Slim's stomach roiled as he listened to Prescott lay out his case for the judge. He'd been to plenty of court hearings in his day, mostly as witness, sometimes as lawman, and even once or twice as plaintiff. There was usually an arrest, and then a district judge came to town to listen to the sheriff (or, if he was available, the prosecuting lawyer) run through the evidence, and then the judge either set a date, or dismissed the whole mess without any fuss. He'd never heard of any prosecutor presenting an opening argument for a pre-trial hearing as if there were a jury present.
But Prescott stood in front of the judge, and weaved a tale of intrigue and madness worthy of Shakespeare himself. "This mad man, this thief, on the hunt for cash and precious metal and whatever else he can find, is a cold killer. I intend to show the court evidence that Mr. Sherman is a cold, calculating killer, a killer who snuffed out a poor, defenseless little girl, a girl he chased down after first murdering her betrothed in a hold-up gone horribly awry."
When Prescott finished, Judge Taylor looked expectantly at Don Times three. The fool shook his head slightly, waiving his right to refute the insane opening the prosecution laid out. Slim wished desperately he'd requested a different lawyer. Maybe it wasn't too late to ask. After all, he almost certainly would have to go before a jury.
Prescott called his first witness, and Slim realized with a start that the prosecutor intended to run this preliminary trial like it was the real thing. Maybe he hoped to wear Slim down, to make him beg for swift mercy and a quick death.
Emmett Cox shuffled to the witness stand as if it were he facing the gallows, rather than sending someone else to hang. The old man slumped down in the witness chair and could barely lift his hand to swear out his testimony. Prescott was gentle when he spoke. "I'm going to ask you some very detailed questions today, Mr. Cox, in the hopes that I won't have to ask you to return for the actual trial, should we progress past this stage. The questions I'm going to ask you might be distressing, sir, but the more accurate and detailed your answers are, the easier it will be for us to establish the events that lead to this terrible tragedy, and easier it will be to find other ways to present evidence without putting you through this ordeal a second time. Do you understand, Mr. Cox?" Emmett nodded, and the real nightmare began.
Emmett could hardly speak, but Prescott pressed him to speak up, with gentle encouragement. Though it was like pulling teeth, Prescott managed to get the old fool to tell the same ugly, twisted story the damned girl had told in the minutes before she died.
Slim nudged Donaldson. "He's repeating what the girl told us on the mountain. He can't do that, can he?"
Don Times Three shrugged. "This isn't the jury trial, Sherman. Hearsay is admissible at this stage."
"But it's a lie!"
Donaldson raised an eyebrow as the judge banged his gavel. "Is there a problem, Mr. Donaldson?"
"Ah, no. My client is simply... surprised. He doesn't seem particularly familiar with the litigation process, Your Honor."
"Mr. Sherman, you will keep quiet, or I will hold you in contempt."
Slim could feel his face burn, but he slunk down in his seat and nodded. "Yes, sir," he said quietly.
Emmett resumed his damning testimony, answering leading questions about Slim's appearance on the side of the hill, and was painted as a ruthless, heartless man who'd even go so far as to shoot down a good horse - an assertion that dealt as sharp a blow as a brass knuckled fist to the gut. Dawn was a damned fine mare, and Slim was nearly as torn up over her loss as he was for Jess.
He blinked tears from his eyes, and caught Donaldson watching him oddly. "She was a good horse. Busted a leg on that goddamned mountain," he whispered hoarsely.
Donaldson cocked his head. "Try not to take this personally, Sherman. Prescott is angry because the judge threw out a case last week. He's sticking it to you because he thinks he has something to prove."
Slim turned slowly to Donaldson. "I have something to prove, too," he hissed. "And I will take this personally. You know what? I did kill that girl. I did. But it wasn't murder. It was justified! And yes, it was personal, but everything that old fool is repeating from her mouth? They're dirty twisted lies that she took from my own life."
"You can't prove that," Donaldson said calmly.
Slim ground his teeth and turned away from his idiot lawyer. Useless bastard. How could he prove any damned thing? Everyone who knew the truth was dead.
Emmett was excused from the witness stand, and one of the bailiffs helped the old man from the chair. As he stepped across Slim's line of sight, the bailiff's badge caught a ray of bright sunlight that streamed in through the open windows. Slim stared at it, and wondered.
"If... If I told you that a lawman from my home town could vouch for me, do you think... would it help?"
"Almost certainly," Donaldson said. "Why? Are you particularly familiar with the law back home?"
Slim smiled tightly. He could hear the sarcasm laced in Donaldson's words. But he wouldn't let himself be baited. Donaldson was a fool, but he knew the law, and in his own way, he seemed interested in helping Slim. So he nodded and said, "I sure am. I've been deputized a few times. In fact, I'd tried to get deputized for this whole mess, but the sheriff was out of town, dealing with another legal mess, and the man he'd left in charge didn't have the authority to deputize me."
Donaldson's smirk shifted a little. "Maybe I should have let you tell me your story, if only to satisfy my curiosity."
"You get Mort Cory, the Sheriff of Laramie, and you'll get your curiosity satisfied, friend. And you just might save an innocent man."
Donaldson mulled this over while Prescott gave another longwinded introduction to his next witness. When the prosecutor took a breath, Donaldson got to his feet. "Your honor, may I approach the bench?"
"Now?" Judge Taylor's face was absolutely incredulous, and Prescott looked like he he wanted to turn Donaldson to ash with just the heat of his glare.
"Your honor, a man's life is at stake, and the defense has just received word of possible refuting evidence that might save my client's neck."
Taylor sighed. "Alright, Mr. Donaldson." Slim watched as the two lawyers went up to the judge. Prescott clearly wasn't happy with Donaldson's request, but the judge nodded, and soon a bailiff went dashing out of the courtroom like a bat out of hell. The judge banged his gavel. "Fifteen minute recess," he said, before rubbing his temples with both hands. Slim could relate. His head was pounding, too.
In the fifteen minutes it took the bailiff to scurry off with his task, and return with an acknowledgment of receipt, Slim watched the seats in the back fill up nicely. So much activity for a preliminary hearing - he hated to think what kind of circus the courthouse would be if he made it to a jury trial.
He tried not to be too disappointed when the bailiff didn't return with a definitive answer - after all, fifteen minutes was just barely time to get the telegraph off, and to get someone to run the message to the sheriff's office, and that assumed Mort was even at his desk. For all Slim knew, the man could have been out chasing cattle rustlers halfway across the mail trail into Cheyenne. But he knew he wouldn't be able to settle down until he knew for sure that Sheriff Cory was on his way.
When Chris Coleman took the witness stand, the last fragile bits of Slim's hope shattered. Where Emmett had been timid and mournful, Chris was a blustering whirlwind of rage.
Chris gave a damning testimony. Prescott's questions weren't particularly probing, but Chris was more than happy to lay waste to Slim's character. According to the witness, he was cold, calculating, deceitful, surly, and he was very handy with a gun.
Donaldson seemed nearly as antsy as Slim felt. He kept twisting and turning in his seat, so much so that the spectators directly behind Slim began to comment. Finally, Judge Taylor interrupted Chris' ravings. "Is there some other problem, Mr. Donaldson?"
"I was simply waiting for word on my witness, your honor." Donaldson didn't flinch or hesitate. Slim was impressed.
"Well, Mr. Donaldson, since I can see the back of the courtroom better than you can from our current positions, allow me to take this moment to assure you that I will indeed let you know if and when there is a response to your telegram. For now, however, would you please stop stirring up a hornet's nest in my court?"
Don Times Three slunk down in his seat, and stared at his folded hands while Chris frothed on the stand. Slim resisted the urge to look back as well, instead keeping his eyes on the judge's face. At first, he was watching for signs of word from Mort, but soon he was lost in another worry - it seemed to him that Judge Taylor was becoming increasingly absorbed in Chris Coleman's story. The last thing Slim needed was to lose the judge's sympathy. He was the only spot of sanity in the dirty craziness of this town at the bottom of the mountains.
This time, when the judge offered Donaldson a chance to cross examine, he took it. Slim was surprised - when Donaldson bothered to get up off his keister and do his job, he was no slouch. Where'd they find the girl? How'd they know she was telling the truth about any of her magical story? Why hadn't they found her young man's body?
The cross backfired, though. They believed her story because she was found out cold on a back road between Wyoming and Colorado, because they didn't see how she could have faked her injuries, because Slim had watched her with a vengeful eye the moment he saw her lying on Emmett's couch, and because Slim himself had been found not on the road, but on the side of Emmett's mountain, in the middle of killing his own horse.
Donaldson returned to his seat, shaken. "I don't know how you expect to get out of this one."
Slim didn't know that either, or even if he should try. But at least Mort would know what happened to him if things didn't work out. It was a cold comfort.
To his surprise, the judge called for another recess. "I'm sure the prosecution has another plethora of goodies with which to bombard the court, but to be quite frank, it's getting close to dinner time, and I don't think I could take another minute of this whole sordid mess. This court is in recess until Wednesday, the day after tomorrow, at 11:30 A.M. Mr. Donaldson, this would be a good time to gather any refuting evidence you'd like to submit to this hearing. Otherwise, it'll have to be held over for trial."
Slim's heart began to race, and he recoiled from the approaching deputies. He forced himself to stay still. "Sounds like the judge is giving up on me."
Donaldson shrugged. "After today, can you blame him?"
"He's the judge! Hell yes, I can blame him!" Slim struggled to his feet while the deputies worked on preparing him to shuffle back to his holding cell. "He's supposed to be impartial!"
"And he was," Donaldson said. "Listen. I'm going to have dinner, and then we can discuss the rest in a couple of hours."
But Slim was tired of discussing things with Donald Donatello Donaldson. Every discussion always led to the same place - Slim behind bars, counting down the last hours of his life. All he wanted now was to see Mort Cory, and to tell him his side of things. He wanted to get Jess clear. He could die, then, even with his name sullied. Andy would understand.