Justice Like a Mighty River
Alter S. Reiss
It was hot as sin the day the Justicar came to Hollow. Didn't seem to bother him much. He rode up to the well, hitched his donkey and gave it water, then headed to the church. If it wasn't for the red of his cloak, I'd have taken him for some drifter, looking for a meal and maybe a bit of work in driving or shearing. Drifters, as a rule, know what the law says about wearing red on cloak or boots. Me, I was scarce three years out of the seminary, and still wearing my 'Reverend' a bit awkwardly, so you'd best believe I knew what that cloak meant, for all that it was dusty, and frayed at the edges.
He was a little fellow, maybe a foot shorter than me, and brown as a native. But he didn't have the nose for it, and his hair wasn't right either, curled and sparse. Whatever he was, he wore a pair of guns, and carried himself like he knew that the Lord God was with him, which is a frightful thing to see.
As he came towards the church, I straightened my collar and swallowed. I'm a grown man, an ordained preacher, and I've done right by the people of Hollow, as best as I could, but seeing a Justicar headed towards me with that look in his eye made me think small thoughts. I went through all my sins that I could recall, wondering which of them had finally been found out, and whether I should turn tail and jackrabbit it down past the border.
"My name is John Bonny," he said, as he came up the steps of the church. It was an old fashioned sort of name, but I didn't have the slightest inclination to smile when he said it. If I recalled my history correctly, there had been a pirate named John Bonny a few centuries back; he hadn't caused many smiles, either.
"Come inside," said Bonny, "I'll be taking your confession."
I gave it. I'm not going to tell you what I confessed, nor what penance Bonny laid on me. Suffice it to say, I kept my head, my collar, and my parish, though I loaned that last to Bonny for a mite. And I'll add that the man was fair but not inclined towards mercy.
Next day, Bonny let it be known that he was going to be holding a Church court after the services. Last year, a deacon had come through and had done the same thing. I suppose folks figured that this was more of the same. Hollow's not much of a praying town, and it's even less of a studying town, so there weren't many who knew the difference between a deacon and a metropolitan Justicar. Otherwise, some might have hesitated before bringing their disputes in for a settlement.
As things were, there were a lot of complaints that needed settling. Strayed calves and water rights, for the most part, but also borrowed pans that never found their way back to their owners, people enjoying a hair too much comfort in the company of another man's wife or daughter, and so on.
I wouldn't have thought that a Justicar would have the patience for that sort of nonsense, but Bonny sat, heard the testimony, and ruled fairly. More fairly than he needed to rule, in my judgment; I'm inclined towards giving the poor a break or two, even when the law favors the other side, and a bit more willing to favor complainants who aren't hellacious asses. Which might be part of why I'm not a Justicar and have no desire to ever be one.
Most of the folk who came for judgment went away, if not exactly pleased, at least not too angry; Bonny was fair, and even if he didn't bend the way they wanted, they all seemed to know that he had listened and had given an honest ruling.
Most, but not all. Mark Cotter, who was never inclined towards seeing things the other fellow's way, got considerably riled when Bonny made him hand over a chicken that he was sure was rightfully his to Widow Prince. "Take it, you nobby witch," he said. "I'll have it as soon as you turn your hunched-up horrid back."
"Stealing's a sin," said Bonny.
"Setting aside a Justicar's ruling . . . that's a hanging sin, son." Cotter started another shrug. "I didn't do nothing," he said. "Tell her; she's the one who lied about that chicken, and I was only--"
"I have made my ruling," said Bonny. "It's her chicken. And you're still at the bar in a church court; things you say are still testimony. And you've confessed for a hanging sin."
In my experience, you could yell at someone like Cotter till your words ran out and not move him further than you could spit. He opened his mouth to keep arguing and then closed it. Cotter wasn't the smartest man I ever met, but I think that even he could see the gates of hell opening in Bonny's eyes. "I didn't mean nothing," Cotter said, uncertainty finally making its way into his voice. "Just steaming, is all. Man's got a right to be steamed, when he loses."
Bonny didn't say anything for a long moment. "Well," he finally said. "Perhaps you were just steaming. But believe me when I tell you this, Mark Cotter. There will be another Justicar who comes to this town, before too long has passed. And if you take that bird, you will die for it."
Released from Bonny's gaze, Cotter made a dash out the church and up the street to the saloon. All men are sinners, and all men sin. But it seemed that Cotter had a powerful inclination against that particular sin, at least for a time. Could be that after sharing his woes with Lady Whisky, Cotter might remember that he'd been done wrong and that someone had something that was rightfully his. Unless, of course, the eyes of John Bonny burned hotter than his anger.
I wasn't the only one to see that Bonny meant every word he said. After Cotter left, things settled down a bit. Claimants who came up to the altar had less inclination to speak over-freely. Things stayed settled until Lem Halloran stepped up to the altar, and grabbed hold with his meaty hands.
"Have you a claim against a man who is here, or a man who is absent?" asked Bonny.
"A man who is absent," replied Halloran. "A man named Monroe Gynt."
That provoked a stir and a half. Gynt owns most of the land around Hollow, and folks who try to sell their stock to the railroad direct, rather than through Gynt . . . bad things happen to them. I had told Bonny about Gynt after he took my confession. The Justicar hadn't said anything in response, and I wasn't sure how he'd take Lem's claim.
How the folks gathered for the church court would take it wasn't even a question. Everyone in town hated Gynt, but nobody wanted to see him angry. So long as he stayed in his big house just down the road from Hollow, most of us were content to pay him a tribute and leave him be. Things might be bad, but they got worse fast when Gynt got angry.
"Monroe Gynt burned my hay last winter," continued Halloran. "Lost half my stock. Then my girl died, and I couldn't--" he choked back a sob. "I charge Monroe Gynt with the loss of my hay, with the loss of my stock, and with the murder of my daughter, Lizabet Halloran."
"Was the girl burned in the fire?" asked Bonny.
"The girl died of fever," said a voice from the back of church. "Would have died anyway. You're damn fool for saying these things, Lem Halloran, and you'll pay." It was one of Gynt's men, a gunfighter who had come up from the territories with the spring cattle drive and stayed around after, looking after Gynt's interests.
"She died because I couldn't tend to her or keep the house warm," said Halloran. "I--"
"You sit silent," said the gunslinger. "Or you'll die. This ain't no place for your--"
"Let him kill me," said Halloran. "My girl's dead. May as well join her."
"He won't kill you," said the gunslinger. "I will."
A pistol roared. Three shots, one close after the other. Halloran started, reached for his chest. There wasn't any blood. It was the gunslinger who was down, and the Justicar whose weapon was smoking.
"For interfering with a church court while it stood in session," said Bonny, standing up, "a fine of five dollars. For attempting to corrupt the testimony of a witness at the altar, six years hard labor. For threatening the life of a man, death." He walked to the corpse as he laid out his sentence. Then Bonny knelt, closed his eyes, and laid his hand on the gunslinger's chest.
"You were just a poor fool of a sinner, then," he said, very quietly. He stood. "Is there anyone else here who wishes to interfere with the testimony, or who wishes to bring threats of death into this House of God?"
It turned out there wasn't. Well, maybe there were one or two who wished to do those things--the gunslinger wasn't the only one of Gynt's men to attend the court. But wishing and doing are two different things, and none of them wanted to try to draw on John Bonny. A couple of them left pretty quick, once the shooting was done. Could be that if the court had dragged on, some folk who wanted to bring threats of death in the House of God might have been found.
There wasn't much court left after Bonny sat back down, though. Halloran had said his piece, and since Gynt wasn't around to answer it, there wasn't any room to continue on that claim. And after that demonstration, everyone else was inclined to settle their disputes among themselves.
When no new claims were brought forward, Bonny stood again, and read off the list of people against whom claims had been made, and who hadn't been at the court. Monroe Gynt's name was the last one on the list, and there was a silence when Bonny finished. "Should any here know these men, advise them to attend court on the morrow. If they do not attend on the morrow or the day after, the sanction of the law shall be upon them."
That got a stir. The only surprise was a churchman thinking that Monroe Gynt was a man like anyone else, but that was sufficient to get people talking. Folks left the church quickly enough, too; by the time the hymns were over, half the crowd was gone, and the rest vanished not a minute after we were done. A steaming corpse in the aisle could move services along at a decent clip.
It was left for the two of us to bury the gunslinger. One of the things they taught me, back in the seminary, was that having a few open graves out where people can see them was helpful in getting them into a prayerful frame of mind. Also, in a town like Hollow, they never stayed empty for long. So it was a matter of putting him down, and piling the dirt on.
We worked in silence for a spell. "Gynt isn't going to be coming to church tomorrow," I said, after a while.
"No?" asked Bonny.
"Not tomorrow, nor the day after," I replied. "He'll send more of his men than you've got bullets, even if you're faster than all of them."
"Well," said Bonny, after the burial was done. "I will go out to see him."
I sucked in my breath. "He's got twenty, maybe thirty men up at his house," I said. "They're not going to let you pass."
"No man is above God's law."
"I--" I hesitated. "I'll come with you."
Bonny looked across at me. "It will not be safe."
"I'll manage," I said. "They know I'm harmless."
"That is an unfortunate thing for them to know," he said. "But I have no objection to companionship."
He saddled his mule; I decided to walk. It's not far to Gynt's house, and if I brought my horse with me, one of Gynt's men might take the notion to shoot him, or steal him, once they killed Bonny.
Monroe Gynt had a house built for him a mile or so outside of Hollow that's bigger than any house in Hollow, the church included. It's got fifty-four windows, according to the glazier who worked on it, and there was light pouring out every one of those windows when Bonny and I made it out there.
There were two men at the gate, with rifles. To my surprise, they didn't say a word to either of us. They just watched with cool contempt as Bonny hitched his mule to Gynt's fence and latched the gate behind us as we headed up the path to his house. Could be that a justicar's cloak carried some weight, even in Gynt's house. Or Gynt had figured that Bonny would be coming for a visit, and left orders.
The second choice seemed more likely. As we came into the house, a man at the door took our cloaks, and a maid showed us in to the dining room, where Monroe Gynt had just finished his dinner.
Gynt had invited me up to his place once or twice, and once or twice I had declined. I wasn't a strong enough man to challenge his grasp on Hollow, but neither was I corrupt enough to participate in it. At least, not actively. I recognized the men who sat around his table. Caius Setter, Rattlesnake Joseph, others like them. A round dozen hard men, men who Gynt used to keep the populace in line. Despite the sociability of the occasion, all the men at the table wore their guns.
"Good evening," said Gynt in his light tenor. "To what do I owe this honor?"
"A man by the name of Lemuel Halloran laid charges upon you at the Church Court today," said Bonny. "Said that you burned his hay, which caused him loss of stock, and of a daughter. I figured I'd let you know."
"Did you?" asked Gynt.
"It seemed the thing to do," said Bonny.
"I suppose it might have," said Gynt. "Will you have a seat?"
"Certainly." Bonny sat down at the foot of the table, facing Gynt. A servant girl came over, poured a cup of wine for Bonny, then scuttled off to the side of the room. Bonny picked the glass up, watched the light move through the crystal and the wine.
"Barns burn," said Gynt.
"They do," agreed Bonny.
"Men who don't take help when it's offered suffer for it," said Gynt.
"With that," said Bonny, "I entirely agree. Which is why I'm here."
A wave of knowing looks and nudges passed through the men at the table at that. Every man had his price, even church men. The little fellow had come for his bribe, and he'd probably get it, but Monroe Gynt owned Hollow; everyone knew that.
Gynt didn't smile, or move his eyes off of Bonny. He wasn't yet comfortable with the strange brown Justicar. Recalling the gunslinger at the church, I wasn't either. "What then do you propose, Most Reverend Justicar, John Bonny?"
"That you come to the bar tomorrow," he said. "That you answer the claims made against you as best you can, and you accept the judgment of the court in good grace."
That wasn't what the men around Gynt expected to hear; the laughter stopped, and they all grew cold. Gynt gave a trace of a smile. "The death of that girl would be counted as murder, wouldn't it?"
"It might," said Bonny. He hadn't taken any wine, but he hadn't put it down either; he twirled the stem of the glass between his fingers.
"If it were, and the ruling went against me," said Gynt, "The judgment made would be hanging, wouldn't it?"
"It would," said Bonny.
"This, then, is the help that you're offering me?"
Bonny smiled, but didn't say anything.
"I can't see how being killed is much of a help to anyone," said Gynt, his smile growing slightly broader. The men around him chuckled at that.
"If you have earned a hanging," said Bonny, "it's best to be hanged. Everyone dies. It's better to die in a state of grace than in a state of sin."
"Fuck grace," said Gynt, and his gun was in his hand; I had never seen anyone move that fast. Bonny hadn't put down his glass, or made any move for his weapon. Three shots; one of them shattered the glass in Bonny's hand, but he just sat there.
"For blasphemy," said Bonny, "Five dollars."
Gynt fired again, his face pale.
"For arson, death," said Bonny, putting the stem of his ruined glass on the table, and standing. "For murder, death." The last two shots, and Gynt's gun clicked empty.
"For attempted murder, death. For attempting to pervert the course of justice, death." Bonny started walking around the table, towards Gynt, his muddy boots clicking on the polished oak floor.
"Shoot him!" said Gynt. "A hundred dollars for the man who shoots him!" His men weren't listening; they were backing away from Bonny as he walked forward, fear transparent on their faces. Probably transparent on my face too, for all that I had come in at Bonny's side.
"For your sins against me," said Bonny, as he drew closer, "A Justicar of the Church, and a guest in your home: No penalty. I forgive you." Then his gun came up, as fast and as perfect a draw as Gynt's had been. He didn't fire. "Do you know what hell is?" asked Bonny.
Gynt just looked at him, like a rabbit looks at a snake, or a sheep looks at a mountain lion. No movement, just a slight trembling, and a terrible fear in his eyes.
"It is a furnace," said Bonny. "It is a smelting furnace, which burns away sin. Some men, it burns away fast, and some it burns away slow. When the sin is gone, they pass through, to another place. But some men. . . some men are so steeped in sin, their sin is so much a part of them, that they burn and burn, and do not pass through."
Bonny raised his gun and fired once. Gynt fell, a red bloom on his forehead. The men who had been edging away broke and ran.
Bonny knelt by Gynt's side, looked into those blankly staring eyes.
"A bully," he said. "A bully, and a coward. There was a bit of intelligence over that, a bit of ruthlessness. But nothing more than a bully and a coward." He sighed, closed Gynt's eyes, and stood.
"How did," I started, then I saw the front of his shirt, and the holes. "How?" I whispered.
"Some men," said Bonny, "they burn and they burn. Those men will take any rope thrown that will save them from that place, accept any burden." Bonny fished a bullet out from his chest, and a thin line of sawdust came from within. He sighed and took thread and needle from his vest pocket. I caught a glimpse of needle going through skin like tanned parchment, and I averted my eyes from what he was doing. "Most men," he said. "They fear hell, and they wish to avoid it. Or they think they do. But hell is something that they haven't seen, and when they see soft flesh, or red wine, or bright gold, they forget their fear of the unseen for the delights of the seen."
Bonny seemed to look straight into my soul. "A man who has seen hell, who has been burned by the fires. If you pull him from that place, that man will seek to do as much good as he can, to wipe away some of his sin, to have a chance of winning through the next time he is in the furnace."
"John Bonny," I said, "was the name of a man who died long ago."
"Yes," said Bonny. "He was a wicked man. He died and he went to hell."
"And Monroe Gynt?"
"He was a vicious, hateful, deadly man. But he was only a small sinner. The weight of his sins was heavy, but he had not given up his essential humanity. By the time I looked, he was going through to the other side."
"Ten thousand years pass," said Bonny, "in every blink of an eye. Had he been a better man, I would not have killed him. Had he been a worse man, perhaps I could have given him a new purpose. As it is . . . God's mercy is great, even to sinners."
Bonny was right about one thing. There's a world of difference between seeing a thing and hearing about it. While he hadn't shown me hell, I had gotten a closer look at it than I had ever expected to have, this side of the doors of life. "A new purpose," I repeated softly. "And a new life."
"No," said Bonny. "Not a life. Just a purpose. A purpose strong enough to give form to thought, to put to right things that are wrong. A purpose sufficient to drive a shell of the body onward, until a replacement can be found."
People learned what happened to the man who owned Hollow and gave a shine to my title. Not that I wanted to abuse that shine. I hadn't seen hell, but I had seen John Bonny. And I didn't much care to be on the wrong side of either of them, in this world or of any other.