Tom Clanton’s daddy died in front of him when he was only thirteen years old. He was gunned down outside the Silver Dollar saloon in broad daylight for trying to prevent his wife from running away with an outlaw that had been feeding her opium for the last several months. The first bullet that hit his daddy sent him to the ground with such force that the dust nearly blocked Tom from seeing the second bullet tear through his daddy’s chest and kill him. The outlaw, Ben Philpot, left with the boy’s mother, and they were later killed by Blood Indians on their way to Canada. After a while, the crowd that had formed to observe the killing dispersed, leaving Tom alone to watch the blood soak his daddy’s loose-fitting clothes to a deeper red.
You’d expect a boy to cry at a sight like that, and though Tom’s eyes were wet, you couldn’t say that he cried; the boy just stood there, watching his dead daddy like he was seeing the sunset over Yellowstone for the last time. Most everyone was gone when Bill Clum took the hat off the deceased, slapped it against his thigh until the dirt was out, and put it on Tom’s head. The low-crowned hat sunk to his eyebrows and cast a shadow like a storm cloud all around him. Finally, a tear dropped from the boy’s eye.
“It’s too big now, but you’ll be glad you got a hat like that anyway,” Clum said, “Now, follow me.”
Bill Clum was a widower from Kansas and the proprietor of Clum’s Livery Stable, Miles City’s only institution providing horse and carriage rentals, feed for livestock, coal, wood, and horse keeping. The place was well known for its goods and services, the fact it was attached to a brothel, and because of its terrible smell, which bothered no one more than the town’s mayor, Ike Buckley. Working at Clum’s since the day his daddy died, Tom Clanton often heard Buckley, who wore two pocket watches on his vest to look important, complain that the stench of their business was preventing the town from prospering. As a younger man, this seemed logical, but as he grew, so did the town, irregardless of it smelling like shit, and for all his whining about the Livery Stable, Tom noticed Buckley was quiet when it came to the stink of the new arrivals. The first time Tom smelled a buffalo hunter’s wagon piled high with skins, his suspicion that Buckley was not the knowledgeable man he presented himself to be was confirmed. Of course, by that point, Tom had turned his attention away from the smells of the town and to a sporting girl upstairs in the brothel.
Her name was Urilla Baylock, but most people knew her as Ringlet on account of her long, brown hair that naturally fell in beautifully soft ringlets. She charged Tom five dollars for the time they spent together, which was a quarter of his monthly wages, and he would have given her additional funds if he could’ve afforded it. To Tom, Ringlet was worthy of more than the price of a poke. She was the only person he confided in, and though he always got his poke, he enjoyed the conversation just as much. Mostly, Tom liked to listen to Ringlet talk about San Francisco. It was her dream to go there, and she was saving money to make it come true. She painted the picture of her future so wonderfully it filled Tom with the hope that he had enough life left to make something of himself, and yet when she tried to learn Tom’s aspirations, his face would flush like a drunkard's, and he’d shy away, embarrassed that he didn’t have plans of his own.
As they grew older, Tom eventually told Ringlet that he didn’t want to be a stableboy forever. It was his greatest secret, and confessing such a thing, after all that Bill Clum had done for him, felt like a grave sin. He had immediately regretted sharing the information, but Ringlet made it seem as though his disclosure was common knowledge and told him she could tell he wanted more out of life by the way he listened to her talk about San Francisco. Around this time, he first let her mend his most prized position; his hat. The whores had pitched in for a foot-powered sewing machine, and Ringlet was an ace with a needle and thread. Tom had worn his daddy’s hat for nearly a decade by then, and it sorely needed repair. However, the hat was the only thing besides his blood that tied him to his daddy, and he was reluctant to part with it, even momentarily. Ringlet did not know the history of the hat but saw how much it meant to Tom and promised him she’d take great care of it, and she did. When Tom got the hat back and put it on for the first time, he imagined he looked as good as his daddy the day he bought it. It was a pleasure far greater than any poke he could purchase.
Violence was a fact of life in Miles City, and it seemed to Tom that it got bloodier every year. Lewis McClary, the town’s only lawman, often tried to recruit deputies to help him keep order, but the job was feared because of its danger, and no one came forward. McClary became so frustrated by the men who rejected his solicitation that he called them cowards and threatened to quit protecting them because of their yellow-belly behavior. Still, deep down, he understood why people were afraid. Miles City was becoming a cattle town, and lawmen didn’t just have to defend it from drunk cowboys and buffalo hunters but from outlaws who came to establish their own kind of order. When Tom was with Ringlet, she expressed her concern over the rougher customers, and when he asked Bill Clum what his feelings towards the town’s safety were, Clum responded that Miles City was becoming like Dodge City, and there was no law in Dodge City, only outlaws.
On a Wednesday that he received his wages, Tom went to Ringlet to buy a poke. It was a familiar routine. He and Ringlet had formed a kind of relationship, and though a monetary transaction took place, Tom felt that Ringlet enjoyed his company or at least cared for him in her whore-like way. When he ascended the stairs to the girls' rooms, Tom noticed that none of them had any customers; instead, they were rushing from room to room. Ringlet saw him standing there as she left her room carrying a small jewelry box and told him that she didn’t have time to for a poke because they had to prepare for the arrival of Ed Masterson. Tom knew the name and understood that the women were getting ready for Masterson and his gang by hiding their money and valuables, which they were likely to steal. Recently, the gang had made a habit of riding into town every few weeks to get drunk, fiddle the whores, and steal supplies. When they were about, the town was on edge because shooting was inevitable. Ed Masterson, the meanest son of a bitch most of the townfolk had ever seen, was the leader and the one man Lewis McClary could never stop. Tom left Ringlet to tell Clum the news and help him stow away the horse feed, an item the gang had taken once before.
The shoot-out between Masterson and McClary began just after sundown, and Ringlet and other townspeople peered out their windows at the sound of gunfire to watch the fight unfold. Tom and Bill watched from the stable. Ed was a sight to see; just his look could cause an average man to shudder with fear. He was six foot two, weighed two hundred and ten pounds, and had such powerful arms that he handled a shotgun like it was a pistol. His beard was tobacco-stained, and his hat had bullet holes in it. Tom didn’t see him flinch at all when McClary fired the first shot, which stuck Masterson in the shoulder. Ed’s posse drew their guns and fired back at McClary, who hid behind the saloon’s trough. The pistols’ smoke formed a cloud in the street that was head high. McClary’s strategy was to fire low, and he dropped three men with bullets to their legs.
Ed was counting McClary’s bullets, and as soon as the lawman’s revolver spun empty, Ed charged him in a fit of rage, screaming and cursing. Tom didn’t see the bullet that killed McClary, but by the time Masterson dragged him into the middle of the street and fired a final round into his heart, the town’s only lawman was already dead. Masteron’s gang fled town with all of what they had come to steal, leaving Miles City trembling at the thought of what would happen the next time they paid a visit.
The days that followed were a haze of anxiousness and dread. Ike Buckley sent a telegram asking the county Marshal to furnish a new lawman for the town. In addition, he went door to door, asking if any man were brave enough to uphold the law in the interim, but, again, no one came forward. Tom ended up getting his poke from Ringlet; however, the time they spent together did little to satisfy his expectations. A cloud of worry covered Miles City, and Tom found out the hard way that it had even seeped into the whore’s rooms. The whole time he was with Ringlet, she told him the town was no longer safe, and San Francisco needed to happen sooner than expected. Tom knew he could do nothing to convince her that she or anyone else would be safe in Miles City. It was this lack of power that led him to Bill Clum’s Colt .31 pocket revolver. He began to practice firing the gun on the outskirts of town, and to his surprise, he was an exceptional shot.
Clint Behan rode into town on a Missouri Fox Trotter named Quick Trigger. It was the first time Buckley had seen the breed, and it surprised the onlookers that he seemed to take more interest in the horse than Miles City’s new Marshal. Behan obliged Buckley for only a few moments before he took over the conversation by asking about Ed Masterson. Buckley told the new Marshal all he knew about Ed; the violence, the stealing, the killings, but Behan didn’t seem impressed. He told Buckley and all the townspeople who had poured out of businesses to catch a glimpse of the new lawman that he’d seen worse than Ed Masterson, and he’d killed worse too. He told them Masteron’s gang was through terrorizing Miles City.
Bill Clum made jokes about the sign Behan put up on the side of the road into town. He laughed, mocking the new Marshal’s tactics, and teasingly asked Tom how a sign saying guns weren’t allowed in the town was going to work on outlaws who couldn’t read. Tom thought the sign was a good starting point for protection and shared with Bill that he liked the warning, so it was no surprise when Clum brushed him off and said to Tom that he’d just need to wait and see what good it does. It bothered Tom that Clum was skeptical about Behan’s strategy, but his employer was not the only one who expressed pessimism.
After a day, when his hat was crushed by a wild mare he was trying to break, Tom took it to Ringlet for repair only to find that she was considering packing her things and leaving that night. She told Tom that anyone who thinks they’re protected in Miles City doesn’t know dung from butter. Tom was distraught at the thought of her abrupt departure and begged her to fix his hat one last time before she left. It was the only thing he could think of that would get her to stay a little longer. Before she responded, Ringlet looked out the window at the Livery stable and asked Tom if he was ever going to leave Miles City. The question made him wonder if she was asking him to go with her, but when she looked back at him, her eyes said something different. It was not an invitation, only a question, and Tom answered by telling her he did not know.
“One last night,” She sighed, taking the hat from Tom and setting it on her dresser. She sat on the bed and patted the mattress. Tom took in everything; the lighting on her face that shaped her cheekbones, the longing in her eyes to follow her dreams, and the brown ringlets of her hair. He went to her, and they got undressed.
No one expected Masterson to come that night. His gang’s horses’ hooves played on the town’s street like the beat of a war drum as the outlaws fired their pistols toward the sky. Tom and Clum’s dinner was interrupted by the shots, and they heard women and children screaming and men shouting dimwitted instructions on what to do before the men’s arrival. Even Clum’s horses frantically neighed, alarmed by the loud, sudden presence. Tom and Clum went to the window to look at Masterson, so they could judge how bad it would be. Tom was shocked to see Clint Behan standing in the middle of the street, in front of the Silver Spoon saloon, in the exact spot where his daddy died.
Behan was holding a shotgun across his body, and as Masterson and his men blazed down the street, he shouted, “I am Clint Behan! I am the law!” The words were guttural, but they did not stop Ed Masterson from leading the men closer to the Marshal, and in an instant, the gang was stopped before Behan with Masterson out front, his face uglier than a new-sheared sheep. The men exchanged words, but Tom couldn’t make out what they were. The next thing he knew, they reached for their pistols, and shots were fired. Behan was down. Masterson got off his horse, and just like the outlaw that had killed his daddy, Ed fired a final bullet into Behan’s chest.
The gang raided the general store then drank in the saloon for two hours. Before they left town, they had killed two men, fiddled and beat the whores, and made off with four of Clum’s horses. In the middle of the night, after they were sure the gang had left, the townspeople huddled in the street over the lawman’s dead body. For the first time anybody could recall, Ike Buckley was silent and visibly shaken.
Tom left the Clum and the crowd to go to the brothel and check on Ringlet. His act of cowardice sickened him, and he ascended the stairs to the girls’ rooms, fearing the worst. The rooms were turned over, and some of the whores’ eyes were bloodied from the drunken fists of outlaws. Ringlet was sobbing uncontrollably. Tom held her as she wept and told him they had taken all her money. “I’ll never get to San Francisco,” she cried.
Tom felt worse than he ever had before, for he knew that if he had not requested she stay and fix his hat, she would have already been on her way. That was when he realized his hat was missing. Ringlet told him that they had taken that too and as if by reflex, Tom’s fists clenched. He made a promise to Ringlet right then that she’d get to San Francisco. He left her, grabbed Clum’s revolver, mounted a horse, and loped out of town.
Tom tracked Masterson and his men to their camp a hundred miles north of Miles City. They had a cabin, cattle, twice as many horses as they needed, and a handful of them were surrounding a fire, passing around a bottle of whiskey. They looked more relaxed than Tom had ever felt, and they got it all by robbing and killing. It didn’t sit right with Tom, and he approached the camp steadfast on his mission. He killed Ed Masterson with a bullet between the eyes on his first shot. The next four shots that followed all hit their targets, then he reloaded and kept going. Within a matter of minutes, Tom Clanton had methodically cleared the site of any living outlaw. He found his hat and Ringlet’s money and went back to study Ed Masterson’s dead body. The bullet hole had opened up a waterfall of blood that spilled into the puddle forming on his lap. The gruesomeness should have made Tom squeamish, but at that moment, all he could think about was how an outlaw didn’t look so tough when they were dead.
The sun rose as he rode back to Miles City, turning the sky to a color purple he’d never seen before. It made him think of Ringlet and the sunrises she’d enjoy on her way to San Francisco. It would be hard to see her go, but Tom wasn’t going to fight it; he wanted her to follow her dream. He felt a strange feeling, having killed all those men, but it wasn’t a bad one. All his life, he’d been afraid of outlaws like the one that had killed his daddy, but he knew then that things would be different.
For a moment, he worried about telling Bill Clum that he was quitting the Livery Stable to become Miles City's new lawman, but then he imagined how fun it would be to tease him about Behan’s sign, which he’d suggest keeping up. It was a pleasant thought, and the sunrise sure was beautiful, and Tom Clanton was pleased to have his hat back.