La Corrido del Coyote

G. M. Atwater


Sam finally made it to St. Louis, where she heard men talk of the West. West. The sound of that word echoed as big as all forever. West was a place where anything happened, where all things were possible, just for the doing. She bought a train ticket, and then paid fare for the stage when the rails ran out. When Vin Tanner saw her step off that coach, that was where the last of her money had dropped her.

"I didn't reckon he'd come all this way after me," Sam said softly. "I figured he'd be as glad rid of me, skinny as I am, and no children to us.

"The whippings," Chris said suddenly. "What were they for?"

"Oh." Sam shrugged. "Reckon I sassed back, once or twice."

"Sassed back?"

"Y' know. Got uppity at him. Couple times I got on the shoot, instead of keepin' hush."

Larabee drew a hissing breath through flared nostrils, then spoke in a tone so low and tight, it needed only a nudge to become a scream.

"Sam, my wife was free to say any damned thing she pleased, any time she pleased, in any way she pleased. And never once, in all my life with her, did it occur to me to take a buggy whip and -."

WHAM! The clash of flesh on metal bars shocked them all, and Larabee drew back a stinging fist. He wheeled and shoved past Buck, long strides clumping out the door.

In the numb quiet that followed, Josiah spoke towards his hands, his sonorous voice either curse or promise; "Were they ashamed when they had committed abomination? Nay, they were not at all ashamed, neither could they blush; Therefore shall they fall among them that fall; In the time of their visitation they shall be cast down."

"Sam . . . " Now Buck eased into the open cell, folded his long self into a crouch at her knee. His dark eyes held hers with a seething mix of rage and compassion, and the silk of his voice was as the whisper of a drawn blade.

"Darlin', you listen to ol' Buck, now. Ain't no woman on earth bound to suffer what you done, and the only pity is you couldn't get clear of that man. But you tried, damn straight you tried, until money and luck run out. That's what we got to tell that jury, y' hear? You run a thousand miles to escape pure hell, and when you got here, you thought you had it licked. What happened in that saloon, why, that was just you bein' scared, plain and simple. I don't reckon you ever so much as raised a hand in anger, in your whole life, until that minute. Now, ain't that right?"

"I - I don't know, Buck, I just -."

"You just what? Darlin', I'm tellin' you how we got to play this hand."

"But I killed a man, Buck!" Sam's breath caught on a scalding knot in her throat, and her voice dragged past it, all rough edges. "I killed him and he died there screamin', and it was my hand that done it! Damn you, don't that mean nothin'?"

Yet Buck's composure never wavered. "Yeah, sweetheart, it means somethin'. It means you were desperate as no woman should ever be, that's all."

"No, that ain't all! Ain't you listenin'?" And the confession of her fears seemed to burst a festering boil of horror and guilt. "It means I'm goin' to Hell, no matter if I swing now, or live to be a hundred and fifty! I can't make it right, I can't!"

"Sam . . . " Josiah's arm settled around her shoulder, gently drew her, sobbing, into his solid warmth. "Little sister, you can't carry this load alone. And you can't put it down alone, either. God knows what's in your heart, and He and I both know there's no evil in you."

"But I sh-shot him -."

"Fear ain't a sin, girl." Josiah's low voice rumbled from his chest, warm and safe, much like Papa's had sounded, when he used to hold her. "God has welcomed back men and women much farther gone than you, the only condition being having a penitent heart."

With ragged effort, Sam wrenched her sobs back into speech. "Thou shalt not kill is pretty plain talkin', Preacher."

"Well, yes, but there is also the matter of redemption." Josiah loosened his grasp, leaning forward so he could observe her face. "Now, just suppose there's a group of people living here in town, kinda different from the rest, got some strange ideas about God. But they are decent folks, who do their best to raise their families, harvest their crops, with never a hand raised to their neighbors. However, there's also a man hereabouts, a young fellow of some power and position, who is sure that these folks are an abomination. In fact, he hates 'em so much that he's willing to break into their homes, drag fathers, husbands and sons away from their screaming families, and throw them to rot in prison, for no crime but that of having different religious beliefs. Mighty bad, huh?"

"Yeah, but -."

"Well, if that's not enough, one day a lynch mob snatches up one of their most pious leaders. This young fellow not only sees, he approves so heartily that he even stands guard over the mob's coats, while they strip down and stone that poor man to death. Now what do you think God would do with a man like that? Sound like he's headed for hell?"

"I - I reckon."

"Well, he wasn't. His name was Saul of Tarsus, and even after he let Stephen die a brutal death, God looked in his heart and saw somethin' worthy of redemption. Sin only remains sin, when a person refuses the righteous path. Why don't you let God take care of what's troublin' your spirit, and let us help you take care of the earthly problems?"

Movement in the outer office caught Sam's eye; Chris Larabee, a stiff shadow returned to stand quietly beyond Vin and JD. Still crouched beside the bunk, Buck watched her with hopeful eyes. Was there hope? These men were sworn to uphold the law, were they not? And the law was supposed to be impartial, calculating, without heart. Nevertheless, here they were, with each in his own way, even if only by his presence, encouraging her to make a fight. To somehow find salvation where none seemed possible.

Sam had yet no real faith it could be done. However, in her darkness she saw a faint glimmer, a pinpoint of light that offered . . . something.

She spoke in the barest whisper as she replied, "If you 'uns will help me."

+ + + + + + +

There were many things the town yet lacked, despite the cosmopolitan touches of a good hotel, nice restaurant, and a stage that kept as regular a schedule as the roads permitted. One of its most glaring deficiencies was that of a resident defense attorney.

"You want me to what?" Ezra stared across his half-raised coffee cup.

"Speak for the girl, in court," Larabee repeated.

"Mr. Larabee, I am hardly a student of Blackstone! Why, what I know of the law would -."

"Ez, I know damned well that a man of your profession has seen his share of court rooms. Hell, you probably know more than some of those cowtown attorneys you've bamboozled."

"Be that as it may, I am not in the least qualified for the defense of that poor child's life! Surely there is an attorney over at Eagle Bend, or some other town, who would be willing to take the case."

"Now, who can afford to bring a lawyer clear out here? You?" Then Chris shifted his stance and grinned. "Hell, Ezra, look at it this way. This will be one of the fanciest cons of your career. The return of Ezra P. Standish, Attorney at Law. You could even do your little broom-balancing trick for the jury."

"Sir, may I remind you that was not a capitol offense?"

"That's why this will be your best con."

Desperately, Ezra groped for a way out. "What if she won't have me? For heaven's sake, I've scarcely spoken to the girl! The last time I did, she threw supper in my face and ran over me like a wild cat!"

Larabee shrugged. "A conference with your client is always a good place to start. Better get to work, counselor."

Ezra? Defend that girl on murder charges? Good lord, he was a con man, not a lawyer, and the distinction was plain, if dubious. Standish could imagine the others' scepticism, which he would echo wholeheartedly, but arguing with Chris Larabee was a lot like trying to explain poker to a mule. An exercise in futility, not to mention aggravation. Yet that poor child - whipped, for Heaven's sake! Stripes slashed across her fragile skin as no decent man would do to a dumb ox! No, Ezra had not been there to hear her recitation of her short life, but he heard the full accounting from those who had, as well as Nathan's clinical analysis of her scars. As well as Josiah's take on those scars unseen. If Standish had been in a position to offer her advice, his only instruction would have been that she shoot the son of a bitch with no witnesses. However, outrage aside, it was one thing to pull a con, with only material gain at risk. There were those games in which the stakes were simply too high. That girl - that brave, tough, tragic snip of a woman-child - had only her life to wager. No, their impulsive Mr. Larabee had laid far too great a task upon the woefully ill-equipped shoulders of their favorite resident gambler.

"Why, Mr. Standish!"

The cheerful hail jerked Ezra to awareness, which immediately curdled to chagrin. "Mr. Lightfoot. What a remarkable surprise. Who turned over your rock?"

The man stepping onto the walk never lost his unctuous smile, as he tipped his top hat in greeting. A plain, grey man in a neat grey suit, attorney James Lightfoot presented the very picture of ordinariness. His was a round, bland face with beady eyes, a formless chin pressing fatly against his winged collar, and a smile which must have pained him to maintain. Yet behind that drab exterior lurked a dangerously sharp mind, and his presence so far from Eagle Bend could augur no good.

"Why, a gentleman by the name of John Frame did, sir," Lightfoot replied airily. For God's sake, the man should at least grow a moustache, anything to give him the appearance of a human man, and not some hairless, bipedal reptile. "He has retained me to prosecute the matter of The People versus Sarah Ann Yarbrough. I understand you and I are to be . . . shall we say, friendly adversaries, on the field of legal battle?"

Well, that news certainly got around fast enough. Thank you very damned much, Mr. Larabee.

Aloud, Ezra replied dryly, "Friendly adversaries, Mr. Lightfoot? Those terms seem mutually exclusive, don't you think?"

"As you will." Lightfoot bobbef his chin in a depreciating gesture. "But I do look forward to our little duel of wits. I dare say the case should be a snap. Unprovoked assault on an unarmed man, murder of a poor husband who merely wished to reconcile with his wayward bride. Your little wild girl is as good as hung already, I'd think."

"You think hastily, Mr. Lightfoot," Ezra replied, and the sting of that man's words whipped his thoughts to a new course. "But you attend to your assumptions. I, sir, shall slay you with facts. Good day, sir."

As good as hung? Ezra fumed his way the last yards to the saloon. Not by a damned sight. James Lightfoot, Esquire, had never been matched against Ezra Standish, and nor would he emerge unscathed.

+ + + + + + +

"I don't want charity," Sam said tartly, and crossed both arms on her chest to confirm that.

"Darlin', it ain't charity," Buck said, his patient tone acquiring the edge of an argument now in at least its third circle. "Inez wants to get you that lil' dress as a gift. We just gotta get you gussied up a bit, for the jury, that's all. Ain't like we're askin' you to wear feathers and garters, now, is it?"

"I ain't wore a dress since I left that man's house, and I got no notion of hoppin' off into one, now, just so twelve other fellers can tell me what size rope they want around my neck."

"Sam, dammit!" Seldom had Buck's powers of persuasion failed so badly with a female, and of all wonders, here he was trying to get a woman into a dress, not out of one. Obviously his talents worked one way, only.

"I'll wear a clean calico shirt and brush my hair, and put on new britches, to boot. But I ain't wearin' no dress."

"Yes, you are." The stern, Southern voice heralded Ezra's arrival at the jail.

"No, I ain't."

Buck gladly stepped back, as Ezra approached the barred cell. Smiling, the gambler laid light hands on the bars.

"You are, Miss Sam. And I will tell you why. Because our dear Mr. Frame has enlisted the services of one James Lightfoot, an attorney with a complete lack of morals, as if there were any other kind, but also a deviously clever mind. He will destroy you, child, if you give that jury the slightest reason to see you as anything but a poor, delicate, mistreated little wife, who only wished escape from a brutal husband."

"I ain't neither poor nor delicate!"

"Believe me, my dear, I am quite aware of that. But he will play that jury like a Stradivarius, and appearances will be everything. We need them to see a victim in that defendant's chair, not a killer." He raised a sharp finger, when she opened her mouth to protest, and he pressed on harshly. "If you stride in there like Joan of Arc in buckskins, you will play right into Lightfoot's greasy hands. He will do his best to paint you as a reckless, dangerous wanton. He will describe you as a mad woman who refuses to recognize her own sex, and as a vicious harlot who dallied her way west like a camp follower. He will, in short, slander your character and utterly annihilate your reputation. And then he will happily help tie that thirteenth knot."

Ezra was hard put to say whose face showed the most horrified shock, Buck or Sam. Still, the slump of the girl's shoulders suggested that his words had the desired effect.

Softening his tone, he said, "My dear, I have seen it done a hundred times. The facts decide the case, yes. But the window dressing in which those facts are clad is what makes or breaks a case. Do you understand that?"

The girl's chin set with stubbornness she didn't feel, the coyote look once again in eyes that peered through disheveled hair. "What's it to you, fancy man?"

"I will be defending you in court."

"Why the hell you care?" She spun away from the bars and back, her voice gone sharp and tight. "I ain't nothin' to you, nothin' to anybody like you! Big house and pretty clothes and yes, sir to ever'body except us what ain't as pretty as you. Why, I know how you gentlemen," she gave the word an ugly twist. "All look at us, and I ain't nothin' but hill folk!"

"Miss, I assure you -."

"I already knowed folks like you! Ye smile and talk fancy and then ye tell me to go on back to where I belong Well, I ain't cain't pay you, mister, so you can just let me be."

In the rattling silence that followed, Sam flounced onto her cot and turned her face to the wall. Ezra's smooth features stilled into unreadable lines, as he studied her taut form.

Then he said flatly, "Buck, open this confounded door."

Keys jangled and the door clanked, and Ezra stepped inside. There he drew one long, hissing breath, then reached both hands down. Gently he took hold of the small, clenched fists, coaxed the fingers open, and raised her with that look of dread apprehension writ too large on her face.

"You poor, sad creature," he said softly. "Have you so completely lost your faith in kindness?"

Inwardly, Sam shrank from the man's cool clasp of her hands, but she did not pull away. Felt herself slowly wilting beneath that green-eyed gaze, deep with things so selfless that they defied comprehension, sure as she was that magnanimity always returned as the back-swing of an open hand.

"I - I don't know."

"Sam." Buck's broad shoulders leaned in the doorway, and he said the one phrase that he might never have thought to apply to Ezra Standish, yet which now came forth as absolute truth. "You can trust him."

A wonder it was, that suddenly she thought of Papa, of the goodness that had always surrounded him, as if he carried his own atmosphere. With him, she had never feared, never doubted, and withheld trust only when the professional dictates of their business demanded. Yet now it seemed her faith only could be dragged out into daylight, spitting and clawing.

She saw the quick, grateful glance that Standish cast towards Buck, the wink the tall man sent back, and it was as if a vast, bright door began to creak open, within. This was their magic. Their strength. So simple, yet powerful. And they offered it now to her, just for the taking.

They were never one.

Never alone.

She needed only to reach out to the last, the seventh man, and their strength would be hers.

"I trust him," she whispered, and the words floated, shimmering, like spider silk on drifts of air.

+ + + + + + +

All rise - the United States Territorial Circuit Court is now in session, the honorable Judge Orin Travis presiding. Now comes the matter of the People vs. Sarah Ann Yarbrough, alias Sam McLachlan. How does the defendant plead?

Formula and protocol, words spoken above Sam's head, answered in brisk, matter-of-fact tones. She sat at the narrow table in softly-flowered calico and a simple linen bonnet, a stranger to herself. Beside her, Ezra was a composed, smart presence in a suit more somber than any recalled him wearing, before. She had felt so much the fool, as she stood in her cell in crinolines and petticoats, awaiting her walk to judgement. Ezra had appeared with a smooth smile, offering his arm as if they were but strolling for a bit of air. Her hand trembled as she laid it on his sleeve, and trembled still as they stepped out onto the walk, into the eyes of a curious town. Yet he pressed her hand to his side, and drew her relentlessly forward.

Sam's knees also chattered, as they took those first steps on the uneven boardwalk. So many people on those streets, so much light and movement and sound and bustle. Best not to look at anyone, not to let them see her breathless fear.

However, Ezra stopped within a dozen paces, and turned to touch his free hand to her cheek. "Tut-tut, my dear. Chin up."

When she looked up at him in dry-mouthed trepidation, he stated gently but firmly, "A lady never, ever looks at the ground."

A lady. And that is how she felt, walking down that dusty street on a fine gentleman's arm. He tipped his hat to passers-by, acknowledged greetings with quiet courtesy, and walking there beside him, Sam felt suddenly as though she . . . were somebody.

Not guilty, your Honor. Ezra's firm reply to judicial ceremony. Judge Travis had a face of iron, and eyes of flint behind steel-rimmed spectacles. Sam felt cold every time he spoke, the crisp, resolute voice of justice, knowing neither favor nor sentiment. Felt the stares of those filling the room behind her, watched the stoic faces of twelve strangers, who would consign her to live or die. Yet the coldest presence was that of four men, John Frame and three lean, lank mountaineers in beards and somber homespun, who had the dead man's name, the dead man's blood, and variations of the dead man's face. They sat behind James Lightfoot like a row of crows, and he smiled with blood behind his teeth.

"Your Honor, gentlemen of the jury, you are here today to judge a murder, a murder so heinous, so needless and brutal, that all civilization cries out for justice. Today, the people will prove, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that one Sarah Ann Yarbrough, alias Sam McLachlan, a female not of this Territory, did without provocation or cause shoot unto death . . . her own husband. A man whose bed she fled in a harlot's guise, and who sought only to redeem the holy vows of marriage, to reclaim that which God had joined in such sacred ceremony. Gentlemen, this crime must not go punished, but must needs be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, which, in a case such as this, compels us to demand . . . the life of a woman who, despite her gentle sex, exceeded all but the most depraved in her disregard for life and the blessed bonds of matrimony."

Ah, God, Ezra had been right. She saw it in the shadowing of the jury's eyes, the stiffness of the Judge's posture. Sam must sit silently, while knives made of words plucked her soul from flesh, in tiny fragments. That a man - that any set of men - could so dispassionately listen while a life was picked apart seemed incredible, yet such was how the work of justice was done.

Now Ezra spoke, sure, Southern tones reaching through the dull fog of panic filling Sam's ears; "Your Honor, gentlemen, the facts of this case are not in dispute. My defendant did in truth kill Lewis Yarbrough, an unarmed man and her estranged husband, in full view of these several witnesses. But as you shall see, this was not the willful act of a murderess, neither the cold, cruel work of a thankless and vicious wife, who thus betrayed their sacred union. Rather, we shall here demonstrate that the betrayal lay on the other hand, in the countless and brutal demonstrations of the deceased, upon the person of the child-wife who trusted him for natural love and affection, yet received instead his cruelty and misuse. We shall see that this was but the final act in a play of darkest tragedy, from which the defendant had exerted her every effort to escape."

The gallery applauded both opening statements equally, so Sam could not begin to gauge which way the winds would blow from there. However, she drew meager comfort from Ezra's hand briefly pressing her sleeve, from a quick glance that caught Vin Tanner's wink across the room. JD stood silently, sternly as bailiff, but once she noted the quick ghost of a smile, aimed her way.

The witnesses came in steady succession. Mild-faced, ordinary men who spoke in plain, simple tones of honesty. Sam could not consciously recall a one of them, but knew they had been in the saloon that night. So peculiar, to hear unadorned words describe that which memory could recall only as a ghastly blur. Again, Ezra was right. Lightfoot asked questions that shaped the answers before they were ever given.

"Did you, sir, observe the deceased, at any time, offering violence to the person of Sarah Yarbrough?"

"No, sir."

"Did you hear any argument, any words which suggested the promise of violence?"

"No, sir."

"Did you not, sir, in fact witness the deceased reaching out his hand, the loving hand of an aggrieved but forgiving husband, to touch the cheek of his bride, in the seconds before she shot him?"

"Objection, Your Honor! The counselor is most blatantly leading the witness!"

"Sustained. Rephrase, if you please, Mr. Lightfoot."

"Yes, sir. Did you, sir, observe any action by the deceased, before the fatal shot was fired?"

"Yeah, I did, sir."

"And what did you see?"

"Well, he just kinda put his hand on her cheek, you know, kinda . . . " The man demonstrated a light stroke on empty air.

Lightfoot turned, smiling broadly. "And for this!" he exclaimed triumphantly. "For this act of affection, this demonstration of his loving intent, his wife, Sarah Ann Yarbrough, did draw a pistol and shoot Lewis Yarbrough to death!"

"Objection! Sir, this man is manufacturing his own testimony!"

"Sustained. Mr. Lightfoot, keep in mind that this is a courtroom, not a theater."

"My apologies, Your Honor. Sir, describe to the jury what you saw, immediately after Lewis Yarbrough caressed his wife's cheek."

"Well, all I saw was they talked for a second, and then she stepped back and shot him."

"No argument?"

"No, sir."

"No physical disturbance, or threat thereof?"

"No, sir."

"Your honor, I have no further questions."

Ezra did the best he could. He pressed for any recollection of words between the two, any conversation leading up to the fatal shooting. He asked for descriptions of the defendant's demeanor, in the moments leading up to it. Yet the witnesses simply had not noticed the quiet exchange, or at least not enough to recount any detail prior to the shooting. The cold facts stood unchanged; Sam McLachlan fatally shot Lewis Yarbrough, after no more than a brief, muted conversation and a touch on the cheek.


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