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Authors: Douglas C. Jones

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“I never heard about it.”
“It wasn't so bad, according to Mother. There was a lot of noise, and some bullets hit the house. But after the armies had gone, then the bad times started.”
“What kind of bad times, Eben?”
“Partisan bands started raiding through that hill country. They claimed to be fighting for one side or the other, but actually they were out for loot and plunder.”
“Plunder?”
“Anything they could lay hands on. Livestock especially. Mother said they were always after food. They'd even scrape the salt from the smokehouse floors where it had dripped off the meat.”
“And your folks were alone through all that?”
“Actually, not quite. For almost a year after the battle they were nursing a wounded Union soldier they'd found on Pea Ridge. When he left, he took my mother with him. That was my father.” And I recounted how the wounded Union soldier had eventually married the young girl who had helped nurse him back to health. They had gone off to Missouri, where a few years later I was born to them and given my father's name, Eben Pay.
“I like that story, Eben,” Jennie said. “And now your mama's people are still in the Ozarks.”
“Yes. A few, I suppose. The war broke up the family. But there are some here. Father took us back only once, when I was very young. All I can recall of it is an old lady who kept wanting to kiss me because she said I looked like some relative in Georgia. She had white whiskers on her chin that scratched me.”
Jennie laughed. She suddenly took one of my hands and placed it against her cheek.
“See, Eben, I've got white whiskers, too.”
Her skin was warm under my fingers, with a hint of dampness from the heat. At that moment Zelda Mores called down the slope that it was time to go, and, laughing, Jennie jumped up and ran back toward the courthouse compound. As Jennie went past her, the old mustached bitch fell in behind her like an escort of cavalry.
Even so, it had been a good day. Sometimes Jennie's mood would change abruptly, suddenly and darkly, and she would stop laughing and talking. I had no idea why. Only once in that time did she mention anything remotely to do with the murders at the Thrasher farm. We were walking across the courthouse compound, she close against my side, when she spoke.
“Eben, you know my papa always said things look worse than they really are. Maybe that's how this all is, too.”
I recalled in one of my literature courses at Illinois, someone had said—a great philosopher he was—that there was no crime he could think of that he was not himself capable of committing. That thought and what Jennie said troubled me very much.
By the end of the two weeks, the Winding Stair case had faded. My father had always said that if a criminal is not caught within a few hours of the commission of the crime, he likely will never be caught at all. I had begun to think the murders and rape in the Choctaw Nation would simply slip into the archives of the court as an unsolved atrocity. But then Oscar Schiller returned, and once more the excitement came and the eager anticipation of being back on the trail, as though I really were one of Parker's men.
O
ur private recollection of men we have known is often at variance with public judgment of them. Much of what my peers in later years knew of Judge Isaac Parker came not from personal contact nor the serious and studious biographer, but from the sensational columns of newspapers.
Parker was himself a victim of federal government reaction to a siege of lawlessness in the Indian Territory, and of misunderstanding and apathy. He was overseer of a land mostly ignored by those with power to change it, except when the news of a multiple hanging burst upon the pages of the Eastern press. He was the boy crying wolf, and the wolf was always there! Yet nobody listened until the judge's pronouncement of sentence on some violent felon, and then for only a moment of horror before all of it was pushed from the mind again.
When he took the bench in Fort Smith, capital crimes and their punishment were proscribed by law, a fact seldom remarked upon in print or on the floors of Congress. In pronouncing death sentences, Parker often explained to the condemned that the letter of the law, which he was bound to observe, left him no alternative.
The harshness of that law was in keeping with those times. And more, it was apparently the only means that Congress had taken time to devise for assisting the Indian courts in maintaining order in their own countries. Ironically, Parker himself knew as well as any man the genesis and evolution of the condition. He outlined it for me in those first weeks I spent working for his court in Fort Smith.
Long ago, before the first white men came, the Osage were there. There were others as well, but largely, the Osage held domain. Early in the nineteenth century, other tribes, powerful tribes, began to arrive from the southeast. At first they came of their own accord, and in small numbers, but later they were being forcibly removed by the United States government, under pressure from white citizens who coveted the Indian farms in the eastern mountains and the Deep South. These displaced persons were called the Five Civilized Tribes and they were herded into the country west of the place where the Poteau and Arkansas rivers flow together. They established societies in the new land that were self-governing and self-contained. They were the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, Creek, and Cherokee.
But in the original treaties with the United States that gave them the land forever was a serious disclaimer. Their laws and police and courts were only for their own people. They had no jurisdiction over white men.
At first, this seemed of little consequence. They tilled their fields and ran their legislatures and punished their own lawbreakers. But when the Civil War came, many fought for the South, and afterward, because of this, large tracts of their land were taken from them to be used as reserves for other tribes. Only the eastern portion of what had been called Indian Territory remained. The Nations.
Into all of this vast area both east and west, the Indians of North America were moved as the expanding nation pressed outward into open spaces and inward upon itself. They came from everywhere. There were the Seneca, the Mohawk, the Shawnee, the Erie. The Chippawa, the Kickapoo, the Ottawa. The Pawnee, the Comanche, the Cheyenne, the Tonkawa, the Kaw, Modoc, Sac, and Fox and many more. Strangers, old friends, old enemies—all placed near one another without regard for cultural differences, without regard for hopes or fears, aspirations or despairs.
And there were also, after the war, the black peoples who had been slaves to the various Civilized Tribes, freed now and made a part of the tribes of which they had once been mere property.
By 1889, the western part of what had been the original Indian Territory was opened to white settlement by land run. The first one came in the Unassigned Lands, almost dead center of the old Territory and just west of the Civilized Tribes' Nations. The whites came and claimed the land and a new city sprang up overnight. It was called Guthrie, this new capital of the new white Territory of Oklahoma. And rather quickly, the Indian lands became white lands, by run or lottery or sealed bid. But there was still The Nations, bordering on Arkansas to the east. Still sovereign, with the one important disclaimer.
By now, railroads and stage routes were being run through the lands of the Civilized Tribes, and with these came whites in growing numbers. And with these came the scum and the renegade rabble from all the dwindling frontier, because the Indian courts had no power over them, and the Indian police were restrained from controlling them. These came to escape the law of established states and territories, and they were a brutish and mindless breed.
They brought all the things that destroy a struggling young community. They brought violence and a monumental disregard for human life and property. They brought larceny and prostitution and whiskey. Whereas before there had been the occasional flaring of old tribal enmities between the displaced red men and those who were already there, there now came the white marauders who pillaged, raped, and murdered under the assumption that they were in safe haven. And worse, under their influence, and from loss of an old settled order among many of the tribesmen, some of the red men became like them. The dregs of white society had come and inevitably attracted the weak and despondent of the red.
The federal court at Fort Smith was established partly to respond to all of this. The task was a thankless and impossible one.
“We have been damned by many,” Judge Parker once told me. “But this is a ruthless land. Ruthless because our handling of it has made it so. But I say this to you: We have pride in what we do. When in a community there is the promise of quick justice fulfilled, and it is sure under the law, then in that community there will be no lynch mobs. Eben, let me point out, there are no such mobs in The Nations. Under circumstances in which they live, this is a credit to them, and a little to us, as well.”
The day was near when many territorial courts would be formed throughout The Nations to maintain some semblance of civilized society there. But when I knew him, Judge Isaac Parker and his deputy marshals carried that burden alone.
FIVE
H
enryetta's Frisco Hotel and Billiard Parlor was almost deserted that Wednesday afternoon, June 25, 1890. I sat in the big downstairs barroom reading the Fort Smith newspapers, waiting for Oscar Schiller. Not having heard from him since he rode off into the rain from the Thrasher farm, I had received a note to join him in the infamous railyard brothel. It had to do with the Winding Stair Massacre, as all the newspapers were calling it.
For some time, the story of the Thrasher-John murders had been circulated in print. Bloody details were abundant, provided undoubtedly by some Choctaw policeman willing to talk with an enterprising reporter. But nothing had been written about Milk Eye Rufus Deer. The crimes were variously attributed to badmen and gangs who had been known to operate in The Nations.
I had obtained warrants from the United States commissioner in Fort Smith for the arrests of Deer and four John Does for the unidentified killers. The commissioner was a mousy little man named Mitchell, who held sway in a small office near the courthouse. Although he was not impressive in his person, his position was important. He was in fact a federal magistrate who tried misdemeanors, issued subpoenas and warrants, and held hearings on accused felons to determine if they should be held over for the grand jury. Without him, the volume of work in Parker's court would have been unbearable.
Oscar Schiller had never called for the warrants nor sent anyone for them. I had begun to wonder about this apparent lack of interest when I got his note, left on my desk in Evans's office by some unknown emissary.
“Mr. Pay,”
Schiller wrote.
“Meet me the afternoon of 25th instant at Henryetta's to interview informant on Thrasher-John. Schiller.”
Evans had studied the pencil scrawl and complained that he expected me to finish some of his case notes that day, but in the end allowed that I should meet the marshal.
“Schiller sometimes thinks he runs this goddamned court,” he said.
After my lunch with Jennie that day, I returned to my hotel room and got into my field gear because one never knew with Schiller where one might end up. I had bought the things Winding Stair had shown me to be useful. A slicker, cotton jacket and pants, a wide-brimmed hat to keep off sun and rain, and heeled boots. I found the boots difficult for a time and had been wearing them around the room at night, learning how to walk.
Evans had given me a letter identifying me as an investigator out of the prosecutor's office, and with this badge I finally decided to arm myself. I bought a small Smith & Wesson breakdown revolver chambered for .38 shots. One of the older deputy marshals who acted as court bailiff and was always around the courthouse suggested I drill holes in the ends of the slugs because, as he said, “Hollow points were very persuasive.” I ignored the advice and, in fact, hoped I would never have to use the nasty-looking thing.
Walking along Garrison with the pistol in a shoulder holster under my jacket, I had felt as conspicuous as a bald woman and was sure each passing pedestrian was aware that I carried a concealed weapon and would soon put the local police on me.
Henryetta's bar-parlor was like any upper-middle-class living room of that age. There was an abundance of overstuffed chairs covered in red velvet, highly polished cuspidors placed strategically about the room, peacock feathers sprouting from white enamel urns in each corner, and a number of bad oil paintings. Most of these showed naked women running about, pursued by hairy satyrs. The place smelled of perfume and talcum powder and on busy days of cigar smoke and tobacco juice, I supposed. But on this Wednesday afternoon, I was the only person in the place except Henryetta, her upstairs girls, and Big Rachael.
Henryetta was a large, overdressed woman with red paint smeared somewhat crookedly across her mouth. She had more gold teeth than the Frisco baggagemaster and her fingers were almost immobile with glassy rings. As I sat reading my paper, she watched me. When I looked toward her, she smiled, showing her dazzling but crooked teeth.
Big Rachael was cook and bouncer. He was larger even than Joe Mountain, with a small head attached to an enormous body with no visible neck. His arms were longer than those I had seen on apes in the Saint Louis Zoo. He was obviously a gentle soul, but his reputation for brute strength and loyalty to Henryetta was legend in Fort Smith, as was his German potato salad and fried pork steak.
Although I was of limited experience in such matters, it seemed to me that Henryetta's was a refined and well-operated whorehouse. I asked for lemonade laced with an ounce of gin and explained to Big Rachael and the madam that I was there to meet someone. I was left alone and none of the girls from upstairs came down to market their wares. After a second lemonade, Big Rachael acted as though I had always been there, and although even with the gin I did not feel exactly like a regular customer, the place was comfortable.
BOOK: Winding Stair (9781101559239)
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