OUT WEST : NUMBER FIVE
A Hanging Matter
Starfall had seen better days. It was never quite a boom town, but did prosper when silver was found in the nearby mountains. When the mining finished, it returned to catering for cattle and farming interests, which was how it grew in the first place. The miners’ appearance had led to quite a number of new businesses being opened. Now some of them were gone. Five stores, two of the three saloons, the hotel, one of the two rooming houses and the assay office had closed. A number of homes had been abandoned and were falling into disrepair.
Some institutions came wholly or partly unscathed through the contraction. Both church and school were still well-attended. The bank remained open, albeit with activity well below what it had been in the heady years. The town marshal’s office and jail had survived, though the duties concerned no longer justified a full-time incumbent. Now the work was carried out on a part-time basis by the blacksmith, Fred Dunning, who received a derisory salary for the job and did it largely because of his public-spirited attitude.
As to how the town got its name, there were several explanations, some of them highly fanciful. The most widely accepted one was that a wagon train on its way to California had halted overnight at the spot and several members of the party had seen a meteor that evening. Supposedly, one married couple had taken the sighting as a propitious omen and decided to pull out of the trek and stay put. They hadn’t wanted to call the place Meteor and thought that Falling Star was not catchy enough, so had settled for the wife’s suggestion, Starfall. Nobody still living in the town knew whether the story was true, but it was seldom questioned.
There was rarely any great excitement in Starfall, so an attempt at a major crime created a sensation. It happened one May afternoon, when a young man named Chris Paley rode into town and tried to pull off a single-handed bank robbery. He failed, and in the process the sole teller, who had refused to hand over any cash, was shot dead. As Paley rushed out into the street, brandishing his revolver, two passing ranch hands realised instantly what was happening. Showing great presence of mind, and not inconsiderable courage, they pounced on the miscreant and managed to disarm him. Marshal Dunning had been summoned and had jailed him.
The bank manager had been in his private office and saw nothing of the incident. The only eyewitness was a cattleman, Joseph Rogers, who entered the bank at the moment the trouble started. He was wearing a sidearm and said he’d tried to draw it but had been too slow. He gave Marshal Dunning a statement to the effect that he had seen Paley fire the fatal shot.
On a Tuesday morning, six weeks after the occurrence, with young Paley still in custody and awaiting the arrival of the circuit judge, Fred Dunning was about to leave his office when a tall thin hollow-cheeked man of about thirty walked in. “Morning,” said the marshal. “What can I do for you?”
“Mornin’. I called to see if you have any interestin’ wanted posters.”
“I don’t know what you’d call interesting. I haven’t received anything lately and all the ones I have are out of date. Why are you asking?”
“I’m a bounty hunter. I usually call at the lawman’s office in every town I pass through, just to check up on things.”
Dunning’s attitude to men in his caller’s line of work was ambivalent. On one hand he considered their occupation distasteful and on the other he realised that they often saved the official forces of law and order a lot of time and trouble. “Well, I’m sure I’ve nothing worth your attention,” he said. “As far as I know not many bandits pass this way and very few bad things happen around here, although we did have a killing a few weeks ago. The man who did it is in my jail right now, awaiting trial.”
“Oh yeah,” the visitor replied. “I heard about that north of here a few days back. Name of Paley, if I remember rightly.”
“That’s him. And he won’t be with us much longer. Judge Seward’s due here on Thursday and our carpenter’s got all he needs for the gallows he’ll have to build. I reckon we’ll be saying goodbye to Mr Paley within forty-eight hours.”
The bounty hunter chuckled. “From what I hear, you’ll most likely be doin’ that a day early.”
“I guess news travels slow around here. In case you didn’t know, Judge Seward had a seizure on Saturday evenin’. They say he’s at death’s door.”
“You’re right about the speed of information in these parts,” Dunning answered. “I hadn’t heard. Henry Seward’s a good man and I’m sorry he’s so sick. But what’s that got to do with the trial being early?”
“Seems that another judge, name of Langton, was in the area. He’s been appointed to take on Seward’s cases an’ he’s in a hurry to fit them in. From what I heard, he’ll be with you tomorrow.”
“Quick work,” said Dunning. “Thanks for telling me. Are you staying for the big event?”
“No. I have to make a livin’ an’ I’ll not do that waitin’ around here. I hope you enjoy your necktie party. So long, Marshal.” With that, the man went out and rode off.
Fred Dunning spread the word about a replacement judge coming. He sent a message to the rancher, Rogers, asking him to be sure to get into town early the following day, as he would be required to testify. The townspeople became increasingly excited and were at one in their certainty that the Paley affair would be a hanging matter.
At ten o’clock on the Wednesday morning, Dunning was again in his office when the door opened and a man entered. He was about five foot ten in height and of very slender build. Apart from a crisp white shirt, he was dressed in black from hat to boots. The most striking feature of his gaunt, clean-shaven face was a pair of deep-set, penetrating hazel eyes. He removed his hat, revealing a head of salt and pepper hair. The marshal guessed him as close to sixty years of age.
“Good morning,” said the visitor. “Am I correct in assuming that you are Marshal Dunning?”
“You are. Can I help you?”
“Yes. I am Judge Andrew Langton, here to take over the duties of my old friend, Henry Seward.” The deep, resonant voice had an air of authority. “I understand there is only one matter to be dealt with here.”
“That’s right. The Paley trial.”
“Very well. Now, as you can imagine, I have an extremely full schedule, so I need to proceed with this case at once, then move on without delay. I’d be obliged if you would pass the word that I intend to conduct the trial at eleven o’clock. I understand the school is not in session, so I propose to use its premises.”
Though astonished by Judge Langton’s speed, the marshal was anxious to cooperate. “All right,” he said. “There’s just one thing. I might have trouble finding twelve men to serve as – “
Langton interrupted him with an impatient hand-wave. “No need for that. In view of the exigencies ensuing from Judge Seward’s indisposition, I am fully authorised to act as judge and jury, pro tem.”
Marshal Dunning was struggling with the two-dollar words but he wasn’t going to argue with a judge and anyway, the idea of bustling around to find a dozen jurors in less than an hour would not have been congenial to him, so he was pleased to be relieved of the task.
In accordance with the judge’s requirements, the hearing began within an hour of his arrival in town. The single-room schoolhouse was packed. Langton listened to testimonies from the eyewitness Rogers, the two cowboys who had overpowered Paley, the bank manager, the Marshal and finally the defendant.
The judge didn’t make any notes but asked a number of questions, some of which seemed irrelevant to his listeners. Having heard all he wanted to hear, he used that sonorous voice to silence an outbreak of muttering, then gave his summing up:
“We are dealing with two charges. First, there is the attempted robbery. The bank manager told us that at the time of the incident he had on his premises only such funds as he expected to need for the business he was expecting to do over the next few days. We heard him mention a figure of about six hundred dollars. In my opinion, even a successful robbery of such a sum amounts to barely more than petty larceny. As it happened, the effort failed, and I am mindful that Mr Paley has been incarcerated for forty-four days. I regard him as a fool rather than a knave and am inclined to the view that he has already paid for his stupidity. I therefore acquit him on the first charge.”
This decision gave rise to an outbreak of angry comments from the crowd, causing the judge to demand order, failing which he would clear the room and continue the hearing in camera. Langton’s interpretation of the law with respect to robbery was strange enough, but it was to be followed by something even more bizarre when he moved on:
“We now come to the killing of the teller. The only witness, Mr Rogers, claims that the bank’s employee was shot by the defendant. However, he also says that he tried to draw his own handgun. We have no proof that he did not succeed in doing so. Neither his gun nor that of the defendant was examined at the time. That was most remiss.” Langton glared at Marshal Dunning before continuing: “I have noted that the bullet passed through the victim’s head and was never recovered. Presumably it disappeared when the office was later cleaned, so even if we could learn something by examining it, that course is not open to us. It hardly stretches anyone’s imagination to picture how confused the situation might have been. For all we know, Mr Rogers, in his zeal to prevent a crime, may have pulled out his gun and shot the teller by accident. We have only his word that he did not.”
Rogers began to shout a protest but had barely got out a word when the judge quelled his outburst with a stentorian bellow. “Quiet, sir. You have had your say. It is for me to interpret your words and those of the others who have testified here.” The rumble of unease that had rippled through the crowd stopped abruptly, everyone fearing that Langton would indeed empty the room, though he had no credible means of carrying out his earlier threat to do so. His listeners were cowed by nothing more than their respect for law’s majesty.
The judge leaned back in his chair and swept the improvised courthouse with a slow look before coming to his conclusion. “I would remind everyone that in order for a person on trial to be convicted of a crime, the judge or jury must be satisfied beyond any reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the act in question. In this case I am not convinced that Mr Paley did fire the shot that killed the teller. I have therefore no choice but to acquit him.” He nodded at Paley. “You are free to go, and as I imagine you are not well-liked in this town, I suggest you leave immediately.”
Chris Paley almost ran from the room as the crowd sat dumbstruck. For a moment Judge Langton glared at the assembly, seemingly daring anyone to speak, then he stood and put on his hat. “These proceedings are closed,” he barked. “You will oblige me by remaining seated until I leave, then you may do as you wish.” He strode briskly from the room. Such had been his command of the situation that his departure was followed by a brief, stunned silence before pandemonium broke out.
Fred Dunning didn’t take part in the uproar, but sat stupefied until a group of men approached him, demanding that he do something, though nobody was clear what that should be. Nearly ten minutes after the judge had departed, the marshal went outside to look for him. He’d been in the street only a matter of seconds when a woman accosted him, wanting to know what was going on. She had been shopping and had seen ‘that man who’d been in jail’ riding out of town at full speed, then two minutes later another man ‘all dressed in black’ racing off in the opposite direction. On looking into the matter, Dunning was surprised to learn that two horses had been saddled and waiting in an alley adjacent to the school.
Friday dawned with the townspeople outraged and nonplussed in equal measure by what had happened the previous day. Fred Dunning was trying to take his mind from the experience by working hard in his forge. A few minutes after eleven o’clock he heard a familiar voice behind him. “Time for you to leave that, Fred. We have other things to do.”
Dunning needed no second bidding to down tools, for in his astonishment he dropped his hammer. Turning, he saw Judge Henry Seward. “What . . . what . . . what are you doing here?” he gasped.
Seward raised his eyebrows. “What I usually do when I call on you, Fred. On this occasion I expect to try that young rapscallion you’ve been holding for me.”
Still bewildered, Dunning peered at the judge. “You’re not sick, then?”
“No. Never been better. What’s amiss, Fred? You look as though you’ve seen a ghost.”
Dunning took off his leather apron. “I think we’d better go to my office. There’s something we need to get to the bottom of here.”
With the judge seated in a visitor’s chair, Dunning related what had happened on Wednesday and Thursday. Seward listened carefully, interrupting only to ask the marshal to describe the visitors he’d had on Tuesday and Wednesday. When the story had been told in full, he rubbed his jaw. “Hmn, Tom and Edward,” he muttered.
“What do you mean?” the marshal asked.
“Your visitors. The supposed bounty hunter was Chris Paley’s older brother, Tom, and the fake judge was his father, Edward. From what you say, there’s no doubt about it. They’re as ripe a trio of scoundrels as you’ll ever come across. I don’t wonder that you believed what you heard. The father could fool anyone. He was an actor in his earlier days. That was when he cultivated the authoritative voice and that magnetic stare you must have noticed. You needn’t bother trying to catch up with those fellows. They’re experts at vanishing. So, Marshal Fred Dunning, you’ll just have to accept that you’ve been duped.”
“Oh, hell,” said the marshal.
* * *