of her heart. Jethro
Darlington McNulty had stood six-three barefoot and towered another two
inches in his boots. His eyes, set in a hauntingly chiseled face, had
been as blue as an October sky. When he was out for a good time, those
eyes could flash enough sexual magnetism to make women tumble into his
bed. Lit by anger, their cold fury would have sent the likes of Eastwood
and McQueen scurrying to Wardrobe for a change of underwear.
Legend and loner, J.D. had been an enigma to all who knew him—which
made him an absolutely maddening subject for Emma’s master’s thesis. The
man’s penchant for secrecy would have driven a saint over the edge. And
Emma was no saint. In conservative Lander, where she’d taught high
school history for the past ten years, her burgeoning belly and lack of
a wedding ring said it all.
The thesis had given her a good excuse to request a year off. By now,
however, the whole town knew why she wasn’t at school. As the locals put
it, the very proper Miss Carlyle had gotten herself knocked up.
The baby, a girl, was kicking like a healthy little ninja. No cause
for worry there, thank heaven. But the thesis was driving Emma toward an
emotional meltdown. She had promised her advisor at the University of
Wyoming that she’d have the first draft mailed before her January 3 due
date. But she’d made that promise five months ago, before she’d
understood the juju that a solo pregnancy could work on a woman’s mind
and body. This morning, as she’d stood by the fridge in her flannel
nightgown, wolfing down Pepperidge Farm Chocolate Chunk cookies and
staring at the Vesuvius of paperwork that littered her kitchen table,
Emma had broken down and bawled. It was no use. Her research on the
legendary gunfighter had more holes in it than J.D.’s Peacemaker had
blasted through the infamous Cleary Gang. She needed help, or maybe a
confounded miracle. An Internet search had brought up the name of an
expert in local history, a woman who ran a little bookstore in South
Pass City. After a quick phone call, Emma had struggled into clean black
maternity slacks and a baggy red sweater, dabbed on a smidgen of
lipstick and too much mascara, and slicked back her dark blond hair.
That done, she’d stuffed her notes and manuscript into her canvas
briefcase and shoveled a path to her car. South Pass City was less than
an hour away on State Highway 28. The weather was decent, the road was
clear, and just in case anything went wrong, she had her cell phone in
her purse, fully charged.
Given a choice, Emma would have taken the graveled Loop Road through
the mountains, to the place where an overgrown wagon trail wound up a
side canyon toward Glory Gulch. She’d hiked that trail last fall, on a
sunny day when crimson maple and bright gold aspen blazed across the
slopes. Nothing had remained of the mining camp but a few tumbledown
shacks and rock chimneys rising out of the bracken. A pimply-faced young
ranger had shown her the ruined cabin where J.D. had spent his last
winter, and the saloon where he’d died. A chill had passed through her
fingers as she’d touched the faded brownish bloodstain on the floor.
Emma had tried to picture Glory Gulch in the dead of winter. But there’d
be no going back to see it now. The mountain road was closed and
wouldn’t be passable again till spring. So here she was, after a
pleasant drive on a highway that wound upward between glistening walls
of snow. She could only hope that her visit to Tilly’s Book Nook would
turn out to be worth the trip.
South Pass City was a restored historic site, a relic of the late
1860s gold rush. In winter the exhibits shut down, but a few hardy
people lived there year round. Tilly Farson was one of them. She’d
mentioned over the phone that since her shop was also her home, Emma
would be welcome to drop by anytime.
Now Emma picked her way between the huge mounds of plowed snow,
taking shallow breaths and shifting her weight to anchor the soles of
her fleece-lined boots. Snowmobiles had packed a trail along the street,
saving her from having to flounder through hip-high drifts; but a frigid
wind had sprung up, blasting sheets of snow across her path. For someone
who couldn’t see her own feet, it was treacherous going. By the time she
spotted the quaintly lettered sign on the bookstore, her face was a
Tilly’s Book Nook was housed in a vintage barbershop with a squared
false front. The windows had been shuttered against the cold but the
front door swung open at Emma’s knock. The woman on the threshold was
built like the Willendorf Venus—short and stocky, dressed in plum
velveteen stretch pants and shearling boots. The buttons of a hand knit
snowflake cardigan strained over her outsized bosom. Her silvery hair
was cut in a plain Dutch bob with rimless bifocals jutting from beneath
her bangs. “Oh, you poor dear!” she crooned, sweeping Emma inside. “You
must be half frozen! Here, don’t worry about your wet boots. Just take
off your coat and have a chair by the stove!” The bookstore was a haven
of cozy warmth. Floor to ceiling shelves lined the walls, crammed with
books on western history and used paperback novels. Tendrils of
asparagus fern trailed from a hanging pot in one corner. Two
tartan-covered wing chairs with a rosewood tea table between them were
drawn up before a glowing potbellied stove. Emma hadn’t planned to
unburden herself, but over homemade oatmeal cookies and steaming mugs of
hot cocoa, the whole soap opera came pouring out—the man she’d thought
of as her lifetime love until she’d answered that phone call from his
wife; her surprise pregnancy and, finally, her wrenching decision to
give the baby up for adoption. “It won’t be easy, but I know it’s for
the best.” Emma laid a hand on her belly and felt the subtle stirring
beneath her palm. “My own mother was unmarried. We lived in a trailer
park, and she was so steeped in pills and alcohol that I practically
raised myself. I...” Emma paused to swallow the tight lump in her
throat. “I’m afraid I don’t have the genes to be a good mother.” Tilly
listened, punctuating Emma’s words with sympathetic little clucks. “Does
the father know?” she asked gently.
Emma nodded. “He offered to pay for an abortion. I told him to go to
hell.” “Good for you! Men can be such jackasses!” Tilly sighed as she
refilled Emma’s mug from a blue enameled pot. “What a shame we women
can’t seem to get along without them. It would make life so much
simpler, wouldn’t it?” Emma forced her mind back to her quest. “Right
now the only man in my life is J.D. McNulty, and he’s driving me crazy.”
Tilly chuckled. “J.D. was known to have that effect on women. And you
can see why. Just look at him!” She inclined her head toward a framed
poster that hung on the wall behind the antique brass cash register.
Emma had seen the photograph before. Taken in Cheyenne, where J.D had
been marshal for eighteen months, it showed a rangy man in his late
thirties, dressed for work in a dark woolen shirt and knotted tie. His
left hand rested lightly on the ivory grip of his Colt. 45 Peacemaker,
which hung in its holster from a heavy cartridge belt. The silver star
of his office blazed on his cowhide vest. With his long square jaw,
sharply chiseled face and melancholy eyes, he looked like a young Henry
Fonda. Throw in one devilishly quirked eyebrow and a body that would do
credit to Tarzan, and you were looking at Hollywood material. “How could
you not fall in love with that?” Tilly teased. “Confess now, haven’t you
at least developed a little crush on the man?” “Does it show that much?”
Emma’s cheeks blazed as she recalled the erotic dreams she’d been having
the past few nights. Good grief, she was pathetic! A woman in her ninth
month, as big as a cow, with a raging case of the hots for a man who’d
been dead since 1872!
“I thought so.” Tilly flashed her a wink. “Now, how can I help you,
dear?” Emma reached for her briefcase. “For starters, since we’re
talking about men and their attributes, was J.D. ever known to be a
jackass?” Tilly’s eyebrows crinkled above lenses the diameter and
thickness of silver dollars. They reflected the light in the room,
masking her eyes. “Oh, J.D. had his moments. He was a man, after all,
with a full set of male complications. But he was honest in his dealings
and, as far as I know, he never raised his hand against a woman. That’s
more than you can say for some of our so-called western heroes. Take
Wyatt Earp—now there was a real jackass for you, the way he treated his
first wife. And Bill Hickock wasn’t much better, especially in his later
years.” “You almost sound as if you knew them.” “Look around you,
dearie.” Tilly’s gesture encompassed the overflowing bookshelves. “What
do you think I do here all winter, with nothing but a cranky old tomcat
for company? I read. Histories, journals, letters, you name it. Some of
those old boys are as real to me as you are—J.D. in particular, because
he spent so much time in these parts. Why, it’s likely he got his hair
and whiskers barbered in this very room.” She set her cup down and
leaned closer. “Sometimes I imagine that when the barber was sweeping
up, little bits of J.D.’s hair fell between the floorboards. They could
still be there, right under our feet.” In the warm stillness, Emma could
feel her baby kicking. She willed herself to unzip her briefcase and
ease out the sheaf of papers she’d stuffed into a manila folder. A
single page slipped loose and fluttered onto the braided rug. Tilly bent
down, picked it up and handed it back to her.
It was a copy of the most widely published photograph ever taken of
J.D. McNulty. He was laid out in his open casket, dressed in a suit and
tie, his eyes closed, his long, elegant hands folded across his chest.
He looked older here than in the picture on Tilly’s wall. His dark hair
was longer and lightly silvered at the temples. His weathered face
sported a well-trimmed moustache. Even as a corpse, J.D. was beautiful.
But Emma had never liked looking at the grisly portrait. “I know that
picture well.” Tilly leaned back into her chair, gazing into the ruby
glow behind the stove’s mica panes. “J.D.’s grave isn’t far from here.
But nothing really dies, you know. The chemical elements, the energy
particles that hold us together, they just get rearranged. Wood becomes
heat and smoke and ash, and then maybe soil for a new tree. As for
people...” Her voice trailed off for a moment. “Every place we go, every
life we touch, we leave a little piece of ourselves behind. We’re all
connected, in the present, in the past, for all time. If that isn’t
immortality, I don’t know what is.” The silence in the room was warm and
deep. Emma felt herself growing drowsy. Blinking herself awake, she held
out the sheaf of papers to Tilly. “Here’s what I’ve done so far. I’ve
tagged my questions with these pink sticky notes. Maybe you can help me
fill in some blanks.” Tilly was more than willing to lend her expertise.
Most of Emma’s questions were swiftly answered. But there were some
puzzles that even Tilly couldn’t resolve. One of them concerned the
saloon girl who’d clasped the dying J.D. in her arms.
Emma dug into her briefcase and pulled out a file crammed with
photocopied research. “I have the newspaper accounts here, and this
later story, based on an interview with Asa Smith, the photographer who
was there. He adds a few more details—like the piano playing “Beautiful
Dreamer” in the background, right up until the first shot. But even he
doesn’t mention the name of the girl.
“I’m guessing no one knew her real identity. A lot of those girls
would change their names to keep from shaming their families. The person
who reported the shooting probably didn’t think her name mattered.” “But
she could have been important,” Emma protested. “What if she was in love
with J.D.? What if he was in love with her?” Tilly’s lips tightened in
an enigmatic smile. “We’ll never know, will we, dear? It’s one of those
mysteries that make the past so intriguing.” Emma shuffled through her
pages. “Well, here’s an even bigger mystery for you. Why did J.D. drop
out of sight after that big gunfight in Laramie? What happened to him?
How did he end up in a rundown mining camp like Glory Gulch?” Tilly’s
fingers toyed with a loose pewter button on her sweater. “Only J.D.
could’ve answered those questions, and he was the sort who played his
cards close to his vest, as they say. But I can tell you one thing. J.D.
McNulty was a man who carried a load of pain in his gut. It ate at him
something awful. Made him do things that weren’t in his best interest.
Self-destruction—that would be the fancy term they use for it these
days. In the end, I suspect that was what really killed him.” Emma
waited, eager to hear more, but Tilly had fallen silent again. The only
sound in the little shop was the slow crackle of burning sapwood in the
stove. From the next room, an unseen clock chimed four. Tilly rose from
her chair, wincing as her legs straightened. “I’ve kept you too long,
dear,” she said. “This twinge in my left knee tells me there’s a storm
moving in. You’d best be heading back to Lander before the roads get
bad.” Reluctantly, Emma stuffed the papers back into her briefcase. She
had a world of questions for this woman who talked about J.D. as if he’d
been a close friend. “I wish we had more time,” she said. “But you’ve
already been so much help. I can’t thank you enough.” “It was my
pleasure. Come back anytime.” Tilly had begun clearing the tea table.
“I’ll bag some of these cookies for you to take along. You can nibble
them while you work on your thesis.” Emma shrugged into her parka,
picked up her purse and gratefully accepted the bagged cookies. “Will
you be all right out there?” Tilly asked. “I’d be happy to walk you back
to your car.” “Thanks, but I’ll be fine.” Emma moved toward the door but
Tilly stopped her with a touch on her arm.
“Are you sure, dear? About giving up your baby, I mean. Forgive an
old woman’s meddling, but I sense such a deep sadness in you, such
reluctance...” Emma shook her head. “It’s all arranged. The papers have
been signed and the parents are waiting to take her home from the
hospital. This little girl deserves a better life than I could ever give
her.” Her vision blurred as she opened the door and stepped outside into
the brittle sunlight. In the west, a bank of mud gray clouds drifted
along the horizon. There was no other sign of the storm Tilly had
predicted, but the air was so cold that every breath formed a frosty
puff of vapor in front of Emma’s face.
Minutes later she was in her car, teeth chattering as she waited for
the heater to kick in. The frigid steering wheel stung her palms as she
pulled out of the parking lot and headed back toward the paved highway.
She had every reason to feel elated, Emma told herself. Tilly had
given her enough information to finish the thesis, maybe even on
schedule if the baby wasn’t in a hurry to get here.
But it was Christmas Eve and she’d be going home to an empty house.
The thesis had drained so much of her energy that she hadn’t even
vacuumed, let alone put up a tree or hung a string of lights. All she
wanted for Christmas this year was to get the miserable holiday behind
The baby was kicking hard. Emma stifled a yelp as the tiny feet
delivered a volley of rapid-fire jabs to her bladder. The sensations
that shot through her body would have made a nun swear. She sighed as
the kicks subsided. “None of this is your fault, kiddo,” she murmured.
“You can’t help it if your mother was a silly old maid who thought she’d
found love and your father was a jerk in disguise. But never mind that.
You’re going to have a life—a wonderful life with a mom and dad who’ll
read you bedtime stories and go to your soccer games and love you as
much as if you’d been born to them. Maybe more.” Maybe almost as much as
I do. Lord, she was getting maudlin now. Desperate for a diversion, Emma
punched the radio button. A twangy country-western version of “Santa
Claus is Coming to Town” blared out of the speakers. Turning up the
volume, she began to sing along. By the time she’d made it through
“Silver Bells” and “Grandma Got Run Over by A Reindeer,” Emma was
actually feeling a glimmer of Christmas spirit. But the disk jockey at
the radio station couldn’t leave well enough alone. The next selection
was Elvis Presley’s “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” a song that had always
made her weepy. This time The King’s velvety tenor triggered a freshet
of tears. They spilled out of her eyes, trailing black mascara down her
cheeks. For Emma, home was no place at all. Her mother had long since
died of drink and despair, and she had no other family. Soon her baby
daughter would be gone, too. There’d be no little stocking by the
fireplace in years to come, no cookies for Santa, no dolls under the
tree. Emma’s fingers tightened on the steering wheel. “Oh, damn...” she
muttered, biting back sobs. “Oh, damn, damn, damn!” It was then, by
chance, that she remembered her briefcase. She had left it at Tilly’s,
next to the chair.
Muttering, she swung the Subaru around and headed back toward South
Pass City. The text of her thesis was on her computer, but her edits,
her notes and her photocopied research were all in that briefcase. She
couldn’t afford to leave it behind.
The sun had vanished behind a pall of dishwater clouds, darkening the
late afternoon sky. The music on the radio had degenerated into static.
She caught the words, “severe storm warning.” Then the station went
dead. Ahead of her now, black clouds were closing in. A drop of sleet
splattered the windshield. The fast-moving storm was stampeding over the
mountains and across the high desert plateau. Minutes from now it would
swallow her in snow and wind. It was too late to turn around and make a
run for Lander. Her best hope of shelter lay with Tilly.
She was watching for the turnoff to South Pass City when the full
force of the storm struck head on. Going too fast, she hit the
snow-slicked pavement and spun crazily. An eternity flashed past before
the Subaru crunched to a stop on the shoulder of the road. Dizzy but
unhurt, Emma slumped over the wheel. Huge flakes of snow swarmed around
her, piling up on the windows of the car. Pulling herself together she
punched the defroster buttons and switched the wagon to four-wheel
drive. She’d be fine, she told herself, as long as she kept her head.
Turning on the lights and wipers, she pulled back onto the road. By
now she was driving in total whiteout. She could only pray that she’d
recognize the turnoff to South Pass City when she reached it.
Moments later she sensed the rising of the shoulder that marked a
side road. Emma swung the wheel and felt the welcome crunch of gravel
beneath the tires. She laughed with relief. Before long she’d be back at
Tilly’s, warm and safe.
Half an hour later she was still driving. Even more unsettling was
the fact that the road seemed to wind upward through the blinding snow.
Could she have lost her bearings and taken the wrong turnoff?
She was searching for a wide place to turn around when she felt a
crumbling sensation beneath one wheel. The car lurched sideways,
flinging her hard to the right before it came to rest at a slant, its
weight on the front axle.
Sick with dread, Emma jammed on the emergency brake and clambered out
the driver’s side door. The Subaru’s right front wheel hung over the
edge of the road with nothing visible beyond it except swirling snow.
Now what? Emma willed herself to stay calm. If the wheel was in some
sort of ditch, she might be able to jack it up and back onto the road
again. But first she needed a closer look.
Blinded by flying flakes, she groped her way around to the passenger
side. Her legs went watery as she saw the tire. It hung over empty space
where the edge dropped off. There was no way she was going to get the
vehicle back onto the road. In fact, it might not even be safe to get
back inside the car. Creeping closer, she strained to see the slope
below. If it wasn’t too steep, she might be all right. Otherwise— Emma
screamed as the snowy edge gave way under her boots. Down, down she
plummeted through powdery white drifts. Then something struck her head
and the world exploded in blackness.
* * *
When she opened her eyes the sky was dark. She was lying on her back,
cradled by snow and cushioned by her down parka. Tiny crystals of ice
drifted onto her face. Dazed and chilled, she began moving her fingers,
then her arms and legs. Slowly the memory returned—the storm, the car,
The baby! Emma sat bolt upright. Her lips moved in silent prayer as
she clasped her belly. An eternity seemed to pass before she felt a
tentative push, then a spunky little kick. Dizzy with relief, she
staggered to her feet. She was sore and stiff, but aside from a tender
lump on the back of her head, she didn’t seem to be hurt.
A full moon shone through the clouds, flooding the landscape with
light. Looking up, Emma could see the slope where she’d fallen. It was
steep, but not so steep that she couldn’t get back to the road. Jamming
her boots into the snow, she began to climb.
“Don’t worry, little one, we’ll be fine,” she murmured. “We’ll just
get into the car and call 911. Then we can keep warm and munch cookies
while we wait for the Search and Rescue hunks to show up. How does that
sound for a way to spend Christmas Eve? Just you and—” Emma’s words died
in her throat as her eyes came level with the road. There was no sign of
the car—not even tire tracks to show where it had been. Shaking, she
sank onto a snow-covered rock. She’d left the car keys in the ignition
and her purse, with her cell phone inside, on the seat. Clearly, the
temptation had been too much for some passer-by. Now she was in real
Her eyes scanned the moonlit terrain. From where she sat, the road
seemed to disappear into a wooded canyon. Wherever it led, she had
little choice except to follow it. It might be her only hope of finding
shelter. By the time she reached the mouth of the canyon it was snowing
again. The wind had risen to a howl, blasting snowflakes into her face.
Head down, Emma trudged through the stinging blizzard. Once, then again,
she stumbled to her knees. Reeling with effort, she pushed on. She knew
the danger. If she stopped to rest, she and her baby could freeze.
She had just fallen a third time when she saw the light. It was
little more than a glimmer through the bare aspens, but even when Emma
rubbed her eyes the light remained. She staggered toward it.
As the trees thinned out she saw a log cabin with a tall stone
chimney. Soft amber lamplight glowed faintly through a tiny glass-paned
window. Something about the place—the ramshackle slope of the roof, the
off-kilter set of the door, looked familiar. Emma had the vague feeling
she’d seen it before, but she was too exhausted to remember where or
when. On the wide, covered porch, she hesitated, working her hands out
of her pockets. Just because she’d found the cabin, that didn’t mean she
was safe. Anybody could be on the other side of that door—maybe the very
people who’d stolen her car. She could be taking a dangerous chance, but
she’d run out of options. It was knock or freeze. Her knuckles rapped
feebly against the rough-sawn planking. There was no response from
inside the cabin. Maybe no one had heard her, or maybe they didn’t want
to answer. Her eyes fell on a pile of kindling next to the door.
Choosing a long, stout stick she banged it on the door with all her
strength. From inside the cabin she heard a crash and the sound of a
male voice cursing. Heavy footsteps lumbered across the wooden floor. A
bolt slid back and the door burst open, flooding the porch with
lamplight. Emma found herself staring up the barrel of a nasty-looking
Colt revolver. But it wasn’t the gun that made her gasp. It was the man
Dressed in nothing but faded red long johns and riding boots, he was
tall and rawboned. An evil-looking black cheroot was jammed into one
corner of his scowling mouth. The bloodshot eyes that glared down at
Emma from beneath a mop of dark, silvered hair were as blue as an
“Who in holy hellfire are you, lady, and what in do you want?” he
Heaven save her, he looked exactly like J.D. McNulty.