Bullhead City, Arizona
Connor Green stares into his empty whiskey glass.
Husky, scruffy, with dirt under his fingernails, Connor is calm and good-natured, traits being put to the test by Cass Armbrister.
“She’s my wife,” Cass says.
Reedy, with skintight, angular features and a pencil-thin mustache, card sharp Cass Armbrister is animated, impatient, easy to rile, and always right.
“I have a marriage license. What do you have?”
“Six years of bliss,” Connor replies.
“Bosh. The law’s on my side.”
“Eliza loves me. You just love her money.”
“You calling me a hustler?”
“That’d be insultin’ to hustlers.”
His anger rising, Cass fumbles for the derringer hidden in his tailored jacket.
Connor pulls out his revolver.
The two men point their weapons at one another, their intense expressions filled with hate.
“Go ahead, sodbuster, pull that rusty hammer. I bet that antique blows up in your freckled face.”
“You wanna bet your life on it, sidewinder?”
“Put ‘em down, boys,” an authoritative voice commands.
Sheriff Braxton Hilliard is pointing his shotgun at them. Hilliard is short in stature but tall in grit, having survived being pierced by a pair of Apache arrows while in the Army.
Connor and Cass slowly lower their weapons.
“This clodhopper is trying to cheat me out of what’s rightfully mine,” Cass says.
“Eliza and her inheritance belong with me. She’ll tell you,” Connor counters.
Sheriff Hillard’s eyes narrow into a squint. “We’ll let the judge decide.”
Roric Armstrong, the burly bailiff, marches into Curley’s bar, which serves as Bullhead City’s courtroom.
“All rise for Judge Jonas June Bug Jessup,” he bellows.
The assembly of storekeepers, fur trappers, ranchers, wranglers, and wives stand up as Judge Jessup enters, moving toward his chair.
Now fifty-two, the stocky, bearded, self-proclaimed judge pounds the table with his gavel. After having been a corporal, a blacksmith, cow puncher, mortician, and well-digger, Jessup has finally found his calling, winning his position six years ago in a card game. He’s called June Bug in honor of the month he began serving the town, and the likelihood that like a beetle, he’ll survive any catastrophe.
“First case, Crocker versus Payne,” Roric announces, handing Jessup the complainant’s papers.
“Widow Crocker, it says here you’re complainin’ about destruction of property…”
A fashionable, comely woman with auburn hair stands up.
“Prize-winning property, your honor. Every year I enter my wares in the town’s pie contest.”
“I know, ‘cause you win every year. How many years runnin’ has it been?”
“Seven, up until this year. Then Elvira Payne’s fat little boy made sure I’d lose.”
A chubby, rosy-cheeked ten-year-old slumps in his seat. Elvira, always dressed in black with a hawkish, sour expression on her face, pulls her son back up by his collar.
“What did Peter Payne do?” Jessup asks.
“He ate my pies. All six of them.”
Peter blushes as Judge Jessup comments, “Tsk...Tsk…Tsk. Anything you or the boy have to say Mrs. Payne?”
“The boy has a powerful sweet tooth, Judge.”
“My mama gave me six bits to steal ‘em and eat ‘em.”
Elvira smacks her son on the back of his head.
“Mrs. Payne, aren’t you the one who bakes those ghastly gooseberry pies?”
“Well, I never.”
“That’s right. You’ve obviously never learned how to cook.”
Judge Jessup bangs his gavel.
“Stand up boy. You too, Mrs. Payne. I decree that as punishment, your son must eat six of your gooseberry pies.”
“No, your honor, please!” Peter cries out. “I’ll pay a fine, clean Mr. Crocker’s barn, but not that!”
“As for you, Mrs. Payne… If I recall right, eating out the competition didn’t get you no closer to winnin’.”
“I placed sixth.”
“Outta six, no doubt. I decree that you must take six cooking lessons from Mrs. Crocker at a dollar a lesson. That price amenable, Mrs. Crocker?”
“That’ll do, your honor.”
“And you have to cook six pies for the court. I like strawberry. You bring me a gooseberry pie and you’ll be bakin’ in the El Paso Penitentiary. Next case, bailiff.”
“Klavis verses Klavis, assault, and battery.”
Gertrude Klavis, a short, stocky redhead with an eye that drifts one way and a nose that points in the opposite direction, rises.
Mort Klavis struggles to stand. Clean-shaven, Mort is 5’ 4” and little more than 120 pounds. He’s missing two teeth and his left eye is nearly closed.
“I don’t abide by men hittin’ their women, Mort, you know that,” Judge Jessup scolds.
“She hit me, your honor.”
The court erupts in laughter.
“Yes, I see that now. What caused the ruckus?”
“I won’t stand for my man steppin’ out with another woman,” Gertrude says sharply.
“It was my cousin, Judge.”
Jessup’s eyebrows shoot upward.
“You took your cousin on a date?”
“It weren’t no date! We went to see Madam Monet at the theater.”
“He took her instead of me, his wife!”
“My cousin wants to be a singer, Judge. I thought she could pick up a few pointers. When I got home, I got a fryin’ pan over my head.”
Gertrude’s double chins wiggle as her anger mounts. “He come home at three in the mornin’! The performance ended at midnight!”
Judge Jessup gives Mort a cautionary look. “I gotta ask, Mort. Is that girl your kissin’ cousin?”
“Shame on you, Mortimer. Is your cousin here?”
A stunning, curvaceous brunette slowly stands.
“All right. I’m beginning to understand,” Jessup says.
“I was just followin’ nature’s course, your honor. I mean, Gert’s been a grizzly bear lately. And even when she was nice, she’d get on top and…”
“Please, stop. How long have you been married?”
“Ten years,” Gertrude says.
“Have you two ever loved each other?”
Mort glances at Gertrude, smiling feebly. “She was skinny once, a real eye-opener. But she’s a worrier. Always thinkin’ I have a rovin’ eye…”
“Only for her, Judge. She took all her worryin’ out on food, then on other women, and now me. But she’s a hard worker. I was always impressed with the way she could handle horses. She could shoe one in ten minutes.”
“And he had the nicest smile ‘til recently,” Gertrude says. “But he’s been a failure at life. We argue about never havin’ any money more than anythin’ else.”
“Didn’t you used to play piano, Mort?”
“Yes, sir. I give it up ‘cause Gert didn’t want me workin’ nights, talkin’ to the girls.”
“You two make peace since this fight?”
“Not really, your honor,” Mort says. “I’m sleepin’ on the porch.”
Roric whispers in Judge Jessup’s ear.
Jessup bangs his gavel.
“My bailiff, who also owns the livery, informs me he could use some paid help. Mrs. Klavis, since you’re so good with horses, I sentence you to work for Roric Armstrong. As for you, Mort. This saloon could use a good piano man. I sentence you to work here. But if I hear you’re lookin’ at the ladies, I’ll bust both your hands. Maybe these jobs’ll solve your money difficulties. As for your cousin, Mort… Miss, I order you to perform here twice a week. And I expect ten percent of all your salaries. Next!”
“Arson, your honor. Lockington versus Buell.”
Dressed in a formal black suit with a bow tie, his hair freshly cut, Granville Lockington, the owner of the Gold Star Emporium, steps forward. He is haughty, college-educated, and seemingly successful.
Tecumseh Buell, the owner of the Black Cat Saloon follows, wearing stained blue jeans, a wrinkled shirt, and balancing a half-smoked stogie between his stained teeth. Buell spits in his hand, patting down his disheveled hair.
“This ruffian burned down my establishment, June Bug,” Lockington says.
“That’s a bald-faced lie. It was an accident.”
“I’m getting’ dang sick of you two. This is the fourth time you’ve been here in three months. I told you last time if you came back, you’d suffer dearly.”
“I think my establishment burning down to the ground qualifies.”
“I don’t understand why you two can’t get along. Okay, you’re across the street from one another, but there’s four saloons in town and room for more. Granville, your place appeals to the rich dinner and theater folks, and Tecumseh, you’ve got a dirt floor and a one-eyed parrot at the bar, so trail hands are your meat. There should be no competition. How’d it happen?”
“I went back to my house for a few minutes,” Lockington says. “When I came back, my place was ashes, and Buell was standing there smoking a smelly cigar and laughing.”
“Unless he used that cigar to burn you out, I’m not hearin’ any proof Tecumseh started the fire, right Sheriff?”
“That’s right, Judge. And we found proof to back it up.”
“He’s scum!” Lockington shouts. “You can just look at him and see he’s a dumb, uncouth animal!”
“Be glad to show you what kinda animal I really am with my fists, Nancy boy!”
“Shush. Enlighten the court, Sheriff.”
“Lockington set fire to his own place.”
“That’s a lie!”
“He’s in over his head. The Gold Star does good business, but Granville has been spendin’ his profits playin’ faro and losin’ big at poker. He borrowed a lot of money from Milo Estroff, and Milo was getting’ tired of waitin’ to get it back.”
“So, Granville went for the insurance payoff,” Judge Jessup surmises. “What gave him away, Sheriff?”
“The two bottles of imported wine Granville with kerosine still in ‘em are only sold in his bar.”
Judge Jessup slams down his gavel.
“I gotta admit that with your reputation, Tecumseh, I was leanin’ towards Granville’s phony claim. My apologies. Granville, you’re lookin’ at eight years.”
“I’ll cut it down to two if you can rustle up three thousand for the court. And don’t get it from Milo. Sheriff, I’d like you to bring Milo in for a little talk. Next!”
“Green and Armbrister versus Armbrister, a dispute over rightful inheritance.”
Sheriff Hilliard pushes Connor and Cass to the front of the room.
“Well, if it ain’t Card Sharp Cass,” Judge Jessup says. “I thought they’d keel hauled you off a Mississippi paddle steamer for hidin’ aces up your sleeve.”
“That story is an exaggerated lie.”
“Well, you’d better not try dealin’ from the bottom of the deck with me, Cass.”
Judge Jessup studies the paperwork.
“Is this a new swindle, Cass?”
“I’m entitled to half the money Eliza inherited from her aunt. She’s still my wife.”
“You were married to Eliza for four years. Half of it you spent in jail in Yuma. You’ve been back for all of a week. Seems pretty coincidental your showin’ up when Eliza is about to land a motherlode. Connors stood by her while you’ve been galivantin’ around the country. He’s been with Eliza for six years.”
“But they’re not married, Judge. And as I recall, you put a high price on the sanctity of marriage.”
“It’s Eliza’s money, Judge,” Connor says. “Her aunt even wrote to us before she passed, telling us that she wanted us to have it.”
“How much are we talking about?”
“Twenty thousand,” Cass says.
Jessup sits up in his chair. “You could buy most of Arizona for that.”
“I still love her judge!” Cass blurts out. “I never stopped loving her!”
“You mean the same woman you once beat black and blue and left barefoot five miles outside of town?”
“I’ve changed, Judge. I want to put down roots, have a family.”
Jessup casts a doubtful look at Cass.
“Are you tellin’ me that you, a high stakes gambler, now wanna be a dirt farmer, like Connor? Is that right?”
“You’ve been a liar, a wife-beater, a rummy, and a card cheat of the worse kind. If I made it a condition that you stay in town, work the farm, stay married, and treat Eliza right for a year before I tell the lawyers to give you any money, would you agree?”
“I also expect ten percent, of course.”
“Connor, I know you to be honest, hard-working, and a God-fearing man. I’ve seen what you’ve done with the farm. It was busted windows, skinny cows, and dirt. Now you provide most of the food the town needs, the house looks like somethin’ out of a storybook, and your cows produce the sweetest buttermilk I’ve ever tasted. You did it all for the love of a woman. What would you do with the money if I ruled in your favor?”
“It belongs to Eliza. It’s here decision. I’m just here to speak on her behalf.”
“And my ten percent?”
“Taking ten percent as a bribe is as bad as Armbrister taking half.”
Jessup bristles, raising his gavel as if he intends to strike Connor with it. Roric whistles at Connor’s brash reply.
“I’ll try to remain impartial, despite your hasty comment. Eliza deserves to be heard. Where is she?”
Eliza stands, her head bowed toward the dusty floorboards.
“No need to be shy, child,” Jessup says.
The dark-haired, shapely beauty smiles demurely, showing her dimples.
“Still the prettiest gal in town. Well, Eliza, do you love Cass?”
“No. He deserted me and treated me badly when he was around, which wasn’t often. Sure, I thought I loved him once when he was givin’ me shiny trinkets and buyin’ me expensive dresses. Then came the beatings, forcin’ himself on me, and bringin’ soiled doves into our lives. You give him this money, Judge, and he’ll just gamble, drink, and whore it away.”
“I love him, your honor. He’s stuck by me whether we were poor or had money. He works hard and has never as so much raised a hand in anger to me. Y'all know how generous he is. He’s helped build some of your houses, he’s given you food, and helped protect the town from renegades.”
Jessup bangs his gavel on the table. “I’m gonna need to ruminate over this. Court is adjourned until one o’clock tomorrow afternoon.”
Judge Jessup hovers over Mrs. Crocket’s table. He smiles at her, tipping his hat.
“Mind if I sit down, Mrs. Crocker?”
Mrs. Cocker delicately dabs at her lips with her napkin. “Of course. And please, you can me Liz or Betty.”
“Well, Betty, I wanted to say I liked the way you handled yourself in court today.”
The waitress pours the judge a cup of coffee. “Excuse me, Judge. I see you brought some deserts with you, Betty. Can I cut you a slice of your own cake?”
“A slice of devil’s food would be nice. Would you care for a slice of cake Judge?”
“Yes. Now what I was sayin’, Betty, is I think you got quite a business head on your shoulders. I can get your goods into every restaurant in town,” Jessup says.
“You’re going to have to do better than that, June Bug. My dream is to own a bakery, maybe even a factory where I can ship my desserts to other places. But the town board turned down my request to build because frankly, they’re afraid of a successful woman. However, if my husband, the Judge, suggested it…”
“I think we may have ourselves a deal, Mrs. Jessup.”
Cass slams his whiskey glass on the bar.
Tecumseh blows a ring of smoke from his cigar. “You’ve already had a snootful. You don’t wanna be heavy-headed for your big day. You might be disappointed, you know. You might be celebratin’ for nothin’.”
“I’ll get the money and I’ll get my wife back.”
“I nearly swallowed my cigar when you said you loved her. You used to sport a doxie on each arm. You overplayed your hand, Cass, you ain’t no family man.”
“I really do love her.”
“Yeah. I bet you realized that after you got a look at her bank book.”
“I can’t bear that clodhopper clawin’ at her with his grubby hands. She’s a princess, worthy of my name. You should have seen her when we were plying the trade along the Mississippi.”
“Why’d you leave her?”
“She got tired of fancy clothes, fine meals, and big hotels. What woman in her right mind would give that up? She wanted to stay in one place, raise a family. I hate kids, and I told her so. I wasn’t going to chase after some welp, scratch in the dirt to raise a few cabbages, or go to church socials on Sunday. That’s not me. I was always looking out for some slick-talking dandy to take her away. I never thought she’d fall for some dumb farmer with wheat for brains.”
“Things might be different between you two if Connor wasn’t around,” Tecumseh says.
Cass pounds down his drink. ”Yeah, they might at that.”
Wobbling, his vision fading in and out of focus, Cass gazes in the window of his former farmhouse.
“Like what you’ve done with the place,” he slurs, looking at the cozy furnishings.
Connor and Eliza are sitting on a couch, lost in loving conversation.
Raising the shotgun he borrowed from Tecumseh, he takes aim at Connor.
Connor and Cass stand in front of Judge Jessup. Cass is in handcuffs and is being watched closely by Sheriff Hilliard.
Jessup bangs his gavel with enough force to nearly crack the table.
“In light of last night’s incident, I’m awarding the inheritance money to Connor, and offer him my condolences on Eliza’s passing. I’ll also forego seeking my usual ten percent judicial fee.”
“I didn’t mean to kill her Judge,” Cass says.
“I know you didn’t. You meant to kill Connor. I’m sentencing you to twenty years. It’s a shame, Cass, I was gonna rule in your favor.”