The evidence piling up against my client looked real bad. Most folks hereabouts were betting on the rope. One witness after another took the stand in Bill's Buckshot Saloon and swore awful things concerning Jack Cates. They said he killed Sarah McWilliams by smothering her with his own hand after a loud argument, during which at least three people had heard Cates say he was going to kill her.
Now the Jack Cates trial just happened to be my first case out here in Arizona Territory, and I, being a still-green Easterner, should've stuck to handling petty theft, land fraud, and the like once I'd hung up my shingle. But, well, before he got locked up, Jack Cates himself came knocking on my door, money hot in his pocket. So there I sat in that makeshift courthouse while witness after witness paraded in front of half the town and showed every reason why Mr. Cates should have his neck stretched. For a while there, I must admit, I was leaning in that direction myself.
Cates was a friendly young man, outgoing and polite. A hand shaker and a hat tipper. But he appeared all rough around the edges. Mean looking outside, kind and gentle inside, that was Jack. For his trial I couldn't get the man scrubbed up much, so he walked right from jail to the proceedings with a three day stubble of beard and enough dust on his clothes to where it stirred up whenever he moved.
It was the middle of a hot August afternoon, and there wasn't a breeze to be had in the Buckshot. Talk bounced off the hammered tin ceiling and filled those four walls with a din that'd pound your ears like a fist. The bar, of course, was shut down for the duration of the trial, but there was a big pot of water with a dipper in it on a stool under the taxidermied head of a well-antlered moose. I fried at a table ten paces away, but could surely taste that water cooling my cotton-dry tongue.
"I saw Jack Cates the afternoon of the murder," Huts Jenkins claimed. "An' he was with Sarah." Huts leaned forward in the witness chair, his hands clamped in a white-knuckle grip on his knees, and seemed to be talking to me. "Saw 'em walkin' betwixt the livery and Vicker's Dry Goods. Holdin' hands, they was. An' arguin'. Loud."
The assemblage heated up to a quick simmer at that remark. One man in back yanked off his hat and slammed it to the floor. "Cates is guilty as hell!" he yelled out. "We're wastin' good drinkin' time here. Let's wring his neck with a rope and be done with this."
Several in the crowd seconded the cry, but Judge Segusky banged his gavel on the upended keg in front of him and called for silence. "This is a court of law, and I'll not stand for outbursts like that. Now, you can all shut up and sit down, or I'll clear you all out and we'll go on in an empty room. Makes me no difference."
Things settled down for a while--until I stood up to question the witness. That brought another round of griping and another hammer of the gavel.
"So," I said to Mr. Jenkins, "you say you saw the accused and the victim together that day?"
Jenkins nodded confidently. "Didn't look none too happy either--neither one of 'em. Cates's face was lit all red, like he was fired-up mad."
"But you didn't actually see Mr. Cates harm Miss McWilliams in any way?"
"Didn't have to," he said, and then went on wildly, "I knew what was comin' jist by lookin'. The man had murder in his eyes."
"Object!" I blustered way too late. The damage had been done. "The witness is merely speculating on future events that are totally unknown to him."
The judge raised up an arm and scratched under it before saying that he'd disregard those last few words.
A rumbling of hushed conversation accompanied the next witness being called up. She was Miss Fiona Purdy, dressmaker, and from what I could tell, town busybody. She swore to tell the truth, and from the wry look on that dried-potato face of hers, she enjoyed doing so. Her skinny twig of a hand waved this way and that while she talked and accused Jack Cates of being everything but the devil himself.
"Oh, he killed her, all right, the horrid brute," she said, her eyes drilling into my client. Miss Purdy pulled a lacy hankey from her pocket and dabbed at her nose. "Sarah was so sweet with her long yella hair and that slim little figgur." Lines of malice crinkled her features and her thin lips barely moved when she added, "Jack said he was going to kill her, and then he went and done it."
A loud rumble of muttering swept the assemblage. I overheard scraps of talk from behind my back, all wanting my client dead then and there. But the judge was on his feet, hands in the air, cautioning everybody to sit down and shut their mouths until all the witnesses had had a chance to speak their piece.
The prosecuting attorney, Harold M. Thompkins, had no trouble getting Miss Purdy to utter every accusation he wanted to hear. But then it was my turn. "Miss Purdy," I began, "did you actually see Jack Cates hurt Miss McWilliams in any way?"
"Yes, I did," she said bitterly, her eyes narrow slits of hate. "I heard her say he was holding her hand too tight--squeezing it, he was."
"Miss Purdy, you can't kill a woman by holding her hand too tightly, now can you?"
She squirmed just a bit and glanced over at the judge. "Well, I suppose not." Her boney hand went up and a finger shot out to point in Jack Cates's direction. "But you can kill a woman by holding a hand over her mouth too tight... and blocking off her wind."
"In that event wouldn't the lady just breathe through her nose?" I asked.
Miss Purdy snuffled a bit then turned on the judge. "He's twisting my words. You won't stand for that in this here courtroom, will you?"
"Just answer yes or no," Judge Segusky advised.
Miss Purdy stared daggers at the judge before turning back to face me.
"Can't draw breath nohow," she said, "when a feller has hands as big as them what Jack Cates has." Her voice got all high and crackly. "Them's fer sure smothering hands, if I ever saw some. The killing hands of a killer! If poor Sarah could climb up outta her grave, she'd fer sure tell us it was Jack Cates who put her in the ground."
Well, you can imagine the courtroom commotion at that statement. Judge Segusky beat his gavel on the keg but you couldn't hear it for all the hoots and hollers and shouts of "Let's hang him! He's guilty! Somebody get a rope!"
About then Sheriff Macklin stepped in, pistol pulled, got the judge to halt the trial, and all but dragged Cates back to the jail cell the man had spent the last five days cooped up in. It was the safest place for him, though, and as his attorney, I didn't raise a protest. No, I just went on over there myself, pulled a handy chair up to the bars, and tried to get more information to go forward with some sort of a defense.
"I didn't kill Sarah," Cates repeated to me. "I swear it." He lowered his head and rubbed his face in both hands. "I mean, sure, I was mad at her, but I loved her too. I wanted to marry her."
"Does anybody else know that?"
He shook his head. "Guess I never told Sarah neither. I wanted to, but, well, the time never seemed right."
"And you argued with her the day she was killed? You told me that."
"I did. I did argue and I did raise my voice. I guess I didn't know folks was listening." His face got all slack and his eyes teared up in the corners. "But I'd never hurt her. Not Sarah."
"Well, somebody did. She's sure enough dead. I don't think I've met a single person in town who didn't go to her funeral."
Cates paused for a long thought. "I recall Sarah didn't feel quite right that day. She said it wasn't anything serious, but her head hurt. She had that a lot, but, I guess, it was worse than ever that time. Once, she even fainted dead away on me. I wanted her to see the doc, but she claimed it was just the heat not her heart or anything like that. Is that important? Maybe something happened. Maybe Sarah just... just passed on. Maybe she got her call and just laid down to sleep and never woke up. Ain't that how they found her?"
"Yes. That's how Doc Guthrie described the scene to me. Not a mark on the body. It was just like she stopped breathing, he said."
"I wasn't even there," Cates said softly. "I should've been. Maybe I could've saved her."
Those words and the sincere grieved look on Cates face really got to me. I said my good-byes and left the jail. As I walked down the plank walk headed nowhere in particular, I listened to my heels strike the wood and tried to imagine how a man like Cates could have brought himself to kill a woman he said he loved. And without leaving a mark on the body. It seemed to me that crimes of passion were always marked by violence and the use of weapons--fists, knives, guns. Boiling emotions throw reason out the window and a man would be driven to do the unspeakable, an act of horror he never thought he could ever commit. "But what about Jack Cates?" I asked myself aloud.
My feet took me back to Doc Guthrie's office. Guthrie was an old man, one of the first settlers in the area. From what I could find out he had been a mule skinner, a ranch hand, and a timber cutter before he settled down in Prescott and hung out his doctor sign. Experience, too many years of it, he said, had been his medical teacher.
I sat down in his waiting room amid the caterwauling of a young man having a length of barbed wire dug out of the meaty part of his thigh. Guthrie worked on him with a curved-blade knife clutched in one hand and one of those porcelain-headed probes working in the other. While the patient screamed around a hunk of burlap he was biting on, the doctor squinted over spectacles and told him to calm down, he had a lot of good years left on this earth.
When it was over, the man came up with a bottle from somewhere and took a long pull of what appeared to be tobacco-plug whisky. Guthrie stood beside him, wiping the blood off his hands and looking my way. "That lawyer, ain'tcha? From back East?"
"That's me," I said with a forced smile of politeness. "I have a couple more questions about the death of Sarah McWilliams, if you have the time."
Doc Guthrie was a large man with unfirm jowls, jug ears, and a scraggly set of chin whiskers. He wore a suit and vest that appeared to need more than just a dust brush taken to them. His manner was abrupt and somewhat harsh.
"Now we went all through this the other day, didn't we?"
"Yes, but I--"
"Need to nose around some more. Keep a killer alive another day or two."
I sat up straight and looked Guthrie right in the eye. "I honestly believe Jack Cates to be an innocent man."
He sniffed out a mirthless laugh and went back to wiping his hands on a rag I could smell six feet away.
"And you can help me prove his innocence, maybe uncover the real killer."
He gave me an appraising glance from the corner of one eye. "How's that?"
"You can help me exhume the body of Miss McWilliams."
"Excavate her grave. Dig up the corpse."
Guthrie looked at me like I was crazy. "You can't do that. Nobody's gonna allow that."
"You think you might have made a mistake?"
His face tightened and his upper lip bared yellow teeth. "No marks on that woman's body--nary a one. She died from being smothered. Somebody held something over her face and just cut off her breathing."
"You're positive of that? No room for doubt? Remember, another human life depends on you being certain of your words. You know Jack Cates. He's no murderer."
One hand came up, wrapped around the back of his neck, and rubbed. The other tossed the dirty rag into a pan of dirtier water. "Aw, I know that. But ever'body else in town says he did it. Folks heard him threaten the woman."
"Let's prove them all wrong. Why, Doctor Guthrie, proving a man innocent, saving his life in spite of all that evidence to the contrary would make you a mighty big man in this town."
He studied on that for a minute. "Make me look real smart, wouldn't it. A hero, maybe."
"For sure," I said and stood up to pat the doctor on the back--a premature congratulations.
That night just after the steeple clock had both hands stuck up for midnight, Doc Guthrie and I sneaked out into the hilly little cemetery next to the church. The ground was freshly worked so digging was easy. In just under a half hour we hit the ripsawed wood boards of the casket's lid and stopped to look at each other.
"We're doing the right thing here, ain't we?" Guthrie asked, leaning on his shovel handle.
I mopped the sweat from my brow. "Saving an innocent man from hanging can't be wrong."
Clouds blocked out most of the light, if there was a moon that night, so I had thought to bring along a coal oil lamp. We hauled that coffin out of the hole and set it on the ground we had shoveled. By the dim flicker of the lantern, I looked on while Guthrie pried off the lid.
And an instant later we were both positive that Sarah McWilliams had not died at the hands of Jack Cates or anyone else.
The woman's body lay contorted, forced into the upper portion of the box, knees drawn up under her chin, her burial garment streaked with an amalgamation of blackened blood, vomit, and bodily fluids. Her beautiful hair entwined the fingers of her left hand and covered most of her face where it stuck as if fastened in place. Her right hand was short two fingers-- mangled stumps with bare bone and joints protruding. In her mouth we found the missing fingers.
I carried the corpse back to Guthrie's office where the two of us bathed it and wrapped it in clean linen before returning it to hallowed ground. We discussed leaving the grave uncovered so that those in doubt could see for themselves, but thought the sight too gruesome and totally unnecessary. Sarah McWilliams had suffered enough, body and soul.
"Let's wake up the sheriff," I said "and tell him what we found."
"Now hold on just a minute here." The doc seemed all fidgety. "What're folks gonna think? I mean I worked for years in this town to build up a practice, and well, this girl dying, or not being dead, that's..."
"Not your fault."
"Huh?" He fixed narrowed eyes on me and waited, waited until I came up with the best explanation I could.
I've heard tell of this sort of thing happening before. Europe mostly. It has some of the best physicians over there baffled. Why, they don't even have a name for the condition yet, it's so rare. I tell you, when word of this case gets around, learned men of medicine will be beating a path to your door for advice on how to recognize, how to treat this malady.
"Malady, yeah." I could see a little arch rise in the lines on his forehead. "I guess that's so, ain't it?"
The next day Doc Guthrie and I had a talk with Judge Segusky. The judge dismissed the murder charge against Jack Cates and told him to go on home. I seconded that advice, but just to ease my mind, followed Cates back at a distance where he wouldn't know I was there. You see, I was curious to find out if Cates, in his hurry to leave a town that had only a short while ago wanted to lynch him, would stop by the church graveyard.
Jack Cates knelt at Sarah McWilliams' grave and wept.
And, to be honest, so did his lawyer.