HOLIER ORE THAN THOU

The crisp mischief of autumn’s dawn sneered through the gap in Judge Kienast’s cabin door alerting even his fire engine red longhandles, a summons to sacred service. He had just arrived mid-week and was very much taken by the beauty of Lake City. Winter would be only a leg stretch away. The quakies were already dressed in gold harvest gowns and snow-white cummerbunds. The very rock that is the San Juan shivered in the faint morning shadows.

“Today is the day I have to deal with those pain-in-the-ass preachers,” mused the innocuous magistrate, who had only a month ago been appointed state circuit judge by Colorado’s first governor, John L. Routt. With the end a bloody Civil War and the scapegoat impeachment of President Andrew Johnson, statehood had come to the former territory and political appointments flourished. Captain Edward Kienast had proven himself  a worthy soldier during the Battle of Beecher Island in 1868, and with the aid of financier David Halliday Moffat, completed law school at the University of Denver in 1877.

Now, only a year later, in 1878 BT (before Texans) and with accused cannibal Alferd Packer still at large, Kienast occupied the bench in Lake City, the town that had sprung up amid precious veins of gold and silver, in the company of ruffians and the righteous.

A little healthy competition for souls is one thing,” he said to himself as he vacated the cabin, “but these Congregationalists and Methodists are about to come to blows. I was sent here to hang horse thieves and terminate gun fighting, not mollycoddle men of the cloth and their respective frontier flocks.”

Lake City looks harmless enough, a least in the daylight.

As Kienast entered his chambers from the back there was a pounding on the front door. It was Jethro Black, a former Confederate cavalryman who, ironically enough teamed with fellow deputy Chris Simmons, a Union artillery officer as the muscle intended to enforce Kienast’s law in the mining district.

     “Judge, you’d better get over to the jail,” said Black upon entering the office. Chris has them two preachers in tow. They’re threatening to shoot each other!”

On his way to the subterranean calaboose Judge Kienast reviewed the running feud that had began over the summer and had reached epidemic proportions by fall: Congregationalists, resenting the upstart Methodist contingent that had threatened the spiritual monopoly here, had accused the Methodist minister Rev. Edman of consorting with a lady of the evening. Actually the allegations were the result of a single conversation observed by three of the community’s faithful on a June night in front of the Nellie Creek Saloon. Rumors began to fly which now placed Rev. Edman in an assortment of sinful spots including poker tables, breweries and, if that don’t beat all…The Gilded Lilly, the town’s most boisterous brothel.

“Did you hear about that Methodist preacher?” asked Wilma Fry as she mindlessly slung laundry all over on Silver Street. “

“Yes, and I understand he’s confessed his wayward sins in a sermon last Sunday,” chirped Mary Walker, a neighbor. “I’m sure glad our Congregationalist minister, Rev. Kirby has remains among the righteous. Why Bill Chivers told my husband that he saw Rev. Edman coming out of that bawdy house yesterday evening right before the evening services. Oh my…”

Rev. Kirby was to be the next victim of idle chatter. Whether by coincidence or design the bristled word on the street soon turned to the immoral Congregationalist minister.

“That Rev. Kirby has always been a bit strange,” said Veronica Story, lead tenor in the Methodist choir. “Ever notice how he won’t look you in the eye?”

“I hear he was run out of town back east,” quacked Ted Adamson, the local livery operator, also a Methodist. “The word is that he had a thing for a saloon hall girl.

When Kienast arrived at the jail he was surrounded by an unholy mob. They were clambering for the release of their designated shepherds, threatening Black and Simmons if the current drama went otherwise. Outside the pious circle stood miners, horse thieves, storekeepers, muleskinners, cowboys, Utes, bankers, gamblers and medicine wagon barkers. All watched intently as this appeared to be the best entertainment the town had seen since Eddie McGinty blasted his foot off last Christmas.

Passing quietly through the doorway Kienast suddenly lit into Rev. Edman, who was being held in a small cell at the far end of the jail from his counterpart.

“What do you mean you’re going to shoot Rev. Kirby! Don’t you read your own book? Remember Thou shalt not kill or did you miss that part when you were cleaning your gun?” quipped Kienast. “What kind of example are you setting for your flock! Don’t you know they’re impressionable? Now I’m going to speak to Rev. Kirby. When I get back I expect some answers.”

Then Judge Kienast, rolling his eyes in restrained amusement, wandered down to the other end of the hall to his other guest Rev. Kirby, who was about to do battle with a fried chicken compliments of his frightened daughter.

“Don’t you take a bite!” hollered Kienast. “How dare you threaten a fellow man of the cloth and worry your own kin like that! Have you lost your mind, man? I ought to send the pair of you to the territorial prison and let you rot until the new state prison is built. That should be about ten years. How’d you like that!”

Kienast told both Edman and Kirby to get wash up, put on their boots and meet him in his office. He made sure Black and Simmons were on hand. In no time the five men sat behind closed doors, Edman and Kirby fidgeting, exchanging an occasional hostile glare.

“An eye for an eye and…” started Kirby who was met with a strong rebuttal from Edman, who called his fellow Christian “a lowly, Philistine coward”

Suddenly the two were on their feet exchanging threats, calling on all that’s holy to intercede on their behalf. Black sat them down hard on the wooden stools.

“Enough!” cried Kienast who had now run short of patience. “I was sent here to break up gunfights and bust claim jumpers, not referee a spat between preachers!”

“I challenge you to a duel, an affair d’ honneur,” spouted Kirby.

“I accept, you charlatan, you lying snake,” snarled Edman.

“I’ll have you both in gags and leg irons if I do not have quiet in my chambers,” bellowed Kienast.

After several guarded outbursts and a bold reiteration of the six-gun challenge all fell peaceful on that beautiful September afternoon. Kienast rolled out his patchwork soliloquy.

“I arrive in the San Juan to keep the peace, to punish the lawless, to protect the innocent and what do I find? Two preachers doing their best to shoot each other in the middle of the street. What to do?” he began. “Although I might be tempted to let these windbags face off at twenty paces I don’t think that would serve the public good. I could banish them from town or send them off on a chain gang up in Wyoming, but then who would give the sermon next Sunday. I just don’t know…”

Then like a pail of scalding water hitting a lukewarm Saturday night bath he came to an abrupt stop, absorbed in his thoughts. He looked back and forth at Kirby and Edman.

“One things for certain, gentlemen. I will not allow you to shoot one another,” he smiled. “It is clear that we have a problem here that won’t go away so I suggest a less dangerous competition. Take a look at the way the heathen Utes do it. They settle disputes without violence.

I am not here to decide if moral codes have been breached. I don’t care who you spend your time with. I don’t care where you go. I don’t care why, when, how or what, unless you break the law. Now both of you go home and stay there. We will meet back here in the morning and settle this matter peacefully and for good.

Both preachers shuffled out into the sunshine, straightening up their stance as they came into view of their supporters. Each performed a victorious strut, wielding the terrible swift sword at the windmills of evil and degradation. Lots of talk but no shooting.

The site of the first proposed affair de honneur outside the town of Lake City where the two antagonists could face off and settle their place in the pecking order with serious spiritual ambiguities.

     At the meeting the next morning Kienast thought he detected a sigh of relief when he forbade a duel.

Although neither preacher budged on charges of defamation, accusation and palpitation, the talk of gunplay had subsided. When asked for a solution to the problem at hand neither offered much, choosing to mumble away, eyes downcast, hands in lap. Kienast took the floor.

     “In light of your decision, I hereby decree that it is agreed that there will be no gun fighting but further suggest that, in order to save face, the matter be settled in a more civilized manner,” said Kienast. “In a sincere attempt to put this matter to rest in earnest I will suggest some options.”

The judge then laid out an assortment of contests designed to take the wind out of the ecclesiastic rivals. Included on that brutal roster was Indian wrestling, horse racing, bale hurling, archery, whiskey swilling, log rolling, card cutting, yodeling, tree climbing, a swimming contest at Devil’s Lake, hole digging, wood chopping, hand mucking, mule driving, flower arranging and even a tobacco spitting contest.

Quickly the two parsons agreed that the whiskey and cards could not be considered. Most of the athletic contests would be seen as giving aid and comfort to the enemy by hawks in both congregations. The wood chopping and hand mucking were not dramatic enough and the mule driving too much like teaching Sunday school. Both liked the biblical reference to casting the first stone.

“Then it’s settled,” stormed Kienast. “Rocks at thirty paces. Parsons, choose thy weapons. It’s a far cry better than slapping each other up side the head with the good book and sure beats bleeding to death in the middle of the street. Just come out throwing. No biting. No kicking. No below the belt baptisms of ore. There’s plenty of amo all over the place. You can just pick it off the ground.

Kienast then turned to Black and whispered, “And with any luck at all neither will be able to hit the broad side of a barn.”

Word of what was to become Great Western (and much heralded) Henson Creek Rock Throwing Ox Bow Incident and Chili Cookoff was greeted with much confusion by the assemblage outside. Later that night each preacher gathered his flock around him and told his side of the story. Each claimed innocence and promised lightning bolts and exoneration compliments of a vengeful God. It was then that it happened.

Without the assistance of a starter’s pistol both sets of the faithful jumped up from their pews and began stockpiling respective arsenals of rocks. Massive piles soon filled both ends of the street. As night fell whispers filled the streets and wagers were recorded.

The next day at high noon Lake City was abuzz. Little kids sold lemonade, miners took the day off work, and Ute braves ventured into town hearing the news of an epic battle between white medicine men. Both preachers wore helmets compliments of respective ladies’ auxiliaries. Moments before the fight, both wobbly contestants were massaged by makeshift trainers, given advice and encouragement. Then it was on.

To the delight of the cheering Congregationalists Kirby stalked Edman. Then Edman let fire with a hunk of lead, missing Kirby by three feet and landing right smack in the window of the Elysian Fields Funeral Parlor, across the street. A volley of rocks filled the air, each missing its mark.

As the two preachers closed in on each other it seemed apparent that first blood would be struck. Kirby let fly as Edman reached down for more ammunition. Edman let go, knicking his fellow jouster on the right leg. Kirby fired back, his chunk of ore landing just outside the door of the Lake City Bank, where Steve Nagy, the local banker/dentist stood.

In one sagacious motion Nagy swooped down and picked up the ore. He stared at it for a moment missing the action as Edman and Kirby continued launching stony projectiles at each other. He held the ore up to the light of the mid-day sun and exclaimed:

“Look at the vein in this rock. Either that’s gold or I’m a monkey’s uncle!”

The town jackal, Eddie McGinty limped over to Nagy.

“Sure as hell…that’s gold. We’ve discovered gold right here in town when all this time we’ve been traversing these mountains to mine silver. We’re all rich!”

Quickly the good folk dispersed in the direction of Henson Creek, Brush Creek, Capitol City, Crystal Peak, Red Mountain, Grassy Mountain, Slumgullion Slide and any other spot where the suspect ore could have been harvested. In a matter of minutes nobody was left in the street but Edman and Kirby. There was no congregation, no pulpit, no audience. Both dropped their rocks from their hands as Judge Kienast approached.

“Now do you see the silliness of all this?” he quacked, closing in for the kill on the day’s hostilities. “I suggest we wander over to Gunnison Avenue and a cup of tea.

“Tea, hell, let’s swallow a spot of brandy. It’s cause for celebration!” said Kirby.

Edman agreed enthusiastically and the three set off.

“Not that I believe it, Rev. Edman, but one of those fallen angels told me you were upstairs preaching up a storm with your britches to your knees,” poked Kirby.

“No truer than what the Lilly’s madam said about you riding off to Wiminuche Hot Springs after your sermon with her favorite fille de joie,” frowned Edman.

“It’s getting harder and harder to tell the righteous from the treacherous,” quipped Kienast, sipping his brandy. “Everyone strays off the path sometimes. The key is in the forgiving, isn’t that what the Bible says?

“We all get our thou shalts and our just onests all fouled up every so often,” added Kirby. “But sometimes the only thing separating us from the long winters and total pandemonium is the Sunday sermon and maybe a pair of warm socks.

“Times a-wastin,” croaked Edman. “I’m getting my sluice box and heading to the hills. The good Lord’s bidding comes in many colors, but my favorite is gold.”

“You need a partner,” smiled Kirby. “I was a prospector of ore before prospecting for souls.”

“Why not,” said Edman slamming his fist on the bar. “In this wild country a man needs a little backup.”

God made the country. Man made the city. But the Devil made the small town.

– Kevin Haley

     

     

Filed Under: Reflections on Disorder

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