La Corrido del Coyote

G. M. Atwater


Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner were also sworn, and proved less pliable witnesses for the prosecution. Neither man could be led by Lightfoot's verbal mechanizations, resisting his sly angling with flat composure. Yet neither of them could offer anything to alter the evident lack of provocation, by Lew Yarbrough. Anything Sam had told them about the deceased would be mere here say, and so inadmissable as evidence. The best they had was Vin's description of Sam's terrified reaction to Yarbrough's arrival in town, but even that could be construed as not fear of harm, but as a guilty conscience being caught in a great wrong.

Upon closure of court that day, Sam arose at the gavel's fall, and followed Ezra from the table with a leaden heart. She did not wish to see those jostling around her, filtering towards the door in a rumble of talk and speculation.


Her head snapped up at the hissed expletive, and the embittered face of John Frame loomed before her. At his back, the three Yarbrough men stared like mink, faces blank behind their beards, and her stomach sprang into her throat. Yet a quick shoulder brushed past, and JD stepped towards John Frame, into him.

"I can get soap for that mouth, mister."

Ezra closed at her other side, and the foursome melted back, joined the exiting throng. But the damage was obvious. They had no fear of her gaining freedom, no doubt but that she would pay for the death of their kinsman. This knowledge now liberated them to ugly boldness, and Sam felt bleached of courage, as Ezra, JD and Chris escorted her silently back to her cell.

"Shoot, Ezra, you sounded real good, to me, in there," JD said.

Ezra shook his head, which jostled the hands he held it in. "No," he said to the tabletop. "I did not. To you, perhaps, for which I thank you, but not in the ears of those to whom it matters. I am not . . . "

He sighed on useless, unfinished words, and sat back in his chair. His shoulders slumped under a weight of doubt that neither he nor the others had ever associated with Ezra Standish. However, Ezra Standish was failing, and failing miserably.

Across the corner table, Chris shook his head, but with other meaning.

"Ezra, this was only the second day. Hell, I've seen high-stakes poker games last longer than that."

"I am gambling with Sam's life," said Ezra flatly. "That is a bet I cannot cover, should I fail."

"You won't." Larabee's hat brim tipped up. "You won't let yourself."

"If I am fileted by Lightfoot's razor tongue, I will have precious little say in the matter. He is what I am only pretending to be, Mr. Larabee. There is a reason men go to law school, and those deficiencies may here be fatal."

"Fine." Chris shrugged. "Give up."

"I am not -!" Green eyes snapped fire. "Giving up."

"Good. Then shut the hell up and quit feelin' sorry for yourself. Oh, and Mary's got some books for you to look at, in her office. Found them at home, used to belong to the Judge."

"They're right here, actually." JD got up and strode to the bar. He made a quick hop to sprawl across its top, heels briefly flailing as he lifted something from behind the mahogany counter. "She dropped them by, earlier."

As he dropped back to the floor, he held out two thick volumes and added, "Couldn't hurt to see what you might be missing, anyhow."

Ezra took the heavy books in his hands, felt the smooth bindings and smelled the rich scent of good paper, library glue, leather. The fanciest con of his career. What a terrible farce.

Next to him, Vin Tanner reached out to lightly finger the ribbed spines. "Hell, Ez. Got to be thousands of words in here. There's bound to be some you can use to set this right."

"It takes more than words, Mr. Tanner."

"No, it don't." Vin regarded the gambler, eyes narrowed under his old hat. "Words is all it is. There's only one set of tracks, but the difference is in how a man reads 'em. Ain't always the quick man gets there first, just who read the trail right."

Shaking his head, Ezra said, "Your rustic perception of the law is most interesting, my friend. But I fear it has little bearing on . . . " He paused. Lightly fingered his lower lip. "We have already heard the eye witnesses. Not a great deal we can do there, I'm afraid. However -." And now his head came up, once more. "We can call expert witnesses, those who know facts germane to the circumstances surrounding the case. Nathan saw her scars, can testify to their cause and approximate age. When Sam is finally called, perhaps her - Yes!"

Ezra scooped up the books, and thumped them end-first on the table. "This is how we bring in her past, the history of mistreatment, her reasons for flight. Yes. Always bring in a doctor, or any professional man. We'll have to make sure Nathan is well-prepared, as I'm sure Lightfoot will attempt to discredit his ability and training. However, his record in this town speaks for itself, not a problem. If necessary, I will bury that courtroom in affidavits swearing as to Mr. Jackson's credentials. Also, as a preacher, Josiah can testify to Sam's remorse, her distress - yes!"

His gold tooth flashed, as he swept back his chair and stood. Larabee smiled quietly into his drink.

"Go get 'em, counselor."

+ + + + + + +

Josiah was a rock. In his deep, calm tones, he described the tearful despair, the oft-repeated regrets of the accused. She was so afraid. Lightfoot drove to the attack. Was not her fear only for herself, for the shadow of the noose hanging before her? Was not her only regret that she must face the consequences of her actions, and perhaps pay with her own life? Was she not in fact a calculating creature who already had attempted escape, and sought only to preserve her own neck? She dreams, Josiah replied. Dreams in which she cries aloud and begs her husband for mercy, and then cries at remembered blows. Ezra cannot prove that Sam's regret is genuine, but neither can Lightfoot cast off the doubts now raised, that Sam is perhaps not so cold or vicious as portrayed.

Then came Nathan Jackson, the healer solemn and steady in the witness chair. When he was called, upon Sam's recapture by Vin Tanner, what was Jackson meant to see? Scars on the back of the accused. And why was he called? Because the woman attending feared these ugly injuries might require a doctor's care. What was the nature of those wounds, and did they require care? They were healed scars of whip marks, and did not need my help. How many? Eight, total. Were those marks, in your experience and opinion, from a single incident, or more than one? Some scars were older than others, suggesting at least two whippings. In your experience and opinion, what would be the nature and severity of such injury, when fresh, upon the body of an average person? Injuries like that would keep a person from being able to move, or bend, or wear much clothes, without a lot of pain for many days. They would require salve and cleaning, to avoid infection, and likely the person would have limited movement of the back and shoulders for several weeks. In your experience and opinion, what kind of stroke, what sort of effort, would go into the making of scars of this severity? Likely a grown adult with a helluva a strong arm and a mean temper. Would the person be able to stand still voluntarily, to endure such a beating? No, sir. They wouldn't be able to stand the hurt, after the first whack, and would do anything to get away from it. So the person would have to be physically restrained, in order to receive such a beating?

Objection, Lightfoot popped up, the counselor is hypothesizing, for heaven's sake. The objection was sustained, and the case moved on.

Lightfoot moved in like a coyote on an easy lunch. Mr. Jackson. You are a healer in this town, are you not? Yes, sir, I am. And you've practiced here for some time? Yes, sir, over two years. You perform an admirable service for your community. Thank you, sir. Tell me, Mr. Jackson, what medical school did you attend? None, sir. College? Formal education? I have none, sir. Then from whence comes this . . . this uncommon medical expertise? Did you make it up? No, sir. It comes from near ten years of practice, sir. It comes from piecing folks together and reading every book I could lay hands on, and from talking to every doctor, healer or medical person I ever met. Ahh, I see. A self-taught physician. What a remarkable idea!

Ezra stood then, a sheaf of papers in his hand. "And it please the court, Your Honor, the credentials of Nathan Jackson are not at issue, here. I have here numerous affidavits from citizens, all testifying to Mr. Jackson's capabilities." Peeling them off one at a time to slap on his table, he enumerated crisp summaries of their contents. "Broken leg. Gunshot wound. Childbirth. Childbirth. Broken ribs. Pneumonia. Amputation of three crushed toes. Concussion. Childbirth. Sawmill accident, fourteen stitches. Sir, I have a full two dozen of these, not to mention the numerous times he has practiced upon the persons of our own peacekeepers. Must I go on?"

He need not. Lightfoot changed tack. Mr. Jackson, amongst all your resume, I fail to see where you are an expert on old, aged scars. I was a slave, sir. I carry those scars. I doctored the whippin's of others. I reckon I know what I'm talking about. Lightfoot realized then that he had strayed badly, and chose to let this witness step down. An old whipping did not change the facts of cold-blooded murder. Last, Sam McLachlan, late known as Sary Ann Yarbrough, was called to the witness stand.

Ezra squeezed her hand gently as she rose, but her knees swam and her head threatened to float off her shoulders. She and Ezra had gone over every detail, every eventuality, every tactic or strategy the gambler's active mind could think of. They had practiced and repeated until she felt like an actor in some macabre play. This morning Ezra had pronounced Sam ready . . . and yet her quaking legs barely carried her to the witness stand. A pair of baggy trousers appeared in her line of sight, as she took her seat, and it was JD, holding an old Bible before her. She found strength, then, in the warm encouragement shining from his eyes.

"Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?"

The effort to speak felt like swallowing a whole peach, fuzz and all, yet she managed to reply, "I do.

Ezra smiled as he strolled to the front of the room, a lazy, graceful expression that included her, the jury, even Attorney Lightfoot. It spoke not at all of the sheer terror clawing within him. On his tongue, in the sagacity of his own mind, lay the fate of this poor, frightened girl. It was a weight that dizzied him, staggered him, yet he could not falter. Little did anyone know that he also drew comfort from others, from Vin's quiet stare, Nathan's and Josiah's confident gazes, Buck's grinning nod, Chris's faint smile of approval. Even from JD, who watched him with the blithe certainty that Ezra Standish never lost a game. Times like these, a man gave serious thought to praying.

"Good afternoon, Mrs. Yarbrough."

For formality's sake, he used her married name. Nervously, Sam nodded in reply, managed a sickly smile.

"Tell us, my dear, how you came to this town. What brought you so far from your home?"

They had rehearsed at such length on this, Sam was not all sure if this was truly court, or the theater Judge Travis had warned against. Certainly so much coaching and pre-court role-playing did not seem entirely appropriate. Yet Ezra insisted that this was how it was done. However, right now all that studying seemed to fly right out of her swimming head.

"Why, a stage coach brought me, of course."

The chorus of laughter rippled around the room, and mortification flamed in Sam's cheeks. Ezra only chuckled, however, and the icebreaker seemed to have done no harm.

"Wise choice, my dear," Ezra replied dryly. "Take it from me, horseback travel is vastly overrated. Now, can you explain why you chose to come West?"

Now they were back on track. Gathering herself carefully, Sam stepped into the role they had so carefully planned.

"I wanted to leave my husband."

"Could you not have done so . . . less drastically? Move back to your parents or kinfolks?"

"I ain't got nobody. All my folks are dead. And Mr. Yarbrough would have followed me, anyhow."

"What about divorce? I know that is a distasteful business, but if the union was so unsatisfactory . . . ?"

Sam shook her head vehemently. "I tried, once. The only lawyer thereabouts was a friend to the Yarbrough's. He told me to go on home. And anyhow, I didn't have enough of my own money."

"So you felt the only choice was to run away? Why not simply move to another town?"

"I tried that, too. He fetched me back."

"Well, is that not an indication of his affection for you? That he wished for the two of you to be happy together?"

"I reckon. Only he beat the livin' tar out of me, quick as he got me to the hotel."

A rumble of surprise rolled around the room, and Ezra restrained a smile. Taking a turn to face the jury, he addressed his client.

"But surely this was an extreme incident. The frantic overreaction of a desperate husband, I'm sure. He thought he had lost you, and gave in momentarily to baser instincts. Undoubtedly he was terribly sorry for this lapse, was he not?"

"I reckon. He was always sorry. Every time he hit me, he come back sorry."

Brow furrowing in feigned puzzlement, Ezra asked, "Every time? This could not have been a frequent thing, was it?"

"Well, not really. Once a month, I'd say. Seems that way, anyhow. If I was careful, I could get around him hittin' me, sometimes. But other times, well, he broke bad, if I weren't careful."

"Broke bad? What do you mean by that?"

"Oh, he had him a wrothy temper. He'd hit on me with his whole fist."

"In what manner?"

"Knock me down. Loosen my teeth. He'd try not to hit my face though, it seemed. Reckon he didn't like lookin' at me with no black eyes."

"Mr. Jackson tells me that you bear scars upon your back. Can you tell us about those?"

"Well, Mr. Yarbrough took a whip to me, a couple times."

"Good lord! Whatever would drive a man to do that, to his wife? Did you steal something? Were you unfaithful?"

"No, nothin' like that. First time was on account of a cat."

"A cat."

"Yes, sir. I found me this lil' cat and I brought her home. Mr. Yarbrough don't like cats, though, and he found her on the bed. He got all mad about hair and fleas and such. He fetched her up by the tail and flung her round and out the front door. She was just a little cat, weren't half-growed." It was a powerful lot of talking, suddenly, and Sam drew a deep breath.

"I hollered and grabbed hold of him, grabbed his arm, like. And I reckon I slapped at his face. He didn't take none to that, at all."

"What was his reaction?"

"Oh, he went straight up. He grabbed holt of me and throwed me around a bit, and then he drug me out to the barn. He took and tied me on a wagon wheel, and ripped down the back of my dress, and then he fetched out the buggy whip."

"And he hit you?"

"Oh, yeah. Three, four times, at least. I don't rightly recall, as it hurt so all-fired much after the first one."

"Didn't you ask him to stop? Didn't you plead that you were sorry?"

"I don't rightly recall. I reckon I carried on a good deal. He was right het up that I'd got so uppity, though."

Shaking his head as if baffled, Ezra said, "How terrible. Why, the man must have been horrified at the depth of his own anger. This . . . this was the only time, was it not?"

"No, sir. He done it again, about six months later."

"Why, whatever for?"

"I broke the wheel barrow."

"Beg pardon?"

"I broke the wheel barrow. It tipped over with a load of firewood, and busted the wheel. He said I was lazy and done it a-purpose, and I told him the danged ol' thing was about to go, anyhow. He told me to watch my mouth, and then I throwed a rag at him." Sam sighed at distant memory. "He drug me off to the barn, just like before."

"Sam, did you ever see a doctor?"

"No, I never saw a doctor since I was a young 'un."

"Not even to care for the . . . for the injuries to your back?"

"No, sir."

"Then who tended you?"

"Mr. Yarbrough did, the first time."

"And the second time?"

"I had to do it myself. I figured a way to put the salve on a rag on a stick, and wrap bandages on, and such. He said I needed a lesson . . . "

Grim-faced now, Ezra let her words sink into the humming stillness. The room rustled with hidden movement, slow breathing, a man's short cough. She could not know it, but the manner of her speaking was even better than Ezra had hoped. He saw it in their eyes, the mute horror, the numb disbelief. Here sat a small, demure slip of a girl, young enough to be a daughter to half the men in the room, and yet in chillingly matter-of-fact tones she told of unspeakably casual brutality.

"Tell me, Sam." And now she braced for his steady look, for the question that would follow. "What did Lewis Yarbrough say to you, when he spoke to you on the night of his death?"

The breath came tightly in her throat, the memory of his face before her, his voice, his presence like a black dream come to life. She would die there, she had felt sure.

Barely above a whisper she said, "He promised he would break both my legs to keep me from runnin' off again. And he'd see me dead afore I ever got another chance to try."

"Did you believe him?"

"Oh, yes, sir. I reckoned killin' me was the only thing he hadn't done, yet."

"' He'd see you dead." Ezra snapped around in a crisp about-face. "This, gentlemen of the jury, is the loving husband who came so far, seeking his wayward bride. This is the tender persuasion he uses, to woo her back into his arms. Your Honor, I have no further questions at this time."


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