OUT WEST : NUMBER FOURTEEN
Farnsworth was a quiet little town, widely regarded as a place where not much happened. The ambience rubbed off on visitors to such an extent that miners, loggers and cowboys from the surrounding area rolled up at weekends not to let off steam but to have a few drinks in peace and quiet.
The normal atmosphere prevailed at three o’clock on a dull April afternoon. In the grandly named Southeast Avenue – a fifty-yard offshoot from the main street – two old-timers sat on chairs outside the barbershop. They were conducting a meandering conversation, which as usual ran at an average of about ten words a minute, when a newcomer arrived. With his horse at a plod, he rode as far as the office of lawyer Roland Hanson, putting him within ten yards of the oldsters.
Dismounting was a laborious business. Having taken his time about getting his right foot to the ground, the rider paused for a further ten seconds before freeing his left boot. He then stood for close to a minute, hands on his saddle, seemingly preparing himself for whatever he had in mind. He was a couple of inches over six feet in height, of average build, with a gaunt face and a generally rugged, rawboned look. His extra-long jacket was of fringed tan leather and his dark trousers were tucked into high brown boots. On his head was a coonskin hat.
With an air of fatigue, the stranger hauled himself up onto the boardwalk and tramped into Hanson’s office. The two old-timers had a consultation about the stranger, concluding that he was probably a mountain man. They didn’t have long to speculate, for he had been in the lawyer’s place less than five minutes when the peace was disturbed by a loud crash as the office window shattered. Hanson burst through the aperture and thudded onto the planking amid a scatter of shards. As he lay prostrate, the newcomer appeared in the doorway bearing a paper in one hand. He looked down at Hanson, pocketed the document, mounted his horse and left as slowly as he’d arrived.
It would be an exaggeration to say that the two old fellows rushed across the street – both were troubled by arthritis – but they did reach Roland Hanson as he began to pick himself up. “You okay?” asked one of them.
“I think so. I can’t feel any broken bones.”
“What happened in there?”
Hanson shook his head. “Queerest thing I ever experienced. That man came in, said his name was Daniel Lambert and that he’d come to, as he put it ‘clear things up’ after Obadiah Naylor’s death. You’ll remember that the old boy passed on a month ago. I told Lambert there was nothing to be cleared up because the only business Obadiah had was his gold claim and he’d sold that to Henry Bates, whose plot of land abutted his. Lambert said he had a letter from Obadiah, in effect giving him the claim. We both got a little ruffled. Lambert insisted on seeing the deed of transfer to Bates. I wasn’t obliged to show it to him but I did. He grabbed it and promptly tossed me through the window.”
After accepting commiserations from the two old-timers, Hanson went off to report the incident to the law officer, Deputy Sheriff Tom Smith.
Three hours after speaking with Roland Hanson, Deputy Sheriff Smith, rode up to the late Obadiah Naylor’s claim, twelve miles west of town. Smith had headed there after learning that Daniel Lambert had been seen riding that way. The stranger was there, leaning on the handle of a broom he’d been using to sweep out the late prospector’s cabin, into which dust had been blown.
Smith dismounted and strode to within six feet of the stranger. “You Daniel Lambert?” he asked.
“That’s right. Who are you and what do you want with me?”
The lawman pointed at his star. “I’m Deputy Sheriff Tom Smith and I’m here to arrest you on a charge of assaulting Roland Hanson this afternoon.” As he spoke, Smith drew his gun and pointed it at Lambert.
With a flick of his hand, Lambert jerked up the broom so that the head gave Smith a sharp tap under his right hand before he’d taken full control of his weapon, which flew up six feet. As it began to fall, midway between the two men, Lambert reached out and grabbed it. Smith looked on, startled. He was even more surprised when Lambert handed him back the gun, butt first, with the words: “I’ll go with you and settle whatever’s troubling you, but don’t point that thing at me again.”
Chastened, Smith asked Lambert to mount up and the pair set off back to town. During the ride, the deputy sheriff established that Lambert was indeed one of the breed commonly called mountain men. He surprised Smith yet again by saying that he had no objection to spending time in jail pending a trial, so long as he was reasonably well fed. He was unperturbed even when told that the hearing might be delayed for some time because the circuit judge was sick.
It took ten weeks for Judge Joseph Townend to get to Farnsworth, where Daniel Lambert’s assault on Roland Hanson was the only case awaiting his attention. The proceedings took place in the school hall, and on this occasion there was no jury.
The judge stated that Lambert was facing two charges, his attack on the lawyer and his allegedly unauthorised takeover of Obadiah Naylor’s gold claim. Lambert admitted his guilt on the first charge. He was relieved to hear that in the judge's opinion, the time he had spent in custody, through no fault of his, was an appropriate punishment for the assault on Roland Hanson.
With regard to the second charge, Judge Townend had on his desk a deed of transfer, drawn up by lawyer Hanson, conveying ownership of the disputed land from Obadiah Naylor to Henry Bates. He also had a paper that was supposedly a bill of sale of the claim, from Naylor to Bates, and he had the letter from Naylor to Daniel Lambert. In order to make the trial fair, Lambert had been allowed to see the first two papers.
When the judge called for Henry Bates to come forward, there was silence. His honour then asked if anyone could enlighten him as to Bates’s whereabouts. An elderly man from near the back of the courtroom said that Bates had left the area a week earlier, telling nobody where he was going, but confiding to the speaker that he had no intention of appearing in court.
The judge summoned Roland Hanson and began by asking him why, when preparing the deed of transfer, he had spoken to Henry Bates but not to Naylor. Hanson pointed out that Naylor had died immediately after signing the bill of sale, which recorded that he had received from Bates the agreed sum of three thousand dollars. With nobody to enlighten him, further, Hanson had accepted Bates’s version of events and proceeded accordingly, keeping the bill of sale to support his action.
Deputy Sheriff Tom Smith was then called. All he had to say was that he had arrested and jailed Lambert, who had been remarkably patient and a model prisoner during his incarceration.
Daniel Lambert was then asked to give his account of the affair. He pointed at the judge’s desk. “You have three papers there,” he said. “One’s genuine, two are part of some kind of swindle. There’s no way that Obadiah Naylor would have sold out to this man Bates.”
“I see,” the judge replied. “Can you now tell me how I am to verify what you say?”
Lambert shrugged. “No, I can’t. All I can do is give you my word that –”
“Perhaps I can help.” The new voice came from a smartly dressed man standing at the back of the court. He looked to be in his thirties and was accompanied by an older man, also very well turned out.
“I certainly hope someone can,” the judge answered, beckoning the man to approach him. “Who are you, sir?”
“My name is Anthony Naylor. I’m the only child of Obadiah Naylor and he had no other living relations. The gentleman with me is my lawyer. If I could see the documents Mr Lambert mentioned, maybe I’d be able to throw some light on the matter.”
At a motion from the judge, Anthony Naylor picked up the papers, looked at them for a few seconds then dropped them back onto the desk. “Yes, I think I can guess what happened,” he said. “That deed of transfer doesn’t tell us much, but the letter from my father to Daniel Lambert is certainly authentic. There’s no doubt about dad’s handwriting. As for the bill of sale, I’m sure that wasn’t written by him. Even if it had been, the signature is nothing like his. I regard that piece of paper as worthless.”
The judge nodded. “I see. Have you anything else to say?”
“Yes, I know dad wanted to give his claim to Daniel Lambert. He said so several times. He regarded that as his method of repayment for an incident many years ago, when Mr Lambert saved him from being mauled by grizzly bear. I’ve no objection to the idea and I’m quite sure that dad wouldn’t have sold the claim to anyone else.”
“Very well,” said the judge. “Now, I’m in the familiar position of being required to make a decision without being aware of all the facts. However, it seems clear that this Henry Bates has intentionally avoided being present today, which suggests to me that there is something he does not wish to be revealed. I am persuaded that he probably either applied pressure to Obadiah Naylor to sign the bill of sale, or that he did not even discuss it with Mr Naylor. If Bates did indeed pay three thousand dollars for the claim, it would appear that nobody knows what became of that money.
“I understand from Deputy Sheriff Smith that the cause of Obadiah Naylor’s death is not known. He was found in his cabin with a large gash on his head and we have no idea whether he had an accident or was the victim of violence. In the circumstances I am going to ignore the supposed bill of sale and instruct Roland Hanson to draw up a document transferring Obadiah Naylor’s claim to Daniel Lambert and – ”
“I don’t want it.” The interruption came from Lambert.
“I beg your pardon,” said the judge. “You do not want the claim?”
“That’s right. I came here to say so to Obadiah but he died before I arrived. I’m not interested in seeking gold. It’s not much use in my part of the world. I hunt and trap and trade what I have for what I need. That’s how I intend to go on. I’m fifty-eight years of age and never had more than forty dollars in cash. I’d like you to transfer the claim to young Mr Naylor here, then he can do as he likes with it. That’s my final word and now I’d like to go back to where I came from, right away.”
The judge gave a resigned sigh. “All right, Mr Lambert. I’d appreciate your staying here for an hour or so, during which time Mr Hanson will prepare the necessary document, then you may go.”
And so it was.
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