The Boy Orator Of Zepata City
by Richard Harding Davis
The day was cruelly hot, with unwarranted gusts of wind which swept
the red dust in fierce eddies in at one end of Main Street and out at
the other, and waltzed fantastically across the prairie. When they had
passed, human beings opened their eyes again to blink hopelessly at
the white sun, and swore or gasped, as their nature moved them. There
were very few human beings in the streets, either in Houston Avenue,
where there were dwelling-houses, or in the business quarter on Main
Street. They were all at the new court-house, and every one possessed
of proper civic pride was either in the packed court-room itself, or
standing on the high steps outside, or pacing the long, freshly
calcimined corridors, where there was shade and less dust. It was an
eventful day in the history of Zepata City. The court-house had been
long in coming, the appropriation had been denied again and again; but
at last it stood a proud and hideous fact, like a gray prison,
towering above the bare, undecorated brick stores and the frame houses
on the prairie around it, new, raw, and cheap, from the tin statue on
the dome to the stucco round its base already cracking with the sun.
Piles of lumber and scaffolding and the lime beds the builders had
left still lay on the unsodded square, and the bursts of wind drove
the shavings across it, as they had done since the first day of
building, when the Hon. Horatio Macon, who had worked for the
appropriation, had laid the corner-stone and received the homage of
It seemed a particularly happy and appropriate circumstance that the
first business in the new court-room should be of itself of an
important and momentous nature, something that dealt not only with the
present but with the past of Zepata, and that the trial of so
celebrated an individual as Abe Barrow should open the court-house
with éclat, as Emma Abbott, who had come all the way from San
Antonio to do it, had opened the new opera-house the year before. The
District Attorney had said it would not take very long to dispose of
Barrow's case, but he had promised it would be an interesting if brief
trial, and the court-room was filled even to the open windows, where
men sat crowded together, with the perspiration running down their
faces, and the red dust settling and turning white upon their
Abe Barrow, the prisoner, had been as closely associated with the
early history of Zepata as Colonel Macon himself, and was as widely
known; he had killed in his day several of the Zepata citizens, and
two visiting brother-desperadoes, and the corner where his
gambling-house had stood was still known as Barrow's Corner, to the
regret of the druggist who had opened a shop there. Ten years before,
the murder of Deputy Sheriff Welsh had led him to the penitentiary,
and a month previous to the opening of the new court-house he had been
freed, and arrested at the prison gate to stand trial for the murder
of Hubert Thompson. The fight with Thompson had been a fair fight—so
those said who remembered it—and Thompson was a man they could well
spare; but the case against Barrow had been prepared during his
incarceration by the new and youthful District Attorney, "Judge" Henry
Harvey, and as it offered a fitting sacrifice for the dedication of
the new temple of justice, the people were satisfied and grateful.
The court-room was as bare of ornament as the cell from which the
prisoner had just been taken. There was an imitation walnut clock at
the back of the Judge's hair-cloth sofa, his revolving chair, and his
high desk. This was the only ornament. Below was the green table of
the District Attorney, upon which rested his papers and law-books and
his high hat. To one side sat the jury, ranch-owners and prominent
citizens, proud of having to serve on this the first day; and on the
other the prisoner in his box. Around them gathered the citizens of
Zepata in close rows, crowded together on unpainted benches; back of
them more citizens standing and a few awed Mexicans; and around all
the whitewashed walls. Colonel John Stogart, of Dallas, the prisoner's
attorney, procured obviously at great expense, no one knew by whom,
and Barrow's wife, a thin yellow-faced woman in a mean-fitting showy
gown, sat among the local celebrities at the District Attorney's
elbow. She was the only woman in the room.
Colonel Stogart's speech had been good. The citizens were glad it had
been so good; it had kept up the general tone of excellence, and it
was well that the best lawyer of Dallas should be present on this
occasion, and that he should have made what the citizens of Zepata
were proud to believe was one of the efforts of his life. As they
said, a court-house such as this one was not open for business every
day. It was also proper that Judge Truax, who was a real Judge, and
not one by courtesy only, as was the young District Attorney, should
sit upon the bench. He also was associated with the early days and
with the marvellous growth of Zepata City. He had taught the young
District Attorney much of what he knew, and his long white hair and
silver-rimmed spectacles gave dignity and the appearance of calm
justice to the bare room and to the heated words of the rival orators.
Colonel Stogart ceased speaking, and the District Attorney sucked in
his upper lip with a nervous, impatient sigh as he recognized that the
visiting attorney had proved murder in the second degree, and that an
execution in the jail-yard would not follow as a fitting sequence.
But he was determined that so far as in him lay he would at least send
his man back to the penitentiary for the remainder of his life.
Young Harry Harvey, "The Boy Orator of Zepata City," as he was called,
was very dear to the people of that booming town. In their eyes he was
one of the most promising young men in the whole great unwieldy State
of Texas, and the boy orator thought they were probably right, but he
was far too clever to let them see it. He was clever in his words and
in his deeds and in his appearance. And he dressed much more carefully
than any other man in town, with a frock-coat and a white tie winter
and summer, and a fine high hat. That he was slight and short of
stature was something he could not help, and was his greatest, keenest
regret, and that Napoleon was also short and slight did not serve to
satisfy him or to make his regret less continual. What availed the
sharply cut, smoothly shaven face and the eyes that flashed when he
was moved, or the bell-like voice, if every unlettered ranchman or
ranger could place both hands on his shoulders and look down at him
from heights above? But they forgot this and he forgot it before he
had reached the peroration of his closing speech. They saw only the
Harry Harvey they knew and adored moving and rousing them with his
voice, trembling with indignation when he wished to tremble, playing
all his best tricks in his best manner, and cutting the air with
sharp, cruel words when he was pleased to be righteously just.
The young District Attorney turned slowly on his heels, and swept the
court-room carelessly with a glance of the clever black eyes. The
moment was his. He saw all the men he knew—the men who made his
little world—crowding silently forward, forgetful of the heat, of the
suffocating crush of those about them, of the wind that rattled the
doors in the corridors, and conscious only of him. He saw his old
preceptor watching keenly from the bench, with a steady glance of
perfect appreciation, such as that with which one actor in the box
compliments the other on the stage. He saw the rival attorney—the
great lawyer from the great city—nervously smiling, with a look of
confidence that told the lack of it; and he saw the face of the
prisoner grim and set and hopelessly defiant. The boy orator allowed
his uplifted arm to fall until the fingers pointed at the prisoner.
"This man," he said, and as he spoke even the wind in the corridors
hushed for the moment, "is no part or parcel of Zepata City of to-day.
He comes to us a relic of the past—a past that has brought honor to
many, wealth to some, and which is dear to all of us who love the
completed purpose of their work; a past that was full of hardships and
glorious efforts in the face of daily disappointments, embitterments,
and rebuffs. But the part this man played in that past lives
only in the rude court records of that day, in the traditions of the
gambling-hell and the saloons, and on the headstones of his victims.
He was one of the excrescences of that unsettled period, an unhappy
evil—an inevitable evil, I might almost say, as the Mexican
horse-thieves and the prairie fires and the Indian outbreaks were
inevitable, as our fathers who built this beautiful city knew to their
cost. The same chance that was given to them to make a home for
themselves in the wilderness, to help others to make their homes, to
assist the civilization and progress not only of this city, but of the
whole Lone Star State, was given to him, and he refused it, and
blocked the way of others, and kept back the march of progress, until
to-day, civilization, which has waxed great and strong—not on account
of him, remember, but in spite of him—sweeps him out of its way, and
crushes him and his fellows."
The young District Attorney allowed his arm to drop, and turned to the
jury, leaning easily with his bent knuckles on the table.
"Gentlemen," he said, in his pleasant tones of every-day politeness,
"the 'bad man' has become an unknown quantity in Zepata City and in
the State of Texas. It lies with you to see that he remains so. He
went out of existence with the blanket Indian and the buffalo. He is
dead, and he must not be resurrected. He was a picturesque evil
of those early days, but civilization has no use for him, and it has
killed him, as the railroads and the barb-wire fence have killed the
cowboy. He does not belong here; he does not fit in; he is not wanted.
We want men who can breed good cattle, who can build manufactories and
open banks; storekeepers who can undersell those of other cities; and
professional men who know their business. We do not want
desperadoes and 'bad men' and faro-dealers and men who are quick on
the trigger. A foolish and morbid publicity has cloaked men of this
class with a notoriety which cheap and pernicious literature has
greatly helped to disseminate. They have been made romantic when they
were brutal, brave when they were foolhardy, heroes when they were
only bullies and blackguards. This man, Abe Barrow, the prisoner at
the bar, belongs to that class. He enjoys and has enjoyed a reputation
as a 'bad man,' a desperate and brutal ruffian. Free him to-day, and
you set a premium on such reputations; acquit him of this crime, and
you encourage others to like evil. Let him go, and he will walk the
streets with a swagger, and boast that you were afraid to touch
him—afraid, gentlemen—and children and women will point after
him as the man who has sent nine others into eternity, and who yet
walks the streets a free man. And he will become, in the eyes of the
young and the weak, a hero and a god. This is unfortunate, but it is
"Now, gentlemen, we want to keep the streets of this city so safe that
a woman can walk them at midnight without fear of insult, and a man
can express his opinion on the corner without being shot in the back
for doing so."
The District Attorney turned from the jury with a bow, and faced Judge
"For the last ten years, your honor, this man, Abner Barrow, has been
serving a term of imprisonment in the State penitentiary; I ask you to
send him back there again for the remainder of his life. It will be
the better place for him, and we will be happier in knowing we have
done our duty in placing him there. Abe Barrow is out of date. He has
missed step with the march of progress, and has been out of step for
ten years, and it is best for all that he should remain out of it
until he, who has sent nine other men unprepared to meet their God—"
"He is not on trial for the murder of nine men," interrupted Colonel
Stogart, springing from his chair, "but for the justifiable killing of
one, and I demand, your honor, that—"
"—has sent nine other men to meet their Maker," continued the
District Attorney, "meets with the awful judgment of a higher court
Colonel Stogart smiled scornfully at the platitude, and sat down with
an expressive shrug; but no one noticed him.
The District Attorney raised his arm and faced the court-room. "It
cannot be said of us," he cried, "that we have sat idle in the
market-place. We have advanced and advanced in the last ten years,
until we have reached the very foremost place with civilized people.
This Rip Van Winkle of the past returns to find a city where he left a
prairie town, a bank where he spun his roulette wheel, this
magnificent court-house instead of a vigilance committee. And what is
his part in this new court-house, which to-day, for the first time,
throws open its doors to protect the just and to punish the unjust?
"Is he there in the box among those honorable men, the gentlemen of
the jury? Is he in that great crowd of intelligent, public-spirited
citizens who make the bone and sinew of this our fair city? Is he on
the honored bench dispensing justice, and making the intricacies of
the law straight? No, gentlemen; he has no part in our triumph. He is
there, in the prisoners' pen, an outlaw, a convicted murderer, and an
unconvicted assassin, the last of his race—the bullies and bad men of
the border—a thing to be forgotten and put away forever from the
sight of man. He has outlasted his time; he is a superfluity and an
outrage on our reign of decency and order. And I ask you, gentlemen,
to put him away where he will not hear the voice of man nor children's
laughter, nor see a woman smile, where he will not even see the face
of the warden who feeds him, nor sunlight except as it is filtered
through the iron bars of a jail. Bury him with the bitter past, with
the lawlessness that has gone—that has gone, thank God—and which
must not return. Place him in the cell where he belongs, and
whence, had justice been done, he would never have been taken alive."
The District Attorney sat down suddenly, with a quick nod to the Judge
and the jury, and fumbled over his papers with nervous fingers. He was
keenly conscious, and excited with the fervor of his own words. He
heard the reluctantly hushed applause and the whispers of the crowd,
and noted the quick and combined movement of the jury with a selfish
sweet pleasure, which showed itself only in the tightening of the lips
and nostrils. Those nearest him tugged at his sleeve and shook hands
with him. He remembered this afterward as one of the rewards of the
moment. He turned the documents before him over and scribbled words
upon a piece of paper and read a passage in an open law-book. He did
this quite mechanically, and was conscious of nothing until the
foreman pronounced the prisoner at the bar guilty of murder in the
Judge Truax leaned across his desk and said, simply, that it lay in
his power to sentence the prisoner to not less than two years'
confinement in the State penitentiary or for the remainder of his
"Before I deliver sentence on you, Abner Barrow," he said, with an old
man's kind severity, "is there anything you have to say on your own
The District Attorney turned his face, as did all the others, but he
did not see the prisoner. He still saw himself holding the court-room
with a spell, and heard his own periods ringing against the
whitewashed ceiling. The others saw a tall, broad-shouldered man
leaning heavily forward over the bar of the prisoner's box. His face
was white with the prison tan, markedly so in contrast with those
sunburnt by the wind and sun turned toward him, and pinched and
hollow-eyed and worn. When he spoke, his voice had the huskiness which
comes from non-use, and cracked and broke like a child's.
"I don't know, Judge," he said, hesitatingly, and staring stupidly at
the mass of faces in the well beneath him, "that I have anything to
say—in my own behalf. I don't know as it would be any use. I guess
what the gentleman said about me is all there is to say. He put it
about right. I've had my fun, and I've got to pay for it—that is, I
thought it was fun at the time. I am not going to cry any baby act and
beg off, or anything, if that's what you mean. But there is something
I'd like to say if I thought you would believe me." He frowned down at
the green table as though the words he wanted would not come, and his
eyes wandered from one face to another, until they rested upon the
bowed head of the only woman in the room. They remained there for some
short time, and then Barrow drew in his breath more quickly, and
turned with something like a show of confidence to the jury.
"All that man said of me is true," he said. He gave a toss of his
hands as a man throws away the reins. "I admit all he says. I
am a back number; I am out of date; I was a loafer and a
blackguard. I never shot any man in the back, nor I never assassinated
no one; but that's neither here nor there. I'm not in a place where I
can expect people to pick out their words; but, as he says, I am a
bad lot. He says I have enjoyed a reputation as a desperado. I am not
bragging of that; I just ask you to remember that he said it. Remember
it of me. I was not the sort to back down to man or beast, and I'm not
now. I am not backing down, now; I'm taking my punishment. Whatever
you please to make it, I'll take it; and that," he went on, more
slowly, "makes it harder for me to ask what I want to ask, and make
you all believe I am not asking it for myself."
He stopped, and the silence in the room seemed to give him some faint
encouragement of sympathy, though it was rather the silence of
Colonel Stogart gave a stern look upward, and asked the prisoner's
wife, in a whisper, if she knew what her husband meant to say, but she
shook her head. She did not know. The District Attorney smiled
indulgently at the prisoner and at the men about him, but they were
watching the prisoner.
"That man there," said Barrow, pointing with one gaunt hand at the boy
attorney, "told you I had no part or parcel in this city or in this
world; that I belonged to the past; that I had ought to be dead. Now
that's not so. I have just one thing that belongs to this city and
this world—and to me; one thing that I couldn't take to jail with me,
and that I'll have to leave behind me when I go back to it. I mean my
The prisoner stopped, and looked so steadily at one place below him
that those in the back of the court guessed for the first time that
Mrs. Barrow was in the room, and craned forward to look at her, and
there was a moment of confusion and a murmur of "Get back there!" "Sit
still!" The prisoner turned to Judge Truax again and squared his broad
shoulders, making the more conspicuous his narrow and sunken chest.
"You, sir," he said, quietly, with a change from the tone of
braggadocio with which he had begun to speak, "remember her, sir, when
I married her, twelve years ago. She was Henry Holman's daughter, he
who owned the San Iago Ranch and the triangle brand. I took her from
the home she had with her father against that gentleman's wishes, sir,
to live with me over my dance-hall at the Silver Star. You may
remember her as she was then. She gave up everything a woman ought to
have to come to me. She thought she was going to be happy with me;
that's why she come, I guess. Maybe she was happy for about two weeks.
After that first two weeks her life, sir, was a hell, and I made it a
hell. I was drunk most of the time, or sleeping it off, and
ugly-tempered when I was sober. There was shooting and carrying on all
day and night down-stairs, and she didn't dare to leave her room.
Besides that, she cared for me, and she was afraid every minute I was
going to get killed. That's the way she lived for two years.
Respectable women wouldn't speak to her because she was my wife; even
them that were friends of hers when she lived on the ranch wouldn't
speak to her on the street—and she had no children. That was her
life; she lived alone over the dance-hall; and sometimes when I was
drunk—I beat her."
The man's white face reddened slowly as he said this; and he stopped,
and then continued more quickly, with his eyes still fixed on those of
"At the end of two years I killed Welsh, and they sent me to the
penitentiary for ten years, and she was free. She could have gone back
to her folks and got a divorce if she'd wanted to, and never seen me
again. It was an escape most women'd gone down on their knees and
thanked their Maker for, and blessed the day they'd been freed from a
blackguardly drunken brute.
"But what did this woman do—my wife, the woman I misused and beat and
dragged down in the mud with me? She was too mighty proud to go back
to her people or to the friends who shook her when she was in trouble;
and she sold out the place, and bought a ranch with the money, and
worked it by herself, worked it day and night, until in ten years she
had made herself an old woman, as you see she is to-day.
"And for what? To get me free again; to bring me things
to eat in jail, and picture papers and tobacco—when she was living on
bacon and potatoes, and drinking alkali water—working to pay for a
lawyer to fight for me—to pay for the best lawyer! She
worked in the fields with her own hands, planting and ploughing,
working as I never worked for myself in my whole lazy, rotten life.
That's what that woman there did for me."
The man stopped suddenly, and turned with a puzzled look toward where
his wife sat, for she had dropped her head on the table in front of
her, and he had heard her sobbing.
"And what I want to ask of you, sir, is to let me have two years out
of jail to show her how I feel about it. I ask you not to send me back
for life, sir. Give me just two years—two years of my life while I
have some strength left to work for her as she worked for me. I only
want to show her how I care for her now. I had the chance, and
I wouldn't take it; and now, sir, I want to show her that I know and
understand—now, when it's too late. It's all I've thought of when I
was in jail, to be able to see her sitting in her own kitchen with her
hands folded, and me working and sweating in the fields for
her—working till every bone ached, trying to make it up to her.
"And I can't!" the man cried, suddenly, losing the control he had
forced upon himself, and tossing his hands up above his head, and with
his eyes fixed hopelessly on the bowed head below him. "I can't! It's
too late. It's too late!"
He turned and faced the crowd and the District Attorney defiantly.
"I'm not crying for the men I killed. They're dead. I can't bring them
back. But she's not dead, and I treated her worse than I treated them.
She never harmed me, nor got in my way, nor angered me. And now,
when I want to do what I can for her in the little time that's left,
he tells you I'm a 'relic of the past,' that civilization's too good
for me, that you must bury me until it's time to bury me for good.
Just when I've got something I must live for, something I've got to
do. Don't you believe me? Don't you understand?"
He turned again toward the Judge, and beat the rail before him
impotently with his wasted hand. "Don't send me back for life!" he
cried. "Give me a few years to work for her—two years, one year—to
show her what I feel here, what I never felt for her before. Look at
her, gentlemen. Look how worn she is and poorly, and look at her
hands, and you men must feel how I feel. I don't ask you for myself. I
don't want to go free on my own account. I am asking it for that
woman—yes, and for myself, too. I am playing to 'get back,'
gentlemen. I've lost what I had, and I want to get back; and," he
cried, querulously, "the game keeps going against me. It's only a few
years' freedom I want. Send me back for thirty years, but not for
life. My God! Judge, don't bury me alive, as that man asked you to.
I'm not civilized, maybe; ways have changed. You are not
the man I knew; you are all strangers to me. But I could learn. I
wouldn't bother you in the old way. I only want to live with her. I
won't harm the rest of you. Give me this last chance. Let me prove
that what I'm saying is true."
The man stopped and stood, opening and shutting his hands upon the
rail, and searching with desperate eagerness from face to face, as one
who has staked all he has watches the wheel spinning his fortune away.
The gentlemen of the jury sat quite motionless, looking straight ahead
at the blinding sun, which came through the high, uncurtained windows
opposite. Outside, the wind banged the shutters against the wall, and
whistled up the street and round the tin corners of the building, but
inside the room was very silent. The Mexicans at the door, who could
not understand, looked curiously at the faces of the men around them,
and made sure that they had missed something of much importance. For a
moment no one moved, until there was a sudden stir around the District
Attorney's table, and the men stepped aside and let the woman pass
them and throw herself against the prisoner's box. The prisoner bent
his tall gaunt figure over the rail, and as the woman pressed his one
hand against her face, touched her shoulders with the other awkwardly.
"There, now," he whispered, soothingly, "don't you take on so. Now you
know how I feel, it's all right; don't take on."
Judge Truax looked at the paper on his desk for some seconds, and
raised his head, coughing as he did so. "It lies—" Judge Truax began,
and then stopped, and began again, in a more certain tone: "It lies at
the discretion of this Court to sentence the prisoner to a term of
imprisonment for two years, or for an indefinite period, or for life.
Owing to—On account of certain circumstances which were—have
arisen—this sentence is suspended. This court stands adjourned."
As he finished he sprang out of his chair impulsively, and with a
quick authoritative nod to the young District Attorney, came quickly
down the steps of the platform. Young Harvey met him at the foot with
The older man hesitated, and placed his hand upon the District
Attorney's shoulder. "Harry," he said. His voice was shaken, and his
hand trembled on the arm of his protégé, for he was an old man and
easily moved. "Harry, my boy," he said, "do you think you could go to
Austin and repeat the speech that man made to the Governor?"
The boy orator laughed, and took one of the older man's hands in one
of his and pressed it quickly. "I'd like d——d well to try," he said.