Lynch Law

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Marina Endi­cott

from mounted po­lice life in canada, a record of thirty-one years’ ser­vice, by su­per­in­ten­dent richard bur­ton deane: On the evening of Fe­bru­ary 13, 1895, it was re­ported to me at Leth­bridge that a man named Willis had blown his brains out. I went to his house and found the re­port in no way ex­ag­ger­ated, as brains were scat­tered all over one of the walls. He had put the muz­zle of a Winch­ester ri­fle into his mouth and pressed the trig­ger with his great toe. The de­ceased, whom I had known for some years, had had good sit­u­a­tions, but had lost them through drink, and he had been steadily go­ing down the hill for some time, his earn­ings be­ing very pre­car­i­ous.

Iar­rived in Leth­bridge to be mar­ried in Fe­bru­ary of 1890. Willis met the train, and right away I knew I’d come too far. He wore a bearskin coat. I had seen buf­falo robes be­fore, but I never knew there was such a thing in this world as a bearskin coat. He held a slop­ping tankard, car­ried ab­sent­mind­edly from the tav­ern, and did not think to take my valise. My mind caught as a skirt might snag on a nail, but I still got off the train. So, you see, I chose this.

Willis had courted me in Cal­gary, a wild enough place. When I de­murred, he swore he would be a good provider, and I be­lieved that. His face had a sweet ea­ger­ness then. For two or three years he did main­tain us well, be­fore he fell into the glooms.

Deane: At this time Willis was out of work and the wolf was at his door. The house­hold was kept go­ing by a lodger named James Ron­ald. “But for him,” Mrs. Willis said on one oc­ca­sion, “we should have had noth­ing to eat.” Willis had, how­ever, fre­quently com­plained to var­i­ous peo­ple of the un­due in­ti­macy be­tween his lodger and his wife — and not a lit­tle in­dig­na­tion had been aroused by the treat­ment which the hus­band com­plained of hav­ing re­ceived.

They said it was us car­ry­ing on that led Willis to do him­self the in­jury. Su­per­in­ten­dent Deane plainly thought the same, when James ran to fetch him. Deane tramped through the house with­out a word or a nod to me. Blank-eyed, his mouth guarded by a drape of mous­tache, cer­tain of his own keen rec­ti­tude — he did not ask me one ques­tion, but spoke only to James. The wreck­age of my ear and eye was plain to see, but he said noth­ing then nor ever about how sorely I’d been used. Be­cause he be­lieved that I had wronged Willis with James Ron­ald.

But I had not. James was a soft baby, hardly a man at all, tuft-bearded, lip-dan­gling. It was not like that be­tween us.

Deane: On one oc­ca­sion when Willis ar­rived at home some­what the worse for liquor he found his wife sit­ting in the lodger’s lap. When he re­mon­strated with them, the lodger put him qui­etly but firmly out of the house, shut the door and turned the key in the lock.

That was noth­ing, that old oc­ca­sion they made so much of. James felt a mo­ment’s sym­pa­thy for me, was all. See­ing fat red welts on my neck that time, and my cheek swelled and split like a rot­ting yel­low plum, he pulled me down to sit upon his knee, say­ing poor girl, poor girl. He is a slight man and I too large for his lap, but he meant to be kind.

One af­ter­noon I did think of it, when we went walk­ing to see his younger brother, who was liv­ing rough in a soddy on the plateau above the town. Up there, end­less wind sends the grass flow­ing in long folds.

Jamie’s pale skin flushed in the low­er­ing sun to the new-fawn shade of his hair, and the dis­tur­bance of the breeze made him seem gen­tle, as if he might be hurt, which you would not want to do. The fit was over by sun­set; I am ashamed of it now. He was a fool­ish boy, ner­vous and a lit­tle tire­some, though he played the fid­dle well. He and Willis snig­gered to­gether over noth­ing when they were in liquor.

Willis loved him. That was how it be­gan, Willis brought home a friend and said he needed lodg­ing. It was his friend that both­ered him, not I, when he burst in on us — that his friend would be dan­dling me on his knee.

It was not like the re­port, not like it seemed when the men talked of it in court. We had not done the mar­riage act in many months. Willis was never one for that. He told me soon af­ter we mar­ried that he pre­ferred less abun­dance in the bo­som. It hurt me to think of that, and ir­ri­tated me that I should be hurt, so I would not think of it. He liked to lie be­side me, though, or sit close-cud­dling on a bench. Strange how peo­ple are. From time to time, maybe twice a year, he’d take his way, but it did not mean much to him. And it took him a very long time if he did fin­ish off, so that I was al­ways sore af­ter. I would not seek the so­lace of em­braces for my­self, know­ing he would push me away or lose his tem­per.

I do not know why he courted me in the first place. I sup­pose it was for some­one to keep him fed, or for lone­li­ness. Or for the look of it, to have a wife at hand.

Things were not well be­tween us, but I felt I’d made my bar­gain and should stick by it, even when he lost his place at the livery sta­ble and was re­duced to hunt­ing. He called it hunt­ing — but if he did set out with a gun, he only ever went as far as the ho­tel be­fore turn­ing aside. Some­one there would buy him a drink and lis­ten to his hard lines. He said they were em­ploy­ing him at the tap­room, but if they did they only paid in liquor. He had no in­dus­try at all, poor man, and there were plenty oth­ers around who had none ei­ther. I took in mend­ing and laun­dry, and James paid us reg­u­lar from what he got from his fa­ther back East, and in that way we still man­aged. So when James left town that time, af­ter Willis walked in on us like that, it was hard lines for me as well, and also I missed hav­ing a tem­per­ate speaker about the house who might say a civil good morn­ing.

While James was gone away back East, Willis fell into bad com­pany down at the ho­tel. An Amer­i­can called Charles War­ren, among oth­ers. War­ren was a tall man, well set up, with a strangely quiet air. Hand­some, but some­thing side­ways and se­cret about the brow, so that he would al­ways be thought shifty. He kept his mouth near shut as he spoke, for his teeth were any which way.

He brought Willis home dead drunk a time or two, and loi­tered in my kitchen amid the lines of laun­dry hung round the room to dry, smil­ing with a closed mouth and dis­put­ing with me in that con­fid­ing, soft-drawl­ing purr that pawed at your ear un­til you did what he wanted you to.

I have been a bad judge of men.

Deane: James Ron­ald went away from Leth­bridge for a time, but re­turned, and it is no dis­re­gard of the obli­ga­tion de mor­tuis to say that when Willis read­mit­ted Ron­ald to his house­hold he knew what his past ex­pe­ri­ence had been.

In the event, James Ron­ald’s fa­ther, a tin­pot tyrant by all ac­counts, sent him pack­ing straight back west again, or­der­ing him to be a man and see to his younger brother, Max­well, then liv­ing in a tar-pa­per shack on the edge of town.

But even af­ter Jamie re­turned — though pro­fess­ing to be glad to see him and in­sist­ing that he board with us again — Willis drank on. Bile and ill- tem­per ac­cu­mu­lated in his gut till he was worse than use­less, and ev­ery cent I scraped to­gether, he spent on liquor. So we ar­gued, say­ing bad things to each other, and then he beat me.

One night when I baited him he took into a fury and slated me so bad about the head that I lost my senses. When I came to my­self, Jamie had dragged me up onto the bed and was try­ing to staunch the blood. He washed my head and my ear, where Willis had nigh torn it off, and pat­ted me as you might pat a baby, till I was calmed and fell al­most into a doze. He’d have treated Willis the same, had I been un­kind to him. I do not be­lieve he felt aught for me be­yond what you would for a wounded an­i­mal. It was in the way of kin­dred sym­pa­thy, for Jamie him­self had been roughtreated in the past, and he was a nat­u­rally gen­tle fel­low.

Then Willis came sneak­ing back to get the lit­tle money left in my tin can, and shouted even more to find us there upon the bed. But see­ing what he’d done to my face this time, and how the top of my ear flapped loose, he cried. And when the torn part fell away amid fresh bleed­ing, he was over­come with self-loathing and blun­dered through the lines of laun­dry to the back kitchen, where he used his ri­fle on him­self.

At first I thought it was a trick, but James broke out cry­ing and weep­ing and so I pushed up from the bed and went to see, and there he was. Not Willis any longer.

I could not make shift to clean it up, but sat be­side him hold­ing his poor arm. I had not even got a ban­dage round my head by the time James came back with Deane and his men. Find­ing my­self dis­re­garded, I tore a strip of clean sheet to tie up my wound and hung in the cor­ner in a trance, wait­ing for them to be done.

When they had taken the body away I filled a bucket with melt­wa­ter and scrubbed the wall and floor un­til my hands and knuck­les bled to match my ear. I was sorry that he did it. We had been mar­ried a fair while by then and I did not want him to be dead — just less feck­less and dis­agree­able.

My head burned. I slept at last in the tum­ble of old sheets, but in the morn­ing I washed the linens prop­erly and hung them out­side, there be­ing no room in­side, to stiffen in the snap of cold wind, think­ing mostly that Fe­bru­ary was only half over and it would be cold for some con­sid­er­able time to come. I grew up in softer weather and never can get used to this wind.

As it would no longer be de­cent for me to board a sin­gle man, James moved his traps up to his brother Max­well’s. A poor place, but a roof. I had the com­fort of only my­self to care for now at least. Those two hope­less boys could com­fort each other.

The fu­neral was well at­tended, all the town hav­ing heard of the death and own­ing an opin­ion on the rights of the mat­ter. The Pres­by­te­rian min­is­ter Mckil­lop — will­ing to bury a sui­cide, is why I chose him — gave a homily that spoke gravely of sin and con­ti­nence, but I was not com­pletely at­tend­ing to his words, and maybe still a lit­tle hard of hear­ing from my ear be­ing pulled. The women turned away from me and James out­side the church and it was borne in upon me then that some or all felt my ac­tions had caused Willis to shoot him­self. Not that those women had ever been par­tic­u­lar friends of mine.

At the in­quest the ques­tion was brought up. James stam­mered and de­nied that we had ever been af­fec­tion­ate, say­ing the words im­proper re­la­tions like they were or­dure on his tongue, like he had never thought of such a thing in life. He was up­set by the very no­tion, it seemed to me, where I stood lis­ten­ing at the crack of the an­te­room door while the other women moved about set­ting out a cold lunch for Su­per­in­ten­dent Deane and the lawyers. My legs shud­dered, stand­ing there, be­ing talked about with­out the chance to an­swer. Per­haps I should have broke the door

We spent most of that night freez­ing him, hold­ing a clump of snow to a patch and then scrap­ing quick.

down then and shouted bloody mur­der at them all, my bro­ken hus­band dead now and the blame of it com­ing on my own bro­ken head. I could not tell any longer what was pain of my in­juries and what was from the in­ward hurt of it.

James came out that way af­ter giv­ing his ev­i­dence. He would not look at me. He never looked me in the eye again, never once, never spoke to me again, even while I held snow to his bare chest later, work­ing over him in the dark­ness.

His brother, less fas­tid­i­ous, tipped his hat to me when he came through. Max and I had al­ways got along, and I guess he was sorry for my wid­owed state.

And there was the Amer­i­can, Charles War­ren, stand­ing watch­ing at the back. As I ducked out of the court­house af­ter the men went in to lunch, War­ren caught my arm in a rude grip. Not cruel enough to mark, but to re­mind me that we were the same kind of repro­bate. He never spoke loud, but said I should watch out for my friend, and be more cir­cum­spect my­self.

Deane: Charles War­ren, an Amer­i­can ci­ti­zen, had been in town for a few months, do­ing no work, and hav­ing no vis­i­ble means of sup­port, but quiet and in­of­fen­sive withal. He ha­bit­u­ally car­ried a six-shooter in his breast pocket.

What say did Charles War­ren have in the mat­ter? It was a thing be­tween me and my hus­band alone — no con­cern of his. In var­i­ous ways he had been no friend to Willis, I can tell you. He brought mal­ice with him from far­ther south, and you can be sure there was a rea­son he no longer sported him­self down there.

By the court­house step, the Pres­by­te­rian min­is­ter stood with his whiskers ar­ranged in judg­ment. He, too, ad­dressed me, from a dis­tance, say­ing I ought to be ashamed to show my face. So I walked about town on the board­walks all the af­ter­noon, show­ing my face to all the peo­ple I could. It was no kind of com­fort, but the walk­ing stopped the shud­der­ing in my limbs.

That same night, the night of the in­quest, a band of men went out to Max’s place and held them up, the broth­ers. They left Max hud­dled in the bed with the cov­ers over his head, piss­ing him­self with fright, two of them stay­ing be­hind with guns to keep him from re­port­ing. He was not yet twenty and they were eight big men, what could he have done? But he will al­ways feel that he be­trayed poor James.

Poor James — him they pulled out of bed and hus­tled out to the road. The men were not shout­ing as you hear tell of, but quite si­lent. They’d dragged along a wagon with a pot of tar, and they daubed him with it and then slung over him a sack of feath­ers (some woman’s win­ter pil­low-sav­ings wasted) which stuck fast in the tar, or dan­gled and fluffed in the night wind as if he was a prairie chicken.

Deane: James was pulled out of bed, tarred, feath­ered, and led with a rope round his neck by a half-mile route to the front door of the Leth­bridge House, the prin­ci­pal ho­tel in the town. He was pushed into the hall, the door was tem­po­rar­ily fas­tened from with­out, and the masked gang rapidly and qui­etly dis­persed. James Ron­ald was then at lib­erty to make his way home with­out mo­lesta­tion. It was rather a stormy night, with drift­ing snow; a night on which few peo­ple would be about the streets, and no noise was made.

Not know­ing who else to try, Max came for me, and I ran back with him to help. It made you sick to see it. We stripped his small- clothes, what they’d left on him, and Max burned those in the yard. The pitch was part of him by then, so he looked no man but a mon­ster, a wild beast — all over tar, poi­sonous stuff that seeps into the eyes and nose, sharp feath­ers stick­ing ev­ery­where. They’d shoved the tar pad­dle be­tween his teeth, even.

I was ashamed and an­gry, feel­ing I had half caused this dread­ful thing. I said Max should go for the po­lice, but he would not. He was per­suaded that one of the men who kept guard on him had been from the bar­racks, and I could not move him.

We boiled wa­ter so it would be clean, but could not use it too hot or it hurt him more. Oil might have worked, but they only had cheap kerosene in the shack, and I was afraid to use too much be­cause be­neath the tar his skin was burned in places. The best way we found was snow, to freeze it hard and then pick at it. We spent most of that night freez­ing him, hold­ing a clump of snow to a patch and then scrap­ing quick. There was not much clean snow left out there at Max’s place, for wind had stripped the grass bare, and we were soon far from the house in our search for more. Where the land sloped into a shel­tered coulee we found a cranny of ice-carved snow still left. Max ran back for blan­kets while I kept at it. James was by this time well past cry­ing, partly deliri­ous, mut­ter­ing about the whis­perer who’d spurred the men on to harry him.

Scrap­ing and pluck­ing, I got most of James’s back cleaned. His front was a calamity. If we’d had the choice to give up, we would, both of us. James hit out some­times as I pulled at the tar, but he was weak as a cat and I did per­se­vere, much as it hurt him.

I told Max then that he must go to the po­lice — this was griev­ous harm those men had done. He was still un­will­ing, but too young to stand against my stronger will, and he promised to find Deane and re­port.

In the first light I at last went home, strag­gling through the streets in my weari­ness. A sergeant on duty ac­costed me as I passed by the bar­racks, but see­ing who I was he turned away with a filthy word and a promise of soiled laun­dry.

Pass­ing, I took a back­wards look at the sergeant’s ri­fle, be­cause it had feath­ers stuck to it.

Deane: Nei­ther of the broth­ers was able to iden­tify any of their as­sailants, nor give us any in­for­ma­tion which would help us to trace them, so they de­cided to let the mat­ter drop, and James left town at once for the East, de­clin­ing ei­ther to make or sup­port a com­plaint.

A few days af­ter this ac­ci­dent it came to my knowl­edge that Sergeant Phair was one of the mem­bers of the tar-and-feather gang, and that he had been seen on that event­ful evening with a black mask in his pos­ses­sion and tar and feath­ers on his Winch­ester car­bine.

James Ron­ald went back to On­tario to face his fa­ther, but I had no money to leave town. Our house was only rented and the land­lord came round the day af­ter the lynching to say he had need of it him­self, against which there was no de­fence. I won­dered if he was one of those who did the tar­ring. The fur­ni­ture was his. My own things fit in one box, and I left the var­i­ous laun­dry and mend­ing bun­dled on the step for those who owned them to col­lect. I wasn’t long for that town any rate. I had stayed with Willis be­cause he was weak and needed help. Once he’d shot him­self,

all that kept me down in that town was the need to make my fare away.

I found work in the kitchen at the King Ho­tel, down the street from Leth­bridge House (though I de­spised and will not even now name the man who ran the King), be­cause I could get no far­ther with­out coin. He gave me half a bed in the at­tic, which I shared with a girl called Sissy who was slow-wit­ted and jig­gled all night long un­til I’d have liked to slap her. But I was most times so tired at the end of the night, and had to be up again so early, that I’d drop off af­ter deal­ing her a cou­ple of qui­et­ing shoves. Poor girl, it was not her fault.

Other nights I lay wake­ful on my half of the bed and wept that they could dare to call me loose, when Willis had been with all the whores in town, and some of the other women too, be­cause at times he could whee­dle and whine. That my hus­band did not trust me, when it was his own self that was too weak to be trusted. That I was not wor­thy of trust. That he traded my re­gard for that of oth­ers, my dig­nity for a pocket of noth­ing.

When Max next came by the King Ho­tel I made him promise to go back to Deane — no use go­ing my­self — and tell about the feath­ers on his man’s ri­fle. And it was a lucky chance the night he came: I took Max down to lis­ten at the kitchen door to hear Charles War­ren, who was hold­ing court with his cronies in the bar par­lour, to say if he was the man who’d been the boss that night. And by the shiver that soft con­fid­ing voice set up in Max, I saw that in­deed it was he.

I schooled the poor boy un­til at last he went in with what we knew, and then a trial was put forth against War­ren for bur­glary and riot. Although he slighted me, I be­lieve Deane was a de­cent of­fi­cer, de­ter­mined to stamp out wild jus­tice.

They set the trial at Macleod, thirty miles dis­tant, in the faint hope of an un­bi­ased jury. James was booked to come back to give tes­ti­mony, but he would go straight to Macleod and would not have to see me. If that sergeant had not broke his arm he would be for it too, but in­stead he was to give ev­i­dence against Charles War­ren.

They called it a lynching when it came to court at last. I thought that meant a hang­ing, I don’t know why they called it that. Scofflaws in that town thought it a fine joke, but Deane took a se­ri­ous view, though many said it was only what James de­served.

And what did I de­serve, be­ing known as a loose woman who would es­tab­lish an­other man in her hus­band’s bed — which night should I ex­pect them to come down on me for that? Or what did I de­serve, I ask in­stead, for be­ing fool enough to stay with a sod­den hus­band, vi­cious in drink. For not scotch­ing ru­mour when it was first born. Per­haps I was proud to let them think some­one wanted me.

All this took some length of time and in the mean­while my purse kept very thin.

Deane: On hear­ing War­ren’s voice, James be­came so ner­vous that he trem­bled and could hardly stand. It be­came a grave ques­tion whether or not we could put him in the wit­ness-box at all. He had per­mit­ted him­self at the in­quest to say that he had had no im­proper re­la­tions with the woman, and the de­fence made no se­cret of their in­ten­tion to pro­duce the woman to con­tra­dict him if he should re­peat such a state­ment.

They fin­ished the trial at Fort Macleod with a hung jury, and Charles War­ren was set free to wait for the sec­ond trial.

He came back to town and up to the room I shared with Sissy at the King Ho­tel, and lounged there in the door­way laugh­ing at my dis­like.

He had drunk with Willis of­ten and en­cour­aged him to laze about, and kept him in just enough money to stay con­fused. He had made sport of Willis for lov­ing Jamie so, and then he’d been the one to tar and feather the poor stupid boy — him and the weak-minded men he talked into it. He had the un­fair physique that does not go to seed with drink, but he was a ru­ined man in that place. And Willis could never know now or be sad for what congress Charles War­ren had coaxed me into, in the close-hang­ing thicket of laun­dered sheets in the night-warm kitchen.

He took my arm again, lik­ing to pit his strength against one who had less, and pulled me in as if to fon­dle again. That was him want­ing to make a fool of me, so I did not re­spond in anger but made my­self stupid, as if I was the same as Sissy. He pressed his mouth against my eye, where it still hurt. I felt my­self up­ris­ing but I made it stay still, that twin­ing in­te­rior snake that wants things. I think we have a thing in­side us like men have out­side, that wants, wants. One rea­son I could stay with Willis all that time was that he did not trou­ble that want­ing thing at all, so there was some peace.

Deane: War­ren was re­leased on bail un­til the win­ter as­sizes, and took ad­van­tage of his free­dom to cross the bound­ary. The case was called at Macleod in the fol­low­ing Novem­ber, but the ac­cused did not ap­pear, and his bail was or­dered to be es­treated. The pros­e­cu­tion, how­ever, had its ef­fect, and was such as to dis­cour­age fur­ther ex­per­i­ments with Lynch Law.

I did not go to Macleod, then or ever. I felt so stric­tured all through that time, as if I was made to wear an­other per­son’s coat. Once in the court­house an­te­room I saw a mad-jacket, coarse can­vas and buck­les, with leg-long sleeves to cross and tie be­hind. It would scratch your arms raw, that cloth.

I wrote to my sis­ter in Maple Creek to ask if I could come home to the farm. I was not wait­ing for the re­ply, only for my wages for the train, when Max Ron­ald came to see me at the ho­tel. He wanted to give me fifty dol­lars that he said was from James. I did not be­lieve him, but I took it.

Look­ing con­scious, Max backed and pranced and fi­nally let fall that his fa­ther would ar­rive soon to com­plain about the trial. His pocked face bent to make it clear that he’d as soon I was out of town be­fore his fa­ther got there.

I had no prospects, and might have lain down on the dirty car­pet and wept, but I was not yet twenty-five years of age. I could start again and do bet­ter, set free by the de­spi­ca­ble be­hav­iour of ev­ery­one in­volved.

The sit­ting-room fire was out, and the room cold. I got up to walk about to warm my­self, and there out­side the win­dow was the dairy­man’s wagon go­ing up to Cal­gary, a good start on my way. I hollered out the win­dow to Peter­son to wait a mo­ment if he did not mind, and with­out a word to Max I ran for the nar­row at­tic stairs, hooked my valise down from the shelf, and told Sissy she could have my other things.

Then with a con­sid­er­able light­en­ing, as if I’d been car­ry­ing a heavy-laden tray for too long and set it down at last, I ran out into the street and hopped into the wagon, feel­ing the good jolt of it as I jumped up, and left that time be­hind.

il­lus­tra­tion by Maria Nguyen

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