A/N: No, this story isn't dead yet. It may kill me before this is all over, but I plan to continue with it. Even with a full time job, I swear.
True Grit is the property of Charles Portis. I am making no profit off of this
("The wicked flee when none pursueth: but the righteous are as bold as a lion." - Proverbs 28:1)
When I heard the first gunshot, I was sitting down at my desk to begin a letter.
I cannot tell you now what its intended contents were. I can recall the date for you, though, each stroke of ink as I wrote it there atop the page. Saturday, June 24th, 1882. It was not 8:30 PM, as some newspapers would have you believe: nor was it midnight, which Lucille Biggers Langford has claimed would give my narrative a somewhat more dramatic touch. The sun was at least a half-hour set and it was dark enough inside my office that a lift-wire lantern beside me gave off the smell of paraffin, which places things a short time before 9:00 PM.
The ensuing events, I would later figure, took about ten minutes.
I do not know if people these days are familiar with the sound of a pistol report. It is nothing like the crash of thunder or the breathtaking recoil of a cannon, as I have seen some city types cover their ears in anticipation of. It is instead compressed, snapping, the crack of a whip.
And I was writing with my father's old Gorham sterling silver dip pen. I can remember this because when I set it down, I noticed that the floral repousse etchings along its shaft had left an impression on the skin between my thumb and forefinger.
"Mattie?" was Mama's call from the kitchen. Her voice strained through two octaves. "Did you hear that?"
That was a silly question. I could also hear the pounding of horses' hooves, shouting voices, but saw nothing pertinent or helpful in telling Mama this. I hefted the brass lantern up by its handle.
Brisk steps carried me to the front door. I dropped the latch with some awkward fumbling, walked out, and crossed our porch before halting.
I looked down the road.
Yell County sits on a piece of flat bottom land which stretches from the south bank of the Arkansas River to the Ouchita Mountains. If you were to stand on our porch back then and slide your gaze east to west, you would be able to see for miles as easily as letting go a breath. There would be the trees spaced like pickets to serve as property lines, the hulking shape of other farmhouses, a thin needle of the river itself far off, and of course there would be the cotton: endless, stretching fields of it. We had planted in April and it was just beginning to flower, then, white blossoms that looked spectral in the moonlight. The moon itself was a first quarter with some clouds blotting it.
I can remember that, as well.
And I remember spotting two distant figures as they ran through our fields, coming from the road towards our yard with one about a hundred feet behind the other. I can remember drawing my focus in closer to realize that there was a small light burning inside our barn.
I walked to the front door again and shouted into the house. "Frank? Where are you?"
Victoria answered me instead.
"He said he was going out to feed Clarabelle." I heard her steps beat a quick path into the kitchen where Mama was. "He forgot to do it earlier."
From the edge of my peripheral vision, I saw the light coming from our barn go out.
There was a second gunshot. The noise of it seemed sharper than the first.
I went inside.
As my hand was occupied in holding the lantern, I could not pick up my long skirts as I ran down the hallway: as I mounted the stairs, clipped against a corner, entered the room I shared with Victoria, stumbled once, dropped to my knees. I groped under my bed for the corner of a Goodman & Myers cigar box. One pull sent it skidding out. I flipped back its lid and closed my fingers around where the Colt .38 New Line Revolver LaBoeuf had once given me should have been laying.
I grabbed onto nothing but pleated paper. The box was empty.
"Mattie?" Mama called again.
I rose and went back the way I had come, stopping to lift a Palmer rifle from its pegs above our fireplace. The leather strap was hooked over my shoulder. A pouch that had been hanging from the gun's hammer was slipped over my wrist. The drawstring of this bag came loose and sent .50 caliber bullets clattering across the floor. I gathered up what I could.
Eight, seven minutes here.
Mama was just lighting another lantern as I came into the kitchen. I put my own fading one down along with the pouch of bullets, thrust the rifle into her arms, and set the new lantern's glass globe in place before taking it up.
"Mama, I want you to load Papa's gun and wait with Victoria in the back bedroom." The Palmer was a bolt-action and would be of no use to me. The back bedroom, meanwhile, had the only door in our house that locked. "Stay here until Frank or I get back."
"What? Mattie, wait." Mama laid the gun aside to reach for me. A lifetime of work had granted her slender arms a wiry kind of strength, and I stepped back to avoid them. "You are staying here with us."
"Who is that out there?" Victoria had rocked up on her toes and was peering out into the yard. "Were those gunshots?"
I gestured at my sister. "Victoria, come away from the window. Take those bullets and help Mama while she loads the gun."
"What? Why? I don't know how to do that. Mattie, you do it!" Victoria yanked the drawstring pouch off of the table. It opened again. Long, slender bullets leaped through the air. "See? I can't! You do it, you do it!"
Minutes six and five gasped by. "Because I have other matters to deal with. And do not wail, wailing will not help us."
I retreated a few steps more. Mama's voice was raw when next she spoke.
I believe her intention was to grab me about the waist. She had done this very often when I was a child; whenever I had exhibited a proclivity for charging recklessly about, which was quite often, there would suddenly be Mama's arms to snatch me up and swoop me high out of harm's reach. But I turned away at the same time as my mother advanced further, so she grabbed my left sleeve instead. The pin holding it came free and struck the floor with a clear, silver ring.
We stared at each other.
"Stay here, Mama."
Then I was gone, out the back door.
I had thought to fetch an ax from the tool shed. I had decided it is better to have something and not need it than to need something and not have it, though I could not recall just then who had said those words to me. The lantern's handle wire was placed over my elbow as I threw the shed door open, but I saw nothing that would be of use there and made to begin searching a big woodpile under the side awning.
Three, two minutes.
The last gunshot came.
There was only a little moonlight, yes, but enough that I could track the progression of my shadow beside me as I ran. My breath was coming in hard puffs and blows, though it could not have been much more than a hundred and fifty feet from our shed to the barn. Its wide Dutch doors were open, and I halted before these with such an abruptness that my lantern was set rocking on its hinges. It began tossing light high into the eaves before falling back down like a pendulum.
I tried to still the swaying lantern, but could not halt its progress without a left hand. For a moment all my attention was taken up by this: by the churning of a pulse inside my mouth, by the creaking whine of brass in my ears.
Then, as Ms. Langsford would have me tell you, the minute and the hour joined hands there atop the clock.
There was a high, animal scream. The noise of it drove a spike through everything else and pinned me where I stood.
A horse came plunging forward out of the dark barn, through my swinging circle of light, past me with clods of earth kicking up under its hooves. And I saw the face of its rider, childish in an expression of absolute terror, as the lantern rose high again.
It was Thomas Cain.
I do not clearly remember shouting anything at him as he rode past. But some harsh, wordless cry must have escaped me, because in those few breathless seconds I thought that perhaps I saw Thomas Cain glance back. A pale flash of face and eye, just over his right shoulder as he fled.
I will confess that I cannot be certain.
What I am certain of is this: I stood there and watched Thomas Cain charge the horse across our yard, leaving gouge marks in the soil as they went. They cleared the front gate together in one long dreamlike leap before pulling hard around, turning east. This turn was so sharp that the horse's legs almost went out from under it, and I realized he was riding our mare Gertrude. Then Thomas Cain dug his heels in, slapped her flank with the reins, and they shot down the road into the dark.
I stood there and watched until I could not hear the beat of hooves anymore.
Then it was quiet, mostly.
The lantern still swung at my ear. A pulse was still throbbing against the skin of my throat, behind my eyes. My breath shuddered a few times before leveling off again, and my feet made dull thuds across our wooden threshing floor as I walked forward into the barn.
I tripped over something.
In truth it was only a stumble, my second of the evening, but it raised a word of exclamation from me anyway. The toe of my left boot was snatched, my balance pitched forward. The lantern gave one more pendulous swing.
I turned about to see what was lying there and discovered that it was a body; I had caught my foot against one of its legs.
Closer inspection, in fact, confirmed that it was a body I knew. It was the Russellville Deputy Aaron Walker, the man who had once tried to entertain me with that fib about having to lick horse's sweat from his saddle. He was fallen over on his left side, and I tipped him up slightly with one of my feet to see that he had been shot in the chest. Some hay chaff was stuck inside hole, which was still spilling blood out onto his shirt and the floor.
You may think it callous that I was not horrified at what I saw then. But having happened across a dead man once before, down in the rattlesnake pit, I can tell you that a sense of purpose will often speed the recovery of your wits well enough. Such was the case here: I looked away from the body when I heard the sound of retching, and gathered up my resolve to call out again.
The retching was followed by a fit of sputtering coughs. I received no other answer. I spoke again.
"Frank, we ceased playing the Midnight Caller game several years ago, so please come out from wherever it is you are hiding. I have several questions I wish to ask you.
There were a few more coughs which ended in a ragged, sucking breath. "
Then my brother Little Frank, whom I had once reprimanded for putting a frog in his teacher's desk, came staggering out of an empty stall.
His boots, and a good portion of his pant legs, were covered in what I guessed to be either pig slop or vomit. His movements were disjointed and lethargic like those of a drunkard. There was something clutched in his left hand, which I discerned a moment later to be my missing Colt .38 revolver. Frank opened his mouth, then looked past me to spot the body of Aaron Walker.
He bent nearly in half to retch again.
"Frank." I hung my lantern by the doorway and and went to jerk him upright. "Frank, look at me. Tell me what happened."
Unsteady though his body was, my brother's eyes were as alert as a startled roe deer's. There was some spittle on his chin, and it dribbled when he spoke. "...Lord, Mattie, why are you shouting?"
I pulled the cuff of my right sleeve down to wipe his mouth clean. "That is Deputy Walker lying there. Do you realize that? He has been shot."
Frank pulled his face away from my administering sleeve. The touch of it seemed to repulse him. "You don't have to talk that way. I'm not stupid."
"Then stop acting as though you are. Who shot Mr. Walker, Frank?"
My brother looked down at the Colt revolver in his hand. His fingers uncurled slowly, as though stiffened by cold, and the gun dropped between his feet.
I picked my Colt .38 up. Its six-chambered cylinder was rotated out, and I counted that two shots were missing.
A plunge line seemed to fall from the crown of my head to the pit of my stomach.
"I have neither the patience nor the time for your jokes right now. There is a dead peace officer lying on our barn floor with a bullet in him, and I would like to put myself at an advantage by knowing the facts. Why were you carrying this gun? What was Thomas Cain doing here?"
Frank did not seem to have heard me. He started running both hands through his hair, and his breath made a reedy sighing noise inside his narrow chest.
"No, that's not what I meant. I meant nobody really sh-sh...shot him. It was an ac...an accident."
"What do you mean by that?"
My brother stayed with both hands fisted in his dark hair and his eyes turned down. "Leave me alone please, Mattie."
I do not know what I would have done at that point, had my ears not picked up the faint staccato of horse's hooves once again. I set my gun on the floor and lifted the lantern from its hook to look outside.
This, it turned out, was the wrong thing to do; in the middle of the road were two men on horseback, who seemed to have just struck up a heated discussion. From that distance I could not tell you precisely who they were, though one of them sat in his saddle with a vaguely familiar hunch. They both caught sight of my lantern as I held it aloft. Both of them called out, and one of them dismounted to pass through our front gate.
I did not wait to see if the other man would follow suit. When I turned back, Frank had picked the gun up again and was spinning its clockwork cylinder in and out, tick-tick-tick.
"Frank, let go of that."
He blinked at me. There was the most ancient, resigned sort of expression on his face. "Why?"
I did not bother hanging my lantern up this time. I set it beside Aaron Walker's body, stepped meticulously over a small puddle of blood that had spread out and congealed beneath him, and reached to prise the revolver free of its incriminating position in my brother's hands.
"Do not ask me why. Do as I say."
Frank took one step back. "That's your answer for everything, isn't it?"
"Frank, give me the gun."
My brother had a response prepared, most likely, but then his attention shifted past me once more to widen at the sight of something in the doorway.
Behind us, a man's voice rasped.
The Russellville Sheriff J.W Quinn was standing there. Light flaring up from my lantern colored his face in a way that made his eyes seem like dark, pitted hollows.
Mr. DuBois the banker, the younger one, was beside him. Both eyebrows rose up to near his thinning hairline when he saw me.
At least Frank had ceased that inane tick-tick-tick of the cylinder with its two missing rounds: that was my thought, just then. I dropped my hand from his and turned towards the two men, Aaron Walker's body dividing the space between us.
"Good evening, gentlemen. May I ask what you are doing on my property?"
Mr. DuBois paid no mind to my question. He looked instead at Sheriff Quinn, who had knelt down beside the body. "You said Deputy Walker followed one of the thieves here, Sheriff?"
"Yes. Aaron had shot his horse, and the boy took off into the cotton field. He told me he would sort that one out while I went after the other two." Sheriff Quinn was trying to ease Deputy Walker's gun from its holster. He needed to rock the body towards him to do so, and it looked as if he were going to be sick himself. The .44 Dance revolver was snapped open. "That was the only bullet he fired. You heard three gunshots, you said?"
"Yes. Which one of the thieves did Deputy Walker chase after?"
Rather than standing up again, Sheriff Quinn sat down hard on the wood floor with his legs propped up on either side of him. He took off his hat to reveal blond hair. "I do not know. The youngest one, I think. The boy."
"I know him," Mr. DuBois spat. "That one was Thomas Cain. He has come into my bank before to make deposits for his uncle."
"He has also stolen one of our horses," I said, which garnered their attention again. They would regret ignoring me. "You have just missed him."
As Sheriff Quinn made no move to leave Aaron Walker's side, and remained sitting there with the back of one hand against his forehead, Mr. DuBois chose to conduct the interrogation on his own terms and stepped forward. "I should not be surprised that you have managed to entangle yourself in this business, Miss Ross. Is Thomas Cain also the one who shot Deputy Walker here?"
Before I could answer, Frank's footsteps moved around me.
"Tom did not shoot anybody."
Mr. Issac DuBois was an ugly little sort of man. Even with the lantern behind him to outline his figure in strong gold lines, blue shadows in front to deepen his weak features, his eyes made me think of glass marbles pressed into dough as he squinted.
"...What is that your brother is holding there?"
Mr. DuBois took several more paces forward. Sheriff Quinn glanced up.
I stepped in front of Frank again, wishing I could spread both of my arms out wide as you or any other person would have done. I instead stopped my hand against Mr. DuBois' chest and formed a fist. My knuckles were pressed in.
"There will be no more questions until you answer mine. What are you doing here? What has happened?"
Mr. DuBois swatted my hand away.
"My bank was robbed earlier this evening, Miss Ross, a robbery during which my father was killed over the matter of some bank notes he was signing. The Sheriff and his deputy pursued them across the town line into Dardanelle, and I followed shortly behind." He swallowed. "Does that answer your question?"
"It does not. Who are the the persons responsible?"
"I've already said the Cain boy was one of them. I do not know who the other two were, but I can provide you with an exact description."
Sheriff Quinn gave an snort, which sounded more like a sniff in his distraught state.
"I know who they were. That was William and Elizabeth Garrett. Aaron was the one who recognized them from a poster, after we caught up with them a little ways down the road from here." He rubbed at his eyes as he stood up. "Oh, Lord."
"The Garrett siblings are Texas outlaws," I said. "They evaded capture last spring by coming up through Texarkana into Arkansas. Where are they now?"
Sheriff Quinn shook his head, keeping the heels of his hands pressed in. "I don't know. Escaped, most likely. I turned back after I heard the third gunshot."
"And why did you not maintain pursuit, Sheriff Quinn? No doubt Mr. Cain has gone off to join his partners in crime by now. If you had performed your duties and stayed on their trail, perhaps all three of them would have been caught and apprehended by now."
"Miss Ross," Mr. DuBois stated flatly, "I have had quite enough of your sanctimonious prattle. Now be silent and stand aside so that your brother may explain his role in all of this."
"Who is to say that he has any part?"
"He is holding a revolver. A man is dead at his feet. I believe those two particulars speak for themselves."
"I believe they speak no more than you force them to, Mr. DuBois. My brother will not submit to your questioning without a lawyer present. He is protected by the Fifth and Sixth Amendments and is innocent until proven guilty."
"A peace officer has been shot and my father has been murdered. Innocence, I think, has no part in this."
"Nobody meant to shoot him, sir," Frank offered in a bland voice. "It was an accident."
"Excuse me, Mr. Ross?"
I turned to reprimand Frank for speaking, as it was quite clear this was a situation best left to myself, but Mr. DuBois moved first. He lunged to wrest the revolver from my brother's hands, and it was relinquished without a struggle this time.
"Thank you, Mr. Ross. Now I believe you have several things to answer for...Quinn, look into their harness and tack room for me. Its door is open." As I had done shortly before, Mr. DuBois spun the Colt .38 open. "Four shots left. Did you miss him the first time, Mr. Ross? One should know how to handle his own gun."
"Do not say anything else, Frank" I snapped at my brother. "And that is not his gun, it is mine."
"Miss Ross," Mr. DuBois snapped in response, "if you speak out one more time I am going to have you arrested."
"I would like to see you try. Chapter X of the Arkansas State Constitution privileges all women from such brutal treatment."
"Yes. And Article III of Chapter XLIV uses the term 'any person' when speaking on the misdemeanor that is obstruction of process. Perhaps you would also like to see which statute carries more weight."
"Wait," Frank started, "wait, my sister has nothing to do with – "
Mr. DuBois wagged the gun barrel in my brother's face.
"Frank, is it? Your sister seems to think she is above the law, Frank, but I would strongly advise you against making a similar mistake. Now start talking, or else I will make good on my word to have her charged. What happened?"
Frank mouthed words the several times before he succeeded in actually forming them. "I was here fuh-feeding Cla-Clarabelle when – "
"My sister's puh-puh-pig, sir." His eyes stayed fixed on the blue steel gun barrel as it moved back and forth. "I heard something and went to the door. I saw Tom and somebody else running from the road towards our barn, so I...so I fired off a shot."
"Why? Were you signaling him?"
Frank did not answer him and stumbled onwards. "Tom came in, said he nuh-needed a horse because his had been... his had been killed. Deputy Walker was there in the doorway trying to talk Tom out of being ruh-reckless, and I said – "
"Did you hand him the gun, Mr. Ross? Did you witness Thomas Cain shoot Deputy Walker?"
"No, no. I have told you, it was an accident. We were, we were fuh-fuh-f-fighting over it. Mr. Walker was st-standing there and the gun juh-juh-just..."the muscles in Frank's throat heaved. "Excuse me, sir..."
My brother bent to vomit up whatever was left in his stomach. Mr. DuBois leaped away with a cry of disgust.
Shaking the muck off his shoes, he called out, "Do you see anything in there, Sheriff?"
By then, Sheriff Quinn had ambled unsteadily across our barn to the small harness and tack room. That barn also had several storage rooms for cotton bales, if I am remembering correctly, a series of other empty animal stalls. Some moonlight usually came into that back room through chinks in the wood. We heard him shift several things around before he came walking back out, an extinguished lantern in hand.
"This was up on a ceiling hook. Its glass is still hot," he answered. "It seems one of their saddles is missing along with their horse."
Mr. DuBois forgot the matter of his shoes then.
He snapped back around to face Frank, his nostrils flaring white.
"So is that what this is, you bastard?"
Frank tried to stumble backwards. Mr. DuBois pocketed the revolver and seized my brother by his filthy shirtfront.
"Is that it? You wait up the road with a spare horse saddled and ready, just in case? Is that how they said you would earn your share of the spoils? Or maybe you were planning to ride out and join them, but the Cain boy came in here in need of some help escaping! You were a part of this, weren't you? My father is dead, you damned filthy little bastard!"
As he bellowed all of this, Issac DuBois was shaking my brother the way a terrier shakes a rat. I had gotten my hand around his shoulder and was preparing to separate them when my ear caught the faint, oily sound of a bolt action being worked. Click as it locked in place.
In that small space the gunshot was a monstrous noise. Wooden splinters flew everywhere. The hole is still there today, I believe, unless they have repaired it; it is on the barn's northern wall and is large enough for a man's fist to pass through. Mr. DuBois let go of my brother with a start, dropping Frank to the floor as he turned around along with the rest of us.
My mother stood there with the Palmer rifle on her shoulder.
"Ms. Ross," Sheriff Quinn said, "What are you doing?"
Mama did not answer, pulling back the gun's action instead. A smoking brass shell leaped out. She fit another bullet into the chamber and dropped the bolt, click. Then she braced herself against the door frame and fired again.
More wooden splinters. Mr. DuBois cursed, and Sheriff Quinn ducked involuntarily. Frank had entered a kind of reeling stupor by now, but he still flinched at the noise as well.
Mama lowered the rifle.
"I am sorry, gentlemen." Her eyes seemed to take up a good half of her face as they fell on Deputy Walker's body. "The second shot was only to prove that my first was not an accident. If you would be so kind as to step away from my son, now, I would greatly appreciate it."
Sheriff Quinn had pulled a pair of handcuffs from his belt loop. His own heavy hands were trembling as he did, and he shook his head. "I cannot to that, Mrs. Ross. Your son will have to come with us."
"My brother is little more than a child," I protested, "He will not be treated like a common criminal.
Issac DuBois scoffed at me. "Reformers up north can wag their tongues endlessly about the idea of juvenile court, Miss Ross, but I personally put no stock in it. Quinn, you are not going to this boy walk free, are you?"
Sheriff Quinn walked past Frank to sit back down by his deputy's body. The blood had dried to a black, viscid stain on the floor. "No, no. I will pray a writ to the commissioner tomorrow morning. Issac, if you would like to include a personal statement or a letter, that may be...that may be used as a formal complaint."
"But Frank is staying here with us," I insisted. "You will not keep him chained up like an animal. Please, Sheriff."
Sheriff J. W Quinn drew a small tin flask out from is coat. He pulled the little cork and tipped it back. His hair was all stuck up at different angles. "I am sorry, Miss Ross. Your brother will remain lodged in the Russellville jail until a writ of capias is issued, at which point he will be brought before Mr. Wilson to answer for the charges against him."
"The murder of Deputy Walker," Mr DuBois said. "And accomplice to robbery, if I have anything to say about it."
Frank had not gotten up from where Mr. DuBois had dropped him, and he looked over at Mama.
"Say, Mama," he croaked. "That is twice Mattie has said 'please' now just this evening. Haw. Must be a special occasion."
There was no courthouse in Dardanelle, in those days, though a perfectly fine one was built just three years later. The only circuit court for Yell County was located in Danville, and they took my brother there for his preliminary examination three days later. The U.S Commissioner Mr. Wilson confirmed that there was indeed probable cause and evidence for maintaining a criminal proceeding here; little else could be expected, of course, when a man was being charged with murder.
Three days after that saw the defense attorney J. Noble Daggett boarding a steamboat to Dardanelle. The bail bonds holding Frank were too high for us to pay, although Victoria suggested we free him by burning down the Russellville jail. That, she said, was what the Texas man Bloody Bill had done to escape. I reminded her that Bill Longley was hunted down shortly thereafter, and apprehended, and hung, and it was no less than he had deserved.
Three young people were noticed boarding a Missouri Pacific train in Little Rock. Two of them were later said to have resembled the posters for Will and Lizzy Garrett. The third was a boy estimated at about sixteen years of age with wide-set green eyes.
Six days later they were putting together a grand jury to determine whether or not Frank would stand trial. All of the men were chosen as random from the Dardanelle tax roll. I do not believe any of them had known my father.
A full week proved sufficient time for the press to go about things in their usual eviscerating manner. Looking at a sample of the "yellow" journalism that was spun around my brother's case, one might be led to think that the good citizens of Arkansas honor the law more in its breach than its observance; The Dardanelle Post-Dispatch was quick to inculpate Frank, reminding its readers how the loss of a father at the tender age of eleven would likely compromise a young man's ability to reason. The Russellville Courier hearkened back to the days when such callous murderers were branded with hot tongs, and included a long quote from the recently widowed Ms. Josephine Anne Walker. I forget now what her statement was.
A gentleman from the The Democrat Gazette also came to our door with hopes of obtaining a photograph of Frank. He introduced himself to me as Phineas Beauregard, as if that fact alone would arouse my compliance by way of pity, and informed me that the photograph was to be run alongside a "scoop" he was writing. I had by then taken to keeping the Colt .38 New Line Revolver in my pocket and informed Mr. Phineas Beauregard that Chapter CLIII of the Arkansas State Constitution, which addresses the felony of trespassing, would find me in the right if I shot him.
Just outside of Dallas, two men and a young woman climbed aboard a Texas & Pacific railway train and robbed the express car.
The night before Frank's case was to go before a grand jury, I was lying awake in bed. I was going over the events of Saturday, June 24th, 1882, trying to account for all of the minutes between the first and last gunshots. One, two, three, five, nine, ten. I thought of how long it had taken to saddle Gertrude under normal circumstances. I thought of the little revolver with its curious spur-style trigger. An accident.
Frank had said it went off by accident.
I would see Thomas Cain's face whenever I closed my eyes, Thomas Cain's frightened face as the brass lantern swung up like a pendulum to illuminate it. And I would see it be replaced by Frank's solemn and accepting one, as he stood there spinning the revolver's cylinder. Tick-tick-tick.
That was what I was imagining, when I heard Victoria's voice call out to me from across the bedroom we shared.
I opened my eyes in darkness and turned my head aside to look at her.
A shaft of moonlight from our window fell across her bed. My sister looked very small, curled up there as she was; her voice sounded small, too, as she whispered, "I had a strange dream."
One hand was pulling the covers up to her cheeks. Her fingers were all clasped tightly around the fabric. Mama had embroidered little pink tea roses and green leaves onto her sheets a long time ago, back when the sheets had been mine.
"Did it frighten you?" I asked.
Victoria pursed her lips and rubbed one cheek against the pillow. I supposed that was a way of shaking her head. "No. It was a dream about Frank."
I did not answer for a moment. I was considering the rifle bullets as they had flown from my sister's hands, that careless scattering the seconds and minutes.
"Was it," I said.
Now she nodded. A curl of her hair bobbed drowsily up and down in the moonlight. "Mm-hm."
"Are you going to tell me what happened?"
"I am getting to that." She sat herself up on one sharp elbow. "In my dream, I was standing on the porch with you. We were looking out into the cotton field, and we spotted Frank walking towards us from a long ways off."
"That is not strange. If you wish to talk, Victoria, you had best save it for the morning."
"But he was wearing Papa's mason apron. Don't you think that is even a little strange? He was out walking in the field, but he was wearing a thing that belonged to Papa." Excitement raised her voice above a whisper. "You hollered something to him. That was what had made him start walking towards home."
"What did I say?"
"Not say. Holler. You hollered 'ven fuera,' just like in the Midnight Caller game."
Victoria was right. Whoever was assigned the role of protagonist would say those near the story's end, to make the Caller show itself. Papa had made the game up while he was traveling in southern California, basing it off of another ghost story people tell down there about a woman called La Llorona. I had always guessed the words to be nonsense.
A frown came suddenly between my brows. "You said Frank was wearing Papa's mason apron?"
"Mm-hm. In my dream."
Papa had been wearing his Master Freemason's apron when they buried him. I myself had not attended the funeral, being occupied with the business of Chaney, but I knew Yarnell was always good on his word.
"It was likely not Papa's you imagined," I said. Victoria had been four years old when our father died. She would be nine in the fall. "You are too young to really remember what his apron looked like."
"Well, I do," she responded obdurately. "It was made of white lambskin and lined all in blue. It was very soft."
I turned my attention back to the slanted eaves above my bed, which had always seemed to be pressing down upon me with a soundless, insistent patience.
Victoria's voice fell to a whisper again.
"I wish Papa was here. Don't you?"
My eyes closed. Tick-tick-tick.
"It matters little what I wish. He is not here, I am. That should be enough."
There was quiet for a while. I finally heard the sheets slide against each other as Victoria shifted to face the wall. She said no more to me after that, though when I looked over again I observed that the rise and fall of her shoulders was somewhat irregular.
The grand jury delivered their indictment the next morning.
There is no need to recite it from memory, as I have kept a written copy in my possession. "And so the jurors, upon their oaths, do say that Frank Douglas Ross did kill and murder Deputy Aaron Walker by the means aforesaid, contrary to the law and against the peace and dignity of the State."
But the judge in Danville could hear only civil cases, which meant that the State of Arkansas vs. Ross would go to the federal court; in the Western District of Arkansas in 1882, that meant a journey upriver to Fort Smith.
And to the court of Judge Issac Parker.
"Mattie," Frank asked me on the train, "Is it true that the nickname for him out there is 'The Hanging Judge'?"
Lawyer Daggett was seated across the aisle, reviewing a list of witnesses, but he paused to glance over at us. He was a trimly mustachioed man about of fifty years, with a smart tidy figure and brown hair that was graying at the sides. Mama was by the window with both hands laid placidly in her lap. Victoria sat between them and angled her jaw up in a declared refusal to look my way; she had not spoken to me since the night before Frank was indicted.
I pulled Papa's black open-crowned hat down further. There was a crinkling from the pleated paper I had stuffed inside it.
"That is misconception talking. Federal law mandates that a judge hand down the death sentence to any persons found guilty of murder or dishonoring a woman. The judge himself is just an instrument. Parker's court has authority over the Indian Territory and happens to see most of the unsavory characters who are caught there. That is all." The whole time we were speaking, my eyes stayed facing forward. "But I would like to know who told you such a horrid rumor."
"Ethan Price. He said his brother Luke was up there for that first quadruple hanging back in 1875. He said they call that court 'The Parker Slaughterhouse.'"
"The Price brothers could not make one fully functional brain between the two of them. You put that comment out of your mind and do not think of it again."
Frank turned his attention down again to the handcuffs they had put him in, and began to tug the short chain back and forth in a restless, rhythmic fashion. Ching-ching-ching. It was a bright rattling noise that put my mind on LaBoeuf's spurs, ching-ching-ching with their big fancy rowels.
I soon asked for Frank to stop his fidgeting.
Fort Smith had changed little. It still seemed to me like a place that did not belong in Arkansas, with its wide center street and dirty field-stone buildings. The Monarch boardinghouse had not changed either, though the rates had been raised to $1.00 a night with two meals and $1.25 with three.
When Mrs. Floyd found out who Mama was she made a very big to-do about putting us up for the night, us being Mama, Victoria, Lawyer Daggett and myself. A marshal had met us at the train station and taken Frank to stay in a prison under the Federal Courthouse. The gallows remained standing hard beside it, though they had put up a wall several years earlier to close it off from the public.
(The Fort Smith gallows had been designed to hang twelve men at a time, but I believe the most they ever did at once was six.)
We went there the next morning, while they were empaneling a jury; it was composed of ten white men and two colored men. No Indians were permitted to sit in court. One of the complaints often voiced by Judge Parker's Indian prisoners, in fact, was that they were not truly tried by a jury of their peers. I believe the argument holds some merit, but you cannot go about thinking that the whole word is set against you: it is a manner of thinking that will not get you very far.
Men had packed themselves into the courtroom, as many as had come to see Odus Wharton's trial, and there was a great deal laughing and passing bottles of whiskey about. You would think strong spirits at 8:30 in the morning would offend even the crudest man's sensibilities, but I am in a position to know that such is not the case. Some of these men looked up at us as we entered the courtroom with Lawyer Daggett.
"Why are there so many people?" Mama asked in a hushed voice. "Do they think this is a revival meeting?"
Or rather, I suppose most of the men were looking at my mother. I myself glanced over at her as she walked beside me, and I can still see her in that moment. My memory has held to it like albumen paper.
Her dress was Prussian blue moiré, a gift Papa had given her after Victoria was born; she had kept it wrapped up with paper inside a trunk and had not worn it until now, though when she had first opened Papa's package and held the dress against herself she had cried. White lace lined the dress' collar and covered her arms below the wide pagoda sleeves. Metal buttons darted down its bodice. Her hair was pulled into a low chignon bun at the nape of her neck.
And many of the men inside that courtroom, too ill-mannered to have removed their hats prior, did so as my mother passed by. Some of them nodded. Some of them stood up. Mama's step beneath the pleated skirts was serene, and methodical, and I realized that this was how my father must have seen her.
"They think they have come to see a show," I answered at last. "I am afraid they will be disappointed in that regard."
Lawyer Daggett was already seated beside Frank. I heard him mentioning to my brother, beneath the surge and recession of voices, "...And remember that you are only required to answer yes or no during a cross-examination. Yes or no. That is all you have to say."
Mama and I slid into the bench directly behind them. Frank turned to look at Mama but avoided my eyes. Then we stood, and the courtroom silenced, as the judge entered.
When I had first looked at Judge Parker, five years ago, I had praised him in my mind as a judge who would rely more on the Good Book's teachings of an eye for an eye than on what I am sure he considered to be Blackstone's mumbo-jumbo about the administration of justice. He had those same still blue eyes, that same brown billy goat's beard, but suddenly I found its appearance to be distinctly Mephistophelean in quality.
Reaching his stand, the Judge set both hands down on the wood and spoke. He did not sit, so neither did we.
"I hereby open session for the Federal Court of the Western District of Arkansas. The date is July 2nd, 1882. The trial is of Mr. Frank Douglas Ross from Dardanelle, Yell County. Secretary Stephen Finch, are all of the witnesses present?"
There was a man in his sixties over by the window, taking down a court transcript in shorthand. He stood up to answer. Large sweat stains were forming about his collar and arms.
"Your Honor. Present are the witnesses Sheriff J.W Quinn and Mr. Issac DuBois for the prosecution, and Miss Martha Ross for the defense."
Judge Parker seated himself at last, with perhaps a bit more quiet fluidity than a man of his stature should have been able. There is always a certain dignity about persons of stature, you may have noticed: a quality of being more present than most, occupying the space in time which God has allotted them with something like authority.
"Accused Frank Ross," he asked, sending his gaze at my brother with the straightened efficacy of a crossbow bolt, "born May 15th, 1866, have you received a copy of the indictment?"
"Yes, your Honor. I have."
And Judge Parker nodded. Just once, almost imperceptibly, before he went on talking. "Would you read the true bill for us, Secretary Finch?"
"Yes, your Honor. Of course."
The formal true bill was longer than the indictment I had been given a copy of. It took Mr. Finch some time to get through it, mostly because he continued to loose his place.
"Your Honor, the accused Frank Douglas Ross is charges with murder and assistance to robbery, i.e crimes covered by Articles I and II of Division III, Article III of the Division IV, Chapter XLIV of the Constitution of Arkansas. On Saturday, June 24th, 1882, the accused is believed to have shot Deputy Arron Walker dead and aided in the escape of fugitive Thomas Cain, also of Dardanelle, Arkansas, who had robbed the bank of Issac DuBois alongside know fugitives William and Elizabeth Garrett of Beaumont, Texas."
My eyes were on Mama just then, looking at the sharpness of her profile as she tightened her jaw, so I did not see the look on Judge Parker's face as he asked, "Accused Frank Ross, how do you plead to the charges brought against you?"
"Not guilty, sir."
"Prosecution is conducted by District Attorney W. H.H Clayton." Parker did not even need to look at the papers set in front of him as he spoke. "The accused is defended by Attorney-at-Law Joseph Noble Daggett. I must explain that they have the right to put questions to the witnesses and the accused, respectively, and also to submit explanations on any questions that may form the subject of the investigation. Has the prosecutor any questions to make?"
The prosecutor in Parker's court was a man named William Henry Harrison Clayton. He had a white ducktail beard and a severe countenance, the effect of which was accented by a round pair of spectacles that sat high up on the bridge of his nose. Why he insisted upon being referred to only as W. H.H Clayton in all of the federal records, I do not know. I do know that he and Judge Parker worked together for fourteen years, all told.
"No," answered the Lawyer Clayton.
"Has the Counselor for Defense?"
And I realize there is something I must tell you about Lawyer Daggett, as well. He had been in the war between the states alongside my father; that is how they had come to know each other, in the fighting at Elkhorn Tavern and Chickamunga up in Tennessee. It had been Lawyer Daggett who saw Papa home to be cared for when he was injured, who had been wounded himself that same year at the Battle of Missionary Ridge when a 12-pound shell went off in the midst of his infantry. His back had been badly burned, Mama once told me, and peppered with shrapnel that had needed to be dug out. It had caused the skin to heal oddly, tightened and stiff in places and with a polished smoothness like glass from the heat.
So I knew how it must have hurt him, to stand up as straight as he did just then.
"No, your Honor."
"Well then, Lawyer Daggett, I suppose we may proceed. Court confirms the proceedings for investigation, as proposed yesterday by Secretary Finch, and is now in session."
My brother had both hands in his lap, but began tapping one on the little table he was seated at. A few men laughed amidst the temporary confusion and shuffle after Judge Parker opened the court, and I remember thinking to myself that Rooster likely would have found this reversal of fortunes amusing as well. I could not guess at what LaBoeuf would have to say on the matter.
But then of course, there is no telling what is in the minds and hearts of men.
A/N: I had originally meant for this chapter and the trial itself to be all together, but got itchy and impatient and decided to split it up. Law is not my forte: any tips for accuracy would be greatly welcome, along with any of the usual questions or comments.
To those who are still reading, thank you for your patience. The trial is already partly written, so it should be up within a much shorter time frame!