Western Short Story
In a night of sporadic shooting and civil madness, it was apparent, a most innocent person, Lon Ashbury, was killed by a stray bullet, and his family wanted revenge on the shooter, supposedly a local young man by the name of Ambling Porter. The arrest had been made, witnesses named and summoned, and the judge had been sat before the principles, in the Red Eye Saloon. One of the Ashburys had said, “It sure looked like Ambling Porter who shot Lon, and he was standing there between the bank and the barber shop with a gun in his hand.”
Defendant Ambling Porter sat on a bench in front of the judge. He was a young man, perhaps 30 years old, sporting a grand mustache with pointed ends and waiting to see who was going to be the next witness. His Stetson sat on one knee and he wore a gun belt with an empty holster, and a nicely pressed pale blue shirt his wife had brought to the jail that morning.
Porter was married to the prettiest girl in town, had three children less than five years of age, and owned, with his wife Lisa, a decent spread out of town and along the river that was once owned by Lisa’s father. Some people said Porter hadn’t earned it as other men had earned their spreads, with years of work on a place, that he had put his eyes on Lisa when she was real young just to get on the inside of her favors.
Porter knew some men would lie to gain any edge in romance and property.
Ridley Grange in high Iowa was caught up in a new court case, with Judge Abner Hurdle hearing the case again.
Suddenly, in the midst of a minor testimony, one of the townsfolk, yelling as loud as he could, came rushing into the Red Eye Saloon in the middle of the court session, roughly pushing a man ahead of him. It was the town drunk he pushed, a bedraggled, grungy-looking 40 year older who slept where he fell down at night. The noise from the pair was tumultuous, one yelling and one blubbering about innocence and awful red dogs, big as horses, chasing him and having big mustaches that hung to the ground.
“What’s goin’ on there?” said Judge Hurdle, hitting the table top with the butt of his pistol. His straw hat sat on his round face like the pale blossom on a withering prairie flower, his cheeks showed themselves puffy and red obviously from “the drink,” and an empty glass lie closer to his hand than his carry-on gavel. The ivory-looking gavel, made from pieces of a big horn sheep’s horn, hardly carried any of the original “bang” in it.
The townsman yelled out again, “This old floater Harry was goin’ through the saddlebag on a horse outside, and he’s never owned a horse in his livin’ days and he’s about as drunk as he’s gonna get today.”
The pusher looked around at those in the crowded courtroom/saloon, the drinking service for them halted for the time being at the judge’s direction, and rolled his eyeballs asserting that the drunk was really, really drunk this time. A newcomer could rightfully assume that the man had been seen drunk before, might likely be a stick-out, a “knowner” as they might call it in Ridley Grange.
The judge said, “Whose horse was he trying to steal?” and the pusher said, “It was that pinto Jed Corcoran rides. Calls him Patchy.” He pointed to a table in the other far corner of the Red Eye Saloon.
Hurdle looked into the corner where Corcoran was sitting and said, “Want me to give him 10 days for trying to steal your horse, Jed?”
“Nah,” he answered,” let him be, harmless old drunk just blowin’ off too much liquor.”
The judge nodded and asked, “You see any of the shooting, Jed?”
“Well, I was over by the livery and all I can say is it looked like Amblin’, only like some folks have said, looked like but not sure, but looked like. You know, the mustache and the hat he wears. Simple stuff like that.” He looked off as if he was totally uninterested in any of the court’s proceedings, shrugging his shoulders, sticking his tongue out to say he’d rather be drinking.
Other onlookers nodded in agreement; of course, this was really a saloon and had only been taken over temporarily for a civil need.
The judge looked away and said to the sheriff who was pressing the charges against Porter, “Don’t leave this session, Sheriff. You can lock up Harry boy later. For now, give him another drink and let him stew.”
There was expectant laughter in the room at the judge’s poke at Harry the drunk, for the judge had leveled one of his comic looks at the gathering. He was not considered a joke in the courtroom, though he was appreciated as a joker. The difference with him could be a thin line or a mighty wide line depending on all kinds of circumstances, like who was dead, who was alive, who was male and who was female, who was young and who was so old his last breath would be quickly forgotten. Such circumstances became building blocks in cases coming in front of the judge, whether they were in presentation or connived by him for such use.
The judge had enemies and advocates on each side of the line of difference.
And ensuing quickly thereafter, as expected by many in the room, the judge added his first qualification of orders of the day; “But that’s the only drink to be poured, you hear me, Charlie.” And then he added for the bartender, after a pause of measurement of a dry-throat, his second qualification, “But you might as well pour one for me, Charlie, and me alone as presiding officer here, while you’re at it.”
The courtroom tittered with laughter, and the sheriff took two drinks from the bartender, sat one in front of the drunk at a table in one corner and one in front of Judge Abner Hurdle, no newcomer to court in Ridley Grange in the Red Eye Saloon, and surely no newcomer to “the drink,” as one might say of him.
Harry the drunk hollered again about other wild images and darkness deep as Hell and then a few unintelligible words, and the sheriff said, “Drink up and shut up or I’ll see you don’t get another drink for 30 days. How’ll that sit with you, Harry, when your tongue is burning with the fire of sobriety?”
The judge banged the gun butt again and ordered the sheriff to bring up his next witness, saying, “Gus, best bring him up now and get this thing goin’ again ‘cause I ain’t about to spend all day on what might be a sure thing verdict. “
All around the saloon interested parties observing the court proceedings nodded at each other, saying they had expected nothing different from Judge Hurdle, and one among them was heard to whisper, “Man’d jump three tables or a dozen kegs just to get to the bar on time. Too bad he knows so much about lawyering and judging.” And anyone would accept a reply that would have said, “Too bad he knows anythin’ at all about courts and its doin’s.”
Sheriff Gus Almond pointed at one man in the front row and said, “Get up here, Asa, and swear the truth is all that comes out of your mouth.”
Asa Worthly, 65 if a day, said, “I ain’t sayin’ anythin’ ain’t the truth all the way now that I spent some time thinkin’ all thin‘s over again.”
Leaning over, the judge said, ”Asa, are you saying you’re changing what you said earlier, that it was Ambling Porter who did the shooting?”
“What I’m sayin’, Judge, is the truth of the matter an’ what Gus asked me to say just now. I can’t say it was Amblin’ for sure, but this I can say, the shooter who looked like Amblin’ didn’t do no prayin’ at the time an’ we all know Amblin’ never shoots without prayin’ a little after hopin’ he didn’t kill nobody. All folks I know know that about him.”
After Worthly expressed qualifications about what he’d said earlier, Porter realized it was the first mark in his favor.
The town drunk made some more noise and the judge said, “Make him keep quiet, Gus, or stick your bandana in his mouth.”
“He waren’t there at the livery,” Harry the drunk said, the first intelligible words he had uttered since he had been pushed into the saloon. Then he lapsed into additional histrionics and talk of new wild images tossed up from his mind.
No one in the saloon/courtroom was paying any attention to the drunk at this point, tired of a man who had already embarrassed himself beyond hope.
But lawyering and judging had come with other graces to Judge Hurdle, the drink not discounted, and he never discarded what involuntary information came to him about a case he was hearing, regardless of the source.
The “shoot and pray” bit sat with him like an aftertaste, and the curiosity it carried made him scan the room, spot a likely and innocent but curious court watcher and say, “You, the gent on the end of the row with the gray Stetson and the red band on it, stand up so I can ask you some questions.”
The man stood up and said, “I don’t know nothin’ about this shootin’, Judge ‘cause I wasn’t no ways near it.”
“No, don’t worry about that part. Do you know anything about this shoot and pray thing with Mr. Porter here.”
The judge pointed to Porter who twisted his head in a questioning motion, as if he was curious and anxious at the same time to hear the response.
“Oh, yes, sir, Judge. I seen some of it before where Amblin’ scared Hell out of someone he shoots at and misses like it’s on purpose and then blesses himself like them do that believes in that, only he does it with his left hand while his right hand I still holdin’ onto his gun, kinda just in case.”
“You really stand there and tell me you seen that?” the judge said.
“Not once, Judge, but twice, and both times I was workin’ a herd for him and the Rochester gang once and the Pinto Busters another time tried to rustle our cattle an’ Amblin’ plumb scared the bejeebers outta a couple of them and blessed himself or his shots with his left hand like them do as I said, and he run them off ‘cause one of them was mostly the boss rustler. Yep, both times, like he knowed who the boss was.”
“You’d work for him again, on another drive, with Porter?”
“Oh, sure, Judge. You can bet your last drink on that.”
The entire Red Eye Saloon/courtroom suddenly blossomed into one great big but silent smile, and Judge Abner Hurdle was part of that smile when he excused the cowpoke speaker, saying, “You made a good point there. You can sit down.”
He stared a while at Porter and said, “You hold with what the last witness said, Ambling?”
Porter did not mince any words and did not think long on the question, and answered straight off, “I am as bounden to it as I am to my family.” He said no more.
“Who else you got, Gus,” the judge said as he looked over his shoulder at the barkeep. In all the noise the glass at his elbow had been emptied. The barkeep nodded.
The sheriff, looking around the saloon, said, “Well, we had two witnesses that said it looked like Porter there, but with some doubts. We might not get a conviction with what we heard, but we still got a dead man, and we don’t know who did it or why.”
Harry the town drunk was at it again, yelling both intelligible and unintelligible words as he struggled to stand up at his table. “He waren’t at the livery, no mustache on them either.”
“Damned you, Harry,” the sheriff said as he whipped his bandana from his back pocket, “I’m goin’ to stuff your mouth.” He started after the drunk when the judge halted him in his tracks.
“Hold on there, Gus. Let’s see what he was talking about. See if we can make sense of any of it.”
The sheriff held the drunk up at the side of the table. “The judge wants to ask you some questions, Harry. If you got something to say, get ready or get locked up for 30 days.”
Those words came like the Sword of Doom down on the drunk, and the judge, feeling a sense of true justice about to break out in the saloon, said, “”Who wasn’t at the livery, Harry? Can you remember who wasn’t at the livery? Can you tell us that? It’s important.”
Harry the drunk pointed into the other corner of the saloon, “It was him who waren’t at the livery.” He was pointing at Jed Corcoran.
“When was he not at the livery?” the judge asked.
“When he said he was, afore. When he said it afore.”
Judge Abner Hurdle could remember all he heard so far in the case and he looked at Corcoran and said, “You said before you were near the livery when the shot was fired. Here’s a man says you weren’t. What do we do with this now, Jed?”
Corcoran was up on his feet, waving and pointing his hand at the drunk, and yelling, “He’s a damned drunk, that’s all he is. You mean to tell me you’re gonna believe anythin’ he says all the time he’s been talkin’ about dogs and horses and Hell itself. Man’s into his liquor deep as he can get. He don’t deserve no answerin’, least of all from me.”
“Every man gets his chance in my court,” the judge said. “He’s having his right now. Man knows he’s probably going to get locked up for disturbing the due process here all the time, but he gets his chance in my court.”
“He’s nothin’ but a damned drunk,” Corcoran yelled, and turned as if he was going to walk out of the saloon.
The judge said, slow and easy so he wouldn’t have any further problems, “Please make sure, Gus, that nobody leaves this court until I’m through.”
He turned back to Corcoran and said, “Sit back down, Jed, and tell the court why you lied about where you were when the shooting took place.” It was a judicial order that everybody in the salon fully understood, even from a known tippler like the judge. The understanding brought with it a profound silence, and the judge measured that silence, sensing something in it, awareness, a shift of a sort.
Corcoran said, “I’m damned sorry, Judge, but it can’t be that you’d believe a drunk and what he says he saw and me standing here as cold sober as waitin’ can make a man who’s thirstin’ for the first drink of the day.”
It was a slippery edge at an opening and the judge recognized its intent.
“I ain’t begrudging you anything, Jed, and surely not your chance to speak in your behalf, but I’m finding it troublesome to swallow a chunk of it right now.”
The drunk put in his last bit when he yelled out, “‘At’s why I was at the pinto. Look in the saddlebag.” He sprawled across the table and two men leaped up to sit him in his chair.
Corcoran made an attempt to leave the room and two other men grabbed him as the sheriff said, “Hold him there. Take his gun. Sit him down,” He looked at the judge and said, “I’ll be right back.”
Ambling Porter was sensing a new aura in the room, and a swing of odds into his favor. His prayers were always said in good faith, in true intent, in the hope that he’d never kill a man in exchange for something not really worth it. He saw the sheriff coming back into the Red Eye Saloon holding unidentified objects under his arm.
The sheriff went straight to the judge and laid the objects down in front of him. One was a hat just like the one that had sat on Porter’s knee for the whole trial so far, and the other was a fake mustache, with tapered ends like the spikes on a longhorn bull, like the mustache Ambling Porter still had in place across the width of his face.
Judge Abner Hurdle, still with his soft voice, said, “All charges against Ambling Porter are dismissed at this time and if there’s any more killing in this town, I’ll shut down the Red Eye Saloon for a whole month of Sundays and I’ll be holding court not just for killing but for broken laws of littering the road or swearing in front of ladies or not going to church of a Sunday, you can bet your last drink on that.”
He said to the sheriff, “Gus, you lock up that scoundrel Corcoran pronto. Court will sit again tomorrow to hear charges against him.”
Then he looked around, saw all the men in the saloon leaning forward, and said, again slowly and with reserve, “The bar is now open.”
He saw Ambling Porter meet his pretty wife at the door of the saloon, and thought at the moment that all was right with the career he had chosen. He wondered how far he could carry this tale of shoot and pray, and if any listeners would believe him.