“ORDER IN THE COURT…!”
Trying to quell the vociferous argument playing out in front of him, Judge Elmore Rawlings frustratingly banged his wooden gavel in rapid succession.
“ORDER IN MY COURT…!”
The unprecedented overuse of his gavel caused such an unaccustomed vibration to the hammer end, it suddenly toppled from its accompanying stick and fell to the floor. With no audible means at his disposal to bring order to the unruly proceedings, Rawlings improvised by angrily drawing his colt pistol from its holster and firing one single shot at the ceiling. The immediate effect of this desperate action was an instant silence filling the room and a celestial, almost divine ray of light from the missing roof tile, flooding the judge’s position at the table he sat behind. Flanked by an overcrowded bench of court clerks, lawmen, and newspaper reporters, the scene resembled a comical rendition of DaVinci’s Last Supper of Christ, performed by cowboys and drunkards. The irony of this was not lost on the lone photographer keenly crouched under a black cloth behind his bellows at the far end of the room. In an orchestrated series of movements, he popped his head out from under the cover, pulled the slide away from the film carrier, then removed the lens cover. A sudden controlled flash of powder signified the moment had been captured in perpetuity and would no doubt, be on tomorrow’s front page of the Arizonian, the oldest newspaper in the state.
“Say Cheese,” came an after-the-fact drunken yell from somewhere in the middle of the silenced crowd as a cowboy’s hat smouldered from its too-close proximity to the flash. A few snickers began to resonate around the room of rowdy justice seekers, while the cowboy quickly removed his hat, threw it to the ground, and stamped out the small flame that had quickly ignited.
Awash with the smell of dried piss, whiskey, stale sex, and unkempt bodies masquerading as humans, the drifting aroma of fired flashpowder wafting through the room, came as a temporary relief to some of the cleaner courtroom visitors, including the gun-toting Judge. Satisfied, he had made his point, Rawlings calmly set his gun onto his table.
“…Now that I have your undivided attention,” Rawlings confidently stated. “I swear I will shoot the next man that brings my court down to the levels of disrepute we’ve just had… Why, I’ve never had such low falutin’ set of hogranchers carrying on like y’all just did. I’m the Judge in this drafty barn. We might be in the middle of the wildest town west of the Pecos, but this here is my courthouse until I leave, so y’all quieten down and shut the goddam hell up…!”
A few embarrassed apologies mumbled through the room as everyone calmed down. Some were seated, but most of the rowdy bunch were standing in a huddle at the back of the room – just behind the photographer.”
“Court Clerk, kindly remind me where the hell we were…”
The Clerk nervously thumbed through his notes, carelessly dropping a few pieces of paper to the floor. Someone at the back yelled ‘Butterfingers’ causing Rawlings to immediately stand up.
“Who said…?” The words caught in his throat. “I said, who said that? Show yerself!”
The crowd at the back parted like the Red Sea, leaving a hiccupping drunk swaying in the act of downing the last drops of whiskey from a dusty glass bottle. Realising he was suddenly standing all alone and obviously identified as the guilty party, he gulped in anticipation, then turned and ran for the exit, as a bullet shattered his bottle in mid drink. Stumbling and falling out onto the street, the drunk scampered to safety on all fours like a crab crossing a sandy beach. No sooner had he exited, the doors were shut behind him and locked on the order of Rawlings, who still held his smoking colt pistol, pointed at the exit.
“That’s my final warning to y’all. Don’t say you weren’t told.”
Rawlings motioned for the Clerk to hand him his handwritten notes. Briefly scanning them, he quickly resumed where he had left off.
“So, Miss Belle… I am faced with a ‘Conundry.’ Your client and her son stand accused of thievery and murder. Can you in the name of God, repudiate any of the testimony Mr. Henderson has produced to this court?”
Wynonna Belle stood to address the court. Being the only person of adequate education, she had been thrown headfirst into defending her new friend Maria and her son, after giving them sanctuary in the town’s library. Wynonna’s brave decision to risk her position as Town Librarian did not anticipate the legal battle ahead. However, she accepted Maria’s plea to state her case in a court of law. Gun battles were easy compared to the wrangling of the practice of law, but the only one carrying a weapon in this court, was the Judge himself. All others had been checked at the door. To Wynonna, being in a public situation without her two six-shooters only added to the sense of nakedness she felt in an environment extremely alien to her.
“Mr. Rawlings… your Honour. My client is the victim here. Hunted and harassed by Henderson and his men, she had no other choice.”
“Please choose your words carefully, Miss Belle. Your job here today, is to convince me that your client and her son are innocent.”
“Hell, I know they’re innocent, and I know what type of man Henderson is. He’ll stop at nuthin’ to get what he wants.”
“Objection, your honour,” came the interruption from Wiley Wilson, Attorney at Law. “This is all conjecture and a smite on my client’s honest reputation.”
True to the sound of his name, Wiley was a snake on the payroll of Link Henderson, the largest cattle owner in the county. If there was a more underhanded, cagey, crooked, scheming individual in the whole of Arizona, they hadn’t been found yet. Short, fat, and sweaty as a pig, when Wiley Wilson smelled the bacon, rules of engagement went out the window.
Wynonna stood silent. Her intuition was screaming at her to get Maria and Roderigo out of the building and back to the sanctity of the library. However, they were three against a room full of a mob of Henderson men and she knew the approaching verdict would not be favourable. Wynonna had to think fast, or Maria and Roderigo would soon disappear into the tainted hands of Link Henderson and his cahoots. Vengeance was demanded from the man who had previously been embarrassed by the librarian when trying to apprehend the two Mexican immigrants. Frustrated with his inability to beat her, Henderson sent for the law and as there ain’t no law in Canyon Diablo, it was a surprise to all when four days earlier than expected, Rawlings and his clerks arrived in town to a fanfare of drunkards, daylight robbers, murderers, and prostitutes hurling abuse at them. Remarking on the unsavoury welcome, Rawlings was overheard sarcastically commenting on the noticeable fact that ‘Obviously, they’re not Henderson’s welcoming committee.’ Indeed, they weren’t. In fact, they were just scallywags and no-gooders, eyeing up potential victims of their debauchery. The colourful residents of the town had nothing better to do than make trouble their daily ambition.
“Your Honour, I request a recess to further study my client’s options.”
Stalling for time would allow Wynonna to hurriedly transport her charges back to the library, claiming sanctuary until reinforcements arrived; however, Wiley Wilson was one step ahead.
“Objection!” There is a dire risk of flight from custody with these two…”
“Innocents…?” Interjected Wynonna.
“…May I suggest the… accused be detained in this very room – under the supervision of your henchmen… sorry, I meant to say, your adjutants.
Rawlings looked up at the hole in the roof as he briefly pondered both requests. Stroking his short, white beard, he licked his lips at the welcome thought of a mid-day drink of whiskey or two.
“Well, I reckin’ we could all do with a shot of fresh air, right now…”
Before he could bang the handle of his pistol on the table to signify a recess, Henderson angrily leapt to his feet.
“GODDAMIT RAWLINGS,” came the spluttering protestation from his lips. “I ain’t payin’ for me to get the little end of the horn, here. I’m payin’ fer justice, and you’re not here for a lick and a promise, you’re here to do my bidding…! That’s why I paid off your debts at the gambling table!”
Too late to suck his words back up into his brain, Henderson had just given the game away, and Wynonna attempted to call for a mistrial.
“I smell the stink of perversion in this court.”
On the defensive, Rawlings ignored the contemptuous remark. He needed to get out of this on the good side of the county’s largest cattleman and influencer, so he gently replaced his pistol on the table and motioned for quiet in his courtroom.
“Mr. Henderson,” he addressed his corruptor in an appeasing manner. “I have no intention of calling any halt to these proceedings… Now, if you would like to calmly sit back down, I will bring this farce to a satisfying conclusion.
“Judge, I object! The court has not heard my full defence,” Wynonna pleaded.
Under short notice, Wynonna had accepted her responsibility of defending her new friends; however, suspicious as to the impending, speedy arrival of the judge and his entourage, she despatched a telegraph cable to an old acquaintance at Camp Sunset – a cavalry officer in the Army’s Camel Corps. Promoted to Captain of his own troupe, Wynonna had first met him at a dinner in Winslow when he was just a young 2nd Lieutenant. The mutual attraction was evident, but the meeting was fleeting. Pen pals for several years, they frequently wrote about their continuing fondness for each other; however, their journeyed roads never had the opportunity to intersect – until now. If anyone could stop the foreboding injustice ahead, Captain ‘Irish’ James Calhoun could, and he was only a day’s ride away. With this knowledge at hand, Wynonna figuratively, ‘Called in the Cavalry.’
Time was rapidly running out of the tainted and single-minded kangaroo court of lynchers. No matter what she would say, would be a waste of breath and effort. She needed a drastic solution, and she needed it fast.
“The facts are damming, Miss Belle. Even your own clients do not deny the murderous deed.”
“That may be true, Judge, but I can’t neglect to see that this trial is just all a bunch of horse feathers… Now, Mr. Henderson over there may think that he’s hit paydirt by pulling you from under whatever gambling joint you were indebted to, but if there’s one thing that he knows already… I’m a fighter, and this here little girl already gave him a butt whuppin over at the library.”
The image of Wynonna winning one over on Henderson in a fight, stirred a few bouts of laughter from the onlookers, who were instantly silenced by a menacing glare emanating from Henderson’s increasing sour-looking face.
“Hell, I reckin’ if he came at me again, I’d best him again – and I ain’t even heeled, coz my pistols are hanging on a nail on the other side of that locked door.”
This caused a session of mocking from the crowd. Surprisingly, it wasn’t directed at Wynonna.
“One thing that I’ll always be grateful to, is the power of the written word - and I have a library full of them surrounding me each-and-every day. One in particular that I regularly read, is a translated Chinese book on a fighting art they call Jee-you Jit-soo. With articulated drawings, it describes ways to disarm a man with the slightest of moves. Hell, I reckin’ those little China fellers are like magicians with their quick feet and blurry hands… It’s no wonder that they don’t want anyone outside of their peoples to learn its secrets, but through the wonder of ambition and commerce, someone put pen to ink and wrote a book…”
“What is your point, Miss Belle?” Interrupted Rawlings – now feeling the desperate sensation for a drink that most sick for the bottle can’t resist.
“Hold your horses, Judge. I’m getting to it…”
That lightened the crowd’s mood as more laughter filled the room.
“…I’ll bet that if the good Judge here handed his pistol to Mr. Henderson - so he could point it at me, I’d use the teachings in my Art-of-hand-fighting-handbook to disarm him and thereby embarrass this tiny pecker pole… again!”
Angered at the betrayal of laughter filling the room, Henderson once again leapt to his feet, stormed over to the Judge and swiped his pistol from the table, then menacingly turned towards Wynonna.
“…Now hang fire there, Mr. Henderson! I didn’t take you to be a half-grown shad of a man to do something so rash and incriminating by shooting an unarmed woman against her will. If indeed that is what you want, let’s make it official in front of all these townsfolk, shall we?”
Henderson paused, regaining his composure. Killing Wynonna in cold blood and in front of so many witnesses would only end with him dangling at the end of a rope.
“What do you suggest?”
“How about we face off in front of everyone here. You point the pistol at me, then on the count of three, I disarm you before you shoot me…”
“If you win,” she explained in a tone mixed with witticism and absurdity, “…then there’s no-one standing in your way. When I win, then they go free. You just have to wait for the number three to be called, then fire away. That on the level with you, Rawlings?”
“Don’t let me hold you up,” Rawlings impatiently agreed. “Mr. Henderson, you have my word that this will be recorded as a fair fight.”
Henderson cracked a cantankerous smile at Wynonna as he visibly gloated with glee.
“Deal…! Who’s doin’ the countin?”
“Let’s ask ol’ Wiley here,” suggested Wynonna, pleased with the added time she had connivingly gained. “Whaddya say, Wiley? You can count, yes?”
“Of course, he can count,” snapped Henderson as Wiley nervously nodded his head.
“Alright, we’re agreed then… However, you must accept that this is like catching my hair in the butter for me. It’s a delicate situation I’m puttin’ myself into. I only agree to this on account of you waiting for the count of three… For all you Mush Heads watching, if he pulls the trigger afore the number three is called, then it’s just plain murder.”
“This will be as easy as cowpunching.”
“I ain’t no cattle and you ain’t sending me to no market… My Jee-you Jit-soo is gonna see to that… You ready, Henderson?”
“Wiley…! Start countin’.”
Positioning himself behind Henderson, Wiley initiated the count.
Immediately, Wynonna slightly bent her knees in a pre-combative pose, symbolic of a martial artist preparing for combat.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“Take it easy, Henderson. This here is my Kata stand.”
“What the hell is a Kata?”
“It’s me getting ready to whup your ass.”
Henderson glared with disgust at the young upstart.
“TWO!” recited Wiley.
“You ready, Henderson?”
“You don’t stand a chance in hell-fuh…!”
Repeating the same method she used at the library, Wynonna’s right leg swung pendulum-style towards Henderson’s groin, her pointed boot connecting with his already bruised manhood. With one swift motion, Wynonna wrestled the pistol from Henderson’s hand, then as he sunk to his knees, she jammed the barrel of the gun under his chin.
“You may need some of your own cow grease on those peanuts later – after your voice drops an octave… I wasn’t sure about this until you agreed to my rules… When closing the deal, Henderson; you forgot to stipulate that I also had to wait until the count of three, and I have witnesses to prove that obvious point… Now, someone open up those barn doors and let some fresh air in here. My clients are leaving.”
Wynonna’s facial expression uncomfortably changed as a wispy, foul smell enveloped her.
“Why, Mr. Henderson. I do believe someone has soiled themselves.”
On command, the barn doors were unlocked then swung widely open. One of Henderson’s men reached for a pistol hanging on one of the doors, turned to aim and fire at Wynonna, then crumpled to the floor from a blow to the back of his head. Wynonna smiled as she recognised the tall, uniformed figure standing in the doorway – a grunting camel and a healthy number of mounted soldiers in support.
“Miss Belle,” he politely acknowledged - a light Irish lilt in his voice tickling her fancy.
“Captain Calhoun,” Wynonna replied. “Not a moment too late...”
“As beautiful as ever, Wynonna,” he commented in a more intimate tone.
“I was a girl the last time you saw me… I’m now a woman.”
A slight blush warmed Calhoun’s cheeks before he ordered his men to arrest the Judge on a charge of fraud and murder.
“Thanks for the tip,” Calhoun gratefully stated. “Judge Rawlings is a person of federal interest. Murder, fraud, and espionage are just the beginning of his list of crimes. He’ll be taken back to Winslow, then transported to a federal prison back in Washington to await trial.”
“What of my friends, here?”
“All I can offer them is safe conduct back to Mexico where I have a contact that will help them.”
Disappointed, Wynonna looked at Maria, who agreeingly nodded her approval.
“Very well,” added Calhoun. “We leave immediately.”
“So soon?” Wynonna pleaded.
“Please accept my apologies. I’ll write to you.”
“What about Henderson, here?”
“Well, it looks like you’ve scuppered his immediate plans. You could always hand him over to the local law.”
“Have you not heard, Captain…? There ain’t never been no law around here, and if there was, they don’t last long…”
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I can't believe that I'm the first to comment on this tale. It was really a fun read, and Wynona is a fun character. You know that the cozy mystery genre has taken off. You, my friend, could be the first to write a cozy western. That would be epic! Nicely done, Chris. Truly.
Thanks, Delbert. No idea why this one fell on silent ears. A Cozy Western, huh? I'd consider the movie, "Open Range" a cozy story, so I think I can do that.