On most ranches, politics as a topic of conversation takes a back seat to more important things like longhorns, rustlers, Indian raids, wildfires, women so rare that every one of ’em looks purty (with the exception, I have to say, of Miss Elizabeth Dahlberg, the sharpnosed, squinty-eyed spinster over in Temple), and of course, horses, guns, knives, and lariats. Plus weather, ticks, rattlesnakes, and such.
The C-J, however, was a notable exception to that rule.
Cranston Johnston, the owner, was of the opinion that any man who didn’t know what the federal government back in Washington was doing…was an idiot who deserved what he got. C. J. didn’t tolerate fools. He tested every drover he hired, not so much on what they knew about last November’s hotly contested election, but on the cowboy’s willingness to learn. If you didn’t pay attention, or showed the slightest bit of indifference, he’d pay you off on the spot.
Run you right out of there.
Which made no nevermind to Tam and me. I was finally learning to read, though struggling some, and the tale teller always had paid close attention to every newspaper he could find, let alone the endless rumors making the rounds of the West with the speed of the moccasin telegraph. We’d taken to studying Presidential politics like maverick longhorns taking to brush thickets during the heat of the day.
By the time the C-J herd was gathered and lined out fer the Chisholm Trail, our beeves numbered jist under 8,000 head of the finest tick-infested steak on the hoof. With Handsome Howard Hogarth as trail boss, we had a total of 37 drovers, three wranglers, and two chuckwagons with a cook and a helper boy apiece. Happy to hit the trail with the herd, I nonetheless left the ranch having learned a lot about the Election of 1876, I can tell you that. The down and dirty politicking that had gone on between the camps of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden was fascinating stuff.
Made me more than glad to know I lived west of the Mississippi.
Our first night on the Trail, the whole crew was feeling pretty good. It’s always that way, knowing you’re finally getting somewhere, on the move, pointed north to Abilene. In fact, the feeling runs second only to the end of the trail, when you’ve turned the herd over to the stockyards, collected your pay, and know one more mission is accomplished and you’re still alive enough to count the gold coins in your pocket.
“Tam,” I asked when we were mostly done chowing down, “Have you settled on a story fer tonight?” I’d drawn nighthawk duty, but the second shift. Randall would wake me around midnight when he came in from his last round. I should be heading fer my bedroll, but missing one of Tam’s tall tales was out of the question.
It jist wasn’t done.
Besides, my final cup of coffee was still too hot to drink unless I wanted to boil my insides. Another bit of time at the campfire wouldn’t hurt.
“As a matter of fact,” the storyteller said, “I thought I’d share one about politics.”
At the chorus of groans greeting this unwelcome news, he raised a hand. “Hold on. No back East stuff. This one’s about a little town up in central Wyoming, name of Herrick. Not really a big enough place to have a mayor, you wouldn’t think, but they sure enough have one. Have themselves a new election every year, too, and–see, the thing is, one year the election got plumb interesting.”
By midsummer of 1869, when people in Herrick were usually talking mostly about weather and cutting enough hay to hold the livestock through the winter, the word on every set of lips in town was: Murder.
Not jist any old run of the mill murder, either–or I should say, murders, plural. There’d been a lot more than one, and the killings were full of both horror and mystery.
It takes something special to pull that off in hard country like Herrick. Death by gunfight wasn’t unknown, but that was a normal and expected way to die. Not even a fight down at the saloon that ended in a fellow getting his neck snapped or an Arkansas toothpick in his gut could stir up the folks in Herrick.
The Chopper had done it though, stirred ’em up something fierce. That’s what they called him, because of his modus operandi. Nobody could figure out how he picked his victims–man, woman, child, didn’t seem to matter–but his procedure was always the same.
He always used a brand new axe. Not jist like new, but a blade that had never been used in the slightest.
You’d think word would git around, suspicion would be aimed at anybody buying a new axe–which would include purty much any working man who could afford the price, every now and then–but no. The Chopper stole his murder weapons. The first two killings, the general store was broke into during the night, and jist one brand new double-bit, tree faller’s axe had been taken. The chopping of the victim was done–the good folks of Herrick soon figured out–as quickly as a fast man walking could get from the store to his target’s place of residence.
As a town entire, Herrick went nuts.
They tried everything. It would take too long to tell it all, but it got so bad that when Niels locked up at night, he took his entire stock of new axes over to the jail fer safe keeping. Put ’em in a cell, locked ’em right up. The jail didn’t always have room, though, and when it didn’t, sooner or later a new axe would disappear and another citizen of Herrick would end up chopped up.
Mayor Bengerson had been in office fer some time by that time, seldom challenged and then never seriously. But 1869 was different. They had a serial axe murderer in town and the Mayor hadn’t been able to do anything about it. Not that it was his job to do so, any more than any other resident, but potential voters were terrified and ticked off and blamed him anyway.
Lars Sorensson began to think he might have a chance at knocking off the incumbent.
Now boys, this Sorensson feller looked like a big dumb Swede, and while his parents had indeed come from Sweden and he was indeed big, dumb wasn’t in it. The man was sharp, and he figured out an angle fer taking down his opponent. He would start up a brand new political party, and he would stop the killings. The newspaper over at Laramie printed him up a flyer in return fer some stonework they wanted done. The flyer read:
STOP THE CHOPPER!!
The NNA Party candidate
for Mayor of Herrick
can and will
Stop the Chopper IMMEDIATELY!
Vote Lars Sorensson
Naturally, politics being politics, Mayor Bengerson pooh-poohed his challenger’s approach. He even went so low as to suggest–discreetly, of course–that Sorensson himself might be The Chopper, that he’d killed all those folks jist to have a platform to stand on.
Lars was elected in a landslide, 83 votes to Bengerson’s 2. The new Mayor made good on his campaign promise, and no, there’s not been a single axe murder in Herrick since.
The name of his political party? What, I didn’t say?
Oh. His way of stopping the killings was right there in the name of the party. NNA stands fer NO NEW AXES!!
“Read my lips,” he told the people, “No new axes.” To this day, if you live in Herrick and need a new axe, you harness the team and head for Laramie. Jist to make sure The Chopper won’t count it as new upon your return, you volunteer to split a passel of firewood fer some old widow before you git back to Herrick.
Nope, Guymon. You’d think The Chopper could do the same, snag a new axe out of Laramie, bring it back to Herrick, and go right to chopping up his next victim. Hasn’t worked that way, though. Guess he must still want to get his hands on new axes, still and always…but not if he has to do any real work to git ’em.
What’s that? Yeah, actually, Lars Sorensson did consider other possible names fer his new political party. Almost went with the AEA Party. Stands fer Axed Enough Already.