The Boy Orator of Zepata City

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THE day was cruelly hot, with unwarranted gusts of wind which swept the red dust in fierce eddies in at one end of Main Street and out at the other, and waltzed fantastically out of sight across the prairie. When they had passed, human beings opened their eyes again to blink hopelessly at the white sun, and swore or gasped, as their nature moved them. There were very few human beings in the streets, either in Houston avenue, where there were dwelling-houses, or in the business quarter on Main Street. They were all at the new court-house, and every one possessed of proper civic pride was either in the packed court-room itself, or standing on the high steps outside, or pacing the long, freshly kalsomined corridors, where there was shade and less dust. It was an eventful day in-the history of Zepata City. The court-house had been long in coming, the appropriation had been denied again and again; but at last it stood a proud and hideous fact, like a gray prison, towering above the bare, undecorated brick stores and the frame houses on the prairie around it, new, raw, and cheap, from the tin statue on the dome to the stucco round its base already cracking with the sun. Piles of lumber and scaffolding and the lime beds the builders had left still lay on the unsodded square, and the bursts of wind drove the shavings across it, as they had done since the first week of building, when the Hon. Horatio Macon, who had worked for the appropriation, had laid the corner-stone and received the homage of his constituents.

It seemed a particularly happy and appropriate circumstance that the first business in the new court-room should be of itself of an important and momentous nature, something that dealt not only with the present but with the past of Zepata, and that the trial of so celebrated an individual as Abe Barrow should open the court-house with éclat, as Emma Abbott, who had come all the way from San Antonio to do it, had opened the new opera-house the year before. The District Attorney had said it would not take very long to dispose of Barrow's case, but he had promised it would be an interesting if brief trial, and the court-room was filled even to the open windows, where men sat crowded together, with the perspiration running down their faces, and the red dust settling and turning white upon their shoulders.

Abe Barrow, the prisoner, had been as closely associated with the early history of Zepata as Colonel Macon himself, and was as widely known; he had killed in his day several of the Zepata citizens, and two visiting brother-desperadoes, and the corner where his gambling-house had stood was still known as Barrow's corner, to the regret of the druggist who had opened a shop there. Ten years before, the murder of Deputy-Sheriff Welsh had led him to the penitentiary, and a month previous to the opening of the new court-house he had been freed, and arrested at the prison gate to stand trial for the murder of Hubert Thompson. The fight with Thompson had been a fair fight—so those said who remembered it—and Thompson was a man they could well spare; but the case against Barrow had been prepared during his incarceration by the new and youthful District Attorney, "Judge" Henry Harvey, and as it offered a fitting sacrifice for the dedication of the new temple of justice, the people were satisfied and grateful.

The court-room was as bare of ornament as the cell from which the prisoner had just been taken. There was an imitation walnut clock at the back of the Judge's hair-cloth sofa, his revolving chair, and his high desk. This was the only ornament. Below was the green table of the District Attorney, upon which rested his papers and law-books and his high hat. To one side sat the jury, ranch-owners and prominent citizens, proud of having to serve on this the first day; and on the other the prisoner in his box. Around them gathered the citizens of Zepata in close rows, crowded together on unpainted benches; back of them more citizens standing and a few awed Mexicans; and around all the whitewashed walls. Colonel John Stogart, of Dallas, the prisoner's attorney, procured obviously at great expense, no one knew by whom, and Barrow's wife, a thin yellow-faced woman in a mean-fitting showy gown, sat among the local celebrities at the District Attorney's elbow. She was the only woman in the room.

Colonel Stogart's speech had been good. The citizens were glad it had been so good; it had kept up the general tone of excellence, and it was well that the best lawyer of Dallas should be present on this occasion, and that he should have made what the citizens of Zepata were proud to believe was one of the efforts of his life. As they said, a court-house such as this one was not open for business every day. It was also proper that Judge Truax, who was a real Judge, and not one by courtesy only, as was the young District Attorney, should be upon the bench. He also was associated with the early days and with the marvellous growth of Zepata City. He had taught the young District Attorney much of what he knew, and his long white hair and silver-rimmed spectacles gave dignity and the appearance of calm justice to the bare room and to the heated words of the rival orators.

Colonel Stogart ceased speaking, and the District Attorney sucked in his upper lip with a nervous impatient sigh as he recognized that the visiting attorney had proved murder in the second degree, and that an execution in the jail-yard would not follow as a fitting sequence.

But he was determined that so far as in him lay he would at least send his man back to the penitentiary for the remainder of his life.

Young Harry Harvey, "The Boy Orator of Zepata City," as he was called, was very dear to the people of that booming town. In their eyes he was one of the most promising young men in the whole great unwieldy State of Texas, and the boy orator thought they were probably right, but he was far too clever to let them see it. He was clever in his words and in his deeds and in his appearance. And he dressed much more carefully than any other man in town, with a frock-coat and a white tie winter and summer, and a fine high hat. That he was slight and short of stature was something he could not help, and was his greatest, keenest grief, and that Napoleon was also short and slight did not serve to satisfy him or to make his regret less continual. What availed the sharply cut, smoothly shaven face and the eyes that flashed when he was moved, or the bell-like voice, if every unlettered ranchman or ranger could place both hands on his shoulders and look down at him from heights above? But they forgot this and he forgot it before he had reached the peroration of his closing speech. They saw only the Harry Harvey they knew and adored moving and rousing them with his voice, trembling with indignation when he wished to tremble, playing all his best tricks in his best manner, and cutting the air with sharp cruel words when lie was pleased to be righteously just.

The young District Attorney turned slowly on his heels, and swept the court-room carelessly with a glance of the clever black eyes. The moment was his. He saw all the men lie knew—the men who made his little world—crowding silently forward, forgetful of the heat, of the suffocating crush of those about them, of the wind that rattled the doors in the corridors, and conscious only of him. He saw his old preceptor watching keenly from the bench, with a steady glance of perfect appreciation, such as that with which one actor in the box compliments the other on the stage. He saw the rival attorney—the great lawyer from the great city—nervously smiling, with a look of confidence that told the lack of it; and he saw the face of the prisoner grim and set and hopelessly defiant. The boy orator allowed his uplifted arm to fall until the fingers pointed at the prisoner.

"This man," he said, and as he spoke even the wind in the corridors hushed for the moment, "is no part or parcel of Zepata City of to-day. He comes to us a relic of the past—a past that has brought honor to many, wealth to some, and which is dear to all of us who love the completed purpose of their work; a past that was full of hardships and glorious efforts in the face of daily disappointments,embitterments, and rebuffs. But the part this man played in that past lives only in the rude court records of that day, in the traditions of the gambling-hell and the saloons, and on the head-stones of his victims. He was one of the excrescences of that unsettled period, an unhappy evil—an inevitable evil, I might almost say, as the Mexican horse-thieves and the prairie fires and the Indian outbreaks were inevitable, as our fathers who built this beautiful city knew to their cost. The same chance that was given to them to make a home for themselves in the wilderness, to help others to make their homes, to assist the civilization and progress not only of this city, but of the whole Lone Star State, was given to him, and he refused it, and blocked the way of others, and kept back the march of progress, until to-day, civilization, which has waxed great and strong—not on account of him, remember, but in spite of him—sweeps him out of its way, and crushes him and his fellows."

The young District Attorney allowed his arm to drop, and turned to the jury, leaning easily with his bent knuckles on the table.

"Gentlemen," he said, in his pleasant tones of every-day politeness, "the 'bad man' has become an unknown quantity in Zepata City and in the State of Texas. It lies with you to see that he remains so. He went out of existence with the blanket Indian and the buffalo. He is dead, and he must not be resurrected. He was a picturesque evil of those early days, but civilization has no use for him, and it has killed him, as the railroads and the barb-wire fence have killed the cowboy. He does not belong here; he does not fit in; he is not wanted. We want men who can breed good cattle, who can build manufactories and open banks; storekeepers who can undersell those of other cities; and professional men who know their business. We do not want desperadoes and 'bad men' and faro-dealers and men who are quick on the trigger. A foolish and morbid publicity has cloaked men of this class with a notoriety which cheap and pernicious literature has greatly helped to disseminate. They have been made romantic when they were brutal, brave when they were foolhardy, heroes when they were only bullies and blackguards. This man, Abe Barrow, the prisoner at the bar, belongs to that class. He enjoys and has enjoyed a reputation as a 'bad man,' a desperate and brutal ruffian. Free him to-day, and you set a premium on such reputations; acquit him of this crime, and you encourage others to like evil. Let him go, and he will walk the streets with a swagger, and boast that you were afraid to touch him—afraid, gentlemen—and children and women will point after him as the man who has sent nine others into eternity, and who yet walks the streets a free man. And he will become, in the eyes of the young and the weak, a hero and a god. This is unfortunate, but it is true.

"Now, gentlemen, we want to keep the streets of this city so safe that a woman can walk them at midnight without fear of insult, and a man can express his opinion on the corner without being shot in the back for doing so."

The District Attorney turned from the jury with a bow, and faced Judge Truax. "For the last ten years, your honor, this man, Abner Barrow, has been serving a term of imprisonment in the State penitentiary; I ask you to send him back there again for the remainder of his life. It will be the better place for him, and we will be happier in knowing we have done our duty in placing him there. Abe Barrow is out of date. He has missed step with the march of progress, and has been out of step for ten years, and it is best for all that he should remain out of it until he, who has sent nine other men unprepared to meet their God—"

"He is not on trial for the murder of nine men,"' interrupted Colonel Stogart, springing from his chair, "but for the justifiable killing of one, and I demand, your honor, that—"

"—has sent nine other men to meet their Maker," continued the District Attorney, "meets with the awful judgment of a higher court than this."

Colonel Stogart smiled scornfully at the platitude, and sat down with an expressive shrug; but no one noticed him.

The District Attorney raised his arm and faced the court-room. "It cannot be said of us," he cried, "that we have sat idle in the market-place. We have advanced and advanced in the last ten years, until we have reached the very foremost place with civilized people. This Rip Van Winkle of the past returns to find a city where he left a prairie town, a bank where he spun his roulette wheel, this magnificent court-house instead of a vigilance committee. And what is his part in this new court-house, which to-day, for the first time, throws open its doors to protect the just and to punish the unjust?

"Is he there in the box among those honorable men, the gentlemen of the jury? Is he in that great crowd of intelligent, public-spirited citizens who make the bone and sinew of this our fair city? Is he on the honored bench dispensing justice, and making the intricacies of the law straight? No, gentlemen; he has no part in our triumph. He is there, in the prisoners' pen, an outlaw, a convicted murderer, and an unconvicted assassin, the last of his race—the bullies and bad men of the border—a thing to be forgotten and put away forever from the sight of man. He has outlasted his time; he is a superfluity and an outrage on our reign of decency and order. And I ask you, gentlemen, to put him away where he will not hear the voice of man nor children's laughter, nor see a woman smile, where he will not even see the face of the warden who feeds him, nor sunlight except as it is filtered through the iron bars of a jail. Bury him with the bitter past, with the lawlessness that has gone—that has gone, thank God—and which must not return. Place him in the cell where he belongs, and whence, had justice been done, he would never have been taken alive."

The District Attorney sat down suddenly, with a quick nod to the Judge and the jury, and fumbled over his papers with nervous fingers. He was keenly conscious, and excited with the fervor of his own words. He heard the reluctantly hushed applause and the whispers from the crowd, and noted the quick and combined movement of the jury with a selfish sweet pleasure, which showed itself only in the tightening of the lips and nostrils. Those nearest him tugged at his sleeve and shook hands with him. He remembered this afterwards as one of the rewards of the moment. He turned the documents before him over and scribbled words upon a piece of paper and read a passage in an open law-book. He did this quite mechanically, and was conscious of nothing until the foreman pronounced the prisoner at the bar guilty of murder in the second degree.

Judge Truax leaned across his desk and said, simply, that it lay in his power to sentence the prisoner to not less than two years' confinement in the State penitentiary or for the remainder of his life.

"Before I deliver sentence on you, Abner Barrow," he said, with an old man's kind severity, "is there anything you have to say on your own behalf?"

The District Attorney turned his face, as did all the others, but he did not see the prisoner. He still saw himself holding the court-room with a spell, and heard his own periods ringing against the whitewashed ceiling. The others saw a tall, broad-shouldered man leaning heavily forward over the, bar of the prisoner's box. His face was white with the prison tan, markedly so in contrast with those sunburnt by the wind and sun turned towards him, and pinched and hollow-eyed and worn. When he spoke, his voice had the huskiness which comes from non-use, and cracked and broke like a child's.

"I don't know, Judge," he said, hesitatingly, and staring stupidly at the mass of faces in the well beneath him, "that I have anything to say—in my own behalf. I don't know as it would be any use. I guess what the gentleman said about me is all there is to say. He put it about right. I've had my fun, and I've got to pay for it—that is, I thought it was fun at the time. I am not going to cry any baby act and beg off, or anything, if that's what you mean. But there is something I'd like to say if I thought you would believe me." He frowned down at the green table as though the words he wanted would not come, and his eyes wandered from one face to another, until they rested upon the bowed head of the only woman in the room. They remained there for some short time, and then Barrow drew in his breath more quickly, and turned with something like a show of confidence to the jury.

"All that man said of me is true," he said. He gave a toss of his hands as a man throws away the reins. "I admit all he says. I am a back number; I am out of date; I was a loafer and a blackguard. I never shot any man in the back, nor I never assassinated no one; but that's neither here nor there. I'm not in a place where I can expect people to pick out their words; but, as he says, I am a bad lot. He says I have enjoyed a reputation as a desperado. I am not bragging of that; I just ask you to remember that he said it. Remember it of me. I was not the sort to back down to man or beast, and I am not now. I am not backing down now; I am taking my punishment. Whatever you please to make it, I'll take it; and that," he went on, more slowly, "makes it harder for me to ask what I want to ask, and make you all believe I am not asking it for myself."

He stopped, and the silence in the room seemed to give him some faint encouragement of sympathy, though it was rather the silence of curiosity.

Colonel Stogart gave a stern look upwards, and asked the prisoner's wife, in a whisper, if she knew what her husband meant to say, but she shook her head. She did not know. The District Attorney smiled indulgently at the prisoner and at the men about him, but they were watching the prisoner.

"That man there," said Barrow at last, pointing with one gaunt hand at the boy attorney, "told you I had no part or parcel in this city or in this world; that I belonged to the past; that I had ought to be dead. Now that's not so. I have just one thing that belongs to this city and this world—and to me; one thing that I couldn't take to jail with me, and that I'll have to leave behind me when I go back to it. I mean my wife."

The prisoner stopped, and looked so steadily at one place below him that those in the back of the court guessed for the first time that Mrs. Barrow was in the room, and craned forward to look at her, and there was a moment of confusion and a murmur of "Get back there! Sit still!" The prisoner turned to Judge Truax again and squared his broad shoulders, making the more conspicuous his narrow and sunken chest.

"You, sir," he said, quietly, with a change from the tone of braggadocio with which he had begun to speak, "remember her, sir, when I married her, twelve years ago. She was Henry Holman's daughter, he who owned the San Iago Ranch and the triangle brand. I took her from the home she had with her father against that gentleman's wishes, sir, to live with me over my dance-hall at the Silver Star. You may remember her as she was then. She gave up everything a woman ought to have to come to me. She thought she was going to be happy with me; that's why she come, I guess. Maybe she was happy for about two weeks. After that first two weeks her life, sir, was a hell, and I made it a hell. I was drunk most of the time, or sleeping it off, and ugly-tempered when I was sober. There was shooting and carrying on all day and night down-stairs, and she didn't dare to leave her room. Besides that, she cared for me, and she was afraid every minute I was going to get killed. That's the way she lived for two years. Respectable women wouldn't speak to her because she was my wife; even them that were friends of hers when she lived on the ranch wouldn't speak to her on the street—and she had no children. That was her life; she lived alone over the dance-hall; and sometimes when I was drunk—I beat her."

The man's white face reddened slowly as he said this; and he stopped, and then continued more quickly, with his eyes still fixed on those of the Judge:

"At the end of two years I killed Welsh, and they sent me to the penitentiary for ten years, and she was free. She could have gone back to her folks and got a divorce if she'd wanted to, and never seen me again. It was an escape most women 'd gone down on their knees and thanked their Maker for, and blessed the day they'd been freed from a blackguardly drunken brute.

"But what did this woman do—my wife, the woman I misused and beat and dragged down in the mud with me? She was too mighty proud to go back to her people or to the friends who shook her when she was in trouble; and she sold out the place, and bought a ranch with the money, and worked it by herself, worked it day and night, until in ten years she had made herself an old woman, as you see she is to-day.

"And for what? To get me free again; to bring me things to eat in jail, and picture papers and tobacco—when she was living on bacon and potatoes, and drinking alkali water—working to pay for a lawyer to fight for me—to pay for the best lawyer! She worked in the fields with her own hands, planting and ploughing, working as I never worked for myself in my whole lazy, rotten life. That's what that woman there did for me."

The man stopped suddenly, and turned with a puzzled look towards where his wife sat, for she had dropped her head on the table in front of her, and he had heard her sobbing.

"And what I want to ask of you, sir, is to let me have two years out of jail to show her how I feel about it. I ask you not to send me back for life, sir. Give me just two years—two years of my life while I have some strength left to work for her as she worked for me. I only want to show her how I care for her now. I had the chance, and I wouldn't take it; and now, sir, I want to show her that I know and understand—now when it's too late. It's all I've thought of when I was in jail, to be able to see her sitting in her own kitchen with her hands folded, and me working and sweating in the fields for her, working till every bone ached, trying to make it up to her.

"And I can't," the man cried, suddenly, losing the control he had forced upon himself, and tossing his hands up above his head, and with his eyes fixed hopelessly on the bowed head below him. "I can't! It's too late! It's too late!"

He turned and faced the crowd and the District Attorney defiantly.

"I am not crying for the men I killed. They're dead. I can't bring them back. But she's not dead, and I treated her worse than I treated them. She never harmed me, nor got in my way, nor angered me. And now, when I want to do what I can for her in the little time that's left, he tells you I'm a 'relic of the past,' that civilization is too good for me, that you must bury me until it's time to bury me for good. Just when I've got something I must live for, something I've got to do. Don't you believe me? Don't you understand?"

He turned again towards the Judge, and beat the rail before him impotently with his wasted hand. "Don't send me back for life," he cried. "Give me a few years to work for her—two years, one year—to show her what I feel here, what I never felt for her before. Look at her, gentlemen. Look how worn she is and poorly, and look at her hands, and you men must feel how I feel. I don't ask you for myself. I don't want to go free on my own account. I am asking it for that woman—yes, and for myself too. I am playing to 'get back,' gentlemen. I've lost what I had, and I want to get back; and," he cried, querulously, "the game keeps going against me. It's only a few years' freedom I want. Send me back for thirty years, but not for life. My God! Judge, don't bury me alive, as that man asked you to. I'm not civilized, maybe; ways have changed. You are not the man I knew; you are all strangers to me. But I could learn. I would not bother you in the old way. I only want to live with her. I won't harm the rest of you. Give me this last chance. Let me prove that what I'm saying is true."

The man stopped and stood, opening and shutting his hands upon the rail, and searching with desperate eagerness from face to face, as one who has staked all he has watches the wheel spinning his fortune away. The gentlemen of the jury sat quite motionless, looking straight ahead at the blinding sun, which came through the high uncurtained windows opposite. Outside, the wind banged the shutters against the wall, and whistled up the street and round the tin corners of the building, but inside, the room was very silent. The Mexicans at the door, who could not understand, looked curiously at the faces of the men around them, and made sure that they had missed something of much importance. For a moment no one moved, until there was a sudden stir around the District Attorney's table, and the men stepped aside and let the woman pass them and throw herself against the prisoner's box. The prisoner bent his tall gaunt figure over the rail, and as the woman pressed his one hand against her face, touched her shoulders with the other awkwardly.

"There, now," he whispered, soothingly, "don't you take on so. Now you know how I feel, it's all right; don't take on."

Judge Truax looked at the paper on his desk for some seconds, and raised his head, coughing as he did so. "It lies—" Judge Truax began, and then stopped, and began again in a more certain tone: "It lies at the discretion of this court to sentence the prisoner to a term of imprisonment of two years, or for an indefinite period, or for life. Owing to— On account of certain circumstances which were—have arisen—this sentence is suspended. This court stands adjourned."

As he finished he sprang out of his chair impulsively, and with a quick authoritative nod to the young District Attorney, came quickly down the steps of the platform. Young Harvey met him at the foot with wide-open eyes.

The older man hesitated, and placed his hand upon the District Attorney's shoulder. "Harry," he said. His voice was shaken, and his hand trembled on the arm of his protégé, for he was an old man and easily moved. "Harry, my boy," he said, "could you go to Austin and repeat the speech that man has just made to the Governor?"

The boy orator laughed, and took one of the older man's hands in both of his and pressed it quickly. "I'd like d——d well to try," he said.

This work was published before January 1, 1925, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.