May, 2016

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Issue #80

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Read this month's Tales and vote for your favorite.
They'll appear in upcoming print volumes of The Best of Frontier Tales Anthologies!

The Burden of Absolutes, Part 3 of 3
by Robert McKee
Jeb, the court reporter, knew that simple and sweet Bobby Joe Thomas was innocent of the murder of Lenny Lukather, but only one person could save him, and she wouldn't leave her farm for anyone. Was there anything Jeb could do about it?

* * *

That Day on the Autumn Plains
by P.D. Amos
Lord Harold of the Plains and his friends in the Arapaho village awaken to a great surprise—fresh meat on the hoof in numbers beyond counting. But blessings come with a cost, and in the midst of their frolicking hunt they must face a cold-blooded killer—one who cannot be outrun, outgunned, or outsmarted.

* * *

by Sharon Frame Gay
Recently widowed Polly is heading West in a wagon train when she encounters an unforeseen challenge that leads her to a proverbial fork in the road. Alone, with winter coming and hostiles too close for comfort, Polly must make a decision that will change her life forever.

* * *

Arizona Ranger Meets Texas John Slaughter
by C. Lamar Owens
Arizona Ranger Brian Owenby rode into Tombstone hunting four thievin' killers that murdered a rancher up on the Salt River. The last thing he expected was to run into the steely-eyed Cochise County Sheriff "Texas" John Slaughter. Would that be a good thing . . . or a bad thing?

* * *

Privy to it All
by B. Craig Grafton
Only one man knows all the facts as he escapes the law and runs to Texas. Watch out. This story is a real stinker!

* * *

The Confluence
by William L. Domme
Godwin Merritt, a Colorado silver mine owner, struggles to keep the rights to his land in the face of old rivals who aim to snatch it out from under him. Merritt solicits help from the county sheriff, but will that be enough?

* * *

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All the Tales

The Burden of Absolutes, Part 3 of 3
by Robert McKee

Because Earl Anderson, the Converse County Prosecuting Attorney, wasn't much over five feet tall, he looked like a gnome sitting behind his enormous oak desk.

Jeb, who arrived at Anderson's office first thing the next morning, had just read Joleen's statement word-for-word.

"The ranting of a lunatic," Anderson said once Jeb finished. "Everyone in the county knows she's insane."

"Are you saying you don't believe what I've just read you?" Jeb asked. Jeb never liked this prosecutor. It was difficult to articulate the reason why. When asked, the closest he could come was, "The man wears a monocle on a gold chain around his neck, for God's sake."

"That's exactly what I'm saying, Jebediah. I don't believe a word of it. I have a good, solid confession from Bobby Joe Thomas. And I'll guarantee that killer will hang before Christmas."

Earl Anderson was, if nothing else, a cautious man. Next year was an election year, and there was always the chance that some eager lawyer might move to town who wanted to run for county attorney. A conviction and execution for first-degree murder would enhance his political record.

"You mean that you're just going to ignore this? You're not even going to discuss it with the sheriff or give it any more consideration at all?"

"No need."

"Shouldn't you at least confront Bobby Joe with it?"

"Why should I? It's not going to change my opinion. The girl's sick. She's lived out there on that ranch like a hermit her entire life."

Jeb had always had a temper. It caused him problems as a boy, but it was something he prided himself on having learned to control. Until now. He stood and loomed over Anderson's desk.

"Earl, if you can't see this woman's telling the truth—" He held his pad up and jabbed an index finger into the center of it. "—then you're even blinder than I've always suspected. Maybe you need to shove another one of those ridiculous monocles in your other eye."

Jeb thrust his pad into his hip pocket, spun on his boot heel, and started for the door.

"I am simply making a prosecutorial decision as to what is pertinent and what is not. It has always been my understanding that court stenographers swear an oath to be dispassionate in all matters that come before the bar." He stood and seemed to stretch himself, apparently in an effort to raise himself to something greater than his full height. "Frankly, Mr. Blake, I can't help but wonder what Judge Walker would think of his employee involving himself in matters that are beyond his station."

"Well, I'm not sure, Mr. Anderson," Jeb said, resisting the urge to lift this little man up and fling him through the window. "I expect if he knew about it he would think it was improper."

"I should think so," Anderson said. He removed his handkerchief and began polishing his monocle. "Yes, I should think so indeed. Although I see no need, at least for the present, to bring it to his attention."

"But I do," Jeb said. "And I expect we'll both find out which he feels is more improper—my becoming involved, or your withholding evidence in a capital case."

With that he threw open the door and stormed into the hallway. In his anger he was not watching where he was going and crashed headlong into Dessie Thomas, almost knocking her down.

"I'm sorry, Dessie," he apologized. The jolt caused her hat to fly off and Jeb bent to retrieve it. "What are you doing here?"

"What am I doing here? Why, I'm here to pick up my boy, of course." Jeb suspected Dessie was accustomed to being jostled by steers; running into a court reporter didn't seem to faze her. "Did you show the prosecutor Joleen's statement?" she asked.

"I read him every word."

"So when does Bobby Joe get out of jail?"

"He doesn't."

A look of bewilderment fell across the old woman's face. "He doesn't? How come?"

"Anderson says he doesn't believe Joleen's confession. He refuses to dismiss the charges against Bobby Joe. He won't even consider it."

A bench ran along one side of the hallway, and Dessie plopped down. "That don't make sense, does it?"

"It makes sense to Anderson," Jeb said. "He has a much better chance of getting a murder conviction and the death sentence against Bobby Joe than he ever would Joleen. With Joleen, who knows? She might even have a defense. It's possible Anderson couldn't convict her of anything."

"So Bobby Joe dies to make Earl Anderson look good?"

"That hasn't happened yet," Jeb said.

"Isn't there anybody around who can tell this prosecutor that he can't do that? How 'bout the judge?"

"Not really. The county attorney's an elected official. He has the final say on who is and who isn't prosecuted."

Dessie pushed herself up from the bench. Suddenly she looked very tired. "What he's doin' ain't right, Jebediah."

"No," Jeb agreed, "it's not."

She turned and headed toward the front door of the courthouse. Jeb didn't like the way she looked, and he started to follow her. "Dessie," he said, "are you all right? Where are you going?"

But she left the building with no response.

"Be seated," said Judge Walker. He slid into the chair behind his bench. "Are you ready to go on the record, Mr. Blake?"

Without looking up, Jebediah answered, "Yes, sir," as he scratched onto his pad the judge's question and his own response.

"I'm not sure where we are procedurally," the judge began, "but, Mr. Thomas, I asked Sheriff Collins to bring you up to court this morning because I feel that there are some things that need to be discussed."

Bobby Joe spread his hands as far as the cuffs and waist chain would allow. "I ain't got nothing more to say, Judge."

"That's fine, Mr. Thomas, but we have an interesting dilemma here. The Fifth Amendment to this nation's constitution provides you the right not to be forced to incriminate yourself. The law doesn't say squat about whether you have the constitutional right to incriminate yourself even if you did not commit the crime. I suppose the drafters of the constitution, despite their wisdom, never allowed for such a possibility.

"Now, I've heard some things this morning, and I'm doing some things right now that're going to require me to recuse myself should this case ever go to trial. That's fine. It won't be a problem to find another judge. Ever since statehood, we seem to have judges crawling out of the woodwork.

"What is a problem is determining how far my responsibilities go. Mr. Blake here, my court reporter, spent a portion of last evening taking down the statement of Mrs. Joleen Lukather. Mrs. Lukather does not confirm your version of events, Mr. Thomas. In fact, to the contrary. She says that you did not kill her husband, that it was she who did so."

Bobby Joe sprung from his seat. "That ain't true, Judge. I was the one who done it." He slammed his fist into his chest. "Me."

Sheriff Collins was on his feet, headed for the defendant, when Judge Walker said calmly, "Sit down, Mr. Thomas." Bobby Joe, in mid-tirade, stopped and dropped into his chair as though whacked with an ax handle.

Earl Anderson rose and said, "Your Honor, may I say something?"

Judge Walker, who had not even noted Anderson's appearance for the record, said, "If you make it brief, Mr. Anderson."

"Sir, with all due respect, I do not see the necessity for this morning's hearing. We have a confession from Bobby Joe Thomas that he gave to Sheriff Collins the afternoon he brought Mr. Lukather's body into town. We have Mr. Blake's record from yesterday's arraignment where the man even tried to plead guilty. We have this record today where, yet again, Mr. Thomas claims to have killed Lenny Lukather. I do not understand why we are here."

"We are here, Mr. Anderson, because you have not done your job. You, sir, are an officer of this court. Your duty goes beyond merely seeking convictions. It is likewise your duty to seek justice. Now sit down.

"I want Mr. Blake to read Mrs. Lukather's statement. And I want you, Mr. Thomas, to listen to this closely." He turned and cast a stony glare at Anderson. "I realize that you have already heard it, Mr. Anderson, but I shouldn't think it would harm you to listen again."

Judge Walker looked down at Jeb, nodded, and said, "Go ahead."

Jeb opened his pad to Joleen's statement and read it all in a slow, clear voice. When he finished, he returned to his notes of the current hearing and took up his pencil.

Bobby Joe sat forward and said, "It don't matter to me what that fella has wrote down there, Judge. If you let me go and arrest Joleen, and you all put her on trial, then I'll jus' come in here in front of the jury and I'll tell 'em that it wasn't Joleen who done it, it was me. Who do you think they'll believe is a killer, me or that little woman?"

"I expect that it's possible they could believe a woman was capable of killing a man like Mr. Lukather. But I also expect that because of the state's burden of having to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt that a jury would be hard put to convict any defendant when another individual takes the stand and admits to committing the crime."

"And that's just the way I'd testify, too," said Bobby Joe with a smile, "that I was the one who done it. So, please, Judge, you all should just leave Joleen be. I'll take whatever's comin'. Ain't nothin' to be gained by hurtin' her no more."

"But he's not the one who deserves what's coming," said a soft voice from the back. "I am. And if it's Bobby Joe who goes to trial, then I'll be the one taking the stand to admit to doing the killing."

Jeb turned in his seat and saw Joleen Lukather standing in the courtroom door.

Jeb, Earl Anderson, and the judge sat around a conference table in the judge's chambers. Bobby Joe had been taken back to jail. Joleen and Dessie waited in the hallway.

"It's not fair, Judge," said Anderson. "It's just not fair."

"No," agreed Judge Walker, "it's not."

"One of these two people killed Lenny Lukather."

"No doubt about it."

Anderson paused for a moment. The monocle magnified his eye into a pale blue marble. "They can't be allowed to get away with this, Judge. I mean anytime there's a murder, two people could come forward and say they did it, and what could we do?"

"Well," the judge said, folding his hands together, "as a practical matter, I doubt that you're going to have a lot of people willing to admit to committing murder. And, too, most generally when there's a homicide you'll also have witnesses and other evidence that would point to the actual killer. I'd say the situation we have here is unique."

"Maybe I could charge them both," said Anderson sitting up straighter.

"Do you have any proof of a conspiracy?" asked the judge.

"No. In fact, they both deny the other was involved."

"Is there any evidence from some other source that they committed the crime together?"

Anderson shook his head, and the muscles beneath his pink cheek tightened. "But someone is lying," he said, slamming his tiny fist to the table. It made a delicate, ineffectual thump.

"Yes, you're absolutely right, but who? Do you have any idea which one of them it is?"

Again the prosecutor shook his head.

"Unfortunately, Earl," Judge Walker pointed out, "that's the stuff of reasonable doubt."

Anderson let out a sigh and stood. As he left the chambers he said, "This is not right. It's just not right." Now even the eye without the monocle appeared glassy.

Once he was gone, Jeb said, "In another case, I might agree with him. But this time I'm convinced it is right."

"Right?" The judge's eyebrows rose a quarter of an inch. "I don't know about that, Jebediah. This isn't theology or mathematics we're dealing with here. There's no good or bad or right or wrong in the law. Those concepts don't exist. The law divides the universe into two simple categories: the things that can be proven, and the things that cannot." The judge leaned back in his chair, placed his feet on the table, and slipped his hands behind his head. "But I personally believe that's the beauty of it," he added. "The law is liberating. It frees us from the onerous burden of all those moral absolutes."

Earlier that morning Jeb wired Julia letting her know he would be late. He would have to ride hard, but he'd still be home by dark. He hated that he was missing so much of their day together, but despite that, he felt good.

Joleen was waiting for him outside the courthouse by the hitching post where his motorcycle was parked. He saw her before she saw him, and he stopped and watched as she stood beside Center Street taking everything in.

He tried to imagine what it must be like for her at thirty-one to be experiencing the bustle and activity of town for the first time. Until he moved to Wyoming, he had lived his entire life in Chicago, where there truly was bustle and activity, so try as he might, he couldn't conceive of what she must be feeling.

"It was brave of you to come," he said as he walked up beside her.

She turned and smiled. There was a flush to her complexion that made her glow. "No, it wasn't bravery," she contradicted. "It's just that it would have been cowardly not to come. I suppose that I've been a coward all my life, but I couldn't let Bobby Joe do what he was doing."

"Is Dessie at the jail getting him?" Jeb asked.

"Yes, Mr. Anderson dismissed the charges and said he was free to go. He said he would not be filing any charges against me either. I don't understand what all happened. I never meant to get out of my punishment."

"I know, but all you can do is admit what happened. If Earl Anderson elects not to prosecute, that's his decision."

"I'm supposed to meet Dessie and Bobby Joe at the jail, but I wanted to see you first."

"I'm glad."

"When Dessie came out to the place this morning and told me that even though you read them my confession they were still going to make Bobby Joe go to trial and probably hang him, I knew it was time to face down this sickness of mine."

"Was it very hard?"

Despite the warm July morning and the long sleeves that covered her scars, Joleen held her arms close, her elbows in her palms, as though she were cold. "It sounds silly to talk about. We came in on my buckboard, and as soon as we passed through the gate, I couldn't draw a breath. I tried. My chest heaved. I gasped, but no air would come. I thought I was dying. But then a calm came over me, and I decided I was going to do this. Maybe it would kill me, but either it would win or I would. Once I told myself that, the breathing was easier. Not a lot easier, but some."

She looked around her. "It's still scary, though," she said as she watched the traffic move down Center toward the North Platte River. She put her hands to her ears. "What's the scariest, I think, is all the noise."

Jeb laughed. "Noise? This is nothing," he said. "You should hear the racket where I come from on Michigan Avenue, especially on a Saturday night."

"I wanted to see you before you left so I could thank you. I hope all this didn't get you in trouble with the judge."

He took her hand and squeezed it. "No," he said, "everything's fine. Just fine. Now you go find your friends. I expect Bobby Joe's eager to see you."

Jeb climbed onto his Silent Gray Fellow. "It's time I was headed home," he said.

"Of course," Joleen agreed, "your wife'll be waiting." She ran an index finger along the cycle's handlebar, then dropped her hand and stepped back. "You have a safe trip," she said. "That machine is beautiful, but I expect a fella could get hurt on one." She gave a halting wave, then started for the rear of the courthouse toward the jail.

He watched as she walked away. Her steps were cautious, but her head was high.

Jeb had great respect for Judge Walker. He understood the judge's feelings about the beauty of the law's ability to simplify things. But Jeb reckoned that sometimes human beings needed a little more than that.

He called out, "Hey, Joleen, before you head back to the ranch, you have them take you around town so you can see the sights."

Joleen turned and said with a laugh, "Yes, sir, I intend to do exactly that."

There were times when you just knew when something was right.

The End

Robert McKee resides in Colorado. He has had a number of jobs, including four years in the military. He has also been employed as a radio announcer, disc jockey, copy writer, court reporter, and municipal court judge.

After school in Texas, Bob settled in Wyoming, where he has lived for thirty years.

His short fiction has appeared in more than twenty commercial and literary publications around the country. He is also a recipient of the Wyoming Art Council's Literary Fellowship Award, as well as a three-time first-place winner of Wyoming Writers, Incorporated's adult fiction contest, and a two-time first-place winner of the National Writers Association's short fiction contest.

One of his stories was selected to appear in the prestigious annual publication Best American Mystery Stories, edited that year by Senior Editor Otto Penzler and Visiting Editor Michael Connelly.

His first novel, Dakota Trails, is available at Pen-L Publishing.

When not at his computer writing, Bob can be found rummaging through antique stores in search of vintage fountain pens or roaming the back roads of Wyoming and Colorado with his wife and two children

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