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Without A Lawyer
by [?]

However bright the court’s light may have appeared to the court, the place in which it was shining smelt damnably of oil. It was three o’clock in the afternoon, but already the Alaskan night had descended. The court sat in a barn, warmed from without by the heavily drifted snow and from within by the tiny flames of lanterns and the breathing of men, horses, and cows. Here and there in the outskirts of the circle of light could be seen the long face of a horse or the horned head of a cow. There was a steady sound of munching. The scene was not unlike many paintings of the stable in Bethlehem on the night of the Nativity. And here, too, justice was being born in a dark age. There had been too many sudden deaths, too many jumped claims, too much drinking, too much shooting, too many strong men, too few weak men, until finally–for time, during the long winter, hung upon the neck like a millstone–the gorges of the more decent had risen. Hence the judge, hence the jury, hence the prisoner, dragged from his outlying cabin on a charge of murder. As there were no lawyers in the community, the prisoner held his own brief. Though not a Frenchman, he had been sarcastically nicknamed, because of his small size and shrinking expression, Lou Garou.

The judge rapped for order upon the head of a flour-barrel behind which he sat. “Lou Garou,” he said, “you are accused of having shot down Ruddy Boyd in cold blood, after having called him to the door of his cabin for that purpose on the twenty-ninth of last month. Guilty or not guilty?”

“Sure,” said Lou Garou timidly, and nodding his head. “I shot him.”

“Why?” asked the judge.

For answer Lou Garou shrugged his shoulders and pointed to the chief witness, a woman who had wound her head in a dark veil so that her face could not be seen. “Make her take that veil off,” said he in a shrill voice, “and you’ll see why I shot him.”

The woman rose without embarrassment and removed her veil. But, unless in the prisoner’s eyes, she was not beautiful.

“Thank you, madam,” said the judge, after an embarrassed pause. “Ahem!” And he addressed the prisoner. “Your answer has its romantic value, Lou Garou, but the court is unable to attach to it any ethical significance whatsoever. Did you shoot Ruddy Boyd because of this lady’s appearance in general, or because of her left eye in particular, which I note has been blackened as if by a blow?”

“Oh, I did that,” said Lou Garou naively.

“Sit down!” thundered the judge. The foreman of the jury, a South Carolinian by birth, had risen, revolver in hand, with the evident intention of executing the prisoner on the spot. “You have sworn to abide by the finding of the court,” continued the judge angrily. “If you don’t put up that gun I’ll blow your damned head off.”

The juror, who was not without a sense of the ridiculous, smiled and sat down.

“You have pleaded guilty,” resumed the judge sternly, “to the charge of murder. You have given a reason. You have either said too much or too little. If you are unable further to justify your cold-blooded and intemperate act, you shall hang.”

“What do you want me to say?” whined Lou Garou.

“I want you to tell the court,” said the judge, “why you shot Ruddy Boyd. If it is possible for you to justify that act I want you to do it. The court, representing, as it does, the justice of the land, has a leaning, a bias, toward mercy. Stand up and tell us your story from the beginning.”

The prisoner once more indicated the woman. “About then,” he said, “I had nothin’ but Jenny–and twenty dollars gold that I had loaned to Ruddy Boyd. Hans”–he pointed to a stout German sitting on the Carolinian’s left–“wouldn’t give me any more credit at the store.” He whined and sniffled. “I’m not blaming you one mite, Hans,” he said, “but I had to have flour and bacon, and all I had was twenty dollars gold that Ruddy owed me. So I says, ‘Jenny, I’ll step over to Ruddy’s shack and ask him for that money.’ She says, ‘Think you’d better?’ and I says, ‘Sure.’ So she puts me up a snack of lunch, and I takes my rifle and starts. Ruddy was in his ditch (having shovelled out the snow), and I says, ‘Ruddy, how about that twenty?’ You all know what a nice hearty way Ruddy had with him–outside. He slaps his thigh, and laughs, and looks astonished, and then he says: ‘My Gawd, Lou, if I hadn’t clean forgot! Now ain’t that funny?’ So I laughs, too, and says, ‘It do seem kind of funny, and how about it?’ ‘Now, Lou,’ says he, ‘you’ve come on me sudden, and caught me awkward. I ain’t got a dime’s worth of change. But tell you what: I’ll give you a check.’