1831 – Alabama
William Baret “Buck” Travis was a tall, skinny string bean of a man. By the age of twenty-two, he’d worked as a teacher, a lawyer, and a newspaperman. Although these were noble professions, the young man had accumulated so much debt in pursuing these trades that he had been called into court and forced to endure the disapproving glare of the Right Honorable Judge Eugene T. Harlow.
“Goddamn it boy,” the judge said from the bench as he looked down at Travis. “You are one special kind of fuck up.”
Travis’ hair was a long, shaggy mop. His suit was a hand me down from his father and was two sizes too large, so he practically swam in it as it hanged off him.
Harlow put on his spectacles and examined a pile of paperwork. “Rent for law office space in arrears. Rent for newspaper office space in arrears.”
The judge looked at Travis. “It never occurred to you that you could be a lawyer and a newsman in the same office?”
Travis cleared his throat. He trembled as he nervously replied, “I prefer to keep my business affairs separate.”
“You took out a line of credit to start your law office,” Harlow said as he reviewed a bill. “How many clients do you have presently?”
The young man cleared his throat again. “None, sir.”
“What?” the judge asked. “Did you say ‘none’ or ‘one?’”
“I had one client,” Travis said. “He left. Now I have no clients.”
“Do I dare even inquire?” the judge asked.
“There was a difference of opinion, sir,” Travis said.
“You fucked up your client’s affairs?” the judge asked.
“More or less,” Travis replied.
“Sounds like more,” the judge said as he picked up another bill. “You took out a second line of credit to start the Claremont Beacon. I see here bills for a printing press, ink barrels, and the services of a professional typesetter.”
“It was a worthwhile endeavor, your honor,” Travis said. “The public must be informed.”
“Boy,” the judge said. “I picked up a copy of your useless rag the other day. It was one page long and didn’t inform me of a Goddamn thing I didn’t already know. You lost a ridiculous sum at that enterprise.”
“They say you have to spend money to make money,” Travis said.
“Well shit,” the judge said. “Let me know if you ever make a dime and I’ll skip to my lou.”
The courtroom was filled with lawyers, citizens, and other onlookers. They all laughed at the judge’s remark.
“You purchased slaves?” the judge asked
“Yes,” Travis replied.
“Why in God’s name would you do that, jackass?”
“Why, sir?” Travis asked.
“Boy, did I stutter?” the Judge asked. “You got a law office and a newspaper office. You don’t got any bales of cotton to pick or beans to plant and the last time I checked there aren’t any niggers who got the brains necessary to write a writ of mandamus or to pen an eloquent editorial on the political issues of the day so why would you spend money to acquire, board, and feed three slaves?”
Travis cleared his throat yet again. “A man of my high social standing should own slaves. Its customary.”
The onlookers erupted in teary eyed laughter.
“Your…” The judge paused to reflect then started again. “Your high social standing? Son, you look like you barely have hair on your pecker.”
More laughter in the courtroom.
Judge Harlow shuffled the papers, then arranged them into a neat stack. “You have incurred an outrageous amount of debt, young man. A sum so astronomical I dread to even say it out loud.”
The onlookers gasped.
“…and thirty four dollars.”
The onlookers gasped louder. One of them feinted.
“In all my years on the bench I have never seen someone so young bury themselves under a mountain of bills so high,” the judge said. “What disturbs me the most is at no time did you exercise a modicum of common sense and take any kind of action to reduce your expenses. You just kept borrowing and borrowing.”
Travis stood there quietly, accepting the verbal abuse.
“What do you have to say for yourself, you ignoramus?” the judge asked.
“In my defense,” Travis said. “Does it say much for the character of men who would loan an alleged ignoramus so much money?”
Laughter. Even the judge was tickled.
“I suppose not,” the judge said with a grin. “But at the end of the day, you’re the one holding the bag, boy.”
“Boy.” That word stuck in Travis’ mind. “Your honor.”
“I move that all of this debt be set aside based upon an argument of infancy,” Travis said.
The judge’s face turned red. “You what?”
“Infancy, sir,” Travis said. “I was so young when I incurred all this debt that I had no idea what I was doing. I…I…”
Travis looked around the room. So many eyes were staring at him. “I make the utmost proofest of this infant!”
Judge Harlow stared at Travis with a stern gaze, then laughed. Once again, the rest of the court’s inhabitants joined in.
“Oh shit,” the Judge said. “Did you just say, ‘proofest’? That isn’t even a word.”
“It is!” Travis said.
“It is not,” the Judge said.
“It most certainly is,” Travis said. “There’s an entire chapter on ‘proofest’ or the art of exhibiting proof of a claim in the eighteenth volume of Lord Barnaby Fitzwater’s Treatise on the State of Colonial Law which, as we all know, fully applies to the common law of today and I can assure you that at the time when I entered into these contracts, I was much too young to understand the severity of the consequences I was agreeing to and therefore…”
Bang. Bang. Bang. The judge slammed his gavel down until Travis shut up.
“Let me stop you right there, son,” the judge said. “Look, I understand what you were up to. Hell, there’s even a part of me that even admires your spunk. You’re a social climber and you obviously want to live some kind of well-to-do, high falutin’ high society life. Only problem is, boy, that a life like that isn’t handed to you overnight. You got to work for it. Struggle for it. Take small steps every day that eventually get you up that hill.”
Travis hanged his head low.
“You thought that by borrowing a shit ton of cash up front you’d be able to buy the respect of a forty year old man who has toiled and suffered for years while you were still in your early twenties,” the judge said.
Travis remained silent.
“I sympathize, son,” the judge said. “I damn near reckon there isn’t a man in this courtroom who didn’t bite off more than he could chew when he was young. You just bit off more than most.”
Travis cleared his throat. “Your honor, if I could make one more argument…”
The judge banged his gavel. “You may not. And that’s your problem, Travis. You’ve spent so much time with your nose in a book, learning all kinds of fancy words and ideas that you never gained any kind of experience to back up your snooty disposition. In short, you’re all hat and no saddle.”
Travis adjusted his collar. “I throw myself at the mercy of the court.”
The judge nodded. “And the court does have mercy. I will give you three months to collaborate with your creditors. If, by then, you have not satisfied your debts, a warrant shall be issued for your arrest.”
All the hope emptied out of Travis’ eyes as the judge banged his gavel. “Court is adjourned.”