If you had been able to focus your eyes closely, you might have seen through the chilled, misty rain turning to ice an apparition of a sorrel mare bobbing up and down at a trot with the figure of a man in broad-brimmed hat on her.
Garvey Oliphant rode down out of the hills where he normally tended cattle that freezing, cold, wet day in November, 1924, in a way that seemed more characteristic of times 40 and 50 years before that because he was heavily armed.
At his side hung an old Colt revolver fully loaded except for the sixth cylinder he left empty as a safety for the ride. The shotgun in a scabbard on one side of the mare’s saddle was loaded with large shot that could tear a man apart, and the rifle in the opposite scabbard was there for long-range shots. He had a long-bladed World War I trench knife with brass knuckles for a handle in a home-stitched leather case attached to his belt.
Garvey’s brother, August, had set off an hour before he did for the area 40 miles away where the other relatives of Henry and Milicent Green lived to tell them of their plight. August would have to rest his horse periodically, but it was better for him to ride with little sleep than to risk the news with a postal letter.
Justice was still swift with the crime only last week, the trial set for next week with the scaffolding already being put together for raising in the courthouse yard to carry out the possible hanging at the end of that same week. The owner at the lumberyard figured it could still be used for a barn bracing in the unlikely event the verdict went the other way.
“Too bad, too bad,” the merchants in town were saying. The Greens had had a rough time with their weak-minded grand-daughter, Agnes Colwich, and such a thing had been bound to happen sometime given her good looks. The merchants were torn. The Greens had been good people to have in the community, and they always paid their bills. On the other hand, a basket dinner after everybody went to the hanging might be just the way to kick off the Christmas season. Good entertainment could be hard to come by, and the hanging of a woman was far more unusual than the hanging of a man. A movement was already underway for the community chorus to sing some songs of mourning followed by the usual Christmas carols.
The merchants’ executive committee voted five to one to proceed with the basket dinner, Gerald Bogdon against because he thought they ought to wait for the verdict since a chance decision where only one of the Greens hanged, that being Henry of course, could considerably lower the merriment of the situation. It might be unseemly to begin early holiday celebrations right in front of a mourning widow.
Boulder Billings, the undertaker, abstained because he felt he stood to make good money anyway considering he already had been able to work on the body of the alleged victim, Monte Peathscheit. Peathscheit’s body had been tough to patch up with the shotgun wounds to get him presentable for viewing, but all the coins and a little folding money in the collection jar from the curious who came to look testified that it had been a wise decision. Plus that, the county still would be paying him its share for Peathscheit’s burial. “Life could be wonderful when you dealt in death—that would be another person’s death,” Billings sometimes observed to his wife.
Everybody agreed it probably was a fine touch for Billings to put a black mark on Peathscheit’s forehead so Saint Peter and the Lord would know the public sentiment on which way the man should go. And they all also shared Billings’ sentiment when he said, “Poor beautiful, half-witted Agnes Colwich, so fortunate when her grandparents decided to raise her when her mother and father died of the typhoid. How strange it is, that the misfortunate among us sometimes are blessed with attributes all of their own. She is so sweet, so simple in her great beauty, so voluptuous. She looks so natural. Is it any wonder Peathscheit noticed her?”
James Geitche, the hardware store owner whom the county intended to employ for the hanging because he knew his ropes and was a steady hand for butchering other people’s livestock, wrote out the final statement for the merchant’s executive committee which they decided best briefly expressed their sentiments after a couple of them became tearful, and expressed a few righteous statements.
It read, “We the members of the Merchants’ Executive Committee, being people of great values with concern for the welfare of our fellow citizens, declare that Henry and Milicent Green have been fine upstanding members of our community, and the possible loss of them grieves us all. They have been upstanding hard-working, God-fearing, commendable members of their township and their church. They always paid their bills.
“It is a relief and a public service to have Monte Peathscheit removed from said community. He was a bully, a thief and a scoundrel. He seldom paid his bills. He more than once threatened members of this community with the knife he carried, or otherwise promised bodily harm, when collection of bills was attempted. He frequently attempted to force his presence and attentions on our young ladies which was resented by everyone. His attentions to Agnes Colwich were especially disgraceful, and this committee commends, understands and thanks Henry and Milicent for their righteous disposition of Monte Peathscheit.
“ Monte Peathscheit seldom did his work as a farm hand or general laborer in the community well. Therefore, this committee recommends to the county that no public money be spent on a headstone or otherwise marked grave for him, but that his remains be placed in the unmarked portion of the cemetery usually reserved for vagrants, suicides and the poor.”
All of the committee members agreed the statement was a fine piece of work and it passed seven to zero.
At about that same time Garvey Oliphant had succeeded in circling the town, where he had no desire to be seen, and was arriving at the Green farm south of town, his horse kicking up the half-frozen mud when he came into the farm driveway.
Sheriff Jewel Blackstone heard Oliphant riding in, and stuck his face through a corner of the farmhouse front door. “Garvey, we’ve been expecting you. Just sling your gunbelt and pistol over the saddle horn, and come in for the moment unarmed, will you? Sorry to bother with that, but that’s the way I have to operate. “
Milicent Green got up from her chair to hug Garvey as he came in the door. “Hello, nephew, “she said. I knew you’d come as quick as you could when the sheriff sent for you. Thank you for being here in our time of need. Your cousin, Agnes, went tot stay with the relatives, probably Hank and Erma, yesterday. The Bogglemans took her in their wagon. They’ll explain what happened, and she’ll be fine until this is over. I think she scarcely knows what it’s all about.”
Then Sheriff Blackstone had him turn as he patted him down for other weapons. “Garvey, you should have told me you had the knife!”
“Sorry, Sheriff, I didn’t mean anything by it. It’s on my other belt, and I got used to the feel of it.”
“Well, I have to take it until we leave.”
Garvey thought she looked good considering everything that had happened, a bit gaunt and gray in the wrinkled elderly face if anything, but the blue eyes were still sharp and bright below her white hair and flowered house cap.
Then there was the sound of wagon wheels churning through the mud and the slopping clock of horse hooves as Deputy John Humboldt drove to the front gate with Henry Green already on the seat beside him.
“Well, Garvey,” said the sheriff, we’ll be leaving the rest of that pot of coffee and the farm to you. The deputy and I have to get Henry and Milicent to the jail for their own good, and just because it’s the law. Don’t worry, we’ll take good care of them. We think a lot of them too.”
Garvey followed the others to the wagon, and helped Milicent in. “Don’t fret about anything, Uncle Henry, or you either, Aunt Milicent. I’ll feed your horses, cattle, pigs and chickens, and check everything several times a day to make sure nobody’s messing around here to take advantage of the situation. I came prepared. The relatives probably know all about it before our little cousin gets there, bless her heart having to go through something like this because of someone like that. I should have been here to shoot him myself. Anyway, you take care, me and August and the folks love you both.”
Henry didn’t look as good to him. His eyes were swollen and red, set in big black circles on his round face. As a matter of fact, he seemed a little pathetic slumping wearily in the seat with the cold rain running off the brim of his hat. It seemed like the county ought to be able to afford a better cover on its wagon.
“Tell you what, Garvey,” said Sheriff Blackstone. “Raise your hand, and I’ll deputize you right quick. I’ll put it in the books when I get to town. That way if you shoot somebody thieving around here, it’s legal. You’ll just have to come to file a report with me.”
That night as the sun went down, as Milicent and Henry Green settled down in adjoining cells after eating meals of beef stew, August Oliphant rode his tired horse in at the home of Hank and Erma Hembel.
They were home, and after everything was explained twice over, Erma began to make up the extra room for Agnes with a pretty calico quilt on the bed with a doll that once had belonged to her daughters. August explained, “I saw them coming with the wagon a couple of hours back. Agnes was already asleep, just like a baby, with her chin down between the Boggelmans’.”
Hank Hembel wasted no time. He was the first person in the clan to own a motor vehicle, and he started up his Ford truck with the flat bed to begin the drive from farm to farm, arousing all of the men who might want to go with him to the trial. When they gathered the morning before the trial, there were 14 of them to take turns riding with their bed-rolls and lunches on the flat bed or in the truck cab with Hank. They would all get off to wade if they had to if the truck seemed to get boggled down crossing creeks. They would all have to push if the wheels got to spinning in the mud. They all agreed that it was nice to have the speed of the truck, but it had a long way to go in replacing horses in rough country.
It seemed that nearly every one of them had brought a shotgun, and some of them had two or three weapons. They agreed it would be unseemly to ride into the town all heavily armed, so Hank had a couple of them help him drag out a big wooden box with a padlock to put the guns and ammunition in. They put one tarp over the gun-box and added another big tarp for all the men on the back of the truck in case the weather turned worse.
The Hembels and all of the rest of the family along agreed they would abide by the law and the court’s decision, but they would bring the guns out if their cousin, Milicent, or her husband, Henry, were threatened with early lynching. They would be there for the Greens, innocent or guilty, but probably guilty they were afraid.
“Now, fellows,” Hank Hembel asked, “do we all agree we can just sit there while maybe the legal authorities are hanging Henry and Milicent. Or, is it better for some of you to go out to the Greens’ farm to wait for those of us who can?”
Perhaps Jim Hembel said it best, “Hank, there’s not a one of us can back out of going to a legal hanging if there’s to be one. We owe it to Milicent and Henry to see them through whatever happens.”
Everybody nodded their heads except tough August Oliphant who stood contemplatively with the ends of his sandy-brown mustache dripping with water because he had just come in.
Finally, Hank said, “August, you’d better put your guns in the box too, and you ride first in the front with me to talk this over.”
August said, “I guess you all know that Milicent did well when she married Henry Green. There’s no finer people than the two of them. They are saints to do what they’ve done for our Agnes.”
They all agreed, but they also all agreed that they had to stay within the law except in the case of a lynching.
They were all just as excited the next morning when it was time for the trial after sleeping out, and eating pork belly with fried potatoes, as the townspeople were. It was a nice day for a public event, crisp and cold, but bright and sunny with a light that seemed slowly to penetrate with its heat.
The merchants’ committee members and many among the townspeople were taken aback to see such robust relatives of Henry and Milicent Green arrive, but they seemed to relax when Sheriff Blackstone seemed unconcerned. The sheriff even deputized August Oliphant as an extra hand to uphold the law, and had him strap a handgun on besides carrying a shotgun.
Judge Barnaby Matsken was at the courthouse to preside over the trial. His stomach growled with the fruit and coffee he’d had for morning meal, his head hurt, and he swore to himself that he would have that new deputy with the big mustache shoot anyone who got out of hand.
The Greens sat at a table with their public defender, Norman Pfiester, who took a subtle look at his watch from time to time. He hoped this didn’t take too long. Everybody knew the Greens were guilty as sin, and the county didn’t pay him enough to be here very late even though he knew he had to do his best with what little material he could muster. He had coached the Greens to be evasive when questioned whether they had actually shot Monte Peithscheit because they had little other defense.
That would especially be true given the formidable attorney they had against them, Ikeston Bainesworth Goodfellow, better known as old I. B. Goodfellow himself. I. B. was feeling grouchy himself because he had stayed up late the night before playing checkers with his grandson, Oscar Bainesworth Goodfellow. The kid would probably be an attorney too given that he played checkers that well already, good head, good head. But I.B. Goodfellow was tired—best if he got to the chase of this matter quickly. Old men want peace.
Even the 12 men of the jury were tired. They had been sequestered for two days playing five card and pinochle over the courthouse plus devouring everything the county would feed them. Grown men rarely got such a vacation, and they stayed up late.
But they had no chance for a nap here. Old I. B. Goodfellow thundered out his opening statement saying the Greens were guilty of premeditated first degree murder, and justice demanded that they be hanged by the necks until they were dead. The Greens stared in fascination as much as anyone at I.B. Goodfellow’s contorted face and oratory skills, but their heads tilted backwards a couple of notches like they’d been struck with blows.
August Oliphant tapped the handle of his revolver with an index finger, and looked around the room.
Pfiester said the Greens were good people, and that they were responsible for the welfare of their grand daughter, Miss Agnes Colwich.
Goodfellow roared out that being responsible for a grand daughter was no defense for murder. Then he asked the judge for a recess that was granted to take the jurors over to the mortuary to see the shotgun holes in Monte Peithscheit.
Boulder Billings was irritated when I.B. Goodfellow told him to get his collection jar out of there, but he decided the publicity and donations to come later from this event made it worth it to reveal the tortured body to the “I’ll be’s” of the jurors.
The prosecutor called Henry Green as his first witness. “Now, Henry, Mr. Green it has to be in this case,” the old attorney smiled. “Mr. Green, tell us about the evening before the shooting of Monte Peithscheit. You discovered Peithscheit and your granddaughter, Agnes, in your barn, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I did Mr. Goodfellow.”
“Now raise your eyes, and look at the jury when you speak, Mr. Green. We want them to hear clearly what you say. Now, Mr. Green, what state was the clothing of Peithscheit in, and in what state was the clothing of Agnes in? Just tell us very clearly, Mr. Green.”
Henry Green gripped the arms of his chair. His face turned pale, and his eyes became glassy as he looked at the jury. “Our Agnes had her dress off, and Monte Peithscheit was pulling his pants down, Mr. Goodfellow.”
“And, Mr. Green, what did you say to them?”
“I told Peithscheit to get away from Agnes, to get out of there, and never come back again. I told him he was not to ever come near Agnes again. I told Agnes to get her clothes on, and she showed me her dress was torn.”
“Did Agnes say anything, Mr. Green?”
“Yes, she said she loved Monte Peithscheit, and that Monte Peithscheit loved her.”
“What did you think of her statement, Mr. Green?”
“I thought that my Agnes loves anybody who pays attention to her, and that she’s sweet that way. I thought that Monte Peithscheit probably never loved anyone in his life. He only considered his own pleasure.”
“What did Monte Peithscheit say back to you, Henry, Mr. Green?”
“He told me he was leaving because I had messed up his mood. But, that he would be back tomorrow, and he would be with Agnes when it pleased him. He said If I got in his way, he would give me a beating, and maybe worse.”
“Did he do anything else before he left, Mr. Green?”
“What was that, Henry?”
“He slapped my face, and pushed me down on the floor. He called me a stupid old man, and he kicked me.”
Deputy August Oliphant’s knuckles were turning white as he gripped his gunbelt. Many persons in the courtroom were sitting with open mouths.
“Now, Mr. Green, when did you see Monte Peithscheit again?”
“I saw him again the next evening, Mr. Goodfellow.”
“Where did you see him?”
“He was walking down my driveway toward me, coming into the farm.”
“Were you carrying anything?”
“Yes, my double-barrel shotgun.
“Was it loaded with bird shot?”
“No, it was loaded with big game shot.”
“Had you been watching for him all day?”
“What did you say to him?”
“I said I’d told him to stay off my place, and never come back, and that he better get on down the road.”
“What did he say?”
“He said I was an old fool, and that he was going to take the shotgun away from me, and stick it down my throat. Then he said he was going to stick my craw to my backbone. Then he started walking toward me.”
“What did you do?”
“I raised my shotgun, and fired one barrel into the front of his body, and he flipped over backwards.”
“That’s all for that witness, your honor.”
Judge Barnaby Matsken sniffed. Good thing old Goodfellow knew how to bring along a trial quickly. Of course he’d had an easy self-incriminating witness. “Defense,” Matsken said, “you got any questions for this witness?”
“No, your honor,” said Pfiester. The old man certainly hadn’t done much to be evasive. So much for honesty.
The sheriff decided to order August Ornsby outside to watch the door.
“The prosecution calls Millicent Green to the witness stand.”
Millicent Green swore to tell the truth, and gripped her dry throat with her hand.
“Mrs. Green, you heard what your husband just told us, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I heard him, I. B.”
“Were you there behind him?”
“Yes, I was.”
“What did you do?”
“I asked Henry if Peithscheit was dead, and he said he didn’t know for sure. So, I took the shotgun out of his hands, went up to Peithscheit, and kicked him in the side, but I couldn’t tell anything. Then I aimed the shotgun at his chest, and fired the other barrel just to make sure he was dead.”
“Did you know if he had his knife on him?”
“Well the sheriff said in his report that he had his knife on him. Don’t you think you should have looked to see if his knife was on him? Were you afraid he would do something anyway?”
“I was afraid he’d kill Henry, and maybe me too if I got in the way, and that then he’d take our Agnes.”
“That’s it, your honor,” I.B. Goodfellow said. “The prosecution rests.”
Judge Barnaby Matsken yawned, and swatted at a fly that was bothering him. “Defense, do you wish to question this witness, or call any witnesses yourself?”
Pfiester only had the merchant’s statement about the situation read to show what the community thought of Peithscheit, and had one farmer stand up to open his shirt to show how his ribs were still taped up from a beating by Peithscheit.
“Then,” said the judge, “prosecution, do you need a recess, or do you want to go right into your closing statement.”
“Your honor,” said I. B. Goodfellow, “I’ll just go right into my closing statement so we can all go home early.
“Gentlemen of the jury, I think you can tell readily enough that a verdict of first degree murder is called for from you by state law given that the defendants have confessed to this murder themselves. We can be brief here, and you can let us all call it a day.
“Now, I suppose the defense is going to call this justifiable homicide by reason of self-defense since he’ll probably say the Greens were in imminent danger of their own lives from the hands of this threatening and known town bully. But, we all know this was premeditated, that they thought out what would happen if Monte Peithscheit ever crossed the sights of that shotgun.”
Pfiester listened intently. What’s this that Goodfellow was saying?
Goodfellow continued,“He’s probably going to tell you that the Greens were acting to protect their grand-daughter when they killed poor Monte Peithscheit because how were they to know all he would do to her, or even if he might kill her after he ravished her given his foul reputation.
“But, I tell you, gentlemen of the jury, Monte Peithscheit was a human being, and he deserved the full protection of the law, even if he was a thug and we all the know the Greens are outstanding citizens. The prosecution rests.”
“Very interesting, Goodfellow,” said the Judge. “Defense, what do you have to say.”
Pfiester said, “Well, gentlemen of the jury, I call upon you to exercise your righteous consciences, and declare both of the Greens innocent by reason of justifiable homicide for self-defense. The case speaks for itself in the case of this villain.”
Judge Matsken gave a long pause, and stared at one attorney, then at the other one. “OK, gentlemen, most unusual. The jury will be sequestered at least one hour to consider a verdict while the rest of us recess. Sheriff, go talk to that Deputy Oliphant about peaking in the doorway like that. It’s unseemly.”
The jury decided the verdict in 10 minutes, and had time for one hand of pinochle before the judge called them back.
“Chairman of the jury, do you have a verdict?” the judge asked.
“We sure do, Judge,” said the chairman sticking his thumbs in his belt, rocking back on his heels, and giving a big smile. “It pleases the jury, your honor, to find both of the Greens innocent by reason of justifiable homicide for self defense.”
Milicent Green hugged I. B. Goodfellow, and thanked him for his fine prosecution.
Henry Green shook his hand too.
They both shook hands with Norman Pfiester too.
Judge Barnaby Matsken called Norman Pfiester into his office to advise that he really didn’t know if his talents were directed well in the practice of law, but that he was willing to give him another chance.
Pfiester ran for congress then, but folks say he didn’t prosecute his campaign well enough. He didn’t seem able to defend the criticism, so he went into corporate law.
The merchants’ committee members agreed the community chorus Christmas season concert the first week of December was a huge success. The Greens and some of their relatives, the Hembels, attended too. Agnes had a beautiful voice, so she began it all by singing Silent Night with the chorus joining in when it was obvious she wasn’t going to remember any more than the opening lines.
But Agnes was beautiful with her blonde hair and high pink cheek bones. Everybody agreed that when she smiled at a person, it could melt them to butter.
She went back with the Hembels and a more extended family to live.
The Oliphant brothers didn’t attend any of it. They had been away from their solitary lives in the hills too long, and their cattle needed attention.
The ladies of the community brought in their home-made wreaths and garlands of cedar. Everybody agreed it was the finest hanging of the greens ceremony they had ever seen.
Henry and Milicent Green sold their farm a year later, and followed Agnes to live closer to the Hembels.
Nobody checked to discover that Boulder Billings saved Monte Peithscheit’s casket for a later funeral, but still collected from the county for it. Nobody was there to see him put Peithscheit’s body in the hole. Sheriff Blackstone could have been there, but he told Billings to go on ahead by himself because he had a cold. The preacher Billings contacted said he was under the weather too, but he’d say a prayer for Peithscheit.
Nobody could find Peithscheit’s grave now because decades later the county unknowingly put an asphalt street over it, even though the poor remains of the bones are only a foot below where the graders dug.
“Such is the ephemeral nature of every human being.” At least that’s what I. B. Goodfellow told O. B. Goodfellow before he passed on.
Copyright 2008, Jerry W. Engler