Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/An accommodating judge


Throughout the western and south-western portions of the United States the inhabitants possess certain peculiar characteristics, which, in all ages and in almost every country, have marked those living midway between savage and civilised life. This is more particularly the case with the hunters and trappers who follow their calling in the Far West, as it is termed; and whose virtues and whose vices alike are not those of the “dwellers in cities.” In them personal courage and endurance, fidelity to their word, and a certain rude simplicity of character are frequently found in conjunction with a total disregard for those laws by which society, in more settled communities, provides for its own security. Their code of morality is, in fact, their own: and, occasionally, as will be seen by the following narrative, may lead a man, who obeys its dictates, into the perpetration of a great crime, for the purpose of avoiding the commission of what, in comparison, might be termed a venial error.

About eight years ago I had occasion to travel through several of the Southern States, for the purpose of collecting various debts due to a large Boston dry-goods house, of which I was one of the clerks. While in Texas, I stopped one evening at a small town, called Jackson, near the Mexican frontier, and put up, for the night, at the only hotel the place could boast. I had just seated myself at supper, when the door opened, and a tall, strongly-built man entered the room. He was clothed in the usual hunter’s costume, viz., a tight-fitting buckskin hunting-shirt, with leggings and moccasins of the same material. A belt of undressed deerskin, buckled round his waist, supported a heavy Colt’s revolver on one side, while on the other was suspended a leather sheath, containing a bowie-knife of formidable dimensions. He placed the rifle he carried in his hand against the wall, and then proceeded to take off the belts which hung over his brawny shoulders, sustaining his shot-pouch and powder-horn, which were curiously wrought, and evidently the work of some Mexican artist. Having thus relieved himself, the stranger drew a stool up to the fire, and placing his muscular hands on his thighs, seemed to peer with his keen eyes into the crackling fire, which roared up the chimney.

As he had not saluted me when he entered, as is usual in that section of the country, I took no further notice of him; for I presumed his want of success in hunting had put him in an ill humour, and it was not improbable that if he discovered my gaze fixed pertinaciously upon him he might be disposed to fasten a quarrel upon me. I therefore directed my attention exclusively to the meal before me, but the knife and fork almost fell from my hands as his stentorian voice struck upon my ear; and, in spite of myself, a slight tremor stole through me as I heard the awful tone in which he spoke the last word.

“Landlord, give me some liquor—I have money!

The landlord glanced at his guest, and hesitated for a moment, but the stranger raised his eyes; the effect was magical; in an instant a well-filled whisky-bottle and a tin tumbler were placed beside him.

“Landlord, hang that on the rifle; but stop, give me the knife first.”

And he handed the waistbelt, pistol, and scabbard to the host, whilst he thrust the knife in the bosom of his hunting-shirt. As the innkeeper was obeying the bidding of his strange visitor, the latter poured the tumbler full of whisky, and tossed it off at a draught.

“Landlord,” he said again, I want something to eat—I’ve money for that too.”

There was a deep tone in his voice, as he uttered these words, that disturbed me strangely.

An additional plate was placed on the table, and the stranger seated himself opposite to me. He had a fine face-a careless independence in it which I liked; but the courteous manner in which he said: “I hope I ain’t one too many here, stranger,” excited my surprise. I assured him that his company was agreeable to me rather than otherwise, as I disliked eating alone.

“Enough said,” answered he, “there’s my fist,” and we shook hands across the table.

His appetite was in proportion to his bulk, and we scarcely spoke again until after supper, when he commenced a conversation, from which I discovered him to be a man of unusual natural ability, although rough and uncultivated.

During our dialogue, I evidently made a favourable impression upon him, and, in return for my courtesy, he recounted many deer, wolf, and bear hunts, with such power that I was delighted. The conversation, however, after a time flagged, and I fell into a train of musing on the business which had led me to that part of the country. A gloom gradually settled over the face of my companion, from which, when I observed it, I endeavoured in vain to rouse him. He answered me courteously, to be sure, but very abruptly; and every now and then he had recourse to the bottle, until it was emptied.

“Landlord, fetch me more liquor,” he called out authoritatively; and he drank more and more, till finally he fell from his stool; and, as I retired to bed in an adjoining room, I heard his snoring ring through the inn.

Being much fatigued, having travelled forty; miles on horseback during the day, I slept until I felt a hand grasping my arm—opening my eyes, I saw the sun shining through the window, and my companion of the previous evening standing beside me.

“Stranger,” said he, “excuse me, but I saw last night that you was a whole-souled fellow, and I want you to go with me.”

“Where to?” I asked.

“The justice’s,” he replied.

“What for?”

“I’ve got something on my mind—it must out—I tried liquor last night, but couldn’t keep it down. I ain’t a drinking man, no how, and I feel like a dog. Come along with me and be my friend.”

There was a bold frankness in his manner that I could not withstand. I accordingly rose and dressed myself, and we walked, together, to the house of the justice, who lived about half-a-mile from the hotel. He sent down word to us that he would be up in a couple of hours.

“But tell him,” said my acquaintance, to the servant, “I want to see him on a matter of life and death.”

“Da’s no use o’ dat,” grinned the slave, “massa don’t care ’bout life and death till he get him sleep out.”

We left the house, but John Rolfe, as my companion called himself, made no further allusion to the nature of his business than to say, in answer to my inquiries, “When we see the judge you’ll know all.”

“Is returned to breakfast, and I observed that Rolfe refused the morning dram proffered him by the landlord, and ate sparingly. Something was evidently preying on his mind, and I anxiously awaited the hour when I should receive an explanation of the mystery.

The time came, and we were admitted into the presence of the dispenser of justice, who was a gentleman of wealth and education, rotund in person, and apparently on excellent terms with himself and the world.

“Well,” said the judge, “what’s the matter?”

“Why, you see,” replied Rolfe, “three days ago I came down the river to Madison to sell my furs and skins. I made a pretty good trade, but that very night I lost my whole pile at poker. I was dead broke, and hadn’t is confounded cent left. Well, the next morning, early, I started for this place, and, as I wouldn’t chisel, I went without eating the whole day. I slept in the woods, and yesterday morning I got up as hungry as a painter,[1] and as I walked along thinks I, what am I to do? I never see game so scarce; there warn’t so much as a squirrel to be found. I’m above cheating any man out of a dinner, but I felt that a dinner I must have. Just then a fellow comes riding along the road. I talked to him, and tried to borrow, swearing to pay, at any place he might name, in a week; but the critter told me he paid his way out of his own pocket, and he’d too little to divide.

‘How much have you got?’ says I.

‘Two-fifty,’ says he.

‘Now,’ thinks I, ‘that is too little to divide.’ So while he was looking another way, I shoots him through the head, and gin him as decent burial as I could under an old log, and took the two dollars and a half. But it won’t do; my conscience misgives me. I’m sorry for it, and wish the feller had his money back if he could only be alive. But, between you and I, as it’s too late for that, I think I ought to be hung.”

The judge called his black boy, ordered three pipes and tobacco, and we smoked in silence.

“Then you really think you ought to be hung,” he said, with some compassion, as he whiffed a cloud of smoke towards the ceiling.

“I do, in fact,” answered Rolfe, emitting a similar volume of vapour.

The judge smoked, and considered again.

“Well, we’ll try to hang you,” he added.

There was gratitude in Rolfe’s eye, as he replied:

“Thank you, that’ll ease my conscience.”

The judge knocked the ashes from his pipe and. spoke:

“Well, come here in half an hour. I’ll try to get a jury.”

Rolfe and myself, laying our pipes on the table, were about leaving, when the judge asked us to take a drink, which having done, we bade him good morning.

At the expiration of the half hour we returned, when we found twelve men smoking and drinking with the magistrate, awaiting us. We were politely requested to sit down.

“Now,” said Judge J——, addressing himself to Rolfe, “tell these gentlemen what you have already told me.”

Whereupon Rolfe repeated the statement he had before made. “Now, gentlemen,” continued the first speaker, “I wish you to say if this gentleman—Mr. Rolfe, your name is, eh? well, there’s some fine old brandy, make yourself perfectly at home—whether, gentlemen, you find John Rolfe guilty, or not guilty, of murder. In addition to what he has said, I will observe, for your information, that I have sent out, and have found the body just where he stated it to be.”

The jury smoked, rose up, took a little brandy-and-water, and then sat down again, and smoked in silence for some time. At last, one of them, who appeared to be the foreman, said:

“The case is tolerably clear, and we rather think he’s guilty.”

“There’s more tobacco on the table,” said the judge to Rolfe, “the best you can find anywhere—you’ve heard what these gentlemen have said—well,” he continued, a little uneasily, “I don’t like to tell you in my own house; but—”

“Let that be no hindrance,” replied Rolfe, refilling and lighting his pipe.

“Well, then,” said the judge, “come here at twelve o’clock to-morrow, and I’ll have you hung.”

Rolfe looked disconcerted, and appeared mortified at the idea of asking a favour.

“You—you have been so kind to me,” said he, “that I hardly like to ask you for anything more.”

“Not at all,” replied the judge, “out with it; you are welcome to it before you ask.”

“Well,” said Rolfe, “I wish—to-morrow is my ague day, and the shakes comes on at eleven—if you would be so good as to hang me at ten.”

“With the greatest pleasure,” answered the good-hearted judge, shaking Rolfe by the hand, “ten let it be.”

Accordingly, John Rolfe returned to the inn—paid up his bill—and the next morning was hung as the clock struck ten.

W. C. M.

  1. This word is in common use, throughout the West, for panther.