Welcome to Buckeye, Colorado. Slim frowned at the small sign posted at the town's edge, and tried to recall when or where he and his captors could have crossed the state line. Unable to recall any other markers, he decided that he must have crossed over before having set foot on Emmet's mountain, when he'd strayed from the well worn trail. The thought that he'd spent so much time outside of Wyoming Territory unsettled him deeply. He'd been gone much too long, away from his ranch, his roots. Roots he wasn't sure he still had anymore.
"Keep up, Mister." Chris' voice was sharp and clear over the hustle and bustle of a busy town coming to life with the rising sun, and it cut through the fog of misery that settled around Slim's head.
Slim spurred his horse on, careful not to pass Chris up as they headed down the main thoroughfare towards the gaudiest building he'd ever laid eyes on. The townspeople soon stopped their scurrying and scuttling, and began to watch the sad entourage make their way to the Town Hall. Slim had been on plenty of posses, and had been wrongly accused more than once, but he'd always been able to ride in with his head held high, certain that, no matter what, the scales of justice were on his side. This cold, pale morning in Colorado, though, was different. He'd done exactly what he was to be accused of. He glanced behind him at his awful handiwork, and shuddered.
Hope's broken body lay in Emmet's rickety old wagon, draped with an old, tattered sheet. The wagon was drawn by a pair of old, tired ponies that were hardly up for the task. Emmet drove them silently, and wouldn't look up at Slim.
Slim couldn't blame him. If he were in the old man's position, he doubted he'd have been able to stomach the sight of someone who could break a young girl in two -
Stop it. She had it coming.
But not from you, Slim. Not from you.
A crowd gathered closer as the three men approached a large building in the center of town, one adored with flags and banners and all manner of high falutin' decoration. From it, a few badged men emerged to stand near the doorway and watch both the tiny procession headed their way, and the group of folks rubbernecking to get a good view of what had to be the most excitement they'd ever seen.
One of the badged men separated himself from the pack. He shuffled up to Chris and tipped his hat with an uncertain smile. He looked from Chris to Slim to the wagon, and back at Chris again. "Mr. Coleman... everything alright?"
"No, Chuck." Chris turned away from the deputy and glared hotly at Slim. "Everything is not alright." Chris looked back at the deputy, and softly ordered, "Go get the sheriff, please. And Bob Harlow, too."
"The undertaker? Why? What happened?"
"Go take a look at Emmet's buckboard, Chuck."
Deputy Chuck gaped at Chris for a moment, before scurrying to the wagon. It took him a long time to ask, "Who was she?"
"The most beautiful girl I've ever known," Chris said.
"We didn't even know her name," Emmet said in a voice that sounded like wet sandpaper.
Deputy Chuck reappeared from the side of the wagon, and asked Chris, "What happened to her?"
Slim stared at the sky and tried not to hear Chris' answer: "This thieving saddletramp chased her up Campbell Mountain to break her neck."
"You sure?" Poor Deputy Chuck looked like his eyes were going to pop out of his head.
"We're positive," Chris snarled.
"We was there," Emmet said.
Slim could feel the deputy's eyes on him, and he turned away from the open sky that he probably wouldn't be seeing again until he was at the end of a very real rope. He returned the deputy's hard look, stared the lawman right in the eye, but he kept his mouth shut. There was nothing else left to say.
The stranger found the arrest process unsettlingly familiar. He might have been bored with it all, except that the idea that he was a common criminal who'd been through all this before made his skin crawl. He sat in the furthest corner of the surprisingly expansive cell block, and refused to let the other inmates engage him.
They didn't try too hard to talk to him anyway. The deputies were the ones who seemed the most interested in needling him every chance they got, which was surprisingly often, considering how many cells he'd seen when he was first brought in (which was also a lot). They were more than happy to let him know exactly what the locals thought of strangers (not much), what the word on the street was regarding the scandalous hotel theft (nobody noticed anything until he got there), and what kind of side bets were going on in the saloons he hadn't had a chance to hit yet (everybody put their money down that the scruffy stranger would be swinging in the wind). The deputies told each other these awful stories right where he could see, or they talked to nearby inmates, reminding them that things could be so much worse for them, because they could be in the stranger's shoes. A couple of jailbirds had the nerve to make rude gestures at the stranger, his particular favorite being a finger drawn across the neck before pointing at him like a flesh colored pistol.
The stranger ignored most of the coarse talk at first, because there was nothing he could do about any of it, and anyway it didn't really mean much - he was just gristle in the gossip mill. Someone else would come along and take the limelight off him, and in the meantime, a circuit judge might listen to him long enough to grant him some kind of leniency. Maybe send him off to a territorial prison, rather than string him up outright - after all, not all the stuff in Bonnie's room had been stolen the same night he'd arrived in town. They'd have to realize the saucy little skirt wasn't as innocent as she was making out.
But then along came one Donald D. Donaldson, Esquire to put the stranger's faulty thinking right. "The D is for Donatello, no, I don't know why my folks thought that would be a good idea, no I don't want to change it, all my papers already have it all over the place, and no, friend, I don't think you stand a snowflake's chance in Diablo's kitchen."
Things with Donald D. Donaldson, Esquire only went downhill from there. "Play your cards right son, and I might be able to get you reduced to a year! And don't you worry about the things they say about prison - compared to what's going on in Arizona, this will be easy as pie!"
"A year? What do you mean a year?!"
"Well, friend, you're the one ripping through a crime spree all over our fine state! I don't know how they do things wherever you came from, but here in Colorado, you've got to toe the line. And anyway, you're doing much better than the last outsider we got. A real grizzly character, that one. Snapped some poor little girl's-"
The stranger kicked ineffectually at the metal posts that made up his bunk. "I don't give two shakes of a rattler's tail about the last outsider you got - if this is your idea of good defense, I want a new lawyer!"
"And that ain't my name! It's just some fool thing some old folks came up with so they wouldn't keep calling me boy!"
Mr. Donaldson smirked. "Well that's why we keep using it - to keep from calling you boy. Imagine how demoralizing that would be here in the cells, or worse yet, out there in the courts. Now, as I was saying, Mr. James, you are doing much, much better than our last outsider. He's looking at the end of the line - a fate that could just as easily be yours, given the-"
"WHAT?" The stranger lunged at the lawyer, who went scurrying to the bars with a little cry. "You can't do that to me!"
"Hey!" A guard came stalking down to the cells, a short but heavy looking whip in his hand. "What the devil is going on in there?"
"Let me out," Donaldson said, gripping the bars for dear life. "He's worse than that killer!"
"Killer?" The stranger rushed to Donaldson's side, and was surprised by a stinging blow across the knuckles when the deputy whipped him one good. "Worse than a killer? All I want is a fair shake!"
"Get back, you sticky fingered varmint!"
"Don't let him near me," Donaldson said, holding his briefcase up to the stranger as a shield.
"I don't want you anywhere near me," the stranger cried. "I want a real lawyer!"
"I said back," growled the deputy. "Don't make me say it again..."
The stranger backed into a corner and watched as the guard unlocked the door for the cowardly lawyer. The trembling fool scurried out like there were demons on his tail. The moment the cell was locked, the stranger was back at the bars. "Hey," he called out to the guard, who was already stalking away from the cell. "How do I get a new lawyer?"
"Shut up! You're lucky he squeezed you in at all. We oughta leave you here to rot!"
"But I'm no criminal-"
"You're a thief!"
Desperation gripped the stranger, and he cried out in anguish. "You can't do this to me! I'm not a bad man! I'm not!"
"You're a liar! And I can do whatever I want! You don't like it? Tough! Shoulda walked the straight and narrow!" At that, several other people - guards and inmates alike - began to clamor and shout their opinions. The whole jail went up in a ruckus, until the stranger could hardly hear himself think.
A weapon discharged, the sound of the bullet pinging and whistling through the hard stucco walls, and the noise stopped in a near instant. The sound of spurred boots on hardwood grew louder, and before long, the town sheriff was staring down the deputy with the whip in his hand. "You wanna tell me what in the blue blazes of hell is going on back here?"
"Prisoner was getting rowdy, sir. Complaining he wants a new lawyer."
The sheriff looked at the stranger. "We'd be happy to oblige you, James, but we ain't got but the one prosecutor, one public defender, and that one high falutin lawyer that done set up shop here from back east, who just came running outta here like somebody lit a keg under his boots."
The stranger tried to force himself to calmness. "Well what about that public defender?"
"He took sick with the influenza a few weeks back. He ain't up to no defending right about now. If you want to wait until the circuit judge makes his next pass through here, you can do that, but I don't want to hear anything about no habeas corpus. There's a judge willing to take all we'll throw at him, and a lawyer willing to take your case on, and this can all be over in a few days at the outside." The sheriff scowled at him. "Truth be told, I'd rather have you out of here as soon as possible, whether you wanna wait or not. See, hanging onto a saddle tramp like you sends a message. It says that even when he's caught, a man can be fed and sheltered on the backs of law abiding citizens. It says that a man doesn't have to be good or decent. That there is no law, no order here in Buckeye. That's not a message I want getting out of my jail. The message I want out of my jail is justice."
"Yeah, well maybe your sick defender is interested in justice, but that clown that just took off outta here ain't interested in anything but making sure I pay for something I ain't done," the stranger said.
The sheriff smiled tightly. "The judge is a fair man. I've locked up men he's seen fit to acquit before. If you're innocent, it'll bear out."