The Last Lynching in Cimarron

by Cyrus Townsend Brady

09/22/2015

At the little weather-beaten station one hot Sunday morning a single passenger alighted from the dirty car pulled by the rickety engine over the shaking railroad which was the tenuous link connecting Apache—“the flourishing city of Apache,” as the weekly (and weakly) Bazoo mendaciously described the town—with civilization. It was the Bishop of the diocese. As he stepped on the battered platform, valise in one hand and robe-case in the other, he knew that he was fixed for the next twenty-four hours: there was but one train a day, and Apache was fifty miles from anywhere or everywhere—a fact upon which the Bazoo dwelt with pride, as affording an undisputed monopoly in trade and cattle.

A tall, slender man was standing upon the platform when the Bishop arrived. In his appearance were mingled the ineradicable marks of hard and incessant toil, and painful evidences of an unusual delicacy of mind and body as well. Given more bodily strength and vigor, Eldred Johnstone would have been a typical frontier farmer, hunter, or cattle-man; given a little more delicacy, a little less roughness, and he might have been taken for a college professor or a clergyman from the East on a vacation.

He stepped eagerly toward the little Bishop, whom he overtowered to a degree, and led the way to a battered wagon, whose recent washing only revealed a shameless lack of paint. With pleasant nods of recognition to the agent and the forlorn group of human flotsam which daily repaired to the station “to see the cars go by,” the Bishop mounted beside his host, and with a click to the gaunt mule and flea-bitten bronco which made the team, the pair drove away.

A mile and a half distant lay a little huddle of dust-brown, sunbaked, weather-beaten buildings, toward which the road from the station wound like a drunken serpent. The town, through which they presently drove, consisted of one long street—Main Street, of course—with a few intersecting residence streets of varying lengths. Main Street was lined on both sides with stores, saloons, a post-office, a drugstore, an “opera house,” and a ramshackly “Palace Hotel,” all of frame. Two imposing brick buildings rose on different sides of the street—two-story buildings at that. One was occupied by the New York Emporium; upon its walls were painted in highly ornamental fashion these gigantic letters, L. O. L. P., which only the initiated knew signified “Leaders of Low Prices.” The other brick building was tenanted by the Cimarron County Bank. The Daltons had raided the town and robbed the bank once, other gentry of the same ilk had tried it a second time, and in anticipation or a third visit the interior of the bank resembled an arsenal. It was easier to draw a gun than a check there.

Wooden sidewalks humped along the irregular road in front of the stores like a horse with the “heaves,” and continued out into the country till they met the square, ugly little court-house, with its accompanying pendant, the jail, both of brick; opposite these two rose the frame public school—education and justice safely anchored by the prison.

The casual visitor to Apache would have looked in vain for a church steeple. But if he had gone down one of the side streets a short distance he might have seen an abandoned saloon, over the door of which a white sign had been nailed, whose black letters proclaimed that there was Trinity Mission, and that services were held there at irregular intervals by the Bishop, due notice being given. The church was open this morning, and after depositing the Bishop’s robes in the corner curtained off with red flannel for a vestry-room, Johnstone and his guest drove on to the farm on the outskirts of the town to prepare for service later on.

This was the only church in Apache—in fact, in the county. It enjoyed the same monopoly in religion that the town did in trade, and with about the same negative results. The inhabitants were proud of their church and their Bishop as well, and came loyally to the infrequent services when no game, fight, or man-hunt was on. They enjoyed the vigorous preaching to which they were subjected by the energetic Bishop, too.

Apache had not always rejoiced in a church. Some four years ago the Bishop had been holding services at Waywego, the nearest town to the north. After service a stranger came forward and invited him to Apache.

“We need you down there, Bishop,” he said, earnestly. “There’s murder, an’ gamblin’, an’ drinkin’, an’ lynchin’ goin’ on all the time. Seems like God’s got no show at all there. I’ve lived in them parts nigh onto thirty year—I come when there wasn’t nobody but Injuns an’ buffaler an’ me—an’ we ain’t never had a religious service sence I been there. There’s wimmin an’ childern there too. I’ve got some myself—w’ich I means childern, not wimmin—an’ none of ‘em ain’t been baptized. I was raised in this Church, an’—Will you come, sir?”

The Bishop came, and came again and again, and in spite of short-sighted local opposition, he established the church, baptized the children—some of them, that is—and stirred up the people generally. The town improved in manners and morals—not much, but perceptibly; nevertheless, gambling went on, of course, and drinking prevailed as before, but the public point of view gradually changed; men grew ashamed of these things, even if they did not stop them. The cowboys on the ranges used to say with emphatic disgust that “Apache had got religion and gone to hell!”—a double misstatement that. In only one particular was there no change—the vigilance committee, which comprised all the male citizens, still held its sessions; horse-stealing, murder (not killing in fair fight, be it understood), ill treatment of women—all these were expiated at the end of a rope in Judge Lynch’s swift and summary court.

The Bishop thundered against it apparently in vain. Presently he sent a clergyman to reside in the town and look after its spiritual welfare—and the only thing which presented itself was a young “failure” from England, in Holy Orders. He “crooked the pregnant hinges” of the elbow too easily! The Apaches, as they called themselves with grim pleasantry, found out his weakness, played upon it, made him gloriously drunk, and straightway relegated him to merited contempt. The Bishop removed him and tried again—another failure, and this time an old failure. Cimarron County had no more use for him than for his predecessor. Apache could only be preached to by a real man, and the indolent, tactless old makeshift never even gained a hearing. The Apaches preferred the Englishman; he could at least get drunk like a man and a brother! So the last man was worse than the first, and the Bishop removed him as well.

What was to be done? The religion, or lack of it, of Apache lay heavy upon his conscience; a church he would have or know the reason why, but for the present he was at his wits’ end. To him at this juncture came Johnstone. Like the prophet, he solved the dilemma by saying, “Here am I—send me!”

Johnstone was a man with a history. A plain farmer-boy of humble extraction, he had just entered the preparatory class of a little Eastern fresh-water college when the great war between the States broke out. Pennsylvania was menaced by invaders. He left school, volunteered for service, found himself in the front of the battle-line at Gettysburg almost before he had learned to handle his rifle, and a short time after lay wounded and ill in Libby Prison. When he was exchanged, long after, he was but a shadow of his former self, broken in health; with the seeds of a pulmonary trouble sown in his system, the outlook was a sad one. His father had died in the interval, his mother long since; the college course and his subsequent goal, the Episcopal ministry, were of necessity abandoned. In this strait he did two things—a wise and a foolish. He married and went West. He was the pioneer in Cimarron County. Hard work, open-air life, the high altitude of his prairie farm, and the dry climate held consumption in check, and he lived—lived with a daily threat hanging over him. Children were born to him with unvarying regularity; rain or shine the crop never failed, until the wife, weary from much mothering, gave up the struggle, and transferring the remainder of her vital force to the latest born, quietly sought that rest which is at once the hope and the desert of the wife of the frontier. The children, weak constitutionally and ill nourished, nearly all died in infancy, and Johnstone was left at this time with Rena, a girl of eighteen, and a little boy of three. Rena kept house for him when her mother died, and life went on as before. She was a pretty girl, with her father’s delicacy of mind and body, and the undisputed belle of Apache. All the unmarried men adored her.

When the last aspirant from the East retired, Johnstone offered himself for the work in these words:

“If you think I can do it, Bishop, an’ you’re willin’ to trust me, you can make me a Deacon, an’ I’ll carry on the services. I’ll do what I can. When I first went to college it was with the hope of becomin’ a minister some day, but the war an’ this,” laying his thin hand on his hollow chest, “knocked it all out. I’ve forgot most of what I learned, but I was raised right, an’ I guess it’ll come back if you help me. There ain’t much left of me now, but what there is is the Lord’s, an’ He’s welcome to me if you think He wants me.”

The Bishop accepted the offer, and decided in due course to ordain him to the perpetual diaconate after such preparation as could be given him. He had come to Apache that day to do it.

The ex-saloon was never so crowded—no, not in the palmy days when it had run the biggest game and kept the best whiskey in the Territory—as it was that Sunday morning. The entire population turned out to see “Ol’ El’ Johnstone made inter a preacher.” A queer figure he looked in the long black cassock, but there was a strange look in his thin face which stilled laughter and quenched mockery. Rena wept softly, and the good women in the front seats wept with her, while even “Tearaway Mag” and her guilty sisters in the back of the church were strangely moved.

The Bishop never preached better than on that day. He spoke of the first Macedonian cry which had come to him from Apache through this man; he referred to the fruitless efforts made to keep the church going, and the gradual improvement that he saw in spite of failures. He dwelt upon the hopes he cherished now that God had raised up a man from among them to minister to them. Then he turned to Johnstone, standing erect in the crowded room, so very still, and poured out his soul to the man in passionate appeal and inspired prophecy. To him the Bishop committed the wild flock, confident that he would not be found wanting. “Kind of a religious cowpuncher,” remarked Lone-hand Pete, with no thought of irreverence, “to round us all up in God’s corral.”

Johnstone knelt down with a shaking heart while apostolic hands were laid upon his head, and when he faced the congregation again in his snow-white surplice, with the stole crossed over his breast, he looked as an ancient crusader might have—half soldier, half saint, all man. That was the Bishop’s first triumph in Apache. The old farmer took off his vestments, and during the week went back to his plough, laboring for his meager daily bread. On Sundays he talked to the people who crowded the church to hear him. Neither logic nor eloquence nor learning was in those talks, but God spake with him. Apache had a man at last; they respected him, and were satisfied if not converted. The improvement in manners and morals continued—except in the matter of lynching. The community was a law unto itself in that particular. But with an eye single to that end the Bishop effected another mighty revolution—his second triumph.

The community was dazed when he persuaded Lone-hand Pete, the most successful gambler of the vicinity, to give up cards and run for Sheriff. When elected, through the Bishop’s unbounded influence, he announced that hereafter the law had to be respected, and public or private vengeance did not go any more. The ex-gambler was known as the quickest man on the draw, the surest shot, and the coolest man in Cimarron County—and that was the world, as far as Apache was concerned. With Johnstone in the pulpit and Pete in the jail, the Bishop thought that society in Apache was protected at both ends sure.

When the Sheriff said he would have no more lynching, the men only smiled. When Johnstone argued against it, they allowed that he was right enough in theory, but theories did not go in Apache. If any man laid a hand on their “wimmin or hosses”—let him look out; neither pulpit nor jail should protect him. In the face of such threats Pete swore softly and looked to his “weepins,” and Johnstone prayed and argued more zealously than ever, and they both waited.

There drifted into the town one day a negro who signalized his arrival by robbing the New York Emporium. The Sheriff, who had been thirsting for some excitement, captured and promptly jailed the criminal. He was tried, found guilty, sentenced, and served his term. When he was released he fell ill. Johnstone, who had visited him often in prison, nursed him back to health, and finally, since no one else would take him, gave him work upon his farm. As was his nature, he trusted him entirely.

Johnstone came back to his house one afternoon from a long ride to visit the sick wife of a distant cattle-man to find the negro gone. The baby was not at the gate to greet his father as he rode up; he was not playing about the yard either. No one answered his call. It seemed unusually still around the house. Letting the reins fall to the ground, Johnstone sprang from his cayuse and ran toward the door. “Rena!” he called, “Rena!” as he ran. There was no one in the kitchen. He stopped on the threshold a moment, and a low moan broke the ghastly silence. He ran to the next room. In a corner, in a doubled-up heap, his neck broken by the force with which he had apparently been thrown against the wall, lay the little boy—dead. At his feet Rena was stretched on the floor. She was bruised and broken, livid and bloody, but faintly alive and feebly moaning. She had not given up without the instinctive and desperate struggle of assailed womanhood; her clothing was in rags; the furniture was disordered and broken. These things he noted in one swift glance as he sank on his knees beside her. There were black marks around her neck, prints of fingers; in one clinched hand there was a piece of torn cloth; he recognized it—it was from an old coat of his own which he had given to the negro.

As he knelt by her in dumb agony she lifted her head, opened her eyes—how vividly bright and blue they were he noticed even then—looked hard at him for a moment, murmured something incoherently, and fell back dead. He lifted her gently and laid her on the bed, closed her eyes softly, and put the baby down by her side. Then he covered the two silent figures with a blanket, stood still a moment, and then turned to the corner, and picking up his Winchester rifle and his gun (revolver), he walked rapidly through the house and yard, sprang on his horse, and galloped madly away toward the town.

In the streets he found mounted men already assembling; they were all armed, and two or three of them carried long new Manila ropes, one end forming a noose. A fierce discussion among them died away as Johnstone rode up. In view of their patent purpose, the men eyed him askance, scarcely knowing what to expect from him. There was a gray look of determination on the thin face which was unusual,

“Boys!” he asked at last, “what are ye goin’ to do?” His voice was dry and husky, and he spoke with evident effort. There was a further silence.

“Goin’ to ketch yer nigger an’ lynch him,” finally replied one of the men, defiantly. “He run off with Joe Key’s hoss arter most killin’ the boy was leadin’ him,” continued the man.

“An’ don’t you say nothin’ to hender us, nuther, El’ Johnstone,” cried another.

A perfect roar of shouts and curses broke from the men clustering about the preacher. Johnstone sat his horse in unmoved silence until the noise died down somewhat, then he laughed, and the men stopped to listen. Such a laugh would silence a madman.

“Come with me!” he cried, turning sharply and galloping off.

The wondering crowd followed him at once. When they reached his house he dismounted, and fed them all into it.

They crowded through the kitchen and filled the back room. He tore the blanket from the bed.

The rough men stared at the woman and the baby. Hands went to hats, faces flushed, breaths came deeper.

“Good God!” whispered one.

“The sweetest and prettiest girl in the country,” muttered another.

“The baby, too—poor little kid!” cried a third.

Young Bug Trego stepped softly to the bed-side and laid his hand on Rena.

“Boys,” he said, brokenly, “I—I—loved her! W’at are ye goin’ to do?”

Johnstone turned and grasped him by the hand; there was a quick interchange of fierce glances between the two.

“Let’s git out o’ here; we’re wastin’ time,” promptly cried Jim Wallace, the keeper of the hotel. The men crowded through the rooms again, sprang to their horses, and galloped down the road, Johnstone swaying in his saddle, like a drunken man, in the lead, Trego and Wallace by his side.

Over the prairie two horsemen were riding furiously—one was the Sheriff and the other was the black man, a prisoner, bound to his horse. They were desperately endeavoring to reach the jail. The mob caught sight of them and raced after them. The crowd was nearer the jail than the two, better mounted than the negro, and they rapidly overhauled the fugitives. The Sheriff, dropping the reins of his horse, but keeping tight hold of the lariat attached to the negro, turned in his saddle and fired at the nearest pursuer. Bug Trego saw the motion; with a quick jerk he threw his horse into the air. The animal received the bullet, staggered, and fell. Bug disengaged himself and ran along the prairie. A dozen shots rang out in reply, and the horses of the Sheriff and his prisoner went down instantly to the ground. The Sheriff alighted on his feet; he still held the end of the lariat. The man turned about instantly, and, pistol in hand, confronted the man, who now dismounted. His courage was magnificent. Not for nothing had he been called Lone-hand Pete. He was playing one now—the hardest he ever undertook.

“Back!” he cried. “He’s my prisoner. I’m going to keep him. Don’t come no nearer. I’ll put a bullet into the first man that moves.”

The crowd stopped irresolutely.

“You don’t know w’at he’s done, Pete,” cried Wallace. “Ain’t only hoss-stealin’; it’s Johnstone’s gal an’ the kid—Rena, you know. That black hound’s done ’em to death.”

The Sheriff turned white under his tan. He too had loved the girl—secretly and from a distance, be it said—but his hand never trembled as he held the pistol pointed at the eager crowd. With his left hand he twitched the rope tied about the prostrate negro.

“Git up!” he cried, sprung the man with his foot. The man staggered to his feet. “Did you do it, you dog?” queried the Sheriff, hoarsely.

The man nodded unwillingly. “Ya’, suh, I did it. Oh, fo’ Gord’s sek, suh, doan’ let ‘em tek me, suh.” He sank down at the Sheriff’s feet again, groveling, writhing, and shrieking.

“You see how ‘tis, Sheriff. Give the man up!” Cried Wallace, fiercely.

“No! by G-d! Duty! I won’t do it. The law’s got to be preserved this day. Back!” he cried again.

A roar of rage was blasted up from the crowd, pistols were thrust forward, but the Sheriff stood there pale but undaunted, the negro clinging to his feet. Johnstone forced his way to the front.

“Pete, he’s my man. I treated him kind; I took him in; an’ in return he’s done Rena an’ the kid to death. Give him to me; I’ve got to have him.”

“Not to you nor to no man. What’d the Bishop—”

A revolver-shot rang out—two, in fact. Bug Trego had crawled, unobserved in the excitement, far to the right of the Sheriff, his revolver cracked, and the bullet broke the Sheriff’s arm. Before his gun fell he managed to pull the trigger. The bullet went wild, and the next moment the crowd was on him. He struggled desperately, but was at once overpowered and dragged back. The negro, screaming and babbling with terror, was jerked to his feet and held erect, while Johnstone cast a rope about his neck, the end of which was thrown over the low branch of a stunted cottonwood. With the readiness born of long practice the men tailed on to it. Then there was a pause.

“Say a prayer if you kin!” cried Wallace to the frightened negro. “We don’t lynch no man without givin’ him a chance to pray.”

But no prayer came from the criminal. The voice of the Sheriff now broke forth once more.

“Men, think what you’re doin’. The law will settle with him. Give him back to me an’ I’ll see justice done. Ef you don’t, I’ll arrest every one of you. I know you all—”

“Oh, string him up, boys, and let’s have done with this!” cried Trego.

“Wait!” shrieked the Sheriff. “You dare not hang him. I promised the Bishop, an’ I can’t go back on my word. You, Johnstone, you’re a preacher—a minister of the gospel. You’ve spoke agin this thing over and over. Where’s your honesty? A nice deal you’re givin’ us! Are you goin’ to let this go on? A nice Christian you are, leadin’ a mob! What I say I do. Yes, I know you loved her, Bud Trego; so did I. For God’s sake, Johnstone…”

A voice whispered to Johnstone’s soul, a light shined in his heart; the men saw it in his face as he staggered out in the open between the mob and the negro.

“Boys,” he cried, brokenly, “the Sheriff’s right. He’s the best Christian among us. Vengeance is God’s, not ourn. The law…” He turned swiftly, and before the astonished men could stop him, cast off the noose and cut the lashing, so that the negro stood forth unbound and free. “Let the law take its course,” he cried. And then he fell at the negro’s feet, blood gushing from his mouth. The long-deferred catastrophe had come at last; the hemorrhage was sudden and awful. Life rushed from him, but again the voice spoke to him; there was something else he could do. “I forgive him,” he said. The words frothed through the blood and foam. A moment after, no longer able to speak, he lifted himself on his left arm, and with his right hand traced a few words in the dust in which he lay.

“Law— For…” He fell forward, with his lips upon the unfinished word—dead.

The men stood about in awe-struck silence as the negro stooped down and turned the body over; his hands were red-wetted in the act.

“His blood’s on my han’s!” he cried, shudderingly, as he rose to his feet. No one moved or spoke. “Gemmen,” he continued, “I’m ready ter die, an’ I wants ter. I done it. I was mad, an’ I’m sorry. I wisht I hadn’t. You can tek yer will o’ me.” He slipped the rope about his neck again and stepped over Johnstone’s body toward the crowd. The Sheriff, one arm bloody and dangling, stepped forward and seized him by the shoulder. “You’re my prisoner,” he said, slowly; “the law will deal with you.”

“Ya’, suh,” said the negro, quietly. His courage had come back with Johnstone’s words. “I’s willin’ ter go wid you. He fergib me.”

And no man hindering, the two walked through the crowd and entered the jail.

Everybody in Cimarron County came to the funeral of the father, the daughter, and the little son. The Bishop, summoned by telegraph, was there and conducted the services, and Trego, Wallace, and the Sheriff were chief among many mourners. There was a public meeting that night to consider a monument to Johnstone. The Bishop presided, and after discussing various elaborate, ornate, and extravagant propositions, they finally decided, at the instigation of the Bishop, that the best monument to the humble preacher would be to have no more lynchings in Cimarron County forever. And that was unanimously passed, Jim Wallace making and Bud Trego seconding the motion.

Then they passed the hat and took up a generous collection to build a new church with a proper steeple to it, if the Bishop would promise to send them a minister again.

“Men,” said the Bishop, when this question was put to him at the meeting, “I already have a preacher for you. One man, I am glad to say, has volunteered to fit himself for the work our hero has just laid down. I have agreed to prepare him and assist him. His acceptance of this great trust will leave an official vacancy in Cimarron County. After his ordination you will be called upon to elect another Sheriff.”

And just here Lone-hand arose by the Bishop’s side and faced the meeting. There was a stern look in his eyes, they had seen it before, and they knew that he was in earnest.


Originally published in Harper’s Magazine, January 1901. Appeared in This Land: Summer 2015.