Authors: Larry McMurtry
The Judge had peeled his willow stick. The peeling bark hung in one long curl, and then dropped to the floor.
“What families want is vengeance,” the Judge told him. “But I'm not in the vengeance business.”
“No sir,” Chilly said, again.
“If you were the judge, what would you do in this case, Chilly?” the Judge asked. It amused him at times to test his bailiff's reasoning powers by demanding that he play judge for a little while.
“Well, I don't know the facts,” Chilly answered. Having to play judge for the Judge made him mighty nervous. If he slipped up in his judgment, the Judge might think less of him, which would be a thing hard to endure. Judge Parker was the one person he had to look up toâhe did not want to lose the Judge's good opinion of him.
“The facts are few, which is lucky,” Judge Parker said. “I don't like cases where there's a whole passel of facts. Zeke Proctor went up to the Beck mill one day and shot Polly Beck dead. What I have heard is that T. Spade Beck, who runs the mill, put weevils in Zeke's corn. No sane individual would want weevils in his corn, and so Zeke went up there to kill T. Spade. Evidently, he was a poor shotâhe hit the wife instead, and she died on the spot.”
The Judge paused. Chilly held steady. There might be more facts to come. He did not want to render a hasty opinion.
“What do you think about the weevils?” the Judge asked.
“If I raised up a corn crop and somebody put weevils in it, I'd be mad, too,” Chilly ventured.
“Ruining a man's corn crop is an actionable offense, but it doesn't necessarily call for murder,” the Judge commented, in a neutral voice. “Mr. Proctor then went to Tahlequah and turned himself in to Judge B. H. Sixkiller, who is a respected member of the judiciary. I respect him myself. Zeke Proctor admitted the killing, but claims it was an accident, which it probably was. A trial date has been set. They're letting the man keep his dog in jail.”
“His dog?” Chilly said. “Why would he need his dog, if he's in jail?”
Judge Parker had begun to whittle on the willow stick. He whittled carefully, but he wasn't trying to whittle the stick into any kind of shapeâhe was just whittling it away, shaving by fine shaving. He didn't respond to Chilly's question about the dog. From Chilly's point of view, the fact that Judge Parker was aware that Zeke Proctor had his dog in jail was itself a remarkable thing. The Judge spent most of his time in his chambers, speaking to as few people as possibleâyet, he
knew everything that went on, not only in Fort Smith and eastern Arkansas, but way up into Indian Territory as well.
“Be sound on your facts, Chilly,” the Judge had told him many times. “A man who's sound on his facts needn't hesitate in his judgments.”
Chilly doubted that he would ever be as sound on his facts, about Zeke Proctor or anything else, as Judge Parker. But the Judge was waiting for him to say something, and he knew he must not hesitate too long.
“I expect it was an accident, Judge,” he said. “I doubt Zeke meant to kill the woman.”
“Accident or not, she's deadâthe question is, should I let Judge Sixkiller try him, or should I attempt to bring him here?” the Judge asked. “The Becks want him tried in white court, and the Cherokees want to try him themselves.”
Chilly did not know what to say. The Indian courts were such a constant problem that Chilly wondered why the government had ever let them be set up. It was obvious to him that their court was as good as anybody could ask for, and Judge Parker the best judge in Arkansas, if not the best judge anywhere. Why would the Cherokees keep wanting to try criminals when Judge Parker was more than willing to take on the task?
“Chilly, answer the question,” the Judge said, as he whittled the willow stick into a smooth cylinder of wood. “Should I bring Zeke Proctor here for trial, or should I let Judge Sixkiller handle the matter?”
“It would be good for you to try him, if you've got the time,” Chilly replied cautiously.
“You ain't looking at the matter carefully enough,” the Judge promptly informed him. “Of course I've got the timeâthere's always time to hold court. The problem here ain't timeâit's money.”
“Oh,” Chilly said. The Judge was always complaining that the government did not allot him enough money to run his court properly. Chilly himself was only responsible for sweeping and bailiffing and the spittoons. The money was not his province, and he had no idea what sums the Judge had in mind when he complained about the government. He himself was paid $35 a month, plus his bench. In his opinion, he had one of the better jobs available in Fort Smith at the time,
and he did not intend to complain, though, of course, the Judge was free to rail against the government if he saw fit.
“This court is broke till next month,” the Judge informed him. “It can't afford the kerosene to keep the lanterns burning. If it happened to be a dark day when we tried Zeke, it'd be so dark in the courthouse that we might not even be able to see the rascal. He might slip out a window and be thirty miles away eating catfish before we even noticed he was gone.”
Chilly was shocked by that statement. Even if the courtroom was a little dark, he thought he was a good enough bailiff to keep a prisoner from slipping out a window.
“Judge, I'd tackle the man before I'd let that happen,” Chilly said.
“Chilly, I was trying to explain to you that this court exists in a state of poverty,” the Judge said, slightly annoyed by the protest. “We can't afford kerosene, not till next month, and we also can't afford marshals. The only way I could afford to send a marshal up there to Tahlequah to try and talk Judge Sixkiller out of his prisoner was if there happened to be a marshal fool enough to work for free. And a marshal fool enough to work for free probably couldn't hold his own in a discussion with Judge Sixkiller.
“I have no doubt such a man would come back empty handed,” he added, conclusively.
“OhâI see,” Chilly said, confident that he now understood the Judge's position. It was dangerous work, marshaling, particularly if the marshaling involved a foray into the Indian lands. Quite a few marshals fell victim to ambushes, and most of the ambushing was done by whiskeysellers, many of whom were white menâcriminals and fugitivesâhiding out from the white law. Selling whiskey in the Territory was a serious crime, and a large reward was available to any marshal who brought a whiskeyseller to trial. Several marshals had been tempted by the reward to go up toward the Mountain in search of whiskeysellers. Three or four had come back badly shot up, and an equal number had never come back at all.
“Justice costs money,” the Judge said, with a sigh. “If I had unlimited funds to spend on marshals, there wouldn't be a criminal within two hundred miles of here. The fact is, I can't even afford to light the lamps. It's a sad comedown.”
“Lucky for Zeke Proctor, though. I guess he'll stay where he is,” Chilly said.
“He'll stay where he is. Whether that's lucky is another matter,” the Judge said.
“Why? Do you think Judge Sixkiller will let him off?” Chilly asked.
“No, Judge Sixkiller will give him a thorough trial, if it gets to trial,” the Judge said.
“Why wouldn't it get to trial?” Chilly asked.
“There's a passel of Becks, and they're all hot,” the Judge replied. “The dead woman was a Squirrel on her pa's side, and there's quite a few Squirrels. I expect they're all hot, too.”
“You think they'll lynch him?” Chilly asked.
Judge Isaac Parker had finished talking. He kept whittling away on his willow stick.
EKE HATED CURBS ON HIS FREEDOM, AND JAIL IN
a major curb on his freedom.
Having Zeke there soon proved to be a curb on Sheriff Charley Bobtail's freedom, too. Zeke was a demanding prisoner if there ever was one. Miscreants and felons rarely spent more than a few hours in the Tahlequah jail. Once they sobered up and submitted themselves to Judge Sixkiller in a spirit of humility, the Judge usually let them go, though not without levying a hefty fine.
Throughout the first night and most of the second day, there was general apprehension within the jail. Everybody expected the white marshals to show up and attempt to take Zeke back to Fort Smith. Sheriff Bobtail had strict instructions from the Judge, and the instructions were not to let the marshals have Zeke. Ned Christie stayed the night, sleeping in the Cherokee Senate meeting hall. He missed his young wife Jewelâhe dreamed of her soft eyes, and sweet breathâ but he felt he ought to stay with Zeke at least one day. After all, he was a senator; perhaps the white marshals would listen to him if they showed up. Most of them had little interest in carting prisoners from one place to another, and Judge Parker was not popular with them because he paid the smallest fee possible for their services and permitted no extravagance. Their real hope in taking assignments to Tahlequah was to catch a whiskeyseller and collect the handsome reward. Two whiskeysellers, if apprehended and convicted, would yield enough reward money to enable a marshal to retire.
When the second day came and went with no marshals, Ned decided the crisis had passed and prepared to go back to his wife. Zeke was annoyed with the whole arrangement. He did not want to be in jail, but if he had to be, he wanted Ned to go and bring him his dog, Pete, for company.
“Pete might still be in that springhouse. If he is, I guess he's living on bugs,” Zeke said. He and Ned had been throwing dice all day, to no purpose. Neither of them had any money.
“I imagine Becca let him out,” Ned said, keeping his eyes on the dice. He wanted to go home and lay with his wife. He did not want to go all the way to Zeke's place, just to let a dog out of a springhouse.
“He could be a hundred miles away by now,” Sheriff Bobtail said.
“Pete? Why would he be a hundred miles away?” Zeke asked, with some indignation. What right did Charley Bobtail have to be making such comments about his dog?
Sheriff Bobtail declined to follow up on his remark. He had meant to go coon hunting that evening, and was annoyed at having to stay in Tahlequah just to hear Zeke Proctor complain. It occurred to him that he might deputize Ned Christie for a few hours, just long enough to get in a good coon hunt. Ned looked restless, though; he might not tolerate being deputized. It was a vexing situation for all concerned and was made more vexing a minute later, when the wild renegade Davie Beck came stomping into the jail.
Davie took little care with his appearance. His shirt was liberally stained with tobacco drippings, and his pants were muddy. He had a long-barreled pistol stuck in his belt.
“I ought to shoot all you fools, and I
you goddamn killer!” he said, glowering at Zeke. “I've taken a solemn vow to avenge Polly, and I'd just as soon do it now.”
“I guess you would, since I'm in jail and unarmed,” Zeke said. “I suggest you come to my house day after tomorrow, and we'll have at it.”
“Now, Dave,” Sheriff Bobtail said. “Zeke's in my custodyâdon't you be threatening him.” Unfortunately, the Sheriff was not possessed of a weapon just at the moment. He did not like wearing his pistol, because it interfered with his posture, and he had left his rifle out by the woodpile.
“Shut up, Charley, you ain't even armed,” Davie retorted. “I would rather not kill no sheriff, but I will, if I'm interfered with.”
Ned Christie stood up and sidled between Davie and Zeke. Davie was the runt of the Becks, and Ned was a good foot and a half taller and considerably better armed. Davie's old pistol had part of the handle wired on.
“This man is a legal prisoner,” Ned informed Davie. “Judge Sixkiller put him in jail, and the trial is set. He wants to try a live prisoner, not a dead one.”
Davie Beck was prone to animal-like fits when he was enraged. His hair would stand up like a mad coon's, and he would snarl and hiss like a wildcat. In his rage, he would suck in air and swell like a bladder. Now, facing Ned Christie, his eyes got pig red, and he snorted a few times through his thick nose hairs.
“You ought to get back to your goddamn hill, Ned,” Davie said. “I will shoot any man that opposes me.”
“Get to shootin', then,” Ned said, promptly drawing both of his .44s.
Instead of pulling his old pistol with the wired-on handle, Davie gave a snarl and jumped for Ned's throat. Ned whopped him with one of the big .44s right up the side of his head, knocking him into a corner. Davie was up in a flash and came for Ned again, trying to butt him down. Ned sidestepped, and whacked him right across the nose with the same big pistol. Everybody heard the nose crack. Blood came pouring forth, as if someone had just pulled a stopper out of Davie's nostril. He went down again, but managed to lunge from a prone position and sink his teeth into Ned's calf.
“Watch him, Ned, he bites!” Zeke warned, a second too late.
Ned did not need the warningâhe knew Davie Beck bit and clawed in his rages, but he had not supposed Davie could recover from two whacks with a .44 pistol quite so swiftly.
Sheriff Charley Bobtail could hardly believe his eyes. Davie Beck was not much more than half Ned Christie's size, and Ned was far better armedâand yet there Davie was, his face and chest smeared with blood, chawing at Ned's leg as if it was a pork chop.
Ned had to whop Davie Beck three more times directly on the head and neck before Davie ceased his biting. Even then, Davie still showed signs of fight. He fumbled for his pistol, but Ned kicked his hand away and took the pistol. To Ned's astonishment, the pistol was not even loaded.
Then Davie got up on his knees and pulled a knife. It was a big
clasp knife, which he promptly smeared with blood as he was trying to open the blade. Though his leg pained him, Ned could hardly keep from laughing at Davie Beck's determination to do him violence. Davie stopped trying to open the clasp knife for a moment, and spat out a bloody tooth, one jarred loose by Ned's second blow.