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Josie Miller faced the meanest judge in the Wyoming Territory with a stolen watch in her pocket and a teary-eyed prostitute beside her.
Josie swore silently, then faced the makeshift witness stand and Judge Carl McSparren. She tried not to compare him to the polished, educated men she’d read law for back in New York City. After all, there was a time when she too had been just as rough around the edges as the man she now faced.
Truth was, even though she was an attorney, she hadn’t changed a whole lot. She still had to prove herself in a territory where law was more often associated with gunfights than trials. Like her adoptive mother, Dr. Annie, Josie was determined to demonstrate that even a woman with a past could succeed and she would start right here in this courtroom.
The “courtroom” was actually a saloon, and today it was filled with townspeople who had gathered to see what the lady lawyer would do next.
Until now, that hadn’t been much. Josie had helped Dr. Annie, in her medical clinic more than she’d practiced law. But that was changing. She finally had a case that enabled her to help someone who needed it most in the wild west—a woman. Her client was Ellie Allgood, a bar girl accused of stealing a customer’s gold watch. According to Ellie, Virgil Wayne had given it to her in payment of her “services.” Since Mr. Wayne was drunk at the time, she’d hidden the watch before he decided to reclaim it. And she’d done a pretty good job. Even the sheriff, Will Spencer, couldn’t find it when he searched her room. But that didn’t keep him from arresting the girl. In fact, if Ellie hadn’t told Josie where to look, the alleged stolen watch would not now be burning a hole in Josie’s pocket.
Though Josie never talked about it, even to Dr. Annie, she had seen just what Ellie’s line of work could do to a woman—her own mother had been a prostitute. Alone and desperate, there’d been no one to help her. That kind of life took away a woman’s humanity and made her give up all hope. Now Josie was determined to find a way to help Ellie make something of herself.
Ellie could return the watch to the stranger, but in Josie’s mind there was a bigger grievance at hand. The girl had performed a service, and she deserved to be paid. More importantly, Josie wasn’t about to let an innocent girl be found guilty. But unless she came up with a miracle, Ellie was going to be branded a thief.
Trying desperately to think up a plan, Josie approached her client’s accuser. “Now, Mr. Wayne, you say you came into this bar, the one in which we are presently located, for dinner and whiskey. What were you doing in Laramie?”
“Caught the Cold Springs Spur down here to ride the train over to Cheyenne.” He gave a broad grin and announced, “Getting married on Sunday.”
Josie gave the man a long, serious look. “I suppose that’s why you’re so dressed up?”
Wayne smiled and tugged proudly at the collar of his new black wool suit. “Yep. Marriage is a serious thing. My future pa-in-law is an important man, and I want him to know that I’m good enough to take care of his little girl.”
“And you say the gold pocket watch you were carrying was sent to you by your fiancée as a betrothal gift?”
“Generous gift. You’re pretty excited about getting married, are you?”
“I sure am.”
“Ever met the bride?” someone in the make-shift courtroom called out.
The onlookers laughed. The judge banged a shot glass he was using as a gavel on the bar and called for order. When the laughter stopped, he said, “Answer the question, Wayne.”
Mr. Wayne frowned. “Well, no, but I met her pa. They have a big cattle spread south of Cheyenne that I’ll have me a piece of, when we get hitched.”
Josie glanced over at her client. Ellie’s pale face had a defeated look that said she was ready to be found guilty. Josie shared her desperation, so she chose her words as carefully as if they were her last. “Mr. Wayne, if you were in such a hurry to get married, why didn’t you take the afternoon train to Cheyenne? Why stay over?”
“Well, I just thought I might have me a little pri- vate bachelor party before I took a wife. A man’s entitled, ain’t he?”
Josie sighed. When it came to prostitutes, men had all the rights.
“You bet!” an observer called out. “Once you wed Azzilee Gunther you won’t never have another party.”
Sounds of agreement filled the room. Azzilee Gunther’s far-from-attractive looks and terrible demeanor were well-known throughout the territory.
“Silence in the court!” the judge said, then turned to Wayne. “You do know she’s pug ugly, don’t you, son?”
He gulped. “I know, but I figure it won’t matter none in the dark.”
“Judge McSparren, I object!” Josie said sharply.
“So will Wayne when the lights come on,” one of the men shouted.
The courtroom rippled with laughter.
Josie bit her lip in frustration. “Mr. Wayne, according to Ellie, after your . . . ‘private bachelor party’ you had no money and so you offered her the watch in payment of her services.”
“I wouldn’t never have done that. It’s engraved special. Miss Azzilee would have my hide if anything happened to that watch. It . . . it belonged to her granddaddy.”
Josie knew that she’d bitten off a bitter chew. The word of a dance-hall girl against a man about to marry into a wealthy family would be hard to defend. And now that Wayne had revealed that the watch belonged to the bride’s granddaddy, the onlookers were beginning to grumble. The judge and the jury might tease Wayne, but they were solidly on his side. Even if she offered to return the watch, Ellie would be found guilty.
She took Ellie’s hand and gave it a sympathetic squeeze. If Dr. Annie and Dan hadn’t saved her from jail by taking her in and making her a member of the Miller family, Josie could have been Ellie. Suddenly, Josie felt a renewed determination. The Wyoming Territory had legally given women freedom, granting them the right to vote and hold office, but that wasn’t enough. She had to make these men recognize this freedom.
The judge filled his whiskey glass and tapped it on the bar. “You boys quiet down back there.”
The grumbling stopped when the judge addressed Josie. “Well, now, little lady, you ready to give up? The way I see it, unless you got more proof there ain’t no use wasting my time.”
“Wait just a second, Judge,” she said. “We believe we can offer proof that will contradict Mr. Wayne’s claim.”
Josie was beginning to see a way out. It meant reaching back into her past, a past she’d thought she’d left behind. Proving Ellie’s innocence wouldn’t come from upholding the law but from breaking it. If Josie failed, she’d be ruined. If her ruse worked, Ellie would be free.
“Mr. Wayne, how long would you say you occupied my client’s bed?”
“I don’t know. Maybe five, ten minutes, all tol’.”
“And did you remove your clothing?”
There was a gasp. Josie could tell from his expression that Wayne didn’t want to describe his actions.
“Uh, no, ma’am. I didn’t. I just unbuttoned my pants and she kinda laid herself on the bed.”
“And where was your watch?”
“In my coat pocket.”
“Is that the same coat you’re wearing now?”
“And were you wearing it when . . . when you unbuttoned your trousers?”
“No, ma’am. I wasn’t wearing it. Didn’t want to wrinkle it none. Hung it on the back of the chair.”
Josie turned to Ellie and whispered, “You sure you never saw the watch until you asked for your money?”
Josie turned back to Wayne. “And how much did Ellie charge you for this five minutes?”
“Ah . . . I don’t rightly remember. I’d had me a few drinks by then.”
“But you do remember taking precautions against losing your gold watch, don’t you?”
He looked startled. “Of course.”
“Mr. Wayne, if the watch was safely in your jacket pocket, then how did Ellie get it?”
“Well . . . it must have happened when—when—when she hugged me after.”
Ellie blanched and shook her head.
“She hugged you?”
A ripple of laughter broke out from the crowd.
Wayne grinned. “Yeah, reckon she was grateful.”
“Why don’t you show me how she hugged you, Mr. Wayne,” Josie said, walking toward the witness in the chair by the bar.
“Show me. Just stand up and pretend that I’m Ellie.”
“But I couldn’t do that, ma’am. I mean, you ain’t no—”
“Thief? Neither is Ellie. This is Wyoming and we pride ourselves on being fair, Mr. Wayne. This jury won’t convict a woman of theft unless you can show us how it happened.”
Josie swallowed hard, knowing that she was about to commit an illegal act. “I’m a little taller than Ellie, but tell me where she put her hands and where you put your hands.”
Wayne looked at the judge pleadingly.
“Hug her,” the judge said, a big grin now covering his face. “If that’s what she wants, hug her.”
What Josie wanted was to administer a little old- fashioned western justice to the judge. Instead, she waited for Wayne’s response.
Awkwardly, Wayne put his arms around Josie.
“And where were Ellie’s arms?” Josie said.
“I reckon they were around me.” His voice cracked from sheer nervousness.
Josie slid her hands inside his jacket, fumbling a bit as if she were uncertain, embarrassed even. “Like this?”
“Yes, that’s it.”
“And where was your watch?”
Wayne patted his chest. “It was right in here, in this coat pocket.”
Josie bit her lip to keep from smiling. “So you think she picked your pocket?”
“She did. That’s why I had her arrested.”
Wayne was beginning to sense trouble, but he couldn’t figure out where it was coming from.
Josie removed her arms from Wayne’s jacket and walked away from him.
“Let me ask you again, Mr. Wayne, are you sure you just didn’t lose your watch or maybe—since you’d been drinking—forget where you put it?”
“Course not. I always put it right here, in this inside pocket.” He poked two fingers inside and went silent. His eyes widened, and he seemed to have lost his voice.
“What’s wrong, Mr. Wayne?” Josie stepped back toward the frustrated bridegroom and took his hand by the wrist, pulling his fingers from the pocket. Curled around the fingers was a gold pocket watch. His eyes grew even wider.
“Is that your watch?” Josie asked. “Better let me check the inscription.”
She took it from his hand, flipped it open, and read aloud, “To Poopsie from Sweetie.” Josie turned to the judge. “Looks like Mr. Wayne made a mistake, Judge. That’s understandable. What do you say we dismiss the charges against Miss Allgood?”
Wayne began to stutter, “But . . . But . . . I know that girl had it. I gave it to her myself. I just meant to—”
“What’s that?” the judge said. “Did I understand you to say that you gave it to her?”
“Well, yes. I mean no.” Wayne began to backtrack. “I guess I just lost it. But it appears to be found now. So I reckon I’d better get on up the road.”
The judge shook his head. “Son, if you’re going to marry Azzilee Gunther, I guess you deserve a break. Case dismissed.”
“Not yet, Judge McSparren,” Josie said. “In the in- terest of justice, I insist that my client be paid. She performed a service for which she is owed a fee of”— she leaned toward Ellie, then straightened up—“two dollars. But because of the trouble he’s caused her, we’re asking an additional fifty cents in attorney’s fees to be donated to the Laramie City Fund for Women and Children.”
Judge McSparren looked at Josie in disbelief, then burst out laughing. “You know, girl, I think you’re right. Wayne, give Miss Allgood two dollars and fifty cents.”
“But, Judge, I done said, I ain’t got no money.”
The judge pursed his lips. “What about this, Miss Josie, suppose I have a little talk with Miss Azzilee’s pa. I’m guessing he’ll be more than happy to discreetly take care of Wayne’s bills.”
“That would be fine, Judge,” Josie agreed.
The judge leaned across the bar and gave Josie a stern look. “I don’t know how you pulled that watch business off, but it was a pretty slick move, and I know you didn’t learn it from a law book.”
“I don’t know what you mean Judge, but I thank you,” Josie said, and began to gather up her papers before he charged her with a crime. He had to realize that she’d committed a morally justified act.
“You do right good, for a woman,” the judge said. “Course, it comes natural, I reckon, with a mama who’s a doctor and a daddy who’s a government official. Hear your little sister’s smart, too. Guess it runs in the blood.”
“Thank you, Judge.” Josie could have told him that her sister, Laura, was the natural child in the family, while she herself was adopted. Josie’s real pedigree would have put the judge back a step. And it wouldn’t help her fledgling law career for the world to know she’d won her case because she was as good a pickpocket as she was a lawyer.
Ellie approached Josie with a grateful look. “I thank you, ma’am, fer getting me off,” Ellie said. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “I know you put that watch back in his pocket. Why’d you do it, Miss Miller? You could have gotten into some terrible trouble.”
“A person sometimes has to take a risk when she believes in her cause. You deserve to be paid.”
Ellie nodded and gave Josie a sudden smile.
“Now promise me you won’t earn any more money taking care of men.”
A quick wince crossed Ellie’s face, then disappeared. She nodded. “I promise.”
Ellie was leaving through the side door just as Sheriff Will Spencer came in. “Josie?” Will said in a worried voice, “somebody just brought word there’s a wounded man out at your house.”
“Holy hell, Dr. Annie and Dan have gone to Salt Lake City. How’d he get out there instead of the office here in town?”
“That Indian friend of your mama’s, Bear Claw, brought him.”
Josie stuffed her law books and papers into her carrying case. “I’d better get going,” she said as she pushed open the saloon doors and dashed across the street to the livery stable where old Solomon was still hitched up to the Miller buggy. Will followed close behind.
“I’ll ride out there with you,” Will said, “and we’ll bring him back to town.”
“Will, that’s not necessary. I don’t need protecting. I can look after myself.”
Will reached out to help her up into the buggy, but Josie didn’t wait. She lifted the mud-stained train of her walking dress, climbed up, plopped down on the seat and gathered the reins. “Let’s go boy, we’ve got an injured man at home.”
Will jumped into the buggy at the last minute. “I’m sure you can take care of yourself, Josie, but I’m coming with you.”
“All right,” Josie said impatiently. “Let’s go.”
The sheriff smiled. From the time Josie came to Laramie fourteen years ago, she’d been the most talked-about, envied, and admired female in the territory— outside of her ma, Dr. Annie. Everyone knew that Josie Miller tried to be a stern lady lawyer. She even dressed like one, corseting her curvaceous frame into the hourglass dresses now in style. Her honey blond hair refused to be confined in the curls of the times, so she braided it and pinned it in a knot. But the knot tended to slip and the strands escaped regularly. With her wide blue eyes and disheveled dress, her attempt to look like a professional attorney was doomed to failure. But she was smart. She knew the law and she knew almost as much about doctoring as her ma.
“What do we know about the patient?” Josie asked.
“Bear Claw said he found him west of the mountain. He kept talking about a black and white horse.”
“Black and white horse?” Josie was afraid she knew what Bear Claw was talking about. Some of the Sioux believed Death rode a black and white horse. Others believed the horse was just a messenger from the spirit world. If Bear Claw was right, she’d better get home quick.
“Did anyone else see the horse?”
“Not that I know of. Could be it belonged to the man.”
“Yeah. And it could be a maverick, running loose out there on the plains.” Josie gave Solomon another sharp rap, urging him into a trot. The buggy bumped across the ruts. Her hairpins fell out and her face was streaked with perspiration.
Will didn’t say anything else. And Josie concentrated on her driving. She had a peculiar feeling about this, a feeling of danger she hadn’t had in a long time. Something was about to happen. And it might not be as easy to fix as picking a pocket.