SUNSET STORIES : NUMBER TWO
Judge Lemuel Leggett MD was a comprehensive misnomer, for the bearer of that imposing title had had neither legal nor medical training and his name was an alias. Nevertheless, the partly assumed, partly awarded identity was known for many miles around the spot in Arizona which he had made first his refuge, then his home, then his power base. No-one ever questioned the social correctness of the elevated form of address. It had been acquired by degrees over many years and that was good enough for everybody.
Fifty-six years before he tried the case which caused him to cease dispensing justice, Leggett had been born James Cutler. His parents were Missouri farmers and while their only child was still in infancy, they were attracted to what Cutler senior called ‘The Real West’, moving to a quarter-section of passably good agricultural land near Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory. It was there that young Cutler grew to manhood.
James had a more or less normal upbringing. He was bright and intensely inquisitive. Apart from a distinctly larcenous bent, albeit indulged only infrequently, he bore the respectable family name with as much honour as he could muster – or did so for some years, until one day he deemed it advisable to change his lifestyle. This occurred at the same time as he considered it wise to depart the scenes of his formative years, following an incident involving a keg of gunpowder and a jailhouse in which a friend of his was incarcerated.
It seemed best to head south, so he did and in the process, James Cutler vanished and Lemuel Leggett emerged. He took the forename from the hero of his favourite childhood book, Gulliver’s Travels, and the surname because it was the first one that came to him and there seemed little point in rummaging around for another. And anyway, as he reasoned later, he was after all ‘legging it’ at the time, so maybe the choice was inspired.
After some weeks of swift and prudently tortuous travel, the newly created Lemuel Leggett arrived at that far-flung speck in the Southwest which was to be his adopted hometown. On leaving Wyoming, he had gathered up as much money as he could, including some which did not belong to him, so he was not destitute. However, the question of making a living soon became obtrusive.
Being a pragmatic man, Leggett concluded that he would need to capitalise on the assets he had. It was at this point that he realised that he had led a fairly sheltered life. He knew something of farming, for he had always helped his parents. Beyond that, however, his scope was narrow. Physically, his attributes were limited. He was of slightly less than average height, slim build and limited strength. Punching cows, felling trees or grovelling in a mine did not appeal to him.
What then, did Leggett have to offer? Well, he was widely read, especially in medical and legal matters. The few friends he had cultivated in Wyoming had often referred to him as a walking dictionary, such was his propensity for using long, uncommon words. He delivered them well, for he had a deep, resonant voice and full, rounded tones. He would have made a fine actor, or an impressive politician. Indeed, he had considered those occupations and rejected both, though not before establishing that he could see little difference between them.
Despite having no formal background in jurisprudence, Leggett knew a good deal more of the law than might be expected of any layman, his labyrinthine mind having drawn him into reading all the literature he could find on that subject. What he did not know, he could extemporise with a speed, facility and conviction sufficient to satisfy any but the most erudite company.
As to medical matters, there again he’d had no official schooling, but in this field he was even more widely read than in the legal one. Also, he had some amateur practical experience. Furthermore, he could recite Gunn’s ‘Domestic Medicine’ and Thomson’s ‘The Family Physician’ almost verbatim and he was familiar with the work of McDonnell, Beaumont and Drake. His confidence in his ability to produce ad hoc solutions to a wide range of medical problems was at least as great as the self-certainty he had in legal affairs.
Leggett worked on what he called the gamesman’s principle, believing that if he knew, say, five per cent more than the next man about any given question, that would usually be enough. He would come out on top, for the other party wouldn’t know that he was only slightly to the fore – he might have been a hundred per cent ahead.
Not that Leggett was a complete charlatan. His interest in the relief of human suffering was genuine and his methods, within the scope of his knowledge, were entirely proper and usually effective. Indeed, his expertise in the field of herbal remedies was outstanding.
So Lemuel Leggett decided to be a physician. He would also handle minor surgical matters, but to avoid tarnishing any reputation he might build, he would refer more serious cases to those better equipped to cope with them. With admirable single-mindedness, he set about scouring the countryside for herbs and other plants germane to his calling. Those he could not find, he had mailed to him. He dried, boiled, distilled and infused with rare dedication. Fortune smiled on him in the matter of accommodation. He acquired premises ideal for his purpose, the property having been vacated on the death of the previous owner, who had the misfortune to intercept a .44 bullet with his midriff.
It took time, but Lemuel Leggett’s qualities won through. His waxing expertise and that deep, reassuring voice brought in the sufferers and what Leggett couldn’t rectify, he usually managed to alleviate. The subject of qualifications did not arise. At the time, there were no legal restrictions in those parts to prevent anyone acting as a medical practitioner. If a man behaved like a doctor, he was a doctor. That accounted for Leggett’s addition of the M.D. to his nomenclature.
The question of payment was often fraught. Perhaps half the time, Leggett would receive cash. When that failed, he found himself rewarded with a bewildering variety of items – beef, chickens, eggs, vegetables, home made liquor, cigars, flour, indeed almost anything consumable or somehow negotiable. Once he wound up with such a glut of steaks that he had to bustle around more than somewhat to barter them off for other items. In exchange for his surplus, he received five bottles of whiskey, half a box of rifle ammunition and a pair of boots.
It was in part because of this difficult matter of payment that Leggett shifted slowly to his second occupation. In the same way as a man did not strictly need officially recognised expertise to practise medicine in such a remote area, he did not need a certified legal background to be considered a lawyer. Diplomas were useful but they were not prerequisites. If a man had a smattering of law, plus the right manner and air of command, he was likely to find himself at the hub of such legal machinery as existed.
So it was with Lemuel Leggett. The small, neat, quick-moving frame, the dark, sober dress, aquiline features and sharp repartee combined to give him an aura of leadership. In the fullness of time and in the absence of any more acceptable framework, he was prevailed upon to administer such law as there was and eventually to make up his own version as he went along. In due course, he became known far and wide as Justice of the Peace Leggett and at length as simply Judge Leggett.
Naturally he demurred a little at first, but no more than decency required. After all, he had to consider his medical practice, had he not? When asked, albeit casually, about his status, he let it be known that he had had some involvement with the law in his former home area. This was quite true and no one pressed him for details as to which side of the system he meant. He even went so far as to intimate that he had thought of a judicial career, again a rather fine choice of words, considering his lack of the usual wherewithal. However, he had decided, at least initially, that medicine came first. Still, if the call came, a right-thinking man would be churlish to ignore it. So, without telling a single lie, Lemuel Leggett emerged as the local lawgiver.
He brought to his legal duties the same assiduous effort as he devoted to medical ones. As the years passed, Lemuel Leggett prospered. In fact he did so to such an extent that people began to pass comments. He displayed a marked predilection for imposing fines rather than jail sentences, even when the latter would have been reasonable. The less worthy minds in the community started to indulge in speculation concerning the proportion of the monetary impositions that found its way into the intended coffers. However, as the judge remarked on several occasions, justice could not be administered free of charge. There were legitimate expenses.
Matters came to a head over Leggett’s handling of the trouble caused by the Silverdale brothers. There were three of them, all rapscallions. They had been bad enough while their father was still alive. Following his death, two years before their last clash with Judge Leggett began, the Silverdale boys were seldom out of trouble. Again and again they appeared in court, often singly, sometimes two at once and not infrequently all three together. Always the judge fined them, occasionally going within an inch of sterner measures. It was uncanny how Leggett seemed to know to the dollar what the young reprobates were able to pay. Like a certain statesman, he appeared to have perfected the art of plucking the goose without killing it. At length, the patience of a sufficient number of people came to an end. A deputation was formed, the members facing Leggett with a demand for more drastic steps to curb the Silverdales’ depredations. His Honour promised to give the matter serious attention and, seeing his laboriously built social position in danger of tottering, he acted swiftly.
Leggett was nothing if not thorough. He formed a small committee, consisting of himself, Will Loomis, a rancher who lived close to the Silverdales, Ted Roach, the freight office manager, Bert Clayton, owner of the largest store in the town and Jim Broadwood, the gunsmith. The committee was unofficial. In fact it was so much so that no-one but the members knew that it existed. Its sole purpose was to see that something was done about the unruly brothers.
The committee had only one meeting of any great consequence, held in the backroom of Clayton’s store. At first, it was put forward that the next time any of the Silverdale boys did the slightest thing wrong, an example should be made of him. However, Judge Leggett saw the need for quick, decisive action. His conduct of the rest of the meeting was machiavellian. He sowed a seed here, gave a veiled intimation there and without appearing to have made any such suggestion himself, led his team to the conclusion that a refinement of the original proposal was required. It might be inadvisable to wait. Why not, it was felt, give a helping hand to the inevitable workings of providence?
Progress was swift. Two days after the meeting, an old shack belonging to Will Loomis and no longer used for its original purpose, was burned to the ground. The incident occurred late in the evening, Loomis being in town at the time. By a curious coincidence, three members of the committee, Roach, Clayton and Broadwood, had been returning home after a day’s fishing. They were passing the Loomis place when the blaze was at its height and all were willing to swear on a stack of Bibles to having seen two of the Silverdale brothers, George and Stephen, standing close to the inferno, each holding a flaming torch. The committee members had been unable to get close enough to do anything about extinguishing the fire, but they had seen the Silverdale boys mount their horses and ride off towards their own place.
The circumstantial evidence was overwhelming. Three such worthy citizens as Roach, Clayton and Broadwood could hardly be doubted, and they weren’t. It was in vain that George and Stephen Silverdale asserted, truthfully, that they had been at home, playing cards at the time in question. Only the youngest brother, Robert, could not be implicated, for it was widely known that when the incident occurred, he had been in a saloon fifteen miles away, where he was visiting friends, as a score of people could confirm.
Judge Leggett had no difficulty in finding the right jury, all good men and true, who could be relied upon to bring in the right verdict. They did so, whereupon His Honour gave probably the most impressive summing up he had ever delivered, laced with words the length and depth of which left his listeners awestruck. Such conduct was utterly disgusting. The brothers’ behaviour was reprehensible in the extreme. The laudable vigilance of three stalwart townspeople had resuscitated the generally waning belief in the spirit of sound citizenship. He was gratified to note that his flagging confidence in civic virtue had been but evanescent. And so on.
Then came the sentencing. Leggett pulled forward his recently obtained spectacles, staring at the Silverdale brothers. “You have been found guilty of the crime with which you were charged,” he intoned sonorously, “and you may consider yourselves fortunate that it was not a barn that was razed in the conflagration you caused. Had that been the case, I would have been compelled to take an even more serious view of your conduct than the one I already hold. I am bound to adopt the most severe measures to protect the community from your kind. As for you, George Silverdale, cognisant as I am of the precedents and statutes of this and other lands, regarding the concept of primogeniture, I am obliged – “
“What’s that?” asked the baffled George.
“What’s what?” the judge snapped back.
“Primo … what you said?”
“Primogeniture. In lay terms it means you’re the first born son and as such, you should have known better. And don’t interrupt.”
This was twisting the principle the judge had mentioned out of all recognition, but he’d had been itching to get that one in and knew that no-one present was capable of contesting his bizarre interpretation.
“I was saying,” he went on, “that I am obliged to deal with you sternly. However,” here he turned his gaze upon Stephen Silverdale, “in view of my past experience of your behaviour, I am bound to consider you equally culpable. You will both be imprisoned for two years. Case concluded.”
This was the first time that Leggett had exercised his power of penitential sentencing, recently conferred upon him by an overstretched judiciary. The authority had not been given to him because of any great sagacity on his part, but on account of the fact that no better qualified man was available to serve in the area, and Leggett’s administration was considered better than none.
The outraged brothers were led away, protesting furiously. Following their departure, there was an unofficial meeting of the clandestine committee, at which congratulations and liquor flowed freely. The judge informed his colleagues that he would not consider the operation finished while there was still one of the awkward fraternity at large. Disposing of him would henceforth be the only item on the agenda.
As it happened, Leggett was to have no need to concern himself with the entrapment of the remaining brother. Robert Silverdale, then twenty-one, was the youngest and undoubtedly the most reckless of his clan. Faced with the shocking treatment of his brothers and the need continue running the family ranch, he might have been excused for breaking down completely, or yielding to helpless resentment. He did neither. After a few hours of fuming, he set himself to considering what action to take, for it never occurred to him to do nothing.
There was no way for Robert to set right the injustice to his brothers, so he concluded that his best course was to ensure that George and Stephen would have something to come back to following their spell of rockbreaking. He decided that they would thereafter live in comfort. To do that, they would need money or something easily convertible thereto. It didn’t take the youngest Silverdale long to grasp that he would have to steal whatever was necessary. With a dazzling brainwave, he fastened upon the fact that the obvious source was Judge Leggett, who was by then the wealthiest man around. It was an appropriately scriptural idea, Robert thought an eye for an eye. He would rob the judge.
Not being given to dawdling, Robert put his plan into action at once. His brothers had been taken to the penitentiary on a Thursday morning and at midnight on the following Saturday, he struck.
Although Judge Leggett was now having an impressive new house built on the edge of town, he had never previously cut much of a dash with respect to accommodation. On grounds of convenience, he had continued to live and conduct his medical practice on the main street. As the years had rolled by, he had extended the building into the back lot behind the original store. Fronting the premises, under the sidewalk awning, was the door and to its left, one large window. This was the dispensary. Behind that was the consulting room and at the rear was a small laboratory. Leggett, a bachelor, kept the two upstairs rooms for his private use.
It was dry and bitterly cold as Robert Silverdale broke in by forcing open a back window. Lighting a lamp, he looked around and was about to dismiss the room as useless to him when he noticed, among the bottles and retorts on a testing bench, a small black notebook. Endowed with a fair measure of curiosity, he opened it. As he looked over the contents, written in Leggett’s small, neat hand, his eyebrows rose. His mission temporarily forgotten, he pulled up a chair and read intently, oblivious of the precarious nature of his position.
As he read on, Robert became increasingly engrossed. At one point, still unmindful of his whereabouts, he drew in his breath sharply and emitted a low whistle. For over half an hour, he pored over the little book, then he closed it and began a careful examination of the room, paying particular attention to the contents of the glass-fronted cabinets. Very soon, he would be cursing himself for not moving on more quickly, as the delay was to have consequences.
Judge Leggett was returning late from the nearby saloon, when he saw a light in his bedroom, the intruder having by then worked his way there and incautiously placed his lamp close to the drawn curtains. Leggett rushed back to the saloon to fetch the town marshal, Ed Donnelly, with whom he had just been playing cards, and both men returned hurriedly to Leggett’s place. Thus it was that when Robert Silverdale tried to leave by the back door, disappointed with his paltry haul of cash and trinkets, he walked into the business end of a shotgun. Always audacious, he instantly suppressed a flash of panic, mustering sufficient composure to produce a cheery greeting. “Evening, Marshal,” he said. “Not a very nice one at that.”
Donnelly sniggered. “As far as you’re concerned, it’s likely to get a deal worse,” he retorted.
Robert spent a sleepless night in the town jail, knowing that the machinery of justice would move quickly. It did. At ten o’clock in the morning, Donnelly called in to tell his prisoner that the case would be heard at three that afternoon. With a sardonic twist of humour, he asked whether Robert had any ‘last’ request.
“Sure do,” said Robert. “I guess I’ll go into the pokey with George and Steve. Maybe you’d just step along to Bert Clayton’s place and ask him to slip me one of them little flat bottles of whisky he keeps. The good stuff he gets from Scotland. Might as well have a high-class drink before the show.”
“Okay,” said the marshal, feeling generous in victory. “I guess we can allow that.” He clumped off to Clayton’s store, returning with the precious liquid. “Must be sippin’ liquor at this price,” he commented, collecting payment from his prisoner.
“Well, it’s different from the poison that Bert usually peddles,” Robert replied, handling the flask with due reverence. He took a modest pull at the contents then, with laudable self-discipline, set the bottle aside and sprawled on the lower bunk, trying to cultivate a philosophical attitude to his predicament.
Shortly before noon, the Silverdales’ sole hired hand called in to see what he was to do if Robert received the treatment that both men feared likely. The instructions were as clear as they were sombre. In a hopelessly unsatisfactory situation, the employee was to do what he could to keep the place going.
Punctually at three o’clock, Robert was led into the rearranged barroom of the saloon, where Leggett held court. The legal supremo had been busy. Ordinarily, he would have dealt with such a case himself. This time there was, to Robert’s surprise, a jury. Not any old jury, but the very same one which had officiated in the case of his brothers. Clearly the judge took a serious view of the matter, as a court sitting on a Sunday was unprecedented.
Leggett entered, doffing his latest affectation, a menacing black top hat, reflective of his growing gravitas. He crashed down his gavel and the proceedings began. It was as open and shut as a case could be, and in what seemed to Robert like no time at all, he was found guilty.
On this occasion, Judge Leggett, having used up most of his store of impressive words during the trial of the older Silverdale brothers, was not inclined to verbosity. Within an ace of his final triumph over the troublesome brood, he intended to push the matter through quickly and get Robert behind bars. However, he did take time to point out that he had convened a jury because he was concerned to be seen as scrupulously fair, in view of his own involvement as victim of the crime in question. He simply informed Robert that he was sick and tired of dealing with him and his family and that a further example would have to be made. Robert would go to the penitentiary for one year and the judge was sorry that he could not make it longer. This was a prime piece of hypocrisy, as the absence of any one of the Silverdales, let alone all of them, would sharply reduce the comforting flow of fines. However, Leggett’s brief speech completely satisfied his erstwhile critics among the townspeople. Ah, well, he reasoned, sometimes a general had to retreat in order to advance.
Robert was admirably stoical. As the improvised courtroom was being cleared, Judge Leggett moved towards the bar, while Marshal Donnelly stepped in to take the prisoner away. Robert asked that he be granted a private word with the judge, as he was concerned about the maintenance of the Silverdale ranch during the brothers’ absence. He held up his hands, palms outwards, indicating that he had no violent intentions. For a moment the judge looked suspicious, then, too full of his victory to deny the simple request, he nodded a curt dismissal to Donnelly and the barkeeper, who departed, leaving the room to the judge and Robert.
Leggett faced the young miscreant. “Now, Silverdale,” he said gruffly, “this is highly irregular, but in view of your difficult circumstances, I’ll give you five minutes. We’ll take a drink, seeing that you’re not likely to get another for a while.” He flipped a hand at the whiskey bottle and two glasses considerately left by the barman and now at the young rancher’s elbow.
“Don’t mind if I do, Judge,” said Robert. He poured a shot, then was struck by a thought. “Oh, what happened to my manners? Here, try this.” He pulled the flask of Highland malt from a pocket and filled the judge’s glass. “Runs a damn sight more than ten cents a shot, but it’s worth the difference. These people have been making the stuff for a good few years, so I guess they’ve got it about right by now. By the way, I’ve often wondered where that place is up there. Do you know?” He was pointing at a picture on the wall behind the judge.
Leggett turned and stared in the direction of Robert’s finger, his mind running back through the years. “It’s part of the San Juan Mountains, northeast of here. Quite good work in my opinion. As it happens, I’ve stood at the very spot where the artist must have been when he painted it.” He swung back. “However, let us not distract ourselves. I’m pleased to see that you’re taking this in the right spirit. There’s nothing personal in it, you know.”
“Oh, I realise that,” Robert replied affably. “I suppose we’ve been a headache to you for a long time. I reckon we Silverdales have got what we deserve and I’m not complaining. Bottoms up, Your Honour.”
The drinks went down quickly and Robert refilled the glasses.
“Now,” said Leggett, “you wanted to talk about your place being looked after in your absence. I don’t know why you should ask me, but I’m not an uncaring man and if I can do anything that will help to keep you on a straight road when you return here, I’ll certainly oblige.” This was another foray into cynicism, as it had not escaped Leggett’s notice that the Silverdale spread was likely to go to rack and ruin during its owners’ imprisonment. In that case, it would probably become available at a knockdown price and either Leggett himself or some nominee selected by him might make a nice bargain. That would suit the wily lawgiver’s diversification plans.
Finishing his drink with connoisseur’s relish, the judge rapped his glass on the bar. “Speaking of that straight road,” he said gravely, “I do hope that you and your brothers will use the time you’re going to have on your hands for reflection. When you come back, I don’t want to see any more of this harum-scarum behaviour.”
Robert grinned. “That’s funny, Judge,” he said. “I’d have thought you might like more of it, seeing as it brings so much money your way.”
The judge straightened, suddenly stiff with anger. “I didn’t agree to this talk in order hear your impertinence,” he snapped. “Let me just advise you to spend your time constructively in future.”
“Oh, I usually do that, Judge,” Robert replied. “You’d be surprised how well I use my leisure hours. Take last night, for instance.”
Leggett’s eyes widened. “I’d hardly call it constructive to break into a house, then get arrested and sent to prison,” he said. “Anyway, if you have a point, get to it. You’ve had your five minutes and it’s very warm in here.” The judge was indeed sweating. He ran the forefinger of his right hand around the inside of his collar.
Robert continued smiling, in amazingly high spirits for a man in his situation. “Well,” he said, “it’s true that getting arrested was a mistake, but you didn’t catch me because I was stupid. It just happened that I lost track of time when I was busy in that back room of yours.”
“My laboratory?” Leggett was baffled. “What did you find so interesting there?”
“Well, mostly I was reading in that little black notebook of yours with all that stuff about unusual combinations of herbal substances. You’re real well up on that, Judge.”
Leggett nodded. “Yes,” he said, “It’s an aspect of my work. But I can’t stay here all day chatting with you, Silverdale. Your sentence doesn’t become operative until I sign the committal paper, which I shall do in half an hour or so.”
“What happens if you don’t?”
“As far as I know, such circumstances have never arisen anywhere. If they were to do so, I believe a retrial would be necessary, and as there is no circuit judge in these parts, the case would be heard elsewhere. Anyway, that’s irrelevant. It’s time to say goodbye.”
“Oh, you’re right about that, Judge. I reckon we only have another three or four minutes.”
“What on earth are you talking about?”
“Just this: while I was poking around in your place, I borrowed something from you.” He pulled from his pocket a small brown bottle, the label bearing Leggett’s handwriting, topped by a skull and crossbones.
Robert’s grin widened. “I stuffed this into my boot last night, so you wouldn’t find it. I guess you didn’t notice that while you were looking at the picture up there, I switched to the saloon liquor for my first drink, and you’ll see I haven’t touched the second. ‘Course, I’m afraid you got enough of this in yours to do the trick. Colourless, odourless, tasteless and untraceable it says in your book. Simulates a seizure, works in ten minutes and there’s no antidote. To tell you the truth, I didn’t know that there’d be another trial, where you can’t pick the jury, but I’ll take my chances on that. What’s up Judge? You don’t look well.”
* * *