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It was a warm spring evening near sunset in 1897, when the red-headed stranger rode into the little town of Rosarita, Texas, tied his horse to the hitching-post in front of the Little Nugget Saloon, then walked inside and shot the owner, Race Jago, dead.
While everyone was startled into immobility, he placed his pistola upon the bar top, and looked around.
"Well?" he asked. "Ain't nobody gonna call th' sheriff?"When Walt Jessup arrived, buckling his gunbelt around his big belly and puffing with the exertion of sprinting the two blocks from his office, the stranger calmly surrendered the gun. He admitted that he'd shot Jago in cold blood, and then went docilely with the sheriff to jail, leaving the townspeople with Jago's dead body and a thousand questions.
It took all of fifteen minutes before some enterprising citizen with an eye toward publicity raced to the newspaper office, and perhaps another ten before that same someone sent a messenger to the telegraph office to dispatch a notice to a key newspaper in the state capitol at Austin.
Rosarita was the kind of place the dime novel writers described as a sleepy border town, and this was the most exciting-albeit disturbing-thing that had happened in two dozen years. So exciting, in fact, that it gained the pueblo more than a little notoriety across the state.
While shoot-outs and violent deaths were an expected occurrence in the smaller towns scattered throughout the remote reaches of the Panhandle, the gunning down of an unarmed citizen in front of so many witnesses was not. The city of Dallas sent a reporter to cover the trial; straight on his heelsarrived another reporter from Austin, complete with a photographer loaded with tripod, camera, and chemicals. The Austin reporter, thinking he had the 'scoop' of the decade, set to interviewing the prisoner and found his expectations dashed.
The stranger was totally uncooperative, turning his back on his questioner, and staring out the tiny jailhouse window as if something fascinating lurked outside the bars. Undaunted, the reporter spoke to the witnesses. Surely, there would be numerous stories on which he could build a series of articles on the lawlessness that existed in the state in spite of the country's emergence into the Twentieth Century, and his editor would think that would merit him an outstanding pay raise.
To his surprise, they all told the same story with little variation and no details:
The stranger walked into the saloon, saw the deceased standing at the bar talking to an acquaintance, and called out softly .
Jago turned around, saying in surprise, "Brennan?"
The killer calmly pulled his Colt from his holster, and fired. He couldn't miss at that range. Point-blank, at six feet. There was a look of total shock-some added, disbelief-on Race Jago's face as he fell into the sawdust covering the saloon's floor. He died without saying another word. In the face of this setback the reporter retired to his hotel room with a bottle of whisky and a sharpened pencil. The next day, he telegraphed to his editor the opening Chapter Of A Total Fabrication Account Of The Dastardly Act, Quoting Eyewitness Accounts of how the "grim-visaged stranger burst into the saloon, black death in his fiery eyes", drawing his revolver and sending a spray of bullets around the walls, while crying out the owner's name, wounding several innocent bystanders and destroying the entire inventory of liquor stacked behind the bar, before killing "the honest proprietor, Race Jago", and finally being subdued by a dozen brave souls who responded to the sound of gunshots at the risk of their own lives.During his trial, which was held with downright haste, the stranger was equally taciturn, refusing to tell them little more than his name.
"Lucas Brennan, yer Honor," he said. He gave no reason as to why he'd killed Jago, except to say, "Th' bastard needed killin', so I done it."Rather than listen to 27 recountings of the same story, the prosecutor called only three witnesses. Banker Albert Hardy was as stiff and staid as his starched collar and embarrassed at having to admit that he was in the saloon at midday when he should have been protecting his depositors' accounts. Joe Grady was a wrangler from a nearby ranch. Sadie Alvarez was one of Jago's "girls", dusky-skinned with impossibly straw-blond hair, who sat uncomfortably in the witness chair in her respectable clothes, a long-skirted gabardine suit with a high collared, leg-o'-mutton sleeved jacket, both of which had seen better days and were made for a much slimmer Sadie.
She preened, when the prosecutor called her, "Miss Alvarez," and told her account of the incident with little embellishment and a great deal of sincerity. All the witnesses supplied the same details in almost the same words: the stranger walked into the saloon, called the owner's name, Jago turned, recognized him, and the stranger shot him. None of them had any idea why it had happened, though many had mulled over various reasons and rejected them all.The Little Nugget was the only saloon in town, so the stranger couldn't be a gunslinger hired by a competitor. Jago was relatively honest in his dealings. His girls were clean and had never given a customer a dose of the clap, though the resident tinhorn cheated the players who sat in on his poker games. And he did water down his whisky and charge too much for it, but you didn't shoot a man for a little thing like that. Did you?When the stranger was called to the stand to testify in his own defense, the townsfolk thought that now they would learn the where-tos and why-fors of the murder.
A hush settled over the courtroom as he rose and walked to the witness seat in a controlled and steady amble, and they all leaned forward to catch his words.
They were disappointed.
The stranger placed his hand upon the Bible that the clerk supplied.
Brennan muttered, "I do," and took his seat next to the table where the Right Honorable Jason McIntyre, rapidly earning a reputation as a harsh magistrate and a 'hanging judge', was seated.He gave his name. "Lucas Brennan.
"Place of residence?"
"Nowhere in particular."
He affirmed the prosecutor's question, that yes, he had shot Race Jago, and then his cooperation ceased. He sat mute under the barrage of questions the lawyer asked, until Judge McIntyre, uncomfortable in his formal frockcoat and high collar and tightly wrapped cravat, burst out in exasperation.
"Listen, Brennan, answer the questions, or I'll…" He stopped as Brennan turned toward him, something in the stranger's face stifling the rest of his words."What'll ya do, Jedge?" came the question, with barely concealed contempt. "Throw me in th' hoosegow?"For an instant, the judge was unable to speak, startled by Brennan's effrontery. His face reddened and he appeared to be choking. Then he made a sharp gesture.
"You're dismissed! Get back to your seat."
Copyright © 2007 Toni V. Sweeney.