Barber County, Kansas.  

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From When Kansas Was Young, pages 4 - 7.

A Frontier Court

by Thomas Allen McNeal


When the ninth judicial district of Kansas was formed it covered a territory larger than any one of more than half the states in the American Union. Extending from Chase County southward to the Indian Territory and westward to the Colorado line, it was quite possible to travel in a straight line for 300 miles, all the distance being within the boundaries of this judicial district.

The first judge of the district was the celebrated Col. Sam Wood, of Chase County, who was succeeded by William R. Brown, also of Chase County, Sam Wood looked the part of a frontier judge but Brown was a typical New Englander in appearance and speech. Shortsightedness compelled him to wear glasses, and added to the dignity and solemnity of his appearance. A full reddish beard reached only half way to his waist, and tossed about in the loyal winds which loved it well.

It fell to Judge Brown to hold the first term of court in the newly organized county of Barber. Court house there was none, although the thieves who organized the county had incurred sufficient debt, ostensibly for that purpose, to have built a fine temple of justice. The opening term was held, I think, in a schoolhouse which had just been completed. The sheriff was a unique character by the name of Reuben Lake. With great dignity and solemnity the new judge directed the sheriff to open court. Reuben had somewhere learned the usual formula for opening court, and varied it with some observations of his own. In stentorian voice he announced to the assembled crowd:

"Hear ye, hear ye; the honorable district court for Barber County is now in session. All you blank, blank sons of blank who have business in this court will lay off your guns and come to the front, and all you blank, blank sons of blank who have no business in this court will lay off your guns and keep __________ quiet."

Just what the solemn and dignified judge thought of the manner in which the court was opened is not stated. The dean of the early Barber County bar was Captain Byron P. Ayers. Captain Ayers was born in Ohio, educated for a teacher, but studied law and wandered westward until he reached the territory of Kansas. He took some interest in territorial council back in the fifties. When the war came he was made captain of one of the Kansas companies, fought with Lyon at Wilson's Creek, with Blunt at Prairie Grove, and in the other battles of the West. With a wide acquaintance among the leading men of the new state and a creditable record as a soldier, his prospects were bright, but John Barleycorn got a strangle hold on him and made his life a failure.

He seemed to me to be a man who had been more than ordinarily gifted by nature and with really great possibilities, but who had entirely given up the fight. When knocked down in the first round he lacked the energy, determination, and courage to get up and fight again. To the hour of his death, however, he retained a certain marked dignity of bearing and distinction of presence which would have caused him to attract attention in any assembly. His conversation was remarkably free from inaccuracies of expression, his literary taste was excellent, and even when fairly well "tanked up" he was never guilty of vulgarity or maudlin silliness. He was, in fact, rather more dignified and precise when full than when sober.

His regular habitation was in the little hamlet called Sun City, but having been elected county attorney, an office which paid, as I recall, $500 a year in "scrip", worth at that time from fifteen to twenty cents on the dollar, he was a frequent visitor at the Lodge, and when there slept in the layloft of the livery stable.

One morning, following an evening and night of unusual potations, Cap awoke with that feeling that comes "the morning after". His eyes were bloodshot, and millet straw and millet seed were plentifully mingled with his hair and long auburn beard. Altogether he was a picture of disconsolateness and disgust. He sat up and turning to a fellow lodger he said in a mournful, almost sepulchral voice: "Ten thousand years hence, when we both are dead and damned, our ghosts will sit on the dark Plutonian shore and read the records of our misspent lives by the red glare of hell."

Speaking of Captain Ayers brings to mind another remarkable character, who came to the Lodge later. He always signed his name Dr. G.W. Ayers. He was a horse doctor, possessed of a most remarkable vocabulary, and a facility for original and striking expressions such as I have never seen equaled. I think that Doc and truth had never met, or at least had never formed a speaking acquaintance. There were times when I considered him one of the most spontaneous and delightful old liars I ever met. Back in 1874, several years before I reached Barber County, there was a saloon row in the frontier drink emporium, in the course of which Captain Byron P. Ayers was slightly wounded.

Doc Ayers came to the Lodge during the early eighties, but one day, forgetting that I knew when he arrived, he entertained me with an account of the old saloon row.

"I was the only doctor in the town," he said. "They sent for me. I found when I got there that a bullet had plowed across Cap Ayers' midriff and let his bowels out. It occured to me, when I looked him over, that he had more bowels than he needed and so I cut off a couple of fee of intestines, put the rest back and sewed him up."

This most marvelous surgical operation performed by a horse doctor, he assured me, caused Captain Ayers little inconvenience.

For many years the body of Capt. Byron P. Ayers has lain in what I presume is an unmarked and uncared for grave. As I think of his wasted talent I am reminded of Whittier's

"Of all sad words of tongue or pen
The saddest are these: 'It might have been!'"


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