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Them Gol Durn A'tlaws

Just over a hunnert and umpteen sumpin' years ago Colonel Sam Colt invented the Colt .45 Peacemaker revolver to make all men equal. Before that time, being a big guy was a distinct advantage. Being big wasn't bad, you understand. It's just that a mean big guy is harder to control than a mean little guy. But now a little guy with a gun could be just as powerful as a big guy with a gun. That worked pretty well for awhile until some men got better with a gun than others. But, unfortunately, that wasn't always the good guys.

If a guy had a little talent and spent a lot of time practicing with Colonel Colt's .45 while other people were learning an honest trade he could attain a position of some power. Being skilled with a gun wasn't bad, but now the outcome of a confrontation was again determined by a skill that had nothing to do with what was honorable.

People would tell jokes. "What do you have if you have six gunslingers up to their necks in sand?" "Not enough sand." Or "What's the most tragic thing about a gunslinger's stagecoach going over a cliff?" "An empty seat." But the gunslingers knew more jokes than anybody. They got a kick out of them because it showed that people recognized they were nasty buggers and it made them feel powerful. Besides, jokes didn't win gunfights.

Gunslingers were given colorful names in the frontier vernacular of the day such as "Black Bart, that gunslinger a'tlaw." Gunslingers tended to hang out in gangs, so if you wanted to mess with Black Bart the a'tlaw, you took on his associates Bart Barton Bartholemew and the Kid. Most people disliked gunslingers but a lot of folks enjoyed being associated with them because of the authority it seemed to lend them. If someone was having a problem with their neighbor, they could intimidate them by threatening to have a gunslinger contact them. Most people never really had any truck with a real a'tlaw, but it was a good idea to give them a wide berth because not doing anything wrong was no guarantee of not having trouble with them.

Finally, the people decided that they didn't want to keep on living that way. They resolved that a person's behavior should be determined by what's right and wrong, not by a skill he had that gave him power over others. To that end they drew up laws that governed how citizens should behave. So the power was stripped from the a'tlaws and vested in the people. In any given situation, it wasn't one man against the guy who had the horse he wanted. It was him against the huge structure that could be a fine friend or a formidable foe.

That worked pretty well for quite a while. Then one day, a rich guy ran over a kid in one of those new-fangled horseless carriages while he was under the influence of Sam Slater's home-made fire water. For a handsome fee, a bright young unemployed philosophy major convinced the judge that the law that the people had agreed on made no specific mention of motor vehicles.

Almost overnight, a whole new industry was born. Now, whenever someone got in trouble or had a dispute with a neighbor, instead of standing in front of the judge and telling their side of the story, they would hire one of these crafty chaps to tell it in a special way. These attorneys, as they came to be known, started writing the laws, and they wrote them in such a way that only an attorney could interpret them.

A cow poke that broke into an banker's house became the guest of honor at a neck-stretching party, but the son of a wealthy railroad executive who robbed a saddle shop was awarded five thousand dollars because he turned his ankle getting away. But if you asked a lawyer, he could show you just exactly how in both cases the letter of the law had been uncompromisingly upheld. Then he would send you a hefty bill for his "consultation" and see you in court if you didn't pay. It was beginning to appear that what was right or wrong or even legal really didn't have as much influence as the cunning of the attorney.

To guarantee themselves continued employment one attorney would create a problem for which another would offer a solution. For example, when Butch Ratteree fell through the rotted plank on the porch of Madame Zelda's whorehouse, one attorney a'tlaw convinced him he could win a huge mental anguish lawsuit against Zelda's Pleasure Emporium Inc. So Zelda had to hire an attorney a'tlaw and in the end both Butch's and Zelda's attorneys made a fortune. Both the clients ended up broke. Then both of them had to hire a bankruptcy attorney and Butch had to hire a divorce lawyer on top of it all when the whole story went public. Every attorney a'tlaw that rode into town created a job for more attorneys.

Well, but at least we no longer live in a society where some gol durn a'tlaw with a special skill in a certain area can trample the rights of someone who doesn't happen to have that skill.

Frank Leany

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