In a fight, would you rather be cut down by gunfire or burned alive? Blood Land. Chapter 2
April 6, 2013
A VG Serial: Blood Land
“CATTLE THIEVES beware.”
The auditorium barely contained Professor Hanson’s booming voice. The students’ chatter pursued a hasty diminuendo. Rustling papers stopped rustling; the girl smacking gum in the front row paused.
The only sound left to Hanson was his ego, serenading him.
Hanson was tall and lanky, with so little fat that his features looked as if they’d been chiseled from stone. He was not handsome, exactly—too skinny for that—but he had an intriguing look about him; a look that drew people in, and his perfect blue eyes looked as if they’d been intentionally etched by a divine artist to fit his gauntness and bring it to life.
Still, were he to stand unmoving at night, outlined in shadow, one might believe a scarecrow had come in from the field for a dutiful rest.
“Given the choice between burning alive or being cut down by a truckload of gunfire,” he said, “which do you choose?”
The gravity of the question was intentional—it was, after all, the segue to the lecture’s core.
“Another question: would any of you…would I…have the temerity to write an entire journal while facing imminent execution?”
Years ago, when a younger version of Hanson had commanded the courtrooms, the galleries came to expect rapture. Lecturing to a hundred college students proved more of a challenge. They constituted a collectively fickle will. Prone to boredom, likely to move in one direction as well as another; they were not unlike pieces of driftwood on the shoulders of wide, ever-changing current.
“Nate Champion, a poor cattle rancher—a man who didn’t even own the property on which he ran his nominal twenty head of livestock—was murdered in eighteen ninety-two by the hired guns of the Cattlegrower’s Association of Johnson County. Anyone care to guess why?”
No takers. The fear he might pluck a name from thin air was palpable. His reputation from the Law College preceded him, and Hanson enjoyed the ambiance of discomfort such possibility instilled.
“Moving on,” he said, mercifully. “It was uncomplicated, like the razing of the countryside while civilization moved westward. The Johnson County War was nothing more than a systemic reality taught to us by history: the politically staked, super-rich—in this case, cattle barons—making themselves richer on the backs of the poor, uneducated proletariat. What happened in this part of Wyoming’s history is no worldly mystery. It is a microcosm of the way society has always been.
The words hung there like ephemeral wisps of winter breath.
“Nate Champion made a courageous stand. He owned a single handgun, had a few reloads, and one knife. He took out a few of those who intended to steal from him one of the only valuable things he owned—his life. But it was hard to make do against those kinds of odds. We’re talking Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid here. Bonnie and Clyde.”
“Scream versus the babysitter.”
A ripple of laughter.
“There was no storybook ending coming. No hero in the midst. The mob started piling Champion’s own firewood against the cabin, meaning to burn him down or flush him out. Either way, the mob didn’t care because it was the same end result.
Lucky for posterity, Champion had been writing journal entries all along. While the bullets tore the cabin apart—with his friend lying dead in a pool of blood outside the front door—Champion put down his final testament.
Here is what he wrote last, just before he signed the final page, stuffed the book in his shirt pocket, and broke out the back door to a hail of gunfire:
‘Boys, I feel pretty lonesome just now. I wish there was someone here with me so we could watch all sides at once….Well, they have just got through shelling the house like hell. I heard them splitting wood. I guess they are going to fire the house tonight. I think I will make a break when night comes, if alive. Shooting again. It’s not night yet. The house is all fired. Goodbye, boys, if I never see you again.’”
Professor Hanson let the words hang there. The symphony conductor, holding forth his baton; the notes still resonating.
“Land,” he said quietly. “In the end, it wasn’t the cattle. You can own a thousand automobiles, but if you don’t have the highways to drive them on, they are just so many parts.
And owning livestock isn’t like owning cars. Cattle breed. You can grow a herd, but not if there’s no land to put them on.
Free-grazing, cattle rustling, ‘don’t fence me in’…it’s all about the same song.
Woody Guthrie had a great thought:
‘This land is your land, this land is my land’.
But not in Johnson County.
Not then, and not now.
The great state of Wyoming, perhaps more than any other, was built on the value of the land, and it is the value of the land that makes her both wonderful and as dangerous as a merciless, murderous posse.”
Hanson stood. Surveyed the sea of flesh-colored ovals. He’d infused them with his interpretation of the song. He walked languidly around to stand at the front of the lectern, his posture both reflective and authoritarian.
“How many have heard of the murder in Wind River?”
A surprising number of hands.
“Brother murdering sister, it’s not a pleasant thing. But when one pays particular attention to history, and to the current stakes, not entirely unexpected.”
A lone student rose in the center of young adults. Hanson recognized her. Wendy Steele, one of his best students. Older than most of these young ones, yet declared pre-Law.
“I thought you were an attorney,” Wendy Steele said.
“Retired,” said Hanson.
“I can see why,” she said, loudly.
“Excuse me. Ms. Steele, isn’t it?”
“I believe the legal system presumes a person innocent until determined guilty by a jury of peers,” she said flatly. “One would think a defense attorney to be intimate with this basic core of his profession.”
“I think you’ve found the wrong class, madam,” Hanson said in his best lawyerly tone. He was reaching deep for his courtroom swagger. Steele’s surety and tenacious accusation surprised him; he needed a reacquisition of equilibrium.
“This is Wyoming History,” Hanson stated. “My law classes gather in a different building altogether.”
“As do your principles, apparently,” Wendy Steele said.
A snicker from the rear. A few gasps.
Hanson just stood there.
Unsure of whether his mouth was truly agape or whether it was simply the jaw of his ego.
She’d sabotaged his entire concerto. Skewered him in front of his student body. Worse, he felt an embarrassingly cool attraction.
One predator’s respect for the other?
There was no time to decide. Wendy Steele picked up her backpack and, deftly as she had attacked, climbed the stairs, two at a time. Up and away—away from the muted, smitten presence of the great J.W. Hanson.
Chapters of the serial are published Monday through Saturday.
You can learn more about R. S. Guthrie’s novels on his Amazon Author’s Page.