Harley Slater was in my office yesterday, hashing out conversation. I was working on U.S. Marshal business and stopped long enough to let him know the serious situation. He was a big man, with inherent strength, a broad mustache that covered his generous mouth, and a bronzed face.
Just west of town was their spread of land. He and his wife, Thelma, had come into Cheyenne River for supplies they needed before spring planting. He told Thelma to spend some time in Nadine's Linens, across the front road, inquiring into new fabric and pattern ideas. She had no idea of this talk.
"It was a damn mistake, Warren," Harley said. His dark eyes stayed with mine, anxious.
"Your son killed Toby Joseph. Witnesses say so."
"So you're gonna come out and arrest him?"
"He broke the law and I'm bound to bring him in for murder."
"You know he might hang, don't ya?"
"That's for the judge to decide," I said.
"But Luke is just a kid. Eighteen last month."
"Don't matter to the age. Law in this territory says he's an adult. You kill somebody and that's murder."
"Luke and Toby were target shootin' just a few doors down by the mercantile. Funnin', that's all."
"People watchin' said that Luke turned and fired directly at Toby. That's murder, Harley."
Harley's mind was conflicted with doubts. The juices in the big man were flowing in anger.
"So what happens next, Warren?" he asked.
"I got work in front of me," I said. "Government information needed from me twice a year that's then sent on to Washington, DC. They want to know what's goin' on here in cowboy country. As if we don't exist."
"Why don't they come here?" Harley said, regaining his strength. "Let 'em find out what goes on in these high plains parts. Sure won't be disappointed."
"Where's Luke right now?" I said.
"Guessin' he's at home. Might be doin' chores or runnin' the range."
"If he knows I'm comin' he might run."
"He's my son, Warren. When he gets hungry he knows it's suppertime."
About that time Thelma stepped into my office holding bags of different cloths. She was homely but pretty once, with wind-whipped color in her cheeks. I could see the once-thick dark hair, now gray, that hung in long curves over her shoulders. Most times her hair was coiled into a tight bun atop her head. She didn't like to wear a bonnet like most women-folk do and I never asked why. Just plain none of my business.
"What's new, Marshal?" she said. "You an' Harley been jawin' a long spell." Her eyes flashed in a familiar display of impatience. "Must be somethin' real important."
"Nothin' we can't handle," Harley said, his eyes aimed straight at his wife. "Fetchin' to find you at Nadine's, but I guess you're done with buyin' whatcha need."
"Lotta new fabric choices for spring," she said. From her hand-made over-the-shoulder bag she retrieved material for a ladies'-gathering dress, fittings and various colors for a patch quilt. A half smile crossed her face.
"Must be goin'," Harley said. His expression remained serious.
"When you gonna come visit, Marshal?" Thelma said. "Ain't seen you in our direction in quite a while. Stay the day and have supper with us. Me an' Harley an' Luke would enjoy your company."
I was standing beside my desk when Thelma finished her invitation. She finally opened up with a thoughtful smile that curved her mouth upward.
"I think that might happen," I said, throwing my sight first at Thelma, and then staying with Harley. "Let me give it some thought. Maybe tomorrow."
"Tomorrow it is," Thelma said, giving me an increased smile.
Harley's jaw clenched, his eyes slightly narrowed.
"Can't wait to see Luke again," I said, expressing myself in an exchange of politeness. They left my office, she holding her new linen material, both walking to their work wagon in front of the land office. I stepped to the boardwalk in front of my office, listening to their conversation. I could tell Thelma was jawin' extensively, probably talking about clothing pattern ideas that she hoped to make and wear.
"Can't wait to see the good Marshal tomorrow," Thelma said to Harley. "Long time since we seen him last. Maybe over a month. People seem to not stop by anymore. We'll have a damn good ol' time. Maybe play some poker when the Marshal arrives."
Both were now sitting square on the wagon bench seat. Harley released the brake, slapped the reins and the two team plow horses pulled away.
I watched as they left town, west in direction, until finally vanishing from sight. Even as they drove on, Thelma continued to jaw somethin' fierce, like she couldn't shut up. I'm guessing Harley had a lot on his mind, especially about his son and the forthcoming consequences that he and I talked about in my office.
Thoughts ran through my mind of how Thelma would react when told of what awaited Luke, and told pretty soon. I knew it would be damn terrible losing a son if found guilty, then watching when they put a rope around his neck for a senseless crime. But murder is murder and the law has answers for that crime.
After my thoughts concluded for the moment, I left the office, crossed the dirt road, and walked in the direction of the telegraph business. Byers Roebuck ran the office and he didn't seem too busy, just sweeping the floor in my direction when I entered. He was real good at his business as long as the telegraph lines were running. Indians would come along and snap the wires and down would go the communication lines.
"You look mighty brisk today, Marshal," Byers said. He turned and continued to sweep, paying little attention to the collected dust and debris that now covered my boots. He leaned the broom against the wall and returned to his desk after hearing the telegraph key hammer an incoming message. He sat down and replied, lifting his eyes to exchange looks with me.
I had scribbled a note that I wanted to send, pushing the paper toward his outstretched fingers.
"Is this all you wanna say, Marshal?" Byers said. "Kinda short." His eyes probed my message.
"I need the Circuit Judge here in maybe a day or two," I said.
"Judge Speers is a good man. Honest as they come."
I didn't reply. I've known Rance Speers longer than anyone in this section of territory.
"Is this about the Toby Joseph killin', Marshal?" Byers was on the nosy side. He's run this business for seven years and knows a great deal of what goes on here in Cheyenne River.
"Never you mind about the Toby situation," I said to set the tone. "Do your work and send this telegram." I still spoke with respect.
"Where do I find ya, Marshal? Most times you're drinking coffee, sittin' in the saloon."
"Or in my office. Paperwork that's gotta be done. Let me know of any reply from the judge."
Keeping my word with Byers, I decided coffee was top of my list in the Eagle Nest Saloon. Sitting there long enough, I hear an earful of town gossip that people think I'm not listening to. Especially when too much whiskey is consumed and the storytelling progresses into an all out-brawl. The sots have a notion I'm not paying attention until I step in to break up the quarrel. It can get pretty damn loud.
As I was relaxing with my coffee and minding my business, Chad Swain, the busybody in Cheyenne River, was enjoying another rye spirit, expressing his opinion while seated at a table close to mine.
I paid no attention until his words sounded loaded with pointed criticism.
"Ya know somethin'," he said. "When somebody kills somebody, pretty sure the guilty is supposed to hang. Ain't that right, Marshal?"
I continued to sip the warm coffee. My eyes narrowed in his direction.
"Toby Joseph is dead, Marshal. Good idea to bring Luke Slater into town. Not much to talk about. Ever'body knows of it."
"I know what has to be done," I said, "according to the law."
"Luke is guilty. Easy enough to understand."
"I have a responsibility and it'll be met."
"Happened yesterday. You'd think he'd be in jail by now."
"I'm guessin' you're the judge and jury, findin' him guilty and sentenced to hang?"
"Looks that way, Marshal. Best if you put Luke under arrest."
"You worry too much, Chad. That whiskey is makin' you feel too good inside."
"Cheyenne River 'ill be a better place to live in once that kid is behind bars."
"Some people in this town have a big mouth. Especially you."
"I wanna sleep better at night, Marshal. A kid like that could kill anybody."
"Nothin' to worry about. His pa knows that I'll be out there, late tomorrow."
"Harley Slater is a real bastard. He'll protect his son from anybody. 'Specially the law."
"I spoke with Harley an hour ago. Told 'im the facts and he understands."
"When you go out there, you best watch your back. No tellin' 'bout them two gunnin' for ya. Luke might've already run. Maybe some town folks with shotguns should ride with you. Five or six others with ya would make for great protection."
About to comment, my eyes stayed with Byers who'd just entered. He was walking toward me holding a single sheet of paper. Looking at Byers' expression, I already knew the message. Judge Speers to arrive in two days on the 10:00 a.m. stage. Court will begin at noon. Select jury.
I thanked Byers, finished another cup of coffee and walked straight to my office. No more comments came from Chad Swain, but I knew there would be weighty conversations tonight in the saloon.
The rest of the day I spent going over some government papers involving bank robberies in surrounding states. Lengthy descriptions and printed portraits seemed to resemble the same Rummer gang from around Coyote Canyon.
Once the paperwork was finished, I walked through Cheyenne River to find five unbiased members of the community for jury duty. Most had opinions but were honest about it when being considered.
The next day I was up early having coffee and breakfast in Josh Simon's Cafe. Those at the tables around me were pleased at seeing me but I could hear questionings about my intention of bringing in Luke Slater to stand trial. Joe Pikes, sitting with Hank Delp, sneaked a peek in my direction, and his eyes narrowed suspiciously. People were looking at me with various comments, which I ignored. I was thinking too much about the circumstances in front of me, paying little attention until Charlie and Melba Cobb entered. They owned the mercantile next to the cafe. They were regulars, always sitting at the same table, both ordering chicken with biscuits, gravy and coffee. He was a short man with a big belly. The cafe served good food and Charlie was a fine example of its draw. After breakfast they mentioned to Josh Simon that they had store business to tend to before catching the next stage, set to depart in another hour.
"We'll be gone a day," Charlie said, voicing words in my direction. His smile was without humor and his frown registered on a face that seemed to be a cold mask.
I offered a polite smile.
"But we'll be back tomorrow for the hangin'!" he said. A sarcastic smile spread across his lips.
My eyes blazed with sudden anger.
"Sorry to be so callous, Marshal," he said. "I was a witness to Luke Slater killin' Toby Joseph. They were funnin' and jokin' 'round, shootin' off guns at targets next to my store. Saw Luke point his Colt right at Toby's chest and fire. Toby tried to hold his own and yelled, Why, Luke? His legs buckled and gave way before he died in a pool of blood. What's more to be said?"
"He's innocent till found guilty," I stated firmly.
"Won't take long, Marshal. I saw the whole thing. Guilty as charged."
Nothing more was said. I paid my bill, left the cafe and crossed the road to my office. Standing near my desk was Virgil Tomms, the deputy I swore in until my return from the Slater place. Conversation between us consisted of only a few words. Virgil had a profile of power and strength, and could be trusted.
Outside, he stood on the boardwalk and watched me foot the stirrup, easing over the saddle. Pulling up the reins, I guided the roan to the left, west in direction, opposite the morning sun.
About a half hour later I slowed my progress in front of the Slater homestead. Harley and Thelma were already outside; Harley working just inside the barn and Thelma tending the spring garden planting.
"I know why you come, Marshal," Harley said, walking toward me.
Thelma's disposition had changed, as she looked straight me. She threw a garden spade to the ground, heading straight for me. Hard language fell from her mouth.
For a moment I studied her intently.
"Marshal, you're nothin' but a sonvabitch ridin' out here," she said, cold as ice.
"Where's Luke?" I said. "That's why I'm here, to take 'im back to Cheyenne River."
"Ya coulda told me yesterday, Marshal, when we was in town," she said. "Ya left it up to Harley to spill the news." Tears began to well in her eyes, and she used a garden apron to wipe them away.
"Bring Luke here," I said. "I need to get on with bringin' my prisoner back to town."
"He ran, Marshal," Harley said. "Heard that you was comin' and ran in the night." His voice was rough with anxiety.
"Where is he now?" I said.
"Oh, he decided to come back some time later," Harley said. "Luke told me he ran almost twenty miles straight north, seein' how far he could get. But he come back. Ma and me thought he would. He knows where the food on the table is."
Luke appeared in the open door of the barn, pulling the reins to his bay, walking in our direction.
"Luke," I said. "Begin to mount up. You're being arrested for the murder of Toby Joseph. Witnesses say so. Trial will start maybe tomorrow. Let's get a move on and don't try to run away again. I'll catch you in a flash."
"We'll be there, too," said Harley and Thelma in unison. "Sit in the front row behind our son."
Luke and I were already miles away from their spread, riding two across on a small trail used occasionally by the Butterfield stage. Along the trail hues of brown and green plants and scrubs were coming alive with the awakening of spring. I was enjoying the peaceful ride, taking note of the changing colors, and Luke began to talk.
"You ever see a young kid get strung up, Marshal?" Luke asked in a cold voice.
I could see perspiration beading across his forehead.
"What's does it feel like to have that thick rope around your neck?"
"I've seen it happen before, Luke. I'm not crazy about it, but that's the law if you're found guilty."
"No doubt I'm guilty, but damn scared o' that rope."
"Nothin' to worry about. Once that trap door opens, you're in the hands of God."
"Don't think God 'ill take me. End up in the other direction, where people meet the devil."
Luke continued to talk, in nervous spurts, remembering the good times with Toby.
We finally made our way into Cheyenne River and it seemed that Luke had turned into a spectacle. Onlookers on boardwalks on both sides of the road voiced opinions and jeers, laughing and scoffing.
"These people knew and liked me," Luke said, "and now I'm the fool they all hate." His mind seemed to reel with confusion.
In front of my office, Luke and I stepped down from our horses. We tied the reins to the hitch rail, crossed the boardwalk and proceeded inside. To my surprise, Judge Speers was standing near my desk. He came forward to shake my hand. His grip was strong and he towered inches above me.
"I received your telegram this morning," he said, looking directly at me. "I was in nearby Owl Creek, tending to a legal matter. I came in this direction, took me about an hour."
"You the judge ta hang me?" Luke said. "I . . . I don't wanna die!" Tense lines creased his face.
"Son, I'm only the judge. If found guilty, you will hang. If not, you'll go free."
"I know I shot Toby, but I didn't mean to . . . honest." Luke choked back a cry.
The office door swung open and Harley and Thelma entered. I quickly introduced them and mentioned the trial would begin tomorrow.
"Ma . . . Pa . . . I'm gonna hang." His pulse was beating erratically in his neck.
"Luke!" Harley shouted. "You calm down right now. Trial ain't till morning. Get in that jail cell and stop your damn fearfulness. Ma an' me 'ill be givin' some heavy talk to this here judge."
"But it's too late in thinkin' I'm gonna receive some prison time. I ain't done nothin' bad in my life till now. Real sorry it happened." Luke was struggling to hold back his raw emotions.
The room remained quiet as I escorted Luke to the rear cell area. The next sound in the office was the heavy key ring turning and the cell door slamming as it locked.
Returning up front, I could see the emotions in the room swirled with confusing thoughts. Judge Speers was extremely limited to his opinions, fearing his feelings would be brought out at the trial. Eventually the judge had heard enough, left my office, and walked across the road to get a room at the McKinzie Hotel. No further discussions arose between the Slaters, my deputy and me.
By evening and into the night, tensions throughout Cheyenne River had grown among the town folk. I had no prediction to the outcome of the trial, yet I was instructed by Judge Speers to have carpenters build a hangman's scaffolding at the edge of town. Construction went on throughout the night with the workers' kerosene lanterns providing a shadowy light.
In the morning after Luke was fed, I walked with him, now in handcuffs, to the Eagle Nest saloon. Tables were lined up on the sides of the room except for a rectangle one in the center for the judge. Chairs were in rows and all were filled with anxious citizens. Luke and I sat in the first row to the left and the five jury members sat in the front row to the right. Keeping their word, Harley and Thelma chose to sit directly behind their son.
Judge Speers didn't waste any time in getting the trial underway. He questioned those individuals who were, in his opinion, hearsay witnesses. All concluded that the evidence against Luke was true; the killing was deliberate and not accidental.
The key witness was Charlie Cobb, from the mercantile. He kept to his word as to what really happened. He was smooth with his answers, certain of a guilty response.
Silence filled the room as the judge asked the five jury members for their answers. Luke was unanimously found guilty and sentenced to hang at twelve noon.
"I don't want to hang," Luck screamed after being returned to jail. "I don't wanna die. I really don't want to die." He paced back and forth, yelling and repenting for his evil deed. No one paid attention and he only served as his own entertainer.
Twelve noon arrived and Judge Speers and I escorted Luke to the make-shift gallows. Luck was more nervous than before. "I don't wanna die!" he kept repeating. Curses fell from his mouth. At the edge of the gallows, Harley took his son aside and whispered softly.
"You ain't gonna die, Luke, listen. I rigged the rope. Some of the rope strands are completely ripped in half. It'll look real, but the cut rope 'ill split when you drop, lookin' like a real hanging. You're gonna live another day. Don't be scared no more."
"I ain't gonna die? Sure 'bout that, Pa? That rope looks thick enough to me. Honest, Pa?"
"Sure I'm sure. I did it last night. Once you drop, that rope is gonna snap, but snap long enough to look like you're dead. I paid off the doctor who'll say you're dead."
"That the truth, Pa? Never heard it done like that."
"Sure it's been done. Many times. I read about it in California."
"But what happens if it don't work like you say. Then I hang. I don't wanna hang. That tight rope'll feel awful. Don't care what you say, I'm damned scared that I'm gonna die."
"You ain't, Luke. It's gonna work."
Luke remained fearful.
"Listen," Harley said. "I slipped a note in your pocket. Once you're free, read it and hightail it to this homestead north o' here 'bout ten miles. When you get there there'll be someone waitin' for ya. Stay put until I arrive in a couple weeks. You understand? You'll be alive in minutes. Goodbye, son, don't worry, you'll be okay." Harley held his son in a tight embrace.
Luke and a minister and I climbed the scaffold steps and the prisoner stood centermost on the platform. A rope was secured around Luke's neck and pulled taut.
The minister said a lengthy prayer. Luke was asked to say something but he chose not to. He finally showed a smile, knowing the rope was cut and he'd go free and escape.
Judge Speers gave the signal and the trap door opened. Luke dangled for the next ten minutes until pronounced dead.
I walked over to Harley and Thelma, who was sobbing.
"I didn't want him to think that hangin' would hurt," Harley said. "I didn't want him scared to die and I proved my point. He was damn plain scared, but I told him about the cut rope and that ever'thing would be okay. Now we can take our son home and know he's not scared no more."