Proposal By Post – Jo Noelle

JUDGE ERNEST MİLTON buckled a pocket watch onto the center button of his vest, then checked the time. Court in Salida would start in an hour. He had plenty of time to do some running around before then. He grabbed his hat off of the table beside the door and turned around, looking back into the room. “Are you coming, Bucko?” he asked the young man who slouched further into the chair and tipped his hat down over his eyes. “Nope.” “Would you just grow up already?” the judge said as he opened the door. “Tried that once,” the young man replied. “Didn’t go too well.” He pushed his finger through the bullet hole in his shirt, right over his heart. “Suit yourself,” Ernest replied and shut the door behind him on his way out. Maybe this time he’d get away from that eternal shadow back there in the room. By the time he’d gone twenty feet or so, he looked over his shoulder to see Bucko pop right through the closed door. “Can’t you just sit around for a day?” the angel asked, floating behind him in long strides, his feet not touching the ground. Ernest continued on his way to pick up some breakfast.

He had enough time for a fried egg sandwich and to check for mail. That was all. “I wouldn’t mind at all if you stopped following me around.” Judge Milton tried to hold his temper. After all he was addressing some kind of heavenly being. “Seems like you’d tire of it after these thirty years.” “Yes sir I am, but it’s not my choice. Solve your problem and I’ll hightail it out of here.” It was the same old argument they’d had many times before. “If you just tell me what my problem is, I’ll solve it,” Ernest said.

“Can’t. I’m just here so as when you figure it out, I can help you.” Ernest had thought about it long and hard many times. What could he do? He wondered if it had something to do with when he worked for the Wessley gang in Nevada. The gang had been the criminals and the lawmen in that mining town. About the time of their last heist, they all got hanged, except him. Then the angel had shown up. That was the year Ernest hit rock bottom. He hadn’t had a good start in life to begin with, but the deaths of all those men sobered him right up, and he chose to make a big change. He hoped he’d done that.

Even after all these years, he felt truly blessed to end up living in Colorado and even more so to be a judge. He could protect people and make their lives better. That gave him a measure of comfort after all the heartache he’d caused when he was young. And he had to admit having Bucko around had been a blessing too. “Thanks,” the angel said softly. Ernest stepped into the cafe. The waitress saw him and waved, then hurried into the kitchen, returning with a sandwich wrapped in paper. “Your usual,” she said, extending it toward him. “Thank you.” He paid her and left, opening the paper and eating along his way to the post office.

The sky above him was a brilliant blue, and the early morning air had a nip of chill to it. It would warm up nicely during the day, but August in the Colorado mountains didn’t get near as hot as it did in his boyhood home of California. Like many of the Colorado mountain towns he visited as the circuit judge, a gentle breeze blew through one canyon in the morning and another canyon in the evening, keeping Salida comfortable all the day long. Ernest stopped in front of the post office and mumbled over his shoulder, “You can wait for me out here.” “I don’t think I will,” the angel said with a chuckle. “Seems like you don’t want me to see that you’re hoping a lady answered your advertisement.” That’s another thing Ernest hadn’t had in thirty years—a little privacy. “I reckon if I have to be here around you, I might as well get in on some of the good stuff too. You deserve happiness in life and a little love too.” Ernest tried to ignore him and walked inside, slamming the door behind him immediately.

However, the angel strolled through the door anyway. “Do you have anything come for me, Mrs. Overton?” “Yeah, I do,” she said, turning toward a wall covered with shelves like honeycomb. “This letter came in on the evening train.” She passed it across the desk to him, and he glanced briefly at the writing, then slipped it into his pocket and left. He wondered if the angel was right and a little love might be in his future. The angel’s eyebrows lifted up and down, but Ernest turned away. “Did she say who it was from?” Bucko asked. “Nope.” Ernest had figured out long ago that Bucko couldn’t read.

He might have only known that Ernest paid for an advertisement in the Pueblo Chieftain newspaper, but the darned clerk at the telegraph office read the note aloud while sending it. Bucko knew Ernest was looking for female companionship and jabbered endlessly about the possibility for the past couple of weeks. Every time he did, Ernest wondered if a man with a past like his deserved to have love in his life at all. When Ernest arrived at the sheriff’s office, his bailiff came in right behind him. “Let’s get this set up,” he said to the deputies standing around the room. Judge Milton had had the same bailiff going on ten years now. He trusted the man with his life—and had needed to many times, actually. Just recently, he had started bringing a dog the size of a small pony with him to court. Olof had dark, alert eyes and a shiny black coat stretched over his muscled frame. He was well trained as he sat at the side of the court, just looking.

Once a man started getting rowdy during a case, heckling from the back of the room. Olof slowly stalked toward the man, a low growl in his throat and the hackles along his neck and back stood up. The man sobered right quick. Olof stood not three feet away staring him down until the bailiff called him back to the front. Yes sir, that dog was well trained and welcome in his court any day. “What did the handwriting look like?” Bucko asked. Bucko had been quiet about the letter longer than Ernest had expected him to be, but instead of answering, the judge walked across the room and began helping set up the benches. “The paper looked to be a fine quality to me. Did it to you?” Ernest helped balance the long slat of wood between the two end chairs. He couldn’t stop the angel from talking, but he didn’t have to answer him either.

“I bet it’s an answer to your ad.” Ernest didn’t look his way, and he hoped his expression didn’t give a clue as to what he was thinking. Although he’d only glanced at the letter quickly before taking it away, he had thought the handwriting was neat and clear and the stationary seem to be a good quality. He was pretty sure it was an answer to his personal ad. “I knew it.” The angel pointed to the top of his head. “You can’t hide anything from me.” Wasn’t that the truth. In no time, a small table was set up at the front for Judge Milton to preside, and chairs and makeshift benches were scattered around the room for the defendant, the accused, or a few bystanders that wanted to pass some time watching a court case. “It looks like we’ve only got three cases to hear today,” said the bailiff.

“Depending, we might be out by lunch.” Town’s people entered and there was little standing room. Ernest had never seen such a turnout before and wondered what prompted it. The first case involved a man accused of cheating his neighbor out of twenty-nine dollars in a poker game. Although the group stood quietly waiting, they hadn’t seemed especially interested. “All stand. The Chaffee County Circuit Court is now in session. Judge Milton presiding.” Ernest sat down and the crowd followed suit. “How do you plead?” the bailiff asked the defendant.

“I didn’t do it. I won it fair and square,” the man said. His eyes flashed between the judge and the bailiff several times. “Approach the bench,” the judge said. The man looked wary but approached, his gaze still shifting between the two men and the massive dog. “That man’s got aces in every pocket on his person,” said the angel. “Bailiff, empty that man’s pockets,” the judge demanded. “Hey you can’t—” the defendant said, and Olof jumped to his feet. “I can, and he will,” said the judge. The bailiff did as he was ordered and laid the cards on the table along with a folding knife and some money.

The judge pulled out the money and counted it—thirty-eight dollars. He left four dollars on the table. “Guilty. You are repaying the twenty-nine dollars, paying two more dollars since he had to drag you into my court to get restitution, and two dollars for a court fee. Gamble fair or don’t do it,” he told the man. “That leaves you a dollar. Now get out.” The man shoved the rest of his belongings back into his pocket quickly while the bailiff escorted him out. A second man was brought into the courtroom from the holding cells behind them. He was tall and thin and probably no more than twenty years old.

A good-looking young man except for the weight of sorrow that curled his shoulders around his chest as he hung his head low. The angel beside Ernest tsked several times. “This is going to take some finesse,” he mumbled. “Eventually everyone can be happy though.” “State your name,” the bailiff said. “Jacob Watkins.” His voice was so soft the judge barely heard it. “Read the charges,” Ernest said. The sheriff stood in front of the judge, but it took a minute for him to talk. Judge Milton thought it unusual to see such emotion from a man of the law at a trial.

When the sheriff composed himself, he read, “Jacob Watkins is accused,” he swallowed hard and cleared his throat, “accused of rape of Councilman Heller’s daughter.” Ernest glanced across the faces of the gathered crowd. He could see worry or distress in most of them. A man in fine black suit stared accusingly at the young man, his lips in a tight line and his jaw hard and clenched in silent fury. “The young woman is his daughter,” confirmed the angel. Judge Milton also noted a couple in homespun clothing standing behind the benches in the back. The man’s arm circled his wife’s shoulder protectively while her hands covered her mouth below red, puffy eyes. The judge thought that must be the parents of the accused, whose looks favored his father greatly. They were the only people looking more downtrodden than the young man who stood before him. “You’d be right,” said the angel.

“What do you plead?” said the bailiff. The young man’s shoulders shook, and his Adam’s apple bobbed. After a long moment, he pressed the sleeve of his shirt across his eyes, then looked at the judge without wavering. Although no word was audible, his lips moved. It was clear that the young man had meant to say guilty. “Hot coals and holy smokes,” the angel exclaimed. “He ain’t guilty. No way. No how.” The judge quickly held up his hand to stop the young man from entering the plea he seemed intent to.

“I’d like to know more about the accusation before we get to the plea part. And because of the delicate nature of the conversation we’re about to have, clear my court, Bailiff.” The man in the black suit stood, anger blooming red on his neck. But the judge continued. “Keep Mr. and Mrs. Watkins and him,” he said pointing to the councilman. “Everyone else leaves.” People began talking at once, but Olof stalked beside the bailiff, and the townsfolk made an orderly, though reluctant, exit. When the room was empty, Judge Milton placed both hands on the tabletop and leaned forward.

“Bring chairs up here and sit down. Jacob at that end and your parents on both sides of you. Councilman Heller at that end.” As everyone began complying, the angel said, “Something you ought to know. There’s going to be a child.” That tidbit made the judge more determined to hear the truth. Rape was a hanging offense. “It’s clear what Councilman Heller believes since he’s filed charges. I’d like to hear from Jacob now.” He shook his head slowly as he gathered his thoughts.

When he looked up at the judge, he said, “Georgia agreed to be my wife.” He went silent then. His elbows leaned on the table and his forehead rested against his clasped hands. “Her simple yes made me happier than I ever thought possible.” The silence extended again before he added, “Our celebration went further than either of us planned.” He turned toward his mother. “I’m sorry, ma. You taught me better.” Ernest considered his statements. Agreeing to marriage isn’t exactly the same thing as consent, but he’d come back to that later.

Consent in Colorado was twelve years old. He shook his head at that—but it was. If there was a chance that it wasn’t rape, he’d like to know before he ruled. “Councilman Heller, did you know your daughter was sweet on Jacob Watkins?” Mr. Heller opened his mouth for a quick answer, then snapped it shut before saying anything. Jacob was staring him in the eye as if to dare him to lie. Heller didn’t open his mouth again but nodded once stiffly. “I asked for your blessing,” Jacob offered. “Tell the judge what you said.” “That I’d disown her.

” This was the part of the job Ernest hated. People routinely and intentionally harmed each other physically or emotionally. He’d resolved himself to the fact that when things went very wrong, court cases resulted, but he never got used to seeing fresh pain in each case. “And send her to a workhouse back East first.” Jacob’s voice was bold as he glared at the councilman. “I’d rather die than see that happen to Georgia.” And sometimes he got to see great love on display. “Here’s my dilemma,” the judge began. “If a child results from the union—” Mr. Heller’s head snapped up and his eyes widened.

“He never figured on that,” the angel remarked. Judge Milton continued. “Would that child grow up thinking his grandpa got his pa hanged for a crime? Or that he was never wanted? If the young couple’s union wasn’t rape, a child might grow up knowing his parents could make mistakes—well, sooner or later all children figure that one out.” Ernest let that float in the air for a moment. He steepled his hands in front of him and tapped his fingers together. A good two minutes passed before he saw a change in the people surrounding the table. Mr. Heller relaxed a bit in his chair and his shoulders slumped. Jacob’s chin raised, his gaze steady. “You got him, judge,” the angel said.

“The councilman is ready to take a little counsel.” “I don’t see how this became a rape charge unless there was some threatening over the sheriff’s job to do so. I’m throwing this out.” The councilman pushed his chair back. “I’m not through with you. Answer carefully. If I believe you brought an accusation to court falsely, you’ll be spending some time in a cell. Why is Jacob’s suit of your daughter so unwelcome you’d let him die to protect her? It seems to me he’s passed the test of chivalry, love, and courage in one fell swoop.” Ernest admired the young man greatly. The councilman’s expression crumbled in distress.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I don’t know what came over me. I’ve raised her without a mother, and didn’t realize she’d grown up. That . that I didn’t own her. I’m sorry.” Jacob stood and extended his hand toward Councilman Heller. The man hesitated for a moment, but accepted it. “I wouldn’t have sent her away, and I hope I would have come to my senses and not let an innocent man die either.

” Jacob didn’t remark on the comment, but said, “We’re going to marry. You want to be part of it or not?” Heller nodded. “I can perform the wedding now,” Judge Milton offered. He really hoped the young woman was of a like mind. “It might be best to get that taken care of,” the angel agreed. “Bailiff, find a deputy to accompany Jacob Watkins to see if Georgia Heller agrees. Leave Olof here to keep Mr. Heller company during the next court case. And let the sheriff and other deputies know they can return to court.” Jacob’s mother and father hugged him and left when he did.

Ernest wondered if Georgia’s father truly had a change of heart, hoping Bucko could tell. “That is affirmative. His heart’s all broken up from what he about did, and is trying to put the pieces to rights. He’s becoming a new man inside.” “Do we have another case to hear before we can finish up on that one?” the judge asked. “Yes, your honor. Denny Hall is accused of disorderly conduct,” the sheriff answered. “Bring him in. Let’s hear all about it.” Only a few people reentered the courtroom, and one man stood before the judge.

“How do you plead?” the bailiff asked. “I’m not guilty. I was crazy out of my head with liquor.” “Tell me why they think your conduct was disorderly,” Judge Milton asked. “I was drinking water out of a bathtub,” the man answered. “Why was that disorderly?” The sheriff answered the question when a man was reluctant to. “He burst into the bathing room at the hotel and threw his face headlong into the water and begin gulping it.” “I’d eaten one of those jalepeños on a dare.” “However, the man taking the bath wasn’t sympathetic to his reason,” the sheriff added. Ernest pressed his hand over his mouth and forced a placid expression onto his face.

Sometimes it was hard to keep from laughing at the idiocy that came into the court room. “I didn’t know what I was doing. It ain’t my fault. It was the liquor.” Judge Milton picked up his gavel and slammed it down on the table with a loud crack. “You chose to drink liquor, enough that you lost any sense you might have had, and made a spectacle of yourself. It’s your fault and not the liquor’s. Guilty. Two-dollar fine. Pay the bailiff or spend three days in jail.

” They waited a few more minutes after that man was taken care of when Jacob Watkins entered the sheriff’s office with Georgia Heller on his arm. She was a beautiful young woman. His parents followed the couple back inside. “Must’ve taken after her mother,” the angel said. Jacob brought her to stand in front of the judge’s table and made the introduction. “I’m pleased to meet you, Judge Milton. And thank you for hearing Jacob’s story,” she said. A little pink blushed across her cheeks. “It’s a pleasure to meet you too. Jacob claims the two of you would like to be married.

” Her smile brightened and her hands tightened around Jacob’s arm. “We hope to now if you’ll do it,” she said. Her eyes lifted to Jacob’s. “We’d like to start our life together as soon as possible.” “I know you didn’t ask my opinion, but does he have a way to support you?” the judge asked. “Yes. He has a homestead near his parents’. He’s been running a small herd of cattle on it for a couple of years, and it’s grown enough to support us. He has a small house there too.” Judge Milton nodded.

“Take your place beside Jacob,” he said. Mr. Heller stood. He coughed into this fist to gain control. “I’d like to do what I can to make up for my actions,” her father said, coming to stand next to her. “I should have given Jacob my blessing when he asked. If you’ll still have it, I’d like to give you away, Georgia.” “Thank you. I’d like that.” Georgia walked to the door of the sheriff’s office and turned around to face the judge.

“Mr. and Mrs. Watkins, could you please stand to the side of your son?” Ernest requested.

.

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