Read CHAPTER XII - IN PLACE OF A REGIMENT of Trail's End , free online book, by George W. Ogden, on ReadCentral.com.

Morgan rode back to town in thoughtful, serious mood after conducting the six desperadoes across the small trickle of the Arkansas River. He was not satisfied with the morning’s adventure, no matter to what extent it reflected credit on his manhood and competency in the public mind of Ascalon. He would have been easier in all conscience and higher in his own esteem if it had not happened at all.

He thought soberly now of getting his trunk over to Conboy’s from the station and changing back into the garb of civilization before meeting that girl again, that wonderful girl, that remarkable woman who could play a tune on him to suit her caprice, he thought, as she would have fingered a violin.

Judge Thayer’s little office, with the white stakes behind it marking off the unsold lots like graves of a giant race, reminded Morgan of his broken engagement to look at the farm. He hitched his horse at the rack running out from one corner of the building, where other horses had stood fighting flies until they had stamped a hollow like a buffalo wallow in the dusty ground.

Judge Thayer got up from the accumulated business on his desk at the sound of Morgan’s step in his door, and came forward with welcome in his beaming face, warmth of friendliness and admiration in every hair of his beard, where the gray twinkled like laughter among the black.

“I asked the governor for a company of militia to put down the disorder and outlawry in this town I didn’t think less than a company could do it,” said the judge.

“Is he sending them?” Morgan inquired with polite interest.

“No, I’m glad to say he refused. He referred me to the sheriff.”

“And the sheriff will act, I suppose?”

“Act?” Judge Thayer repeated, turning the word curiously. “Act!” with all the contempt that could be centered in such a short expression “yes, he’ll act like a forsworn and traitorous coward, the friend to thieves that he’s always been! We don’t need him, we don’t need the governor’s petted, stall-fed militia, when we’ve got one man that’s a regiment in himself!”

The judge must shake hands with Morgan again, and clap him on the shoulder to further express his admiration and the feeling of security his single-handed exploit against the oppressors of Ascalon had brought to the town.

“I and the other officers and directors sat up in the bank four nights, lights out and guns loaded, sweatin’ blood, expecting a raid by that gang. They had this town buffaloed, Morgan. I’m glad you came back here today and showed us the pattern of a real, old-fashioned man.”

“I guess I was lucky,” Morgan said, with modest depreciation of his valor, exceedingly uncomfortable to stand there and hear this loud-spoken praise of a deed he would rather have the public forget.

“Maybe you call it luck where you came from, but we’ve got another name for it here in Ascalon.”

“I’m sorry I couldn’t keep my engagement to look at that farm, Judge Thayer. You must have heard my reason for it.”

“Stilwell told me. It’s a marvel you ever came back at all.”

“If the farm isn’t sold ”

“No,” said the judge hastily, as if to turn him away from the subject. “Come in and sit down there’s a bigger thing than farming on hand for you if you can see your interests in it as I see them, Mr. Morgan. A man’s got to trample down the briars before he makes his bed sometimes, you know come on in out of this cussed sun.

“Morgan, the situation in Ascalon is like this,” Judge Thayer resumed, seated at his desk, Morgan between him and the door in much the same position that Seth Craddock had sat on the day of his arrival not long before; “we’ve got a city marshal that’s bigger than the authority that created him, bigger than anything on earth that ever wore a star. Seth Craddock’s enlarged himself and his authority until he’s become a curse and a scourge to the citizens of this town.”

“I heard something of his doings from Fred Stilwell. Why don’t you fire him?”

“Morgan, I approached him,” said the judge, with an air of injury. “I believe on my soul the old devil spared my life only because I had befriended him in past days. There’s a spark of gratitude in him that the drenching of blood hasn’t put out. If it had been anybody else he’d have shot him dead.”

Hm-m-m-m!” said Morgan, grunting his sympathy, eyes on the floor.

“Morgan, that fellow’s killed eight men in as many days! He’s got a regular program a man a day.”

“It looks like something ought to be done to stop him.”

“The old devil’s shrewd, he’s had legal counsel from no less illustrious source than the county attorney, who’s so crooked he couldn’t lie on the side of a hill without rollin’ down it like a hoop. Seth knows he fills an elective office, he’s beyond the power of mayor and council to remove. The only way he can be ousted is by proceedings in court, which he could wear along till his term expired. We can’t fire him, Morgan. He’ll go on till he depopulates this town!”

“It’s a remarkable situation,” Morgan said.

“He’s a jackal, which is neither wolf nor dog. He’s never killed a man here yet out of necessity he just shoots them down to see them kick, or to gratify some monstrous delight that has transformed him from the man I used to know.”

“He may be insane,” Morgan suggested.

“I don’t know, but I don’t think so. I can’t abase my mind low enough to fathom that man.”

“It’s a wonder somebody hasn’t killed him,” Morgan speculated.

“He never arrests anybody, there hasn’t been a prisoner in the calaboose since he took charge of this town. Notoriety has turned his head, notoriety seems to put a halo around him that makes a troop of sycophants look up to him as a saint. Look here look at this!”

The judge held out a newspaper, shaking it viciously, his face clouded with displeasure.

“Here’s a piece two columns long about that scoundrel in the Kansas City Times the notoriety of the town is obscured by the bloody reputation of its marshal.”

“It must be gratifying to a man of his ambitions,” Morgan commented, glancing curiously over the story, his mind on the first victim of Craddock’s gun in that town.

“It’s a disgrace that some of us feel, whatever it may be to him. I expected him to confine his gun to gamblers and crooks and these vermin that hang around the women of the dance houses, but he’s right-hand man with them, they’re all on his staff.”

Morgan looked up in amazement, hardly able to believe what he heard.

“It’s enough to wind any decent man,” Judge Thayer nodded. “You remember his first case that fool cowboy he killed at the hotel?”

“I was just thinking of him,” Morgan said.

“That’s the kind he goes in for, cowboys from the range, green, innocent boys, harmless if you take ’em right. Yesterday afternoon he killed a young fellow from Glenmore. It’s going to bring retaliation and reprisal on us, it’s going to hurt us in this contest over the county seat.”

“I shouldn’t wonder,” said Morgan, hoping the reprisal would be swift and severe.

“I think the man’s blood mad,” Judge Thayer speculated, in a hopeless way. “It must be the outcome of all that slaughter among the buffalo. He’s not a brave man, he lacks the bearing and the full look of the eye of a courageous man, but he carries two guns now, Morgan, and he can sling out and shoot a man with incredible speed. And we’ve got him quartered on us for nearly two years unless somebody from Glendora comes over and nails him. We can’t fire him, we don’t dare to approach him to suggest his abdication. Morgan, we’re in a three-cornered hell of a fix!”

“Can’t the fellow be prosecuted for some of these murders? Isn’t there some way the law can reach him?”

“The coroner’s jury absolves him regularly,” the judge replied wearily. “At first they did it because it was the routine, and now they do it to save their hides. No, there’s just one quick and sure way of heading that devil off in his red trail that I can see, Morgan, and that’s for me to act while he’s away. He’s gone on some high-flyin’ expedition to Abilene, leaving the town without a peace officer at the mercy of bandits and thieves. I have the authority to swear in a deputy marshal, or a hundred of them.”

Morgan looked up again quickly from his speculative study of the boards in Judge Thayer’s floor, to meet the elder man’s shrewd eyes with a look of complete understanding. So they sat a moment, each reading the other as easily as one counts pebbles at the bottom of a clear spring.

“I don’t believe I’m the man you’re looking for,” Morgan said.

“You’re the only man that can do it, Morgan. It looks to me like you’re appointed by Providence to step in here and save this town from this reign of murder.”

“Oh!” said Morgan, impatiently, discounting the judge’s fervid words.

“You can supplant him, you can strip him of his badge of office when he steps from the train, and you’re the one man that can do it!”

Morgan shook his head, whether in denial of his attributed valor and prowess, or in declination to assume the proffered honor, Judge Thayer could not tell.

“I believe you’d do it without ever throwing a gun down on him,” Judge Thayer declared.

“I know he could!” said a clear, hearty, confident voice from the door.

“Come in and help me convince him, Rhetta,” Judge Thayer said, his gray-flecked beard twinkling with the pleasure that beamed from his eyes. “Mr. Morgan, my daughter. You have met before.”

Morgan rose in considerable confusion, feeling more like an abashed and clumsy cowboy than he ever had felt before in his life. He stood with his battered hat held flat against his body at his belt, turning the old thing foolishly like a wheel, so unexpectedly confronted by this girl again, before whom he desired to appear as a man, and the best that was in the best man that he could ever be. And she stood smiling before him, mischief and mastery in her laughing eyes, confident as one who had subjugated him already, playing a tune on him, surely a tune that came like a little voice out of his heart.

“I didn’t know, I didn’t suspect,” he said.

“Of course not. She isn’t anything like me.” Judge Thayer laughed over it, mightily pleased by this evidence of confusion in a man who could heat his branding iron to set his mark on half a dozen desperadoes, yet turned to dough before the eyes of a simple maid.

“No more than a bird is like a bear,” said Morgan, thinking aloud, racing mentally the next moment to snatch back his words and shape them in more conventional phrase. But too late; their joint laughter drowned his attempt to set it right, and the world lost a compliment that might have graced a courtier’s tongue, perhaps. But, not likely.

Morgan proffered the chair he had occupied, but Rhetta knew of one in reserve behind the display of wheat and oats in sheaf on the table. This she brought, seating herself near the door, making a triangle from which Morgan had no escape save through the roof.

Judge Thayer resumed the discussion of the most vital matter in Ascalon that hour, pressing Morgan to take the oath of office then and there.

“I wouldn’t ask Mr. Morgan to take the office,” said Rhetta when Judge Thayer paused, “if I felt safe to stay in Ascalon another day with anybody else as marshal.”

“That’s a compelling reason for a man to take a job,” Morgan told her, looking for a daring moment into the cool clarity of her honest brown eyes. “But I might make it worse instead of better. Trouble came to this town with me; it seems to stick to my heels like a dog.”

“You got rid of most of it this morning that gang will never come back,” she said.

Morgan looked out of the open door, a thoughtfulness in his eyes that the nearer attraction could not for the moment dispel. “One of them will,” he replied.

“Oh, one!” said she, discounting that one to nothing at all.

“The gamblers and saloon men are right about it,” Morgan said, turning to the judge; “this town will dry up and blow away as soon as it loses its notorious name. If you want to kill Ascalon, enforce the law. The question is, how many people here want it done?”

“The respectable majority, I can assure you on that.”

“Nearly everybody you talk to say they’d rather have Ascalon a whistling station on the railroad, where you could go to sleep in peace and get up feeling safe, than the awful place it is now,” Rhetta said. She removed her sombrero as she spoke, and dropped it on the floor at her feet, as though weary of the turmoil that vexed her days.

Morgan noted for the first time that she was not dressed for the saddle today as on the occasion of their first meeting, but garbed in becoming simplicity in serge skirt and brown linen waist, a little golden bar with garnets at her throat. Her redundant dark hair, soft in its dusky shade as summer shadows in a deep wood, was coiled in a twisted heap to fit the crown of her mannish sombrero. It came down lightly over the tips of her ears in pretty disorder, due to the excitement of the morning, and she was fair as a camelia blossom and fresh as an evening primrose of her native prairie land.

“I wouldn’t like to be the man that killed Ascalon, after all its highly painted past,” Morgan said, trying to turn it off lightly. “It might be better for all the respectable people to go away and leave it wholly wicked, according to its fame.”

“That might work to the satisfaction of all concerned, Mr. Morgan, if we had wagons and tents, and nothing more,” said the judge. “We could very well pick up and pull out in that case. But a lot of us have staked all we own on the future of this town and the country around it. We were here before Ascalon became a plague spot and a by-word in the mouths of men; we started it right, but it went wrong as soon as it was able to walk.”

“It seems to have wandered around quite a bit since then,” Morgan said, sparing them a grin.

“It’s been a wayward child,” Rhetta sighed. “We’re ashamed of our responsibility for it now.”

“It would mean ruination to most of us to pull out and leave it to these wolves,” said the judge. “We couldn’t think of that.”

“Of course not, I was only making a poor joke when I talked of a retreat,” Morgan said. “Things will begin to die down here in a year or two I’ve seen towns like this before, they always calm down and take up business seriously in time, or blow away and vanish completely. That’s what happens to most of them if they’re let go their course change and shift, range breaking up into farms, cowboys going on, take care of that.”

“I don’t think Ascalon will go out that way not if we can keep the county seat,” Judge Thayer said. “If you were to step into the breach while that killer’s away and rub even one little white spot in the town ”

Morgan seemed to interpose in the manner of throwing out his hand, a gesture speaking of the fatuity and his unwillingness to set himself to the task.

“Not just temporarily, we don’t mean just temporarily, Mr. Morgan, but for good,” Rhetta urged. “I want to take over editing the paper and be of some use in the world, but I couldn’t think of doing it with all this killing going on, and a lot of wild men shooting out windows and everything that way.”

“No, of course you couldn’t,” Morgan agreed.

“The railroad immigration agent has been trying to locate a colony of Mennonites here,” Judge Thayer said, “fifty families or more of them, but the notoriety of the town made the elders skittish. They were out here this spring, liked the country, saw its future with eyes that revealed like telescopes, and would have bought ten sections of land to begin with if it hadn’t been for two or three killings while they were here.”

“It was the same way with those people from Pennsylvania,” said Rhetta.

“We had a crowd of Pennsylvania Dutch out here a week or two after the Mennonites,” the judge enlarged, “smellin’ around hot-foot on the trail as hounds, but this atmosphere of Ascalon and its bad influence on the country wouldn’t be good for their young folks, they said. So they backed off. And that’s the way it’s gone, that’s the way it will go. The blight of Ascalon falls over this country for fifty miles around, the finest country the Almighty ever scattered grass seed over.

“You saw the possibilities of it from a distance, Mr. Morgan; others have seen it. Wouldn’t you be doing humanity a larger service, a more immediate and applicable service, by clearing away the pest spot, curing the repulsive infection that keeps them away from its benefits and rewards, than by plowing up eighty acres and putting in a crop of wheat? A man’s got to trample down his bed-ground, as I’ve said already, Morgan, before he can spread his blankets sometimes. This is one of the places, this is one of the times.”

Morgan thought it over, hands on his thighs, head bent a little, eyes on his boots, conscious that the girl was watching him anxiously, as one on trial at the bar watches a doubtful jury when counsel makes the last appeal.

“There’s a lot of logic in what you say,” Morgan admitted; “it ought to appeal to a man big enough, confident enough, to undertake and put the job through.”

He looked up suddenly, answering directly Rhetta Thayer’s anxious, expectant, appealing brown eyes. “For if he should fail, bungle it, and have to throw down his hand before he’d won the game, it would be Katy-bar-the-door for that man. He’d have to know how far the people of this town wanted him to go before starting, and there’s only one boundary the limit of the law. If they want anything less than that a man had better keep hands off, for anything like a compromise between black and white would be a fizzle.”

Rhetta nodded, her bosom quivering with the pounding of her expectant heart, her throat throbbing, her hands clenched as if she held on in desperate hope of rescue. Judge Thayer said no more. He sat watching Morgan’s face, knowing well when a word too many might change the verdict to his loss.

“The question is, how far do they want a man to go in the regeneration of Ascalon? How many are willing to put purity above profit for a while? Business would suffer; it would be as dead here as a grasshopper after a prairie fire while readjustment to new conditions shaped. It might be a year or two before healthy legitimate trade could take the place of this flashy life, and it might never rebound from the operation. A man would want the people who are calling for law and order here to be satisfied with the new conditions; he wouldn’t want any whiners at the funeral.”

“New people would come, new business would grow, as soon as the news got abroad that a different condition prevailed in this town,” Judge Thayer said. “I can satisfy you in an hour that the business men want what they’re demanding, and will be satisfied to take the risk of the result.”

“I came out here to farm,” Morgan said, unwilling to put down his plans for a questionable and dangerous service to a doubtful community.

“There’ll not be much sod broken between now and late fall, from the present look of things,” the judge said. “We’ve had the longest dry spell I’ve ever seen in this country going on four weeks now without a drop of rain. It comes that way once every five or seven years, but that also happens back in Ohio and other places men consider especially favored,” he hastened to conclude.

“I didn’t intend to break sod,” Morgan reflected, “a man couldn’t sow wheat in raw sod. That’s why I wanted to look at that claim down by the river.”

“It will keep. Or you could buy it, and hire your crop put in while you’re marshal here in town.”

“And I could edit the paper. Between us we could save the county seat.”

Rhetta spoke quite seriously, so seriously, indeed, that her father laughed.

“I had forgotten all about saving the county seat I was considering only the soul of Ascalon,” he said.

“If you refuse to let father swear you in, Mr. Morgan, Craddock will say you were afraid. I’d hate to have him do that,” said Rhetta.

“He might,” Morgan granted, and with subdued voice and thoughtful manner that gave them a fresh rebound of hope.

And at length they had their will, but not until Morgan had gone the round of the business men on the public square, gathering the assurance of great and small that they were weary of bloodshed and violence, notoriety and unrest; that they would let the bars down to him if he would undertake cleaning up the town, and abide by what might come of it without a growl.

When they returned to Judge Thayer’s office Morgan took the oath to enforce the statutes of the state of Kansas and the ordinances of the city of Ascalon, Rhetta standing by with palpitating breast and glowing eyes, hands behind her like a little girl waiting her turn in a spelling class. When Morgan lowered his hand Rhetta started out of her expectant pose, producing with a show of triumph a short piece of broad white ribbon, with CITY MARSHAL stamped on it in tall black letters.

Judge Thayer laughed as Morgan backed away from her when she advanced to pin it on his breast.

“I set up the type and printed it myself on the proof press,” she said, in pretty appeal to him to stand and be hitched to this sign of his new office.

“It’s so it’s rather prominent, isn’t it?” he said, still edging away.

“There isn’t any regular shiny badge for you, the great, grisly Mr. Craddock wore away the only one the town owns. Please, Mr. Morgan you’ll have to wear something to show your authority, won’t he, Pa?”

“It would be wiser to wear it till I can send for another badge, Morgan, or we can get the old one away from Seth. Your authority would be questioned without a badge, they’re strong for badges in this town.”

So Morgan stood like a family horse while Rhetta pinned the ribbon to the pocket of his dingy gray woolen shirt, where it flaunted its unmistakable proclamation in a manner much more effective than any police shield or star ever devised. Rhetta pressed it down hard with the palm of her hand to make the stiff ribbon assume a graceful hang, so hard that she must have felt the kick of the new officer’s heart just under it. And she looked up into his eyes with a glad, confident smile.

“I feel safe now,” she said, sighing as one who puts down a wearing burden at the end of a toilsome journey.