Authors: Charles Portis
People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father's blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day. I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.
Here is what happened. We had clear title to 480 acres of good bottom land on the south bank of the Arkansas River not far from Dardanelle in Yell County, Arkansas. Tom Chaney was a tenant but working for hire and not on shares. He turned up one day hungry and riding a gray horse that had a filthy blanket on his back and a rope halter instead of a bridle. Papa took pity on the fellow and gave him a job and a place to live. It was a cotton house made over into a little cabin. It had a good roof.
Tom Chaney said he was from Louisiana. He was a short man with cruel features, I will tell more about his face later. He carried a Henry rifle. He was a bachelor about twenty-five years of age.
In November when the last of the cotton was sold Papa took it in his head to go to Fort Smith and buy some ponies. He had heard that a stock trader there named Colonel Stonehill had bought a large parcel of cow ponies from Texas drovers on their way to Kansas and was now stuck with them. He was getting shed of them at bargain rates as he did not want to feed them over the winter. People in Arkansas did not think much of Texas mustang ponies. They were little and mean. They had never had anything but grass to eat and did not weigh over eight hundred pounds. Papa had an idea they would make good deer-hunting ponies, being hardy and small and able to keep up with the dogs through the brush. He thought he would buy a small string of them and if things worked out he would breed and sell them for that purpose. His head was full of schemes. Anyway, it would be a cheap enough investment to start with, and we had a patch of winter oats and plenty of hay to see the ponies through till spring when they could graze in our big north pasture and feed on greener and juicier clover than they ever saw in the "Lone Star State." As I recollect, shelled corn was something under fifteen cents a bushel then.
Papa intended for Tom Chaney to stay and look after things on the place while he was gone. But Chaney set up a fuss to go and after a time he got the best of Papa's good nature. If Papa had a failing it was his kindly disposition. People would use him. I did not get my mean streak from him. Frank Ross was the gentlest, most honorable man who ever lived. He had a common-school education. He was a Cumberland Presbyterian and a Mason and he fought with determination at the battle of Elkhorn Tavern but was not wounded in that "scrap" as Lucille Biggers Langford states in her
Yell County Yesterdays.
I think I am in a position to know the facts. He was hurt in the terrible fight at Chickamauga up in the state of Tennessee and came near to dying on the way home from want of proper care.
Before Papa left for Fort Smith he arranged for a colored man named Yarnell Poindexter to feed the stock and look in on Mama and us every day. Yarnell and his family lived just below us on some land he rented from the bank. He was born of free parents in Illinois but a man named Bloodworth kidnaped him in Missouri and brought him down to Arkansas just before the war. Yarnell was a good man, thrifty and industrious, and he later became a prosperous house painter in Memphis, Tennessee. We exchanged letters every Christmas until he passed away in the flu epidemic of 1918. To this day I have never met anybody else named Yarnell, white or black. I attended the funeral and visited in Memphis with my brother, Little Frank, and his family.
Instead of going to Fort Smith by steamboat or train, Papa decided he would go on horseback and walk the ponies back all tied together. Not only would it be cheaper but it would be a pleasant outing for him and a good ride. Nobody loved to gad about on a prancing steed more than Papa. I have never been very fond of horses myself although I believe I was accounted a good enough rider in my youth. I never was afraid of animals. I remember once I rode a mean goat through a plum thicket on a dare.
From our place to Fort Smith was about seventy miles as a bird flies, taking you past beautiful Mount Nebo where we had a little summer house so Mama could get away from the mosquitoes, and also Mount Magazine, the highest point in Arkansas, but it might as well have been seven hundred miles for all I knew of Fort Smith. The boats went up there and some people sold their cotton up there but that was all I knew about it. We sold our cotton down in Little Rock. I had been there two or three times.
Papa left us on his saddle horse, a big chestnut mare with a blazed face called Judy. He took some food and a change of clothes rolled up in some blankets and covered with a slicker. This was tied behind his saddle. He wore his belt gun which was a big long dragoon pistol, the cap-and-ball kind that was old-fashioned even at that time. He had carried it in the war. He was a handsome sight and in my memory's eye I can still see him mounted up there on Judy in his brown woolen coat and black Sunday hat and the both of them, man and beast, blowing little clouds of steam on that frosty morn. He might have been a gallant knight of old. Tom Chaney rode his gray horse that was better suited to pulling a middlebuster than carrying a rider. He had no hand gun but he carried his rifle slung across his back on a piece of cotton plow line. There is trash for you. He could have taken an old piece of harness and made a nice leather strap for it. That would have been too much trouble.
Papa had right around two hundred and fifty dollars in his purse as I had reason to know since I kept his books for him. Mama was never any good at sums and she could hardly spell cat. I do not boast of my own gifts in that direction. Figures and letters are not everything. Like Martha I have always been agitated and troubled by the cares of the day but my mother had a serene and loving heart. She was like Mary and had chosen "that good part." The two gold pieces that Papa carried concealed in his clothes were a marriage gift from my Grandfather Spurling in Monterey, California.
Little did Papa realize that morning that he was never to see us or hold us again, nor would he ever again harken to the meadowlarks of Yell County trilling a joyous anthem to spring.
The news came like a thunderclap. Here is what happened. Papa and Tom Chaney arrived in Fort Smith and took a room at the Monarch boardinghouse. They called on Stonehill at his stock barn and looked over the ponies. It fell out that there was not a mare in the lot, or a stallion for that matter. The Texas cowboys rode nothing but geldings for some cowboy reason of their own and you can imagine they are no good for breeding purposes. But Papa was not to be turned back. He was determined to own some of those little brutes and on the second day he bought four of them for one hundred dollars even, bringing Stonehill down from his asking price of one hundred and forty dollars. It was a good enough buy.
They made plans to leave the next morning. That night Tom Chaney went to a barroom and got into a game of cards with some "riffraff" like himself and lost his wages. He did not take the loss like a man but went back to the room at the boardinghouse and sulled up like a possum. He had a bottle of whiskey and he drank that. Papa was sitting in the parlor talking to some drummers. By and by Chaney came out of the bedroom with his rifle. He said he had been cheated and was going back to the barroom and get his money. Papa said if he had been cheated then they had best go talk to the law about it. Chaney would not listen. Papa followed him outside and told him to surrender the rifle as he was in no fit state to start a quarrel with a gun in his hand. My father was not armed at that time.
Tom Chaney raised his rifle and shot him in the forehead, killing him instantly. There was no more provocation than that and I tell it as it was told to me by the high sheriff of Sebastian County. Some people might say, well, what business was it of Frank Ross to meddle? My answer is this: he was trying to do that short devil a good turn. Chaney was a tenant and Papa felt responsibility. He was his brother's keeper. Does that answer your question?
Now the drummers did not rush out to grab Chaney or shoot him but instead scattered like poultry while Chaney took my father's purse from his warm body and ripped open the trouser band and took the gold pieces too. I cannot say how he knew about them. When he finished his thieving he raced to the end of the street and struck the night watchman at the stock barn a fierce blow to the mouth with his rifle stock, knocking him silly. He put a bridle on Papa's horse Judy and rode out bareback. Darkness swallowed him up. He might have taken the time to saddle the horse or hitched up three spans of mules to a Concord stagecoach and smoked a pipe as it seems no one in that city was after him. He had mistaken the drummers for men. "The wicked flee when none pursueth."
Lawyer Daggett had gone to Helena to try one of his steamboat suits and so Yarnell and I rode the train to Fort Smith to see about Papa's body. I took around one hundred dollars expense money and wrote myself out a letter of identification and signed Lawyer Daggett's name to it and had Mama sign it as well. She was in bed.
There were no seats to be had on the coaches. The reason for this was that there was to be a triple hanging at the Federal Courthouse in Fort Smith and people from as far away as east Texas and north Louisiana were going up to see it. It was like an excursion trip. We rode in a colored coach and Yarnell got us a trunk to sit on.
When the conductor came through he said, "Get that trunk out of the aisle, nigger!"
I replied to him in this way: "We will move the trunk but there is no reason for you to be so hateful about it."
He did not say anything to that but went on taking tickets. He saw that I had brought to all the darkies' attention how little he was. We stood up all the way but I was young and did not mind. On the way we had a good lunch of spare ribs that Yarnell had brought along in a sack.
I noticed that the houses in Fort Smith were numbered but it was no city at all compared to Little Rock. I thought then and still think that Fort Smith ought to be in Oklahoma instead of Arkansas, though of course it was not Oklahoma across the river then but the Indian Territory. They have that big wide street there called Garrison Avenue like places out in the west. The buildings are made of fieldstone and all the windows need washing. I know many fine people live in Fort Smith and they have one of the nation's most modern waterworks but it does not look like it belongs in Arkansas to me.
There was a jailer at the sheriff's office and he said we would have to talk to the city police or the high sheriff about the particulars of Papa's death. The sheriff had gone to the hanging. The undertaker was not open. He had left a notice on his door saying he would be back after the hanging. We went to the Monarch boardinghouse but there was no one there except a poor old woman with cataracts on her eyes. She said everybody had gone to the hanging but her. She would not let us in to see about Papa's traps. At the city police station we found two officers but they were having a fist fight and were not available for inquiries.
Yarnell wanted to see the hanging but he did not want me to go so he said we should go back to the sheriff's office and wait there until everybody got back. I did not much care to see it but I saw he wanted to so I said no, we would go to the hanging but I would not tell Mama about it. That was what he was worried about.
The Federal Courthouse was up by the river on a little rise and the big gallows was hard beside it. About a thousand or more people and fifty or sixty dogs had gathered there to see the show. I believe a year or two later they put up a wall around the place and you had to have a pass from the marshal's office to get in but at this time it was open to the public. A noisy boy was going through the crowd selling parched peanuts and fudge. Another one was selling "hot tamales" out of a bucket. This is a cornmeal tube filled with spicy meat that they eat in Old Mexico. They are not bad. I had never seen one before.
When we got there the preliminaries were just about over. Two white men and an Indian were standing up there on the platform with their hands tied behind them and the three nooses hanging loose beside their heads. They were all wearing new jeans and flannel shirts buttoned at the neck. The hangman was a thin bearded man named George Maledon. He was wearing two long pistols. He was a Yankee and they say he would not hang a man who had been in the G.A.R. A marshal read the sentences but his voice was low and we could not make out what he was saying. We pushed up closer.
A man with a Bible talked to each of the men for a minute. I took him for a preacher. He led them in singing "Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound" and some people in the crowd joined in. Then Maledon put the nooses on their necks and tightened up the knots just the way he wanted them. He went to each man with a black hood and asked him if he had any last words before he put it on him.