Western Short Story
“Hey, Ward,” said the livery man, “did you see that new dude in town, looks like he got dressed up in New York for fun and was kicked out here on the stage to give us all a laugh. Sure is a funny lookin’ dude. I almost laughed aloud when he near fell off’n the stage with them funny boots he’s awearin’, never mind the flummery shirt with ruffles a girl can’t get enough of.”
“Don’t know nothin’ ‘bout that gent,” Ward Hagler said, running the oil swab over his gun again for the hundredth time in the afternoon. “Man don’t mean nothin’ to me dressed like that. Could be a drummer drummin’ up business by his looks ‘fore he tells us who he is. Guess is as good as mine.”
The livery man knew Hagler, a gun polisher, had been in town for more than a week and seemed to know just about everybody, at least by name. And Hagler was a customer, so there were no more questions. About anything.
Reverend John Sloan Whitaker, leaving his one bag of property on the boardwalk, walked from the stage stop and stood in front of his new assignment, the small Church of the Western Star sitting on the main road passing through Jitney Falls, Colorado Territory. His gaze swept the skies looking for the first cloud in weeks, and a sign of blessing on his new position. Nothing appeared in the sky, not cloud or sign. He settled on watching a whirl of dust rise in the middle of the road and saw it disappear as it thinned out. “The sins collected in Jitney Falls can also be dissipated,” he said to nobody around him, “as long as I stay dedicated to my vow.”
The old fear was hanging on. Perhaps a reminder, he was thinking, not to stray afield. Then someone spoke from inside the open door of the church. “I suspect you’re the new minister assigned here. We’ve been waiting on you. Glad you arrived before Sunday’s on us again without a sermon to mull over during the week.”
A comely woman in her mid twenties, lips ablaze, teeth shining like stars, in riding garb, a wide-brimmed hat hanging on a leather string around her neck, wearing a pale green blouse that almost leaped up into her eyes, stepped from the interior of the church. He saw neatness, trimness, each quality adding to the basic beauty about the woman. He affirmed that she was lovely, even at first glance.
She spoke again, her voice still warm, hosting, “I’m Pamela Hanks. The congregation appointed me as a welcome committee of one because they all have things to do and we’ve been waiting for weeks, really.”
The softness of her voice grabbed Whitaker swift as a lasso. “Whoa, Lord,” he said under his breath, “don’t rush me now, I beg you.” The woman was most beautiful, with the pearls of pale green eyes sitting on a lovely face, a complexion clear as a spring rain, and a subtle motion crowded with grace as she offered her hand. Neither her work-worn riding pants, nor a pair of work gloves idly tucked into her belt, changed any mark of grace.
Nor did the touch of her hand.
As swiftly as he could, Whitaker collected himself, knew the indescribable softness of the extended hand, and said, “I’m John Whitaker, at this new assignment. Sorry I’m late, but there were a few problems on the way. I am sincerely pleased to be here, to serve the community, and to meet such a pleasant member of the congregation.” Both of them were aware that the handshake lasted at least a second longer than either had expected.
Her gaze was full of immediate concern, as were her words. “I hope nothing happened on the road. There’s been an indecent amount of trouble on the run between here and the capital. Anything serious?”
“We were held up. The shotgun rider was killed by one of the bandits. There were three of them and they were mean as they come. But two of them, by the hand of one of the passengers, were fully dispatched and are now in the hands of the good Lord.”
“Oh, my goodness. You didn’t get hurt, did you?” “
“Not a bit. Good fortune and the good Lord were willingly on my side.” A look crossed his face that she understood immediately, when he said, “But I am hungry. Perhaps famished is the word. Where’s the best meal served in town?”
“It isn’t served in town,” she said quickly. “It’s served at my parents’ ranch not too far out of town. You get squared away on your lodgings across the street there at Mrs. MacGregor’s. She has a small place for the minister of the church. It’s part of her tithing, and she’s quite proud of it. Pretend that you’re not hungry and can’t eat right now, for she’ll try to insist on it. You’ll love her like your grandmother, I promise. And I’ll meet you here in about an hour. That sound okay to you?”
“I’d be delighted.”
Pamela Hanks understood the message passing between them, and enjoyed again the nimble hand and fingers of the new minister as they shook hands again. She couldn’t wait until she told her mother about the new minister in Jitney Falls, Reverend John Sloan Whitaker who could outshine the outlandish clothes he wore. She wondered where he had come by them. His shirt was about the stuffiest and most overdressed ever seen in Jitney Falls. Why, she thought, hadn’t she noticed it the first thing.
In the saloon that night, Dumper Squalls, a part-time everything including being a talker of known proportions, held the fort at the bar, trying to describe the new visitor in town. “I saw this guy get off the stage and talk to fancy-pants herself, Pam Hanks. They looked like a pair, the kind that get dressed up when they only got to buy some trinket at the store. Looks like he’s right out of St. Louis or Chicago with them duds he’s got on, then I hear he’s the new minister. An odd lot if you ask me. Ain’t they supposed to be the salt of the earth? Regular as they can be without doing too much about it, them ministers of the church?” He shrugged his shoulders and threw his hands over his head as if all was lost. “Leaves me plain all-out wondering. All I got to say.”
Of course, it wasn’t.
On the edge of town, out where the trail leads off to the Hanks’ ranch, a rider in the deep evening shadows of a cottonwood copse, a slim rider, moving cautiously, watched another man on horseback leave the Hanks’ ranch and head down the trail to Jitney Falls. The rider in the shadows gently touched his spurs to his mount and the horse snickered, one snicker in the growing darkness. When the rider looked up, the other horse, hardly visible, was rushing down the trail, away from him.
The shadow rider spurred his horse, ran him for half a mile and came across the other horse standing in the trail, his rider nowhere to be seen. He approached the stilled horse cautiously until the reins were in his hand. The saddle bag, sitting in place, appeared stuffed, and he put out his hand to touch it. It was too soft to be the money he was looking for.
“Mister,” he muttered, “whoever you are, and wherever you fell off your horse, I’ll find you and the money.”
About to turn around to go looking for the other rider, now afoot, he heard the gun click off the side of the trail.
“You move a muscle, Sherick,” a voice said from the darkness, “and you’re dead.” The tone was calm though serious, but had no edge on it. “Get off your horse real slow. Drop the reins over the muzzle and onto the ground. Let go the other reins. All of it easy, all of it slow and sure. The shotgun rider on the stage is dead, his two sons are out there now looking for you, as well as every sheriff and marshal from here to the state lines any direction you want to look.”
The tone changed a bit: “The promise, what I hear, is they’ll be meaner than you and a lot quicker.”
Sherick said, “You took the money we aimed to get. You’re a thief too.”
“Dead wrong about that, Sherick. The money was wrapped in the window curtains of the stage. Someone somewhere let on that you boys were going to give it a try, but west of Jitney Falls, not where you tried it. You surprised the stage driver and he surprised you. He wasn’t counting on anybody getting killed.”
“So what are you going to do now? I don’t think I ever saw you before the robbery. I know you from someplace that won’t come back to me yet, but I’ll get it. What’s next? You could kill me here and you’d be clear. Anyway, how’d you know my name?”
“I heard the gent who gave the word said ‘Sherick’s the boss,’ so that’s you from what I saw. Besides, Kripps the shotgun was a good guy. I’ll let his kin do the joy work. You start walking down the road after you drop your guns and I’ll give you a chance to get your horse and come back here, after I’m gone, to get your weapons. That’s all I’ll do this time. It’s about all the goodness I have left for you. It’s just enough to get it done this way. Now move out.”
The sudden hardness in his voice seemed generated on the spot.
Sherick said, “Yeh, like that first time wasn’t enough.” He dropped his gun belt and started down the road. The darkness swept him up as he listened, hoping to hear the hoof beats retreating the other way.
Rev. John Sloan Whitaker, moving back towards the Hanks’ spread, recalled his evening with Pamela and her folks, overhearing her father say to his wife that “the minister sure dresses mighty peculiar for my taste. Looks like he’s more for the stage than the pulpit.”
Other than that summation of his appearance, the evening was thoroughly pleasant, and the reverend knew he was in love for the first time in his life.
At the door, parting, she said, “Don’t worry about my folks and their ideas about your clothes. As for me, clothes don’t make the man.” She held his hand tightly, sent a message or two, and kissed him lightly before he knew what was happening. Like a wispy shadow, she slipped back into the house, leaving him stunned on the porch.
A short way from the ranch, he stripped his outer garments and put on a shirt and pants from his saddle bag, strapped on a gun belt with a single revolver. He was disappointed that he had to wear the same boots, but his regular boots were with his gear at Mrs. MacGregor’s place.
It felt good to get his regular clothes on, even as he felt unsettled in his new role. He felt like he was pinning the tail on the donkey, a kids’ game he had played once as a boy. He knew he was trying to figure out how best to play his role … he had no idea of what lay in front of him. Jake Stoddard himself was ignorant of that also … though dedicated to find the problem and solve it.
Even before he heard Sherick’s horse in the darkness, he continued to scour his past for what had brought him to Jitney Falls in the first place.
It was an unnerving drama that had sent him this way, and in the manner he had arrived.
All that came back to him too, as he rode away from the Hanks’ spread, the shadows deep, him as deep, wonder and question riding his saddle as though they belonged there.
Only a week earlier, 100 miles down the trail in Linden, he had been simply walking past the bank when gunfire erupted and all hell broke loose, inside the bank as well as outside. Three men, with a woman hostage, emerged from the bank with bags of money. A man in a strange looking outfit, but wearing two guns on his belt, walked across the street and said, “Hold on there, gents. Let the lady go and you can go on your way. No more shooting. Is that a good deal?”
“Listen, Fancypants,” one of the robbers said, “We keep her. We keep the money. You keep still and drop your guns right there.”
Fancypants, a complete novelty in his garb for a town of the west, kept walking toward the robbers, now trying to mount their horses and the hostage trying desperately to get out of the clutches of one of the men.
Whitaker watched the whole show from his spot against the wall, his hands at his sides. He appeared useless, harmless, and almost invisible against the bank wall.
“Don’t come any closer,” one robber yelled at Fancypants, aiming his gun at him, and Whitaker, standing still long enough, took that moment to go for his guns.
Fancypants, in the middle of the road, ducked as the bullets began to fly. Whitaker fired. The robbers fired. Whitaker went down and Fancypants stood over him until a bullet took him down, sprawling across Whitaker, still protecting him.
Action continued in a hasty manner as the town erupted.
The woman hostage got loose, the robbers fled with the loot, and Fancypants whispered to Whitaker, not letting anybody else hear him, “I’m U.S. Marshal Jake Stoddard heading to Jitney Falls disguised as the new minister of the church there. Some big doings up there where a lot of people are going to get hurt. We got to find out what’s going on. Please take my place. All my gear is up in the back of the livery, under some hay. Way in the back it is. Please do my job for me. I know you tried here. I think you owe me that much.”
His pause was sincere and necessary.
He coughed, gagged, spit some blood and said, “Until you get this done for me, bury me on Boot Hill as J.S. Noone.” He laughed. “My pa will love the humor in it when he realizes what we can pull off when we want. He always wanted me to be a lawman. I’ve tried my best. Later you can take care of things. My folks’ll understand. They’re in Clamitch Hills, Texas.” He spit again, coughed again, and said, “Swear you’ll do it.”
Whitaker swore an oath.
Jake Stoddard, a real marshal and a fake minister, died in the arms of a fake minister and a fake marshal whose real name was John Sloan Whitaker, good gun-hand, sometimes drover and dreamer, especially for a real woman in his life, coming actor pretending to be a minister, but a marshal for real in his own mind.
Whitaker took care of things in Linden, retrieving the marshal’s gear, taking care of the burial, locking things in his mind.
The next morning he took a stage headed west. He went as plain John Whitaker, changed en route in a small settlement, took another stage, heading for Jitney Falls, as Reverend John Sloan Whitaker, in clothes he had never worn before … and he hoped he wouldn’t have to wear them for long. He was especially upset at the boots, too pretty, too fluffy on his feet, no horse command in them.
Even by accident, things progress around us, happen to us. He remembered his mother saying that, too. “When you hitch a wagon, John, you best ride it no matter what happens. Make your decisions count.”
In Jitney Falls, within his first hour, he met Pamela Hanks, whom he fell in love with in an instant, got rooms at Mrs. MacGregor’s establishment, was invited to dinner at the Hanks’ ranch, fell deeper in love with the woman he thought he must have been looking for his whole adult life, and was nearly accosted on the road by a bandit he had seen at work one time earlier.
On a small rise looking over the Hanks’ spread, he watched for half the night, worried that Sherick would try to enact some measure of revenge. He wondered what had made him let Sherick go, as if he had not done anything illegal. Perhaps the role of the minister, seeking goodness in all things, was working on him already.
Sherick did not show and before dawn, Whitaker slipped back into his small cabin at the rear of Mrs. MacGregor’s place.
He slept until noon when Mrs. MacGregor woke him for lunch. “Up and at ‘em, Mr. Sloan. The day’s near done. I know you came back late and I know you were invited to Hanks’ house. But this is your real home while you’re in Jitney Falls. At least, I’ll try to make it so. Lunch is about.”
At the table they gabbed for a short time, before Whitaker asked his first question. “What’s going on behind the shades in this town, Mrs. MacGregor?” he said with a half laugh, “and I’m not talking about family matters, if you know what I mean.”
“I sure hope you don’t speak twisted like that from the pulpit. Mr. Whitaker. Folks won’t take well to it. They’re looking for plain talk all the way. That’s what they need, just all-out plain talk. They’ve been fed so much mush these days you have to wonder how dumb or how smart they really are.”
“So what’s behind the scenes?” His gaze was steady on her.
“I’m no country bumpkin, Mr. Whitaker. You didn’t light here one day and the next day be full up of questions like that. I suspect that you’re not all the collar man that you try to be.” She stopped, thought it over and said, “Or what looks to be.” Then came again, saying, “I bet your horse likes those boots you’re awearing, though, soft as duck mush, kind as kisses.” She laughed long and loud and cut him another piece of pie.
They talked well into the afternoon, before he sauntered over to the church, his suspicions correct, because Pamela Hanks was doing a serious job of housekeeping, dust occasionally rising from her broom, a hand wiping her brow. She looked as elegant as ever, he decided, and recalled instantly that she looked just as good in work pants with a pair of work gloves folded in the belt line.
As she came to the front of the church, she said, “Well, how did you like Mrs. MacGregor? Isn’t she refreshing?”
“She really is,” Whitaker replied, “and we had a long and serious conversation about things in general?”
“And nothing in particular?”
“Oh, we did that side of things too.”
He recalled a good part of the conversation when it had turned quite serious, hitting on the interesting spots.
“Listen,” Mrs. MacGregor had said at one point, “what’s going on hereabouts has nothing to do with rustling cattle or water rights of the river or the stream or the spring up there in Calamity Hills, or fenced property or mine claims. That stuff is as old as the hills, as the Old Kentuckian says.”
“That about eliminates everything possible, doesn’t it?” His look was serious, yet still held a question in it as if he readily agreed that he did not know as much as her. She had another option to present, he suddenly realized.
“That’s easy, son, though the problem won’t be coming along just yet.” The light was in her eyes when she said, “It’s statehood, plain and simple. People gathering momentum for the changeover. Power plays will be coming because controlled power comes with statehood, not the sporadic power of the territory.”
She watched for the reaction, measured it.
“Are you political? she continued. “Are you for statehood or a territory? You can’t have both. If you want to be piece of a bigger pie, go for statehood, but in statehood hungers have to be tempered. That’s all the caution I can provide for you at this time.”
She leaned forward and gave him another thought to fret over; “Because I cringe in the face of stubborn formality, stop calling me Mrs. MacGregor and call me Kate. Kate it is, plain and simple.”
She measured the impact, smiled the way only a woman can smile in such a situation, and added, “And I’ll call you Reverend or John or whatever pleases you for the duration.” Her eyes were lit like flares.
Full of wonder and more mystery, laughing at their sort of understood stations, Whitaker laughed and said, “You’re not just a lady living here, running rooming services, getting mellower with age, and more beautiful, if I may add, are you?”
Perhaps, he thought, a mask is being taken off.
Mystery and wonder coming together.
She had another piece of advice that definitely touched on inside knowledge of the statehood situation. “If they hired a gunman, keep your eye on a gent named Ward Hagler.” Her mouth sat as firm as her jaw.
She was tying things together, slowly but surely he figured.
The mystery almost asked another question on his part, but Kate MacGregor came up first: “Years ago my husband was killed … by a man who’s now a big shot in politics. I could never prove anything beyond my husband’s dying words, and the killer had too much clout for decency’s sake, so I was lost in the morass. I have been waiting for years to get him, praying for the day of justice. It’s coming, believe me.”
“What side is he on?”
“Believe me,” she said, “it makes no difference. He will pay. George MacGregor was shot in the back but he was the light of my life. The eternal light.” The glow in her eyes set like a memorable evening going downhill.
It touched him as deeply as he’d ever been touched. John Sloan Whitaker realized, in a hurry, that he now had two women in his life.
And Pamela Hanks, in her own ways, had called the shot on both of them.
He felt as lucky as a race winner, running ahead of the pack.
When he said, “Who are the dealers and the players in this?” she answered, “That just makes me figure the collar you wear isn’t the soft and holy stuff we think it is.”
Kate MacGregor went right to her backbone when she said, “Are you going to tell me who you are, or what you are, or what you’re supposed to be? It’s only fair from where I stand, and you know where I stand.”
Oh, she had a way with her, he thought. If she were 30 or so years younger … then he thought, that’s just where Pamela Hanks is right now, 30 or so years young. None of that could be denied.
Pamela stood at the door of the church, looking at Whitaker with a leveling stare, and said, “I hope you have a sermon ready for Sunday; people will be expecting the good word to ring again, as loud and as true as the bell above. Her eyes shifted to the small steeple and the small bell overhead, he bell carried west by a now forgotten family who had brought also their hopes with them. Names were lost, the transfer of the bell forgotten and lost forever, only the good intentions might echo with the ringing of the bell.
Whitaker was stunned by his predicament; he had to carry off this accepted assignment, the promise made to the real ranger, the vow that he had settled on himself, the hope he had for Pamela Hanks in a whole new life for him, the belief he had that Kate MacGregor was going to finally get her long-awaited justice.
The predicament would turn on him, solely on him, as his vow had secured. The law of the land and the law of the good Lord overhead, and everywhere one wanted or could believe it to be, would have a meeting ground. He had to provide that meeting ground. What could he say that would touch on all things? It was not his best feature, he knew, the summation of ideas, the joining and the casting of words. He’d have to run anything he came up with past Pamela, let her be his judge in the matter.
She was right at hand. What could he say?
It blurted out: “What do you think about statehood for the territory? Do you have a preference? Has anything been going on that bothers you or your parents about this?” He wanted to tell her what Kate had said, but he held it back. Also, he wanted to bring up Ward Hagler’s name because of Kate MacGregor’s warning, but thought he’d hold that alarm from her. No sense throwing too much at her at one time.
“Oh, I’m for statehood,” she declared, “as long as we don’t let in too many politicians who have learned on the job how to cheat the people of rights and property. We’ve had some strange things going on around here, and across the territory from things I’ve heard.”
Her brow squeezed tightly above her eye line as she further declared, “And we’ve drawn a few strange faces here that look to be up to no common good. One of them, Hagler by name, with the out and out look of a gunman, has been nosing around for more than a week. I fully suspect that he’s nothing more than a hired gun. My father has the same opinion, and he believes these things all tie into the statehood question. There is apparently too much to be gained, or lost or misappropriated from loose ends during the transition.”
Whitaker almost roared in glee as he realized Pamela was so much more like Kate MacGregor than he had initially thought. He could have kissed her, or both of them, at that moment. Life also held some dear things in its arms.
And the vow he’d made welled up in him as if balancing all the goodness coming at him, happening to him.
“Well, Miss Hanks,” he decided to say, “I’m not sure where I stand on statehood, but I am firm on a few other things … I have a sermon in my mind, Kate is as much like you as you are like her, and I am getting fonder of both of you by the day if not the hour.”
Having said too much, he sensed, he hastened to explain. “I will work on the details of the sermon, first word to last word, and will acquaint myself with Mr. Hagler. That will be coming up pretty quickly.”
Pamela said, “Do I need to add a note of caution here, or is it fully understood?”
Her smile broadened his heart; the expansion ran clear through him.
With the sun slanting out over the mountains, the foothills beyond Jitney Falls already into minor shade, Whitaker approached the livery where he heard that Ward Hagler kept watch on the town … who came and who went, who needed horses tended, who else had a new face in town.
The play-acting marshal play acting at ministry saw Hagler sitting in front of the livery, one of his guns just being rubbed clean, the scent of oil carried on a breeze.
Hagler looked up to see the minister, in the funny clothes and the funny boots, walking toward him, and wearing side arms that sat too comfortable on his belt. He tried to understand the message that was coming at him but never got the full grasp. Instead, he said, “Hey, Minister, I see you still got the funny boots on. That mean you’re not going any place soon, at least not on horseback?”
Whitaker said, “I’m not going to be chasing any hired punk gunman out of town, because he won’t even get to his saddle.”
The alert was in more focus as Hagler said, “And who says so?”
“The man who says it owns the hands that got Diamond Dick Reddly and Poor Soul Jack Simmons on the same day in that little settlement down the river, at which you might have been a visitor.”
The alert was all the way home, and Ward Hagler, nothing more than a hired gun, suddenly measuring all his opponents of late, realized he was out-matched. “Not me, Minister. I’m out of here.” He turned to the livery man and said, “Saddle up my horse. I’m leaving town.” He added, in a hard voice, “Now.”
He turned to Whitaker and said, “Who are you, Mister?
Whitaker, finding words leaping up for his use, said, “I am the judge of the lesser court.” It sounded so good to him that he repeated it; “Just the lesser court. All the rest has another judge.” Oh, would it be this way for his sermon.
It felt like a working charm coming off his lips, coming out of his mouth, as Hagler, his guns swinging when he hustled to his horse, mounted up and rode out of town.
The livery man said, “You know who he is, Minister?”
“What he was he no longer is,” a smiling Whitaker replied, his tongue most comfortable in his mouth. He thought he could feel the sermon gaining full headway in the back of his mind.
The play-acting minister being a play-actor marshal walked about town for almost a whole week, getting to know people, talking, listening to glad stories and stories of woe. He discovered that a lot of activity was taking place in the town, some of it all hidden in the folds of the community. Some of it was so overt it was never conceived to be connected.
He also understood that an undertone of discussions was taking place, with him as the center. It was determined that he was different as ministers go, and some of that came from the livery man who mentioned a number of times how Ward Hagler had ridden out of town on his own.
From that, of course, other points were noted; his interest in Pamela Hanks, his connection with Kate MacGregor, his surfacing at odd hours in the oddest place, like a fisherman looking for a good pool to drop his bait in.
A freighter at the saloon said, “If he’s a proper minister, why’s he wear guns some day? I swear I saw him out of town and not wearin’ them stupid clothes a his. And wearin’ real boots, too, ‘cause he was on horseback.”
But it was Kate MacGregor who broke the big piece of news to him. “Listen to what I’m going to tell you. There’s a big man coming in to town tomorrow who has stolen some huge tracts of land by legal thievery, and he’s looking for more. He wants to have the biggest ranch in the west and he’s well on his way to get it. He wants nothing to do with statehood until his claims are all fixed legal like so the transition can be made legal when Colorado becomes a state. It’s coming down to that.”
“What’s his name?” Whitaker said. “How do you know so much?”
“My sister’s boy works for him. Has been in his camp for years. He lets me know certain tidbits of information, but has to be very careful. I worry about him a great deal.” She told him the name of the thieving politician, pretending to be against statehood for Colorado, but down the road, all for it.
The politician’s troupe entered town in the morning, with the tragic news that one of their party had been killed on the trip, at night, by an unknown killer who fled with no gain for his act.
Kate MacGregor was beside herself with hate and anger, feeling the victim was her nephew. It wasn’t, as it turned out, but one member of the troupe who had borrowed her nephew’s horse to ride into a small settlement, supposedly to mail a letter back to his sweetheart. Kate knew what the real scenario was supposed to look like … the rider slipping off to mail a letter was leaking information, and was doomed.
It all fell in the lap of the play-acting marshal play-acting at being a minister.
The next day, Sunday, broke clear out over the far hills and ran on the grass it seemed for a hundred miles. The Church of the Western Star was full to capacity before services started, including the political shiners ready to work their end of things in the town. A few children sat stock-still in their seats. Two elderly people, both crippled, sat at the back door. A mix of middle age and senior age citizens made up most of the congregation. Kate MacGregor’s long-sought enemy was there surrounded by his entourage, and when Reverend John Sloan Whitaker stepped to the pulpit, Kate nodded towards her sworn foe. Almost at the same second, Pamela Hanks shifted her eyes to identify him to Whitaker.
Though a sham at what he was doing, the man in the pulpit felt absolutely lucky in having two grand women in his corner. All he had to do was carry it all off the way he figured Marshal Jake Stoddard would do it.
He began: “All of you, or most of you I will say to correct myself, have come here to please yourself and the Good Lord who watches over you. You will ask for things that seem impossible to come to you, or thank Him above for what has come to you in the past. That is all standard stuff from the pulpit. It will be said today a thousand times in this spreading land, and indeed it is spreading. Many of us at the same time are bound to atone for sins we have committed against each other and against the Good Lord who provides for us.”
“Those transgressions, to use a polite word, range from horse stealing, rustling, thievery, abuse upon our weaker brethren, and range all the way from bushwhacking murderers who have long thought their deeds are behind them, to those who currently are proposing not what they believe in but trying to throw those beliefs falsely to the wayside, the liars that they are.”
“All these transgressions, these foul deeds, these rotten-to-the-core acts, these deadly sins, are passed through a Lesser Court in this life. Sometimes that Lesser Court works well and sometimes it doesn’t even scratch the surface. The guilty may be forgiven, chastised, let go or, indeed, possibly honored for their misdeeds. What a sham it is in many cases, this Lesser Court of ours.”
He scanned the congregation, looking into eyes, measuring his delivery. “It only stands in the way of the Greater Kingdom that waits beyond. Some of us will not get there. That is what I am preaching today. Those killers among us, those bushwhackers, those who have pulled the wool over the eyes of too many people for too long are coming to the Gates of the Greater Kingdom, after eluding the Lesser Court that serves us.”
Whitaker caught his breath, looked into a few pair of eyes as intently as had ever done, and continued. “Much of what I say has roots in the politics of the land. The territory has been the subject of statehood on a number of occasions and a number or referendums, none yet accepted, but be sure to know that statehood is coming upon us. Those who deny it or misrepresent their aims in the matter will not prevail.”
“If you want something to think about during the coming week, the coming month, the coming year until we enter statehood, remember who stood up for you.
“If I pulled my pistol now and pointed it at you, waved it around, how many guilty ones among you would run for their lives?
With a sudden move he dropped his hand below the pulpit. Benches creaked. Chairs squeaked. Boot soles and heels suddenly twitched on the course wooden floor. Some of the congregation heard their hearts pump, the pounding in their chests, pumping up into their necks.
Kate MacGregor, standing like the avenging angel, had dropped her hand on the shoulder of her husband’s killer who thought he had died. She stood in place, nodding at the preacher, then raised her free hand over her head and yelled out so that the words bounced off the walls of the little church, “Lord, strike us down.”
There came pandemonium in the Church of the Western Star as the political and moral adversary of Kate MacGregor fled the scene with his cohorts. They said later that he was dead out on the street of Jitney Falls before he hit the dust.
All the pretenses were revealed, some accepted and some not.
Whitaker married Pamela Hanks in the same church. Kate MacGregor was the matron of honor. On their honeymoon the newly married couple went to Clamitch Hills, Texas to tell Jake Stoddard’s parents how his last duty had been most honorably discharged in the new state of Colorado.