The branch and the scaffold : a novel of Judge Parker /

When Judge Isaac Parker first arrived in Fort Smith, Arkansas, the town had thirty saloons and one bank. Inheriting a corrupt court and a lawless territory roughly the size of Great Britain, he immediately put the residents on notice by publicly hanging six convicted felons at one time. For the next...

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Main Author: Estleman, Loren D.
Format: Book
Published:New York : Forge, 2009.
Edition:1st ed.
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Chapter One Two long blasts on the whistle, each bent in the middle by the wind on the river. It seemed to be shrieking his name. "Well, they'll know we're coming." Mary Parker took her fingers from her ears. "I think they know already." Spotting the crowd on the dock, she drew in little Charlie and huddled closer to her husband. "Have they come with baskets of flowers or buckets of tar?" "They're empty-handed. Come to see the carpetbagger." "How soon can you prove them wrong?" "Soon. I have my predecessor to thank for heightening the contrast." "They cried for his impeachment." "I studied his record. He's fortunate they didn't dangle him from his own scaffold." "I should think a town with a fort would be an orderly place." "The fort is closed. The town has thirty saloons and one bank. I am the order." When the steamboat bumped against the hempbound pilings, the crowd eased back to allow the hands to erect the gangplank and bear trunks and portmanteaux to the dock for passengers to claim. Some newcomers were greeted and borne away amidst jabber, others escaped interest, looking for porters and transportation. Most of those gathered watched as Isaac and Mary Parker and their small son alighted. They saw a man in excess of six feet tall and two hundred pounds, wearing a sandy Vandyke beard, a soft hat, and a duster to protect his gray suit from cinders, accompanied by a large woman near his age in gloves, a cape, and a hat secured with a scarf under her chin. Patent-leather shoes showed beneath the hem of her skirt. The boy, in necktie, cap, and knickerbockers, had a high complexion and kept close to his parents, although not from fear; he intercepted the curious glances of strangers with his father's level blue gaze. "Your honor?" Parker lifted his chin to confront the stranger. He was a man close to his own thirty-seven years, pale-eyed and neatly barbered, in a frock coat too heavy for the season, but he gripped Parker's hand with a dry palm. "You're the first to address me so." "William Clayton, chief prosecutor." He bowed to Mary and acknowledged the child with a nod but no interest. "Welcome to Fort Smith." It was a hot Sunday in early May. The family and Clayton boarded a waiting phaeton, sat with hands folded while the Negro driver and a porter secured their luggage, and rode down a broad street harrowed by hooves and carriage wheels to a fine dust that rose in clouds like flour and cast a scrim over a town built largely of unpainted wood, with neither sidewalks nor lamps to illuminate the streets at night. The saloons were shuttered for the sabbath, but wagons and horses lined the hitching rails, and stragglers from the dock dodged heavy oncoming traffic to run alongside the phaeton, staring at the occupants. Clayton tapped the driver's shoulder with his stick and he picked up the pace, leaving the rubbernecks behind but raising still more dust. Mary drew a handkerchief from her sleeve and held it to her nose and mouth. "Isaac"--her voice was muffled, but still she lowered it a notch--"we've made a great mistake." He patted her other hand. "No, Mary. We are faced with a great task. These people need us. We must not fail them." Clayton spoke, distracting Mary's attention from a row of bright petticoats fluttering from a second-floor balcony like the flags of many nations. "No school yet, Mrs. Parker, but we hope to remedy that by the time the lad's old enough." "He's seen our nation's capital and much of the continent in between," she said. "His education began early." "How soon may I inspect the garrison?" asked Parker. "Directly you're settled in. You'll welcome the early start. Many of the prisoners have waited months for their cases to come to trial, and eighteen are charged with capital offenses. If you can convene by the end of this month at the earliest, you just may clear the docket in time for Independence Day." "As late as that?" "Judge Story kept an untidy desk." "I've heard it was worse than that." "That's the popular view, but I wouldn't cast it about up at the court house. It's a Democratic stronghold and, begging your honor's pardon, you're an appointee of President Grant. Moreover--" He faltered, cleared his throat. "I'm a turncoat. Everyone's aware of my original party affiliation, Mr. Clayton. The decision to switch has given me unique insight. I intend to keep politics out of my courtroom. I'd as soon hang a Republican as a Democrat." "Isaac!" He glanced at his son. "I'm sorry, my dear." "People hereabouts would pay to see a thing like that," Clayton said. "I understand they did." "Judge Story suffered from sloth more than greed, although he had a chronic case of that as well. In fourteen months he managed to run up an expense bill of four hundred thousand." "The taxpayers should be grateful he didn't show more initiative." "At this point it's impossible to distinguish between simple attrition due to gross negligence and bald-faced theft. The Eighth is a big jurisdiction: all of the Western District of Arkansas and the Indian Nations, including places few white men have ever set foot on, and them that have you wouldn't want to meet out in the open. Prussia's smaller. A great deal can pass unnoticed in a responsibility that size. If Story was half as corrupt as he was incompetent, he could have made the Tweed Ring look like a First Street pickpocket. It will take most of the month for an honest man to begin to make sense of it all." "Please be prepared to plead your most pressing cases a week from tomorrow." The prosecutor's eyes flickered, the irises scarcely darker than the whites. "I don't see how you can do it, and neither will you once you've had a look about." Three-year-old Charles Parker tugged at his father's sleeve. "Papa, when may we see the gallows?" "It's the damnedest assignment any man ever undertook, or ever will," Clayton said. "All your judgments are final, hanging and all, with no appeal between you and Almighty God--not counting the president, who considering the human offal you'll be passing sentence on wouldn't touch it with a poker. It's instant history; and if you do it the way it needs to be done, it'll be the death of you." "Are you attempting to frighten me off?" "No, sir. A man ought to know what he's harnessing himself up to. My motives are less than Christian. We're to be partners, and a thing done no more than halfway by the one must be done one hundred and fifty percent by the other. I'm ambitious, but I ain't suicidal." Parker's face registered disapproval of the deliberate lapse in grammar. His wife and son were unpacking in the Hotel Le Flore. Judge and prosecutor were seated in what was to be his chambers, a small square room barely large enough to contain a black walnut desk the size of a dining table, three tufted-leather chairs, shelves, and a credenza, with nary a horizontal surface not piled high with papers and bursting portfolios bearing witness to the disorganization of the previous administration. The curling leaves seemed to defy gravity, scaling the walls from floor to ceiling, their yellowed corners stirring in the breeze through the open window. Notwithstanding that, the air was stagnant, redolent of tobacco long since chewed and expectorated, and murky with the exhaust of the cigars the pair was smoking. A revolving bookcase leaned drunkenly to one side, stuffed with mustard-colored bound case histories with the hangdog look of children neglected and forgotten. A mausoleum of justice overlooked; a dead plant in a dry pot. "Equal and exact justice," Parker said, when that image came to him. "Jefferson's words. If we can keep them in mind, we can dispense with everything else." "Jefferson was a Democrat." "What of it? Lincoln was a Republican. Together they freed millions. In any event, this is an oasis in the political desert. I explained that once." The judge broke two inches of ash into a heavy brass tray that performed double duty as a paperweight. "Thank you for the tour. My family and I will establish quarters in the commissary. Will you have someone see it's made ready as soon as possible? I don't wish to burden the electorate with a hotel bill any larger than is necessary." "I'll attend to it. What did you think of the jail?" Parker repressed a shudder. He'd served in Congress and fought with the Home Guard under Rosecrans, but the atrocities he'd witnessed were little more than an anteroom to the dungeon beneath his feet, separated into two sections by a stone wall that extended up through the ground floor, with prisoners sprawled on rough concrete, some in shackles, buckets for sanitary use. The stench was a permanent fixture. The rest of the building, two brick stories that had sheltered officers during garrison days, devoted half the surface level to court proceedings, the rest to the handmaidens of justice. The judge addressed a different subject, somewhat to Clayton's surprise; the attorney had placed him as a humanitarian, who would at least inquire about the possibillity of constructing a proper jail. "The scaffold, "he said." Is it as sound as it appears?" "It would take a charge of powder to dismantle it. It's been struck once by lightning and survived." This arrangement was visible through the window at a distance of three hundred yards. It stood fourteen feet high on the site of the old powder magazine, extended for twenty feet, and supported a twelve-by twelve-inch beam suitable for hanging a dozen condemned men simultaneously. "So far it's served only one," Clayton went on; "a half-breed named Childers, who slit an old man's throat for his horse. Old Judge Caldwell commissioned a substantial example of architecture to inspire fear in the territory. He underestimated the highwaymen's resolve. Here in town they call it Sam Grant's wash line." "Who is responsible for it?" "Jim Fagan, whom you'll meet presently. He's U.S. marshal, and your chief law enforcement officer. I believe he assigns a man from time to time to apply whitewash and inspect it for termites." "The executioner should see to that." "At present we've no one in that particular post." "We should. I want to see personnel records on everyone who serves this court." "I recommend you requisition a shovel." Clayton swept an arm along the mountain range of paper that surrounded them. Someone knocked. Parker raised his voice, inviting the visitor inside. The door opened, admitting a small, narrow-gauged man in a blue uniform with a Sam Browne belt. He looked at the judge briefly, then at Clayton, and removed his forage cap. Strands of silver glittered in his broom-shaped whiskers and a shelf of brow left his eyes in deep shadow. "Sir, we had a disturbance. I feared you may have heard it." "What sort of disturbance?" asked Parker, before the prosecutor could respond. When the man hesitated, Clayton said, "George Maledon, meet Judge Isaac Parker. Maledon's a deputy sheriff, helps out downstairs." Maledon faced Parker. "Man threw his slops at a turnkey. I had to bust him." He patted the pistol on his hip. "You shot him?" asked Clayton. "No, sir, I used the other end. Doc Du Val says he'll live." "Very well. We don't want another incident so soon after the last." To Parker: "Maledon shot an escaping prisoner last month. A single ball through the heart from a rifle." "What is your experience?" Parker asked. "Before this billet I was a policeman in Fort Smith five years." "Would you consider resigning from the county and accepting a position in charge of executions in this district?" Two tiny points of light guttered deep in the other's skull. "I would for a fact," he said. "Your honor." Excerpted from THE BRANCH AND THE SCAFFOLD by LOREN D. ESTLEMAN Copyright (c) 2009 by Loren D. Estleman Published in May 2009 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher. Excerpted from The Branch and the Scaffold by Loren D. Estleman All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.