The January morning was fair and gave promise of a pleasant ride to town as Fred Hoffman saddled his horse on the homestead south of Lenora which he and his wife farmed the on her tribal allotment. As he mounted, his thoughts were already on the tasks that awaited him in his hardware store in Taloga five miles away and the productive day he would have.
The thirty-two-year-old Hoffman saw himself as a good citizen, former Sergeant in the U. S. Cavalry, married, farmer, small businessman, but more than that, elected county treasurer by his neighbors and dedicated to making a good life for himself, his wife, a family on the come, and for his neighbors and community.
Oklahoma newcomers like Hoffman and the prosperity they brought had been welcomed when the Cheyenne Arapahoe Indian reservation was opened for white settlement, with the caveat universal in small communities around the world that the newcomers respect local customs. Enterprising men like the Dalton Brothers, Bill Doolin and others of their professional attainment were welcome to spend their money at McFadden's Saloon or other local businesses in Taloga, so long as they earned it far away. For others, like homesteader and hardware store owner Fred Hoffman, they too were welcome so long as they respected the main cash industry of the area, the one represented by Doolin and the Daltons.
Tolerance of others is a requisite for any community of disparate interests. So, Hoffman's report to James Hume, chief detective for Wells, Fargo, which he had unwisely entrusted to the supposed security of the U. S. mails, violated the core ethic of western Oklahoma.
As Hoffman turned onto the main road, another horseman was just a few yards back. Hoffman recognized his frequent customer Dan Mackenzie and raised an arm in greeting.
"Going to Taloga, Fred?" Mackenzie asked. "Mind if I ride along with you?"
Having company would disrupt the thinking Hoffman had hoped to get done during the ride, but a merchant always welcomes his customers. "Looks like winter will be mild this year, Dan," he said. "Good day for a ride."
"Good day to get important work done, Fred." If there was a hidden message in the words, Hoffman failed to understand it.
At the Brand Crossing to the South Canadian they found the eighteen-year-old Al Son, offspring of another of Hoffman's customers, waiting. "Howdy men," Al said as he fell in with them.
They crossed the river and turned north toward Taloga. Hoffman made small talk, and listened to the others as they rode on. Then, a mile beyond the Crossing, Grant Pettyjohn, the editor of the Taloga newspaper sat mounted, apparently waiting for them. "Morning Al. Morning Dan," Pettyjohn said as his words of greeting. The other two men were riding to Hoffman's right, so perhaps it was natural that Pettyjohn swung in on Hoffman's left.
Mackenzie, Son, and now Pettyjohn. All three men normally had business in Taloga. But Hoffman had to wonder, was this meeting just coincidence?
Two miles outside of Taloga, where the road crested a rise in a stand of trees, waiting for them was Zip Wyatt, not a man Hoffman knew, though a man he knew about and, like the others, a man he had named in his last report to Wells, Fargo. Pettyjohn let his horse drop back to give Wyatt room by Hoffman's side. Riding unarmed among these four men, Hoffman tried to cling to the fading hope that their meeting was happenstance.
"Do much reading these days, Hoffman?" Wyatt asked, apparently innocently. Without waiting for an answer, he continued, "lots of interesting things being written. Things about people we know, even."
Wyatt reached inside his pocket and pulled out a paper. "Friend of mine runs the Taloga post office," he said. "Back East a Postal Agent would get himself in a heap of trouble if he took a letter from the mail slot and handed it over to a friend." His voice turned ominous as he continued. "But we got our own way in the territories, ain't that right Fred."
Fred Hoffman knew he would not see Taloga.
Wyatt's strong hand closed around the bridle of Hoffman's horse. "We'll do it down by the river."
* * *
In Denver, Wells, Fargo agent Dave Mitchell looked at his partner. "How come they waited so long to send for their crack team of investigators?"
"Killing a County Sheriff's local business. The scheme the robbers tried on Wells, Fargo didn't work, and was so sloppy, with three of them run to ground so fast. Mr. Hume figured it needed a local man, a man who knew the community, to turn up the mastermind behind it all. And this robbery has aspects to it I've never heard of before. We're going to earn our pay solving this one."
"So, what's the plan," Mitchell asked, "I remember everything I learned in Yuma Penitentiary and head down there to lie low and see the lay of the land?"
Collins rejected the idea with a firm shake of his head. "They killed one undercover man. They'll be expecting Wells, Fargo to send another. We got to handle this different.
"Besides," he continued, "the Hoffman killing was in Oklahoma Territory. And some of the men who tried to rob Wells, Fargo and killed Sheriff Mcgee are already nabbed and scheduled for trials in Texas. But Hume smells a fix. Let Oklahoma solve its murder case. What Hoffman was working on, and now us, was to figure out who the smart guy was who set up the fraud. That's the one Wells, Fargo cares about. He wants someone to monitor the trials and see if he can sniff it out."
Mitchell grinned. "And since I got the experience of sitting through two trials when I was the guest of honor, I'm elected."
Dave Mitchell, scourge of Wells, Fargo for three years before his incarceration at Yuma Penitentiary, but a man who had learned that a life of purpose beat the life of pleasure-seeking freedom, now brought his experience on the outlaw side to Wells, Fargo.
* * *
The past November.
In the early evening darkness, the AT&SF engine chugged to a halt at the depot in Canadian, a small settlement on the river of the same name located in the Texas Panhandle not far from the border of the outlaw-infested Oklahoma Territory, Bill Dalton and Bill Doolin and their gangs being only the best known practitioners of their larcenous art. From a bench seat in the rear of the passenger car, a small, unobtrusive man stood, reached for his war bag and prepared for his planned role in the scripted drama of the next twelve hours and his transformation from the poverty proclaimed by his worn and faded flannel shirt into a man with more wealth than he had ever imagined----nothing to match his brothers, of course. Not yet. But the morning would start him on his way.
George Isaacs was not a man on whom fortune had smiled. He had resentfully cowboyed in his twenties, got paid for freezing through Texas blizzards and sweating Texas summers, all for thirty-and-found, while his older brothers Will and Sam turned their labor into wealth beyond measure, becoming leading ranchers in the area around Canadian. In his own light, he was as good as his brothers, but fortune had left him behind.
What was a man to do? He'd drawn his time, moved across the line to Taloga and waited for an opportunity that would make him as rich as his brothers. For years, it seemed, nothing had come his way and he'd scratched out a living the best he could, and if sometimes he crossed the line that lawyers and lawmen drew in the dust to keep men like him on the bottom and themselves on top, he'd never been caught.
He'd talked to his neighbors, he listened to ideas, and finally a man had stopped by his cabin with a genius of a plan that would make him rich, at no risk to him, and no cost anybody. Anybody, except the blood-seeking easterners who controlled Wells, Fargo.
George Isaacs was a poor man as he stepped onto the platform of the depot that November night. By noon the next day, that would change, and no one would ever suspect the reason.
Isaacs avoided the Wells, Fargo office where the money packages already waited for him and trudged down the darkened street to the Sutherland Hotel. He ignored the sound of gunshots behind him. Drunken cowboys on a binge, no doubt. It had nothing to do with him. Who would expect that it was a robbery going on as planned? He played his part, got a good sleep dreaming of his new fortune and in the morning set forth to pronounce his lines in the next scene of the play.
But stage plays go according to script, with no ad libs, no improvisations, no change transforming a simple little comedy with a happy ending into a tragic whodunit.
By the time Isaacs presented himself to the Wells, Fargo office to make his claim, he already knew that the "simple robbery in a one-horse town" they had sketched out, had become complicated. The shooting he heard the night before had left the popular Hemphill County Sheriff dead. And lawmen across Texas take things like that personal.
Worst of all, the three hard-visaged robbers who bragged up their past accomplishments in McFadden's Saloon back in Taloga and in whom he had placed so much confidence had been frightened off by their own gunshots. The money packets had not been stolen and now constituted life-threatening evidence which he urgently needed to recover. If Texas lawmen take killing a sheriff personal, that compares not at all to the attitude of Wells, Fargo when someone tries to steal from them.
So, on that dark morning when George Isaacs called to pick up his money packets, instead of being told they had been stolen and inviting him to make his claim for $25,000, the packets themselves had been produced as if it were a normal delivery of freight. No problem. Or perhaps, no problem if a prominent wealthy rancher like Will Isaacs had been claiming such a vast sum of money, but a claim by ne'er-do-well George Isaacs for $25,000 within hours of a robbery attempt and murder raised suspicions.
"Open it," he was ordered.
When he finally was forced to yield to the combined pressure of the local Wells, Fargo agent and acting Sheriff Cap Arrington, the fraud became apparent, for each of the money packets labeled $5000 turned out to be stuffed with nothing more valuable than a hundred one-dollar bills.
And that made George Isaacs accessory to the murder of Sheriff Tom McGee.
Within days, the trio of would-be robbers themselves, third-rate Oklahoma outlaws, Joe Blake, his brother Tulsa Jack Blake, and Jim Harbalt had been arrested and scheduled for trial.
It seemed that the crime had been solved. But James Hume, Chief Detective of Wells, Fargo, was far from satisfied. None of the four men had the smarts to plan the complicated insurance fraud scheme against Wells, Fargo. "Look for discrepancies and incongruities," the agents were instructed. "I want the mastermind."
* * *
Before taking the AT&SF south to Quanah, Texas where the trial of George Isaacs was to be held, Mitchell, along with his partner, visited Kansas City where it had all begun.
In the small Wells, Fargo office at Kansas City's Union Depot, Mitchell listened to A. A. Rinehart as the Wells, Fargo agent explained the standard procedures he had followed the day Isaacs made the cash shipment. Yes, he remembered the transaction, the size of the money packets being so large. No, he didn't think the amount unusually suspect. "Large, it was, but they trail some big herds up from Texas these days."
He had little to say about Isaacs. "Puny little man for a herdsman, I thought." How had he been dressed? "Grubby, greasy cowhand trousers, with a shapeless sweat-stained Stetson. Looked like a typical down-and-out tramp, not a man with a fist full of money, but they all look like that after a month on the trail. That's all I can tell you."
Collins seemed to be having little more luck as he worked through the various stockyards. At market prices of three dollars to five dollars per hundred weight, a 600-pound steer might fetch twenty-five dollars. Isaacs must have delivered as much as one thousand head. That late in the season, someone would remember.
Or maybe not.
His conversation with the clerk at the Armour Packing Company stockyard began, and almost ended, in the standard way. "I'd remember a herd that size," the clerk told him. "Doesn't ring a bell."
Collins turned to leave when the clerk stopped him. "Isaacs you say the name was? Tiny little guy? Let me check." After searching his sales records for mid-November, he pulled out a sheet. "Not a big herd, like I said," he told Collins. "I've got a record of the sale to a George Isaacs but it only came in at $683. Mixed brands as I recall. Scrub cattle drove hard. Not worth much, but we could use them for ground beef."
The cashier at the First National Bank of Kansas City confirmed cashing the check. "Wouldn't take twenties," he told Collins. "That's why it stands out in my memory. He made me count out ones and twos."
That left a mystery in Kansas City. Where did the $25,000 come from to fill the money packets? Already Wells, Fargo had the evidence it would have needed to challenge the fraudulent claim had the packets been stolen and disappeared according to the Isaacs plan.
* * *
Quanah, Hardeman County, Texas
The lawyers for the men accused of murdering the popular sheriff known to all throughout his community had argued that they could not receive a fair hearing in Hemphill County where the jurors knew all the important witnesses. Since the District Attorney agreed that impaneling four juries would exceed the capacity of the tiny county, the trials of the four accused man were parceled out to neighboring counties.
Thus, the small town of Quanah saw an influx of witnesses from Kansas City to give "foundational evidence" that would link George Isaacs to a scheme to defraud in the course of which murder occurred. Though it was conceded that Isaacs did not fire the fatal shot, was not even present when the shot was fired, and that the killing was neither planned nor contemplated by Isaacs, a participant in a common scheme shares a common guilt.
Trials proceed by a uniform template. Start from the beginning, proceed in tedious, mind-numbing detail, leave no particular unproven, and lay out a trail that leads to only one conclusion lest a single juror latch onto a missing step and shout "reasonable doubt."
The Armour Packing Company clerk testified to the purchase of $683 worth of cattle from the small man now sitting in the dock, George Isaacs. Where did the rest of the $25,000 come from? He did not know. The First National Bank cashier testified to cashing Armour Packing Company's check and, perhaps more telling, to the unusual request for disbursement in one-dollar bills. "Never had anyone ask that before," the cashier testified. "But of course, we accommodated Mr. Isaacs."
The Wells, Fargo agent, A. A. Rinehart testified in detail about the process of shipment of money by money packets. "No, it wasn't unusual. A little large, but not out of line for a significant trail herd." Rinehart presented an empty money packet to be entered in evidence, little more than an envelope that could be marked with the Wells, Fargo hot wax seal when presented for shipment. He testified that he gave out the five money packets to be filled. "Then the next day, that man there," here he pointed at George Isaacs, "and another man brought the packets back to be shipped."
Yes, he was sure it was the man in the dock. No, he didn't know the other man. No, he didn't recognize anyone else in the courtroom.
Finally, the jury heard how Isaacs had first resisted opening the packets at Canadian, and the surprising discovery that the contents of each packet was a mere one hundred one-dollar bills, only $100, and $4900 short of what the packet claimed to be. And, as everyone on the jury could see, the total was close to the number of one-dollar bills the bank teller had counted over.
There was little more evidence produced, unless one includes the parade of Oklahoma outlaws who appeared to testify to the good character of the defendant.
The jury was out ten minutes. The verdict: George Isaacs was guilty of murder and would spend the rest of his life in prison.
Mitchell had sat through the trial, paying as much attention as the jurors, observing the skilled lawyers at work, and wondering what he was supposed to learn that would benefit Wells, Fargo.
After the trial, he spent some time with the District Attorney trying to understand why it was necessary to lay out in great detail the evidence from Armour Packing, the Bank, and the Wells, Fargo. "Why not just show that the packet said $5000 but only had $100?"
That's when he learned how important a meticulous presentation can be. "Give a jury any excuse to find reasonable doubt and at least one juror will. Believe me all that testimony, boring as it was, was essential."
* * *
Clarendon, Donley County, Texas
Clarendon, like Canadian and Quanah, was a small settlement in the Texas Panhandle. It was here that Jim Harbalt was scheduled to have his encounter with the Texas justice system. The charge was the same: murder in the course of a scheme to rob and defraud. The evidence would be the same. And, of course, the result would be the same. But Hume said sit through another trial, and Mitchell prepared to sit.
At least the trial would be briefer. There would be no reason to sit through a slew of witnesses from Kansas City. Harbalt's lawyer had discussed streamlining the trial for matters not in dispute. "We'll save time if we just read in the testimony from the Isaacs trial, and let us get on with our defense."
Mitchell wondered about that, as he remembered how the District Attorney at Quanah had emphasized the importance of meticulous testimony. "Witness fees, travel expenses, they all add up" the Clarendon attorney told him. "We're a small county, and can't afford the expense."
It didn't seem to matter. The jury listened attentively, sought to understand the scheme, and was even more focused on the riveting testimony when men from Canadian took the witness stand, described the murder of Sheriff McGee and easily pointed to the man on trial as among the gang of robbers. "Yes, it was dark. But they could still see, couldn't they?"
The defense also seemed to follow the same plan. The parade of Oklahoma outlaws assured the jury that Harbalt was a fine man who would never, could never commit murder, just a simple, respected Oklahoma farmer.
One witness was new, Will Isaacs, respected Texas rancher, well known in the community, the older brother of George, the black sheep of the family who, Isaacs assured the jury, he had not seen for over a decade, and, more to the point, it turned out, Isaacs was the employer of Jim Harbalt. Harbalt could not have been present at Canadian, Isaacs testified, because "I hired him as part of a crew to dig irrigation ditches for my South range. Fact is, we were all together when we heard the news of the killing, the day after it happened."
This time, the jury took a little longer to reach its verdict, for the testimony of a respected cattleman had to be weighed against the dubious nighttime identification by Canadian witnesses who must have been mistaken.
Jim Harbalt went free.
* * *
Vernon, Wilbarger County, Texas
Jim Blake arrived at Vernon, a small town on the Red River, without the companionship of his brother and co-defendant Tulsa Jack Blake whose appointment with Texas justice had been interrupted by the guns of an Oklahoma posse. But the trial promised to be a repeat of the Harbalt trial. There would be the same reading of the Kansas City testimony from the Isaacs trial, the same Canadian witnesses swearing that Blake had been present at the killing, and, Mitchell expected, the ultimate exoneration when Will Isaacs took the stand.
But Hume had said to look for incongruities and maybe Mitchell had found one. He sent a telegram to Collins in Denver and told him what he needed.
The courtroom in Vernon was organized much like its counterpart in Quanah and Clarendon, with two tables for the rival legal teams facing a raised dais against one wall from which the judge presided, and twelve straight-backed chairs railed off to form the jury box. Behind counsel tables, three benches served spectators. On one of those benches Dave Mitchell sat and waited.
The trial began as before, the work of impaling a jury proceeded, the lawyers made their opening statements and the court recessed for lunch. That's when Mitchell approached the Wilbarger County District Attorney. "Call A. A. Rinehart."
"Don't need to," the attorney replied as Mitchell had expected. "We'll read in his testimony. I haven't even subpoenaed him."
"He's here," Mitchell said. "Call him. You may get a surprise."
The court reconvened and the afternoon session commenced with the reading of the familiar testimony of the Armour Packing Company clerk and the First National Bank cashier. As the court clerk was about to proceed with the next transcript, the District Attorney rose to his feet. "I call A, A, Rinehart."
Despite vigorous objection by defense counsel, A, A, Rinehart entered the courtroom, sat in the witness chair and faced the attorneys. As he was asked preliminary questions, there seemed to be a disturbance in the rear of the courtroom. The judge gaveled for order.
A large man who had been sitting patiently among the spectators throughout the day, had risen to his feet and was seeking to leave the courtroom but was being blocked by another man standing athwart the doorway.
"Take your seat, Mr. Isaacs. This may be interesting," Mitchell told the rancher.
When the judge pounded his gavel again and demanded to know the cause of the disturbance, Will Isaacs make his mistake. He turned to face the judge. "This man here's blocking me from leaving."
Suddenly, a voice rang across the courtroom. "That's him," A. A. Rinehart declared. "That's the man who came in with Isaacs,"
"Don't know what he's talking about," Isaacs protested. "I got work to do."
The District Attorney did not miss a step. "Judge, I ask Mr. Isaacs be held as a material witness."
And so, Joe Blake lost his alibi and before long George Isaacs was celebrating a family reunion in the state penitentiary at Rusk, Texas.
* * *
"What tipped you off?" Collins asked his partner as they relaxed in their favorite Denver saloon.
"I got me a partner who keeps drilling into me that it's not what you see that counts, it's what's missing. Hume told us to look for incongruities, and I spent both of the first two trials trying to find one."
"Incongruities," Collins said. "That's a Wells Fargo executive word for 'things that don't make sense.'"
"That's right," Mitchell said. "Both trials were simple and straightforward until you put them side-by-side."
Mitchell described his education in trial tactics from the District Attorney at Quanah. "He told me he had to show all the evidence to the jury or risk losing the case. So why would Harbalt's lawyer not require all the witnesses traipse down to tell their story again and hope one of them wouldn't show up? A defense lawyer just being nice? Helping the county save some money?"
Collins snorted. "Not likely."
"And why did Will Isaacs come forth as an alibi for a man we know is guilty, when he didn't even care enough about his own brother to show up at the trial? When I put those two questions together, I sent my telegram to you."
"Reinhardt was the key."
"The one thing we had no lead on, and the one thing Mr. Hume cared most about, was the man behind the plan. And there was only one place he slipped up, by not trusting George to get the money packets right without his supervision. Reinhardt was the only possible witness that could tie Will Isaacs to the crime."
"Except Harbalt or Blake . . . "
"Except Harbalt or Blake themselves. When he lined them up for the robbery likely he thought he was in control. But when they could turn him into a murderer, they had his tail in a crack. He had to stand behind them."
"He couldn't appear at George's trial and be identified by Reinhardt," Collins concluded. "But he had to give Harbalt and Blake convincing alibis or they would trade his name for a shorter sentence. So, he told the defense lawyers to work it out that Reinhardt didn't come."
"All we had to do was to produce Reinhardt."
"Would have worked, except for a smart Wells, Fargo agent," Collins concluded.
Mitchell raised his glass. "To justice."