Dozens of anecdotes about the early days of Montana are available to us from historical sources. I wove those anecdotes into my story, “Calamity Jane: How the West Began” as often as possible. One of my favorite anecdotes is the account of a trial in Alder, from Langford’s “Vigilante Days and Ways” (pp. 208-210):
“A miner’s court for the trial of a civil case was in session the following morning near the bank of the creek fronting the town. To the observation of a person unaccustomed to the makeshifts and customs of a mining community, the picture presented by this court of justice would have exhibited many amusing features- not the lest of which was the place wherein it was held. The Temple of Justice was a wakiup of brush and twigs, gathered from the different coppices of willow and alder growing upon the banks of the creek, thrown together in conical form, and of barely sufficient capacity to accommodate the judge, clerk, parties, and jurors. Spectators were indebted to the interstices in this primitive structure for a view of the proceedings; and as no part of the person except the eyes was visible to those within, the appearance of those visual orbs bore no inapt comparison to a constellation in a brush heap.
“Dr. Steele, president of the gulch, acted as judge. He united with much native good sense, great modesty of demeanor. He was not a lawyer. On his trip from the states, while crossing the plains, an unfriendly gust had swept his only hat beyond recovery, and he came into Montana with his brows bound in a parti-colored handkerchief, which, for want of something more appropriate, not obtainable at the stores, he had worn until some friendly miner possessing an extra hat presented him with it. Proving too small to incase his intellectual organs, the doctor had, by a series of indented slits encircling the rim, increased its elasticity, so that, saving a succession of gaps, through which his hair bristled ‘like the quills of a fretful porcupine,’ it answered the purpose of its creation. With this upon his head he sat upon the bench, an embodiment of the dignity, law, and learning of this little mountain judiciary.
“In the progress of the trial, the defendant’s counsel asked for a nonsuit, on account of some informality of service.
“’A what?’ inquired the judge with a puzzled expression, as if he had not rightly understood the word.
“’A nonsuit,’ was the rejoinder.
“’What’s a –‘ The question partly asked, was left incomplete. The judge blushed, but reflecting that he would probably learn the office of a nonsuit in the course of the argument, he broke through the dilemma by asking, ‘Upon what ground?’
“The argument followed, and the judge, soon comprehending the meaning of a nonsuit, decided that unless the defendant could show that he had suffered by reason of informal service, the case must proceed. Some of the friends of the magistrate, seated near the door, understanding the cause of his embarrassment, enjoyed the scene hugely, and as it presented an opportunity for returning in kind some of the numerous jokes which he had played at their expense, one of them, thinking it too good to be lost, with much mock sobriety of manner and tone, arose and said,
“’Most righteous decision!’
“All eyes were turned upon the speaker, but before they could comprehend the joke at the bottom, another man arose, and with equal solemnity, exclaimed, ‘Most just judge!’
“Dr. Steele, though embarrassed by this ill-timed jocularity, was so well satisfied with his sagacity in finding out what a nonsuit meant, without betraying his legal unlearnedness, that the joke was taken in good part, and formed a subject of frequent merriment in after times.
“….. After the decision denying the motion, the plaintiff passed around a bottle of liquor, of which the court and jury partook. Not to be outdone, the defendant circulated a box of cigars.”
In the interest of creating a cohesive story, Dr. Steele’s role has been handed over to Mr. Fergus in “Calamity.” James Fergus was present at this time and place, and had an official role in that trial as recorder of claims. It would seem a good possibility then that he was the clerk mentioned by Langford. Perhaps he was also one of the friends who ribbed the judge with their solemn expostulations at the time of the trial, and kidded him about the episode for years later.