Finding Hope
Chapter 20 - Merciful Justice


The stranger sat in his cell and marked the passing of time with cold, silent dread. His lawyer - everyone's lawyer, apparently - didn't bother to check in with him for the near week he waited for his turn at justice. The guards were too busy with prisoner transfers and court dates to continue with their favorite pastime of needling the stranger. Before long, the jail soon took on an eerie silence as the prisoners went one by one to the big prison in Canon City. It seemed no one went home happy, or served a few days here in the local lock up for his crimes.

All too soon, though, the big day had arrived, and the stranger found himself sitting in a courtroom that was filled to standing room only,while the prosecutor preened and postured at the bench. "Your honor, my first witness is an expert in law enforcement, particularly out in the open wilds where human contact is often a rarity."

Even with only a buffoon of a lawyer to save him, the stranger wasn't too concerned about all of Prescott's blustering. Neither, apparently was Donaldson. While Prescott blathered on for an increasingly irritable looking judge, Donaldson leaned closer to the stranger and whispered, "Prescott must be sweating! He never pulls out an expert first thing! Maybe this is gonna work out after all..."

Judge Taylor broke into Prescott's speech. "Mr. Prescott, before the winter solstice begins, if you don't mind."

Prescott didn't miss a beat. "I call Sheriff Harrison Turner to the stand."

The stranger's blood ran cold at the sound of the witness' name. Turner? Maybe... maybe it's not really him... He turned slowly in his seat, and looked out into the fully packed gallery for signs of this expert witness. The whole audience was already staring at the bailiff who repeated the call for witness at the opened the double doors. A moment later, the officer stepped aside, and everyone got their first good look at the witness.

Oh no. The young sheriff who'd taken coffee and biscuits from dear old Eunice Ward stood in the doorway, hat in hand. The sheriff who'd have been hot on the stranger's trail if Clyde Ward'd had his way stepped onto the soft carpet that ran the length from the double doors to the cage that separated the spectators from the proceedings. The sheriff who'd looked the stranger up and down and thought he looked to be a damned fine match for the wanted poster he'd shown the Wards held his head high as he pushed through the gate and crossed the space between the lawyers and the bench.

The sheriff that the stranger had run so blindly from just a few days ago settled himself in the witness seat and turned sharp, narrowed eyes on the quaking stranger.

It was a subtle expression, just a shift of skin around the eyes, nothing the rubbernecking audience would see, but it was enough to get the message across to the stranger. As far as the expert witness was concerned, the stranger was guilty as sin, and if he couldn't take him in for the stage robbery, then he'd make sure someone got him on something.

Donaldson was still grinning through Turner's credentials, and seemed completely unaware of the stranger's silent meltdown. The poor fool didn't stay ignorant for long though. Donaldson's face began to droop as Turner laid out for the court his first encounter with the stranger, and the wanted poster from the fine town of Laramie. Donaldson's eyes began to bulge as Prescott wheeled in a map for all to see, so that Turner could plot out the last complaints he'd taken before he'd gotten the telegram to come to court. The path was straight as an arrow, starting at the Ward property, which sat not too far from a road between Laramie and Cheyenne, all the way down to a pass that would lead a man right to Buckeye - a path, incidentally, that Sheriff Turner took himself to get to the trial. Poor Donaldson finally had to put his head on the desk as Turner described the stranger's violent behavior, the ease with which he took off with some poor farmer's horse, and the easy way he cleaned out a wagon train. Turner closed his bludgeoning testimony with the unnecessary, "It is my professional opinion that the defendant is obviously up to no good."

The audience grumbled and harrumphed and sounded like a bunch of squalling old folks at a church revival.

"Oh lord," Donaldson said, just loud enough for the stranger to hear. "I can't fix this. I cannot possibly fix this."

Judge Taylor banged his gavel. "I will have order in this court. Any further outbursts from the gallery, and I will close these proceedings to the public." Taylor looked at Donaldson, and rolled his eyes up into his skull. "Mr. Donaldson, are you awake?"

"Unfortunately, Your Honor." He kept his head on the desk. The stranger thought he might be sick himself.

Taylor rubbed his forehead with both hands. "In that case, your witness, Mr. Donaldson."

Donaldson got to his feet as if it was his freedom on the line, rather than his client's. But he rallied, and managed to pull himself together when he faced down the angry looking sheriff. "Sheriff Turner. Your testimony indicates that you believe he is wanted for a crime committed outside of the state of Colorado. Do you actually believe he is guilty of this crime?"

"Yes."

"You also assert that he was at the very least present during the commission of other crimes for which he is not currently on trial. Do you believe he committed these crimes?"

"Yes." Turner looked annoyed.

"You were investigating these crimes yourself?"

"I believe I said that already."

"Did you find any evidence that my client had any excess funds, either on his person, or in a secret cache, at any time in your investigation?"

"I don't follow."

"What I mean to ask, Sheriff, is did you find the stage line money he purportedly stole?"

Prescott hollered like an angry child. "Objection, Your Honor, that's irrelevant!"

"On the contrary," Donaldson said smoothly. "My client is facing a criminal trial for stealing from gambling saloon guests, and the evidence of his theft was found easily in a working girl's hotel room, a room she offered to share with my client. If the man who'd stolen the stage line funds is the same man who'd hidden today's evidence in the hotel room, then the stage line money must be sitting out in the open somewhere, perhaps along the line the witness purports my client to have taken!"

"I object," Prescott said again, slamming his desk with both hands. "Counsel is drawing leading conclusions!"

Judge Taylor banged his gavel. "I have had enough of this entire farce! Prescott, your 'expert' witness has a bone to pick with a man who has features that match a wanted poster - features that you, I, the bailiffs, and a good third of the gallery also share! I've a good mind to throw the sheriff out of my court and to lock you up for the next thirty days! And as for you, Donaldson, your lack of preparation is as obvious as the nose on your face. The two of you are an embarrassment to the bar! Bailiff, release the prisoner!"

Prescott jumped to his feet. "What?"

"I'm throwing this case out! This is the most heinous case of railroading I've seen - especially since I know people have complained about their precious valuables going missing long before the last week or so before the defendant first showed up in town. If you all plan on arresting him for horse theft, or aggressive gambling, or frightening old ladies, that's fine, but you make damn sure you find some evidence that the court can use, and then you take that foolishness back to Wyoming where it belongs! I don't want to see this man in my court again until you can prove he had something to do with the ongoing problem here in Buckeye! Court is adjourned! Why is the prisoner still in irons?!"

The bailiff released the stranger's wrists, while everyone else sat staring in shock. Donaldson recovered first. "You'd better get out of the state quick as you can, friend, before the judge comes to his senses - or Prescott wrangles something that'll stick to you. Good luck!" He pumped the stranger's limp hand, and headed out of the courtroom. The stranger followed in a daze, practically sliding down the stairs on oiled boot heels, and out of the Town Hall, into the warm Colorado sunshine.

It was strange to be out in the open again, no chains to bind him, no stinking deputy breathing heavy over his shoulder. The stranger wandered into the street warily, afraid of a trap waiting to spring again. He needed to get the hell out of Buckeye, and fast.

"What the hell are you doing out here, cowboy?" One of the deputies, the one who'd whipped him the first time he'd met that idiot lawyer, stalked out of the Town Hall, hand hovering dangerously near his hip.

The stranger turned, hands in the air, and stepped back. "I've been released. The case was dismissed."

A few people shuffled out of the Hall, talking in animated whispers about who knew what. They paused when they saw the stranger. One of the passersby, a stiff older fella in a fancy suit said, grudgingly, "Congratulations, Mr. Doe. You should make a new start."

"Somewhere else," another man said, and this was met with a lot of agreeable mumbling before the group moved on.

The deputy relaxed his stance just a little bit, but he still stared hard at the stranger. "You should start walking. It's a long way to the next town. Better yet," the deputy said with a nasty smile, "just to show there's no hard feelings, I'm gonna do you one better." He dug in his pocket and pulled out a wallet, and produced a couple of bills. "That'll get you a seat on the stage - not too far, mind you. But it'll get you out of here, and away from temptation - both yours, and ours."

The stranger looked at the money like it would bite him. "How do I pay it back?"

"It's a gift. See, this really is a nice little town, cowboy - so long as we keep to the right element." The deputy pointed across the street, a couple doors down from the saloon where the stranger's troubles had all come to a head. "Stage line office is thataway. Have a nice trip, partner."

The stranger stared at the money a moment longer, before taking it with a shaking hand. He ignored the deputy's nasty laughter, and crossed the street.

There was something soothingly familiar about the interior of the stage office. Though he knew he'd never been there before, there were things in the office that hinted at the puzzle that was his mind. There were maps and brochures and time tables, all of which made the stranger a little wistful, a little homesick.

Then he thought about Sheriff Turner's testimony, and the wanted poster for a stage line robbery in Laramie. He wandered over to the map that took up nearly all of one wall, and studied the crisscrossing lines that marked the various stage routes. Sure enough, not too far from the largest spot marked "Buckeye", maybe a couple spots away, was a spot marked "Laramie".

"Help you, friend?" The man behind the ticket counter was watching the stranger with a small smile. "Have a question, maybe?"

"Maybe." The stranger turned away from the map. "When's the next stage arriving?"

"Depends, friend. The northbound stage should be coming through any minute now. The southern stage should have just gone through, so there'll be another one showing up in a few hours. No later than suppertime, for sure."

"And Laramie... that's northbound, right?"

"Certainly is, my friend. You want a ticket to Laramie?"

"No!" The clerk jumped, and the stranger cursed his roughness. He tried again, more gently this time. "I want to go in the opposite direction. Please."

"You're the boss," the clerk said cheerfully. "Any place in particular? Fort Collins? Denver, maybe?"

The stranger put the money the deputy had given him on the counter. "How far will that get me?"

The clerk frowned a little. "Not far. I can probably get you up to Cheyenne, but that's gonna take you that much closer to Laramie."

"North."

"Yep. But Cheyenne's a big city, nice and prosperous. You could get work there, a strong looking fella like you, and you'll be able to pay your way to an eastbound coach in no time! Or to get a train - I hear they got a railstop up in Cheyenne now."

The stranger looked at the money on the counter. "I... I'm not sure."

"I'll be here all day, friend. I close up shop an hour after the last stage leaves town - so you can buy a ticket on an early morning stage without getting up to wait in line at the crack of dawn. The rates won't change while you think about it, son."

The stranger narrowed his eyes at the clerk. "Why are you being so nice to me?"

The clerk shrugged. "Should I be mean?"

"The last time someone in this town was nice to me, she set me up, got me thrown in the clink. Nobody else wants to take a chance on a stranger."

The clerk laughed outright at that. "Oh, these old fools, they act like this place is their royal birthright or some such foolishness. I can tell you the names of damn near every person out there on the street, and which coach they came in on, and when. Strangers don't bother me none. Of course, I make my living dealing with strangers all the time, even moreso than the fools over at the hotel."

The stranger nodded. "They got one friendly face over there, but she'll turn on you in a heartbeat."

The clerk's face darkened. "Bonnie. You must be the fella they busted for taking all that stuff." The clerk spat on the floor. "Tell you what, friend. You go on down to the saloon and you pay her your respects, buy yourself a nice steak dinner, and I'll take the cost of that dinner off your ticket. Get yourself a bottle of whiskey too. A good one. And bring it with you. We'll have a drink to whoever it is that finally puts that girl in the ground."

The stranger's eyebrows went up. "Well, I never said I wanted her dead."

"Course not - never said I did neither. But we can still toast the lucky son of a gun who's gonna figure her wily ways out before he gets burned."

The stranger nodded faintly, though he wasn't so sure that was the kind of thing he wanted to drink to. Angry as he was with Bonnie, he thought what she needed was a good long talk with the nasty lawmen in their fancy ivory tower, not a permanent stay on Boot Hill.

"Hurry on now," the clerk said. "If you have to wait with the dinner crowd, they might try to skimp. Too many mouths to feed and all that."

The stranger nodded again and stumbled out of the stage office. The street was busy enough, and folks were going on with their day, probably wrapping up their afternoon business before hitching up to head for supper. He'd hoped no one would pay him any mind, but as soon as he stepped out into the street, heads began to turn, eyes began to track him, and soon he could feel the burning stare of the whole town on the tender flesh at the nape of his neck. He set his jaw and went right to the saloon, and pretended not to notice half the men in the street follow him up to the door.

He stepped up to the bar, and nearly turned tail and ran - the deputy who'd given him the cash was there, and he was talking to that hellcat Bonnie. But the deputy was so busy trying to comfort her in this time of terrible loss and failed justice, that the stranger could have jumped up on the bar and called a square dance, and the fool wouldn't have noticed.

The stranger turned to the barkeep and asked, soft as he could, "Can I get a bottle of whiskey?"

"Ain't you supposed to be in jail?"

The stranger bristled and glanced at the deputy. "The case was thrown out. Please, can I buy the whiskey? I'm on my way out of here, and I don't know where I'll get another."

"I didn't give you that money to buy whiskey, stranger," the deputy said.

The stranger swore softly. He'd hoped his luck would hold out just a tiny bit longer, that maybe he'd be able to get away without a fight, but it wasn't to be. "The clerk in the stage office wanted to drink to my health. He offered to spot me the cost of the whiskey."

"He don't have no call to do that. If you're not planning on getting the next stage out of here-"

"Thief!" Bonnie slammed her palm on the bar. "You put all that stuff in my room, tried to pin something on me-"

"Forget it." The stranger stalked out of the bar, and pushed through the crowd that'd gathered on the sidewalk. He could hear the deputy throwing fighting words at his back, but what could he do? His empty gunbelt had been confiscated when he was arrested, and he didn't dare go back in to kick up a fuss about it now - and even if he did have a gun, there was no way any of the witnesses in the street would dare tell the truth were he to draw in self defense. So the stranger walked straight-backed into the stage office, and said to the surprised looking clerk, "I'm afraid you'll have to buy your own drink, friend. My money's not good anywhere but here, and that's only to get me the hell out of this town."

The clerk grimaced and pulled out a ticket. "One way fare to Cheyenne, Wyoming. Cheer up, friend. It's a big city, one of the biggest in the west. You'll be able to blend in, get your bearings, and before you know it, you'll forget all about this nasty little spot in your life. The stage'll be coming in any minute now. Why don't you take a load off over here, out of the sun? I'll make sure you don't miss your ride out of here."

The stranger paid and went back to the door, where he could watch the street. "Thanks, friend, but if it's all the same to you, I wanna make damn sure I get that stage myself."


Chapter 19
Chapter 21

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