Jack Van Ryder drawing of an adobe ranch with corrals
Jack Van Ryder drawing of an adobe ranch with corrals

THE sheriff sat in his office in the Pima County courthouse and gazed through the window at the light but steady fall of rain. Its constant patter on the metal roof of the pail across the areaway and the damp, fresh breeze that came through the open window were a refreshing change from the mid-July heat which had preceded the downpour.

Cattleman as well as officer, the sheriff was content. The summer rains meant fall grass and fat cattle. In Arizona that meant comfort and relief from worry. The sheriff smiled as he rolled tobacco between his palms, preparing it for his pipe, and listened appreciatively to the doleful strains of a Mexican voice accompanying a guitar in the jail.

As he swung in his chair to reach for his pipe on the desk the sheriff saw a figure in the doorway. The big, dark-skinned man who stood silently watching the officer almost filled that doorway. His huge body held with a certain native dignity, his large round face calm and unruffled, Ignacio Flores, sub-chief of the Papago Indians, waited for the sheriff to speak the first word.

"Hello, 'Nacio," said the sheriff, who had been slightly startled by the Indian's sudden appearance, "how are you and what are you doing in town?"

"Buenos dias, señor," answered the Indian, "I have come to tell you I have killed a man."

The sheriff came erect in his chair, his eyes no longer dreamy with thoughts of the rain and the range.
"What's that, 'Nacio?" he asked.

"I have just killed a man," said the Indian. "He was muy malo and deserved to die, but the law says I must tell you."

"Who was the man? Where did you kill him? Why?" questioned the sheriff, but did not wait for answer. "Come in here," he went on, "and sit down and tell me about it."

Hat in hand the big Indian stepped forward, seated himself near the sheriff, who finished tucking the tobacco into his pipe and struck a match, puffing a bit and leaning back to listen.

"I killed the man that is called Texas Jack," said the Indian. "Often you see him here in Tucson; many times you see him in San Xavier. You know him, sheriff`?"

The sheriff nodded. He knew Texas Jack for a turbulent, bullying man given to bragging of his own badness, quick to threaten unarmed men and often accused, although never convicted, of having ill-treated Mexican and Indian girls. The sheriff frowned and spat as if freeing his mouth of a bad taste. Assuredly Texas Jack, as the Indian said, was muy malo and deserved to die. Others, not Indians, had given that idea serious thought. Nevertheless, a killing was a killing and something would have to be done about it.

"When did this happen and where?" the sheriff asked.

"Last night, señor, on the Rio Santa Cruz near San Xavier. It was there that I buried the man. Then I came to tell you as the law says must be done."

"Yes, 'Nacio, that's right. Now we'll go out there and you'll show me what happened," said the sheriff, reaching for his hat and a slicker.

"Si, amigo," said the Indian. "I will show you all."

Followed by the Indian the sheriff walked out into the rain and soon side by side they were riding south from Tucson to where, ten miles away, the white dome of the Mission of San Xavier marked the Papago country.

Arriving at the Indian village, Ignacio took the lead. The sheriff followed him down a trail which led past a number of the adobe huts of the Indian people toward the banks of the Santa Cruz, already swollen from the rains in the hills. As they passed the Indian homes other Papagos joined them, and on their arrival at the riverbank the party numbered almost a score.

Ignacio, who had been looking at a grove of mesquite trees at the river's edge, shook his head. "It is too late now," he told the sheriff. "We must wait until the river falls. The water covers the place where I buried him. When the rains stop we will find him. But now these people can tell you it was all just as I said."

With the other Indians listening gravely and from time to time nodding assent Ignacio told the sheriff some of the details. Texas Jack, who had been drinking, had come to the village, made trouble there and refused to leave. When Ignacio had ordered him away he had threatened the Indian. Ignacio had forced him out of the Indian hut in which the men were, the two men had fought, and in the struggle the Indian had killed Texas Jack with one blow from a club. Having buried the body near the river, he had ridden to Tucson to tell the sheriff what had happened. The other Papagos affirmed that Ignacio was telling the truth, but neither he nor they would tell the sheriff what actually had caused the first trouble between Texas Jack and the Papagos. The sheriff, recalling certain incidents in Texas Jack's career, surmised that an Indian girl had been the reason for the fracas.

He took Ignacio back to his office in Tucson, where he explained to him that under the law he must file a charge of murder against him. Ignacio nodded. The sheriff further explained that under the law Ignacio must stay in jail. Again the Indian nodded, but a look of regret flitted across his calm face as he saw the bars.

Yet to the Indian the sheriff's word was law. The officer filled out the necessary papers, Ignacio was taken before the justice of the peace, the charge was filed, and the stolid Papago was put into a cell. When he had locked him in the sheriff said, " 'Nacio, you're just an Indian, but I'm damned if I know a single white man who would have done what you've done."

In the days that followed preceding his trial Ignacio, already the sheriff's friend, became the friend of every man about the courthouse. Deputy sheriffs, clerks, visitors -- all learned to know and admire the huge Papago. So he was not long confined in a cell. Soon as a trusty he had the run of the place, doing chores for the sheriff, caring for the latter's horse at a near-by stable, and waiting quietly in the office for a chance to be of service. He became known as the sheriff's Indian and was accepted as an important fixture.

But when the date of the Indian's trial arrived fate stepped in. A wave of reform had struck the desert city. Train robberies in which several men had lost their lives had brought a feeling of revulsion against killers of all kinds. As this wave reached its crest Ignacio went to his trial.

Before a jury his calm unruffled manner, the very way in which he simply told the truth as he had told it to the sheriff that rainy July morning, hurt rather than helped him. The prosecutor, hammered at by the reform group, set out to make an example of this stolid murderer. The sheriff, although he felt that Ignacio undoubtedly was justified in what he had done, could not help his Indian friend but was forced to stand by and watch the Indian's own honesty bring him closer and closer to the noose.

The defense attorney, paid by the sheriff himself, did the best he could with his difficult task. In the face of the Indian's confession he emphasized the fact that the victim's body had never been found. When the river had receded it had been found that the waters had carried away with them all evidence except the defendant's word. But Ignacio's confession to the sheriff and his repetition of it in the justice court, supported by the unwilling statements of the other Indians, balked the defense attorney's every effort. As one man the Papagos steadfastly refused to give the real cause of the quarrel that led to the death of Texas Jack. Ignacio confined himself to his original statement: "He was muy malo and deserved to die."

The jury returned a verdict of murder in the first degree. The Indian was sentenced to hang and the reform element was appeased.

The sheriff took Ignacio back to the jail but despite the death sentence he made no change in the Indian's routine. He was still a trusty. Political enemies of the sheriff declared that he was giving the prisoner every chance to escape. They charged the officer with neglect of duty and made threats as to what would happen if the Indian did escape.

In answering one of these critics the sheriff answered all. To this one he said, "'Nacio has given me his word that he will be here when I want him. You wouldn't understand that, but he and I do. Now get the hell out of here and stay out."

In the meantime the defense attorney filed an appeal. But after weeks, during which the mild-mannered Indian daily added to his horde of well-wishers, the appeal was denied. The date for the execution was set. The hammers of the carpenters rang in the courthouse yard, building the scaffold upon which to hang Ignacio.

Ignacio viewed it all without comment. To him it seemed that his friend the sheriff had done all that could be done. What was to happen would happen.

But the sheriff could not see it the same way.

The huge Indian had become a close friend. His simple dignity had earned him not only the affection of the sheriff but that of all the sheriff's deputies also. The former faced mutiny among his own men. To a man they refused to have anything to do with the execution of Ignacio. They had erected the scaffold but more than that they would not do. If the sheriff wanted their badges he could have them. That was final.

The day before the hanging the sheriff went to tell his friend that there was no hope. "'Nacio," he said, "I can do nothing more. Tomorrow you must die. It is the law. But today I can give you anything you want. Decide what you want most and I'll see that you get it."

In the Mexican quarter on Meyer Street, where he had been on errands, Ignacio had seen a pair of magnificent boots in a store window. They were black with the uppers stitched in many flowery designs in brilliant red. It was a pair of boots of which a warrior might be proud. He wanted those boots.

The sheriff took him down to the bootmaker on Meyer Street and bought them for him. The Indian wore them as he and the sheriff walked back to the jail. All that day as he worked about the jail and the courthouse he wore the boots and took much pride in showing them to all his friends.

The gray light of the dawn of the day of execution found men gathered about the scaffold in the courthouse yard. It was a silent crowd. There were some officers but not one of the sheriff's deputies.

From the courthouse door, walking side by side, came the sheriff and Ignacio. The Indian's hands were free as he crossed the yard in his new boots and mounted the scaffold with his friend. Standing under the dangling rope, he put one hand on the officer's shoulder, spoke to him in a tone so low that none but they two could hear, then held his arms still for the sheriff to strap them to his sides.

This done the sheriff adjusted the black cap on the Indian's head and the noose around his neck.

Stepping back he waved his hand in silent farewell and with tears streaming down his face descended from the scaffold.

At the foot of the steps he picked up a hatchet he had placed there and with one blow cut the rope which, acting as a trigger, sprung the trap. As the trapdoor fell open and the suddenly taut rope hummed, the sheriff, his face set and his head high, strode across the courthouse yard without a backard glance at his dying friend.

Jack Van Ryder drawing of a pair of boots
Jack Van Ryder drawing of a pair of boots


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