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Elmer Kelton, voted "The Greatest Western Writer of All Time" by the Western Writers of America, is a legend in the field of Western literature. Famous for his realistic characters and accurate depictions of the history of his home state of Texas, Elmer Kelton continues to write exceptional novels of American history.
In Hanging Judge, Justin Moffitt is eager to help keep the peace as a deputy marshal in small-town Texas. That is, until Justin is assigned to the wrong marshal-a "hanging judge" who is as famous for his ruthlessness as he is for his commitment to justice. When Justin's boss hangs a controversial criminal, Justin must defend himself against an army of friends and relatives, desperate for revenge.
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Elmer Kelton (1926-2009) was the award-winning author of more than forty novels, including The Time It Never Rained, Other Men's Horses, Texas Standoff and Hard Trail to Follow. He grew up on a ranch near Crane, Texas, and earned a journalism degree from the University of Texas. His first novel, Hot Iron, was published in 1956. Among his awards have been seven Spurs from Western Writers of America and four Western Heritage awards from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. His novel The Good Old Boys was made into a television film starring Tommy Lee Jones. In addition to his novels, Kelton worked as an agricultural journalist for 42 years, and served in the infantry in World War II. He died in 2009.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Hanging day always drew a crowd to Fort Smith.
Sam Dark had often pondered--without finding answers--the macabre side of human nature that made people travel long miles to watch a man die. If it weren’t his job, hewouldn’t be here. But he was a federal deputy marshal, assigned to keep watch on the people till the trap was sprung, to be on the lookout for any rescue effort or other disturbance. If he had been inclined to gauge crowds with a showman’s eye, he would have said Barney Tankard was not a strong draw. Far larger crowds had fathered here on other occasions. barney Tankard was just one man. The biggest crowds came to witness Judge Isaac parker’s spectacular multiple hangings, when they could see several men drop into Eternity together. Barney Tankard was not even a notable criminal. He was simply a farmer’s son who had shot a friend in a drunken quarrel over a half bottle of contraband whiskey. Folks said it was the Indian half of him that made him unable to hold his liquor and the white half that made him pull the trigger. He wasn’t basically a bad man, just the wrong man to get drunk.
Sam Dark had been the officer dispatched across the Arkansas River into Indian Territory to fetch Barney for trial. Barney hadn’t been wolf enough to get away, for he had never gone afoul enough to get away, for him had been easy. This was the hard part, to stand here now watching the grim preparations on Judge Parker’s big white-painted gallows.
Somebody was hawking lemonade at the edge of the milling crowd, catching his dollar wherever it might chance to fall. Dark angered, for it seemed to him a man ought to be allowed some dignity in which to die. Damn it, this wasn’t a horse race or a summer picnic. He heard a child shout boisterously and another answer. He glanced around without patience, wanting to send them on their way. Buttons like that...they ought to be in school instead of out here waiting to see a man choke to death at the end of a rope...but this was hard country and these were harsh times...violence so common it was expected like the ague...temptation at every fork in the road. Lots of people figured that to see a hanging was part of a boy’s proper education, an object lesson in what happens when one allows his feet to stray from the paths of righteousness and into the devious byways of iniquity. This was a thing to make a boy pause and tremble when tempted by an urge to steal a neighbor’s ear-corn or to sneak a ride on somebody’s mule, the first fateful steps on the well-marked road to the gallows.
Dark surveyed the crowd and found among them a lot of good people--farmers, business, riverfolk--and wondered what the hell they were doing here. A scattering of Indians watched placidly, people come over from beyond Arkansas to see a brother pay for breaking white man’s law. If the crime had not been perpetrated against a white man Barney Tankard could have stood trial in tribal courts, for being half Cherokee qualified him as Indian. But it would have made no difference in the final outcome; even the tribal councils decreed death sentences for murder. An Indian convicted in tribal court might be given time to go home and straighten out his affairs, but the end was inevitable. It was a point of honor that upon the appointed day he would appear on his own volition before the council to meet his death like a man, in strength and in dignity. For Barney Tankard there was to be no dignity.
Dark saw cluster of crib girls, gathered from down on the river, and a couple of them were weeping. He doubted they had ever seen Barney Tankard before. Perceiving little sympathy anywhere else, Dark was glad Barney received at least this much.
The lank, bearded hangman, George Maledon, guided the leg-ironed barney Tankard onto the double-hinged trap door, and a hush fell over the crowd. Barney glanced up involuntarily at the rope that Maledon had earlier tested with sandbags to be sure it wouldn’t kink. In his hands Maledon held the little black bag that would go over Tankard’s head. He waited now for the end of the ritual, for the condemned man to speak his last words.
Dark had seen men pray in their final moments. He had heard others caution the onlookers to beware of mistakes that might lead them up these same fatal steps. He remembered a couple who had gone to Eternity cursing.
Given his chance, Barney Tankard stood in silence, a trembling young man still bewildered by a chain of events whose cause he could but dimly recall. He kept his feet only by great effort. His gaze searched the crowd until it found Sam Dark. Dark felt the despair in the dark Indian eyes and wanted to turn away but could not. Tankard summoned some inner strength to have his short say, and he looked straight at Dark as he said it. “What I done was wrong, that I know. But I’ve prayed, and I’m easy with the Lord. I didn’t get here by myself. Them that sold me the whiskey, them that chained me and brought me to this place--they’re as bad in their way as I am in mine. I wonder if they are easy with the Lord.”
Seeing Barney was through the stern Maledon fitted the noose and the black cap. Methodically he reached for the lever.
Dark jerked his head away and shut his eyes. He had watched the first time; he had never made that mistake again. He flinched at the slam of the heavy doors and the sharp gasp from the crowd packed around him.
God, he thought, what a wretched way for a man to die!
When he looked again it was not toward the gallows, He knew nothing had gone wrong there. George Maledon was a precision craftsman who took satisfaction in a job well down. Dark turned to the ugly red brick courthouse, toward the high windows of Judge Parker’s chambers. He could see the dim, portly figure of a man standing in the shadows, watching to see that the sentence was duly carried out as he had pronounced it in that austere courtroom. In a moment the figure disappeared.
Gone to pray now in solitude, Dark knew. But whose soul does he pray for? Barney’s? His own? Or maybe for mine and for the rest of us who’ve got a dirty job to do?
Dark was particular not to look toward the gallows again. Though he turned away he could still see in his mind the accusing black eyes of Barney Tankard. There wouldn’t be any sleep for Sam Dark tonight, not unless he drank himself to it.
The crib girls were walking away now, couple of them weeping as if Barney were kin. Every man ought to have somebody weep for him, even if it’s just a girl from down on the river.
The crowd was breaking up, though many people still stared at the grim white gallows as if hypnotized by the image of Death. There wouldn’t be any trouble now; he could go. He pushed his way among the people, wanting away from here.
At the edge of the crowd he heard a youthful voice call: “Mister Dark! Could I talk to you a minute, Mister Dark?”
He didn’t look around. “Talk to me tomorrow.”
“I’d like to talk to you now.”
“Boy, can’t you see...” Dark turned half angrily, looking for whomever had spoken. He saw a man a little past twenty--fresh-eyed, smooth-faced but sun-browned, wearing a floppy farmer hat and a loose-fitting homespun shirt probably made for somebody else. Sharply Dark said, “I got a right smart on my right now, button. I don’t feel like talkin’ to nobody. Hunt me up another time.”
“I come a long ways.”
“You shouldn’t of. Right now I just want me a good stiff drink. By myself.”
The young man went silent. But as Dark proceeded away from the courthouse toward the gin mills on Garrison Avenue, he sensed the lad was following him. Dark turned abruptly. “Are you kin of Barney Tankard?”
“Kin of somebody else I’ve brought in for the judge?”
“Then what’s your grudge?”
“I got no grudge, sir.”
“If it ain’t a grudge, then I wish you’d leave me the hell alone!”
Dark resumed his walk, pushing his walk, on through the crowd. Acquaintances hailed him, but he passed them by. He fixed his gaze stonily on a certain saloon and tried to see nothing else. But his eye was caught by a heavy freight wagon standing in the street and a big man checking the trace chains. Dark stiffened at sight of him, and he rubbed a rough hand across his face.
The big man raised up. His mouth smiled but his eyes were hard. “Howdy, Sam Dark. Good hangin’.”
Dark’s fists knotted. “I don’t expect Barney Tankard enjoyed it much.” “You don’t need to look at me thataway. I didn’t even know the boy.”
“But you got his money in your pocket, Harvey Oates. And I expect now you’re gettin’ ready to go back across into the Territory and peddle some more of the same bad whiskey to other Indian boys who got no tolerance for it.” Harvey Oates kept his sham of a smile. “You want to look in my wagon? You’ve done in before and you’ve never yet found a drop of whiskey.”
“Someday I will. I’ll drag you to the judge, Harvey.”
“You’ll never find what ain’t there. I’m just an honest freighter, that’s all. I take the necessities of life to the poor folks out yonder in the wilderness that can’t come and fetch it for theirselves.” He dropped the smiles. “You’re a sad case, Sam Dark. You’ve got to taking’ your job too personal, and that’s a dangerous thing. You’re just supposed to bring them in; you’re not supposed to worry about them.”
“Most of them I don’tworry about, Harvey. And when I bring youin I’l...
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