How Justice Was Done at Opuntia

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
 

How Justice Was Done at Opuntia
By RALPH HENRY BARBOUR


THE Sheriff of Opuntia County sat in front of the jail. he leaned forward, resting his elbows upon his knees and clasping his sinewy hands together, Occasionally he raised his head and spat with fine precision at the yellow cactus bloom beside the walk.

It was May, and the sun beat down fiercely upon the baked soil. Rut here on the little knife-starred bench the shadows still rested. The jail at Opuntia, a modest brick building with frosts cracked walls, stands a half mile from town on the Cheyenne road About it dusty cottonwoods drop tiny disks of shade upon the struggling buffalo grass, and the little irrigating ditch murmurs musically beneath them.

The Sheriff of Opuntia was thinking. His hands twisted together nervously and the furrows deepened on his brow. The Sheriff had left forty well behind but his form was still as tall and erect as ever, with a breadth of shoulder and suppleness of joints acquired by many years in the stock saddle. His hair and long moustache were faded by the hot sunlight of the plains. His skin was brown, deepening to Indian red about the neck, and over his high cheekbones were many "alkali spots." His eyes were intensely blue. and held the power of looking straight through any thing short of a stone wall. The Sheriff was a power in Opuntia County.

When the cactus flower was dyed a rich brown the Sheriff arose and entered the jail. To the right was the office, a small bare room furnished chiefly with empty packing cases. Across the corridor were three empty cells. A fourth contained a camp-bed, a table, a chair, and some newspaper illustrations against the whitewashed walls. It also contained a man. And to him the Sheriff spoke.

"Want to come outside. Trump?"

The prisoner arose languidly and followed his jailer into the open air, seating himself beside him on the bench.

"Look here, Trump," began the Sheriff. "I don't like ter see yer takin' things so hard. There 'aint no use In sayin' die yet. Now, is there?" the prisoner hesitated.

"No, Bill. I reckon there 'aint: not 'fore Friday."

"Correct, an' this is only Monday. Lots may happen 'fore Friday. There's the Guv'ner, Trump." Hesitation and inquiry were in the latter assertion. Trump shook his head slowly.

"I 'aint countin' on him, Bill. There 'aint no reason on earth why the Governor should act. The jury said 'Guilty' and the Judge said 'Hang,' and there ain't no extenooatin' circumstances, an' there ain't no plea of insanity."

"But there's the petition, Trump; signed by two hundred and seventy-eight representative citizens of Opuntia County. I led off on that petition, Trump!" added the Sheriff naively.

"There ain't nothin' in petitions, Bill. Of course, I'm most powerful obliged to you all, but that petition ain't goin' to save me. I've got to hang Friday mornin', Bill, an' no one, less it's the Almighty, can get around it. I'm sorry I ain't better company for yer, Bill, but I jes can't help feelin' kind o' wilted. Got any tobacco? Mine's inside."

The Sheriff passed his plug.

"God knows I ain't complainin'," he continued. "But it does seem hard, Bill. Course, I don't ask you to believe what I say, about not bein' guilty, but——"

"Darn your fool hide, Trump Collier!" exclaimed the Sheriff. "Hain't I said as how I knows yer'e innercent? Do yer think I'd be sittin' here side of yer, chewin' ther same plug, if I didn't know yer was innercent?"

"I don't reckon yer would, Bill. And I ask yer pardon. I don't know what's got into me terday, I'm that rotten mean. I reckon I'll go back inside."

"Sit still," commanded the other. "That's all right. Yer don't jes feel well, that's all. I ain't blamin' yer. But I don't like ter hear yer talk that way, Trump. We've been friends fer a good many years, an' this ain't no time ter be anythin' different. But if yer hint again that I don't know ye're innercent, why, then we jest quit!"

Trump nodded gravely to the edict and silence followed. Trump Collier was some ten years younger than the Sheriff, but like him in build and manners. Trump, too, had seen long and hard years on the ranges. A Georgian by birth, he had spent most of his life west of the Missouri, and to a Southern lassitude had been added a quickness of movement gained from his life in camp and ranch. His face was a good face, despite an indecisive chin, and his brown eyes, fearless and honest, compelled liking and respect.

"Jes' to think, Bill, that the round-up 'll be in town in a few days an' Trump Collier 'll be out of it all!" The condemned man's tone was meditative, wondering, rather than regretful or complaining.

"Shut up," growled the Sheriff.

"Oh, I'm not complainin', Bill."

"I know yer ain't. That's jes it. Why don't yer complain? Why don't yer raise Hell? Why don't—" The Sheriff arose and removing the quid from his mouth threw it violently at the cactus bloom. "Look here, I'm goin' ter complain for yer! I'm goin' ter write ter Guv'ner Burkhart myself. He owes me—well, more'n he can pay if he lives a thousand years. He'll listen, or else——"

"It ain't any use; don't you trouble yourself, Bill. Besides if it wasn't hangin' it'd be 'prisonment fer life. An' I don't want that."

"That's so." Then, with a sigh that seemed to start at his boots. "There don't seem ter be anythin' ter be done fer yer, Trump; leastways, not as I can see." Trump shook his head thoughtfully.

"No, there don't. I reckon I'm beyond help now, Bill. There's only one thing that—if I was out I might——"

"What yer mean, Trump?" prompted the Sheriff anxiously.

"Well, there ain't no use talkin' about it now, but—you remember I couldn't tell them where I'd seen the feller that was leanin' over Bud's body when I rid round the corner of ther gully? Well, Bill, last night I was tryin' an' tryin' ter think, when, all of a sudden, like a flash o' pink lightnin', it came over me that the coyote was a 'Greaser' I saw about six months ago up to Spenser's. Seems ter me he was a cook. But I remember his face now. An' if only I was out——"

"Reckon he'd be up there yet?"

"I don't know, but if there was only time I'd find him if he was in Hell!"

"How far's it ter Spenser's, Trump?"

"’Bout ninety miles."

"Reckon it'd take about three days ter make it an' get back?"

"Two an' a half, with a good ho'se."

"With a good horse; yep, I reckon it could be done with Starlight."

"Your horse. Bill? You bet!"

The Sheriff joined the prisoner in his silent appreciation of the distant hills. Five minutes passed. Then he pulled his length upright and held a big hand to Trump.

"We'll try it!"

"How's that, Bill?"

"If you say you can make Spenser's Ranch an' get back here by Friday mornin' in time fer—fer ther hangin', Trump, why, I say go ahead!"

"You mean it, Bill? You'll let me go there?" cried the prisoner, leaping to his feet.

"That's what I mean, Trump."

"But—but I'm a prisoner, Bill?"

"Yes, ye're a prisoner, but I reckon I'm responsible fer yer, ain't I? An' what's ter keep me from lettin' yer go on parole? An' that's what I'm goin' ter do. Trump. You've got till Friday at ten in ther mornin' ter get back. If he's there I reckon you know what ter do; if he's gone—well, you'll have ter come back. But it's a chance, Trump!"

During the next three days the Sheriff sat on the little bench, his gaze ever fixed on the road to the eastward, and the cactus bloom was drowned in a lake of tobacco juice. There was nothing to do save wait. The invitations to the hanging had been sent out. They had been composed, and their printing personally supervised by the Sheriff; and he was rather proud of them. Trump, too, had approved of them highly. They had been printed on super-calendered card in the only font of script in Opuntia County, and were as follows:


"

The pleasure of your company is re-

quested at the hanging of

GEORGE COLLIER, Esq.,

at the County Jail, Opuntia, Wyo.,

10 a. m., Friday, May 12, 188—.

William Vickers,

Sheriff of Opuntia Co.

R. S. V. P.


Wednesday passed slowly. Every distant dust-cloud on the road brought only disappointment to the patient, silent watcher on the bench. On Thursday it was the same, and all that night the Sheriff sat by the prisoner's cell, keeping the death watch.

Friday morning arrived the Governor, Honorable Dudley Burkhart, accompanied by the State Attorney, Judge "Ham" Davis, and a number of newspaper men. The railroad had offered a rate of one and one-half fares for the round trip from Cheyenne, and the public had shown its appreciation by coming in scores. The Governor's contingent moved at once upon the Hotel Brunswick and partook of a supplementary breakfast. At nine o'clock the last nail was driven in the scaffold.

At nine-fifteen Father Murray entered the jail with the Sheriff. Then the latter emerged alone and, grave-faced and inscrutable, silently observed from the little bench the crowd about the scaffold across the road. Every few minutes a party of "punchers" rode up, tethered their horses and joined the throng. Trump Collier's friends were genuinely sorry for him, but, since the petition had failed of effect, there was nothing left for them to do save attend the ceremony and so give expression to the high esteem in which they held him.

At nine-thirty the Sheriff looked searchingly up the road and the crowd gave signs of impatience. It was quite warm and the nearest saloon was a half-mile away. Something was due them as invited guests, and that something, in the opinion of most, was punctuality. The Governor's party reached the scene at 9:45 and thrust its way through the crowd to the jail. The Sheriff strode forward and shook hands with the Chief Executive, and was introduced to the others.

"Aint it about time fer ther hangin'?" The Mayor drew a massive watch, and everyone followed suit.

"I reckon we'll be a little delayed, Mr. Mayor. Father Murray's still inside. Can't hurry 'em much when it comes to the last confession, gentlemen."

"Hm," responded the Mayor doubtfully. "How long do you reckon they'll be, Bill?"

"Well, I'd say about half an hour more'd fix it. Better giv 'em plenty of time. It ain't like as though Trump was jes goin' over into Utah."

"Bill, do you reckon we'd have time to ride back an' git some ther dust out of our throats?"

"Sure; jes you go on. I'll hold things till you get back. There aint no hurry, anyhow." Whereupon the contingent mounted and hit the road to town.

"What's up?" asked a puncher.

"Trump's committed suicide!" someone answered; and the rumor spread until it reached the Sheriff.

"Not as I've heard on," he assured them, as he looked for the hundredth time up the far-stretching road.

"Then where is he?" asked a suspicious voice. The Sheriff jerked a thumb over his shoulder; he might have meant the jail or the foot-hills.

"Why don't you bring him out?"

"Father Murray's with him."

The explanation was quite satisfactory, and in turn went the rounds. It was ten o'clock. The Sheriff looked long and earnestly up the empty road.

"Lookin' fer anyone, Bill?" queried a friend.

"Nope, jes lookin' at ther weather. Thought we'd have rain terday. Ever notice that it most usually rains at a hangin'?"

The friend had not, and straightway informed all within hearing distance that "Bill Vickers was superstitious and didn't like ter begin until it rained, bein' as it most usually did rain at hangin's." Meanwhile the Sheriff had summoned two lusty punchers and posted them at the doorway with instructions to admit no one on any pretext. The punchers swung their holsters farther fronts and the Sheriff mounted and rode into the village.

The Governor and party occupied the private room at the Brunswick.

"Sit down, Mr. Sheriff!" called the Mayor. "What'll it be?"

"Jes a sip o' whiskey, thanks, gentlemen." The Sheriff joined the circle about the green-topped table.

"Time about up?" asked the Governor.

"Well, there's plenty of time for another drink." The Sheriff raised the glass, tasted, set it down hastily, and viewed it with pain and disgust.

"Tom, bring my bottle in here! Yer ought ter be ashamed of yerself to set stuff like this here afore the Guv'ner."

"Why," protested His Excellency, "I thought that was middling good."

"Well, Guv'ner, up ter Cheyenne they might call it that, but in Opuntia we rather pride ourselves on knowin' what good whiskey is." The bartender placed a new bottle before them, and the Governor poured out a glass.

"That is good budge. Bill. Try it, gentlemen." The bottle went around.

"But how about that hang—hangin'," asked the Mayor.

"Mr. Mayor and gentlemen, that hangin's postponed fer ther present. I don't like ter disappoint yer all, an' especially the Guv'ner of this State, who has so highly honored us with his presence, not ter speak of ther Honorable Judge Davis, but I can't quite see my way to oblige yer."

"What yer mean, Bill?" asked the Mayor anxiously.

"I mean, Mr. Mayor, that I aint got nary person ter hang."

"What!" cried the assemblage. "Where's ther prisoner?"

"Gentlemen, help yerselves ter ther whiskey. There's more right handy. I'll explain matters ter yer. Yer see it's like this—Jim, fill ther Guv'ner's glass; want ter see him starve right afore yer eyes?—Trump Collier's an innercent man ! Now hold on, gentlemen! I'm doin' ther talkin'; all you've got ter do is ter listen. The representative citizens of this county, recognizing that fact, drew up a petition an' placed ther same afore ther Guv'ner. Ther Guv'ner didn't see his way ter grantin' that petition, not knowin' like ther rest of us, that the prisoner is innercent. There wasn't anythin' left fer us ter do.

"Then ther prisoner himself came ter ther rescue. 'If I was free,' says he, 'I could bring in ther real murderer. I know where ter find him. He's at Spenser's Ranch.' I thought awhile. Then I says, 'Trump, you go an' get him an' be back here in time fer ther hangin'.' So Monday night he took my horse an' hit ther trail. It's three days journey there an' back. He aint showed up yet, an' I argue from the fact that he's got ther hound an' is havin' slow work getting back. There's a good many things that might delay him, like Starlight goin' lame, or ther feller gettin' away. So, gentlemen, yer can see fer yerselves that there aint nothin' ter do 'cept wait until Trump gets back. Can't hang without a hangee! Ha, ha! Somebody fill ther Guv'ner's glass. Damned if it don't look like hospitality is dyin' out in Opuntia!"

"B—but look here, Bill Vickers," objected the Governor, "Suppose that m-man don't get back?"

"Who? Trump Collier? That man, Guv'ner, 's a man of his word. Aint that so, Mayor?"

"Th-that's r-right, Bill. If Trump said he come back, why—why—Where's that b-bottle?"

"But it would appear, Sheriff, that you have exceeded your authority in allow—allowin'—'lowing a State prisoner to be at—at large." The Governor spoke with large dignity that impressed everybody save the Sheriff. "But at the same time, there appears to have been no h-harm done as yet. And—and so—it would seem as though——" The Governor broke off to fumble for the bottle.

"Just under your nose, Guv'ner?" said the Sheriff. The Governor unsteadily filled his glass.

"And—and that, gen'men, seems the prop-proper course to pursue." Loud applause followed, and all drank to the wisdom of the Governor. At that moment a head was thrust through the doorway.

"Say, Sheriff, you're wanted at the jail. They say Trump Collier's out."

The Sheriff unceremoniously arose and followed after the messenger, a young puncher. "No," continued the latter. "Someone shouted fer me ter git yer, an' I lit out."

The Sheriff mounted and loped.

In front of the jail, surrounded by a shouting crowd, sat Trump Collier on Starlight. Beside him, tightly bound to a mouse-colored cayuse, sat an ugly visaged and sullen "greaser." The Sheriff pushed his horse forward.

"I'm powerful sorry ter be late, Bill," greeted Trump. "But this sneakin' coyote cut ther rope last night an' got away. I wouldn't a cared only that rope was borrowed. I chased the measely dog fer ten miles off the trail. But here he is, Bill."

The Mexican was hustled into the jail with scant courtesy, and numerous flasks were thrust into Trump's not unwilling hands. When the jail door was locked the Sheriff summoned Trump.

"I want you should meet ther Guv'ner, Trump."

And surrounded by an attentive crowd the two rode to the hotel.

The Governor's party left the hotel an hour later, having partaken of an excellent dinner. Trump had eaten as he had seldom done before in his life. The Governor and the Mayor emerged arm in arm, and who was supporting who it would have been difficult to say. Upon the sidewalk a deputation was awaiting the Sheriff. Behind the deputation was all Opuntia County. The spokesman held his hat in hand and bowed respectfully to the Governor.

"Want ter see me, Joe?" asked th' Sheriff, innocently.

"Why, yes. Bill. This here deputation says as how I'm ter tell yer that it has—er—that it reckons as how there won't be no need fer ther state ter go ter the expense of a trial in ther matter of that 'Greaser.' We have reasoned with him an' he has confessed."

"Oh, he has?" The Sheriff eyed the spokesman. The deputation was anxious and uncomfortable. "I reckon someone must have got in ther back door, Joe?"

"I—I believe they did, Sheriff."

"An' did anyone break the lock or bust any panels, Joe?"

"No, no, everything was strictly peaceable. Sheriff; ther lock—er—wa'n't hard." The spokesman's eyes twinkled and the Sheriff removed his gaze. The crowd felt relieved.

"I trust that everythin' was done orderly, Joe? There wa'nt no bunglin'? The repertation of Opuntia County mustn't be siled, Joe!"

"Make yer mind easy, Sheriff. Everything went off beautiful. We couldn't manage like you'd have done, but we knowed you was at dinner, an' didn't like ter disturb yer jest fer a 'Greaser.'"

The Sheriff stifled a grin.

"Ter be sure, ther first rope broke, but there wa'n't no trouble after that. Takin' it all round, it was dog gon pretty."

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1944, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.