A Question of Madness

By Shannon Selin

The white man on a roan horse did not, in his dusty appearance, differ from many who straggled into Nacogdoches on the trail from San Antonio de Béxar to Louisiana. American traders, vagabonds and adventurers were common in this corner of Texas, joining Spaniards, Frenchmen, Mexicans, Indians and a few free Negroes seeking to improve their fortunes. It was the man’s request that distinguished him.

“My good Sir, I deserve death and therefore desire that you should hang me.”

James Dill uncrumpled himself from the worn bench of his siesta and eyeballed the stranger. Nacogdoches was a place men came to escape the law, not to ask for it. Once a Spanish trading and smuggling center, the town had been gutted by royalist revenge during the Mexican revolution. Only now, with Mexican independence, were families trudging back to their tangled farms and sagging jacales. Some hundred souls, of the thousand who once lived there, scraped a living from the red-land valley. Dill’s slim hold as commandant and alcalde relied not on a garrison, but on his age, his standing as one of the first to return, and the grace of the Mexican friend who appointed him. And, of course, on Dill’s judgment, which in his mind had never failed him.

The man was young and slight. He had been riding hard; his breath was heavy. His eyes met Dill’s with a watery blue fever. Dill sniffed. There was no smell of whiskey.

“Why do you wish to be hung?”

“I have been into Mexico with my partner, trading. On our return, I murdered him, took his money and sunk his body in the Angelina River.”

“Did anybody see this murder?”

“Only God and all the saints and angels.”

“But no man witnessed the killing.”

“I saw it, though I no longer have claim to be a man.” He slumped as he said it.

“How did you kill him?”

“With my knife.”

There was no sign of injury on the man’s sunbaked skin, no stain of blood on his boots or loose clothing.

“Show me the knife.”

“It is in the river.”

“Show me the money.”

The man pulled out thirteen dollars and a handful of pesos, hardly worth the trouble of murder. The horse was an Indian one, marked with no brand. It wore a Spanish saddle. Dill checked the packs. They held pots and bedding, a rifle in a deerskin case, powder, shot and bundles of wool. There were no bars of silver, the usual trader’s haul.

“What is your name?”

“Such name as I had is lost.”

“What is the name of the man you say you killed?”

“He called himself Ben Lucky. I never knew his real name.”

“Where is his family?”

“He had none.”

“Where is your family?”

The man’s mouth twitched. “I have forsaken the ones who loved me.”

“Where are you going?”

The man blinked, as if the answer were obvious. “To hell.”

In making his way to Texas, Dill had wandered from Pennsylvania to New Orleans to Arkansas Post. He had been a frontier hunter, a farmer and a trader with the Nacono, Nasoni and Anadarko tribes. He had seen madness, both the kind a man is born with and the kind fate draws him into. This man had no hat. He would not be the first the sun had made crazy.

“Go away,” said Dill. “The heat has produced mischief in your brain. I will not listen to you.”

The man gripped Dill’s shoulders. “My mind feels an uncommon shock, but it has never had more equilibrium. I demand that justice be done to me, even as I did justice to poor Ben.”

He was shaking like the devil in a vessel of holy water. Dill twisted him off. “You have run mad. Do not trouble me.”

The man grabbed the rifle from the horse and pushed it toward Dill. “If you will not hang me, then shoot me. I do not wish to commit suicide, or yet to live.”

Dill waved him away. “You have suspended the operations of reason. Go from this place.” He went into his house and shut the door, leaving the man outside.

Helena was grinding corn, mashing it between the stones as expertly as any Mexican. She winced at her husband cutting off the breeze. By Fahrenheit’s thermometer the heat was over one hundred degrees. Poking a sweaty curl back under her kerchief, she opened the door a pinch and peered out. The man stood where Dill had left him, his back bent forward.

“What if he is a murderer?”

“Death comes soon enough. What sane man would hasten it? Providence has taken away his reason. He may recover it, or he may not. I cannot take the life of one who has confessed a crime of which there is no proof.”

“Well, if he did kill someone, Providence has given him the most clear reason in showing him what needs to be done.” Helena did not go to the creek for water until the man had left their door, and she kept her grandson James close by instead of letting him run with the other children in the pines.

The man plunked himself down in the town square, where he repeated his story to anyone who would listen. Juan Seguín heard the tale. He complained to José Mariano Sanches.

“I am very much afraid that this gentleman has murdered his companion. I do not believe it is just for him to evade the law.”

“Indeed,” said Sanches, “the culprit has made a confession and wishes to suffer for the breach. There should be no escape.”

“If he has committed murder, what picture is this for our alcalde, who screens him from the gallows and lets him loose to prey upon his fellow men? Is it not the law that murder should be punished by death?”

Sanches quoted words he had heard from a long ago priest. “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.”

“He waves his rifle like a madman and asks men to shoot him. How is this safe for our families?”

“Madman or murderer, he is a danger to us all.”

“If I were alcalde and a man claiming to have killed someone came within my reach, I would apprehend the villain and lodge him in jail. The laws of our country would determine whether he was justified or not. If not, he would receive the punishment he merits.”

“That is what every man of honour ought to do.”

“But how can we expect justice to be done by a man who is slipped into an office which, by ignorance and lack of learning, he is unable to fill?” Seguín had only two horses and a house half the size of Dill’s, but he was proud of the education he had received in Béxar.

Sanches was a farmer from Laredo who, like Dill, did not know how to read or write. “It is character he lacks. He has the conceit of the Anglo-American.”

“I remember how he lied about being a Catholic, so the viceroy would let him stay. I was here in the spring of 1799, well before Dill came on the town.”

“Six months before,” said Sanches. “And I was here seven years before either of you.”

Joseph Durst, Dill’s son-in-law, was at the trading post, buying sugar and flour. When he collected James for the ride back to the farm, he said, “The townspeople do not feel safe with a murderer in the square.”

“A madman,” said Dill. “Who says that?”

“Juan Seguín.”

“Seguín is a jealous old fool. He will do me all the injury he can. I will not confine a man for being mad. Only if he wishes not to comply with the rules of government can I exempt him from the town.”

“They think he killed a man.”

“He is a lunatic. If he did what he says he did, with no one as witness, he could have got clear away to Natchitoches.”

“So you think he is guilty,” said Helena.

“I said no such thing.”

Two other Americans were fresh in town. William Dewees and Nicholas Dillard had got word that Moses Austin had received permission from the Mexican government to start a colony in Texas. They were heading back to Arkansas to make preparations to join him. Dill asked if they knew of a trader called Ben Lucky, or if they had heard of a murder on the Camino Real.

“Yes,” said Dewees, “we did hear of such a thing.”

“Where?” asked Dill, his excitement rising.

“From a man in the square.”

Dill went to the square as the sun’s orange tail swept the horizon. Indians packed up their hides and beans; a Spaniard tinkled his guitar; some Mexicans played monte. The man was laid out on the stoop of the church–long abandoned by priests–with a Caddo who liked to drink prodigious quantities of whiskey.

The man looked up in hope. “Sir, have you come to hang me?”

“I have not. You have caused a great deal of caviling and worry, and I want you to leave this town.”

The man struggled up. He could scarcely keep on his legs.

“I will leave, but on one condition.”


“If you still disbelieve me, send some men with me. I will show them where I sunk my comrade.”

The man wet the ground through his trousers.

“You are mad, and now you are drunk besides.”

As Dill turned to walk away, the man started hollering out his wish for execution. Women peeked out their doors and men appeared on the verandas of Y’Barbo’s old stone house.

Dill took the man by the arm and led him stumbling out of the square. “In the morning, if you have not returned to reason, I will grant your condition. Then, if you are telling the truth, you can get the justice you desire.”

Helena gasped to see the man again on her porch. “You are the one who is crazy,” she said to her husband. “Why not put him in jail? Why bring him here to rob and murder us?”

“If I locked men up for drunkenness, the better part of the population would be confined.” Dill patted her broad hip. “He will not harm us. I have taken his rifle. And he will be gone as soon as the sun is up.”

Helena offered the man coffee and tortillas. He would take only water. “I am burned with regret. I long for death, as life is the only obstacle separating me from my just fate. But I am a coward. I cannot do it myself.” He reached for her hand. “Please, will you help me?” Helena pulled away.

Dill gave the man clean trousers and set a moss-filled mattress under the long eaves of the house. The man refused to lie down. “I dare not sleep, for fear of my dreams. I will keep awake as long as I can hold my eyes open.”

Dill had barely put out the candle when the man began to howl. Helena’s blood froze. Dill went out and asked the cause of the clamour.

The man apologized. “Frightful afflictions pursue me. I thought I saw Ben Lucky walking on the road and beckon to me.”

The Dills had just settled in their bed when they were once more startled by the man’s cry.

Again the man apologized. “I thought blood was falling on my head.” He began to roam about the porch, muttering.

Helena did not sleep. By morning she agreed with her husband that the man was crazy.

The man was, at least, sober. “Sir, I will leave now, if you will hold up your end of the bargain.”

Dill rounded up five strong men to accompany his charge. They followed the Camino Real about twenty miles northwest, to where the trail met the Angelina River. The man then led them south, across dry river and creek-bottom land, to a point thick with walnut trees and poplars.

“It is here that I sunk Ben Lucky.”

“Are you sure?”

“How could I forget?”

The river, which had been an overflowing torrent in the spring, had shrunk to a lazy brown stream. Two of the men took off their clothes and entered the water. They found the swollen body within the hour, caught on a log. They slung it over a mule and returned to Nacogdoches.

Dill fixed a rope upon a tree behind the old stone house and drew up a bench underneath. He called a few persons together to witness the scene. More came without being invited. Some gave the condemned man commissions for the other world.

As the man beheld the noose, he smiled. “God guard you many years,” he said to Dill.

He mounted the bench and put his neck through the loop.

Dill kicked the bench.

As they walked back to the house, Helena said, “I must say that I have never seen a man so happy to be hung. It goes to show that even in the most unusual of circumstances the old proverb is right: murder will out.”

Dill said, “It goes to show that I was right. Even as a murderer, the man was mad.”


Shannon Selin lives in Vancouver, Canada. Her novel, Napoleon in America, imagines what might have happened if Napoleon Bonaparte had escaped from St. Helena and wound up in the United States in 1821. She blogs about Napoleonic and 19th century history at shannonselin.com, where you can also read more of her short stories.


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Since 2000, The Copperfield Review has been a leading market for short historical fiction. Copperfield was named one of the top sites for new writers by Writer's Digest and it is the winner of the Books and Authors Award for Literary Excellence. We publish short historical fiction as well as history-based nonfiction, poetry, reviews, and interviews.
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