The Circuit Judge - A Short Story
The Circuit Judge
The lace curtains and comfortable bed were far better than she was accustomed to, and it sure didn’t feel like a prison, but it served the purpose. Sheriff Dolan had ordered her and Julie to stay with Ma Baker until the new circuit judge came to town and she could go to trial.
Julie was thirteen, and as beautiful as she herself had been at that age. She had married Sam at fourteen, and by the time she was sixteen, she had a broken nose, scars on her cheeks, and two teeth knocked out. By the time she was twenty two, she walked with a limp, and her eight year old son had disappeared. When she asked Sam about it, he beat her savagely, and warned her never to ask about or mention her son again. Not ever.
To her utter astonishment, her frail body conceived again at thirty five, and her beloved Julie had been born. Now, at forty eight, she awaited trial for first degree murder. Since there were no lawyers in the territory, she would have to defend herself. But Tillie Wright had done what she had to do, and now she was ready to pay the price.
Sheriff Dolan was a decent sort, so he fetched what little clothing she had from the farm, and his good wife washed and ironed it before bringing it to town. Ma Baker gave her a bolt of cloth, and she made herself and Julie a new dress apiece. Most of the town’s ladies wouldn’t acknowledge her presence, but Molly Davis visited at least twice a week, and she was facing Tillie over tea.
“The word is that Sam’s brother Tom Wright will testify against you, Tillie, and he plans to pack the jury with his friends, so you may have to throw yourself on the mercy of the court.”
Tillie nodded silently, sipping her tea. Outside, the afternoon stagecoach rolled past, the driver whooping and shouting, amidst the clanking of chains and steel rims. Tillie rose and absentmindedly closed the front window against the dust.
“I hold no hope for myself, Molly. I did what I did, and I’m ready to pay, but what of Julie? She’s an innocent child and what is to become of her? Do you have it in your heart to care for her, Molly? I trust you with more than my life.”
Molly pulled a handkerchief from her sleeve and dabbed at her eyes. “Of course I would look after her if it came to that Tillie, but she needs her mother, so let us hope for the best. This new judge is supposed to be hard nosed, but fair, so let’s pray for mercy.”
Tillie patted her friend’s hand. “As long as Julie is in good hands, I’ll be content with my fate, Molly. I’ll get by.”
The knock on the door was Sheriff Dolan, hat in hand. He nodded at Molly Steele, and spoke quietly to Tillie.
“The circuit judge is here. He’ll be holding Court at the school house in the morning. He grinned. “Most courts are held in Mort’s saloon, but this feller insists on the school. Mort is some mad, because business is always great after a trial, especially if it results in a hangin’!”
He instantly realized his mistake, and began to stutter an apology, but Tillie simply patted him on the shoulder. “You are a good man, Sheriff Dolan, and I thank you for all you’ve done for me and Julie. Your wife is a lucky woman.”
Blushing furiously, the sheriff backed out of the door and down the walk. Tillie softly closed the door and looked at Molly.
“Maybe this judge will be different. Maybe I’ll have a chance.”
The schoolhouse was packed and noisy as Tillie took her seat in the front row. Tom Wright grinned at her from across the aisle where he sat with a group of friends in the second row. The judge’s clerk stood behind the teacher’s desk, glancing now and then through the back door window. Suddenly, he turned to the court.
Judge James Parker entered through the back door. He was a splendid figure in his flowing robes and coal black beard. He walked to the desk and sat. The clerk addressed the room.
“The Circuit Court for the Territory of Arizona is now in session and open for business, Judge James Parker presiding. You may be seated.”
The rustling of people being seated was followed by a hush, as the Judge silently read the papers. He looked up and his eyes focused on Tillie.
“You are the defendant?”
“When the court addresses you ma’am, you must answer with your voice. Do you understand?”
His voice was surprising gentle, and Tillie nodded again. Realizing her mistake, she spoke up.
“Yes, your honor. I understand.”
“Do you have counsel?”
“No, your honor. There are no lawyers in the county.”
The Judge smiled. “I’m sure some folks will say that’s a good thing. My clerk here is a lawyer. If you want, he can represent you. His name is Harley Thompson”
“Now see here! That ain’t fair at all. I ain’t got no lawyer!”
The speaker was Tom Wright, and the Judge peered at him over his nose.
“And just who the hell are you sir?”
“I’m brother to the man this woman murdered in cold blood!”
“Why do you need a lawyer?”
“Because I’m going to speak agin’ her! I’m doing the accusin’.”
“Did you witness the death of Sam Wright?”
Tom Wright hesitated a moment. “Well, no, but…”
“Then I will say this once to you and the rest of the room. You will sit down and remain silent unless you are called on to testify. Any more outbursts will be rewarded with a stay in jail for contempt. Is that clear?”
Tom Wright started to speak, but then caught himself and nodded. He sat down.
“Sheriff Dolan, as the officer of record, will speak for the territory in this matter.” The judge turned to Tillie, who was conferring with her new lawyer. “This is a capital offense ma’am, so you are entitled to a jury of your peers.” Tom Wright glanced at his group of friends and smiled.
Tillie rose and spoke to the Judge. “I don’t think I can get a fair trial from a jury of men who hate me.” She glanced at Tom Wright, who gave her a broad wink and a grin. “Lawyer Thompson says I can also just let you decide, so I think that’s what I will do.”
Tom Wright jumped to his feet. “What the hell is she trying to pull? I got a jury all picked out!”
The judge turned to the Sheriff. “Sheriff Dolan…when this trial has concluded, I want you to arrest that man and lock him up for thirty days. Contempt of court.” He slammed the desktop with his gavel, and the sheriff nodded.
Tom Wright started to protest, but stopped when he saw the judge raise his eyebrows expectantly. He sat down, scowling.
“Sheriff Dolan, take the chair next to my desk and tell the court what happened that day.”
The sheriff stepped up to the desk, where he took the oath and sat down, facing the crowd. He cleared his throat and began.
“I was in my office sweeping up when young Julie Wright came in, pale as milk and some scared. She told me her mother sent her to fetch me out to their farm because Sam Wright had been shot. My deputy was gone to Payson, so I rode out there by myself.
I found Tillie Wright seated on a stump in front of the house, holding a shotgun. When I asked her what happened, she just pointed at the barn. I went in and when my eyes got used to the dark, I seen Sam Wright layin’ on the barn floor, or what was left of him.”
The sheriff turned to the judge. “Do you want me to tell about the wounds? It ain’t gonna be pretty talk.”
The judge nodded. “Tell us everything you remember, Sheriff.”
“There was blood splattered everywhere, and I could see with a glance that Sam was dead. If it was Sam, that is. He had a big hole in his chest, and the top half of his head was gone. His brains and blood were all over the muddy floor, and what was left of his face was sort of sagging, so it was hard to tell if it was him. Then I seen that his right thumb was missing from a roping accident he had, and I knew it was Sam.
He wasn’t armed, and all I saw around him was a pitchfork, which ain’t no defense against a shotgun. I went outside, and asked Tillie what had happened. She said she killed Sam, but when I asked her why, she wouldn’t say no more. To this day, she ain’t said why.” The sheriff turned to the judge. “That’s about the size of it, your honor.”
“Very well, Sheriff. You may be seated. Any more witnesses for the Territory?”
Tom Wright stood. “I’m a witness as to how she was to my brother. That ought to hold for something.”
The judge sighed and waved him to the chair, where he was sworn.
“She never was one to obey her man. I seen the time when Sam had to slap her just to make her fetch him a glass of whiskey. A man has a right to make his woman mind, but she never would see the straight of it. Before she died, my old woman did as she was told, or I’d fetch her a good one, and she knew it. But that woman there had it in her mind to buck Sam all the way, so’s he had to beat on her almost every day. She was a disgrace. Then she up and killed him for no reason. I’ll be there when they hang her. I’ll even bring the damn rope!”
“Is that all Mister Wright?”
“I reckon. I just want the court to know what sort of woman she is.”
“Very well. You may be seated.”
“Any more witnesses for the Territory?” No one rose, so the judge turned to Tillie and her lawyer. “Are you ready?”
Harley Thompson rose. “Yes, your honor. Tillie Wright will testify in her own defense.”
The judge’s eyebrows went up. “You think that’s wise, Harley?”
“Yes sir, I do.”
“Very well. Tillie Wright, will you please be sworn and take the stand?”
Tillie sat in the chair next to the Judge, her hands in her lap and her head bowed. The crowd grew silent, and after a long moment, she raised her head and looked around.
“The day I met Sam Wright, he raped me.”
The crowd gasped, and looked at one another in astonishment. Tom Wright snorted.
“I was visiting his sister on their farm, and while she and her mother were baking, I went to the barn to gather a few eggs. Sam grabbed me and took me to the loft where he had his way with me. He said if I told, he would find me and kill me.”
She paused, looking around blankly.
“I soon realized that I was pregnant, but when my mother suggested sending me to my aunt to have the baby, my father wouldn’t hear of it. He paid a visit to Sam’s father and we were married. I was married to Sam for thirty four years, and he beat me almost every day. Our son disappeared when he was eight, and I thought perhaps Sam had killed him, because he beat Jimmy too. I never saw him again, and Sam said he would kill me if I ever asked about him again. All I could do was pray he had run away.
For all that time, I took the beatings, but that day in the barn was too much to bear.”
She looked to the judge. “I will now tell what happened, and may God forgive me.”
She found Tom Wright and looked him in the eye. “I went to the barn to fetch a milk bucket, and it took a minute to see what was happening in the gloom. There was Sam, holding my Julie down on the hay, and he was trying to have his way with her…his own daughter. She looked at me and said, ‘Help me, Mama!’
The shotgun was standing in the corner where it always was, and I eared back both hammers and told Sam to let her be. He told me to mind my own business, so I took aim at him. That’s when he got up and grabbed the pitchfork. I shot him in the chest with one barrel, but when he went down, he was still alive, so I put the gun to his forehead and killed him for sure with the other barrel. Then I sent Julie to town to fetch Sheriff Dolan.”
She looked down at her hands, and spoke in such a low voice that they had to strain to hear her.
“I took it from that son of a bitch for all those years, but I was not going to let him hurt my Julie. Never my Julie!”
Except for the ticking of the clock on the back wall, the court was silent for a long moment.
“Now you all can hang me, if that’s what you want.”
The judge gazed at her and then gently told her to take her seat. The room erupted in talk, and he banged his gavel for silence.
“There’s no need to retire and consider my decision. It’s clear that Tillie Wright did deliberately and intentionally kill Sam Wright. It is also clear that she did it to defend her daughter, so I find her not guilty of murder. Case dismissed.”
Tom Wright jumped to his feet, pointing a bony finger at Tillie Wright. “You will not see the light of next week, for I will kill you myself.”
The judge nodded to the sheriff. “Arrest that man, and lock him up. That last outburst cost him another sixty days. I will not have threats in my courtroom!“
“Sure thing, Your Honor, but if I have to keep him that long, I’ll need some subsistence. My wherewithal is mighty slim, and I can’t afford to feed a prisoner for three months.”
“You will only have him for about a week, Sheriff. I’ll send a Federal Marshal to take him to the Territorial Prison at Yuma.
“What! You can’t do that! I got a farm to tend.” Tom Wright's face was blood red with fury.
“Make that one year in Yuma," the judge roared, "and if you open your mouth again, I shall oblige you to spend two years there!”
Tom Wright’s eyes bulged out, and his mouth worked like a fish out of water, but he wisely said nothing.
“Court is over, so kindly clear the room.” The judge motioned to Tillie Wright. “I’d like a private word with you, ma’am, if you please. Let us wait until the others are gone.”
The judge took out pen and paper, and wrote rapidly, first one document, and then another. Then he reached into his jacket pocket and retrieved a wallet. He handed her the documents.
“One is a letter of introduction. The other is my address in San Francisco. When you get there, give the introduction letter to my butler.” He opened the wallet and took out several bills, handing them to her. “You and Julie take the morning stage to Flagstaff, and then the train to San Francisco. I’ll be along in about a month.”
He looked at her. “Do you know who I am?”
She nodded and smiled. “You’re much older, with a beard, and you’ve changed your last name, but a mother always knows her son, Jimmy.”