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Without a Lawyer by Gouverneur Morris

 

However bright the court's light may have appeared to the court, the place in which it was shining smelt damnably of oil. It was three o'clock in the afternoon, but already the Alaskan night had descended. The court sat in a barn, warmed from without by the heavily drifted snow and from within by the tiny flames of lanterns and the breathing of men, horses, and cows. Here and there in the outskirts of the circle of light could be seen the long face of a horse or the horned head of a cow. There was a steady sound of munching. The scene was not unlike many paintings of the stable in Bethlehem on the night of the Nativity. And here, too, justice was being born in a dark age. There had been too many sudden deaths, too many jumped claims, too much drinking, too much shooting, too many strong men, too few weak men, until finally—for time, during the long winter, hung upon the neck like a millstone—the gorges of the more decent had risen. Hence the judge, hence the jury, hence the prisoner, dragged from his outlying cabin on a charge of murder. As there were no lawyers in the community, the prisoner held his own brief. Though not a Frenchman, he had been sarcastically nicknamed, because of his small size and shrinking expression, Lou Garou.

The judge rapped for order upon the head of a flour-barrel behind which he sat. "Lou Garou," he said, "you are accused of having shot down Ruddy Boyd in cold blood, after having called him to the door of his cabin for that purpose on the twenty-ninth of last month. Guilty or not guilty?"

"Sure," said Lou Garou timidly, and nodding his head. "I shot him."

"Why?" asked the judge.

For answer Lou Garou shrugged his shoulders and pointed to the chief witness, a woman who had wound her head in a dark veil so that her face could not be seen. "Make her take that veil off," said he in a shrill voice, "and you'll see why I shot him."

The woman rose without embarrassment and removed her veil. But, unless in the prisoner's eyes, she was not beautiful.

"Thank you, madam," said the judge, after an embarrassed pause. "Ahem!" And he addressed the prisoner. "Your answer has its romantic value, Lou Garou, but the court is unable to attach to it any ethical significance whatsoever. Did you shoot Ruddy Boyd because of this lady's appearance in general, or because of her left eye in particular, which I note has been blackened as if by a blow?"

"Oh, I did that," said Lou Garou naïvely.

"Sit down!" thundered the judge. The foreman of the jury, a South Carolinian by birth, had risen, revolver in hand, with the evident intention of executing the prisoner on the spot. "You have sworn to abide by the finding of the court," continued the judge angrily. "If you don't put up that gun I'll blow your damned head off."

The juror, who was not without a sense of the ridiculous, smiled and sat down.

"You have pleaded guilty," resumed the judge sternly, "to the charge of murder. You have given a reason. You have either said too much or too little. If you are unable further to justify your cold-blooded and intemperate act, you shall hang."

"What do you want me to say?" whined Lou Garou.

"I want you to tell the court," said the judge, "why you shot Ruddy Boyd. If it is possible for you to justify that act I want you to do it. The court, representing, as it does, the justice of the land, has a leaning, a bias, toward mercy. Stand up and tell us your story from the beginning."

The prisoner once more indicated the woman. "About then," he said, "I had nothin' but Jenny—and twenty dollars gold that I had loaned to Ruddy Boyd. Hans"—he pointed to a stout German sitting on the Carolinian's left—"wouldn't give me any more credit at the store." He whined and sniffled. "I'm not blaming you one mite, Hans," he said, "but I had to have flour and bacon, and all I had was twenty dollars gold that Ruddy owed me. So I says, 'Jenny, I'll step over to Ruddy's shack and ask him for that money.' She says, 'Think you'd better?' and I says, 'Sure.' So she puts me up a snack of lunch, and I takes my rifle and starts. Ruddy was in his ditch (having shovelled out the snow), and I says, 'Ruddy, how about that twenty?' You all know what a nice hearty way Ruddy had with him—outside. He slaps his thigh, and laughs, and looks astonished, and then he says: 'My Gawd, Lou, if I hadn't clean forgot! Now ain't that funny?' So I laughs, too, and says, 'It do seem kind of funny, and how about it?' 'Now, Lou,' says he, 'you've come on me sudden, and caught me awkward. I ain't got a dime's worth of change. But tell you what: I'll give you a check.'

"I says, 'On what bank?'

"He says, 'Oh, Hans over at the store—he knows me—'"

All eyes were turned on the German. Lou Garou continued:

"Ruddy says: 'Hans dassen't not cash it. He's scared of me, the pot-bellied old fool."

The stout German blinked behind his horn spectacles. He feared neither
God nor man, but he was very patient. He made no remark.

"'If Hans won't,' says Ruddy, 'Stewart sure will!'"

The foreman of the jury rose like a spring slowly uncoiling. He looked like a snake ready to strike. "May I inquire," he drawled, "what reason the late lamented gave for supposing that I would honor his wuffless paper?"

Lou Garou sniffled with embarrassment and looked appealingly at the judge.

"Tell him," ordered the latter.

"Mind, then," said Lou Garou, "it was him said it, not me."

"What was said?" glinted the foreman.

"Something," said Lou Garou in a small still voice like that which is said to appertain to conscience, "something about him having give you a terrible lickin' once, that you'd never got over. He says, 'If Stewart won't cash it, tell him I'll step over and kick the stuffin' out of him.'"

The juror on the left end of the front row stood up.

"Did he say anything about me?" he asked.

"Nothin' particular, Jimmy," said Lou Garou. "He only said somethin' general, like 'them bally-washed hawgs over to the Central Store,' I think it was."

"The court," said the judge stiffly, "knows the deceased to have been a worthless braggart. Proceed with your story."

"Long and short of it was," said Lou Garou, "we arranged that Ruddy
himself was to get the check cashed and bring me the money the next
Thursday. He swears on his honor he won't keep me waitin' no longer. So
I steps off and eats my lunch, and goes home and tells Jenny how it was.

"'Hope you get it,' says she. 'I know him.'

"It so happened," continued Lou Garou, "Thursday come, and no Ruddy. No Ruddy, Friday. Saturday I see the weather was bankin' up black for snow, so I says: 'Jenny, it's credit or bust. I'll step up to the store and talk to Hans.' So Jenny puts me up a snack of lunch, and I goes to see Hans. Hans," said Lou Garou, addressing that juror directly, "did I or didn't I come to see you that Saturday?"

Hans nodded.

"Did you or didn't you let me have some flour and bacon on tick?"

"I did nod," said Hans.

Lou Garou turned once more to the judge. "So I goes home," he said, "and finds my chairs broke, and my table upside down, and the dishes broke, and Jenny gone."

There was a mild sensation in the court.

"I casts about for signs, and pretty soon I finds a wisp of red hair, roots an' all, I says, 'Ruddy's hair,' I says. 'He's bin and gone.'

"So I takes my gun and starts for Ruddy's, over the mountain. It's hours shorter than by the valley, for them that has good legs.

"I was goin' down the other side of the mountain when it seems to me I hears voices. I bears to the left, and looks down the mountain, and yonder I sees a man and a woman on the valley path to Ruddy's. The man he wants the woman to go on. The woman she wants to go back. I can hear their voices loud and mad, but not their words. Pretty soon Ruddy he takes Jenny by the arm and twists it—very slow—tighter and tighter. She sinks to the ground. He goes on twistin'. Pretty soon she indicates that she has enough. He helps her up with a kick, and they goes on."

The foreman of the jury rose. "Your honor," he said, "it is an obvious case of raptae puellae. In my opinion the prisoner was more than justified in shooting the man Ruddy Boyd like a dog."

"Sit down," said the judge.

Lou Garou, somewhat excited by painful recollections, went on in a stronger voice. "I puts up my hind sight to three hundred yards and draws a bead on Ruddy, between the shoulders. Then I lowers my piece and uncocks her. 'Stop a bit,' I says. 'How about that twenty?'

It's gettin' dark, and I follows them to Ruddy's. I hides my gun in a bush and knocks on the door. Ruddy comes out showin' his big teeth and laughin.' He closes the door behind him.

'Come for that twenty, Lou?' says he.

'Sure,' says I.

He thinks a minute, then he laughs and turns and flings open the door.
'Come in,' he says.

I goes in.

'Hallo!' says he, like he was awful surprised. 'Here's a friend of yours, Lou. Well, I never!'

I sees Jenny sittin' in a corner, tied hand and foot. I says, 'Hallo, Jenny'; she says, 'Hallo, Lou.' Then I turns to Ruddy. 'How about that twenty?' I says.

'Well, I'm damned!' he says. 'All he thinks about is his twenty. Well, here you are.'

He goes down into his pocket and fetches up a slug, and I pockets it.

'There,' says he; 'you've got yours, and I've got mine.'

I don't find nothin' much to say, so I says, 'Well, good-night all, I'll be goin'.'

Then Jenny speaks up. 'Ain't you goin' to do nothin'?' she says.

"'Why, Jenny,' says I 'what can I do?'

"'All right for you,' she says. 'Turn me loose, Ruddy; no need to keep me tied after that.'

"So I says 'Good-night' again and goes. Ruddy comes to the door and watches me. I looks back once and waves my hand, but he don't make no sign. I says to myself, 'I can see him because of the light at his back, but he can't see me.' So I makes for my gun, finds her, turns, and there's Ruddy still standin' at the door lookin' after me into the dark. It was a pot shot. Then I goes back, and steps over Ruddy into the shack and unties Jenny.

"'Lou,' she says, 'I thought I knowed you inside out. But you fooled me!'

"By reason of the late hour we stops that night in Ruddy's shack, and that's all."

The prisoner, after shuffling his feet uncertainly, sat down.

"Madam," said the judge, "may I ask you to rise?"

The woman stood up; not unhandsome in a hard, bold way, except for her black eye.

"Madam," said the judge, "is what the prisoner has told us, in so far as it concerns you, true?"

"Every word of it."

"The man Ruddy Boyd used violence to make you go with him?"

"He twisted my arm and cramped my little finger till I couldn't bear the pain."

"You are, I take it, the prisoner's wife?"

The color mounted slowly into the woman's cheeks. She hesitated, choked upon her words. The prisoner sprang to his feet.

"Your honor," he cried, "in a question of life or death like this Jenny and me we speaks the truth, and nothin' but the truth. She's not my wife. But I'm goin' to marry her, and make an honest woman of her—at the foot of the gallows, if you decide that way. No, sir; she was Ruddy Boyd's wife."

There was a dead silence, broken by the sounds of the horses and cows munching their fodder. The foreman of the jury uncoiled slowly.

"Your honor," he drawled, "I can find it in my heart to pass over the exact married status of the lady, but I cannot find it in my heart to pass over without explanation the black eye which the prisoner confesses to have given her."

Lou Garou turned upon the foreman like a rat at bay. "That night in the shack," he cried, "I dreams that Ruddy comes to life. Jenny she hears me moanin' in my sleep, and she sits up and bends over to see what's the matter. I think it's Ruddy bendin' over to choke me, and I hits out!"

"That's true, every word of it!" cried the woman. "He hit me in his sleep. And when he found out what he'd done he cried over me, and he kissed the place and made it well!" Her voice broke and ran off into a sob.

The jury acquitted the prisoner without leaving their seats. One by one they shook hands with him, and with the woman.

"I propose," said the foreman, "that by a unanimous vote we change this court-house into a house of worship. It will not be a legal marriage precisely, but it will answer until we can get hold of a minister after the spring break up."

The motion was carried.

The last man to congratulate the happy pair was the German Hans. "Wheneffer," he said, "you need a parrel of flour or something, you comes to me py my store."