The sky was overcast, threatening rain. A blustery wind whistled across the river and slammed into the ferry landing. The passengers stood huddled at the foot of the gangway.
Clint Brannock waited off to one side. The badge of a deputy U.S. marshal was pinned to his mackinaw and he was leading two horses. With him was a gaunt-faced man whose hands were secured by wrist manacles. The prisoner’s name was Abner Hoxletter.
On the opposite shore stood Fort Smith. The river roughly paralleled the boundary separating Arkansas and Indian Territory. There was no bridge spanning the broad stream and ferryboats were the sole means of conveying freight and passengers from one side to the other. Travelers in either direction had no choice but to await the next ferry.
West of the landing was the Nations. Homeland of the Five Civilized Tribes—Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole—it was so named because they had chosen to follow the white man’s path. Bounded by Texas, Kansas, and Arkansas, the Nations was still a long way from civilized. Deputy marshals operating out of Fort Smith were responsible for enforcing the law west of the river.
Three days past, Clint had taken Hoxletter into custody. A horse thief by trade, Hoxletter was one of many white men who sought refuge in the Nations. The chase had lasted the better part of two weeks, ending in the land of the Cherokees. Wiser than he looked, Hoxletter had prudently offered no resistance. The alternative to arrest and prison was an unmarked grave somewhere in Indian Territory. Dead men were seldom transported back to Fort Smith.
By custom, lawmen and their prisoners were boarded first. After leading their horses up the wide gangway, Clint and Hoxletter moved to the foredeck of the ferry. The other passengers were a mix of tribesmen with business in Fort Smith and white traders returning from the Nations. Once loaded, the gangway was raised and the ferry pulled away from the landing. The crossing was made by a system of towropes working in concert with the swift-running current.
Standing at the bow, Clint watched the approach to Fort Smith. Originally an army post, the town was situated on a sandstone bluff overlooking the juncture of the Arkansas and Poteau rivers. With time, it had become a center of commerce, serving much of Western Arkansas and a good part of Indian Territory. The largest settlement bordering the Nations, it boasted four newspapers, three banks, and thirty saloons. The saloons, in particular, enjoyed a captive trade from transients bound for the great Southwest. By federal law, the sale of firewater was banned throughout the red man’s domain.
From the wharf, Clint and Hoxletter followed Garrison Avenue. The street ran through the center of town, which had all the earmarks of a prosperous frontier community. On the far side of the business district, they approached the garrison of the old army post. Abandoned some years before by the military, the compound was now headquarters for the Federal District Court of Western Arkansas. And the indisputable realm of Judge Isaac Charles Parker—the Hanging Judge.
Clint had served under Judge Parker for the past six years. Unlike many federal marshals, he had chosen not to put away his gun with advancing age. He was now in his late forties, but nonetheless an imposing figure of a man. Tall and sledge-shouldered, he was still lean and tough, with the look of vigorous good health. His sandy hair and his mustache were peppered with gray; yet the force of his pale blue gaze was undiminished by time. Nor had age dimmed his zest for the challenge of the chase. He still hunted men.
Not as sudden as he’d once been, Clint was nevertheless widely feared. Time had slowed his gun hand, but he had learned that speed was a marginal factor in a shootout. What counted most was awareness, that blend of instinct and experience that forewarned violence. A man alerted to danger was able to act rather than react, and therefore gained an edge. At that point it became a matter of deliberation, an instant of cool nerve required for an accurate shot.
Over the last twenty-two years Clint had served as a cavalry scout, an army investigator, and a lawman in various guises. In all that time, he’d been wounded twice by men who valued speed over accuracy. Neither wound was serious and neither stopped him from finishing the job. He was reputed to have killed seventeen men by adhering to a simple but deadly credo. His first shot was the last shot of the fight.
The old military garrison was a grim setting for the work carried out by Judge Parker and the marshals. A bleak two-story building housed the courtroom and offices for the federal prosecutors. As many as ten cases a day were tried, and few men were acquitted. The majority were given stiff sentences—all the law would allow—and quickly transported to federal prisons. Convicted murderers were allowed one last visit with immediate family. Then they were hanged.
Another stone building, formerly the post commissary, was situated across the old parade ground. A low, one-story affair, it was headquarters for the U.S. marshal and his complement of deputies. In the center of the compound, within clear view of both buildings, stood the gallows. Constructed of heavy timbers, it had four trapdoors, each three feet wide and twenty feet long. There was adequate space for twelve men to stand side by side and plunge to oblivion on the instant. The structure was roofed and walled, so that executions could be performed even in bad weather.
Crossing the compound, Clint left the horses hitched outside the main building. He marched Hoxletter down a short flight of steps and halted before a stout door. The prison lockup was located in a dungeonous cellar large enough to accommodate almost a hundred inmates. He lifted a heavy door-knocker and gave it three sharp raps.
A judas hole slid open, then slammed shut. Jack Frazer, the prison warden, unlatched the door. He was brutish in appearance and talked like a man with a bad cold. His nose had been broken several times and a gold tooth gleamed from the center of his mouth. He nodded to Clint.
“Who you got there?”
“Abner Hoxletter,” Clint said. “Charged with horse stealing.”
Frazer grunted coarsely. “Horse thieves always welcome. We got ’em packed eight to a cell.”
While Clint unlocked the manacles, Frazer entered the prisoner’s name in a ledger. Hoxletter was turned over to a guard and they disappeared down a dim corridor. After closing the ledger, Frazer looked up from his desk. His mouth curled in a wolfish grin.
“You’re just in time for the party.”
“How so?” Clint asked.
“Hangin’ day,” Frazer said, chuckling. “We’re fixin’ to lose some of our steady boarders.”
“Anybody I know?”
Frazer ticked off four names. One of them was a man Clint had captured only last month. All were convicted murderers, and their appeals to Judge Parker had been routinely denied. Justice was swift and certain in the Fort Smith court.
“Got the word yesterday,” Frazer said. “The judge ordered the four of ’em to take the drop at once. Guess he figures the more the merrier.”
Clint shrugged. “Sounds like another one of his object lessons. Ought to make a big splash in the newspapers.”
“What the hell!” Frazer crowed. “They don’t call him the Hanging Judge for nothin’.”
From the prison lockup, Clint walked back across the compound. A crowd was gathering before the gallows and he was reminded that most Westerners approved of Judge Parker’s harsh methods. The Eastern press, on the other hand, never missed a chance to slander the jurist. His attitude toward the death sentence was variously termed “barbarous” and “a thing of infamy.”
Appointed to the bench in 1875, Isaac Parker had jurisdiction over Western Arkansas and all of the Nations. A wilderness area which encompassed some 74,000 square miles, it was a haven for cutthroats of every description. To enforce his orders, the judge was assigned two hundred U.S. deputy marshals, and the almost impossible task of policing a land virtually devoid of law. Four months after taking office, he had sentenced six convicted murderers to be hanged simultaneously.
The thud of the gallows trap that day called the attention of all America to Judge Parker. Newspapermen poured into Fort Smith, and a crowd of more than five thousand gathered to witness the executions. The press immediately tagged him the Hanging Judge, and decried the brutality of his methods. In the furor, the purpose of his object lesson was completely lost. Yet the reason he’d hanged six men that day—and went on to hang forty-three more in the next twelve years—lay just across the river.
Gangs of white outlaws made forays into Kansas, Missouri, and Texas, and then retreated into Indian Territory. There they found perhaps the oddest sanctuary in the history of crime. Though each tribe had its own courts and Light Horse Police, their authority extended only to Indian citizens. White men were exempt from all prosecution except that of a federal court. Yet there were no extradition laws governing the Nations; federal marshals had to pursue and capture the wanted men. Curiously enough, the problem was compounded by the Indians themselves.
The red man had little use for the white man’s laws. All too often the Indians connived with the outlaws, offering them asylum. The marshals were looked upon as intruders in the Nations, and the chore of ferreting out fugitives became a murderous task. It was no job for the faint of heart, as evidenced by the toll in lawmen. Over the past twelve years nearly forty federal marshals had been gunned down in Indian Territory.
Once across the compound, Clint entered the old commissary building. Inside the main office, he found John Carroll, the U.S. marshal, seated at a battered rolltop desk. Carroll was a stocky bulldog of a man, with ruddy features and a brushy ginger mustache. He was a political appointee, rather than a veteran lawman, and reported directly to Judge Parker. His principal job was assignment of cases to the deputy marshals.
“Hello there, Clint,” he said, looking up from a stack of papers. “We’d about given you up for lost.”
“Took me longer than I expected. Hoxletter was always one jump ahead.”
“Nothin’ to speak of,” Clint said amiably. “Once I caught him, he came along peaceable. I just dropped him off at the lockup.”
“Good work,” Carroll observed. “All in the nick of time, too.”
“The judge wants to see you.”
Clint pulled out the makings. He creased a rolling paper and sprinkled tobacco into the fold. Stores now carried the new tailor-made cigarettes, but he found them too mild for his tastes. He stuck with the roll-your-owns.
Watching him, Carroll marked again that his eyes were never still. The slightest movement or sound attracted Clint’s attention. His glance was quick but sharp, and even in the midst of rolling a cigarette, he seemed aware of all about him. Carroll often thought it was why he’d survived six years in the Nations. Nothing took him by surprise.
Clint sealed the rolling paper and popped a sulfurhead on his thumbnail. He looked at Carroll over the flare of the match. “The judge say what he wants?”
“Yes and no,” Carroll said with an odd smile. “I suggest you ask him yourself.”
“Let’s just say it’s out of the ordinary. Judge Parker prefers to tell you personally.”
A commotion from the courtyard interrupted them. Clint turned and moved to the window, followed by Carroll. Outside a growing crowd of spectators was gathered before a roped-off area fronting the gallows. A holiday atmosphere seemed to prevail, and an excited murmur swept through the onlookers as the four condemned murderers were marched across the compound. George Maledon, the official executioner, led them up the gallows steps.
Hushed, the spectators watched as he positioned the prisoners on the center trap. Maledon was a slim, stoop-shouldered man with a full beard and close-set eyes. All business, he went about his work with an air of professional detachment. As the death warrants were read, he moved from man to man, slipping a hangman’s noose over their heads. A craftsman of sorts, he prided himself on breaking necks rather than strangling men to death. He was careful to center the knot directly behind the left ear.
A minister began intoning a final prayer. The condemned men stood with their arms strapped to their sides and their ankles tightly bound. Their expressions were strangely resigned and they appeared to be listening intently to the preacher. Maledon once more moved down the line, fitting black hoods over their heads. Then, as the prayer ended, he walked to a wooden lever behind the prisoners. The crowd, morbidly curious, edged closer to the scaffold.
A loud whump suddenly echoed across the courtyard. The four men dropped through the trapdoor and hit the end of the ropes with an abrupt jolt. Their necks snapped in unison, and their heads, crooked at a grotesque angle, flopped over their right shoulders. The spectators, staring bug-eyed at the gallows, seemed to hold their breath. An oppressive silence settled over the compound.
Hanging limp, the dead men swayed gently, the scratchy creak of taut rope somehow deafening in the stillness. One eye on his pocket watch, Maledon finally nodded to the prison physician. Working quickly, the doctor moved from body to body, testing for a heartbeat with his stethoscope. A moment later he pronounced the four men officially dead.
The crowd began drifting away. Clint walked back to the desk and snuffed his cigarette in an ashtray. When he turned around, Carroll was still staring out the window. There was a look of ghoulish fascination on the marshal’s face.
“Anything else?” Clint asked.
“No,” Carroll said quietly. “Nothing else.”
“Guess I’ll go see what the judge wants.”
Carroll merely nodded. Clint stepped into the hallway and moved toward the main door. As he emerged from the building, the bodies were being lowered from the scaffold. Four wooden coffins were positioned beneath the structure and several guards were attending to the dead men. Glancing at them as he went past, he retraced his path across the compound.
Clint marked the date as March 2, 1887. Since signing on as a deputy, it was the third time he’d seen four men hanged at once. In that same six-year period, he had killed seven men by his own hand. Lately he’d come to the conclusion that the threat of death was no deterrent to hardcases and outlaws. Still, there was something to be said for the finality of hanging, and law enforced by the gun. Dead men never again committed murder.
There were times when Clint considered quitting. Elizabeth Brannock, the widow of his eldest brother, still operated the family ranch in New Mexico. In 1881, after his brother had been murdered, he’d taken it upon himself to square the account. Charged with manslaughter, he’d been released on condition that he exile himself for a period of one year. A month later, his reputation untarnished by the incident, he had gone to work for Judge Parker. Had he wished, he could have returned to New Mexico anytime within the past five years.
What kept him from leaving was still another branch of the family. While he was unmarried, Clint nonetheless had a strong sense of duty. His second brother, dead since 1874, had left a widow and two boys. The woman was a full-blood Comanche and continued to live on the reservation in western Indian Territory. Her welfare was of concern to Clint, and he looked upon the boys as his own sons. His work as a marshal allowed him to visit them with some frequency, and the bond had grown closer over the years. For that reason, he had never seriously considered returning to New Mexico.
Earlier today he’d thought to ask for a week off. His last visit to the reservation had been at Christmastime, fully two months past. But now, crossing the compound, his mind turned to other matters. A personal summons from Judge Parker was unusual under any circumstances. All the more so when the reason was shrouded in mystery.
A clerk ushered him into the judge’s chambers. Isaac Parker was in his early fifties, a stout six-footer with a well-trimmed mustache and goatee. He was as demanding of himself as he was the officers of the court and the deputy marshals. He observed no holidays except Christmas and Sundays, and he seldom recessed court before early evening. His docket was restricted almost exclusively to criminal cases.
No jurist had ever been invested with such unlimited power. There was no appeal from his pronouncements, and more men had died on the Fort Smith gallows than anywhere else in America. In a newspaper interview, he had once outlined his views on the death sentence. “People have said that I am a cruel and heartless man. But no one has ever pointed to a single case of undue severity. On the bench, I have ever had but a single aim: Permit no innocent man to be punished; let no guilty man escape.”
Attired in a black cutaway coat and high starched collar, Parker greeted Clint with genuine warmth. Over the years he’d come to admire Clint’s cool judgment and nervy quickness in a tight situation. Of all the deputy marshals, he believed Clint to be the one officer who was more dangerous than the outlaws they hunted. What he had in mind today would require nothing less.
After they were seated, Parker went straight to the point. “I issued orders that no one was to mention it until I’d told you myself. Ernie Wilson was killed last week.”
Clint’s face took on a sudden hard cast. Ernie Wilson was a fellow marshal and perhaps his closest friend. His voice betrayed nothing of what he felt. “Where’d it happen?”
“Cherokee Nation,” Parker said. “Outside the town of Whiteoak.”
“Who killed him?”
The name required no elaboration. Rafe Dixon was a white man, the leader of a band of outlaws. Within the last few months, the gang had robbed a bank in Arkansas, another bank in Kansas, and a railroad express car in southern Missouri. After each holdup, the robbers scattered to the winds and took sanctuary in the Nations. Ernie Wilson had been assigned the job of bringing Dixon to justice.
“Ernie was no greenhorn,” Clint said at length. “Dixon must’ve taken him unawares.”
Parker nodded dourly. “From what I gather, Dixon ambushed him. Wilson was apparently shot in the chest and fell off his horse. Then he was deliberately shot in the head. There were powder burns on his temple.”
“Dirty sonovabitch,” Clint said in a flat monotone. “He executed Ernie, didn’t he?”
“I’m afraid so.”
There was a long beat of silence. Clint seemed turned to stone, his eyes cold and remote. “Ernie deserved better,” he said finally. “That’s no way to die.”
Parker’s expression darkened. When he spoke, there was an undercurrent of rage in his voice. “I intend to make an example of Rafe Dixon. No man murders one of my marshals with impunity.”
“Are you assigning me to the case?”
“Yes,” Parker said without inflection. “However long it takes, I want you to find Dixon.”
“And after I find him—?”
Parker paused as though weighing his words. He looked curiously like a philosopher contemplating some complex abstraction. “Given my choice,” he said, “I would prefer to hang Dixon. On the other hand, if his death were reported in the Nations, justice would be served equally well. Do you take my meaning, Mr. Brannock?”
“Yessir, I do.”
“In that event, I wish you good hunting.”
Clint heaved himself to his feet. He nodded once, then turned and walked to the door. With his hand on the knob, he looked back. “Judge, would you like me to wire you the news?”
“I’d like that very much, Mr. Brannock.”
“Consider it done.”
The door opened and closed. Isaac Parker tilted back in his chair, put his fingertips together. A slight smile played at the corner of his mouth.
He thought Rafe Dixon was as good as dead.