by Pat Nolan
Fourteen years had passed since the old buzzard died. Lately his memories of Ash had been frequent.
That he had considered writing another book would have been reason enough to conjure the raucous spirit of his old friend and drinking companion. The hours they had spent, sometimes into early morning, drinking, talking, and thigh slapping he remembered with a wry fondness. Ash had always done most of the talking. And all of the writing. He had watched his friend hunched over the roll top desk by the light of a coal lamp scratching steel nibs across sheaves of paper to inscribe the words they had spoken only moments before. Ash had claimed that if they kept up the way they were going, they would have to buy their ink by the pound. He had provided much of the enthusiasm and conviviality that was needed to see their book to its completion. He missed those bright patches in an other-wise grim and hard scrabble existence, and the friend who, bedraggled and weary after their all night marathons of drinking and telling lies, sometimes looked like a hedgehog who’d just smoked an exploding cigar.
“The grand jury met on April first and returned indictments on O’Lee, Leland, and Mcann. I figured that they would expect me to move on them as soon as a decision was reached. However, the joke was on them. I went to serve the warrants the following day. Falk had already sent word to O’Lee’s ranch so he knew of the grand jury’s action and I did not expect to find him there. O’Lee’s foreman told me that his boss and Leland had gone out to round up strays but I knew better. I had them on the run. My strategy was to pick them off one by one, leaving the leader until last. If I had all three in jail, I knew that O’Lee’s influence would prevail. I was anxious to get to Leland. O’Lee had that figured which is probably why he kept him close to his side. I had to settle for Jim Mcann.
“I knew right where to find him too. At McNeil’s boarding house. The morning after the indictments I had sent word over to Alice McNeil to serve Mcann a particularly hefty breakfast. I knew that Mcann presented with the choice of a hearty spread or ramming hooks for the hills would let his stomach make the decision. I was right. I served him a warrant to go along with the flapjacks and sausage. Then I told him to wipe the syrup off his beard and accompany me over to the lock up.
Falk was as surprised as I was when the judge remanded Mcann over to jail.
“I figured if I kept him isolated in the cooler long enough that he’d come around and start letting on to what he knew. I suppose that’s what Abe Falk figured too. He went about getting the preliminary hearing scheduled within the week. Part of his strategy was to get me to divulge the extent of the evidence I had against his clients.
“My main witness was a ranch hand by the name of Welkin. He had been at O’Lee’s ranch the night of Jennings’ disappearance and testified that all three men had ridden in on frothing horses late that night. He had heard them discussing in low voices something that was obviously of great concern to them. He had heard O’Lee say something to the effect that they weren’t going to be bothered on that account any longer. He also testified that O’Lee had burned a sheaf of papers, what could have been legal documents, in the fireplace.
“Well, Abe Falk didn’t get to be one of the most powerful men in the Southwest by being a pussycat. He tore into Welkin like an auger into rotten wood. By the time Falk was done with him, he was lucky if he knew who he was. It even looked to me that he had made him into a witness for the defense!
“It was pretty much all downhill from there. I had physical evidence, of course, but lacking the actual murdered bodies of Jennings and his son, it was not all that weighty. Falk dismissed most of the other testimony as hearsay or merely opinion. I had a woman who was riding the Alamogordo stage that same day. She claimed that she had seen the three men race by, hell bent for leather. Falk tried to discredit her by accusing her of having an affair with the stage driver. He even accused me of promising Welkin two thousand dollars of the reward money if his testimony led to their conviction. I had done no such thing, of course.
“Welkin had approached me for a loan to buy some property and I had told him that when and if the men were convicted I would then be in a position to make him a loan. At any rate, my case was not in the best of light right then. Falk was as surprised as I was when the judge remanded Mcann over to jail.
“He was a guest of the county for over a year and he never did talk. That’s because he was too busy eating. He had a tab set up at the boarding house that was paid by O’Lee through his lawyer. Can’t say that O’Lee didn’t know the price of silence. Mcann had loaded on near two hundred pounds by the time I had to let him go. I was worried that I was going to have to widen the doorway to the jail to get him out. Finally I had to roll him out of there like a beer barrel.”
“I supposed you eventually apprehended O’Lee and Leland. They did stand trial, if I recollect.”
“They did that, but I never nabbed O’Lee or Leland.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ve heard of moving heaven and earth. Well, Abe Falk came close to doing that for O’Lee. He maneuvered the Territorial legislature into apportioning a new county simply to remove those boys from my jurisdiction. The next thing I knew, the crime was no longer in Dona Anna County but in a new one that Falk had materialized out of thin air. Otero County, named after the newly appointed Governor.
“How could he do something like that?”
“Falk is a powerful man and he ain’t shy about flexing his political muscle. He has got his sights set on Washington. He controls much of what passes for politics here in the Southwest. He had George Kerry appointed the Sheriff of Otero County, and George, never one to overlook a chance at advancement, was in his pocket.
“O’Lee would have to face the charges against him eventually. Falk knew this, and he figured that if his boys surrendered to an authority friendly to his cause the interrogations, if any, would be less than thorough. Leland was his wild card and he wanted to keep him close to his vest. Finally, he arranged for O’Lee and Leland to surrender to his man. I was out of the picture by that time except for the fact that they were still under indictment.
“So you never captured O’Lee and Leland?”
“That’s right, they evaded my clutches and never had to spend a day in jail. The new County did not even have a jailhouse yet so they spent the entire time awaiting their trial at the hotel in Alamogordo with pretty much free rein of the town. On equal terms, I would have eventually brought those boys in myself, but Falk plays with a marked deck. You’ve heard the expression that some men will rob you at the point of a gun and others at the point of a pen. Well, Falk is one of those who wields a lethal pen. He was double dealing the whole time.” That memory called for another nip. “I did put a hell of a scare into those boys at one point, though.”
“I knew that an arrangement had been made for O’Lee and Leland to surrender themselves to George Kerry in Las Cruces but no date had been determined. I was up in Santa Fe collecting a prisoner for extradition to Texas when an acquaintance who worked in the Governor’s office informed me that O’Lee and Leland would be boarding the train somewhere along the line between Santa Fe and Las Cruces in the custody of Kerry’s deputy. As luck would have it that was the very train I would be taking to El Paso with my prisoner. Accompanying me was John Hume, a Texas Ranger.
“If you must know, I was sore at having been outfoxed by Falk, and I relished this opportunity to confront O’Lee. I considered goading him and making him do something stupid that would play into my hands. I did not want him to think that he could evade me so easily. On the other hand, that O’Lee and Leland would stand trial was good enough for me. I had the evidence to convict them, and they would hang just as dead whether they were in Kerry’s custody or mine. I was not, however, going to let them think that their subterfuge had succeeded. I was willing to cash in on any foolish move they might make.
“At every stop the train made, I was on the platform surveying the boarding passengers. We were just about to pull out of Sorroco when I happened to glance at the window of the smoking car. There was a bearded fellow seated there that I had not remembered boarding at the previous stops. That made me suspicious so once the train got rolling I asked the conductor if he remembered any one boarding from the backside of the tracks. He confirmed that three men had jumped on board as we were leaving the stop just before Sorroco and that they had taken seats in the smoking car. Right then and there I would have bet everything I owned that they were the boys I was after.
“I had a decision to make. I was tempted to arrest them myself but since the crime was no longer in my jurisdiction, I had no authority to do so especially if they were in the custody of a duly appointed peace officer. I realized that the most I could do was give those boys a bad case of the willies.
“I explained my plan to Captain Hume. We chained our prisoner to his seat and then we walked back to the smoking car. Those boys must have seen us coming as it was mighty quiet when we stepped into that car. Right away, I recognized the men I had been chasing. Both had full beards. Leland wore dark glasses and pretended to be asleep. The deputy had his face buried in some French blue book. The man I wanted, O’Lee, was hiding under a railroad cap. We had worked it out beforehand that Hume would cover Leland and the deputy, and I would have a go at O’Lee. I went over to where O’Lee was sitting, stiff as a raw hide in a snowdrift. I planted my foot on the armrest of the seat next to his and made like I was looking for some reading material in the newspapers and magazines stacked there. Then I leaned against the back of his seat and looked out the window, casual-like, as if I was enjoying the scenery. I was close enough to see the sweat rolling down the back of his neck. Those boys didn’t know whether to shit or go blind.” The old man chuckled, replacing the cork. “I’d say that’s a memory I’ll always savor.”
“What’d O’Lee do?
“Nothing. I figure I had him shaking in his boots. If he or Leland had been foolish enough to start gunplay, they would have got the worst of it. As it was, I got the satisfaction of seeing them sweat. After a time, I sauntered back to my seat in the passenger car. Those boys probably had to go off somewheres and change their britches.”
“Falk had the venue of the trial changed because he claimed that his clients would not receive a fair trial in either Dona Ana County or Ortega Country.
That was a crock served on a silver platter. They would have got what they deserved. Justice, nothing more, nothing less. Those boys had done the deed, that was a fact. Falk figured if he could have the proceedings moved out of the vicinity of the crime, he would be able to control the way the events played in the newspapers. They moved the trial to Hillsboro, a mining camp up in the Black Range. You couldn’t find a more secluded backwater in the whole territory.”
The old man had noticed the rider a while back. They were in the flat stretch about half a dozen miles outside of Las Cruces. He was almost a mile behind and from his pace would soon catch up with them.
“Hell, the case was tried in the newspapers before it even went to the jury! Falk was granting interviews to anyone who could spell his name. He would say anything to put his clients in a good light. Once he even compared O’Lee to Robin Hood and painted me as the wicked sheriff of Nottingham. They made out like O’Lee was some kind of cultivated gent, that he spoke Greek and Latin when he was nothing but a West Texas brush popper. The prosecutor was a hack sent down by the Republicans in Santa Fe to make sure that the Democrats did not win. It had nothing to do with bringing the men who murdered Colonel Jennings and his kid to justice.”
The old man noticed that Adams would occasionally pull back on the reins and that the horse was responding by slowing its pace. He had a good idea of who was following them.
“You would have thought it was fiesta week in Hillsboro. Why, Western Union even ran a wire up there just for the trial! They had reporters come from as far away as New York and London. Folks were arriving by the wagonload everyday just to get a seat in the courtroom as if it was some kind of opera or musical concert. The hotel was packed four to a room in no time, mostly with O’Lee partisans. Tent camps were set up all over the hillside on the outskirts of town. The truth is, the jury had to sleep in the hayloft at Hank’s livery!
“Falk and his crowd held forth over at the Silver Maiden Saloon, and the Santa Fe gang used O’Shea’s Miner’s Club and Billiard Emporium as their headquarters. You could sit in Cobb’s barbershop and watch the gaggle of newspaper boys go from one camp to the other to get the opposing versions of how the day’s testimony had gone. The later it got, the harder it got for those shit scribblers to find their way across the street to the opposite camp for that last glass of convincing. Falk you might say had the deepest pockets and thus proved his righteousness by the number of besotted writers that were swept up at the Silver Maiden the following morning.
“I wouldn’t be saying much if I said that the prosecutor was incompetent. Falk demolished just about every witness who took the stand. And with nary an objection from the Territory’s side. I guess they reckoned that given enough rope Falk would hang himself, but they hadn’t figured that he was as clever as Houdini at getting out of a close place.
“He cross-examined me for a whole three days. He did not cow me, though. I gave it to him straight from the chest. I told him what I thought of his back room manipulating of the courts, how it was his kind that was responsible for the corruption in the Territory, that politics was determining the course of justice. And he could not demolish my testimony. My evidence was irrefutable, and he knew it. I would not be shaken. As much as he tried.
“Falk sunk as low as bringing O’Lee mother to the stand to testify to her son’s character and innocence. Her weeping into her hanky that way, she probably did more to acquit those boys than any of Falk’s underhanded moves. Moreover, it did not help that every testimony in O’Lee’s favor was greeted with cheers and applause from the remuda of Texas jackasses Falk had packed the courtroom with. Or that the Dog Canyon pistoleros had made it plain and clear what would happen to the jury if the verdict was returned guilty.
“The closing arguments lasted all of one day. Falk took the time to denounce each and every witness and piece of evidence against O’Lee, claiming that the accusations were nothing but politics by the Republicans. He name-called the entire Rio Grande Valley establishment, said they were slime, a bunch of broken down hacks, and liars. Claimed that there wasn’t enough evidence to hang a yellow dog, let alone the defendants. It was late evening before he was done with his marathon summation. After the prosecutor presented his rebuttal, Falk’s case did not look as strong as it might have. However, Falk had one last card to play. By then it was close to midnight and the jury was just plain tuckered, but Falk insisted that they return their verdict before they bedded down for the night in their fashionable straw palace. That jury certainly knew what was important to them. They took a whole of eight minutes to declare O’Lee and his assassins not guilty.”
The rider was close enough behind that he could no longer be ignored. Adams had glanced over his shoulder in nervous anticipation. The old man smiled as he twisted the cork out of the bottle with his teeth. He had been right.
“If Gil Leland is ready to talk like I heard then I’d say O’Lee should start worrying about his chances of gaining a seat in Santa Fe. Leland’s sister even admitted in the Las Cruces paper not long ago that soon after the disappearance of Jennings, she went to slop the hogs and found them rooting among young Rudy’s remains near the edge of the pen. This was at the Dog Canyon ranch. I’ve heard tell that for the price of a bottle of whiskey that Leland will spill his guts about the whole affair. He’s as much as admitted to being the one who killed the kid.”
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