Finding Hope
Chapter 25 - Exoneration


"Jess!" The stranger jumped in time with the dream-man, and turned to look at Sheriff Cory. "Judge Taylor asked you a question!"

"Begging your pardon, Judge," the stranger said, and tore himself away from the dream-man with the effort of a twenty-mule-team. "I didn't hear you."

"I said, young man, that I'd been sympathetic to your plight, but it would seem that you've been less than truthful with me. What do you have to say for yourself?"

The stranger looked at Cory in alarm. The sheriff shrugged. "I... I'm afraid I don't understand the question, sir," the stranger said quietly.

The prosecutor, Presley or Preston or some such, jumped right on the stranger. "You claimed to be no thief, but you know this bushwacker-"

"Now hold on," the defense lawyer started.

"Watch your mouth, friend," Cory snapped.

Judge Taylor slammed the gavel down hard enough to make the stranger's teeth rattle. "Prescott, I am going to lock you away and throw away the key! I am addressing John Doe, and no one else!"

The stranger shrank away under the judge's wrath. He noticed the frown on the dream-man's face, and watched him try to catch Cory's eye.

Taylor beckoned the stranger closer. "Despite my complete disgust with Mr. Prescott's vulgarity, he's done an adequate, if crude, job of explaining my question. It's obvious to everyone here that you are connected with Mr. Sherman, who has been charged with a very serious crime. If you are as blameless as you'd led me to believe, I don't understand why you've returned, or what your connection could possibly be to this man."

The stranger could feel himself shaking inside his new boots, and wondered if everyone else could hear his heart pounding as hard as he could. He forced himself to open his desert dry mouth and speak. "Your honor, I told you the truth, as much as I could, sir. If this man knows who I am, it was before I woke up in the old couple's home. And if that man did something, and it had something to do with me, well, I have no memory of any of it."

"But you went right to him," Taylor said.

The stranger looked back at the dream-man. "I realize that. But what I said is still true."

"Your honor," Sheriff Cory said. "I've come a long way for the express purpose of vouching for Slim Sherman's character, and I can vouch for this man's character as well."

The judge looked at Cory for a long, long time. "You are familiar with John Doe."

Cory smiled grimly. "His name is Jess Harper. He's Slim Sherman's business partner. As such, he's a prominent, and well loved citizen of Laramie."

The stranger raised his eyebrows at that. A business partner? He didn't feel like the kind of man who had any kind of hand in business. His hands were calloused, and reached all too often for a gun whenever he felt threatened. He was a lover of horses and rose with the sun. What in hell kind of business partner was that?

"Your honor," the prosecutor whined. "This simply proves my theory! Theories! Don't you see? The two sets of crimes are connected - here is the take away from the stage line robberies!" Prescott pointed angrily at the box.

"Two sets of crimes?" Cory looked bewildered.

"Yes," the judge said. "The murder of one Jane Doe, which is the matter at hand today, and the string of robberies that plagued the Overland Stage Line in recent months, of which Mr. Doe, or, excuse me, Mr. Harper, was accused while discussing a separate matter just a few days ago. Sheriff Cory, I don't understand how a lawman from a neighboring town can track this man here to Buckeye with the suspicions that he is the fellow wanted for the stage line theft, and then a completely different man is accused of murdering a woman for the same theft, and then the first accused man comes to my court to try to exonerate the second accused man. The coincidence is baffling, to say the least."

"That's because it isn't a coincidence!" The sour faced sheriff of Buckeye appeared from a cluster of men to one side of the courtroom. "This was all a plan! Don't you see? They were clearly in some kind of a heist together, and the girl knew too much! And now they're trying to get each other off!"

The courtroom exploded in pandemonium once again, and Taylor tried uselessly to demand silence. Finally, he got to his feet. "This court is in recess! I want the six of you in my chambers, now!" The stranger looked around helplessly as a group of deputies ushered him, the lawyers, Sherman, and the two sheriffs over to a door behind the judge's bench.

The door slammed shut, leaving the stranger alone with the six men. He was surprised to find Sherman standing close to him, looking down at him with far more intensity than any business partner should have for another. He was also surprised to find that the scrutiny was the most welcome attention he'd had since awakening in that dirty barn so long ago.

The spell was broken when the judge opened his mouth. "Sherman, did you kill that girl?" When Sherman hesitated, the judge said, "This is off the record. Nothing said in here can be used against you."

Sherman closed his eyes and hung his head. "Yes."

"Slim..." Cory said softly.

The judge was gentle, but firm. "Why did you plead not guilty?"

"Because I didn't murder her. I killed her, yes. But she had a gun -"

"Now, just a minute," Prescott said. "Both witnesses say you overpowered her before she could train that gun on you!"

Sherman looked up, then, right into the stranger's face. "That gun belonged to my best friend. I thought she'd killed him with it. And I knew she intended to kill me with it, too, after robbing those two witnesses blind."

The stranger's hand went absently to the scar on his belly while Sherman spoke. "You're talking about me, aren't you?"

Sherman looked crest fallen. "You really don't know me, Jess?"

The Buckeye sheriff harrumphed. "He's been sticking to that story all along."

"That's because it's true," Cory said.

"So he says," Prescott said.

"So I say," Cory said quietly but firmly. "This man is Jess Harper, and Jess Harper is no thief or murderer."

"He did steal that horse," the Buckeye sheriff insisted.

"If he took a horse, he had a reason," Cory said.

"Sure, and Sherman had a reason for killing the girl," Prescott sneered.

"I did have a reason to take the horse," the stranger said over the shouting. "It was a bad one. I was afraid to be called to answer for the stage line theft."

"Maybe you should be made to answer for it," Prescott said.

Sherman slid in front of the stranger, as if to shield him from the prosecutor's words with one large shoulder. "It was her," Sherman said forcefully. "The girl had the box and his gun."

"Yes!" Prescott turned to the judge. "That just proves what I've been asserting all along - they're in on it together. They're both part of the stage line heist!"

"Now, just a minute," Cory started.

"No!" Sherman's bellow echoed all over the small room, and everyone cowered. "No," he said again, more gently. "Go ahead and hang me for the girl if you must. But Jess is innocent. Clearing his name is the only reason I went after her."

"Not revenge?" Judge Taylor asked. "You said you thought he was dead."

Sherman hesitated. "I'll admit it. I did hate her for what she'd done. But more importantly, I hated myself. Jess warned me. He warned me, and I didn't listen. And then she was gone. And so was the strong box, and one of the company horses, and... Jess."

The judge frowned. "Company horses...? I'm not sure I follow."

Cory snorted. "That's probably because the prosecution didn't do their homework, before deciding to smear two decent, upstanding men. Jess Harper and Slim Sherman are co-owners of the Sherman Ranch, about 12 miles outside of Laramie. They also are contracted with the Overland Stage Company - the Sherman Relay Station swaps out the horses and handles repairs in the southern Wyoming stretch of the route. These men had no interest in carrying out any holdups against the stage line in the area - they were victims themselves."

"We know that the missive from Laramie was supposed to be an inside job," Prescott said, and stared at the stranger pointedly.

"That's because the idiot deputy I'd left in charge when the crime was committed had filed the charges," Cory said with a sigh. "Slim couldn't produce a body, or the money, and the stage line superintendent was determined to find a fall guy for this mess."

Prescott was undeterred. "Well, how do you explain the robberies stopping when this saddle tramp made his way into Colorado?"

"Because Hope was the one who'd been robbing the lines," Slim said. "She lured people in by pretending to be hurt, gained their trust, and then took off with the money. It's what she did to us, and it's what she was trying to do to those fools on the mountain when..." He trailed off. "Hang the money, hang the stage contract, and hang this town. I just didn't want Jess' memory sullied."

"Well, if we don't get this straightened out, Slim, it's your memory that's going to wind up smeared," Sheriff Cory said.

"This is all moot," Prescott said. "The simple fact of the matter is, we are here to determine if there is enough evidence to try Mr. Sherman for the murder of the unknown woman. He's as much as admitted to it-"

"No," Sherman said.

"My client did not admit to murder," Donaldson said. "Your honor, he killed accidentally, in self defense."

"You can't prove that," Prescott insisted.

"I don't have to," Donaldson said, and looked for all the world like the cat who'd caught the canary. "You have to prove it wasn't an accident."

"Fine! We'll find a person the same size as the victim, and we'll demonstrate how Sherman could easily have disarmed her." Prescott turned to the Buckeye sheriff. "Get the gun."

A hush fell over the room as the lawman disappeared through the door and returned with a box in his hands. The stranger found himself watching with rapt attention as the box was opened, and a beautiful, sawed-off muzzle, six chambered, pearl handled revolver was pulled from its depths. "Hey..." he said without thinking. "That's mine..."

"Well now, wait a minute," the Buckeye sheriff said. "You don't even know your name. How the heck do you know this is your gun?" There were murmurs of confusion and disbelief from the men of Buckeye, and hopeful looks exchanged from the Laramie pair.

The stranger ignored it all. "I've seen this gun in my dreams. I have these dreams, different dreams, but the same. I've seen you, too," he said, looking shyly at Sherman. "Anyhow, sometimes, I make a promise to settle down. And when I do, I always put down my gun. It's this gun."

"If we are to believe that," Prescott said, "then that makes you the fiance!"

Heat shot up the sides of the stranger's neck and settled in his ears and cheeks. "Well, I don't know if you could call it that, exactly." He glanced nervously at Sherman, before shrinking down in on himself. "I don't know too many judges that would see kindly to getting us married."

Cory snorted, Sherman groaned, and the other men exchanged confused looks. "I'm not quite sure I follow you," Judge Taylor said.

"Well, I don't mean to make fun, your honor, but I don't know what the heck this bellowing jackass Prescott is braying about. I ain't nobody's fiance. I mean, I might have some kind of fancy business arrangement, and we might be friendly enough that I'd apparently go get myself bushwacked to protect his assets and he'd go off and get himself a murder charge, but if we're gonna get married... well, I ain't sending out no announcements. I'd as soon live to see another day."

Everyone save the judge looked uncomfortable. Taylor just smiled. "I see. So, I take it you're not engaged to the victim, then?"

"Which victim is that?"

"Jane Doe. The woman Mr. Sherman claims to have killed in self defense. The woman who claimed, according to a pair of witnesses, to have been running from Mr. Sherman after he apparently killed her fiance."

"I ain't never trusted no skirt in my life-" the stranger began, but Sheriff Cory cut him off smoothly.

"Your honor," Cory said, "I can guarantee neither of these men has ever lasted more than a fortnight with any woman, and neither of them has even tried in the last five years. To be perfectly honest, I've had my suspicions about their goings on for some time, but this is the first time either of them has ever just come out and said it."

"Hey, wait a minute, Mort," Sherman said. "No one ever came out and said anything about anything - don't go getting these men all riled up about a rumor no one wants to start."

"Thank you, gentlemen!" Prescott clapped his hands gleefully. "It wasn't for money, it was a crime of revenge - but mark my words, your honor, there was a crime here! This man wanted to hurt that girl!"

"Of course I did," Sherman cried. "I thought he was dead! I saw the body! Anyone would have hated her enough to-" He forced himself to stop, but not before his voice cracked. When Sherman regained his composure, he tried again. "I hated that girl. But I didn't kill her out of revenge. I wanted to. But I needed her alive. I needed her living and breathing, so that I could present her to the law, to say without a doubt, Jess Harper is no thief. I didn't mean to kill her. I wanted her dead, but at the hands of a jury."

Taylor looked thoughtful. "I see," he said again. "Gentlemen, I have a problem. A girl is dead, and two witnesses out there in my courtroom say Mr. Sherman is her murderer. He says he killed her as well, but that apparently is not the dispute. The dispute is why.

"Up until this moment, I'd believed his insistence that she'd fabricated her story was simply a thin attempt to cover his guilt. However, given the series of coincidences that lead to an equally thin corroboration of his story, a tiny thread of doubt begins to weave itself through the prosecution's case.

"But it isn't the doubt that gives me the most pause. It is the fact that every claim made by the prosecution has been supposition and speculation, based on the word of a mountainside hermit, and his one connection to the human race, a man whose opinions have likely been swayed by the charms of the victim, while the claims -and rebuttals - made by the defense have been corroborated by a lawman whose record was sufficiently impressive to myself that I was willing to extend this hearing by two whole days to hear his live testimony.

"The end result, gentlemen, is that I find that I am unable to continue with this trial at this time - if Mr. Sherman is guilty, then the prosecution should be able to refute the former Mr. Doe's claims. However, judging by the slack jawed, bug eyed look upon Mr. Prescott's face, I can only assume that there is no such rebuttal to be had. Therefore, I am informing you gentlemen, that I intend to dismiss this case with prejudice, and to allow Mr. Sherman to return to his ranch in Wyoming. Please join me in the court room, so that I may dismiss the gallery and close the case, gentlemen."

"Wait," Sherman said. "What about the strong box? Will the money be returned to the stage line?"

"You seem awfully interested in that money, Sherman," Prescott said blandly.

"That money belongs to the stage line - or, rather, to the men who work for the company. That money was a company payroll, and there are probably several families who desperately need those funds." Sherman turned to the judge. "Your Honor, please. If you aren't comfortable putting the funds in Sheriff Cory's care, then telegraph the company, ask them to send a man to collect the funds. It belongs to the company."

Taylor smiled slightly. "I can see why Sheriff Cory insists you're well loved in Laramie. I'll have one of the deputies contact the Overland Stage Company before sundown, Mr. Sherman, and whatever is left of the stolen funds will be returned as quickly as a representative can come to take them. Now, would you please?" Taylor gestured at the door, and everyone filed out to the courtroom in silence.

The judge wasted no time in disappointing the citizens of Buckeye. "Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you for your patience. What was discussed in my chamber is not a matter for public record, and as such, is of little relevance to you, save this one fact: new information has come to light that casts a pall of doubt upon the proceedings, and I cannot in good conscience allow this preliminary hearing to continue. Deputies, release the defendant. This case is dismissed."

The courtroom erupted yet again, and the townspeople looked as if they wanted to riot. At first, the stranger thought the town might swallow Sherman whole (and take him along too), but the deputies were quick to press down the angry mob. Sherman skittered to where the stranger practically cowered under Cory's elbow. "I don't want to stay here another second. Mort, get us out of here."

The stranger didn't understand what special powers Sherman thought Cory might have, but he soon realized that the crowd was more interested in going after the judge than the man who was supposed to be on trial. They slipped through the throng with only a little resistance, and escaped through a side door. The outer hall was empty, and they ran to the nearest stairwell, down to the main entryway, and out to the street. Even then, they didn't stop, until they made it to the stage line office.

Cory ushered them inside. "I'll keep watch until the stage arrives. Besides, I'll bet you two have a few things you want to say to each other."

The stage line clerk came to greet the stranger with a great big smile, but a hard look from Sherman sent him over to keep Cory company instead. The stranger was finally alone with the living, breathing embodiment of the man from his dreams. He didn't know what to say.

"I, uh, I have no idea if our home is even waiting for us, Jess. I wrote a letter to Andy, but I didn't wait for an answer."

The stranger didn't know how to answer that. "Okay."

Sherman smiled sadly. "You really don't remember, do you?"

The stranger shook his head. "I remember your face. And your voice. I didn't recognize it when I first went in the court room. You sounded funny. But now I remember your voice."

"That's good. You remember anything else?"

"Children." When Sherman gave him a blank look, the stranger rushed to explain. "A pair of boys. I can't really think of their faces, but there were two of them. I guess I thought they were us or something. One was dark, one was light."

Sherman began to smile, and his eyes soon filled with tears. "No. Not us. They're grown now - well, Andy is. Mike still has a little more to go, but close enough." He made no attempt to hide the tears he wiped from his eyes. "Anything else? Obviously not Mort."

The stranger looked at the sheriff chatting easily with the clerk, even while keeping his eyes firmly on the street outside. "I think I might owe him a lot of money. He bought these clothes."

"Don't worry about that. He's a good friend. We'll settle with him when we can." A feather light touch brushed against the stranger's chin. "Hey, look at me, Jess." He did. "I'm not sure why you said what you said in the judge's chambers-"

"Which part?"

Sherman sighed. "About being good friends, but not being engaged. I just... I want you to know, it doesn't matter if you never remember what we were to each other, I'm always going to be your partner - in whatever way you need me to be."

The stranger closed his eyes, and thought of that brilliant, laughing face from his dreams. When he opened them again, the face was the same, but the shine was gone. Was it just a dream that made him seem so glorious? Or was it the loss of something dear?

Damn it all to hell, anyway. What was the use of living, if a man couldn't feel? The stranger grabbed hold of Sherman's hand and squeezed it. "I've been dreaming of you, since I first lost myself. I didn't know you were real. But you are, and you've risked everything for me, and for no reason other than to honor my memory. I might not know the little pieces, but I know what we are to each other. Don't ever doubt that for a minute." Warmth bloomed in his chest as he watched Sherman melt at his words. He wanted desperately to wrap his arms around Sherman's shoulders, to taste his lips, his jaw, his neck. But he didn't dare tempt fate, not while he was still in the meanest town in the west. Instead, he just smiled at Sherman, and relished the knowledge that there was still comfort to be had somewhere in this world.

Chapter 24
Chapter 26

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