La Corrido del Coyote

G. M. Atwater


Attorney James Lightfoot came out with all guns blazing, just as Ezra had warned. The mark of the man's cleverness, however, was that he did not immediately set himself up as a bully. After her performance, he could not risk that. Far from it, he approached with smiles and soft recrimination.

Surely, he said, there was one town, one attorney, who could have settled Mrs. Yarbrough's distress in a satisfactory manner? No, sir. The only town in a day's walk was Boone Station, and I done told you what happened with that feller. Well, then, don't stage lines run, in Tennessee? Was there not one, single soul in all the state, to whom she could appeal? She didn't know about the whole state, only those parts she could get to. And there was just a limit on how far she could walk, afore someone saw her and Lew came to fetch her. Why didn't she tell anyone of his abuse? Had she no friends, no sympathetic ear in all the neighborhood? Sure, she did. They was other wives that was right nice to her, and they all allowed how it was a darned shame. But wasn't none of them ladies attorneys. Laughter rippled briefly, quickly silenced. What of the pastor of their church? Lew didn't see the need for church, unless they was a marryin' or a buryin'. What of her former guardian, John Frame? Had he not dealt fairly with her, during the time of her stay with him? Yes, sir, he did. But he didn't want to hear about Cousin Lew. He just allowed as Sam was a bit too spirited, and she needed to get a little age and learn more of how to be a proper wife.

Like a man chipping at a brick wall, Lightfoot kept nipping, kept poking, kept boring in. He soon saw that he could not breach her reasons for fleeing, and so he turned to the tactic she dreaded most, the manner of her flight.

"Is it not true that you stole out in the dead of night, that you donned men's apparel, and lived among men freely?"

"Well, I - that's not quite what -."

"Is it not true that, in your travels, you so denied your sex as to permit men to curse, to drink, to behave in a course and unseemly manner, in your presence, and you did not remove yourself from them?"

"I - I don't know."

"Is it not true, that by your favors, you gained assistance in your travels ~ monetary assistance?"

"No!" Her outrage flamed hot, no matter Ezra's warnings, no matter her careful preparation. No, she only used her own money, she hardly ever talked to anybody, she didn't make any friends, she kept to herself. She was alone, always alone.

"Was it not true -." Now James Lightfoot rose to towering crescendo, a hand raised as if to wrest judgement from the heavens, themselves. "That you fled that good man, your husband, because he would not allow you to resume the loose and reckless ways of your youth? Because he forbade you to any more dress and behave as a vulgar, impetuous child? That he sought only to govern your wild temperament to that of a responsible and respectable wife -."

"Objection!" Ezra's voice rose in outrage, even as the man spoke. "Objection, Your Honor!"

"- While you refused to be tamed, refused to submit to the man whom God's own law cleaved unto you? A virtuous woman is a crown to her husband, but she that maketh ashamed is as rottenness in his bones!"

"My God, he is badgering the witness, sir!"

And the cool voice of Justice replied, "Sustained. You will confine yourself to a proper line of questioning, Mr. Lightfoot."

Last, with a smile and a purr, Lightfoot homed in for the kill.

"Is it not true, Mrs. Yarbrough, that you feared your husband, not for his temper, but for the loss of your own wanton freedom? Is it not true that you have lied to us, to this jury, about your reasons for coming West?"

"No, no, I ain't lyin'!"

"Is it not true, Mrs. Yarbrough, that upon your husband's arrival here, your greatest fear was that he would entice you to return home, and that you would rather see him dead, than give in to your own conscience?"

"No . . . "

"Did you not arm yourself, forthwith upon seeing his arrival here, with the cold and premeditated intent of ending that good man's life?"

"No . . . "

"Did you not, Mrs. Yarbrough, just lie to us, to this jury, about his treatment of you, fabricating lurid and impossible tales of cruelty, simply to justify your own, cold-blooded murder of the man who loved you?"

Sam's head spun in a grey fog, her stomach rising and churning, and the walls seemed to contract rhythmically around her. No. No. Her own voice sounded tiny as a babe's and her anger rose up like a swelling bubble. No. No!


The word ripped from her chest into clapping silence, and she saw them all, the staring white faces like a sea of pale, fleshy moons. The pulse hammered in her ears, and she only dimly heard Judge Travis's dry instruction;

"Please sit down, Mrs. Yarbrough."

She did not. With all her heart and will, Sam spoke and let her voice rattle the panes in the windows and the chimneys on the lanterns.

"I ain't lyin', damn your sorry eyes! I ain't lyin' about Lew Yarbrough, and I ain't told ye the half of it! Did I say how he branded my arms like a hog, so's I'd know better than to run off from him? Did I say how put his fists in my belly, 'cause I couldn't give him a baby? Did I tell ye what he told me, just before I shot him?"

Strong hands grasped her, then, JD's earnest voice pleading, "Please, Miss, please," whilst Judge Travis's gavel battered like a sledgehammer. Through a shaking haze she heard the Judge's harsh warning.

"Madam, if you do not restrain yourself, I shall have you gagged. Do you understand?"

The silence ticked and buzzed. A clock at the back of the room, an unflustered fly bouncing against a window.

"Yes, sir."

"One more tantrum like that, and you will be found in contempt of court."

"Yes, sir." Then a deep breath. "Your honor?"

Hard eyes peered over the steel spectacles at her. "Yes?"

"May I please say one thing? May I say the last thing Lew Yarbrough ever said to me?"

The judge's gaze was wary, measuring. She could not blame him, felt her outburst as burning cotton in the back of her throat, a stuffiness in her chest.

"If you can make it short, quiet, and to the point. Am I clear?"

"Yes, sir."

JD's hand still touched her shoulder, a light, nervous contact, and she wished she had not put the young man in such an awkward position. Ezra stood expressionless before the table, and she wondered how badly she had messed things up. However, if she could say this one thing, if she could give shape to that black, bottomless instant of horror . . . perhaps someone would understand.

"He said . . . " She took a long, clean breath, poising the knife against her own soul. "My husband stood there and he touched me, and then he said, If you don't come with me right now, I'm gonna fetch you, and I am gonna use you 'til the blood runs out both ends. And then they'd find what's left of me dead in a hog pen."

+ + + + + + +

JD had not spoken in two hours. That had to be some sort of record, but no one was keeping track. Beside him, Buck sat slowly snapping a pencil into small, one-inch pieces. Inez brought two more glasses, as Josiah and Chris joined the silent group at their corner table. Buck had already made a good start on the bottle. Larabee poured a healthy dollop into his glass, then Josiah's.

"Vin down at the jail?" Nathan asked.

Chris nodded, tossed back his drink with a quick snap of his head, then poured another. "Yup. Ezra's still with her, too."

"That . . . son . . . of . . . a . . . bitch."

It took a second for them to realize that grating whisper had come from JD. A second more to realize he was damning a dead man. Buck absently patted his young friend's sleeve, with the hand not full of mutilated pencil, then pushed his own drink towards him. JD sipped it, grimaced, then downed the whole thing. He coughed once, and handed the empty glass back.

"I think we'd better double the guard on the jail tonight, and 'til the jury is done with deliberations." Chris eyed their stiff faces. "We just saw those three Yarbroughs standing out there with John Frame, and they didn't look none too happy."

"Let 'em come," said JD, tight-voiced from the whiskey's burn.

"Just tell me what shift you want me to take," said Buck, and pushed his pencil fragments off onto the floor.

"I wouldn't mind smiting a few hips and thighs," said Josiah thoughtfully.

Nathan said nothing, but seemed intent on extricating microscopic things from under his nails, with the tip of his sharpest knife.

Chris almost smiled, with again that hint of pending broken objects. He had nothing against the Yarbroughs, except that they shared an exceptionally bad name. But John Frame, now . . .

"Let's make a show of force."

Buck grinned, then, for the first time since court commenced that morning. "Oh, I love it when you say that."

John Frame saw them coming, could hardly miss, even in the clamping chill of twilight. Five men walking down the main street, all coat tails and guns and hard eyes on him. He glanced back at his three Yarbrough cousins, still lounging on the hotel porch, and felt better as the men drew closer.

"Howdy, Mr. Frame," said the blond leader, Larabee, with a bright smile.

Somehow cheer from that man stood a body's neck hairs straight up. However, Frame was not about to let his reaction show.

"Evenin', Mr. Larabee. Quite a day in court, eh?"

"Oh, it surely was." Larabee aimed that grin from street level up to the hotel porch. "Bet you all got quite an earful."

The Yarbroughs said nothing, staring like a brace of hawks. John Frame chuckled.

"Yes, your mouthpiece coached that little bitch well." The tall, mustached man in the back stiffened, but then was still. Frame continued, "It's up in the air now, isn't it? Will the jury buy the hysterics of an unstable female, or the reasonin' of the law? But it doesn't really matter, you know. Blood answers to blood, and Lew Yarbrough's wife will come to her reckonin'."

"She'll get what the law says she'll get," Larabee replied flatly.

"And if the law fails . . . " John Frame tucked his thumbs behind his lapels and smiled. "Well, boy, she can't hide behind your skirts, forever. Murder is still murder. Where we come from, we take care of our own."

"Uh-huh." Larabee's hat dipped in a slight nod. He moved forward to place one foot on the bottom step, leaning towards Frame as his voice dropped to a silken growl. "But you ain't in Tennessee now, mister. You take one step outside the laws of this town, you even lay a hand on that jailhouse door, you so much as touch one hair of that girl's head . . . " The smile returned once more. "And I'll hand you your beatin' heart."

"You're mighty brave, with all your chums at your back."

"Hell, mister, I ain't brave. I just plain don't give a damn." Larabee stepped back, touched a finger to his hat brim. "You boys have a nice night."

As the others moved away, the tall man, Wilmington, stepped up to Larabee's place, onto that bottom step. "I ever tell you," he said pleasantly. "That I really hate a Tennessee accent? Just listenin' to you talk makes my jaws hurt so bad, I get a headache."


"Comin'!" Wilmington flashed a huge grin and stepped down. "Oh, and your fly's open."

No trouble came that night. No verdict came the next day. The jury argued, pondered, debated, and deliberated. They thought of cold-blooded murder and thought of their wives, and sent out for more coffee and sandwiches. People gathered to speculate, and the Chronicle sold more issues that day than it had in the previous two weeks. Everyone wanted to read the published court transcripts, including passing travelers.

Sam spent much time with Josiah, listening while he read from the Book of Psalms. However fleeting, his deep, warm voice seemed a shield, against shadows and fear and leaning adobe bricks. JD brought pie that was still warm from an unknown oven. Vin for a while sat on his heels outside the cell, a statue in a buckskin coat. Once Sam thought she heard him muttering something, but it did not appear to be in any language she had ever heard. Buck brought smiles and lame stories, and finally a lunch that no one but he could choke down. Ezra at last went home for a shave, a bath and sleep, after Nathan threatened to drug the next consumable item to pass the gambler's lips. Chris meanwhile kept the rest of the Seven in motion, always someone visible on the streets and at the jail. Theirs was a calm and assured presence, which told the town that their peacekeepers had the lid firmly on everything. Darkness finally fell, and the jury retired to their hotel rooms, still divided.

At three o'clock in the morning, the cell two doors down from Sam's exploded.

+ + + + + + +

Sam would never remember hearing a thing, just a white-red explosion of massive pressure, and then she lay flat on the hard floor, head ringing. Her chest felt tight, her limbs buzzing as if with a thousand, half-numb pinpricks. All she could see was whirling grey-black, and she tasted sulphuric fumes in the back of her throat. What . . . ?

A voice? Distant, tinny. Light now, bobbing in the roiling smoke. There was motion around her, more remote voices. Then hands reached down, and the pressure left her chest. Who? Josiah, and Larabee. Strong arms scooped under her, lifting giddily. Her head fell on someone's shoulder, black linen.

Then she remembered, the young man who had sat out in the office chair. "JD? JD!"

A faraway voice replied, "He's all right. Got his bell rung pretty good, but he's fine. You hush, and let us get you up to Nathan's."

Jerking motion and swaying, until someone else steered her dangling legs through a lighted doorway. Up and up and at last, softness and stillness. Dark face, large, concerned brown eyes looking down. Nathan.

"Yeah, I'm here. Hold still, girl."

Voices still so far away, with all that ringing stuffing her ears. One voice she recognized as Chris, muffled in some distant place. Angry, shouting. Orders, it sounded like, mingled with the dull thump of feet scrambling to obey. Ezra appeared, one hand touching her cheek, while a Winchester jutted darkly in the other. Then he, too, was gone.

A warm, damp cloth swiped her face in gentle stokes, swabbing powdered grit from eyes and lips and ears. Next a silhouette appeared over Nathan's shoulder, no hat, dark hair spiked wildly over wide-arched eyebrows and a worried stare. Looked like a dirty broom.

Sam laughed then, weakly. "JD," she said, and her reward was the grin that swept over the young man's face. Then Nathan shooed him back to a nearby chair, and she wondered - finally, a coherent thought! - if JD was hurt worse than anyone had said. Wondered, until she saw another Winchester laid across his lap. A second thought emerged from the humming fog. They were watching. The magic of their strength held. She was safe. And so Sam McLachlan slept

+ + + + + + +

Once Sam had snuck into a jug of moonshine, which Papa had taken in trade. It had gone down like liquid razor blades, but she wanted to know what the big hurrah was about the stuff. The giddy feeling of good will and weightlessness was wonderful, and Papa laughed long and loud, when he found out. He had laughed even harder, at Sam's hangover the next morning. Sam felt an awful lot like that, this morning. Thick, buzzing head, dizzy, ears full of cotton.

Inez soon appeared in the healer's clinic, to scold and cluck and make sure Sam was cleaned up pretty for court. Along with the big-sistering, Sam was awfully sure she picked up a few new Spanish swear words. Most of all, though, Sam was just grateful for a hand to hold. Especially when those of the seven peacekeepers were so definitely full of guns.

Vin lay somewhere on a rooftop, a rifle to his shoulder, and sharp eyes on windows, alleys and shadows. The others did not stand watch, so much as they menaced, their heavily-armed presence a clear warning to the unseen assassin of last night; make a move, and you die. The reek of powder smoke still clung to the jail as Sam's escort passed, appearing strangely untouched from the front, but with a new door blown where a back window used to be. No one needed to tell her how very lucky she had been. Had that window been in her own cell, or even the one directly next to hers . . . Gosh, the sky was just the bluest blue, this morning.

John Frame and his three bearded crows sat behind James Lightfoot, as before. None of the Yarbroughs looked at her, although John Frame seemed to amuse himself by casting venomous looks at Ezra. For his part, Standish stared back until lightly drawing a finger across his own throat. And smiled, without it ever touching his eyes.

JD again stood as bailiff, apparently none the worse for wear, although his bowler hat looked a trifle used. He made no bones about staring daggers at the entire prosecuting faction.

Then the jury filed in, silent and stern, and Sam's heart slammed against her ribs. Ezra's hand on her wrist almost sent her straight out of her seat, but then his clasp tightened gently. Formalities and protocol must be observed, the clock ticking, while suspense and apprehension and soul-clutching panic swelled in her guts, like a drowning man's need for air.

At last Judge Travis spoke, with no more inflection than had he asked about the weather.

"Gentlemen of the jury, have you reached a verdict?"

"We have, Your Honor."

"Was it unanimous?"

"Yes, sir."

A sort of sigh gusted around the room, then was still. Someone coughed.

"Mr. Jury Foreman, you may approach the bench."

The man walked forward, and handed the judge a single piece of paper. Then he turned and went back to his seat. Judge Travis adjusted his spectacles, straightened the paper. He read it, cleared his throat.

At last, in brisk tones he said, "Gentlemen of the jury, hearken to your verdict, as it stands recorded. You say that you find the defendant, Sarah Ann Yarbrough, alias Sam McLachlan, NOT guilty of the charge of murder. So say you all?"

The jury foreman's affirmative reply was almost lost, in the explosion of voices that rocked the room. Sam shrank in spite of herself, stunned, as the babble swept over her, crushed her. Somewhere Judge Travis hammered his gavel and shouted for order, and she heard John Frame shouting angrily. The clamor rose and now included scraping chairs, cheering whistles.

BOOM! Silence clapped down around the smoking muzzle of a Colt's revolver, as JD slowly lowered his aim from the ceiling. Gingerly he slanted a look at the judge, met the man's opaque stare. Swallowed. Holstered his pistol.

But Judge Travis only nodded, as if gunfire to restore order were the usual course of things. "Thank you, JD."

Ezra gripped Sam's hand tightly, now, grinning all the way to his gold tooth, but Sam sat numbly. She scarcely heard the rest of the Judge's statement, wondering if the blast of last night had addled her wits. Not guilty?

"Now. As I was saying. Young lady, there remains the matter of escape charges, which, in view of the verdict, no longer hold their former weight. Therefore, it is the decision of this court that you be assigned to one year probation, or until your eighteenth birthday, whichever comes first. In that time, you will be held accountable to an officer of this court, which I will appoint for you, and you will in all things behave in a peaceable, respectable, and law-abiding manner. Do I make myself clear?"

Sam flinched at Ezra's nudge, replied, "Yes, sir."

"Very well. Gentlemen of the jury, I thank you for your services. I know this was not an easy case to try, and you worked long and hard to appease both conscience and the letter of the law. In my opinion, you have done fair and faithful service, and need answer to no man for your judgement. I ask only that you preserve the confidentiality of your deliberations. Thank you, and good day. This court stands adjourned." Then he raised his voice to a new stir of movement. "The rest of you will please remain seated, until the jury has left!"


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