If he'd had his way, the stranger would have bought a couple of horses and gone tearing into Colorado the minute they stepped out of the saloon, guns blazing, until they'd broken this Sherman fella out of his predicament. But Sheriff Mort Cory had other ideas - apparently, Jess Harper needed to get duded up, so as to be respectable in the eyes of the law.
So their travel was delayed by a trip to the tailor, the habadasher, and the barber, all of whom were more than a little surprised to see a small town sheriff toss so much coin down for their amiably demanding drifter. The stranger was surprised, too - there was absolutely no way he could pay Sheriff Cory back for any of this fuss, most of which he found foolish.
"Nonsense, Jess," was Cory's answer, as he ushered the stranger to the public bathhouse at the far end of the street. "I know you don't believe me, because you never believe anyone when they tell you this, but you'll feel much better after a good hot bath. I'll be back with your new clothes - they're going to have to burn these rags you've been wearing. And then you're going back to the barbershop when you're all finished here - maybe he can get at that robin's nest you call hair."
The stranger tugged self-consciously at his hat, and watched the sheriff dispense more cash he'd have to repay to a grinning townie. The man smirked at Cory and bid him good day, before turning his beady little eyes to the stranger. "Well, friend, it looks like you've finally convinced some poor fool to take you in. The good Lord has seen fit to bless you today!"
The stranger wrinkled his nose at the smirking attendant's blasphemy, not so much for his own belief, but out of respect for the only person in Cheyenne who'd given him half a thought. But he held his tongue and allowed the attendant to usher him into the inner sanctum of the bathhouse.
There were a few men already in the changing room. The stranger vaguely recognized all of them, and he knew from their gap mouth stares that they recognized him. They were all in various states of undress, some damp and steamy from the water, some still dry and dusty around the edges. They were all cleaner, and likely plumper than the stranger was. Shyness blanketed him, and surprised and shamed him. He looked helplessly at the attendant, who just chuckled and pointed to a shelf. "You can put your things there - the stuff you want to keep, that is. The stuff you don't want, just leave it here in the corner, I suppose. I'll have someone take care of it. Your, uh, friend there paid for the hot bath, so take the door on the left, back in the corner there. The towels are over there, soap's in the box, and we got a full house today, so you're limited to fifteen minutes in the soaking room. Enjoy!"
The stranger watched the door swing shut behind the jolly attendant, and returned his attention to the dressing room. He'd wished he'd stayed at the church, instead of dilly dallying in town, and getting caught up in somebody else's mess. New clothes, new haircut - and for what? To be a laughing stock in a town where he was already ridiculed, before being locked away for good in a town that had no mercy or soul?
He shut his eyes and began to peel out of his clothing. There was nothing for it. The service was paid for, and, despite the sheriff's words, the stranger thought a good hot soak sounded like heaven. If he had to share the space with a bunch of clucking old biddies disguised as men, then that's what he had to do. Couldn't be any worse than mucking out stalls, or scrubbing down a church for some scraps like a dog.
The initial snickering was easy to ignore. It was the hush that fell over the room as he disrobed that made him nervous. He opened his eyes, and saw that the men were staring at him. He glanced down at himself, and tried to see his body through unaccustomed eyes. He was rail thin, which he knew they'd expect. He was also scarred, bullet holes and war wounds and knife slashes all over his skin. His body told a story none of the townies had likely ever encountered before - he was a fighter, and even half starved, defenseless, and penniless, he was still standing. The stranger stood a little taller, kicked off the rest of his clothing, and walked proudly through the door on the other side of the dressing room. He knew they were watching the pull of his muscles, the twist of sinew, and he knew they were reassessing him.
He was surprised to find he didn't particularly care what they thought anymore.
The steam from the bath room hit him full in the face, like walking into an invisible wall. He choked a little at first on the hot, moist air, and his eyes stung and watered. As he waited for his eyes to clear, he looked around the small hot, steamy room. There were two large wooden tubs in the middle of the floor, surrounded by heavy woven rugs. A trio of large kettles on the boil towards the back of the room looked to be the source of the intense wet heat that filled the space. A young boy who looked like he ought to be in a school house instead of a bath house sat next to the kettles, and played with a ball in a cup toy. The tub on the right had a man sunk down in slightly sudsy water, so only the very top of his head showed over the lip of the tub. The left hand tub was empty.
The stranger approached the empty tub, and found that it wasn't entirely empty. It was half full of slightly murky water, probably soap scum and someone else's trail dust. He touched the water. It was surprisingly cold. He looked up at the boy, who was still preoccupied with his toy, but his voice wouldn't work. The steam had choked away most of his newfound bravado, and the chill of the bath had frozen what little was left. He gritted his teeth and put one foot down in the tepid water.
The man in the other tub stirred at the sound of the stranger's splashing. "Hold on there, friend. That water's been sitting there a spell. Might as well get what you paid for. Joey, you've got a customer."
The stranger paused at the familiar voice, and looked at the other bather carefully. The stranger had never seen him without his glasses, but the sandy hair and the long limbs folded into the tub gave the man away. "Reverend?"
"One and the same," Reverend Cady said.
The stranger skittered out of the way of the manchild struggling towards him with giant bucket of scalding water. "Thanks," he muttered to the boy, before returning his attention to the other customer. "You... you come here, Reverend?"
"Not often. But I do get dirty, and my wife has enough work as it is, especially with her babysitting a grown man."
The stranger stiffened, but he held his tongue. He tested the water again. It was a bit too hot, but he wanted to be over and done with this task. Suddenly, the idea of being locked away in Buckeye didn't seem quite so bad. At least he'd be paid a tiny wage in jail, and he could probably do some whittling or knitting during his down time to bring in extra cash. And he'd be fed twice a day, like a civilized prisoner, instead of ridiculed for his misfortune.
He grit his teeth and sank down in to the hot, hot water. He scrubbed quickly, splashing water every which way, trying to get through the bath as fast as he could before his skin clean melted off his body.
"I need more heat, Joey," Cady said. "And what in tarnation is wrong with the man in the other tub? Did you put a spider in the water?"
The stranger stopped splashing. "You don't see too good without your extra eyes, do you, Reverend?"
It took Cady a long moment to answer. "No, friend, I don't. My hearing is alright, though." The reverend sighed. "Interesting choice you've made."
"A bath. I'd have thought the first purchase you'd make would be a drink, or a weapon."
The stranger got to his feet. He was clean enough. "It wasn't my first purchase. The first purchase was a ticket on the stage. I wouldn't let him get me one thing else, unless he promised to get me the hell out of this miserly, sanctimonious, hard hearted town."
Cady shrugged. "I thought that title belonged to Buckeye."
The stranger shuddered. "No. They're murderous and unbelieving. But they aren't miserly. I've give 'em that."
There was a knock at the door, and the attendant stuck his head in. "Your sheriff friend is here," the clerk said. "You need any more soap, Reverend?"
"I'm fine," Cady said.
The stranger looked back at him. "You're not fine. You just know that no amount of scrubbing will ever get you clean. You're no man of God."
Cady peered at him with squinty eyes. "You had a roof over your head, and good food to eat. You have no call to question the level or intent of my charity. The world doesn't owe you a living."
"I never said it did, Reverend." The stranger spat the title out, like a mouthful of snake venom. "But you're the one who let slip what you really think of me, and that's where the question of your level of charity comes from. But don't you worry. Your wife won't be babysitting me again. I'll either be imprisoned, or killed, or installed in some town where my benefactor thinks I'll fill a big pair of shoes. But my shadow won't be darkening your door. Your prayers have been answered." The stranger turned his back on Cady, and walked through the door with his head held high.
The changing room felt almost icy after the intense heat of the bathing room. The two men shucking their clothes kept their eyes lowered, as if there was nothing more interesting in the world than pulling off dusty boots and folding up sunbleached jeans. The attendant cleared his throat, and pointed to a neatly folded pile of clothing away from his other customers. "Your clothes been delivered. Bath okay?"
"Nothing to be done about it if it wasn't. Unless you plan on giving the sheriff a refund of some kind."
The attendant grunted and hustled back to the front of the washhouse. The stranger pulled on his new clothes, and checked his reflection. He was startled by the man who looked back at him. It wasn't the haunted scarecrow that he'd grown to accept as his face. There was another man looking back at him - still gaunt, still haunted, certainly, but there was more to him. A fire, a determination. A will to see his way through whatever awful tragedy life struck him with next. He tugged at his jacket and set his jaw, and went out to the front room where Sheriff Cory waited with a frown on his face.
"Bad news, Jess. Just got word on the wire that the mid-morning stage never made it to Laramie, and it's questionable if it even made it to the Sherman Relay."
"Does that mean we aren't going to Buckeye?"
Cory laughed a little. "Not on your life, friend. I didn't come all the way out here just to let Slim Sherman hang by the neck. It just means we either have to wait for the next stage, which might come too late, depending on how the pre-trial is going, or I'll have to wire for more cash, to cover the purchase of a couple of horses here in town. How's your riding?"
"It's fine, I suppose, but I'm not too comfortable riding anywhere without a sidearm."
"No, I don't suppose you are," the sheriff said thoughtfully. "Well, that's an expense I can't cover, even without the horses. I suppose that means we're just going to have to wait for the stage. It's supposed to arrive in a few hours, and if all goes well, we should be in Buckeye before supper. But I worry... we might be just in time to see Slim locked away for a trial we can't possibly influence."
The stranger cringed at the thought of riding into Buckeye for nothing. "Maybe... maybe you should just get a horse, ride on without me. I can... I can catch the stage, and meet you there, if they still need me."
Cory looked at him sadly. "Jess... I know you're having a hard time believing me, but I wouldn't be a friend to you if I let you out of my sight now. If you were to suddenly start remembering things, you'd never forgive yourself - even if everything turns out alright, you'd have one hell of a time living with the idea that you were too much of a coward to come to Slim's aid." Cory squeezed the stranger's shoulder gently. "I promise that as long as there's breath left in my body, the tomfoolery that passes for law in Buckeye will have to come through me to get to you, boy."
Donaldson was already smiling when Slim entered the court room. Slim had a small smile of his own - the day off had done both him and his case a world of good. He even thought he might trust Donaldson to help him if they didn't get the case thrown out. Donaldson had finally given Slim the ear he should have before any of this started, and Slim had finally thrown off his deathwish, and began to allow hope to bloom within, the hope of perhaps seeing home again one day - maybe even one day soon.
His hope shriveled and crumbled as the trial resumed. There was no sign of Sheriff Cory yet. There was, however, on a table near the empty jury box, the strong box Hope had been rifling through in the root cellar carved into the side of the mountain. There was also a very smug, very confident Prescott, looking for all the world like the cat who'd caught the canary.
The reason behind Prescott's smugness soon became crystal clear. He entered the strong box into evidence, and began to weave a twisted tale that was all too familiar to Slim: unsolved stage line robberies, gunned down men, wild goose chases across a still very wild frontier. His jaw dropped as he realized what Prescott was getting at - the prosecutor wanted to hang more than just Hope's demise on his neck. He wanted to lay a whole slew of robberies at Slim's feet.
Slim wasn't the only one who couldn't believe his ears. Judge Taylor banged his gavel in the middle of Prescott's tirade (for that's what it'd devolved into, a ranting, raving tirade), and demanded, "What in the name of all that's holy are you frothing about, man? I remind you, Mr. Prescott, this is a hearing to determine if I am going to allow this town to try the prisoner, not to convince your neighbors sitting in the gallery there that the prisoner is the most horrible man ever to walk the west."
Prescott was undaunted. "Your honor, I do have a point in sharing this long list of criminal activity, and beg the court to please hear me out."
"I've heard more than I care to, Mr. Prescott. Instead of grandstanding, or leading us down a merry rose-hewn path, why don't you simply state in plain language what your grand speech is intended to show? In a single sentence, please."
Prescott smiled. "Of course, your honor. This empty strong box has an identifying marker inside the lid."
Taylor banged his gavel. "That was two sentences, neither of which cover the point, Mr. Prescott."
Prescott cleared his throat. "My witnesses state that they saw Mr. Sherman attack the unnamed victim, after she told them Mr. Sherman had attacked her and her young man once before, and that he seemed to express deep interest in a strong box near the girl. I propose that the motive for both attacks was pure and simple: he's a thief, and he believed himself to be caught by the young couple. The identifying marker in the lid proves that the strong box belonged to the Overland Stage Line. It connects the prisoner to the robberies, and the witnesses connect him to the girl's death."
Silence blanketed the courtroom, thick and heavy. The only sound Slim could hear was the rasping of his own breath. How in the hell had things gotten so twisted? Had those two bumbling fools, Chris and Emmett, teamed up with Mr. Prescott to concoct this story? Was the judge buying it? Would a jury buy it? Slim glanced at Donaldson, to see if the lawyer looked as worried as Slim felt.
Donaldson looked concerned, but he wasn't sweating. He wasn't even fidgeting. Granted, he'd heard Slim's version of events the day before, and already knew that a box existed, that it came from the Overland Stage Line, that it was at the scene (and crux) of the crime. All of Prescott's talk about this box had created quite a stir in the court room, but to Donaldson it might simply be an alternate explanation for the situation at hand.
Slim could only hope that his lawyer's new and fragile faith in his innocence wouldn't be cracked by Prescott's tall tales.
Donaldson pulled out his pocketwatch, scowled, swore, and leaned to whisper in Slim's ear. "The morning stage has already come through. Sheriff Cory should have been on it."
Slim could feel the sands of time scattering out of the broken hourglass of his life. Right now, the only thing between Slim's neck and a rope would be the word of a lawman who couldn't be bothered to keep his appointments. If this thing went to trial, he'd be at the mercy of Buckeye law - and Buckeye had no mercy.
Taylor, meanwhile, was out of patience with the prosecution. "Mr. Prescott. You're entering a strong box into evidence, because you feel it ties the defendant to a completely different series of crimes, in order to prove that he should be put on trial for murder? Where on earth did you earn your law degree? The Ringling Brothers?"
"Your honor," Prescott said, in a tone reserved for Sunday school teachers explaining things to a beloved but particularly stupid child, "I am attempting to establish motive for the heinous crime that was committed. There is no doubt in my mind that the defendant shall be tried for causing the death of the young girl. What I hope to prove is that the law should show the defendant no mercy, just as Sherman showed absolutely no mercy the thousands of victims who've suffered at his hands."
"I see," Taylor said. "Does the state have any further evidence to present?"
"No, your honor."
"Very well. Mr. Donaldson. Did you wish to refute any of the evidence presented at this hearing, either from the witnesses, or from this exhibit?"
Donaldson looked around the courtroom, before turning back to Slim. He leaned forward to whisper. "I don't usually like to show my hand at this stage of proceedings. But your witness hasn't arrived yet, and, well, I'm all out of stalling tactics."
"Mr. Donaldson," the judge said sharply.
"What do you want to do," Slim asked.
"Put you on the stand. I want the judge to hear your version of things. If we draw it out long enough, we might be able to convince the judge to wait one more day, if we must. It's risky, because it gives the prosecution enough information to lock us down. But I think it's less of a risk than-"
"You will answer when the court addresses you, Mr. Donaldson!"
"I'll do it," Slim said quickly.
With that, Donaldson jumped to his feet. "My apologies, your honor. Yes, I'd like to refute the prosecution's theory."
"Oh goody," Taylor said not quite under his breath. "And just how do you propose to do that?"
"I'd like to call Mr. Sherman to the stand."
Though the courtroom had been quiet all along, the quality of silence seemed to change. Suddenly, Slim had the undivided attention of the entire courtroom. Until that moment, he'd thought himself to be under town's relentless scrutiny. But the breathless hush that settled over the room, and the eyes that pricked his skin from all sides, told a different story. Now he was under their scrutiny.
"Please take the stand, Mr. Sherman," Taylor said. Slim forced himself to his feet, and made them shuffle around the table to the seat next to the judge. Though he'd been on many witness stands, and even stood trial a few times, there was a sickening dreaminess to this courtroom. Probably because he'd actually killed -
Slim shut his eyes against the thought. Don't even think it. This is no different than any other time you've pulled the trigger to save the ranch. Make them work for a conviction! He opened his eyes, vowed before Man and God to tell the truth, and hoped like hell Donaldson knew what he was doing.
The midday stage coach barreled down the trail with all the speed the driver could muster, but Sheriff Cory still checked his pocket watch every other second. The stranger watched his benevolent jailer with calm detachment. On the one hand, it was nice to have someone befriend him, nice to have someone clean him up and offer him a decent meal for once, all without having to first spend all day in back breaking labor. On the other hand, he was in no hurry to perform the one favor being asked of him, no hurry at all to return to Buckeye.
All too soon, though, they were in front of the intimidating Buckeye Town Hall. The streets were strangely empty, save for the people disembarking from the stage. The stranger watched Cory leave the stage, and hesitated to follow. "Come on, Jess. It's awful quiet out here. Folks might be inside watching the fireworks. There's a chance that we just might make it." Cory took a step towards the building, but he stood and stared at the coach.
The stranger got down and went stiffly to the sheriff's side. He had to admit, it was easier coming into town than he'd thought it would be. He was grateful that the streets were deserted. It didn't much matter why to him. He walked a step behind Cory as they made their way first to the Mayor's office, and, per some clerical flunkie's instructions, up the stairs to the courtrooms. The step he walked behind turned into two, then four, and then a whole chasm of space as Cory approached a hard looking man that stood in front of the double doors. Cory gestured to his side, then realized that he was gesturing to air. "Jess," he hissed. "Come on!"
The stranger forced himself to close the gap, but he couldn't bring himself to look the guard in the face. He didn't want any trouble. He felt foolish, hiding behind Sheriff Cory like a child behind mama's apron strings. But fear of trigger-happy retribution overrode pride, and he kept his face down.
Either the guard really didn't recognize him, or Sheriff Cory's badge was just shiny enough to blind him to the stranger's face. The door was opened without comment, and the stranger followed the sheriff inside.
The viewing gallery was full. There were a handful of men standing against the back wall on either side of the walkway, and there were children sitting in women's laps who normally wouldn't dare be seen in such a childish position. Cory sighed and convinced the men to shuffle over, so they wouldn't block the doorway.
A haggard sounding man was on the stand, trying his best to answer that pompous ass of a prosecutor as best he could. The stranger couldn't stifle the shudder that went down his back. He was glad to have gotten away from this sidewinding snake of a man.
"No wonder you didn't want to come back," Cory growled low. "This is a damned kangaroo court. Listen, you wait here. I'm going to let this Donaldson fella know I'm finally here."
The stranger watched with trepidation as Cory abandoned him in the sea of suspicious townies. He was only half listening to the bombastic fool raging at the front of the room. Most of his attention was to either side of him, as the men nearest him began to mutter and nudge one another. He pulled his hat down over his face, and slid out of his spot, to catch up to Cory, and that useless defense attorney.
The judge sat up straighter as the stranger walked down the aisle, and the prosecutor faltered as he realized he no longer had the room's undivided attention. There were mutters of surprise, and the stranger's face grew warm, but he refused to break his stride, not when he was so close to the one person who'd promised to protect him-
He heard a gasp from the witness stand, and glanced up. He nearly tripped over his own feet. Though the face was weary and creased with lines, there was no doubt in the stranger's mind - this was the man from his dreams.
The stranger stood stock still, and watched as the dream-man broke down in tears. His first instinct was to run to the dream-man, to try to comfort him, but the eruption of noise from the gallery and open hostility on the faces of the bailiffs and the prosecutor kept him rooted to the spot.
"Order!" The judge banged his gavel like an enraged child. "I will have order in this room, or so help me I'll throw this entire town into lockup and fine you all for contempt and interference of justice!" Only the dream-man seemed interested in trying to regain his composure. The rest of the room was a three ring circus, and showed no signs of relenting.
Finally, the judge pointed his gavel at the stranger. "You! And you," he said, swinging the gavel over to Cory. "Approach the bench! Prescott! Donaldson!"
The two lawyers rushed immediately to do the judge's bidding. "Well, come on, Jess," Cory said, and followed the lawyers sedately. The stranger kept his head down and followed Cory meekly to the bench. He glanced at the witness stand, and was surprised to see the dream-man staring openly at him, one hand raised as if to reach out and touch.
There was something magnetic about the dream-man's face, and the stranger found himself straying from the bench, to watch this tall, golden man. "He's a great big oak of a man, six foot four, got to be more than two hundred pounds, all muscle, and a halo of golden hair piled on his head - they don't grow his kind just any old where, Jess." The memory of Sheriff Cory's words were swiftly followed by the image that haunted his dreams so often. But instead of a glowing halo that hid the dream-man's face, there was the soft warmth of sunlight, and the same gentle smile that graced this poor, beleaguered man's face.