Finding Hope
Chapter 18 - Jailhouse Blues

Slim found that time ceased to exist behind bars. They'd thrown him into a cell with a tiny, tiny window, way in the back, and left him to his own devices. At first, he'd counted the passage of days by scratching a bit of rock into the wall, like so many other prisoners before him had. But when Day One became Day Eight without so much as a mention of due process, Slim began to question the need to sit and wait for a trial. He'd killed her, after all, and had gone willingly to meet his fate. Why drag it out? Why waste two perfectly decent meals each day for who knew how long, when it would all end with a broken neck anyhow? He gave up counting the days, and chose instead to devote his energy to ripping his sheets to braid into a decent rope to choke himself with.

He'd gotten far with his project, as far as cinching the sheet-rope around the highest joint in the cell that would take his weight, and was twisting the other end into a noose, when a well timed guard caught him. A cry went up, and soon a whole regiment of guards was in the cell with Slim, holding him down, dragging him out, chaining him up. "Oho no you don't! You'll get your day in court, and you'll like it! You ain't gonna escape justice!" He was chained to a wall for some time, while prisoners were rearranged, and then he was thrown back into a bare cell near the front, where a number of armed deputies could keep an eye on him with no effort at all. Suicide watch was what everyone whispered, until they found other things to gossip about.

Slim didn't bother to count the days after that. He ate when food was delivered (having learned the first couple of days in the new cell that he'd just be tied down and have warm chicken broth and oat gruel ladled into a funnel that sat in his mouth until he choked) and he answered when the guards had a random roll call, but otherwise he spent his time dreaming, whether his eyes were shut or not. The dreams were meaningless, just a way to pass the endless spiral of time that unfurled before him. The dreams dampened his curiosity when he heard stories about farmers collecting stolen pintos, and the card shark horse thieves who tried to frame saloon girls, and kept him from getting his hopes up about rumors regarding the arrival of circuit judges.

He was surprised, then, when a lawyer who introduced himself by repeating the same damn name three times breezed into his cell and announced his plan to get things moving right quick. Slim started to gather together the remnants of decent manners his mother had once taught him, but before he could do more than open his mouth, the sniveling little twerp of a lawyer held up an oily hand. "Now, now, listen friend, I've got a method to my madness, and the last thing we want now is to give the judge more ammunition! Don't tell me anything else, we don't want to damage the case any further than you've already done. Hold on, no protests! The best way out of a disaster is through it, and the quicker, the better! Now, if we play our cards right - and that means you keep quiet, and don't give me any of your misdeeds - then when the judge calls on you tomorrow we should be able to skip right past a trial by jury, and your pain will all be over - legally."

In earlier times, Slim might have bellowed and bellyached about being railroaded to his doom. But after all the loss and shock, the only protest he could muster was, "Hope they kill me? That's my defense?"

The lawyer's smile was as patronizing as the infinitely patient tone he adopted. "My dear Mr. Sherman. Defense would be laughable, even if you hadn't practically admitted to guilt a few weeks back with your... bedsheet incident. Observe! You were accompanied by two witnesses, both of whom are well known to the people in town and, if not respected, then at least well sympathized with. You yourself practically turned yourself in. And throwing yourself on the mercy of the court would just end with you spending the rest of your life in chains - and you look to be a hale, hearty and young man, with a long long loooong life ahead of you. And that would be with a fight. Just be a good boy, and this will all be over."

"I'm not so young," Slim muttered.

"Nonsense. In this day and age? Even locked away for the rest of his days, a man in his forties still has a good twenty years left in him. And Colorado takes good, good care of its prisoners - the state wants the men to pay for their crimes, not to wither away in a fit of self pity. And we all know there's no way to a dismissal for you. So face the facts, Mr. Sherman. The best possible outcome is a fast one. Guard?"

Slim watched the lawyer slither away, and spent the rest of the evening mourning the loss of his own life. Quick by rope, or long by broken heart, it was all the same, wasn't it? Without Jess, there wasn't much point to anything. He couldn't even be bothered to work up the energy to hope for a quicker end - he'd tried that, and failed there, too. His whole life had been a series of charmed incidences that kept him at Jess Harper's side. With Jess gone, so were the charmed moments of salvation. There was nothing left for him to do but exist. Hell had already come for him. What difference did it really make where he spent eternity? On the ground or in it, nothing he did would change his world.

Deeper and deeper in his sorrow he sunk, until the evening guard warned him he'd be force fed again. Slim rallied enough to notice a bowl of cold soup and a hunk of sourdough waiting for him. He grunted and picked at his meal, hoping the guard would leave him in peace. It didn't seem he would, until the makings of a riot sounded up from somewhere in the back of the compound. The guard hurried away, leaving Slim to listen to the raving inmate whip the rest of the jail into a frenzy.

"You can't do this to me! I'm not a bad man! I'm not!"

The universe was mocking Slim. The protesting voice sounded so much like Jess, that for just a moment, joy tried to reignite the ashes of hope in Slim's heart. But Jess was gone, dragged off by a pack of hounds to his final rest.

Had anyone in Laramie found what was left of Jess?

Was anyone looking for Slim?

Did they all believe that stodgy superintendent who accused Jess of robbing the stage line?

Maybe the universe wasn't mocking Slim at all. Maybe this was supposed to be his wake up call. Who else would clear Jess' name? Even if Slim had to hang for killing Hope, alright. But not without telling his story. Not without getting word back to Laramie - no matter what happened to Slim, it had to be known, Jess died doing the right thing.

His appetite suddenly roared to life, and Slim scarfed his meal down in a matter of minutes. Then he crawled into his bunk and slept, the first decent sleep he'd had since Jess last left his side. There was still one last thing to do for Jess before Slim could give up his life just yet.

Chapter 17
Chapter 19

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