Sunday, September 18, 2016

Liberty #63: A Whisky Murder

Written by T.A. McNeal; originally published in "When Kansas Was Young", 1922. Capper Publications.

Medicine Lodge never acquired the reputation of being a wild and wooly town in the sense that that name attached to Dodge City, or Wichita in its early days, or Newton or Abeline when they were the end of the Texas cattle drive, or Caldwell or Hunnewell in the days of their pristine glory. Before the railroad reached Medicine Lodge, the day of the cattle drive was passed, and while a bad man occasionally sojourned there for a night, or maybe a week, there was no congregation of killers. Medicine Lodge never had a dance hall such as flourished in each of the other towns, when they were the objectives of of the vast plains of Texas on their ways to the markets of the North and East.

Still there were some tragedies, and this story relates to one which I think had something to do with the fact that in the election of 1880 this frontier county gave a majority for the prohibitory amendment to our state constitution. While there was not so much of it sold as in some of the towns, the quality of the whisky sold in Medicine Lodge was as bad as the worst. I have known men who were ordinarily quiet and peaceable when sober, after imbibing a few drinks of the beverage, to go stark mad for the time being and become more dangerous than Bengal tigers. I know a most reputable man, kindly, law-abiding and in every way a model citizen for many years past, who confesses that he shudders when he thinks of how near he came to being a murderer when crazed by a few drinks of border drug store whisky. But that is another story.

One May day in 1879 a country boy, perhaps nineteen or twenty years of age, rode into town. John Garten had not been known as a "bad man". He was just an ordinary, gawky, green country boy, who had reached the age when he probably thought it would be smart to show off and also an indication of manly quality to fill his hide with drink. It was probably this ambition, rather than any confirmed appetite for liquor, that caused him to take on several drinks. Probably at that, nothing serious would have happened if he had not been filled with another ambition, and that was to carry a gun and acquire the ability to draw and shoot like one of the gun fighters he had heard about.

It was along toward evening of the long beautiful day in the latter part of May, that young Garten mounted his horse, probably at the suggestion of the town marshal, and rode out of town, emitting a few "whoops" as he rode. A few miles west of the Lodge, at a crossing of one of the little tributaries of the Medicine, he overtook two women, a mother and her daughter. They stepped to the side of the road to let him pass. He rode past them a few rods and then with a drunken howl pulled his pistol from its holster and fired two shots in the direction of the women. With a cry of anguish the younger woman, Mrs. Steadman, fell mortally wounded. It is quite possible that young Garten did know know that he had hit either woman, for hte rode on without further looking backwards, stopped at the ranch where he had been working, unsaddled his horse and made no effort to escape. He expressed great surprise when a few hours afterward the tall, gaunt frontier sheriff rode up to the ranch house and said quietly, "John, I want you for murder."

Garten protested that he had just intended to give the women a scare and didn't suppose he had hit either one of them, and quite probably he was telling the truth. The murder aroused a storm of indignation when young Garten was brought into town. An inoffensive, popular young woman had been shot down without any provocation and there was talk of the law of the border. There were mutterings of vengeance and knots of men gathered and conversed in low earnest tones, more dangerous than loud threats or bluster. A few hours afterward the big, lank weatherbeaten sheriff with the prisoner in charge, rode away through the moonless night to the northward and put Garten for safe keeping in the Rice County jail to await his trial. In those days there were only two terms of court in Barber County and before the time for Garten's trial he escaped from jail and, it was believed, fled to the mountains of New Mexico.

The father of the murdered woman was a lean, powerful man by the name of Champion, a typical frontiersman. I think he had come originally from the mountains of Kentucky or Tennesse and if so was born to believe in the doctrine of the blood avenger. Sparing of speech and stern of face, Champion made little demonstration of his grief, though it was understood that he possessed a quiet and deep affection for his children.

When the news came that Garten had broken jail, Champion said nothing, but those who were in his confidence knew that he had gone to New Mexico. For almost a year nothing was heard from him, but there was a persistent rumor that he was playing the part of the avenger of blood; that he had gone on a relentless, tireless man hunt for the slayer of his first born.

Finally he returned. He said nothing for publication, but there was the look on his face of a man who had accomplished his task and fulfilled the old law, the law still of the mountains, an eye for an eye, a life for a life. No one outside of Champion and his few confidants knew what had been the result of that long year's hunt through the mountains and over the burning desert sands, but Garten was never found by the authorities or returned for trial.

Those who knew the boy never believed that he was a willful and deliberate murderer. His crime was the direct result of the villainous liquor that was sold in the frontier town. At the next election the question was up to amend the constitution so as to make the sale of whisky as a beverage forever unlawful. The rough bearded men riding the range, with ample time to meditate as they rode, considered the case of the boy Garten, the murdered woman, the lean-faced, stern, unsmiling close-lipped frontiersman on his lonely vigils in the mountains, searching with indomitable will and marvelous patience for the man he meant to kill. They considered and voted for prohibition.