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Judge Benson by T.J. Spears

© T.J. Spears

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* denotes italics

*Another episode in Nat Hopper's journey west with Eva Jelinek, Murch and Jessa. Jessa has escaped from her bigamous 'marriage' to Orvid Throop. Now Orvid has tracked the party to their camp outside Carson City and abducted Jessa while the men were absent. We join the story when Nat returns to camp to find Eva in great distress..*

Right away it was clear that something awful bad had happened. Eva was alone and mighty distressed, wandering around the camp in a sort of daze. I saw she had her little pistol clutched in her hand.

"Orvid was here. He took Jessa!"

I caught her arm.

"Be still! Tell me what happened."

"He has a rifle. He's carrying her off on the V. and T. To Reno. He said if Murch cared to do anything about it they'd be waiting at the depot until the six o’ clock train left."


"He wasn't here. He was just gone when Orvid walked in.”

“But where’s Murch now?”

“He took his pistol and lit out for the depot on Peg when he got back from town. I didn’t know what to do. I stayed here to wait for you."

I fetched my own weapon and together we hurried across town towards. On the way we ran into a bunch of townsfolk on their way back from the rail yard. One of them hollered out, “If you’re going to the depot the fun is all over. They’ve got the body and the killer at the marshal’s office.”

“My God, we’re too late,” said Eva.”

“He said ‘the body’. Maybe Jessa is still alive.” I took her hand, and we hastened back into town to join the excited crowd gathered outside the marshal's office. I forced my way through and grabbed a youth who was fighting for a place at the office window and hauled him round. "What's going on?"

"Lay off my arm, mister, you're hurtin' me!
"What's happened?"

"There's a man been murdered at the V. and T. depot. Marshal's got the killer and a woman that saw it happen. They’re still in there." He wriggled free. "Take my place if you want, mister. You can't see nothin' here anyways. But go down to the depot and you'll see plenty blood where he was gunned down. Wish't I'd been there when they was shootin'.

Right then Marshal's door opened, and a heavy set man wearing a star and with his hand resting on a holstered fancy pistol came out and called to the crowd.

"Is Sam here from the Daily Appeal?"

A young fellow with a clip of pencils in his waistcoat pocket and carrying a notebook pushed through the crowd.
"You can come in, Sam, and I'll let you have the story as far as we know it." He held up a hand, and when the crowd had mostly stopped their chattering, he said. "I have just arrested a man involved in a fatal shooting. That's what you good citizens elected me to do, uphold the law in Carson City, and that’s just what I’ve done today. There ain't nothing more to say at this point, except if anyone is acquainted with the deceased I need you stay here and help identify the body. Rest of you folks can get on about your business knowing that Marshall Hirvin will always put himself on the line to keep the peace in your town. Remember that when you fill in your voting paper in October."

The crowd began to move away, most of them towards the saloons.

"You don't have to see him, Eva. I'll do it."

Eva shook her head, "I'll come in with you anyway. I'll need to take care of Jessa when they're done talking to her." She began to weep at last. "Poor girl, what will happen to her now? They had such fine plans for a life together."

Inside the marshal was talking to the reporter at his desk. His old deputy came up to us. "Relatives of the deceased?"

"Friends. We travel with him."

"You acquaint with the lady who was present at the shooting?"

"She travels with us too."

"Don't need you both to make the identification. Never a pleasant task. Best that the lady here attends on the young woman who witnessed the killing. She's mighty upset. Through this way please."

Eva nodded and went with him into another room. In a moment he was back. "You follow me, sir." The deputy lit a lantern and led me down stone steps to the basement. "Body’s in the basement. It was brought up here for the Doc to check over. He'll go down to the city morgue now that the crowds moved away.” He sniffed. “ Ain't no place for a corpse down here in summer. Close friend was he?"

I nodded.

"Damn shame! Seems everyone's packing a firearm now. Used to be a fall out with a fellow, the only outcome was bloody nose, a shiner or two, shake hands and finish up drunk together in the saloon. Now it's a pine box and a six foot lot on the Lone Mount cemetery."

We went into what seemed to be a store-room. The body lay covered by a blanket on an old door placed between two trestles. Flies lifted from the covering as we approached. "Now we got a chest wound here, and a lot of blood from the mouth but otherwise ain't much damage.” The deputy took hold of the blanket and paused. “Some of the cadavers we've had in here would turn your stomach, I could tell you. But no, no, this one's fine. You ready, sir?"

He drew back the blanket and exposed the gray face.

"Now, sir," The old deputy wagged his forefinger. "Ain't fitting or Christian to laugh. Poor fella was someone's son. Maybe someone's father. I believe you should show more respect, sir."

"That ain't, Murch! That's Orvid."

"Not your friend, sir?"

"It's someone else I know. But the other man involved? What's happened to him?"

"Don't believe he's hurt, but the marshal's holding him. Now if you could just tell me what you know of this here cadaver, name, next of kin, we can get wound up down here."

When I got back to the main office Eva and Jessa were sitting on a bench waiting for me.

Eva stood up and spoke quietly. "She's shocked and beaten about the face but the Doc says nothing's broken. Marshal says I can take her back to the hotel."

“It’s Orvid that’s dead.”

“I know. Thank God! Jessa saw it all. She told me.”


"I didn't see him. They've got him in a cell."

"I'll come to the hotel after I talk to the marshal."

I waited while the marshal was finishing up with the reporter. "You got all that down in your book, Sam? Now you be sure to write in the paper that the marshal's quick actions made sure there wasn't ever any danger to the citizens of Carson."

The reporter nodded. He scribbled another line or two down in his notebook. "How about this: Swift Action by Marshal Hirvin Halts Rail Depot Bloodbath."

"Not bad, Sam. Front page, eh?"

The reporter grinned closed his notebook and left. The marshal waved me to a chair in front of his desk.
"Relation of deceased?"

"No. I just knew him. Told your deputy all he wanted to know."

"You ain't planning to leave town?"

"Was, but I ain't now."

"Needn't keep you then. Do we know where to find you?"

I told him where we were camped. Then I said, "Why are you holding Murch? He ain't a killer."

"Wasn't this morning perhaps. As of this afternoon he is. I got witnesses saying he shot and killed that fella lying cold and stiff in the basement. Until I hear different he's a killer, and I have to hold him in custody." He jerked his thumb at the Stars and Stripes pinned up behind his desk. "Nevada's been a state near ten years now so we got courts just like you fine folk have back east"

"So what will happen to Murch?"

"State will hold him to wait his turn with the circuit judge. Got a right to an attorney, but he might have to wait longer for something as fancy as that."

"So how long could it be?"

"Judge and his regular attorney came in yesterday."

He ran a nail bitten finger along his desk calendar. "They got a case starting Wednesday. Finish that one and he's off back to Elko and start the circuit again. Could be back here in six weeks or so."

"Murch could be six weeks in jail?"

"Maybe longer."

"Let him go, Marshal. I swear we won't skip town. We'll still be here when the judge comes back."

"Can't do it, son. He disappears so does my job. I got appointed in by just seventy votes. Them seventy citizens change their minds in October I'll be tallying lumber at the sawmill again. No, sir, I aim to keep this star."

"Ain't a man got a right to self-defense in Nevada? Did you talk to his wife. She saw what happened?"

"Don't you go telling me my job, son. The woman's a witness sure. First question: is she of sound mind? Second question: which man is she married to? I got a witness said he heard the deceased referring to the woman as his wife. I'd prefer a judge took the responsibility of sorting out that particular confusion. Murchison walks free when I get a written order."

"There's nothing we can do?"

He chewed on a thumb nail. "You can talk to Judge Benson, if he'll see you. Maybe get him tried in Reno if that would be quicker. Can't see it happening though. Now if you ain't got nothin' more to say I'd like to shut up shop here. Murchison's horse is tied up out front. Take him with you."

Back at Ash Creek I moved the pickets to let the horses on to fresh grass and laced up the tent with our saddles and bags inside. A smart Conostoga wagon with a decent looking migrant family had pulled in quite close. When I spoke to them, the husband said they planned to rest there a few days before moving on. I gave him a brief account of our troubles, and he agreed to watch our horses and tent while I went to Eva’s hotel in town.

The lobby clerk fetched Eva down and we went into the dining room to talk.

"How's Jessa?"

"Shocked and sore. Her face is beat about and she doesn't want to leave the room."

I told her what the marshal had said about holding Murch for trial.

"That's crazy. It was self-defense."

"He wants to cut a fine figure in town, Eva. His election's coming due. The only thing we can do is talk to the judge tomorrow and see if he has more grit than the lawman. You get Jessa into shape for it and I’ll come back for you both in the morning." Since there wasn’t nothing else to be done I went back to Ash Creek and spent a pretty lonesome and worriesome night.

It took a bit of coaxing to get Jessa out of the hotel next morning, but with a silk bandanna hiding her bruised cheek and split lips, she consented to walk with us to the courthouse.

"Mrs. Jessa Murchison here to see Judge Benson," said Eva, very haughty to the usher who stopped us in the wide hallway.

"You got an appointment,I presume, ma'am?"

"I believe the judge will see us. He is responsible for the law being applied fairly and in Carson City, and that doesn't seem to be happening right now." She reached across and gently removed the scarf from Jessa's head.

The usher averted his eyes. "Wait here." In a moment he returned and showed us into an airy room. Light streamed from high windows on to a long oak table where two men were sorting through the piles of documents heaped around them.

"I’m Judge Benson, make it quick," The older man spoke gruffly without looking up and waved his hand at the paper strewn over the table. "I got plenty work already to do here."

There was a faint sigh at my side and Jessa swayed towards me.

The clerk said, "That woman is going to faint." Indeed I had just managed to catch Jessa as she sank towards the floor.

"Get her a chair, man," said Benson. I pulled a chair from the table and helped Jessa into it, and the clerk hurried over with a glass of water.

Judge Benson removed his small round glasses and his sharp blue eyes peered across the table at Jessa. "Miss, if you have a problem with your man beating you, the right thing to do is tell the marshal."

Eva stepped up to the table. "The problem is the marshal. The man who beat her is dead. The marshal wants to put this poor girl’s husband on trial for killing him, though anyone with an ounce of sense would see it was self-defense."

Judge Benson nodded. "The V.and T. depot shooting? I had a glance at the story this morning in the Daily Appeal. The marshal seems to have acted swiftly to stop the mayhem according to that report. I take it this here lady is the poor soul that has lost her wits and now finds herself a widow?"

"That might be the Appeal's story but it ain't the truth." Between us Eva and I told him what had really happened.

"So let me get this straight. You’re here to get me to tell the marshal to let Murchison go? Well I can't do that. Let’s have another look at the rag." The clerk passed him a copy of the Daily Appeal. He read through the front page, all the while running his hand through his untidy white hair. In a minute he said, "If Murchison's case goes to trial, and there are witnesses to support your account, it's almost certain he'd be found not guilty. Time and money wasted."

He pushed away the newspaper. "Tell you what I can do.” He pulled at his chin thoughtfully. “If you can get that girl fit enough to tell her story by four this afternoon, I'll set up a brief hearing to decide if there's a case to answer." He turned to his clerk. "We need to get an instruction to the marshal to round up the main witnesses to the incident and get them assembled in this room at four this afternoon.” The clerk wrote in his notebook. “Now, folks, that's the best I can do for you. You help that girl back to where she's staying and rest her up good. Return here at four sharp." He was back buried among his papers before we even reached the door.

Jessa was still in a lot of pain when we returned to the courthouse that afternoon, but she was determined to give her account of what had happened to her. The towers of documents had been cleared from the table and notepads and pens set out neatly where I guessed the judge and his clerk would sit. A line of chairs had been drawn up facing the table, and on another row of chairs some way back, sat half a dozen men. They made room for us civil enough, and we sat down. On the stroke of four the marshal came in with Murch, handcuffed, very pale and shaken, and set him on a chair near the table. He turned and half smiled at Jessa for a moment. Then we all sat waiting very quietly until the door banged open again, and Benson and his clerk bustled in. There was a clatter and crashing of overturning chairs as we stood up, most of us not quite certain of the right thing to do in a courtroom. The judge waved us down into our seats again and took his own place. By and by the creaking of chair legs and shuffling boots hushed, and he looked over his eyeglasses at us.

"All present and settled? Now then I'll explain what we're doing here. This is a preliminary hearing to determine whether this man-" He squinted at his notes, "this man-"

"Kenneth," from Jessa quietly.

"- whether this man Kenneth Murchison needs to stand trial for the killing of one Orvid Throop. Remember this ain't a trial, and you all ain't going to be put on oath. But my clerk here is going to record what you say down here in writing, and if it comes to a trial later on and you say something different,well, I will want to know why. That's a friendly warning. We aim to bring out the truth here. You all understand?” He peered over his glasses, and one or two of us coughed a little nervously. He went on, “What we are looking for here is a true account of what you believe you saw, never mind what someone else told you, or what you read in the newspaper this morning." He took his glasses off and stared round the room. "Have I made myself perfectly clear?"

I found myself nodding along with most of the witnesses.

"Now I aim to get this story told in a chronological manner. That is to say, the things that happened first we will deal with first. To do that the events will be described first by those who were involved earliest in the affair. That's the principle we'll try to stick to. Now I understand from Marshal Hirvin’s notes - " he glanced down at a page torn from what could have been a school copybook. "- Orvid Throop first appeared at the Ash Creek camp where this young woman, Jessa, whose married name has not yet been established, and her companion, Miss Eva Jelinek, were both present. Let's hear your story. Yes, yes you can both come out together." He waved them to two chairs and sat back.

Eva nodded to Jessa, "You begin, Jessa."

"I was packing the stores we'd bought earlier that morning when Orvid came into camp."

The judge cupped an ear and leaned towards her, "Speak up a bit, Miss Jessa."

"Orvid came into camp. He had told Nat Hopper sitting over there that he was going to come after me so I kind of expected it someday.”

“What did Throop say to you?”

“He didn’t say nothin’. First I knew of him being there was when he hit me. He must have crept up behind me for I didn't know he was there until he fetched me a blow that knocked me down."

"That being the cause of your split lips?"

"No, sir, Your Honor, that was at the depot."

"We'll come to that later. Go on."

"I was layin’ on the ground confused and my head spinning and all. Then he put a leather belt on my wrists and hauled me up."

The judge nodded to his clerk who fetched a leather belt from a side table.

"This being the belt?"

Jessa nodded.

"Show me how he fastened it."

She took it and made a loop. "He'd made an extra hole here right close to the buckle so it would fit tight round both my wrists."

"Let's see your wrists, young lady."

Jessa pushed back her sleeves and held her arms out. Judge Benson said, "Let the record show witness' wrists much bruised and grazed." He turned back to Jessa. "And what happened next?"

"Eva had come out of the tent, but then Orvid put the rifle on her."

"Tell us what you saw, Miss Jelinek?"

Eva spoke up very clear. "I didn’t see him strike the blow that felled Jessa. I just heard her cry out on account of I was in the tent taking off a dress I'd bought in Carson. It took me a few seconds to put clothes on after I heard Orvid’s voice and Jessa screaming. When I ran out of the tent he had the belt on her wrists and was dragging her away. "

"What happened when got out of the tent.”

“He pointed the rifle at me.”

“Did he say anything?"

"Told me to back off. It wasn't any of my business and he was taking Jessa back to Utah. He said if Murch, that is Kenneth Murchison, wanted to do anything about it, he'd be waiting for him at the depot until the Reno train pulled out. Jessa was struggling and crying.”

“When you saw the rifle what did you do?”

“I went back into the tent for my pistol but he’d hauled her a good ways off by the time I found it, got it capped, and come back out."

"Did you go after them?"

"I was too afraid. I didn't think a man with a rifle would be stopped by my little derringer. I thought to go up to the marshal's office and tell him what was going on. Our men weren’t around and I couldn’t think straight right away. Just then Murch came back from the farrier’s leading his horse.”

“Murchison didn’t see the young woman being led off?”

“No, Your Honor. The farrier’s in the other direction.”

“Carry on, Miss Jelinek.”

“I told Murch what happened, and he fetched his pistol and galloped off to the rail depot. He didn't even wait to put on his saddle."

“And then?”

“I waited at the camp till Nat Hopper came back, and then we went up to the marshal’s office. I thought Murch might get himself killed.”

"We'll hear from Mr. Murchison later." Judge Benson consulted the Marshal's report and then addressed the row of witnesses. "Who was it spoke to the deceased on his way to the depot?"

A man stood up and gave his name.

"Come up to the table. What did you see?"

"Just like the lady said. A big man limping along, seemed in a lot of pain from his legs. He was carrying a Winchester and hauling that there girl on a leash. Everyone with any sense was getting out of his way and crossing to the other side of the street."

"But you told the marshal you spoke to him?"

"Didn’t speak up close. I called out, ‘That's a mighty cruel way to treat a female’."

"And his reply?"

"Said his wife had lost her mind and he was taking her back to her folks. She was most awful distressed."

"Did you believe him?"

"Seemed more like he was the one lost his mind, but I wasn't a goin' to gainsay a man with a Winchester and that crazy look in his eye."

"You can sit down, sir. Now, Marshal, you have witnesses from the depot?"

"Freight manager, Your Honor, and ticket clerk."

“Who saw Throop first?”

“Ticket clerk, Judge.”

"We'll hear him first then."

A skinny youth went up to the table.

"What can you tell us about the incident, son?"

"First time I saw the man that got killed, he was coming off the afternoon train from Reno. I noticed him because he walked kinda awkward like his knees didn't bend good. Didn't have no bags, just a leather rifle case. He went up towards Ash Canyon.”
“Slow down, son. Mr.Dixon here needs to get it all down in his book. You got caught up yet, Cyrus?”
The clerk looked up and nodded.

“Go on, son. And don’t be gabbling so.”

“About half past five, maybe, here the man comes back towing the lady there. There's a sort of iron pillar holds up the canopy in front of my ticket window. Well, she was crying some and she hooked her arm round the pillar and wasn't for moving any further. Then he banged her on the face with his fist until she let go."

"Did you hear him say anything?"

"No sir, I slammed that ticket window shut pretty damn smart. I wasn't going to have nothin' to do with a family matter. Nossir!”

“So what happened next, son?”

“I stayed hunkered down in the office. I didn’t see the actual shooting. Heard the shots though. Sven saw it all, him being closer.”

"Thank you, son. You can sit down. We’ll hear from the freight manager now."

A broad shouldered man went forward, tripping over his neighbors' legs on the way. He stood before the judge with his railway cap crushed in his large fist.

"And you, sir, you are the freight manager?"

"Correct, Your Honor, that's what they call me, but I do most everything needs done round the depot. 'Cept selling tickets. Albert does that."

"Where were you when the man and the woman appeared?"

"Checking the lumber flatcars. I was haulin' down on the chains that holds the sawn boards on the flatcars. I seen them first when he was hauling her down the track-side. I hollered after them that they couldn't go down to that part of the depot till the passenger car was coupled on, being as it ain't safe to have the general public mixing with moving cars.”

The clerk’s pen was scratching along at a good clip, but it was clear he was falling behind in getting the account down on paper. He held up his hand. The witness paused for a moment. When he got the nod to continue he started again.

“Well the man didn't take no more notice of me than if I was a fly on a dog turd, and he just carried on hauling that girl along. Right then the passenger car comes rolling down the yard, just like it’s supposed to, and bangs hard on to the end of the flatcars. Now my job is to go down there to drop in the couplin’ pin, but when I seen the way he was waving that Winchester around, I said to myself, "Sven Lokken, the V. and T. don't pay you enough to keep the peace on their rolling stock, nor in the yard neither. They've got railroad bulls for that kind of work. So I ducked in behind a load of lumber and kept my head down. Passenger car wasn't going nowhere anyway without someone put the coupling pin in.”

Another pause to allow the clerk to catch up. When he looked up and nodded Sven took a breath and lit out on his tale again.

“Then the accused, him there chained on to Toot Hirvin, came tearing up and slid off his horse. Didn't tie the horse up or nothin'. Well, everybody knows you can't have a horse running around a rail yard but there was so much may-hell goin' on that a loose horse was the least of my troubles.”

The judge sat forward. “Mr Lokken, can we please concentrate on the actions of the three people involved in the shooting?”

“Yessir. Well, the diseased was about to climb up into the passenger car when he saw Murchison running along the track-side. That's when he started firing the Winchester. Didn't hit him though because he was firing so wild with the woman struggling and screaming, slugs going everywhere."

"Let's get this clear. He was still holding the woman on the belt so he must have been firing one handed? I understand you need both hands to operate a Winchester."

"That's could be so, Your Honor, I ain't no firearms expert. The diseased had the belt gripped in his teeth so he could use both hands to cock and chamber the rounds, and that's how he done it. Well, the accused kept on running up towards them with his pistol, ducking between cars whenever the diseased drew another bead and fired. He got within thirty yards of the passenger car, God knows how he wasn't hit. Then the woman gives an almighty lunge and gets free and starts to run towards Murchison. The diseased got the rifle up for another shot and he was taking aim - "

"Aiming at whom? The woman or Murchison?"

"Couldn't rightly say. They was all in a line on account of she was running towards the accused and screaming fit to wake the dead. Then the accused stepped to one side and fired his pistol. The ball knocked the diseased over backward and that was the end of the shootin'."

The judge spoke to the room in general. "The clerk will strike all instances of the word 'accused' from the record. If Mr. Murchison goes on trial only then he will become the 'accused'. Today the hearing will refer to him as Mr. Murchison. What happened next, sir? Just briefly, if you please."

"The acc- Murchison and the girl just clung on to each other, not saying nothing. I went to have a look at the diseased only he wasn't quite diseased at that point but twitchin' a bit. And then he gave a sort of groan and kicked his legs, and his eyes rolled back and that was him gone. I took Murchison and the girl up to the ticket office, roused out the boy from under the telegraph table and sent him to fetch Toot - I mean Marshal Hirvin. Then I catched the loose horse and tied him to a rail where he wouldn't do no harm. Now that train was an hour late in getting away because of the shootin’ which don't look good for the Carson depot, so I wrote a note for the supervisor in Reno, and the engineer and me both signed it on account of the delay warn't our fault."

"Thank you, Mr. Lokken. Now, Marshal, just stay seated there with Mr. Murchison and give an account of your part in the incident."

"I was in the office doing paperwork when the rail depot clerk came running up saying there’s shooting going on over at the depot. I went down there right away. Murchison and the woman were in the railroad office. I took that cap and ball revolver off him and put him under arrest. The weapon is layin' there on the table. Four chambers still loaded. Murchison shot Throop twice, perhaps once again after the man was down."

I stood up. "Your Honor?"

Judge Benson frowned at me. "What is it?"

"Murch never loaded the chamber right under the hammer. He was nervous around guns. I told him if he did that it couldn't fire by accident."

"That the case, Mr. Murchison?" He looked over at Murch. "Let the record show that Mr. Murchison nodded. Now we got up to where you disarmed Mr. Murchison. Did he offer any resistance."

"No, Your Honor."

"Did he say anything?"

"He told me he'd shot the man that was layin' down by the tracks. I handcuffed him to a railing and went to look at the corpse."

"Did he give any explanation for what had happened?"

"Didn't ask for one. I reckoned he could save his story for the court."

"You examined the body. Describe what you saw."

"The man was lying on his back. Those Walker slugs do a lot of damage. You could put your fist into the wound in his chest so he would have died pretty quick. First I thought he'd been shot in the mouth as well because his gums were damaged but it was just some teeth had been torn out. There was a Winchester and a lot of shell cases scattered around beside the body.”

The clerk went to the small table and held up a rifle.

"That one?"

"That'd be it, judge. And there was a man's leather belt beside the track with teeth stuck deep in it."

The clerk laid the belt on the table. The judge looked it at it and pushed it aside. "Teeth still embedded in it. These would be from the corpse's jaw, presumably."

"I guess so."

“So then you took the young man to the jail.”

“Yes, Your Honor, collected names of witnesses and wrote up my report.” He took a sheet of paper from his waist coat and set it in front of the judge.

Judge Benson ignored it and turned so he faced Murch. "Mr. Murchison, let's hear your story."

Murch sat up straight and spoke out quietly but clear enough. "I was at the blacksmith getting a horse shoed. When I got back to our camp Eva said Orvid Throop had come to take Jessa back. Eva said he’d beaten her cruelly and had set off dragging her to the rail depot.”

“You armed yourself and rode after them.”

“Yes, I took that pistol.”

“With the intention of using it against Throop?”

“With the intention of recovering my wife. Eva told me Throop was armed with a rifle.”

“Tell me what happened at the depot?”

“I saw them by the passenger car. Orvid was trying to push Jessa up into it. When he saw me he began shooting. Then Jessa broke free and began running towards me. That’s when I fired the pistol.”

“The shot that killed him?”

“It was. I shot him once only but it proved to be fatal.” He hung his head now and spoke very low. “May God forgive me for not finding a more peaceful way to resolve the situation."

The judge rested his chin in his hand and gazed at the light streaming through the high windows. The clerk’s pen scratching along the paper was the only sound for perhaps a minute.

Then Benson lowered his eyeglasses and set his shrewd blue eyes on Murch. "You say Throop wanted her back. Had she been married to the deceased?"

Murch twisted round and looked at Jessa for a second. From where I sat I could not see her response. Marshal Hirvin tugged at the handcuff chain so Murch was hauled around to face the judge.

“I ain’t fond of repeating my questions. Was the young woman the wife of the deceased?”

"Orvid Throop believed that she was married to him under the Mormon custom," said Murch.

He turned to Jessa and spoke in a considerably softer voice than he’d been using up to that point.

"Jessa, do you accept that you were married to Orvid Throop?"

"The Elders of the church sealed me to him, but I don't have no government paper."

"So you would be considered his common law wife. Ain't that so?"

Jessa looked confused and did not answer.

“We’ll assume that you were his common law wife, Jessa,” said the judge kindly enough. ”If you don’t have a paper from a state official that’s what we lawyers call it.”

Eva raised her hand.

"Yes, Miss Jelinek?"

"Your honor, how many common law wives can a man have?"

"No man is entitled to more than one wife before the law, common or legally papered."

"Then Throop's first woman was his common law wife, Your Honor. Jessa was the third woman he took up with so he had no claim on her under United States law." She held up a document. "This is a Nevada marriage license, witnessed by me and Nat Hopper here, saying she is the legal wife of Mr. Murchison."

"Pass it up." He studied it for a second and handed it to the clerk. He turned back to Jessa.

"That right? Throop had two other women?"

"Yes, Your Honor."

"And he sealed himself, or whatever you call it, to these women before he took up with you?"

"Yes, sir, he did."

"In that case you never were Throop's wife under any United States law." Judge Benson got up and took a seat nearer his clerk. For maybe five minutes they spoke quietly together, sometimes scratching down a note or two. Finally he moved back to his seat at the center of the table.

"This maybe ain't the way law gets done back east if any of you folks just arrived out here in the west were finding it strange. Fact is, there's a lot of killings out here and too few judges to deal with them quickly. I believe there ain't no sense in running expensive trials just to show off how civilized we're all getting to be, particularly when the outcome would be pretty obvious if those whose responsibility it is to sort out the facts before it gets to a court do their job right." He didn't look over at the marshal but I did, and the back of his neck was glowing red.

“Now as far as I can see the Nevada license shows that you, Jessa, are married to Mr. Murchison. It further appears that Orvid Throop was killed when attempting a violent abduction. Any trial based on the evidence we heard here this afternoon would have to conclude that it was an act of excusable homicide under the law. That being the case I rule that there will be no further action against Kenneth Murchison.”

There was a general stirring in the room as the witnesses prepared to leave. But Judge Benson wasn’t quite done. “I ain’t dismissed you witnesses yet so remain seated until I do. Now Marshal Hirvin, I will give you a written directive to release Mr. Murchison forthwith, and a full copy of my report if you feel you need it. I further order the immediate simple burial of Orvid Throop at public expense, the whereabouts of his nearest kin to be ascertained from Mrs. Murchison here, and a copy of my report forwarded to his nearest and dearest, together with a bill for funeral expenses to reimburse Carson City."

The marshal unlocked Murch who went straight up to the table with Jessa and thanked the judge. I picked up Murch's old Walker pistol from the table and checked the chambers. Sure enough one was slick with clean oil and the one next to it was fouled with some powder stain. I didn’t think Murch would be in a hurry to see it soon but I reckoned I’d clean it and keep it safe until he’d have need of it again. I put it in my coat pocket, and we all went back to the Ash Creek camp mighty relieved, but none of us feeling much like conversation.

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