Weekly Story: Border Justice

Democratic Thinker, Weekly Story

T.A. McNeal—early Kansas newspaper man—relates a story of early day Medicine Lodge, Kansas.

A Border Justice.


WHEN the town of Medicine Lodge had achieved a population of two hundred and fifty, some of the enterprising citizens decided that it ought to be incorporated. They argued that it would give more dignity and tone to the town if it had a regular city government, with a mayor and a city marshal wearing his star. The required petition was circulated and signed by a majority of the electors of the village, duly presented to the board of county commissioners, the proper publication made and Medicine Lodge became a city of the third class. Among the earliest selections for the office of police judge was L. D. Hess, who had come to the frontier town to start a grocery store.

Hess was a man who wasted fewer words in expressing his ideas than almost any man I ever knew. He was also the most deliberate man, with the exception of the late Judge J. D. McFarland, that I ever met. During an acquaintance of several years I never saw him show any indications of excitement or haste. Whether the town was stirred by the advent of a cowboy filled with “hell’s delight,” riding full tilt through the street, scattering shots and howling profanity as he rode, or by a western zephyr cavorting across the townsite filling the air with dust and shingles and awnings ripped from their moorings, Judge Hess maintained the same imperturbable calm and moved about his appointed tasks with the same grave deliberation.

One day the Judge was proceeding along the street with his slow, but even stride, carrying a ladder, his head thrust between the rungs and the ladder resting on his ample shoulders, for it may be noted here that notwithstanding his peacefulness of disposition, in these days the Judge was a powerful man. He never quarreled or “fussed” with any man. Apparently his temper was never ruffled. He just went along attending strictly to his own business in his slow, easy, quiet way like a man who was at peace with himself and all mankind. On this particular day a cowboy from one of the territory cattle ranges happened to be in town on a vacation. He had already imbibed several drinks of the far-reaching liquor that was dispensed at that date and was filled with booze and happiness. As the Judge passed him carrying the ladder a delightful idea worked its way into the brain of the cowboy. He suddenly caught the end of the ladder and swung it violently around. The Judge caught unawares spun around rapidly, but managed to keep his feet under him. Those of us who knew him were compelled to say that we had never seen him move with such alacrity. His countenance, however, remained calm and unruffled as a duck pond unstirred by the wind.

As soon as he fully recovered his equilibrium he lifted the ladder from his shoulders, set it up carefully against the side of the building, moved the base back a trifle so that there would be no danger of its toppling over, stepped back and looked at the ladder to see that it was standing to suit him, and then turned his gaze slowly toward the cowboy, who was viewing the situation with great delight.

Then there was a surprise for the man from the range. The Judge moved deliberately over toward the cowboy and suddenly his powerful right arm straightened. His fist caught the cowboy fairly under the chin and almost lifted him clear of the ground. The cowboy lit out near the middle of the street and for some moments subsequent proceedings did not interest him.

On the countenance of the Judge there was no indication of either excitement, anger, or triumph. Calmly he took the ladder from the wall, adjusted it to his shoulders with his head between the rungs, and slowly wended his way toward his store, where he also kept his office as police judge. There, without the slightest indication of nervousness, he opened his docket and made an entry of case of the “City of Medicine Lodge vs. L. D. Hess; charge, disturbing the peace by fighting; defendant fined $2 and costs; fine and costs paid by defendant; case closed.” With justice fully satisfied and the law vindicated, Judge Hess went with unruffled calm about his business. But other cowboys did not try to have fun with him.

Thomas A. McNeal, When Kansas Was Young (1922).

Contributed by Democratic Thinker.