Justice and the Cowboy Way
by Julia Neal
how are you going to clear my name without me bein’ there?”
“We’ll figure it out. But if you’re there, there’s a good chance the people of Tascosa will try to hang you, and I don’t like the odds of five against an angry town.”
Vin sighed. “Who’s stayin’ with me, then?”
“Nathan. We decided that he would be more useful here in town, especially since there might be some trouble because he’s black. We’re leaving tomorrow at dawn.”
“I have a feelin’ there was lots more goin’ on than I knew about. Don’t get yourself killed. If it gets dangerous, come back here. I can live with a price on my head, been doin’ that for more’n a year now.”
“Promise me, cowboy.”
“I promise, Vin.”
shook the memory away and settled his back more comfortably against the tree
trunk, eyes scanning the plain. It had been quiet on his watch so far, but as
Buck turned in he’d mentioned strange noises; Chris believed him--Buck
wasn’t given to wild flights of fancy like some folks.
Still, all was quiet. He looked at his pocket watch and nodded. Time to roust Ezra out of his bedroll.
They rode into Tascosa near noon the following day, wiping sweat from their faces and looking for a watering trough for their horses. Townspeople didn’t bother to look up--they looked like cowboys, which were common in the area. Chris grimaced at the thought.
“Well, sir, it appears that our journey through the wilderness is at an end.”
“That was the easy part. This is where the real work begins,” Josiah said.
“How do you mean?”
“We have to find evidence that Vin is innocent, and we have to do it before our funds run dry.”
“Have no worry about that,” Ezra said airily. “Gambling seems to be abundant and I believe I can procure ample funding for this venture.”
“Hope that’s true, because we’ve got a lot of talking to do before we’re done,” Chris said. “Any of you see a boarding house?”
“It’s over by the livery.” JD pointed. “There’s a bathhouse on the other side, I think.”
“A bath sounds mighty fine just now,” Josiah said. The others nodded in agreement and nudged their tired horses forward. The pack mules balked a bit but followed.
“Who are those fellas, d’you think?” the lanky gray-haired man asked.
His redheaded companion spat a blade of hay out of his mouth and considered. “A couple of them look familiar somehow, but I can’t place the faces. Why?”
“Got a feelin’...”
“Jake, you get those ‘feelings’ of yours every day about someone different. What sort of ‘feeling’ do you have right now?”
“Bad one. They’s trouble, I know they’s gonna be trouble. I don’t think we’re gonna be able to finish our work here, I jus’ got a feelin’, Red.”
Red raised an eyebrow and looked back toward the men as they slid from their horses. The one on the black suddenly turned and looked straight at him, eyes narrowed against the sunlight. “I think you may be right just this once,” he said, nodding his head once before looking away from the man in the duster.
“Just a feeling, Jake. Just a feeling.”
“Where would you like me to start?” Josiah asked. They had decided that, at least at first, he should be the one asking questions. He had clothing that looked remotely like a priest’s and as a “clergyman” he would be less suspicious than others. Older women, especially, were inclined to trust him, and they tended to have important information--either their memories were better or they were just more informed about happenings around their homes.
“In town, I suppose. Ask families, if you would. And take JD with you.”
“Where are you going?”
Chris bared his teeth in a feral smile. “Saloon. And maybe a nearby ranch.”
Buck winked at the others. “Reckon I’ll investigate the lady situation in town.”
“Ezra, you coming with me?” Chris asked.
“I do believe that my best chance for a game is in the saloon. Lead the way.”
“Thank you very much, ma’am. You have been quite a help.”
“I must say, I remember that boy and he didn’t seem the type to kill someone in cold blood. Next time you see him tell him Grace Tyler said hello,” the old woman said. Josiah smiled at her.
“I’ll be sure to do that. Thank you again.”
“It was my pleasure, Father Sanchez.” She turned to JD. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like another piece of pie?”
JD shook his head. “Thank you, ma’am, it was delicious, but I couldn’t possibly eat another bite.”
“Well, you get a hankerin’ for another piece, stop by and say hello. You look like you could use some more meat on you.”
JD ducked his head and Josiah tipped his hat. “Good-bye, Mrs. Tyler.”
They headed to the saloon, where they found Chris and Ezra in the midst of a game of poker with several cowboys. “You said the undertaker was the last person to see the body? Would he remember anything about Kincaid’s death?” Chris asked.
Blue-shirt shrugged. “I’d imagine so, seeing as most deaths around here aren’t murders. Things like that tend to stick in your mind. I’d ask him, it doesn’t hurt to ask.”
“Indeed it does not,” Ezra agreed, nodding to JD and Josiah. “Well, gentlemen, it has been a pleasure but I’m afraid I must withdraw.” He gathered his winnings and stood. Chris followed suit.
“Did you find anything?” he asked, walking to the bar to get another drink.
“This lady said she could vouch for Vin-she thought, and I quote, that he was a ‘nice young man, too nice to hurt even a spider.’ She said she would try to convince her husband to also testify in Vin’s behalf. He’s the local doctor, so people should trust him,” Josiah said.
“No one else could really remember Vin past the fact that he came in with a body and then broke out of the jailhouse. It has been a while,” JD said.
“Vin isn’t the type of person most folks would forget,” Josiah said thoughtfully. “I wonder if they just wouldn’t tell us what they really thought.”
“Could be. How many people have you spoken to?”
Josiah sighed. “Not as many as I’d hoped to.”
Ezra nodded, then quirked an eyebrow. “When do you think we’ll be seeing Mr. Wilmington again?”
Chris smiled. “When the ladies chase him out of town.”
Jake looked around cautiously. It was getting dark and he would be needed pretty soon, but he felt like getting a drink. He scanned the street and pushed through the saloon doors.
There was a loud commotion and a young man climbed onto the bar. “I have a dollar for any man who has information on the death of Jess Kincaid!” he yelled. “Any man who knows about the murder, come forward!”
Jake paused, checking his pocket watch. If he could get up there soon, he would still be in time for his other appointment. And a dollar is a dollar... He nodded once to himself and made his way through the saloon.
“You the ones givin’ away money?” he asked.
“That depends on whether you have information that we need,” the man in black said.
“I’ve got information. I was there, well, not when Kincaid was kilt, but after, when the man who murdered him got to town. Only--"
“Jake!” Red’s cousin burst into the saloon. “Dammit, Jake! Get out here, now!”
The younger man grabbed Jake’s arm and dragged him out of the saloon, leaving Chris and JD and Ezra to look at each other blankly. “I wonder what that was all about,” Chris said.
“I don’t know, but I think something’s not right around here. Do you think Vin stepped in something odd?”
“Could be, JD. Maybe it wasn’t just Eli Joe who was out for Vin’s blood.”
Josiah stepped out of the boarding house and nearly tripped over a sleeping form in the doorway. He knelt and laid a hand on the child’s shoulder. Her eyes snapped open and she rolled away from him, bare feet kicking at him wildly. He started to follow, but a man who was walking by stopped him.
“Pay her no mind. She falls asleep in the strangest places, but she’s always quick to get out of the way.”
“Where are her parents?”
“They live on the outskirts of town, but I wouldn’t bother them. They don’t take kindly to strangers.”
“But a child--"
The man shook his head. “You don’t understand, Padre. Ruth takes care of herself, and if you tried to talk to her folks you’d probably get your head blown off. Her father is crazy, but he’s good with a shotgun.”
Josiah sighed, then offered the other man his hand. “Josiah Sanchez.”
The other man shook his hand. “Tobias Carter. Please remember what I said about Ruth, and don’t go trying to talk to her family.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. Now, could you direct me to the undertaker?”
Tobias smiled. “You’re looking at him.”
“I have some questions I’d like to ask you, if you don’t mind.”
“Come to my office and we can talk there.”
When they reached his office, the undertaker shut the windows and shrugged. “I’m sorry about the smell, but I assume you wished to speak in private...”
“I’ll get used to it. Do you remember Jess Kincaid?”
“Brought in by a bounty hunter who had mistaken him for someone else?”
“That’s the one. Can you recall anything about how he died?”
“Kincaid, you mean?” He paused and thought a moment. “Well, I do recall that he’d been stabbed in the back. Sheriff and I thought that was strange, since most bounty hunters don’t get that close to the outlaws they bring in until said men are already dead.”
“How do you know so much about bounty hunters?”
“I always wanted to be a lawman, but my hands have never been steady enough for a gun. Sheriff and I have been friends for years, and he tells me things he thinks I might find interesting.”
“Could you tell which knife had killed him if you had several to look at?”
“Well, that depends. I don’t remember all that clearly, but it seemed that the knife was nothing special. I don’t think I could tell you for sure even how big the knife was. I’m sorry. Why are you so interested in a dead man, anyway?”
“I know for certain that the bounty hunter didn’t kill Jess Kincaid, we just have to be able to prove that in court.”
“You’re going to have a lot of trouble proving that if you don’t have a good witness. I’m sorry.”
Josiah nodded and sat, lost in thought. “Do you recall how tall Jess Kincaid was?”
“About my height, but thinner. He was one of those thin wiry types. Why do you ask?”
“Was he stabbed in the middle of the back or closer to the neck?”
The undertaker stopped short. “You know, I remember thinking he was stabbed right where I could have done it, between the shoulder blades. As if a man of the same height had gotten him.”
That doesn’t help much, Josiah thought. “One last question. Do you have any idea how long Kincaid had been dead before he was brought in?”
Tobias smiled grimly. “Judging by the smell and the condition of the body, several days at least. I think. Again, there’s no way to know for sure.”
Josiah rose and shook the man’s hand. “Thank you, you’ve been quite a help. Would you be willing to repeat this in court?”
“If it will bring justice, I will.”
Red glared at Jake. “I told you to be ready. Because of you, we have to wait for another night before we can get it done.”
“Sorry, boss. I didn’t mean to make you wait, but these men were offering money for any information on Jess Kincaid...”
“And you decided that a dollar was worth more than the horses?” Red sighed. “Jake, Jake. I knew you were an idiot when I first met you, but at least then you seemed to be able to follow orders. Now I fear we’ll have to let you go.”
“Boss! I swear, I can do better.”
Red raised an eyebrow. “Well, then. Tonight, midnight, those horses are ours. You got that?”
“I got it, Red.”
Josiah saw the little girl again the next morning, playing in the dust on the side of the street. She looked up when he walked over, but didn’t stop what she was doing. He could hear her humming under her breath as she drew pictures with a stick. He crouched beside her.
“What are you drawing, little one?”
She looked up at him. “Why are you here? You ain’t a cowboy. You’re a preacher.”
“I’m here to fix something.”
“I don’t have a wagon to fix.”
“Your horse’s shoe?”
Josiah smiled. “No, my horse’s shoes are fine. I’m fixing things, so people know the truth.”
She looked confused and doodled in the dust for a moment. “Truth about what?”
“That farmer person who got killed?”
“That’s the one.”
Ruth smirked and crossed her arms across her chest. “I know who killed him.”
Josiah went along with her, assuming that she was pulling his leg. “Who killed him?”
“The bad man, the dark man. He waited in town and I heard him talking to his friends. He scared me, so I ran away before he could see me. He said ‘farmer is dead, and the bloodhound has been thrown’. What did he mean?”
He froze. She couldn’t be lying to him--her remembered fear was too real. But she hadn’t seen what had happened.
“Ruth, have you told anyone else this?”
“No. No one else would listen to me.”
“I’ll make them listen this time. Come with me. There are some people I want you to meet.”
Jake stepped into the saloon and felt eyes on him. When his vision adjusted, he looked around and beelined for the three men in the corner.
“You gonna run out on us again today?” the one in black asked. “You owe us a dollar’s worth of information.”
“I know who killed Kincaid. It weren’t that bounty hunter. It was another person, an outlaw.” He nodded. “Yessir, it was this ugly cuss, Eli Joe.”
The man in the green coat leaned forward. “How do you know this?”
“Used to ride with him, before I met Red. Y’see, he knew-“
Red stalked into the saloon and yanked Jake out of his chair. “I told you to keep away from them,” he hissed into the older man’s ear. “Get out of here, now, and get your drink somewhere else.” He shoved Jake toward the door and turned to the three men seated at the table. “You leave him alone, he’s an idiot and he doesn’t know anything about anything. Anything he said is wrong.”
The man in black rose and grabbed Red’s collar. “I happen to know that what he said is right,” he said softly. “Maybe you should let him make his own decisions.”
“I do as I please. You should remember that in these parts, men don’t have to take orders if they don’t want to.”
“Every man’s got to answer to the law someday,” JD muttered as the man left. “Even you.”
Iris shook Buck’s shoulder, trying to get him to wake up. “You gotta get goin’. I have to be downstairs working in five minutes.”
The ladies’ man blinked and groaned. The blonde sighed and shoved him hard enough that he rolled off the bed. “OW!” he yelped. “What’d you do that for?”
“I’m late, Buck. It’s been fun and I love ya dearly, but a girl’s gotta eat.”
He stood up and started getting dressed. Iris went to the door and turned back to him. “Thank you for understandin’.”
Buck looked at the closed door and finished pulling on his clothes, then climbed out the window and headed across the roofs to the livery. A quick ride might clear his head. He landed on the dusty street and walked into the livery.
Three men looked up from their work. Jake jumped. “Red, it’s him! I know him, I told you something was wrong. He’s a lawman, I met him in Polecat Pass. We’re doomed.”
Buck looked at the man in confusion. “Snakeskin Jake?” he called. “I thought I’d taught you a lesson. Looks like it didn’t take.” He drew his gun, wishing Chris or any of the others were with him. “Horse thieves get themselves hanged, Jake.”
“Man’s gotta eat, Wilmington,” the man called back.
“Dead men can’t eat,” another voice said. Chris.
Red motioned to his cousin and they bolted for the back door. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, pards,” Buck said, firing. He caught Red in the shoulder. JD and Ezra, who had come in the back way, hit the two outlaws and knocked them senseless.
Jake looked around, panicked. “I can’t stay straight, Wilmington. I can’t. I’m not used to honest labor.” He put down his gun and walked forward, hands outstretched. “Put me in jail if you have to, but I’ll kill myself if I can. I’m not going to hang.”
“Sorry, Jake, but horse stealing is a hanging offense. I don’t think the local law is going to let you go.”
They dragged the three men from the livery and left them with the sheriff. “You were a lawman?” JD asked. “I didn’t know that.”
“Not something I’m proud of. I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Don’t bother him, JD. When he wants to tell you, he’ll tell you,” Chris said, watching his friend walk away. He knew there was much more to the story than Buck had ever told him, and wondered what had happened back in Polecat Pass.
(One week later):
Buck turned around. Jake was standing under the sheriff’s watchful eye, ready to be taken to the closest prison. Buck walked over to him.
“You may be sorry you didn’t hang,” he warned, but Jake shook his head.
“I’m thankful to be alive. This is the second time you’ve saved me from a hanging. Thank you.”
“Your testimony in my friend’s favor is worth your life. One for one, pretty even trade.”
Jake half-smiled. “My life ain't worth much, but tell your friend to use his pardon well.”
“I’ll do that.” Buck turned back to his friends, who were mounting up. “Be careful, Jake. I’d like to think I succeeded in changing you.”
“Are you sure you don’t want a piece of pie for the road?” Grace Tyler asked. The peacekeepers looked at each other and back to her.
“We’d love to, ma’am, but we need to head out. We have a town that needs us, and a friend to congratulate,” Chris said. Grace nodded and stepped back.
“Good luck, and God speed,” Tobias Carter said.
“Let’s ride!” Chris called.
And they did.