The sun rode up into the eastern horizon and changed from soft pink to brilliant yellow and then to dazzling white as it blessed the town of St. Claire, Montana, with its abundant warmth. It was November and winter had arrived. A blanket of new snow lay on the ground and for the last three days a blistering wind ravaged the town. But on this morning the sky was cobalt blue and endless sunshine streamed like liquid gold.
St. Claire was a lumber town built on a plateau at the base of ragged hills. A cascading waterfall which tumbled down from the highest peak in frothy white fury provided the power for the mill. The powerful stream of water was channeled into a chute and shot from the chute against the wide wooden paddles of a great wheel. The enormous wheel turned with an eagerness which turned the shaft which turned elaborate brass gears which powered the whirling saw blade which cut a stream of new fallen pine.
A fierce growth of towering pines growing up the sides of the hills provided the trees. Some of the trees stretched more than three hundred feet into the air. Such was the abundance of trees that the trees went on forever in an endless procession up into the hills.
St. Claire was not a large town. In fact it could be considered small. There were only two streets of packed red dirt which turned into mud whenever it rained. There were three rows of five white houses on Main Street, each row neatly behind one another. Each house was small and tidy with only one floor and a red brick chimney and shutters on the windows. There were two churches and a rail yard, a livery stable and a doctor's office next to the undertaker.
There was no school with its own building but every Monday and Wednesday after breakfast in the Elm Café a teacher held classes in reading, mathematics, grammar and American history.
There was no saloon in St. Claire. But there was whisky. If you wanted a drink you went to Teeters General store and stood in the back where a plank of pine rested between two barrels and served as a bar. Whisky was fifty cents a glass. Sometimes there was no whisky if the weather was bad and the supply wagon didn't make it up from Flat Head. The bar was open from five to seven and was busy every afternoon as thirsty mill workers fresh from the first shift jostled for space at the raw plank bar. They were almost always big men dressed in heavy flannel shirts and sturdy pants and wore thick stocking caps pushed back on their heads. They spoke in hard edge voices with authority and were not afraid of much.
Moss Teeter owned the general store and was also the part time mayor. There was a part time sheriff named Nesby Platt who was sixty years old and arthritic and walked with a cane and did not carry a gun. When one of the mill workers drank too much he was locked up by the sheriff in the back of the store in a room behind the bar which served as a jail. But this didn't happen very often as there were only three hundred people in St. Claire and thirty-six of them were children.
Yet on this November in 1890, the town was filled with anger and rage, for there had taken place the savage rape and brutal murder of a woman. She was nineteen years old and newly married and had been raped and killed on a Saturday evening as she walked home from the Elm Café where she worked as a waitress.
Marshal Cody Justus, based in Flat Head, had traveled by train to St. Claire and within three days had arrested a drifter named Milton Scroll. Now the prisoner was being held in the storeroom in the back of the general store and the whole town was anxious for a trial followed by a hanging. That there would be a hanging was not deniable. St. Claire was a law and order town and the citizens would have their hanging.
And in every way Scroll was a despicable person. He was five feet eight inches tall with an ugly round face covered by angry red splotches and floppy ears and a fat nose and heavy cheeks. His curly red hair was thick and dirty and his teeth yellow from tobacco. He was sloppy all over and had large, ham like arms and very big hands and even bigger feet and walked in an awkward way. He had black eyes that shone with intense anger and he was never well dressed or equipped with good manners. Scroll went unshaved, his clothes were always dirty and he stank of sweat and alcohol. He disliked women and children and went out of his way to be rude. And almost every afternoon he was at the bar, throwing down whisky after whisky until he was drunk. Then he became mean and surly. He would curse and flail his arms about and shout threats at the men standing at the bar. Then the sheriff and several men would have to take Scroll into the back room and leave him there chained to the floor until he was sober, which usually took all night and part of the next morning and sometimes longer than that.
Scroll had no morals. Life meant little too him. He was good with a knife and a six gun and was drunk every day and Scroll said he was drunk when he raped and killed Ann Babcock. He said he was so drunk he didn't know he had shot her five times and stabbed her through the neck. Now he sat chained to the floor of the store room awaiting trial. He was fed twice a day and taken to the outhouse twice a day and he tried all day and night to pull the chain from the floor. But it was a sturdy chain attached to a heavy iron divot screwed deep into the floor and he was unable to move the chain even a little.
Meanwhile, Cody was having dinner at the Elm Café. Yesterday he had captured Scroll and locked him in the storage room. Cody did not like having to keep a killer in such a primitive jail but the town wanted a trial and he had no choice. While he ate he listened to talk from several men at a table next to his.
"Ask me, we don't need no trial", a stout man with a brown beard said."Just ought to take the skunk out behind the store and hang him."
"I agree with you Amos", a thin man with a bald head wearing a blue shirt said. "Don't make sense wasting time and all on a trial. Everybody knows he done it."
"Well, we need to have a trial so the town don't look bad", replied a third man. He was tall with wide shoulders and dressed all in gray. "Won't take but half a day. Besides, we already sent for the judge."
"I heard he's a hanging judge", Amos said. "That's the only good thing about having a trial."
"Say, who's gonna do the hanging?", asked the man in the blue shirt.
Amos, working on a huge wedge of apple pie set his fork down and leaned back in his chair, his eyes wide with wonderment. "I never thought about it", he said. "We never had no hanging before."
"Somebody has to hang him", the man in the blue shirt replied.
Amos looked perplexed. "I guess we gotta have a meetin and talk about it", he said, picking up his fork, attacking his pie.
The man in gray pushed his plate away and looked over at Amos. "Would you hang him?', he asked.
"Who, me?", Amos replied, startled, a forkful of pie halfway to his mouth.
"What if the town wants you to hang him? Would you?", the man in gray asked Amos.
"Well, I don't know", Amos told his table companions. "I just don't know", he said, leaning back, setting his fork on his plate.
The man in gray took a pipe and tobacco pouch from his shirt pocket, filled the pipe, struck a match and lit up, puffing vigorously, blowing little clouds of blue smoke. "Course, we could hire a hangman", he said.
"Well I just don't know", Amos said. "How much would it cost?"
"Two hundred dollars. Maybe three hundred", the man in gray replied.
"That's a lot of money!", Amos said.
"Nobody in town wants to do it, we gotta hire it done", the man in gray said, puffing on his pipe.
"Now I'll tell you Silus, we gotta think this over", Amos answered. "That's a lot of money for a hangin."
"What if we give you a hundred dollars? You do the Job, Amos?", Silus asked.
"Well I don't know. I just don't know", Amos answered, looking troubled.
"Problem is, if we don't get someone from St. Claire, we gotta pay to have it done", Silus said with finality.
"Are we gonna build a gallows?", the man in the blue shirt asked.
"A gallows. Why that could take four, maybe five days", Amos exclaimed.
"Then how we gonna hang him?', the blue shirt asked.
"I guess we put him on a horse and throw a rope over a tree", Amso answered.
Cody turned and looked at the three men. "You could let me take him to Flat Head."
"Now marshal, we got respect for the law in St. Claire", Amos told Cody. "But we gotta handle this ourselves. Right here. We don't need you to take Scroll to Flat Head."
"Suit yourselves", Cody said, pushing back from his chair as he stood up and walked to the counter where he paid his bill and left the café.
The three men finished dinner, paid their bills and left the café and walked out into the street where the night was turning cold. "When's the judge supposed to get here?", Amos asked.
"Day after tomorrow", Silus answered, rolling and lighting a cigarette.
"They gonna close the mill for the trail", Amos told him. "Be a big thing to see."
"Biggest thing ever in St. Claire", Silus said. "Well, good night Amos. See you in the morning", he told his friend as he turned and walked down the street towards his little white house.
Several minutes later Cody went to the general store and walked into the back, fished a key from his pocket and opened the door to check on the prisoner who was just finishing dinner. "They was late with my supper", Scroll said, wiping at a tin plate with a hunk of bread, looking up at Cody, a wall mounted oil lamp casting splotches of yellow light into the room.
"Your lucky the town's feeding you at all", Cody told him. " And just so you know the judge'll be here day after tomorrow."
"Yeah, well maybe I won't be here", Scroll snarled up at Cody.
"You'll be here all right", Cody told him, pulling the door shut and locking it.
But then the judge did not come. A great storm gathered itself and blew for three days and deluged Montana with several feet of snow. Trains could not run and there was no way for the judge to make it for at least several more days and maybe he wouldn't make it for a week.
The town grew restless waiting for the judge and one cold Friday afternoon, while wind raced over the little town and snow clouds gathered, the bar at Teeters was crowded two deep. Men drank too much and jostled for position. "I don't think we outa wait any more for a judge", Amos said, standing in front of the bar, addressing the men.
"Let's just go hang him now", a tall man with a long gray beard said.
"All we need's a rope and a horse", another man said. "We can take him out behind Teeters. There's a big pine right behind the outhouse."
"Yeah, let's string him up", another man in a red flannel shirt said.
"Now just a minute", Silus said, shoving through the crowd to stand next to Amos. "We can't hang him. We ain't had a trail. We gotta wait for the judge."
"No we don't! The hell you say", shouted a young man at the end of the bar. "You forgetin what he done?"
"No, I ain't forgetin", Silus replied. "But we gotta follow the law."
"And you will follow the law!", Cody said, pushing his way to the front of the bar. "They'll be no lynching!" The crowd quieted down and Amos looked uncomfortable as he stood looking at Cody. "I'm closing the bar now. It's going to stay closed until the judge get's here."
"When's that gonna be?", Amos asked.
"I don't know. But if he doesn't get her in two days, I'm taking the prisoner to Flat Head. Now break it up and go home!"
But the crowd did not like it. Not even a little. They gathered outside and talked in agitated tones and then went to their homes and returned in front of the store with a collection of guns: rifles, shotguns, big pistols and even an old blunderbuss. Then the crowd began walking to Teeter's store. Two of the men held a coiled rope with a noose fashioned at one end and another man led a gray plow horse. The men were serious, intent and angry. They walked in a tight knot of fifteen men.
As they approached the store and drew close Cody Justus opened the door and stood on the porch, a rifle in his right hand. "Go home!",Cody shouted. But the men kept coming. Cody fired two shots over the head of the crowd and they drew up suddenly and stopped.
"You aim to shoot us all marshal?", Amos called out from the front of the crowd. He was holding a shotgun.
"You'll be the first man I shoot", Cody replied. "I told you there'd be no lynching. Now go home!"
"We ain't going home", a man called out. "We're gonna hang that murdering scum right now."
Cody fired another round over the head of the crowd. "Don't ask for trouble", he shouted.
Then Amos raised his shotgun and pointed it at Cody and suddenly Cody lowered his rifle and fired a shot. The slug slammed into the right arm of Amos and he dropped the shotgun and grasped his right arm and called out in pain. "Now the next one will mean business!", Cody yelled. "Any man here wants to die, come on ahead." Cody looked at the crowd and could tell they were wavering and then Silus took Amos and began walking him over to the doctors' office so he could have his arm looked after.
But then a man at the front of the crowd drew a pistol and fired at Cody and Cody went down on the porch and drew his pistol and fired at the man and sent a slug straight into his chest. The man did an awkward little right turn and went down dead onto the street. Cody fired at another man who was raising his rifle and sent a bulleting crashing into his left shoulder and the man spun down hard onto the dirt.
Then the old sheriff was there with a double barrel shotgun and he fired one barrel go into the air and the crowd turned and looked at him. "There's been enough killing. We ain't gonna have no more, lest I do it. Put your guns on the ground. All of you!" For an old man he had a stern voice and the crowd was startled by his sudden appearance and his willingness to use the shotgun and they lay down their weapons in the street and stood back. "Now, go home. It's over. You can come by Teeter's in the morning and pick up your guns", he said and one by one the crowd dispersed and the old sheriff went over to Cody and helped him up off the porch.