The Trial of Big Bill Gantz
When he looked down from the stage, all Horace saw were the shadowed heads of horses off in a hollow below the roadway, a sunken area given over to sagebrush and weeds. There were no riders to be seen, no movement save for the fluttering of horse manes as the animals danced a little against one another. But it was a certainty that there had to be people---several people---nearby even if they had left their animals tied up in the swale. Because he believed caution trumped valor, Horace cocked both barrels of his twelve gauge and gave his partner Jim driving the team a sideward glance. "Don't like it none."
Jim also had spotted the tethered horses and nodded. "Keep the piece handy." Both men pushed the front flap of their brimmed hats higher on their foreheads to allow them better vision.
Below them in the creaking stagecoach were four paying passengers whose trunks and cases were secured behind the driver’s bench. And strapped to the back of the coach was another passenger who paid nothing. He was riding horizontally in a coffin painted a somber black, the lid held tight by metal latches. The rough corduroy of the rutted trail meant that the box needed to be secured by additional rawhide thongs that were tightened through the carrying handles and double-knotted at the back.
The road dipped and took a sharp turn to the left. Jim pulled on the reins a bit and the horses responded, slowing to a walk. It was a bad stretch and though neither Horace nor Jim cared to lose momentum, here they really had no choice. After a minute at that pace one of the two male passengers rapped on the forward wall of the carriage, then stuck his head out the window below the scrolled oil paper curtain. “Why are we slowing?” he asked impatiently.
“No need for alarm,” Horace said as his head swiveling left and right watching the roadside.
“We’re due in Virginia City by nightfall,” replied the passenger. “At this rate we’ll be lucky to get there before sunrise.”
It was then, just a bit beyond the bend, that four men stepped out ahead of the coach, three positioned across the path slightly back of the fourth. Of those three two wore long dusters and held Winchesters crosswise. The third had a shaggy bison robe thrown over his shoulders which looked too warm and heavy for the mild day. Horace and Jim saw that poking out of the robe was the blue steel nose of a shotgun. The fourth man, who was closest to the stagecoach, possessed a brace of Navy Colt pistols which were still nestled in his waistband, his hands placed casually but strategically on the handles. Horace, being a practical man, slowly rotated his own weapon so it now faced generally forward over the team of horses. The three men straddling the road looked to be very young. They were clean shaven and wore Mexican-style sombreros while the fourth man, a generation older, sported a bowler jammed down on his head and had sharp and pointy features accented by a thin beard and mustache. He took a hand off one pistol and held the palm up.
Jim knew what that meant. He had no choice but to tighten the reins even more and bring the rig to stop. Horace, for his part, kept his shotgun at an angle where it could be brought to bear instantly against the man with the bowler. No words were necessary to let the fellow know that if folks were going to die this day he would be the first to go.
As if reading this thought Bowler said: “We mean you no harm,”
“Then why you stopping us?” Horace asked.
“You got something I want.”
“Not carrying no gold or silver or cash,” said Jim. “Just passengers.”
“Not what I’m after,” said Bowler, and the three young men in back of him looked at each other and nodded in agreement.
“You’re gonna scare ‘em” said Jim.
“If everyone cooperates, they’ll be just fine.“ To show he meant what he said, Bowler took both hands off of his pistols and let them drop to his sides. In back of him, relieved, The other three shifted their weapons so the guns no longer threatened. Horace kept his shotgun cocked but also moved it sideways.
“How many passengers you carrying?” Bowler asked.
“Four, all bound for Virginia City,” Jim said.
“They’ll do.” Then in a commanding but polite voice he said: “You people inside, please step down. “
The carriage door opened slowly and the four occupants exited, two men dressed in fashionable eastern-style gray tweeds, an older woman half covered by a shawl who needed assistance getting out and leaned heavily on her cane by the rear wheel ,and a younger woman in a crimson crushed velvet dress whose lovely face and green eyes were shaded by a parasol held at an angle against the sun. The two male passengers looked at each other and started to raise their hands.
“Put ‘em down,” Bowler said. “We aren’t no desperados.” The men did as they were bid. “You four are gonna be the jury,” Bowler went on. You will judge the innocence or guilt of the accused.”
Jim and Horace sitting atop the coach looked at each other. “’’Scuse me,” Horace said after a long pause, “exactly who is the accused here?”
Bowler motioned with his head and the men behind him approached the stagecoach, sliding around to the rear of the vehicle. “He’s back there,” Bowler said.
“Nobody back there but a dead man in a coffin,” said Horace.
“And that man, sir, is the accused.”
It took a few moments for the three to untie the straps that bound the coffin to the stagecoach and lay it on the ground. Bowler watched and with irritation said, “The defendant got no reason to be tried on his back. Set him up.” The trio dutifully lifted the coffin so it was braced against the back of the coach, not quite fully upright, but close enough. “Now, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, if you’ll step around here.” Bowler motioned to a spot a few feet from the coffin and the four passengers shuffled uneasily forward and took the place indicated. “You boys up top, you’ll be part of it too. So listen close to the evidence because you’re gonna defend a man guilty of cold blooded murder.”
Bowler went to the coffin and opened the latches, each one snapping like a gunshot as they came undone. Then he threw back the lid which brought a gasp from the women and something like surprised grunts from the male passengers. Atop the stage both Horace and Jim swiveled around and noted the shock on all four faces though from where they sat they couldn’t see the coffin itself or its contents.
“Now I will present my case,” Bowler said, “as the accused is present and upright.”
“Mister, he’s dead and gone,” Horace said.
“That don’t matter none,” Bowler replied. “He’s gonna stand trial regardless.”
Jim spat a load of tobacco juice into the dust. “How we supposed to defend a dead man?”
”You’ll do the best you can.”
“I don’t even know him,”Jim protested. “And I ain’t no lawyer.”
This didn’t faze Bowler. “Don’t need to be. You’ll hear what I have to say and then you can make a defense.” Bowler hooked his thumbs through his vest and cleared his throat: “I had four young nephews,” he began, nodding at the trio behind him. “Now I got three. The defendant, Big Bill Gantz, killed the youngest for sport. Young Thomas didn’t stand a chance, hell, he wasn’t even armed. But Gantz here, a known coward and bully, a violent type, terrorized a lot of folks in Sacramento. When the cousins rode into town from the ranch to resupply and have a little fun he spotted them and decided he’d have some fun of his own. It was bad luck that Thomas headed into the American River Saloon alone since his cousins was busy at the suttler’s store. When Thomas sidled up to the bar and ordered a beer Gantz spotted him as an easy mark, walked up behind and put a shoulder into him.” Bowler turned and spoke directly to the corpse. “Now Thomas was a nice boy and offered an apology though he surely didn’t need to. But you, Mr. Gantz, called him a fuzz-faced sonofabitch and shoved him.”
“I object,” Horace said from above. “You’re telling it like you was a witness which I take it you were not.”
Bowler nodded. “See? You’re talking like a lawyer already…Nope, I wasn’t there. But there was a dozen others in the saloon who saw what happened. So that makes it a fact that’s gotta be put on the record.” Bowler turned to the jury of four. “ Thomas, being a good boy, let it go and picked up his beer mug to take a swig. That’s when Gantz stepped back, pulled out his pistol and shot him dead. Claimed young Thomas was intending to hit him in the head with the glass. Then Gantz turned and strolled straight out of the American River Saloon just like nothing at all had happened.” Bowler swiveled back to the corpse as he said this and poked it in the chest which caused the young woman to drop her parasol and sway, her eyes rolling slowly upward. She would have collapsed had not the men on either side taken her by the elbows and steadied her while one of the cousins kindly picked up the parasol and held it over her head until she had recovered.
“No reason to get physical with the dead,” Horace scolded Bowler. “I object to your actions.”
“Well then come down here and protect your client.”
At that, Jim and Horace stepped down from the coach and stood on either side of the coffin and from this new vantage point Horace was able to give the dead man the once over. He was indeed big, over six feet, with a large belly and large hands crossed over his belt. He had a receding hair line and mutton-chop sideburns that sagged uneavenly on either side of his ash-colored face. His eyes, while closed by the undertaker, still seemed slatted almost like he was pretending to be dead but keeping watch on the proceedings.
“This is just disgraceful,” said the old woman leaning on her cane with both hands. “Sacrilege.”
“No ma’m,” Bowler said. “Justice.”
“Now hold on,” said Jim. “ He shoots a man in cold blood and walks out of the saloon? Just like that?“ They got law men in Sacramento who walk those streets and would’ve arrested him on the spot.”
“Never got the chance,” said Bowler.
“So who shot him?” asked Horace.
“Wasn’t shot. He walked out of the saloon, took four strides and dropped dead in the avenue. A life of drinking and gambling and fighting finally caught up with him. And probably more than one murder. The good Lord got him.”
“Well then why not let the actions of the Lord be the final judgement on the man?” Said Horace. “Hell, dead is dead and he’s deader than a door nail.”
“Got to bring it to a final close for his cousins,” Bowler answered turning to the three who nodded in silent agreement. “So now for the defense. Boys, your turn.”
Horace collected his thoughts for a moment. “Ladies and gents of the jury. We have here a dead man accused of a terrible crime. But all I hear is a lot of second hand reports regarding what he did. What I do know for a fact is that the recently departed has relations in Virginia City who are waiting for the body so they can give him a decent Christian burial.” Horace pointed at Gantz’s remains. “And I’ll tell you something else. This here is really a case of what I believe lawyers call double jeopardy. Man dies of natural causes. Now some want to kill him again. And that just ain’t right.” He glanced at Jim. I rest my case.”
“I’m resting too,” chimed Jim who spat another load of tobacco juice into the ground.
“Well then, it’s time to let the jury decide the fate of Big Bill Gantz,” Bowler said. “Members of the jury, step down the road a piece and talk it over. Then come back and let us know your decision.”
The four passengers shuffled away, too far for the discussion to be over heard by the others, but close enough so that their excited murmurs and the physical gesturing of the four was clear to those waiting by the stagecoach.
When they came back the makeshift jury stood grouped together, looking at each other until the old lady poked one of the men with her cane. “You speak for us,” she said.
The passenger/jury foreman brushed a little dust from his coat and cleared his throat. “ We believe that had Mr. Gantz been alive we couldn’t convict him on the evidence as presented.” He held up a finger. But seeing as he’s already dead, we’re inclined to give these gents the benefit of the doubt and say he ought to suffer an appropriate punishment.”
“And what does the jury recommend?” Asked Bowler.
“Uh, not hanging,” the foreman said, and with that picture planted in her head, the legs of the beautiful young woman started to buckle beneath her dress a second time so that the others had to step in again to steady her. “We think it would be proper if someone would, well, shoot him… But just once.”
Bowler bit on his lower lip and considered the idea. “Just once? Young Thomas has three cousins here, all of them aggrieved by what Bill Gantz did. Why shouldn’t each of them be entitled to plug him?”
The other male passenger spoke up: “We’re’ thinking of the innocent parties involved. His relations. All those bullet holes in the body of their kin. Not what we’d like to see if it were a member of our own families we were planning to bury. And if it ever gets out that he died of natural causes, the more bullet holes, the more questions people might start asking.”
“I guess that makes some sense,” Bowler allowed. He turned to the three cousins. “You boys want to draw straws?”
The three looked at each other with wide eyes and slack jaws.
“Well, speak up,” Bowler said. We haven’t got all day.”
“You do it, uncle,” said one. “We’re good with that.”
Bowler nodded solemnly. Then he drew one of the Navy Colts from his waist band, pulled back the hammer, walked up to the coffin and fired.
The stage pulled into the company yard in Virginia City almost on time. To the west, there was still a little light showing over the backs of the mountains hunched in silhouette above the valley floor. The station agent, a trim and nervous little man, helped Horace and Jim unload the luggage from the roof, then tipped his hat at each of the passengers as they collected their belongings in collaborative silence and walked swiftly away.
“Real pretty up there in the hills,” said the agent. “Nice country. A good trip?”
“Not really,” said Horace.
The three men turned as a flatbed wagon pulled by a single horse drove into the yard and eased toward the back of the stagecoach. A big man stepped down, a man Horace found strikingly familiar. And then it hit him: He was looking at the spitting image of the deceased. This man, however, wore a clerical collar with his dark suit and offered a pained smile as he approached. He held out his hand and shook with all of them. “ Simon Gantz,” he said. “I’ve come to claim my brother’s remains.”
In a few moments the coffin was free of the straps and slid into the open back of the wagon. The clergyman didn’t hurry away but stood looking at the box. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to see him now. For the last time.” Jim stepped forward, unsnapped the latches and opened the lid. Then he and Horace removed their hats and lowered their heads.
Simon Gantz stared sadly at his brother. “Born twins, but we took different paths. I found God early and made Him my life. Bill started wild and ended wild. I’ve got no idea why.” The clergyman peered closely into the coffin. “I have little doubt he started it. And it seems one bullet finished it. All the telegram said was that he’d died, not how.” He shook his head. “I guess they just put him back in the clothes he was killed in. Funny, no sign of blood.”
Horace and Jim exchanged glances. “ I reckon it goes that way sometimes,” Jim murmured.
“Our sister is here. So is my nephew. They took the train all the way from St. Louis. We’re a close family, gentlemen. Rough and disagreeable a man as my brother was, it still won’t be easy for any of us.” The clergyman gave a deep sigh and then added: “We all have our trials.”